Nestled among the advertisements for upscale apartments (Enjoy Four Seasons Fort Lauderdale! Only $4,300,000!) in this week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine is a thoughtful piece by Kyle Chayka not entirely about Roam, a company offering a selection of live-work spaces for the discerning digital nomad: “The World is Your Office.” And this one time I’ll recommend reading the comments, and Mr. Chayka’s thread on the topic over at Twitter. Those certainly are pretty boarding houses and expatriate hotels that Roam offers.
The picture accompanying the essay shows a couple casually lounging outside: a young girl typing on her laptop, beer close to hand; a young man taking a call in his hammock, shielding his eyes from the sun. I’ve explored the limits of placeless work for several years now, since before this always connected century of ubiquitous computing, and one of the as-yet-unsolved technical limitations has been the glare of sunlight. Laptops don’t do well out-of-doors.
You have perhaps noticed this phenomenon while using your phone while driving: your focus shrinks to the size of the screen and the world disappears. My workday is constrained by a 17″ laptop screen, which is a desk just large enough to offer the promise of holding more than one document at a time, but without actually providing room enough. I didn’t quite understand the clamor for larger virtual desktops, but now I desire some way of expanding my peripheral vision, of setting things to the side while I focus on the thing in front of me. Instead, I have a series of distracting context switches, where chatty interruptions eclipse the memory of what I was doing. The world vanishes in a chain of consequences, and I forget to eat lunch. What does it matter then if I’m in Bali or Tokyo or Miami? The work eventually finishes, yes? And then you can go to the beach?
The prospect of working anywhere and anytime is simultaneously appealing and revolting. Appealing to the worker because it cuts away the dreaded commute; appealing to the employer because the pool of labor expands globally: offshoring here we come! Revolting because it never ends. If you can work anywhere, why not everywhere? If anytime, why not all the time? I’ve experienced a bit of this on the train, in the tub, on the toilet, in line for Space Mountain. Some companies adjust the nature of the work to this flexibility. Others try to force some kind of official rigor: work only from the alternate location; work a minimum of 45 hours a week; work between 08:00 and 18:00; do not take company equipment out of the country; do not work from personal equipment; respond to a call within 15 minutes. This is the overseer’s mindset: control the lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothin’ labor. Disrespect is paid in kind.
I’ve fancied the nomadic lifestyle since reading A Walk Across America and Stand on Zanzibar, if not The Rolling Stones. Location-independent work is one reason why I’m in this field, and haven’t seen an office in years. While tinkers and gypsies have gotten short shrift among settled folks, I seem to have developed a romantic image of their life, and a temporary wanderlust does set in now and again. I want a sailboat or an Airstream; I want to ride Amtrak across the country. It competes with a yearning to know a place deeply enough that it is Home. But I suspect I’m more hobbit than wanderer. Perhaps after the children have grown and flown.
Nevertheless, this idea of working while traveling seems to defeat the purpose: Why work from Bali if you’re never there, if you travel the world but never leave the airport? Mr. Chayka recognizes this dilemma in his concluding paragraphs.
You can go anywhere, as long as you never stop working.
Yesterday I asked, what about the world beyond the virtual? Computers didn’t have, for the longest time, sensors. Their only interaction with the world was through input devices such as punch-cards, then later keyboards and mice. They only knew what they were told. Many have a variety of sensors now: antennae, gyroscopes, cameras, thermometers, and so forth.
In the late-1980’s, if I recall correctly, science fiction fans and aerospace professionals engaged in heated arguments in the Planetary Society‘s journal over what should be the policy direction of the United States’ space program. Should we attempt Mars directly or build a base on the moon first? Should we have a space station? Should we emphasize manned missions or send robots off to explore? It was a matter of cost vs. benefit for some: robots were cheap; humans die. I was in favor of both human and robot missions, but as a teenager I wasn’t sensitive to prices. I just thought we should get off this rock and go have a look-see.
Before leaving home today, I strolled down the lane to visit with the goats. The sun glistened on the milkweed. I love this place. It soothes my soul.
I was born in Virginia, spent time in Ohio, returned, then left for New York. I’ve lived away for most of my life. But I consider myself a Virginian.
In conversation with Dad this morning, we talked about being separate from the community, and anxiety for money becoming the only question asked. We pass that concern on to our children to prepare them for the world beyond school, leaving little room for wonder and joy. How can I monetize this beautiful day?
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:24
Only try to do it yourself and you will learn how arduous is the writer’s task. It dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits your chest and belly together. It is a terrible ordeal for the whole body.[*]
I sit hunched over the keyboard or this book. That is how I sit: hunched. My head dipped toward the surface, back arched, lungs squeezed against my stomach — my body changing to fit my tools. This way I can see what I’m doing. Or I could lean far back and look through glass. There’s no in-between. Helpful eyes, these.
Outside it is grey, low clouds, fog on the hills, a thin rain. Inside, darker still. I can hear the crows. I associate this time of year with Medieval Europe for some reason. Must be the weather. I’ve enhanced the mood with candle, incense, and Anonymous Four.
Norway’s SlowTV film of the Bergen to Oslo railway is beautiful and deeply moving: nostalgic. Though I’ve never been to Norway, I’ve ridden trains. While I can count long train rides on my hands, my time commuting on MetroNorth Rail-Road, the New York City subway, and the London Underground are some of my favorite memories. I looked forward to riding the train. One year my commute passed through Penn Station. A ticket on the next train out of New York beckoned me to buy one and go.
I’ve started working with the movie in the background. The rhythmic rumble, the occasional announcements, are soothing. I tricked myself into thinking I’m working in the cafe car. Now and again I look up and out at the fjords.
One of the wonderful aspects of system administration, or DevOps as the kids call it these days, was that much of the work can be done anywhere there’s an Internet connection. This begins to pale as a wonderful aspect when anywhere is restricted to just another grey cubicle in a sea of grey cubicles, and pales to insignificance when anywhere becomes only your bedroom, and the few minutes you see other people is at the school bus stop. All of your friendships and conversations become virtual — which is just the thing you once desired so much. What offered the promise of working anywhere became working nowhere. Meanwhile, the world of IT operations long ago realized that if the work could be done from anywhere, then it could just as easily be done from India or Slovenia as from New Jersey, so while BigCo real estate operations were trying to lower costs by reducing the office footprint and exploring telecommuting, other folks at BigCo were looking at ways to get rid of people entirely, not by replacing by replacing them with machines (automating or optimizing processes), but with cheaper labor from elsewhere. Costs were reduced, one assumes, not through efficiency and gains in productivity, but through the illusion of arbitraging regional differences in the cost of labor.
Cleaning my library, I ran across an N-scale model railroad that I’ve carried with me from house to house. If memory serves, it last ran in Loveland, Ohio. I may have been 12. Our youngest, 8, put it together last year, but couldn’t resolve an electrical problem, so it went back in the box. He likes to build with Legos, so this Christmas I gave him a Lego train. We need more track.
I stopped working in New York for moments with my children. Our first child would be asleep by the time I got home, and not yet awake when I left. Taking employment nearby meant I could see my family for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes lunch. There was a trade-off, of course: no more trains, for one.
Each place I’ve worked has had its own atmosphere, its own odor. A new cat came to live with us last year and the adjustment has been, shall we say, complex. So I am in the process of ripping out all the wall-to-wall carpeting and replacing it with something urine-proof. In the meantime, I’m sleeping in the library. There is something so cozy to be surrounded by one’s books. Sometimes I lie awake just staring at all the friends I’ve made and places I’ve been.
Each place I’ve worked has had its own character, its own people. This place here has cats and on occasion small children. One of my first employments was as a clerk at a Standard Drug in Richmond, Virginia. There were just a handful of us on staff: the pharmacist and his assistant, the store manager, another clerk, and me. I did not deal much with the pharmacists other than to pass prescriptions to them, so I only have a faint impression of them. The manager was in his 40s, perhaps older, with glasses, a scraggly beard, and bad teeth: probably a lot like how I look now, except for the teeth. The other clerk spent his days stoned. That summer my brother and I lived with Grandmother; we were expected home for dinner by 5:30. Dinner was always at 5:30. I would walk down the road to the Henrico Public Library branch, if books were needed, then make it back to Grandmother’s for dinner. Late nights I spent with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Turner Classic Movies. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I made real friends at work, or was even interested in doing so. And then I found peculiar characters, colleagues, kindred spirits, and friends.
Working from a coffee shop is a great way to observe a bunch of characters while you work, if you pick the right shop. But you can get trapped just watching everything transient. Much better is the cafe car on a long-distance train or the counter at an all-night diner. People seeking people come and sit there, often drinking, sometimes working, sometimes holding forth, sometimes playing cards.
It is easier to build team spirit on a virtual team than to address alienation. We coalesce around our shared goals, tasks, and complaints quite easily. Interpersonal problems do arise, if not everyone is working at their best, which can require a chat, perhaps the resetting of expectations, but my experience has been that the team wants to work as a team: no one wants to let another down, and quite willingly picks up work that another has dropped. They almost have a common enemy in their employer — not in the competition as one might expect — which is not for the best, but suffices.
Where did we get this idea of work-life balance, that work and life were separate? Did we not realize that by putting work in opposition to life that we’ve aligned it with death? Or was that an intentional recognition that in some respects our way of working is not living, but a kind of zombie existence?
We forget sometimes that a lot of life is constructed around us by society, and when we’re cut off we do not know how to build it back. One of my great failures as a manager was [name redacted], who was a very talented employee, supremely dedicated to his work — until one day it all went to hell. No one else worked near him, or talked to him on a regular basis, so no one knew what was happening until he just stopped. He gave up fighting. As Peter Gibbons puts it in Office Space, “I’m just not gonna go.” The bullshit defeated him. Like the rest of us, he’d been working essentially by himself from home for some time.
I haven’t figured out how to fix this, yet. But it seems to me that the key might be have meaningful work in the first place; nip this problem in the bud.
I have to say that I was way ahead of the prediction curve on this, partly through desire and partly because it’s pretty fucking obvious just from looking at commute times that the ever-expanding suburb is an evolutionary dead-end. It will become a city or the people will move out. The people moving out is happening faster.
I’d been remarking on this verbally since at least 2001, but wrote it down in 2006. Meanwhile, I listened to my wife’s heart’s desire and bought this house instead.*
However, one must note that a finer analysis of the data needs to be done to see if there’s a comparable shuffle along the suburban-exurban-rural gradient toward locally urban areas, not just the larger cities. I suspect there is.
So, you ask, where do I recommend anyone buy in Dutchess County? Well, first I recommend you buy *my* house, but if you’re not that kind of buyer, look at the following, depending on where you work.
Beacon, city of
Poughkeepsie, city of
Pawling, village of
Rhinebeck/Rhinecliff, villages of
Millbrook, village of
Millerton, village of
There are other rather compact villages, but they don’t offer the amenities of those. You’ll have to travel a bit to find some items, or have them shipped to you. But if you don’t mind, try in no particular order
Unfortunately, new housing stock is still being built in wide-open green spaces, and turnover in the smaller villages is slight. Best bets are Beacon and Poughkeepsie. Not only are there more properties for sale in those cities, but the prices there are lower due to racial and wealth discrimination, and “concerns” about the school systems.
I suppose that Sasaki has tried their best with the residence halls and McGinley replacement to reflect the Gothic Revival architecture that made Rose Hill so striking, but it doesn’t seem so from the pictures. They could still be an improvement over some of the more modern facilities, McGinley and Mulcahy in particular — or not.
I will not be contributing anything to the fund drive for this. But we might park in the college’s lot if we visit the Botanical Garden.
The full measure of an architectural style can be taken when there is no life in the buildings, when what purpose they served has left, and we are no longer distracted by the people and things which graced these places.
This video comparison of Barcelona in 1908 and in 2008 by Fotos de Barcelona is striking, and not just in the differences in the built environment. What I find most striking, and disturbing, is the sheer lack of people in 2008, as if they were filming a ghost town.
[The owner of Vespa SoHo, Zachary] Schieffelin says he hopes this means New York will start to look more like London or Rome — the streets buzzing with as many scooters as cars.
Europe has had high fuel prices since the end of WWII. I would suspect that this has contributed as much to scooter use as have the older shapes of the cities — more like New York than Los Angeles — if not more so, particularly as the European cities have become more automobile-oriented.
Modernist buildings, whether clad in glass or not, simply aren’t built to age gracefully—not only because of the way they’re constructed, but also because they aren’t designed to be loved. They are either commercially expedient products of the consumer culture or, less often, expensively histrionic but ultimately ephemeral fashion statements of the sort that Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel concoct.
And that, my friends, is my main gripe with Modernist architecture. It’s ugly, and gets uglier.
It’s a wet, slushy day out today. I can understand that such weather might be unfamiliar at Google headquarters, though Google London might have some experience of it. I’m working at home today. What I’d like to know is what Google does in situations where the people can’t come to the Googleplex to work. I have no doubt that they have no software limitations on where they work, but it seems that locality is essential to the nature of Google.
We moved the spare television, necessary because our primary unit is a Philips, from the basement to the bedroom. That was a dumb idea; there’s no TiVo up there. Anyway, I was flipping through the channels — who does that? — and landed on Charlie Rose talking with some guy who was very enthusiastic about what he is building in China. Apparently it’s not every day that you get to “build a city inside a city.” It’s just easier in some countries.
The interview is interesting, but I certainly hope his buildings are better built than his website.
David Sucher‘s book, City Comforts is subtitled “How To Build an Urban Village.” The book is not just for cities. The things that make a city pleasant are the same things that make a town, a village, a hamlet, or any collection of homes pleasant.
Do not be put off by the title if you think of yourself as country folk. This book is helpful for the smallest of towns.