At the ACE Hotel in Shoreditch in the lobby is a long, low table with lots of plug sockets and lamps on it. Around the table there’s a more or less permanent nimbus of young people working on Apple laptops. A lot of them are drinking flat whites or cappuccinos, or eating pastries. None of them is wearing a suit, or anything which could credibly be described as ‘smart’. None of them seems to be doing anything very serious. You see the same type everywhere nowadays in the cafes and bars and co-working spaces of East London.
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that they are just well-off dossers, or trustafarians lounging around the ether, generously sponsored by their parents who own large, re-mortgaged homes in Godalming or Sevenoaks and holiday in the South of France.
But that’s not what they are. These are the workers of the future. The unevenly distributed future. Or rather the present. You didn’t even know the jobs they do existed. That’s how out of date you are. And they’re already gone. Filled by these neophytes. These are the kids buying targeted ads on Facebook, using Twitter Cards to add ‘rich media’ to brand communications or running their own channels on YouTube and Vimeo. They are the new moguls of online video. These are the ‘community gardeners’ pushing up the follower count for Nike and Adidas. These are the geeks mining the analytics for key words and key trends, optimising titles and links. Or coding up their own apps in Git or Swift. These are the bloggers getting paid to churn out before the jump copy for Net A Porter or ASOS.
They are the trailing indicators of an economic shift that has been going on for at least ten years now and is so well established that in many parts of the city and pockets around the country things like going to an office, wearing a suit, scheduling meetings, desktop PCs, IT departments, HR and annual leave seem about as quaint as Penny Farthings.
It’s easy to take the piss, to dismiss these people as idiots – the froth on top of a syllabub of silly activity, a faddish avant-garde housed in a glittery bubble of nonsense that will soon pop – leaving the ‘real economy’, which is built out of reassuringly physical things like factories and shops and warehouses and transit vans and laybys and petrol stations – just where it was before: getting along very nicely, thank you. But doing that is the same as bemoaning the fact that the Mohawk is out and the Topknot is in, saying football is a contact sport and defenders should be allowed to tackle and it’s all FIFA’s fault, learning Latin was good because it helped you to pick up other European languages, and lecturing people younger than yourself on why governments lose elections, oppositions never win them, and politics is just one big cycle so nothing ever really changes.
It’s living in the past and thinking it’s the present. It’s a grand failure of imagination.
This change isn’t a small thing. This is the activity that is going to power the UK through the 21st century – *whether you like it or not*. And the change isn’t going to slow down. It’s going to get faster and faster.
And if the kids with the stupid trousers and incomprehensible facial hair look as if they’re not serious, be warned: they play to win. The whole culture of this new generation of businesses is ruthless, stripped-down, bare-knuckled Randianism. They may talk about social enterprise but you can already see, in the examples of Uber, AirBnB, Twitter and countless others that when it comes to abiding by national laws, rules and regulations, or even when it comes to the idea of public goods or human rights, nothing shall ever interfere with the bottom line.
The big companies take off and grow so quickly that national governments and regulatory bodies can’t keep up with them, and by the time they do it’s too late. They impose a small fine, which the now gargantuan enterprise can simply write off as an ex-post-facto cost. Startups know this, and exploit this bureaucratic inertia to go global at frighteningly high speed. They also tend to disclaim any responsibility from themselves towards the societies in which they operate. For example, AirBnB takes no responsibility for ascertaining whether the leaser of a flat is the owner. In this way they shield themselves from future legal proceedings. And they encourage large numbers of tenants to sub-let flats that don’t belong to them. It’s a huge money-spinner.
But if like me you often find yourself, two years later, arguing about the rights and wrongs of this sort of business practice, you are missing the point – spectacularly so. The world has changed, and continues to change, and arguing that it should go into reverse because it’s unfair and you don’t like it is a waste of time and energy. Rather than lamenting the fact that our city is increasingly populated by people who look like Nathan Barley we should be celebrating it. Because the cities without these hipster honchos are going to be the ones that decline and grow poorer over the next few decades.
In other words, as Clay Shirky recently exhorted print journalists in the US – you can’t beat them, so you’d better stop pointing and laughing at them and join them before it’s too late and you are shining their shoes on a street corner or serving them a nice refreshing glass of Dalston Cola.