On the Streets Where We Live

Dear Readers:

The storms of winter really took their toll this year on the PNW. We had the good fortune of a few beautiful days at the coast this past week and of all the years I have been visiting there, I have never witnessed the power of the ocean so dramatically as this recent visit.

Huge boulders had been tossed onto the parking lots at Cape Lookout, the sea walls along the spit were undermined, new rock formations appeared that weren’t there last year and the seas were still roiling from a storm the week before that took out eight feet of sand at Bay City – not that far away.

The changes remind me that Mother Nature holds the final say here on planet Earth.

I was coming home from a concert listening to a TED talk that grabbed my attention. It was by Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist.

For those of us not born with a cellphone in our diaper, it has taken some time to get up to speed. Now that most of us are there, I wonder how we ever lived without this technology.

According to Case, since time immemorial, humans have been using tools as extensions of  their physical selves. Now with the advent of computers in our daily lives, these tools are an extension of our mental and emotional selves too.

She describes this phenomena as developing a second self, one that goes on communicating and interacting through our digital life with the world and others,  even while we are doing something else.

Her theory is that technology has compressed time and space creating a wormhole through which we can communicate instantaneously with people all over the world. This has made us part cyborg – humans whose physical abilities are extended beyond human capabilities – with the world at our fingertips.

We’re creating an ambient  sociability and intimacy with a variety of people rather than just those we normally stay in touch with.

The only downside to this altered self, Case cautions, is that we have to make time for self reflection where there is no external input.

I think for pre-computer generations, this is easier to do, but from my observation of the born cyborgs this presents a bigger challenge because they aren’t always aware of this inner self.

On another technological note, an article I read titled “Into the Future” by Udo Gollub (a speech given at the Singularity University Summit in Berlin) gave me the willies thinking about where in the world we are going to end up. He puts a lot of faith in modern technology–(if only the fossil fuel industry would step aside).

Gollub calls this the 4th Industrial Revolution that will be happening over the next 5-10 years. He cites the example of Kodak who in 1998 had 170,000 employes and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within a few years they were bankrupt. The reason of course, was the digital camera, first developed in 1975. Within thirty years it made all other cameras obsolete.

This is called exponential technology – first there was the idea of digital photographs, then years of building a better prototype and in a few years a superior, mainstream product emerged.

Now it’s beginning to happen with artificial intelligence, health, self-driving and electric cars, education, 3D printing, agriculture and jobs.

There’s a utopian ideal of running all cars on electricity, making them self-driving and more coop ownership, so instead of going to pick one up at a local dispensary, the car comes to you. This would ultimately make the cities less congested and quieter.

Solar production has been on an exponential curve for the last thirty years. Last year more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil fuel based options.

With access to more and cheaper electricity, desalination will provide abundant drinking water even in the places where water is most scarce.

Scientists are working on the Tricorder X – Trekkies will recognize this – that works with an app on your phone taking a retina scan, blood sample and your breath with the ability to analyze 54 biomarkers that can identify nearly any disease.

3D printers are mind boggling, I’ve seen a small Viking helmet produced by one that my grandson has. Right now there are places these are being used to print airplane parts. It’s projected that eventually almost everything could be made by a 3D printer.

Technology is zooming into the future at an alarming pace. Should all the predictions come true, there will be a big downside – less jobs. In this country we’ve already witnessed the downturn in economic well-being for people being replaced by automation.

The future is always an unknown variable but if the trends happening today are any indication of what’s next we need to be ready for some big changes in the Exponential Age.

I recently read an article about Jane Jacobs, an early pioneer of the city planning movement. She began writing back in 1949 for a publication called Amerika, which originated in an agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta to expand cultural diplomacy between the two nations.

In this publication she wrote articles about the World Series, American cafeterias, modern art and women’s fashion. It wasn’t until a Russian professor at the Academy of Architecture, V. Kusakov, criticized Jacobs for writing about these subjects and neglecting “the ever increasing housing crisis which the cities of America are experiencing” that she found her voice.

This article unsettled Jacobs who began investigating life in America’s inner-city neighborhoods. Her initial response was slum-clearing and constructing high-rise apartment towers, a remedy that she later denounced as a flawed approach.

An example was in the early fifties and sixties, when East Harlem was leveled to construct several towering housing projects. “Before” the streets were crowded with people walking on sidewalks, sitting on stoops, running errands, leaning out windows; a thriving, chaotic community that had a “weird wisdom” of its own, she said.

“After” streets were not interesting, up close and desolate. Planners were designing streamlined utopian looking developments that were beautiful as long as they were seen from a distance, but not very livable. This was happening all over America.

In 1956 at a design conference at Harvard, Jacobs gave a speech  that reversed her original view on urban planning.  She saw that people living closely in cities developed their own customs and habits. Although shabby, messy and imperfect it produced a thriving society.

“We need all kinds of diversity,” Jacobs concluded in Death and Life, “so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization.”

In this same book, she warns against gentrification or creating a monoculture  which happens when governments fail to set aside sufficient public housing for people of varied income.

Monoculture was a problem  the Framers of our Constitution faced when safeguarding their new democracy. James Madison argued that as you increase the “variety of parties and interests contained within a republic, you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”

Jacobs likens cities to natural ecosystems. She says both require much diversity to sustain themselves and they are both vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.

Jacobs lived to the age of 89, long enough to see her once renegade theories about urban planning become conventional wisdom.

We all know the shifting shape of our own city streets and I can only hope that those planning the future of our City have factored in affordable housing as an important part of the equation to keep Portland diverse, healthy and weird.

On the Streets Where We Live

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