“What Does ‘Co’ Mean in Coworking?”: Early Reflections on Fieldwork

By Thomas James Lodato

Before I officially began researching coworking spaces, I had already had exposure to what coworking spaces were. I had been to a few coworking spaces as part of research on issue-oriented hackathons. One space was near Gramercy Park on Park Avenue in Manhattan, another space was in Downtown Atlanta on Peachtree Street, and yet another was in Brooklyn, housed within an old pharmaceutical research building. At the time of that research, I did not pay much attention to these spaces as coworking spaces, but focused more on how these locations compared to other sites for hackathons. At the time, I noted that these spaces were set up with plenty of power plugs and a strong WiFi signal, as well as endless coffee, all of which were vital for hackathons to run smoothly. In these early instances, coworking spaces were a background for the activities I observed and participated in. In my current research, however, these environments have come to the foreground.

In very general terms, coworking spaces refer to a large category of short-term, privately-operated facilities that subdivide leased or owned space into smaller units. These facilities offer month-to-month memberships as well as day passes. The cost of entry is relatively low, and it priced to entice small and medium businesses, freelance and contract workers, remote employees, and other people operating with low overhead and in need of work space. While the activity of coworking often implies hot desking (non-exclusive desks or work areas that are occupied as needed), coworking spaces as an industry refer to a broader category of short-term sub-parceled office/work space. As such, coworking spaces frequently offer graduated memberships that include devoted desks and semi-private or private offices. Beyond space, members receive basic amenities with their membership, such as WiFi, printing services, coffee, and conference rooms, and can purchase additional amenities, such as mailboxes and storage. Where space and office amenities are the visible material of paid entry, coworking spaces offer many immaterial perks too.

coworking space in atlanta GA
Coworking Space in Atlanta, GA

Many spaces highlight that working in a diverse environment leads to new thinking and new opportunities. Membership, advocates and advertisements argue, buys one access to a community of like-minded people. This community is often expressed as the reason to join a coworking space. Some spaces have internal software applications to match members in search of investment, gigs, or colleagues, as well as offer a variety of programming, from Happy Hours to subject-matter panels, to encourage sociability. From these efforts, coworking spaces claim a collective identity (i.e. a community) through the many diverse workers housed within.

What initially interested me about coworking spaces was less that these were a global phenomenon (a recent survey reports there are close to 8,000 spaces worldwide with more than to 500,000 cumulative members) and more that the term coworking—particularly the co part of coworking—was confusing given what I did know. Clearly coworking in the context of coworking spaces does not refer to some traditional notion of a ‘co-worker.’ While other people may not get quite as confused or confounded by terms as I do, I have found confusion of this nature to be very productive.

Early on in my research, I scrawled a question on the board in my office “What does “co” mean exactly?” This question remained there, slowly gathering a cloud of words punctuated with question marks: Colocated? Collaborative? Cooperative? Collective? Communal? While “what does ‘co’ mean in coworking?” is not an answerable research question, it none-the-less marked the beginning of my research into this phenomenon.

The obvious answer was and is that co is just an English prefix, co- (kəʊ), that means:

    1. with : together : joint : jointly <coexist>
    2. in or to the same degree <coextensive>
    3. a:  one that is associated in an action with another :  fellow :  partner <coauthor>
      b:  having a usually lesser share in duty or responsibility :  alternate :  deputy <copilot>

Definition 3a seems the most fitting. Coworking spaces are spaces where people are “associated in an action with another,” i.e. as co(-)workers, engaged in working together with others, i.e. coworking.  While this might suffice to explain the name, such a definition seems to be but a gesture. Most people in coworking spaces do not work together as much as alongside one another, or, as Clay Spinuzzi (2012) coined, work alone together.

As the general description highlights, coworking spaces are not traditional office spaces. Typically the term ‘co-worker’ refers to people who work for the same company. To refer to someone as a co-worker indicates an association through a shared working arrangement, often mediated by a company or organization. In other words, coworker is often synonymous with colleague. However, very few of the people working in coworking spaces work for the same company, and so this traditional use of the term coworker is akin to referring to someone who shares a wall in a duplex as a roommate. While co-worker qua colleague might alternately mean working for or with a shared goal (i.e. collegiality), the working arrangements of coworking spaces offer very little of a shared goal beyond the general goal of, say, doing work and then going home. Instead, the term co-worker in these instances seems to indicate people working alongside one another, that is, colocated workers. However, co(located)working is a bad fit for other reasons.

Coworking spaces are more than the structural or infrastructural relationship amongst people in space. Coworking spaces have some sense of community (what Spinuzzi attributes, in passing, the co to in his article). From the outset of this research, I have been fascinated by mottoes and taglines for these spaces. For example, on the homepage for WeWork, a global chain of coworking spaces, is the tagline “Create Your Life’s Work.” This tagline refers to WeWork’s other common adage “Do What You Love,” embossed on their membership cards and flickering as a screensaver on the various monitors in their spaces. While these two platitudes are particular, other spaces (in fact, every space) has some form of this sentiment — work for yourself and strive to be better. Beyond being inspirational or aspirational, these mottoes and taglines of coworking spaces point to the ideological components of membership, that is, shared cultural norms. In the now months of active fieldwork, I have heard very little about the WiFi connectivity and a great deal about the social life of coworkers and the values of coworking. More than the paid transaction, true membership to coworking seems to be a cultural affiliation. This cultural membership is most apparent in mottoes like that of WeWork and quasi-transcendental comments like “coworking needs to be experienced to be understood,” a sentiment that frequents a popular coworking podcast. Referring to coworking spaces as simply colocated working overlooks coworking spaces as ideological spaces, and ignores the felt reality of those in these spaces producing and reproducing the culture they created (and happen to pay for).

posters in coworking office space in Athens GA
Posters in a Coworking Office Space in Athens, GA

As these snippets of early research illustrate, understanding coworking spaces is more complicated than answering what co means in a grammatical sense. Maybe this is most represented by my own shift in spelling the word co-working to coworking. While I certainly would rather type without a hyphen (it is fewer key strokes in a very long writing project), the change is not stylistic or practical. Instead, in surveying coworking sites, I found that coworking (no hyphen) is the preferred spelling. (There is even a site devoted to correcting the misspelling: http://doescoworkinghaveahyphen.com)  As such, this spelling is an internal assertion that coworking is not a portmanteau, but something unique in-and-of itself.

For the time being and as I continue doing fieldwork, I need to add coworking with no hyphen to my computer’s dictionary.

dictionary

The Legacy of MLK Today: Activism Across Generations

By Todd M. Michney

MLK pulling up cross 1960

The observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in Atlanta – the hometown and final resting place of the country’s best-known African American civil rights leader – offers both an opportunity to reflect and a call to revisit Dr. King’s life and work, amidst a recent upsurge in activism and polarized political debates that point up the persistence of racial inequality.  Considering the claims on his legacy from across the political spectrum, as well as our often selective memory regarding the more controversial stands he took during his lifetime – most importantly his opposition to the Vietnam War and his increasingly insistent calls for economic justice – contemporary commentators explore King’s misconstrued and potentially radical significance.  At Georgia Tech, noted journalist and thought leader Jeff Johnson, this year’s keynote speaker at the Institute Diversity lecture, reminded the audience that Dr. King often spoke uncomfortable truths, asserting that the Dream he articulated at the 1963 March on Washington surely would have evolved with the times.

One effect of our conflicting claims on Dr. King’s historical significance – and that of other activist icons, notably Rosa Parks, as well as of the civil rights movement more generally – is a lack of agreement on how the current mobilizations around mass incarceration and the use of excessive force by police, coalescing as #BlackLivesMatter, relate to the freedom struggles of an earlier era.  “This is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement,” one local activist recently stated. “We’re not waiting for someone in a suit to come save us.”

While some observers and a forthcoming study seemingly reinforce this categorical distinction – in particular, that the innovative use of social media and the significant impact of LGBTQIA awareness and mobilization distinguish today’s activism from that of an earlier era – this assessment is in fact reminiscent of similar divisions along generational and class lines within African American communities as they fought for change during the 1960s.  Other contemporary young activists have embraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK, and a current exhibit at the Atlanta University Center likewise emphasizes the importance of intergenerational collaboration and continuity in student activism.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in Atlanta, GA, in November 1967. The photograph was taken by renowned Leica Camera photographer, Benedict J. Fernandez. Leica Camera, Inc., is currently supporting Countdown To Eternity, a national photo exhibition providing an inspirational view of the famed civil rights leader through the photographs of Fernandez. (PRNewsFoto) Original Filename: LEICA_CAMERA___DR._MARTIN_LUTHER_KING_JR._PRN4.jpg
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in Atlanta, GA, in November 1967. Photo Source: Benedict J. Fernandez

In her award-winning history of Atlanta’s civil rights movement, Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin recounts the fractious struggle to desegregate the “City Too Busy to Hate,” and reminds us of Dr. King’s place at the forefront of several youth-led protests of the time.  The city’s pre-1960s tradition of a biracial coalition – black and white business leaders who negotiated compromises behind closed doors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. – discouraged high-profile tactics like the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and sit-ins pioneered by African American student protesters beginning in 1960.  And while King, Jr. established his organizational headquarters and maintained a residence in Atlanta, he was actually less prominent in his hometown than on the national stage, partially due to disapproval from the city’s biracial leadership.  King was arrested for the first time in the 1960-61 student-led sit-ins to integrate Rich’s Department store, marking his shift to a more confrontational form of nonviolent protest in choosing “jail over bail.”  In 1963, he admonished Atlanta for falling behind other southern cities including Greensboro, Charlotte, and Nashville in desegregating schools and businesses.  In 1966, Dr. King raised awareness of poor housing conditions in Atlanta through his endorsement of a controversial campaign by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize residents in Vine City, and also described a riot in the Summerhill neighborhood later that year as the “desperate language of the unheard.” [1]

While Dr. King’s most vocal challenges to the status quo came in the 1965 Selma voting rights march and his 1968 declaration of a “Poor People’s Campaign,” some of his earliest speeches also reveal striking resonances for the troubles of our own time, and our own promises for tomorrow.  In “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” an April 1957 address held at a Freedom Rally sponsored by the Citizens Committee of Greater St. Louis, MLK, Jr. attempted to chart a course between the “extreme optimism” equivalent to today’s now-discredited declarations of a “post-racial” America following President Barack Obama’s election, and the “extreme pessimism” that we can also find in the conservative backlash against present-day protest movements like #BlackLivesMatter.  His description of an “uneasy peace” premised on black subordination, and his conclusion that “peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice,” is a clear parallel to the “No Justice, No Peace” slogan popularized by activists from the 1990s to the present day.  In his 1957 speech, King looked unflinchingly back to a history of oppression and exploitation dating to 1619, despite several favorable Supreme Court rulings and the just-concluded Montgomery boycott; his mention of persistent disparities in black-white earnings also marks a clear parallel to the current racial wealth gap.  Even his mention of “the Negro’s . . . determination to struggle, suffer, sacrifice, and even die if necessary until the walls of segregation crumble” should not be read in the context of his own martyrdom, but rather in the broader historical sweep of action against oppression, his words referencing the militant “New Negro” turn of African American protest in the World War I era, perhaps best embodied by Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” written in response to the 1919 race riots targeting black communities.

Considering the wealth of local archival holdings documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, we may gain further nuanced insights about his life philosophy, his activism, and the resonance of both in our history, present, and future.  In the meantime, the passionate mobilization of a new generation continues to challenge the status quo here in Atlanta and beyond.  On this thirty-year anniversary of the MLK Holiday, we would do well not only to revisit his legacy but to embody how his words mirror and inspire the work we do today, as we strive toward true racial equality.

 

[1] Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 143-44, 153, 159, 230, 269, 279, 307.  See also Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 180-204.

“Effectiveness through computerization”

By Taylor Shelton

Around the country and around the world, municipal governments are turning to new technologies in order to solve a range of problems facing contemporary cities. From the futuristic control room created by IBM at the Rio Operations Center to the bevy of apps created by Code for America fellows around the US, these technological solutions are seen as ways to make urban management more efficient and effective in an era where cities are simultaneously faced with booming populations, global climate change and austerity programs.

But the idea that technology can change the way government operates isn’t new. Work like historian Jennifer Light’s From Warfare to Welfare demonstrates how these ideas took hold in an earlier era, when the technology-centric mindset of the American defense industry began to be imported into the realm of American urban planning in places like New York City through institutions like the RAND Corporation. Similar processes were happening all over the country, even in Atlanta.

While browsing some of the archival documents available online through the Georgia State University Libraries’ Planning Atlanta collection, I happened to come across the 1972 Annual Report of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. A summary of some of the county government’s most important (though still fairly mundane) initiatives for the year, three pages stood out towards the end of the report under the heading “Effectiveness through computerization”.

IBM2401

Featuring large pictures of both an IBM 2401 magnetic tape storage unit and an IBM System/360 mainframe computer, these pages extolled the benefits of new computational technologies for the functioning of the Fulton County government. Interestingly enough, however, these benefits were largely couched in the same language used to talk about the benefits of more advanced ‘big data’ technologies to urban problems today.

System360

Through the adoption of these new computing technologies, the county government could “provid[e] the taxpayer with the maximum return for his [sic] tax dollar” by “increasing productivity by producing more with the same amount of human effort”, even allowing “one department [to] reduce total personnel required over a five year period”. The computer was thought to “improve allocation of resources”, “render service in the most effective and efficient manner” and even “rapidly simulate the effect of contemplated changes” to various policies in order to choose the optimal path. The report even argued that “the computer can…provide an impartial watchdog”, echoing contemporary notions that the use of data-driven processes in government can remove the ostensibly unnecessary politics from government decision-making. It even makes some (admittedly strange) diversions into the potential “use of data for psychological modeling” of juveniles at risk of delinquent behavior, a kind of proto-predictive policing.

Ultimately, however, we can see a clear connection between the past and present of urban technologies. Even though we’ve come a long way from magnetic tape and analog switches and knobs, many of the same actors (e.g., IBM) and discourses have remained firmly in play. So for all of the talk about the revolutionary potential of these new technologies, it’s important to keep in mind the very situation we’re in now was brought about (at least in part) by technologies that were thought of in much the same way nearly half a century ago.