Tech is coming to small-town America -- with a catch

When trillion dollar companies set up in your small town.

So much of the physical world is going online—malls are closing, restaurants are being replaced by ghost kitchens, you can do much of your banking on your phone. That got me thinking what the landscape was going to look like in 20 or 30 years as everything goes online. I realized there’s one type of building that won’t go away—the giant warehouses that hold computer equipment and servers and keep the Internet running. They’re called data centers, and in one of my many dystopian visions of the future, the world is just houses, Amazon warehouses, ghost kitchens, and data centers run by giant companies like Google and Facebook.

You might fall asleep at the phrase “data centers,” but they’re interesting to me because they’re a very different tech environment than the cushy campuses in Silicon Valley where tech companies are located. The giant campuses of Google and Facebook and Apple in Silicon Valley are full of well-compensated programmers who get free food and laundry and bus rides to work, alongside a lot of other perks. (Andrew and I once met someone at a San Francisco party who said that Airbnb churned its own butter for employees.) Tech companies have replicated these working conditions when they open offices in cities like New York or Boston and try and woo talent with perks.

But to keep the Internet running and store all your photos and texts and data, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google set up data centers, which are essentially giant warehouses of computers and servers. They often put these data centers in rural locations where land and power are cheap, and where local officials are so desperate for some sort of revenue that they give tech companies huge tax breaks. And then they sign on contracting companies like Modis Engineering and G4S Secure Solutions to hire temporary employees to run these data centers. (G4S is one of the sketchier companies out there; it’s never a good sign when there’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to controversies around your company.)

Tech companies are expanding across the country at a rapid clip—Google is spending $7 billion to “Invest in America” this year alone. But as I found out in the course of my reporting, tech looks very different when it comes in the form of a data center in a small town in America. Workers are employed as contractors, sometimes only for a few months at a time, and have filed all sorts of labor complaints. Local officials are finding out that signing incentive deals with tech can be a bad bargain; in one example in the story, Google asked a South Carolina company for a refund of millions of dollars. It’s something to think about as tech gets more powerful and as small towns across the country lose industries and look for new forms of revenue.

Read the story here: