starting from zero!

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs project is “reimagining cities to improve quality of life.” But what might “quality of life” actually mean? As Emily Badger notes in a recent essay about the tech visionaries of the urban, 

It’s … unclear what you’d optimize an entire city for. Technologists describe noble aspirations like “human flourishing” or “quality of life.” But noble goals come into conflict within cities. You could optimize for affordable housing, but then you may create a more crowded city than many residents want. You could design a city so that every home receives sunlight (an idea the Chinese tried). But that might mean the city isn’t dense enough to support diverse restaurants and mass transit. 

It’s also not clear from her essay whether the Sidewalk Labs people are genuinely thinking about these issues. Badger quotes the CEO, Dan Doctoroff: 

“The smart city movement as a whole has been disappointing in part because it is hard to get stuff done in a traditional urban environment,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “On the other hand, if you’re completely disrespectful of the urbanist tradition, I don’t think it’s particularly replicable. And it’s probably pretty naïve.”

What counts as being “disrespectful of the urbanist tradition”? (Also, is there only one urbanist tradition?) What is the “it” that isn’t particularly replicable? I find myself wishing that Badger had pressed for clarification here. Because it sounds like this is going to be a typical Google strategy: find a sandbox — in this case in Toronto, “800 acres of underused waterfront that could be reimagined as a neighborhood, if not a full metropolis, with driverless cars, prefabricated construction and underground channels for robot deliveries and trash collection” — and set the ship’s course straight for Utopia. 
In other words: Silicon Valley’s reincarnation of the Bauhaus. From Tom Wolfe’s not-always-fair-but-always-funny From Bauhaus to Our House

The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince [Walter Gropius] talked about “starting from zero.” One heard the phrase all the time: “starting from zero.” Gropius gave his backing to any experiment they cared to make, so long as it was in the name of a clean and pure future. Even new religions such as Mazdaznan. Even health-food regimens. During one stretch at Weimar the Bauhaus diet consisted entirely of a mush of fresh vegetables. It was so bland and fibrous they had to keep adding garlic in order to create any taste at all. Gropius’ wife at the time was Alma Mahler, formerly Mrs. Gustav Mahler, the first and foremost of that marvelous twentieth-century species, the Art Widow. The historians tell us, she remarked years later, that the hallmarks of the Bauhaus style were glass corners, flat roofs, honest materials, and expressed structure. But she, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel — she had since added the poet Franz Werfel to the skein — could assure you that the most unforgettable characteristic of the Bauhaus style was “garlic on the breath.” Nevertheless! — how pure, how clean, how glorious it was to be … starting from zero!
Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Henry van de Velde — all were teachers at the Bauhaus at one time or another, along with painters like Klee and Josef Albers. Albers taught the famous Bauhaus Vorkurs, or introductory course. Albers would walk into the room and deposit a pile of newspapers on the table and tell the students he would return in one hour. They were to turn the pieces of newspaper into works of art in the interim. When he returned, he would find Gothic castles made of newspaper, yachts made of newspaper, airplanes, busts, birds, train terminals, amazing things. But there would always be some student, a photographer or a glassblower, who would simply have taken a piece of newspaper and folded it once and propped it up like a tent and let it go at that. Albers would pick up the cathedral and the airplane and say: “These were meant to be made of stone or metal — not newspaper.” Then he would pick up the photographer’s absentminded tent and say: “But this! — this makes use of the soul of paper. Paper can fold without breaking. Paper has tensile strength, and a vast area can be supported by these two fine edges. This! — is a work of art in paper.” And every cortex in the room would spin out. So simple! So beautiful … It was as if light had been let into one’s dim brain for the first time. My God! — starting from zero!

But those guys failed because they didn’t know what to do when they got to zero. We’re cool, though, because we have A/B testing now

"Officer, this man stole my authenticity!"

Freddie deBoer is exactly right about how annoying this Hillary Kelly post is. As Freddie points out, it assumes the absoluteness of a distinction that just doesn’t apply absolutely in many places — and, I might add, even when it does apply it doesn’t always apply in the same way. In America we tend to think of the suburbs as refuges for the economically comfortable, while the poor are confined to inner cities; but the relationship between Paris and its banlieues is almost the opposite.  

But what interests me about Kelly’s post is how intensely moralistic her language is. No doubt she would say that she’s exaggerating for effect, but I don’t think that she’d deny that she’s perfectly serious about her point. It’s a classic example of pink-police-state-style boundary policing — but in this case with actual (if highly artificial) boundaries. People from, say, Media who tell folks they’re from Philadelphia are not just simplifying for conversational ease, they are liars. They are fabulists.  

As a great man once said, Why so serious? It can only be because for Kelly being from the city is a mark of authenticity — and being from the burbs is necessarily and tragically inauthentic. Therefore to claim to be from the city when you’re not is an attempt to surreptitiously and dishonestly appropriate urbanite charisma. Being urban is gritty, it’s real; being from the suburbs is vacuous, bland — or so we’re told, even though we know that at best that’s a vague generalization. Kelly elevates a statistical probability into an ontological principle. Which is just silly.  

I was born and raised in the city of Birmingham, Alabama; my wife was raised mainly in one of the over-the-mountain white suburbs. Both of us have always told strangers we’re from Birmingham, and the idea that my wife could be called a liar or a fabulist for saying that strikes me as utterly bizarre. It provides the necessary information without burdening the people we meet with pedantic detail. If we get to know them better we can explore the differences in our upbringing.  

Of all the things to get outraged about!