Google’s giving bus rides to poor San Franciscans. Is this what the Google city-state looks like?

It's no secret that Google — and San Francisco, more generally — has a PR problem when it comes to inequality. Much of the debate has focused on the company's exclusive buses that shuttle employees to and from work. And housing prices in the area are skyrocketing. So in a move that appears to counter that narrative, Google announced last month that it would pay San Francisco $6.8 billion million to let low-income students aged 5-17 ride city buses for free.

Now advocates are lobbying for free bus rides for seniors and the disabled, too. It's unclear whether Google or another tech company intends to pick up the tab for this idea. But Google's new role in providing city services makes me wonder whether Analee Newitz might have been right in predicting a city-state run by the search giant.

A city-state is set apart from its surroundings in that it exercises legal sovereignty over its own territory. City-states often have their own religion, armies and other distinguishing features of a nation-state. And while the Bay Area is too closely tied to the California economy — not to mention national laws and elected officials — to be considered a literal city-state anytime soon, the fact that Google is stepping in to provide a service that would ordinarily come from the local government is a remarkable move.

It's a paradoxical irony. The company will soon grant schools and libraries in Austin and Kansas City access to free and fast fiber optic Internet. Google serves as a source of relief for these communities that are unserved or underserved by the existing broadband market. But how many public services is too many? Over-involvement by Google in providing civic amenities that would otherwise be a city's responsibility brings Google's considerable control over our online lives into the real world.

The prospect resembles the dystopian future laid out so bluntly by Dave Eggers in his controversial novel, "The Circle."

If you haven't yet read Eggers' latest, "The Circle" posits a world in which one tech company has eliminated all the others and exerts a powerful influence over Silicon Valley. Soon, its version of a social network spreads worldwide and adds a video component that resembles Google Glass to record every moment of the human experience. Secrecy and privacy become obsolete ideas. And in conquering the world's mindspace, the Circle takes over physically, as well:

Developments like Francis' were happening with incredible frequency in those weeks. There was talk of the Circle, and Stenton in particular, taking over the running San Vincenzo. It made sense, given most of the city's services were funded by, and had been improved by, the company.

Critics have highlighted Eggers' heavy-handed treatment of Silicon Valley and its sometimes messianic attitude. But with Google funneling a small portion of its vast resources into subsidizing public transit, at least this much of his prediction may be coming true.

Update: My friend Alex Seitz-Wald points out that 20th-century company towns, in which a single company provided all the services, might be a closer analogy. I'm inclined to agree.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecommunications and the Internet. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.



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Andrea Peterson · March 10, 2014

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