Sixteen Tons of Moon Rock

Space settlements could end up being like the old-fashioned company towns of the 1800s, which collapsed through a combination of poor company decisions and workers’ pent-up frustration over the companies’ paternalistic rule

Company towns are privately planned settlements built and controlled by a single corporation. Historically, they were built to support industries like mining and manufacturing, often in remote areas where there was no competition. The company would own all of the infrastructure, including housing, schools, and stores, giving it an almost feudal control over the lives of the workers. In these conditions, companies had all the leverage in labor relations. This was commonly exploited to recoup wages in the form of rents and artificially high prices for goods. Workers were sometimes paid in “scrip,” an alternative currency issued by the company that could be spent only at company stores. In many cases, workers were required to rent their homes from the company.

Recently, tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have revived conversation about company towns. Residents of Facebook’s planned Willow Village, which includes 1.75 million square feet of office space, 1,500 housing units, a grocery store, retail space, and a public park, will be able to live, work, and play without leaving the company campus. And with the announcement of its Libra cryptocurrency, Facebook may soon have its own global equivalent of scrip. Willow Village won’t look much like Pullman, Illinois. The workers at tech companies like Facebook are well-educated and well-paid, and can always move and find other employment. And Libra is intended to be a widely used cryptocurrency, not just a token for workers to trade back to the company. But many still find these developments unsettling. Amazon already rewards productive warehouse employees with “swag bucks” that can only be spent on Amazon products. South Park has picked up on the theme, setting work scenes in an Amazon Fulfillment Center to a version of “Sixteen Tons” 70 years after the song’s release.

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