Analog Future

The future is local.

I mean local in several senses of the word. The future will be local, first, in the sense that the things you do there will be somewhere close to you instead of located on a computer somewhere in Atlanta or San Francisco or Dublin. It will also be local in the sense that the majority of things you will make and do there will likely be stored on your own computer, perched on your tabletop, stored on your bookshelf, built on your workbench, cooked in your kitchen, and so on, rather than somewhere else. You will own them. Related to this, the future will be local, finally, in the sense that you will share things there with local people whom you actually know, rather than digital representations of people in chat rooms or on headsets. You will likely post the things you make there on your own website, print them in your own zine, sell them in your own community. The internet is not dead, but its role as the primary force shaping our lives is coming to an end.

When I say “the internet,” I don’t mean the technical stack. I’m not referring to the network of networked computers communicating with one another using various protocols. Instead, I refer to the “phenomenological internet” of “the more familiar sites of daily use by billions of people” that Justin E.H. Smith defines in his book, The Internet is Not What You Think It Is. Smith writes,

“Animals are a tiny sliver of life on earth, yet they are preeminently what we mean when we talk about life on earth; social media are a tiny sliver of the internet, yet they are what we mean when we speak of the internet, as they are where the life is on the internet.”

To this definition I would add another category, however: the streaming media provider. When we speak of the internet, we also speak of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and so on. These multi-billion dollar corporations draw on the rhetoric of “the internet” to position themselves as scrappy upstarts opposing the staid traditional media providers, such as film studios and television networks. Viewers have largely accepted this position and view these services as outposts of the internet on their television screens.

Prediction is a mug’s game, so think of this as a prescription instead of a prediction. There are several related trends converging over the next several years that are likely to drive people away from the comfy little burrows they’ve carved out of the internet by forking over $5 or $7.99 or $14.99 or a steady stream of personally identifiable data every month. Together, these trends map the contours of serious contradictions between abundance and desire, on the one hand, and humans and machines on the other, which strikes at the heart of the internet as we have understood it since around 2004. The dialectic emerging from these contradictions will drive new user behaviors in the next decade.

The first trend is the grinding ennui which has resulted from the relentless production of entertainment and cultural commodities for consumption on the internet. Reduced in the past several years to a sort of semi-nutritive paste called “content,” art and entertainment are losing their capacity to relieve and enrich us and now increasingly amplify the isolation and pessimism of life online.

A seemingly infinite stream of money dedicated to the production of entertainment on the internet has resulted in an ocean of unremarkable “content” that does little more than hold your attention long enough to satisfy the adware algorithm or build a platform big enough to stage the next bit of content in the franchise and queue up the next marketing event. Outside of their algorithmically contoured bubbles of fandom, there is little difference between Marvel and Star Wars or DC or YouTube creators or Twitch streamers or podcasts. Netflix shows and Amazon Prime shows and Hulu shows and HBO Max shows and Paramount Plus shows and Peacock shows and so on are indistinguishable blips in time, forgotten as quickly as they are consumed. Books scroll by on Kindle screens or drop serially onto shelves. Photographs and artwork slide past on instagram, meriting a second or perhaps a moment’s notice before disappearing into the infinite past. Pop music percolates through TikTok, moves week-by-week downward on officially curated playlists, radiates out into commercials, and then disappears, poof, as rapidly as it came, displaced by the next. Independent music on the internet–even on platforms nominally controlled by the artists, like Bandcamp or SoundCloud–exists in much the same sort of vacuum as it always has. The internet promised an efflorescence of color and creativity. What it gave us instead was a flat, white light that grows dimmer over time as the algorithms which shape it converge on a single point of optimization.

The top 5 most-viewed links on Facebook in the last quarter

Because the vast majority of the “content” is indistinguishably boring, the second trend is tightly related to the first. Social media is dying. Many platforms, Facebook front and center, are already dead, gliding still on accumulated momentum but inevitably bound to stop. As recently as 2016, we believed that Facebook could change the world. In recent quarters, however, the most viewed content on the behemoth platform has either been a scam or originated somewhere else. The top 5 most-viewed links in the second quarter of this year, according to Facebook, consisted of TikTok, two spam pages, and two news stories from NBC and ABC on the Uvalde School Shooting. TikTok leads the second-place spam page by a huge margin. Facebook is not a healthy business. Ryan Broderick recently summed up the situation with Facebook admirably on his excellent “Garbage Day” Substack. “Facebook, as a product, is over,” Broderick writes. “Meta knows it. Facebook’s creators know it. Possibly even Facebook’s users. But no one has anywhere else to really go.”

People who rely on social media to promote and build businesses are beginning to note a general decline as well. According to a poll detailed in a recent article on “creatives” frustrated with social media, 82% believe that “engagement” has declined since they started using social media. “I’ve given up on Instagram,” one freelance artist noted. “I wasn’t even sure it was making a difference with getting more work. And I seem to be doing okay without it.”

Facebook and Instagram are in rapid decline, but what about TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and others? A third problem, more profound than the others, faces these: there are no more users to gain. Two decades into the social media era, the market is highly segmented. New platforms like TikTok will continue to emerge, but their surge will climb rapidly to a plateau. The decades-long push for growth that fueled platforms like Facebook and Twitter through the 2000s and 2010s dovetailed with the proliferation of smartphones. Now that the smartphone market is saturated, social media companies can no longer look forward to a constantly expanding frontier of new users to sign up.

Relying on content algorithms to retain existing users or coax those back who have already left, platforms accelerate the ennui of optimization. This leaves precious little room for new types of content or new talents to emerge. Still, people will entertain each other. Those who create art will seek approval and criticism. Others will seek out new and exciting art and entertainment to enjoy. When there is no room on social media for to put these groups of people together, they will find each other in new (old) ways: on the street.

You may have recently heard that machines are going to solve the problem of creating new and engaging content for people to consume on the internet. AI models like DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, GPT-3, various Deepfake models for video, and others use the oceans of existing images, text, audio, and video to create new content from scratch. Some of these models, such as Nvidia’s StyleGAN, are capable of producing content indistinguishable from reality. Artists are beginning to win prizes with AI-generated work. AI-generated actors are appearing in media speaking languages they don’t know, wearing bodies decades younger than the ones they inhabit in reality. GPT-3 is a “shockingly good” text generator which prompted the author of a breathless article in this month’s Atlantic to swoon. “Miracles can be perplexing,” Stephen Marche writes in the article, “and artificial intelligence is a very new miracle…. [An] encounter with the superhuman is at hand.”

Some critics of these AI models argue that they will prompt a crisis of misinformation. Deepfakes may convince people that the President of the United States declared war on an adversary, for example, or a deepfake porno video could ruin a young person’s life. These are valid concerns. More overheated critics suggest that AI may one day surpass human intelligence and may, therefore, power over its creators like masters to pets. Setting aside the Social Darwinist overtones of this argument—that ”intelligence,” exemplified by the mastery of texts, translates automatically to power—machine learning algorithms are limited by the same content challenges facing social media. AI may create absorbing new universes of art and sound and video, but it can only generate content based on the existing corpus, and it can only distribute that content on existing networks. People have to create new texts for AI to master. The willingness of a continuous army of new users to generate these texts and upload them to the phenomenological internet of social media and streaming video, where they can be easily aggregated and made accessible to machine learning models using APIs, is declining. The same types of algorithms that prompted Stephen Marche to proclaim a New Miracle in The Atlantic are driving the most successful corporations in history right off a cliff as I write this.

These critiques of AI-generated content assume that people will continue to scroll social media and engage with the things they see there in ways similar to their behavior over the past decade. In this model, to review, users scroll through an endless stream of content. When they see posts that inspire or provoke, impress or irritate, they are encouraged to like, comment, and share these posts with their friends and followers. The content may be endless, but the people on both sides of the transaction are the most important elements in the decision to like, comment, or share. Users are not impressed or provoked by the content itself, but because of the connection it represents with other people. They respond and share this content performatively, acting as a bridge or critic between the people who created the content–and what they represent–and their friends and followers. If you remove enough of the people, all of the content loses its value.

At a more fundamental level, people are the appeal of any creative work. Art without an artist is a bit like clouds or leaves: these may be beautifully or even suggestively arranged, but they offer no insight on what it means to be human. GPT-3 may tell a story, but it does so mimetically, arranging words in a pattern resembling something that should please a human reader. You may level the same criticism at your least-favorite author, but at least they would be insulted. GPT-3 will never feel anything.

AI-generated content will neither solve the content problem for platforms nor prompt a further crisis of misinformation and confusion for users. AI content will be the nail in social media’s coffin.

As a result of these interlocking trends–the crushing ennui of “content,” the decay of social media, the dearth of new smartphone users, and the incompatibility of AI-generated art with human needs–“culture” is likely to depart the algorithmic grooves of the internet, sprout new wings offline, and take flight for new territory. Perhaps, once it is established there, the internet will catch up again. Perhaps then software will try, once again, to eat the world. This time it has failed.

The Town Center Ritual

Fiction

You sit down by the fire to warm your tired bones. The cardboard crates, old pallets, pine straw, shreds of paper, and other debris fueling the fire crackle beneath the glowing flames, gently whispering soothing sounds against the silence of the long, dark night. It has been another interminably long day, as always this time of year, choring around the camp and roving the scattered junk atop the earthen mounds searching for supplies to stockpile against the coming winter. It won’t be long now, winter. You’ve felt it in the air for a few weeks. Soon the days will grow shorter, and the long cold nights will follow. That is still a way off in the future, however. For now, the night is warm. The insects who made it through the extinction quietly chirr and click in the browning trees. The rest of the group is there too, murmuring and drinking while they wait for the storyteller to take her place on the old recliner at the head of the group. 

A moment later, she arrives, settles in. She removes her spectacles–the purple ones you found in the pile last spring, you note with a surge of joy–and wipes them on the underside of her shirt, a little smile twinkling in her eyes and upturning the corners of her mouth as she rubs clockwise patterns on the glasses. She pauses occasionally to peer through them at the fire until, satisfied at last, she places the spectacles back on her kindly old face, waits a moment for the chatter to die off, and clears her throat. 

The group buzzes with anticipation for a tale of the Old Ones. “They called this place once,” she begins, “a Town Center.” Puzzled murmurs ring the fire. “People traveled hundreds of miles to visit the Town Center,” she continues. “It was a place of power and riches, beautiful things, terrible desires.”

“Before the bad times, this land was part of a great city. Everything you see was ruled by a council, who represented the wealthiest and most powerful people in the city. The council’s masters were elite for a reason, the stories say, the hardest-working, wisest, and most intelligent of all the people in the city. That’s why the council did what these brilliant and dedicated masters told them to do. Well, one day, they decided that the city needed a great palace of magic and ritual, a place for all the most powerful wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs to come and serve the people. Recognizing the wisdom of this plan, the people set out to build the palace, the Town Center. 

“It took many years to build, summers and winters of clearing, sawing, chopping, lashing. People gave their lives to the project. Workers moved their homes closer to the worksite–this place, right here–so they could work longer and harder, just like the wise masters who dreamed up the palace. For their part, the masters watched from a distance, waiting for the people to gain honor through hard work.”

“Finally, at long last, the palace was complete. The people rejoiced. Just like the masters predicted, the Great Ones came. We remember the names of those wizards and shamans, warriors, philosophers, and chiefs. Harken now to the fragments they have left us, and honor them with me!”

Here the storyteller’s voice descends into a lower register, an intoned ritual from the depths of memory.  

“Harken now to Mayors Jewelry,” she says: “For more than a century, MAYORS has been defining luxury by bringing the world’s most exclusive selection of iconic brands to connoisseurs of fine jewelry and timepieces.”

“Hark!,” the group responds. “Honor!”  

“Harken now to Tiffany & Co.: In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany arrived in New York with a vision of spectacular beauty that went on to redefine glamour and style around the world.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Psycho Bunny: Over the years, the brand has developed a cult following for men who don’t have to sacrifice irreverence for style. Psycho Bunny is about contradictions; it is mischievous, yet refined; timeless, yet contemporary.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Louis Vuitton: Founded in Paris in 1854, Louis Vuitton is synonymous with the art of travel. Its iconic trunks, luggage and bags have accompanied journeys throughout time.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to LoveSac: Sactionals are the most adaptable, adjustable, reconfigurable, forgivable, livable, lovable furniture on earth.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to Tommy Bahama: Inspired by the relaxed sophistication of coastal living, Tommy Bahama is dedicated to the good life. Stylish, upscale offerings include island apparel for men and women, footwear, jewelry, accessories and home décor, all designed to help you relax in style.”

“Hark! Honor!”

“Harken now to lululemon: lululemon is a yoga-inspired, technical athletic apparel company for yoga, running, training and most other sweaty pursuits. While Vancouver, Canada is where you can trace the company’s beginnings, the global community is where you’ll find lululemon’s soul.”

“Hark! Honor!” 

On and on she continues, each name, each ancient text ringing into the night like an incantation. The fire grows to a roar as the group listens to the old storyteller in wonder, harkening, honoring, spellbound by the strange words stripped of their meaning and power by the ravages of time. Onward she continues, a hundred names more, a hundred and fifty.

“Harken now to Lane Bryant: As the leading fashion brand for curvy women, Lane Bryant continually strives not only to be first in fashion and fit, but to be everywhere, be everything you expect us to be. From clothing and accessories to our Cacique line of intimates, look to Lane Bryant for the latest looks.”

“Hark! Honor!”

Finally, some time later, exhausted by the effort of intonation and memory, the storyteller rasps, “Harken now to Tesla: Forget everything you know about the automobile. The Tesla electric drivetrain offers a radically different experience. The driver, the car, and the environment connect in ways they’ve never connected before.” She slumps in the old recliner, head hanging heavily, breathing softly.

“Hark,” we whisper. “Honor.”  

The fire is dying now, its embers glowing deep orange and golden yellow as the storyteller regains her composure. The group is silent and tense, worn by the ritual of honor, ready for the storyteller to open the circle. A cool wind stirs the trees and she lifts her face to meet the gaze of the expectant circle. Her eyes are tired and sad, brimming with pain for the loss of it all.  “O Great Ones!,” she says, “We can only imagine the mighty things you might have done, if only the bad times had not come to punish us all.”

“Let us be worthy,” the group says. The usual ending. 

With this, the group relaxes. A young man across the dying fire laughs awkwardly, relieved to mark the end of the ritual. From a cloth sack next to the recliner the old storyteller removes a bottle. Clear liquid sloshes against the glass as she removes the cap, upends the bottle, takes a long swallow. Wincing, she passes the bottle down to the woman on her left. You see the woman’s face through the liquor and the glass, distorted in the soft firelight. The cool wind tousles your hair. A sympathetic burn streaks your throat and warns your stomach as you watch the bottle pass from hand to hand. 

“Let us be worthy,” you say. 

Absurd Symmetries: Flux Gourmet (2022)

In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?

On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.

One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.

Mangoes on Wednesday

Sometimes in life you need a little gift. Here are some simple instructions to practice the pleasure principle on the cheap.

Go to the produce department at your grocery store and find the sliced mangoes. You could buy a fresh mango, but that wouldn’t be a gift for yourself. That would be work. Buy the sliced mangoes in the plastic container instead and promise to recycle the plastic if you need that peace of mind.

When you get home, put the container somewhere in the bottom of the refrigerator. It is a law of nature that the mango spears in that container are nowhere near ready to eat. They are still basically white, sour, and tough. Walk away and do something else. You have plenty to do. Forget about it.

In the meantime, perhaps the week ahead will kick you in the face. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Notice the mangoes late on Wednesday night. Maybe you will be rooting around the refrigerator looking for the last Inca Kola, or maybe you are thinking about the leftovers from Monday’s dinner down there somewhere. Whatever the reason, look in the back. When you see the little plastic boat full of beautiful little golden yellow spears, now perfectly ripened, you may curse with delight. That is up to you.

Resist the urge to crack open the container and scoop the contents into your greedy maw two or three spears at a time right there at the refrigerator. This would be good, sure, but a measure of patience now will pay off later.

Take the container over to the counter and open it carefully. Search your spice rack for the Chili Powder and liberally dust the top layer of mangoes with the rich, ochre-red seasoning. I learned this trick from a woman selling mangoes on the street outside of the New York Public Library. She was shouting, “Mango, Mango, Mango, Mango,” a simple but effective incantation, and I was drawn like an insect to the porch lamp on a summer night. When I handed over four sweaty dollar bills, she produced a Zip-Loc bag full of the precious golden slices—which is the closest thing to a drug deal I have been involved in for many years—and asked, “you want chili?” You want chili.  

Now you are ready. Grab a fork and recline like Nero on the couch in the living room while you eat every single chili-seasoned mango spear in the box. This is a gift.

1,000 Foods: Afternoon Tea

I am eating and writing my way through Mimi Sheraton’s 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die. This is the first entry on my blog documenting the odyssey, but there will be many more — judiciously spaced, of course, because at the end of the book I may be karmically obligated to drop dead. In today’s entry—the very first item in Sheraton’s first chapter on British and Irish food—I tackle that most stereotypical of British meals, “afternoon tea.”

Tea is symbolic. Where I grew up, it was served cold, so sweet it would numb your teeth. It seemed to say something essential about who we were. In the kinds of restaurants we visited, places named “Famous Amos” or “Country Kitchen” or “Tad’s,” two things were always true. First, the place would be rollicking on payday Fridays. You might mistake the dining room for a Christian Science reading room on Tuesday nights, but on Friday you’d better show up early and bring your outside voices. Second, sweet tea was the drink by default.

Sweet tea was a ritual. You’d sit down at a wooden picnic table, and a woman—always, always a woman—would emerge from the kitchen or meander over from another table to take your drink order. Each person in turn would say “sweet tea for me,” or “same here,” and moments later she would return carrying three or four enormous red plastic cups. Ice cubes would clack against the sweating plastic sides, further watering down the light brown brown substance in the cup, flavored more by sugar than tea leaves, and we loved it. We’d drink it like water, even those aunts and cousins with more sophisticated palates who took it with lemon, and it was an experience.

Tea at home was a different ritual. Everyone had an opinion about how it was best made. Mom brewed a fastidious pitcher, closely following the instructions on the side of the big generic box labeled, simply, “Tea Bags.” A consummate woman of the nineteen-eighties, she left the pitcher in the refrigerator unsweetened and kept a ceramic tray full of Sweet n’ Low packets on the counter. Dad’s tea was more anarchic. Dad would throw twenty or thirty tea bags in a pot of boiling water on the stove, turn off the heat, and let the roiling cauldron steep to a rich, tannic brown as the water cooled. Then he would transfer the mixture to a pitcher with about a cup of granulated sugar and toss it in the refrigerator tuned, always, to the lowest temperature setting. Thrilling to drink, a glass of dad’s tea would leave leave you thoroughly satisfied but somehow thirstier than you were when you started.

When I was a teenager, my relationship with tea changed along with my idea of who I might become. Beguiled by the tea section at the end of the coffee aisle, rapidly growing by the late nineteen-nineties to include such exotic offerings as chamomile and “Green Tea” (written in faux Chinese letters, dark green on a pale green field), I found myself experimenting with the kettle, adding honey instead of sugar. A friend taught me to add milk to my black tea, in the English style. We sent off for the Stash Tea catalog on the internet and when it arrived our little group of friends passed it around like a porno magazine, circling sampler collections of Oolong and Chai in Algebra II or daydreaming about fields of verbena and lavender in Language Arts. Something about Stash Tea felt emancipatory, like we were turning our backs on the sweet tea at Famous Amos or Tad’s and all it represented.

Iced tea and teenage rebellion are not what Mimi Sheraton had in mind when she included afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. “One of life’s pleasantest indulgences,” Sheraton writes, “is afternoon tea, preferably in London, although as this cosseting meal regains popularity, it can be enjoyed in upscale hotels and romantic tearooms around the world.” Neither upscale hotel nor romantic tearoom, alas, the Famous Amos restaurant and the language arts classroom at Westside High School were nonetheless joined with these illustrious locations through the ritual symbolism of tea.

I did not know the “cosseting meal” of afternoon tea as Sheraton describes it until I was in my thirties, on my first trip to New York City. Emerging on a blustery October morning from the steaming train station onto a cold wind tunnel street in the Village, we stuffed our hands in the pockets of our lightweight southern jackets and started walking, thrilled by the simultaneous familiarity and difference that characterizes the city for outsiders. We wandered through Washington Square Park, laughing to recall all the film scenes we had watched unfold in this spot or another; I whistled and took pictures of the Blue Note; we felt real cool on Bleecker Street; and then we made our way slowly up the concrete spine of Manhattan. We stumbled upon the Flatiron Building quite by accident, holding our own camera over the heads of tourists snapping pictures of the iconic triangle for Instagram. We wandered through Times Square and walked gapemouthed through the tangle of commerce and bodies north of there until my wife pointed at a place down the street and said, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

That was the first time I had ever heard of the Russian Tea Room.

We entered the Russian Tea Room around 3:30 in the afternoon. The shadows were already beginning to lengthen outside. Compared to the wind blowing relentlessly cold outside, the warmth in the tearoom was palpably luxurious. A waiter dressed in a rich, double-breasted jacket pulled a semicircular table away from an upholstered couch on the finely trimmed forest green wall. We took our seats and bleared around the room, a dimly lit jewel box of green and red, paintings and chandeliers. At the table across from ours, a group of young women arrayed in crinoline Victorian finery and fascinators took their tea, stopping every so often to pose for group photographs or focus their attention on one of the group’s members while she delivered a brief monologue. Unprepared by my Famous Amos background in the deep South to interpret this place and its social meanings, I gazed on the room as one peering through the looking glass.

Soon, thankfully, a waiter emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches and a pot of tea to ease the burden of interpretation. “It begins with delectable crustless sandwiches trimmed into rounds or finger shapes,” Sheraton writes of afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. At the Russian Team Room, these sandwiches were delicate but transcendently flavorful triangles of chicken and shrimp salad, smoked salmon, artichokes and red pepper, turkey, bleu cheese. “These dainty sandwiches are mere preludes to currant-studded scones and crumpets,” Sheraton continues, “and pound cakes such as the caraway seed classic, topped with clotted cream and fruit jams and marmalades.” I cannot explain it better.

The tea, a samovar of simple but effective Darjeeling black, tied the meal together. It connected us across time and space with the afternoon tea rituals of the imperial nineteenth century, the evening traditions of the ruling class in the capital city of the American Century, and the humble tea fields in south Asia where the leaves were harvested. It also recalled the tea rituals of my own youth. It was mysterious and worldly like the Stash Teas in our high school catalog, simple and unapologetic like the sweet tea on the table at Famous Amos. Tea is ritual.

Video Game Spaces: Gangs of London and the Generic City

This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.

“If we compare the generic city with the old city,” Lieven de Cauter writes, “one thing stands out: whereas the metropolis was the scene in which the masses appeared, the generic city is the place in which the masses leave the stage.”

Consider these screenshots from the tutorial mission in Gangs of London (PSP – 2006). Set in the terminal and cargo areas of an airport, the mission guides players through a set of lobbies, corridors, warehouses, and city streets, teaching them the basics of gameplay along the way. In the first portion of the mission, the player is ushered through the terminal’s check-in area. Designed to support a large volume of people carrying luggage, in Gangs of London the space is eerily still and devoid of visitors.

Expending limited system resources on NPCs in this scene didn’t make sense, but the empty spaces and peopled spaces in the airport and cargo areas reveal several insights on the role of public architecture, the place of workers, and crime in the game’s London cityscape. These insights offer tantalizing clues about how the game’s designers and players viewed public spaces and the city in the early 2000s.

People in Gangs of London’s airport are secondary to the existence of the space itself. The airport here is not a space designed to serve travelers, but an ideal setting, a stage upon which individuals perform scripted acts and gain, in return, a sort of empowerment that will enable them to proceed to other spaces later in the story. This is similar to the role these spaces play in Rem Koolhaas’s vision of the “generic city,” a city which is (according to Lieven de Cauter summary of Koolhaas) “without characteristics, the city as a blank product – like an airport, everywhere the same: a city without a centre, without identity and without history.” The airport in Gangs of London is an ideal setting for the realization of the capitalist subject: a place unhaunted by the specters of the past, a blank slate upon which the subject may project their own fantasies.

It is helpful for this space sterilized for the workings of capital that there are only a handful of workers inhabiting the labyrinthine passages and warehouses through which the airport’s fictional cargo passes. This cargo provides the backdrop of the player’s actualization. Passing through an empty hallway and locker room “backstage,” behind the terminal area, the player progresses into a storeroom manned by an armed guard. Encouraged to sneak up behind the oblivious guard, the player is instructed that they may either kill the wage worker or take him hostage. It doesn’t make sense to take the guard hostage, so the actor on the screen snaps his neck. The body conveniently disappears. In the next room, the player gains two accomplices, who mercilessly beat two wage-earning guards with baseball bats. In this space, workers and their demands are mere obstacles on the path to actualization.

After dispatching the working class, the player encounters the state. When a handcuffed gang member informs the crew that the police are aware of the mission’s objective–to steal an armored truck and finance the gang’s takeover of London–the player is encouraged to work together with the crew and eliminate the police. Two cruisers and a paddywagon full of officers arrive shortly thereafter. Easily dispatched, the bodies of these salaried state employees, and the burning hulks of the public vehicles in which they arrived, disappear in short order. The state is powerless and ineffectual, unable even to exercise its monopoly of violence–the only legitimate power left to it in the generic city.

The post-9/11 generic city in Gangs of London is the anti-Rock Candy Mountain. Criminal activity is the only sign of life. The masses have fled public space, the workers are objects, the state is ineffective. There are no planes at the airport, and the armored cars are un-armored. At least the destroyed bodies and objects disappear, helpfully, when they stop being useful.