Data firms such as the rapidly expanding WeWork hope to blur the line between home and office. That won’t be any help to staff
The digital turn of contemporary capitalism, with its promise of instantaneous, constant communication, has done little to rid us of alienation. Our interlocutors are many, our entertainment is infinite, our pornography loads fast and arrives in high-definition – and yet our yearnings for authenticity and belonging, however misguided, do not seem to subside.
Beyond the easy fixes to our alienation – more Buddhism, mindfulness and internet detox camps – those in the digital avant-garde of capitalism have toyed with two solutions. Let’s call them the John Ruskin option and the De Tocqueville option. The former extended the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its celebration of craftsmanship and romantic, artisanal labour by Ruskin, William Morris and their associates, into the realm of 3D printers, laser cutters and computerised milling machines.
Makerspaces and fablabs were to be a refuge from the office, with workers finally seizing the means of production. “There is something unique about making physical things. These things are like little pieces of us and seem to embody portions of our souls,” mused Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop, a chain of mostly US makerspaces, in The Maker Movement Manifesto in 2014.
The De Tocqueville option hailed the use of digital tools to facilitate gatherings in the real world in order to reverse the trends described by Robert Putnam in his bestselling Bowling Alone. The idea was that, thanks to social networks, people would be able to find like-minded enthusiasts, creating a vibrant civil society à la De Tocqueville.
Meetup.com, started in the early 2000s to facilitate “face to face, peer to peer” meetings, pioneered the model. “We subvert hierarchy,” said its founders, declaring that members of formal organisations should not need permission to get together and talk. Inspired by Bowling Alone, their platform played an important role in mobilising Howard Dean’s grassroots campaign in the 2004 US presidential elections; it also helped launch the Five Star Movement in Italy, now a political party but a decade ago just a crowd of angry citizens in search for easy tools of social mobilisation.
How did these two options fare? The John Ruskin option has faced a major challenge today, the distinction between artisanship and gentrification is blurry. Makerspaces had their reinvigorating uses for cognitive workers who were exhausted by mind-numbing office jobs but they also angered those not lucky enough to have mind-numbing office jobs in the first place.
Look at La Casemate, a fablab in Grenoble in France, which was vandalised and burnt on last month. Anarchists claimed responsibility and issued a statement, decrying city managers who cared only about attracting “money-hungry startups” and geeks. The maker revolution predicted by Hatch is already devouring its own children: on 15 November, Techshop filed for bankruptcy.
What then of the De Tocqueville option? Here, it is more complex. At the end of November, Meetup.com was acquired by WeWork, a $20bn startup that blends big data and real estate to offer (in its own words) “space as a service” – the latest variation on “software as a service”, the staple of the modern technology industry.
Boasting investors from Goldman Sachs to Japan’s SoftBank – in August, it poured in $4.4bn – WeWork is more than a network of 170 buildings across 56 cities in 17 countries. Its valuation exceeds that of the largest publicly traded commercial real estate company – Boston Properties – and is several times higher than that of real estate groups with far greater square footage under management.
WeWork’s pitch is simple: as a technology company, its main asset is its data, not its properties and its rapidly expanding size allows it to extract and analyse data related to their use and under-use (“buildings are giant computers”, says its blog). Armed with the data, it can then offer tenants flexibility on space, furniture and leasing.
Its high valuation assumes that it can dominate the business of services related to space in general – for example, by using data to help clients redesign and manage their own offices. Its bet is that managing space and real estate will follow the path of cloud computing and become a service offered by just a handful of data-intensive platforms.
Buoyed by new cash, WeWork is expanding in many directions. It has launched living spaces, where members can rent flats above their workplace. It has launched a wellness centre. It has acquired a coding school, where its future members might learn to code. It has announced an elementary school that will treat students as “natural entrepreneurs”, thus allowing their busy parents to see more of their kids – at work.
Its main innovation, however, is in branding. Rare is a Silicon Valley company that does not claim humanitarian intentions. WeWork, however, is beyond competition. Its self-proclaimed mission is to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living”.
“Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue,” its co-founder, Adam Neumann, told Forbes. Neumann, who grew up partly on a kibbutz in Israel, is building something extraordinary: a hi-tech kibbutz but without the pesky, socialism-infused egalitarianism (“We are making a capitalist kibbutz,” he told the Israeli paper Haaretz).
WeWork’s utopian ambition is to leverage big data – not the egalitarianism of the kibbutz – to resolve the problems of the workplace and of modern life alike. Alienation, on this reading, is not an omnipresent feature of capitalism, but an easily correctable – by data of course – bug. And what better way to fix it than by having the non-working lives of workers dissolve into their working lives; the data-hungry capitalist kibbutz will then take care to greet you by name and wish you a happy birthday.
Eugen Miropolski, a WeWork executive, says that, whereas in the past, “the residents of urban areas were brought together in part through town halls, gatherings in taverns, cafes and open spaces to hash out the subjects of the day,” WeWork aspires to be “a place where people can come together, talk, discuss new ideas, and innovate in a collaborative way”.
Thus, he concludes, “real estate is just the platform for our community”. Everything else, from kindergartens to yoga salons, arrives on top, optimised by WeWork’s data geniuses in what amounts to the 21st-century equivalent of the company town, albeit with much subtler forms of social engineering. In WeWork’s future, the hastily privatised public space is returned to citizens. However, it comes back as a commercial service provided by a lavishly funded data company, not as a right. Meetup’s civil society will keep on talking, inside WeWork’s buildings. But the struggle against alienation will now consist of applying even more data analytics and nudging to the tortured souls of overworked cognitive workers, who, in escaping alienated workplaces in the comfort of makerspaces and face-to-face meetings, have discovered that the workplaces have colonised their non-work lives instead.
The pioneer of scientific management, Frederick Winslow Taylor, had to design elaborate ways of extracting the knowhow from factory workers; WeWork relies on ubiquitous, permanent and mostly invisible data extractivism that makes no distinction between work and non-work. While in the late 1960s some leftwing intellectuals warned of the emergence of the “social factory”, where Taylorist production first comes to transform and dominate the life beyond the factory but eventually falters as the work becomes cognitive, the WeWork model points to a different future: society is brought back inside today’s factory – the modern office – but on terms that reinforce rather than undermine many elements of the Taylorist paradigm.
That all of this is couched in the language of the hippy movement does not make the underlying processes any less Taylorist. With the takeover of Meetup by WeWork, the struggle against alienation, thus, moves into a new stage: the De Tocqueville option is out, the Hippy Taylorism option is in.
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