#127: Night Society

The art critic Dave Hickey, praising his adopted hometown, wrote that “America is a very poor lens through which to view Las Vegas, while Las Vegas is a wonderful lens through which to view America. What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility.” That description came to mind after a recent conversation about whether Las Vegas could possibly bounce back from a crisis that seems to specifically threaten indoor environments—although this week’s photos of Floridians playing blackjack behind plexiglass dividers suggest that the city will bounce back whether it should or not. For now, though, the pandemic presents an existential crisis for Las Vegas, probably the most architecturally important American city of the past half century, having pioneered the inversion of indoors and outdoors that Rem Koolhaas describes in Junkspace (a surprisingly relevant quarantine read): “Air-conditioning has launched the endless building. If architecture separates buildings, air-conditioning unites them.” In a pandemic, the “endless building” is precisely what we don’t want, but the fact that we’ve built so much of it, from airports to malls to offices, paints us into a corner right now, especially as we begin to emerge from quarantine and look for places outside of our homes that we can safely occupy. As Hickey observed, Las Vegas exhibits more extreme and openly acknowledged versions of the conditions that also characterize more ordinary places; we didn’t quite realize how much of life happened indoors until everything closed, and I imagine that right now in Vegas there isn’t much to do at all.

If the coronavirus’s negative impact on the public environment has any silver lining, it’s the potential to turn the contemporary city’s “endless building” inside out. This has already happened on an ad hoc basis as traditionally indoor activities move outdoors because they have to, and the informal nature of the transition has largely preceded the infrastructure to monetize those activities as effectively as enclosed spaces do (which is surely coming). Koolhaas also writes, “Junkspace expands with the economy but its footprint cannot contract—when it is no longer needed, it thins. Because of its tenuous viability, Junkspace has to swallow more and more program to survive.” As long as interior space seems dangerous to so many potential customers, it will be difficult for junkspace to swallow enough program to satisfy its appetite, but perhaps it will better adapt itself to the outdoors. Either way, it will likely keep thinning. In the meantime, the explosion of scrappy street-facing takeout business and the heightened utilization of public space in lieu of interiorized consumption has been one of the few joyful side effects of coronavirus. Ideally, commerce can escape from junkspace more permanently, indoors as well as outdoors. Probably not in the desert though.

Hans Ibelings concludes his 2002 book Supermodernism with his own reflections on Las Vegas, echoing Dave Hickey: “The urban landscape on either side of Las Vegas Boulevard, which is simultaneously hilarious and depressing, unique and redundant, kitschy and original, irrepressible and totally controlled, is no more than a scaled-up version of what is happening in countless other places.” What was happening in 2002, Ibelings argued, was “tourist-style consumption” spreading beyond tourist destinations themselves to suffuse everyday life, thanks to globalization and hypermobility, with architecture responding by orienting itself toward experience consumption as well. The internet has since intensified these trends in ways Ibelings couldn’t have imagined in the early ‘00s and now, at a moment when actual tourism has cratered and most of us are frozen in place, the digitally-mediated tourist gaze is the primary way we can access anything outside of our homes. The pandemic has made the rest of the world a bit more like Las Vegas: timeless, post-spatial, and detached from the blinding brightness of the outside world we’ll eventually stagger back into.


#126: Planet Waves

On Tuesday, I rode my bike from Brooklyn into Manhattan and walked around Central Park for a few hours. Pausing at 59th and 5th Ave on my way back—a place that feels like the center of the universe under normal circumstances—there was a brief moment in which I couldn’t see a single car. Across the street, Apple’s iconic cube store, as empty as everything else, momentarily reminded me of this bizarre blog post calculating how the entire world population could fit inside a single cube that would itself sit comfortably in midtown Manhattan (using the same ambitious assumptions, the Empire State Building could hold 6.3 million people). The lesson of that exercise, of course, is how much space the world has for us, and the fact that so many of us still cram into big cities and skyscrapers only means that other parts of the world are even more desolate. From within the five boroughs, the world seems like a crowded place—especially if you spend all your time here—but the city’s current sense of emptiness reveals something that’s always true but usually less obvious: There are two parallel Americas, a crowded one and a spacious one, each determined more by its inhabitants’ resources than their domiciles. New York is a zone where the two overlap.

A couple weeks into quarantine, in late March, Chris Arnade listed off the various “pandemic classes” in a Twitter thread, ranging from “very wealthy: in mansions making annoying as fuck videos” down to “very poor: in shelters, public housing, on streets, or Section 8,” a group for whom many of the usual public haunts have now become inaccessible. In between these two extremes, Arnade identifies several other tiers, each defined by the amount of private space it commands: Some people own or rent multiple residences; others can afford an extended Airbnb stay; and many more have remained in their single comfortable home, not having to share their living space with too many family members or roommates. But pandemic-empty NYC is still crowded for many, despite offering others plenty of room even in its busiest moments. This distinction, of course, raises more questions about how we allocate space—a process defined as much by what’s absent as what’s present and thus harder to see than a misallocation of food or health care. Sometimes market forces clear people out of a place to make way for emptiness.

A year ago I wrote a newsletter about the absurd phenomenon of New York real estate developers designing high-rise residential towers with 160-foot tall “mechanical voids” at their bases in order to inflate those apartments’ value by lifting them further off the ground. Right now, the joke appears to be on the developers, as elevator-dependent high rises are specifically what people don’t want. But that doesn’t change the original fact that humans get pushed out of desirable locations to make room for someone else’s empty space, and while that dynamic will likely become more horizontal for a while, it will keep happening and might even intensify. While crowdedness is one thing that various classes experience differently, another is mobility, which has become more equal under quarantine: Normally, “an elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips,” a statement Ivan Illich made in 1973 that only became more true in the years since. With vacations and (most) commutes currently paused, domestic space gains proportional importance, but that stasis also means we’re not using much oil, and fully-loaded tankers are loitering on the open sea as the oversupply grows with nowhere to put it. Another market distortion that leaves a strange spatial footprint: With the activities that normally consume them on hold, commodities roam the earth aimlessly and people finally stay home.


#125: Tears in Rain

One of my favorite McLuhanisms is a 1964 observation about the rise of the automobile: “The horse has lost its role in transportation but has made a strong comeback in entertainment.” It’s a perfect expression of how obsolescence doesn’t necessarily mean total disappearance, as we sometimes expect it will in the moment, but instead just narrows the space in which the outmoded technology operates. Similar fates befell media like vinyl records and mail correspondence, which have since settled into their own happy little corners of the world. Following multiple decades of aggressive, overt technological disruption—a process that seemed eager to fully annihilate its targets—we’ve all been trained to anticipate what will perish next, and sometimes even welcome its demise. The current upheaval we’re experiencing is the ideal petri dish for such ideation: With everything rapidly changing and fewer other ways to engage with the outside world, we sit at home and channel unprecedented collective energy into anxious predictions about what the post-pandemic future will entail. While there’s no strong consensus about what new creations will emerge from this, there’s more agreement about what will be eliminated or severely curtailed, temporarily or permanently. If creative destruction excites you, this is your Super Bowl.

A pandemic isn’t progress, of course. Nobody expects restaurants or gyms to become obsolete, although fear of the next coronavirus will likely become an enduring feature of life in many places, as happened with terrorism twenty years ago. But this event threatens to accelerate many already-developing trends, thereby consolidating the effects of a disruptive progress that was advancing at a slower pace beforehand. So, some portion of work will become remote and stay that way, but not entirely due to the pandemic. Like McLuhan’s horse, much of what’s currently threatened won’t vanish; one reason horses found a new role following the car’s ascendance was that there were still a lot of (distressed) horses around. A year from now, there will still be lots of office space, but as the broad need for it shrinks—as offices become increasingly optional for many—maybe they’ll assume a more whimsical or even nostalgic role, as records and letters did. Danny Hillis once defined technology as “everything that doesn’t work yet,” prompting the following corollary from Kevin Kelly: “Successful inventions disappear from our awareness. Electric motors were once technology—they were new and did not work well. As they evolved, they seemed to disappear, even though they proliferated and were embedded by the scores into our homes and offices. They work perfectly, silently, unminded, so they no longer register as ‘technology.’” Taking this idea one step further, the afterlife of an obsolete technology is the phase when it finds a more modest purpose and finally reenters our field of awareness (now we say “horses” whenever we drive past some horses).

Not every technology is fortunate enough to have an afterlife, though. The persistence of archaic objects conceals the utter disappearance of much else that was less durable and left no trace. Frederic Jameson writes, “What we call modern is the consequence of incomplete modernization and must necessarily define itself against a nonmodern residuality.” Once that residuality vanishes, the idea of “modern” fades with it and the postmodern commences. Hence the permanent postmodernism of the internet, which buries its past much more thoroughly than the physical world does. Myspace didn’t reappear in a new context once its period of original usefulness passed. But again, the inertia of the built environment is one reason for encouragement during a crisis that appears to specifically threaten the physical and spare the digital: The former is ultimately harder to leave behind. Rather than erasing the outside world, the pandemic creates the momentary illusion that meatspace is becoming obsolete and, by breaking it, makes it visible again.


#124: The Way We Never Were

I wrote a piece for Real Life this week about how the pandemic has pushed us deeper into the digitally-mediated world that we already inhabited beforehand, and how losing access to shared physical space accelerates that process while revealing the painful limitations of online-first existence. In the essay, I argue that physical space is a necessary complement to the internet: The latter is at its best when interwoven with the former, rather than existing independently of it. With every week that passes, we gain appreciation for the mundane rituals of embodied existence that we rarely noticed before they became forbidden, like hugging a friend or being in a crowd, but it’s possible we’re also idealizing a mode of existence from which we’d drifted away long before coronavirus put it entirely on hold. Spending six weeks at home has been surprisingly easy because a robust infrastructure was already in place to support remote work as well as the Seamless and Netflix yuppie lifestyle. The United States was entirely unprepared for a pandemic in most important ways, but we had accidentally prepared for an extended quarantine. We can’t pretend we were utilizing meatspace to the fullest when we actually could, although it’s hard to believe that now.

In 2001, when the countryside was just a glimmer in his eye, Rem Koolhaas declared that “real life is inside, while cyberspace has become the great outdoors.” In retrospect, real life was more outside than we realized twenty years ago, at least relative to how we were living just before this pandemic and certainly relative to how we’re living during it. The discourse around “reopening the economy” has fascinated me for precisely this reason, as it accidentally admits that we have nothing to reopen but the economy, which basically encompasses everything. The current period of full digital immersion feels like the culmination of an atomized neoliberal dystopia administrated by Amazon—a “capsular civilization”—and our desire to reopen things is probably driven by our repulsion from this environment as much as an attraction to the physical spaces that are temporarily closed, as well as our need to restore the balance with meatspace that makes the internet more enjoyable. As the American urban environment has grown increasing privatized, consumption has been the primary way to engage with it. Spaces where we can do anything other than eat, drink, shop, or exercise have diminished, swallowed up by what Koolhaas calls junkspace. In other words, the outside world has assumed a lot of the same qualities as the contemporary internet over time.

Thankfully, the physical domain is subject to more inertia than its digital counterpart, and is harder to push toward full monetization. Since the quarantine began, I’ve been taking a lot of walks and bike rides. In New York, the parts of the city that aren’t defined by consumption are specifically what’s still open. Junkspace is closed and we can only occupy the interstitial spaces between establishments searchable on Yelp. The exterior urban environment has unintentionally decoupled from the economy, and to spend time outdoors in these conditions is to re-establish a more direct relationship to space that normally extracts value from us at every turn. The primary way we experience much of that space under normal circumstances is by passing through it on the way to somewhere else; now, momentarily, that “somewhere else” isn’t available. The official act of reopening cities will signify the reintegration of space and the economy, but when that finally happens, hopefully, we’ll remember what we learned during this time—that the two aren’t as inseparable as they seem.


#123: Debaser

In an interview during the brief run of his unpopular sitcom The Norm Show, Norm MacDonald explained how even if nobody watches a network TV show, it still gets credited with a million or so viewers because so many people just leave their TVs on all day. Sometime in the last few years, I started thinking about that observation as a metaphor for the economy and how we experience it personally—or like a platoon of a million semi-trucks barreling down the highway, all of which would keep going for a while if their drivers took their feet off the gas. Last month, all the drivers did let up on the gas at the same time, and now the trucks are all coasting to a standstill at once, which is a weird thing to watch. But during ordinary pre-pandemic life, individual parts of the economy would seemingly coast on similar momentum, and we would barely notice. Or to return to the TV metaphor, we’d just leave the TV on in the living room, and shows we’d never even heard of would keep putting up numbers. But now, suddenly, we’re actually running out of shows, figuratively if not literally.

Economically, what’s happening right now seems deflationary (despite money printer go brrr) but in a cultural sense we are witnessing unquestionable deflation. Six weeks is long enough to break a lot of habits and to forget about things that didn’t really matter, or at least stop doing them consciously. We will eventually find a way to resume doing anything we truly value—we’ll go to restaurants again and we’ll even shake each other’s hands. But I suspect it will be a long time before I resume the practice of eating dinner at a restaurant I don’t like that much just because I wanted to catch up with a friend and we couldn’t think of anything better to do. Instead of The Norm Show playing to an empty living room while everyone else is taking a nap, the equivalent of The Norm Show won’t exist, and the TV might not be on at all. I abhor most of the generalized “new normal” takes I’m seeing these days but I feel confident that the societal reset currently underway will wipe out a lot of our most mindless activity, behaviorally and economically—and not just due to the shorter-term risks involved.

This is merely a silver lining to the current situation, of course—I don’t even think it’s a desirable outcome. I’d have welcomed such a reset if it came from our own measured introspection as a culture, but as with any crisis-driven upheaval, the collateral damage of this contraction will outweigh the benefits. All of that bloat employs a lot of people and it’s unhealthy as well as traumatic to unwind it like this. Last November, I wrote a post about “money sloshing around” in a then-overheated economy and how that excess manifested in culture as overtourism and “hordes chasing after prizes that look surprisingly mediocre on closer inspection.” Right now, we have the exact opposite of that—a mandatory global fast that suppresses consumption at every level. Nothing is sloshing around right now except Zoom calls and anxiety (and oil, I guess). When it all starts returning, it’s likely to creep back slowly. Another post I wrote one year ago, “Paleo Internet,” similarly grappled with that erstwhile abundance, describing how mass-market expansion fuels demand for artificially-scarce artisanal alternatives and vice versa in an endless cycle. Despite the timing, the conclusion of that one feels more pertinent than ever: As digitally-mediated human interaction becomes cheap and ubiquitous, access to in-person human interaction becomes a luxury good. Right now you can only get it on the black market, but it will still be more expensive when it comes back.


Loading more posts…