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Post-Urban, Post-Industrial, but Never Post-Elite

An excursion through contemporary urban theory

“How are ye blind, ye treaders-down of cities!”

The Trojan Women but in the spirit of John Horne Burns

Once, a long time ago, there was an analog world, goes the contemporary bromide of the new cyber-elite. But now, they enthuse, the world has transformed itself into a “place without space,” where time zones are more important than trade zones, and where an address on-line is a thousand times more significant than any petty street coordinate. Busying themselves with faxes, voice-mail, e-mail, and the Internet, this new class couldn’t care less about where they physically happen to be. Geography and community must come to them. “Being digital” is the crucial thing, insists Nicholas Negroponte, MIT media lab guru and high priest of the new corporate age: every remnant of the analog world must bend to meet our digital needs or be abandoned. There is, for example, no difference between Sunday and Monday in Negroponte’s workweek. Work follows him everywhere and he follows it, jacking in with his laptop wherever he happens to be. As for those topographic mundanities which would imply that something exists outside the solipsistic self, forget it. The digital world has freed this entrepreneurial narcissus from the surly bonds of place, class, and context—and also, if we are to believe the bombast, from the grip of those nasty relics of the past known as cities.

This should have been obvious to anyone who read February’s special ASAP edition of Forbes. The magazine’s cover story is a face-off over “the city vs. the country” featuring the apostle of entreprenurial overcoming, Tom Peters, and George Gilder, author of the futuristic Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Gilder is all pessimism, predicting “the death of cities” due to the dread inevitability of Gordon Moore’s (you know, the founder of Intel) Law, which asserts that because the number of transistors on a chip double every eighteen months and because capital now depreciates in real value faster than ever before, there is an organic centrifuge—a “constant pressure distributing intelligence to the fringes of all networks”—out there somewhere that is breaking down all concentrations of power. The law does not seem to apply to the relationship between management and labor, but Gilder freely speculates about its consequences for the physical conglomeration of the metropolis. “Big cities are left-over baggage from the industrial era,” he insists, “dirty, dangerous, and pestilential” places that only survive on a $360 billion life-support system courtesy of government subsidies. But with the coming of the information revolution this ultimate concentration of power can be painlessly amputated while all its advantages are retained and delivered safely and cleanly through the glories of ever-expanding bandwith. The levelling of the distinctiveness of different cultural activities will bring a “culture of first choices” where you can watch operas at the Met or order books from Borders on the computer without having to move your lazy ass.

Peters, though, is all WASPish exuberance, the optimistic counterpoint in a rigged rendezvous. At first, his argument seems surprising: the city is “the perfect market” and thus the site of perfect competition. The accumulation of capital has never undermined the growth of the urban metropolis, he points out. In fact, the occurence of the one has historically been concomitant on the development of the other. Strangely, though, the proof to which Peters points is not a city in any traditional sense; it’s Santa Clara County in California, the site of the illustrious Silicon Valley. Here we can experience “the ascendancy and relevance of the new city-state,” a veritable Renaissance Italy of “clusters of exuberant variety” where entrepreneurship and progress arise from the interaction between innovative high-tech Indians and Vietnamese, a tribute to the vitality of American pluralism as well as to the competitive milieu that blurs all the boundaries in the heat of “the passion to one-up the other guy.” Needless to say, Peters adds, San Francisco and San Jose are not separate cities anyway; they form an enormous “zesty network” (“the 50,000 person city is history”), the product of a sucessful merger, a sort of cosmopolitan joint venture.

According to Peters, human interaction will triumph over Gilder’s vision of a domesticated techno-utopia. Yet the sort of human interaction he has in mind is not entirely clear. In a characteristic fit of amphetamine-fed grandiloquence coupled with his usual millenarian opacity, this consultant’s consultant blurts out,

As far as I am concerned, the greatest thing in the world would be the dispersion of the suburb. You should either be in places where there are two people per square mile or places where there are two million per square mile. I have a great deal of difficulty imagining a vibrant society with no opera companies and no ballet companies, no Cafe Veronas in Palo Alto, and I doubt whether we can have a cyberspatial Cafe Verona with the sweat dripping all over the machines.

Never mind imagining arriviste Peters as an enthusiast of such generic emblems of high culture as either opera or ballet—what’s really revealing is his choice of Palo Alto as the desirable “vibrant society”—Palo Alto, the seat of Stanford University and its Hoover Institute, a sterile, affluent shopping mall community that even forced its eastern, more Hispanic half (the half that cleans the toilets and does the gardening) to secede and form East Palo Alto.

For those who didn’t get the message of the Gilder/Peters pseudo-debate, another hint of the post-urban future came in the next feature story, “Tele-City on a Hill” written by Peter Huber of the always-progressive Manhattan Institute. Warning any New York readers who aren’t yet panic-stricken that Omaha, “the 800 Number Capital of the World,” threatens to transform Gotham into just another “fly-over community” with its cheap labor, taxes, and real estate, Huber insists that the only hope for urban sprawl is to re-organize itself and interactively export its “intellectual capital” via “long-distance antennas and transcontinental glass, switches, routes and multiplexes, the eyes and ears of the electronic age.”By “intellectual capital” Huber and his fellow urban theorists don’t mean the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books. Business Week’s tale of urban cyber-rejuvenation focuses on Manhattan’s new “Silicon Alley” where venture capitalists can get turned on by “the most diverse pool of intellectual capital anywhere” in the form of new “edutainment” and CD-ROM game “industries.”

By the year 2020 we will inhabit a glorious realm he calls “Byte-City,” ruled over by “Brain Lords” like Bill Gates.

At the behest of Gingrich’s think tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF), Gilder recently co-authored with fellow futurists Alvin Toffler, Esther Dyson, and George Keyworth, “Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” an alarming little pamphlet that encapsulates all the pseudo-emancipatory and anti-urban fantasies of the new corporate right. See, the “Third Wave” economy, whose central resource is “actionable knowledge” (e.g., “data, information, images, symbols, culture, ideology, and values”), has replaced the “static competition” of the Machine Age with “dynamic competition,” “demassification,” and more quality (albeit expensive) customized goods. The “Third Wave” has also millennialized the way we understand geography. Now we are to witness “the creation of ‘electronic neighborhoods’ bound together not by geography but by shared interests” as “Third Wave policies permit people to work at home, and to live wherever they choose”—unless, of course, backwards-looking Second Wave policies interfere and encourage urbanization.

Michael Vlahos, one of the PFF’s leading thinkers, predicts that by the year 2020 we will inhabit a glorious realm he calls “Byte-City,” ruled over by “Brain Lords” like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, followed consecutively in the suburban hierarchy by “Upper Service” workers (lawyers), “Industrial” workers, and then the “Lost” people “who can’t cope” and must do menial jobs. Old understandings of the metropolis give way to a city that is nothing more than “a node in the network of our lives.” At a recent conference entitled “Democracy in Virtual,” Vlahos presented a vision of the cyber-future in which everyone serves one another from their living rooms and the GOP dream of a meritocratic Utopia has finally been achieved. “All job worth must be proven in Byte City,” Vlahos boasts, insisting that the “Brain Lords,” those “kinder, gentler robber barons” of tomorrow, will not constitute a “heritable class,” heaven forbid, but “will make it as individuals.” Old-style cities brought anomie and caused a “loss of identity” amidst the tyranny of mass production and mass consumption. But in the next century, every home will possess a “virtu-screen” that “doesn’t take us to the city, it brings the city to us. The city is in our living room, or wherever we want it to be.” “There is no interface,” Vlahos cryptically proclaims, for, due to the wonders of the much touted “computer-mediated communications” technologies, “You will not hit the pavement of Byte City streets, but you will walk the sidewalks none the less.”

Not that the obsequious Democrats have an alternative vision to offer while trying desperately to catch up with the Right. Announcing their findings in Business Week, the same platform as the Republicans, Joel Kotkin of the Democratic Leadership Council and David Friedman, LA Times contributor, outlined their vision of the urban future in an article entitled “Why Every Business Will Be Like Show Business.” The future, they proclaim, is to be found in Hollywood, which they portray as a place where small, non-union companies that compare themselves to “medieval craftsmen” form “loose networks” around collaborative “projects,” all to produce masterpieces of high-tech American stupidity like Free Willy II. It’s “Silicon Alley”/multimedia gulch redux. The heroes of their story are the prop makers at tiny firms with names like Cinnabar and the independent contractors who make customized xenon lights for the cinematic trashmen that rule the town. These bold but miniscule innovators, brilliantly solving problems for the big producers, hail from a different race altogether than the more vulgar and resentful Second Wave type that occasionally blow up federal buildings or computer scientists. As Jonathan Katz, the founder of Cinnabar, warmly reminisces about his first job in an uncreative unionized Hollywood, “I remember one producer saying to me, ‘What is a nice Jewish boy like you doing making props? I’m used to rednecks in overalls.’” And so, because of “intelligent” freelancers like Katz, a ship scene from Free Willy II can thankfully be shot at an outdoor pool next to the LA Coliseum: the “here-today-gone-tomorrow production strategy” is manifest destiny in this age of productive chaos.

Philistines Kotkin and Friedman are not that much different from the boys at Newt’s PFF: both are interested primarily in the bigger profit margins that can only come from incessant technological innovation. Countries like France that resist the importation of Hollywood product just don’t understand: “France’s real problem is not so much American ‘cultural imperialism’ as its inability to compete with Hollywood’s combination of technical and artistic specialization and well-oiled collaboration.” They don’t comprehend the new force of the pluralist “cosmopolis” which is supplanting the anachronistic monocultural model of the nation-state that Fascism, Stalinism, and Third World Liberation movements created. The new urban network-society accordingly thrives in an atmosphere of decentralized “diversity” where the agglomeration of different “tribes” like Jews, Chinese, Indians, and gays boost the “knowledge value” of corporate assets through high-tech miscegenation. Vive la différance!

Apart from the fact that Kotkin’s capitalist-multicultural babble is being uttered by a Democrat, his narrative of a CD-ROM future is nearly identical to the one given by Vlahos and the other starry-eyed pseudo-intellectuals at the PFF. But regardless of whether the new order is cultural or organic, urban or suburban, or even whether the half-baked metatheory comes from the right or the center, the rhetoric of necessity, it seems, must be invoked. Byte City or no Byte City, the important fact is that the rule of the post-analog business theorists who make up the new power elite be legitimated.

Beneath all of the Information Elite for technological transformation lies the simple need to increase profit margins. Take the following nibble, tossed out on April 3 in a Financial Times article entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Office.” Britannic Tower, the second tallest office building in London, is empty; British Petroleum’s HQ had decided to halve its administration and move away from expensive management structures by cutting down on office space. Société Génerale in Paris was doing the same too, moving to the ugly La Defense business district outside the city proper, to reduce its consumption of office space. Downsizing has apparently taken on a new more spatial form that sounds the death knell, if we haven’t already heard it, of the Organization Man and his Affluent Society of downtown offices. Urban-based corporations now recognize that it is time to move to the suburbs and experiment with such techniques as “hot-desking” (where employees don’t have a fixed office space but vacillate from free desk to free desk) or, even better for cutting down on overhead, working at home. In the same vein, Business Week asserted in April that the celebrated pool of 8.4 million telecommuters, which grows daily courtesy of videoconferencing, digital network phone lines, and high-speed “integrated services,” allows companies to boost productivity and save from $6,000 to $12,000 a year per employee working at home.

The new system, though, suffers from the usual problem: disciplining your tele-employees. His or her domestic office or corporatized home (take your pick) must be “child-proofed” and he/she needs to “set boundaries.” If that wasn’t enough, Business Week includes the following bit of advice: “Dress in a particular way when you are working, though you need not put on a suit and tie or heels.” The message of the piece was short, succinct, and concerned. Remember, “Home is home. Work is work,” “maintain that distinction,” and stuff your work space with “comfortable, ergonomic furniture.”

As for our existing cities, without their accumulated “intellectual capital” they are only dens of “welfare cheats” and other such riff-raff, places where New Age freak Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington and Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky can go cruising the ghetto on anthropological culture runs while looking for charitable organizations to practice “effective compassion” with the funds of their newly-founded PFF affiliate, “Center for Human Compassion.” Olasky, a virtual nobody until the GOP’s 17 percent “mandate” in November, has suddenly been elevated to model citizen of tomorrow’s Utopia—he’s white, an educated “symbolic analyst” who coaches baseball and tutors children. Insisting, as he does in The Tragedy of American Compassion, that neighborliness has calamitous consequences, that a sort of suburban-parental philosophy of tough love is the best stance for policy-makers, has brought him generous recognition: Olasky now gets invited to $50,000 a plate dinners with Huffington and company.

Before the advent of the Republican rollback, the inner city could be conveniently branded as an autonomous ecosystem all of its own.

But Newt himself phrased the new vision of the city best during a televised speech in April. On the one hand, the city is dangerous and horrible: “as a father of two daughters, I can’t ignore the terror and worry of parents in our inner-cities must feel for their children…. Within a half-mile of this Capitol, your Capitol, drugs, violence and despair threaten the lives of our citizens.” On the other hand, the solution is empty block grants for those marginalized by the Third Wave while we commute across the new “borderless” world from our safe suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. And what could be a better place for a test-run of the cyber-civis than Washington D.C.: a penal colony for the descendents of slaves run by inept overseers amid Mussolinian architecture and precious boutiques for the precious bourgeois commuters to preciously idiotic Georgetown. Unable to govern itself, deregulated avant la lettre, and faced with a $722 million budget shortfall and junk bond status, the Capital is today run by an independent finance board which delights in lowering property taxes and voiding the union contracts of those lazy, surly, “pensioned to the hilt” city workers that live on the wrong side of the Anacostia.

But for other Third Wave thinkers, the inner city is just the place for the capitalism of the future to flourish. Certainly, it is the only part of the metropolis the business press and the mainstream press are willing to talk about, albeit with the paternalistic benevolence of a mint julep. Before the advent of the Republican rollback, the inner city could be conveniently branded as an autonomous ecosystem all of its own. Blatant geographical disparities in wealth could be dismissed as part of a larger, natural social order. But with the “end of history” the memory of urban political struggles can be tossed along with the welfare state, and the problem of urban poverty can be handed over to the mercantile experts in profitability. The vultures are poised and ready to go. Take the case of Michael (Competitive Advantages of Nations) Porter, who argued in the May-June issue of the Harvard Business Review that poverty might have its own “competitive advantage.” We need to “rethink” the inner city “in economic rather than social terms,” to “create” rather than “redistribute” wealth. Condescending and “artificial” forms of urban social investment like government preference programs and mandates do not lead to greater economic activity. That, as the familiar argument has it, derives from “private, for-profit initiatives and investment based on economic self-interest.” The creation of low-quality, less-than-full-time jobs with few benefits that is so attractive to retailers and service-sector companies has a future of its own, Porter insists. Then there are the advantages of the size of the inner city market for the consumption of cheap goods: “even though average inner city incomes are relatively low, high population density translates into an immense market with substantial purchasing power.” The promise of such a situation has already given rise to a number of success stories, which Porter ticks off one by one: media companies like Black Entertainment Television, various hair care products, then the repugnant story of Detroit’s Universal Casket, which had $3 million in sales by specifically targeting black-owned funeral homes. “Export-led growth” comes through the recognition that “the tastes and sensibilities of inner city communities are cutting-edge in a number of respects and often become mainstream,” meaning the production of commodified deviance for the kids in the suburbs.

What Porter wants (oddly, given his explicitly anti-statist agenda) is what every salesman of the future wants—more corporate welfare. Do away with the “legacy of big city politics and entrenched bureaucracies,” such annoyances as “punitive” liability laws, “restrictive” zoning, blasphemous architectural codes, permits and inspections, OSHA compliance, and government-enforced union contracts. Silence those annoying community activists who “unrealistically” expect business to meet social needs. Eliminate the capital gains taxes that punish dividends from long-term equity investments. Subsidize the corporate way of life with low-interest tax-exempt revenue bond loans, tax credits for more R&D, and corporate income tax exemptions. Reduce government to providing services for businesses and not citizens. Hand out subsidies without any anti-relocation caveats, but allowing for the sort of flexibility neccessary to transfer jobs and bust unions. Eliminate “clawback”-style tax-abatement demands that subsidies do more than gratuitiously feed the pockets of CEOs, force companies to adequately invest in urban communities, increase wages and benefits, and enforce environmental regulation.

So confident are today’s business elites in the lack of opposition to their cushy government doles that they even talk about a mythical “tax burden” under which they suffer, arguing that higher government spending on programs like Medicaid and child welfare for inner city residents leads to nefariously higher corporate taxes. Forget the fact, as Greg Leroy has brilliantly pointed out in a recent Dollars and Sense article, that the real “tax burden” is created by corporate tax exemptions. Forget the disastrous consequences of GOP fiscal strategies for “InfoCities” like New York that depend for economic “growth” on such bogus industries as financial consulting and insurance. And forget the telling anecdote of Howard Jarvis’s and Robert Citron’s Orange County, whose $1.7 billion in losses was directly the result of a limited tax base and too much faith in Alan Greenspan’s interest rate goodwill.

Wait—is that kind of civic blunder Second or Third Wave? The question is moot if we take this sort of corporate blather seriously: tales of corporate misdeeds do not have enough virtuality to survive the shift into the high-tech tomorrow. The point is to ignore politics altogether in anodyne waves of profitable forgetfulness. Moreover, if Vlahos’s predictions of a rising cyber-elite are correct, soon the GOP’s starry-eyed cohorts won’t even have to appear physically in the nation’s capital—politics will simply be the product of telecommuting “Brain Lords.” It might be time to buy some ergonomically-correct furniture for your new home-office.