#154: Little Fluffy Clouds

Next Saturday, March 20th @ 2PM EST, I’ll be on Clubhouse chatting with Salman Ansari about cities, technology, and the future of urbanization—basically the stuff I write about here. We’ll reflect upon how cities have been affected by the pandemic and speculate how they might evolve going forward. The event will have an interview format but if there’s anything you’re interested in hearing us discuss, feel free to reply to this email with suggestions. Check out the Clubhouse event link for more details, and I’ll send out another reminder closer to the day of the event.

It’s 64 degrees in New York right now, enough to suddenly create the feeling that the long dark pandemic winter is over, even though it isn’t just yet, weather-wise or virus-wise. Last week, I wrote about the recent resurgence of print-only publications and a creeping sense that geography and materiality are returning as cultural organizing principles, a development that feels oddly hopeful, however modest, within the broader context of quarantine. In that newsletter I also subtweeted the internet discussion topic that is currently unavoidable, non-fungible tokens. Even if you’re cynical about NFTs, you have to admit they’re a more enjoyable issue to debate than most others the internet hive mind has run through since last March. At the very least, NFTs feel relatively harmless—blessedly confined to the digital sandbox where they inherently thrive, and stubbornly refusing to spill out of our computers into the so-called real world where we might actually be spending more time again soon. Unlike our recent political horror show or the pandemic itself, you can safely disregard NFTs if you prefer to do so, and if you change your mind, they’ll still be around when you return (yes, NFTs consume a lot of energy, but I suspect nobody would complain about that if they didn’t already disapprove for another reason).

In this context—as I think about how the weather is finally warm and how I’m about to go outdoors and enjoy it, and how life will be more like that going forward—the NFT discourse feels like a gift, a potential bridge from the past year of dematerialized, disembodied, pathological onlineness and mandatory discourse into a post-pandemic phase of quasi-normalcy. Finally, something we can embrace or ignore as we please. Several months ago, I’d looked ahead toward a seemingly endless winter within a seemingly endless pandemic that was also a rare opportunity to finish a bunch of “indoor” projects for which there was finally enough time. A couple days of t-shirt weather is enough to make it feel like that time is up, even if it’s not. Many have expressed anxiety about post-pandemic life; we can sense that we’re about to become much busier in the foreseeable future. During the past year, we’ve also been busy in a different way, but the internet creates the illusion of being able to be everywhere at once, and in a way that helped us relax—not because of the popular narrative that nothing fun was happening that we might be missing out on, but because everything was online and we could more or less participate in all of it, even if we had to juggle multiple devices, apps, and tabs to do so

When you start going out and doing things in person again, you’re going to find that you’re only in one place at a time, with one group of people, and that you can’t effortlessly switch to something new by clicking and swiping. That will be a different feeling than immersing ourselves in the master feed and letting it sweep us along with everyone else in the world. After more than a year in the hive mind, are we ready to detach from it and narrow our perspectives to our immediate surroundings for longer stretches of time? NFTs are actually a useful metaphor for the world that awaits us, simulating the inherent constraints of physical reality within a new domain. But more importantly, NFTs openly encode belief systems that are only as powerful as their collective adoption; because they are new, we sense that we have the choice of accepting or rejecting them, neglecting the fact that all of human culture is constructed according to similar principles. Closing one’s laptop and going outside feels like stepping out of an imaginary place into a more real one, and while the physical world is the fundamental reality that we all share, there are countless layers that mediate our experience of that foundation, and most of them are invisible to us. If nothing else, NFTs make some of those layers visible again.

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  • This week I wrote about why more people in public spaces makes them safer, Jane Jacobs’s concept of “eyes on the street,” and why unbundling complex systems isn’t as easy as it looks.

  • Last week I wrote about the concept of community and why we need a new word for the digital version.