Google might be drafted in to help fix our homeless crisis - it should make us all nervous

Google is not an altruistic enterprise. Its primary responsibility is enrichment of its shareholders

Google’s European headquarters, Dublin. The notion that Google, or any private company, might be drafted in to help to solve the State’s homeless crisis should make us all nervous. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google’s European headquarters, Dublin. The notion that Google, or any private company, might be drafted in to help to solve the State’s homeless crisis should make us all nervous. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

A few years ago, when I was living and working in Silicon Valley, a colleague and I had a tour of Facebook’s 40,000sq m campus in Menlo Park. Our guide showed off the rooftop park, the screenprinting studio, the woodworking shop and the site where they were building apartments “for our people to live”.

I remember blanching at the notion that employees were expected to eat on campus, exercise on campus, make friends on campus, carve a wooden chess set for their mother’s birthday on campus. And now they’d live on campus too. It sounded worryingly insular. It sounded like Facebook was building a gilded cage where privilege, profit and groupthink could prosper, uninterrupted by the concerns of the outside world.

I wondered, but didn’t ask, what would happen if an employee who lived on campus lost their job. This isn’t an unlikely scenario in a place where at-will employment is so common few people ever think to question it, until the day the unanticipated meeting with HR suddenly pops up in their calendar. Instead, I asked if he liked the idea. Our guide looked taken aback.

When he first heard about it, he admitted, it reminded him of Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Eggers’s novel is a satirical commentary on the early internet age, in which employees of a Google-Facebook-Twitter hybrid eagerly surrender every vestige of their privacy, independence and right to an autonomous life until they’re living in a totalitarian dystopia.

Cult like

A second later, the mask returned, and he was back to talking about how exciting it was to work for a company with a mission to connect all of the world’s people. Four years after that conversation, the cult-like Silicon Valley company town is heading our way.

The Irish Times recently reported that developer Johnny Ronan has offered Google an option on a development of 1,000 apartments on the capital’s north docklands – apartments that would otherwise have been available to private individuals to rent or buy. Google declined to comment on the report.

It wouldn’t help people pushed to the margins in a city that is already unaffordable for all but the wealthiest

What purpose would allowing a powerful tech giant to build a hyperprivileged company town-within-a-city serve? Yes, the 1,000 lucky employees who get the ultimate perk of a city centre pad would theoretically be removed from the general pool of accommodation hunters in Dublin, freeing up housing options for others. But that’s assuming the apartments would go to Googlers already here – it seems far more likely they would be used to lure new recruits to our creaking-at-the-seams capital.

So it wouldn’t help people pushed to the margins in a city that is already unaffordable for all but the wealthiest. It wouldn’t help employees either. It might provide a fix for their housing headache, but the price they’d pay is having to socialise, work and live in increasingly sanitised cliques. It would benefit Google, of course, allowing it to enjoy the capital gain on 1,000 apartments occupied by its own ready-made, well-behaved tenantforce.

‘Good corporate citizenship’

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai recently made an – we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – entirely unrelated offer to subsidise “general housing” in Dublin, as part of the company’s commitment to “good corporate citizenship”. It has pledged to do something similar in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it is planning to build 20,000 homes “at all income levels” over 10 years at a cost of $1 billion, which seems like a lot of housing for the money. In an interview with the Irish Independent, Pichai indicated he would be seeking Government support for his plan to launch a sponsored housing initiative here.

We should be reducing our dependence on tech multinationals, not turning to them to help solve social problems that are the Government’s responsibility

The notion that Google, or any private company, might be drafted in to help to solve the State’s homeless crisis should make us all nervous. For all its talk of not being evil, Google is not an altruistic enterprise. Its primary responsibility is the enrichment of its shareholders, something it does exceptionally well.

The State is already overreliant on its relationship with a handful of powerful Silicon Valley companies. This isn’t just a problem for reputational reasons. The prospect of future adjustments in global tax rules means we’ll need to come up with another business model, and soon. We should be reducing our dependence on tech multinationals, not turning to them to help solve social problems that are the Government’s responsibility. What Dublin needs is social and affordable housing, not tech giant-sponsored housing.

Cost nothing

If Google is sincere about doing its bit to solve the housing crisis, there is a way it can contribute. It would cost nothing. It would improve employees’ quality of life, reduce their carbon footprint, ease the pressure on the capital, and deliver a much needed boost to other towns. The solution is to make remote work the rule rather than an occasional indulgence for its 8,000 strong workforce. This isn’t an eccentric suggestion. Plenty of start-ups have remote workforces, and seem to trust that adults will be able to perform their jobs just as well without the lava lamps and the foosball tables and the constant immersion in the corporate culture. Stripe, for example, announced earlier this year that its fifth engineering hub will be remote.

But that would be at odds with what Silicon Valley stands for, and everything the free meals, dry-cleaning, snooze pods – and yes, the corporate housing – are designed to achieve. It would mean letting the workforce have a life outside the gilded cage. That’s never going to fly.

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