Cube City

Reader Antonia draws our attention to this news item in the Guardian:

Welcome to cube city. Xu Weiping, a Chinese multimillionaire, has a vision for the future of office work in the post-Covid-19 pandemic world: thousands of office pods where each person works in their own self-contained 3m x 3m cube.

Xu reckons the coronavirus pandemic will have such a fundamental impact on the way people work that he is converting 20 newly constructed office buildings in east London into 2,000 of the individual cube offices.


Still, as I hinted before, three-metre by three-metre is a far bigger cube than I ever had when I worked in an office. I started out with a desk that was perhaps 1.5m wide; I would not have been able to touch the shoulder of a co-worker but we would have been able to touch fingertips with ease. Management then moved us to a tighter working area in which the desktop was a meter wide at most (perhaps 85cm) and we would have been able to touch each other’s shoulders with ease. So in a way, Cube City would have been preferable to Concrete Island (the name I give to my old workplace in The Good Life for Wage Slaves).

For all the ingenuity and spacial generosity of Xu Weiping’s human battery farm, the thought remains: why bother? Why go to the effort to put shoes on and squelch yourself onto a packed Tube carriage to reach a place in the isolated docklands that boasts such fabulous features as “a kettle, fridge, microwave, videoscreen and fold-down bed as well as a chair and desk.” I mean, just stay at home. Got distracting kids or dogs or something? Even some really swanky noise-cancelling headphones won’t set you back as much as cube tenancy and a commuter pass.

I’m writing this from our dining table in case you’re wondering. I’m wearing slippers. Freak Zone plays quietly on the radio while my partner draws in pencils on her £20 LED drawing board. It’s lovely.

The Good Life for Wage Slaves is out now in deluxe paperback format and e-book.

UBI Improves Everything

New Scientist (one of the namesakes of New Escapologist!) reports that:

the world’s most robust study of universal basic income has concluded that it boosts recipients’ mental and financial well-being, as well as modestly improving employment.

That is can improve mental wellbeing should almost be a foregone conclusion, though obviously these things need to be tested (which is what has just happened in Finland) if we ever want to roll it out and base a society on it. It shouldn’t seem far removed from reality that some forms of depression and anxiety can be salved by having an economic safety net; that not being able to sell enough units or to clock enough hours could result in destitution.

What is interesting is how employment rates slightly improve under conditions of UBI. It demonstrates the hunch that generous-minded (rather than conservative) people have that humans still want to do things once their basic needs are met. No longer being economically bullied into work doesn’t necessarily lead to stagnancy.

The Good Life for Wage Slaves is out now in deluxe paperback format and e-book.

The Most Toys

I found myself thinking today about the saying, “he who dies with the most toys wins.”

It can’t ever have been anything other than a joke, can it? That the word is “toys” rather than “treasures” suggests a wry sentiment.

Imagine believing in it at face value though. To die with the most toys! The most junk. To finish one’s life with the largest possible number of complicated material things with moving parts that had to be made under duress by other people using finite materials torn from the living Earth.

To die in a state in which your relatives will need to spend months or longer poring over it all, assessing each “toy” and arguing over it all, when they could be living their lives.

And then I remembered that I’ve written about all this before, albeit without quoting “the most toys.” As you were.

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What is Freedom Today?

The highest form of freedom is love. Here, I’m a pathetic old romantic.

What is freedom today? Or more specifically: what was freedom in 2014?

Here’s professional cleverclogs Slavoj Žižek answer to the question.

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A Cubier Cube

Against all odds, working from home [has been] more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity [levels] increased during the first two months of lockdown.

“Against all odds” indeed. Bloody hell. As if the mandatory attendance of an open-plan Hell is the only conceivable way of getting things done on the road to fulfillment and is not, as the case may be, its single biggest obstruction.

The article is admirably about the quest for other ways of working though, and how offices might be redesigned in the future to be happier and more pleasant places.

It goes into the story of Bob Probst, whom I mentioned in Escape Everything! as the de-facto inventor of the office cubicle. He invented it as modular “systems furniture” and now sees the classic “veal fattening pen” as an abuse of his system.

What I wanted to mention though, is how the photograph used to illustrate the piece (a) looks sort-of like a miniature rather than a real place, or is that my imagination?; and (b) looks oddly preferable to the offices I have known even though it’s clearly supposed to illustrate the worst excesses of dystopian workplace architecture.

Weirdly, what I like about it are those privacy dividers (splash boards?) between work spaces: actual cubicle walls. We didn’t have those in our office, so we just had to dwell in each other’s personal head space all day, trying not to read each other’s minds and unable to pick our noses. It was exhausting. Yes, I might have actually preferred a cubier cube to the one I had. Weird!

Obviously, I’d rather be at home though. Or in a library. Or on a beach. Or just impaled on a spike.

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I’d been thinking about the expression “to live on one’s wits” and its connection to “being witty.”

Here, I talk about living freely and ethically and tactically. There, I tell humorously-intended stories. Is there an overlap contained in the word “wit”?

Just as I was having these thoughts, clever old friend Unclef gave me a book called Wit’s End: what wit is, how it works, and why we need it by James Geary. It’s a good book. Playful, brief and smart.

Its most important contribution to solving my wit-based question is the phrase “improvisational thinking.” That’s it! That is what connects ha-ha wit with living on one’s wits. Both are direct expressions of improvisational thinking.

But this paragraph explains it neatly too:

forms of wit other than the pun [can be] understood as compressed detective stories. I’m thinking in particular of people who “live by their wits,” as the saying goes. Inventors, scientists,and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.

Finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, by jove. Geary goes on to tell the stories of some of those scientists and inventors by way of illustration, but it’s also what Escapologists do every single day just by going about our general business. Improvisational thinking is at once the alternative to the rat race and the swiss army lock pick (if there could ever be such a thing) required to escape it.

It’s what they don’t teach you in school because they can’t teach it in school even if they wanted to. It’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated through unusual experience and by thinking constantly about the world and its mechanisms: “Why isn’t X like so? Can Y function better upside-down? Can I live this way instead of that way? Do I need as much money to do Z as they tell me?”

It’s the essence of an Escapological mindset or outlook. Things like minimalism, finding clever backdoor ways of doing exactly what you want to do (rather than what other people think you should do), and “building muscles of resistance” (see Escape Everything!) by not watching television are all ways of using or honing one’s improvisational thinking, one’s wits.

I’m happy to report that I say this in relation to minimalism in The Good Life for Wage Slaves so this isn’t a total epiphany, but I wish I’d made a little more of it because it’s so important.

I think I knew it all along: have I not said many times that our practice is “Escapology” because it comes with a sense of humour and theatrical aplomb? But the Wit’s End book really homes in on that truth.

Another useful point concerning the Escapological mindset (which comes from the same chapter of Geary’s book) is:

Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate–you either have it or you don’t–or whether it might not in some form be nurtured and cultivated. Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.

He means that, abroad, everything is different and a certain “cognitive flexibility” is required (and is developed) at all times. It keeps you on your toes, which is useful. So live abroad! Or do the sort of things that might have similar effect on your brain to living abroad: walk through streets that you don’t need to walk through, read a different sort of book, write one, talk to different sorts of people, learn another language.

Cognitive flexibility and improvisational thinking, kids. It’s what’s for dinner.

I haven’t mentioned Patreon in a while, have I? I have a series of posts over there called “Running Man” (now in its sixth installment). It’s essentially all about living on your wits. Chip in at Patreon if you’d like to read it. There are other items to see there too, including older essays and the brand new “Hypocrite Minimalist” show-and-tell series.

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