The Millennial Experience Trap

experience trap 1

Quick note: It’s been a while since I last posted here. This month, I decided to post more regularly and on a wide range of topics. Anything I deem interesting. I hope my (currently sparse) readership will enjoy. If anything, it’s decent writing practice.

To start in again, I wanted to make a few observations about a self-replicating cycle (I wouldn’t call it vicious, but maybe I should) that bedevils the relationship we have with media, the environment, and life itself. Yes, it is quite serious! It might be called the experience trap.

I’m not referring to the modern epidemic of unpaid internships, a resume-industrial complex that glimmers with the false sheen of necessity for too many college grads. No, the issue at play here is far subtler, and characteristically postmodern in its implications.

On one level, the experience trap operates as an advertising scheme. Young people, as we have been encouraged to know, crave experience over possession. We live and consume in the moment, putting the beach sunset, the cafe buzz, the skydiving trip above the whole business of mortgages, ladder climbing, and delayed returns. Marketers incorporate this theme into their creations, further replicating it.

And so we’re left with the flighty Millennial stereotype, of Facebook-addicted twenty-somethings leading a legion of high schoolers to text and Instagram their way into the abyss. Youngsters’ heads buried in smartphones, their parents following suit. This is all very frightening. Of course it’s also simplistic, just a symptom of the real malaise.

The Millennial, commentators report, has begun to settle down. Some are having kids, moving to the suburbs, doing as their ancestors have done. But that doesn’t change the fact that media – especially advertising media – has embraced the mythic, ecstatic, in-the-moment experience as what we all should crave.

Along with the stream of articles on Millennial childbirth and the suburban Millennial come reports of Millennial frugality, of a willingness to rent, of young people returning to the Rust Belt for cheap housing and hipster grit. Postmodern counterculturalists reject the overt status symbols of American Dream 1.0 and embrace an updated version. In American Dream 2.0 (or is it 1.1?), apps, bikes, micro-apartments, and the sharing economy will liberate us from the crushing burden of owning things. We will save the planet by having easily-categorized experiences rather than actual possessions. We will rent services, and go without if need be.

The counterargument is obvious. If we don’t own anything in the sharing economy, we end up forever indentured to those who do. If we give up driving in cities with no bike lanes, we get crushed beneath the wheels of those who could care less about climate change. By ceding the desire to accumulate – a simple, small-minded fixation – in favor of a wish to “just live life,” we risk disenfranchising ourselves at a crucial moment.

After all, climate change is upon us. Income inequality is gruesome. People are stripped of opportunity and dignity because of their identities. Imperialism’s legacy remains fully entrenched in the global economy.

But this is also an exciting time because we’re finally acknowledging the underlying social psychoses beneath not just these issues, but all their permutations and offspring. A worldwide web of data, dumb and mute in of itself, has become available to millions of minds, making us, as a species, more mature, more aware, more critical.

Still, whatever progress civilization might be making, what about our own lives? Can the experiences we allow ourselves ever measure up to our world-class expectations? There is a protean fear at work beneath the glossy veneer of mainstream culture, a burrowing doubt that grafts itself into every counterculture, onto every attempt to tell a social story with legitimacy and self-respect.

It’s what makes people turn to possessions, to ownership, again and again and against all the evidence that money can’t buy happiness. It’s the nagging sense that the experiences we have – the kind we are allowed to have – aren’t enough to replace what consumerism offers. (Which is what, again?) Most of the time we can’t even untangle our activities from consumerism, let alone tease out something revolutionary.

If we intend to value experiences over possessions, to look back on a life worth living, we need to reexamine the context of those experiences. Are they truly memorable? Do they stick in the mind without electronic aid? Did they contribute to real growth, to an evolving mind and spirit? Are we alive to the difference between long-term and short-term memory, or do we let weeks and months slip by unremembered?

Above all, can we really say that we want a latte-sipping life, free from real danger and pain, free of the thought of death, hemmed in by the invisible bounds of virtuality, anesthetized by the knowledge that we all live in an age of distraction? Too disenchanted to fully embrace corporate capitalism, too civilized to actually challenge it? A life in which curation becomes creativity, and one experience cannot be meaningfully distinguished from the next?

The experience peddlers tell us to step up and do what makes us come alive. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? We’re alive already. We need to throw off what deadens us.

Photo credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr

Advertisements

“Culture of Liberty” or Cultural Liberty?

las vegas

In an article published in the conservative-leaning City Journal and the LA Times, Aaron M. Renn takes the urban left to task. City activists, he contends, “increasingly find their own goals stymied by laws and regulations, and they’re demanding that these restrictions be overturned or limited.”

For the sake of marijuana, food trucks, and even beekeeping, leftist city-dwellers oppose regulations their ideology says they should support. More sweeping issues than beekeeping aren’t immune. Pricey urban housing has leftists agitating for looser rules and greater density. Meanwhile, the same leftists rally against polluters, big-box retail, and land developers. Hence Renn’s title: libertarians of convenience.

As one of Renn’s “urban progressives,” I feel a need to refine what that phrase means, especially as it concerns the age-old libertarian debate over regulation. Confrontational it may be, but Renn’s critique is also valuable as we figure out what it means to be progressive today.

The distinction between progress and progressivism isn’t new. On one hand we have those who do – the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the rainmakers. And then there are those who prohibit, preserving human rights in the face of threats.

We trust leftist progressives to instinctually defend regulation, support unions, and look warily on the engines of material gain. The 20th-century libertarian parries in good form. To quote Renn, “absent a wider culture of liberty, calls for selective liberty will probably go unheeded.” Culture of liberty. That phrase stuck with me, and I recognized why as I read on.

Somewhat patronizingly, Renn suggests that “urban progressives—typically on the younger side—are just beginning to experience how excessive regulations can suffocate life in the city.” Hemmed in by our thou-shalt-not ideology, callow young leftists stumble into a world of plodding government and dynamic business and must choose the better side.

There may be truth to that narrative, at least for young people who enjoy political rhetoric. But not all urbanists are ideologues. Some of us just want cities to be good places to live and work, places where diverse people have a fair chance to build lives at liberty.

Renn writes, “Many of the bans and rules that progressives impose on cities not only make life difficult for muffler shops, hardware stores, plumbing firms, bodegas, and other unglamorous operations; they also harm the enterprises that they love.”

Beloved enterprises, of course, being the usual slew of hipster boutiques, indie bookstores, urban gardens, and coffee houses people my age supposedly rave about. In reality, “unglamorous operations” appeal to a modest Millennial price point. I might find an artisanal soap store interesting, but in the end I’m using Dove.

And sure, Target and Walmart are affordable, but they’ll do a good trade whether urban progressives support them or not. Any urbanist worth the name appreciates the role utilitarian stores play in the urban fabric. We’re skeptical about suburban multinational uniformity. We’re all for small business, especially if it’s affordable!

After a nod to the endearingly ignorant Millennial generation, Renn unveils this thesis:

“But it’s hard to avoid thinking, too, that some of the inconsistency reflects elite biases. The things that liberal-minded city residents like and want to do—eat from hip food trucks, smoke dope, and other ‘bourgeois bohemian’ pursuits—should be left as free as possible, consequences be damned (raw-milk advocates downplay the nearly 1,000 cases of illnesses caused by it from 2007 through 2012). Those that they consider déclassé—Big Gulps, Marlboro Lights, McDonalds—should be restricted or even shut down. It’s regulation for thee but not for me.”

Renn’s diatribe omits a crucial detail: the hipster projects leftists want to deregulate are predominantly local and small-scale. They’re start-ups. They’re small businesses. But most of them harbor no Silicon Valley dream of billion-dollar empire. They are culturally self-aware, often minority-owned, and give little thought to a left-right culture war.

Leftist urbanites, for their part, usually oppose large-scale uses and operations. This is not “elite bias.” It’s a classic American love of the underdog. And when it comes to regulatory targets, the public-private divide doesn’t matter as much as impact on local quality of life, especially for poorer city-dwellers.

A street-crushing retail supercenter and a neighborhood-gutting 12-lane highway are equally odious (and equally likely to bulldoze over a poor community of color). But a second-floor pot dispensary and the corner post office are benign, even beneficial. Urban progressives are less default regulators than instinctively suspicious of large-scale systems of control. This we share with libertarians. For us, government isn’t a cure-all, it’s a necessary counterweight.

Besides, can we not agree that the systemic health impacts of Big Gulp, Marlboro, and McDonalds (think nationwide obesity, diabetes, addiction, cancer) slightly outweigh the horrors of raw milk from an organic food store? It’s not a matter of which cultural niche a business occupies. What counts is relative scope of impact. And in a society managed by large-scale entities both public and private, only large can counter large.

For all its faults and follies, public government needs to check private capital, so the creators of wealth don’t devolve into its hoarders. But that regulation shouldn’t choke out local innovation. Urbanists understand that local enterprise needs room to grow, and that cities, like greenhouses, provide the necessary fertile ground.

But libertarians like to throw down the gauntlet, saying there are no half-measures when it comes to regulation. Either you have a culture of liberty or you don’t. This is a profoundly ahistorical and, shall I say, reactionary viewpoint. Its adherents mistake liberty for some abstract ideal floating above our heads, rather than a collection of human dramas and their outcomes.

In a city of freeways, are you at liberty if you can choose which car to buy, but cannot take the train? In a city of trains, does liberty mean choosing which line to take when you’d rather drive? Perhaps I’d appreciate the liberty to cheat my neighbor. Perhaps a bank would like to finance home-buyers beyond their capacity to pay. Is my neighbor at liberty? Is the home-buyer?

I’d rather not spout the standard arguments against libertarianism, since I’m actually a fan. But liberty means different things to different people, and that disagreement intensifies in diverse and multifaceted cities. Renn has the right to talk about liberty, but I’ll decide what that word means for me.

So far as progress truly is the goal, urban progressives (and conservatives) should explore, and not fear, the grey spaces between public and private, small and large-scale, liberty and control. I think that’s part of what Renn argues. Urban life and economics is in a continual state of flux, and the law should let people evolve along with it.

But that evolution is cultural as well as economic. Freedom and liberty cannot just be understood in economic and political terms. Culture – the stories we tell ourselves – is and always will be the most important factor influencing liberty on the individual level (for good or ill). To be influenced by the culture around you is not a sign of intellectual weakness. It’s a vital part of being human.

Image credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr

Why America Needs Cool Trains Again

cool high-speed rail

“Daddy, when I grow up I want to build them!”

The predictable response of certain politicians to Amtrak’s recent derailment: strip the program of funds yet again. This isn’t the way. America needs cool trains again.

We shouldn’t build high-speed rail just because it’s efficient, though that is a side benefit. We should spend billions on high-speed rail because it radically changes the cultural narrative about public transportation.

Once upon a time (c. 1850-1960), innovations in train and airplane technology opened the world to speedy and convenient travel. Public and private operators all worked hard to build a sense of American progress and glamour into shared forms of transport. That changed when we started taking these marvels for granted. Wide-eyed youngsters excluded, train and plane travel – especially for business – is now a hassle to be endured, an uncomfortable exposure to hours of boredom in public.

Private automobiles occupy a very different headspace than almost every other mode. It’s all in the sense of mastery and control bought by that word: private. And unless you own a private jet, you share your plane or train trip with strangers. The same goes for subways, light rail, streetcars, and buses.

During public journeys, many of us adopt a mood ranging from the fairly annoyed to the powerfully pissed-off. Paying for business class can improve the situation somewhat, but does little to dispel the troubles associated with airport security and finding the hotel. Control of a private car deceives the human brain into a sense of comfort. You have the option to speed past in a fit of pedal-pushing angst.

That’s not to say there is anything inferior or mechanically unworthy about the private automobile. But the car’s ubiquity masks its miraculous nature. Before the dawn of memory, children are ferried about in cars, and never do they inspire the visceral wonder of trains and airplanes. Kids in cars are restless and peevish like the adults driving them. But I’ve witnessed firsthand the sheer joy of children as the ground beneath them pulls away from a station and into the wide world.

Simply put, America needs to reinvest in the mode that built this nation. We already depend on freight rail for our many consumable goods, but neglecting passenger trains is a mistake. Here’s why: high-speed passenger rail brings public transportation back to the cutting edge.

Landing probes on Mars and the Moon is cool and all, but manned landings are what society remembers and respects.

Cool trains somewhere make trains cooler everywhere. When a bullet train passes by at 250 mph, subway or light rail sounds more attractive by association.

Getting America’s passenger rail system up to speed would require a certain degree of federal involvement. But that doesn’t mean we need to stick to the Amtrak model.

Let’s take a moment to remember that federal defense and R+D contracts were and are HUGE drivers of innovation in the aerospace field. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it is fairly clear that commercial air travel – and air technology throughout the world – is only so efficient because of ongoing big government deals with major manufacturers. Unlike software innovators, modern aerospace required the initial capital and research outlays only Cold War-fueled feds could provide.

airport terminal

Brought to you with the help of Uncle Sam.

Government is already essential to every transport mode we use – except perhaps our feet. But that doesn’t mean, as in Amtrak’s case, government has to be the only player. In most successful endeavors it never is. Our auto-centric society requires private cars and public roads. The build-up to modern aerospace required intense public-private cooperation.

It may be that one day a network of self-driving shared electric cars will ferry us around the city. But until then, we need to boost the public transit systems we have, both from a practical standpoint and (more importantly) a cultural one. Modern urban and environmental conditions demand it. And high-speed rail is the glamorous keystone to that project.

Finally, if the Japanese want to partner with us to build high-speed rail in America, why not? We sure don’t seem to mind buying their cars and trucks.

Photo attributions: Jun Seita; Robert Couse-Baker

L.A. activists push EPA to heighten ozone regulations

dc smog

In February, I traveled to Sacramento to testify before an EPA panel, arguing that they should further limit ozone emissions. This is an opportunity for the agency tasked with safeguarding our air to exercise its mandate in a sweeping way. Accompanying me was a delegation of concerned citizens from Los Angeles. Click here to read a piece I wrote about this key issue for the Sierra Club.

 

Image credit: Sierra Club Angeles Chapter

MaddAddam and the story of green apocalypse

4 horsemen

conquest, war, famine, death

 

[This contains minor spoilers. Just so you know.]

Sorry environmentalists, but the apocalypse is still a long way off. I know, we are trying to heal the earth, not destroy it. We want a sustainable society, not civilization’s demise. But underneath it all, isn’t there that perverse wish to see the predictions vindicated? Do we not share a great deal with the Tea Party preppers, our counterparts across the aisle? Case in point: solar energy, still a bogeyman in the eyes of fossil fuels apologists, enjoyed a recent surge of support from the Christian community. It is a healing font, manna from heaven, and it frees individual citizens from unending dependence on the government/corporate system.

For all their Republican politicking, preppers share the greens’ vague belief in a center that will not hold. Theirs is a lifestyle of self-reliance, community cohesion, and environmental sustainability. This is shared ground. The extreme wings of both movements also demonstrate an undeniable Millenarian bent: apocalypse prep stems from prophecy and hope, not just fear and prudence.

Some call this dangerous. I call it human. We have no choice but to indulge in the products of the modern culture industry, so I’m sure you’re fatigued with the deathless zombie meme, the survivor group story, and every other eschatological iteration imaginable. Netflix speaks volumes.

Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, highly praised and soon to grace the small screen, treats the end of all things with a nonchalance reminiscent of ancient scripture. Everybody dies, life goes on. It is a thoroughly environmentalist and thoroughly religious story (only just now do those two things stand opposed).

The trilogy makes a marked departure from the genre’s usual fare, setting the bulk of the action before everything changed. Like students of holy writ, we find ourselves troubled not at all by the death of a hateful and irredeemable civilization. Far from demonizing the architect of this genocide, the survivors – with some discomfiture – present him as creator god. Final judgment upon humanity is tragically appropriate.

MaddAddam calls to mind medieval adventure tales like Mallory’s Le Mort De Arthur, the Welsh Mabinogion, and Chaucer, along with their casual presentations of extreme acts. Without Victorian-Protestant whitewashing, religious matters appear alongside the kind of explicit violence and debauchery that necessitates faith in the first place. Aspirations to highest virtue right next to pornographic vice. The presence of virtue, not the ubiquity of vice, makes this a rarity in modern literature.

The cumulative effect of MaddAddam is as religious as its subject matter: deepening suspicion that something is dreadfully wrong with the world, with salvation bound up in that revelation. You or I may not be living in the “deepest pleeblands” or an Orwellian corporate compound, but what if some people already are? In America even! The realization that you might be like the character Jimmy, fretting over petty problems in a protective bubble, makes you question the world’s reality as you witness it. The deranged man gibbering on the bus attests to the many different worlds we inhabit.

But to succumb to a total postmodern annihilation of meaning would be unwise. The basic thesis of MaddAddam is simple. It is the environmental story that binds us all together, and the physical world we inhabit is the only one we’ve got. We may not all think about environmental reality the same way, but there it remains, unfailingly and unflinchingly present. In fine mythological tradition, the world must undergo a catharsis, passing through storm and struggle to achieve, well, not utopia, but a manifestly better situation.

As queasy and extremist as that might sound, in the story humankind’s fascistic cleansing is fraught with irony: the surviving transhuman “Craker” and “pigoon” races symbolize old sins by their very existence, even as they begin to populate a world reborn. Even in a tale of near-perfect annihilation, traces of the old order are necessary to spark a new one.

In our own world, we need to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to ripping out “obsolete” segments of social and economic infrastructure. Already, the abandonment of traditional urban forms for the auto suburb has gutted cities. Already, digital media as a life-encompassing platform has hijacked the development of young people in ways we don’t yet understand. Apocalypse is unnecessary: are these the end-times on slow burn?

What we’re left with is the old question of defining humanity. The MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t judge whether the survivors were right to encourage writing, religion, and other aspects of the old order in the bioengineered Craker population. But maybe it’s not a matter of right or wrong. Maybe the environmental story’s simple lesson is: find out what makes you human and hold onto that, and discard everything else.

 

Image credit: Waiting For The Word via Flickr cc

Go small or go home

tiny house

walden 2015

 

About 300 square feet. Enter what some commentators have called the future of city living. This is the cozy-cramped dimension of the “micro-unit”, a new class of studio apartment designed with social and unconnected young people in mind. Developers wager that high-end urban neighborhoods confer enough location value to offset increased cost per square foot. Among the micro-unit’s other selling points are airy design, quality fixtures, and innovative storage spaces. The Urban Land Institute has assembled an in-depth report on this trend from an industry perspective. And here’s a construction photo of My Micro NY, a tiny-housing darling of Michael Bloomberg now completed in NYC.

Micro units are starter pads for young professionals, a room of one’s own between days at a new media venture and nights on the town. It’s almost enough to conjure a certain hip charm. Almost. I am a member of the micro-unit’s target demographic, and it seems others share my mixed feelings.

While life in a glorified dorm room would surely detract from the well-being of couples and single parents, is it really a good thing for anyone? I might not experience any measurable psychological deprivation in a micro-unit, but there’s still a lingering suspicion that these plans are private-sector project housing, destined to symbolize stalled dreams.

concrete modular

innovation units

 

Pilot micro-housing developments will no doubt be quite well-built and sited. But what of the second and third waves of construction, given a growing market? Bad building investments will be made, and bad leases signed. It would be too easy for developers to pack aspiring city-dwellers into substandard micro-units, marketing them as “fun units”, “launch pads”, and even “innovation units” (terms mentioned in the ULI report). You might be laughing, but I assure you this kind of branding will be used (if it isn’t already).

Which brings me to a point I made in my post on the self-driving car: we aren’t actually babies. There is a definite infantilizing tendency among those who want to engage people my age, whether through Youtube ads, apartment promos, or IPhone commercials. Surfing for music last night, I sat through a Sprint ad featuring two goats, a donkey, and 80s funk. Apparently playtime remains important. Far from desiring anything in the way of lasting products, we are told to value ephemeral experiences alone. Smaller is better, less is more, having friends beats having things. The ILife.

ping pong

we demand a bare minimum in office equipment

 

The last three are valid points, especially from the environmental perspective. Living in an urban apartment is demonstrably better for the planet than supersizing it in a suburban McMansion. But at the same time, people don’t want to stay in college forever. In a sharing economy arranged the usual way – from top down – we will pay various worthy entities to provide us with everything we desire, for a limited time, for arbitrary prices.

There’s a theory going around that people my age prize cell phones and mobile connectivity over the automobile. Even more than the car, mobile devices (and the wireless services they access) are designed to empower both user and facilitator, with the facilitating agent preserving hegemony in the relationship. Same goes for the internet economy. Amazon hooks up supplier and buyer, cuts out the middleman only to take his place, and assumes monopoly status in a new commercial space.

A similar process may govern the newfound market for super-tiny houses. We must live in certain cities, hence the sky-high real estate in those cities, hence the attractiveness of dorm room plus kitchenette. And then we’re all living in stacks of pre-fab modernist boxes, making a parody of Asian overcrowding’s worst excesses. It’s clean and new for a while, until one day it isn’t. And then we had better hope the broken windows school of crime is mistaken.

hong kong

30 years later…

 

Even from a green perspective, it would be foolish to imagine we can rent and share everything we need and remain autonomous, self-directing people. While the opposite proposition – private property taken to the extreme – has given us the unsustainable suburban model, the micro-unit capitalizes on a knee-jerk reaction against the suburbs. Neither is ideal.

We’re missing the middle ground. So why are only extremes worth talking about? Why, in the midst of regular articles about the city’s more excessive real estate, does Curbed LA hold a Micro Week: tiny homes and tips for living small? What happened to finding the strange in the ordinary, the remarkable in the unremarked upon? Maybe those questions are too daunting for a blog post like this one. But extreme living should not equal good living (thus rendering most of our lives unfulfilled).

In a mill of activity around worthwhile developments like electric cars, waste reduction, and sharing economy solutions, humble installations like the Little Free Library harness the spirit of small from the bottom up. Miniature book repositories, stationed in front of homes or wherever a landowner feels like, LFLs operate on an honor system: take a book, leave one in return.

little free library

now with data tracking by genre and publication date

 

Despite having the potential to foster a cottage industry – LFLs one-upping each other like manger displays – the system is gloriously free from both public and private control. Sure, they could be vandalized, their contents stolen – but what’s the point really. LFLs could never serve any coherent research purpose, but they do well at sparking neighborly conversation. Can the suburbanists or the new urbanists say the same?

In a micro-unit heaven, the LFL could never thrive. Nor could any bottom-up amenity, in public space or private, not designed and pre-encoded into the built substrate. Craft beer bars: okay. Free lending library in yard: not okay, since, no yard. Middle-ground space-saving solutions are necessary, but let’s move past the patronizing “innovation unit” aesthetic. Less stark, less hip, more lasting. Could this be such a solution, or are these glorified trailers? Open question.

This is clear: we need to live small for the planet’s sake, but that shouldn’t mean we cede our right to own and use things with dignity.

 

Photo Credits: CozyHomePlans via Compfight ccghw201491 via Compfight cc7 w d via Compfight ccdavebloggs007 via Compfight ccLudovic Hirlimann via Compfight cc; Justin A. Wilcox via Flickr cc

Train: the original driverless car

train

Please ride me?

We can take heart from the fall of Google Glass. And not just because it reveals a limping good sense in the consumer marketplace. The failed launch is a lens, if you will, that pinpoints deeper weaknesses in mainstream tech hype. Most obvious: myopic and self-glorifying tunnel vision when it comes to culture, embodied in the attitude that because Silicon Valley finds something cool, everyone else should be forced to love it also.

To the chagrin of us critical humanists, that’s exactly how it’s gone down time and again over the past few decades. Not all bad, of course. Personal computing, the internet, and mobile tech have revolutionary benefits. But so do roads, bridges, and tunnels. Electricity, water, waste disposal, public health measures: these too have us living in luxury undreamt of by preindustrial kings.

The problem is, our digital age overlords insist that their offerings transcend mere infrastructure. Their gadgetry is – must be – an end to itself, an accelerating culmination of human endeavor, science, and art rendered immaculate by the Law of Moore and the Prophecy of Kurzweil.

This gripe isn’t new. You’ve heard it before and you’re ready to yawn this off as another ideological rant. Which is bad news for me, because I’m just about ready to delve into matters even more boring. I’d like to talk about transportation.

underpass

What Man hath wrought.

Uber. Lyft. Teslas and Priuses. Solar cyclists. The walkable bikeable neighborhood. There’s no shortage of hip/hipster rhetoric about how we should move ourselves around cities. And this time the hipsters are right: we ignore the changing urban dynamic at our own peril and that of the planet.

Not to fear though: tech gurus want to save the world again, and this time they’re doing it by making cars drive themselves! After an interminable wait nearly cured younger folks of the driving bug altogether, Google is R&D’ing a perfect storm of self-driving app-summoned pods to whisk us away from all our troubles.

It won’t work. As Team Google Glass found out soon enough, regular Americans aren’t too fond of overwrought, unapologetic nerd-grandstanding they can’t even afford. If the self-driver catches on, the movement will be gradual, stylistically integrated into the current crop of cool cars. It’ll also be optional, a mightier cruise control that can revert to manual when the traffic gets tough.

Besides, there is still a lot of doubt whether the auto-tuners could handle a scenario as complex as LA’s open roads. Our human reflexes have eons of evolution to their credit and we can barely handle rush hour traffic. What chance does a sweet, innocent robot mind have out on the mean streets?

But if the past two decades have nothing else to teach, we should never understate our own ability to innovate technical solutions. I say that without irony – we live in a wondrous age, and I’m this century has a good number of game-changers left to unveil. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, science is just like religion, except it works. And yet there’s still something off-putting about Silicon Valley’s self-driving solution.

I remember the utopian way places like Disneyland and Lego Land imprint themselves on the young mind. Quality amusement parks are a better plane of existence where everything works and it’s all for kids! That is, until closing time rolls around and we leave janitors and mechanics to rekindle the magic for another morning.

It’s not real, and neither is a city where childlike creatives call pods drop them two blocks north of Mickey’s ToonTown. Silicon Valley’s solutions seem predetermined to treat us like children. But even children don’t want to be treated like children. These plans serve the Eloi alone, with not a word said about the Morlocks.

Despite self-help’s fervor about energy and initiative, we’ve let a degree of passivity become acceptable. Even lauded. The internet has made it simpler, for example, to earn passive income. We are encouraged to automate, to make it so we can relinquish control. We must become owners, not employees – even if most of us only pretend at ownership. Being driven about by your own car represents not so much freedom as a final admission of incompetence.

Well then, you ask, what in all your wisdom do you propose in place of the electric self-driver? To cite the thinking of current urban planners, I give you the TRAIN, original driverless vehicle. (And the bus too.) Yes, these have conductors and drivers, but the classic mass transit modes are driverless in terms of user experience. They also free up urban space and long-term road funding, making way for infilling and human-scaled communities.

way out

…of auto congestion.

Like the self-driving car, riding in a train or bus is a passive experience. But it’s also a public one. As the auto-traditionalists would have it, the public is dirty and unpleasant, a brutal street reality far removed from the safety of home and office. The car’s air-conditioned bubble allays that fear, while effectively amplifying the pedestrian’s psychical prowess by orders of magnitude.

In Los Angeles there is a marked distinction between drivers of newer and higher-end vehicles, who keep their windows shut, and drivers of fewer means, who keep their windows cranked down. It could be that well-heeled drivers run their air conditioning with greater abandon; perhaps there is a justified concern over air toxins. But might the trend also tell us about how different kinds of people feel about the public realm?

In America today (and especially in Los Angeles), the mass transit demographic skews toward lower class and people of color. Buses and trains develop a corresponding reputation – they become ghettos, they become unsafe, they lose all prestige. It’s also political: recall the glorious Moscow Metro, the grand stations beneath suffocating Pyongyang. Our society is allergic to anything with the odor of socialism, and mass transit gives off that stink.

Cars do appear to favor individualism over the collective. But is this truth, or just a story we’ve told ourselves for a long time? Compared to walking or riding the train, auto traffic mutes our human differences. We end up a mass of heavy metal tanks, trundling down assembly-line highways with Fordist regularity. The rules of the road restrict free movement with an authoritarianism surpassing the elementary school line-up. And through it all we have the police, empowered to detain at their leisure.

How cars handle winter:

IMG_5564

How trains handle winter:

Trains and buses may be dirty, crowded, understaffed and undernourished. But that doesn’t mean they’re a bad system, just an underfunded one. If Google implemented its app-summoned system of pods for general use, they’d soon lose their elite veneer and become a glorified bike-rental. Useful, but only for some of us.

The train and it corollaries (buses, trams, various light rail and BRT) are a genteel and well-tested form of social transport. They encourage the rider to envision a common project, by turns social and capitalistic. If class distinctions are absolutely necessary, the train model can preserve them – just look at our airlines. But let’s be serious: business versus economy means a hefty payment for a few hours extra legroom. It’s easy on a plane or a train to see how silly the whole distinction is. Not as much when a guy in a Bentley pulls up next to your old Camry.

As Barack Obama likes to say, let me be clear. Automation and digital tech have unlocked new riches for all of us. And Silicon Valley’s dedication to visionary experiment might be crucial to tackling today’s challenges. But we shouldn’t let a niche aesthetic take the wheel and drive us away from whole-system solutions.

Photo Credits: eschipul via Compfight ccandywalton7 via Compfight ccJohn Donges via Compfight ccOran Viriyincy via Compfight cc

Keystone XL is a steampunk fiction

steampunk1

Big Oil: fierce and ridiculous

 

Ah yes, the Keystone XL pipeline. Like an overexposed internet meme, this crude phantom has risen to the forefront of public consciousness. A fight of Congressional proportions is in the works. In the Pyrrhic struggle now unfolding, both sides have invested far more political capital than the damned thing is worth. Every other day an email hits my inbox – Keystone passage close at hand, please donate. And now the pipeline bill is through the Senate, with only the presidential veto in its way.

Names do matter. Judging by its name, Keystone XL must be some final nail in the planetary casket, an extra-large Cadillac Escalade of an abomination, the final aria of American Decadence, the opera. Or else it’s gotta mean the Holy Trinity is at hand: petrol the father, profit the eternally begotten son, and the ghost we call jobs, holy and hard-to-find.

In the end Keystone XL is just a word stenciled on a blueprint. The pipeline may yet get through, stealthily and with a less-newsworthy title, once the media’s eye wanders from matters infrastructural. Perhaps the question will suffer a slow-cooked death in the beckoning 2016 presidential flame wars. Keystone XL is nothing but a totem, and its physical reality is less important than what that reality represents.

As we all know by now, Keystone XL won’t be the only trunk-line to serpentine down from Canada spewing forth the elixir of American life. To OPEC’s variable dismay, an array of similar lines is already in place. While I am no expert in wholesale extraction, it’s worth noting that the bulk of this oil infrastructure lies in Middle America, land of freedom and the K-Mart. It bypasses elite coastal enclaves, and we urban lefties end up sounding a bit silly when we oppose it, never having seen it.

Which isn’t saying, of course, that we shouldn’t object to Keystone. But what are we proposing in place of the pipeline? And no, localized solar linked to a couple of Teslas doesn’t count. In fact, we’re proposing nothing at all, besides the philosophical category “no-Keystone”. And this is where the environmental movement comes up short.

For all the talk of living growing things, death and destruction lie at the core of modern environmentalism. Against the wishes of techno-progressive zealots, green means fighting for no new construction, for getting back to the way it once was. Aside from a few select projects – clean energy, affordable housing, social entrepreneurship – the green mainstream maintains a continual argument against new things. Thou shalt not drive, thou shalt not eat meat, thou shalt not build thine Keystone pipeline.

The current birthing panic in Japan and Italy bears witness: society at large cannot yet accept a future of retrenchment, decline, and intentional downsizing. When that sort of thing occurs we call it “negative growth”, a local sacrifice for wider systemic growth. Environmentalism is a deathly movement because it rejects that premise and accepts biological change and cyclical mortality. Like growth, decline is part of human living, beautiful because it is inevitable.

That is why it’s impossible to win an argument against Keystone XL in a rhetorical space defined by liberal growth. The pipeline is construction, and in that world construction is an inherent good.

dubai2

Look upon my works ye mighty

 

Economic growth apologists have the wool pulled over our eyes. We are convinced their thinking is rational good sense. To them, environmentalists are a romantic fringe of aesthetes whose inconsequential concerns, far from cutting to the heart of the human condition, flounce with great frivolity and pretense from the halls of the liberal arts school. To speak of “revolution” is historically naïve, to appear on the streets with a sign invites ridicule and contempt. Earnest flower children have been transmuted into bearded hipsters, posturing and insincere. To imagine a kinder world is to lay bare your bleeding heart.

Reality, my dear reader, is a hard red pill to swallow. Here is reality: the corporate growth apparatus no longer serves the best rational interests of the human race (if it ever did). Since the Soviet project’s well-deserved dissolution, we’ve seen few positive prescriptions from the left. In their place we have a liberal Disneyland, an anesthetized world of hybrid cars, minority lawn crews, and the ubiquitous Silicon Valley ping-pong table. Amid rampant greenwashing, the American dream of perpetual expansion is robust as ever. But I don’t want artisanal coffee. I want you to say “don’t be evil” and mean it without a hint of flippancy.

Why has this happened? When did dystopia change from a pitted, radiation-stunted wasteland into Dubai, the perverted gleaming wonderland where dreams come true? An answer – maybe not the answer; I’m not that smart – lies in the realm shunned by everyone on the left, activists and academics alike. I’m talking about aesthetics.

If a movement wants to change the world, it needs to be sexy. Take away the Beats, Jimi Hendrix, the Summer of Love, and watch Clean Air, the EPA, and King’s Dream fade from reality. Before the personal computer, before cell phones and the Ipad, came the room-sized Cold War mainframe with its pocket-protectored technicians straight outta Revenge of the Nerds. But then Tupac says they get jealous when they see you with your mobile phone, and here we are.

2pac phone

Nerdy no longer

 

Until environmentalism gets sexy, I’m afraid we won’t see much real progress. And I’m not talking about Silicon Valley sexy, which affects a faux-leftism at best, and a deeply problematic retrenchment of old power structures at worst.

The 1960s had their share of failed utopias and misplaced ideals, but they spurred successful leftist activism because their sexiness admitted imperfections, even celebrated them. Since then, sexy has become a cosmic state of wealth and dynamism, an immortal, self-involved, expansive lifestyle that values cool experiences even more than material pleasures. Anti-growth environmentalism, meanwhile, retreated with haste into the land of plaid and Birkenstock, reveling with great irony in the music of sensitive frustrated bearded men with banjos.

The fight over Keystone XL cannot be won by economic argument, not until a petroleum economy becomes untenable on the short run. The pipeline may be immoral; it might even be uneconomical. But it won’t go away until it becomes uncool.

Problem is, necessary infrastructure has a certain immunity from aesthetic condemnation. Power lines, sewers, etc. are NIMBYs we need in our backyards, so we cover them up and pretend they aren’t there. Aside from occasional corporate-logoed orange-vested workers, we hardly notice the boxes, manholes, poles, wires, and drains cluttering our cities.

One theory holds that cool (and its cousin sexy) lies on a spectrum: uncool to cool, unsexy to sexy. However many things are outside that spectrum. Neither cool nor uncool, they’re simply there. That’s how most people view the physical environment and infrastructure: static, unquestioned, extant. As of today, Keystone is not yet infrastructure, it’s an idea. If it does get built, it’ll be infrastructure and most of us will cease to care.

vintage and folksy

That vintage appeal

 

That’s why I want to talk about steampunk. Harried as it is by pompous hipsters and obnoxious cosplay, Queen Victoria’s favorite subculture makes an aesthetic out of industrial infrastructure, thrusting it onto the cool-uncool spectrum. Steampunk is a realm of ambiguous morals: it understands that political corruption accompanies wondrous inventions. The clockwork automaton can be ally and friend one day and turn to ruthless killing machine the next. But it never loses its cool.

Steampunk is the vanguard of a wider post-industrial urbanism that values the diverse, multifaceted, honest city. Tech royalty want to live in urban San Francisco rather than verdant suburbia. The urban hipster finds the former industrial “loft space” idyllic. People want to get off the freeway and bike to seamy streets in search of authentic cuisine. In this atmosphere, the underlying infrastructure of our cities takes on new interest, enters the realm of cool.

All the attention Keystone gets – including the Republicans’ obstinate insistence on building it – earns global oil infrastructure a place on the cool-uncool spectrum. For the moment, it doesn’t matter whether or not we consider Keystone cool: some do, some don’t. But this process will soon disarm the absolutism of liberal economics by overlaying aesthetic social disapproval. A deviation: environmentalists embracing style over substance. No longer natural and eternal, petroleum infrastructure becomes subject to popular whim. And we all know pop doesn’t last.

 

 

Photo Credits: MatteoArienti via Compfight ccrichardcarlpearson555 via Compfight cc; Patrick Lyons via hnhhrcbodden via Compfight cc

How I saw the stars in L.A.

beach

A few days ago I wrote about Ray Bradbury, about the architect who bought his house, the author’s carless life in LA, his long walks. We can’t be sure exactly how that ambulatory habit contributed to his work. To test the theory in true unscientific fashion, I took an urban hike of my own.

A disclaimer: nothing life-changing or adrenaline-pumping happened during my walk. It was quite ordinary as walks go. It wasn’t even very urban in the classical sense of a dense, mixed-use city center. But I’m writing about it anyway.

The adventure began around five or so, as the sun dipped under the Pacific horizon. I live close to the shore in Marina Del Rey, twenty minutes slow walk from the beach. I confess I fail to appreciate that fact most days.

The marina is an aesthetically-blessed community situated on top of what used to be coastal wetlands. Mid-century property developers carved its current shape from a landscape similar to the Ballona Wetlands to the south, which remain in an unlikely and precarious state of preservation.

Those developers’ heirs are now engaged in a bout of redevelopment. They’re knocking down the decrepit old apartments and putting in new units to target, shall we say, a more discerning potential tenant. On the way to the beach – which abuts the beach of Venice Boardwalk fame – I passed what is now the last bit of wilderness left in the marina.

Back last year, another spot might have qualified, really nothing more than a stagnant remnant between Washington Boulevard and Via Marina. But next to it stood half-century eucalyptus trees, home to migrating birds and monarch butterflies. Those trees are gone now, felled to make way for a “recreational area,” courtesy of the county.

Now the last wilderness in the marina is a large vacant space between Marquesas and Tahiti Way along Via Marina, east of the Silver Strand and west of the boats. Plans are probably in the works to convert it to a luxury development, along with the architecture-bereft little surfers’ apartments situated alongside.

marina1

As I passed, I could hear crickets from various points in the field. It smelled fresh. The ground-cover of weeds and grasses seemed more lush than usual, and there was no one around. Someone played classic rock from a live-aboard boat far off.

Brushing my shoe against plants peeking out under the fence, I dwelt on a childhood fancy: fields like these as insect cities, a fierce and complex urban infrastructure. But like those eucalyptus trees, all of this might soon vanish.

Before I reached the seashore I needed to cross through a strip of land (under City of Los Angeles jurisdiction I believe) called the Silver Strand. There, wealthy homeowners purchase beach-side living in three- or four-story estates, packed together tight like most coastal property in California.

silvers2

A freshwater creek lies between the eastern and western halves of the strand, home to several local species of bird. I crossed a white footbridge to the opposite side and a minute later set foot on the beach.

The sun had surrendered the horizon, but it held out against the dark in a spectacular sliver of orange, red, and blue, blazing up towards Malibu and across the sea. Contrasting the twilight, there were clouds enough to satisfy a hundred easels. Like the song says, California sky’s got room to spare.

The Marina Del Rey beach shares the great breadth of its famous Venice cousin. It takes more than a little while to trudge across to the water, and it was low tide, lower than I’ve seen before. On a beach this wide, the surf is muted when you’re by the beachfront condos, but when you reach the water it’s the only thing you hear.

Beaches are one of those borderlands, places neither here nor there between the city and endless ocean. Ecotones, they are sometimes called. The sky told the same story: an urban aura over LA contrasted the deepening dark out west. By some miracle I could see the stars of Orion’s Belt clear overhead.

I wasn’t the only one out on the beach that night. Back toward the lights a young family frolicked, the girl in light-up sneakers. An older man ran beside his dog – he whistled whenever it got too far ahead. Lone shadowed figures stood like I was, a hundred yards to the right, a hundred to the left. The thought of murder on the beach.

Indulge me for a moment: in the borderland between city and the wild, strange things can happen. The waves might deposit a seal carcass, chanced upon by a boardwalk derelict and a banker jogging opposite ways. The planet’s faces and representations come together and you can pause and look at all of them, objectively.

By the time I got back home, life’s familiar patterns and problems were once again at the front of my mind. And so I ask myself: what good came of this? What did Bradbury and creative people like him get from all those walks? You’ll have to come to your own conclusions – it can’t really be summed up in some pithy one-liner. But the sense I get is, they’re worth it.

 

Top photo credit: Compfight.com cc, Other photos: Philip Rojc