Twentieth Century Lite

The city in the age of information

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Oh, that cyber-revolution! It’s turning out to be the long-awaited deliverer of American business from all the dreadful forces, riotous impulses, and malign social movements that have prevented its happy hegemony all these years. The “Third Wave,” philosopher-king Newt Gingrich and his stable of third-rate thinkers proclaim, has finally liberated the wise entrepreneur not only from the grasp of Washington bureaucrats, with all their meddling demands about workplace safety and minimum wages, but from every other social institution that once threatened him. Labor unions, for example, the nightmarish Second-Wave organizations par excellence, are openly gloated to be a thing of the past, happily ruined by the near-total freedom of capital to move around the globe at will, wherever poverty severe enough to induce people to scab can be found.

Best of all, the advent of the Information Society seems to have accomplished the very rosiest of middle-class dreams: it has freed us at last from the filthy grasp of the city and its teeming, huddling, criming, union-joining, welfare-cheating, liberal-electing masses. With the final perfection of the global computer net, place will be irrelevant: it will be as easy to transmit “information”—meaning all those human activities we used to call thought and culture—across three thousand miles as it is to meet a client for lunch. As the cloying youngster intoned in last year’s MCI commercials, “there will be no more there.” No sooner was this profundity grasped by the Gingrichites (it probably helped to have it explained by a cute little tot with what sounds like an English accent) than they were declaring the millennium to be at hand: the metropolis had been abolished. Actual physical social interaction was a relic of the benighted past. No longer would we need to put up with the filth and dangers of the city to get our business done. This is the age of the “suburban entrepreneur hooked up to the Internet,” David Brooks wrote recently in New York’s City Journal, a quarterly propaganda sheet for the latest Republican fantasies. “In the Gingrichian world, cyberspace replaces urban space. Conversations are conducted over the modem instead of over dinner at a metropolitan restaurant or club.” Whatever doubts had lingered about the wisdom of suburbanization (a product of New Deal social planning, but we’ll overlook that for the moment) have now evaporated: distance doesn’t matter. The city is now officially obsolete. It has no further economic function. We “knowledge workers” can do our labor anywhere we want. Let the proles commute.

By an almost unanimous verdict, American corporate thought heartily agrees: forget the city! What business theorist George Gilder calls the “telecosm” will have no place for urban agglomerations. “I think we are headed for the death of cities,” he asserts in a recent issue of Forbes magazine. In the near future, the magazine continues, “people will choose to live anywhere they like while working with anyone they please on the Net; they will leave behind crime, crowds and corrupted schools; they will flee cities.”

As expressions of pure upper-middle-class fantasy, there’s nothing new about the anti-urban bombast of Gingrich, Gilder, and Forbes. Their chimerical cyber-visions are merely another outbreak of a chronic allergy to the metropolis, the latest installment in that favorite affluent daydream of serene Olympian detachment from production and all its complexities. For forty years Organization Man defined himself by his precipitate flight from the cesspools of social interaction, relocating himself in the fantasy land of suburbia where he could remake himself in any image he chose. That initial postwar geographic and demographic shift—which, not incidentally, read poor and working-class America out of the the country’s official collective identity and wrecked our landscape as thoroughly as the war did in Europe—has long been the inescapable foundation of national culture, the basic premise from which all events are to be understood. Our televisual world already operates on an assumption of total detachment, of a pristine bourgeois universe into which nasty events like poverty and disaster intrude only as occasional oddities. And the latest cyber-development serves merely to make the fantasy seem that much more natural, to make the longstanding dream of upper-middle-class secession, of gated communities and zero contact between us and them appear an utterly practicable maneuver, to make the initial flight from the cities seem miraculously far-sighted.

The now economically-outmoded metropolis—what Gilder calls “these big parasite cities sucking the lifeblood out of America”—must learn to forsake the “dole” and accustom itself to a new role: the city is to be the ultimate form of entertainment for the suburban upper middle class, better than CD-ROM even, and brought conveniently through the wonder of electronics into our ranch homes for our pleasure and consumption. Gilder et al. have no problems with the famous image of the city as a meeting place for people of different ethnicities and walks of life; in fact, in accordance with the latest multicultural business theorizing, they actively celebrate the kind of cultural cross-fertilization that is believed to make American capitalism so vital. It’s just that they don’t think they should have to physically enter the city in order to partake. After fantasizing about the possibilities of big-city opera being made accessible to all through computers, Gilder asserts that “The telecosm can destroy cities because then you can get all the diversity, all the serendipity, all the exuberant variety that you can find in a city in your own living room.”

The very most privileged youths of the suburban heartland are here to play-act at rock ‘n’ roll rebellion for four years before taking a position in daddy’s firm.

In such a climate who will speak for the city? Why, Utne Reader, of course, which produced a special issue celebrating American cities just last year. But if you came to the magazine expecting some sort of reaffirmation of twentieth century American civilization, you’d be disappointed: the value of cities is that they are Utne Reader writ large, a non-stop alternative lifestyle carnival, where one can gawk at real-live Third-World peoples performing their colorful culture-stunts, consume all sorts of authentic treats, question dominant paradigms at a pricy disco, and then retreat—by public transportation!—to your hip urban abode, well-stocked no doubt with all of the gritty new products designed just for your hip urban demographic. The great achievements of the American metropolis? Such consumer delicacies as coffee houses (which are, erroneously but somehow appropriately, identified with the 1930s snob term “café society”), street musicians, and, of course, rollerblading. The most perfect metropolis in the world, that, after considerable thought, the magazine decrees we should emulate? You know without even opening the book—it’s Prague.

The issue’s most telling point is its summary of the joys of Boston, Massachusetts, which reads more like an ironic scoresheet of the fundamental emptiness of urban-hip than a celebration of the city. The author declares his affinity for, of all places, Harvard Square, where he consumes “spinach pie” and (of course) coffee and watches the “human potpourri.” It’s bad enough to describe humanity in terms of a popular yuppie house fragrance, but it’s infinitely worse to actually believe, as the author declares he does, that the street musicians who accumulate in Harvard Square—perhaps the definitive urban fakers: the very most privileged youths of the suburban heartland here to play-act at rock ‘n’ roll rebellion for four years before taking a position in daddy’s firm—are actually good.

Thus do Americans debate the future of the metropolis, the basic issues of how we are to live. There is no more fundamental question, and yet our most prominent dissenters can do little more than mimic the obscene verdict of the right-wing cyber-futurists: cities are places of pleasure, theme parks for the lifestyle experimentation of affluent consumers with the rest of us around to provide colorful entertainment or to clean up after them if we can’t sing and dance. The only real debate occurs over the relatively minor question of whether we should enjoy lifestyle in person or whether, as Gilder puts it, the “teleputer” will allow us to join in the fun—filtering out all the crime and filth—from our safe, suburban, “own living room.”

There is, of course, a vast critical literature on cities apart from the lifestyle-carnival tweedle-dum of Gilder and tweedle-dee of Utne. A host of enlightened commentary on our contemporary predicament sometimes finds its way into the public press: Mike Davis’s writing on the curious civic culture of Los Angeles and the staggeringly gigantic blunderings of California’s policy-makers; Salim Muwakkil’s essays on race and urban America; David Harvey’s brilliant analysis of space, capital, and consciousness; Camilo José Vergara’s graphic documentation of urban decay, the committed essayists published recently in Witness magazine; and Robert Fitch’s devastating account of the lucrative engineering of New York’s decline.

But by some weird inversion of intellectual value, this sort of responsible discussion remains marginalized while the scatterbrained ravings of writers like Gilder, Alvin Toffler, Tom Peters, and Joel Garreau receive the attention and plaudits of the people who will actually be determining our collective future. Since it refuses to make the fundamental acknowledgement of business benevolence that is step number one in what Doug Henwood calls the pundit-licensing process, honest criticism can have no say in the matter. It’s either pay your homage or get out of the game.

We cannot address our civic predicament, it seems, by simply discussing problems with honesty and compassion—any such approach will be resolutely ignored. We must also identify the disease that prevents difficult or critical ideas from crossing the screens of our national consciousness. As ever, the problem is a cultural one, the devices by which our peculiar urban culture of decay, unconcern, lifestyle, and total segregation by class are made to seem normal. Our problems arise from a complex of never-to-be-questioned municipal faiths, bizarre assumptions about the public-mindedness of private industry, and a thought-squelching climate of competition between states and between cities.

We can’t understand what’s happening because we suffer from a deadly form of civic amnesia, a tendency to fancy ourselves cut loose from the past; a willingness to forget about whatever it was that caused our cities to be built in the first place in a frenzied, headlong rush to attract conventions and make ourselves attractive for corporate “relocation.” We can no longer comprehend the hard, basic urban reality of social class, we have no idea how these conglomerations of power and people which we inhabit ever came to be, and we cannot imagine our own pasts, except those happy times spent amid the jolly caperings of celebrities—cowboys and Indians, rubicund Al Capone, the homes of the Stars. To even suggest an alternative to business control of every aspect of life has become heresy unthinkable.

Even worse, the instant mobility of the “Information Age” has vastly intensified competition between cities. Here, as it has done to almost every other species of discussion that it has touched, the cyber-revolution has transformed what was left of committed commentary into craven, desperate, panic-stricken self-promotion. Boosterism has always been an underlying urban stupidity, but in recent years it has been become the pre-eminent form of civic discourse, the omnipresent theme of every newspaper article, every business round-table, every sportsbar conversation. Cities are scurrying to transform themselves into consumer products, to substitute brand image for history, a carnivalesque “diversity” for ethnic identity, and to prosper not by, say, building things but by winning as large a market-share as they can. The waves may be lapping at the gunwales, but our officials seem to have convinced themselves that the answer is to crow loudly about how much drier it is over at their end.

Here in Chicago, the South Side steel mills continue to be razed along with the lives, generations, and neighborhoods that surrounded them (never worth much more than a two-minute human interest segment on the TV news in the best of times). Buy a plasticized city map at any downtown store and look for the South Side on it: it isn’t there. Drive around and try to find the neighborhood where the Memorial Day Massacre took place in 1937 (or better yet, find the “labor martyrs” web site); you can’t. Here a tree grows through a roof, there a factory is dynamited for the cameras of a visiting Hollywood movie crew. Down here civilization is over; The City is an obscene joke.

Oblivious to it all the new order is prospering out on Navy Pier, just east of the glittering North Michigan Avenue shopping district. The city has finally completed there a monumental embodiment of its new civic vision: a gigantic ferris wheel from which the town’s towers can be viewed to advantage. The city cannot guarantee that fog will obscure the smoke and fires of the South Side on every day of the week, but the wheel suffers no shortage of customers nonetheless.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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