Towns completely run by one business have historically shaped the American economy — several have provided benevolent opportunities for workers, but many, like Appalachian coal-mining companies, forced a more exploitative and confined role.
Author Hardy Green and I discussed the phenomenon — and the modern day version — when I interviewed him about his book, “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy.”
Now generally condemned as “un-American,” these old-fashioned company towns have dwindled in number. The invention of the automobile provided a sense of freedom and allowed people to live further away from work. People moved from everybody-knows-your-business small towns to much more anonymous big cities.
But could there be a startling and subtle modern day version replacing it? “There’s a new and fascinating development going on, where the companies that we think of as cutting edge seem to be in the process of creating new company towns,” he said. “For example, Facebook… is building residential quarters [for] its workers.”
Green also commented on how modern technology could become the new “company town” of the modern day worker. Any supervisor could potentially call an employee’s cell phone on the weekend with an urgent task in mind. It wouldn’t matter where you physically live.
“You can’t escape. It’s kind of a modern version of [the company towns] — not being able to get away from the office,” he said.
With modern technology, people can now be constantly connected to each other in an endless 24/7 cycle. Just as some companies once controlled entire towns, the internet now runs entire lives.
Let’s hope the technology liberates us rather than enslaving us in a modern, if dystopian, “company” town.