#100: End of a Century

We made it to 100! It only took two and a half years. The first issue went out on 2/8/17 and borrowed its title from a White Zombie song. That was the only installment I’ve ever sent on a day other than Friday, and the only one that contained more than three paragraphs. I’m pleased to see that “the weird tension of the Blade Runner world we inhabit” actually did turn out to be what this newsletter is *about* (although I still don’t quite know what it’s about, as you’ll learn if you ever see me try to explain it to someone who asks). It’s been awesome to meet many of you in person and communicate digitally with many more of you—and if we’ve never talked before, feel free to say hi.

Last week I saw Tyler Cowen do a live interview with urban planner Alain Bertaud, and Bertaud said that the new proletariat in places like the United States no longer consists of industrial workers, but rather people who are forced to commute for three or more hours a day because they can’t live near their jobs. Bertaud’s definition is interesting because it encompasses many who might actually earn above-average incomes but face constraints that force them to buy a particular, geographically-suboptimal array of stuff at a given price tier, including housing and transportation—an updated version of poverty that’s native to the consumer credit era. One hundred years ago, speed was a pure luxury; today, the wealthy are more hypermobile than ever while many more are forced to orbit repetitively through vast metropolitan agglomerations. Or, as Ivan Illich wrote in 1973, “An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips.” Mobility and displacement have always accompanied desperate circumstances, but the three-hour daily commute is a particularly mundane and modern variant that depends on expensive motorized travel, which its participants have no choice but to buy.

While those who can’t afford to live in expensive cities are pushed into constant movement, there’s a countervailing force that seems poised to provide a strange form of relief: the ongoing decrease in the price of entertainment and consumer goods. The internet, Netflix, video games, and even hardware like flat-screen TVs represent a massive leap in entertainment available per dollar, improving the cost effectiveness of staying home versus venturing into the relatively expensive outside world. Maybe this, rather than any transportation objective, is the true promise of self-driving cars: combining the megacommute and the consumer entertainment paradise into a single frictionless experience, decoupled from the scarce real estate that is the only real limit on either. Then, for the shrinking number of people who can still afford it—who have the time as well as the money—there will be the city.