Karmic Economics

I: Modernity

Image via hyperallergic.com

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber sums up capitalism with a powerful picture which has stuck in my mind. He sets the stage in the late Middle Ages, which ended roughly around 1450 AD, during which the seeds for our modern financial world order were sown. In that era, executive power still mostly rested with a warmongering monarch whose sovereignty rested on conquest of land and resources. At the same time, however, a great deal of new power came from the nascent global marketplace, in which merchants, stock brokers, and everyday citizens could make shiploads of money by investing collectively. The Silk Road and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, for example, were not created by a single person in charge, but by groups of people pooling their resources for collective payoff. This was novel because an everyday citizen could buy stock in, say, the Dutch East India Company, and simply watch their money grow as the company’s successful overseas trade machine reaped more and more rewards. Lastly, Graeber points out a vastly overlooked X-factor: religion. Though they are different, there is a core belief which Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other dominant religions shared: that there is a world beyond our physical world, and that the goal of life is to connect to that world. Whether or not everyone actually believed this, the mindset paralleled the marketplace in that both sought to emphasize immaterial things (e.g., the eternal soul and financial derivatives) over physical things (e.g., idols and gold ingots). In fact, Graeber uses the trajectory of this very belief to define for himself when the “Middle Ages” start and conclude. Mix together monarchs, stock markets, and religions in a bowl. Stir until bubbly, and the result, to me, is the cycle of perpetual debt and ballooning wealth which still defines our financial world today. It is strongly paralleled by the Faustian bargain of endless change central to Marshall Berman’s origin story of modernity in his seminal All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

The exemplar of this Age was Sinbad the Sailor. A creation of legend from the beginning, generational re-tellings have shapeshifted his image from a working-class merchant to a swashbuckling adventurer (because come on, who wins the popularity contest?) According to the Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad retires to a life of leisure, surrounded by treasure and dancing women on an enormous estate, recounting tales of his life of adventure to visitors. This career move, getting out of the perpetual hustle, is described by Graeber as “cashing in the chips.”

Sinbad the Sailor, as depicted in the Disney version from 2003. Voiced by, and perhaps even modeled after, Brad Pitt. Image via http://www.animatedheroes.com/sinbad.html

I was strongly affected by the image of modern life as a casino. We are born on an endless carousel ride, which we both power and enjoy with our nine-to-fives, 401(k)s, and charitable donations. However, the secret to really enjoying life is to get off the carousel at just the right moment: early enough to enjoy more time not working, but late enough that you’ve saved enough to spend in retirement. We have all heard this cliche in commercials for life insurance or annuities. “Cashing in the chips” is our ticket out of there.

II: Communism

But our time in the casino isn’t for our individual benefit only. Whenever we pay taxes or produce a good or service, we are actually doing it for people whom we most likely haven’t met. When I design an office building, I do not know the people working in the factory that produces the windows, nor do I even know the building’s future tenants. Likewise, the building’s future tenant will never have met the person who made the keyboard she’s typing on, nor will she know the farmer who grew the rice she got for lunch at Dig Inn. We all rely on a complex global system to find a place for everyone wishing to produce something, and everyone wishing to consume something. Whether or not that system needs more or less regulation is another debate: what I want to emphasize is the collective, cooperative spirit that makes it possible in the first place. Graeber gives this economic trust between strangers a simple name: communism.

Communism, as defined in Debt, is what allows me to do work for my community (be that my neighborhood or the human race) without asking for anything in return. It stops me from grabbing a weapon to threaten my neighbor to pay me back the money he owes me. Think of the last time you got dinner with a friend. You split the check down the middle with two credit cards. Now, did you study the bill and count exactly how much each person has spent on food? No, because that difference is less important than the gesture of good will, the very wellspring of cooperation which sets our species apart. Do parents ask their children to pay them back for all of their work when the kid turns 18? Unless you’re an economist, that sounds crazy. If I buy a $1 bag of chips, I cannot then go and exchange it for a phone call or a stamp.

The same is true at large scales. When Samuel J. Tilden bequeaths over $2 million to help fund the construction of the New York Public Library, he cannot later ask that the building be demolished and the cash returned to them (mostly because he’d be dead). When Oprah Winfrey gives $40 million for educational causes, she should expect nothing in return. There is a whole other conversation to be had nowadays about the erosive influence of billionaires on democratic processes (see: Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas), but if kept in check, the act of charitable giving has the same roots in communism. This may seem anathema to capitalism, which sees the entire world in numbers of monetary value like Neo sees the Matrix in binary, but they are actually two sides of the same coin (no pun intended).

Capitalism sees the entire world in numbers representing monetary value like Neo sees the Matrix in binary and Japanese characters. Image via techexplore.com

Which brings me to the misunderstood American Dream. Most people define the American Dream in two parts: 1) start from nothing, then 2) build a fortune with entrepreneurial grit. But a healthy economy requires a balance of earning and spending. You must pass on the all-powerful government debt in order to fully enjoy the fruits of your labor. Dollars are not an end in themselves; you must cash in the chips. The moment you 3) recirculate your money back to society is, for me, the moment the American Dream is fulfilled.

III: Karma

In my college years, I adhered to a concept of which everyone has a working understanding. Karma (if you’ll allow me to summarize it perilously short beyond better ones here and here) conceptualizes the world through actions and their consequences. Everything you do will have an effect on something else out there in the universe, and everything the universe does will in some measure effect you. Karma implores the individual to take their actions seriously, to consider them carefully, and execute them with intention and presence. It forces one to see the world as more homogeneous than at first glance, more like a pool of existence through which actions propagate like ripples in water. When I do something, it spreads outward in all directions, animating every adjacent molecule, eventually reaching the far end of the world, and maybe even returning to me. And even then, the wave doesn’t stop. It passes through me and continues traveling through the animated universe. In this pool, nothing is permanent, no object remains in one state forever, so therefore it’s pointless to become attached. Do not hoard things which appear valuable. Recirculate them as soon as you can. Then, when things come to you, remember that they haven’t necessarily come from nothing (like so-called “government handouts”), nor necessarily from your own previous actions (like thinking “I worked hard and I earned this”). Rather, this thing is just passing through you on its tour of the universe.

The endless knot, an important symbol in Buddhism. Image via Wikipedia.

That sounds awfully similar to capitalism, doesn’t it? Replace “action” with “dollar,” for example, and the idea still holds. The fact that a religion and an economic system are a nudge away from swapping places was a revelation for me. Karma and capital conceptualize the world in oddly similar ways:

  • The entire universe can be broken down into some abstract medium X,
  • Which is different from the world as it appears to us Y,
  • The best way to exist is to allow X to flow continuously through Y.

III: Two Minus Two Equals Two

We do not hold dollar bills in our pockets because the paper is important to us. We only hold onto them when we need to exchange them for something we need which someone else has made for us. Take a dollar bill, or a coin, out of your pocket and study it for a moment. It has probably passed through dozens or hundreds of hands over the course of its life, propagating through the capitalist universe like a ripple, tilting fortunes up and down, masquerading as a bag of chips one day, a bus fare another day, or a gesture of goodwill another day. A dollar, like a karmic action, is a proxy for human cooperation, a token of trust, a reminder of consequences. It’s not important what your current occupation is, but rather the deeds you do. It’s not important the stuff you have, but rather their monetary value. Physical substance is not important, nothing is permanent.

Found at Llama Party, a Bolivian restaurant in Gotham Market at The Ashland, Downtown Brooklyn.

Why am I talking about this? Because I think capitalism needs a fresh injection of karma. It needs a slap across the face to remind its adherents of the need for BOTH individual action AND collective cooperation. If we combine the economic imperative to keep goods and services flowing without keeping strict tabs with the moral imperative to disassociate our possessions from our identities, we get great public works. Great public works include both the multimillion-dollar public libraries and non-corrupt, volunteer-powered community boards and parks. The last great round of these kinds of works, in my opinion, was about 100 years ago (thanks to the Great Depression). Will it ever happen again? Nowadays, large-scale works are mostly built by the private sector, for the public; instead of by the public, for the public. Are the richest people in the world right now hoarding, or gifting? All signs point to the former, unfortunately. What will we need to do, concretely, in order to re-empower citizens to properly participate in the making of their cities? Do we need to re-label the dollar bill?

In each other we trust.

What we talk about when we talk about Urban Renewal

I. The Chicago Plan

I have written before about the relationship between spaces for production and the spaces for consumption which must both exist in cities. It is a slow dance that has been going on for centuries, and it begs the following question: if there is a slow dance, when does the music change?

Imagine it is fall in the year 1909. Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett have just published their grand master plan for the City of Chicago. This plan promises to expand the city in a new way: not outward as in the 19th century, but inward, taking on greater density and improving quality of life. The 50 or so years prior had been defined primarily by the United States’ aggressive westward expansion by railroad, but San Francisco had been reached already around 1870, and the next chapter of the country’s development was underway. As Burnham himself wrote: “The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living?” To answer that question, the plan implemented a strategy which in my mind was key to its success: targeting axes of movement, and making them more efficient. From Ancient Rome to Paris, any city plan worth its salt knows to focus on paths instead of places. Likewise, the 1909 Chicago Plan called for an enlarged network of parks and public spaces, standardized streets which prioritized access to downtown, and critically, consolidated freight and rail lines that supplied goods to & from the city.

This last part is most interesting to me because its results are less tangible. Infrastructure, practically by the subterranean hint in its name, is difficult to see. It may have come to acquire this quality because of the belt-tightening legacy that city plans like Burnham’s imposed on it.

Freight handling plan from Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

A large plot of land close to downtown and on the waterfront was to be granted to the Illinois Central Railroad company. That site would undergo an exemplary transformation 88 years later, when Millennium Park was built on top of the site. The park is now the city’s most popular destination, and most visitors are unaware of the fact that trains are passing under their feet. One can argue that the strongest impetus for the renewal was the symbolic millennium year, but I say that even more important was the 100-year anniversary of Burnham’s and Bennett’s Chicago Plan.

Aerial photograph of the Illinois Central Railroad rail yard along Michigan Avenue, just south of the Chicago River inlet. Image via City of Chicago.
South Water Street Illinois Central Railroad freight terminal, 1943. Image via The Atlantic.
Metra Train passing under East Monroe Street in Millennium Park, Chicago IL. Photo via trainweb.org.

I think Burnham’s proposal was heavily motivated by his rejected proposal for the mega-development of New York Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal just a few years earlier. That terminal, and the strip of real estate known as Park Avenue that stretches from it, is a lasting model of “urban renewal:” cover up your infrastructure, create real estate out of thin air, and capture the value when JP Morgan, The Union Club, or half the city’s pediatricians set up shop.

Some 55 blocks north of Grand Central, a New York Central P-2 electric bursts out of the Park Avenue Tunnel with the Chicago-bound ‘Pacemaker’ in the 1950s. Photo credit Herbert H. Harwood. Via Classic Trains Magazine.

II. Let’s look at some other examples

The Fulton Fish Market, less of a piece of infrastructure but nonetheless an important organ for NYC commerce and industry, did last almost 200 years from the 1820s (coinciding with the opening of the Erie Canal) to 2005 in its South Street location. However, in the 1930s Mayor LaGuardia oversaw the construction of a new steel building to house operations when the previous wooden one collapsed into the East River from rot. Thereafter, The South Street Seaport Museum opened in 1967, the multi-story Pier 17 shopping center and music venue opened in 1983, and finally, the fish market itself relocated to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx in 2005. In retrospect, the site’s history divides into roughly 100 years of active industry, followed by 100 years of “urban renewal,” which was a harbinger for the transformation of waterfronts more generally. Battery Park City (which was paired up in proximity to the World Trade Center), Hunters Point Queens, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and more have all replicated the model, infilling land with recreation space, turning warehouses into shops, and blasting land values through the roof.

South Street Seaport, 1901. Photo via NY Boat Charter.
South Street Seaport, circa 2010. Photo via New York Observer.

Fresh Kills Landfill, meanwhile, had a much faster life cycle. Merely 7 years after opening in 1948 it already became the world’s largest landfill (Go New York!). After management debacles, questions about sanitation’s entanglement with the Mafia, and the gradual outsourcing of garbage disposal to other sites, the City finally closed Fresh Kills down in 2001, just about 50 years after opening. Since then, a slow effort has been underway to transform the site into a public park and natural reserve, mainly by building directly on top of the garbage. Methane is controlledly harvested for domestic heating of nearby residences. The pace was quicker, but again we see an example of a piece of important infrastructure being covered to create land for public use.

Fresh Kills Park. Gas wells that penetrate down to the methane-emitting garbage below provide a glimpse of the infrastructure that once was. Photo via freshkillspark.org.

Lately, I’ve noticed all the rage shift back to rail yards. Truckee, CA, Sioux Falls, SD, Norfolk, VA, Sacramento, CA, Hoboken, NJ, Charlotte, NC, Philadelphia, PA, and Santa Fe, NM, are just a few of the cities around the country that are throwing development dollars at their centenarian rail yards, having witnessed the massive impact of projects like Hudson Yards. At this point, it seems all you have to do is add the word “Yard” to a project to make it sell.

Charlotte, NC’s South End redevelopment features a building called The RailYard. “Companies like coworking giant WeWork and consulting firm Slalom have since settled in, and employees are already working at The RailYard, a two-building project that includes about 300,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of retail.”
Image via Charlotte Business Journal.
Coal Drops Yard, London, 2018. The former coal transfer depot has transformed into a retail park, crowned by a swooping new roof by Thomas Heatherwick, Arup, and BAM Construct. Image via Lonelyplanet.

III. Symbiosis

If this symbiosis is inherent to cities, then what will its next evolution look like? To answer that question one simply needs to ask: what type of infrastructure is currently a) occupying a lot of territory, and b) vital to the economy? The most obvious answer, to me, is automobiles.

Now, I’m not saying that cars will disappear, just like trains and ships haven’t disappeared despite the redevelopment they’ve absorbed. What I am suggesting is that pressure is increasing on cars to share the vast swaths of territory that they have captured over the past hundred years or so. The United States Congress passed The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in June 1933, kicking off the New Deal. The NIRA in turn created the Public Works Administration, which oversaw the construction of over 10,000 road-building projects across the country and spent approximately 5% of US GDP that year ($3.3 billion budget over $60 billion GDP). Nowadays, cars have entangled themselves into our lives, from highways cutting through neighborhoods to Amazon trucks making our on-demand deliveries to our lingering oil addiction. This entanglement also sprouts all manner of auxiliary infrastructure, like parking spaces, gas stations, and auto body shops. So what will happen to these territories as cars slowly get pushed out of dense city centers? We are already seeing early hints of human-scale uses infiltrating highways and parking garages. The 100-year mark will be 2033. Let’s revisit then.

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, 2012. Photo via Wikipedia.
1111 Lincoln Road by Herzog & de Meuron. A parking garage doubles as retail, office, and event space. Infrastructure Week Lite. Image via New York Times.

The thought of redesigning a highway into a pedestrian boulevard or a parking building into a hotel would make any architect or planner salivate. But why stop there? Let’s look further into the future. What’s another piece of public work that we are dependent on? Airplanes.

The explosion of commercial air travel began in the 1950s, not far behind automobiles. Airports are still getting built and expanded the world over, so it’s hard to tell if we are at a peak or not, but what will happen when oil stops being our main source of energy? Or when flight shaming becomes a generational pandemic? Suddenly those airports that are encroaching over sensitive wetlands and quiet residential neighborhoods will start to look much more wasteful. There are already examples of their takeover in Berlin and New York City.

Tempelhof, Berlin. Once a commercial airport like any other, it closed down in 2008 and has since become a yawning public park. Image via Amusing Planet.
Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, JFK Airport. Now repurposed as a luxury hotel and event space. Image via totalfood.com.

This isn’t just about Infrastructure Week; the first half of the 21st century may prove to be an Infrastructure Era. Many urban centers in the West were rocketed to prominence by building booms centered around transportation and manufacturing in the 19th century, while in the 20th century and in the early 21st century, building booms have mostly been fueled by service economies and speculation. That is: moving white-collar desk workers from place to place, creating spaces for them to live happily as consumers, and outsourcing the production of that which is consumed. Notice: the inhabitation of revitalized areas of former industry is largely done by a consumer, service-based economy: marketers, designers, and managers eating at Time Out Markets, buying Coach bags, and opening bank accounts. What we talk about when we talk about “development” seldom includes bridges and factories anymore. To wit: manufacturing zoning districts have all but disappeared from Manhattan, so even a brewery has to find space in Queens, the Bronx, or Brooklyn.

The budding 21st century is a good time for citydwellers to come to terms with this symbiosis. We have to be deliberate about the winners and losers of urban renewal, acknowledge what is displaced when a warehouse becomes a restaurant, and anticipate where the city will transform next. The fact is that as long as humans stream to cities in large volumes in search of the good life, they will continue to need equally large volumes of space dedicated to the production of the good life’s ingredients. What will the next dance between public space and industry look like? When will the music change? And will the song be a remix of a old hit, or something new entirely?

Tom Cruise, alone, in Times Square. Still from Vanilla Sky, 2001. Image via Boston by Bike.

Stories we re-tell ourselves

At the risk of sounding like folks who listen to classical music only to feel sophisticated, Steve Reich is one of my favorite composers. Yes, I know, his isn’t strictly speaking classical music. But he’s certainly embedded in the timeline (to his approbation or not, given that he started out as a bit of a maverick). Nonetheless, he’s a living legend and I digress.

One of the principal appeals of Reich’s music is its simplicity. Especially with his early compositions from the 60s and 70s, it doesn’t require a musical education to process what you hear. Even his later compositions, which have become more structurally complex, retain an obvious tonal clarity. No matter if it’s Violin Phase from 1967 or if it’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra from 2018, the music sounds like it’s coming out of crystal speakers. Steve Reich’s music is the sonic equivalent of a stained glass window.

The power of such clarity cannot be understated. With it, a listener engages the music directly, without relying on external information like sheet music or liner notes. You know those small panels that hang next to art in museums, the ones with the title, date, materials, donors, and sometimes a paragraph about the piece’s background or composition? The next time you are in a museum, pay close attention: people tend to spend more time reading those descriptions than looking at the artwork. Words are easier to process and more comforting to us than marks on a canvas. They are a kind of intellectual crutch we seek when faced with a painting or a photograph that we are led to believe has some deep meaning beyond our grasp. I find that they stunt analytic activity and would much rather do away with them. Steve Reich’s music never needs that accompanying text.

And yet… I can’t help myself. Once in a while I’ll open YouTube and watch an interview or documentary on Reich. One of my favorites of these is a 2006 episode of The South Bank Show. Part 3 covers the controversial premiere of Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1970.

From the first viewing I remember being struck by how elegantly and poetically both Reich and Michael Tilson Thomas were able to describe such a stressful moment in their lives, which at the time of the interviews was over 35 years ago. They used expressions like “cat calls,” “moment of silence,” “avalanche of boos,” “geological cataclysm of boos,” “white as a sheet,” “this is history!,” “what went through my mind was Nijinsky screaming out the numbers during the Rite of Spring to the dancers,” “for sure by tomorrow everyone in the world is going to be talking about you and your music.” These are expressions that certainly don’t cross your mind in the moment. That stuck with me. Also, since I wasn’t there in 1970, I clung extra-fast to these words since they were the only available description of that event.

I first watched that video, and those words lodged themselves into my brain, about 5 years ago. Then, last week, I got back on a Steve Reich kick (fueled by deadlines and the need for repetitive working music), and inevitably I searched “Four Organs” in YouTube again to relive the premiere with Steve and Michael. Suddenly I saw another interview in the search results. Needlessly hungry for alternate descriptions of that night, I clicked it. What I found was something eerie.

The video featured Reich and Tilson Thomas again, now 10 years older than in the South Bank Show, describing the exact same night with the exact same expressions. Check it out.

Same words!

  • “Cat calls”
  • “Moment of silence”
  • “Avalanche” (spoken by both)
  • “White as a sheet” (spoken by both)
  • “This is history!”
  • “For sure by tomorrow….”

How could it be that the very people who composed the music, arranged the performance, and played the 15-minute piece through a disruptive and outraged audience weren’t able to summon more of the million words in the English language to describe their experience? If they used the same language in 2006 as in 2016, 35 and 45 years hence, had they been using the same language in all previous interviews as well?

The answer came to me the same week. We were bantering during an office happy hour during which my boss quipped about the latest big-name firm to release visuals of the latest luxury high-rise: “It’s crap.”

At my place of employment, my boss is a known figure in the architecture & planning worlds. As such, he is often out giving lectures and interviews, the number of which far outstrip the number of projects he actually speaks about. The moment he said “crap” at that happy hour I remembered when, earlier in the year, he gave a speech in Chicago about making cities more humanistic. In it, he said this: “We’ve totally mechanized construction so we’re building the same building all over the world using the same materials. This is six downtowns, in six continents around the world. To use a technical term, it’s crap. It’s soul-crushing crap.”

Slide from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s lecture “The Architecture of the Cosmopolis” at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities; Chicago, IL; Friday, June 7th, 2019.
“To use a technical term, it’s crap. It’s soul-crushing crap.”

Re-watching that video to confirm, I saw something else that rang a bell. He spoke about how architects and planners need to avoid repeating the same design approaches in different places around the world, no matter how successful that design approach may have been in the first place. He said: “I also worry when I see a book that says we should Copenhagenize something. I’m from Calcutta. I don’t want Calcutta to be Copenhagen. I’m very worried about this one-size-fits-all kind of solutions for things.”

Slide from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s lecture “The Architecture of the Cosmopolis” at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities; Chicago, IL; Friday, June 7th, 2019.
“I’m from Calcutta. I don’t want Calcutta to be Copenhagen.”

That comment, in turn, threw me back to a lecture he gave at the Center for Architecture in New York in March of 2019, a boozed-up Q&A with journalist Justin Davidson, in which he first presented (to my knowledge anyway) the criticism of Copenhagenization, with the same accompanying slide.

Coming out of this Russian doll of throwbacks, it quickly became clear that people in those kinds of positions go through this all the time. When there is a surplus of occasions to talk, and a limited number of things to talk about, a person will often end up repeating themselves. Imagine a very popular movie has just come out, and one of the starring actors is making the rounds with the press. Often, these actors will schedule a press marathon, cramming dozens of interviews into a day or two. Now are we expecting them to invent something unique every single time they talk? Reasonably: of course not. The actor will have prepared a speech, based on their actual film-making experience, and will repeat speech at every occasion. Example par excellence: Lady Gaga making the rounds for A Star Is Born.

“There can be a hundred people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you, and one does, and that can make all the difference.”

But beyond that, a deeper explanation occurred to me: famous people become famous partially because they are forced to constantly self-narrate. It is said that all forms of art, even most professions period, are just a form of storytelling. I have heard photographers, musicians, economists, lawyers, and teachers say this. It therefore stands to reason that the ones who rise to prominence in their field are those who have a better knack for composing stories of their lived experience. Once they write that story down, they repeat it over and over. They don’t care about reliving the events, perhaps because they understand better than most of us that memories are not like books you take off a shelf; to recall something is to recreate it, and the more you do that, the more likely you are to stray from the facts. Storytellers don’t bother with remembering. And neither do we, their audience. We re-watch the interviews and we re-load the webpages and we become fans even though we know what we’re about to hear. Working in the presence of the few famous people I have been lucky to witness this narration live: they are always searching for the right words for things, they are concise, they are always tuned to the comings and goings of plot twists or punchlines. They hone those stories in front of their spouses and colleagues. Then they repeat them in front of a transfixed public on television interviews, at community board meetings, academic lectures, and happy hours.

But within that explanation, there is an even deeper explanation: these folks do not want to reinvent stories, because the work speaks for itself. It isn’t out of laziness that a person hones their version of certain events and repeats that version when they’re satisfied. Nor are they seduced by the power of holding a captive audience. They simply would rather us go and see the movie or read the book or visit the place, and experience the source material in person. Peter Greenaway says in the introduction to his 2008 film Rembrandt’s J’Accuse that most of us are visually illiterate, that our reliance on text impairs our ability to analyze, contemplate, and enjoy images, sounds, and the other senses. Now I understand. Steve Reich, Michael Tilson Thomas, Vishaan Chakrabarti, and Lady Gaga don’t want me to approach them for answers. They are indirectly holding me to a higher standard. They want me to go savor the work they spent days and months and years producing, and to decide what it means for myself.

If that’s the case then, is Sandra Lee telling me something deep about food that I’ve been blind to?

Forgetting About Sports

I enjoy academics. They are quintessential nerds, enormously obsessed with miniscule things. The contrast between their enthusiasm and the specificity of the subject is endearing, comical. Watching them interact with those outside their field highlights the contrast, and watching them interact with those inside their field makes me realize that a shared interest alone can sustain a friendship for years. For my part, interacting with them is a unique challenge: either they talk alone to a speechless audience, or they are speechless in the face of small talk. I want to impress them with my general knowledge of trivial subjects while also playing ball with the topic of their thesis, though I sometimes catch myself nodding and laughing at comments I do not understand. They aren’t socially shrewd enough to sense the emptiness in my eyes. I become detached within ten minutes. Melancholy settles in.

Charlotte hosted a two-day conference recently on the topic of Jewish ghosts, directly related to her own freshly-minted thesis. Any discussion of ghosts and what they signify is sure to shift eventually to themes like collective memory, shared traditions, inheritance, and a host of things the describe the constant negotiation each of us has between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as members of a community. On the top floor of Kent Hall in Columbia’s Morningside Campus, Charlotte introduced Jonathan Boyarin, the keynote speaker. In front of a packed room, he gave a lively, humorous lecture about how death shouldn’t be feared or dreaded, that it doesn’t suck the life out of things. Instead, it can actually inject life and generate thought. During the Q&A a woman asked about something I don’t remember. Boyarin answered with an un-memory (we seriously need a word for that) of his own: that he was teaching a class, whose name he didn’t care to remember, whose goal was to dispel the myth of self-making. The notion that one starts from zero at birth and spends life building oneself up and creating one’s own identity is false. We are not as self-made as we imagine, Boyarin reminds his students; we are as much a product of the traditions and communities we are born into.

Professor Jonathan Boyarin speaking at Cornell University, October 27, 2016. Image via Cornell.edu

After the Q&A we all went to dinner at Talia’s Steakhouse. An upscale kosher steakhouse with white tablecloths, metallic wall paint, and pudgy, gruff waitstaff. In spite of the decorum however, there was a flat-screen TV in the corner. It was showing a baseball game on ESPN. Now, everyone who has spent any time living in the 20th century understands the hypnotic power of a television. Even if you are not into sports, dislike commercials, or stress about the news cycle, you cannot resist staring if there is one on in the room. I have seen the faces of intelligent, anti-consumerist libertarians go blank, sentences stop midway, and eyes turn away from mine to watch a Chevy commercial. So there I was, trying to play ball with successful academics, with a television glowing above their shoulders like a postmodern Sword of Damocles. The restaurant was loud and I sat at the end of a long table. The woman I sat next to spoke endlessly and walled me off by leaning in a lot. My distraction was sealed.

Photo via Talia’s Steakhouse

All I remember was: Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. 1-0. I don’t know who was winning. Da Bears.

The academics talked with obvious tones about museums and Jewish history. About the failure of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. About the fight between the founders of the Tenement Museum and the City of New York. I took one shot at engaging, ad-libbing for a couple of minutes about as many novel topics as I could: classical and country music, gypsies, Finland, and the fascinating relationship between Adolf Hitler and Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

Nonplussed silence. They resumed talking about museums. And leaning in. I resumed glancing at the TV.

The camera panned over the field from behind home plate. People were on their feet, holding up phones and spinning t-shirts. Chanting. Embracing. The pitcher camera shook slightly from people jumping up and down in the bleachers. Under the floodlights, the players glistened slightly. Every chance they got, the broadcasters squeezed in a replay from a few innings ago of a solo home run or a slide into third. The excitement was palpable even from where I sat. I thought about sports. How remarkable it is that humans have developed a setting for controlled competition. Essentially: synthetic, defanged war. We have a deeply-rooted desire to witness epic narratives unfolding in front of our eyes. We obsess over the character arcs and plotlines, even if the consequences of those plotlines to little bearing on the rest of our lives. I thought: Even with a low-scoreline, low-consequence, mid-season game like this, people still come out by the thousands.

Our food eventually came, I had to be a good boy. More talk about that question fielded by Professor Boyarin at the lecture: that the American myth of self-made men is false and potentially harmful. We need to acknowledge the role of communities in the formation of our personal, heroic, epic narratives and that we benefit day-in, day-out from the aid of others, even those we do not know.

The following day, I passed by a morning paper on my way to work. The front page photograph showed a glistening group of baseball players rushing the mound against a dark background. “Nationals beat Astros for World Series title.” How easily I forgot about the World Series.

The Washington Nationals celebrating their 2019 World Series win. Image via Axios.

Restoration Hardware on trial

99% Invisible, one of my generation’s obligatory podcasts, released an episode about design, mass production, and authenticity– called 77 Steps. In it, the Emeco chair takes center stage as the industrial-product-turned-design-object par excellence, and Emeco’s legal fight to protect the intellectual property of their signature Naval Chair, using something called Trade Dress Protection.

Trade dress protection is designed to protect consumers from the lookalike imitations of name brand products.

Emeco’s dispute with Restoration Hardware (and IKEA and Target) has been documented by the New York Times. While it’s sensible for a company to protect its design from copying, the plot thickens when the show considers the impact of this protectionism on average consumers. Says lawyer Christopher Sprigman:

[When] consumers in the marketplace look at this chair, unless they’re real furniture aficionados, they don’t think ‘Oh, this is Emeco,’ they think ‘Oh, that’s a chair.’ I don’t think the shape of this chair is distinctive. To the extent that [Emeco using Trade Dress Protection] succeeds, these designs become the territory of the rich, and no one else can access them.

If the original idea of a chair like Emeco’s is mass-production and affordability, then tightening the market and putting a legal fence around the intellectual property of its design is completely counterproductive. This reveals the economic and philosophical push-and-pull inherent to a world of copy+paste:

[Knock-offs] bring the rest of us into the world of the artist … they allow us to participate in the fashion world, even if we can’t afford the stuff on the runway … they allow us to participate … [and] that’s democratizing.

What came to my mind first was The Why Factory’s publication of a book called Copy Paste, which researches and discusses our changing attitudes toward originality. Like most things Winy Maas makes, the book’s tone is decidedly optimistic: it doesn’t bemoan the end of originality, rather celebrates a new sense of freedom from it.

But then I remembered: back in 2011, I noticed the trend in design & fashion stores decorating their storefronts with fake books. In a way, Restoration Hardware’s style (rustic, old-school, throwback-y) is particularly prone to sneaky copying such as the kind they got in trouble in with Emeco. So shouldn’t we all have seen this coming?

A Recipe In Three Chapters

I: Data, Cities

When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?

Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.

The Big Mac Index. Bar chart by Statista.

Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.

Geographies of Innovation. Mapping centers of innovative activity in Barcelona. Map by 300.000 Km/s. Image via urbannext.
Photo credit Luciana Teodozio. Via her Instagram page.

During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.

One of the few images of food that were included in the presentation.

II: Codes, Recipes

Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?

Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.

The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.

The Matrix code was inspired by sushi recipes? Read the story at foodandwine.

There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.

Our group’s proposal for turning Shanghai’s metro system into a food logistics infrastructure. ProMetro.

III: Low Heat, Long Time

I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.

He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.

For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”

I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”

“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”

So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.

I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.

In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.

ProproiSTEPtion follow-up: Barba

I was overcome with the quiet pride of a writer finishing her first novel when I packaged my thoughts on propriosteption. And then, in the kickoff session to our Robotic City seminar at IAAC, the concept reappeared before me, and I felt like the same writer learning that her novel got greenlit for a movie production.

The Why Factory have a project called Barba. There it was, the propriosteption bubble, wobbling and morphing in a black void. The thing I was trying so hard to carefully explain was captured and explained in a matter of seconds with The Why Factory’s crude but thorough animation.

Originality does not exist. Even the most prolific thinker in the world will only think  of a small fraction of truly “never-before-thoughts”– and of that small fraction, yet another small fraction will be realized. Add it to the list of ideas that I’ve had, which I thought were original, which ended up being authored and stamped-and-sealed by another. You can add THIS collection to my larger thesis (still in the womb) about how, epistemologically speaking, we have long ago reached a “creative singularity,” since which it is quantum-physically/mathematically impossible to invent something 100% original.

But more on that later. In the meantime, enjoy this awesome video.

Modes of Nature

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for the Fab City Design Strategies Seminar, at the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Barcelona, in October 2017.

Thoughts on Atlas for the End of the World[1] & Fab City Whitepaper[2]

“Nature” and “artifice” are not as separate as we think.

This revelation has probably been in the margins of every major paradigm shift in human history since agriculture. The steam that powered humans’ locomotives had been propelling oceanic currents for eons. As aerodynamic design improves, it returns again and again to ornithological biomimicry. Farms, factories, endless work? Ants have been doing the same a thousand times longer. The polar bear may soon be extinct, yes, but we forget we have been wiping out large mammals since we invaded the Australian continent 45,000 years ago. It is no less relevant today.

All of these examples indicate that modern globalization (something we all consider “outward”) will force a paradigm shift that is more of an inward nature, especially in a time when the thing most urgently needed is a collective narrative about our identity as a species. Where are we going? What are our choices? Are we prepared to take full biological responsibility for these choices? I am fascinated by this new engagement humankind is going to have to have with its “insides.” We cannot afford to simply hide our inner workings (our own bodies, our infrastructure) and live inside clean, white, orthogonal spaces. We will have to get our hands dirty if we want to clean up after ourselves (dystopias like the “real world” of The Matrix or the harsh landscapes of Dune and Mad Max imagine the consequences of choosing not to). Additionally, how will this collective inwardness fit into the principles behind the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR),[3] which envisions the planet as a network of individual makers who are free from dependence on centralized governments or corporations?

I, as an educated city-dweller, can go on with examples and welcome the future with open arms. However, I am not in the majority. How do we, as the people at the TIR frontier, encourage or allow the rest of the world to participate? After all, the decentralized globe is at its most optimal when every human being is included. There is a mental barrier in the average person without a doubt, and it is related to this perceived separation between the nature and machine. Nature = irregular, machine = rational. Nature = dirty, manmade = clean. Nature = harmony, artifice = destruction. Nature = good, humankind = bad. How do we bring these two back out of the opposing ethical corners that we’ve spent centuries painting them into?

Nature is a lot more machine-like than it appears (sometimes even robotic), and our machines and cities behave more like organisms than we imagine. [4] If we have indeed become intrinsically tied to nature, the new paradigm will have to be one of adaptation with, rather than segregation from, nature. Why? Because the latter is an impossible task. Imagine asking everyone who has tasted clean drinking water to go back to semi-filtered, or forcing a Norwegian who has eaten a banana to never touch one again, or telling someone who has flown in an airplane across the Pacific Ocean in 10 hours to take a rowboat from then on. This is the curse of consumption and convenience: returning to less is psychologically a harder task than adapting our energy production systems.

In order to adapt, we have to readjust how we see nature. It is not a single, contained system outside of us. Instead, with our adaptation and integration, there will emerge different modes of nature depending on its relation to human activity. There will be a spectrum of modes, ranging from huge undisturbed regions all the way to tiny home gardens or samples in laboratories. Oostvarderplassen in The Netherlands, as mentioned in The Atlas for the End of the World, is one example of a mode of nature that we haven’t gotten used to yet. On the surface, it appears to be a common wildlife sanctuary, but upon closer inspection, there may be man-made elements like floodwater retention swales, anaerobic waste-to-energy plants, sensors monitoring threatened species, or hiking trails. The entire area may be serving as a corridor for the migration of certain animals. This is a much more nuanced and complex mode of existence between nature and humankind. Furthermore, the potential range of modes will continue to grow as we learn more about how we are affecting the planet (such as the mass decline in bee population[5]) and what we can do about it.

Similarly, there is no reason that cities won’t also start to adapt more complex modes. As The Fab City Network becomes more of a reality, cities will become much more fluid and mutable in their function. For instance, to meet the demands of a shortage of electricity caused by a flood 100km away, a city can temporarily coordinate the flow of electricity to that area, and the average citizen will only experience a miniscule change in the electricity available in their homes (perhaps all of the lights will dim by 5%). In that short time, the city will have transformed itself into a power plant. In this way, categorization will no longer be rigid, and a new activity of humans will be to monitor, model, and manage these transformations.

Cities can then start to evolve on their own in a Darwinian manner. Then it could be possible to classify cities with binomial nomenclature, building a taxonomy, and identifying important historical events where a new branch of city (or a new mode of city) came into existence. Arcticus Industrius? Mediterranea Turistica? Subterranea Ride-Sharea?

[1] Richard Weller, Atlas for the End of the World, http://atlas-for-the-end-of-the-world.com/.

[2] Tomas Diez, Fab City White Paper, http://fab.city/whitepaper.pdf.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2011.

[4] It is worth observing that nature is also incredibly violent and unforgiving to organisms unfit for survival, almost like neoliberal capitalism is to individuals in the market who are already disadvantaged. I think ecologists and conservationists do not see the whole picture in this regard.

[5] See Benjamin P. Oldroyd,What’s Killing American Honey Bees?, PLoS Biology. 5 (6): e168, 2007; and Dennis vanEngelsdorp et al, Colony Collapse Disorder Preliminary Report, Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) – CCD Working Group. p. 22, 5 January 2006.

The Aspiration Index

Image source: https://newyorkyimby.com/2014/12/future-view-manhattan-skyline-2023.html

Skylines are a speculator’s dream. Strictly speaking, they are not real things. In the same way that edges are not really there, but merely the points at which an object leaves a beholder’s eye, a city’s skyline is an imagined contour. If I ask you to imagine New York City’s skyline, you will most likely picture a silhouette with the few telltale icons bristling among generic rectangles. Whenever Related Companies’ CEO Jeff Blau promotes Hudson Yards on the news, he is sure to mention is the development’s contribution to the skyline. The image can also change depending on where you live—whether you look east from Hoboken, north from Ellis Island, or west from the Long Island Expressway.

This imagined state is also what makes it a useful measuring tool. Since it is capable of accommodating many different viewpoints, and since it changes constantly in response to citymakers’ speculations, a skyline is what I like to call the Aspiration Index of a city. It is a summation of all of the city’s past and future ambitions, an agglomeration of jostling voices into a coherent whole.

So the question arises: who controls the fluxes of this Aspiration Index? Who are the big influencers in that market? In the case of New York City, the answer has been clear for over a century: wealthy players in real estate. Since the skyscraper boom at the end of the 19th century, it has always been up to the oil tycoons and media magnates to determine the shape and color of the city canopy. Ironically, those players rarely leave the city themselves, and the skyline they mold is viewed predominantly by the working classes who live on the outskirts. This contrast is especially striking at night, when the city’s tallest buildings illuminate the dark with an array of colors.

NYC skyline , 1904s. Image via http://www.oldstratforduponavon.com/nyc4.html

The Empire State Building, a mainstay of the New York City skyline for almost 90 years now, has been outfitted with colorful lights on its crown since the 1960s; and since a lighting upgrade in 1976 has started the tradition of being lit up in different colors every night in reference to holidays or other city-wide events. It has become a pastime for some to look up at the lights after dark and guess what the day’s reference is. Over the years, it has expanded into a reservation system, in which various non-profits can apply to choose a commemorative lighting display for a single night. The spire on One Bryant Park even has its own Twitter feed which advertises the commemorations. However, these commemorations only occur once every several days, meaning that for most days the city lights remain firmly in the hands of the property owners, The Durst Organization.

Perhaps it was this detail of the empty, uncommemorated days which gave Mark Domino, son-in-law of The Durst Organization’s Chairman, an idea. He developed an app called Spireworks which allows users to log in and, for a few minutes, control the lights of One Bryant Park in real time. The app was distributed to several thousand users as a test, and it quickly exploded in popularity as users jostled for their chance to send secret messages, impress friends, and seduce dates. For the first time, a landowner had to give up control, and the inhabitants of New York seized the chance to make the skyline theirs. Mark Domino told Metro News in 2017 about his own aspiration to “transform Spireworks into something that has a greater social benefit.”

Admirable as it is, however, it is difficult to imagine what Mark Domino means exactly by “greater social benefit,” beyond reverting One Bryant Park’s spire to an organized, regulated reservation system like the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, since new technology evolves at a pace all its own, Spireworks has taken on a reputation of white-collar exclusivity quite contrary to its original intent. This is partially determined by design: digital queues have maximum wait times so as not to eat up bandwidth, and in order to gain access to the app, you have to be invited by an existing user. Spireworks now gives access to the lights of Four Times Square (also a Durst Organization property) and Domino has stated plans to expand, but that front has quieted.

Less than two years ago I visited my friend in Brooklyn Heights. She took me out on her balcony which faces the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan, and said, “Watch this.” She pulled out her phone and began pressing buttons, and in the distance, I watched open-mouthed as the crystal spire changed color within seconds. She sent me the invitation the next morning, but I never touched it. Like the hijacked innocence of the app itself, I never thought of it as more than an exclusive toy. I remembered that day on the balcony when I began putting this piece together, and I called my friend to get a live image. I logged into Spireworks in Barcelona and we opened a Skype call. For five minutes we fidgeted with camera angles and headphones and session timeouts, never quite getting the results we wanted. Maybe there was a concurrent user showing off in Midtown. Maybe the app just doesn’t work from Europe. But there I sat anyway, 3,800 miles away from my hometown, fighting for my momentary lease on the New York City skyline.

Behind Every Person (There Is A Person)

Our Master in City & Technology class is as diverse as can be. We are different ages (23-32), we have different professional backgrounds (agriculture, interior design, fresh graduates to licensed professionals), a dozen languages between us (Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, and, you know… English), three-and-a-half religions…… Designing and debating with my new friends is exciting, because no two opinions are the same and no one is afraid to speak. Every class is an occasion to encounter another worldview, which means it is also an occasion to admit that my own was misplaced.

North Americans are obsessed with race. Rightly so, since its history is marred by an injustice about which we to this day are in denial. Every American’s adulthood involves reckoning with it at some point, and so have I too cultivated a position on racism which I tuck behind my cheek like chewing gum for whenever I should need it. It has sat there for years now, still smacking of tangy cynicism, minty socioeconomic un-self-awareness, a fruity impulse to label offenders and victims, and those gritty blue flakes of American exceptionalism which I don’t like but can’t avoid. Without noticing I came to believe that this was it: my relationship to racism had matured.

It was the first week of class, and every seminar was spent introducing ourselves and talking big concepts and aspirations with the professors. In our first Fab City class we got on the topic of the emergence of global networks. I asked whether anyone worried that these new technologies could further increase the gap between rich and poor, instead of being the great democratizing paradigm shift that many claim it to be. Global networks work the best when every human being is connected to them, so shouldn’t the focus be on bringing connectivity to the ones least likely to get it? How do we avoid leaving people behind?

“In principle, yes,” said Tomas, our professor. “But in reality these transitions are happening constantly. The work of the more privileged should always be to distribute wealth and opportunity to the less privileged, but once you finish connecting those people, the rest of the world will have moved on. This is is happening constantly. People are getting thrown from one radical shift to another.

“Like in Africa,” he continued, “most of the continent didn’t even go through a proper Second Industrial Revolution. And now in the past couple of decades they have jumped from agriculture to the internet. It is super radical.”

Maggie reacted immediately. “Yeah, that’s crazy how you’re all on the grid now…” she was looking at Venessa. We were all looking at Venessa. I saw her gaze sharpen. She smiled gently and said, with mild surprise, “Do I need to say something?”

Everyone chuckled and looked down, including Maggie whom I heard mutter something that from its intonation sounded like an apology. With my racism cap on, I knew exactly what she, a white American from California, was thinking.

I left class that day feeling uncomfortable, sad for both Venessa and Maggie. Nine times out of ten this would have been an isolated moment, eventually forgotten, not worthy of sealing in a Ziploc for future trials. I could have moved on with my life infinitesimally more at ease for not having said something like that myself. But learning to identify these moments sits lowest on the ladder of praiseworthy behavior. I had come to Barcelona with the intention of learning about the world, which I realized should include both big data storytelling and making new friends.

Then a few weeks later, we were in another class, in which we were building a catalog of the streets of our home cities. One page of this catalog was meant to show common parameters like street width, street use, traffic flow and speed. I was in charge of designing the graphics of these parameters. To get an idea of the range of speeds I had to account for, I asked Venessa what the highest number is on odometers in Nigeria.

Suddenly everyone around me spoke up in cacophonous tones saying, “Come on, Ivan, it depends on the car maker, not the country.”

After the five seconds of noise died down, I could only mutter, “Sorry, you’re right,” while thinking to myself, “Crap. Did I just do that thing that I smugly believed I would never do?” I pictured Maggie’s eyes on me, wondering the same, and infinitesimally relieved that it was me and not her. Were we the only ones who even saw the moment that way? Was the cacophonous rebuttal from the others simply in response to my ignorance of how cars work? I wasn’t sure.

The following weekend Venessa and I took a walk around the neighborhood for an assignment. We talked about many things, including religion and spirituality, where she opened up to me about her Christian faith, and I to her about my serious ambivalence on believing in God. We sat down at a cantina for a sandwich. She was confused by my ordering just a salad. Then I got around to asking her about two weeks before with Maggie.

“Do you remember that? I remember thinking, ‘Oooooh,'” I said, making a face like the ones I make when I watch drunk people trip on the street. I was baiting her for a bit of gossip.

But to my surprise, she took a breath and said, “I do remember. I just felt bad, because I’m only one person. I would never want to speak for someone I didn’t know. I wanted to have more of an opinion, but I just didn’t have anything to say.”

It wasn’t a defensive response, it was a humble one. She was speaking not just as a black person, she spoke as a Christian, as a Nigerian, as a woman…. There was nuance behind her words, an obvious humanity which I had tuned out over the years, like chewing gum behind my cheek. In the US, despite our hymns of freedom, we are in fact quite prude. We are so sensitive to things like race that we avoid touching the subject altogether. As a result, we forget that behind every person there is a person, complete with race, sex, faith, and everything else.

The semester went by and we all went home for the holidays. When we came back in January, we spent much of our dwindling free time sharing photos of one another’s vacations. Venessa showed us photos from her sister’s wedding. Irene and I stared at the screen.

“Eh, which one is you?” Irene asked.

“That one,” Venessa said calmly, pointing herself out.

“Eh? But your hair is so different!”

“I changed it. It’s OK, Irene. One day you’re going to learn to identify black people by something other than their hair.”

She said this without a hint of venom, with such gentleness that the only reaction our bodies found appropriate was hanging our heads and laughing.

A few minutes later, when we were done with our meeting, Venessa looked at me and asked, “Am I dismissed?”

“I… You are not in my custody,” I answered. I decided not to play along with her joke. She was allowed to tease me. Venessa put her coat on and as she walked out of the classroom she spread her arms, started skipping, and said, “It feels so good to be free!” I felt infinitesimally relieved for having decided to not play along, because that would mean saying “I don’t own you” aloud. Which, if the way it made me feel just thinking about it was any indication….

Venessa was gone and I sat there reveling in the fact that I had just been teased for my race. For a peacekeeper like me, it’s difficult as a default to part ways with an inkling of bad spirits. But I reminded myself that Venessa harbors no ill intentions, only grace. She was just making us aware that we were spouting harmless ignorance. Any fledgling friendship requires people to make themselves vulnerable to one another. So long as she knows that I respect her, I will solemnly accept being made fun of for my whiteness. Them’s the breaks.