How Silicon Valley helps spread the same sterile aesthetic across the world
Igor Schwarzmann is the German co-founder of Third Wave, a strategy consultancy based in Berlin that works with small-scale industrial manufacturers. The company’s clients range across Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, so Schwarzmann often finds himself moving between poles of the global economy. While traveling, he turns to Foursquare for recommendations about where to eat and drink. "It knows what I like," he says. Every time Schwarzmann alights in a foreign city he checks the app, which lists food, nightlife, and entertainment recommendations with the help of a social network-augmented algorithm. Then he heads toward the nearest suggested cafe. But over the past few years, something strange has happened. "Every coffee place looks the same," Schwarzmann says. The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.
It’s easy to see how social media shapes our interactions on the internet, through web browsers, feeds, and apps. Yet technology is also shaping the physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave in areas of our lives that didn’t heretofore seem so digital. Think of the traffic app Waze rerouting cars in Los Angeles and disrupting otherwise quiet neighborhoods; Airbnb parachuting groups of international tourists into residential communities; Instagram spreading IRL lifestyle memes; or Foursquare sending traveling businessmen to the same cafe over and over again.
We could call this strange geography created by technology "AirSpace." It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.
As the geography of AirSpace spreads, so does a certain sameness. Schwarzmann’s cafe phenomenon recalls what the architect Rem Koolhaas noticed in his prophetic essay "The Generic City," from the 1995 book S,M,L,XL: "Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport—‘all the same’?" he asks. "What if this seemingly accidental—and usually regretted—homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?"
Yet AirSpace is now less theory than reality. The interchangeability, ceaseless movement, and symbolic blankness that was once the hallmark of hotels and airports, qualities that led the French anthropologist Marc Augé to define them in 1992 as "non-places," has leaked into the rest of life.
In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. "I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes," she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called "Modern Life Space." But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. "The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity," Schwulst says. "But so many of them were similar," whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.
There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. "It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms," she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. "It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too," Schwulst says.
Airbnb’s advertising dwells in this paradox. A 2014 spot appropriates the nauseous, dissociative glamour of Lost in Translation’s Tokyo tourism in a series of shots out of various windows, looking into the foreign from a safe distance. In April of this year, another spot parodied tourist behavior — selfie sticks, Segway tours — and set it against the "authentic" activities — falling asleep on the couch reading a book or watching your child build a pillow fort — enabled by a stay with one of the platform’s hosts. It offered a vision of possessiveness, in which visitors consume recognizable symbols rather than encountering unfamiliar ones: "The local coffee shop is yours, too."