2011 in Review:

 

With the New Year upon us, its time for me to review another year. 
 
Last year at this time, I observed:  
 
2010 marked the year in which "the next big thing" came to an end.
 
Nothing in 2011 changed that. Steve Jobs's death only underscored that an earlier era of network culture, in which technological innovation seemed commonplace, has definitively passed. This is not to say that innovation didn't continue. Little things made a difference in our lives, like Mog, an online music service that allows subscribers to download from a vast online catalog (it has about 90% of what I set out to find and has introduced me to a great deal of music I was not familiar with before) at 320k bps (a decent, if not perfect sampling rate). 
 
If anything, technology had been where the next big thing took its last stand. In other fields, the next big thing is long gone. Architecture, which in the 1990s seemed to revolutionize itself year by year, has lain fallow in this millennium. Over at the Washington Post, critic Philip Kennicott calls this "a year like most others in this age of no discernible isms or movements, no dominant ideologies, no marching to a single manifesto." In music too there have been no major movements since electronica and grunge, some twenty years ago, which is not to say that there haven't been plenty of minor movements and plenty of albums that I enjoy listening to. 
 
On the contrary, it seems like we are firmly in a long tail culture. For the younger set, now coming of age in our universities, this may even be the only state of affairs that has ever existed, with the prospect of something about to break big being unfamiliar, the idea that one had to visit the architecture bookstore every week for fear of missing out on something shattering utterly strange. As I concluded last year, admist all this micro-stardom, starchitecture seems exhausted. Oh there are few names who aspire to starchitecture status, but their hopes seem more desparate and futile with each passing year. In an era in which subjectivity itself seems to become a product of the network, perhaps starchitecture itself was nothing less than another case of the leaves on a trees being most brilliant in autumn. 
 
When it comes to urbanism, the rhetoric about the Smart City reached a fevered pace in 2011, but it was only a sideshow to the biggest and saddest news, the earthquake that devastated Japan and unleashed the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi. During the research for the Infrastructural City, the dangers of overcomplexity in the urban realm became clear to me. With the financial meltdown, so did the danger posed by sophisticated schemes to extract profit from the markets such as derivatives and high speed trading (the latter concern received more attention in the mainstream press last year andwas so well articulated by Kevin Slavin in his TED talk). The catastrophe at Fukushima, however, underscored the precarious nature of the technologies that keep us going and how quickly accidents can spiral far out of anyone's control, even in this age in which we feel ourselves to be the masters of technology. Closer to home, the threat of Hurricane Irene and the minor destruction that the Halloween snowstorm wreaked upon my neighborhood and the whole American Northeast (save New York, apparently protected by its status as a concrete heat island) demonstrated that proper planning for disasters is a necessary part of everyday life. For one, this is because of climate change. All but an extremist few accept this today. But it is also because of the less robust nature of our technologies and the rigidity that increasing urbanization brings. I am sure that we might have gotten sick of them, but my parents and I could have survived for weeks in fall and early winter off the apples from the old orchard we found on the property I grew up on in the Berkshires. Just try that in the heart of the global city today. 
 
The problems that network culture breeds could be seen in the political landsape of the year as both the Eurozone and the United States were repeatedly brought to the point of crisis by vested interests who value their own positions above any greater responsibility to society. Make no mistake: this is not an anomaly, rather it is a fundamental, toxic byproduct of networked publics. In contrast, the Occupy movement posed networked publics as a critical voice, capable of effective and sustained mobilization without any visible figureheads. Just how this movement can transform into a broad democratic forum capable of effecting political change is still unclear. Paradoxically, perhaps in this case, that might be a position of strength.
 
On a personal note, it might cheer the architects among my readers to hear that my wife and I finally bought a house. It's not that I have faith in the markets. They are as likely to move downward as to move upward, but at some point you just have to accept that while you may lose money on such a venture, having a decent place to live and work in is more important than saving a few thousand. We bought our house in Montclair, New Jersey, a town that we have lived in ever since I started working at Columbia 5 1/2 years ago. Montclair has been a fascinating community for me: relatively diverse in income and ethnicity, linked to the city by relatively efficient bus and train lines and easily walkable in many parts. In addition, Montclair is denser than many so-called cities in this country and boasts a diversity of housing types. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what you may hear at conferences, census figures show that most cities are still shrinking (although in some cases, as in New York, we see land values that make life for this family of four cost-prohibitive). Instead of declaring all suburbs equal and damning them, we urgently need to find ways to build relatively dense, attractive settlements close in to the urban core. Settling in Montclair, one of the first suburbs, seems to me like a positive step in understanding how we may one day do so again. 
 
Then there's modernism. We were lucky enough to find a relatively affordable modern house in town. Waking up there every day—even during the twin disasters this fall—has been a delight. We spent much of the summer on much-needed repairs: an exterior deck needed serious work to be safe and the house had suffered from botched attempts to stain its wood siding some years ago. Even in the last week of the year we found ourselves welcoming a new fireplace insert by Morso. It's been a great journey and we still feel a bit like Charles and Ray Eames, with the real construction of the house through our  life in it still ahead of us.  
 
What will 2012 bring? I wouldn't put my money on a complete collapse of civilization, but more of the same morass seems likely. Economies will lurch along, punctuated by perodic crises and moments of elation, allowing opportunistic traders to take advantage of the investments that so many of us in the States count on to see us through in our old age (even in Columbia, the only pension plan we have access to is the market, which seems clevely tuned to take advantage of us instead of building a retirement plan). Much as I'd love it to be otherwise, more natural disasters will take place. I am hardly a fan of the Obama administration (see Aaron Suskind's 2011 book Confidence Men for a litany of the reasons why) but the Republicans are worse (remember those horrific eight years of Bush? the US was the world's laughing-stock). Luckily, at present the Republicans seem likely to prove themselves true masters of statemate, unlikely to be able to choose a candidate that they can back (caveat: if Romney gets an early enough lead, he might be able to beat Obama). The Eurozone will continue its crisis. It won't collapse, but I expect Greece to default by April. Wall Street will struggle to mount a comeback that will be thwarted by the Eurozone crisis. 
 
By the end of next year, things are likely to look somewhat worse. In last year's entry I mentioned Gopal Balakrishnan's article on the stationary state of economies during this decade. It's well worth a look. There are two things I'd like to expand upon. The first is that, as always, there is a degree of uneven development in all this. The major global financial centers, like New York and London, will do relatively well. The massive booms may be over, but they will remain lures for overaccumulated capital to burn up in through tourism, education, fashion, and real estate consumption. Urban elites will pat themselves on the back about the success of their cities, thinking that it is their innate hipsterdom, or perhaps their roles in building apps for smart cities or exhibiting mildly political, mildly amusing work in mildly cutting-edge galleries. In contrast, other cities—and even countries—that saw relative prosperity over the last decade but have since stagnated will wear down. You can see this throughout Europe these days. A few years on, the na├»ve optimism that there will be a quick end to this crisis has faded. The architecture of the boom, which was never meant to last anyway, will collapse under poor maintenance. We'll also begin seeing in China as that country's economy begins a moderate slowdown (watch for North Korea's role in all this as it could be a destabilizing influence, and hence lead to capital flight from the whole region). Shanghai and other big cities will do well as regional centers will begin to feel stress. That said, the Chinese economy is so different from the economies of the countries most of us are familiar with and the government will manipulate its own economy—if not the economy of other countries—as it deems necessary. The big news of the year may be more trouble in Russia and perhaps even elsewhere in countries such as the Ukraine. Spring fever, as we saw last year throughout the Middle East is catching, and networks make it move all the faster.
  
Throughout it, we'll live in a more Braudelian history, in which events themselves will be more clearly seen as "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs." From any distance, such has always been history's legacy.      
  

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