Floating in the Air

The death of place is greatly exaggerated

The other day, I saw this thread on Twitter from Airbnb’s “Co-founder, CEO, Head of Community,” according to his bio.

A couple more tweets from the thread:

He elaborates on this, but this is the gist of it.

Now, obviously, an Airbnb executive has incentives to build a narrative that in the future people will live and work anywhere. The company is determining, based supposedly on internal data, that there is in fact a market for “digital nomads” to more or less live on the road. If you don’t have rent or a mortgage, it might pencil out to live in a series of Airbnbs around the country, whenever and wherever you want. Certainly many people have tried something like this—a sort of working vacation—during the pandemic.

But it strikes me as incredibly narrow and myopic to think that an office is or was the only, or even primary, thing tethering people to their communities or homes. It’s as if families with kids don’t exist. Or with pets. Or with a parent they look after, or want to see often. Or a church they attend. Or…any of the dozens of things that might “tether” someone to a specific place. (It also seems to assume a level of job security that doesn’t obtain in the United States.)

I don’t think you need to a Catholic traditionalist to see that this narrative more or less excludes kids, as well as any real social or community ties. It’s kind of ideological, starting with the fiction that people are just floating individuals for whom commitments and responsibilities are entirely matters of choice. Life just isn’t like this for most people. I guess I’m channeling Chris Arnade here, who argues, rightly, that lots of ordinary people like where they live because it’s their home, and that’s all there is to it. People who find that weird might be the weird ones.

This is a little bit like the online controversy over milk prices from a couple of weeks ago, where a Fox News panelist was roundly mocked for arguing that when you’re buying 12 gallons of milk a week, the cost increases add up. I saw lots of lefties making fun of this, and lots of right-leaning Catholics with big families pointing to the fairly large number of milk gallons they buy. Maybe not 12, but that wasn’t really the point. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of expert opinion out there is based on an assumption of a level of autonomy and individualism that a lot of people do not enjoy, or even want. You can see this parent/non-parent divide with school issues and COVID, too—which was probably a much bigger factor in the Virginia gubernatorial election than “CRT.”

Now I say this all as someone who very much favors the shift towards remote work arrangements, for jobs where it’s feasible. Obviously some jobs benefit from in-person collaboration, and some, like trucking or retail, are synonymous with showing up in person. But for jobs that take place on the internet, and which have a relatively narrow or non-collaborative scope, there’s no real reason to go to an office. Nor is there a reason for corporate to pay commercial rent, buy desks and chairs and fancy computers and office electronics, etc. Bosses might have tended towards feeling that keeping an eye on everyone maximized profits and productivity. Now they have a year and a half of productivity data, plus the possibility of shaving a lot of physical office costs, to weigh against that old intuition.

There’s an interesting dynamic going on here—before COVID, most debate over remote work was between employees and management. Now, there are lots of forces in the business world itself invested in permanent remote work—Airbnb, Zoom, Amazon, etc. So the argument is now between industries, not just within companies.

But all of this has little to do with suddenly living on the road. I’m curious to see how it shakes out, but I won’t be watching it on a laptop in a rental between Tucson and Kansas City.

Related Reading:

Third Place at the Drive-Thru

Northern Virginia Is a Real Place

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