#197: Twin Infinitives
The editors of n+1 recently published an essay asking why everything in today’s urban environment is so ugly, via a fictional ramble around a thinly-disguised version of gentrified Brooklyn. Although they don’t quite arrive at a Grand Unified Theory of contemporary ugliness, they nail the description of it, as well as the underlying conditions it expresses. As the authors’ attention drifts from housing to consumer goods to cars to subway advertising, they encounter a “drab sublime,” a world that isn’t exactly ugly—it is usually visually coherent and rarely bereft of aesthetic intention—but insubstantial, flat, and gray, as if an excess of effort has accumulated and finally negated itself. At one point, they celebrate the contrasting presence of New York’s outdoor dining sheds: “The ugliness they’ve introduced to the built environment diverges, happily, from the usual kind.” And that usual kind is characterized less by ugliness than by the absence of beauty, a descent into the kind of entropy that results from too much design rather than too little, reflecting Sanford Kwinter’s observation that “we are hectored mercilessly by design, swathed in its miasma of artificial affectation, hyperstyle, and micro-human-engineering that anticipates, like a subtle reflex arc, our every move and gesture.” It’s tempting to declare here that the physical city’s aesthetic is converging upon that of the internet, but it’s not that simple.
My greatest literary accomplishment of 2022, sadly, may have been this tweet about the recent cultural significance of low interest rates. It wasn’t really a joke, and if I were forced to venture my own Grand Unified Theory about our present malaise, I would probably start with interest rates. The n+1 essay begins with a newly built luxury high-rise building called “The Josh,” whose shoddy materials make it look like the output of a spreadsheet. Summarizing the recent history of the building’s familiar construction style, the authors attribute it partially to the economic climate of the past decade, which increasingly favored speculative investment: “Low interest rates worked in developers’ favor, and what had begun as an archipelago of scattered development had coalesced, by the end of the Obama years, into a visual monoculture.” Out on the street, they proceed to observe the jumble of discarded consumer wares that the building has puked up via its constantly-moving inhabitants: “Heaps of shrunken fast fashion from Shein; dead Strategist-approved houseplants; broken Wirecutter-approved humidifiers; an ergonomic gaming chair; endless Ikea BILLYs, MALMs, LACKs, SKUBBs, BARENs, SLOGGs, JUNQQs, and FGHSKISs.” As Toby Shorin has argued, the last decade’s proliferation of direct-to-consumer brands (and that industry’s pervasive aesthetic) was also a product of low interest rates. Today, rates are going back up, but the urban landscape is still littered with the detritus of free money in glib pursuit of returns.
Interest rates are inherently boring and somewhat ineffable, which is surely why we underrate their role in shaping the world around us, but once you start paying attention you notice their impact everywhere. In short, they create an economic climate where everyone feels like they’re winning, leading to a multitude of unserious projects and efforts to solve nonexistent problems or build products that nobody needs. This is why you can’t imagine ever using 95 percent of the new apps you hear about. The crypto frenzy of 2021 was the culmination of the last economic decade followed by the pandemic money printer going brrrr, and Sam Bankman-Fried is the type of guy whose personality very much depended on low interest rates. Cultural inertia is strong enough that we are still living in the residual form of what Daniel Keller has called ZIRP culture (“zero interest rate policy”), but you can see it sagging under its own weight. One notable byproduct of the long, ZIRP-fueled tech boom was a large horde of tech commentators (including me) who have fewer and fewer topics to discuss as the industry itself offers a dwindling palate of substantial developments. Now, we all swarm from one focal point to the next—crypto, Elon Musk, artificial intelligence—and can’t help but overstate each development’s significance. From the AI discourse, you would think we’re standing on the precipice of a post-human revolution, but like so much else that technology will probably also feel more mundane as it spreads. The culture of automation already does surround us, in utilitarian forms ranging from phone customer support menus to CVS stores with no human employees—both blights on the contemporary aesthetic landscape. AI may be capable of making art but its most lucrative applications will still be ugly.
Last week the Syllabus Project asked me to create a syllabus about a topic of my choosing, so I put together a reading list about “post-city urbanism” that includes many texts I’ve cited here over the years. It was fun to assemble this and I love how it turned out—their archive is also well worth perusing!
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A hopeful piece by Robin Sloan on the twilight of the social media era and what comes next (spoiler: it’s not Mastodon). What comes next could be…whatever we want it to be. Get excited!
An excellent new season of Avery Trufelman’s Articles of Interest podcast, titled “American Ivy,” about Ivy League style and the historical evolution of preppy fashion, which has proceeded in tandem with a variety of broader historical trends. Fascinating even if you’re not particularly interested in fashion.
Dean Kissick’s final column for Spike—one of the few that I read every single time. “Life is still beautiful, it’s culture that’s in the doldrums.”