About Drew Austin

Drew Austin is a New York based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of the changing nature of urban environments . Follow him on Twitter.

The New Human Wilderness

“We’re living in a stylistic tropics. There’s a whole generation of people able to access almost anything from almost anywhere, and they don’t have the same localized stylistic sense that my generation grew up with.”

-Brian Eno

“Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri.”

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Most of us live in cities; a lot of what we deem significant happens in cities; and our society is more “urban,” however we define that word, than ever before. The moment in 2008 when the world’s urban population passed the 50 percent mark possessed great symbolic importance for many who are part of that majority. Interestingly, contemporary authors like Ed Glaeser have built careers upon advocating the continued importance (the “triumph”) of the city, although urbanization, as a trend, doesn’t appear to need any more support than it naturally gets. Of course cities are important, and of course they’re still the focal points of the present economy and culture—they’re where civilization happens.

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Freedom in Smooth Space

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“But the nomad goes from point to point only as a consequence and as a factual necessity; in principle, points for him are relays along a trajectory.”

-Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari

Up in the Air, the 2009 George Clooney movie, remains pop culture’s best effort to portray the placeless, jet-setting professional class that 21st century conditions have enabled and incubated. For commentators on the film and the phenomenon, “nomadic” seems an irresistible descriptor: Like the tribes that pitch camp after impermanent camp across deserts and steppes, the contemporary nomads are defined by their constant motion, lack of permanent settlements, and the lightness of their material possessions. Technology—particularly high-speed transportation and the internet—makes such contemporary rootlessness possible as it tethers its subjects to a world-encompassing network that lessens the gravity of leaving and arriving at specific locations. Like the desert tribes, the new nomads are shielded from the emotional drain of perpetual goodbyes and hellos. Their culture allows them to keep most of what they deem important within reach, at least superficially, as they move around.

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The Networked Narrative

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“In every age urban spaces—streets and squares—have served to stage spectacles in which the citizenry participated as players and audience. Urban life in nothing if not theatrical.”

-Spiro Kostof

“Places do not disappear, but their logic and their meaning become absorbed in the network.”

-Manuel Castells

The compact disc, a beachhead in the eventual digital absorption of nearly everything, introduced itself to the world via Philips and Sony with the promise of “perfect sound forever.” Today, that succinct phrase reads as a flawed prophecy about a then-nascent revolution in information and memory: The replacement of an analog world where death and decay ultimately eroded all but the most valued (and fortunate) vessels of information—paintings, books, records, and even buildings—with a digital one where the same bits that had previously lived in physical objects could achieve immortality and begin piling up forever unless consciously deleted. Analog information had to opt into survival through intentional preservation; digital information would have to opt out.

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Civilization and the War on Entropy

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“The ‘abstract’ and the ‘concrete’ from now on would have lives of their own, participating in a perpetual ballroom dance where partners are exchanged promiscuously according to design.”

-Sanford Kwinter

Two threads of discourse dominated twentieth-century urbanism in the United States: the Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses dichotomy and the rise of the suburbs. The former was fundamentally a question of power. Should hyperintelligent master planners decide how cities develop, or should more agency remain at the block level, in the hands of city-dwellers themselves? The questions of how cities should function and whether they should favor vibrant street life or big business, infrastructural megaprojects and automobile throughput all followed from that primary question of power.

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The Wave of Unknowing

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“Unable to find a place outside the capitalist system, the postmodern subject loses any possibility of fulfilling the Enlightenment ambition of drawing a map that could claim to mirror reality.”

-Kazys Varnelis

When Frederic Jameson published Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism twenty years ago, he ensured that his essay’s subject, the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, would become the world’s most intellectualized hotel. Designed by John Portman and built in the late 1970s, the Bonaventure’s monolithic presence in downtown LA (like much of Portman’s work) still represents everything urbanists hate: The massive building is a mirror-clad fortress with a rotating rooftop bar that boldly shirks any responsibility for relating to or enhancing the cityscape that surrounds it.

Inside its walls, the Bonaventure is its own universe: disorienting, windowless, and lacking reference to any external reality (aside from the rooftop bar’s panoramic views of the city). Reflecting upon the building and Jameson’s essay, Kazys Varnelis observes that its confusing, illegible layout perfectly epitomizes the contemporary era: “For Jameson, the hotel’s complexity is an analogue for our inability to understand our position in the multinational, decentered network of finance and communications that comprises late capitalism.” In the past, we believed that we could comprehend the world that we lived in—especially the parts of that world that we ourselves had made—but Portman’s hotel was a society announcing that it had finally outsmarted itself and was willing to embrace that outcome.

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Machine Cities and Ghost Cities

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”   -Henry David Thoreau

New York and New Jersey have a first world problem: The Bayonne Bridge, which connects the two states, will soon block the entrance to the largest seaport on the East Coast, the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal. In other words, New York City and its surrounding region have too much infrastructure, and the older infrastructure is starting to interfere with the newer infrastructure, forcing a public evaluation of priorities.

The Bayonne Bridge, which fulfills the modest task of enabling people in cars to cross a river between Staten Island and its namesake city, needs to be raised: Its 151-foot navigational clearance is too low for Post-Panamax ships (the mega-vessels that will become the ocean’s biggest and most efficient movers of goods after the Panama Canal is widened in 2014). If the bridge remains in place, the port conveniently located closest to the Eastern seaboard’s largest population center will potentially stagnate as a Norfolk or Savannah arises to take its dominant position (just as Port Newark itself surpassed similarly obsolete facilties in the mid-twentieth century). If the Bayonne Bridge does not get out of the way in time, the global freight network will re-optimize itself at a slightly less efficient level, forcing goods to travel farther and more expensively. The plan is to raise the bridge 60 feet higher.

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