On the first day of March, I flew home to Chicago in order to surprise my mother for her birthday. Because they have not yet developed the app that calculates the exact moment you should leave for your flight if you want only to be reasonably on time, I passed through security at New York’s LaGuardia Airport with about an hour and a half to spare before takeoff.
As I surveyed LaGuardia’s meager food options, and walked back toward the bar in order to drink a single beer before passing out on the flight, something caught my eye: a large, metal box lined up against the wall, with a glass pane affixed to the door. From afar I assumed it was a vending machine, but behind the glass was a wood-grained panel jutting out from the wall, and a smooth bench. It seemed about the width of a bathroom stall; immediately, I recalled Dog Parker, the start-up doggy day care (prison) that The Outline covered last year. An examination of a screen installed next to the door handle revealed this was something called Jabbrrbox, which billed itself as “Your private office, whenever you need it.”
This seemed fairly ironic: A private office, but with a window on it, in full sight of everyone walking through the airport, who would undoubtedly think, “Hey, does that guy need help getting out of there?” Some fiddling with the screen led me to quickly surmise I could pay money to sit inside this box for however long I needed. The pricing plan was a little ritzy: $10 for 15 minutes, scaled upwards to $30 for an hour. $30 to become a living department store window? The concept seemed absurd — the latest excess of a tech culture unsure of what to do with its money, except to blow it on things humans would never need, like Tinder for Flights. After looking over it for a few minutes, I went straight to the bar and began drinking.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about the Jabbrboxx, messaging a co-worker to relay verbatim what I’d seen. “It’s like the size of a bathroom stall, and there’s a window so everyone can see you,” I said.
“In one sense, what is it but a phone booth that is extremely expensive?” she replied.
We agreed immediately that I had to try it. “It might be tight since I just ordered a beer but let me see where I’m at,” I said, then proceeded to down the pint much faster than expected, as I considered eating the leftover margherita abandoned by a neighbor at the counter. Back at the Jabbrrbox with about a half hour before boarding, I decided to select the 30 minute option for $15. I shut the door, unsure of what to do next, or even what I was paying for. I took out my laptop, and began swiping through the options on the wall-sized screen that filled my field of vision.
I had done no research into the Jabbrrbox at the bar, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I hadn’t just paid to sit in an ergonomic airplane chair. There was a wifi network, which I immediately connected to. There were lots of ways to tweak the lighting, with new age-y names like “The Green” (dim, grassy) and “Canyon” (warm, peach). Most delightfully, there was a photobooth option, which I used to snap about forty photos of myself in four minutes.
Some features were less useful: I didn’t know why I would need to check my location, as I already knew I was in an airport, and while checking my flight status would’ve been nice, scanning my electronic boarding pass didn’t work. But these didn’t distract from the surprise I felt upon realizing that sitting inside the Jabbrrbox was actually quite nice. I wasn’t as self-conscious about being visible, as my peripheral vision couldn’t pick up on anyone staring through the glass to see what I, a dope, was doing. The exterior sound was muffled, too, allowing me to concentrate. My suitcase and my backpack fit snugly underneath the desk, with plenty of legroom.
I plugged my phone into an available outlet, I checked my e-mail, I sat in uninterrupted contentment. The airport was busy, but the Jabbrrbox was still. $15 for solitude began to seem like a bargain, and a sort of giddiness over the obvious satisfaction of the concept despite my initial hesitations took hold. Was any price too high to get away from the bustle of it all? “I love this,” I messaged my co-worker. “This is the greatest decision I’ve ever made.”
Around five years ago, Brian Hackathorn found himself with an awkward forty-five minute gap in between meetings in Midtown Manhattan. It didn’t make sense to go back to his office on the train; there wasn’t enough time to get a real lunch. As he wandered around the area, thinking about how he could carve out some private time, the inefficiency dawned on him. “We’re all becoming much more mobile in our daily lives, but the physical infrastructure has never really supported that,” he told me over the phone.
He came up with an idea — the modern-day phonebooth — and, with some business partners, began developing what became Jabbrrbox, which officially launched in 2017. The Jabbrrboxes in LaGuardia are the first public installation.
Normally, Jabbrrboxes are pitched to offices with open floor plans. The open floor plan has infected the modern workplace, bunching employees into close proximity and forcing them to become hyperconscious about conducting private phone calls or meetings, opening up sensitive materials on their laptops, accidentally getting into a winded conversation with Jeff from Finance, eating a messy sandwich, etc.
The abolition of the cubicle was meant to foment a sort of spontaneous communication between co-workers. That’s true, but employers are beginning to recognize the need for privacy after they’ve knocked down all the walls. This is where Jabbrrbox comes in, theoretically — it can be moved around with convenience and fit for any available nook or cranny. “We’re not building code authorities, and we’re certainly not going to make any kind of announcement that one should not check with their architects or engineers,” Hackathorn said. “But you can actually move our products to support where your staff is moving. Instead of building the hard walls and traditional construction, people now are adapting and using our type of products.”
About two hundred Jabbrrboxes have been sold to private offices, and they aren’t cheap, costing about $13,000 (for one) or $24,000 (for two). That means the company has sold somewhere between two and five million dollars worth of product, according to the estimate provided.
The success of the vision, though, will rest on their ability to seamlessly integrate within the world around us. “Think about the voyage of a mobile worker as a prime user,” Hackathorn said. “They wake up in the morning; they get their Uber to the airport. They could find us there. They get to their next city. They jumped in a cab and they’re at their hotel. They could find us there, and as as they’re going for meetings throughout the day within that large city. They could find us through multiple building lobbies or hotel lobbies.”
“Providing the space throughout the motion of a person throughout the day is the big goal and the big idea,” he added. He demurred when asked about the specific popularity of the LaGuardia installation, but said it was doing fine: “I don’t necessarily want to go and announce what the metrics are at this point but the good thing is people are using it. We’ve proven the concept that people will go up to a device that they’ve never heard of never seen.”
“I think we’re making a bit of a shift back to having privacy back in our lives after we’ve all kind of lost that for a while”
What could the future of productivity be like, with Jabbrrbox (or the generic idea of a floating private space) now standard for most offices? Could you imagine a row of Jabbrrboxes at LaGuardia, each containing a focused businessman? “Our lives are so exposed — everything’s so out in the open and our devices have allowed that,” Hackathorn said. “I think people are yearning — whether it’s within their private office or out in public — to have a little bit of privacy to go in and have that phone call with their significant other, or your doctor, or talk to a colleague about something that you shouldn’t be talking about out in the open.”
“I think we’re making a bit of a shift back to having privacy back in our lives after we’ve all kind of lost that for a while,” he concluded.
For years, the abolition of privacy has been sold as the future. Beyond open offices is the tyranny of open information — the highly paid technologists curating the trends in modern living and absorbing all of our data seem to envision us swimming alongside each other with no separation, radical transparency bringing us closer until you know what Marcia’s kids eat for dinner (but not lunch), and can instantly register the fake gentility in Rob’s voice when he makes small talk with someone he hates. The future, according to someone, is a little like a series of gigantic loft apartment, each one cohabitated by hundreds and hundreds of people forced to figure out how they fit in with each other.
In reality, that dream kind of sucks. Nobody wants to sit so closely to someone they can get sneezed on; nobody wants their dirty laundry aired in public; nobody wants to know that much about Jeff or Marcia or Rob; nobody wants to look at a pair of shoes once and be followed by an ad for them for two months. Our individual selves could be subsumed into some Buddhist ideal if not for the inconvenience of our actual egos, and our actual bodies that naturally crave a little space for ourselves, along with the freedom to act how we want without fear of judgment. The part of seeking communal harmony might always be counterbalanced by the part that looks at other people and thinks, “Yeah, get away from me.”
There was something sad about having to pay a sort of exorbitant amount of money to get away from the world for 30 minutes — to value my privacy over the chance of having a spontaneous human interactions. But inside the pod, these concerns faded. The wi-fi was speedy; the lights were soothing; the photo booth was charmingly functional. It was quiet, an underrated thing in an airport.
The vagaries of the startup business mean functionality will only count for so much when it comes to popularizing the Jabbrrbox. They could stall out at their current installation rate; the public phone booths could go unused, or defaced by unruly teens; offices could once again be designed by people who understand how people want to interact. I preferred to think of it as a step in the right direction — a declaration that it was time to spend some time apart from each other. Before I left, I sent a final e-mail, and unplugged my phone. The time had whooshed by; my flight was about to board.