Unpacking My Library

"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That’s how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes

…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The library, Benjamin’s passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual’s life.    

Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.

But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.

"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.

With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.

As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I’ll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book’s ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here

philip johnson's library 

[not my library but rather Philip Johnson’s] 

Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father. 

But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them. 

My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London’s famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.

 another image of Johnson's library 

 [another image from Johnson’s library]

The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can’t recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn’t return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.

Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It’s better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.    

superstudio image 

There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio’s greatest dream: life without objects.      

The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?     

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On Owls, Starchitects, Papers & Growth Machines

When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

In perhaps his most eloquent moment, Hegel was referring to the way that philosophy came to an understanding of topics precisely at the moment that they were no longer relevant.

An example of this would be the explosion of visual studies in the 1990s just at the moment when two centuries of the visual being a cultural dominant were being eclipsed by the rise of the non-visual, by the code and procotols of network culture. Nobody talks much about visual studies anymore.

But it isn’t just philosophy and theory that operate this way. It’s a phenomenon we see in culture over and over. Milton Friedman (and Time Magazine) declared We are all Keynesians now just as the long postwar boom expired.

Or look at how stores like Barnes and Noble appeared, carrying huge amounts of books and magazines just as print began its terminal decline. Or the appearance of the SUV right before peak oil (I have friends who bought those things and used them for everyday driving…crazy!).

So what about Starchitects? There has certainly never been an explosion of interest in Starchitects like there has been today. But when the economy recovers (and I think that will be a long, long time from nunless the government comes up with another unhealthy quick fix), I’m not so sure we’ll have starchitects anymore.

The reason is simple: newspapers made starchitects. It’s common knowledge that recent construction by major cultural institutions was driven by the desire to make it to the front page of the New York Times. This could only be guaranteed if the architect was Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Koolhaas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Foster (some of these names may change a little, a second tier includes Piano, Morphosis, Sejima, Ito, and I’m sure a couple of others that I forgot). I have friends who work with such institutions and they were commonly told that the project had to be on the front page.

This is not surprising. Newspapers are key institutions for the growth machine (see more here). They seek to drive growth, making it seem natural and promoting it, generally regardless of the cost. They are where the growth machine sees itself and celebrates itself.

But now, eviscerated by bad financial models and online publications, newspapers are dying. Certainly blogs have encouraged Starchitecture a bit, but in many cases—such as at Archinect—they did so in part because they are in the business of linking to content from newspapers. In many cases bloggers are more critical of starchitecture than newspaper critics are. Blogs are bottom-up, newspapers are top-down. Thus blogs are snarky, newspapers are proper. Blogs also have comments so when a blogger gets something wrong, a reader can call it out.

As you may read on twitter, the media is dying. As big papers start to shut down or go to online-only formats in the coming years, will starchitects disappear as well? I can’t imagine that the heads of major cultural institutions will insist on architects who will ensure their buildings be mentioned on Archinect.

If they do, what will take their place, a Warholian YouTube-style culture of young architects being famous for 15 minutes? Or will architects begin to specialize toward niche audiences, much as blogs do?

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infrastructure, the lives of things, and stimulus

Obviously, technological optimism is common in network culture. It’s only natural: we experience technological improvements everyday. A decade ago I spent $1,500 on my first digital camera. Yesterday I gave my six-year-old daughter a digital camera for her birthday. It was smaller and handily outperformed that original camera for less than 1/15th of the cost. Last year the iPhone 3G came out. Now I’ve stopped plotting out the route to an unknown destination before I get on my way. During the last year I finally got rid of my last desktop machine in favor of a laptop which I set to automatically backup my hard drive over the wireless network whenever I am at home. Of course I’m a bit of a geek by inclination and profession, but if you’re reading this blog I’m sure you’re familiar with this rapid pace of change firsthand. 

So it’s normal to extend our technological optimism beyond the home, to the city for example. But there’s another aspect of network culture that balances out technological optimism: non-human systems have drives of their own. A relatively new branch of sociology, actor-network theory (ANT) tries to make sense of this. Here’s a quote from Ole Hanseth and Eric Montiero’s book Understanding Information Infrastructure that sums up the main point:

The term "actor network", the A and N in ANT, is not very illuminating. It is hardly obvious what the term implies. The idea, however, is fairly simple. When going about doing your business — driving your car or writing a document using a word-processor — there are a lot of things that influence how you do it. For instance, when driving a car, you are influenced by traffic regulations, prior driving experience and the car’s manoeuvring abilities, the use of a word-processor is influenced by earlier experience using it, the functionality of the word-processor and so forth. All of these factors are related or connected to how you act. You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.

We all know how frustrating technology can be when by design or by accident it prevents us from doing what we wanted to. You lose your iTunes library on your drive and you can’t copy it back off your iPod or re-download it from the store, a faulty fuel sensor puts your car in limp-home mode, your remote control can’t talk to your DVD player and so on. 

By design The Infrastructural City is intended for a general audience—it’s not unacademic, but I also didn’t want to weigh it down too much with theory—and none of my authors were sociologists so I didn’t ask anyone to address ANT. But, one of the book’s chief lessons—even the main lesson—is that infrastructures themselves are actors. The Los Angeles River is not natural anymore, it’s something else entirely. We are traffic, but because we aren’t going to change our behavior, adding more lanes to freeways isn’t going to work.

Understanding human and non-human systems puts The Infrastructural City in a lineage starting with Anton Wagner’s 1935 Los Angeles: Werden, Leben and Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Sudenkalifornien and extending through Banham’s 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 36 years elapsed between the first two books and another 37 years passed before our book came out. For both Wagner and Banham, cities were ecologies. Wagner, sponsored by the Nazi government, saw these quite literally: the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Southern California were shaped by the landscape. If Wagner’s sponsorship and eugenic thesis are repulsive, his idea of understanding both the setting and the settlers together was ground-breaking. Building on Wagner, Banham saw the city as composed of discrete landscapes—ecologies—populated by specific clusters of individuals who gave rise to specific kinds of buildings. 

Inexorably, the man-made has become more important. But acts of human volition—building a work of quality architecture, say, or even spearheading an infrastructural initiative—are fading in favor of complex systems, actors that we have shaped but that have evolved "lives" of their own.     

These resulting "actors" have wills that can get in our way at the least opportune time. As a general rule, the more complex the system, the stronger its will. I’ll give away a further clue that I hid in our book: where possible I tried to show the traces of other infrastructural ecologies in the photographs I illustrated the essays with. Can you find the frankenpine in the opening spread of the essay on the L. A. River? As these "ecologies" or as David Fletcher calls them in his essay on the River, "freakologies" interact and network together, they become much harder to control.     

Another thesis of the book is that many of these systems are invisible and an actor doesn’t have to be visible or formed to have a will of its own. Social structures can also be actors. This is most evident today in the glaring absence of infrastructure from the economic stimulus plan. 

There are a lot of false hopes out there about the plan and I’ve been doing what I can to get the truth out, especially since the LA Times review of our book that got the story about the plan so sadly, painfully wrong. For the real story, take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe: Only 5 percent of $819b plan would go toward infrastructure.

A graphic displays the stark reality.

I quote the Globe: 

The chairman of the transportation panel’s subcommittee on highways and transit, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, became so angry about the reduction in transportation spending that he recently accused Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, of arguing against such funds because he "hates infrastructure."

The Globe piece observes that the Obama administration hints at future funding for infrastructure, but thus far there it has given fans of infrastructure precious little reason to believe in it.

Instead of agreeing with Peter DeFazio and pinning the blame on one nefarious individual, I’d like to suggest an actor-network-theory reason for the failure.

Political systems have a life of their own. Obama’s administration has to fulfill immediate goals like passing the bill and making it seem like the average American is getting relief. Complex infrastructure projects take decades to build, unless you are in China and after last week we know very well what cutting corners will do. For political reasons Obama doesn’t have decades to wait, so even though he gives the impression of being a strong-willed, inspirational individual who wants to up-end the political machine, he is going for the quick fix.

In other words, we’ve created political ecologies that are going to stand in the way of moves to fund infrastructure.

What to do, then? This is the subject for future posts, but I’ll suggest two things. We need to face up to address the underlying political structures that prevent infrastructural spending, no matter that it is impossible to condense these into a sound bite and we need to use advanced technologies to invent new kinds of infrastructures, augmenting existing conditions. Ubiquitous computing is already here, Mike Kuniavsky suggests. How can we use it to overcome the rising problems of life in the city? 

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Reality Check: Infrastructure Funding for NYC

The Daily News: "New York Gets Big Slice of … Stimulus Package …

What’s known is this: New York is getting more money for Medicaid relief ($12.6 billion), mass transit ($1.3 billion) and home weatherization ($403 million) than any other state. Other categories may well break New York’s way, once funding formulas are set.

"We have come of age," exulted former Mayor Ed Koch, who remembers a time not too long ago when New York’s delegation was routinely steamrolled, mostly by powerful Southern Democrats who saw New York as Sin City.

I have nothing against Medicaid relief, but this is hardly infrastructural spending in the traditional sense. Meanwhile the shovel-ready Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel (adding two new, much-needed tracks under the Hudson River) is estimated to cost over $7 billion to complete while the Second Avenue subway will be over $17 bililon. The Trans-Hudson Express is to be completed by 2017 while the Second Avenue subway will take a few more years. 

Given such lengthy timeframes and the immediacy of the crisis, is it political expediency that is driving Obama’s flight from traditional infrastructure. 

This is but a small window into the way spending is being allocated in the stimulus plan. More here if you missed it. 

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Back to Infrastructure

Christopher Hawthorne has a largely favorable review of The Infrastructural City in the Los Angeles Times today. I was delighted by the attention although disappointed by how he got tripped up in some naïve assumptions. Unfortunately even though ACTAR had sent him my contact info, Hawthorne rushed his article to press, missing his opportunity to think through the book’s main points.   

I laughed out loud at Hawthorne’s opening lines, in which he suggests that the book would have "a tough time steering clear of the remainder bin" if it weren’t for the stimulus package or that I didn’t expect that infrastructure would be trotted out as part of the stimulus plan, that I was taken by surprise.  

It’s true that infrastructure was once the least sexy of topics, a term barely used in English as late as the 1960s, but as Ian Baldwin, my former student at Penn, observed, it spread widely after the publication of America in Ruins, co-authored by economist Pat Choate and Susan Walters. The authors of that report suggested that some $2.5 trillion would be needed just to keep the country’s infrastructure functioning at a constant level into the mid-1990s. Infrastructure, as a concept referring to a bundle of physical service networks, became visible in its collapse. That money was, of course, never allocated.  

Over the next two decades, infrastructure continued to rise in the public eye, in large part because, as our book points out, it is in a state of constant failure. This is something that virtually all of us experience. Angelenos, navigating over-crowded streets and freeways at a snail’s pace, understand it viscerally. We’ve also come to understand that there are going to be no great new projects: only architects and reporters seem to believe otherwise. The immense expense of construction, empty government coffers, and NIMBYism will take care of that. But the New-Bad-Future-right-now of infrastructure defines our cities today, much as the lifestyles of Banham’s ecologies defined the urbanism of his day. As humans and objects interact ever more directly (look at the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, for example), the lives of these systems become more and more important.     

Architects have long been interested in infrastructure. Starting in the Renaissance, copies of Vitrivius’s Ten Books on Architecture typically had Frontinus’s essay on aqueducts as an appendix. Later on, Piranesi likely drew inspiration from the Cloaca Maxima, the Roman sewer, for his Carceri. Infrastructure is a lost fantasy object, taunting us with the suggestion that those aspects of the city that escaped from architecture could once more be under our purview. In Los Angeles, the avant-garde scene came together at the West Coast Gateway competition of 1989. If the West Coast Gateway project never got built, Gary Paige’s reconstruction of an abandoned railway depot into the downtown SCI_Arc building a decade later is the most inspired large project in the city in decades. In designing the building Paige drew on the theories of Stan Allen, now Dean at Princeton, and an advocate of thinking about architecture and urbanism in infrastructural terms. Infrastructure is hardly a topic for the remainder bins, at least not for architects.    

As for the stimulus plan: there was certainly some rhetoric last fall suggesting that a new era of WPA projects was upon us, but as I’ve pointed out, this is hardly the case if one actually looks at what’s in the plan, as I did here. Hawthorne isn’t a political reporter, so he missed this, but it’s crucial and there’s on excuse for not doing your homework. 

The Obama administration is not spending a significant amount of money on infrastructure. My definition of infrastructure is broad—certainly broader than Hawthorne’s—but this plan does not initate much new funding for infrastructure, not unless you count the construction of hospitals (note to unemployed architects: there will be a bit of work building hospitals) or digitizing health care records. The plan is an amalgam of tax cuts bundled with triage for various government programs that were underfunded during the Bush administration. Those are the facts. Whether Obama changed his mind or infrastructure was an easy-to-understand term he deployed as bait, this is by no means the return of the WPA.  

Perversely, this may not be a bad thing. Take a look at Eric Janszen’s article "The Next Bubble" at Harper’s. Back in February of last year, months before the crisis had revealed its full dimensions to the unwary, long before the rhetoric about the stimulus plan, when Hawthorne was still hunting remainder bins looking for books on infrastructure, Janszen cautioned that infrastructure might be the cause of the next bubble.  


But the money spent on last fall’s bailout, together with the funds allocated for the stimulus plan, pretty much ensures that the government is going to have its fiscal hands tied for some time to come. In other words, the stimulus plan will not only fail to fund further large infrastructural initiatives, it will prevent them from being built in the first place. An infrastructural bubble isn’t coming. 


Now I do anticipate that in the coming years industry will have some success with getting funds allocated to subsidize construction of supposedly sustainable energy sources. Most of these aren’t sustainable either environmentally or financially, and once the economy shifts again, the results may look something like this abandoned solar energy plant built in the early 1980s, then dismantled and left to rot like a field of dying date palm trees when the financial models failed.

abandoned solar power plant from clui archives

 [Image via CLUI’s Land Use Database]          


The real infrastructure to watch will be the network. It’ll continue its growth, the invisible layer of soft infrastructure exerting more and more influence over our lives even as it becomes more distributed and more privatized. As Rick Miller and Ted Kane point out in their chapter on mobile phones, it is by no means positive that the public interest has been placed in the hands of private interests. This is a challenge that the country needs to confront and I see little political will to do so. Hawthorne’s failure to mention it suggests that it’s still beyond the scope of a story in a Sunday paper. That’s a shame.   


The end of Hawthorne’s piece is flat-footed. Instead of confronting the consequences of our conclusions, he appeals to the fantasy of infrastructure as the next architectural object, trotting out the idea that architects need to be involved in the design of the new infrastructural America. 

In the unlikely event that somehow a burst of hard infrastructure takes place, I hardly think that this will save architecture. Why would a cash-strapped government pay for design now when it has never done so before? You could say that the great turning point in infrastructure is took place at the George Washington bridge when the engineers decided it looked fine as it was and decided not to give it a stone cladding. But we’re not even brave enough for that today. The palm tree on our cover says it all: a cell phone tower is not designed by Frank Gehry, it is designed to look like a palm tree. Now we’re probably the better for it: the host of architect-designed subway stations in Los Angeles were largely an embarrassment. If by some miracle architects get on board with infrastructure, NIMBYism will make sure that new infrastructure would look even more contextual. Imagine the rise of cell phone trees disguised as mission bells throughout Los Angeles, hardly what any of us want. 

I was happy to see Hawthorne finish his article with a pot-shot at the architect-as-icon. It’s nice that is trickling down. But Hawthorne doesn’t go far enough with his recommendations for the profession. Please save us from OMA-designed off-shore wind farms. Architecture needs to re-invent itself in the face of the challenges of contemporary life. As Hawthorne suggests, architects need to take a page from engineers and embrace anonymity. More than that, they need to apply their tremendous imaginations and skill to reprogramming the world of network culture into something new and fantastic. Go read bldgblog, look back at what Andrea Branzi and Bernard Tschumi wrote decades ago: these guys had it right. Now more than ever commonplace thinking about architecture’s role will be fatal. 

In the coming week, I’ll follow up with a post containing my piece from Volume Magazine’s "bootleg" issue of Urban China in which I draw together the links between the book and the economic stimulus plan and suggest some more directions.




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On the Reshaping of America

Richard Florida has a piece in the March 2009 Atlantic, How the Crash Will Reshape America. Readers will not be surprised to hear that there’s a lot to disagree with in the piece, particularly Florida’s continued support of his notion of the creative class, then again, the idea his bread and butter so of course he’s going to tout it. 

Florida suggests that the creative class® is still going to be a mainstay for cities, but we’ll see otherwise. I am now predicting a major newspaper closing within months, not by the end of the year and I think there’s a very strong likelihood that the Times itself won’t stay in print for long, except maybe as some kind of Sunday morning rip-off of Monocle: news subsidized by fashion and style (this is actually the Times now, but think of the whole paper in the magazine). The music industry has been bleeding like a stuck pig for years and there’s only so much blood left. Hollywood is going to continue its dance of death, surviving for the moment, although worse off that before. I expect that the next economic crisis will take it down as well. Hipsters have managed the illusion of living without any means of financial sustenance for a while. Now we get to see them do it for real. Florida’s creative class is hardly well. For all of the excitement about amateur-generated content, it is hard to see how it can be monetized. Between the crisis in overproduction of cultural goods that marks network culture and the free availability of amateur-generated content, the creative industries are set for a Detroit-style tailspin. Make no mistake, this economic crisis is their first round. 

Similarly, Florida’s prediction that financial centers will continue to dominate is questionable. I won’t outrightly say that he’s wrong, since my research doesn’t confirm this yet, but the financial collapse is also a transition. Nobody is going to trust the friendly face of their doe-eyed real estate broker, banker, or financial advisor anymore. These jobs, along with a similar array of positions in the financial sector, will be streamlined out of existence. Over 50,000 jobs in lower Manhattan are history and I suspect we’ll see double that before the crisis is over. Where will these freshly-minted MBAs go? Here Florida is right: there were plenty of financial industry jobs in peripheral places in Middle America and as those have evaporated, the MBAs won’t be able to find easy jobs back home, unless they are good with the topless dancing

This is a central problem with the creative class: it doesn’t really exist and it never did. On the contrary, the creative class was a place in which the financial sector could hide itself. Take a look at Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money for the real story. It was finance, e.g. the bubble economy, that dominated the American economy since the 1980s. Like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the financial sector liked to surround itself with the trappings of the creative class and saw itself as creative. Moreover, with the massive cuts in taxes at the top brackets over the last thirty years, living in cities and consuming culture like mad was something the financial industry did, but this is hardly the same as suggesting, as Florida does, that creative professionals have much say in the economy.

When I was growing up in rural Western Massachusetts, the local General Electric plant was shedding jobs. My friends in high school saw themselves as "burnouts," understanding that before they even held a job, any dreams of a well-paying life in industry were gone. Finance and the creative class will now follow in their wake. Sadly there isn’t a whole lot left to replace them and as I’ve already stated, infrastructure is hardly being funded in Obama’s stimulus plan. Why do people continue to think it is? It baffles me.   

I’ll agree with Florida when he observes that the early predictions this crisis would undo the United States were self-serving. On the contrary, other countries are suffering much harder and will continue to suffer much harder. For all the blather about the problems in the United States, the country has massive resources and Americans work harder and absorb immigration (and thereby cheap labor, new talent, and global connections) more readily than any other country. Speculation was as crazy, if not crazier, in the EU and Asia than in the US. Americans didn’t build Dubai or CCTV. A quick check: is real estate in your city more expensive than in New York? If you aren’t in a global city (I’d include London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong), then you’re doomed. This is not to say that real estate in those cities isn’t going to collapse, but it is to say that real estate in countries on the periphery of Europe will likely never recover to its pre-bust levels. 

Florida is also right that we should give up homeownership in favor of rentals. Obama needs to roll back laws, enacted decades ago, that favor new rental construction and encourage landlords to find ways to profit with existing apartment buildings while maintaining them in good condition. Nurturing an older housing stock in cities would keep labor costs down by making it easier for employees to live near their workplaces, encourage economic and ethnic diversity, and discourage commuting long distances. These are all vital things and they have been lost in the reshaping of American cities to serve Florida’s creative class (e.g. the financial sector in hipster clothes). I am not referring to section 8 housing here. There is room for that, but there is also a need for housing for the working class and we have abandoned that wholesale in search of easy profits.      

He’s also right about foreclosures. We need to find gentle ways to reduce the prices of real estate by another 20 to 30% and not prop it up artificially. I don’t like the idea of subsidizing housing for former homeowners (this also undoes the support for landlords I mention above), but prices need to drop and drop fast.  

I have problems with even the cautious optimism at the end of the article. We’ve reached a heat-death within capitalism. The ponzi scheme shuffled around for so long and took so many people’s money that we’ve exhausted any possible economic growth that the biggest technological advance in this generation, network convergence, offered us. Finding ways to make a profit in this economy may be possible on an individual level, but I am not confident that growth can be stimulated again on a worldwide level. Both in this country and elsewhere, a lot of people who made poor job choices are going to have to find other ways to make a living besides finance and they’ll have to do it back home, in the same places that have been depopulating for years since that is where housing is cheapest. Am I optimistic? No, not at all. Too bad Starbucks isn’t hiring much these days.    

®creative class is a registered trademark of the Creative Class Group LTD, global services advisory firm founded by Richard Florida.

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Last One Out Turn Out the Lights

Back in 2006, I questioned the reality behind the skyscraper boom in places like Dubai. In 2007 I suggested that there was a coming storm in Dubai, while as late as last spring the New York Times was confident that it was time to party in Dubai like it was 1999 (or perhaps 1929).

Now, feeling a bit hung over not to mention behind other media outlets, the Times is realizing they can’t perpetuate the building boom anymore, not even in Dubai. Sobering up, they are forced to deal with the cold reality and so the Times coughed up the following today: Laid-off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down.

I’m not sure where the lights should go off first: in the Arabian nights wonderland of Dubai, rapidly turning into a debtor’s prison or at the Foster building located across the street from the Port Authority station? Both are parodies: the first of capitalism and architecture, the second of responsible journalism. It’s a bad year for both of them, perhaps only to be outdone by the bad year to come in China, which has managed to combine both into one at the CCTV complex and is off to a great start for the year of the Ox, as I’m sure you know by now, a story that not only broke but was reported best not via traditional media outlets, but via Twitter.

Soon Dubai will abandoned to sink back into the sands. I think it’ll be much more interesting that way, with feral animals running wild, Chernobyl-style, in the ruins. As for the Times, at a symposium last Saturday at Columbia someone said "What if the Times closed, they have dozens of reporters in the Baghdad bureau… How could bloggers replace them?" Yochai Benkler stated "But they are responsible for the war! Remember Judith Miller?" He is so right. What if our news from Baghdad came from actual Iraqs, people who understand the context and speak the language?

Oh tired, old Grey Lady, maybe it’s time to shut the doors on the Piano building and call it a day? The face-lift didn’t work, it just made things worse. Your structural function as an enabler for the growth machine has been a non-stop embarrassment for all involved and now its time to pay the price.

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site update

I seem to redesign this site around New Year’s so it’s a month overdue, but spurred by the new C-lab site, I decided it was time for an overhaul.

If, like most of my readership, you’re reading this via RSS, then you’re unlikely to see much difference. But if you visit https://varnelis.net, you’ll see that I created a new landing page containing the highlights of the site.

With four books in two years and a bunch of other publications, finding one’s way via the content on the left hand side of the blog was not easy. So I’ve put together a new page using Drupal‘s Panels module.

But that’s not all: I am going to differentiate between my blog and more rapid-fire Tumblelog-like posts, again done in Drupal.

So, some links:

The index view of my blog content will be at https://varnelis.net/index.
The blog view of that content will be at https://varnelis.net/blog.

The Tumbleblog clone will be at https://varnelis.net/notices.

Content from both the tumblog clone and the original blog will be sent through the aggregator.

Let me know if you have any trouble and what you think.

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introducing network culture

The introduction to my book on Network Culture is up at


If there’s anywhere I want user comments, it’s there.

Clocking in at 5,600 words or so, it’s a start for this big project, certainly the most important and ambitious that I’ve ever undertaken. As I whip the other chapters into shape, I will post them as well although not necessarily in sequential order. Don’t expect to see all of the chapters online for some time, but do expect that the work is well underway.

An online preface can be found at https://varnelis.net/network_culture.


Exciting news today, thanks to Bruce Sterling’s splendid Beyond the Beyond.

I’ve been immersed in writing lately, so this next exhibit slipped under my radar, but Nicolas Bourriaud’s latest exhibit, the 2009 Tate Triennial, is called Altermodern. Bourriaud’s manifesto can be seen here. Bourriaud’s one of the sharpest thinkers around today and this exhibit just cements my decision to explore network culture in my next book. Bourriaud’s show marks a break with postmodernism based on a new stage of globalization. As he writes in his Altermodern manifesto: "Multiculturalism and identity is being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture."  

I suppose this is the kick in the pants I need to get my introduction out the door and onto this site in the next few days. Even if I fully intend to rework it repeatedly even after the draft hits the networked book, the stakes of framing the argument clearly are high so writing it has taken a month longer than I wanted. 


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