#117: Another Green World

Rem Koolhaas’ Countryside exhibition opened at the Guggenheim Museum this week, providing an opportunity to ask the question that the concept of “countryside” always implies: Where does the countryside begin, and where does the city end? Pondering this inevitably forces us to define what a city is, a distinction that has never been stable. Cities used to be centers of industrial production, but many have pushed large-scale manufacturing elsewhere and evolved into zones of pure knowledge work, cultural production, and advanced consumption. Many of the world’s biggest cities—certainly New York—are surrounded by amorphous (and growing) zones of warehousing and logistical distribution that don’t fit neatly into any category, because they’re not really meant to be classified or thought about at all. And that leads me to one definition of a city that has remained consistent over time, as every other activity flows in and out: Cities are where our culture locates activities that are supposed to be seen, because we’ve collectively decided they matter.

Cities perform this visibility function even when they’re illegible, and when their more traditional roles are in flux or crisis. I just revisited an Adam Curtis interview on Chapo Trap House from late 2016 (a month after the US election) where Curtis discusses the ‘80s trend of movies like Escape from New York and RoboCop that take place in decaying city centers full of “weird, mad people in post-goth outfits” He continues, “It’s exciting and fun and weird and frightening, and everyone else has moved to the suburbs” before predicting that this is what the internet will become: a strange swamp where everyone sensible has left, an escapist post-truth zone where people go to have fun. My reaction to Curtis’ assessment sort of surprised me: I thought it sounded more appealing than the internet we have now. I don’t agree with his prediction, but that’s only because the bulk of the internet is so thoroughly regimented and corporate that, aside from chaotic nooks and crannies like the comments on YouTube videos, the internet is more like the suburbs the sensible people escaped to than the residual city they escaped from. Rob Horning makes this analogy explicit: “Facebook, as well as suburbia, make it seem natural that one would only associate with certain types of people, the ones that are just like you, the ones that make your marketing demographic most explicit and concrete.”

But the limitations of Curtis’ analogy support my point: In the physical built environment, cities are still the loci of narrative creation, even if that’s largely symbolic. Online, legibility is much stronger in controlled platform space—it’s engineered for that purpose. As global cities become increasingly corporate and legible themselves, suburban tropes like the enclosed shopping mall proliferate within their borders, now more photogenic (and thus visible) than ever. And all the stuff that gets pushed out of the city—the manufacturing, the warehousing, the environmental degradation, and the poverty—becomes invisible enough that the city dwellers can mostly forget about it. As those unseen exurban systems grow, meanwhile, their tentacles reach back into the city, moving retail goods from the cloud to our front doors without demanding that we even consider the vehicle that physically drove the packages there. Once we can’t even see that, can we really claim to live in a city at all?