WeWork’s Illusion of the Back Room

The small start up that I work for recently moved into an office community called ‘WeWork.’ Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Imagine a maze of glass boxes where people have their offices, and congregate in public spaces with free beer and cold brew on tap. The office, meeting rooms, and gathering areas have been deliberately decorated by a conviction-less people-pleaser whose sole qualification was that they knew how to search for interior design pictures on Pinterest. Cheap and empty jars on wooden shelves, mismatched couches and pillows, vaguely 50’s retro furniture juxtaposed with wallpaper of historical stringed instruments, and a mural of a blown up picture of black musicians performing in the 1920’s. Each floor has an assigned worker (all of them minorities) who attend to the needs of the guests (WeWorkers? Community members? What are we exactly?) by greeting everyone, washing dishes, and re-filling the fruit water.

Of course, let’s not forget the tribunal of ‘community managers’ who exist to send you messages about events that are happening in the “community,” such as free food, alcohol, haircuts, and massages. They can be found either staring at their computers on the top floor of the building, or giving tours to dazzled individuals who are seriously considering electing to pay to be a part of this community.

Last, but not least, you  have to download the WeWork app (and scan your retina!) before you can receive your key card to swipe into the offices and common spaces.

I realize the mocking tone in that description was strong. I find the idea that WeWork is a community to be a highly dubious statement. Sure, any gathering of human beings could be called a community in the loosest sense (even a single individual could be called a community, because each one of us is always already multiple), but it’s a thin, self-centered, and completely safe community which is so typical of our modern age. It’s the real world version of Facebook. 

However, this essay would be insufferably banal if that was the extent of my concerns. Yes, it’s bourgeois, yes, it’s cushy, yes, the community is highly stylized and constructed. Ultimately, WeWork is a company selling a product. The question is, what product are they selling?

They claim to be selling community. In the screens in the hallways, you can learn about Mr. so and so who loves to create unforgettable experiences for museum goers, or the other dude who suggests that you ask him about psychic readings and personal energies (what is this shit? And how are there offices just like this one in 90 cities all over the world?).

On the WeWork website, you can find such trendy insights as “Space as an Experience – the nature of work is changing. Recruitment, retention, innovation, and productivity now require not just coffee, but also yoga, not just printers, but also art installations.” You will find clean lines, fruit water, and injunctions to reimagine your workspace!

WeWork offers a job without work. Community without struggle. Business without commodities.

However, a more sinister message underlies these utopian visions of an office that makes you spring out of bed the morning because you’re so excited to go to your job. WeWork is selling the illusion of the back room.

What do I mean? Imagine, if you will, a dimly lit room with a poker table, the air filled with cigar smoke, and some fat greasy businessmen laughing and conversing with each other. It’s a comical scene that we’re all familiar with. The businessmen all know each other, and they’re in bed with the politicians, blah blah blah. Of course that used to happen; we all know that. The sort of thing that makes your skin crawl.

But what was really happening there, on a very crude level? How was business getting done? Person to person. It was human relationships. Human beings who shared proximity and interests regularly chose to do business with one another in order to mutually benefit each other.

Saying it that way makes it sound gross, because saying it that way makes it sound like WeWork. WeWork holds out the allure of rubbing shoulders with the innovators and dreamers of the world. “We’ve gathered a community of people who are movers and shakers just like you! Come be one of us!” It’s the back room brought to the front room. It has taken the informal back room relationships of the Robber Barons and brought them out into the front room, marketing the same sort of relationships as an authentic community. It’s a re-branding of the back room along the lines of a benevolent Facebook-like organization that just golly gee wiz loves to bring creative-types together in the same room to change the world!

Now, there is a dual irony here. Because on the one hand, this back room experience is an illusion. I sincerely believe that WeWork cannot actually deliver on its promise of bringing the truly powerful and innovative people in this world together. Those people already know who the other ones are, and if they don’t, they know how to find them. They don’t have to pay for a glass office in a high-rise downtown.

You can’t buy your way into a community that is actually being truly creative and which has amassed for itself copious amounts of power and influence. That can only be earned. Discovered. Forged.

The individuals all around the world who are rich and powerful all know each other, send their children to the same schools, attend the same events, give to the same organizations, buy the same things, congregate in very particular locations, and share a certain set of practices and approaches to life. Ultimately then (and this work remains to be done), the rich of the world are actually creating the first un-community. They are bringing to fulfillment the Stoic dream of the ‘cosmopolitan’ (cosmos – polis) man.

WeWork does actually manage to perpetuate the ongoing segregation of the rich from the poor. It perfectly embodies the ongoing trend of neo-liberal capitalist class dynamics.

Slavoj Zizek makes this point frequently in his work, pointing out how the gap between the poor and the powerful continues to widen at an alarmingly fast rate. When he makes this observation though, he primarily focuses on the question of proximity. The rich and the poor aren’t simply separated by how much power and money they either have or don’t have; they are actually most deeply divided by who they know and how they spend their time. Zizek points out that the super-rich in Rio de Jainero travel exclusively by helicopter in the city nowadays (in 2008 there were 420 helicopters in the city of Rio, with expectations that over 80 would be added by 2010). In the US, the rich gather in gated “communities”, or areas with hyper expensive real estate (like Cupertino in the Bay Area) or in densely populated urban pockets, such as Brooklyn in New York City.

We praise the entrepreneur here in the US, but we have a very particular image of that entrepreneur. What about the farmer? The self-employed plumber? The small business owner in rural America, the deserts of the southwest, or the Deep South? Are they not creative because they were born in Albuquerque instead of LA? Perhaps the argument goes that these individuals are not trying to change the world or be on the cutting edge of innovation, and so they are not really being locked out of anything. They have made the deliberate choice to remain where they are, knowing full well that the true movers and shakers in the world do not live in Boise or Kansas City. Maybe the lucky ones among these might even consider touring the new WeWork that is opening up near them!

But, this line of reasoning presents problems, because it presumes that the rich and powerful who don’t live in Missoula don’t have any effect on the business owner who does not have access to these networks of power and influence (or even the illusion of these things peddled by WeWork!). These larger businesses would like nothing less than to either (1) replace these smaller businesses by selling their products or services at lower costs, or (2) making the smaller businesses utterly dependent on them for things like web hosting, marketing, and basic business materials. But all for making the world a better place and bringing people closer together, of course.

So, what is my gripe?

Not so much a gripe as an observation. We need to carry out a rigorous analysis of this widening gap between the powerful and the disenfranchised. We also need to analyze the ways in which the disenfranchised have either been trained not to notice or have deliberately chosen not to notice that they are disenfranchised. What mechanisms are used for the powerful to remain powerful, and what practices enlist us into this ongoing project, making us our own worst enemies?

The world the liberal elite have constructed for themselves is entirely plastic and cushioned, much like a room in an insane asylum. Their world exists like a yacht floating on an ocean of the working classes, and especially the international working classes of countries like India and China. We need to be actively waking ourselves from our slumber, and pouring over those ideas and practices in our lives that we previously took for granted. We are most enslaved when we believe we are most free. So, we must stop believing that we’re free, in order that we might begin to dream again about what being free might actually mean. We need to devise ways to care for others. We need to find ways to right wrongs, and to wrong things which are conventionally taken to be right.

I think we should learn to be a little bit more irreverent, but not to ironically distance ourselves from the real world in order to maintain a peaceful conscience, but rather to discover how truly ugly and brutish our sacred cows really are.

I’m not perfect, but that’s a journey that I want to embark on daily.

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