The collapse of complex societies, the benefits of foreclosure, and the end of technological advancement as we know it.
Modern Western cities were built under the presumptions—and with the riches—of the industrial age, and their histories are intertwined with that of the machine and its attendant forms, from economics to aesthetics to urban plans. Architectural historian Kazys Varnelis has insisted on the importance of the network not only as a technological tool that connects the world but as a critical framework for understanding the dramatic shifts in culture and society that have taken place in the past few decades, and as a lens through which to examine our increasingly precarious urban situation. Earlier this year, as millions of Americans faced foreclosure and construction projects across the country were abandoned, Varnelis discussed the meaning of collapse and what might follow with the editors of Triple Canopy.
Triple Canopy: You’ve argued that it’s no longer possible to rebuild existing infrastructures or, for that matter, to build better ones. And you’ve proposed “social engineering” and “human hacking” as keys to changing how we think of and how we use infrastructure. On the other hand, a quarter of the counties in Michigan are converting paved roads to gravel to save money. Do you still believe in the prospect of technology enabling us to salvage our increasingly chaotic, dilapidated built environment?
Kazys Varnelis: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. On the one hand, I still believe that a government initiative to bring infrastructure into the twenty-first century by opening data to everyone—not just leaving it in the hands of the technocratic elite—would make things better for everyone. We can see this in the ability to monitor traffic conditions in real time on Google Maps. If there is a jam in a certain area, our navigation system should route us around it.
Boris Artzybasheff, cover of Time, July 2, 1951.
But as I’ve been studying such possibilities over the past year, it’s become clear to me that there’s a danger to putting too much faith in the bottom-up model. During the past decade, there’s been a lot of fascination with bottom-up forms of organization. If these work at certain levels, they don’t work at others. In particular, they are unable to provide adequate structures of authority. This has been the typical lesson of revolutions: In the process of creating new governments, the revolutionaries fail or resort to authoritarianism.
It’s the very bureaucratic structures created at the instigation of well-meaning bottom-up efforts—from homeowner groups to environmentalists to union activists—that have produced the current morass. I’m not pointing fingers here, rather I’m concerned about how civilization produces bureaucratic structures in response to reasonable concerns at the local level.
TC: Of course, rather than bypassing those bureaucratic structures, it’s likely that such a government initiative would simply engender new ones. And yet such a move seems like one of the few options available to us, given that large-scale physical alterations to our infrastructure are basically unfeasible.
KV: I've been looking at Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, a book on the fall of civilizations—the Roman empire, the Maya, and the Chacoan culture. Earlier this spring, during the depths of the crisis, there was a lot of talk about the collapse of the West under pressure from ecological crisis, and the rise of the East and South—the latter an outrightly racist position suggesting that the barbarians are at the gates or already inside Rome. But Tainter concludes that neither invasions nor the disappearance of natural resources, nor, for that matter, disease, did in these civilizations. Rather, it was complexity.
Societies naturally become more and more complex as they build large classes of public servants, elaborate systems of communication, paperwork, and laws, together with a high degree of social and class differentiation. Generally this is done for sensible reasons: You need zoning laws and building permits to prevent structures from collapsing and killing people; you need regulations about food quality in order to prevent contaminated foods from poisoning people; you need armies to protect against hostile invaders. One day, however, a point is reached at which complexity inhibits further investment in society. Marginal returns on new investments into the society begin to diminish rapidly. Eventually people find that the complexity is so frustrating and so unrewarding that they walk away. Here’s the rub: At least initially, for most people, the situation is actually better than it was in the complex society.
On societal complexity: Mike Judge, Idiocracy, 2006.
I think we’re reaching that point rapidly. NIMBYism and legal constraints make much new hard infrastructure unlikely. One of the few projects that might get built, the high-speed rail line between LA and San Francisco, will take twenty years, assuming there are no delays. In contrast, the first transcontinental railroad took seven. We aren’t going to build our way out of this highly congested world. It’s going to choke us. This is a danger with any information-sharing mandate: It could build more complexity into the system! Does a light post need to share information? How about a traffic bollard? Probably not. But if you engineer them to do so, you add complexity and cost.
TC: Do you envision people recognizing that we’ve arrived at a kind of civilizational dead end and abandoning it of their own volition? Historically, it’s taken a catastrophic event to provoke such a response on any meaningful scale, though there are always some people who are ahead of the pack.
KV: As early as the 1930s, downtowns began to empty out as congestion encouraged companies to move elsewhere. This wasn’t a question of white flight yet. We’ve overrated the importance of postwar white flight and the nuclear threat in the emptying out of cities. Migration out of the city core started long beforehand, and it was due to congestion, which is itself a form of urban complexity. We’re in a much, much more complex world today. It isn’t just congestion, it’s the whole way of life that we’ve developed, from high technology to insurance to infrastructure. What will it take for us to walk away from it? Some of what we’re seeing with home foreclosures is a taste of that.
TC: It seems strange to suggest that people whose homes are in foreclosure, who have lost everything due to an economic crisis, are “walking away” rather than being forcibly removed (though they may be leaving before the cops drag them out). And even if they are, what comes next for them after they walk away, barring old-fashioned government intervention?
KV: There are many reasons why people are leaving their homes behind today. I’m not saying that anybody is thrilled about doing this, but there are plenty of individuals who walk away from the madness. If your home is in foreclosure, you’ve already lost everything, but maybe by walking away you get out of the madness of working two jobs to pay for an insane mortgage and a two-hour commute. There are many people who are abandoning this false vision of the American dream for saner alternatives, such as renting an apartment again.
TC: You’ve suggested elsewhere that in a collapse, the public sphere as we know it would be superseded by new forms of human relations. Would abandoning complex society before it buckles under its own weight mean becoming the architects of our own collapse (and its aftermath)? Parallel societies might form, one clinging to the city and one retreating from it.
KV: It’s an interesting idea, and I think you could look at the communes of the late 1960s and 1970s as attempts to do precisely that, to envision simpler social conditions outside the complexities of a modern life that many people felt was about to collapse. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the news suggests that college students increasingly see organic farming or the Peace Corps as respectable career choices.
Remember that designing our collapse was Karl Marx’s ambition. He never thought that capitalism would be overthrown at the height of a boom. On the contrary, he thought that the internal contradictions of the system would eventually bring it to a crisis from which it could not recover, allowing communism to take hold. If I have sympathy with Marx’s ambitions and agree with much of his analysis, I have less faith in our ability to design a working communist, or even postcapitalist, economy.
TC: Despite being broke as a country, we’re managing to make investments—though so far only infinitesimal ones—in new energy sources. Obviously, it’s nowhere near enough to phase out carbon-based energy, but there does seem to be a sense in current political debates that progress is likely. Is that delusional, especially given the current political aversion to making even the most insignificant steps forward in these areas?
KV: Tainter actually suggests that technological innovation is the only way to stave off inevitable collapses. In particular, he identifies exploitation of new energy sources as the means by which collapse can be averted. But I don’t think we’re doing very well with that these days. First of all, we’re facing an impasse. Nuclear is still a dirty word, but fission is really the only option beyond fossil fuel that has significant potential. Solar, water, and wind power involve tremendous amounts of energy investment in return for what they produce. Hydroelectric power is pretty much finished as a source of energy. But Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are terrifying to us. So the crisis continues.
As far as technology goes, we’ve been on a tremendous growth curve in the past two decades. Technology operates with plateaus as well as growth curves. There was little technological development between the 1950s and 1970s, at least not as seen by the average person. We may be entering into another such period. So many of our resources have been devoted to technology, particularly to mobile telecommunications and the Internet, that the low-hanging fruit in that field have already been picked. I suspect we’re in for a period like that again. Urban informatics and the mobile Web are interesting, but I no longer think they can have a tremendous impact on everyday life.
CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite report on the Three Mile Island disaster, 1979.
TC: But we sent a man to the moon in the 1960s. And of course there was the dawn of computing applications in business; diversified industrial production; container shipping; commercial jet travel. Are you saying that people’s lives weren’t impacted by these profound technological developments, or that they didn’t perceive an impact? Developments that aren’t felt by the average person can and do still effect society enormously. Even if computing is reaching some plateau, there’s incredible progress happening in the biological sciences right now, and they may yet alter civilization as we know it, and even address these social problems we’ve been talking about, if obliquely.
KV: Think about the technological devices that made the life of a person in 1955 go: the automobile, the television, the radio, the phonograph. These were all identical in 1975, with the exception of color television. That’s a space of twenty years in which our everyday experience of technology barely changed. Commercial jet travel was not that common until the 1980s. Weather satellites were important, but manned space flight was not something that mattered to most people on a day-to-day basis. I’d say the OPEC oil embargo and resultant energy crisis, which really had little to do with new technology and more with politics, had more impact than any other event of that era, and its effect was to curtail growth.
TC: Why can’t urban informatics and the mobile Web still have a tremendous impact on everyday life? It seems worth considering that, while we in the West may feel saturated with this technology and may be running up against the limits of what it can do to solve certain social and infrastructural problems, most of the world has very limited access to this technology. It seems presumptuous to say that we’ve experienced all it has to offer, seen the full extent to which it can change societies, when the most populous places in the world are just now integrating this technology into their daily lives and their planning and governance practices and strategies.
KV: There’s certainly potential, but how will developing countries provide the data for urban informatics? There’s a chance that netbooks will spread like wildfire throughout Africa, say, but that may not happen. In the developed world, I think that we’ve seen most of what we want out of urban informatics. We know how to locate ourselves, how to find a good restaurant in our area, what the price of real estate in our immediate vicinity is, and where the nearest subway stop and ATM are. Really, what more do we need?
The only thing I could think of is a Wikipedia-like framework for annotating space—for example, leaving records of one’s experiences; for history, restaurant reviews, muggings, sexual encounters, gripes, warnings about polluted water, and so on—in a given place might be useful. Actually, I’m surprised we don’t have such a framework yet.
TC: As you see it, does the pursuit of capital, and the probability of success in doing so, preclude expending significant resources developing rational solutions to long-term problems of the sort we’re discussing? Do we only turn our attention elsewhere when we’re bankrupt?
KV: That’s been a problem for a while, but we have an even larger problem looming. Capitalism entered into a new phase in the 1980s. There’s been a lot of talk about the post-Fordist shift from an industrial economy to a service economy, but our economy since then has become dominated by speculation. As a nation—and as a world—we’ve learned to sustain ourselves on debt and the false profits begat by financial instruments. Frankly, it’d be a relief to imagine that this is over, but looking at the Obama administration’s response, which is largely in terms of tax cuts and corporate handouts made possibly by more debt, I’m not hopeful.
As far as design goes, it works fine during boom times, but during recessions or collapses it can do much less. During the last six months, we’ve seen architects and journalists flit from infrastructure (when they thought that Obama would support it) to informal urbanism and slums (which valorizes the bottom-up instead of the top-down and even has an attractive whiff of life after collapse being better, or at least acceptable). But they still suffer from megalomaniac ambition.
TC: Isn’t the entire notion of planning, in its original sense—man acting as a god within his realm, reworking it in order to determine his own future—megalomaniac? Or perhaps it’s mostly just oblivious of its limits and its environmental destructiveness, deleterious in its byproducts rather than its intentions—an assessment we’re only now, with the benefit of some thousand years of hindsight, being able to make.
KV: I think that designers would do well to look at the lessons of the Renaissance, the Italian Baroque, or postmodernism, all of which operated in bad times according to our measure. What do you do when labor is cheap, resources are expensive, and nobody is going to fund many new buildings? You design facades and small-scale urban interventions. Take the Campidoglio. In part, at least, it’s a skin job. But it provided an iconic focus for a resurgent Rome, building on the city’s traditional political center. What can we do for people today? How about allotment gardens on abandoned building sites (or at least those that aren’t too contaminated), so that people can grow their own food, eat in a healthy way, and get some exercise while doing it?
Giuseppe Vasi, View of the Campidoglio, circa 1747-1761.
TC: Was postmodernism really a “bad time” in the same way as the Renaissance? It seems like the US in the 1930s is perhaps the most relevant—if overused, and still radically different—analogue to what’s happening now, and that was a time of tremendous building and urban planning (as was the Renaissance in much of Western Europe).
KV: The late 1970s and early 1980s were bad times in their own way, but to be sure they were bad times. The economy was crippled by stagflation, and the aftereffects of the oil embargo were still being felt. The generation now in its twenties and thirties is used to nothing but growth and to the success of systems like the Internet and cell phones. They’ve seen their lives transformed, largely for the better, by technology. So they find it hard to understand other possibilities, which is going to make it very hard for them. In our culture of punditry, everyone expects an easy, overarching solution, but I don’t think we’re going to find one this time.
Let’s be clear about this, though: Collapse is not going to happen overnight. My sense is that we’ll see more failures like the financial collapse of the past year. After all, it’s not like all of a sudden people woke up and realized that they were living in the Depression. It took a good three years before the magnitude of the condition was apparent. I also have faith that within a couple of decades we’re likely to see some technological innovations—maybe in terms of new energy sources or some kind of breakthrough in artificial intelligence—that will give us at least a temporary boost.
TC: On the one hand, there’s a common misconception that architecture can, or should be able to, solve many of the problems that face us, one tied up with the role of building as a product and reflection of economic growth. It seems that architecture should now focus on—and may in fact be limited to—devising new relations between society and the forces of economic production. On the other hand, you’re suggesting that, regardless, the scale of the change architecture can effect is quite small. If that’s so, why should anyone invest in building, rather than in developing these technological innovations? What’s the use of architecture?
KV: We need to back off of the obsession with the next big thing and its close relative, the urge to find a quick fix, for a while. This is not to say that we should abandon hope; far from it. But there’s been a lack of intelligent analysis lately. It’s a flip side of the inability of architects to actually produce anything that we saw in the early 1990s. Not only has there been a broad sense that making buildings is better than critical thinking—although looking at the architecture built in the past ten years, this seems like a tragic misconception—but in the university, the liberal arts (theoretical investigations in particular) have been reconfigured into knowledge work.
I think that a young person today needs to learn to be enormously flexible. Ten years ago who thought that we’d be talking about how long the New York Times has to live? Technical training is dangerous because it can lock you into a particular skill set and way of thinking. Training in architecture, on the other hand, provides you with a phenomenal way of thinking. Statistics have always shown that only about 50 percent of architecture graduates go into the field. I don’t think that’s a problem at all. Architecture doesn’t teach you how to regurgitate knowledge, rather it teaches you how to deal with problems. Architecture has always been about much more than just building buildings.