You thought a Biden presidency would mean an end to America’s slow descent into a corporate dystopia? That’s adorable.
In his January State of the State Address, governor of Nevada Steve Sisolak proposed a bill that would allow for the creation of ‘Innovation Zones’, in which firms would be able to exert powers comparable to those of local country governments. The proposal comes in response to what the governor claims is a potential nine-figure investment from Blockchain LLC, an originally named blockchain company providing support services to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. According to ABC News, companies with over 50,000 acres of land willing to invest $1.25 billion could then override local country regulation for their area with only minor supervision from the governor’s office.
Jeffrey Berns, CEO and owner of Blockchain LLC, has been publicly courting Nevada legislators since 2018, when his company bought 67,000 acres of undeveloped land for $170 million. He hopes to develop a smart city entirely based on the blockchain, a digital ledger that is currently most well-known as the backbone of online currencies such as Bitcoin. The city will contribute to blockchain technology through a research campus, which Berns hopes will attract the brightest minds in the field. Berns has also hinted at large residential areas, colleges and e-gaming arenas that will help populate what is now little more than a desert.
Governor Sisolak justified the proposal as a way to diversify Nevada’s economy, positioning it as a necessary step in the state’s post-pandemic strategy. In doing so, the governor taps into the widely accepted idea that governments across the world will have a clean slate to modernise infrastructure once herd immunity is achieved through vaccination. However, instead of using this hope to improve affordable public services, he corrupts it to support a technology that consumes more electricity than the entirety of Argentina.
Don’t let the shiny top-coat fool you, this is nothing new. In 18th century Scotland, urban planning efforts such as New Lanark played by similar rules. Entrepreneur David Dale bought cheap land to make use of the only waterfalls on the River Clyde, using them to power a cotton mill. These are also known as ‘company towns,’ a form of worker exploitation popularised in 19th century Britain.
Towns like New Lanark functioned under a truck system, where employees would be paid in tokens reusable only in the cotton mill’s shop. All the money earned by workers could only be spent with their employer, the modern equivalent of being paid only in Amazon vouchers. Company towns came, surprise surprise, with horrifying working conditions and child labour.
In New Lanark, managers went out of their way to recruit workers from Glasgow and Edinburgh’s poorhouses. Working conditions were later improved through a series of ‘Truck Acts’ requiring employers to pay workers in common currency and large scale factory reform movements in which New Lanark was central.
It is hard to imagine any way in which allowing billionaires to recreate these power dynamics in the middle of the Nevada desert would grant our generation the improved living conditions we so desperately crave.
Blockchain LLC has the potential to effectively recreate the truck system by making its residents dependent on cryptocurrency over common currencies. If the firm were to create its own cryptocurrency, they would be able to make the conversion into common currencies as difficult as they want.
Opting for more widespread cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum would make cashing out possible, but their highly volatile nature could make it harder for residents to leave without incurring severe losses.
This doesn’t even touch on the severely classist idea of investing funds in a shiny tech-bro resort for cutting edge developers rather than public services that would benefit a much larger percentage of the population.
Or the inherent risks in having your accommodation, basic necessities, and public services all provided by your employer, further shifting the scale in favour of wealth hoarders that should not exist in the first place. Or the baffling prospect of unelected high-tech business owners such as Elon Musk, whose Tesla factory is also located in Nevada, having the equivalent power of local county governments, including control of their own police force.
Natural resources were not the only thing villages like New Lanark exploited. To maximise profits, they chose to lure in people in desperate need of jobs and permanently tie them to the local economy. We should expect no less of these smart cities. Unprecedented control over workers through outdated labour practices and an insane lack of government intervention is a threat to all of us.