Category Archives: Politics and Economics

Cognitive Dissonance, Thy Name Is Ethereum

Ethereum was awarded the designation as CryptoTulip of 2017, and no small part of that distinction was due to its on-going efforts to deal with the catastrophic results of buggy “smart contracts”.

The DAO disaster of 2016 was “fixed” via an ad hoc hard fork that had the tiny side effect of creating a second, rump Ethereum currency.  Since that time, Ethereum has done several more forks to respond to problems.  And in 2017 a little oopsie resulted in millions of dollars worth of Ether being locked in inaccessible accounts.  This goof has not yet been addressed by a hard fork or any other technical fix.

The underlying problem, of course, is that Nakamotoan cryptocurrencies are designed to be “write once”, with the ledger being a permanent, unchangeable record.  This feature is intended to prevent “the man” from rewriting history to cheat you out of your money.  (This is a key part of the Nakamotoan definition of a “trustless” system.)

Ethereum has implemented executable contracts on top of this “immutable” data, which is where a lot of the problems come from.  Software is buggy, and “smart contracts” inevitably have errors or just plain produce incorrect or unintended results, such as theft.  But there is no way to correct the unmodifiable ledger, except by violating the write-once principle, i.e., a hard fork to rewrite history.

True Nakamotoists deeply believe in the unchangeable ledger not only as an engineering design but as the logical foundation of the new, decentralized world economy.  But Ether-heads have (mostly) acquiesced to multiple ad hoc forks to work around grievous bugs, which to my mind completely trash the whole point of the Nakamotoan ledger. The CryptoTulip Award citation noted “the tremendous cognitive dissonance Ethereum has engendered”.


It is very interesting, therefore, to see current discussions proposing to regularize this recovery process [2]. The idea, of course, is to reduce the risk and delay of ad hoc fixes with a more open proposal and review process.  Unfortunately, this process publicly endorses the very practice that the ledger is supposed to preclude.

This proposal has not been uncontroversial, for many obvious reasons.

In addition to the obvious problem with the whole idea of ever rewriting the ledger, the Ethereum community is dealing with questions about how “decentralized” decision making should work.

Theoretically, anyone on the Internet can have a stake in decisions about Ethereum software and protocols.  However, in the crypto world—and “open source” in general—some people are more equal than others.  Active programmers, AKA, “developers”, have influence and often veto power over technical developments.  And operators of large mining operations have veto power in their ability to adopt or reject particular features.

In the earlier ad hoc forks, the devs decided and then implemented the fork. There was little discussion, and the only alternative was the nuclear option of continuing to use the denigrated fork—which many people did. The result was two Ethereums, further muddled by additional changes and forks.

The proposed new process requires public discussion of forks, possibly including video debates. Critics complain (with good reason) that this is likely to introduce “politicians” into the process. I would say that it also will create factions and partisan maneuvering.  It is not inconceivable that (gasp) vote buying and other corruption might arise.

In short, this public decision-making process will be openly political.  What a development. The governance of Ethereum is discovered to be political!

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικα: Polis definition “affairs of the cities”) is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.

The explicit acknowledgement of human decision making creates a tremendous cognitive dissonance with the Nakamotoan concept of a “trustless” system, where all decisions are by “consensus”.  (In practice, “consensus” means “if you disagree, you can split off your own code”.)

But it also clashes with the core Ethereum idea of “smart contracts”, which are imagined to implement decentralized decision making with no human involvement. The entire idea of the DAO was to create an “unstoppable” enterprise, where all decisions were implemented by apolitical code.  When Ethereum forked to undo the DAO disaster, it essentially undermined the basic rationale for “smart contracts”, and for Ethereum itself.

And now, they want to have humans involved in the decision making!

The very essence of this dissonance is capture in a quote from Rachel Rose O’Leary:

For now, no further action will likely be taken on the proposal until ethereum’s process for accepting code changes, detailed in EIP-1, has been clarified.” [1]

In other words, EIP-867 is so completely inconsistent with the decision-making process it isn’t even possible to talk about it.  I guess they will continue to muddle through, ad hoc, violating the spirit of Nakamotoism.

I think that Ethereum is managing to radically “disrupt” itself and the whole concept of Nakamotoan cryptocurrency.


  1. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) Ethereum Devs Call for Public Debate on Fund Recovery. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/ethereum-devs-call-public-debate-fund-recovery/
  2. Dan Phifer, James Levy, and Reuben Youngblom, Standardized Ethereum Recovery Proposals (ERPs). Etherium Ethereum Improvement Proposal, 2018. https://github.com/ethereum/EIPs/pull/867
  3. Rachel Rose O’Leary (2018) Ethereum Developer Resigns as Code Editor Citing Legal Concerns. Coindesk,  https://www.coindesk.com/ethereum-developer-resigns-as-code-editor-citing-legal-concerns/

 

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

What is Coworking? The NYT “Style” Section Hasn’t A Clue

As I have noted before, in-home coworking is one of the low-cost variations of coworking.  It has been around for quite a while, documented by Lori Kane [3] and formalized by the likes of HOffice [2].

There is also an increasing trend to create a diverse array coworking communities to suit different workers, and to reflect the make up of cities.  Notably, there are many coworking spaces that aim to serve professional women in various formats.

In January, The New York Times apparently “discovered” this phenomena, and wrote a piece based on a few examples—from Los Angeles.   Sheila Marikar did a rather ill-informed piece in the Style section about home coworking targeting women, with the annoying title, “Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work” [4].  Much of the piece is about the supposed ‘girls-hanging out’ conviviality of these work sessions.

The fluffy piece portrayed this as (a) sort of Californian craziness and (b) something that women do.

Sigh.

There are many ways to cowork, many different coworkers, and many different kinds of coworking communities.  There are many ways that women cowork, many different female workers, and many different kinds of female-oriented coworking communities—and many not-particulary-female-oriented coworking communities with many female workers.

As I noted, this home coworking approach has a considerable history, and the actual sessions vary, depending on the preferences of the participants.  That’s kind of the point, no?

It is true that home coworking is attractive to workers, male and female, who don’t enjoy a dry, soulless office environment. [5]  Again, that’s the point.

So, to sum up: from the NYT article, we learn that some women sometimes enjoy a female-oriented, informal chatty work environment.  Yup. So?  The whole idea of coworking is that workers get to choose and create their own working environment. For these workers, this is what they want.  (And, by the way, there have been times when I enjoyed a chatty, silly office environment–mostly male.)


While I found the article deeply and comprehensively ignorant, other were irritated by the Style-section fluffiness.  Very irritated.

Liz Elam of the Global Coworking Unconference reacted sharply, bristling “We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry” [1].  She found the article disrespectful, and points out that the coworking industry has had female leadership from the beginning.  (Elam herself is one of those founding leaders.)

[it] makes me cringe. It makes it sound like women in coworking spaces are going to braid each other’s hair, gossip about boys and giggle.

Now, Sensei Elam and I have our differences. She is dedicated to the idea of growing a global coworking industry, which I think is misguided. But I would never say Elam doesn’t know coworking inside and out.

In this case, she is absolutely right, and I don’t blame her for speaking up. The NYT article is insulting to working women, coworking or not.  But it is especially insulting to the many, many female leaders, entrepreneurs and workers who have created, operate, and participate in coworking.

Marikar knows almost nothing about real coworking. It’s that simple.


  1. Liz Elam, We’re Not Giggling and Braiding Each Other’s Hair, We’re Building an Industry, in GCUC Blog. 2017. http://gcuc.co/were-not-giggling/
  2. Hoffice. Hoffice: Come and work at someone’s home. 2017, http://hoffice.nu/en/.
  3. Lori Kane, Tabitha Borchardt, and Bas de Baar, Reimagination Stations: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space, Lori Kane, 2015.
  4. Sheila Marikar, Come on Over to My Place, Sister Girlfriend, and We’ll Co-Work, in New York Times. 2018: New York. p. Di. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/style/quilt-coworking-women.html
  5. Melissa Mesku (2016) Community: the key thing. New Worker Magazine, http://newworker.co/mag/what-your-key-says-about-your-coworking-space/

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming Real Soon Now in 2018.

Cornell Report on Cryptocurrency “Decentralization”

One of the outstanding features of Nakamotoan blockchains is that it is a “decentralized” protocol—a peer-to-peer (overlay) network produces consistent updates to the shared data with no privileged leader or controller [2].  This property is a significant technical feature of Bitcoin and its extended family, and has even more symbolic and cultural significance for crypto enthusiasts.

“Decentralization” is supposed to impart technical robustness (there is no single point of failure), and political independence (there is no “authority” to be manipulated or shut down).  The absence of a “central” node also means that the protocol is “trustless”—there is no central service that must be trusted in order to do business. (I.e., you only need to trust your counterparties, not the rest of the network.)

In short, Nakamotoan blockchains and cryptocurrencies are all about being “decentralized”.

But what does “decentralized” mean?

In fact, the notion of “decentralized”, as well as the many related concepts, are poorly defined. In the context of a computer network, “centralized” can mean many things.  Indeed, a network transaction may depend on a number of physical and virtual layers, with different degrees of centralization involved simultaneously.  For example, a wi-fi network has various routers, links, switches, firewalls, and so on.  Even the simplest point to point link may pass through a number of shared channels and chokepoints that are technically “central” services, though the overlying service is decentralized, or centralized in a different way.  (Does that sound confusing?  In practice, it truly is.)

However, Nakamotoan “decentralization” is mostly about the logical organization of digital networks, as developed in so called “peer-to-peer” networks.  A classic Internet service is “centralized” in the sense that  client (user) nodes connect with a single server, which manages the whole system.  Clients trust the service to implement the protocol and protect all the data.  Note that so-called “centralized” services often run on many computers, even in many locations.  They are logically a single server, even if not physically a single node. (Does that sound confusing?  In practice, it is.)

Nakamotoan systems replace a single “trusted” service with a peer-to-peer protocol based on cryptography and economic incentives.  One of the critical design features is the use of algorithms that are impossible for a single node to hack.  This is important because In a conventional “centralized” service, once a server is suborned (or subpoenaed), the whole network is controlled.

In contrast, Bitcoin is designed so that the system cannot be controlled unless the attacker controls more than 50% of all the participating nodes.  In this design, security is assured by having a very large number of independent nodes in the network. This widespread participation is made possible by making the code openly available and letting anyone connect to the network.

While the cryptography has a relatively straightforward technical basis, other aspects of this security guarantee are less easy to define and they are actually empirical features of the network that may or may not be realized at any given moment.

For example, everything depends on the Bitcoin network being “owned” by many, many independent people and organizations.  If one person owned 51% of the network, then they would own all the Bitcoin.  And in fact, if one person owned 51% of the computing power (not the number of computers), they would own all the Bitcoin.

The point—and I do have one—is that while the Bitcoin protocol is designed to work in a decentralized network, the protocol only works correctly is the network really is “decentralized” in the right ways.  And there is no formal definition of those “right ways”, nor much proof that various cryptocurrency networks actually are decentralized in the right way.


This winter Cornell researchers report on an imporatant study of precisely these questions on the real (as opposed to theoretical or simulated) Bitcoin and Ethereum networks [1].

there have been few measurement studies on the level of decentralization they achieve in practice” ([1]. p.1)

This study required a technical system to capture data about nodes of the relevant overlay networks (i.e., real life Bitcoin or Ethereum nodes).  In addition, the study examined key technical measures of the nodes, to discern how the overall capabilities are distributed (i.e., the degree of decentralization).  These measures include network bandwidth (data transmission), geographic clustering (related to “independence”), latency (a key to fairness and equal access), and the distribution of ownership of mining power.  The last is an especially important statistic, to say the least.

The Cornell research showed that both Bitcoin and Ethereum have distinctly unequal distribution of mining power.  In the study, a handful of the largest mining operations control a majority of the mining power on the network.  (Since some authorities own or collaborate with multiple mining operations these counts underestimate the actual concentration of power.)   In other words, these networks are highly centralized on this essential aspect of the protocol.  The researchers note that a small non-Nakamotoan network  (a Byzantine quorum system of size 20) would be effectively be more decentralized—at far less cost than the thousands of Nakamotoan nodes ([1], p. 11).

Although miners do change ranks over the observation period, each spot is only contested by a few miners. In particular, only two Bitcoin and three Ethereum miners ever held the top rank.” ([1], p. 10)

These findings are not a surprise to anyone observing the flailing failure of the “consensus” mechanism over the last two years, let alone the soaring transaction fees and demented reddit ranting.  Cryptocurrency systems are designed to be decentralized, but they are, in fact, dominated by a few large players.

By the way, the two networks studied here are likely the largest and most decentralized cyrptocurrency networks.  Other nets use similar technology but have far fewer nodes and often far more concentrated ownership and power.  So thees two are the good cases.  Other networks will be worse.


The general conclusion here is that Nakamoto’s protocol trades off a huge, huge costs in equipment, power consumption, and decision-making efficiency to achieve the supposed benefits of a “decentralized” system.  Yet the resulting networks are actually highly centralized, though in opaque and hidden ways.  I think this is a fundamental flaw in the engineering design, and also in the philosophical underpinnings of Nakamotoan social theory.

I’d love to see similar careful studies of other underpinnings of Nakamotoism, including the supposed properties of “openness”, “trustlessness”, and “transparency”.

A very important study.  Nice work.


  1. Adem Efe Gencer, Soumya Basu, Ittay Eyal, Robbert van Renesse, and Emin Gün Sirer, Decentralization in Bitcoin and Ethereum Networks. arXiv, 2018. https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.03998
  2. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Manzanedo and Trepat on “Positive Platforms”

Many people see the gig economy to be the “new way of work”, enabled by a variety of software “platforms” implementing on-demand labor markets (think ‘Uber’) (e.g., this, this, this).

Whatever the merits of this platform technology might be, it is clear that they are often not particularly beneficial for the workers or local economies.  The prospect of a future of marginal, exploitative employment is certainly problematic, and more efficient peonage is scarcely the original promise of the internet.

It is important to note, though, that these labor platforms are enabled by contemporary internet technology, but are not determined by the technology. By that I mean that there are many ways that such markets can be organized, operated, and governed while using the exact same ubiquitous digital technology.

The door is open to experimentation.

For example, the Platform Cooperativism movement proposes to use the same technology with user/worker owned cooperative models. The disrupters are easily disrupted.  “Seize the means of production“. Etc.

Platform Cooperativism is scarcely the end of the story, though.  Just what should we build from this technology?

This fall, Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat published a report for the Institute of the Future, “Designing positive platforms” [2].  Their focus is “governance”, i.e., how the operation is run, and how decisions are made. While they take internet technology as written, they believe that it can be used in “positive” ways, by which they mean positive from the point of view of the workers, i.e., those who create the value via the platform.

The gig economy runs entirely on online social platforms that connect people, knowledge, and opportunities for meaningful collaborative work.” ([2], p. 2)

What they want to do is come up with and promote concrete design principles, to transform the gig economy for the better.

By breaking down the designing of positive platform into concrete steps and actions, Manzanedo and Trepat hope to persuade more start-ups, cooperatives, nonprofits, and even corporations to integrate positive principles in their governance — and potentially transform the gig economy for the better.” [1]


They define “positive” to mean shared decision making and adequate benefits from the work.  Their approach focuses on governance, which is the design of decision making.  They break this down into three important facets ([2], p.3):

  • Ownership (property of capital and its entailed rights / accountability instead of ownership in the case of networks)
  • Value (value generation and value distribution processes within the organization)
  • Power (rights, processes and structures for decision-making)

The paper sketches five design principles (which are related and overlapping):

  1. Inclusion
  2. Participation
  3. Autonomy
  4. Recognition of the Generated Value
  5. Welfare

The report discusses examples from existing organizations, and points out known challenges.  They also highlight “positive practices”, i.e., good examples from the organizations examined.

One recurring challenge is scale. Some approaches work fine for a handful of people who can know and trust each other well.  But the approach may well break down at larger scales, where people cannot know each other.   Similarly, fully democratic decision making that works for a small group is difficult to maintain at large scale for many reasons.

Overall, I don’t think there is anything completely new here, but it is an interesting and pretty comprehensive survey of the challenges and prospects for democratic governance.

Personally, I’m not as sold on digital technology as these researchers are. There is really good reason to think that digital interactions are less personal and less pleasant than face to face.  This may or may not be an issue for governance and decision making.  I tend to think it is inherently depersonalizing and promotes many hidden biases (e.g., by privileging digital skills and amplifying some voices over others).

Nevertheless, digital technology is ubiquitous, so we need to learn how to use it well.  This report is a useful guide to start thinking about better ways to do things.


  1. Nithin Coca (2018) Institute for the Future report outlines a worker-centered design for gig economy platforms. Shareable, https://www.shareable.net/blog/report-outlines-how-gig-economy-platforms-that-takes-workers-rights-into-account
  2. Ana Manzanedo and Alícia Trepat, Designing positive platforms: a guide for a governance-based approach. Institute For The Future, Palo Alto, 2017. http://www.iftf.org/fileadmin/user_upload/downloads/ppj/DesigningPositivePlatforms_for_IFTF.pdf

 

Ethereum explores actual software engineering

Cryptocurrency software generally has rather spotty quality.  Aside from the usual woes of ‘open source’ software, including a rush to market, minimal budgets, endless happy talk from the business side, and inexperienced programmers; cryptocurrencies suffer from their ‘decentralized’ governance model, which makes serious engineering difficult.

As a result, the major cryptocurrencies all have grievous performance problems, and, of course, awesomely dumb bugs.

Ethereum (winner of the 2017 CryptoTuilip of the Year award) has provided a veritable clinic on the shortcomings of decentralized management of software.

Now, it is true that Ethereum has an actual human founder (Vitalik Buterin), who does intervene to nudge (or even bulldoze) the community in certain directions.  But engineering changes are still done in the decentralized mode:  build it first, and then see if everyone agrees to use the modified software.  Astonishingly enough, letting users decide on every engineering detail (retroactively) is at best awkward, and at worst disastrous.

As widely noted, Ethereum has been experiencing performance issues due to the success of the CryptoKitties game.  In particular, the transactions for this one application have filled up the shared ledger, and sucked down processing time for all the nodes of the network.

Let’s be clear, these technical problems are perfectly normal, and, in fact, they are a sign that the software is successful and maturing.  There are any number of technical moves that might be made to increase capacity or ration usage or both.  Unfortunately, these normal engineering decisions required to save the whole system will disadvantage some individual users. Unfortunately, with the decentralized governance approach, anything that cannot command near unanimous approval cannot be implemented.

Amazingly enough, faced with potential collapse, Ethereum is seeing something almost unthinkable:  actually serious software engineering, beyond happy talk and and wringing in Reddit.

This month saw excitement over actual optimizations of the Ethereum system. Among other amazing fixes, various temporary files have been eliminated, vastly decreasing the storage needed.  Other fixes deal with gross inefficiencies in handling the data structures in memory.  It’s hard work, but pays off with much better performance.

Buterin himself is exploring serious redesigns including “stateless” clients and sharding.  These designs replace the mindless replication of all the data on every node with more clever ways to split up the data and work. These approaches are well known and well tried: they have been in use for decades in systems such as massively multiplayer online games (think World of Warcraft and other similar systems).  I’m sure they can be made to work pretty well for Ethereum.

Obviously, these are good ideas. They were good ideas twenty years before Ethereum was built.  It’s about time that these systems with millions and millions of dollars riding on them got up to reasonable levels of engineering.

I could be grumpy and point out that , back when I was a lad, we used to think things through before we released the product, not after several years, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goofs.

More important, though, is the observation that the optimizations that are rolling out now have been implemented by companies and individuals not constrained by a decentralized ‘consensus’ mechanism. The client-side software is more or less ‘open source’, but it isn’t governed by the same ‘everybody or nobody’ consensus rules.  Hence, it is possible to change the code relatively radically and relatively quickly.

In contrast, the server side stuff (e.g., sharding) is moving slowly. It’s worse than design by committee, it’s design by … who knows?  And even if a good plan emerges, it still has to survive the consensus process.  This could take years.

We’ll see.

As I said, this is a becoming case study in the difficulties of engineering decentralized systems.


  1. Alexey Akhunov. 2018. “Roadmap for Turbo-Geth.” Medium, January 6. https://medium.com/@akhounov/roadmap-for-turbo-geth-31cbfb1e72b7
  2. Vitalik Buterin. 2017. “The Stateless Client Concept.” EtherResearch, October. https://ethresear.ch/t/the-stateless-client-concept/172
  3. Rachel Rose O’Leary,  2018. Blockchain Bloat: How Ethereum Clients Are Tackling Storage Issues. Coindesk. https://www.coindesk.com/blockchain-bloat-ethereum-clients-tackling-storage-issues/

 

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

 

Intergenerational Housing For Eldercare

As the population ages, the need for elder care is increasingly important.  Older adults need affordable and accessible housing, with different social settings. Those who do not have family close by may face social isolation, disconnection, and loneliness.

At the same time, young people need inexpensive housing.  And young students or workers also face loneliness and isolation.  Young parents also need assistance with child care. Furthermore, smaller and more mobile families have led to fewer opportunities for intergenerational interaction, for better or worse.

Sharon Ede calls attention to creative solution that attacks several problems in one move: inter generational co-living [1].

The basic idea is a dormitory with older adults and college students.  The residents commit to interacting and helping each other, with benefits to all. Ede reports on a particular project in the Netherlands (Humanitas), but the idea clearly can be replicated many places.

This idea fits into a spectrum of “co-living” concepts that are being explored.  (e.g., This, This, This, This, This)  Many of these concepts involve mixed living quarters for different ages and family arrangements, with shared common spaces and close social contacts. In some cases, this is closely associated with workspaces, so some of the residents work and live in the same space.

 

In short, this is recreating village life in a megacity.

The Humanitas project itself has an explicit contract for the young and old residents to interact, with a goal to support senior living. An explicit contract might not be necessary, but many such projects suffer when reality does not match hoped for interactions.  If people don’t talk to each other, help each other, and participate, it is hard to have a community.

While this sounds like a great idea, I can see why these communities are rare.

For one thing, this seems hard to finance.  In the case of Humanitas specifically, both students and elders generally don’t have a lot of money.  Renting to students may be cheap, but it scarcely provides high quality elder care on its own.  So this would be an additional cost to already expensive housing.

There is also a deep question about how the community is recruited and sustained.  Building a community like this doesn’t just happen, it takes leadership and work.   In the case of the elder care facility, it is run by a professional organization, and, no doubt, legally regulated.

It is clear to me that intergenerational housing isn’t going to happen spontaneously.  If people are left to their own choices, they will choose a community that they are comfortable with, which generally means “people like me”.  In the US, that is almost certainly going to result in racially and ethnically segregated communities.  And age groups tend to self-segregate in the wild.  Students flock to housing filled with young singles. There are entire cities in Florida inhabited only by retired people—no kids allowed!

There may also be legal limits on how much “curation” can be done.  It is easy to imaging law suits arising from selection that violates fair housing laws.


An alternative to this kind of ‘programmed dormitory’ would be to implement the concept “virtually”, a la something like  a “rent-a-grandparent” service (see Claire Marshall’s 2015 book for a bunch of good ideas).  It should be possible to connect and visit people without living with them.  Or to connect with people who live nearby digitally and physically.

My own view is that intergenerational interaction is a really good thing, which should be encouraged in many ways.  I like the ‘elder care dorm’ concept, but I don’t think it will be very widespread.


  1. Sharon Ede. 2018. At Humanitas, senior care meets student dorm in shared intergenerational living. Shareable. https://www.shareable.net/blog/at-humanitas-senior-care-meets-student-dorm-in-shared-intergenerational-living
  2. Tiffany R. Jansen,  2015. The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm. Citylab. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/10/the-nursing-home-thats-also-a-dorm/408424/
  3. Claire Marshall. 2015. “How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing.” Self Published. https://www.sharestories.net/the-book.

Slow Down, Work Better?

The contemporary “Gig Economy” is said to be the New Way of Working. Freelance workers are “free” to hustle for gigs and work as much or as little as they want.

But people are still people, and work still sucks, mostly.

But workers are on their own.


It isn’t too surprising to me that both the Coworking Movement and the Freelancers Union are coming to talk about mental health.  Liz Elam includes “wellness” and dealing with loneliness as a top megatrend in coworking.

And this month, Sensei Tyra Seldon muses on “slowing down” in the Freelancers Union Blog.

I admit that my reaction to here headline, “Can slowing down make you more productive?” was, “I hope the answer is, ‘yes’?”  For one thing, going slow is definitely in my personal wheelhouse. : – )  But also, advancing faster by moving slower is a natural strength of older workers, who face brutal challenges in the gig economy.

Anyway, what Sensei Seldon is actually talking about is not so much working slower, as living simpler.  In particular, she’s talking about turning it off.

She starts with the ubiquitous problem of digital distraction. Recording how she spends her time yielded alarming results: lot’s of activity, much of it irrelevant.

Whereas I thought my 60-hour weeks were signs of my being a dedicated entrepreneur and being uber productive, this reality check proved otherwise.

She did the obvious experiment, i.e., turning it off.  Spending more time in face-to-face conversations.  She also started to redefine “productivity”, to include “things that were meaningful and valuable”, such as meditation, prayer, and journalng.

And she liked it.

Even better, she worked better.

I don’t think I can fully go back to the person who I was


I’m not in the least surprised by Seldon’s experience.  There is a large and growing literature that tells us that constant digital engagement is bad for you in many ways. (here, here, here, here, here, here)

It is also true that one of the principle reasons that contemporary coworking was created is to deal with the need for face-to-face interactions.  Today’s workers are well connected digitally, but many are more socially isolated than ever.   It is important not just to unplug to take care of yourself, we have to take care of each other. The best way to do that is to talk face-to-face.

These problem have been around for a long time.  Working in a conventional organization is generally just as bad or worse as freelancing in this regard. In a conventional job, it isn’t easy to tell your boss that you don’t look busy because you are doing something more important than her deliverables.

The best thing here is that Freelancers actually can unplug and focus on more than being “busy”.  In this, the contemporary Gig Economy is directly attacking one of the most critical problems facing contemporary workers.  If Freelancing and Coworking end up actually helping people  live a better life, then they will be counted as great and successful innovations in working.


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can slowing down make you more productive?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2018/01/15/can-slowing-down-make-you-more-productive-2/