Not the Same as it Ever Was

Things shutting down, a leadership vacuum and sports leading the way to a quieter next few weeks brings up a lot of possibilities that fall on the interesting/frightening continuum. What will be the new normal that follows this different normal?

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancelations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

It seems like a good time to wonder: do you have stuff to Read? Write? Paint? Plant? Play?

Work on other stuff, or just yourself. Rest, and stay healthy. Think about what ‘different’ might be like, how it could be better.

Squamish Nation not squeamish on blending indigeneity and urban design

Clunky title, but this story on the re-development of one of Canada’s smallest First Nations reserves mixes boldness with vision for Vancouver that is easy to romanticize but more nearly resembles a living model for cities going forward.

Few First Nations reserves in Canada are found so centrally in urban areas, and this unique location has given the Squamish Nation a chance to explode local city-building norms. Construction begins in 2021, and at more than 500 units per acre, Senakw’s density will reach Hong Kong levels – a fact that is only allowed because Senakw exists not on city land, but on reserve land, which is technically federal.

Another striking feature is that only 10% of apartments will include parking, unlike the city’s rules that mandate one parking space per unit. The buildings will also forgo the podium-and-tower design that’s become a hallmark of “Vancouverism” in favour of slender high-rises maximising public space. The buildings could be up to 56 storeys tall, towering above the low-rise neighbourhoods nearby.

But beyond even the serious density considerations, there is the language slight of hand that gets at something far more pernicious:

“In the early history of Vancouver, and colonial cities generally, there is this opposition assumed between the civilization cities are imagined to represent, and the imagined savageness of Indigenous people,” [Stanger-Ross] says. 

The ways that the terms ‘urban areas’, ‘cities’, and even abstractions like ‘density’ have been co-opted as code words for racist politicking is maybe coming full-circle. Hopeful, I know. But good work, First Nations folk. Right racists depend on decent people being too nice, too squeamish, plus the ever-present lack of temerity to call out, punch back, or in this case, build up. Re-take the words, then re-make the savage cities with civilizing force of architecture.

Akrasia for you

The merest coincidence with the Labor Day interruption, but a turn to British politics, courtesy of the great Fintan O’Toole. He lays bare a striking (sorry – this is not the time!) aspect of Brexit and especially the loathsome Boris Johnson, as smarter than he is playing – but for the sake of, well, you will believe it:

[T]his raises the two central questions about Johnson—does he believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.

The Greek philosophers found akrasia mysterious—why would people knowingly do the wrong thing? But Johnson knows the answer: they do so, in England at least, because knowingness is essential to being included. You have to be “in on the joke”—and Johnson has shown just how far some English people will go in order not to look like they are not getting it. The anthropologist Kate Fox, in her classic study Watching the English, suggested that a crucial rule of the national discourse is what she called The Importance of Not Being Earnest: “At the most basic level, an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness.’” Johnson has played on this to perfection—he knows that millions of his compatriots would rather go along with his outrageous fabrications than be accused of the ultimate sin of taking things too seriously.

“Boris being Boris” (the phrase that has long been used to excuse him) is an act, a turn, a traveling show. Johnson’s father, Stanley, was fired from his job at the World Bank in 1968 when he submitted a satiric proposal for a $100 million loan to Egypt to build three new pyramids and a sphinx. But the son cultivated in England an audience more receptive to the half-comic, half-convincing notion that the EU might be just such an absurdist enterprise.

Do you know any people like this? They would rather make fun of something than think or reckon seriously with ramifications or consequences. How boring! Nihilists to the core, though I prefer the more direct soubriquet – assholes.

And yes, yes you do know some, unfortunately, probably more than a few.

The new Feather-Knocker-Over-er, from Ronco!

Well knock us over with a…

The “shareholder comes first” has for years been the mantra of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents the most powerful CEOs in America and their thinking.

The group’s new principles on the role of a corporation released Monday imply a foundational shift, putting shareholders on more equal footing with others who have an interest in a corporation to some degree — including workers, suppliers, customers and, essentially, society at large.

“We know that many Americans are struggling. Too often hard work is not rewarded, and not enough is being done for workers to adjust to the rapid pace of change in the economy. If companies fail to recognize that the success of our system is dependent on inclusive long-term growth, many will raise legitimate questions about the role of large employers in our society,” the statement reads.

First, let’s think about presenting this as “news” ( it grows increasingly difficult to choose which word gets ironi-quoted)? Not just news but it was above the fold – meat space term for the top story on the site, as though the NYT (WAPO and others) wanted to make sure it was very definitely seen and just as likely unread, per their habits. Great placement! Either it’s meant for the shallow consumption of millions or the verification by the 65 to 85 people who mean the most to them. Theories welcome.

Unusually, I’m not a pitchfork sharpener. But let’s at least be a little skeptical about this gambit. CEO’s are now worried about this? I wonder why? Hong Kong, maybe. Hmmm, let’s think about that, broaden the context of what they’re saying because this may well be being introduced to lead exactly nowhere, as in See, We Talked About That Once. Kind of like a window of purses at Barney’s. Isn’t that nice?

But Hong Kong – complicated (why?). Scary (for whom?). 2047, huh. Interesting. Those people got born and are here now. But look over here – robot cars! Greenland?! What a goob!

The Futility Throughway

Whoever would have thunk it, that pointless exhaustion can provide a passage through the morass? I get it; too hopeful, too quickly. First comes the re-appraisal of words we thought we knew well – better, normal, fair, bad, new – not only considering them, but not thinking of them in the same way again. Ever.

Yes, difficult. No need to be welcomed to difficult, as we’re well-acquainted already, not neighbors but our actual address. Is there any other way? Everyone assumed to wish there was. Any way to avoid a similar worse. But no/yes. There: the passage.

The light of recognizing an unfamiliar sound. Contradiction, check. Loosen from accepted precepts, in process. Allow unsupportable sentiments to ferment. To stop at mere nihilism would be a luxury. Not hurrying or getting past anything for its own sake, but tarrying there, at catastrophe, long enough to step across it. Onto into. Again: better? It hardly matters, whatever that once meant. If it is to be a modifying qualifier in any sense, being completely cast from former shores by necessity comes first. You can’t stay because you’re afraid to be out on the open sea for too long – gulp. Already sick from so much salt water swallowed not by mistake or accidentally.

Albeit in the guise of the shittiest form of optimism imaginable, it’s not even that. Good or bad re-lost, abandoned, and this time on purpose. Brought to the brink, yes. But here we are, and now we stay. How long? How long does it take? Sounds like a choice, one that kills many as it makes a few stronger. Every completely joyous venture now summoned as punishment, exercise, conditioning maneuvers under live fire. Do you feel free? This is actually what it’s like. How about now?

Simply by the energy expended to resist the impulses to quit, to give up, give in, only this time, we’ve already done those. Are doing them. Find ourselves within an extended succumb. Not capitulating though. So, what, a new good? Fighting to call it something, anything, but not too quickly. Allow the energy to circulate and pressurize, and not ask imprudent reassurance. Steer right into the berg. Do fierce winds keep a wrecked ship upright? It’s now that we’re ready to fight. If we had been a minute earlier, we would have engaged the battle already. Fighting or about to makes logic extreme, but you insisted on free and it turns out to be both. Every meaning doubled, loose at both ends. Potent dreams, finally dangerous.

 

 

A Noteful Hope

At the outset of the newest year, with walls incoherently at the center of our discourse as we contemplate how best to keep people out rather how best to help them up, a bit of perspective provides a reminder that we might be mixed up about parts of the story:

For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

It’s from earlier this year in 2018, but read the whole, etc. There is no ‘them’ but there are assumptions and many of ours may be wrong or at least worth re-considering.

Banksy image from the original.

What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Changing the neighborhood

WITH all the courting, cajoling, promises of [decades of] tax breaks and free land and infrastructure upgrades that we see towns and localities using to persuade the tech giants to relocate in and resuscitate moribund burgs large, medium and small, it turns out we could all learn a thing or two from Berlin:

Campaigners in a bohemian district of Berlin are celebrating after the internet giant Google abandoned strongly opposed plans to open a large campus there. The US firm had planned to set up an incubator for startup companies in Kreuzberg, one of the older districts in the west of the capital.

But the company’s German spokesman Ralf Bremer announced on Wednesday that the 3,000 m2 (3,590 square-yard) space – planned to host offices, cafes and communal work areas – would instead go to two local humanitarian associations.

Bremer did not say if local resistance to the plans over the past two years had played a part in the change of heart, although he had told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that Google does not allow protests to dictate its actions.

“The struggle pays off,” tweeted GloReiche Nachbarschaft, one of the groups opposed to the Kreuzberg campus plan and part of the “Fuck off Google” campaign.

Some campaigners objected to what they described as Google’s “evil” corporate practices, such as tax evasion and the unethical use of personal data. Some opposed the gentrification of the district, which might price many people out of the area.

As we see everywhere, gentrification is a tricky thing to fight off. It helps if you can summon the power to think well and high of yourself, to defend your neighborhoods from a position of strength. An earlier article this past May lays out it pretty clearly:

“I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is really frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the most cool, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says.

Bravi, Kreuzberg!

Image: Author photo, Brandenburg Tor

Modes for toads

Nice DE-veining of ‘design thinking’ in the CHE:

Despite his enthusiasm, Miller struggles to define design thinking. “It’s an approach to problem-solving based on a few easy-to-grasp principles that sound obvious: ‘Show Don’t Tell,’ ‘Focus on Human Values,’ ‘Craft Clarity,’ ‘Embrace Experimentation,’ ‘Mindful of Process,’ ‘Bias Toward Action,’ and ‘Radical Collaboration.’” He explains further that these seven points can be reduced to what are known as the five “modes”: “Empathize,” “Define,” “Ideate,” “Prototype,” and “Test.” He seems particularly impressed with “Empathize”: “Human-centered design redescribes the classical aim of education as the care and tending of the soul.”
Beautiful. Compelling. But what does it mean? According to the d.school’s An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE, “The Empathize Mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.” We can dress things up with language about the “soul,” but this is Business 101: Listen to your client and find out what he or she wants.

Miller calls the Empathize Mode “ethnography,” which is uncharitable  to cultural anthropologists who spend their entire lives learning how to observe other people. Few anthropologists would sign on to the idea that amateurs at a d.school boot camp strolling around Stanford and gawking at strangers constitutes “ethnography.” The Empathize Mode of design thinking is roughly as ethnographic as a marketing focus group or a crew of consultants trying to suss out their clients’ desires.

Design thinking, in other words, is just a fancy way of talking about consulting. What Miller, Kelly, and Hennessy are asking us to imagine is that design consulting is a model for retooling all of education. They believe that we should use design thinking to reform education by treating students as clients. And they assert that design thinking should be a central part of what students learn, a lens through which graduates come to approach social reality. In other words, we should view all of society as if we are in the design-consulting business.

Okay maybe not so nice. But still, the designification of arts and any other kind of education is a wagon train that should stopped, frisked, emptied of its contents, its wheels broken and used for firewood and little shacks built from the wagon bodies to shield the shysters pioneers from the winter cold because THAT’s empathy and we’re not barbarians. The business-minded think everywhere they look is a frontier – that’s where all this consulting jargon comes from – when most of it is just the old world, with a deep culture you can share and learn something from, and even use for helpful, positive purposes that, yes, might even earn you a living. But no. Instead, it’s space travel. Deep tunnels. The hyperloop. Self-driving cars. Personal pods, juicer-toasters or whatever. And now some of the design thinkers want to change higher ed so their ‘IDEAS, man!’ make more sense. Just stop.

Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.