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We Work treated physical space as though it were virtual, and this approach ultimately contributed to the company’s downfall.

On November 6, the co-working company WeWork filed for bankruptcy. Established by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey in 2010, WeWork operated on a straightforward model: it secured extended leases on urban properties, equipped them with modern work amenities, and then leased desks, offices, and meeting spaces to companies and freelancers seeking a flexible workplace.

Despite being primarily in the office subleasing business, WeWork’s co-founder Neumann positioned the company as a tech enterprise, incorporating Silicon Valley’s trendy language into his presentations. He pledged that WeWork’s offices would enhance social interaction among workers, fostering countless innovations. The company even introduced an online social network, WeWork Commons.

Nevertheless, Neumann asserted that the actual “platform” for communication and collaboration was the office space itself, defining WeWork as a “physical social network” offering “space as a service.”

Unfolding innovations included the development of an online social network called WeWork Commons. However, according to Neumann, the genuine “platform” for communication and collaboration was the physical office space itself. Describing WeWork as a “physical social network,” he emphasized its provision of “space as a service.”

WeWork’s collapse raises skepticism about analogies that have been drawn between physical workspaces and computers in recent years. The question arises: is an office, where individuals work, occupy desks, and engage in discussions around conference tables, best conceptualized as a component of digital infrastructure?

When Neumann portrayed offices as a type of information technology, he tapped into the notion, highly popular in the 2010s, that the boundary between physical space and computers was diminishing. During this period, business leaders and tech journalists envisaged the imminent prevalence of the “internet of things” (objects with embedded transmitters for data exchange), the emergence of “smart cities” (municipal services digitally monitored and optimized), and a communal existence in “augmented reality.”

While rooted in real technology, these ideas became entangled in a whirlwind of escalating hype around the time WeWork was established. The origins of such predictions can be traced back to the 1960s when radical architects were captivated by the burgeoning field of computer science. They envisioned buildings with the dynamism and responsiveness of computers, often carrying a countercultural flavor. For instance, British architect Cedric Price conceived a colossal cultural center where rooms would reconfigure in real time with the assistance of a digital algorithm and a built-in crane.

Hungarian-French artist Nicolas Schöffer explored the concept on an urban scale, envisioning a “cybernetic city” where citizens could modify their surroundings with a simple touch. Similarly, Japanese designer Kenzo Tange conceived buildings as colossal communication apparatuses, with corridors functioning as “information channels.”

The digital aspirations that fueled these radical ideas also permeated the mundane task of designing corporate offices. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, offices were predominantly viewed as industrial structures, serving as hubs for paperwork with documents moving from one desk to another in an assembly line fashion.

However, during World War II, executives observed the military’s utilization of massive mainframes for logistics and code deciphering. This prompted a shift in perspective, with many beginning to perceive an office filled with workers as a form of computing infrastructure.

Eberhard Schnelle, an influential West German consultant, characterized an office as an “information processing facility,” where information processing unfolded among people and within people. According to Schnelle, an office resembled a programmable computer, with its algorithmic intelligence primarily defined by the distinctive arrangement of desks.

Amid the flourishing knowledge economy of the 1960s, CEOs were captivated by the notion that enhancing the flow of communication could significantly improve office work. This concept inspired the development of new office furniture, such as Herman Miller’s Action Office line encompassing desks, shelves, and partitions.

Managers aimed to consistently optimize the information flow within the office by tweaking the arrangement of modular desks, akin to a programmer inputting an updated algorithm into a mainframe.

In theory, that was the vision.

The illusion that offices could be as dynamic and seamless as a computer program overshadowed the undeniable reality that real estate is inherently physical. Office buildings, as they age, demand ongoing maintenance. Altering the interior proves to be a messy endeavor. Even the reconfiguration of ostensibly flexible desks and partitions may entail dealing with numerous specialized components. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that such adjustments will enhance work efficiency.

The crash of WeWork Analogies drawing parallels between offices and computers waned during the recession of the 1970s. However, they never completely disappeared, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, where digital networks gained an unexpected following among former hippies in search of alternative community structures. When Neumann and McKelvey established WeWork in 2010, only a handful of Silicon Valley investors raised questions about their analogy of an office as a social network.

Riding a wave of enthusiasm for all things digital, their venture garnered increasingly substantial investments from tech venture capitalists. However, in hindsight, analysts pointed out that the business model of a tech firm was fundamentally incompatible with WeWork. A real estate company lacks the same economies of scale and network effects as an online platform. Finally, in 2019, WeWork could no longer conceal the fact that it was consistently operating at a loss.

The company’s bankruptcy marks the conclusion of this saga, challenging the notion that increased communication and connectivity are always advantageous—an idea rooted in the utopianism of early Silicon Valley.

Blurring the lines between physical space and digital platforms reduces the richness of social interaction to the linear logic of an algorithm. WeWork advocated for the benefits of socializing, but primarily within the realm of white-collar millennials, always with an entrepreneurial emphasis on self-promotion.

Envisioning buildings and cities as digital platforms erodes the sense of place, where one could experience a tangible sense of belonging with a clear connection to the public realm.

Predictions about the future of the office often hinge on fantasies of an imminent work revolution that fails to materialize. If history serves as a guide, office design and online systems will continue evolving in parallel—distinct and often complementary technologies for work. The office will persist as a physical place, not merely a platform.

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