I’m writing this post from a café in Kristiansand, a southerly Norwegian city, as my partner undertakes a two-month placement at a company here. But this dispatch is simultaneously from another place, a place I’ve inhabited on and off for years, a place that is nowhere in particular yet has tangible manifestations, a place called AirSpace.
You know how social media impacts our technology use? It’s changed how often we use our phones and computers, blurred the divide between technology as a work resource and a mode of leisure, become a gateway for information as opposed to the index of news websites themselves, and so on. But, in turn, it appears that technology is actually starting to shape the physical world around us – aesthetics from Instagram and the unlikely stylishness of people’s homes advertised on AirBnb, reviews and recommendations on Yelp and Foursquare, and traffic apps that reroute people’s journeys from the clogged highways to suburban streets. As Kyle Chayka explains, for The Verge, this is AirSpace, and it is ubiquitous across the globe. And it turns out that I am, hitherto unknowingly, a citizen of AirSpace – for better and for worse.
The café I sit in is called Drømmeplassen. It’s the first time I’ve spent a morning working in a café in Kristiansand because one coffee costs the equivalent of two in my usual place of residence of Oxford. But despite the fact that I haven’t ever literally been here before, I have been here before. I was here at Shoredich Grind in London, at Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn, at Louie Louie in Stockholm, at Little Creatures in Melbourne. I’ve been here in Bristol, in Da Nang, in Tromsø, in Canberra, in Cleveland, in Bruges, in practically every city I’ve ever travelled to.
That here is AirSpace, and here’s what it looks like: exposed raw wood and brick surfaces, Edison bulbs, either minimalistic or upcycled furniture, the feel that the space has been converted from an industrial warehouse with exposed tubing and high ceilings, neutral hues with pops of vivid colours, coffee art, English-speaking staff, and people (like me) connected to the free wifi on slim ultrabooks or macbooks.
We’ve stumbled on a new kind of homogeny in AirSpace, like how every McDonald’s in the world serves as a place for tourists to know what they’re ordering and to use the bathroom underneath the uniform, yellow arches. The difference is that AirSpace wasn’t planned, according to Chayka, each of these spaces is the result of a “harmonisation” of global preferences. As if we’ve all independently averaged out what kind of design everyone likes, putting in some small variations, and this is the result.
AirSpace isn’t just manifested in cafés. You can find it in restaurants and bars, start-up offices, co-working spaces, AirBnbs. Some people constantly move yet still always dwell in AirSpace. And while I’m not always here myself, I am attracted to these spaces. I’ll pay a bit extra on AirBnb to get a place that looks like AirSpace, I’ll stake out streets of shops and restaurants to select the most AirSpacey of the lot, and I browse online and wonder if I will ever be able to afford an Eames chair to bring a bit more AirSpace to my regular home. I find myself increasingly less inclined to take risks on something new. Before I go to a café, for instance, I trawl reviews for evidence that it’ll be a comfortable place, with high connectivity, to set up for a few hours. But if I wonder past and it looks like AirSpace, the risk of possible dissatisfaction weakens.
Maybe AirSpace is just a collection of places that embody the apex of global, modern design. It’s humble yet tasteful, offering accessible sophistication and practical comfort. It’s not bad to look at, and it’s convenient for travellers to look into a shop front and have some idea of what they’re going to get without having to order a Quarter Pounder.
But for me, there’s more at stake than convenience. The increasingly homogenised experience of travelling the globe means that we fail to see local character and design. The risk we all face when we travel is that if we aren’t forced to step out of our comfort zone, we won’t.
I relocated from Australia to the UK about a year ago. With my new realisation that I’ve spent a good period of that time in AirSpace, I now wonder if I’ve really been away from home for much of that span. Moreover, with social media, my interactions with the people I used to live with are much the same as before. Facebook feels like it has always been my main port of call to keep in touch with the people I like, I take free calls with Skype and Viber and Messenger, people can see my world through my eyes on Instagram. I am comfortable. Not much has changed.
There’s nothing wrong with finding comfort, but when I look back on the last year, it’s taken a lot for me to fully appreciate the fact that I’m even an expat. When I drove up to Manchester in the winter, disconnected from the Internet and facing a flurry of snow on my windshield (snow pretty much doesn’t happen where I’m from); when I took a walk without my phone on a wet and overcast Christmas day, freezing by the canal, avoiding the mud on the ground as much as I could (Christmas tends to be hot and parched in Australia); when I saw Shakespeare in the quadrangle of an ancient, sandstone building as the tulips bloomed; I found moments filled with the bittersweet realisation that I am so far away from home.
It’s gut-wrenching and uncomfortable, but it’s also joyful to know that my life has taken on a weird shape I never could have imagined if I hadn’t stepped on that plane. To fully be in a place, you have to risk homesickness, you have to step out of homogenised comfort, you have to leave AirSpace once in a while.
This is my challenge for my future years abroad, especially as someone who must focus on the place they came from for work reasons (more on this in my next post): I need to make more of an effort to be in the place I am. I’m writing my challenge here, as my first post for this blog, to keep myself accountable. My updated version of T.S. Eliot’s words, “We shall not cease from exploration” is, “We shall not take constant refuge in AirSpace”.