Random finds (2018, week 10) — On WeWork’s brash ambition to transform how we work, live and play, what Airbnb did to New York City, and architecture at the service of human society
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
WeWork’s brash ambition to transform how we work, live and play
“The digital hippies want to integrate life and work — but not in a good way,” Evgeny Morozov wrote last year in an opinion article The Guardian.
“The digital turn of contemporary capitalism […] 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,” he argues.
“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,” Morozov writes.
“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.”
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.”
As for the De Tocqueville option, 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 ‘space as a service’ — the latest variation on ‘software as a service,’ the staple of the modern technology industry.”
WeWork is expanding in many directions but its main innovation, accorrding to Morozov, 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.’”
“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,” Morozov writes, “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.”
“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.”
In The WeWork Manifesto: First, Office Space. Next, the World, David Gelles writes about WeWork and the “all-encompassing sort of ambition” of its chief executive and co-founder, Adam Neumann.
In a recent interview, Neumann said that bringing people together is how we can change te world. “Where is the easiest big place to bring people together? In the work environment,’ he added. It may sound simplistic, but around the globe, companies are buying whatever it is that Neumann and his co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, are selling.
But “as WeWork expands in all directions, it faces persistent questions about its rich valuation and the durability of its business model. Critics argue that the company does little more than corporate real estate arbitrage — leasing a space, spiffing it up, then subleasing it out to other tenants. The company owns hardly any properties, giving it precious few hard assets. Its growth projections strike many as unattainable, and it has missed expectations before. A number of upstarts loom as potential competitors, seeking to replicate WeWork’s success. And many WeWork tenants are unproven start-ups that could quickly fold,” Gelles writes. “For WeWork to really succeed in changing the way we all work, it is going to have to win over big corporations seeking space for thousands of employees. The strategy is an odd reversal for WeWork, which made its name catering to freelancers and start-ups.”
“It can be tempting to dismiss WeWork as just another overvalued start-up that is high on its own rhetoric and flush with easy money from naïve investors. With little more than faddish interior design, free beer and an invitation to socialize with strangers, Mr. Neumann claims to have conjured up a whole new paradigm for white-collar workers — and for education — and vows that it can change the world.
‘Once you choose to enter a WeWork, you choose to be part of something more we than me,’ Mr. Neumann said.
It’s the kind of utopian prattle that can come off as dangerously out of touch at a moment when a backlash against big tech is brewing. But if any of these potential pitfalls concern Mr. Neumann, he doesn’t show it,” Gelles writes.
What Airbnb did to New York City
“There are two kinds of horror stories about Airbnb,” Alastair Boone writes in What Airbnb Did to New York City. “When the home-sharing platform first appeared, the initial cautionary tales tended to emphasize extreme guest (and occasionally host) misbehavior. But as [Airbnb] matured and the number of rental properties proliferated dramatically, a second genre emerged, one that focused on what the service was doing to the larger community: Airbnb was raising rents and taking housing off the rental market. It was supercharging gentrification while discriminating against guests and hosts of color. And as commercial operators took over, it was transforming from a way to help homeowners occasionally rent out an extra room into a purveyor of creepy, makeshift hotels.”
In a recent report, David Wachsmuth, a professor of Urban Planning at McGill University, zeroes in on New York City in an effort to answer the question of exactly what home sharing is doing to the city.
“‘There’s been a kind of increasing outcry from communities, from housing organizations, from activists, and from elected officials that short-term rentals are having a negative impact on housing,’ Wachsmuth said. New York City is the third-largest Airbnb market in the world, and it’s also one of the oldest, so it could serve as a useful model for what smaller, newer markets might expect to see when home sharing takes off,” Boone writes.
According to Wachsmuth, these smaller, newer markets grow in a way similar to New York. “[W]e are seeing the exact same process repeat, kind of in real time,” Wachsmuth told Boone. It also turns out, ““Most of those rumors are true. Wachsmuth found reason to believe that Airbnb has indeed raised rents, removed housing from the rental market, and fueled gentrification — at least in New York City.”
“There’s no denying that Airbnb remains a useful tool for many New Yorkers, who struggle to keep up with the city’s ever-increasing cost of living,” Boone notes. However, Wachsmuth’s “data suggests that half of all Airbnb rentals that are conducted by only 10 percent of hosts, who earned a full 48 percent of all the revenue earned in the city last year. That’s some 5,000-people earning a combined $318 million. In contrast, the bottom 80 percent of New York’s hosts — the city’s 40,400 true home sharers — earned just 32 percent of all revenue, or $209 million, in 2017.
The economic power that this fraction of commercial operators wield forces smaller sharers to trim their rates to compete. And they are getting less profit relative to their rent, since the platform contributes to a general increase in rental prices. Using Zillow’s Rent Index, Wachsmuth and his team estimate that over the last three years, Airbnb has increased long-term rents in the city by 1.4 percent. The median household looking for a new apartment will pay $384 more per year than they would have three years ago, due to the growth of short-term rentals.
In other words, using Airbnb to help pay your bills in a space-strapped city is a bit like using an air conditioner to combat global warming: It might help keep your apartment bearable, but overall it’s just making the environment worse.”
“‘If you just have this neutral platform which says you can share your home and there’s no regulation … over time what you’re going to see is an increasing dominance of that platform by the biggest savviest players,’ Wachsmuth said. ‘And that’s what we’ve got.’”
Architecture at the service of human society
Balkrishna Doshi is the first Indian architect to receive the Pritzker Price, architecture’s highest honor.
According to the jury, “Balkrishna Doshi constantly demonstrates that all good architecture and urban planning must not only unite purpose and structure but must take into account climate, site, technique, and craft, along with a deep understanding and appreciation of the context in the broadest sense. Projects must go beyond the functional to connect with the human spirit through poetic and philosophical underpinnings.”
Born in Pune, India in 1927, Doshi studied at the JJ School of Architecture in Mumbai before traveling to Paris to work under France’s best-known 20th century architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. Known as Le Corbusier, the iconic figure was a designer, painter and one of the foremost pioneers of modern architecture, and it is he who Doshi credits with a great deal of his success
“My works are an extension of my life, philosophy and dreams trying to create treasury of the architectural spirit,” Doshi said. “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier. His teachings led me to question identity and compelled me to discover new regionally adopted contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat. With all my humility and gratefulness I want to thank the Pritzker Jury for this deeply touching and rewarding recognition of my work. This reaffirms my belief that, ‘life celebrates when lifestyle and architecture fuse.’”
Responding to the news, Anupama Kundoo, an Indian-born architect who has built extensively in India and has had the experience of working, researching and teaching in a variety of cultural contexts across the world, stated, “It is timely that there is recognition of a holistic understanding of the role of the architect, where the design of the built environment is seen as sensitive interventions that retain human scale in the man-made built landscape.”
In an article for ArchDaily, Kundoo furthermore wrote, “We are very happy to hear that Balkrishna Doshi has been chosen as this year’s Pritzker laureate. The timeless values that he represents personally and professionally, are exactly what needs to be globally acknowledged as architectural best practice.
At a time where architecture is being reduced to seductive building forms and photogenic facades that are air-dropped into diverse contexts, regardless of their complex local cultural or climatic context [This is what the Australian architect Kerry Hill called ‘plonk architecture.’ “A Gehry here, a Gehry there — architecture at home everywhere and nowhere,” he told DeZeen], where over-simplified computer-generated renderings and frivolous play of forms are becoming the norm, I hope that the Pritzker committee’s decision will bring the attention back to architecture’s real capacity to facilitate and create environments that are human society-centric.”
In an interview with ARCHITECT, the American architect and writer Edward Keegan asked Doshi about the key to good architecture.
“We only look at a specific time span — a design period, a construction period, a move-in period. We never think of the way we grow or live as human beings — from childhood to grown-up to old age. We become tolerant, we adjust ourselves, we discover. Over time, we become more and more enriched. Why not have the same attitude towards architecture? If you look at world settlements, they have gone through centuries or decades, and they look very different. They become richer,” Doshi replied.
Doshi, who worked with Le Corbusier in the 1950s and with Louis Kahn in the 1960s, was influenced by both architects. “Le Corbusier’s influence was to look at the world completely fresh — like a child,” he explained. “Kahn talked to me about the spirit being real, the unmeasurable. This spiritual context was important for me.” They were two different people, coming from two different backgrounds, both trying to search the meaning of life. “What is the meaning of habitat, and what is the meaning of architecture, as well as history?,” Doshi added. On Twitter, the architecture critic and writer Witold Rybczynski wrote Doshi is a “Living link to Kahn and Corbu.”
Keegen also asked how he approaches a project. “The first thing I always ask: Is it a sustainable thing?,” Doshi answered. “We work with local techniques, with local crafts, and uncertainties of finance. I try to pull them together and create something else. These uncertainties become great opportunities. Experimentations became my habit. Every time there is a circumstance that is changing — and uncertainties happen — how do you deal with them and create something?”
And also this …
Before Annie Duke became one of the world’s leading poker players, she was a Ph.D. student in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania. In her new book, Thinking In Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Duke combines her experiences at the poker table with key insights from research in psychology. “After all, what is poker if not judgment under uncertainty?,” says Dave Nussbaum, the managing editor of Behavioral Scientist, in his introduction Duke’s excerpt from her book.
In Redefining Wrong in Poker, Politics, and Beyond, Duke writes, “Decisions are bets on the future, and they aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ based on whether they turn out well on any particular iteration. An unwanted result doesn’t make our decision wrong if we thought about the alternatives and probabilities in advance and allocated our resources accordingly.”
“When we think probabilistically, we are less likely to use adverse results alone as proof that we made a decision error, because we recognize the possibility that the decision might have been good but luck and/or incomplete information (and a sample size of one) intervened.
Maybe we made the best decision from a set of unappealing choices, none of which were likely to turn out well.
Maybe we committed our resources on a long shot because the payout more than compensated for the risk, but the long shot didn’t come in this time.
Maybe we made the best choice based on the available information, but decisive information was hidden and we could not have known about it.
Maybe we chose a path with a very high likelihood of success and got unlucky.
Maybe there were other choices that might have been better and the one we made wasn’t wrong or right but somewhere in between. The second-best choice isn’t wrong. By definition, it is more right (or less wrong) than the third-best or fourth-best choice. It is like the scale at the doctor’s office: There are a lot more choices other than the extremes of obesity or anorexia. For most of our decisions, there will be a lot of space between unequivocal ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’
When we move away from a world where there are only two opposing and discrete boxes that decisions can be put in — right or wrong — we start living in the continuum between the extremes. Making better decisions stops being about wrong or right but about calibrating among all the shades of grey.”
In Could Urban Farms Be the Preschools of the Future?, Eillie Anzilotti writes about Nursery Fields Forever, a proposal by a group of architects hailing from Italy and the Netherlands for a preschool on an urban farm, which took first prize at this year’s AWR International Ideas Competition.
According to the architects, today’s dominant scool system “keeps children in classrooms, where plants barely peek out from the window. The absence of direct experience has completely misled children’s perception of the world and of its most basic processes. It’s not rare to find children who ignore that the milk they drink comes from cows or that beans don’t sprout in cans.”
“Establishing a venture like Nursery Fields Forever, would suggest a sense of obligation on the part of the designers to undo the damages of earlier generations’ environmental disregard. Intervening at an early age could preclude obliviousness to the negative impacts of prepackaged, processed foods and outsourced labor […], and engineer a degree of self-conscious environmentalism back into the fabric of the city,” Anzilotti writes. “It’s a mentality seen also in the urban farms and gardens that have lately ramped up their efforts to educate the next generation.”
At General Pencil in Jersey City, NJ, Christopher Payne, a photographer who specializes in architecture and American industry, captured a colorful world of craft and complexity.
In the article that accompanies Payne’s stunningly beautiful pictures, Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories, Sam Anderson writes:
“A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.
Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.”
“No technology is more reflective of its creators than A.I. It has been said that there are no ‘machine’ values at all, in fact; machine values are human values. A human-centered approach to A.I. means these machines don’t have to be our competitors, but partners in securing our well-being. However autonomous our technology becomes, its impact on the world — for better or worse — will always be our responsibility.” — Fei-Fei Li, a professor of computer science at Stanford, where she directs the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the chief scientist for A.I. research at Google Cloud, in How to Make A.I. That’s Good for People