Are Tech Giants’ Offices the Cathedrals of the Future?

On October 15, 2013, the City Council of Cupertino, California, debated for 6 hours before finally approving Apple’s plans for a new $5 billion USD office headquarters to be built in their city. Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs approved architect Norman Foster’s design (shown above) just weeks before his death in 2011. Work on the mammoth “mother ship” begins next year and is scheduled to be finished sometime in 2016. For a company that likes to “think different,” this architectural thinking looks more like old school thinking to me, specifically the kind of “bigger is better” mentality that spawned the building of massive cathedrals throughout Europe for centuries. Whereas the old churches rose in worship of the old gods, these new churches rise up in worship of the new tech corporate gods. Are the tech giants’ offices the cathedrals of the future?

Foster’s building, officially called Apple Campus 2, will stand just one mile east of the current headquarters. The plans (which can be seen here) call for a four-story circular building of 2.8 million square feet with an extensive “orchard” green area in the middle. Thirteen thousand employees will enjoy a 3,000-seat café, 1,000-seat auditorium, fitness center, and other corporate-provided amenities. Amazingly (and expensively) every pane of glass in the building will be curved to comprise the giant circle. In accordance with the new “open” floor plan fad, there will be plenty of structurally created opportunities for workers to bump into one another and interact creatively.

Apple’s not alone in this corporate cathedral building. In a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel, Thomas Schulz outlined this trend of “new monuments to digital domination.” Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook hired architect Frank Gehry to create “the largest open office space in the world” consisting of a single room for 3,400 Facebook employees to creatively collide. Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos of Amazon wants architectural firm NBBJ not just to build a lavish headquarters, but a lavish biosphere headquarters consisting of three glass-and-steel domes each with their own artificial ecosystem, including a “microclimate” and “corresponding botanical zone.” NBBJ will also create Google’s new HQ, called “Bay View,” that seems almost humble by comparison, with just nine linked buildings featuring rooftop landscaped parks stretched across acres of restored wetlands.

As Schulz points out, these buildings give physical form to corporate philosophy. He calls these new offices “monuments, architectural techno-visions that reflect the now inexorable digital domination” of these few companies and “an expression of the worldwide economic and cultural supremacy that Silicon Valley and its leaders overtly claim for themselves.” The new Masters of the Universe need appropriate digs to show everyone who had any doubt who’s really in charge. The shared emphasis on “close proximity—the lack of barriers and the loss of individual private space—[is] an expression of the double-edged digital culture… [in which] the Internet creates newfound freedom, [but] people have no right to a private life.” Schulz points out this “intriguing paradox… [that] combines a disciplined domination of the market with the freedom of the creative hippie artist.” The end result, Schulz argues is “a peculiar ideological mixture of right-wing and left-wing, ultra-individualistic and ultra-capitalistic beliefs, ranging from liberalism to anti-statism…. spiced with a good pinch of techno-determinism.” These techno-determinists preach that “everyone can become rich and hip, and the world will be a better place, if you just let us do our thing.” Believe in us, Apple, Facebook, and other giants say, and we’ll take care of everything.

Is this belief-driven system backed up by large-scale symbolic building that sounded alarm bells for me—cathedral bells, if you will. Anyone who’s been on vacation to Europe has probably visited the remnants of the “arms race” of the Middle Ages during which towns would compete to have the biggest, tallest, most ornate cathedrals ostensibly in praise of the Christian god, but in no small measure as indicators of civic status and pride. With a social hierarchy shaped and maintained by the religious status quo, such buildings served as continual, “can’t miss” reminders of who’s the boss, both in heaven and on Earth. Of course, such buildings provided benefits to the lower classes, including providing the precious few glimpses of literacy and art for the majority of people. Are our iPhones and iPads so much different now from those benefits passed down from on high?

But are the masses ready to accept the new Apple and Facebook religion? Schulz points out that the surrounding non-tech-employed citizenry often resents how such big buildings trigger a corresponding influx of high-paid corporate employees that raise the cost of living beyond the means of those who previously lived there. “People rant about the techno-hipsters and their private bus lines, about the outrageously expensive apartments and rapidly rising cost of living. And they poke fun at the gigantomania of the Apple spaceship,” Schulz writes. “No one is seeking an open confrontation with this all-dominating industry, though.” At least not yet.

If Apple’s new “mother ship” is the cathedral of the future towering over our lives and enforcing the new corporate faith, who will be the “Martin Luther” posting his or her Ninety-Five Theses to the curved glass walls of these symbols (or, more modernly, posting them on social media)? Will there be a digital “Protestant Reformation” to take on these icons of the information age? Who will reclaim the rights to privacy, digital and otherwise, that Facebook and others have eroded (and the NSA has secretly stolen)? Maybe these buildings are the cathedrals of the future, but perhaps they’ll follow the Middle Ages’ cathedrals’ example and become one day the tourist attractions of a time and a mindset of a discarded past.

[Image: Architect Norman Foster’s design for the future headquarters of Apple to be built in Cupertino, California. Image source.]

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Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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