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.