The Gilded Fishbowl

“Andrew McAfee’s coining of the “Varian Rule”(April 8) — that the future can be forecast by the increasing affordability of what the rich have today — has a corollary worth considering. The future may also be forecast by increasing middle class exposure to what the poor experience today. 

Like the Varian Rule, this would have predicted paternalistic bureaucracy, pervasive mass surveillance, the rude and antagonistic security apparatus, and debt traps. It may still predict a middle class epidemic of fatherless families, higher incarceration rates, skills obsolescence, usurious interest rates, substitution from healthy staples, and unstable employment.

Ceteris paribus, if one were taking bets, this corollary reflects a more plausible equilibrium.”

Letter to the Editor, Financial Times

“About the only part of a California house you can’t put your foot through is the front door.”

-Raymond Chandler

Privacy becomes an increasingly loaded topic as we hurtle into the digital future and discover more sophisticated and nuanced ways to compromise it. Like nuclear war in another era, privacy enjoys its moment as a widespread concern now that the necessary technology has aligned to make it matter. Privacy in a more innocent time meant keeping strangers from peeking into your backyard; today it’s protecting your identity, career, finances, and family from supposed good guys as well as bad guys to whom you’ve given access to the data trail your every action leaves, a trail that everyone must consent to creating if they hope to participate in contemporary life. The government, the biggest companies in the world, and hackers (which of those three groups are the “good guys”?) thus have insights about us that we don’t even have about ourselves, and the best case scenario, the one that we’re at least sure of, is that they merely use that data to make money off of us.

The familiar privacy paradox is that it can be difficult to imagine why privacy matters. There’s no alternative to constantly streaming your personal data on a multitude of devices, websites, and apps, the data collection occurs invisibly and silently, and the possible uses of that information aren’t entirely obvious, so it’s harder to worry about privacy than, say, ISIS. There’s the popular I-have-nothing-to-hide position, as well as security by obscurity—not being a person who matters enough to attract the attention of the NSA or Facebook, or the NSA via Facebook.

Because we don’t care enough about privacy as a society (although we must believe we do) or because we only think about it in weak, fuzzy ways, we get the version of it we deserve: privacy theater. Like “security theater,” the government’s empty post-9/11 efforts to create the feeling of protection through certain visible actions that didn’t make a difference, privacy theater comes in the form of terms of service and vague PR—actions unlikely to prevent a wide variety of intrusions that still must be seen by us, because that’s their whole purpose. Edward Felten used “privacy theater” to describe Facebook’s terms of service, saying “we pretend to have read sites’ privacy policies, and the sites pretend that we have understood and consented to all of their terms.”

Privacy theater, security theater, and every other kind of theater, which address their abstract goals with ham-fisted signals that have little bearing on their stated purpose, together suggest that much of the world is built for what in business jargon is called “optics.” While it’s tempting to blame this shortfall on pure cynicism and bad faith, there’s another possible explanation: failure to understand and adapt to a new reality.

With the suggestion that privacy theater is a kind of mistake, we find ourselves once again where we so often end up on this blog: Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control. Deleuze describes a progression from disciplinary societies that relied upon enclosures—“prison, hospital, factory, school, family”—to what we have now, the societies of control. In the former, one was only subjected to an institution’s discipline when one was physically there. Hence the exuberance of a student’s last day of school, a prisoner’s release date, or leaving work on Friday afternoon for the weekend—those were the moments that freedom was achieved. In the societies of control, these feelings are less common, because leaving the building doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Instead, we have “ultrarapid forms of free-floating control” like lifelong credit ratings, test scores, and never-empty email inboxes—information that follows us everywhere. Perhaps privacy is shorthand for freedom from these new modes of control: Not leaving a data footprint that feeds back into one’s profile is the equivalent of jumping the fence and leaving the confining enclosure, or not becoming trapped within those walls in the first place. Privacy theater is the outcome of organizations’ collective failure to fully grasp and acknowledge that we live in Deleuze’s society of control, and individuals’ failure to demand solutions on that level.

The suburban home may be the most concrete example of this failure to adapt to post-enclosure life. Philip Marlowe’s observation in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep—that you can break through any part of a California house but the front door—wryly acknowledges the fallacy: The walls of the house no longer keep intruders out, but the part of the house that symbolizes its obsolete function as miniature fortress, the door, still does. The builders had understood this and played along, seemingly in on the irony. Architectural theater in the service of security theater. Long gone are the days when solid walls were all that was needed to keep the bad out and the good in, or vice versa, and only the best architecture embraces this truth.

As an image and nothing else, the house-as-castle is alive and well in suburban America and elsewhere—the built counterpart to our facile dealings with privacy and security. The suburban model of societal atomization, whatever benefits it once offered, now amplifies risks in a society of control: Traditional safety nets, such as community ties, grow weaker, and this in turn delivers us more readily to the digital environments that monitor and track us. Those who have “nothing to hide” and who are ordinary enough not to become “persons of interest” will get their privacy, but in all the wrong ways: privacy from their neighbors and from their own community buy not from the state, or from the corporations for whom their behavior is a product.

The Varian Rule posits that what the rich have now will be what the middle class has eventually. The letter above extends this principle to the bad as well as the good, and privacy is the perfect domain in which to observe this less optimistic version of the law. In a strange op-ed about Apple and self-surveillance, Paul Krugman cites the Varian Rule before listing three reasons not to be concerned about consenting to continuously track and monitor oneself: that most people don’t have anything to hide; that most people aren’t interesting or important enough to raise any eyebrows; and that “lack of privacy is actually part of the experience of being rich” (again, Varian’s Rule). Sounding like an emissary from the most sinister camp in the privacy debate, Krugman crystallizes the reasons to care about the topic: because you might aspire to matter enough or be exceptional enough that his reasons not to care about privacy don’t apply to you, or because “the opportunity to live in a gilded fishbowl” is no opportunity at all. In our Deleuzian world of ultrarapid free-floating control, do you really want to make yourself as average as possible, just to hide?

 


On Escaping

Architecture is the inescapable art, writes Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin. In his essay explaining why he takes his role so seriously—to help Chicago get stuck with better (inescapable) buildings than it otherwise might—Kamin reveals an awkward quality of the urban built environment: It lags the conditions that generate it by decades. Briefly fashionable architectural styles like art deco continue to define entire districts of American cities a full century after construction. Buildings can’t adapt to the world with a speed anywhere near that of other more agile disciplines.

In a world eaten by software, it’s surprising that anyone tolerates the glacial pace by which buildings respond to our needs. At the same time, it’s not surprising, because we have no choice—architecture wouldn’t be the inescapable art if it offered the option of not tolerating it—and because throughout history we’ve solved most problems at that same slow speed. As a form of technology, buildings’ problems still belong to the substantial universe of problems that can’t be solved with a software update.

Buildings move too slowly at every stage: they arrive late to the party and then overstay their welcome. The informal settlements that flourish on the fringes of every economic boom and in the center of every rapidly urbanizing country, from North Dakota to Nigeria, are examples of the former: Real estate markets can’t keep pace when growth exceeds a certain rate. The Rust Belt’s shrinking cities are cases of the latter, where the population and built environment outlast the economic raison d’etre of cities and regions by generations. China, trying to short circuit these limitations by overbuilding new urban districts during a seemingly eternal boom phase, failed more interestingly, proving the aforementioned rule with the resultant ghost cities (or “unborn” cities) found throughout the country.

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     Image source

Maybe buildings move at the perfect speed, on the other hand, and save us from ourselves by not giving us what we want exactly when we want it. Like Congress as Jefferson imagined it, buildings stolidly filter our hysterical whims and produce a tamer version of them that we can actually live with. At a moment when instant gratification and generalized control over nearly everything continues to accelerate, when the laws of nature constrain less and less of experienced reality, we have at least one domain that refuses to dance to our flippant finger-tapped commands, that refuses to be hacked. Marc Augé describes how monuments humble the urban dweller and calibrate his perspective by reminding him that “they pre-existed him and will survive him.” Few of today’s most widely-used products provide such a reminder. The traditionally limited fields of social interaction, money, and information are increasingly dematerialized and escapable, but buildings still aren’t.

As a palimpsest bearing the imprints of bygone eras, the built environment offers an excellent record of static conditions over time, but little indication of the rates at which that environment is changing or the agents of that change. In Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House, he argues that bacteria, not humans, are the clearest case of evolutionary success by almost any criterion: ubiquity, quantity, durability, variety. Humans split the atom and produced The Sopranos, yes, but bacteria win in all the measurable categories. Gould goes on to suggest that complexity, where humans have the edge on bacteria, is an evolutionary disadvantage, and that from the broad perspective humans look more like a random accident while bacteria seem like “what evolution wants,” as numerous branches of genealogical history yield that result.

Gould presents success (in the evolutionary sense) as proliferation, abundance, and diversification. Success is specifically not a single outcome that the observer defines and then observes. The world is producing throngs of humans right now, but far more bacteria, as it always has. A broader perspective reveals that humans might currently be enjoying an impossibly brief lifespan, past its point of inflection and both preceded and succeeded by hordes of invisible organisms; that bacteria, not humans, are flourishing.

In surveying our contemporary environment, we can avoid the same fallacy that Gould diagnoses. The present is best understood by what we’re making more of, not what we’ve already built, although we will have to contend with plenty of both. This is where buildings, as the inescapable art, lead us astray: They tell us plenty about the past, but nothing about the future, except that many of them will be around for a while. In fact, the built environment misinforms us about the future through the lie that because it exists, it represents a force currently at work.

Keller Easterling calls those unseen forces shaping the future “spatial software.” Unlike the already-built—the hardware—this software is a better arena for architectural intervention, she argues, to anyone interested in affecting or improving the human environment. As the software of life is generating bacteria invisibly, the software of space is generating gated suburbs, golf courses, and free trade zones outside the purview of those who traditionally think about urban space. The built environment that most of us inhabit would de-emphasize the role of these phenomena, but the encoded rules generating the future environment, if they were monumental buildings, would make a much stronger impression on our sense of where we’re headed.

We need to understand the software producing the space of tomorrow because it’s what we can actually control, and what is actively generating the cumbersome sunk costs that might surround us for the rest of our lives. Winston Churchill said that we shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us. With this in mind, we need to decide what we’re currently creating that we shouldn’t be, what we need to be making more of than we currently are, and what we’ve inherited from the past that we should preserve. Much of the environment we’re freely and even casually shaping now will soon become a brick-and-mortar reality that, if executed poorly, will feel surprisingly inescapable as it continues shaping us.


Streams, Shapes & Junkspace

There are threads coming from all directions and sometimes they build knots. [It’s like] when you look at a map in the airline brochure in front of you and you see the pattern of their flights, and all of a sudden they have a hub in Atlanta and they have another hub in Salt Lake City, and all the lines converge there as if there were knots. There are certain places [like that] in probably each country; in the United States, I feel these focal points, these knots, where everything seems to converge, including the nightmares. Like San Quentin. One of the knots would be Wall Street—not that I’m saying Wall Street is evil.

Werner Herzog

Last week, Alabama beat Clemson in the college football championship, winning the game in a quintessential Non-Place: the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Never mind that the University of Phoenix could as easily refer to the mythical bird as the city, as weakly as the online school is associated with the latter; the stadium itself is also physically a non-place, a temporary staging area for 75,000 people to spend a few days and then leave. The same is true of any major sporting event, to a degree, but Glendale is no New Orleans, Miami, or even Pasadena—the Phoenix suburb has no identity beyond this single landmark, a perennial site of top-tier bowl matchups, Super Bowls, and Arizona Cardinals home games. At least the Giants’ stadium purports to be located in symbolically charged place (New York) even though it’s actually somewhere else (New Jersey).

Rather than being a place, Glendale’s stadium is pure infrastructure, a link in the supply chain of global image-making—a blank canvas on which to project thousands of spectators as human wallpaper behind events that millions more (the audience that matters) watch on TV. The permanent population that inhabits Glendale (200,000 people), along with whatever “placeness” the town possesses, is decoupled from the stadium and its brief annual presence in the national consciousness, excepting the few who invisibly work at the stadium or even attend the games.

The University of Phoenix Stadium is a focal point where a special intense kind of cultural energy can gather and disseminate, or a knot where everything appears to converge, as Herzog would put it. This isn’t an organic convergence, though. It’s carefully engineered by a coalition of corporate sponsors and media conglomerates.

In the past, locations couldn’t detach so completely from their cultural presence. The most compelling synecdoches are place names: Detroit, Hollywood, the Beltway, all specific locations symbolizing certain activities that have historically happened there. Those symbolic associations arose in an era when abstraction hadn’t reached its current level of sophistication, though. What happens when the location never even matters in the first place, and we encounter the outcome before its context? That’s what we now observe in Glendale and elsewhere: blank physical spaces, barren of meaning, for staging the information that will travel everywhere and detach entirely from its site. The University of Phoenix Stadium could float in space and still serve its purpose.

Walled off from their environs, megastructures like stadiums and airports sit empty and inert until global forces activate them for use. Their scale is so out of proportion to their surroundings that they can’t serve purely local purposes, a rule proven by absurd exceptions like the Superdome sheltering Hurricane Katrina victims. This world of sleek surfaces across which humans glide without ever coming to rest—Rem Koolhaas’ junkspace—has a huge population at any moment, but no permanent one. How, then, do human communities relate to junkspace?

As seafaring societies survive through the ocean without living in it, so the modern world survives by junkspace, or the space of flows, or whatever else you call this growing system of airports, offices, malls, and event spaces. The condition this infrastructure supports is not a nomadic one, no matter how convincingly “lifestyle design” or Up in the Air narratives suggest otherwise.

A paradigm shift is underway: As mobility and connectivity increase, more and more people don’t really live in places at all—they live in streams.

The concept of the stream is best explained by Venkatesh Rao in this post. The stream, he writes, is “a sort of slow, life-long communal nomadism, enabled by globalization and a sense of shared transnational social identity within a small population.” Stream inhabitants have home addresses although they often move around, and they’re not just affluent frequent flyers: expat/exile communities, long-term travelers, and opportunistic professionals relocating internationally to seize opportunities abroad are all stream inhabitants. I’m adding to this list certain categories of refugees, touring entertainers and athletes, traveling knowledge workers, online gamers, and myriad internet communities.

The stream metaphor is so valuable because it frees us from the confining dichotomy of sedentary vs. nomadic, a spectrum no longer adequate for describing growing segments of the population. The fluidity of life supported by high-speed global travel and nonstop global connectedness means that nomadism is no longer necessary. Would-be nomads can enjoy permanent addresses while they partake of far-flung places for short or long durations, whether pushed or pulled to those places; however, these individuals’ permanent addresses provide less information about their reality than ever before. If traditional sedentary life is a point on a map, stream life is a vector, with magnitude and direction, representing a pattern of movement.

Junkspace and its complements—refugee camps, informal settlements—are the infrastructure of the stream. The internet and air travel are the wormholes that connect and rewire the globe, shortening the distance between the places where we actually live our lives. In the future and even now, people we meet will care less where we’re from, and more what stream we inhabit.

A popular idea about the stream society just described is that the incessant commingling it represents has eroded regionalism—the distinctiveness of physical places. Instead of unique local music and art scenes in mid-sized towns across America, we get Spotify and a gradual move toward equilibrium as every style and sound becomes accessible to every listener and musician. Brian Eno says we now live in “a stylistic tropics” in which unlimited access to music has unleashed a proliferation of genres.

The stylistic tropics, in replacing regionalism, have brought about a cultural mode in which variation depends less upon place and more upon everything else: stream regionalism. Two neighbors in the same apartment building today might develop tastes as divergent as if they’d lived on opposite sides of the world, thanks to the internet. If space is losing its grip on culture, the notion of the hip neighborhood might become as archaic as the compact disc, a concept only useful for real estate sales, with each city block containing its own fragmented subcultures. As I’ve observed before, we navigate the stylistic tropics without any kind of map or big picture, by “surfing and swarming.” Your region or hometown in this world is just your stream, or a vector pointing in the direction you’re headed.

Recently, Foursquare offered an interesting take on the idea of streams in its approach to the data it collects. In trying to get a handle on the “pulse of a city,” Foursquare pays attention not only to where people are located at present, but also where they’ve been, what patterns appear in their movement, and who’s in their social network. Foursquare’s check-in data generates “shapes”—digital clouds that correspond to the true GPS footprints of coffee shops, bars, or restaurants. To me, though, Foursquare’s work evokes a different, broader meaning of shape, one that the company is also investigating: the shape of your life, graphed on the axes of space, time, and information. The intersection of your social relationships, movement through a city (and other cities), and the stuff you like. The overlap between your shapes and other peoples’ shapes and the probability that you will meet any of those “stream neighbors” in this overlap. Foursquare’s multidimensional data, spanning the visible and the invisible, is both a perfect metaphor for the stream and an early map of an emergent world.


Failure Space

In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.  These big five American vertically organized silos are remaking the world in their image.  

-Bruce Sterling, 2013

When you exit the freeway for the airport in any city, your peripheral vision probably catches some of the dead patches of grassy unused space between the shoulders of the roadway, or maybe a strip of dirt along the edges of the airport property, although your brain doesn’t register their existence.

This dead non-space isn’t any place you want to be. You wouldn’t ever wonder about it either, unless you design airports or recently read JG Ballard’s Concrete Island. Non-places like the scrubby patch of land on the freeway shoulder next to the chainlink fence enclosing the airport are the key landscapes of the present day, though.

A few years ago I wrote a guest post on Ribbonfarm about the “holey plane,” Lars Lerup’s metaphor for the atomized urban landscape of the late automobile age. I argued in that post that the texture of life—our experience of environments physical as well as digital—has become more connected but less continuous as we’ve gained more sophisticated means to bypass whatever we deem irrelevant to the goal at hand. That “search, don’t sort” philosophy first defined how we manage our Gmail inboxes but now extends to numerous facets of daily existence. Here, every route is the scenic route, meaning you won’t see any scenery unless you actively seek it out.

The similarity between the experience of cities and the internet, a perennial theme of this blog, may be due to the forces producing their common structure. Bruce Sterling described the “the Stacks” in the quote at the top of this post—the five platforms that dominated the internet a few years ago and have consolidated that dominance since then—leading Alexis Madrigal to wonder what would be left of the diminishing spaces between the Stacks: “Your technology will work perfectly within the silo and with an individual stack’s (temporary) allies. But it will be perfectly broken at the interfaces between itself and its competitors.”

If the “internet” was the traditional city, the Stacks are the holey plane, junkspace, enclaves, or any other euphemism trying to describe what replaced Main Street. Like a defunct URL from 1997, the space between closed systems like freeways or the airport tends to be perfectly broken. It might as well throw a 404 error. It’s where the hapless protagonist of Concrete Island got stuck when he fell through a hole in the Holey Plane: Failure Space. You end up there by making a mistake, or more likely by trying something that didn’t work because the Stacks don’t support it.

Failure Space is where trash finally accumulates after blowing across every other surface. It’s where we imagine the homeless might set up a peaceful encampment, although we rarely glimpse that. It’s where Emilio Estevez got chased in Repo Man and where John Cusack got dumped back into reality in Being John Malkovich. It’s everywhere and multiplying rapidly. Places you try to visit once and then stop trying.

Failure Space accrues in the annihilation of everything not part of a larger closed (and usually private) system. A common misconception is that all this dead space is a tragedy. It’s not; there’s plenty of space to go around. Failure Space is tragic because it’s the contour of a different kind of space, the Stacks, and it makes up more and more of the world we produce beyond those platforms’ rigid borders.


Narratives of the Invisible

“In this final, stultifying stage of capitalism, we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies. By poetic technologies I refer to the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality.”

-David Graeber

David Graeber is disappointed that we still don’t have flying cars, despite being promised them when he was a kid. He has been upset about this for a while. Who promised him flying cars and who let him down?

Graeber’s 2012 essay about the thrilling sci-fi future foretold throughout his youth blames bureaucracy and the dysfunctional culture of late capitalism for limiting the technological possibilities of the future to prosaic outcomes like smartphones, email, and sophisticated imagery displayed on screens. In this assessment, though, he fails to account for countless other advances that are as stunning as any house-cleaning robot. While Graeber may be right that the novel technologies of recent generations—driving a sports car or landing on the moon—are more romantic and exciting than staring at screens, checking websites, or friending one’s friends, his argument attacks a straw man: Of course the most mundane uses of today’s new technology don’t inspire us like the extraordinary ones imagined in mid-century science fiction, which had no responsibility to become real or serve any purpose but entertainment.

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                     Image source

Take one earth-shaking invention of the past century: the automobile. Cars were “poetic” enough in their genesis to incite Filippo Marinetti’s 1908 declaration in the Futurist Manifesto that the roar of their engines was more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samathrace. Decades later, driving a car came to symbolize everything that is not poetic about technology: traffic, boredom, danger, air pollution, and antisocial living arrangements. The “generational promise” of flying cars, in other words, was not first broken in the Internet Age. Most poetic technology eventually turns out not to be poetic.

Still, I have the same question as Graeber: Why did these midcentury predictions about the future turn out so wrong?

Five years ago I was having a drink at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noticing the countless iPhone screens twinkling in the dim lighting, when I had a revelation: A wildly advanced version of the future was already upon us, in which the average human could control more aspects of his own life from a seat at that bar than his predecessors could control from anywhere, but that future didn’t look any different than the world 40 years earlier. Everything in the bar was made of wood, the TVs had only slightly slimmed down and improved their resolution, and the entertainment was still booze, dartboards, and jukeboxes. Aside from all those glowing phone screens, and the bent posture of their users who couldn’t stop looking at them, a visiting time traveler from 1975 would have little to be amazed at. Robots weren’t serving the drinks and jetpacks weren’t parked outside. The Lindy Effect notwithstanding, this environment was more technologically advanced than any futuristic-looking one would have been: The barroom and its relationship to the rest of the world was entirely different from its similar-looking 1970s version, thanks to technology that I couldn’t even see.

Lately, one can feel like technological development is moving as fast as ever, while becoming less visible all the time. George Gilder called it the “overthrow of matter” (by information). The evolution of hardware has slowed down only relative to that of software, which keeps improving at a relentless pace. If I can communicate with any friend or family member in the entire world between drinks at a local bar, and probably get a reply right away, how is that not “poetic technology”?

Today, the divergence between the visible prediction and the invisible outcome amounts to gross inaccuracy. One hundred or two hundred years ago, the most important technologies manifested themselves with almost violent visibility, but gone are the days when microwave ovens or space shuttles symbolized the cutting edge. Developments in machine learning, materials science, and biotechnology, not to mention the internet (the eventual fruits of what Lewis Mumford called the Neotechnic era of technology), form a largely unseen matrix that massively impacts daily life, and to the reflective observer, these are equally “poetic” as flying cars, if not more so. Meanwhile, the camera-friendly bread and butter of any well-paid futurist—self-driving cars, drones, and wearables—are still images more than meaningful realities to almost everyone, and might always be, even if a drone looks better on the cover of Wired than an algorithm does.

If you can’t see something, can you still tell a story about it? Iain Softley, the director of the iconic early-internet-era movie Hackers, encountered this problem talking to the real hackers on whom the film was based. “I remember trying to persuade the director, suggesting that if you want to be true to what a hacking or technical experience actually looks like, you should show more text on screen. And he was not interested in that,” recalls Omar Wasow in a fascinating oral history of the movie’s production. Softley says, “I wanted the way that audiences saw the computer world to be similar to how our hackers felt when they were online. So I came up with what I called The City of Text. Which was this parallel, interior micro-world, with these luminous database towers, that very consciously was meant to look like the streets of Manhattan.” Like The Matrix a few years later, Hackers was one of the few successful representations of an abstracted present-day activity that embraced a kind of drama not easy to capture on film. In contrast to the reality I observed in the bar, these movies actually looked like the future. They had to make the invisible visible in order to work.

We should learn how to build more compelling narratives of the invisible, if not to predict the future then at least to understand the present. Ironically, the need for this subtlety arises at a time when images saturate life more than ever, thanks to the very forces that fail to impress Graeber and others in their invisibility.


Code for the Heavy World

“In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in rustbelt cities and ghost suburbs across the US, the failure was so spectacular that many properties ceased to be mortage products. No longer standing for money, it was as if they returned to a gravitational field.”

-Keller Easterling

The most literal example of software eating the world may be the “internet of things,” an umbrella term for the wiring and networking of physical objects from thermostats to cars to cities that makes them smarter and more efficient. The term itself can be puzzling: Before the internet, there were just things, and now there’s an internet of things, but how is that not just another way of describing a world (consisting of things) that is now connected by the internet?

Another way of asking that: If the internet of things makes objects smart and connected, does that mean they were dumb and disconnected until now? Even by a strict definition, objects have been wired and incorporated into digital networks for decades. High-speed vehicles from the car to the plane long ago ushered into society a network map of the world delineated by travel times rather than distances or physical paths, a graph of nodes and vectors more than a visual portrayal of the places we inhabit. The global city in the aviation age, linked to much of the world by less than a day of travel time, was smarter than it had ever been before.

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Source: Gizmodo

Keller Easterling writes that “space, without digital or media enhancement, is itself information.” There’s an internet of things apart from the internet, even today. The junked trailers littering post-oil-boom North Dakota, discussed in my last post, are part of an internet of things that has nothing to do with technology embedded in the trailers themselves. Rather, the trailers are objects in a broader information landscape comprising commodity prices, job availability, and the real estate market: a software that generates and redistributes the spatial demand for temporary and permanent housing in North Dakota, driving its construction and subsequent dereliction. “Code for the heavy bulky world” is what Easterling has called this. Housing demand may be pure information (the code), but the supply is the heavy, physical part, and it necessarily lags in responding to that information.

The truly connected object takes its digital cues more quickly and consistently than a trailer in North Dakota—a self-driving car swerving to avoid a pedestrian, guided by real software. But the same spread of that software, in producing the internet of things, has accelerated the responsiveness of all space to information, as well as its saturation by information. Lars Lerup, in his essay “Stim and Dross,” describes a party he attends in Houston at an art patron’s house: “When toggled on, the stim’s shimmering lights attract its participants like moths sucked out of the darkness of the city…And when the lights are turned low, the guests and caterers depart, the stim is turned off and the house and its occupants are again mere dross on the littered city floor.”

Information, along with the infrastructural systems that support and carry it, can be life or death to physical as well as digital spaces. They exist regardless, but information makes them matter or not. Yelp might “toggle on” a specific restaurant as the New York Times might toggle on a neighborhood or novel. Dropping oil prices have toggled off towns in North Dakota, just as rising prices toggled them on several years ago. With or without chips and sensors, what is an internet of things if not a world that dances so well to such explicit instructions?


After the Gold Rush

“From this moment on, continuity no longer breaks down in space, not in the physical space of urban lots nor in the juridical space of their property tax records. From here, continuity is ruptured in time, in a time that advanced technologies and industrial redeployment incessantly arrange through a series of interruptions, such as plant closings, unemployment, casual labor, and successive or simultaneous disappearing acts. These serve to organize and then disorganize the urban environment to the point of provoking the irreversible decay of neighborhoods, as in the housing development near Lyon where the occupants’ “rate of rotation” became so great—people staying for a year and then moving on—that it contributed to the ruin of a place that each inhabitant found adequate…”

-Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City”

North Dakota has urban decay that could drive away. “There are empty campers everywhere,” says one North Dakotan interviewed for this article, describing the abandoned trailers that litter the shale towns of a thinly populated state overwhelmed this past decade by a fracking-induced flood of migrant labor. The speed of the initial boom and the frantic need for labor meant neither the oil industry nor the workers could afford to wait for permanent settlements to develop, lest they leave money on the table, so like the gold rushers of yesteryear the arriving workers stayed in trailers, shacks and “man camps” while the real estate market tried to catch up.

The present slump in oil prices, having reduced the viability of fracking, means that last year’s fully-employed roughnecks are this year’s surplus labor, and so is their quickly-built housing, mobile as well as stationary.

Natural resources have always stirred up strange eddies in economies and cultures, from tulip bubbles to gold rushes, but information and money move faster in the destabilized contemporary version (that Nassim Taleb calls Extremistan) and those eddies are increasingly the choppy texture of the landscape rather than breaks in a smooth surface. Global commodity prices can make a local commodity effectively disappear: In North Dakota, cheap oil stays underground when drilling through shale to get it becomes a money-losing operation, despite no natural or human-caused change in the local environment. In such an event, even houses with wheels—the nomadic huts of the modern industrial world—become sunk costs and can’t travel fast enough to simply take advantage of the next opportunity. Instead their inhabitants (drivers?) scatter elsewhere, in planes and cars, not necessarily to the next oil boom site (which doesn’t just pop up as a replacement) but to a multitude of other gigs and industries.

The Virilio passage above instructs us that there’s a dimension of reality that moves faster all the time, and another that stands still by comparison. The latter encompasses cities, housing, and usually the people who live there, while the former comprises the information that sets the values and prices that determine how much those houses are worth, what jobs will exist in those cities, and ultimately whether it’s time to leave those places entirely. Continuity breaks down in time, not space, through “a series of interruptions”—the residents of Watford City, North Dakota were in the wrong place, then the right place, then the wrong place again, and it may yet become the right place again, depending on the schedule of said interruptions.

Human settlements in Taleb’s Extremistan are the residue that remains when the economic tide goes out, and as the speed of information accelerates, those ruins—the lifeless objects that remain when their usefulness goes away—will keep looking fresher than ever and might even seem brand new.


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