In a world of digital nomads, we will all be made homeless | John Harris

Whose utopia is this, when people have to sever emotional links and leave where they grew up to find dependable work?, asks Guardian columnist John Harris

The office-space empire WeWork was founded eight years ago in New York. It currently leases 240,000 sq metres of real estate in London alone, which reportedly makes it the citys largest user of offices after the British government. The basic deal is simple enough: you can either pay to put your laptop wherever there is space, or stump up a little more for a more dependable desk or entire office and, in either case, take advantage of the fact that, with operations in 20 countries, WeWork offers the chance to traverse the planet and temporarily set up shop in no end of locations.

Part of the WeWork idea, moreover, is that a place to toil is only part of what is on offer. As well as your workspace, there will be free beer on tap, regular yoga and pilates sessions, and more. As the working day winds on and such distractions along with the necessity of meeting other footloose hotshots, and comparing projects take up more of your time, a couple of questions might spring to mind: what is work, and what is leisure? And does the distinction even count for much any more?

Other customers of the company may be troubled by an even more fundamental conundrum: where is their workplace and what, by contrast, constitutes home? WeWork is slowly expanding into a new venture called WeLive, up and running in New York and Washington DC, set to open for business in Seattle, and also planned for Tel Aviv. If accommodation is proving hard to find, you need company, and your life as a freelance means you have no permanent workplace where you can meet like-minded people, here is a solution: a range of tiny studio flats and slightly bigger dwellings, built around communal areas, kitchens and laundrettes in the same building as WeWork office space.

Miguel McKelvey, one of the companys two founders, has said that the idea is partly aimed at people who are always working or always semi-working. The mountain of press coverage this innovation has sparked includes a telling quote from one euphoric resident in Manhattan: You just roll out of bed, go down the elevator and get to work. This, apparently, is the future: despite its slow start, WeWorks chief executive, Adam Neumann, insists that WeLive is going to be a bigger business than WeWork.

Four years after stories broke of employees who worked up to 90 hours a week living in camper vans at Googles HQ in northern California, a WeLive-esque lifestyle will presumably take root at a new Google campus taking shape nearby, which will sit among 10,000 new housing units. Up the road, Facebooks Willow Village development looks set to deliver something similar. Meanwhile, for tech high flyers lucky enough to have no fixed employer or workplace, as well as WeLive, there is an even more alluring option: Roam, which is pitched at digital nomads, and offers flexible co-working and co-living spaces in London, San Francisco, Miami, Tokyo and Ubud, in Indonesia. For upwards of $500 a week, such people can now wander around the world, mixing life and work two activities that quickly become indistinguishable within Roams confines, as the New York Times put it.

Architectural
Architectural rendering of Facebooks proposed Willow Campus in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Reuters

It is telling that this blurring of work and leisure, and the fading-out of any meaningful notion of home, is reflected at every level of the tech industry from shared houses that double as start-up incubators (see the hit HBO comedy Silicon Valley), through the co-working and co-living spaces springing up in urban China, to the factories in the same country where workers churning out iPhones sleep in dormitories. The erosion of any barrier between grafting and downtime is reflected in big techs innate insistence that we are on at all times checking our feeds, sending emails, messaging colleagues. You see the same things even more clearly among rising numbers of networked homeworkers translators, CV writers, IT contractors, data inputters whose lives are often a very modern mixture of supposed flexibility, and day-to-day insecurity.

Marx and Engels said that the bourgeoisie could not exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society; Tony Blair told us that the world of globalisation has no custom or practice, and gives rewards only to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change. And here, perhaps, is the ultimate proof. After a couple of centuries during which capitalism has recurrently tried to kill the inconvenient human need for domestic spaces where people can escape economic demands (witness such inventions as workers hostels and old-fashioned company towns), that same tendency is being newly dressed up as a matter of aspiration and personal freedom.

So what do we do? We urgently need a new Politics of Home. God knows, there will always be a market for expensive fads; and with prices for WeLive studios starting at over 2,300 a month, more fool anyone who takes the bait. But, as proved by other developments in the US and China and a trailblazing scheme in London (at Old Oak, in Willesden) where cramped en suite rooms and access to a workspace can be had for a relatively affordable 245 a week the worldwide push towards mixing up co-working and co-living highlights a big issue: the dire shortage of affordable urban housing.

More generally, the need for a distinction between work and downtime should enter the political vocabulary as a fundamental right, and the organisations dedicated to trying to enforce it most notably, the network of small freelance unions that are dotted across Europe and the US need to be encouraged and assisted.

It is time, too, that we begin to understand that the great wave of popular resentment sweeping across advanced societies is partly about the way the modern economy shreds some of peoples most basic emotional attachments. We all know the modern rules: millions of people have to leave where they grew up to find even halfway dependable work; and they find that creating any kind of substitute home somewhere new is impossible. For people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, life proves to be unendingly precarious and often itinerant. For those slightly further up, the best available option seems to be a version of the student lifestyle that extends well into your 30s.

For all that some people seem to luxuriate in the weightlessness this fosters, it is surely no way to spend any sizable share of your adult life. And what if you want to push beyond footloose living and start a family?

It is a token of the surreal future some people want to push us towards that WeWork may have the beginnings of an answer to that question, albeit for the few people who can afford it. The company has recently spawned an educational offshoot called WeGrow (so far focused on a private elementary school in New York) that teaches kids a range of skills including mindfulness and conscious entrepreneurship. But the idea is apparently to put WeGrow schools in WeWork properties across the world, so digital nomads can carry their disorientated offspring from place to place, and ensure they have just as flimsy an idea of home as their parents do.

Not for the first time, you may well read this stuff and wonder: whose utopia is this?

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/18/digital-nomad-homeless-tech-work

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