In the runup to our June event in Tallinn, the good folks at Housing Europe have asked me to address a brief series of thoughtful questions. I share the questions and my answers to them with you here, in the hope that you’ll find them as usefully provocative as I did.
Social anxiety, introversion, isolation, and feelings of loneliness are on the rise, especially in the younger generation, a result of various factors including the irony-laden hyper-connectivity of social media, smart phones and screen time, general alienation from our schooling and work, our physical surroundings, ourselves and each other – is there any way in which technology could be used to actually curb this trend at all?
Well, there are of course any number of apps that claim to spur us to mindfulness and presentness, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that the same hyperconnectivity you’re talking about actually works pretty well for some. I’ve seen studies suggesting, for example, that the most densely-connected social media users tend to score well above average on self-reported measurements of happiness and life satisfaction.
But as far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of a master’s tools/master’s house situation. I don’t think you can reliably underwrite the kind of psychically restorative, face-to-face interaction we seem to require with the same technologies that corrode our ability to attend to and be emotionally present for one another. There are powerful physiological processes engaged by the way smartphones and apps are currently offered to us that tend to militate against our very ability to be present: consider the way the flickering of our screens involuntarily entrains focus, so that you can’t not glance at a screen entering your field of vision, at least momentarily. Or the dopamine cycle, which, as we now know, is consciously exploited by app designers to capture and retain our attention, beneath the level of conscious awareness — that’s what the little red bubble with the number of unread messages is all about, it’s very carefully tuned to be an irresistible trigger to action. The notion that we might somehow override these very old, very deep features of our nervous system at will strikes me as naive.
So what’s the alternative? The alternative is to cultivate a greater sophistication regarding what networked information technology is for, where in our lives it’s best and most wisely deployed, and when the time has come to quite literally set it aside and surrender ourselves to an as-nearly-unmediated encounter with the other as we can feasibly achieve. But that itself takes education, and patience, and the desire to do so, and above all the recognition that it’s not by any stretch of the imagination always comfortable to be in the unmediated presence of another human being, their claims and prerogatives. There’s a skill involved with being copresent with each other in such a vulnerable way, or even a craft, and we could all use some refinement of that craft. Myself very definitely included.
Would it be advisable to build a city from scratch and, if so, would you enjoy being involved in this project and what guiding principles would you wish to employ?
Advisable? In the abstract, I’d have to say no. Most likely inevitable, though: the number of people worldwide who are now looking to avail themselves of urban density and urban opportunity — in not a few cases, mind you, because they were forcibly displaced from the land — will clearly stress the infrastructural carrying capacity of existing conurbations to the breaking point. So we need to bring new ones online, even if it takes a few decades for anything resembling a genuinely metropolitan sensibility to bed into such places.
Would I enjoy being involved in their design? Of course. Like any other urbanist, I have my own pet theories and received nuggets of wisdom about how it is one might go about designing a city so that it simultaneously underwrites equity, complexity, texture and sustainability, and I’d love the opportunity to put those theories to the test. Who wouldn’t?
As to what principles would guide me in any such engagement, it shouldn’t be too much trouble for anyone with even a glancing familiarity with my work to guess their general contours. The first is to provide maximum scope for people to determine the circumstances of their own being, as individuals and collectivities both. The second, which is obviously in a fair deal of tension with this, is to proceed always from the understanding that quality of life for all is best achieved by closely and respectfully attending to the needs of the most vulnerable users of a space.
Have your thoughts or attitudes changed or developed since 2013, when you wrote “Against the smart city”?
At the time I wrote “Against the smart city,” I was — very atypically — cowed by some bizarre notion that the pamphlet’s credibility would be enhanced by a relatively even-handed description of the things I was writing about, even though they were plainly terrible. Figuring that the smart-city schemes I was discussing were so prima facie foolish (or, in the case of PlanIT Valley, outright fictional) that a relatively uninflected account of them would speak plainly enough for itself, I just didn’t put things as sharply as I could or should have. Not to put too fine a point on it: I pulled my punches.
And what happened in the months and years that followed is that, on a fairly regular basis, I’d hear from the architects and engineers who worked on those efforts, people fairly intimately involved with the creation of Masdar or Songdo and so on. They’d write to me and say, “You know, that project was so much worse than you said it was. You have no idea how much worse.”
Well, look: I’ve spent a few years of my life inside large, multinational technology firms. I did have some idea. It’s true that I didn’t have the fine details at hand — and lordy, did they ever make for cacklingly schadenfreudy, if somewhat hair-raising, reading — but even given what I knew at the time, I certainly could have been more pointed in my critique.
The irony, of course, is that the pamphlet is clearly already pretty far to one side of the spectrum of published opinion on the question of the smart city. Yeah, there are a number of critical academic papers that treat the issue, some of them quite tasty, but as far as the popular literature on the subject is concerned virtually everything else out there is a more-or-less optimistic attempt to justify or recuperate the idea of the smart city. If we stipulate, then, that “Against the smart city” pretty much already defines one pole of debate, here I am suggesting that taking these insiders at their word means it should have been much harsher still. I shouldn’t have let myself been affected by tone arguments advanced by purely imaginary interlocutors in my own head, or watered down the truth of what I knew about the elemental mendacity and incompetence of smart-city schemes out of some profoundly misguided notion of the politics of respectability.
It’s a lesson I bear in mind whenever I’m asked to comment on things like Sidewalk Lab’s adventures in Toronto.
Migration as a result of conflict, poverty, land grabbing, climate and demographic change, as well as a type of continuous mobility as a consequence of the pursuit of education or employment opportunities, and, on a more positive note, our curiosity and desire to explore the world, means that we often find ourselves in new and short-term living situations. Could you think up a system in which people could be appropriately and comfortably housed on such a basis?
Sure, and it wouldn’t even necessarily look all that different from present-day AirBnb, at least in schematic. (Let me be clear that I have absolutely no problem with something like AirBnb, provided first of all that every permanent resident of a city in which such a service operates has access to safe, decent, centrally-located housing, unimpeded by considerations of income or affordability. The beef I have with AirBnb is the way it distorts the rental market, and secondarily the signature psychogeographical condition that tends to crop up pretty reliably when much of a city’s historic center is given over to the needs of tourists and other short-term visitors.)
And circling back to your earlier question, here’s a place where I definitely think networked technology has an important role to play in defining the contours of a decent, grounded, equitable modus vivendi. Along these lines, I did some thinking awhile back about what I was then calling “space as a service.” There’s also been some pretty innovative work on ways in which networked shelter and mobility assets might be integrated, epitomized for me by Höweler + Yoon’s Shareway 2030 project from a few years ago.
What do you think is the way — if there is such a way — to make sure that these “radical technologies” you talk about in your latest book actually serve an inclusive design of everyday life that does not leave anyone behind?
If there is a way, it would have to involve massively enhancing the inclusivity, the representational diversity and sheer invitationality of technological development organizations, so that the apps and services that set the bounding conditions on our lives aren’t exclusively devised by a markedly self-similar cadre of young, privileged, able-bodied engineers and designers. Designing technological products and services that are pertinent to and sensitive of the needs of people who don’t happen to process information, understand embodiment or experience space like the existing development cohort is necessarily going to have a lot to do with who’s in the room when the thing’s being made, and what power they’re able to claim. The watchword has to be “nothing about us without us.”
Note that I am not arguing that we need to “prioritize STEM education” above everything else, whatever that is, or god forbid that “everyone should learn to code.” But we need to get a whole lot closer to a paradigm of development by people rather than for them, or on their behalf. It’s not like this is by any means fully resolved inside urban planning, by the way — it’s a tension that’s been plainly evident since at least the mid-1960’s, and here I’m thinking of some of the more thoughtful critical responses to Paul Davidoff’s 1965 paper on advocacy planning. Not even the most skilled advocate will ever be able to fully evoke someone else’s lived experience of the world in all of the ways that are salient to a design challenge of this order, no matter how diligent or well-intentioned or empathic they may happen to be. So the task that lays before us is figuring out how ordinary people everywhere can meaningfully claim a voice in the development of the information-technical systems that now do so much to condition their life choices and chances.
Let’s be crystal-clear that the struggles of May left us with a legacy that is by no means uncomplicated. More than a few of those who threw their bodies on the barricades then and in the months that followed shamefully spearheaded the turn to neoliberalism just a few years down the road, as the intellectual winds started to blow from a different quarter. The language and symbols of the moment have often been coöpted in the decades since, used to advance political and commercial agendas that would surely have struck the demonstrators at the Sorbonne (and their counterparts in Chicago, Prague, Mexico City and elsewhere) as obscene. Adding insult to injury, images of May are more than occasionally invoked by sentimental veterans of the left as a stick to beat younger activists with — taking them to task for not somehow bringing society to its knees in a matter of weeks every time there’s a new wave of dissent, as though the entire economic/sociotechnical/media milieu hadn’t changed a whit in the half-century since Danny the Red leapt the CRS fences.
And yet, and yet. We (OK: I) return time and again to those indelible, iconic Atelier Populaire posters, and the images of Paris ripped up, barricaded, shrouded in a fog of war gas they so reliably conjure, for the pure hit of Situationist verve and sheer insurgent insouciance they offer, even at such a long remove. If there’s a task before us, it’s to ensure that those images live as channels of power from their moment to ours: that we avoid turning them into fetish, shrine for a dead and irretrievable vector of possibility, or worst of all, decor. If we use them properly, in fact, they’re a goad, a potent reminder that the impossible is still a thing that lays before us to demand, and to achieve.
Happy May Day, beloved.
A few days back, my friend and colleague John Bingham-Hall gave a great talk at the Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, as part of a series on the urban commons organized by the wonderful Torange Khonsari. John’s talk was called “Common(s) Materials,” and it took up a question that’s central to many of my own concerns: is there some necessary relationship between the social or political qualities of a space claimed for the commons, and the materials used in articulating and furnishing that space?
What I want to do here is expand on some of John’s thoughts, and perhaps develop them further. What follows is more of a free association than anything else, and certainly not a well-formed argument; while I apologize if it’s not particularly structured, hopefully you’ll find some utility in it regardless.
What do you mean when you talk about “the commons”?
Let me first clarify what I mean by “the commons,” which, for present purposes, we can simply define as territory not governed by either the market or the state, and that is in principle available and accessible to all. (I’ve previously written about why I prefer the gerund form commoning, but we can set that to the side for now.)
Sites organized as commons have been in short supply in conurbations of the developed world ever since the so-called “urban renaissance,” or rediscovery and revalorization of the central city by the middle class, which started gathering steam around 1990. This reversal in the outward flow of population that had characterized the previous few decades sent land value in urban cores worldwide to vertiginous heights, and guaranteed that the worth of such parcels would henceforth be determined by their speculative exchange value, rather than any utility they might have as a dwelling-place for human beings. At the culmination of this process, a clear consensus regarding “the highest and best use” for land emerged worldwide, in the form of luxury condominiums whose units are traded as “sky bullion” among the members of a fairly shady global investor class consisting of oligarchs, autocrats, hedge-fund traders, private-equity managers and their children.
Under such circumstances, the only sites that were by and large left to popular control were waste and interstitial spaces, sacrifice zones too steep, difficult or prone to subsidence to develop profitably, or tracts where the projects of finance capital had failed, gone into receivership or otherwise been abandoned.
In the global South, for the most part, any such site is impossible to distinguish from the broader and thoroughly informal built fabric that may constitute the absolute majority of a city’s developed land area. It’s only in the metropolitan core of the developed world that sites occupied and maintained as commons tend to stand apart, not simply in terms of their political organizing principles but of their visual identity as well.
Is there any such thing as a “commons aesthetic”?
So can we establish that there is a coherent aesthetic associated with such spaces?
As I’ve noted here before, there is a distinct mode in which urban sites claimed for the commons present themselves to their users and the world. It’s present in most of the participatory spaces I’ve been so interested in over the past decade: you can see it deployed at Grand Voisins in Paris, el Campo de Cebada in Madrid, perhaps to a lesser extent at Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, and it’s all over the projects of collective practices like Campo designer-builders Zuloark or the intriguing spatial provocateurs raumlabor Berlin. These spaces are characterized by the use of ultra-low-cost, widely accessible commodity materials readily manipulable by the untrained: shipping pallets and the wood reclaimed from them, CMUs of various types, construction tarps and rebar.
Cheap, lightweight components of this sort emphasize the mobile, participatory and rapidly reconfigurable qualities of common space — though perhaps at the cost of inadvertently underlining just how contingent such space generally is in the global North, just how vulnerable it is to clearance by the state and recuperation by the market. As John pointed out, there is a certain invitational character to them as well. You don’t require much in the way of training or prior experience to build surprisingly durable structures with these materials, which is the same reason you’ll find them at the heart of various self-build schemes of the past half-century. (Ken Isaacs’ visionary 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures is exemplary in this regard, though Walter Segal’s method has to be singled out for the longevity of its influence on actually-existing lifeways.)
Together, these elements comprise what I think of as the Received Commons Aesthetic, and as the name implies, it’s fair to say that it has by now become something of a mannerism. Further, its achievement on a given site may require outlays of capital or labor that the community claiming it for the commons cannot well tolerate. For example, raumlabor Berlin’s rather clever chairs, albeit using salvaged wood, are nevertheless purpose-built and labor-intensive. (Despite my own long-nurtured hopes for an eventual alignment of the informational commons with the spatial commons, at present I think it’s clear that the use of digitally-fabricated furniture in this context, like the designs licensed by Opendesk, can only be understood as hopelessly fetishistic, and the same thing probably goes for most appearances of open hardware.)
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of actual squats and social centers I’ve ever spent time in were furnished in an eclectic style that could best be described as “adaptive reuse,” with much of the interior furnishing either inherited from the building’s former occupants, or trashpicked and therefore freegan. In my experience, anyway, such avowedly anarchist spaces tend to be cozy with rugs, spavined La-Z-Boys and thick, insulating wall-hangings, if not outright gemütlich; the idea that their inhabitants would dedicate any effort at all to the design and construction of new furniture, especially amid the profound global surplus of manufactured objects available more or less for the taking, strikes me as, uh, questionable. (John ended his talk with the provocation that the most appropriate seating for spaces of participatory democracy would be the £5 folding chair from Ikea, rather than anything intended to function as a visual signifier of the commons; the equivalent, for most of the emerging world, would of course be the ubiquitous knockoff Monobloc.)
Why does any of this matter?
In his comments, John raised the question of performative transparency, as epitomized by Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome. At the Reichstag, glass is both denotative and connotative. You can literally see through it, of course, from the observer galleries to the workings of the chamber below, and it’s therefore supposed not merely to signify but actually enact the idea that democracy is something that takes place in public: the implication is that in present-day Germany, the deliberative process itself is as accessible, available and accountable as its image.
We can certainly wonder whether this is now the case, or ever has been. But as John pointed out, these performative qualities of glass do raise the question of what is implied when we choose to use other materials in our constructions of democratic space. In particular, he asked, “Does wood symbolically trap politics in the realm of the intimate?” In other words, does the very humility of the materials that together comprise the Received Commons Aesthetic consign the active practice of democracy to the strictly local, or suggest that there are no larger scales at which participatory praxis is appropriate?
In my own flavor of politics (which, as you may have noticed here and elsewhere, I’m increasingly comfortable characterizing as “neo-Bookchinian”), this may not matter so much. My feeling is that participatory deliberative processes work best in assemblies of about the Dunbar number — not at all coincidentally, the size of a New England-style town meeting — and that effective governance in both municipalities and larger territories can be achieved by networked federations thereof. Nevertheless, it’s a question worth taking seriously.
But there’s a more troubling implication raised by the Received Commons Aesthetic, which is that is so easily recognizable, so straightforwardly characterizable and so readily replicable that it can not merely stand for participatory politics but replace it entirely. If we see the RCA in admittedly interesting hybrid spaces like the Institut for (x) in Aarhus or the R-Urban project just northwest of Paris, there is however no suggestion that these sites are owned and managed collectively, for the benefit of all. And needless to say, anything so readily reducible to pastiche can also be encountered in watered-down form, at commercial sites like Seoul’s Ssamziegil — the latter places that do not remotely constitute a commons in any way, but clearly wish to convey the sense of openness, adaptivity, porosity and invitationality we associate with liberated spaces. What such sites imply is that the presence of architecture based on pallets, CMUs, tarps and other mobile elements may perform radical inclusion and participation where they do happen to be present, but also suggest them where they are not.
Indeed, at places like Boxpark and the truly vile Artworks, the aesthetic isn’t merely emptied of meaning but actually inverted: Boxpark is nothing more than a way of turning an otherwise marginal interstitial site into a buzz- and revenue-generating minimall, while the similar Artworks is deployed where the Heygate Estate housing complex once stood, camouflaging developer Lend Lease’s deep complicity in the council’s own program of social cleansing. (Apartments at the new Elephant Park were marketed, and evidently sold, exclusively to overseas investors, while the developers failed to actually provide any of the notionally affordable units they’d committed to.)
What all this says to me is that there is great value in establishing radically participatory spatial situations that do not greatly resemble the Received Commons Aesthetic, or at the very least pushing outward our notions of what common space can look like. Here my model has always been the microurbanism of Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, a gorgeously-conceived and carefully detailed cluster of dwelling units surrounding shared service, conviviality and circulation spaces. As private property owned by a single individual, the thicket of buildings that constitutes Moriyama House is clearly in no way a commons as we’ve defined it. But in edging away from the atomized nature of life in discrete apart-ments, it points toward what it might mean to dwell in common, and perhaps suggests something about the ways in which space can help individual tenants modulate public and private as need be.
Like raumlabor’s chairs, such proposals certainly run afoul of that tendency Kurt Vonnegut once perceptively identified as one of the primary flaws in the human character: that “everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” There’s no doubt a great deal of justice in the idea that by the metric of sustainability, at least, the most radical thing one could possibly do is to reclaim existing spaces, leverage the material-energetic investments already sunk in them, and perhaps retrain them if necessary. By this ethic, the grandeur comes to live with the otherwise unglamorous practices of maintenance and long-term stewardship.
But there’s also something to be said for the idea that beauty, craft and rigor in design ought to be reclaimed from the market — that spaces by, of and for the people need not read as or be ad-hoc, that they might instead be marked by certain aesthetics we more often associate with luxury and the commercial high end. Dating back at least as far as Ruskin, Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, this is not, of course, a novel suggestion. It acquires new relevance, though, in a period of increasingly democratic and high-resolution control over the distribution of matter.
Organized as housing cooperatives or community land trusts or their equivalents, there’s no reason emergent spaces in common need to partake of the Received Commons Aesthetic — especially if it is more than occasionally dishonest in what it implies about the nature of the sites marked by it. With new digital design and construction techniques becoming relatively accessible, and powerful ways of building and dwelling together becoming available to learn from, it would be disappointing if the participatory and collectively managed spaces of the future failed to transcend the visual language of those few examples that exist at present.
I personally enjoy the Received Commons Aesthetic, just as I kinda dig the funky Ken Isaacs/early Whole Earth Catalog vibe of the various, deeply clever mobile assemblies Zuloark and their collaborators have built at el Campo. But what I enjoy more is the sense I have whenever I’m lucky enough to be on that parcel of land, which at that is not so different from what I remember about Kunsthaus Tacheles, or the various squats in which I’ve ever laid my head for the night: that here is freedom, and what’s more, freedom of a kind the market cannot offer at any rate or price. And because freedom is only another word for privilege unless it’s truly shared by all, it feels necessary, now, to begin peeling away that experience of freedom from the material undercarriage that implies but only occasionally actually supports its becoming.
My sense is that the Aesthetic, and the use of the materials it’s based on to construct and articulate spaces in common, will persist for some time yet to come, for all the reasons of low cost, accessibility and invitationality we’ve discussed. I hope, though, that we can imagine a time when such spaces aren’t limited to those that can be established on the scraps from late capitalism’s table, using offcuts from its voracious machinery. We should be thinking about what the urban commons might look like in triumph, when it can truly leverage all of the organizing, funding and building capabilities this moment in history offers us — when we dare to demand something reaching beyond a minimum viable utopia, and settle for nothing less than the entire city held in common, for the use and enjoyment of all who dwell in it and bring it to life.
My thanks to John Bingham-Hall, to his co-panelists Adam Kaasa and Nicolas Fonty for their insightful presentations, and to Torange Khonsari for her generosity in putting it all together.
To paraphrase Sartre’s famous comments about Che Guevara, the autonomous citizens of Rojava, or the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — and especially those fighting in the ranks of its militia, the YPG/YPJ — are the most fully realized human beings of our time. Their understanding of kyriarchy and what it requires of those of us who would unwind it is direct, complete, unclouded.
Officially branded as terrorist sympathizers, alternately supported, disregarded and threatened by the US, in this era of incoherent strategic policy and smash-and-grab opportunism, the men and women of Rojava have been forced to do it all on their own. They’ve had to learn how to do anarchism, how to do feminism, how to do horizontalism and confederation, in practice, in real time, in what certainly appears to be some of the least propitious soil imaginable, in the face of a world that seems to want nothing so much as for them to disappear.
I believe we ought to be doing everything possible to support them, and defend them against those who would destroy them.
The emergence of a vital resistance in Rojava is weirdly personal for me. For decades, nurtured on more-or-less annual rereadings of Homage to Catalonia, I harbored the fantasy that had I lived during the time of the Spanish Civil War, I would naturally have run off and enlisted in a militia like that of the POUM Orwell was affiliated with, and put my body on the line in the struggle against fascism.
And not just to fight against something, either, but for something as well — for the total vision of emancipated life that emerged during the years of struggle in Spain. The POUM, of course, was committed to a fiercely egalitarian politics, even under the pressures of the front line; in the militia that fought beneath their banner, “[t]here were no visible differences between ranks, no saluting and no differentials in pay,” while combat tactics and plans of action were often debated among the fighters expected to enact them. (And they weren’t even anarchists!) Meanwhile, behind the lines, in the cities and lands under revolutionary control, entirely new forms of collective life were emerging.
For most of my adult life, this was one of the precious few examples of actually-existing anarchism any of us could point to. We could celebrate the real improvements in status and condition won by revolutionary Spanish women, in the “double struggle” against gender and class oppression. We could emphasize, with almost equal pride, the fact that material production and even technology-intensive urban infrastructure like tramways or the telephone network prospered in the sectors under democratic management. And we could further argue, with a good deal of justice, that this experiment in popular control ended not because it collapsed beneath the weight of its own accumulated contradictions, but because it was destroyed from the outside — directly by the Nazi-armed and -supported Nationalists, and indirectly via the perfidy of the parties aligned with Moscow.
Nevertheless, destroyed it was. And curiously, that made the Spanish experience of revolution safe for those of us who took inspiration from it so many years down the line. For one thing, whatever difficult realities, compromises or oppressions emerged during the months of popular control, they were interred in glorious defeat along with the insurgents themselves. Neither those brave souls nor their overseas admirers ever had to reckon with the unresolved tensions of large-scale governance and self-management over the longer term. But also, however those tales of heroism on the barricades and in the trenches may have quickened our blood, with no real way to act on them, it became cheap and easy to imagine oneself into the narrative. You could puff out your chest and say, “Oh, yeah, I would have shipped out, signed on with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and killed me some Fascists,” with nobody and nothing to stand in the way of your self-righteous posturing.
With another experiment in popular control really unfolding in our time, though, Rojava has put such fantasies to the test, and me along with them. The question isn’t, what are “we” going to do for Rojava? It’s what am I going to do for Rojava, for this land that never was, where the people are somehow, miraculously, against every certainty of geopolitics, both putting Murray Bookchin’s beautiful thought into practice, and setting Daesh to flight at the same time?
Without hyperbole, there is literally no question in our lives more important, nor likely to be, at least for those of us moved by currents of the antiauthoritarian or horizontalist left. For us, especially, the way we answer it will determine whether we really mean our politics, and intend to see them through — with all the risks and pitfalls that entails — or prefer to see them safely, gloriously dead and in the ground, where we can haul them out a few times a year to mourn what could have been.
The following is a very lightly edited version of something I wrote for the newsletter I published on a weekly basis all through 2015. I always understood these pieces as ephemera, and so my policy was that there would be no persistent archive of them, and no way for anyone to read a weekly entry they hadn’t received by virtue of being subscribed to the newsletter at the time it was published. They were strictly of and for the moment.
I still think that was a sound policy. But not a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me to repost the following, and in the interest of saving everyone some time I figured I’d do so here. For reasons that I cannot fathom, it remains the single most-requested among the sixty-odd newsletters I published last year. Usual disclaimers apply, but I hope you enjoy it.
Many of you will recall that for the two years before we moved to London, I was in the habit of convening drinks every Friday night at Temple Bar on Lafayette Street. This standing get-together, imaginatively dubbed FRIDAYS AT 7, remains one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with. I still derive an enormous amount of satisfaction out of having brought this particular assortment of people together, still glow from the memory of a great many great nights, and to this day try to arrange a FATSEVEN gathering whenever I happen to be in New York City for more than 48 hours or so.
But it also taught me something very deep about the nature of human socialization. You should know that I inherit from my mother a profound tendency to want to please everyone I’m interacting with, at least in certain contexts — even when there are more than two people involved, even when some of those people disagree with or outright dislike one another. Now, this can be a beautiful trait. Buried within it, I’m sure, are the seeds of some future generation’s ability to settle all invidious contentions, bring all parties to a common table and drape the world in universal harmony. But of all the troublesome tendencies in my psychological makeup (and there are a few), this one quality has perhaps caused more chaos in my various relationships and jobs than any other.
Because as it happens, you just can’t give everyone you know everything they want. I’m not necessarily saying that all relationships are brutally zero-sum games of resource management, but, y’know, they take place inside history. Like anything else that does, they’re subject to entropy, scarcity, the rules of physics. That I can see, there are no Pareto-optimal solutions for interpersonal relationships, any more than there are for any other system above a certain threshold of complexity. They’re like a three-body problem. (Sometimes they are a three-body problem.)
It turned out that my dearly beloved FRIDAYS AT 7 crew was like that. Now, I need to do a little bit of stage-setting, so you understand the particular dynamic at play here. Though to a one they were (and are) all fascinating, funny, talented and endearing, not everyone who came to drinks on a regular basis had necessarily tasted success as the world defines it. But there was a subset of folks there who had done so, and by any rational standard these were all accomplished people. They’d published well- and widely-reviewed books, or shown films at world-famous festivals, or played a part in the development of some piece of software you use on a daily basis.
I certainly don’t think any more highly of them because this happens to be the case, because god knows why any of our lives break the way they do. But naturally I admired them for their achievements, as well as for the other things that commended them to my friendship in the first place. And I had assumed that within the social universe of the particularly accomplished, there existed something like a consensus that anyone you might care to name more or less knows what they’re talking about.
And so I’ll confess that it floored me when late one night, on hearing me praise a mutual acquaintance who I myself did consider to be highly accomplished, one of these people said, “I can’t believe you rate that guy. He’s just such total bullshit.” Laboring under my maternal inheritance (which I eventually came to recognize as a mutant strain of Geek Social Fallacy #4, actively operating in both my mother and I decades before it was identified and named as such), it had never occurred to me that some objectively high-achieving people might regard one another in this way.
Yeah, I know. You’d think I would have figured this out on the dewy side of forty, come to some much earlier insight into how contingent and variable human reputation can be. I dunno — maybe I cut class that day. Either way, it wasn’t until that very moment that I realized how acutely uncomfortable my praise of this third party was making my friend. It was clear to me, in fact, that he would begin to question my own judgement if I insisted on proceeding too much further down this path. The conversation would get awkward, then actively difficult, and then who knows? maybe the friendship would too. Doors of perception blasted wide by my third Stolichnaya martini of the evening, I began to wonder how many other times over the years I had put someone in just this uncomfortable position.
I realized on the spot that what I needed was a Master Bullshit Matrix.
The Master Bullshit Matrix, as I saw it in that blinding flash of insight, would take the form of a very large (but mercifully finite) spreadsheet. In its cells would be recorded — would reside for all time — a complete accounting of just who considers whom to be Bullshit. Accomplished or not, celebrated or not, by definition there would be a place for everyone on the Master Bullshit Matrix, and then we’d all finally be able to reckon just where we stood.
On its face, compiling any such thing would certainly appear to be a spectacularly mean-spirited and juvenile thing to do: the kind of effort snotty fourth-graders set themselves to, when deciding who is and is not allowed to sit at their lunch table. But as I imagined it, the point of the Master Bullshit Matrix was letting everyone involved in one of these conflicts of appraisal save a little face.
Armed with the Master Bullshit Matrix, I wouldn’t embarrass myself (or anyone else) by continuing to insist on the quality of someone the person I was talking to considered Bullshit. Not unless I wanted to, anyway. In any given moment, I could decide whether or not I wanted to press the case for someone’s non-Bullshitness, teasingly needle someone by dropping the name of someone I knew full well they thought was Bullshit, or avoid the topic entirely. I could even cross-reference a particular intersection of personalities, and learn whether the Bullshit judgement ran one-way or two-way.
Please do not mistake me to be saying that good conversation requires agreement about everything — that you should ever be insincere yourself, or commit yourself to a position you do not in fact hold, just for the sake of someone’s momentary comfort. But there are clearly times when the greater good of social ease requires the deft avoidance of certain conversational minefields. And as I came to understand so late in life, you enter one of those minefields in arguing for someone’s transcendent genius…when your interlocutor believes that person to be Bullshit.
In an attempt to see what it might take to populate the Master Bullshit Matrix, I gently began to probe certain of my more forthright friends for their opinions. All of them understood the question immediately, offering their own personal Bullshit nominations without hesitation. What I found most interesting was that some of these nominations — many of them, in fact — came to me as a complete surprise. It reinforced my sense that there’s absolutely no predicting ahead of time who is going to strike someone else as Bullshit.
Broadly speaking, what seemed to make someone vulnerable to the charge that they were Bullshit? It’s hard to pin down precisely, but certain qualities seemed to crop up fairly often. The perception of insincerity, chiefly. Intellectual laziness, from someone my interlocutor believed that we can and should expect better of. Posturing. Ideology when it appeared to be deployed for craven professional, financial or sexual advantage.
There seemed to be some overlap with Dunning-Kruger syndrome, but not entirely so – it is broadly acknowledged that some people just can’t help being dumb, and while they may not be aware that they are dumb, this in itself doesn’t necessarily make them Bullshit. In other people, however, the behavior that constitutes reasonable ground for a Dunning-Kruger diagnosis is 100% the same thing that makes them Bullshit.
Note, too, that the quality of being Bullshit is something that mostly seems to reside at the professional or vocational level. Very importantly, there doesn’t seem to be anything preventing you from liking or enjoying the company of someone you believe to be Bullshit. Indeed, among the friends I talked to, some of their nominations were folks I know full well that they remained greatly fond of. These weren’t bad people. They were just Bullshit.
Of course the most interesting thing you could do with a Master Bullshit Matrix would be using it to discover who believes that you yourself are Bullshit. You could avoid wasting your time with those people; if you were particularly brave, you could even open up the question of your possible Bullshitness with them, and take steps to address the grounds for their belief, if any. Again, as I imagined it, anyway, the Master Bullshit Matrix would be a constructive tool for interpersonal growth and the avoidance of inadvertent offense, not a preteen’s nasty little cut-book. On this count I am probably being optimistic.
Is it possible to know that one is Bullshit? It’s hard to say. Perhaps, like the Dunning-Kruger effect itself, it’s a self-blinding condition: if you knew you had it, you wouldn’t have it. But it’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?