Among the many things I miss about the ex-girlfriend is her Airbnb karma. I have very little, and that bit me in the arse on Monday night when I arrived in London. I picked up the keys for what looked like a lovely apartment near Victoria Station, took a short taxi ride to the building, and then tried to get in. It was 11pm. The key did not work.
I texted the girl who had given me the key, but she was already asleep, I suppose. I fiddled with the lock for half an hour before giving up and getting a hotel room around the corner. This would not have happened to the ex-girlfriend. She would get in easily, discover freshly baked croissants on the counter, a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, and she’d settle in for a well-deserved bath. I climbed into a nice but soulless hotel bed around 12:30am and went to sleep.
I’m staying in Kensington, which is unusual for me – most of my time in London has revolved around either legal offices in the City or bank office towers at Canary Wharf, and I’ve oriented myself as a result on the eastern side of town. Hackney, Greenwich, Whitechapel are more what I’m used to, with that strange mix of curry shops, wholesale garment merchants, and hipster encroachment that the east brings with it. This western bit of town is more… well, I suppose it plays the central casting part of London a bit better. Westminster’s endless rows of white-columned townhouses converted to tourist hotels, consular offices, and bad Italian restaurants are what most tourists think of when they imagine London, although I find it all a bit sterile. There are too many backpackers and bucket list travelers lurking about. You feel like a foreigner because the environment is too tailored for tourists to any longer have a lived sense of locality. The unreality of Canary Wharf is in its sterile corporate perfection; the unreality of Westminster is the polish done up for a guest who needs to have her mental picture of Paddington Bear and Princess Diana’s London become realized in brick and stone.
To make it stranger, I’m working on a project for a new company whose offices are in a co-working space. Like a lot of these spaces, it’s in a series of interconnected large converted buildings, lots of exposed brick and slanty hardwood floors, with rent-a-desk spaces for freelancers and internet startups. The building just opened – the company is one of its first tenants although it seems already quite full, packed with millenials in skinny jeans and suede shoes and their slightly older investors who wear blazers but otherwise try to copy the look. There is free coffee from extremely expensive automatic espresso machines throughout. A lot of couches and eclectically placed yet still strangely generic corporate modernist upholstered chairs. Along the windows are large rooms with long movable desks and Mac laptops and very serious yet scruffy looking people buried in their screens.
It’s a strange contrast to prior working visits to London. Startups are odd beasts; their ability to attract talent is almost random, dependent on connections and low level recruitment agencies. The mix of talent is therefore much more diverse than what I became accustomed to in global banking: you don’t have the substrate of shockingly ambitious and driven low and mid level employees that are constantly trying to justify their existence by creating excess work product. The workers in the converted brewery space look intent, but then when you actually look at their laptop screens, most are surfing the internet – possibly for work, but possibly not. Only a few have a code compiler or Excel up. They are no less intelligent than the staff I’ve worked with in banking, but they are different. I’m finding their lack of external ambition refreshing, but also it does strike me as a lack after being in high finance for so long – really it’s probably just a bit more humanity, a bit more willingness to simply not work so much that you lose your sanity.
Having dinner with a friend last night, the topic of valuation came up, and how capitalism drives us relentlessly towards placing a value on everything. I described how someone had kept a tally of how much I had cost them, in terms of time away from their daily consulting rate, and how odd I had found it that the conversion of presence to monetary value had seemed so easy to them. It’s a bit silly to criticize, of course, as we all trade our time for money in our role as salary earners – even if we aren’t paid explicitly by function of our time, we still trade our time for money, each of us carefully trying to maximize value. Or at least, that’s what we’re told to do. We all are constantly making an internal market for our time, determining what time to keep for ourselves (or at least, keep off the external market) given what we will get paid for the time we do offer up for exchange. The person who was looking at my cost to her was acting rationally, albeit a bit coldly in viewing her time with me as fungible with time spent earning money in a bank. The real confusion, though, was in the fact that she was engaging in an exchange transaction, while I didn’t realize I had entered the marketplace at all.
Last night, my friend pointed out that the pressure of the market had become so all-consuming that our only real act of protest was to withdraw from the market altogether in some way. We can’t do this entirely – we have probably lost the ability to go totally off-grid, Robinson Crusoe or Zebulon Pike style – but his point was that we can choose to make certain goods of ourselves not priced, not subject to exchange at all. I think that’s a very simple yet modernist way of describing what it is to truly love: we give ourselves, ideally all of ourselves, for no price, for free. Of course we are looking for something in return – all of our lover’s presence, access to all of who they are – but the act of loving is to give all of yourself without expectation that anything will be returned. It is not an exchange transaction, in other words: while of course we desire to find a kind of correspondence of one to another, it’s not the point of giving yourself to the experience of loving another. There is no point.
I think, though, that we’re pressured relentlessly by the overpresence of the market to translate these untradeable goods – the most untradeable being our self, the meaning of what it is to be one’s own person – into market exchange terms. The market isn’t necessarily trading in specie – many of our markets trade in kind, including our often unconscious participation in the great new market of our age, the market for our data. I’m not a social media fan partially because of my inability to have visibility into what the actual value of “me”, my data, actually is – and how can I exchange for something approaching correct value if that market pricing is hidden? The trader in me balks at the idea of saying “done” without appropriate valuation.
The endless privacy update emails all of us have been getting in the wake of the EU’s adoption of a stringent personal data protection regulation has only served to remind me of just how often we give up information in return for internet services. We often don’t have a real choice – or the choice is to be able to use some whiz-bang new application that will make our travel or finances or movie viewing or navigation easier, or to not have access to it at all. If enough people decide that they’ll pay for their access with their data, the networking effects of new applications accelerates and puts more pressure on those of us outside the network to join up. Eventually you may be denied access to things you used to be able to access offline – say, the distribution list for the Wednesday night golf league at my local course, once subject to a phone sign-up list at the pro shop but now its own personality on social media – unless you acquire a Facebook account and give up your data to Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s been interesting to talk with people about this dynamic; many people don’t think through the fact that they are getting something of value when they use various internet sites and therefore they must be giving something of value in return. I think part of the veil here is the fact that in the early days of the internet (aren’t we still there?), the “transactions” didn’t feel as such – it seemed like we were all playing, like the internet was just a marvelous new toy and we were all sharing in it together. It felt, in other words, much more like the consequenceless exploration that we offer to one another in love, even though it never really was such a thing. But enough of us got fooled, and that enough produced the network effects than enabled Facebook and Google to acquire the data that makes them valuable today. And as we slowly lift that veil and see the true nature of the relationship – deterministic, transactional, instrumentalist to the core – some of us are shocked, some of us are disillusioned, and some of us are reassured that our cynical view of the instrumental nature of modern society has been proven to be true.
There is a shock, though, to finding yourself in a situation where you’ve offered up your self without exchange implications but the other party entered a marketplace. The infection of even our non-instrumental language with the phrases and norms of trading masks the language clues that might reveal the disconnect, but not forever – at some point the edge of the trader emerges, contrasting their sense of acquisition and relative valuation with the lover’s intentional inability to translate their nature into any language of value whatsoever. It’s more than intention at that point that’s different; language fails because the one who loves, who can step back from instrumentality, has to fall back on gesture, on body language and facial expression, to indicate their confusion. There is an untranslatable divide between object-driven language and object-less expression, and at some point, the mismatched pair will find that barrier and crash into it. Hopefully the crash will dissolve the barrier, but I think more often it’s just a mess.
Indeed, that’s what’s happening today, or at least over the past few weeks before school shootings and Eurozone issues crowded the headlines, as internet executives got hauled before Congress and Parliament and the European Commission. The look of utter incomprehension on their faces as they attempt to answer fairly innocent questions (albeit delivered a bit brusquely) from the politicians – who in this rare instance are actually representing the public incredibly well – speaks to this. The executives were always trying to get something for free, and they told us so in incomprehensibly long user acceptances and cookie agreements and the like. They thought we were all transacting. For them, the internet was not a mysterious ether, a new medium for exploration – it was simply another marketplace. The idea that we thought we were experiencing something akin to play, something akin to love, is absolutely insane to them. And normal people – who experience the new still through eyes capable of wonder, of open release to the new – can’t understand how a generation of robber barons could be so crass as to not see the innocent humanity of our playful dive into the new connected world online, and would choose to rip us off with such grim determination.
How do you remove something from the relentless logic of valuation? Is it through a declaration? Is it an ongoing negative practice of denial? And you can’t remove your self from being valued by others – their intentionality makes you capable of being valued externally, even if as an individual you choose to withhold yourself from being sold. There isn’t a way to change others’ intent when considering you as a self – if they choose a transactional path, they will follow it. If you resist, then at some point the conflict in intention and in approach will surface (assuming you do, in fact, interact on an ongoing basis with the transactionally oriented person). It can only be resolved when the two of you agree to an identical orientation – or else you cut yourself off.
Apropos to all of this, at dinner last night my friend and I remembered the first time I had visited in London almost 20 years ago. I was a punk, and the company I worked for had engineered a reverse takeover of the London asset management arm of a large bank – the London staff thought that, as legacy employees of the acquiring entity, they would be dominant, but the San Francisco asset manager they had purchased was bigger, more profitable, and importantly, run by brash and aggressive Americans. Like me – I was much more American back then, and younger, which to my philosophically minded friend meant I was probably the classic transactionally oriented schmuck. But over the course of a couple of weeks, it became apparent I wasn’t so much transactional as flexible: at work, in finance, there was no choice but to be transactional and I embraced it, but outside of work, I was a normal, non-instrumental person sometimes and a normal, instrumentally-oriented person at other times. And he wasn’t the closed, resistant Englishman I had been warned about before I traveled here; he opened up revealed his object-free self, both of us bemused as the guard on each side came down. As we got to know one another more and more, the non-instrumental side came to be revealed as us in our full actuality, and as our most essential actuality, and we came to be good friends.
We were both on guard – transactional – when we first met. I knew I was viewed as an ambitious derivatives trader and expected to be dealt with as such, so we embarked upon our relationship with shared intentionality – admittedly out of fear, but isn’t that at the root of instrumentality, the fear of being open about the full blast of our own complex and irresolvable and inexpressible selves? But we kept an eye out for something deeper. Maybe that’s the practice here: not so much a continual denial of ourselves from the market, but a continuing readiness to exit the language and intentions of the marketplace, and over time, a willingness to do so more and more, in a growing zone of private openness to enchantment.
In any event, the startup co-working space is bustling today. Lots of people in slightly better clothes with pitch books and offering memoranda. There’s a guy with a dog wearing a t-shirt saying “IPOs are so 2016”. Very few suits, no power dresses with heels, but a definable sense that there is a transaction in play somewhere in the building. Everyone very earnest – unusual for London, where the masks against fear are almost always graced with an ironic eye and a ready cackle – heads buried in laptops and sucking down attractive little clear glasses of espresso. I’m switching between a five year financial model and writing a new post – probably, actually, close to the work-non-work mix of everyone else here. I don’t know how I’ve done it, but I fit in here.
This western London exposed brick and glass space is not the Wharf. I’m here to make a bit of cash, to help out a worthwhile new venture, to explore a bit. It’s a new orientation for me in this city. Ultimately, though, my niche in London is in the quieter and cheaper bits. Oh well. Until I can restore my travel karma, I’ll be making do with south Kensington. At least I’m here on business.