Today is the first day since leaving Los Angeles that I’ve been able to breathe. All the other mornings I was awoken by the sound of the alarm clock or the discomfort of jet lag. But not today: I woke slowly, ate breakfast slowly, read the paper leisurely, walked along the green banks of the Danube, taking in the bright blue spring sky and the swirling eddies of Central Europe’s main waterway. Now I’m back to my routine of six months ago, sipping an espresso on the third floor of Thailia, a spacious, multi-floor, multilingual bookstore in Linz.
I find myself thumbing through the words and black and white photographs of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It begins with an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s A Song for Occupations:
House-building, measuring, sawing the boards,
Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering,
Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks
The pump, the pile-driver, the great derrick, the coal-kiln
Coal-mines and all that is down there, the lamps in the darkness,
echoes, songs, what meditations …
An intellectual’s romanticism of the working class. I can’t help but fall for it every time. I flip through de Botton’s photographs of fishermen, electricians, construction workers, even cleaners, and I’m enthralled. There are also photos of officer workers, consultants, and salespeople, but I flip through those images much more quickly.
At last year’s Prix Ars Electronica we were given a tour of Voestealpine, the local steel factory that long sustained Linz’s industrial economy and Hitler’s need for steel railways. We were shown the process of forging steel, the furnaces, the cooling tanks, the filthy, sweating workers. At this year’s tour, which I did not attend, visitors were kept away from the actual plant. Instead they were treated to a slick, new multimedia visitor’s center with state of the art monitors and visualizations. The factory itself is now off-limits and that raw experience has been substituted by two-dimensional displays and three-dimensional graphics.
At last night’s dinner, perched atop the local museum of contemporary art, I sat next to Andreas Hirsch, a photographer and curator with a relaxed smile to balance out a uniquely intense gaze. He will be organizing a part of this year’s Ars Electronica festival in September and we spoke about the limits of leading an open source life. The concept of “dropping out” was a major movement in 1960s and 70s Europe and North America. What is the equivalent today in a world where Whitman’s “house-building, measuring, sawing the boards” has, for many of us, given way to “sending emails, accepting contacts, updating profiles”? Are people dropping out of the mainstream internet, abandoning corporate Web 2.0 platforms – Facebook, Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc. – to craft a more independent, utopian vision of digital space?
I mention to Andreas that the catalyst for the “drop-out” movement of the 60’s and 70’s in the United States probably originated in the birth of suburbia in the 1950’s. Returning soldiers from WWII were given low interest housing loans by the US government, and massive suburban housing tracts became the standardized way of organizing residential life.
The banality of a suburban childhood is an assault on the imagination. And many of us who grew up in the suburbs strive for – though mostly fail to achieve – an existence that is less homogenous, less corporate, more autonomous. Is Facebook the suburbs of digital space? Are people dropping out already? Where are they going? (A separate blog post.)
A city built of sand.
I know many people who moved to Dubai in the past five years. Some said that they wanted to experience a new part of the world. Others were more honest and admitted that the tax free living was irresistible. Others were searching for the 21st century El Dorado, a chance to make their fortune and flee.
The entire city was built on a bubble; by now every newspaper reader is aware of that. But what has been lacking from most analyses of Dubai’s decline is the implicit involvement of every Dubai resident in the worst kind of neoliberalism: a pyramid scheme built on a pyramid society with South Asian indentured servants building a base layer for the irresponsible fantasies of greedy Western expats and the nouveau riche Gulf Arabs. The best dissection I’ve read of Dubai’s contemporary feudal system is Johann Hari’s “The Dark Side of Dubai.” In fact, it’s one of the best articles I’ve read in a very long time.
Dubai was destined to fall apart, but the question is, Did anyone learn their lesson? I doubt it. Already I hear rumors that those who fled Dubai are now searching for new tax havens in Asia with access to cheap manual labor, luxury apartments, and four-star eateries.
Paul Romer has a theory that the city states with the best rules will attract the best talent, which will lead to the best innovation. He is thinking of places like Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, and Bangalore. But his theory – or at least his talk – makes no mention of morals and I wonder if some of these tax-free city states are confusing greed for talent.