From Our Future
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. At the time, 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 a hundred data centers dotting its landscape today.
Virginia's data 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 -- in the form of words, images, GIFs, videos, and sound.
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