Random finds (2016, week 32) — On sameness in AirSpace, and roofshots

Mark Storm
9 min readAug 14, 2016
Design legends Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni with their iconic Taccia table lamp (1958).

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

On sameness in AirSpace

In Welcome to airspace — How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world, Kyle Chayka writes about a strange geography created by technology, which he calls ‘AirSpace.’

“It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers […] take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.

“It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t. Well-off travelers like Kevin Lynch, an ad executive who lived in Hong Kong Airbnbs for three years, are abandoning permanent houses for digital nomadism. Itinerant entrepreneurs, floating on venture capital, might head to a Bali accelerator for six months as easily as going to the grocery store. AirSpace is their home.”

As the geography of AirSpace spreads, so does a certain sameness.

In his prophetic essay The Generic City, from the 1995 book S,M,L,XL, the architect Rem Koolhaas asks if the contemporary city is like the contemporary airport — ‘all the same.’ “What if this seemingly accidental — and usually regretted — homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?”

“Yet AirSpace is now less theory than reality,” Chayka writes. “The interchangeability, ceaseless movement, and symbolic blankness that was once the hallmark of hotels and airports, qualities that led the French anthropologist Marc Augé to define them in 1992 as ‘non-places,’ has leaked into the rest of life.”

S,M,L,XL, by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau (1995).

This confluence of style is being accelerated by companies that foster a sense of placelessness, using technology to break down geography, such as Airbnb, argues Chayka. Other startups are creating this globalized sameness-as-a-service in a self-enclosed package. Like Roam, an international ‘co-living’ startup founded by Bruno Haid, that promises its users — ‘Roamers’ — the ability to move freely across residences in different countries for a monthly fee of $2,000 (or $500 per week). The company raised $3.4 million in funding in May, and currently manages spaces in Ubud, Bali; Miami; and Madrid. Buenos Aires and London are coming soon.

Aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand, and tech investors are catching on,” finds Chayka. “With Airbnb, ‘It’s not like you’re at a Holiday Inn that’s the exact same everywhere, but there’s a feeling of familiarity even in the midst of diversity,’ says Kanyi Maqubela, a venture partner at Collaborative Fund, which invested in Roam.”

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.

But why is AirSpace happening?

“The connective emotional grid of social media platforms is what drives the impression of AirSpace. If taste is globalized, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases,” Chayka argues. “It resembles a kind of gentrification: one that happens concurrently across global urban centers. Just as a gentrifying neighborhood starts to look less diverse as buildings are renovated and storefronts replaced, so economically similar urban areas around the world might increasingly resemble each other and become interchangeable.”

Urban areas around the world might increasingly resemble each other and become interchangeable.

Chayka believes that the “AirSpace aesthetic that Airbnb has contributed to, and the geography it creates, limits experiences of difference in the service of comforting a particular demographic (‘the vanilla tourist’) falsely defined as the norm.“ It’s, in the words of Koolhaas, a ‘hallucination of the normal.’ “This is the harmful illusion,” Chayka continues, “that so much technology, and technological culture, perpetuates: if you do not fit within its predefined structures as an effective user, you must be doing something wrong.”

“It’s a bubble, a lot of things that are reinforcing our bubble. I’m definitely part of the described problem. White, male, privileged and I travel a lot.” (Igor Schwarzmann, co-founder of Third Wave)

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.

And why does it matter?

“Left unchecked, there is a kind of nightmare version of AirSpace that could spread room by room, cafe by cafe across the world. It’s already there, if you look for it. There are blank white lofts with subway-tile bathrooms, modular furniture, wall-mounted TVs, high-speed internet, and wide, viewless windows in every city, whether it’s downtown Madrid; Nørrebro, Copenhagen; or Gulou, Beijing. Once you take the place of the people who live there, you can head out to their favorite coffee shops, bars, or workspaces, which will be instantly recognizable because they look just like the apartment that you’re living in. You will probably enjoy it. You might think, ‘This is nice, I am comfortable.’ And then you can move on to the next one, only a click away.”

Also by Kyle Chayka: Same old, same old. How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world in the Guardian.

A bit more …

Google’s ‘moonshot factory’ (see also Random finds, 2016, week 30) is inspiring and ambitious, but there’s a less talked-about route to many of Google’s great achievements — the consistent, short-term, incremental ‘roofshots’ that make our products better year after year.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Luiz Andre Barroso, Google Fellow and VP of Engineering, writes in The Roofshot Manifesto. “I want flying drones that can bring me fresh produce. I’m excited about contact lenses that measure blood sugar. And I look forward to the day that self-driving cars are on the road everywhere. These initiatives are examples of some visionary programs being pursued by Google and Alphabet teams, collectively referred to as moonshots — disruptive, 10X leaps in technology.”

“But there has been a growing perception that moonshots are the primary model for radical innovation at Google, and chiefly responsible for our greatest product and technical achievements. What I have seen during my 15 years at Google does not match that perception. I contend that the bulk of our successes have been the result of the methodical, relentless, and persistent pursuit of 1.3–2X opportunities — what I have come to call ‘roofshots.’”

Read on re:Work: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/the-roofshot-manifesto.

“Here we are in an era in which prevailing cultural attitudes toward technology are deeply at odds with how that technology actually behaves,” writes Adrienne LaFrance, a staff writer at The Atlantic where she covers technology, in The Age of Entanglement. “While people marvel or sigh at computing systems with a mix of reverence and fear, Arbesman writes, they fail to appreciate that technology’s messy imperfections are both inevitable and, to some extent, comprehensible.”

“Complexity brings the unexpected, but we realize it only when something goes wrong.” — Samuel Arbesmn in Overcomplicated.

“At the same time, we’re being forced to confront a kind of radical novelty in technology, a seemingly inexorable push toward complexity that the theoretical physicist and computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once described as ‘conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before.’ That was in 1988. Three decades later, the technological world is far more intricate still. As a result, almost everything humans do in the technological realm, Arbesman writes, ‘seems to lead us away from elegance and understandability, and toward impenetrable complexity and unexpectedness.’ We’re living, he says, in an age of Entanglement.”

Overcomplicated, by Samuel Arbesmn.

Read on The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/08/entanglement/494930/?utm_source=atltw.

“The things that we do are bold. So we set out with bold objectives, but we proceed with care,” says Tim Cook in an exclusive interview with Fast Company. “And by care, I don’t mean checking everything a hundred times before you do anything. I mean that you really care deeply about the details, because the details make the difference between a great product and a good or average product. That’s what I mean by care. I wouldn’t confuse caution and care.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook.

Read on Fast Company: https://www.fastcompany.com/3062595/tim-cooks-apple/tim-cook-on-why-apple-still-matters.

In an interview with McKinsey, Adam Grant, a professor of management and of psychology at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Originals, shares six secrets to true originality, including reframing your creative process, not worrying about being too old, and learning how to procrastinate artfully.

According to Grant, groupthink is probably the biggest barrier to innovation. “It leads to all kinds of bad decisions. It gets in the way of change. Every leader I work with wants to know, ‘How do I get diversity of thought?’ What most of them do is they assign a devil’s advocate. They say, ‘Look, if we have a majority opinion, we need to get somebody who’s going to argue for the opposite.’”

Originals, by Adam Grant.

Read (and watch) on McKinsey.com: http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/six-secrets-to-true-originality?cid=other-eml-alt-mip-mck-oth-1608.

“Relentless curiosity, the capacity to see the indiscernible, and a willingness to continue to question–these components build the kind of problem finding you need to thrive in today’s changing world,” Levi Brooks writes in Brainstorm Questions, Not Solutions.

In this article, Brooks refers to the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT, by The Right Question Institute, which provides a simple, yet highly effective framework for generating great questions:

  • Appoint a session leader.
  • The session leader sets an area of focus for questioning, e.g. ‘The future of mobile photography.’
  • Team spends 10 minutes producing as many questions as we possible. Questions can start with “What is blocking…?”, “What is stopping…?” or “Why…?”.
  • Team spends another 10 minutes pairing up to share and improve their questions.
  • Pairs then spend the final five minutes to prioritize their questions and present to the team.
  • Team decides on three favorites to explore.

Read on 99U: http://99u.com/articles/52335/brainstorm-questions-not-solutions?utm_term=0_bdabfaef00-e4709ffc77-145473097&utm_content=bufferf1355&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.

“Many ahead-of-their-time designers had to wait for technological breakthroughs to realize the inventions they dreamt up on paper,” Diana Budds writes in Reviving A Failed Design From The 1950s With Technology From Today.

Taccia table lamp, by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1958).

“Charles and Ray Eames had to develop the machinery and processes to produce a molded plywood chair that would be as comfortable as an upholstered perch; Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group are currently constructing an arts center based on a radical, shapeshifting 1960s building concept; and science fiction recently became fact when the startup Scanadu turned a medical gadget that appeared on Star Trek into a real product.”

It took nearly 60 years for technology to catch up, but finally the increasing prevalence of LED lighting has brought to fruition a ‘failed’ table lamp concept originally designed in the 1950s by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni — two of Italy’s greatest design legends.

Taccia table lamp, by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1958).

Read on FastCo Design: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3062621/wanted/reviving-a-failed-design-from-the-1950s-with-technology-from-today.

“I’ve always had flaws. Always. I’ll go ahead on the record on that. I’ve always had flaws!” — Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought