2020 in Review

Grayness in Maine
Grayness on Mount Desert Island, 2020.

According to conventional chronological schemas, 2020—not 2019—is the last year of the 2010s.* This is convenient since, as I pointed out in last year’s premature review of the last decade, the 2010s were “the decade of shit” and 2021 is a stinking pile of shit. The worst decade since World War II ended with the worst year since 1945.

My “year in review” posts are usually almost as late as my taxes and when I finished last year’s post on February 12, we were all well aware that COVID was out there. Now, no question that I missed the severity of the pandemic back then, but I was on the money about its psychic effects. For all of the horror of COVID, it isn’t horrible enough. COVID is banal. Instead of bleeding out through all of our orifices as with Ebola, COVID is “a bad case of the flu” that leaves people dead or with debilitating cardiovascular and neurological ailments. But how different is my diagnosis, really, from what happened?

Now sure, this year [2020] we’ve already had firestorms the size of Austria ravaging Australia, a rain of rockets in Baghdad, Ukrainian jetliners getting shot out of the sky, a deadly pandemic in China caused by people eating creatures that they really shouldn’t, and the failure of the Senate to uphold the rule of law, but the banality of it all is crushing. While the Dark Mountain set drinks wine around a campfire, gets henna tattoos, and sings along to songs about the end of nature, for the rest of us, it’s just an exhausting, daily slog through the unrelentingly alarming headlines.

COVID brought us yet more crushing banality. The Idiot Tyrant is gone, but we are trying his impeachment yet again. Everything changes, but nothing changes. We were all the Dark Mountain set this year, sitting around our campfires, singing songs about the End. It was another atemporal slog, one day bleeding into another, every day a Sunday in a country where everything is closed on Sundays and there is nothing to do, every day stranger and more disconnected than the last, something captured in comedienne Julie Nolke’s series of videos entitled “Explaining the Pandemic to My Past Self.”

Amidst the disconnection, the Jackpot—or William Gibson’s term for a slow-motion apocalypse—cranked up a couple of notches. Just surviving the year was an accomplishment. The balance of life has been thoroughly disrupted and that disruption isn’t going away any time soon. It’s not just COVID: we now feel certain that there will be more pandemics, more massive wildfires, and more superstorms in our future. The Earth isn’t dying (sorry, climate doomers), but there will be huge losses of species worldwide, human population decline is well underway in advanced societies (the US is finally on the bandwagon here), and massive deaths will take place across the planet until the population comes back to a sustainable level decades from now.

But the premise of the Jackpot is that it isn’t a final apocalypse: there will be another side. In his Twitter feed (@GreatDismal), even Gibson focuses on the horrific and unjust nature of the Jackpot, but there will be winners, selected on the basis of wealth and sheer dumb luck. What might this say about the US election and the fact that 46% of Americans voted for a cretin? Now, there is nothing particularly new about melding Tourette’s and dementia into a public speaking style, there are plenty of lunatics sitting on their porches screaming obscenities at their lawn ornaments. Everybody knows that Uncle Scam’s persona as a billionaire—or rather the King of Debt (his own term!)—is an act. The man with the golden toilet is not a successful businessman. He is weak, a loser who can’t stay married or stay out of bankruptcy court. Four years of misrule ended in abject failure: defeat in both electoral and popular votes, being banned from social media and, with his businesses failing, being forced out of office in shame to face an unprecedented second impeachment, an array of civil litigation as well as criminal indictments for fraud, tax evasion, incitement to riot, and rape. But this—not a misguided notion of him as a success—is the real point of his appeal. The short-fingered vulgarian is a life-long loser, a reverse Midas whose every touch turn gold to lead. But in the face of the Gibsonian Jackpot, his appeal was not as a stupid version of Homer Simpson, grabbing whatever scraps he can and, when that failed, LARPing as President, destabilizing society, and just blowing everything up.

LARPing was big in 2020, which saw the attempted kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer by wingnut idiots, various insane protests by COVID deniers, the attempted coup of the Capitol Insurrection, and the riots developing after the Black Lives Matter protests. BLM was the standout among these, not only a good, just cause, but also because the majority of the protests themselves were peaceful—such as the one in our town of Montclair, New Jersey. None of that was LARPing, but the riots that accompanied it were. For the most part, this was less people with genuine greivances and more Proud Boys, Boogaloos, anarchists, and grifters who came in to loot and burn whatever they could down. Although there were kooky moments on the Left like the Capital Hill Automonous Zone, Antifa, for however much it exists, didn’t do much, certainly proving to be far less trouble than white supermacist-infiltrated police forces in paramilitary gear. Still, the widely-vaunted second Civil War never came about and the arteriosclerotic LARPers on the Right limped off the field in defeat after their they got a spanking at the January putsch.

A number of observers at both the Capitol Insurrection and CHAZ —including some of the idiots who took part in it—noted that these events felt much like a game, specifically an Alternate Reality Game (ARG). In a typical ARG, players look for clues both online—think of the QAnon drops, the Trumpentweets, or the disinformation dished out by the skells at 4chan, 8chan, and so on—as well as out in the world. Jon Lebkowsky, in a post at the Well’s State of the World and Clive Thompson over at Wired compare QAnon to an ARG. Indeed, gaming is taking the place of religion (whichever grifter figures out how to meld this with Jesus and his pet dinosaurs will get very rich indeed), with the false promise that playing the game and winning will deliver one to the other side of the Jackpot. Somewhere, I read that when asked what he would do differently if he had made Blade Runner a decade later, Ridley Scott replied that he would be able to skip the elaborate sets and just point the camera down the streets of 1990s Los Angeles. Today, the same could be said for the Hunger Games today.

But not everything was LARPing. If Cheeto Jesus is an icon for LARPing losers, Biden was elected on the premise of staving off the Jackpot by returning adults to the White House. This is not a bad thing, we might as well try. Still, from the perspective of Jackpot culture, the most interesting political development of the year was the candidacy of Andrew Yang whose cheery advocacy of Universal Basic Income (aka the Freedom Dividend) masked the dark, Jackpot-like nature of his predictions. Let’s quote Yang’s campaign site on this: “In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies—and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it.” No matter how friendly Yang’s delivery, there is a grim realism to his politics, an acceptance that things will never be better for a massive sector of the population. Certainly some individuals will find ways to use their $1,000 a month freedom dividend as a subsidy to do something new and amazing, but 95% will not. Rather, they will form a new and permanent underclass as they fade into extinction. Again, the point of Yang’s candidacy isn’t the cheerleading for math and STEM, it’s the frank acknowledgement that the Jackpot is already here.

On the other hand, toward the end of the year, Tyler Cowen suggested that we might be nearing the end of the Great Stagnation (he is, of course, the author of an influential pamphlet on the topic) and you can find a good summary of the thinking, pro and con by Cowen’s student Eli Dourado here. In this view, advances such as the mRNA vaccine, the spread of electric, somewhat self-driving vehicles, the pandemic-induced rise of remote work, and huge drop in the cost of spaceflight are changing things radically and could lead to a real rise in Total Factor Productivity from the low level it has been stuck at since 2005. Is this a sign of the end of the Jackpot? Unlikely. That won’t come until a series of more massive technological breaks, probably (but not necessarily) involving breakthroughs in health (the end of cancer, heart disease, and dementia), the reversal of climate change, working nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence. But still, there are signs that early inflection points are at hand.

Personally, we experienced one of these inflection points when we replaced our aging (and aged) BMWs with Teslas. I wound up getting a used Tesla Model S last January and then immediately turned around and ordered a brand new Model Y that we received in June. No more trip to the gas station, and while “Full-self driving” is both expensive and nowhere near fully self driving, it is a big change. Longer road trips—which under the pandemic have been to nurseries on either side of the Pennsylvania border to buy native plants—have become much easier, even if I still have to keep my hands on the wheel and fiddle with it constantly to prevent self-driving from disengaging. But harping on too much about the incomplete nature of self-driving is poor sport: in the last year, Tesla added stop light recognition to self-driving and a new update in beta promises to make city streets fully navigable. Less than a decade ago, self driving was only a theoretical project. Now I use it for 90% of my highway driving. That’s a sizable revolution right there. Also, the all-electric and connected nature of these cars makes getting takeout and sitting in climate-controlled comfort in my vehicle when on the road a delight. Electric vehicles were a big success this year and in our neighborhood which is a bellwether for the adoption of future technology (when I saw iPhones replace Blackberries on the bus and train into the city, I bought a bit of Apple stock and made a small fortune) and Teslas have replaced BMWs as the most common vehicle in driveways.

Back to the pandemic, which accelerated a sizable shift in habitation patterns. Throughout the summer, there was a lot of nonsense from neoliberal journalists and urban boosters about how cities are going to come back booming, but with more bike lanes, wider sidewalks, less traffic, and more awesome tactical urbanist projects to appeal to millennials. Lately, however, those voices have fallen silent and with good reason. In this suburb the commuter train platforms are still bare in the mornings and the bus into the city, once packed to standing room only levels every evening, hasn’t run in five months. A friend who works in commercial real estate says that occupancy in New York City offices is at 15% of pre-pandemic levels. Business air travel is still off a cliff. Remote work isn’t ideal for everyone and every job, but neither was going into the office. For sure, the dystopian open offices, co-working spaces, and offices as “fun” zones are done and finished. People are renovating their houses, or upsizing, to better live in a post-pandemic world of remote work. Another friend who works for a large ad agency told me that they did not renew their lease for office space and do not plan to ever go back to in person work, at least for the vast majority of the staff. When employees gain over two hours a day from not commuting and corporations save vast fortunes on rent, remote work seems a lot more appealing. Retail sales here and in the surrounding towns have gone through the roof, just as they have in many suburbs.

But it isn’t just suburbia that has prospered at the expense of the city, exurbia has returned too. Way back in 1955Auguste Comte Spectorsky identified a growing American cultural class that he dubbed “the exurbanites” made up of “symbol manipulators” such as advertisers, musicians, artists, and other members of what we today call the creative class. Spectorsky observed that many of these individuals eventually tended to drift back to the city. This time may be different. After two decades in the city, the creative class is turning to places outside the city with attractive older houses and midcentury modern properties, walkable neighborhoods (virtually all of Montclair, for example, has sidewalks), good schools (which generally mean high property taxes but are an indicator for a smarter, engaged populace), amenities like parks and places to hike, decent bandwidth, as well as independent restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions. There will always be variations in taste: some people really do want to eat at Cheesecake Factory and live in a Toll Brothers McMansion, but these will appeal to relatively few of the people fleeing cities at this point. Thus, the Hudson Valley—full of older, more interesting architecture, great natural resources and quirky towns—is booming. I predict some reversion to toward the mean after the pandemic ends and some of the people who fled to the country realize they aren’t suited to a place without Soulcycle, but this will be only a partial and temporary reversion.

I predict that even after the pandemic ends, there will be a greater interest in self-sufficiency among young people who move to suburbia and exurbia. Manicured laws will be less important than vegetable gardens. Homesteading, permaculture, and a drive back to the land not seen since the 1960s are under way. It would be a very good thing if the next generation was more in touch with their land and less prone to hiring “landscapers” who treat properties as sites subject to industrial interventions such as chemical fertilizer for lawns, a phalanx of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers to remove any stray biological matter.

As far as cities go, the pandemic is triggering a necessary contraction. The massive annihilation of real estate value it has caused should go a long way to undo the foolish notion that urban real estate is always a great investment. It’s not, just ask anyone who bought a house in Detroit in 1965. Real estate in first and second tier global cities has become wildly expensive, disconnected from the underlying fundamentals. When individuals are paying rents that absorb over 30% of their salaries to investor-owners who are not covering their mortgage with those rents, something is very wrong. This broken system has been able to function due to the perceived hedonic value of restaurants, bars, and cultural events, but these things too have been failing over recent years. Long prior to the pandemic, the cost of rent decimated independently-owned restaurants and retailers, with the latter also hurt by on-line shopping. The golden age of dining out (if it really was the golden age… I would say that better food could have been had in other, less copycat eras) was already declared over in 2019. “High-rent blight,” in which entire streets’ worth of storefronts were empty due to ludicrous rents, has been common for some time now. Tourists made up more and more of the street crowds while loss-leader flagship stores for chains like Nike and Victoria’s Secret replaced local businesses. With the hedonic argument for staying in the city rapidly disappearing, it was only a matter of time before individuals began departing and, in New York, population had begun to drop by 2018 (see more on all of this in Kevin Baker’s piece for the Atlantic, “Affluence Killed New York, Not the Pandemic”). Perversely, this is a good thing as it will likely lead to a bust in commercial real estate prices and a decline in unoccupied or AirBNB’d apartments, thus making global cities like New York places that have potential again. Moreover, many second tier cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Cleveland are experiencing new growth as individuals able to work remotely are looking for places that are less expensive—and thus have more potential—than New York or San Francisco.

These shifts are huge and for the better. As I tried to tell my colleagues at the university, there is no housing crisis, at least not in the US and Europe, there is only an appearance of one because of the uneven distribution of housing: a glut in some areas, a shortfall in others. The pandemic has likely undone this a bit. Of course, places that are too politically Red, too full of chains, too full of copycat McMansions are unlikely to come back anytime soon, if ever. The Jackpot continues.

Still, I’m observing a perversely rosy future for the urban (and suburban and exurban) environment is the Biden administration’s interest in infrastructure. Back in 2008, I shocked design critics when I stated that there would be no progress in infrastructure for the foreseeable future. “But, Obama,” they complained. “But, Obama,” I clapped back, “just appointed Larry Summers as his chief economic advisor and Summers will bail out the banks, not fund infrastructure.” I expect the opposite from Biden who has adopted a “nothing left to lose” position as purportedly one-term President, is a devotee of train travel and is eager to make great progress on climate change. Appointing Pete Buttigieg, one of his two smartest opponents in the primary (the other being Andrew Yang, of course), to Secretary of Transportation is a key move. This will be Buttigieg’s opportunity to prove himself on the national stage and he will fight hard to do that, just as Biden expects. Expect more electrification across the board and, I suspect, more advances with self-driving vehicles. Although certain measures—such as, in the New York City area alone, the Gateway Tunnel between New Jersey and New York, now delayed over a decade thanks to Chris Christie and Donald Trump’s vindictiveness against commuter communities that would not vote for them and the reconstruction of Port Authority Bus Terminal—will help cities, again, I predict more emphasis on decentralization and activity outside the city.

All this may have salutary cultural implications. The global city is played out. Little of interest happens in New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, or Barcelona. These cities are too expensive for the sort of experimentation that made them great cultural centers and the diffusive nature of the Internet, capitalism, and overtourism have made them all the same. Residents of cities that have been victims of overtourism have seen this as an opportunity to reset, while the physical isolation of cities is going to increase reliance on local institutions. With some luck, all this leads to a new underground, with greater difference creating greater diversity and potential. Of fashion, Bruce Sterling writes, “Fashion will re-appear, and some new style will dominate the 2020s, but the longer it takes to emerge from its morgue-like shadow, the more radically different it will look.” The same could be true of all culture. Globalization was an incredibly powerful force but has been played out. I don’t agree with the protectionist instincts of the Trumpenproles but today culture’s hope is to thrive on the basis of the difference between places and cultures, not on greater sameness. Architecture has been very slow to react to all of this, in part because many intelligent young people have drifted into other fields, like startups, but I am optimistic that we might soon get past the ubiquitous white-painted brick walls and wood common table (the architecture of the least effort possible, to match fashion and food driven by the least effort possible), the tired old Bilbao-effect, and quirky development pseudo-modernism.

So much optimism on my part! Even I am shocked that I am so positive. But why not? The end to this exhausted first phase of network culture is overdue. Time for a new decade, at last.

*The reason for this is that there is no Year Zero. 31 December 1BC is followed by 1 January 1AD.

Year in Review 2018

The Year in Review 2018

I let six years go by without a Year in Review post, restarting the tradition last year. Not this time, although, with the frenetic pace of news this year, it seems like we have all aged six years in 2018.

Things are in a profound state of in-between. On the one hand, the Trumpian kleptocracy is accelerating. With Kelly and Mattis leaving in December, the “adult day care center” has closed, leaving only a pre-school version of Lord of the Flies in the White House. And yet, the end seems to draw near for this vexed time. Voters gave a resounding rebuke to Republicans in Congress, one that may ultimately be generational in nature and that gives Democrats subpoena power. Expect action soon. What’s in those tax returns? How much crony capital have Jared and Donald received over the years? By this time next year, we should know. Moreover, the Mueller investigation is accelerating, drawing closer and closer to the great kleptocrat’s inner circles even as we are left guessing at what sort of revelations we will learn in the months to come.

But that said, massive global instability is the price we pay for Trump. Authoritarian forces are on the rise throughout the world. It would be easy enough to say that these forces have been there all long, but its more accurate to say that the actions of individual players still matter. Trump was a colossal misfire, an eruption of senile admirers of fascism who think that a country of coal miners, machine guns in every classroom, and Christian sharia law will bring Jesus back, no doubt riding on a dinosaur. But with the markets on a rolled coaster ride that ultimately ended down in almost all sectors worldwide, we have to wonder how long business will find the radical Right palatable. Constant turmoil and increased tariffs are making CEOs wonder how useful Trump really is. It’s time to take gramps out of the White House and put him in a nursing home.

Beyond the rise of authoritarian power, 2018 was the year in which the rapid pace of climate change became obvious to anyone with a pulse. I am not a big fan of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (democratic socialism is a ticket to another right-wing victory), but her Green New Deal just makes sense. The US has spent trillions upon trillions subsidizing oil in various ways (from outright subsidies to the construction of roads which are, of course, paved in oil) and fighting wars in the Middle East to safeguard fossil matter, why shouldn’t we treat this as energy independence as matter of national security? There are 50,000 coal miners in the United States, less than the 89,000 employees of Sears who will lose their jobs this year’s and far less than the 1.6 million university faculty in the USve. If the Democrats want to win in 2020, running of a platform of stopping the rise in temperatures worldwide and the ballooning national debt while restoring basic rights and freedoms taken away during the Trumpic regime would be a good place to start (given that the GOP has forgotten about the deficit now).

As for architecture. What is there left to say about it anymore? Starchitecture has faded, nobody gets excited about cool forms anymore. How can we be surprised? No starchitect is making interesting buildings, in fact the whole movement has been something of a bust. Second, architecture is no longer the profession that shapes space, digital technology is. Failing to recognize this dooms the profession to irrelevance, like heraldry in the days of mustard gas.

But architecture isn’t the only institution without purpose. Silicon Valley, it seems, has finally met a time in which nobody cares about what it makes or promises. People are not only tired of big tech, they are tired of startups that promise the world when their only business plan is to be acquired as soon and possible. In fact, for all its promises,startup culture was a bust and it is far smaller than it was two decades ago. Apple made its best products ever (I am typing this on one of the amazing third generation iPad Pros that I bought), and was punished for it by a massive drop in its stock price.

If any tech became widely accepted by the mainstream in 2018, it was the Internet of Things and the Smart Home. Amazon’s Alexa, Nest and Ring’s video doorbell, and Lutron’s Caseta system were among the winners in this transformation of our interior lives. There is nothing terribly radical about the smart home and, frankly, a lot of the panic about surveillance with the hardware is silly (as if smart phones don’t already do this). But embedded technology is everywhere now.

Still, it’s odd how art (and architecture) misses this change. For want of anything else, we are still in the era of post-Internet art, an idea which, unfortunately, I am somewhat to blame for. If there was some merit to thinking about how network culture permeated art in 2011, talking about “post-Internet art” now simply is about as useful as talking about Abstract Expressionism as “post-automobile” art. Art, like architecture, has lost any purpose or drive forward. Technology and art have drifted apart again and only a few of us hack away at the intersection of the two. Still, art and architecture are always falling into ruin and being reborn. Perhaps this time will be no different and the work we are doing will lead to a rebirth?

The academy is sick as well. Years of poor management practices and bloated administrations have gutted the arts and humanities as faculty were forced to take on heavy teaching loads and real research has been eliminated (in case you wondered, I left Columbia when the new Dean did away with the entire research arm of the school to appease the finance office). Two decades ago, I decried “staff-ism” in schools, but now that is all that’s left.

I left teaching completely this year, resigning from my position at University of Limerick, Ireland after thirteen years and bringing nearly thirty years of teaching to end. In large part, it was the basic inability of universities to function that drove me away. What good is it for me to waste my time trying to jump through hoops to get paid when there are people in finance offices whose job literally is to ensure that faculty don’t get paid (I’ve been told this point blank)? And teaching itself isn’t much fun anymore. Students, for their part, are more interested in looking at their instagram feeds than in listening to what I have to say. It’s the opposite of the 1960s when students proclaimed the irrelevance of their teachers. Now, faculty proclaim the irrelevance of their students. Bah. It’s not worth it. It was a mistake to keep going over the last couple of years. I may come back to education one day—I have many great memories that come from my students and many of them remain my friends to this day—but now is a time when the university is very much irrelevant. Independence is what we need, not sick institutions.

Speaking of sick institutions, there is welcome news this year regarding Facebook: we saw the first signs of that hated enterprise starting to implode. Zuckerberg’s pathetic attempt to get a date by building a Web site has wound up doing tremendous damage to the Internet with its reduction of all content to a general level of idiocracy. Older forms of Internet communication such as blogs, email-mailing lists and Internet forums are dying and since nobody reads books or magazines anymore, we communicate less than we did thirty years ago. Instead, we don’t even get FarmVille, we get social diarrhea. Nobody likes Facebook. Independent voices are needed on the net again. It’s not up to someone else to provide them, it’s up to us.

I rebuilt my Web site last week in hopes of returning to being an independent voice in the field. I finished the last year in review with a similar resolution, maybe this year, I’m getting cranky enough that’ll actually happen.

2017 in Review (and more)

I begin writing this post to usher in 2018 with a large purring cat on my lap, glad that we are home from skiing in Vermont and doing her best to prevent me from typing. Until 2012 it was a yearly tradition for me to take stock of the state of things, personally, professionally, and in the world at large. The last five years have been something of a whirlwind and even though I have tried, I haven’t returned to this tradition.

Looking back at the last entry, from January 2013, I began with the words:

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys’ club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy’s Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration, backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

Well, those seemed like pretty good times, all things considered. This inauguration was met with shock and dismay by anyone with any wit whatsoever as we start with a President mired in dementia and crippled by narcissistic personality disorder, surrounded by glad-handers, hangers-on and family members more concerned with convincing him into doing their bidding than governing. The bane of the academy, neoliberalism, is gone for now, replaced by outright kleptocracy.

The core of this dysfunction, ultimately, is the infrastructural stalemate of government. By this, I am referring to the condition that I outlined in the introduction to the Infrastructural City, in which competing infrastructures and groups of stakeholders face off against each other, rabidly defending their turf even at the risk of the collapse of the system as a whole. Systems that cannot survive it (for example, AT&T and the Bell System) die or are radically restructured (in that case, the development of competing infrastructures of telematics), even if that process can take decades. By 2012, we could see infrastructural stalemate permeate Congress. Even as the Republican majority not only refused to work with the Democrats, it was internally hamstrung by the uncompromising demands of the Tea Party movement. The ensuing deadlock over budget priorities and the threat of repeated government shutdowns over rising debt led Congress to institute budget sequestration, a series of automatic spending cuts that, once set in motion, operated without the need for direct intervention. Sequestration was the sort of solution that managers of infrastructure often resort to: a jury-rigged system that everyone hates, but that everyone hates less than what competing stakeholders might propose.

In this light, the Republican victory of 2016 could be seen as infrastructural. Recall that in 2008 Obama had promised he would be known as “the Infrastructure President” only to quickly swerve away from these promises in favor of propping up big banks and the financial system. Two terms later, not only had the more familiar infrastructures of roads, bridges, rail, and air continued marching toward collapse, the same sicknesses that affect them had infected government. But, you may ask what about the blatant racism, calls to violence, and other horrors of the 2016 election? What do those have to do with infrastructure? Simple: fascism. The strong man comes in and promises that all that needs to be done is grab the lazy sods by the ears and bash their heads until they listen. Recall that Mussolini bragged he got the trains to run on time while Hitler’s great pride was the world’s first integrated highway system, the autobahn. Similarly, in Turkey Erdogan is undertaking a series of “crazy projects” such as a tunnel under the Bosporus, a new canal connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara to minimize traffic in the Istanbul Strait, a massive new airport in Istanbul, and so on. It’s this identical impetus that animates our current President as he claims he will impose order to the government one way or another.

Apart from his own failings, most notably the collusion with the Russian government during his election campaign, a crime already sinking his presidency, as well as his utter inability to focus or process information, the President faces challenges from the checks and balances that the founding fathers built into the US system; infrastructural stalemate as a Constitutional strategy. Unlikely to be able to turn it into the outright authoritarian rule that he desperately craves, the President faces a political dead end. In the meantime, he and those closest to him have turned to the best option they have: kleptocracy. In the name of infrastructure, the administration does what it can to remove regulations on pet industries (fossil fuel, mining, big manufacturing, e.g. all the old industries that find it difficult to be viable today) and while we hear constant promises about a big infrastructure act coming, I am convinced that it will largely be yet more concessions to specific supporters and, whenever possible, his own failing business ventures.

The one saving grace is that so far, I don’t see an asset bubble of the sort that crippled the markets in 2008. Certainly, some stocks, such as Facebook, are worth far more than they should be, but if on the whole assets are high, liquidity is as well. As markets crashed overnight following Brexit and the 2016 election, banks and other investors bought up the temporarily devalued assets to make a healthy profit. From the perspective of the markets, this is a good thing, as one danger to the Federal Reserve’s timidity about raising interest rates is that it leaves them with precious margin to restart the economy during a correction. Still, there is some likelihood that by increasing corporate profits, the Tax Reform plan (read: redistribution of wealth to benefit the oligarchs plan) will keep the economy going longer without a correction and overheat it, thus leading to Stagflation MK 2, but for now, I am thinking we will be in a similar economic condition a year from now. The markets may be up or down a bit, but likely no great change. Unless, of course, some very bad decision is made about North Korea or Iran or …

Throughout it, the importance of network culture becomes clearer and clearer. If YouTube made ISIS, Twitter (with a little help from Russians running bots and hacking into DNC servers) elected this President. The last two years are entirely unimagineable without social media and e-mail. But alas, any dreams of an online Jeffersonian democracy are long gone. How we will dig ourselves out of this hole is beyond me.

Worse yet, the US retreat from the Paris Accords, the attacks on Affordable Health Care, and the spread of oligarchy suggest that we are now firmly in the early phases of what William Gibson terms “the Jackpot.” Dark Accelerationism is here, with Steve Bannon (Steve Bannon! I mean think about it!) still guiding nihilistic forces in the White House from behind the scenes. Still, humans do have a funny capacity to make do and maybe the orange skies of Blade Runner 2049 will remain confined to that alternate time-line.

I finished my last year in review with the words:

So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn’t stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It’s up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013.

Let’s hope for more in 2018 then.

Blogging is an enterprise without hope these days, a dead medium, but in that, it remains something of a form of resistance, hosted on my own server, outside of the censoring eye of any institution. I won’t make any promises about whether I will blog more or not it the next year, but it remains part of my practice. As most of my readers know, in the five years since the end of 2012, I left GSAPP after a new Dean shut down Mark Wigley’s labs project and I recognized that, at least for the time being, universities were too big and dinosaur-like to host the kind of work I am pursuing. That isn’t to say that I might continue with some teaching here and there. Maybe I will even go back to teaching full time, but for now it seems like it’s time to side with nocturnal mammals scampering around furtively as dinosaurs lumber around in their last days (last days take a while, and meteorites don’t always come so don’t hold your breath for that one).

Back in 1980, Robert Fripp posted a manifesto on the back of his album “Let the Power Fall.” It has been reposted on the Discipline Global Mobile site although I had to laugh when my first attempt to find it again led to this post, made just as I was transitioning to Columbia and launching the Netlab. Over the two years since I have left full time teaching, I have found much more time and space to pursue the sort of projects that drive me, not only critical writing, but also exhibitions. If there will be some a few more projects involving my father’s work like the exhibit this year, I am hardly his keeper and can only set that research in motion so that others can take it on to give different insights. More important is my work with the Netlab, AUDC, and on my own. Different versions of these institutions will rise and recede, some may vanish and new ones may take the place. Throughout it, however, I set my intention for the next year and next five years to be a time for deepening my own research, radically interrogating the boundaries of space so as to help us come to an understanding of what this thing called network culture really is.

Continue reading “2017 in Review (and more)”