Permanent Triage


Last month I was sitting next to a lake with a college friend while the sun set. He's in grad school for biology, and he was telling me about studying with ecologists while the Amazon burns.

The most surprising part wasn't the pessimism he described in the heart of academic science. (By now I think most of us know that climate catastrophe is inevitable on some level.) But it was wild to hear what ecologists are doing about it, which apparently is building computer models to help them make a thousand different Sophie's Choices. Faced with limited time, scientists are scrambling to assign value to the "ecosystem services" that different species and habitats provide – so they can decide which natural resources humans should save while we still can.

To my friend, it feels like trying to save the planet using the very same system of knowledge that’s destroying it in the first place. Like using the spreadsheet a private equity firm would use to strip assets from some distressed company.

Mark Fisher was well-known for saying that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This feels like a pretty literal example — where rather than dismantle an institutional structure that’s inadequate to the problem, we see well-meaning people use the tools of investors to usher in the end of some worlds before others.

The thing is, I can relate. I think a lot of people operate in a similar cognitive state, which you might call permanent triage, where you try to manage an obviously unmanageable number of demands on your attention with perverse rationality. The volume of emails and articles and bills and gigs never goes down, but there’s no way out of the situation. This is the economic logic of a time of information abundance and political austerity, where triage means managing tons of communications while rationing essentials like rent money and insulin. More and more I’m realizing that the most exciting political campaigns — Bernie, the Green New Deal, No New Jails — are the ones that reject the structure of pure accumulation.



Last month I reported on a redesign at Citizen, the peer-to-peer crime-spotting app. The company is trying to roll back the paranoia of the interface, but it turns out there are some bigger un-answered questions. Like what it means exactly when the head of product says, “we want to be known as a safety utility company from here on forward.”

You can read the full story at Eye on Design. (Thanks to Meg Miller for editing!)


I was very, very lucky to spend a week canoeing in the Boundary Waters last month. This newsletter isn’t supposed to be a travelogue, but the quality of attention required to navigate and paddle out there felt like a real release. It was a good way to reflect on some of the ideas I’ve been messing around with in this digital space.

In the spirit of trail reporting, here’s a map of our route: a roughly 40-mile loop along the Canadian border that took us about 6 days.

It’s funny that the aerial view is so intricate, because the view from the water is extremely similar from one lake to the next. Everything – landforms, wind, temperature, light – changes all the time by subtle gradations. Here’s another postcard:


More things I’m reading:

Thanks for reading,

Leo

The museum of seasonal change

Hi friends,

Last time I mentioned I was reading How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I'm still thinking about it on vacation on the West Coast. Like Odell's narrative, my family is strung along the California coastline, and many of us have some kind of creative eccentricity rooted in our experience there. One of the gifts of the book was its help in focusing on who and where I'm from.

Odell talks early on about conceptual artworks by John Cage and others. Rather than focusing on the idea of a piece like 4'33", she frames the composition as an exercise in a different quality of attention — an invitation to strengthen (or maybe exfoliate) our view of the relationships which produce the world around us.

Her discussion made me think of my father’s mother, Joyce, who started making art in San Diego in the 70s and created several conceptual installations about more-than-human ecology. She once proposed filling a local park with an enormous grid of deciduous trees, which she called The Museum of Seasonal Change. She also maintained a lifelong obsession with human and animal anatomy (her favorite necklace was made of deer vertebrae and her living room décor was a human skeleton). Early on, she used her drawings of pigeons to create an "alphabet of bones," in which she composed her own poetry and graphics.

Her most ambitious project from this period was a series of ice sculptures which were placed in front of public buildings and spelled out things like SURVIVAL and WE THE PEOPLE. The water that went into these word sculptures she painstakingly collected from fifty states and nations around the world; as the words melted, they evaporated back into the atmosphere together.


Over the years these stories have become so familiar to me that, like 4'33'', they can feel like one-liners. But How to Do Nothing suggests that the real power of the artworks lies beyond the "conceptual" part, in the realm of expanded perception. It makes sense that they took on the format of signs and symbols which direct attention outward. For Joyce, I think, alphabets and tree groves and water cycles and skeletal systems were naturally-occurring frameworks for contemplating relationships of cultural and ecological interconnection.

Here’s an image of Joyce installing the Namewall, which covered each tile of the LAX arrivals hallway with a different given name. I love how it moves from the care of the individual gesture to the infinitely multiplying field. That’s the whole idea, right?


How to Do Nothing ends in Santa Cruz County, in a tiny town called Corralitos and the nearby estuary of Elkhorn Slough. It just so happens that this is where my other grandmother, Mary, lived for many years. She was a very different artist, mostly working in landscape painting and printmaking, but she found a similarly sacred interconnection in the landscapes around her. The Slough sustained her spirit and framed her convictions, and in return she depicted and defended it with her full attention.

Her 80-year-old apple orchard, where I’m on vacation this week, is its own kind of museum of seasonal (and epochal) change. The second-growth pine forest is lush this summer, but you can still make out the stumps of old-growth firs. The mowed orchard is brushy in the heat and the gnarled fruit trees are heavy with Gravensteins and Pippins. It's an artificial landscape grafted onto a natural one, both marked by centuries of settler-colonial land use, both threatened by climate change, both requiring traditions of care and forms of knowledge that our youngest generation can hardly provide.

Here’s Mary (in the center) painting with animal and human friends at Elkhorn Slough


Mary's clapboard house is still brimming with art which not only represents the landscapes of the coast, but speaks in a language of feminist environmental mythology. One series of prints shows the entwined skeletons of a human child and bear cub, which were found buried together at an ancient archaeological site nearby. Another shows an abandoned pleasure boat, with carved swans on its aft and prow, left up in dry storage in the middle of a field. She brought these ready-made constructions — both the patrimony and the detritus of California’s cultural landscape — into the vibrating field of her images. I'm not sure Mary ever read Donna Haraway (though they lived and worked within an hour's drive of each other), but her works are rich with the language of "making kin" in a damaged world.


Anyway, I hope you read How to Do Nothing. Maybe Odell’s lines of thinking will lead you to new trails through familiar landscapes. Maybe it will help you trace the root system of your family history. I’m sure that everyone getting this email has some amazing matriarchs, and I would love to hear their stories, too.

Co-inhabiting,

Leo

Learning Trails

Hello! I’ve been thinking lately about the ways that people externalize their learning.

This isn’t something that usually preoccupies me too much. I have my rituals, sure: I save articles to Instapaper, I make channels on Are.na, I take notes by hand. But I don’t really have a practice of consuming information and then representing it. Since I’ve been bookmarking interesting examples as I come across them, I thought I’d send you all a few.


Tom Critchlow wrote a post a couple weeks ago about blogchains, an idea that Venkatesh Rao coined to describe his writing on Ribbonfarm. It’s simple: he writes a series of short posts on one topic and links them together in a sequence.

Venkatesh’s blogchains (above) are ways of visualizing and extending his thinking about still-fuzzy ideas, like “domestic cozy.” They might meander in one direction and then another. They are a lightweight way of publishing a train of thought. Tom is also organizing some of his writing into blogchains, too. I suppose a lot of writing projects are blogchains without realizing it — like Hubert Horan’s unhinged 20-part series, which I linked to a few weeks back, called “Can Uber Ever Deliver?”

I like this idea because it’s not really a new tool or feature. It’s just an invitation to view your ideas in a certain way. It’s a frame that imposes structure in one sense, so that you can preserve openness in another.



I use Are.na for a related, but different type of visualization. I gather readings and other sources of information rather than snippets of my own expression. So instead of channels collecting my thoughts, it’s more that channels are my thoughts. Each one reflects what I’m synthesizing from the contents (which are often other people’s ideas).

You don’t have to use Are.na to get this effect. Édouard Urcades wrote a very nice post where he describes theprocess more generally as building “reading networks.”

While texts often build and maintain an internal and pre-set collection of references …, it’s a far more personal practice to form one’s own links in an inter-textual manner.

I’d like to think that building your own reading networks can foster a method of building personal abstractions, building personal relevance to any given topic, and improving the methods by which you consume others’ ideas and structures.


I love how Éd’s writing rhymes with the way Octavia Butler once described her own reading practices:

“I generally have four or five books open around the house—I live alone; I can do this—and they are not books on the same subject. They don't relate to each other in any particular way, and the ideas they present bounce off one another. And I like this effect. I also listen to audio-books, and I'll go out for my morning walk with tapes from two very different audio-books, and let those ideas bounce off each other, simmer, reproduce in some odd way, so that I come up with ideas that I might not have come up with if I had simply stuck to one book until I was done with it and then gone and picked up another.

So, I guess, in that way, I'm using a kind of primitive hypertext.”



One time someone commented that Are.na was like an incomplete version of the detective’s cork board from a crime show. You can lay out all your pieces of evidence, but there’s no red thread to map out the connections between them.

I still think about that comment all the time. I think it gets to the difference between a channel and a blogchain, and the different qualities of thought I’m looking to make space to inhabit online. If a channel is a map, you still need a way to make a journey. A trail, let’s say.

The map is structural, synoptic, and independent from time; the trail is intuitive, temporal, and constrained. A blogchain is one form of thinking trail, but there are many others.

The unfolding-through-time is I what like best about the idea of a trail. The imminence of thought taking concrete shape. In other words: “the road is made by walking.”

Or, as Laurel Schwulst writes:

“Snails (and other gastropods like slugs) excrete slime. They make this slime to move, so that their bodies don’t lose moisture to the rugged terrain beneath them. This slime is beautiful because it glimmers. It’s also beautiful because it’s a map of time recently spent by the snail. Where is the snail now? And where was it going in the first place?”


Another thing I like about the trail image is the wilderness (if we can call it that). When you make a trail you are charting a small path, moment by moment, through infinitude. You step here and not there. Even following an established trail means hewing to this original concession, which if you think about it, is a collective decision about how to spend our time.

Given the sheer volume of content that fills digital spaces, we might think about attention using metaphors of environmental stewardship: building trails, remediating damaged landscapes, prescribing burns, packing out our trash.

I only just started Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, but it’s thick with this kind of attention to place. Laurel’s app Flight Simulator (an “ode to airplane mode”) also helps me get into this frame of mind, because its poetic devices play with time and space. First you choose your flight and then you fill that virtual journey with the trail of thinking you’ve set aside time to complete.

Craig Mod’s practice of walking, and the various experiments he’s published from the trail, are even more literal examples. Like this spring, when he texted one image per day to everyone who signed up — and then published a single book of their SMS responses.

He’s committed to the idea of walking because it’s already at the core of everyday life:

By even just using the word “hike,” folks drop off: Not young enough, not strong enough, not ready for the bugs. You can trick a person into hiking by calling it a walk. I’ve done so many times. And “walk” denotes a thing to be easily grabbed. A walk is there to be taken.


If I’m going to constrain my use of social media, or try to trace the thread of an idea to the exclusion of all the other noise in my head, I’d like to follow a process as simple and emergent as that. To walk and notice and think — and put the pieces together in a similar headspace.


I’ll leave you with an attempt to bridge the divide between the map and the journey: this little trail network diagram I made to document some of the ideas I’ve talked about so far on the newsletter. Some waypoints are actual emails, others are just curiosities for now. Making it brought back memories of thecomputer game Escape Velocity, where you have to plot your course between star systems. Who knows which paths will be taken, which will be constructed and which left to seed.

Happy trails,

Leo

Mortgaged Lives


Hi, sorry for the recent radio silence! I took a couple weeks off for life admin. I also moved this newsletter over to Substack for ease of use. You should be all set, but if this email ended up in your “promotions” tab, try adding dreammachine@substack.com to your contacts.



For the past few weeks I’ve been reading about housing finance, which is weird because a) I’m allergic to quantitative reasoning and b) it can get extremely tedious. But I feel like lefty urbanists should know a little bit about how housing systems work if we’re going to make arguments about fixing them. Or, at the very least, ward off the worst elements of YIMBY twitter.



Housing politics in planetary perspective

I’m really enjoying a new book by Raquel Rolnik called Urban Warfare: Housing under the Empire of Finance. Rolnik is a Brazilian planner who served as the UN Special Rapporteur on housing from 2008 to 2013, and her narrative reads like a detective’s conspiracy board of everything wrong with global urbanism. The best part is how she draws on her experiences with tenants around the world, using the particularities of each place to build a global critique of multilateral policy.

The first half of the book digs into what neoliberalism actually looks like in terms of housing, and how it spread across the globe. After many Western countries stopped producing and sold off their social housing stock in the 1970s, Rolnik shows how World Bank policymakers essentially forced developing countries to transform themselves into receptacles for speculative investment. In order to receive loans, dozens of nations replaced traditional forms of tenure with formal property rights, slashed their public housing programs, and pumped subsidies into promoting mortgage markets.

Those markets ended up swelling the international housing bubble, leaving first-time borrowers in places like Chile and Kazakhstan homeless after the 2008 crash. (There’s a lot of regional variation and comparative history in the text.) While it sounds a lot like what we already know about the financial crisis, I think this story goes a long way toward helping us challenge the economic consensus on its own terms: after half a century of campaigns for “allowing markets to work,” Rolnik writes that “financialisation policies were more useful for the expansion of financial markets themselves than for increasing access to housing for the poorest and most vulnerable.”

The second part of the book highlights what happens when state capitalism collides with spaces of “informal urbanism,” like Brazil’s favelas and Indonesia’s kampung. I think Americans often exoticize these places in their imagination — so it was refreshing to read an account that pays attention to the complex patchworks of customary rights, communal traditions, and grassroots movements at play in urban peripheries around the world. Rolnik also makes structural connections between stories that have cycled in and out of the news cycle over the years. She shows how disasters, sea level rise, Olympic games, regime changes, and development aid have all fed the consensus of creating “cities without slums” – a campaign to turn informal settlements into investment vehicles.


Mortgaged Lives

In the last letter I mentioned the part in Carceral Capitalism where Jackie Wang talks about the disciplinary function of personal debt. She writes:

“…we are, from an early age, socialized into a form of financial citizenship that compels us to accept indebtedness as inevitable and to constantly engage in self-disciplinary acts that authorize and extend the debt economy.”


With that still rattling around my brain, I was glad to find an article by Melissa García-Lamarca and Maria Kaika that extends this line of thinking on the “biopolitics” of debt into the realm of housing. They focus on the experiences of Spanish borrowers who were hounded into deceptive mortgages during the construction boom of the early 2000s. Thanks to a Spanish law that requires borrowers to repay creditors even after losing their homes, many people found themselves indebted for the rest of their lives. The authors insist on foregrounding this daily nightmare as the true context of financialization:

“…mortgage contracts enrolled not only personal income, but also the practices of everyday life as well as community and family relations as cogwheels into the global speculative financial strategies that drive capitalist urbanisation.”

Just when you think the situation couldn’t get any worse, you learn that post-crisis rules aimed at reforming the banking system hurt debtors even more. In 2012, regulators at the European Central Bank required banks holding mortgage debt to shore up their balance sheets with less risky assets.

Banks thus came under strong pressure to reclassify said debt as non-performing and sell it off at a fraction of its nominal value to international distressed debt investors. For example, in July 2014, 112,000 residential mortgages worth €6.4 billion were sold to the multinational investment and advisory firm Blackstone at almost half their nominal value. This practice casts families into uncharted waters and leaves them facing an even more precarious and uncertain future as there is often no office they can physically approach to renegotiate or pressure for a solution to their debt.


It’s worth mentioning that the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and her political organization, Barcelona en Comú, emerged directly from mass mobilizations against these practices. It’s partly because the scale of debt is so breathtaking in Spain that movements like 15M and the indignados and the Plattorm for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) came to prominence in the Spanish left. If you’re interested, you should check out Mortgaged Lives, the memoir/manifesto that Colau and her partner Adrià Alemany wrote about their movement. Their experiment in municipal government is only becoming more relevant to New York City as grassroots movements here start to take meaningful political power.



Resisting Blackstone

The private equity giant buying up borrowers’ debt has in recent years become the world’s largest landlord. And the company’s “aggressive asset management” strategy involves hiking rents, ignoring tenants, and packaging rental properties into financial securities (not unlike subprime mortgages). In some places it even enforces illegal lease terms, assuming that tenants don’t know any better.

So it was good news this month when the residents of a building in Barcelona’s historic immigrant district of the Raval (pictured above) successfully fought eviction by Blackstone and forced the company to make key improvements to the property. Their success followed on the heels of a rent strike against a Blackstone subsidiary in Madrid. If you follow along on Twitter, you can see that Barcelona’s neighborhoods are full of tenant activist groups who show up to stop their neighbors’ evictions.

One thing to take away from these mobilizations is that the “rules” of housing are not static and impartial; they are reshaped by politics from above and below. Blackstone maintains a business model of victimizing people because the legal order is tailored to their needs, and because there are no public repercussions for their actions. You rarely hear about rent strikes in New York, on the other hand, because they don’t square with the political culture of the neoliberal city. But they’ve happened hundreds of times during more militant moments — and they could happen again.

Global hedge funds like Blackstone and tech companies like Airbnb are also turning cities around the world into different sites of the same crisis. While tenants fight individual battles for their own neighborhoods, financial capital crosses borders and platforms. Seeing tenant unions win in Barcelona and the city municipalizing private apartments in Berlin is inspiring because it links the aspirations housing movements on different continents and expands the limit of what feels possible in any one context.


More reading:


Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt (ProPublica)

Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave It. (ProPublica)

Citi Bike neglects poor NYC neighborhoods and communities of color (NYDN)

How Amazon and the Cops Set Up an Elaborate Sting Operation That Accomplished Nothing (Vice)

How to run a small social network site for your friends (Darius Kazemi)

The Problem With Community Land Trusts (Jacobin)


Til next time!

Leo

Congratulations, you invented a horse

On making fun of Silicon Valley

Twitter loves to dunk on Silicon Valley. It goes especially crazy when tech companies “invent” something that already exists – whether that thing is good or bad. Yesterday the bright idea was Google’s plan to build affordable housing on its property in the Bay Area, to which someone retorted, “You’re describing a company town.

Previous versions of this meme format have followed similar lines.

For co-living: “IT’S CALLED ROOMMATES YOU INVENTED ROOMMATES

For so-called ‘job mortgages’: “Congratulations, you invented taxes and public education

For the automated bodega: “Congratulations! You “invented” vending machines.


As much as I agree with the sentiment here, i.e. please fuck off with your platform capitalist solution to this social problem, I think it’s interesting how detached these responses are from reality. Let’s consider a meta-shitpost: 


Ok, yes this joke is extremely dumb, but it articulates something important. Platforms don’t just want to replace whatever dominant institution they resemble; they aspire to fundamentally remake the political economy of their sector, in addition to all the ways it intersects with public life.

The history of driving is actually a good example. The affordances of the car were completely at odds with the norms of public space, which meant early drivers killed lots of people and caused all kinds of problems. As local governments took up regulations to rein in this violence, the industry went on a lobbying campaign to transform the legal and spatial structure of the streetscape. They shamed pedestrians for carelessness and invented the crime of “jaywalking.” Auto dealers in the 1920s even sent mailers to their customers urging them to vote against speed regulations (sorta like Uber and Airbnb almost a century later). In short, they accommodated the world to the car rather than the other way around.

The parable of the auto industry suggests we should think about “disruption” not just as a pattern of competition, but almost as a terraforming process which brings forth a different material and political environment – one that’s hostile to existing social relations and hospitable to new ones orchestrated by centralized digital platforms.

The “congratulations” joke only works if you’re actively thinking about how to sabotage that process. If we don’t want to end up in dystopian co-living pods, we should be working to expand rent control and unwind the massive acquisition of housing stock by private equity. If we want equitable transportation, we’ll need proper funding for mass transit but also a complete transformation of the environment that gives ride-hailing platforms an artificial advantage.

Platforms are quite fragile during the process of “scaling,” which is partly why they spend so heavily to popularize their proprietary vision of the future. Uber is maybe the best example of a company that needs to burn billions of dollars to create its own reality. As Hubert Horan wrote recently on Naked Capitalism, “Much of the Uber/ridesharing story can be seen as a battle between perceptions based on the artificial, manufactured narratives that the media has embraced, and perceptions based on economic/financial evidence.” Its recent IPO flop shows just how far Uber will need to bend the rules of the market in order to become the so-called “Amazon of transportation” and actually turn a profit.

I don’t want to ramble on too long here, but I think it’s worth noting there’s a relationship between the debt that finances startup world-building and the debt which constrains the possibilities of ordinary people and governments. Here I’m thinking of the links Jackie Wang makes between finance, governance, and policing in her book Carceral Capitalism. When platforms disrupt existing industries, such as when Uber forces drivers into predatory leases and labor arrangements, they deepen what Wang calls “a form of financial citizenship that compels us to accept indebtedness as inevitable and to constantly engage in self-disciplinary acts that authorize and extend the debt economy.” They make premium lifestyles available to the already “creditworthy” while allowing predictive policing and to basically update redlining for the digital age. That’s a whole other topic, but I really recommend the book (you can read an excerpt on The New Inquiry). 


What else I’m reading right now:


Thanks for reading.

Jaywalking,

Leo

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