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The Week: dream cities and deadzones
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Indonesia announced it’s moving forward with its new capital city to replace Jakarta:
Indonesia plans to name its new capital Nusantara, which translates as “archipelago”, when government offices are relocated to the province of East Kalimantan from Jakarta, on the island of Java.
President Joko Widodo first announced the plan to move Indonesia’s capital in 2019, in an effort to relieve the huge environmental challenges facing Jakarta, and to redistribute wealth. The move has been delayed due to the pandemic, but could go ahead in 2024.
The government hopes it will reduce the burden on Jakarta, a city of 10 million, which is notoriously congested, suffers regular flooding, and is one of the fastest sinking cities in the world due to the over extraction of groundwater. Parts of north Jakarta are falling at an estimated 25cm a year, due to subsidence – including even the seawall designed as a buffer for communities.
I love reading about purpose-built national capitals. They’re supposed to be the embodiment and expression of an often newly-minted nation, while also reflecting whatever the utopian urban design trends of the day are.
Canberra was designed in accordance with the greenbelt-heavy garden city concept popular in the early 20th century. Washington DC’s wide boulevards and accessible monuments were built as both a dialogue with and egalitarian critique of European noble ideals. Both Brasilia and Islamabad were an expression of the modernist obsessions of the era, with “places that separate out the functions of a city, like a body with so many discrete organs”.
In his book Seeing Like A State, James C. Scott criticises the arch-modernist design of administrative cities like this as being so scientifically designed that they become anti-human. Describing the huge Plaza of the Three Powers in Brasilia, he writes:
If one were to arrange to meet a friend there, it would be rather like trying to meet someone in the middle of the Gobi desert. And if one did meet up with one’s friend, there would be nothing to do.
It’s interesting now that we’re entering an era of relocation motivated by, as in the case of Jakarta, total ecological exhaustion. Rising sea levels and environmental degradation are exacerbating the problems with the city’s snarled urban design, giving the relocation an urgency well beyond utopian political considerations.
I wonder if this will be a feature of the next century, and what these cities will look like. Maybe we’ll get a few fucked up, ultimately unbuildable cyberpunk visions like Saudi Arabia’s NEOM.
Steve Smith NFT
Steve Smith NFT. I have no further comment at this present juncture. Thank you!
Microsoft bought the endemic sexual harassment dip and picked up scandal-plagued video game developer Activision-Blizzard for an eye-watering $75 billion.
Despite the fact this logically seems like a way to lock up a large audience and a number of big gaming IPs for Xbox, it obviously had to be framed in terms of the metaverse, because that’s what everyone is talking about right now:
During a roughly 15-minute investor and media call shortly after the Tuesday announcement, executives from Microsoft and Activision mentioned the term “metaverse” more than 10 times.
“When we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single centralized metaverse,” Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella said on the call. “We need to support many metaverse platforms.”
All of this rhetoric and investment comes despite the fact none of these companies have yet been able to articulate in clear terms what the metaverse is in practice, why people would or should prefer it over the current way of doing things, or why they are pursuing it so aggressively beyond just the general vibe that it’s where the puck is drifting.
What you get instead is just big spending on gaming and gaming-adjacent properties with the suggestion that everything will be gaming in the future, and everyone will love it. Your job will be a game, all your social interactions will be a game, all your commerce will be a game. Again: no real articulation of why we’re going to love this outside of hand waving around the fact that kids love doing it in Roblox, so it will naturally be the next and dominant mode of human organisation. It’s like a strata of tech elite saw the Travis Scott concert in Fortnite and decided that was the future of human culture in its absolute entirety.
Here’s Xbox boss Phil Spencer talking to the New York Times, articulating this vague sort of vision:
And the learning that we have over the years, not only with what you’d say is today’s Teams or Zoom users but also thinking about Gen Z, there’s a whole generation that are growing up where their social connection to the world is through video games. It’s not just about the play itself, but it’s about, where do you hang out after school? Where do you meet your friends? What are those shared experiences that you like to go do together? For the generation that’s growing up, that being a natural way to get things done with your coworkers is going to be much more native than it is for my generation of people, who will seem like kind of a bolt-on to the experience that I’ve had.
I genuinely wonder what it will look like once the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and we all touch grass a little bit.
Anyway, this is what we have to look forward to, I guess:
Over in the online science fiction/fantasy community, there’s currently a debate raging over the term ‘squeecore’, which was popularised in a recent episode of the Rite Gud podcast. The hosts describe squeecore as “the dominant literary movement” of speculative fiction right now, borrowing liberally from the tropes and mores of young adult literature, to create a kind of sterile, boring canon that mollifies its audience and their politics rather than challenging them.
Know Your Meme has a pretty decent summary:
Squeecore is a term popularized by the Rite Gud podcast used to critically describe what they see as the current dominant literary movement in sci-fi and fantasy (SF/F) writing, defined by its reliance on "epic" moments, snarky "epic bacon-style" humor, young adult-style plots even when written for adults, wish-fulfillment and "victory by proxy" and tired tropes about banding together to defeat an ultimate evil, as well as progressive political influences and influences from TV and movies rather than literature. It is defined by The Podhand's JR as a "gentrified version of SF/F."
This led to plenty of arguments and a lot of blogging, which I don’t intend to dig into here. (Here are two responses worth reading.) Obviously, authors and fans are not particularly happy to be saddled with the label. For my part, I do think this one of those things that seems truer than it is in reality, but it’s hard to disagree that the monolithic influences of young adult fiction and the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t being absorbed and reflected by the culture at large.
I’m like a pig at the trough when it comes to these kind of arguments about popular lit. What the debate really reminds me of is author Michael Moorcock’s famous 1978 essay ‘Epic Pooh’1, which roasted The Lord of the Rings as being “a soothing lullaby” for a class of British Tory who were resisting modernity and its attendant social upheavals:
The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beer bottles over the fence, the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom "good taste" is synonymous with "restraint" (pastel colours, murmured protest) and "civilised" behaviour means "conventional behaviour in all circumstances".
This is not to deny that courageous characters are found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter to The Times, and we are not sure – because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders – if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we're told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can't be all bad.
This essay has been furiously debated in the community in the years since. It’s not a stretch to see echoes of what Moorcock is talking about here in a lot of genre fiction here, both in literature and film, which chooses a certain gentle worldview as its first principle, and serves to comfort it as a therapeutic.
I wrote a simple explainer on the new generation of instant commerce platforms for Business Insider Australia, and why/how they’re selling themselves as being apart from the gig economy. Real heads — i.e. my paying subscribers — will already know this, as I wrote a more detailed take the other week.
I’m keen to read David J. Chalmers upcoming book, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. Reviews are starting to filter out, looks promising.
From the New Yorker: “How Tumblr Became Famous For Being Obsolete”.
On the “the coming psychedelic-industrial complex” and the mainstream-ification and elite acceptance of hallucinogens.
Super interesting story on the booming market for online reputation fixers.
A tribute to the humble port-a-potty, the “secret MVP of sports”, at ESPN.
Kinda cool: a platform that uses the GPT-3 language model to summarise any academic paper you feed into it.
Moorcock revised this essay several times over the years, which is why there are references to JK Rowling and other more recent authors.