In The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), Milo, the protagonist, is on a quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom where he learns that the world is not boring or dull, but full of interesting things. Along his journey he arrives at a house, with four doors on each side. Knocking on one of the doors, Milo meets the shortest giant, who directs him around to another door to meet the tallest midget, who sends him on again to the thinnest fat man, and finally to the fattest thin man. It is, of course, the same man opening all the doors.
This is how it’s starting to feel in the majority of first world, technologically advanced cities around the globe. Are we working remotely in a café? Or drinking a barista-brewed coffee at work? Is this business a creative technology company? Or a creative consultancy with technology at its heart? And if it’s all becoming one, if it’s the same man opening all the doors… who is he? And what does he want?
In a fantastic longread by Anna Wiener, entitled Uncanny Valley, the author describes being invited in to a Silicon Valley startup,
“It’s not clear whether I’m here for lunch or an interview… I am prepared for both and dressed for neither”, and later for a date, “It’s not clear whether we’re meeting for a date or networking. Not that there’s always a difference: I have one friend who found a job by swiping right and know countless others who go to industry conferences just to fuck — nothing gets them hard like a nonsmoking room charged to the company AmEx”.
Uncanny Valley presents our work/life balance with the dystopian malaise of Brett Easton Ellis, and it’s wholly recognisable.
Bleisure, a word coined by The Future Laboratory around 2010, is one of those words like ‘moist’ — sliding around the mouth when spoken and making you feel unsavoury. They used it to describe the blurring of our business lives and leisure lives due to a growing culture of being “always on”. In 2010 I didn’t disagree with them, but I struggled to imagine it developing beyond checking your email at home, and wanting to use an iPhone at work. Today, the bleisure trend is mass. It’s how a growing section of society lives, and for them, it’s a new cultural norm. What’s more, it’s aspirational — just look at those wantreprenuers, playing at start-ups in tiny cubicles around WeWork, thinking that just because they get to wear mutfy in the office, they are somehow “changing the game”. The man shows those folks in one door, and right out the other, with a large exchange of money in between.
So who is the man at the door? Well, of course, it’s The Man, just in a cooler t-shirt. At work The Man wants us to hang out, stay longer, eat more meals on the premises, and ultimately spend more time working. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, that’s’ how The Man rolls. But it’s The Man now showing up in our playgrounds that’s more sly. He has managed to make work a leisure trend, and then capitalize on it. Shoreditch House now has Soho Works. Dark Ace Hotel lobbies glow with screens. We wear athleisure wear at work and the gym. We need the wifi password in every godforsaken café, bar, pub, lounge and vehicle. All the places where we went for fun are now destinations for remote working. We’ve been sold on the idea that technology and a more empathetic corporate culture has unchained us from our desks. When really we’ve been sold out, and we bring our desks everywhere we go. Just read the product spec of any enterprise mobile and telephony solution, “access your corporate network via SSL from any location, such as home, an airport or hotel, an Internet kiosk or a mobile phone”. You can almost see where they included ‘toilet’ in that list, before thinking better of it. The implication being “keep working, or we’ll replace you with a robot”. Oh wait. They did.
So, as we go around the house, knocking on doors, what are we learning? Well, we’re unlearning Milo’s lesson that the world is full of interesting things. All work and no play is, indeed, making us dull boys and girls. What’s more, work that feels like play makes us crazy. If we no longer know whether we’re on a date or in an interview, or in a meeting or playing a game of ping pong, then it’s really no wonder that it’s easier just to scroll Instagram. And The Man? He’s cheers-ing his robot wife and laughing his head off.