On 30 Years of Soundtracks to Life

Over at the BBC, a teenager named Scott compares an iPod to a Sony Walkman (read it here). Scott is amused more than baffled by this obsolete technology, although it takes him a while to realize that a cassette tape can be flipped over.

On July 1, the Sony Walkman will be 30 years old. It’s hard to imagine what urban life was before the Walkman. Sony first introduced portable transistor radios in 1957 and these proliferated rapidly. With an earphone (like this), it was possible to carry music around on the go, but both sources and quality were limited. Portable cassette players and boomboxes flourished in the 1970s and if the latter served as means of building impromptu communities, they were also consciously thought of as sonic assault devices, marking out territory and creating tension in urban spaces. The Walkman was a counter against this, turning music inward toward a solitary experience (although not entirely: as Scott points out, Walkmen often had two jacks, making them less solitary than iPods). If the boombox represents the last moment of urban decay and street violence, the Walkman represents its re-colonization. This would be recapitulated in 2001 when the iPod turned out to be the first major consumer product introduced after 9/11.   

A brief hunt for information about the Walkman’s history revealed that an engineer named Andreas Pavel invented the first personal audio device. I can’t fathom what all of the jacks on the stereobelt do, but it certainly looks very cool. Plus, the stereobelt had numerous innovative features. First, whereas the Walkman simply reproduced sound as if it was a miniature tape deck for a stereo that you plugged headphones in, the patent (which was filed in 1983, after the Walkman’s introduction, but is an extension of earlier patents) indicates that the stereobelt was designed to play binaural recordings. Moreover, the Walkman was intended for mass consumption. It’s true, that mix tapes were a step down the road to networked publics, but in itself a Walkman couldn’t produce them. In contrast, the microphones on the stereobelt allowed users to not only take notes but to partake in what Pavel called "life recording (sound hunting)." 


Curiously, the Walkman was a product of jet-set life. The founder of Sony, Masuru Ibuka, asked for a portable music player for plane trips, thus spurring the device’s development.  

What strikes me about the history of the Walkman is how different technology is now: iPods are 8 years old and already by the time of their introduction, CD players, flash-based MP3, and minidisc players had supplanted Walkmen. Technologies, such as the Walkman, that once seemed ubiquitous now have a run of less than a decade before disappearing or transforming utterly. And yet, historians and theorists use operative models largely developed within the days of the Walkman or—thinking of the continued popularity of the Situationists or Deleuze—in the days of the transistor radio.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could develop frameworks to explain our world as rapidly as we could develop such technologies? 

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On the Death of the Suburbs

Previously I’ve questioned the continuing attacks on the suburbs from urban boosters and academics. Most of that sort of writing is self-justifying nonsense, but there is a way in which suburbs—at least some suburbs—could falter, and I watch it in action most days that I go into the city. The transportation links between the city and its periphery could fail. 

I haven’t run any numbers, but I find that almost every night the trains to Jersey have another delay of at least a half hour. Much of the time the morning trains do as well. Usually these are systemic delays that affect not only my train, but half, if not all, of the trains heading in and out of the city via Penn Station. When I miss dinner at home with the kids because of train delays, I can’t help but curse New Jersey transit out loud.

Given these delays, I’ve given up on trains in and out of Penn Station for the moment. The delays are generally the product of an unpleasant relationship between the regional transit authority and Amtrak, which owns the tunnels. The latter gets priority for its trains and doesn’t do enough maintenance on switches that are endlessly breaking. When I take the PATH trains out of the city to Hoboken and then take NJTransit back, I’m usually better off. The bus is also a safe route although given the recent rains, traffic jams have been more common too (as I write this, I received an alert that the bus lane into the city has stalled). 

Still, if these other routes go down (and smoke in the tunnels seems like a common problem on the PATH trains—deteriorating cables?) and if the subways continue their decline, drawing out my commute within the city, I might question my decision to live in the suburbs and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one. 

Technology has made commuting easier in the New York City area. Whether its traffic via Sirius radio or google maps in my car or Clever Commute alerts via twitter or e-mail, I have a decent chance of avoiding trouble going in and out of the city if I check ahead.

L. A. was worse. When I taught at SCI_Arc and did research at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, I’d be faced by massive traffic jams bringing not only the freeways but also the surface streets to a complete halt. L. A. was worse partly because of its reliance on the automobile but mainly due to preposterously low property taxes that led to chronic underinvestment.

The New York and New Jersey area is a little better off: taxes are high here although investment in infrastructure is still too low. Officials broke ground on a new tunnel under the Hudson River this month. It’ll take eight years to build, but I suppose I’m likely to still be here to enjoy it.

But the delays in and out of the city inspired me to think about the effects of this on the suburbs. It might not be pretty. If infrastructure continues its downward spiral (and money runs out to build that tunnel or delays make it take two decades) one hour commutes become 90 minute commutes, many individuals will move, causing a collapse of property values in the suburbs, particularly the more distant ones. Suburbs near urban cores and urban cores would increase in value. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the damage this will do to the city either. People tied to their homes will hunt for jobs outside the city and the jobs will follow. After all, as executives moved to places like Westchester and Connecticut in the 1960s and 1970s, corporate headquarters followed.

For all the talk about suburbs as "urban parasites," scholars have demonstrated that suburbs and city cores are now inextricably linked. If anything, such infrastructural collapse would lead to further growth in the distant suburbs and in exurbia (I, for one, would think about bugging out to Vermont before everyone else does). It’s very much in the interest of urban and suburban leaders to work together to find solutions.  



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Infrastructure and Government

Yesterday’s issue of the New York Times Magazine dedicated yesterday’s "Architecture" issue to Infrastructure. At the very least, do check out Tom Vanderbilt’s piece on data centers to read about this emerging form of telecommunications infrastructure.

Why all this attention to infrastructure? If you look at the history of the term, it was used infrequently until the 1980s when it gained currency as a result of America In Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure, a call for change in policy that received nationwide attention in the press. Alas, it largely fell on deaf ears: politicians interested in downsizing had little interest in more infrastructural spending.

If infrastructure is getting attention because it is in dire need of repair, then that’s largely a good thing. On the other hand, there may be another reason, outlined by Eric Janszen in "The Next Bubble: Priming the Markets for Tomorrow’s Big Crash" over at Harper’s Magazine last year. Janszen persuasively makes the case for how capitalism has been reduced to a bubble economy and how infrastructure is going to be the next bubble. 

Is architecture doomed to another bubble? Will the nearly impossible complexity of constructing new forms of infrastructure keep this bubble from forming? Or is are we going to boldly head toward a WPA 2.0? Time will tell. I’m not placing any bets on the latter. 

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On The Great Big Third World

Capitalism, especially under globalization, produces homogeneity. We’re quite familiar with the spread of McDonald’s and Frank Gehry around the world, but the most important aspect of this spread is an economic levelling. To be sure, capitalists exploit differences between local economies—for example, cheap labor in China—but as history progresses, these differences lessen.

Take, for example, Ireland, where I teach from time to time. Even though it has an English-speaking population and is conveniently located, Ireland lagged behind the UK and Anglophone North America due to a long history of British colonial oppression and, subsequently, government policies that stressed agrarian self-sufficiency. Thus, labor and land were underexploited and, when investment money poured in during the 1990s, the Celtic Tiger exploded. By the mid 2000s, the price of labor and land in Ireland had caught up and the Celtic Tiger entered into an artificial afterlife, extended by banks, businesses, and governments that didn’t want to face its end. By 2008, Ireland was considered the fourth most expensive economy in the world. The result is predictable: industry is moving out of Ireland rather and workers from Eastern Europe are returning home. The idea that Ireland will add one million new residents in a few decades seems preposterous again.    

But unquestionably, China is the real economic powerhouse of the last decade. For the most part, China’s been able to grow tremendously now due to centuries of underdevelopment. 21st century Chinese wonders like the CCTV building or the 300mph maglev trains are possible only because the vast majority of Chinese make around $2,000 per capita annually (see here) and a vast migrant labor force exists to keep labor prices down. As Chinese labor prices rise, it too will become less competitive. If the one-child policy has created a ready supply of male workers without children to support, when this generation ages a few decades from now, China’s workforce will collapse.

Back in the United States, I don’t see how we can pay for the massive borrowing that the Bush and Obama administrations have undertaken without a currency devaluation. This is unlikely to happen overnight, but rather I see it as being a period of double digit inflation (our current inflation rate is already much higher than official figures, thanks Alan Greenspan) and double digit interest rates.

Not only will this help with debt repayment, it will be a convenient way of devaluing homes. Let’s say  you have an interest rate of 5.9% locked in and a house worth 400,000. House prices are stable even as inflation is 10%. Your house is losing 10% value a year. You might complain, but at least you have a house so you won’t complain too much. A new homeowner is facing interest rates of 16% to get into the market. Your interest rate sounds like a pretty good deal in comparison. Five years of 10% inflation and no increase in house prices will pretty much take care of the overpriced housing market.

I’m old enough to remember the 1980s, which made me much more cautious than many Generation Y types when it came to the last boom. I remember when cyclical unemployment in big industry turned into structural unemployment and, like inflation, was written out of the system under the Reagan administration. If you’re unemployed for too long, the system says you’re not really looking for a job—even though you may be—and if you’re a freelancer or working part-time, you’re also not unemployed. So if we’re seeing 9.4% unemployment this month, you should probably double that to get a real picture of how many people aren’t being employed in traditional fashion. What if this continues for a few years? And what if we get the high interest rates that I predicted, eviscerating home values? 

I think the result is a country that approaches "Third World" status with a cheap labor force that will take on contract work without any guarantee of continuing employment for low wages. Take a look at this article from the Times on the troubles that freelancers face. I’m afraid that for higher-paid members of the service industries (media, education, architecture, art, finance, personal services) the 2000s are going to seem very much like the 1980s did for blue-collar workers.

Make no mistake, the EU is no better off. The Euro is not a stable currency and I’m not willing to put money down that it isn’t going to tank first or harder than the dollar.

The Third World didn’t vanish in the worldwide economic "boom," it spread everywhere. That’s what the last two decades have brought us. I knew that the Bush administration was alternately too stupid and too evil to point this out, but Obama had the opportunity to force Americans to face up to the crisis, as FDR did when he took over in 1933, but he took an easy way out. Now we’ll all pay the price. Welcome to the new, improved, much larger Third World.

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