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Bruce Sterling once said “the future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky,” referring to the convergence of demographic trends, ongoing urbanization, and climate change. My day has felt like a version of Sterling’s future: Sitting inside my apartment, doing my remote work, listening to rain pour down outside while I scan Twitter for photos and videos of a flooded New York City posted by other people, rather than going outdoors and seeing it myself. Using a dying platform to observe a dying planet, to put it in the most dramatic way possible. It is still possible, of course, to experience bad weather straightforwardly, as part of the regular variance of life, but the narrative of climate change, our awareness of which is now constant, increasingly frames our interpretation of every storm, flood, wildfire, and toxic smog cloud. The more extreme the weather, the more powerfully we are reminded of the intractable problem that the entire world currently faces. Global warming may be a hyperobject, “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” but it becomes more tangible and more acute with every localized crisis.
Again, I didn’t have to wade through knee-deep water or swim out of a submerged subway station today. I experienced New York’s flooding the way most collective experiences now unfold, via the internet—a nonstop parade of waterlogged-city content that I imagine also filled the feeds of people who don’t even live here (after Twitter becomes unusable for every other purpose, it will endure as a channel for New Yorkers broadcasting the city’s living conditions to the rest of the world). The content assumed various forms: videos of cars driving down flooded streets; water cascading down staircases; rage at the mayor, Eric Adams, who appeared to be asleep at the wheel; terrible jokes; good jokes; expressions of sincere concern; buses filled with water; apartments filled with water. The sight of all that brown water provided a fresh reminder of how filthy New York City is—you can grow desensitized to this over time—forcing us to imagine every type of grime the deluge absorbed as it washed over the city’s streets. All this NYC weather content reveals another facet of what mass protests, staged TV events, and previous disasters like 9/11 have also demonstrated: Visibility is the enduring purpose of cities, as their other functions come and go.
Cities are sites of dense semantic compression, but at the same time, the rain and flooding strips away all of the city’s symbolic layers and exposes the raw hardware underneath, by pushing it to the point of failure. Keith Richards said he didn’t have a drug problem, he had a police problem. Similarly, we don’t have climate problems so much as we have infrastructure problems—or, the overpowering fury of nature wouldn’t be an issue if not for the stubborn presence of all our buildings and roads getting in the water’s way and limiting its free flow. The common thread that united all of the viral NYC flood videos today was this physical fragility, the vulnerability of a built environment that seems so rock solid under ordinary circumstances but buckles horrifically when doused with heavy rainwater. The greatest strength of New York’s cityscape, incidentally, is its age—we have a level of density that’s virtually impossible to build from scratch, and which requires the maintenance of a lot of old stuff. Climate change and the resilience it demands implies that countless longstanding assumptions about that maintenance will have to be revised or even just acknowledged, and that many sunk costs will turn out not to be sunk after all. We can either do that or seek higher ground.
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Venkatesh Rao on climate, solarpunk, and the possibility of replacing audiovisual imagination with thermal imagination. “Human civilization has been through oral culture and visual culture phases. I wonder if it’s time for a thermal culture.”
Against recipe boxes. “HelloFresh and Gousto prey on the notion that cooking and eating has to make you feel overwhelmed and bored…Cooking and eating, in the recipe box world, is a chore that needs to be done efficiently. Meet the deadline. Assess the KPIs. Panic!”