“Money sloshing around” became one of my favorite euphemisms over the past several years, describing economic conditions in which a surplus of wealth concentrated in fewer hands exceeds the number of satisfactory places to invest it, producing a desperate hunt for increasingly elusive higher returns that culminates in debacles like WeWork. A year ago I wrote, “when money sloshes around, a lot of other stuff sloshes around too”—content, tourism, consumption in general. The pandemic obviously suppressed much of this but the money itself is still sloshing (Now More Than Ever, possibly, due to negative interest rates and the stimulus). And this year something else is sloshing around as well: people. The pandemic has decoupled countless individuals from their domiciles, allowing them to circulate freely—despite the fact that COVID-19 is basically everywhere, nothing much is happening, and no specific place is that great right now. There are obvious reasons: seeking warmer climates for an outdoor-friendly winter, finding a larger house to quarantine in, or seizing a relocation opportunity now that work is remote and the music has stopped. But no matter the cause, if you look around, you’ll notice a newly nomadic population circulating the land with nothing much to do wherever they happen to be—at least nothing that requires being anywhere in particular.
Americans are notoriously mobile, whether pursuing opportunity or fleeing adversity, but this current explosion of movement feels especially frantic. The unprecedented stoppage of activity is yielding interesting results, and one result that shouldn’t surprise us is that many people are only tied to the places they live by the flimsiest of threads. Right now, we’re not running toward or away from anything; eliminating the constraints of in-person work and events is enough to set us adrift like balloons. Yes, we frequently love our cities and neighborhoods, but that affinity is more likely than ever to resemble a set of consumer preferences, not a deeper attachment to a community. Even our closest local friends are unlikely to be our neighbors and vice versa, and we even rely upon digital tools to manage those. This faint loyalty isn’t necessarily our fault, but rather a product of economic forces that shuffle us around and sort us out according to housing costs, commutes, and school districts. Deleuze described the contemporary citizen of his “control society” as “undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.” Our choices of where to live are almost algorithmic, the result of a few key inputs. We constantly draw distinctions between physical and digital space, but cities themselves have become more like the internet as technology removes spatial constraints one by one and makes everything fungible—including us.
As our relationship to the physical environment becomes less spatial, our immersion in the digital becomes more complete and software must carry an ever-heavier load. The dissonance between rapidly evolving tools and our slow-adapting brains induces vertigo (or at least Zoom fatigue). One emergent response to this dissonance is to reintroduce spatial qualities to the digital environment, to better match our cognitive hardwiring. John Palmer wrote an excellent essay about the state of spatial software and its ability to accommodate environmental qualities like intuition, expressiveness, and presence. Robin Sloan, making a similar argument, describes social media as a perspective-distorting “orthographic camera” in which “objects appear the same size regardless of their distance from the camera.” The contemporary internet induces confusion, he writes, by eliminating perspective: “tiny, distant events are reproduced ‘at full size’ on your screen.” The clearnet’s brutal colosseums like Twitter and Facebook have driven a migration toward less public forums like Discord and Clubhouse that help reconcile our online experience with Dunbar’s number. Meanwhile, communities that have formed online increasingly fantasize about recreating themselves IRL, in rural communes or small towns. And maybe that’s the most appropriate response of all: Once we finally perfect a digital simulation of physical space—maybe after the pandemic is over—we might realize that we just finished building something that already surrounded us and is right outside our door.
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A visual exploration of the US-Canada border by the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The border occasionally passes directly through homes and stores; one shop has separate sets of shelves and cash registers for different goods available on either side of the line. (thanks Dan!)
Why the urban poor will be forced to leave big cities. Most urban exodus narratives focus narrowly on the “Zoom class,” but big cities are likely to retain their appeal for elites and housing will remain expensive as lower-wage jobs vanish.