#133: Border Ska

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The other day, my friend described to me how his son’s college is letting students back onto campus for the fall semester, but planning to send any student home immediately who tests positive for coronavirus. In my friend’s case, home would mean an apartment in New York City—obviously not a great destination for a kid with COVID. For that matter, no place is a good place for someone with COVID to end up, including the place where they already are (especially if that’s a college campus), but what’s interesting here (and in many other places) is that there’s no prevailing notion of a socially-optimal solution, or any collective effort to find the location where a contagious student might transmit the least amount of disease overall. Instead, one institution exports a problem out of its purview, without regard for its impact elsewhere. This is clearly a policy failure—who would expect anything in the United States to ever be socially optimal?—but also a core feature of contemporary American culture, and the corollary to our impulsive hypermobility. Liability and risk-aversion are major drivers of institutional leadership and decision making, and current circumstances are giving those priorities a spatial footprint. If you’re the owner or steward of a physical space right now, there’s a good chance you’re trying to keep most people out of it.

The late-twentieth century dream of a completely open world, best embodied by the word “globalization” and developments like the EU, was always sort of a myth, and dealt significant blows by 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2016 double-whammy of the Brexit vote and US presidential election. The ‘08 crash hit Europe harder than the United States in many ways because affluent countries like Germany could more effectively externalize fiscal problems to neighbors like Greece and Ireland. Right now, the United States’ lack of internal borders is inflaming a similar urge to close states off from one another depending on infection levels, even as the states in question change from month to month (northeasterners wouldn’t care as much what’s happening in the south right now if it was a separate country). But beyond political jurisdictions, the spatial landscape of the world has always been carved into much smaller enclaves protected by their own borders, and the more privileged have always used those borders to let the desirable in and keep the undesirable out, or to capture benefits and externalize costs. The internet, which realized McLuhan’s concept of the “global village,” emerged as a utopian technology of pure openness but has since become another mechanism for creating artificial boundaries and capturing value. What is the gig economy if not a systematic, app-supported mechanism for transferring risk from corporations to their workers? Digital space should constantly remind us that borders are always artificial, and that humans never stop inventing new ones.

Richard Florida, who coined the creative class theory that cities’ economies depend on their ability to attract artists and knowledge workers, posted an interesting thread yesterday about the current parental frenzy to form home education “learning pods” in lieu of schools reopening this fall. This rapid, ad hoc privatization of a key public good is unsurprising given the lack of alternatives, but also clearly a process that depends heavily on individuals’ resources and one that will exacerbate inequality. Richard Florida connects this phenomenon to the narrative that elites are abandoning cities, arguing that a fully-privatized life in which one hires teachers and amenities directly depends on access to a huge, diverse labor pool and therefore won’t work well in small towns or the Hamptons. He writes, “I am increasingly led to believe that the ability of cities to provide private amenities, not just public amenities, is likely to radically compound inequality, gentrification, and housing unaffordability.” Among its many other harms, this pandemic has closed off much of the public realm, including schools and offices, and incited a scramble to recreate those spaces within one’s own private bubble—a development typically associated with the suburbs but perhaps easier now in cities for those who can afford it, giving them a new appeal that is quite different from their historic allure. Maybe this is the virus-accelerated arrival of a world we’ve been building toward for decades: Everything is a border now.

Reads:

  • A great interview with urban historian Mike Davis—author of City of Quartz, a classic text about the dystopian formation of modern Los Angeles. “Even 30 years later, it remains the best socio-political critique of modern L.A, the first book you’d recommend to someone seeking to understand the dark nativist currents and unyielding avarice that still shape a city so easily stereotyped but rarely understood.”

  • Ian Bogost makes the case for why the suburbs were always better than people thought they were.

  • Song Decay: A visualization of how different ‘90s songs are forgotten at different rates and the agreed-upon ‘90s canon is different now than it was twenty years ago. “I always believed ‘No Diggity’ by Blackstreet would be a ’90s standard, uniting the old and young crowds at weddings of the 2050s.” The data suggests otherwise.