Friday, May 21, 2010

If Progress Is An Illusion, Why Do We Keep Clinging To It?

It’s kind of striking, really. Go into any large city and you’ll see various “legacy” buildings… monuments… parks… and so on, all signs of what is called “urban optimism”. This was an attitude -- almost impossible to imagine in our time -- when cities were considered to be our greatest achievement, the symbol of progress, the best hope for the future, and so on. Even at the time I was in college (mid 1960s) the cities were still a sort of magnet for youth -- everyone wanted to live in New York (preferably Greenwich Village). The cities were where the action was -- where anything worth doing could be done, and done better. But that was before the riots, and before people fully realized the toll that highway construction, “urban renewal”, ethnic cleansing (of whites), and mass taxpayer-funded warehousing of black people had taken. As cities descended into anarchy and became vast wastelands, the eyes of youth turned more toward the countryside, and you had the “communes” and other manifestations of a sort of latter-day back-to-the-land movement. This is still going on to some extent, and it has also created a new dynamic between the cities and the countryside, mediated largely by younger people who not only believe in both but believe they can be made symbiotic (as opposed to being at knife points culturally, politically, and economically). So we have the fresh food/local food movement, farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and even efforts on the part of some major grocery chains to get in on the action (as long as it enhances the bottom line, of course). And at the same time some areas of some cities are being re-colonized, again by young people who specialize in turning vacant lots into community gardens, and fixing up old houses that were somehow spared destruction by the urban renewal juggernaut. (They may have been part of a “blighted” area, but were saved when the urban renewal/highway money ran out.) And of course the people who remained in the cities all along -- like the underground inhabitants in some post-nuclear dystopia movie -- aren’t so sure they like all these fresh, smiling, mostly-white faces in their midst. It is, after all, their turf… their “hood”. They fought for it, and they have lived and died (especially the latter) there for at least couple of generations. So there will be some pushback now and then -- and even city governments aren’t sure which side of the issue they want to be on. Do they want to support urban homesteading or oppose it? After all, they have had a captive voting bloc all these years, as well as an “economic” base for gigantic social welfare programs and public education (so-called). And these newcomers seem a bit… anarchistic, frankly. They believe in doing things at a local level… they don’t buy “fast food”… they are too “arty”… and so forth. The ideal city model for the old timers is a bunch of power types who live either way uptown or in high rises, lording it over the hapless proletariat; grass-roots movements contradict that and get in the way. (Even legitimate community activism on the part of blacks is viewed with, at best, ambivalence. Someone might start asking questions!)

Thus, a very short summary of what became of urban optimism and why. Its demise was a convergence of political, economic, cultural, and historical trends -- but it’s not true that it “just happened” and that it was no one’s fault. Urban optimism was defeated because there were enough people with enough power who wanted to see the cities destroyed rather than see them prosper. The strictly mechanistic, anti-human model of a city as being only a place to work, but not to live, was the driving force -- thus the massive highway projects which brought things to a point where large areas of many cities are devoted entirely to roads -- no houses, no business, no nothing -- just roads. They lead in, they lead out, they lead around… but they don’t contribute anything to organic growth or sustainment. Our cities now resemble nothing so much as a patient in an intensive care unit -- hooked up to dozens of tubes, probes, wires, etc. and kept alive in a grotesque, artificial way -- but unable to sustain life on their own. And yet, in the midst of all this, stand the true radicals -- much more radical than the rural commune hippie types -- who refuse to give up on cities… on the vision that has stimulated mankind since… well, since the dawn of civilization, because “civilization” implies, and would not truly exist without, cities.

The irony, of course, is that even the most determined urban homesteader -- or any number thereof -- can only bring a city part way back to where it was a few generations earlier -- i.e. before the riots, before “urban renewal”, before the mass migrations from the South. Their efforts may result in a few small areas of tranquility, but they will fall far short of the vision of urban optimism or any of its associated utopian models. The ideal city, in fact -- the vision of the “city planners” -- does not exist and probably never has… and, we can say with some assurance, never will. But why is this? Is it because there is something wrong with cities -- with the whole concept -- or because there is something wrong with people… or a bit of each? And a more basic question is this: If cities represent civilization, in the literal sense, do they also, automatically, represent “progress”?

And right away we have to define what we mean by “progress”. Do a simple word association test with most people, and they will almost immediately say “technology”. (A few generations ago they would have said “industry” or “business“ or "gross national product".) And this matches the common, almost universal, notion that progress equals nothing more or less than “more” -- bigger, faster, louder, shinier, and so on. How many will, right off the bat, associate progress with quality of life? And, for that matter, what would they say if you asked them to define “quality of life”? You might be right back in the “technology” trap. So is quality of life only about “stuff”? Or about speed, which Kurt Vonnegut said was the great sin of our time? The average teenager seems to think so. But most societies up to the present day have not taken the priorities of teenagers as the basis of value for the society as a whole. (In fact, most societies up to the present day haven’t had “teenagers” at all. They’ve had “children” and “adults”. But that’s a discussion for another time.)

What if we thought of “quality of life” the way we think of water -- seeking its own level? How does one explain illegal immigration, for example? Isn’t it all about people seeking a better “quality of life” (according to their own value system, of course)? And some may find it, and others may be disappointed… and some may go back where they came from, enlightened and chastened. But at least they have had the opportunity to make comparisons. I’m sure that many people -- most, in fact -- would enjoy an enhanced quality of life (at least temporarily) if they could just wave a magic wand and be transported to any place on earth (of their choice) and allowed to remain there. (Although one wonders whether this act in the aggregate might not be self-defeating -- imagine if 5 million people all wanted to live on Waikiki Beach.) Or let’s say that there is a Master Assigner of Persons who could, on a worldwide basis, weigh each individual’s preferences against all available locations and come up with an optimal solution that represented the greatest good for the greatest number -- kind of like what the Army tries to do with job assignments. Not many people would get their first choice, but most people would wind up at least slightly better off, and certainly no one would wind up with their last choice. But, human nature being what it is, no sooner would some people settle into their new digs than they would start finding things to complain about, and go back to the Master Assigner, petitioning for redress.

Plus, of course, happiness or contentment are not simply about location and environment, they are also about other “things” as well as intangibles -- family, friends, social factors -- and opportunities to partake in cultural activities, educational opportunities, etc. These are some of the factors that weigh into the assessments we see, on a regular basis, of the “quality of life” in various cities and in various places around the world. So there is a sort of central tendency in what people consider good or bad about a given place and a given living environment -- and yet there is a remarkably wide range of tastes. There will always be people who prefer life above the Arctic Circle, for example… or life in the Amazon jungle, or in the desert. Some people can tolerate cities and some can’t. Some revel in the “low life” of cities, in fact -- they would be lost without sleazy bars, strip joints, and night clubs to go to. For them, the city represents not the optimism of its builders, but a sort of demi-monde in which one can become willingly lost. Others would rather have a small, white frame house in a small town, with tacky wooden cut-outs in the front yard. And so on. In any case, each person defines “quality of life” for him- or herself, and it’s somewhat of a miracle if a government bureau defines it the same way as any given individual would -- although they certainly do try, as we all know.

So can we say that “progress” is simply the fact of an increase in the aggregate quality of life? If more people are happier now than they were a year ago, is that progress, or is there more to it? (And note that, so far, it has nothing necessarily to do with “technology”.) Are wars, famines, and plagues interruptions of progress, or are they on a different continuum? And also, does the “vote” of dead people count? Are they still allowed to have a voice, albeit post-mortem, as to what is, or ought to be, of value to a society and its members? Let’s not forget that the paramount symbol of “progress” in the postwar era was the wrecking ball -- in other words, “progress” meant doing away with the old and building the new, regardless of any other considerations. And the citizenry of that era were sold a bill of goods by their political masters; you know, it was “excuse our dust” -- and everything would be back to normal -- no, better! -- before long. But that never happened, by and large; the temporary became permanent, and the building-down was never succeeded by a meaningful building-up. Many "blighted" areas were simply demolished and the luckless inhabitants shipped off to a suburban ghetto. And what was put in the place of the "blighted" but nonetheless dynamic and livable (on its own terms) area? Every city has these new moonscapes or no-man’s-lands… places that were “renewed” at great expense, and supposed to attract upscale businesses, residents, and so on… but which instantly turned into dangerous, depressed areas with “mixed housing” -- which is a euphemism for “projects” but with slightly more attractive facades. (You can always pick out these areas because they have what I call "ghetto street lighting" and there is no one on the street at any time, day or night.) The problem, as everywhere else and down through history, is that the young, the dispossessed, the insane, and the unemployed rule the streets… and the working residents are forced to scuttle between their triple-locked doors and their cars, drive to work somewhere else, drive back at the end of the day, scuttle back inside, and barricade themselves until it’s time to go back to work the next morning. What’s the difference between this and living in an untamed wilderness, with highway robbers and brigands running rampant up and down the countryside? The truth is, there isn’t any.

I don’t think anyone but the most delusional -- or politicians -- would see the above scenario as an example of “progress”. But we don’t have to confine our argument to the cities, whether bad or good. They are the most technologically-intense sectors of society, but agriculture is highly mechanized as well, and it is also a mixed blessing. To counterbalance the local food movement, we have other products being shipped halfway around the world… and we have all the delightful side effects (more of which are being discovered every day, and many of which, I contend, are yet to be discovered) of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, food processing, packaging, storing, shipping, and so on. Eat enough “frankenfoods” and you become a “frankenperson”! And the same thing holds true for medicine, but even more so. We are all “products” of our environment in a radical way -- we contain, in our bodies (and, in some cases, to a much greater degree of concentration), all that is in that environment. And again, this is all about technology -- but I say that it’s the very opposite of progress, because it goes against quality of life. (But -- you might say -- I _enjoy_ having “fresh” raspberries from New Zealand in January, at $10 a pint. Well, maybe -- but what did they have to do to those raspberries to keep them pink and fresh all the way from the farm in New Zealand to the produce aisle at Foodland? Are we really eating emblamed corpses of what used to be fresh produce?)

And then we see what past generations, and other societies, have considered to be earmarks of quality of life, and we have to ask, were they onto something that we have missed, or neglected, or forgotten? We are reminded of these things on a regular basis anytime we’re confronted with “nostalgia” or anything “old fashioned”. But I can remember -- again, back in the golden age of the wrecking ball -- when the key words in marketing were “new” and “improved” -- usually followed by a parade of exclamation points (and printed on a yellow sunburst). “Old fashioned” was a term of derision and disrepute -- and the notion of anything being “hand made”, much less “organic”, was completely absent. (It took the hippies to rediscover those ideas and start the ball rolling.) So I’m saying that we tend to be a bit provincial and short-sighted when it comes to our assessments of quality. The venerable houses and buildings that were demolished a mere 20 years ago to make room for malls and parking lots are now mourned… and historical preservation societies are springing up in order to save what little remains. And yet some, even today, would gladly take the wrecking ball to anything that existed before their own lifetime. They are somehow threatened by the past, and by past judgments of quality -- as if they have doubts as to the validity of that which is now valued, and of their own personal values. In short, they don’t want to be reminded of past achievements, and have them juxtaposed with the present wasteland. So if they are neurotic on this issue, it’s up to the rest of us to stop them, it seems to me. If we never see another Robert Moses again, it will be too soon.

But this leads to my next point, which is -- given that quality of life is a highly subjective thing, and I have yet to see it linked definitively to “technology” (since there are as many good arguments against technology, from a quality of life point of view, as there are arguments for technology), what is it that sustains the illusion of “progress”? That is, why do people not only believe in it but insist that it is constantly happening all around us, and that it is futile to try and stop it? (And you’ll notice that the common claim, “You can’t stop progress”, is never accompanied by what should be the second half of the sentence… like, “… and that’s good”, or “… and that’s bad”. There is a kind of practiced neutrality in the statement, in other words.) I think part of it is fear -- firstly, fear of being “different”, of being seen as “against progress”, as though that were some sort of thought crime. But there is another kind of fear, namely that of progress itself -- or mainly of technology. It’s the kind expressed in the old saw, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Technology seems so all-powerful, so all-pervasive… like a monolithic living thing… that I think people really believe that if they fight it, or deny its value, it will come back at them with a vengeance and crush them. (And anyone who interacts with computers on a regular basis knows that there is a real basis for this fear! But a previous generation thought of cars in this way.) Plus, we see how government has embraced technology for its own purposes -- chief among them being to spy on, monitor, and keep track of the citizenry (for their own good, of course). So if you fight progress, you are also fighting city hall, which is even worse. And we see how readily our fellow citizens are turned into robots or clones of the technology -- especially in the area of communications and entertainment, but also when it comes to food, clothing, and health care. Like the denizens of some sci-fi future world, their sense organs are glued to machines day and night, and virtually without ceasing. Even now, most conversations take place with people we are not face-to-face with in the same room… a drastic psychological shift from the way things were just a couple of generations ago. The person becomes merged with the machine -- and in many case cannot be distinguished from the machine. We now have machines that speak with better grammar, and much better diction, than most people -- and are at least as smart, at least in their areas of specialization. And yet all of this is seen as “progress” -- or at least as “inevitable” like any other technological “advance”.

So in one sense we can say that people believe in “progress” because they have been brainwashed, and they aren’t aware that there are any alternatives. (Everyone knows about the Amish, but they’re just “quaint”, and it only works because there aren’t that many of them. Plus, they “cheat”.) Besides which, people have a natural tendency to notice only that which has changed but is still in front of their noses. Things that have disappeared also disappear from memory. And things that only one’s parents or grandparents remember -- well! That’s a pretty hopeless case. Of course, we always have books, and even movies -- but again, those seldom get to the essence of what made an earlier time different from the present. (Mark Twain could not have contrasted his time with ours because ours hadn’t happened yet. This is obvious, but people tend to forget the fact.) There is a definite tendency to be rooted in the here and now -- for better or worse. But our “here and now” is, paradoxically, rooted in the “somewhere else and tomorrow”, i.e. in the illusion of progress, of its inevitability, of its desirability. We seldom stop to reflect that yesterday’s ideas of progress resulted in the world we have today -- that alone should be enough to sober us up on the notion. Of course, it wasn’t the urban optimists who destroyed the cities; it was those who came after -- those who had no ideas but to wreck, destroy, and thereby “improve”. (“They made a desert and called it peace” -- but it wasn’t even peace.) We can look back now and see that their program was one long orgy of deconstruction (and contemporary architecture continues to reflect this fact). They looked upon the works of man and decided that they didn’t like what they saw. Perhaps they lacked the vision and creativity of the past -- or even of the present, like Howard Roark’s enemies in “The Fountainhead”. So one might say that our cities, as they are today, represent the failures and neuroses of the powerful -- certainly nothing new in history, which is replete with grandiose follies of both construction and destruction. They were clearly trying to punish someone, or something -- mainly themselves, but by using others as scapegoats.

But how does anyone acquire the power to destroy a city -- especially with the apparent cooperation of its inhabitants? Again, is this an emergent quality of cities or of people? Have people decided, on some unconscious level, that they have had enough of the urban experiment, and that it’s time to do away with it the way the Khmer Rouge destroyed the cities of Cambodia and sent everyone out into the country side to starve? Do cities, in other words, contain the seeds of their own destruction? But again we have to return to the root of the word “civilization”. A society that consists only of farmers, hunters, or herdsmen is not usually considered a civilization at all -- only an accumulation of humanity, each of them going about their own relatively independent business. So I think it yet has to be proven that cities, by nature, “don’t work”. Some have been around for thousands of years, and they seem to work about as well as the alternatives. What I think is more likely is that people bring with them, to the cities, their own cultural tendencies and their own neuroses -- their sensitivities, their phobias, their agendas, their frustrations, their anger. In our time, people flock to cities seeking opportunity, adventure, and -- perhaps most important of all -- anonymity. In a city, you can do what you want and no one cares… and this is what many people want, despite the risks. For if you can do what you want, so can everyone else… and large tracts of our cities have become areas of anarchy in which people, basically, compete for survival just as vigorously as if they were in the midst of a teeming jungle. And yet many of them wouldn’t have it any other way. The alternatives -- the suburbs, small-town life, the countryside -- are crushingly boring by comparison. (So don’t feel too sorry for those types who “rule” in the “hood” -- they chose that life style, by and large.)

And in fact, I don’t think that our present culture is any more anti-city than it is anti-anything else. It is a profoundly negative, self-destructive culture we have here, which will turn anything it touches into dross. It’s just that cities are more vulnerable and labile because they are entirely man-made and are much more dependent on many and multi-layered forms of symbiosis, whereas the countryside is more rooted in the cycles of nature and is therefore much more stable. What makes the city exciting and attractive in good times, in other words, is the same as what makes it dangerous and fatal in bad times -- its almost infinite flexibility and lack of rules. It’s just that we have chosen, in our era, to have bad times -- not that we have any particular animus toward the city (although the urban renewalists of a previous era definitely did). Likewise, whereas the countryside and nature impose their own limits on the human concept of “progress”, the city does not. The buildings can extend to the sky -- until they come crashing down. So if the illusion of progress is strongest anywhere, it is in the cities… and if it is thwarted and leads to disillusion anywhere, it is likewise in the cities. This is one reason, I believe, why our notions of progress have shifted from tangible things -- buildings and roads, e.g. -- to intangibles, like the Internet. “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”, as a New Yorker cartoon said -- you don’t have to prove anything, and there is no conclusive evidence of either success or failure -- it just _is_. It is, if you will, the ultimate existential experience -- technology for its own sake, and “communication” which is really mostly noise and very little useful information, also for its own sake. We “communicate” thousands of times more often, and more rapidly, than our grandparents did, but the total amount of useful or worthwhile information is the same (if that). That old network tagline, “We’re in touch, so you be in touch” should have been “We pretend to be in touch, so you can be brainwashed.” And now that the “big 3” networks have been replaced by hundreds of cable channels and millions of web sites, the most we can be sure of is that the brainwashing has increased in intensity and diversity, but it remains brainwashing nonetheless.

No comments: