ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT?
Edward Hopper died 40 years before the iPhone debuted in 2007, yet you sense the American realist would have beautifully captured the paradoxical loneliness of the connected age. Whether it be the lady gazing into her cup of coffee alone in 1927’s Automat, or the protagonist reading in Chair Car (1965), so many of the painter’s most famous works would be relatively unchanged by the addition of a smartphone – its haunting glow illuminating the faces of his melancholic subjects.
Hopper captured an America in transition, electricity changing the city environment in a way that can barely be imagined as we await annual updates on the space-age technology at our fingertips. We have instant access to more people than ever before; we can publish our innermost thoughts to 1,000s instantly; we are the generation of the ‘shareconomy’… Yet, as in the artist’s most famous work, 1942’s Nighthawks, we are on the outside looking in through illuminated glass. Like Hopper’s diners, who sit in quiet solitude, no amount of online connection can replace human interaction. “Unconsciously”, the New York painter once noted (he had long denied an intent to portray human isolation), “probably I was painting the loneliness of a large city.” In the ‘social age’, we are all inhabiting Hopper’s city.
Studies show that we are less likely than ever to know the names of our neighbours, to share our journeys into work, even to converse when we get there. In one extensive piece of research undertaken by scholars from the United States’ Brigham Young University based on 3.4 million participants, it was shown that social isolation, living alone, and loneliness are linked with a higher risk of early death (around about 30 per cent more likely) – indicating that being lonely can be as dangerous to your health as obesity or smoking.
Conversely, a Harvard study that began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 (following the surviving men for almost 80 years) proved the physical and emotional benefits of forging and maintaining real world relationships. “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”, admits Robert Waldinger, director of the study. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
But how can we be lonely when hundreds of strangers like your latest selfie? “The number of friends you have is irrelevant”, says Dr Roger Patulny, a sociologist who specialises in social connections and emotions. “What matters is the quality rather than the quantity.” Loneliness is misunderstood as the reclusive pensioner with no friends or family, but increasingly it could be you: hungry for Instagram appreciation and missing out on the quality relationships lauded by Dr Patulny. With US teens reported to be spending upwards of nine hours online everyday and youth mental health issues on the rise, it is high time that authentic human connection was prioritised – human caring over digital sharing.
In 2014, Dutch design student Zilla van den Born used Photoshop to create a fake five-week trip to Southeast Asia. Inspired by the age of online over-sharing, van den Born demonstrated the thin veil of reality that can exist on social media. Now ironically showing off her actual travels as a digital nomad, the designer reminds us how the concepts of lifestyle and travel have changed since the advent of the smartphone; whether it’s ‘bleisure’, restless entrepreneurs or co-livers, as we spend more and more of our time in different places, it is vital we remember the importance of quality relationships – especially in a world where many travel brands are actively seeking to limit human interaction.
Since opening in 2015, Japan’s infamous ‘robot hotel’, Henn na Hotel, has been a big hit so much so that its owner has six openings in Tokyo and three in Osaka Prefecture in the pipeline; it has also been mooted that they could open up to 100 hotels around the world. Naturally, there’s a novelty factor involved with an animatronic dinosaur serving at the front desk; but much of the technology behind Henn na Hotel – being keyless; using facial recognition for check-in; robotic porters – is already growing in prevalence the world over. With such advanced technology frequently commonplace, why aren’t we using it to improve human interaction rather than strip it away?
Outside of the travel industry, the impact apps such as Tinder and Grindr have made on dating and casual hookups is cascading into culture at large, with a host of kindred applications catering for all from lonely backpackers to party animals. Whilst Backpackr and PartyWith cater to obvious niches, many millennials and Gen Zers are using the premium Tinder Passport feature to make forthcoming travels less lonesome – even if the ‘dates’ are purely platonic. On that note, apps like Patook, Skout, and female-only Hey! VINA have been designed as social networks you can take into the real world; with such a clear and present demand for human connection, it’s vital travel brands are aware of, and find ways to integrate with, such platforms.
The startup culture behind apps like these is one of the key instigators in the rise of a new location-independent workforce – one that has already changed our perceptions of business, with co-working spaces now ubiquitous in major cities around the world. It’s been said that New York-based WeWork now has a value of some $20 billion and the likes of Roam have ushered in its logical progression, digital nomads now sharing living quarters as well as hot-desking together. With homes in Bali, Tokyo, London and Miami, Roam’s is a similar proposal to NORN, and – from $500 per week – footloose freelancers can live and work in inspiring spaces around the world. That these propositions exist gives hope for a digital-savvy generation, as the inherent necessity of human togetherness is understood and meaningful relationships are valued.
In a lesson to many hotels, where the bringing together of guests can feel forced at best, WeWork launched their separate-but-related co-living venture in 2016: WeLive currently holds apartment blocks in New York and DC, where studios can start from $1,500 per month. With the ability to use the concept as a hotel or rent for months at a time, WeLive provides genuine competition to the hotel industry – especially at a time when a restless, location-independent workforce are increasingly wanting to call different cities home for a few months at a time.
Reviews of WeLive New York show that the accommodation that anchors this co-living concept is basic at best, but the emphasis is (naturally) upon communal spaces. With a laundry room that doubles up as a lively games room (including free vintage arcade games); communal dinner halls; free-flowing artisan coffee; kitchens; music-listening corners; and a roof deck with hot-tub, residents say that they’ve gained valuable business connections – and, most importantly for our wellbeing, friendships too. Even boasting a basement lounge that hosts weekly events, its facilities are giving hotels and hip hostels a run for their money. Whatever stamp your business needs to put on it, co-living is a trend that is impossible to ignore.
“Hotels converting to co-living use can become a trend”, says Alvin Leung, a director at the Hong Kong arm of global real estate firm JLL. When co-living spaces can begin from as little as HKD 2,800 per month in a city where rents can range upward of HKD 18,000, it’s clear to see why the demand is there. Mojo Nomad Aberdeen Harbour is one such hotel to have gone that way, Ovolo Hotels Group converting it into a co-living concept clearly targeted at culturally aware young professionals. With Hong Kong’s housing affordability putting strain on its residents, JLL also see the future of co-living as a solution for housing needs; it’s easy to see why hotel developers – often experiencing low occupancy in less popular neighbourhoods – might be attracted to the transition.
The logical step forward is for the co-living phenomenon to coalesce with the traditional hotel experience. After all, the benefit of having creative locals living side-by-side with guests is one of the key reasons why Airbnb has rocketed from a blow-up bed to a $31 billion company in less than a decade. Hotel brands have spent years trying to create communal experiences, bringing locals into lobbies, and pushing co-working capabilities – to create that community naturally whilst having guaranteed occupancy seems like a no-brainer.
Located at Los Angeles’s Columbia Square – the major media village development that has been built on the grounds of the old CBS lots – and available for stays of seven days to a year or more, the Hollywood Proper Residences are resplendent in Cali-glamour and offer evidence of locals and travellers living side-by-side, an unfurnished option a sign that travellers might become long-time residents of the new neighbourhood. With its own rooftop bar and lounge in addition to Columbia Square’s fine lifestyle options and the NeueHouse members’ only working community on hand, there’s a sense this concept is co-living for the discerning digital nomad.
Perhaps bridging the gap between Proper’s plush take on combating loneliness and WeLive’s student-dorm approach, Amsterdam’s Zoku has received much (and deserved) hype for its assault on hotel room conventions; their Zoku Loft is a modular living/working hybrid concept that makes intelligent use of space, offering all the comforts necessary for a stay extending into the months. “Amazing things happen when people come together”, the ambitious brand says – their expansive series of communal spaces showing it’s a mantra they fully believe in. Residents (long- and short-term), creative location-independent locals and ‘Zoku Sidekicks’ come together across working spaces (stocked with everything from a 3D printer to punch bag), bars, a ‘living kitchen’, green spaces and more.
Launching this spring, NORN is a concept billed as a ‘place for artists, entrepreneurs, and curious minds to live’: a series of homes located in Berlin, Barcelona, San Francisco, and London (with more planned) that expands on the co-living/co-working concepts of brands like Roam by instigating interaction with creative locals. Creating connections and fostering meaningful, deeper relationships shouldn’t be a new concept, but as many travel brands are using technology to strip away human interaction, it’s time for the industry to take a pause and look around – travel is an experience to be shared and, as Robert Waldinger emphatically states, “loneliness kills.”
When Airbnb ushered in the live-like-a-local generation, it was frequently billed as a death knell for the hotel industry. Yet in going up against a giant that has transformed the travel industry, it’s vital that those within it see this monumental pivot as simply the end of the hotel industry as it once was. Just as so many workers have experienced the freedom of location-independence, so must the industry experience the freedom in evolution. What does a hotel look like in 2020? How could the profusion of social search apps inspired by Tinder be integrated into the guest experience? How could the robotised technologies of Henn na Hotel be used to improve, rather than minimize human connection? Fusing the co-working and co-living revolution with the unifying aspect of a NORN; heightening experience through technology… Only an apathetic reluctance to evolve for the better could prevent the hotel of tomorrow looking very exciting indeed.
As the cultural shift progresses – innovative enterprises like Coworkations (a platform for co-workers to enjoy trips to places like Sierra Leone and Australia) continuing to recognise our inherent need for togetherness – it’s important to remember this is not a case of co-living or co-working as a trend; nor is it an extension of the desire to experience destinations as locals would: this is a case of humanity redressing its disconnect, an important reversal of the decline of genuine sharing in the age of over-sharing. The current epoch has brought with it an unexpected paradox. It is not too late to reverse it.
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]