Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Airspace, Cosmpolitanism, Frictionlessness, And Global Gentrification

Last week in my post about cash I mentioned this idea about how the drive toward the frictionless world sometimes ends up leading us away from where we want to go. Silent cars are dangerous unless we build in fake noises. Virtual payment schemes screw up our spending unless we build in fake pain. As we've noted before, dreams of a frictionless world run into the hard fact that even the internet needs things like energy-sucking data centres and so on.

After the post went up, my friend directed me toward this discussion of "Airspace." "Airspace" is that space of modern capitalist nowhere: the coffee shop, office, or shared work space that all have the same comfort symbols: fast wifi, innocuous background music, wood tables, exposed brick, minimalist furniture.

Noting the increasing homogenization in AirBbB rentals, this article explores the "aesthetic gentrification" that is causing the rise in global sameness. As Lambert says over at Naked Capitalism, one thing about Airspace is that it's frictionless.

This was all on my mind  a few days ago when I encountered this profile of a guy who only owns fifteen objects. James Altucher, described here as "the world's least likely success guru," got rich from being involved with a successful start-up, lived lavishly, tried to make even more money through investments, then went broke.

After losing all his money, he had various epiphanies. He gave away or threw away everything he owns, and now he travels with his laptop and three pairs of chinos and three T-shirts, staying with friends and in AirBnB rentals.

In a way, this whole "own nothing" trend is really the height of frictionlessness, and of course it goes hand in hand with Airspace. To me, it is also annoying. "Own nothing" is always treated as some kind of anti-materialism, but in fact it's only the most ultra privileged, and usually male, people who can live with no objects. Most of us have objects because we are using them to do things -- often with and for other people. We cook meals with our pots and pans, we eat off our dishes, and we sit on our sofas with friends. If we have kids, we provide them with toys and educational materials and things they like to wear. Shared activities require objects, so either you own those objects or you're using someone else's.

And speaking of this whole "other people" thing, there is one moment in the interview where Mr. Altucher makes a joke about his "kids." Does he have children? Did the reporter ask? If he does, how does he make food for them? Where are their toys? As we've noted before, if you're reading about "Mister Interesting," somehow the whole fatherhood thing never comes up. If "Ms. Interesting" was running around being the "Oprah of the internet" and owning fifteen objects -- wouldn't the very first question be "OMG, how do you take care of your children?!"

Anyway, this was all percolating in my mind when I read this article about how "Intellectuals are Freaks." The article points out that intellectuals are atypical, which is absolutely true. I think often about how my hours and hours of education and time alone in a library reading make the texture of my life radically unlike that of most other people. Many intellectuals probably start off atypical, and then become even more atypical as they go along.

One of the ways the article says intellectuals are atypical is in their cosmopolitanism. Intellectuals often consider themselves "citizens of the world" and see borders and boundaries as arbitrary and meaningless. Sometimes this extends to the idea that being invested in the local -- a family, a community, a nation -- is somehow stupidly parochial or naive. Intellectuals, seeing their own experience, are likely to endorse education as a means of curing the inequality and other ills that forces like globalization sometimes create.

I consider myself an intellectual, and I think this critique points to something real and important. It's not naive or stupid to want to live in a particular community, tied to particular people, with a particular way of life. For many people, these are the things that make up a good life.

And while education is wonderful, it's not a cure for inequality. As long as there are agricultural workers and baristas and Amazon warehouse workers and call center employees, there are going to be people who are deeply vulnerable to the forces of inequality. It doesn't matter what degrees they have.

I feel like that whole idea of cosmopolitanism, of feeling at home anywhere, a citizen of the world -- it has something to do with frictionlessness, with the idea of transcending specifics and ties, with owning nothing, with the feeling of Airspace.

This is not to say that frictionlessness is always bad. I spend a huge amount of time in Airspace, and I feel like I thrive there. Traveling the world is wonderful, and it's one of the great things of our time that we communicate with a zillion different people and feel like citizens of the world.

It's just that there's lot to say for friction too -- for the feeling that specific people, specific ways of life, and even specific objects are part of what makes human life what it is.


Kenny Easwaran said...

It's a really interesting point that you make that "own nothing" is something that can only be done when you have a lot of privilege. I suspect that's right in a lot of ways. It seems to me that when a certain sort of commodity is very scarce, you'll need to own it if it's important to have access to it on-demand. But when the commodity is readily available, it's fine to just rent or borrow it whenever needed. "Scarcity" here is going to depend on the access to resources that the user has. When lots of things are still scarce for most people, only the most privileged are going to be able to give up ownership for most things.

But that suggests that the way to expand "own nothing" beyond a privileged few is to extend this privilege of non-scarcity to more people for more goods. Many other common behaviors and cultural features that we now think are good for everyone to have access to are also things that were once only available to the privileged.

Unknown said...

Regarding what you wrote here:

"Most of us have objects because we are using them to do things -- often with and for other people. We cook meals with our pots and pans, we eat off our dishes, and we sit on our sofas with friends."

I couldn't help but re-frame it a different way, though admittedly, it doesn't really challenge your conclusion that it's informed largely by privileged (nor do I intend to challenge that conclusion).

I would say that the share economy mentality is borne from challenging the idea that we own things exclusively to use them. My understanding is that those who participate in the sharing economy are turned-off by the idea that we own so many material things that are idle most of the time - it's an inefficient use of resources. Our pots and pans, our dishes (when not sitting dirty in my sink), our sofas, our cars, our home computers, etc. largely sit idle. There are only so many objects we can actively use at any given moment, so in an attempt to stay personally efficient, I can see why someone would want to choose to slough off the underused items.

I don't think this really challenges any of your points, but it's something that I thought of as I read your post and thought I'd share.

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Kenny and Ryan,
Thank you for the comments and the different perspectives! Most interesting.

ltirrell said...

The article in "The Financial Review" notes that since giving away all his stuff (domestic equipment), "he's been bouncing among friends' apartments and Airbnb rentals." So he is mooching off other people's dependence on space, pots and pans, etc. I don't see how that counts as being morally better. And you're right, he can pay for the services he cannot do himself without equipment. The whole schtick just reeks of privilege. Visiting friends when a visit is the point is great. Friends taking each other in during times of need is great. But this is a sleight of hand, onerous to the core.

Anonymous said...

My first thought upon reading about 15-possessions guy was the ancient Cynics who gave away their money and most of their possessions as the "shortcut to virtue". Consequently, I was amused to see the references to cosmopolitanism above, since Diogenes was said to be the first to call himself "citizen of the world". The key difference is that while the Cynics may have begged for sustenance or used public places for shelter, they were not relying on financial resources to support a comfortable possession-less lifestyle. The point was that unnecessary possessions might damage one's ability to live virtuously in a number of ways. One might prefer superficial, conventional values to a life according to nature, or one might be susceptible to corruption based on desires or fears about material possessions and wealth. I cannot fault anyone for wanting to abandon surplus possessions in the interest of living a more just life. However, it seems unlikely that relying on surplus wealth to pay for a comfortable lifestyle without having to be burdened by owning objects is a recipe for living more justly. It's certainly not what the Cynics had in mind. Likewise, Cynic cosmopolitanism is admirable insofar as it is based on friendship among the wise and just, or rejects the injustice of conventional political authority. Merely being worldly, well-traveled, or comfortable in a variety of spaces isn't the same thing.

Josh said...

I think this is like, the central dilemma of modern life.

When given a choice between pleasure or pain, people choose pleasure, unless they have some strong value / belief motivating them not to. Same with friction vs non-friction.

But if one keeps choosing a frictionless, painless existence, it becomes increasingly hard to choose otherwise, as one's coping mechanisms for dealing with friction are eroded. This is a dynamic behind addiction.

The premise of market economies is that people should be able to choose freely, and things that offer compelling choices win as people vote for them with their wallets. There's a market for people who make harder choices -- picking the quirky-but-interesting AirBnB vs the one that you know is going to have all the amenities you expect, a host who knows how to play the "I'm providing you a hotel room" game, etc. -- but even people who value those harder choices aren't going to constantly choose friction, because there's just too many choices to take the path of most resistance on all of them. So, the winner is going to be the frictionless.

So I feel like this outcome is the inevitable consequence of a consumer world where people can freely choose what they spend on, absent some countervailing force.

On the other hand, I think it's too late to put the cat back in the bag in terms of capitalism. I doubt there are many local cultures these days that aren't economically dependent on the globalized, cosmopolitan world. So whether or not that world tries to spread itself via education, vs respecting local cultures, the fact is that that world has the power, and retreating to local traditions is just burying ones' head in the sand unless you can actually achieve economic independence.

I think this is a pretty bleak picture, and I don't know what / if there's a solution. In the past, things like culture / religion / tradition were able to stop the slide towards the lowest common denominator, so maybe some new form of culture will evolve out of this that's adapted to a capitalist world and can establish bulwarks against it? *Shrug*...