There is something beautiful about watching people taking ownership with the aim of shaping their own future. It’s even more astonishing to watch ambitious people trying to affect the future of humanity. The New itself is often beautiful. I can say that the New, the future, the magnetic people, all have their effect on me. I am much intrigued by the fact that people in this conference are showcasing the usage of new technology and its applications. There is a feeling of awe derived from watching humans paving new options and opportunities, extending what is possible in life. Innovation is good at its core, I remind myself. And while we do need to preserve that feeling of awe, technological innovation by itself is rather insufficient, and left alone, being controlled merely by the forces of the market, it harms us all. Technological innovation without political and cultural development that corresponds with it, or better, that directs it, is a dangerous phenomenon.
But the Network State conference is not only dealing with the future. An attentive spectator can notice, little moments, revealing sentences, that mirror our current times, our generation. One can notice how lonely and desperate human beings in western societies are (and especially in the United States to my observation.) Loneliness is mentioned on almost every pitch, as the explanation of what set the founders to spark on their journey, and what problem their venture solves. “Loneliness is disease”, says Zach Milburn, the founder of Nomad.
Riding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that made remote work the standard for many of us, Nomad is a company building a global co-living ecosystem for digital nomads. They believe “remote work is hard” (the founder’s words) and that the digital nomad lifestyle is unsustainable. Mainly because it is difficult to find nice and convenient rentals to work from. You can book a hotel or an Airbnb, but it will not necessarily fit the needs of the nomad lifestyle. You can’t easily check-in, locate your listing or find your keys. The Internet connection is often unstable. The kitchen is usually not well equipped, and it costs a fortune. Indeed, the great majority of the world’s population won’t care too much about those problems. Most of us are dealing with bigger issues. And still, some people are experiencing this as an issue of importance, and they are free to try and solve the problems they face, for themselves and for others. However, the nomad lifestyle's issues extend beyond convenience. According to the founder, the nomad’s life is very lonely.
As a solution, Nomad has launched a global network of co-living and accomandations. These are “villages” spread around the globe (currently only in the US in fact, and soon they will launch a new location in the island of Roatán in Honduras, in partnership with Prospera, another company presenting in this conference on which I am going to write later on). Nomads that take part in the network can rent those places for their desired period of time. They are also part of a global community of members, connected via an app. Nomad’s villages are all located close to nature, and built using a home building block they call The Node.
The Node, is in fact a cubicle of about 55m2. A tiny affordable home catered to the needs of remote workers. Everything is measured and designed to meet the new needs of remote workers, with emphasis on comfortability for people who are working from home. You can apply to license the design and have one Node built for you personally, and take part in the network. To some people this looks like the perfect solution, to others it looks like a cage for modern workers.
One assumption behind this business I find particularly worrisome. It is that the needs of the current employment market should drive the design of people’s most intimate space -- their home. Of course, this is not a new phenomena. The last time the market had a drastic effect on architecture is probably at the post-industrial-revolution era in Europe, where cities grew immensely and quickly, and new needs arose. Therefore new architectual styles where invented to house the workers and the new bourgeois alike. The British back-to-back house, the social housing block of the Amsterdam School, and the like were designed for the poor, and Art Nouveau, the Hausmanian style and the likes, for the rich. Letting the market drive urban development have turned out to be a crisis. Until when are we going to let the market lead such decisions that affect our very own presence? Shouldn’t we first sit down and ask question such as: what will be the effects of living in isolated spaces like the Node? What do people need at home? Why are we building homes that fit only individuals or couples the most? What human relationship will form in a neighborhood of Nodes, where people never stay foot? Startups like this, have huge effects on our society. Their smart business models are compelling, and as a result they win market share. Cheap accommodation at time of ever-rising prices are going to win. But at the same time, they also dictate cultural and human behavior inherited and derived from simply how they are built.
Another assumption I find surprising is that very often people believe that all you need in order to create a community is to have people reside next to one another and offer basic means of communication, such as in-app chat. Build it, and they’ll come, and they’ll create a meaningful communities. The only problem is that it’s really not how it works. People are much more complex, and if one wants to create a strong sense of community and build deep trust between people, if one wants to cure the disease of loneliness (not less!), then a much deeper thinking is required on that topic. Surprisingly enough, even tech founders know the very basics of this. Ask any founder of an online community platform such as Reddit, Discord, Hacker News and the like, and they will tell you that moderation and facilitation are the hardest thing, and that at the very minimum should be the base of any community. This whole WeWorky idea of “let’s just be next to each other and we’ll connect” is shallow, to say the least. Wework sucks.
Tthis new movement of network cities and countries is naive. It is lacking peoples’ people and true community builders. A good example for that naivety would be Fractal Collective. Fractal “…is an unlikely assortment of writers, designers, musicians, clowns, entrepreneurs, artists, coders, and scientists slowly cultivating a flourishing neighborhood within a neighborhood in Bushwick, Brooklyn – one of NYC’s creative hubs”, in their own words. In mine, they are a bunch of cute young professionals in NYC, that decided they want to stay teenager for a little longer, and slowly took over an area of their favorite neighberhood in Brooklyn so the could keep doing stuff together. This is all very great. But one can’t stop thinking: are these the best minds of our generation? Is this today’s edge of cultural and social development?
I had grown up in Israel, where only two generations ago the was the most interesting human experience in socialism, anarchism, and communal life -- The Kibbutz. As a teenager I used to take part in a socialist youth movement. And we have definitely organized ourselves in much more complex and creative ways. We would do everything by ourselves, we would take care of basic and spiritual needs alike. At the age of eighteen we would leave our parents’ home to experiment communal life in the city, together with 24 other young people in the same house, and hundreds others in our age group. We had shared everything, including our money and stipends. We educated tens of thousands of other younger teenagers. We would build cultural institutions, libraries and run seminars. We would engaged in political parties, create financial support systems, and what not! I simply can’t wrap my head around this. I don’t get the innovative part of Fractal. I am really fond of them, they seem cool, but I can’t help feeling that our generation is screwed, that while we are marching forward with technology, we are only going backwards as human beings.
We are a lonely generation. We were left alone by fuled processes of privatisation. Our generation is lacking any meaningful vision of social change or any ambition to build a truly better society. We work for the profit of others. We work in order to purchase some experiences that will help us settle down our artificially implemented needs, to climb higher in the status ladder. To feel good about ourselves. This is who we are. And we want some friends around us, so we can escape together, or perhaps cultivate some meaningful personal relationships to the most, so we can survive. This is what I think when such projects are being presented.
Cover image: Still Life with Implements of the Hunt, Johannes Leemans, 1678