#132: Internal Wrangler

“Where should I live?” is a popular question to be asking oneself right now. Since long before 2020, Americans have demonstrated an inclination to deal with problems by moving to a different place; because of the country’s deep history of immigration, westward expansion, and aggressive suburbanization, that urge is in our DNA. Beyond the country’s expansiveness, its infrastructure and political system encourage a particular kind of rootless mobility and sensitivity to relocation-based opportunity. During the pandemic, of course, a lot of people have moved, temporarily or permanently, and while there are plenty of rational or even opportunistic reasons to do so, like jobs or kids, moving also seems like an instinctive response to the trauma of this period: If the past four months were rough, location is one key variable you might try changing. The problem right now, at least within the United States (since many other countries have tamed the coronavirus), is a lack of places to truly escape to. Leaving New York and heading to Florida seemed like a reasonable plan in March, but now that’s reversed; the theory that some places are fundamentally safer than others due to their density, climate, or governance seems particularly questionable at the moment. The most intelligible rationale, regardless of region, favors some form of suburbanization: The ability to trade compromised public space for virus-free private space and wall oneself off from the infectious outside world as needed. But people are moving for many reasons besides that.

While we can’t quite physically escape from a pandemic, it’s easier than ever to escape from an undesirable version of reality itself, and retreating from meatspace is one potential way to do so. I’ve previously cited Ian Bogost’s early March article, You Already Live in Quarantine, which argued that before coronavirus, many formerly public activities had transitioned to the domestic and digital realms and that “the benefits of a life online have begun to outweigh the costs for some Americans.” One could make a symmetrical and equally cynical argument now: You will continue to live in quarantine indefinitely. Following the virus’s acceleration of online-first life, the relaxation of mandatory lockdowns has precipitated a fragmentation of attitudes about which modes of existence are currently possible, with some people planning to stay inside as long as possible and others already back to socializing and eating at restaurants again. Today, Reggie James tweeted that the question for America now is “How many realities can you live in concurrently?” and in posing that question, he acknowledges that no single reality is currently mandatory. In contrast to the mass alignment the world experienced in March and April, my Brooklyn neighborhood is once again teeming with activity and I have the option of switching among various realities during a single day.

Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” I’ve always understood that to mean physically embodied reality, but that’s only partially true. About a year ago, I gave a talk at Ribbonfarm’s annual Refactor Camp about Los Angeles and enclave urbanism, arguing that LA pioneered a form of existence in which the built environment itself became a mechanism for escaping a more dominant reality and opting out of the master narrative. Even the traditional form of the city, characterized by density, public plazas, and pedestrian friendly streetscapes, has gradually become its own kind of fantasy, another simulation marketed to certain demographics and reproduced most faithfully in theme parks like Disneyland and outdoor malls like The Grove. Today, the demand for similar forms of escape promises to impart LA’s qualities to cities everywhere (a process that was already well underway). Back in March, I predicted that “more affluent urban populations will have largely retreated from urban public space, a transition facilitated by gig labor and privatized enclaves.” This has clearly happened, although it remains to be seen how it will endure in the coming months and years. Reality may yet prove to be whatever’s left when we disconnect from everything else, but for now that foothold will elude us, because we’re less likely than ever to log off.