On Intensification

Over the course of the last year, I’ve read and reread Jeffrey Nealon’s Foucault Beyond Foucault . Works centering on a particular philosopher are almost always formulaic and rarely interesting. This is a notable exception. Anyone with an interest in theorizing contemporary culture should get Foucault Beyond Foucault. Nealon re-reads Foucault for the present day in a highly intelligent way. To reduce his argument to a sound bite, Nealon looks at Foucault through the lens of Deleuze’s essay on the societies of control.The central point of Nealon’s book is Foucault (and Deleuze’s) concept of “intensification,” which explains the way that power operates in contemporary society.


For Foucault, this charting of emergent modes of power is hardly a story of progress or Enlightenment, but a story of what he calls the increasing ‘intensity’ (intensité) of power: which is to say its increasing ‘lightness’ and concomitant ‘economic’ viability, in the broadest sense of the word ‘economic.’ Power’s intensity most specifically names its increasing efficiency within a system, coupled with increasing saturation. As power becomes more intense, it becomes ‘more economic and more effective’ (“plus economique et plus efficace”; D&P, 207). In this sense, the genealogical shift from torturing the body to training it is hardly the eradication of the punitive gesture; rather it works to extend and refine the efficacy of that gesture by taking the drama of putative power and resistance out of the relatively scarce and costly criminal realms and into new situations or ‘markets’—to everyday life in the factory, the home, the school, the army, the hospital.” (32)

Nealon reads our society of control (and with it what I call network culture) as an intensification of both postmodernism and modernism, a far more effective system than the disciplinary society that Foucault analyzed. Nealon’s discussion of contemporary economics is also insightful: he explains that Marx’s old model of M-C-M’ (where M is money, C is a commodity, and M’ is more money generated by the production and sale of the commodity) is now dethroned by M-M’, speculative finance. This is crucial for understanding our contemporary economic condition.   

Get the book and find out more.

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A Decade in Retrospect

Never mind that the decade really ends in a little over a year, it’s time to take stock of it. Today’s post looks back at the decade just past while tomorrow’s will look at the decade to come.

As I observed before, this decade is marked by atemporality. The greatest symptom of this is our inability to name the decade and, although commentators have tried to dub it the naughties, the aughts, and the 00s (is that pronounced the ooze?), the decade remains, as Paul Krugman suggests, a Big Zero, and we are unable to periodize it. This is not just a matter of linguistic discomfort, its a reflection of the atemporality of network culture. Jean Baudrillard is proved right. History, it seems, came to an end with the millennium, which was a countdown not only to the end of a millennium but also to the end of meaning itself. Perhaps, the Daily Miltonian suggested, we didn’t have a name for the decade because it was so bad.

Still, I suspect that we historians are to blame. After Karl Popper and Jean-François Lyotard’s condemnation of master narratives, periodizing—or even making broad generalizations about culture—has become deeply suspect for us. Instead, we stick with microhistories on obscure topics while continuing our debates about past periods, damning ourselves into irrelevance. But as I argue in the book that I am currently writing, this has led critical history to a sort of theoretical impasse, reducing it to antiquarianism and removing it from a vital role in understanding contemporary culture. Or rather, history flatlined (as Lewis Lapham predicted), leaving even postmodern pastiche behind for a continuous field in which anything could co-exist with anything else.

Instead of seeing theory consolidate itself, we saw the rise of network theory (a loose amalgam of ideas from the theories of mathematicians like Duncan Watts to journalists like Adam Gopnik) and post-criticism. At times, I felt like I was a lone (or nearly lone) voice against the madding crowd in all this, but times are changing rapidly. Architects and others are finally realizing that the post-critical delirium was an empty delusion. The decade’s economic boom, however, had something of the effect of a war on thought. The trend in the humanities is no longer to produce critical theory, it’s to get a grant to produce marketable educational software. More than ever, universities are capitalized. The wars on culture are long gone as the Right turned away from this straw man and the university began serving the culture of networked-enduced cool that Alan Liu has written about. The alienated self gave way to what Brian Holmes called the flexible personality. If blogs sometimes questioned this, Geert Lovink pointed out that the questioning was more nihilism than anything else.

But back to the turn of the millennium. This wasn’t so much marked by possibility as by delirium. The dot.com boom, the success of the partnership between Thomas Krens and Frank Gehry at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the emergence of the creative cities movement established the themes for this decade. On March 12, 2000, the tech-heavy NASDAQ index peaked at 4069, twice its value the year before. In the six days following March 16, the index fell by nine percent and it was not through falling until it reached 1114 in August, 2003. If the delirium was revealed, the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve found a tactic to forestall the much-needed correction. Under pretext of striving to avoid full-scale collapse after 9/11, they set out to create artificially low interest rates, deliberately inflating a new bubble. Whether they deliberately understood the consequences of their actions or found themselves unable to stop it, the results were predictable: the second new economy in a decade turned out to be the second bubble in a decade. If, for the most part, tech was calmer, architecture had become infected, virtualized and sucked into the network not to build the corporate data arcologies predicted by William Gibson but as the justification for a highly complex set of financial instruments that seemed to be crafted so as to be impossible to understand by those crafting them. The Dow ended the decade lower than it started, even as national debt doubled. I highly recommend Kevin Phillips book Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism to anyone interested in trying to understand this situation. It’s invaluable.

This situation is unlikely to change soon. The crisis was one created by over-accumulation of capital and a long-term slowdown in the economies of developed nations. Here, Robert Brenner’s the Economics of Global Turbulence can help my readers map the situation. To say that I’m pessimistic about the next decade is putting it lightly. The powers that be had a critical opportunity to rethink the economy, the environment, and architecture. We have not only failed on all these counts, we have failed egregiously.

It was hardly plausible that the Bush administration would set out to right any of these wrongs, but after the bad years of the Clinton administration, when welfare was dismantled and the Democrats veered to the Right, it seemed unlikely that a Republican presidency could be that much worse. If the Bush administration accomplished anything, they accomplished that, turning into the worst presidency in history. In his review of the decade, Wendell Barry writes "This was a decade during which a man with the equivalent of a sixth grade education appeared to run the Western World." If 9/11 was horrific, the administration’s response—most notably the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, alliances with shifty regimes such as Pakistan, and the turn to torture and extraordinary rendition—ensured that the US would be an enemy for many for years to come. By 2004, it was embarrassing for many of us to be American. While I actively thought of leaving, my concerns about the Irish real estate market—later revealed as well-founded—kept me from doing so. Sadly, the first year of the Obama administration, in which he kept in place some of the worst policies and personnel of the Bush administration’s policy, received a Nobel peace prize for little more than inspiring hope, and surrounded himself with the very same sorts of financiers that caused the economic collapse in the first place proved the Democrats were hopeless. No Republican could have done as much damage to the Democratic party as their own bumbling leader and deluded strategists did. A historical opportunity has been lost to history. 

Time ended by calling it "the worst decade ever."

For its part, architecture blew it handily. Our field has been in crisis since modernism. More than ever before, architects abandoned ideology for the lottery world of starchitecture. The blame for this has to be laid with the collusive system between architects, critics, developers, museum directors and academics, many of whom were happy as long as they could sit at a table with Frank Gehry or Miuccia Prada. This system failed and failed spectacularly. Little of value was produced in architecture, writing, or history.

Architecture theory also fell victim to post-criticism, its advocates too busy being cool and smooth to offer anything of substance in return. Perhaps the most influential texts for me in this decade were three from the last one: Deleuze’s Postscript on the Society of Control, Koolhaas’s Junkspace, together with Hardt and Negri’s Empire. If I once hoped that some kind of critical history would return, instead I participated in the rise of blog culture. If some of these blogs simply endorsed the world of starchitecture, by the end of the decade young, intelligent voices such as Owen Hatherley, David Gissen, Sam Jacob, Charles Holland, Mimi Zeiger, and Enrique Ramirez, to name only a few, defined a new terrain. My own blog, founded at the start of the decade has a wide readership, allowing me to engage in the role of public intellectual that I’ve always felt it crucial for academics to pursue.   

Indeed, it’s reasonable to say that my blog led me into a new career. Already, a decade ago, I saw the handwriting on the wall for traditional forms of history-theory. Those jobs were and are disappearing, the course hours usurped by the demands of new software, as Stanley Tigerman predicted back in 1992. Instead, as I set out to understand the impact of telecommunications on urbanism, I found that thinkers in architecture were not so much marginal to the discussion as central, if absent. Spending a year at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication led me deeper into technology and not only was Networked Publics the result, I was able to lay the groundwork for the sort of research that I am doing at Columbia with my Network Architecture Lab.

The changes in technology were huge. The relatively slow pace of technological developments from the 1950s to the 1980s was left long behind. If television acquired color in the 1960s and cable and the ability to play videotapes in the late 1980s, it was still fundamentally the same thing: a big box with a CRT mounted in it. That’s gone forever now, with analog television a mere memory. Computers ceased being big objects, connected via slow telephone links (just sixteen years ago, in 1993, 28k baud modems were the standard) and became light and portable, capable of wireless communications fast enough to make downloading high definition video an everyday occurrence for many. Film photography all but went extinct during the decade as digital imaging technology changed the way we imaged the world. Images proliferated. There are 4 billion digital images on Flickr alone. The culture industry, which had triumphed so thoroughly in the postmodern era, experienced the tribulations that Detroit felt decades before as the music, film, and periodicals all were thrown into crisis by the new culture of free media trade. Through the iPod, the first consumer electronics device released after 9/11, it became possible for us to take with us more music than we would be able to listen to in a year. Media proliferated wildly and illicitly.

For the first time, most people in the world had some form of telecommunication available to them. The cell phone went from a tool of the rich in 1990 to the tool of the middle class in 2000. By 2010, more than 50% of the world’s population owned a cell phone, arguably a more important statistic than the fact that at the start of this decade for the first time more people lived in cities than in the country. The cell phone was the first global technological tool. Its impact is only beginning to be felt. In the developed world, not only did most people own cell phones, cell phones themselves became miniature computers, delivering locative media applications such as turn-by-turn navigation, geotagged photos (taken with the built in cameras) together with e-mail, web browsing, and so on. Non-places became a thing of the past as it was impossible to conceive of being isolated anymore. Architects largely didn’t have much of a response to this, and parametric design ruled the studios, a game of process that, I suppose, took minds off of what was really happening.

Connections proliferated as well, with social media making it possible for many of us to number our "friends" in the hundreds. Alienation was left behind, at least in its classical terms, as was subjectivity. Hardly individuals anymore, we are, as Deleuze suggested, today, dividuals. Consumer culture left behind the old world of mass media for networked publics (and with it, politics, left behind the mass, the people, and any lingering notion of the public) and the long tail reshaped consumer culture into a world of niches populated by dividuals. If there was some talk about the idea of the multitude or the commons among followers of Hardt and Negri (but also more broadly in terms of the bottom up and the open source movement), there was also a great danger in misunderstanding the role that networks play in consolidating power at the top, a role that those of us in architecture saw first-hand with starchitecture’s effects on the discipline. If open source software and competition from the likes of Apple hobbled Microsoft, the rise of Google, iTunes, and Amazon marked a new era of giants, an era that Nicholas Carr covered in the Big Switch (required reading).   

The proliferation of our ability to observe everything and note it also made this the era an era in which the utterly unimportant was relentlessly noted (I said relentlessly constantly during this decade, simply because it was a decade of relentlessness). Nothing, it seemed, was the most important thing of all.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault wrote, "visibility is a trap." In the old regime of discipline, panopticism made it possible to catch and hold the subject. Visibility was a trap in this decade too, as architects and designers focussed on appearances even as the real story was in the financialization of the field that undid it so thoroughly in 2008 (this was always the lesson of Bilbao… it wasn’t finance, not form, that mattered). Realizing this at the start of the decade, Robert Sumrell and I set out to create a consulting firm along the lines of AMO. Within a month or two, we realized that this was a ludicrous idea and AUDC became the animal that it is today, an inheritor to the conceptual traditions of Archizoom, Robert Smithson, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Eight years later, we published Blue Monday, a critique of network culture. I don’t see any reason why it won’t be as valuable—if not more so—in a decade than it is now.   

I’ve only skimmed the surface of this decade in what is already one of the lengthiest blog posts ever, but over the course of the next year or two hope to do so to come to an understanding of the era we were just in (and continue to be part of) through the network culture book. Stay tuned.

Continue reading “A Decade in Retrospect”

Alternate Scenarios Wanted

British author Charles Leadbetter critiques the "Digital Britain plan" for making broadband ubiquitous, much like the Obama Administration’s own plan. Leadbetter points out that both are flawed because they focus on infrastructure in a narrow way, failing to address the deep transformations that the Internet is making on network culture and economy. Read his response here.

This section is particularly important:

Accelerating the spread of broadband will not save these industries but make their predicaments more difficult. Here’s the truth: plans to invest more in digital technologies will only pay off if they bring further disruption to economies that are already in turmoil. We will know when politicians are really serious about the coming digital revolution when they start to admit that it will have to cause significant disruption to established business models if it is to pay off.

This is particularly tricky in the UK. The implosion of financial services, long the flagship of the services economy, means the cultural and media industries, in which Britain has a strong position, will take on an even more important role.

Leadbetter has this right and what he says can also be applied to the two countries that I work in, the United States and Ireland, but the problem for capital will come in monetizing what he calls "mutual media," the rising ecology of bottom-up media production.

The problem with this model, also proposed by other authors such as Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky is that it does not give an adequate explanation of how to monetize such media or how to distribute wealth in a remotely equitable manner (let’s forget socialism for the moment, I’m talking about market monopolies, in particular the inherent power-law nature of networks and how we can have anything beyond Google). Let’s be clear about this: mutual media are incredibly successful not just because we can produce anything we want and upload it, they are successful because it has us producing content for free for corporations.

Make no mistake about it, the day that it dawns on the administration at the New York Times that there are bloggers out there who would work for free, for the fashionable cachet of a byline on a Times column, and that these bloggers are better than many of the Times’s own writers is about two weeks before the entire staff of the Arts & Leisure section finds itself looking for work at Starbucks.

The economy undergoing an unprecedented transition. The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk. Theory once again dreamed its successor era: if in the years between 1988 and 1994 theory seemed to be everything only to vanish, in the years since culture has seemed to be everthing, but on a much vaster scale, forming what appeared to be a new backbone in the economy (even if, as I’ve pointed out, it was finance all along). That’s vanishing now and with it, economic crisis is at our doorstep. There is no way out of this on the horizon. The wealth of networks is not in their ability to promote sharing or interaction, but in their ability to strip away jobs and destroy industries without proposing sustainable new ones. 

For anyone who thinks I’m being pessimistic, I do hope you’re right and I’m wrong. Really, I do.

Alternate scenarios wanted. My only caveat is that I we don’t cook the books or take on more Ponzi schemes like the real estate bubble.




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On Mad Men

Fellow resident of my adopted hometown of Montclair, NJ and New York Times journalist David Carr has a new piece out yesterday entitled "The Fall and Rise of Media" in which he explores the rapid decline of the (traditional) media industry and makes a case for optimism about new media. It’s a good read, take a look.

Carr puts on a brave face as he remind us that all reigns are temporary. The media jobs being swept away are positions that were obsolete years ago, he suggests, all but invoking Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” as an up side to the devastation that media outlets face today. As historian Jackson Lears reminds us in his latest book, Rebirth of a Nation, Americans have a longstanding fascination with the idea of rebirth and our own era is hardly immune to.

This struck a chord for me this morning as I had just finished watching the third season of Mad Men last night* and wondered about the show’s future. (spoiler alert!) With the end of the old firm that the Mad Men worked for, would the new firm they would build be nimble and intelligent, able to embrace the changing terrain of the 1960s, a diabolical player in an alternate universe version of Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool? Or is it destined to be wiped out by the juggernaut of sociocultural change that comprises the mid and late 1960s the way Philip Johnson was, at least for a decade? In the atemporal world of network culture, we often forget how commonly we still look backward to find reference points for transformations in the contemporary world. Here I’d identify the popularity of Mad Men today. It offers us a glimpse at a moment of massive, societal transformation, as a relatively comfortable came unglued. Perhaps four decades from now we’ll see a remake of Mad Men set at the New York Times, or at a dot.com corporation. Certainly, it would lack well-designed furniture and well-cut suits, but so it goes.

In his article, Carr points to a new generation of under-30 journalists armed with netbooks, wireless connections, and visions of reshaping their world. Let’s hope so. The dinosaurs were dinosaurs not only because of their attitude and their budgets, but also because of the poverty, our worse yet, the outright fiction, of their reportage (no disrespect to David, but the Times itself often led the way with this: Judith Miller anyone?). No question, it’s high time to renew media. Already the architectural blogosphere is smarter, sharper, and more critical than newspaper critics have been in decades.

But there’s also much to dread and not just for the dinosaurs. Rarely do things go back to normal after a serious downturn. Economic regimes undergo radical changes during recessions, often even more dramatic than during boom times when excess liquidity keeps the status quo well lubricated. 

What we’re seeing now, then, isn’t just the disappearance of some crufty old salts from journalism, but rather the restructuring of the creative class. Media is very much at the forefront of this. Faced by the perfect storm of a collapsing subscription base and the decline of the advertising dollar, media corporations have figured out that the losses of income are permanent and made cuts accordingly.

In contrast, architects are flailing about. This doesn’t mean that job losses in the profession haven’t been massive, but the profession has done little to rethink how it operates. There’s little question that we won’t see another building boom the size of the one we just witnessed again in our lifetime (nor do I wish it: there’s only so much economic destabilization we can take!). The downsizing is going to be permanent. The result will be heady competition between young unemployed veterans with serious job experience after a few years in the job force and a corps of new graduates trained in new skills that even those who graduated five years ago don’t have. If my readers want to see me as a pessimist, that’s fine, chalk up my position to a refusal to buy Prozac, but I’ve lived through enough recessions to know that the last few years were a huge anomaly and there’s a price to be paid for the excesses.

Beyond the collapse of the media sector, the very core of the contemporary upper middle class—jobs in media, advertising, real estate, finance, law and other services—faces evisceration, and may well follow the lower middle class into extinction over the course of the next decade. Those jobs are gone now and with them a host of possible commissions for architects. More than that, since the Obama administration’s greatest accomplishment seems to be to have unloaded the word “hope” of any meaning, at this point it seems likely that the shift rightward during the next elections will ensure that cities are deprived of the funding necessary to keep them afloat. Fade back to Mad Men and the early 1960s. It’s at this moment that New York takes a turning point and Mayor Robert F. Wagner sees his city entering into a multi-decade fiscal crisis from which it barely recovered.

Decades from now, will the monuments of the last decade—sadly much inferior to the monuments of the 1950s (where, after all, is our Seagram or Lever? The Standard? Magnolia Bakery maybe?)—remind us of the last days of the Creative Class and the hipster city? In 2029 will Sex in the City be as anachronistic in its depiction of the city as a thriving place for young people, just as Breakfast at Tiffany’s was in 1979?

Or is it possible that somehow the Obama administration will wise up? That he’ll take a cue from Harvard and fire Larry Summers together with the investment bankers that have infected the Cabinet, and insist that America not only has a public option for health insurance but that we’re going to rebuild manufacturing, in some smart, as yet unforeseen way? Heck, maybe the multitude will throw off its shackles and we’ll all live in a Shangri-La of post-Marxist immaterial culture. 

One thing’s for sure, though. We’re not going back to 2002. Time will tell who succeeds in navigating through it as individuals, nations, and worlds.  


*In general, I don’t have the time to ever watch shows when they first come out so I watch them time-shifted, either on my pitifully small Verizon DVR or on my AppleTV,  Roku box, or sometimes even via Blu-Ray disc from Netflix. I point this out since I want to hammer home how media consumption habits are changing. It’s particularly interesting watching my children, who have never known a world without on-demand or, for that matter, full-time PBS Kids Sprout.

Continue reading “On Mad Men”

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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The Big Nothing

As I’ve fruitlessly tried to get Technorati to update its listings for this blog, it’s become more apparent that the service is in zombie mode. Like many companies today, Technorati has done away with support personnel in favor of having users try to answer each others’ questions in a discussion forum. But that’s hardly of any use anymore as the forums fill with notes that Technorati doesn’t respond to support tickets. Still, how could they? As the economy tanks, there’s no money for firms with questionable business models like Technorati and the server bills have to be paid before little things like functionality are addressed. 

This is hardly meant as a rant against Technorati. In contrast, it strikes me that the "social Web" is imploding. Over at Newser, MIchael Wollf observes that Facebook’s CFO has left and concludes that "The wheels are coming off the bus at Facebook." Things are no better at Twitter although it seems that Google and Microsoft are competing to buy that service so it may have a reprieve. 

In other words, I’m suggesting that what we are seeing is not so much the replacement of old media by new, but the annihilation of both. Marxists have long predicted that capital’s contradictions would undo it and, although I’m hardly optimistic about the prospects of a Red future, it seems like we’re getting a taste of this now. 


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The End of New York City

Today I was think ing about the New York City economy so and how it’s a mystery to me that it hasn’t tanked much further. I went over to Wikipedia to look at this article on New York City’s economy and found the following table, which I am lifting in its entirety. 

Of course there are other people who work in the city, in fields like advertising, marketing, law, consulting, architecture, and design. In other words, fields that service companies like those listed below. 

Companies in green are in finance, companies in yellow are in entertainment. Many, if not most, face insolvency.   

The Top 25 Fortune 500 Companies in New York City
rank in: corporation Headquarters
(New York, NY)
Fortune 500 industry group 2007
($ million)
1 1 8 Citigroup 399 Park Ave. 10043 Commercial Banks
2 2 12 J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. 270 Park Ave. 10017 Commercial Banks
3 3 13 American International Group 70 Pine St. 10270 Insurance: Property and Casualty (stock)
4 5 17 Verizon Communications 140 West St. 10007 Telecommunications
5 6 20 Goldman Sachs Group 85 Broad St. 10004 Securities
6 7 21 Morgan Stanley 1585 Broadway 10036 Securities
7 8 30 Merrill Lynch 4 World Financial Center 10080 Securities
8 9 37 Lehman Brothers Holdings 745 Seventh Ave. 10019 Securities
9 10 43 MetLife 200 Park Ave. 10166 Insurance: Life, Health (stock)
10 11 47 Pfizer 235 E. 42nd St. 10017 Pharmaceuticals
11 12 49 Time Warner 1 Time Warner Center 10019 Entertainment
12 14 75 American Express 200 Vesey St. 10285 Diversified Financials
13 15 77 Hess Corporation 1185 Sixth Ave. 10036 Petroleum Refining
14 16 80 Alcoa 390 Park Ave. 10022 Metals
15 17 82 New York Life Insurance 51 Madison Ave. 10010 Insurance: Life, Health (mutual)
16 18 84 News Corporation 1211 Sixth Ave. 10036 Entertainment
17 19 86 TIAA-CREF 730 Third Ave. 10017 Insurance: Life, Health (mutual)
18 20 125 Bristol-Myers Squibb 345 Park Ave. 10154 Pharmaceuticals
19 21 139 Loews Corporation 667 Madison Ave. 10021 Insurance: Property and Casualty (stock)
20 22 156 Bear Stearns 383 Madison Ave. 10179 Securities
21 24 172 Bank of New York Mellon Corporation 1 Wall Street 10286 Commercial Banks
22 25 181 CBS 51 W. 52nd St. 10019 Entertainment
23 26 182 L-3 Communications 600 Third Ave. 10016 Aerospace and Defense
24 27 186 Colgate-Palmolive 300 Park Ave. 10022 Household and Personal Products
25 29 191 Viacom 1515 Broadway 10036 Entertainment
NYC = New York City; NYS = New York State; US = United States
All data except stock price changes are for either the calendar year ending on December 31, 2007 or the company’s fiscal year ending before February 1, 2008.
Stock price changes are for the calendar year 2008. Declines of over 50% are in boldface. Over the same period (December 31, 2007 to December 31, 2008), the 30-stock Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by 33.8% and the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 leading stocks declined by 38.5%. By the end of 2008, the stocks of Bear Stearns (acquired by JPMorgan Chase) and Lehman Brothers (in dissolution) were no longer being traded.
Sources: Fortune 500 website and Fortune, May 5, 2008 (Volume 157, number 9), pages F-1 to F-10, F-28, F-34, and F-40 to F-41.
Stock price change between December 31, 2007 and December 31, 2008 from "Year–End Review: Markets and Finance 2008", The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 2, 2009 (Volume CCLIII, number 1), pages R-15 to R-18.


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urban anxieties

Here is yet another project aimed at one-upping the suburbs, this time in the form of Tom Vigar’s Master’s Thesis at Sheffield University. Nicely illustrated, its had a bit of attention in the blogosphere lately. 

But I have my problems with it. To be fair, I have not seen the whole work, only a few excerpts. Still, I’m a little confused by the reference to bomb shelters and ICBMs as it is 2009 not 1955, isn’t it? Are people in the suburbs really that concerned with terrorism? That seems to me to be largely an urban phenomenon. The whole reading seems a trifle easy to me. 

I also wonder about gunning down the suburban straw-man in yet another drive-by. As readers of this blog will know, I have high hopes ludicrous fantasies for the new economy and one of these hopes fantasies is that the desperation will force us past the urban-suburban divide. The history of the suburbs and the city is the history of one entity, not two. Until we can learn to think regionally both city and suburbs will continue their pointless squabbles.

It’d be fun to do a counter-project, skewering the hipster lifestyle of urban hyper-consumption, a world of Prada and Moss Design, of eating out every night at restaurants with winkingly offensive names, of Starchitects and museum-discos, a world of ethnic heterogeneity made safe by the eviction of the poor, a world of knowing smirks and v-neck white T-shirts, all supported by constant CCTV surveillance, draconian police forces, ludicrous financial models, and of course a global military order.

The hipster city is where Peter Sloterdijk’s cynical reason holds, where you know very well what you do is wrong but you do it anyway. The self-congratulatory hipster city is where money has defeated criticism. It’s where the post-critical rules, captivated by its own catty but inane chatter. 

It might look just a little bit like this, although it would have to have an architectural component. Or maybe it would be a little like this (disclaimer: AUDC project). 

But the reason I’m blogging this is to ask a simple question: this is not the first such project so why this common urge to take pot shots at the suburbs? What’s up with that? Are people just spinning their wheels endlessly and in need of new targets? Is it really that hard? Why not use that brilliant wit to poke fun at Manhattan or London or Dubai or Beijing?

My thinking is that rising urban anxieties are being displaced onto the suburbs, anointed as a safe object of symbolic violence. Instead of confronting our anxieties we displace them.         



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On Restructuring

I’m always pleasantly surprised when the New York Times gets a story right, so today, with the government releasing its statistics about high unemployment, I was impressed to see that they published this piece: Crushing Job Losses May Signal Broader Changes. I would agree completely. This is not a temporary recession that will end in two years, at the end of which the jobs will magically reappear.

Instead, we are seeing a second wave of restructuring akin to what we saw in the 1980s. Most of the jobs being shed now are history. Certainly a large number of these are in manufacturing: positions that survived earlier cutbacks being made redundant. But we are also seeing something new: the masters of the universe are in trouble. Financial jobs are coming undone and there is nothing to replace them. From Wall Street to Dubai, these jobs are going away forever and with them, the lavish lifestyles that propped up architecture and design (sorry Mitchell Moss). At least architects and designers have some real skills that can be applied elsewhere, given some reorientation and retraining. It doesn’t look so pretty for those people involved in finance. But make no mistake, Richard Florida’s creative class took this one on the chin. Restructuring is going to hit them hard. Working at the ad agency sure beats handing out parking tickets.

There’s more too. Crime in cities has fallen due to two reasons: the poor have been driven out by neoliberal policies of segregation-via-high-rents, a reasonable abundance of marginal jobs that make crime less attractive, and an escalated police presence. During a protracted recession, the marginal jobs are going to go away while police budgets will shrink, and the result will inevitably be a rising crime rate. Another trigger to higher crime will be the changing demographics in the cities. Some inner-ring suburbs (and more distant places too, welfare cities like Newburgh, NY) will become more dangerous and, lacking a good tax base, will see huge increases in crime and collapses in their school systems. The result will be a return of the poor to the cities, particularly of parents of school age children, hoping to take advantage of better schools and the lure of jobs, few though they may be. But that without the marginal jobs, the crime rate will escalate further and so it goes.

Is there an easy solution to this? No. We have wasted the mad money of the last two decades on starchitecture and jet skis instead of a physical and social infrastructure that would allow us to deal with the realities of the city. It’s going to be a long process of rebuilding and, given the bad politics of both parties (albeit especially the Republicans), the odds are against us.

Delirious though it was, this was a golden age for cities. The last time was probably the 1950s and before that the 1920s. You very well may not see another one like this in your lifetime.    

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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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