The Futuristic World of No Outdoors

A potential trend keeping us all just a little bit closer to our hamster wheels is underway. The global business incubator WeWork plans to include both living and working spaces in the same edifice. Only time will tell whether it brings people closer together or drives them farther apart.

Outdoor paint job will be iridescent

Outdoor paint job will be iridescent

On July 19, 2014, the Arlington County Board approved the original plan to construct just WeLive—a shared living space series of studio apartments. In February of 2015, Vornado the parent company of both WeLive and WeWork, opened the project to incorporate space to work and sleep in the same building.

On paper, it’s a great idea—ultimate community. WeWork is famous for putting excited like-minded bright people in the same building. They share copiers, printers, etc., and form true working networks and long-term communities. The idea behind WeLive is the same—share common areas and commercial-grade kitchens for a shared living experience. It seems kind of like an upscale version of your dorm or fraternity—years I remember (blurrily) with fondness.

However, that also means that many people may be living and working in the same building. There are also restaurants, a convenience stores and several other amenities. It’s advertised as a world in a bubble: you won’t need to leave the building for your daily routine. That sounds super convenient. However, I’m concerned that the largest group of entrepreneurs—techies—will never see the light of day again. And some of them are probably excited about the prospect.

Itty-bitty living space at a premium

Itty-bitty living space at a premium

I understand that people don’t like commuting. I also hate when people sneeze on me, the metro seats aren’t comfortable and sometimes it’s just too plain sweaty. And I certainly can’t imagine the self-loathing of being stuck in traffic after a long day of work. That said, there’s something to be said about not living exactly where you work.

I’ve had extensive conversations with colleagues of mine—none but the bravest would choose to live close the office. If you take a day off and go down the street for a morning coffee in your Hello Kitty slippers, you’re bound to see half your division. And can you imagine a walk of shame that’s potentially surveilled by your co-workers? And what happens when I want to stand on the back porch in just boxers? Embarrassing hath no name.

To avoid these, and so many other issues, most people—at least these days—decide not to live where they work.

2221 S. Clark St. as it is today

2221 S. Clark St. as it is today

The alternative side to this story is that the WeLive-WeWork movement is bringing back community. In previous generations people actually did live where they worked. Shop-owners lived above their shops. Businessmen had what we would call satellite offices off the foyer of their homes. And even farmers lived in farming communities.

This live-space/work-space paradigm created community. Today we’re worried about shitting where you play. When there’s a real community and everyone knows you, your momma and your grandmammy, you can’t shit where you play. Period. You’d be ostracized.

But to us sophisticated urbanites, that all just seems like a quaint bygone era, now…

That said, this is no butcher’s shop ideal. In times past, everyone mingled in common areas, the shops, the square, rich or poor. Sure the elite had their clubs and their parties, but they had to run into people unlike themselves.

My concern with mixing these business incubators (work) with, well… human incubators (home), is that people subscribing to the lifestyle will never see outside of their circle of creative, enthusiastic, smart and up-and-coming entrepreneurs: the riche nouveau in the making. Many of them will shortly be successful and wealthy, and could potentially forget the rest of the world exists. The club is already an exclusive one… does it need any further encouragement?

WeLive shared kitchen

WeLive shared kitchen

From a more simplistic viewpoint, shouldn’t these nerds be the ones we encourage to get outside? Think about who the people are that will be renting there. They’re going to be the ones who obsess over their work, the ones who can’t be away from it. Frankly, they’re more likely to be the nerds who are afraid of the world—or find it superfluous, save the daily trip to Starbucks. With Amazon, Peapod and other online services, there is essentially no reason to leave if you don’t enjoy seeing other people. The “commute” is the last vestige modern humans have of exposure to the balance of humanity.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of introversion in every one of us. But by now, most of us fight that urge to run ourselves into the ground by stepping outside the office (maybe even leaving your work at work for a change!) and transforming yourself by occupying a new (preferably outdoor) space. But if I never left my office, I know I would never stop working. It would be the constant state. I would be Work Man—capable of out-nerding ComiCon, scaring girls off with a series of pre-pubescently awkward and increasingly de-socialized comments, but a true and utter wonk of wonks.

So, is this what we really need? Should we really be encouraging people to stay indoors even more? Or is this the new way of forcing community onto people that may otherwise eschew it? While it’s not my idea of a home, much less the lifestyle I would want to lead, the idea may be more beneficial than I’m giving it credit for.

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