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“Co-Living” Spaces are a Glimpse into Our Dystopic Futures

Look what the contractor economy hath wrought.

Photo by Flickr user Warren Noronha.

Much like I prefer not to shit where I sleep, I prefer not to work where I live. One can imagine, then, the horror with which I learned about co-living spaces, an ungodly mutation of the co-working trend. Co-living places are spaces where you can shit and sleep in the same spot, so to speak. Among the examples highlighted by Tech In Asia is Nomad House, which promises “you will never be alone again,” somewhat ominously, and describes itself thusly:

“No more leases. No more coffeeshops. No more hostels. Nomad House is here, offering a housing solution for the Nomadic Revolution. Find a home/office in the best nomad destinations. Live and create with other digital nomads, and fuel your freedom! Now, home is where the Nomad House is.”

Look at all the fanciful language, painting a utopic vision for a disaffected generation hungry for optimism. You can’t afford rent anymore? Here, a better alternative: rent an office space you can sleep in. Co-living spaces are cheaper than most studio apartments in the urban metropolises—Nomad House’s Project Bali is $525 a month.

Bright-eyed idealists will liken these barren hellscapes to communes, but the two things are diametrically opposed. Communes are cooperative spaces, in which everyone’s labor is collectivized towards producing a safe, functional world. Co-living spaces, however, are borne of a broken economy in which people are alienated from the work they produce. The difference between communal living and co-living is the difference between sharing and renting.

Screencap from the Nomad House website.

Tech bros and neoliberals, in fact, call this the “sharing economy,” in an attempt to whitewash what is actually an unsustainable economic system that transforms everything—and everyone—into products that can be sold. A more accurate term would be the “contractor economy,” in which people are valued not as human but as units of time and labor. Because contractors are short-term workers, they’re often employed part-time and remotely, which means they sometimes don’t have physical offices. These contractors are tech workers, writers, designers, researchers, and artists; many of them have a graduate-level education. These people needed co-working spaces, because they were hungry for the human interaction they were deprived of when working day and night in their tiny New York studio apartments.

The great delusion of our modern lifestyles is the idea that we must love our jobs and that our work is just a leisure pursuit we get paid for. This ideological trick is what compels so many young aspiring laborers and recent graduates to take unpaid internships and poor starting salaries, even if they can’t afford it. This same trick is also what makes co-living spaces sound so much more appealing than they actually are. If you love what you do, you want to be the best at what you do, even if you don’t get paid the over-time hours to do it. And in order to compete with all the other people who love their jobs, you’re compelled to work around-the-clock and off the clock. It’s no longer just your time and effort that are commodified by the market, but your ambition and aspirations as well. Living where you work means there are no boundaries between labor and leisure, and that may be good for the market—but it’s not necessarily great for you.

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