“Always working or always semi-working.” That phrase basically sums up my life for the past two decades. For about twelve years I ran a Web-hosting co-op in addition to working anywhere from three to nine other contracts at a time. It enabled me to spend money like water on every ridiculous thing and activity possible; I could have saved money like water but that wasn’t the point of working eighty hours a week. While there are certainly people out there with a thoroughly domesticated sense of delayed gratification, I’ve never been one of them. If I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone, I expect to take a champagne bath afterwards. Simple as that.
Somewhere around 2010 I started closing up shop on the tech-biz stuff so I could use my spare time to write about cars. This doesn’t pay nearly as well but the twelve-year-old me never had any dreams of running a Web hosting business and in any event the hosting model was going the way of the lowest common denominator. Nowadays I spend about 45 hours a week in tasks associated with my day job and another 20 hours at the keyboard. Sometimes I spend 10 or 20 hours of top of that accumulating the experiences about which I’ll write later. There was a five-day period a while back where all I did was go to work then write until 4am then sleep until 8am then go to work, just to meet deadlines. I never truly know when the work will arrive or what demands it will make. Take this week for example; it was supposed to be a vacation from both my “careers” but I had a couple of things fall in my lap so I’ve turned the vacation into a work-cation and I’ll end up writing for 25 or 30 hours total before Sunday ends.
What makes this state of affairs bearable is that it is entirely voluntary. At any moment, I can quit writing and just become a cubicle bee like everyone else. It would mean an end to the supercars and the outrageous trips and the race weekends, but that’s very different from losing my home or not being able to feed my son. At the end of the day, I would still be a relatively healthy middle-aged man with 2,600 square feet in the suburbs, a Porsche in the garage, and the ability to eat dinner at a steakhouse without kiting a check. Most importantly, I have a home. I think of it as mine and in truth every year it becomes closer to being entirely mine. I am free to do what I want in it: leave towels on the floor, walk the halls at night, crank up a 100-watt guitar amp and noodle until the paintings on the wall sympathetically shiver.
This quaint notion, of having one’s own home where one is free to retreat from and forget about work entirely, is apparently just too unproductive to survive.
The Guardian is about ninety-five percent trash in my opinion but every once in a while it comes up with something worth reading. This is one of those things, and it is sobering to contemplate. The piece is about WeWork, the fucking nightmare dystopian company that is attempting to remove all possible barriers between life and work. Their dream is for you to “always be working or semi-working”, like the Amazon employees who are expected to answer emails from their bosses at midnight and make sure that their family trips never stray from the instant availability of an OC-48 connection. Their newest project is WeLive, which will ensure that you, the tech worker of the future, live in a company town where you own nothing that won’t fit in a duffle bag and where you are always ready to increase shareholder value. What truly bothers me is the scenario at the end of the piece, the one that inspired the art that heads this story:
The company has recently spawned an educational offshoot called WeGrow (so far focused on a private elementary school in New York) that teaches kids a range of skills including mindfulness and “conscious entrepreneurship”. But the idea is apparently to put WeGrow schools in WeWork properties across the world, so digital nomads can carry their disorientated offspring from place to place, and ensure they have just as flimsy an idea of home as their parents do.
Not for the first time, you may well read this stuff and wonder: whose utopia is this?
The answer to that question is obvious: it’s the utopia of the investor class. One of the many delightful and insightful turns of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix is the concept of “The Investors”, vaguely saurian aliens who travel between spacefaring species engaging in trade that is often breathtakingly one-sided. The reader soon finds out that they are entirely motivated by greed and will do nearly anything, including eating their own children, to satisfy that greed. The kicker is that the Investors are already effectively immortal and in possession of technology so advanced that they can’t sell it to anybody because there are no races left alive with the capability to understand and operate it. Their relentless pursuit of profit has made them one-dimensional and miserable.
How much like them our own Investors are, the reptilian hedge-fund managers and globalist ubermenschen who have more money than they could reasonably spend in a dozen lifetimes but who are perpetually engaged in the search for more. Their greed is immeasurable; they long ago ceased being satisfied with a favorable rate on return, preferring instead to scorch the earth in search of “hundred-baggers” that will add a further zero to their net worth. It is universally understood that the “100-bagger” must exist on the back of the 10x programmer, the JWZ who will give himself carpal tunnel to make you rich and take just a tiny share of the profits in return.
Basically, the purpose of the WeWork/WeLive/WeGrow ecology is to fast-burn the utility out of 10x programmers (and everyone else) before depositing them safely back in the unemployment line once they have carpal tunnel and psychological issues and children and Type II diabetes. It is Logan’s Run without all the fucking and Brave New World without the soma. And the best part is that you leave with nothing. You work 80 hours a week to pay for hideously inflated housing and “time-saving” devices and a constant stream of corporate media. You build no equity, plant no seeds, harvest no crops, receive no joy. Your rewards will be a chance to eat at expensive restaurants. The photos will go on Instagram and the rest of it will be deposited in a WeWork toilet during a break from pair programming that is not to last over eight minutes lest people think you’ve stopped caring about the burn-down rate of the current two-week Agile sprint.
It’s company towns all the way down. One in a thousand will get lucky and have a piece of a hundred-bagger. A select few of them will be permitted to join the Investors. Everybody else can go back to Hicksville, Ohio and live off public assistance.
Are there alternatives? I can think of three. The first one is to work 100-hour weeks when everybody else is just working an 80-hour week. If you give the best years of your life to that regimen then you might wind up as something other than chattel in the future. The second one is to become a welder or a pipefitter and enjoy a traditional life in a place where it doesn’t cost $3500 a month for 500 square feet. The last one is for you and your friends to all pick up rifles and engage in a little old-fashioned redistribution of the means of production. The Investors are just as smart as I am so it’s no wonder they are working so hard to make the third option impossible. It remains to be seen how successful they will be. Who knows. It’s anybody’s game. WeRiot, WeRevolt, WeBurn, WeKill…