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Coworking Spaces: A Crossroads of Philosophy, History, and Sociology

Updated: Jan 30

Congregation of Philosophers in Greece. Coworking Space & Philosophy
Coworking Spaces Philosophy

The Philosophical Backdrop

From Marx to Modern Collaboration

Once upon a time, work was a solitary endeavor. The blacksmith, the farmer, the craftsman—each labored alone, confined within the bounds of their chosen professions. The wheel of progress, however, has turned steadily through the ages, redefining our conceptualization of work and workspace, culminating in an intriguing modern phenomenon: coworking spaces. To fully appreciate this innovation, we must embark on an exploratory journey, traversing through the fields of philosophy, history, and sociology.

Our journey begins in the realm of philosophy as the silhouette of Karl Marx appears on the horizon. In his "Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844," he grappled with the idea of "alienated labor." In traditional workplaces, he argued, work is often a means to an end, a lifeless instrument devoid of human essence. Coworking spaces, however, strive to breathe life back into work, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and community. It’s almost as if they’re answering Marx's call, proving that work can indeed be more than just survival—it can be about thriving together.

Arendt’s Triad and The Flexible Ethos

We then sail towards Hannah Arendt, who, in "The Human Condition" (1958), meticulously classified human activities into labor, work, and action. At first glance, coworking spaces blur these boundaries. They encompass routine tasks (labor), foster creative ideas (work), and encourage collaboration (action). And yet, it's in this blurring where the beauty of coworking spaces lies—their flexible ethos embraces the holistic potential of human activity.

Historical Evolution of Workspaces

Birth of Human Settlements

Adding to our tale, we take a detour into the depths of history, tracing the evolution of human settlements. The formation of villages and towns represents a fundamental shift in human society, born from a desire to be closer to resources and fellow humans. Much like coworking spaces, early villages were a means of pooling resources, sharing labor, and fostering a sense of community.

Let's journey to the first agricultural societies. In these settlements, resources were shared, and the division of labor allowed for greater productivity, with everyone contributing to the prosperity of the village based on their skills. It was here that humans first witnessed the benefits of proximity, as closeness allowed for collaboration, innovation, and the exchange of ideas.

In this context, coworking spaces can be viewed as modern-day "villages," designed to attract a variety of professionals who can share resources and expertise. They are both ecosystems in their own right and microcosms of larger urban ecosystems, akin to downtown areas in large cities where businesses cluster for mutual benefit.

From Guilds to Modern Offices

We turn the pages of history to make sense of the evolution of workspaces. In our journey through history, we focus on the evolution of workspaces, a metamorphosis closely tied to the broader changes in society, economy, and technology.

The first significant shift arose with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The advent of the Industrial Revolution brought an upheaval. Machines powered by steam and then by electricity revolutionized manufacturing. Productivity skyrocketed, but it required labor to be concentrated in places where these powerful new machines were housed—factories. This pulled work away from homes and guilds and into a new kind of workspace, dramatically changing not just where people worked, but how they worked, lived, and related to each other.

The 20th century, and in particular the latter half, marked the next seismic shift in the workspace. As economies in the western world moved from manufacturing to services, the office became the new center of work. Technological advancements, particularly in information and communication technologies, made it possible to move work that was previously location-dependent into these new spaces. The office worker, or 'white-collar worker', emerged as a distinct class, often working in jobs related to administration, management, or creative and intellectual endeavors.

In his book "The Corrosion of Character" (1998), sociologist Richard Sennett captures the personal implications of this shift. He argues that the shift from factory to office work, and in particular the rise of flexible, temporary, and contract work, has led to a "corrosion" of character. The long-term narratives of career and personal development that were possible in a more stable employment situation were eroded, leading to feelings of rootlessness and instability.

Sennett posits that this changing character of work has deep impacts on individuals' identities and their social relationships. The shift from factory to office doesn't just change where we work, but who we are, how we see ourselves, and how we relate to others. This transition to office work also set the stage for the rise of coworking spaces, which offer a different way of relating to work, space, and each other.

Thus, the evolution of workspaces reflects deeper currents of change, tied to the broader shifts in our economy, society, and technology. From home and guild to factory, from factory to office, and now towards coworking spaces, each shift represents a reshaping not just of work, but of our world.

Digital Era and Coworking Spaces

And now? The surge of digital technology, coupled with the rise of the knowledge economy, has birthed an entirely new workspace—coworking spaces. These spaces, Lucy Kellaway notes, represent the most recent evolution in this history, providing an alternative to the rigidity of traditional offices and the solitude of remote work.

Zygmunt Bauman's concept of "Liquid Modernity" (2000) comes to mind here. In his portrayal of our current era, everything is in constant motion—traditional structures are dissolving, giving rise to new, more flexible forms. The economic shift from industry to services and information, coupled with technological advancements, has led to a "liquification" of work, mirroring the transition from isolated agricultural societies to interconnected urban ones.

Sociological Implications

Community and Social Capital

Philosopher Martin Heidegger's idea of "being-with" (Mitsein) from "Being and Time" (1927) offers a compelling analogy for coworking spaces. Like villages or downtowns, these spaces serve as a tangible manifestation of our collective existence. They embody the notion of "being-with" others in a shared space, fostering a sense of community and collaboration among diverse professionals.

Furthermore, Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "social capital" from "The Forms of Capital" (1986) is incredibly relevant here. As with downtown areas, coworking spaces can generate immense social capital—the networks, relationships, and norms that bind a community together and facilitate cooperation.

The Strength of Weak Ties in Coworking

Lastly, we delve into the world of sociology to decipher the societal implications of coworking spaces. As our guide, we take Mark Granovetter and his seminal work, "The Strength of Weak Ties" (1973). He posits that our acquaintances, rather than close friends or family, are the ones that lead us to new opportunities. Translate this to coworking spaces, and you find a thriving network of 'weak ties'—a hodgepodge of professionals from various fields, sharing ideas, sparking innovations, and opening doors for each other.

Coworking spaces are teeming with social capital. By facilitating interactions between individuals from various sectors, they foster relationships and networks that can be leveraged for professional gain.

Beyond Shared Offices

Drawing parallels between coworking spaces, early human settlements, and downtowns illuminates the deeply rooted historical and sociological dynamics at play. In this light, coworking spaces are far more than just a modern trend—they are the latest incarnation of humanity's enduring quest for community, resource sharing, and collective prosperity.

We now find ourselves at the end of our journey. Like voyagers, we've explored the vast landscapes of philosophy, the annals of history, and the intricate web of sociology to unravel the phenomenon of coworking spaces. These spaces are more than just shared offices; They are a testament to our relentless quest for meaning, community, and innovation in work, shaping and shaped by the ebb and flow of societal currents.

As the future unfolds, the story of coworking spaces will continue to evolve. We close this chapter, enriched with deeper insights and a sense of eager anticipation of what lies ahead in this captivating tale of work. We'll carry forward our collective narrative—a story deeply intertwined with our philosophical musings, historical transformations, and sociological interactions.

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