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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UX and the Civilizing Process

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt.

To scandalize a member of the educated West, open any book on European table manners from the middle of the second millennium:

“Some people gnaw a bone and then put it back in the dish. This is a serious offense.” — Tannhäuser, 13th century.

“Don’t blow your nose with the same hand that you use to hold the meat.” — S’ensuivent les contenances de la table, 15th century.

“If you can’t swallow a piece of food, turn around discreetly and throw it somewhere.” — Erasmus of Rotterdam, De civilitate morum puerilium, 1530.

To the modern ear (and stomach), the behaviors discussed here are crude. We’re disgusted not only by what these authors advocate, but also by what they feel compelled to advocate against. The advice not to blow one’s nose with the meat-holding hand, for example, implies a culture where hands do serve both of these purposes. Just not the same hand. Ideally.

These were instructions aimed at the rich nobility. Among serfs out in the villages, standards were even less refined.

To get from medieval barbarism to today’s standard was an exercise in civilization — the slow settling of our species into domesticated patterns of behavior. It’s a progression meticulously documented by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process. Owing in large part to the centripetal forces of absolutism (culminating at the court of Louis XIV), manners, and the sensibilities to go with them, were first cultivated, then standardized and distributed throughout Europe.

But the civilizing process isn’t just for people.

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The Government Within

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

Are ordinary people really populations of interests rather than something more solid? It’s disturbing to think of yourself as so fluid, so potentially unstable, held together only by the shifting influence of available rewards. It’s like being told that atoms are mostly empty and wondering how they can bear weight. Yet the bargaining of interests in a society can produce highly stable institutions; perhaps that’s also true of the internal interests created by a person’s rewards…these patterns look like familiar properties of personality. – George Ainslie, Breakdown of Will, p 44

Productivity methods and self-help advice that promises to improve one’s effectiveness at achieving goals (Getting Things Done, Lifehackers, etc) are all the rage these days, but I have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, who can argue with people trying to improve themselves and become more effective? But something about this form of discourse makes me suspicious, something doesn’t quite add up. How can one will oneself to be more willful? Becoming more dedicated to your goals sounds good, but that is true only if those goals are the right ones to have; where did they come from, how did they get chosen out of all the available goods in the world? And how do you know when it is time to let go of your goals and revise or replace them? People occasionally have to pivot just like startups do; and a narrowly-focused dedication to one goal can mean missing out on better ones. In short, the management of goals and the willpower that they direct is a fundamental mystery of human action, and the productivity experts seem to blithely ignore all the theoretically interesting aspects of it.

This literature reads as if Freud never existed. If there is one valuable insight to be gleaned from his problematic legacy, it is that our conscious intentions are at best the tip of a very large hidden iceberg of unconscious motivations. Our true purposes are obscure; the mind is a disorderly riot of conflicting drives, we are constantly tripped up by desires we are not even aware we have.

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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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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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Solidarity and Recursion

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal. Also, Gregory Rader of On the Spiral is joining us as a blogging resident on the Tempo blog this week. 

“Solidarity” is an old-fashioned term, trailing connotations of earlier generations of union activists and leftists, but rarely used in mainstream discourse. We don’t think about it much, and we don’t miss it, although every so often a pundit will point out a deficit of something sort of like it, usually under more anodyne terms like “community” or the grating “social capital”. Corporations try to instill it in their employees, again under some depoliticized term like “team spirit”, but only the clueless really buy it. The military depends on it and have their own jargon for it (“unit cohesion”). But the term itself is as musty and out-of-fashion as the old-school industrial trade unions who used to sing songs about it.

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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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