Archive for October, 2010

Dwarf Metropolis

October 19, 2010

Housing built under a motorway in Argenteuil, north western suburb of Paris. (Source)

I was thinking about cities today. Cities first arose in Mesopotamia. With the rise of agriculture individuals for the first time amass a certain wealth. But it was also ripe for plundering by the more nomadic groups, so walls were built to protect this. And so cities were made. It is interesting, that connection between capital, cities and protection. In Swedish, there’s a word called borg, which means fortress (and not a cybernetic organism :p). This sounds familiar to borgare, bourgeois, though it also sounds similar to Bürger, the German word for an inhabitant of a town. Thinking of capitalism, a mental inner image of a sprawling metropolis appears. The city where the government of a country is located is also called a capital.

Speaking of fortresses, the name of this post is inspired by the game Dwarf Fortress. I’ve only played Dwarf Fortress once, didn’t really find it entertaining. But that didn’t stop me from getting all nerdy about it, reading the wiki and Let’s Plays of it. When a goblin raid comes along, if the dwarves cannot defeat it they’ll have to hide behind the fortress walls and have to sustain themselves on what is inside. I believe that to cope with goblins (environmental issues) we’ll have to rely on fortresses (cities). By that I don’t mean stuff like growing food inside cities, but that with peak oil behind the corner we need to live more densely together.

A most interesting feature of it is the z-dimension, that the fortresses are built underground. For greater density, cities of course need to build into the sky and down into the ground. In the sky we have the tall buildings, floors built upon another (I am quite interested in whether tall buildings made of wood can challenge concrete and steel, or complement them in some way), and in the underground, where the dwarves live, there is also a sprawling world. The subways are attractive to humans, but the sewers less so. I also find the connection with the living of the humans and the living of the dwarves interesting not only due to the subways, but due to the fact that the tall buildings cast large shadows, making days less bright. Inverted during the night, the electrical lamps makes the city bath in light.

Cities are often logistical nightmares for city planners. Especially those in Europe or Japan, owing to their age – building for immediate needs causes troubles later on when the cities grow. Sweden, due to never having had a war fought on Swedish soil, has a lot of medieval cities still standing strong. On the other hand, Sweden initiated an urbanization process after WWII where the agricultural populace was drawn to the cities in a quite orderly fashion. This was possible primarily due to three factors: 1) The country came quite unscathed out of the war, 2) a strong centralized state and 3) close connections with the US.

The above process, along with vast spaces and a certain “frontier romance”, similar to the US and Australia, means that Swedes like cars a bit more than they’d admit. Cars and cities are a terrible combination. They seem to embody the faults with liberalism. Commuting is fairly slow. Cars are a bit faster. So when cities grew, some chose to use cars instead of more collective means of transportation in cities. Travelling by car got a little bit slower, but so did commuting. People living in Stockholm actually seem to be driving more than people living in Norrbotten (the province of the northern north, here be dragons). And so we have cities filled with bubbles of steel, machines dangerous to all who cross roads. Even when they’re not moving they obstruct the city. Think of all parking spots which could have something much more useful on them. A great step towards better cities is thus prioritizing more commuting, or less obtructive means of transportation like bicycles and taxis (taxis don’t need parking spots).

One big problem with cities is of course the anonymosity. In a large city, you can more easily be left out. Though maybe that has more to do with the social mores of the present, which I talked a bit about in my previous post. It is imperative of course to expand the commons (those things which are outside both the private and public sphere), for greater social interconnectedness. I see no reason why the city can’t be as good in the respect as the country-side, if not better! There are so many more cool things in cities. I would be most interested in more communes, and I think it is good especially for senior citizens. Old people dying, without anybody to notice it until weeks or months afterwards, represents a low point in humanity.

To summarize: I think cities should be prioritizing the z-dimension, for example buildings which don’t need windows, like cinemas and shops, should preferably be underground. Tall buildings become crazy inconvenient after reaching a certain number of floors, of course. There should be a greater collectivism in both transportation and social life. Though living like dwarves may not be natural for us, it is imperative for environmental sustainability. Hopefully there will be good ways of making cities greener, in the sense of more flora, that is.

I should add that I live on the countryside, like not the “countryside” which city folks call certain suburbs, but actual countryside with forests all around and a kilometer or so to the nearest bus stop. Cities, though truly impressive, also seem intimidating to me in their vastness. But I believe in human cities.

Modern Life

October 13, 2010

A forum post I originally wrote on a topic about suicide. I was much inspired by Lasse Berg’s excellent book Gryning över Kalahari.

The modern life is weird. Thousands, millions individuals living close to each other. Grey urban landscapes of concrete and steel, where neither birds nor silence can be heard, where grass may not be stepped upon, and the horizon and the wandering antilope hordes have disappeared. Time is not measured by the movement of the sun or the seasons, but digitally, on the second. The most social primate of all has adopted an isolated orangutan life, and a hectical one at that. Now, I’m not saying natural=good, but that despite all the flexibility of our species, it is not obvious if a person living all too unnaturally is capable of life.

If human history was boiled down into one year, we have been hunter-gatherers since 1st of January. Suddenly on the morning of the day before New Years’ Eve, we start to live radically different. The transition to agriculture actually decreased our life quality at first. We are adapted to laziness, but now suddenly the human day was filled with hard work during long days. With agriculture we also traded an equal co-existance we knew well with hierarchical order-structures, in bigger and bigger organizations where we rarely meet the people who decide our daily life. Our new existance means the increased atomization of individuals. It is not only in West the large families vanish. Even in Third World cities the daily interactions in the small society disappears. Left are hard-working individuals for who family and friends become a burden, or at least a matter of planning. Moments of silent contemplation disappear in the wake of globalization and rationalization.

That obvious belonging, that you are nice and you just exist, becomes a desperate hunt for dignity and belonging which only qualified prestations can give. We sell ourselves. Our very strongest drive is to belong, to be respected. But our search for the approval of the group can in today’s commercialized society be easily turned towards us when we daily are reminded that we are not good enough, that we are not beautiful or smart, we don’t own the things which means we count. Peer pressure has such a strong impact on us, so strong it can override our will to live. If you don’t belong, you are dead on the inside. Living death is a fate worse than death itself. Bullying, something which in the past was as close to sin you could come, is now something we often see in schools and at work. And then there is the motto of media: “If you aren’t seen, you don’t exist”. Perhaps it is this reasoning which makes people commit suicide by webcam, or what is partly behind the school shootings in America, Finland and elsewhere. To exist for just a short while is better than not existing at all.

It is not possible to turn the clock back and become hunter-gatherers, we are too many, and there are hardly many who would want to. But a long-term solution would be one that is sustainable at least a couple hundred thousand years more. That life will probably look a lot more different than today. Our already incredible technology would give the whole of humanity a good life materially, but above all a good life for our souls. There we will all belong, feel needed and appeciated, and have the ability to show our inner goodness. There are no bullying bosses and frightened servants there. An impossible utopia? Well, maybe. Would be a pity in that case. But it would stop that assembly line of corpses which capitalist realism creates, and be a better way of preventing suicides than propping people full of anti-depressants. Suicides are just the tip of the iceberg of a fundamental flaw in our society.