Art: Allegory of Touch, Jusepe di Reberta, 1630
I’ve been reading a very good book lately, Ashley Mears’ “Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit.” Mears used to model in New York before becoming a sociology professor, and she picked up a bunch of promoters as contacts. Promoters have contracts with hot clubs to bring in beautiful women who are either models, or “good civilians”, aka not models but could maybe be one to dance and have a good time, to show that the club is hot.
Promoters get a cut of bringing the women out to the club, and the women, in exchange, usually get a free dinner/drinks, and of course free admission/champagne at nightclubs, and also potentially the opportunity to meet rich/famous people in New York clubs, as well as further their modeling careers.
I strongly recommend it as a read, because it it not just about the economics of parties and night clubs in New York. It’s also a lot about how the women - “girls” as everyone in the book and Mears also calls them - and promoters get left out of the economic system that they help prop up, about rich men, about club life, and, generally, about how economic status, gender, and race work together in America today. And, also, it is just a fun, interesting, and informative read, one of those books you come away from feeling like the author made you smarter. I am still thinking about it today.
There are lots of pages I’ve bookmarked, but there was one section in particular that really struck me. Mears describes how one of the promoters she followed around invited her out to the Hamptons in New York to a house shared by three powerful men in New York finance. But when she got there, there were at least 10 other women. These men didn’t even care so much about the girls themselves. These women were essentially background furniture in their parties. What they did care about was what having lots and lots of girls did for their reputation. If their Hamptons house was percieved as a fun place to be, other rich and powerful men would want to come by, or invite them over, and then they could start talking business.
A lot of conversations around business for high-net worth individuals happen in person and off the record, and it could be that you make the deal at a club or in the Hamptons, or you start to make the deal and then meet in your office. Or you hear about an investment worth pursuing. Or you hear about a competitor. If you don’t believe me, just watch Succession.
It’s amazing to me how much of top-level American (and, I’m sure, international) business relies on these kind of informal chance meetings that can make or break a career over time.
What does any of this have to do with tech? There is a lot of talk about remote work and life now. Having worked remotely for the past 3-ish years and now working for a company that pioneered remote work, I’m all for it. It works for me personally, and I think many businesses and jobs can be run this way - many more than used to be, for sure.
But what I think will also happen is that a good deal of people who need these kinds of impromptu hallway moments to move ahead in their careers, and who have been used to having them in person for years, will get tired of being remote. Remote work can be particularly hard if you’re managing people, if you have to do sales, or if you rely on networking as an important part of your job.
This is why a lot of big companies like Google, for example, are extending their work from home arrangements, but not saying that everyone can work home forever, and why they continue to hire in specific markets. They employ a lot of people for who these hallway moments are critical and they don’t think they can operate any other way.
We have been meeting face to face for thousands of years and, in some cases, there is nothing like it. So what will happen is that, in some cases, if you can go into the office and have low-key watercooler chats with people who will give you the scoop, you win.
What this is going to result in, I think, is that people who want to get ahead in their careers will signal their willingness to travel in spite of COVID. Or companies that want senior people to come in will work on their own way to give their employees vaccines, or work on screening programs that are way more advanced than anything that your doctor can give you, and that these people, who actually can leave their houses, will become the new elite for a few years.
In the past, being able to be out of the office and engage in digital work was the ultimate luxury. Now that the luxury is finally available to a much larger portion of the white collar population, over the next 5 years, for some companies and industries, being able to meet in person will become the next pinnacle of luxury.
What I’m reading lately:
Just go read Very Important People!
On work perks
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once or twice a week. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!