The Dark Enlightenment (Part 4a)

A multi-part sub-digression into racial terror

My own sense of the thing is that underneath the happy talk, underneath the dogged adherence to failed ideas and dead theories, underneath the shrieking and anathematizing at people like me, there is a deep and cold despair. In our innermost hearts, we don’t believe racial harmony can be attained. Hence the trend to separation. We just want to get on with our lives away from each other. Yet for a moralistic, optimistic people like Americans, this despair is unbearable. It’s pushed away somewhere we don’t have to think about it. When someone forces us to think about it, we react with fury. That little boy in the Andersen story about the Emperor’s new clothes? The ending would be more true to life if he had been lynched by a howling mob of outraged citizens.
— John Derbyshire, interviewed at Gawker

We believe in the equal dignity and presumption of equal decency toward every person — no matter what race, no matter what science tells us about comparative intelligence, and no matter what is to be gleaned from crime statistics. It is important that research be done, that conclusions not be rigged, and that we are at liberty to speak frankly about what it tells us. But that is not an argument for a priori conclusions about how individual persons ought to be treated in various situations — or for calculating fear or friendship based on race alone. To hold or teach otherwise is to prescribe the disintegration of a pluralistic society, to undermine the aspiration of E Pluribus Unum.
— Andrew McCarthy, defending the expulsion of JD from the National Review

“The Talk” as black Americans and liberals present it (to wit: necessitated by white malice), is a comic affront — because no one is allowed (see Barro above) to notice the context in which black Americans are having run-ins with the law, each other, and others. The proper context for understanding this, and the mania that is the Trayvonicus for that matter, is the reasonable fear of violence. This is the single most exigent fact here — yet you decree it must not be spoken.
— Dennis Dale, responding to Josh Barro’s call for JD’s ‘firing’

Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.
— Bladerunner

There is no part of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, or very many other East Asian cities where it is impossible to wander, safely, late at night. Women, whether young or old, on their own or with small children, can be comfortably oblivious to the details of space and time, at least insofar as the threat of assault is concerned. Whilst this might not be quite sufficient to define a civilized society, it comes extremely close. It is certainly necessary to any such definition. The contrary case is barbarism.

These lucky cities of the western Pacific Rim are typified by geographical locations and demographic profiles that conspicuously echo the embarrassingly well-behaved ‘model minorities’ of Occidental countries. They are (non-obnoxiously) dominated by populations that – due to biological heredity, deep cultural traditions, or some inextricable entanglement of the two – find polite, prudent, and pacific social interactions comparatively effortless, and worthy of continuous reinforcement. They are also, importantly, open, cosmopolitan societies, remarkably devoid of chauvinistic boorishness or paranoid ethno-nationalist sentiment. Their citizens are disinclined to emphasize their own virtues. On the contrary, they will typically be modest about their individual and collective attributes and achievements, abnormally sensitive to their failures and shortcomings, and constantly alert to opportunities for improvement. Complacency is almost as rare as delinquency. In these cities an entire — and massively consequential — dimension of social terror is simply absent.

In much of the Western world, in stark contrast, barbarism has been normalized. It is considered simply obvious that cities have ‘bad areas’ that are not merely impoverished, but lethally menacing to outsiders and residents alike. Visitors are warned to stay away, whilst locals do their best to transform their homes into fortresses, avoid venturing onto the streets after dark, and – especially if young and male — turn to criminal gangs for protection, which further degrades the security of everybody else. Predators control public space, parks are death traps, aggressive menace is celebrated as ‘attitude’, property acquisition is for mugs (or muggers), educational aspiration is ridiculed, and non-criminal business activity is despised as a violation of cultural norms. Every significant mechanism of socio-cultural pressure, from interpreted heritage and peer influences to political rhetoric and economic incentives, is aligned to the deepening of complacent depravity and the ruthless extirpation of every impulse to self-improvement. Quite clearly, these are places where civilization has fundamentally collapsed, and a society that includes them has to some substantial extent failed.

Within the most influential countries of the English-speaking world, the disintegration of urban civilization has profoundly shaped the structure and development of cities. In many cases, the ‘natural’ (one might now say ‘Asian’) pattern, in which intensive urbanization and corresponding real estate values are greatest in the downtown core, has been shattered, or at least deeply deformed. Social disintegration of the urban center has driven an exodus of the (even moderately) prosperous to suburban and exurban refuges, producing a grotesque and historically unprecedented pattern of ‘donut’-style development, with cities tolerating – or merely accommodating themselves to – ruined and rotting interiors, where sane people fear to tread. ‘Inner city’ has come to mean almost exactly the opposite of what an undistorted course of urban development would produce. This is the geographical expression of a Western – and especially American – social problem that is at once basically unmentionable and visible from outer space.

Surprisingly, the core-crashed donut syndrome has a notably insensitive yet commonly accepted name, which captures it in broad outlines – at least according to its secondary characteristics – and to a reasonable degree of statistical approximation: White Flight. This is an arresting term, for a variety of reasons. It is stamped, first of all, by the racial bi-polarity that – as a vital archaism – resonates with America’s chronic social crisis at a number of levels. Whilst superficially outdated in an age of many-hued multicultural and immigration issues, it reverts to the undead code inherited from slavery and segregation, perpetually identified with Faulkner’s words: “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.” Yet even in this untypical moment of racial candor, blackness is elided, and implicitly disconnected from agency. It is denoted only by allusion, as a residue, concentrated passively and derivatively by the sifting function of a highly-adrenalized white panic. What cannot be said is indicated even as it is unmentioned. A distinctive silence accompanies the broken, half-expression of a mute tide of racial separatism, driven by civilizationally disabling terrors and animosities, whose depths, and structures of reciprocity, remain unavowable.

What the puritan exodus from Old to New World was to the foundation of Anglophone global modernity, white flight is to its fraying and dissolution. As with the pre-founding migration, what gives white flight ineluctable relevance here is its sub-political character: all exit and no voice. It is the subtle, non-argumentative, non-demanding ‘other’ of social democracy and its dreams – the spontaneous impulse of dark enlightenment, as it is initially glimpsed, at once disillusioning and implacable.

The core-crashed donut is not the only model of sick city syndrome (the shanty fringe phenomenon emphasized in Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums is very different). Nor is donut-disaster urbanism reducible to racial crisis, at least in its origins. Technological factors have played a crucial role (most prominently, automobile geography) as have quite other, long-standing cultural traditions (such as the construction of suburbia as a bourgeois idyll). Yet all such lineages have been in very large measure supplanted by, or at least subordinated to, the inherited, and still emerging, ‘race problem.’

So what is this ‘problem’? How is it developing? Why should anybody outside America be concerned about it? Why raise the topic now (if ever)? – If your heart is sinking under the gloomy suspicion this is going to be huge, meandering, nerve-wracking, and torturous, you’re right. We’ve got weeks in this chamber of horrors to look forward to.

The two simplest, quite widely held, and basically incompatible answers to the first question deserve to be considered as important parts of the problem.

Question: What is America’s race problem?

Answer-1: Black people.

Answer-2: White people.

The combined popularity of these options is significantly expanded, most probably to encompass a large majority of all Americans, when is taken to include those who assume that one of these two answers dominates the thinking of the other side. Between them, the propositions “The problem would be over if we could just rid ourselves of black hoodlums / white racists” and / or “They think we’re all hoodlums / racists and want to get rid of us” consume an impressive proportion of the political spectrum, establishing a solid foundation of reciprocal terror and aversion. When defensive projections are added (“We’re not hoodlums, you’re racists” or “We’re not racists, you’re hoodlums”), the potential for super-heated, non-synthesizing dialectics approaches the infinite.

Not that these ‘sides’ are racial (except in black or white tribal-nationalist fantasy). For crude stereotypes, it is far more useful to turn to the principal political dimension, and its categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in the contemporary, American sense. To identify America’s race problem with white racism is the stereotypical liberal position, whilst identifying it with black social dysfunction is the exact conservative complement. Although these stances are formally symmetrical, it is their actual political asymmentry that charges the American race problem with its extraordinary historical dynamism and universal significance.

That American whites and blacks – considered crudely as statistical aggregates — co-exist in a relation of reciprocal fear and perceived victimization, is attested by the manifest patterns of urban development and navigation, school choice, gun ownership, policing and incarceration, and just about every other expression of revealed (as opposed to stated) preference that is related to voluntary social distribution and security. An objective balance of terror reigns, erased from visibility by complementary yet incompatible perspectives of victimological supremacism and denial. Yet between the liberal and conservative positions on race there is no balance whatsoever, but something closer to a rout. Conservatives are utterly terrified of the issue, whilst for liberals it is a garden of earthly delight, whose pleasures transcend the limits of human understanding. When any political discussion firmly and clearly arrives at the topic of race, liberalism wins. That is the fundamental law of ideological effectiveness in the shadow fragrant shade of the Cathedral. In certain respects, this dynamic political imbalance is even the primary phenomenon under consideration (and much more needs to be said about it, down the road).

The regular, excruciating, soul-crushing humiliation of conservatism on the race issue should come as no surprise to anybody. After all, the principal role of conservatism in modern politics is to be humiliated. That is what a perpetual loyal opposition, or court jester, is for. The essential character of liberalism, as guardian and proponent of neo-puritan spiritual truth, invests it with supreme mastery over the dialectic, or invulnerability to contradiction. That which it is impossible to think must necessarily be embraced, through faith. Consider only the fundamental doctrine or first article of the liberal creed, as promulgated through every public discussion, academic articulation, and legislative initiative relevant to the topic: Race doesn’t exist, except as a social construct employed by one race to exploit and oppress another. Merely to entertain it is to shudder before the awesome majesty of the absolute, where everything is simultaneously its precise opposite, and reason evaporates ecstatically at the brink of the sublime.

If the world was built out of ideology, this story would already be over, or at least predictably programmed. Beyond the apparent zig-zag of the dialectic there is a dominant trend, heading in a single, unambiguous direction. Yet the liberal-progressive solution to the race problem – open-endedly escalating, comprehensively systematic, dynamically paradoxical ‘anti-racism’ – confronts a real obstacle that is only very partially reflected in conservative attitudes, rhetoric, and ideology. The real enemy, glacial, inchoate, and non-argumentative, is ‘white flight’.

At this point, explicit reference to the Derbyshire Case becomes irresistible. There is a very considerable amount of complex, recent historical context that cries out for introduction – the cultural convulsion attending the Trayvon Martin incident in particular – but there’ll be time for that later (oh yes, I’m afraid so). Derbyshire’s intervention, and the explosion of words it provoked, while to some extent illuminated by such context, far exceeds it. That is because the crucial unspoken term, both in Derbyshire’s now-notorious short article, and also — apparently — in the responses it generated, is ‘white flight’. By publishing paternal advice to his (Eurasian) children that has been — not entirely unreasonably — summarized as ‘avoid black people’, he converted white flight from a much-lamented but seemingly inexorable fact into an explicit imperative, even a cause. Don’t argue, flee.

The word Derbyshire emphasizes, in his own penumbra of commentary, and in antecedent writings, is not ‘flight’ or ‘panic’, but despair. When asked by blogger Vox Day whether he agreed that the ‘race card’ had become less intimidating over the past two decades, Derbyshire replies:

One [factor], which I’ve written about more than once, I think, in the United States, is just despair. I am of a certain age, and I was around 50 years ago. I was reading the newspapers and following world events and I remember the civil rights movement. I was in England, but we followed it. I remember it, I remember what we felt about it, and what people were writing about it. It was full of hope. The idea in everyone’s mind was that if we strike down these unjust laws and we outlaw all this discrimination, then we’ll be whole. Then America will be made whole. After an intermediate period of a few years, who knows, maybe 20 years, with a hand up from things like affirmative action, black America will just merge into the general population and the whole thing will just go away. That’s what everybody believed. Everybody thought that. And it didn’t happen.

Here we are, we’re 50 years later, and we’ve still got these tremendous disparities in crime rates, educational attainment, and so on. And I think, although they’re still mouthing the platitudes, Americans in their hearts feel a kind of cold despair about it. They feel that Thomas Jefferson was probably right and we can’t live together in harmony. I think that’s why you see this slow ethnic disaggregation. We have a very segregated school system now. There are schools within 10 miles of where I’m sitting that are 98 percent minority. In residential housing too, it’s the same thing. So I think there is a cold, dark despair lurking in America’s collective heart about the whole thing.

This is a version of reality that few want to hear. As Derbyshire recognizes, Americans are a predominantly Christian, optimistic, ‘can-do’ people, whose ‘collective heart’ is unusually maladapted to an abandonment of hope. This is a country culturally hard-wired to interpret despair not merely as error or weakness, but as sin. Nobody who understands this could be remotely surprised to find bleak hereditarian fatalism being rejected — typically with vehement hostility — not only by progressives, but also by the overwhelming majority of conservatives. At NRO, Andrew C. McCarthy no doubt spoke for many in remarking:

There is a world of difference, though, between the need to be able to discuss uncomfortable facts about IQ and incarceration, on the one hand, and, on the other, to urge race as a rationale for abandoning basic Christian charity.

Others went much further. At the Examiner, James Gibson seized upon “John Derbyshire’s vile racist screed” as the opportunity to teach a wider lesson – “the danger of conservatism divorced from Christianity”:

… since Derbyshire does not believe “that Jesus of Nazareth was divine . . . and that the Resurrection was a real event,”; he cannot comprehend the great mystery of the Incarnation, whereby the Divine truly did take on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and suffered death at the hands of a fallen humanity in order to redeem that humanity out of its state of fallenness.

Herein lies the danger of a conservative socio-political philosophy divorced from a robust Christian faith. It becomes a dead ideology spawning a view of humanity that is toxic, fatalistic, and (as Derbyshire proves abundantly) uncharitable.

It was, of course, on the left that the fireworks truly ignited. Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire contended that Derbyshire had clung on to his relation with the National Review because he was offering the magazine’s “less enlightened readers” what they wanted: “dated racial stereotypes.” Like Gibson on the right, she was keen for people to learn a wider lesson: don’t think for a minute this stops with Derbyshire. (The stunningly uncooperative comments thread to her article is worth noting.)

At Gawker, Louis Peitzman jumped the shark (in the approved direction) by describing Derbyshire’s “horrifying diatribe” as the “most racist article possible,” a judgment that betrays extreme historical ignorance, a sheltered life, unusual innocence, and a lack of imagination, as well as making the piece sound far more interesting than it actually is. Peitzman’s commentators are impeccably liberal, and of course uniformly, utterly, shatteringly appalled (to the point of orgasm). Beyond the emoting, Peitzman doesn’t offer much content, excepting only a little extra emoting – this time mild satisfaction mixed with residual rage – at the news that Derbyshire’s punishment has at least begun (“a step in the right direction”) with his “canning” from the National Review.

Joanna Schroeder (writing at something called the Good Feed Blog) sought to extend the purge beyond Derbyshire, to include anybody who had not yet erupted into sufficiently melodramatic paroxysms of indignation, starting with David Weigel at Slate (who she doesn’t know “in real life, but in reading this piece, it seems you just might be a racist, pal”). “There are so many … racist, dehumanizing references to black people in Derbyshire’s article that I have to just stop myself here before I recount the entire thing point by point with fuming rage,” she shares. Unlike Peitzman, however, at least Schroeder has a point – the racial terror dialectic — “… propagating the idea that we should be afraid of black men, of black people in general, makes this world dangerous for innocent Americans.” Your fear makes you scary (although apparently not with legitimate reciprocity).

As for Weigel, he gets the terror good and hard. Within hours he’s back at the keyboard, apologizing for his previous insouciance, and for the fact he “never ended up saying the obvious: People, the essay was disgusting.”

So what did Derbyshire actually say, where did it come from, and what does it mean to American politics (and beyond)? This sub-series will comb through the spectrum from left to right in search of suggestions, with socio-geographically manifested ‘white’ panic / despair as a guiding thread …

Coming next: The Liberal Ecstasy

[Tomb]

Re-Animator (Part 4)

What does the world make of Shanghai?

If the deepest traditions of the World Expo are those cemented into its origin, it would be incautious to over-hastily dismiss one prominent feature of its inaugural instance. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in London, in 1851, was staged in the effective capital of the world. In this case, at least, the defining internationalism of the Expo is difficult to disentangle from the indisputable historical fact that the entire world was rapidly becoming London’s business. In a gesture of reciprocity so perfect that it approached simple identity, London invited the world to itself exactly as – and because – it was inviting itself to the world.

The Great Exhibition made irresistible sense because it put the future of the world on display in the only place that could. To see the concentrated, realistically sifted, programmatically arranged destiny of the earth, it was necessary to visit London, since it was in London that everything came together.

Over its first two decades (and four episodes), World Expo alternated between London (1851, 1862) and Paris (1855, 1867), as if oscillating between the relative historical potencies of maritime and continental power. Yet this apparent hesitation actually compresses and conceals two distinct, complementary, and unambiguous trends. Britain was ascending inexorably to global hegemony, whilst disengaging from World Expo, whilst France was managing equally inexorable comparative decline, as it made World Expo – to a remarkable extent – its special preserve.

It is tempting to propose a theory of institutional consolation to account for this pattern. Long after Britain had abandoned all claim to Expo leadership, France continued to invest heavily in the event, chalking-up a record of Expo hospitality unmatched by any other country and setting the course to Expo institutionalization through the Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE). The BIE, established in 1928, has always been based in Paris, and remains a bastion of Anglo-French bilingualism.

French Expo-enthusiasm expresses a more general relationship to the world system of great importance. Having relinquished its (Napoleonic) role as a challenger to the world order in the early 19th century, France has maneuvered, with unique capability and determination, to remain an indispensable secondary power, or – more precisely – a balancer. Its relationship to the successive phases of Anglophone global hegemony has been guided by an extremely consistent deep policy of accommodation without acquiescence, characterized by imaginative and unrelenting, yet restrained rivalry. Close to the core, yet never quite part of it, France has been able to draw sustenance from the world order whilst contesting its cultural meaning (as English-speaking, protestant, and laissez-faire individualist).

World system challengers, it should be clearly noted, never host World Expos. The Expos held in Japan (Osaka 1970, Tsukuba 1985, Aichi 2005) and Germany (Hanover 2000) took place long after their armed resistance to the Anglo-American world order had been broken and both countries had been beaten into docility. Russia has never hosted one. Moscow of the USSR was offered the 1967 World Expo, but declined it (presumably judging it dangerously destabilizing to a closed society).

World Expo has thus acquired a secondary tradition, as a deliberately eccentric platform from which to contest the core future of the world system, and to propose a pluralized (or embryonically multicultural) alternative. Already in 1855 and 1867, and then in 1878, 1889, 1900, and 1937, World Expo staged the view from Paris, one that accepted the global reality of consolidated, revolutionary modernization, whilst systematically de-emphasizing its techno-commercial determinism and its convergence upon Anglophone cultural traits. Industrial globalization was reconfigured as a condition to be critically interrogated, rather than an opportunity to be vigorously promoted.

Between the primary and secondary impulses of the Expo, collision was inevitable. Predictably enough, the occasion was provided by the reconnection of Expo to the global core.

Even given this truncated and radically simplified schema of Expo history, which had been largely settled in its essentials by 1870, the significance of the two New York World Expos, staged in 1939-40 and 1964-5, comes clearly into focus. Mid-20th century New York, like every world systemic capital, represented the leading edge of modernization as a revolutionary global process — emergence and consolidation of a new world order and new age (novus ordo seclorum) – compared to which the authority of established international institutions counted for nothing.

Both New York Expos flagrantly violated BIE regulations in numerous respects, but even after the withdrawal of official sanction, they ahead anyway. These were, non-coincidentally, the first rogue Expos. They were also among the most memorable and influential in World Expo history.

For the first time since the mid-19th century, Expo had found its way back to the capital of the world, in order to provide an uncompromised and unambiguous foretaste of the World of Tomorrow in the place that was orchestrating it. BIE opinion mattered little, because Expo was not being hosted in New York so much as re-invented, echoing the originality of 1851. This was where the future would come from, and everyone knew it. All that was necessary was to tease the city into anticipating itself, and what resulted was a Futurama.

There was an additional message, easily overlooked due to the scarcity of data-points: hosting World Expo is one of the things the world capital has to do — as a kind of ritual responsibility, or a coming-out party. Shanghai has done that now. Precedent suggests that one additional Expo would be appropriate (perhaps in 2025, or 2030), although it might have to be unsanctioned next time.

Of course, Shanghai is not yet the capital of the world, but it is heading there. From the late-1970s, after centuries of exile and denigration, the offshore, diasporic-maritime, capitalistic China of the tianchao qimin — those ‘abandoned by the Celestial Empire’ – has been steadily, and rapidly, re-integrated with the continental mainland and its ‘market socialist’ structures. Floodgates of talent and investment have been opened, and as this scattered, sea-salt scented population has reconnected with the motherland, the ‘Chinese miracle’ of recent decades has taken place. Shanghai is the main-circuit socket that links this other China — oriented to oceanic trade, entrepreneurial opportunity, capital accumulation, international mobility, and a society of flexible networks — to the vast potentialities of the country (and flexible Sino-Marxist state) lying up the Yangzi, and beyond. If the process of reconnection is not interrupted, the next phase of modernity will be centered in this city, where China meets the sea.

Despite its self-identification as the ‘central country’ (or ‘middle kingdom’ – Zhongguo), China has not been at the core of the world process for centuries. Instead it has been a complacently declining legacy power and a badly-treated outsider, then successively a second-tier affiliate, a truculent challenger, and a cautious balancer, until its prospective status as core inheritor (or virtual hegemon) began to percolate into global popular awareness over the final decades of the 20th century. Very little of this is a matter of motivation, or strategic assertion. Quasi-Marxist assumptions of economic inevitability and directional base-superstructure causation come into their own in this respect. Global leadership is nominated by industrial reality, not political will, and hegemony can neither be perpetuated beyond the endurance of its economic foundations, nor long disdained once such foundations have been laid. Eventually a reality check becomes unavoidable, and policy is hammered into compliance with the demands of world system equilibrium. Core-periphery relations are decided by trade and capital flows, not by political declarations. Since comparative success and failure show no sign at all of disappearing, it can confidently be expected that hierarchical geography – however re-arranged – will not be withering away any time soon. Realists will follow the money.

There will be a new world capital (you can count on it), but will it be Shanghai? It would be reckless to presume so. The world system tradition, in its eagerness to anoint Tokyo as the successor to New York (during the 1980s), provides a cautionary lesson. There was no Tokyo World Expo, and it turns out that there was not an urgent or essential need for one.

So, is Shanghai next? That should have been the animating question of Expo 2010, and perhaps it will have been in the future. The whole world has a stake in it, because it tells us what is coming, and that is what World Expo was designed to do. For an emerging world capital to mask itself as a generic city passes beyond modesty into a species of accidental deception, but tact can easily be confused with pretence – especially by those on unfamiliar cultural terrain. It might be that Shanghai said everything that was necessary in 2010, and that what it said will eventually be heard, and understood.

Expo begins again in each new world capital, in 1851, in 1939, and – far more problematically – in 2010 (?). In Shanghai’s case, we are still too close to the event, and too entangled in the current revolution of modernity, to know for sure. What Expo 2010 will have been depends upon what the world becomes, how its center of economic gravity shifts, how its new center condenses, and what it makes of Shanghai.

(final lurch into this fog-bank coming next (yippee!))

[Tomb]

Re-Animator (Part 3)

What makes a great city?

By far the most interesting element of World Expo 2010: Shanghai, was Shanghai. Whilst deeply-rooted regional traditions of courtesy sustained the fiction that this World Fair was about the world, it really wasn’t. Whatever the diplomatic benefits of the almost universally convenient internationalist pretense, to China and Expo’s foreign participants alike, Expo 2010 was about Shanghai, and for Shanghai. The Expo was global because Shanghai is, it was about China because Shanghai is China’s gateway to the world, it was about cities in order to be even more about Shanghai, nobody uninterested in Shanghai paid it the slightest attention, and Shanghai used it to restructure, intensify, and promote itself.

Expo as an institution was in decline before 2010, and continues to decline. Shanghai was rising before 2010, and continues to rise, but now infrastructurally upgraded, thoroughly renovated, and decorated with the historical merit-badge of Expo hospitality. Better City, Better Life, a typically airy and aspirational Expo theme, is a cold-sober description of the Expo-effect in Shanghai.

Cities are, in certain important respects, generic. There is such a thing as ‘the city in general’ as the work of Geoffrey West, in particular, has demonstrated. We know, thanks to West, that cities are negative organisms, with consistent scaling characteristics that structurally differentiate them from animals and corporations. As they grow they accelerate and intensify at a quantifiable and predictable rate, exhibiting increasing returns to scale (in sharp contrast to animals and businesses, which slow down in proportion to their size). Organisms and firms die normally and by necessity, cities only rarely and by accident.

Cities belong to a real genre, but they are also singularities, undergoing spontaneous individuation. In fact, they are generically singular – singular without exception – like black holes. It is not only that no city is like another, no city can be like another, and this is a feature that all cities share, arguably more than any other.

Beyond such generic singularity, there is an additional level of enhanced differentiation that emerges from the position cities occupy within larger systems. These systems are not only internally specialized, but also hierarchical, dividing core from periphery, and distributing influence unevenly between them. Ultimately, within the fully global incarnation of the ‘world system’, cities acquire secondary metropolitan characteristics, to very different degrees, in accordance with their geographical and functional proximity to the center of the world. They transcend their local histories, to become hubs or nodes in a global network that re-characterizes them as parts of a whole rather than wholes made of parts, as metropolis-versus-periphery rather than (or on top of) metropolis-versus-town.

The geographical structure and historical instability of modernity’s core-periphery architecture has been the focus of the ‘world system theory’ developed from the Annales School of Fernand Braudel (1902-85) by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) and – most impressively — Giovanni Arrighi (1937-2009). According to the world system theorists, the revolutions that matter most are not national regime changes, such as those in France (1789) and Russia (1917), but rather global re-organizations that mark out the basic phases of modern history, jolting the world into new core-periphery structures. Modernity has undergone four of these shifts up to the present, with each phase lasting for a ‘long century’, introducing a new core state, or hegemon, with enhanced capabilities, and a new urban center – successively, Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York – that operate as an effective capital of the world.

As the example of New York attests, this status is not primarily political. Nor does prominence in manufacturing seem to be a relevant factor (the ‘world capital’ has never been the dominant industrial center of its respective region or state). Over the course of modern history to date, the crucial features of the world capital seem to be that it is the largest urban agglomeration in the leading (‘hegemonic’) region or state; that it is an established financial center that quite rapidly attains a position of global pre-eminence in this respect; that it is an open port city with clear maritime orientation; and that it has an exceptionally internationalized demographic profile, with a large segment of internationally-mobile, opportunistic residents. A significant period of leadership in the creative arts might plausibly be added to this list. Functionally, the world capital serves as the supreme nerve-center of the global economy, specialized nationally, and then super-specialized internationally, as the financial, logistics, and business services hub of a system whose global integrity is reflected in the city’s privileged singularity.

The exceptional drama of our age lies in its nature as a time of transition between phases of modernity, somewhere in the winter of a long century, when an epoch of hegemony is exhausted. More specifically, the walls are closing in on the American Age, as commentators of almost every intellectual and ideological stripe are increasingly aware. Overstretched, essentially bankrupted, politically paralyzed and disillusioned, America sinks into self-conscious crisis, its mood dark and clouded. It would be a mistake to limit attention to America, however, because the crisis is world-systemic, heralding the end of an international order that arose among the chaos of the world wars and achieved definition in the post-WWII United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank, and the descendent of GATT, now the WTO). It affects not only the role of the US dollar as international reserve currency, an Atlantic-centered NATO and an Occidentally-skewed UN apparatus, but also the European Union, the post-colonial Middle Eastern state-system and (very) much else besides.

Over the next two decades, under the impact of economic forces of extreme profundity (far exceeding the responsive capacity of existing institutions), a revolutionary re-ordering of the world can be expected to unfold. If America succeeds in maintaining its position of leadership within the global system for a period that significantly exceeds the long 20th century (which began no earlier than 1914, and thus might be expected to persist for some additional years), it will have broken a pattern that has remained consistent throughout a half-millennium of history. Whilst not strictly impossible, perpetuation of the present hegemonic order would be, quite literally, a stretch.

Another vision of a break from historical precedent, this time transparently utopian, envisages – rather than the continuation of US pre-eminence — the obsolescence of the core-periphery global structure in its entirety, ending hierarchical geography and hegemony in general. Even If such a vision truly rises to the level of a definite expectation (rather than a nebulous exercise in wishful thinking), it remains ungrounded in reliable historical and theoretical foundations. Altruistic political intentions – were such ever credible – would still be quite insufficient to overcome the spontaneous, dynamic trend to approximate world systemic equilibrium, in which a core zone, and its metropolitan capital, are automatically nominated, by diffuse economic currents searching for a central clearing house.

Whilst no doubt deeply disappointing to utopian eschatology, and to all dreams of historical conclusion (or passage to the promised land), phase-shifts in the world-system are less ominous than they are often depicted as being. Among Arrighi’s most important insights is the reminder that whenever an attempted reconstruction of the world order has been based upon a frontal military and geo-strategic challenge to the hegemon, it has failed. This is exemplified, above all, by the German and Russian histories of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which repeated direct confrontations with the established Anglophone-dominated international system led only to frustration, regime collapse, and subaltern re-integration.

Perhaps ironically, a marked subjective aversion to hard power assertion and the assumption of hegemony can be quite reliably taken as a positive indicator for the objective emergence of hegemonic status. Holland, Great Britain, and the United States of America were all, in certain crucial respects, accidental imperialists, whose successive ascents to world dominance shared a prioritization of commercial motives, retarded state involvement, strong ‘isolationist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ cultural currents, and a determined avoidance of ‘Clauswitzean’ decisive collision (especially with the prior hegemon). The British and American ways of war, in particular, are notable for their common emphasis upon hedging and triangulation, such as the exploitation of offshore position and maritime supremacy to avoid premature entanglement in high intensity ‘continental’ conflicts, the usage of financial and logistic capability to manipulate conflicts at a distance, and the diplomatic inclusion of defeated adversaries in reconstructed, poly-centric, ‘balanced’ systems of power. Hegemony was, in each case, peacefully inherited, even when it was cemented by war (in partnership with the previous hegemon) and later gave rise to opportunities for increasingly aggressive imperialistic adventurism.

Given this broadly uncontroversial historical pattern, it is all the more surprising that the German example is so widely invoked in discussions of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. In fact, China’s ascent has stuck far closer to the model of hegemonic hand-overs than to that of confrontational challenges, as indicated by the prioritization of commercial development, the highly cooperative (even synergistic or ‘Chimerican’) relationship with the prevailing hegemon, the gradual accumulation of financial power by way of spontaneous, systemic re-distribution, and the equally gradual consolidation of maritime interests, emerging out of the global trading system, which draw the focus of government strategic policy – perhaps reluctantly – from domestic concerns out into the high-seas.

Historically, China has been far more a continental than a maritime power, and this fact provides the single most persuasive objection to the assumption of an impending Chinese (Long) Century. The emergence of a continental world system core would be as decisive a departure from precedent as any yet discussed, and if such a possibility is entertained, disciplined prediction falters. If inverted, however, this problem becomes a forecast in itself: the trajectory of China’s rise necessarily implies its transformation into a maritime power (an insight already tacit in the controversial 1988 Chinese TV series River Elegy).

A vague intuition, partially but elusively crystallized by Expo 2010, is now precipitated by sheer historical pattern-recognition into the form of an explicit question:

Is Shanghai destined to become the capital of the world?
(Part 4 to come)

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A Time-Travelers Guide to Shanghai (Part 2)

Dark intimations of the time-rift

Shanghai’s eclectic cityscape explores a variety of modernities simultaneously. The sheer scale of the city, exponentiated by its relentless dynamism, overflows the time-line.

During Shanghai’s early- to mid-20th century high modernist epoch, for instance, the city’s consolidating haipai culture was distinguished by the absence of a single core. It emerged, instead, as the outcome of loosely inter-articulated plural or parallel developments, including (but by no means limited to) the urban mores of a rising indigenous ‘bourgeoisie’, whose aspirational tributaries reached deep into the warrens of the lilongs; the hard accelerationism of the International Settlement business culture, dominated by near-limitless Shanghailander confidence in the city’s global significance and potential; and the left-slanted literary and political trends fostered in the coffee shop salons of the French Concession, where avant garde ideas cross-pollinated promiscuously. This heterogeneous, fertile chaos found its architectural echoes in the juxtaposition of building styles, quantitatively dominated by Shanghai’s native experiment in urban construction (the lilong block), but overawed in patches by Western neo-classical colonial edifices; Manhattanite cosmopolitan high-rises and Art Deco structures; bold adventures in Chinese modern designs (most prominently in Jiangwan); examples of proto-brutalist industrial and residential functionalism; and villas in a variety of international, hybrid, and advanced styles.

Since re-opening, in the early 1990s, Shanghai has added new ingredients to the mix, including its first major examples of construction indebted to the austere tenets of the International Style (although large rectilinear structures are still, thankfully, a rarity); neo-traditional and ethno-exotic kitsch (especially in the Old City and the peripheral ‘nine-towns’ respectively); neomodernist re-animations of derelicted structures; and ‘Googie’ evocations of imagined futures.

Whilst the city’s modernization has attained unprecedented velocity, however, its native modernism remains comparatively retarded. As an urban center in China, Shanghai’s distinctiveness is far less marked than it was in the early 20th century. Once occupying an overwhelmingly commanding cultural position as the engine-room and icon of Chinese modernity, today it participates in a far more generalized process of Chinese development. Its internationalism, commercial prowess, and technology absorption are no longer obviously peerless within China, its domination of the publishing and movie industries has passed, its retail giants and innovative advertising have surrendered their uniqueness, and its intellectual bohemia is matched, or surpassed, in a number of other urban centers. Whilst haipai tenuously persists, its dynamism has diffused and its confidence attenuated.

If Shanghai has a specific and coherent urban cultural identity today, emerging out of its sprawling multiplicity, and counterbalancing the vastly strengthened sense of national identity consolidated since the foundation of the PRC, it cannot – like haipai before it – be derived from the continuity of the city’s developmental trend, or from an urban exceptionalism, feeding on the contrast with a conservative, stagnant, or regressive national hinterland. A thoroughly renovated Shanghainese culture, or xin haipai, is inextricably entangled with the city’s historical discontinuity, or interruption, and with a broader Chinese national (or even civilizational) modernization that was anticipated by the ‘Old Shanghai’ and revives today as a futuristic memory.

The future that had seemed inevitable to the globalizing, technophilic, piratical capitalist Shanghai of the 1920s-‘30s went missing, as the momentum accumulated over a century of accelerating modernization was untracked by aerial destruction, invasion, revolution, and agrarian-oriented national integration. As the city trod water during the command economy era, the virtual future inherent in its ‘Golden Age’ continued to haunt it, surviving spectrally as an obscure intuition of urban destiny. Upon re-opening, in the early 1990s, this alternative fate flooded back. Under these circumstances, futurism is immediately retro-futurism, since urban innovation is what was happening before, and invention is bound to a process of re-discovery. ‘Renaissance’ always means something of this kind (and cannot, of course, be reduced to restoration).

This retro-futurist tendency, intrinsic to Shanghai’s revival of urban self-consciousness in the new millennium, creates a standing time-loop between two epochs of highly-accelerated modernistic advance. As it steadily adjusts itself into phase, heritage and development densely cross-reference each other, releasing streams of chatter in anachronistic, cybergothic codes, such as the deeply encrypted ‘language’ of Art Deco. Prophetic traditions inter-mesh with commemorative innovations, automatically hunting the point of fusion in which they become interchangeable, closing the circuit of time. The past was something other than it once seemed, as the present demonstrates, and the present is something other than it might seem, as the past attests.

The most accessible examples of Shanghai’s signature time-looping are spatially concentrated. At the limit, neo-modern renovation projects connect the city’s great waves of modernization within a single structure, making a retro-futural theme intrinsic to a current development, such as those at M50, Redtown, Bridge8, 1933, or the Hotel Waterhouse (among innumerable cases). Slightly wider and more thematically elaborate loops link new buildings to overt exhibitions of modernist history. Among the most conspicuous of these are the pairing of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with the Shanghai History Museum (in its pedestal), and the Old Shanghai street-life diorama to be found beneath the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

Such examples can be misleading, however, if they distract from the fact that the retro-futurist principle of the new Shanghai culture is ambient. From ordinary residential restoration projects, to commercial signage, restaurant themes, hotel décor and home furnishings, the insistent message is re-emergence, an advance through the past. The latest and most stylish thing is typically that which re-attaches itself to the city’s modern heritage with maximum intensity. Reaching out beyond the city does nothing to break the pattern, because that’s precisely what the ‘Old Shanghai’ used to do. Cosmopolitan change is its native tradition.

Retro-futural couplings can be spatially dispersed. One especially prominent time loop lashes together two of the city’s most celebrated high-rises – the Park Hotel and the Jin Mao Tower – binding the Puxi of Old Shanghai with the Pudong New Area. Each was the tallest Shanghai building of its age (judged by highest occupied floor), the Park Hotel for five decades, the Jin Mao Tower for just nine years. This discrepancy masks a deeper time-symmetry in the completion dates of the two buildings: the Park Hotel seven years prior to the closing of the city (with the Japanese occupation of the International Settlement in 1941), the Jin Mao Tower seven years after the city’s formal re-opening (as the culmination of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, in 1992).

It takes only a glance (or two) to recognize these buildings as non-identical time twins, or mutant clones, communicating with each other darkly across the rift, in Art Decode. Reciprocally attracted by their structural and tonal resonances, the two buildings extract each other from their respective period identities and rush together into an alternative, occulted time, obscurely defined through contact with an absolute future, now partially recalled.

Both of these beautifully sinister buildings are at home in the Yin World, comfortable with secrets, and with night. Among the first of these secrets, shared in their stylistic communion, is darkness itself. Nothing could be further removed from the spirit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City than the brooding opulence of these towers, glittering on the edge of an unfathomable nocturnal gulf, as if intoxicated by the abyss. They remind us that ‘Art Deco’ is a (retrospective) label patched crudely over mystery, that it never had a manifesto, or a master plan, and that – due to its inarticulate self-organization – it has eluded historical comprehension.

This is the sense, at least in part, of Art Deco’s pact with night and darkness. Beneath and beyond all ideologies and centralized schemes, the spontaneous culture of high-modernism that climaxed in the interbellum period remains deeply encrypted. As the new Shanghai excavates the old, it is an enigma that becomes ever more pressing.
(Coming next in the Time Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai: The Dieselpunk Plateau)

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A Time-Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai (Part 1)

When did it all change?

There is a strange, time-fractured moment in the biopic Deng Xiaoping (2002, directed by Yinnan Ding). For most of its length, the film is sober, cautious, and respectful, exemplifying a didactic realism. It strictly conforms to the approved story of Deng’s leadership and its meaning (exactly as it is found today in the nation’s school textbooks). Beginning with Deng’s ascent to power in the ruined China of the late-1970s, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, it follows the path of his decision-making, through the restoration (de-collectivization) of the rural economy, the re-habilitation of persecuted experts and intellectuals, and the beginning of the open-door policy, in Shenzhen, to the extension of market-oriented reform throughout the country, as symbolized by the opening of Shanghai.

Whilst clearly something of a carefully edited and precision- manufactured legend, this basic narrative of national regeneration, emancipation and growth – salvaged from the ashes of dead-end fanaticism and civilizational regression – is honest enough to inform, and even to inspire. It leaves no doubt that the ‘meaning’ of Deng Xiaoping is openness and renaissance (at least ’70/30′), a judgment that is both popularly endorsed in China, and historically attested universally.

As the movie approaches its conclusion, however, pedestrian realism is suddenly supplanted by something entirely different, whether due to the ‘deeper’ realism of budgetary constraint, or the ‘higher’ realism of artistic serendipity. Deng Xiaoping, from the vantage point of a ‘yet’ (in 1992) inexistent bridge, gestures towards Pudong and announces the green-light for its developmental liberation. Yet, in the background of the scene, the deliriously developed Lujiazui of 2002 already soars, as if the skyline had been condensed from a pre-emptive vision, drawing its substance from the historical implication of his words. The future couldn’t wait.

Perhaps the speed of Shanghai’s Reform-era urban development has led everything to get ahead of itself, disordering the structure of time. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower – first architectural statement of the new Shanghai and still the most iconic – certainly suggests so. Retro-deposited into the Pudong of 1992 by the Deng Xiaoping movie, historically completed in 1994, symbolically heralding the promised Shanghai of the third millennium, architecturally side-stepping into a science fiction fantasy of the 1950s, alluding to poetic imagery from the Tang Dynasty, and containing a museum devoted to the city’s modern history in its pedestal, when, exactly, does this structure belong? It’s hard to know where to begin.

The Emporis profile of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower describes its architectural style as simply ‘modernism’, which is unobjectionable, but extraordinarily under-determining. If the modern defines itself through the present, conceived as a break from the past and a projection into the future, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower unquestionably installs itself in modernity, but only by way of an elaborate path. It reverts to the present from a discarded future, whilst excavating an unused future from the past.

Buildings that arrive in the present in this way are, strictly speaking, ‘fabulous’, and for this reason, they are considered disreputable by the dominant traditions of international architecture. The fables they feed upon belong to the popular culture of science fiction, which makes them over-expressive, vulgarly communicative, and rapidly dated. Insofar as their style is recognized generically, it is tagged by ugly and dismissive labels such as Googie, Populuxe, and Doo-Wop. By reaching out too eagerly for the future, it is tacitly suggested, one quickly comes to look ridiculous (although, today, neomodernists such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas are recuperating certain elements of this style more sympathetically).

Shanghai’s Radisson Hotel, set back from the north of People’s Square, is a quintessentially ‘Googie’ structure. It’s space-ship top participates exuberantly in a Shanghai tradition of weird roof-elaborations, and echoes a formally-comparable — though far smaller — classical modern structure to the east, down Nanjing Lu. The idea of high-rise rooftops as landing sites for flying vehicles, within a dynamic system of three-dimensional traffic, is a staple of ultramodernist speculation, whilst an alien arrival from a distant future is a transparent Shanghai fantasy.

In his path-breaking short story The Gernsback Continuum, William Gibson dubs this style ‘Raygun Gothic’, explicitly marking its time-complexity. He thus coaxes it into the wider cultural genre of retro-futurism, which applies to everything that evokes an out-dated future, and thereby transforms modernity into a counter-factual commentary on the present. This genre finds an especially rich hunting ground in Shanghai.

(This is the first post in a connected series on Shanghai’s retro-future, departing from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. An outline examination of retro-futurism itself comes next …)

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Edward Glaeser on Triumph of the City

that’s Shanghai interviews the world’s most topical urbanist

Shanghai isn’t one of the featured cities in your book. It’s massive and massively high-rise. Did you ever consider writing about it?

Shanghai is one of the world’s great cities, but I don’t know the city well enough to write about it. I hope to get to know the city better and feature Shanghai’s successes in some later work.

China is a place where cities have grown incredibly quickly and there’s been a massive exodus from the countryside to urban life. What do you think China’s cities should focus on as they grow?

Cities, today, succeed as forges of human capital and engines of innovation. China clearly recognizes this and is investing massively in education. That should continue. Just as importantly, China needs to focus on fostering more entrepreneurship by eliminating any remaining barriers to small start-ups.

You talk about how cities should be seen as “masses of connected humanity,” rather than agglomerations of buildings. Do you think this is well understood at this point, or are too many places still attempting to “build their way back to success”?

Unfortunately, too often political leaders try to garner headlines with a splashy new structure. The key is to focus on those infrastructure investments that will really benefit the people in the city.

Are you optimistic about city planners around the world finding the balance between Paris and Mumbai, i.e. between Haussman-style central planning that risks sterility and a chaotic free-for-all?

That’s the 10 trillion dollar question. I wish I could be more optimistic, but city planning is hard and many governments are either unable to manage chaos or too inclined to central control. This requires not just knowledge but political strength and that’s a rare combination.

Which cities around the world are getting it right? Which aren’t?

I believe that Singapore is the best-managed city in the world – good schools, a superb transportation policy, and a sensible approach to regulation. But Hong Kong is also quite impressive, and I personally prefer it’s somewhat more chaotic style.

The west has many urban powerhouses, but few of them are really models of perfect management. For example, I am a big fan of Mayor Menino in Boston, but despite more than 15 years of hard work, Boston’s schools are still struggling.

Obviously, Barcelona, Paris, and Milan are all lovely, wonderful cities, but they are not necessarily models of good management.

You’re cautiously optimistic in your book, but what worries you most about the future of the city?

The biggest challenges are in the mega-cities of the developing world, especially Africa. We are a very long way from providing even the core essentially like clean water in many places.

In the US, we have huge problems of fiscal mismanagement that need to be addressed. Moreover, there is always the possibility of really major physical disasters – either natural or man-made.

Is there any way around the fact that the most vibrant cities also become the most expensive – or, as you say in the book, is this simply the price of good urban health?

The laws of supply and demand cannot be repealed. If a city is attractive and productive, demand for its real estate will be high. The best antidote for that is abundant supply, but it is a mistake to subsidize urban housing. The best path towards greater affordability comes from private housing construction that is regulated only as much as is absolutely necessary. Still, building up can be expensive and that will always make prices in successful cities more expensive.

By functioning as engines of economic opportunity and as refuges, cities tend to concentrate economic disparity. Do you think a case might be made that such inequalities could be interpreted as a symptom of urban success? Might you be subtly suggesting this in your own work?

I am suggesting just that. National inequality can be a real problem, but local inequality can be a sign of health. Cities don’t typically make people poor they attract poor people. The inequality of a city reflects the fact that it attracts rich and poor alike, and that’s something to admire.

How can cities strive to control inequality and avoid ghettos of rich and poor? Should they even be trying to?

Education is the best weapon against inequality. Cities should be striving to make sure that the children of every parent have a chance of being successful.

Some degree of stratification by income is inevitable, but segregation can be quite costly because such separations mean that isolated people lose the urban advantages of connection. There aren’t great tools for reducing segregation, but governments should make sure that their policies do not exacerbate segregation.

Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute has been studying cities as ‘complex systems’ and identified a number of reliable and quantifiable patterns on this basis. Do you find this type of analysis informative or relevant to your work?

Cities are indeed complex systems.

Even in the modern world, with nationalism ascendant, city states seem to be unusually successful. Do cities provide a challenge to dominant conceptions of large-scale political organization? How do you rate the prospects of devolutionary politics, with a municipal emphasis?

I don’t think that nation-states will be likely to surrender all that much power, and cities can remain economically dominant but politically weak. The path in the US has continued to be towards more, not less, national power and I think that is probably a mistake. In many cases – such as Mumbai – local choices would surely be better than the choices imposed on cities by above.

Other than your own work, who do you consider to be the most important writers on cities today?

I deeply admire the Columbia historian Kenneth Jackson.

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Peak People

Could we be facing the ultimate resource crunch?

Over at Zero Hedge, Sean Corrigan unleashes a fizzing polemic against the (M. King Hubbert) ‘Peak Oil’ school of resource doomsters (enjoy the article if you’re laissez-faire inclined, or the comments if you’re not).

Of particular relevance to density advocates is Corrigan’s “exercise in contextualization” (a kind of de-stressed Stand on Zanzibar) designed to provide an image of the planet’s ‘demographic burden’:

For example, just as an exercise in contextualisation, consider the following:-

The population of Hong Kong: 7 million. Its surface area: 1,100 km2

The population of the World: nigh on 7 billion, i.e., HK x 1000

1000 x area of HK = 110,000 km2 = the area of Cuba or Iceland

Approximate area of the Earth’s landmass = 150 million km2

Approximate total surface area = 520 million km2

So, were we to build one, vast city of the same population density as Hong Kong to cover the entirety of [Cuba], this would accommodate all of humanity, and take up just 0.07% of the planet’s land area and 0.02% of the Earth’s surface.

Anybody eagerly anticipating hypercities, arcologies, and other prospective experiments in large-scale social packing is likely to find this calculation rather disconcerting, if only because – taken as a whole — Hong Kong actually isn’t that dense. For sure, the downtown ‘synapse’ connecting the HK Island with Kowloon is impressively intense, but most of the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) is green, rugged, and basically deserted. It’s (mean) average density of 6,364 / km2 doesn’t get anywhere close to that of the top 100 cities (Manila’s 43,000 / km2 is almost seven times greater). Corrigan isn’t envisaging a megalopolis, but a Cuba-scale suburb.

Whether densitarians are more or less likely than average to worry about Peak Oil or related issues might be an interesting question (the New Urbanists tend to be quite greenish). If they really want to see cities scale the heights of social possibility, however, they need to start worrying about population shortage. With the human population projected to level-off at around 10 billion, there might never be enough people to make cities into the ultra-dense monsters that futuristic imagination has long hungered for.

Bryan Caplan is sounding the alarm. At least we have teeming Malthusian robot hordes to look forward to.

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Scaly Creatures

Cities are accelerators and there are solid numbers to demonstrate it

Among the most memorable features of Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo was the quintet of ‘Theme Pavilions’ designed to facilitate exploration of the city in general (in keeping with the urban-oriented theme of the event: ‘Better City, Better Life’). Whilst many international participants succumbed to facile populism in their national pavilions, these Theme Pavilions maintained an impressively high-minded tone.

Most remarkable of all for philosophical penetration was the Urban Being Pavilion, with its exhibition devoted to the question: what kind of thing is a city? Infrastructural networks received especially focused scrutiny. Pipes, cables, conduits, and transport arteries compose intuitively identifiable systems – higher-level wholes – that strongly indicate the existence of an individualized, complex being. The conclusion was starkly inescapable: a city is more than just an aggregated mass. It is a singular, coherent entity, deserving of its proper – even personal – name, and not unreasonably conceived as a composite ‘life-form’ (if not exactly an ‘organism’).

Such intuitions, however plausible, do not suffice in themselves to establish the city as a rigorously-defined scientific object. “[D]espite much historical evidence that cities are the principle engines of innovation and economic growth, a quantitative, predictive theory for understanding their dynamics and organization and estimating their future trajectory and stability remains elusive,” remark Luís M. A. Bettencourt, José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West, in their prelude to a 2007 paper that has done more than any other to remedy the deficit: ‘Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities‘.

In this paper, the authors identify mathematical patterns that are at once distinctive to the urban phenomenon and generally applicable to it. They thus isolate the object of an emerging urban science, and outline its initial features, claiming that: “the social organization and dynamics relating urbanization to economic development and knowledge creation, among other social activities, are very general and appear as nontrivial quantitative regularities common to all cities, across urban systems.”

Noting that cities have often been analogized to biological systems, the paper extracts the principle supporting the comparison. “Remarkably, almost all physiological characteristics of biological organisms scale with body mass … as a power law whose exponent is typically a multiple of 1/4 (which generalizes to 1/(d +1) in d-dimensions).” These relatively stable scaling relations allow biological features, such as metabolic rates, life spans, and maturation periods, to be anticipated with a high-level of confidence given body mass alone. Furthermore, they conform to an elegant series of theoretical expectations that draw upon nothing beyond the abstract organizational constraints of n-dimensional space:

“Highly complex, self-sustaining structures, whether cells, organisms, or cities, require close integration of enormous numbers of constituent units that need efficient servicing. To accomplish this integration, life at all scales is sustained by optimized, space-filling, hierarchical branching networks, which grow with the size of the organism as uniquely specified approximately self-similar structures. Because these networks, e.g., the vascular systems of animals and plants, determine the rates at which energy is delivered to functional terminal units (cells), they set the pace of physiological processes as scaling functions of the size of the organism. Thus, the self-similar nature of resource distribution networks, common to all organisms, provides the basis for a quantitative, predictive theory of biological structure and dynamics, despite much external variation in appearance and form.”

If cities are in certain respects meta- or super-organisms, however, they are also the inverse. Metabolically, cities are anti-organisms. As biological systems scale up, they slow down, at a mathematically predictable rate. Cities, in contrast, accelerate as they grow. Something approximating to the fundamental law of urban reality is thus exposed: larger is faster.

The paper quantifies its findings, based on a substantial base of city data (with US cities over-represented), by specifying a ‘scaling exponent’ (or ‘ß‘, beta) that defines the regular correlation between urban scale and the factor under consideration.

A beta of one corresponds to linear correlation (of a variable to city size). For instance, housing supply, which remains constantly proportional to population across all urban scales, is found – unsurprisingly – to have ß = 1.00.

A beta of less than one indicates consistent economy to scale. Such economies are found systematically among urban resource networks, exemplified by gasoline stations (ß = 0.77), gasoline sales (ß = 0.79), length of electrical cables (ß = 0.87), and road surface (ß = 0.83). The sub-linear correlation of resource costs to urban scale makes city life increasingly efficient as metropolitan intensity soars.

A beta of greater than one indicates increasing returns to scale. Factors exhibiting this pattern include inventiveness (e.g. ‘new patents’ß = 1.27, ‘inventors’ ß = 1.25), wealth creation (e.g. ‘GDP’ ß = 1.15, wages ß = 1.12), but also disease (‘new AIDS cases’ ß = 1.23), and serious crimes (ß = 1.16). Urban growth is accompanied by a super-linear rise in opportunity for social interaction, whether productive, infectious, or malicious. More is not only better, it’s much better (and, in some respects, worse).

“Our analysis suggests uniquely human social dynamics that transcend biology and redefine metaphors of urban ‘metabolism’. Open-ended wealth and knowledge creation require the pace of life to increase with organization size and for individuals and institutions to adapt at a continually accelerating rate to avoid stagnation or potential crises. These conclusions very likely generalize to other social organizations, such as corporations and businesses, potentially explaining why continuous growth necessitates an accelerating treadmill of dynamical cycles of innovation.”

Bigger city, faster life.

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Implosion

We could be on the brink of a catastrophic implosion – but that’s OK

Science fiction has tended to extroversion. In America especially, where it found a natural home among an unusually future-oriented people, the iconic SF object was indisputably the space ship, departing the confines of Earth for untrammeled frontiers. The future was measured by the weakening of the terrestrial gravity well.

Cyberpunk, arriving in the mid-1980s, delivered a cultural shock. William Gibson’s Neuromancer still included some (Earth-orbital) space activity – and even a communication from Alpha Centauri — but its voyages now curved into the inner space of computer systems, projected through the starless tracts of Cyberspace. Interstellar communication bypassed biological species, and took place between planetary artificial intelligences. The United States of America seemed to have disappeared.

Space and time had collapsed, into the ‘cyberspace matrix’ and the near-future. Even the abstract distances of social utopianism had been incinerated in the processing cores of micro-electronics. Judged by the criteria of mainstream science fiction, everything cyberpunk touched upon was gratingly close, and still closing in. The future had become imminent, and skin-tight.

Gibson’s cities had not kept up with his wider – or narrower – vision. The urban spaces of his East Coast North America were still described as ‘The Sprawl’, as if stranded in a rapidly-obsolescing state of extension. The crushing forces of technological compression had leapt beyond social geography, sucking all historical animation from the decaying husks of ‘meat space’. Buildings were relics, bypassed by the leading edge of change.

(Gibson’s Asian city-references are, however, far more intense, inspired by such innovations in urban compression as the Kowloon Walled City, and Japanese ‘coffin hotels’. In addition, Urbanists disappointed by first-wave cyberpunk have every reason to continue on into Spook Country, where the influence of GPS-technology on the re-animation of urban space nourishes highly fertile speculations.)

Star cruisers and alien civilizations belong to the same science fiction constellation, brought together by the assumption of expansionism. Just as, in the realm of fiction, this ‘space opera’ future collapsed into cyberpunk, in (more or less) mainstream science – represented by SETI programs – it perished in the desert of the Fermi Paradox. (OK, it’s true, Urban Future has a bizarrely nerdish obsession with this topic.)

John M. Smart’s solution to the Fermi Paradox is integral to his broader ‘Speculations on Cosmic Culture’ and emerges naturally from compressive development. Advanced intelligences do not expand into space, colonizing vast galactic tracts or dispersing self-replicating robot probes in a program of exploration. Instead, they implode, in a process of ‘transcension’ — resourcing themselves primarily through the hyper-exponential efficiency gains of extreme miniaturization (through micro- and nano- to femto-scale engineering, of subatomic functional components). Such cultures or civilizations, nucleated upon self-augmenting technological intelligence, emigrate from the extensive universe in the direction of abysmal intensity, crushing themselves to near-black-hole densities at the edge of physical possibility. Through transcension, they withdraw from extensive communication (whilst, perhaps, leaving ‘radio fossils’ behind, before these blink-out into the silence of cosmic escape).

If Smart’s speculations capture the basic outlines of a density-attracted developmental system, then cities should be expected to follow a comparable path, characterized by an escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion. Approaching singularity on an accelerating trajectory, each city becomes increasingly inwardly directed, as it falls prey to the irresistible attraction of its own hyperbolic intensification, whilst the outside world fades to irrelevant static. Things disappear into cities, on a path of departure from the world. Their destination cannot be described within the dimensions of the known – and, indeed, tediously over-familiar – universe. Only in the deep exploratory interior is innovation still occurring, but there it takes place at an infernal, time-melting rate.

What might Smart-type urban development suggest?

(a) Devo Predictability. If urban development is neither randomly generated by internal processes, nor arbitrarily determined by external decisions, but rather guided predominantly by a developmental attractor (defined primarily by intensification), it follows that the future of cities is at least partially autonomous in regards to the national-political, global-economic, and cultural-architectural influences that are often invoked as fundamentally explanatory. Urbanism can be facilitated or frustrated, but its principal ‘goals’ and practical development paths are, in each individual case, internally and automatically generated. When a city ‘works’ it is not because it conforms to an external, debatable ideal, but rather because it has found a route to cumulative intensification that strongly projects its ‘own’, singular and intrinsic, urban character. What a city wants is to become itself, but more — taking itself further and faster. That alone is urban flourishing, and understanding it is the key that unlocks the shape of any city’s future.

(b) Metropolitanism. Methodological nationalism has been systematically over-emphasized in the social sciences (and not only at the expense of methodological individualism). A variety of influential urban thinkers, from Jane Jacobs to Peter Hall, have sought to correct this bias by focusing upon the significance, and partial autonomy, of urban economies, urban cultures, and municipal politics to aggregate prosperity, civilization, and golden ages. They have been right to do so. City growth is the basic socio-historical phenomenon.

(c) Cultural Introversion. John Smart argues that an intelligence undergoing advanced relativistic development finds the external landscape increasingly uninformative and non-absorbing. The search for cognitive stimulation draws it inwards. As urban cultures evolve, through accelerating social complexity, they can be expected to manifest exactly this pattern. Their internal processes, of runaway intelligence implosion, become ever more gripping, engaging, surprising, productive, and educational, whilst the wider cultural landscape subsides into predictable tedium, of merely ethnographic and historical relevance. Cultural singularity becomes increasingly urban-futural (rather than ethno-historical), to the predictable disgruntlement of traditional nation states. Like Gibson’s Terrestrial Cyberspace, encountering another of its kind in orbit around Alpha Centauri, cosmopolitan connectivity is made through inner voyage, rather than expansionary outreach.

(d) Scale Resonance. At the most abstract level, the relation between urbanism and microelectronics is scalar (fractal). The coming computers are closer to miniature cities than to artificial brains, dominated by traffic problems (congestion), migration / communications, zoning issues (mixed use), the engineering potential of new materials, questions of dimensionality (3D solutions to density constraints), entropy or heat / waste dissipation (recycling / reversible computation), and disease control (new viruses). Because cities, like computers, exhibit (accelerating phylogenetic) development within observable historical time, they provide a realistic model of improvement for compact information-processing machinery, sedimented as a series of practical solutions to the problem of relentless intensification. Brain-emulation might be considered an important computational goal, but it is near-useless as a developmental model. Intelligent microelectronic technologies contribute to the open-ended process of urban problem-solving, but they also recapitulate it at a new level.

(e) Urban Matrix. Does urban development exhibit the real embryogenesis of artificial intelligence? Rather than the global Internet, military Skynet, or lab-based AI program, is it the path of the city, based on accelerating intensification (STEM compression), that best provides the conditions for emergent super-human computation? Perhaps the main reason for thinking so is that the problem of the city – density management and accentuation – already commits it to computational engineering, in advance of any deliberately guided research. The city, by its very nature, compresses, or intensifies, towards computronium. When the first AI speaks, it might be in the name of the city that it identifies as its body, although even that would be little more than a ‘radio fossil’ — a signal announcing the brink of silence — as the path of implosion deepens, and disappears into the alien interior.

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Event Horizon

People gravitate to cities, but what are cities gravitating into? Some strange possibilities suggest themselves.

Cities are defined by social density. This simple but hugely consequential insight provides the central thesis of Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (2011), where it is framed as both an analytical tool and a political project.

“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection,” Glaeser remarks.

High-density urban life approaches a tautology, and it is one that Glaeser not only observes, but also celebrates. Closely-packed people are more productive. As Alfred Marshall noted in 1920, ‘agglomeration economies’ feed a self-reinforcing process of social compression that systematically out-competes diffuse populations in all fields of industrial activity. In addition, urbanites are also happier, longer-living, and their ecological footprint is smaller, Glaeser insists, drawing upon a variety of social scientific evidence to make his case. Whether social problems are articulated in economic, hedonic, or environmental terms, (dense) urbanism offers the most practical solution.

The conclusion Glaeser draws, logically enough, is that densification should be encouraged, rather than inhibited. He interprets sprawl as a reflection of perverse incentives, whilst systematically contesting the policy choices that restrain the trend to continuous urban compression. His most determined line of argumentation is directed in favor of high-rise development, and against the planning restrictions that keep cities stunted. A city that is prevented from soaring will be over-expensive and under-excited, inflexible, inefficient, dirty, backward-looking, and peripherally sprawl- or slum-cluttered. Onwards and upwards is the way.

Urban planning has its own measure for density: the FAR (or Floor-to-Area Ratio), typically determined as a limit set upon permitted concentration. An FAR of 2, for instance, allows a developer to build a two-story building over an entire area, a four-story building on half the area, or an eight-story building on a quarter of the area. An FAR sets an average ceiling on urban development. It is essentially a bureaucratic device for deliberately stunting vertical growth.

As Glaeser shows, Mumbai’s urban development problems have been all-but-inevitable given the quite ludicrous FAR of 1.33 that was set for India’s commercial capital in 1964. Sprawling slum development has been the entirely predictable outcome.

Whilst sparring with Jane Jacobs over the impact of high-rise construction on urban life, Glaeser is ultimately in agreement on the importance of organic development, based on spontaneous patterns of growth. Both attribute the most ruinous urban problems to policy errors, most obviously the attempt to channel – and in fact deform – the urban process through arrogant bureaucratic fiat. When cities fail to do what comes naturally, they fail, and what comes naturally, Glaeser argues, is densification.

It would be elegant to refer to this deep trend towards social compression, the emergence, growth, and intensification of urban settlement, as urbanization, but we can’t do that. Even when awkwardly named, however, it exposes a profound social and historical reality, with striking implications, amounting almost to a specifically social law of gravitation. As with physical gravity, an understanding of the forces of social attraction support predictions, or at least the broad outlines of futuristic anticipation, since these forces of agglomeration and intensification manifestly shape the future.

John M. Smart makes only passing references to cities, but his Developmental Singularity (DS) hypothesis is especially relevant to urban theory because it focuses upon the topic of density. He argues that acceleration, or time-compression, is only one aspect of a general evolutionary (more precisely, evolutionary-developmental, or ‘evo devo’) trend that envelops space, time, energy, and mass. This ‘STEM-compression’ is identified with ascending intelligence (and negative entropy). It reflects a deep cosmic-historical drive to the augmentation of computational capacity that marries “evolutionary processes that are stochastic, creative, and divergent [with] developmental processes that produce statistically predictable, robust, conservative, and convergent structures and trajectories.”

Smart notes that “the leading edge of structural complexity in our universe has apparently transitioned from universally distributed early matter, to galaxies, to replicating stars within galaxies, to solar systems in galactic habitable zones, to life on special planets in those zones, to higher life within the surface biomass, to cities, and soon, to intelligent technology, which will be a vastly more local subset of Earth’s city space.”

Audaciously, Smart projects this trend to its limit: “Current research (Aaronson 2006, 2008) now suggests that building future computers based on quantum theory, one of the two great theories of 20th century physics, will not yield exponentially, but only quadratically growing computational capacity over today’s classical computing. In the search for truly disruptive future computational capacity emergence, we can therefore look to the second great physical theory of the last century, relativity. If the DS hypothesis is correct, what we can call relativistic computing (a black-hole-approximating computing substrate) will be the final common attractor for all successfully developing universal civilizations.”

Conceive the histories of cities, therefore, as the initial segments of trajectories that curve asymptotically to infinite density, at the ultimate event horizon of the physical universe. The beginning is recorded fact and the end is quite literally ‘gone’, but what lies in between, i.e. next?

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