Education, Experience & Output: Sharing Neoliberalized Space

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest urban university system in the country and ranks alongside the California and New York State systems for total enrollment. Until 1976, CUNY was entirely tuition-free. While remaining significantly cheaper than other private universities in New York, CUNY has increasingly pursued a neoliberal business model reflective of for-profit institutions. This is hardly surprising. The financialization of CUNY has occurred in tandem with the financialization of New York City itself, and indeed much of the nation and world economy. Today’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education promises to continue and exacerbate this trend.

The banality of this particular evil glazes over the continued emaciation of public education. Several authors have addressed this process (see Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education), as well as discussed models for attempting to stem this trend. While CUNY continues to struggle for funding, both for its students and its large number of precariously contracted educators, the learning experience becomes increasingly denigrated – classroom sizes balloon, facilities erode, teachers exhaust. Commoditizing education (prioritizing its exchange-value over its use-value) inevitably impoverishes public institutions, no matter how skilled CUNY’s Chancellor (with his $500k salary) is at branding. A for-profit space reduces its occupants to their potential output, rendering experience marginal or impossible. By this, I mean to convey the mutual exclusivity of the concepts output and experience. Experience is something that only occurs in the present (one can remember a past experience, but the experience occurred in a present). Output, on the other hand, is something that cannot have a present (if I say ‘I have an output’, it denotes either something that is done or something that will be done).

While Marx, Bachelard, Thompson, Lefebvre, Harvey and others have variously mapped out the contours of privatized space and time, I want to zoom in on a relatively new type of space that might amuse such venerable thinkers. The last ten years have seen the rise of commercial spaces specifically designed to facilitate the illumination, ideas, creativity, and productivity of their occupiers known as co-work spaces. Sometimes referred to as shared-work spaces, these are increasingly popular urban alternatives to traditional offices, with their abrasive lighting and tepid aromas. Co-work spaces tend to be marketed to free-lancers – some of the occupations that members boast of holding include social entrepreneur, innovation consultant, content maker, talent buyer, experience designer, and creative (yes, used as a noun).

These spaces are meant to be an antidote to the supposed creativity-stifling office environment, while at the same time foster a level of focus that cannot be achieved at a busy coffee shop. These commercial creativity spaces, much like commercial exercising spaces, are subscription-based, and depending on the amenities provided (some of them have “chill zones” and rooftop gardens) can cost from $800/month to $130/month, with most offering a daily rate of $30. Their websites are dripping with perfunctory marketing language, from the slightly cultish: “Where you work can change the way you work. The way you work can change how you live. Work better, Live better…” to DIY rustication: “We built this place with our hands, using reclaimed lumber and materials and taking the time to do it right. There is a wall made out of windows to make the workspace quiet, while keeping the studio open and airy. There is a wood-fired stove to cozy up to in the winter…There’s an oven for nachos, Delonghi coffeemaker for your rocket fuel… Right now, we’re engineering a solar-powered battery recharge station, just for the hell of it.” And one Brooklyn co-work space proudly asserts that it would like “to change the world for the better.”

Such market-based solutions to cultivating creative ideas may be better at generating output in comparison to publicly-held thinking spaces such as libraries or parks, but can an experience of creativity actually be designed?

While most of the vocations that seem to be attracted to co-work spaces sound like fabricated portable lifestyles, which is perfectly fine, I recently learned that Experience Designer is a quite real and rather handsomely compensated vocation.* An experience designer is charged with ensuring that your experience of a company’s website or app is as optimal and pleasant as possible. Or in their own words, experience design is “focused on creating positive human outcomes.”

While this new vocation might reduce the time we spend on the phone with cable or internet companies, it’s hard to imagine that the DMV or Post Office have ever consulted an experience designer. Such public institutions often generate palpable experiences of misery, precisely because the human experience is not planned. The idea of designing an experience seems, indeed, rather counterintuitive. Are planned experiences genuinely experiences, or just the output of a plan? As the above self-descriptions suggest, co-work spaces are meticulously designed. They are designed to inspire creativity. While there are certainly some spaces that are more conducive to concentration than others, the idea that such spaces can be commoditized inspires more panic than creativity.

To my knowledge, public schools do not regularly employ experience designers. However, the increasing neoliberalization of education and the ideology that DeVos has thus far espoused suggest that this day may not be far off. While it can be more functionally pleasant to interact with FedEx than the USPS, the increasing privatization of space normalizes the idea that every experience should be for-profit, should be designed to grow wealth, and perhaps this is a sentiment we should not entwine with education.

The idea that knowledge production has ever been ‘pure’ and ideology-free is a bit of mythology. The Enlightenment was financed by those seeking more efficient means of growing wealth (see some of Mary Poovey’s work), and its educational traditions bear this mark. Public elementary education developed with the onset of the Industrial Revolution to both instill time-discipline and discourage the idleness of children whose parents spent twelve hours of the day in a factory, and elementary education still bears these marks. But, I would rather have a miserable experience at the DMV than pay for the pleasure of having my creativity designed.

*Disclosure: The building I used to live in was bought by an Experience Designer for Google, after which I no longer generated enough wealth to continue living there. So, it’s conceivable that I’m bitter.

Further Reading:

Aggarwal, Ujju, Edwin Mayorga, and Donna Nevel. 2012. Slow violence and neoliberal education reform: Reflections on a school closure. Peace and Conflict 18 (2): 156-64.

Giroux, Henry A. 2014. Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

McClennen, Sophia A. 2009. Neoliberalism and the crisis of intellectual engagement. Works and Days 27 : 459-70.

Poovey, Mary. 2010. Financing enlightenment, part one. In This is enlightenment., eds. Clifford Siskin, William Warner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scott Schwartz

Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His work centers on the material culture of knowledge production, specifically the instruments and devices employed by capitalized populations to facilitate the belief in and practice of perpetual, accelerating, asymmetrical growth.

4 thoughts on “Education, Experience & Output: Sharing Neoliberalized Space

  1. It is probably fairer to say that anthropologist can be ideal candidates. Those obsessed with abstract theories and passionate activists dedicated to causes that consume their attention need not apply. IDEO’s Tom Kelley provides a useful description in his Ten Faces of Innovation.

    The Anthropologist is rarely stationary. Rather, this is the person who ventures into the field to observe how people interact with products, services, and experiences in order to come up with new innovations. The Anthropologist is extremely good at reframing a problem in a new way, humanizing the scientific method to apply it to daily life. Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to “see” things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places.

  2. I think that’s a very apt description of anthropology, John. Anthropologists, among other pursuits, are skilled at identifying inconsistencies in the taken-for-granted and the normalized. Because of this, yes, we would probably make quite good experience designers (and probably make a lot more money doing it… raising a whole bushel of concerns about the application of anthropological knowledge), but perhaps a more interesting use of anthropology is in the parsing and exposing of designed experiences, especially those in which the design is subtle and insidious — who designed this experience? to what ends? what assumptions does it operate on?

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