Land Passed Down from Former Slave to be Seized for Amazon Data Center

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28 July 2017 | RJ Eskow | AlterNet

“This is a story about property: real and imagined, legitimate and illegitimate. It’s a story about who gets to decide who can own what … and whom. It’s a story of reality, both physical and virtual. It’s a story that begins with humans in chains, moves through Disney’s desire to make a theme park out of our most painful history, and ends with the descendants of slaves dispossessed by a company owned by one of the richest people in the world, a company named for a river.

That river runs through the churning electrical heart of the American internet.

It’s also the story of eminent domain gone wrong. We live in a nation that seizes the property of working people while helping the wealthiest among us to carry out some of the greatest property grabs in history.

The moral of the story is this: we need to radically rethink our approach to property rights.

The Virginia Turnpike

The state considered Livinia Blackburn Johnson another human being’s property when she was born into slavery, two years before the end of the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave freed slaves like Johnson the ability to own property. In 1899, under the provisions of that law, Livinia Johnson purchased a plot of land along Carver Road in what eventually became the town of Haymarket, Virginia.

Now the Dominion of Virginia is seizing the land Johnson purchased, in order to build an Amazon data center. Her descendants have lived in Haymarket for the last 118 years. They are required by law to sell their land to Dominion Virginia Power, which will use it to build towers that will bring power to Amazon’s facility.

The area has been threatened by the march of progress before. The Disney Corporation bought up land around Haymarket in the 1990s in order to build a Civil War theme park, but objections put an end to their plans. Author William Styron wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

“I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery. To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.”

Disney’s project was blocked and a developer bought up the land it had purchased, building high-end homes for a subdivision he called Somerset Crossing. Here, where stagecoaches once stopped to change horses on a turnpike established in 1812, where the railroad arrived in 1852 and warring armies passed by a few years later, its new five-bedroom McMansions are described without any apparent sense of irony as “colonial.”

The well-to-do residents there managed to block any eminent domain efforts on their property. So Amazon’s agents turned their sights to Haymarket, where Livinia Blackburn Johnson’s descendants presumably have less political pull.

Amazon Highways

A turnpike, according to Merriam-Webster, is a “road (such as an expressway) for the use of which tolls are collected.” There’s a through-line between the horse-drawn turnpikes that crisscrossed Northern Virginia in the 1800s and the more than 100 data centers dotting its landscape today. Those centers carry most of the world’s internet traffic—as much as 70 percent, according to local officials. An unknown but substantial share of that traffic flows through the electronic highways in Amazon’s data centers.

Twenty years have passed since Disney’s failed bid for Haymarket. Disney’s animatronic robots and 3D simulations were state-of-the-art in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy. Today’s web brings artificial realities into almost every home—and almost every pocket—as words, images, GIFs, videos, and sound. It takes lots of physical energy to churn all that data.

Internet promoters speak of the “cloud,” as if these transactions took place in some ephemeral and immaterial dimension. But to invert the words of William Blake, data centers are a “cloud inside a fiend.” Servers need electricity to cool the space around them and keep the data engines moving.

The digital universe runs roughshod over the environment, from the toxic byproducts of chip manufacture to the destruction and disease caused by discarded equipment. Dominion Virginia Power, which received permission from Virginia to seize the Johnson land, says each data center uses enough electricity to light 5,000 homes. To power Amazon’s data center, they’ll need to install 100-foot tall towers carrying 230,000 volts of power on the Haymarket land.

The Power and the Powerful

In these data centers, which are sometimes called server farms, the primary crop is you: your searches, clicks, likes, purchases, movements, habits, and by inference, even your thoughts.

If corporations are mining our lives through “data refineries,” Northern Virginia is its Gulf of Mexico. Computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier writes, “All the computers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites where they can radiate heat into the environment, and they are guarded like oil fields.”

Lanier argues that individuals should receive “micropayments” for the use of their own data, but that’s not how today’s internet works. Instead, “ordinary people” get the immaterial benefits of an informal economy, while the material wealth flows to the top. As Lanier writes:

“Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful. Real wealth and clout instead concentrate ever more on the shrinking island occupied by elites who run the most powerful computers.”

That “wealth and clout” fuels the political and economic processes that are dispossessing these ancestors of slaves. The need to serve Amazon’s profit-making turnpike is usurping the property rights Livinia Johnson’s descendants have enjoyed for more than a century.

Amazon itself is no respecter of community or shared property. It maintained the tax breaks that fueled its initial growth by arm-twisting politicians at the state and local level, robbing government treasuries of the funds needed to preserve and expand our public wealth. It has mistreated warehouse workers, exposing them to 100-degree temperatures and grueling working conditions. Electronic devices track their every move and force them to keep up a brisk pace or face the consequences.

Now, thanks to Virginia’s use of eminent domain, Amazon’s electronic turnpike is about to grow even bigger. How will Big Data use its new processing power? As Nathan Newman points out in a white paper, the industry’s practices include predatory individualized pricing, invasion of privacy, the marketing of subprime mortgages, and the promotion of unethical scams.

Supreme Lordship

The way our country thinks about ownership is, in a word, strange. You do not own your own data, because you have given it away to corporations like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (sometimes known by the acronym FANG). The federal government doesn’t own the valuable drug patents it paid for, because it gave them away to corporations. Most of us don’t own our homes or cars, because we have mortgaged them to fundamentally dishonest financial institutions.

All of these property rights—FANG’s ownership of your data, Big Pharma’s exclusive rights to government-financed patents, Wall Street’s ownership of mortgages and pink slips—exist because we as a nation choose to enforce them.

The term eminent domain comes from the Latin dominium eminens, which means “supreme lordship.” Sometimes homes must be taken through eminent domain in order to serve the public interest, for dams to protect the land and provide electricity, or for new roadways to open a city. But eminent domain is also used to benefit corporations like Amazon. The rationale is that communities need economic development just as much as they need highways and waterways, because it brings jobs and economic growth.

But in times of extreme economic inequality like these, most of the wealth from development goes to the already wealthy.

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