Internet and broadcast channels are thick with digital chants, celebrations of virtual relationship and the revolutionary power of digital social networks but the gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen unabated, taking on new dimensions. Technology ads convey images of joyous virtual presence improving the quality of life for everyone as if poverty, bigotry, warfare and ignorance are miraculously dissipated by clicking, “Like”. Meanwhile political combatants of all stripes are pretending that the failed system works and by modest tweaks of public spending and tax policy endemic problems can be fixed and we can ignore messages like the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Anything more revolutionary than “amend section A” is ridiculed in mainstream media yet only a mentally incompetent or insane person would bet a nickel on a positive outcome and Vegas odds favor more exploitation and dangerous development, new wars, more nuclear contamination, chemical toxicity and catastrophic natural as well as man-made disasters. Yesterday, a failed Russian satellite fell from the sky.
The budding “occupy Wall Street” movement brings some of these items in the current catalog of horrors called, “the news” to our attention but sophisticated media producers and bloghags receive millions from corporate sponsors to flood us with irrelevancies and after a century of neglect and profiteering, mostly confusion and hysteria is reflected in daily news reports and the tone of the electorate is that solutions are not amenable to political action. Best to let things slide, find a job, mind your own business, secure your own prosperity if you can, with the understanding that the odds are great that one day, you or your loved ones will lose everything anyway or you will move to China, where the money is. This is the USA in the 21st century.
Cut to Del Mar, California, 2004. After 10 years spent in commercial, residential and infrastructure development in and around San Diego, I stopped working to enjoy my relationship with my mother. She was approaching her 100th year and I felt she would be leaving soon. This experience proved important since I received a quick education about what it means to grow really old in the United States. For instance, we imagine that mental and physical infirmity come naturally with old age, a myth of convenience for people who can’t afford to support and nurture their elderly relations—yet another aspect of the poverty we have come to accept: warehousing older citizens separate from their kin, the effect of which is to hasten their demise. In all the rhetoric you are likely to hear during the 2012 political season, you are not likely to hear anything about the welfare of very old people even though the future for each of us includes either death or old age and if you looked into your own future, you might conclude that death is preferable and not because of infirmity. I invited my mother to live in a home I rented next door to me in Del Mar. Since, she didn’t need constant or skilled medical care, I had time on my hands to explore an area I had written about in a book I wrote for McGraw Hill in 1984, at the end of which I expressed concern for the effects on people and communities of proposed new computer and telecom technology implementations.
As I renewed research I had shelved more than 20 years before to work on a series of not for profit community development projects, I began thinking about a new kind of real estate development project, which could provide a dynamic solution to the problems that had resulted from lack of planning in development to accommodate population growth.
Initially, I had been inspired to work in community development by a phrase used by Winston Churchill although he meant it in completely different context in 1943 when he said, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” but the idea stuck with me as a parallel to the old saw, “it takes a village to raise a child.”
Community planning is neither new nor a radical idea. City planning departments or their equivalents everywhere in America review development plans, draft zoning plans and issue building permits. But they are not planning communities. At best, they are an exercise in managing risk and avoiding liability. In fact, the closest we have come in America to designing for cultural values are written covenants in 20th century property deeds that require successive owners of record to exclude negroes, jews, orientals or Mexicans. In any case, designers of cities have ever come close to imagining the evolution of human beings that would inhabit the places they envisioned two centuries later. The total number of even modestly organized urban centers in America are vastly outnumbered by the number of unplanned regions, in which political jurisdictions have nothing to do with cultural or even geographic qualities of the locale. Within these unplanned political jurisdictions reside millions of households, for convenience categorized into sub-jurisdictions, prefectures, departments, parishes, townships, etc., the planning of which consists of subdivision maps with zoning and planning commission permits never taking ecological issues too seriously let alone cultural or social concerns.
If unplanned or poorly conceived development produced the diminishing quality of life and current state of alienated relationships we now suffer, might it be that intentional development can shape a kinder, gentler, happier kind of civilization? Since we can at last see the need for environmental protection in city planning, perhaps, it is not too great a leap to create priorities appropriate to humanized communities, in other words, to regard the extent to which development either dehumanizes populations or the opposite. We have eliminated codified racial discrimination, a common practice in the latter half of the 20th century all over the United States but we have not yet tried justice by design, although, by leaving it up to chance, economic factors effect prejudices we’ve made illegal.
My conclusion may seem at first utopian and impractical, because the way development deals are made in the arena of local government is patently corrupted by local political alignments. Moreover, people in the housing market have no interest in long term planning, especially if it involves changes and they merely want comfortable, safe communities with pleasant amenities. They are buying products, not ideas, Even when people are engaged in community planning in places as they have been in Tucson, Arizona, the envelope of their concerns is ecological and has not anticipated the kind of social world that a future people with future values will inhabit in an unimagined world.
As a developer, I saw that some people, who said they wanted to live in an ecologically sustainable fashion, also put up roadblocks to creative initiative, insisting instead on traditional designs. They were more comfortable repeating failed practices rather than risking the unfamiliar. However, they were constrained from voicing their prejudicial fears and concerns about ethnic, cultural and economic differences and operated from barely veiled xenophobia, preferring corrupt approaches to government, policing and the archaic bureaucracies that protect their perceived interests.
However, the hammer that shapes development in the U.S. is the principle that property owners have a right to make the “highest and best use” of their property that is allowable by law, which turns out to be a formula for optimizing financial investment as the primary value in development with the result that beyond luxury housing for very wealthy people, nothing gets built except to turn a profit and every development proposal is carefully vetted to eliminate risk for lenders and to enhance gain to investors and any beneficial effect on the community is purely an accident of chance.
These circumstances produce problems that have always plagued us, whether property is developed by a state agency with public funds or by private entrepreneurs with bank loans. So, in part, the terrible job we have done, which has destroyed communities more often than creating or preserving them is in part due to concessions to human nature and partly due to contemporaneous economic and political realities that are the outcome of history. Our development practices constitute our system for accommodating population growth as an alternative to planning and in the only cases where population growth is being consciously planned, for instance, Marin, California, planning for growth amounts to a ban on new construction. Development is “not rocket science and it occurred to me that finding a way around such problems simply requires looking for the weaknesses of a system of ad hoc practices that was never intended to prevent intelligent design, it is just ignorant of such ideas. In other words, although there may be no reward to for doing something that works, there is no prohibition of good design sense.
I saw an opportunity in the current plight and devaluation of thousands of large retail and industrial properties, which have out-lived their purpose due to unanticipated market changes. A second opportunity arises as a result of failed speculation on mortgage derivatives in the financial markets. These two circumstances combine to make some large scale venues for repurposing development. With available locations and resources, the problem shifts back to one of design. If we can define the qualities and features of a city that offers the highest potential for a successful community, perhaps these empty, available properties can be modified and put to good use.
Since, this question has been asked often enough, I found the answer hiding in plain sight. Look at Venice, Sienna, Prague, Paris, Toledo! To some extent every building development project, large or small, from Gaudi’s La Iglesia de La Familia Sagrada to a federal housing project in San Juan, Puerto Rico begins with this question. A developer’s vision is easily clouded by confused priorities when it is not ill-informed or subsumed by concerns as arcane as defense against siege, the favor of a particular God or the prominence of patronage, political interest or some current ecological fear or mania.
After defining that the mission of the project was to be the creation of a physical, public gathering place within a community that would have a transformative effect on the relationships of any who are present, regardless of who they are and where they started out. I gave this project a working title suited to this purpose based on the Greek word, Αγορά, (a-gə-rə), for gathering spaces in towns like the plaza in a Spanish town that are both markets and locations for public forums, theaters and civic events, spaces dedicated to the public expression of the arts, commerce and communication. The particular name, Agorica, is not crucial—the idea is to name the purpose of a physical place in the same way we call a building a theater, gymnasium, stadium or city administration center.
The answer to this question is oddly enough, suggested by Las Vegas, a community that was designed and developed explicitly for entertainment, a place proud of the reputation of being a hedonistic, morally corrupt, spiritual desert. Not surprisingly, Las Vegas now suffers a fate similar to retail malls, a failure that casts a shadow on the fanciful Kingdom of Dubai. It is the absence of the same quality that is missing in retail malls that is crippling Las Vegas and will eventually overtake Dubai if a natural catastrophe doesn’t tank the place first.
Physical presence is unnecessary for commerce, entertainment or even to hook up, so physical venues like retail malls and Vegas grow increasingly irrelevant. When you take into account that 20th century style shopping malls and artificial entertainment venues and Disneyland led us down the pathway to alienated populations, featureless communities without identity, it is not coincidence that they exemplify gathering places that lack original flavor, missing richly cultural features and activities that are consistent with a unique local identity that is real, not ersatz stereotype, not made for tourists and not exportable.
Eventually, Agorica became a plan for a real estate development project with an example plot plan, building schematics, amenities, information technology components, pro forma financial and marketing plans and a detailed description of how it would be economically self-sustained by operations and management that would quickly transform the political and economic life of the community where it is located. The focus, from which this success is to be generated and it’s economic center is to be interactive, performing arts.
Agorica was to be a miniature replication or scale model for civilization, an incubator for innovation in local cultural leadership that used the expression of language and custom of its locality. It was to be a laboratory in which experiments in the art of community relationships can be safely conducted to engage people in healthy forms of interaction, a design that in particular, addresses concerns Victor Gruen realized out of the failures of the shopping mall he invented and about which Walt Disney would nod in agreement, solved the greatest impediment he encountered in Anaheim, California—human nature—the market determines by the decisions and actions of buyers, that which succeeds.
Although there is evidence that virtual social networking has assisted movements in protest against local tyrannical regimes in the middle-east, there is no evidence for change at the root economic level after regime changes in places like Romania, Lybya, Egypt and Iraq. The opposite has happened, leading to violence, fear and hostility as factions continue to fight over control of left-overs from deposed regimes. Displacing abusive dictators leaves the bureaucracies that supported them intact. New physical and economic development are needed to engage people in interactions that redefine their new cultural identity. Against this possibility stands a relentless wall of previous investment–locked doors and many key-holders. Investment in new physical spaces where direct, hand to hand trade occurs must be part of any solution. Arguably, there’s no logical reason why a communication network could change physical circumstances at the root economic level anyway since the economic model for social networking follows rules of physical reality. A new physical reality is needed, this is the statement of Agorica.
The difference wrought by social network media is that physical societies now consist of self-identified multiple classes, the members of which view their differences from other groups in virtual terms as much as or more than real circumstances. But on the face of things, these illusions are without substance. We may see ourselves differently but the bread (French fries, rice or kasha) we eat is real and though real, physical circumstances would logically seem to be more relevant to our lives than virtual–this is not true when virtual ephemera inspire feelings and ideas about ourselves that assuage the reality of unchanging poverty and extreme contrasts as well as the surreal irrelevance of nonsensical political ideologies and mega-economics. The imagined world manifested in verisimilitude, made possible by graphic and aural stimuli, brings to everyone, everywhere, ubiquitously in cinema, broadcasting and webcasting, the sense of a world that resembles the physical world and though we know it only by reference, it fills a void so that it is enough—for now. It might be helpful to imagine how our responses to the world and behavior would change were the Internet to magically shut down. It could precipitate more benefit than harm by forcing the hand, so to speak, of the network of hypnotic co-dependence that binds us to the status quo. But though this seems like a pipedream, it is the reason Agorica must be a design that accommodates the status quo rather than seeking to change it–it must create a natural evolution.
While we are distracted and given hope by eloquent, artistic and perverse Internet fantasies and virtual possibilities are constantly paraded before us in the sidebars of LCD “windows” online, real physical development and ordinary commerce subsumes the planet in a rich mixture of toxic, unsustainable, illogical, disjointed and ill-considered practices at every level—in the home, the street, the forest, the air and the sea.
At this moment, while the radioactive poisoning of Fukushima rests in the background of very recent memory with a myriad frightening concerns, a dozen new nuclear reactors are under construction in India alone, with no reasonable plan for dealing with nuclear waste and in the United States, a proposed new pipeline for natural gas is being forced through congress by it’s investors against the advice of biological scientists and ecologists. In view of our commitment to cell phones, texting and ipads, from an objective, external view, it appears we are deliberately destroying the complex fabric of organic life in deference to an imaginary iworld of more efficient, artificial intelligence. Can Agorica use advanced technologies so the result favors biological life?
Electronic programs that perpetuate and promote the current plodding death march towards disaster can’t correct it without introducing some kind of new, self-sustaining, highly persuasive influence because the economic mechanisms that currently underlay the implementation of new technology are sponsored by physical and social realities that appeal to individual motives for personal survival and they ignore most aspects of human nature considered by entrepreneurs to be outside of their fields, for instance, the way in which implicit homoerotic tendencies expressed in the behavior of gangs coupled with brutal xenophobia affects communities and all of our lives. What kind of development can create the safe atmosphere for interaction and expression of instinctual motives?
It is all well and good to spout principles like “unity in diversity” or “liberté, égalité, fraternité” in novels and essays but we know that priorities on the streets of life are trumps and this applies not only to Sicilian mafiosi, La eMe and Blackwater, but also, to internecine relationships between mayors and “important” landowners everywhere.
Corruption of principle in the interest of survival is the standard that everyone, including corporate and governmental organizations, follows as the night the day, regardless of what they say or do or how they interpret what they mean by “survival” or when their interpretation is pathological, for example, the disingenuous slogan promoted in ads of the Standard Oil Corporation, “Chevron do”. But at the lowest economic level in every civilization people learn the mantrum, “they have a right” and to regard responsible behavior as gratuitous rather than obligatory. During the last half century, we have learned to be surprised when someone returns a found purse rather than keeping it. But this right to take best advantage of every opportunity is implicit in hierarchic order and applies as much to devout religionists as it does to materialists, intellectuals, academics, lawyers, migrant farmworkers, environmentalists, local powerbrokers and celebrity figures. The environmentalist might return the purse but at some personal level there is a reasonability to moral conduct–good vs. generosity. How can Agorica include the poor, not only the penniless poor, but also, the poor in spirit, the confidence broken?
Everyone has a right to make the most of anything life reveals as an opportunity and that they feel they can get away with. Carpé diem! But the significant aspect of this frame of mind is that it favors the young and ambitious, those who are possessed of the greatest energy, zeal, imagination and confidence, which in youth is equaled only by lack of experience and often ignorance, and it is always the youth who are encouraged to engineer and implement disaster after disaster. In the view of youth, it is foolish to deny their turn to win their share and they are compelled by pride, ambition and avarice to outdo their predecessors. Agorica must attract, respect and reward youth and entrepreneurial energy, but not only youth and also talent, intelligence and knowledge.
There is no question that destructive development has consumed tens of millions of individual lives in the last century, nor that thousands of communities and unique human cultures have been torn apart, nor that the damage humanity has done to ecosystems and to the entire global ecosystem we call, earth, is threatening our extinction. Nor, is there any doubt that the disparity between haves and have-nots is harmful and growing rapidly.
Differences about this are expressed between traditional religionists, agnostics and atheists about the root causes, who and what is to blame for it, ranging from beliefs about biblical Armageddon to ideas those with God or Godless utopian fantasies and those who believe in science religiously, who believe that we can engineer these problems away. But finance directs development and so, unless there is money in sustainable solutions, lip service achieves nothing, no matter how sincere the speaker or well-expressed the mission or artful the poster or sweet the song. Each “concerned” person, each local political network with a vaunted agenda struggles chaotically to survive within a system that confines them to ultimately unproductive activities. This statement is not nihilistic, it is accurate. How can you create a solution without stating the problem?
Agorica must be a kind of small physical venue (relative to the size of communities) that accommodates diversity, xenophobia and economic stratification in the support of sustainable communities that succeed in the contest for survival under existing conditions and is sustainable environmentally benign and economically sustainable.
Solutions to great problems are never complex—their simplicity makes them seem more difficult. Simply put, problems that occur in the physical domain can’t be solved with solutions that are addressed through communication techniques alone since they must alter the structure of the physical community as well as program information systems. This means that no purely ideological solutions can be sufficient, and every ideological solution is a ruse. The only real solution must be a design element that can be implemented in different ways according to culture differences but defined in sufficient detail in terms of principles. Some aspects of Agorica’s design and management plan are inherently necessary to economic success as well as consistent with producing the solution and with established practices. Agorica need not reinvent the wheel.
My research for the design that eventually became Agorica began with the origins and earliest examples of the modern “shopping mall”, a structure that has become ubiquitous in automobile-centered development all over the world. I read several books written by the late architect, Victor Gruen, a Viennese designer of retail environments who designed and built the first shopping malls, which he had written, during his hay days. He explained their logic and purpose and went about the U.S. promoting them as a way to replace urban blight and the planning of suburban residential development, now called, urban sprawl. In his later books, Gruen expressed much regret for the damage shopping malls did to main street cities, communities and villages and the promotion of “white flight” everywhere in America and in much of Europe. Dubai currently represents the apex and epitome of Gruen’s idea and it’s designs are beyond description, possibly, one of the greatest nonviolent or political absurdities of all time setting aside such monstrous wastes as the great pyramids of Egypt. Agorica must invite romantic play in human scale rather than becoming an awe-inspiring monument to excess.
I met with the executives of the architectural firm Gruen founded, located in Los Angeles. Long after his death, Gruen Associates still bears his name but they are a firm run by Asian professionals who don’t want to be identified with the vision or social sensitivities of Victor Gruen beyond that he had been a successful innovator. Perhaps, they have but a limited idea about him or if this isn’t true, his principles wouldn’t show up in their designs.
Among the more poignant ironies about Gruen’s position in modern urban development, fears in Iran about Gruen’s plan to remake Tehran as a new world capital were possibly the straw that brought down the regime of the former Shah. The greater irony is that by that time, Gruen had admitted the damage done by shopping malls and automobiles and it is likely that his plan for Tehran was inspired and could have succeeded in constructively reshaping the relationship between Europe and the middle-east. But this, as they say, is now water under the bridge.
After meeting with lead architects at Gruen Associates, I visited and examined the work of companies involved in a “telepresence” consortium whose corporate members are the most important marketers of consumer electronics and entertainment media in the world. I had already begun to understand how to integrate advancing telepresence technology in Agorica and I wanted to know more about things then on the drawing board or in limited use but not yet available in the form of consumer products.
In a book I’d written for an earlier, similar project I’d done with Xerox in Los Angeles, involving an advanced network infrastructure in a large multi-tenant commercial building called, Olympic Plaza, which was then under construction, I researched and became familiar with all of the arcane electronic technologies upon which computers and telecom are based, including all of the things that are commonplace today but unheard of by all but a few people at that time (including the Arpanet).
The shell of my Agorica concept was based on improving the vision of the project that was the subject of a book I wrote for McGraw Hill called, Architectronics, published in 1987, which was informed by what had taken place at Olympic Plaza and the effect this experiment had on the community and the world since that time. I was drawn to Gruen’s vision when I learned that he viewed the commercial centers of cities as models for an agora-like environment—aesthetically enhanced places that attracted people to meet, play and interact romantically, ideas he had developed while designing romantic deco interiors, signage and entrances that lined streets in Vienna’s commercial center.
In an automobile centered culture, a shopping mall made economic sense but when the Internet deprived these mammoth structures of the trade upon which their rents depend and audiences and diners stopped arriving, for the most part, these places have been abandoned and sit empty all over the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps, these places are a potential resource for Agorica.
And so it was that Agorica was named and presented as a way of repurposing existing shopping malls that have fallen in value as a result of Internet marketing. I gave summaries of my proposal to a few people I first contacted with a brief letter, people whom I fancied, because of their public expressions about sustainable development, were interested in supporting something like Agorica. This included the Focus Group in Las Vegas, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Prince of Dubai and Richard Branson and I was assisted in this by a British banking consultant, Tim Evans. In retrospect, I was naïve to assume my idea would get any traction with intermediaries who screen projects for men that are figureheads and celebrities who promote themselves as scrappy visionaries, and are likely to have a narrow agenda. I got polite responses from the Brits and from the man I knew at Focus, who asked me to “stay in touch”.
Next: If man is by nature unlimited possibility, by nurture, we turn out severely brain damaged.
Before I had an opportunity to find co-conspirators to help me fund and manifest the Agorica experiment, a business partner, who for eternity may remain faceless, possibly intent on outright murder, conspired with employees of a title company to steal our property and almost simultaneous with that event the resident physician and his nursing staff at a hospital (also unnamed) where I’d taken my mother after she suffered a fall that cracked her pelvis, deliberately gave her an anti-anxiety medicine known to be fatal for the very old. Not only did I lose everything in a material sense but I also lost heart.
Friends have suggested that I was lucky that these events repaid a lot of karmic obligation in one fell swoop but from another perspective the instant over-turning of my world that ensued threw me into the cauldron of life rather than spiritual morass and rather than punishment, this reversal amounted to a reward. For instance, I was immediately freed from the burden of so-called friends who were attached to me for what it was worth, including the woman, known as girlfriend and at times, fiancée. A lawsuit took 3 years to wend it’s way through the farce that passes for our civil courts eventually paid off creditors that held onto their notes (instead of discounting them to obtain tax write-offs), I was penniless except for a monthly check from social security, which in view of the cost of things amounts to an involuntary vow of poverty. But this was my reward for how else was I to learn about life as it is led by average people, in poverty, i.e., most Americans.
Based on official census data, 30% of Americans live below the line called, poverty but where the legislators draw that line is dubious. People are in poverty if they can’t afford a healthy diet, dental care and the benefits of a good education and live in depressing, crime ridden, neighborhoods with sketchy sanitation. Thanks to my ingenuity and affable nature, I have always had a place to sleep. At the start, that was the camper shell on my pickup truck, then a small camping trailer and finally a motor home so in a technical sense, in addition to being poor, I was homeless and, in view of my choice of shelter, transient, which means, frequently in transit. In retrospect, I had a combined grand tour of the Pacific coastal area of North America and an opportunity to get to know how the 60% of people who are living in economically marginal situations are getting along. When I was in the middle of nowheresville with nothing to eat and no heat, this was of little value but I can’t deny the importance of my experience of people I came to know, sometimes love and as often, loathe. The loathsome ones are still a memorable source of amusement.
But it is from these experiences that I derived direct understanding of human stupidity, an oxymoron if there ever was one, wherefore I assert in perfect confidence that, although we are all born with reasonably intact mental capacity, the nurture that constitutes the quality of care most of us receive as infants, children, playmates and public school students leaves the majority as if brain-damaged, with permanent psychic scars, abused of profoundly weird superstitious beliefs, ranging from biblical literalism to big foot. And it is into this primordial stew of ignorance, arrogant in conviction to strange delusions, that media casts its slogans, tag lines and ideologies. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the audience. Let’s hear it for people! These are the persona behind the pages of facebook. What goes through the mind of a campaigning presidential candidate, when meeting you?
In any case, in 2007, it seemed I was closing the door on big dreams like Agorica. What happened next took a long while to realize and the step by step is relevant.
I used my last funds to buy an aging Ford F150 pickup truck with a camper shell on it and I drove north, planning to subsist on my monthly social security check in the amount of $864 per month. Sleeping in the camper left sufficient money for food, some fuel and I found ways to use public bathrooms and showers. For the next 2 years, spending a month here, a few months there, I made my way up the Pacific coast from San Diego to the Olympic Peninsula. Along the way I photographed and wrote about my experiences. I stayed away from highly urbanized places, which were also the least hospitable and most dangerous to my lifestyle. People in cities are fearful of people they don’t know in general and the educated middle class, with whom I am most comfortable, are most fearful of those who are poor. People in rural areas were more curious, less fearful and interested in me. The social dynamics are interesting. Over time, I acquired a small motor home, which I could park in RV parks where a space can be rented for $500 to $600 per month, including utilities, leaving me $350 for food, etc.
Naturally, I got to know many people in all the places where I traveled and since I tended to stay in places that held aesthetic appeal for me, I would sometimes apply for work, never successfully, visit doctors, shop at particular stores and occasionally share my ideas. Since we listen to people based on how we perceive them, I found that only people who saw me as similar to them were comfortable communicating with me. This had nothing to do with my dress or cleanliness but more related to my gestures, eye contact and manners of speaking. This meant that some people from India, Iraq who work behind the counters at service stations would be very friendly while others would respond with hostility.
In the towns where I stayed for any length of time, with a few exceptions, the minute some people learned I lived a nomadic lifestyle, their eyes would literally glaze over. This was especially true of medical practitioners I consulted in Fort Bragg, CA—a person in my living situation could not be taken seriously. I could not get a prescription for a blood pressure medication until I found doctor who prescribed the medications I had been taking based on his belief that he described as, “benign neglect”.
Some middle class people were obviously afraid I’d steal from them, who told me “that’s what transients do”. One pleasant woman, whose roof I had repaired, intended to be helpful but couldn’t understand why “someone in [my] position” preferred payment in the form of a bass guitar she had never played to it’s equivalent value in dollars. To me it was something I could not use my limited money to buy. How much our ability to accept ideas is governed by how we feel about the messenger! I fully understand Exupery’s card—a drawing of a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant.
Most RV parks discriminate against the poor by not accepting tenants who use motor homes that are more than twelve years old. Since newer models are quite expensive, they are really owned only by people of substantially greater means, who use them for vacations for a few years and then sell them to people of lesser means, who buy them as an affordable place to live. As the age of motor homes increase each year (?), irrespective of their condition, they depreciate, their value in dollars drops and so there’s a hierarchy of income levels associated with the ages of trailers and RVs.
Since, RV parks draw a line at 12 years, and must do so categorically in order to comply with regulations about housing discrimination, the owner of a 13 year old home may often only find spaces to rent in poorly maintained parks that tolerate a degree of decrepitude and thus, parks where I could rent space for my natty, vintage 35-year-old Southwind, included households of people who are marginally employed or on welfare, and in one cases, living in tents or small vans. In Mendocino County, near Fort Bragg, there are two large mobile home parks that are so far below standards of health and safety that I can tolerate, I would not live in them, preferring to pay substantially more to live at other substandard places, elsewhere in the town. (Fort Bragg owes its larger number of mobile home parks to its now defunct tourist fishing industry.) I’ve seen many mobile home parks in rural California, where facilities are marginal and managers sleazy and lax. On the upside, staying at these places, I was able to meet, live beside, interview and photograph people from all over the Americas who had very little forma education, some whom do not read or write.
In highly urbanized cities, mobile home parks have been all but eliminated within city limits, so most available locations for older trailers or RVs like mine are either in agricultural or remote vacation destinations. In agricultural areas throughout California, the majority of mobile home residents are families of “farm workers” from Mexico and Central America and since these people find work through their family relationships, they have extended families who are constant visitors and include many who have been living here for two or three generations, often with children who were born here to people who are not citizens of the U.S. I met as many small children, teen agers and young adults as elderly people.
Sometimes, I was able to stay in urbanized areas, parking overnight in Walmart parking lots and sometimes surreptitiously parking on the street in industrial areas. This kind of ad hoc parking can be uncomfortable without heat and electricity. I stayed for a month in a town called, Hoquiam in Washington State, where a young couple befriended me and encouraged me to park in the vacant lot beside their home. They generously provided me a water line and power cord. The bank that owned the lot also allowed me to stay and I only left when the owner of the local RV Park complained to the city. That month was one of my most informative and memorable stays because of the interesting and photogenic town and it’s history and my connection with the people there, who for the most part, had been out of work since the major industry, was shut down, albeit for sound environmental reasons.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this narrative about my odyssey, I’m providing this information as background to illustrate a point about the design and importance of a project that I feel holds part of the key to address problems that technology can’t approach and that our political system avoids like the plague.
I haven’t done the math but these days, even though nothing is considered to be real unless its volume or duration can be computed, from Higgs’ Boson to Federal Reserve bail outs, no one trusts the integrity of statistics. That being said, based on my observations and conversations with people I met from the Mexican to the Canadian border, the world of national and international politics and economics is irrelevant to the concerns of the majority of human beings.
A farmworker in North America is not concerned about the amount he or she receives for picking a box of vegetables or packing a box of uni except in relation to the amount made by his or her coworkers and that amount is negotiated by family members who make the decisions about who gets paid what and who gets hired where. There’s an established hierarchy that has nothing to do with state labor laws. The exchange of goods and services between these folks is closer to barter even when it involves dollars. Dollars are just another asset that can be accumulated and sent or taken home to the villages they left, where they were born and still have family homes.
Naturally, they avail themselves of the health clinics, hospitals and schools that are provided here, where else are they to go and naturally they these things as part of what is due to them for their labor, which is an accurate perception on their part but and idea that tax-paying Americans are reluctant to confront. Those who complain about the cost to the social welfare system of providing health and human services to the families of immigrant workers do not see that the cost is a public subsidy of agri-business. Farmworkers don’t care how the medical bill is paid, one way or another it will be paid. If they had to pay it, their earnings would have to be higher. They are no different in this respect from their counterparts among the white middle class, like fish in the streams, alert to opportunities to pick up something here, a dollar there. Where they differ is that they are the least impressed by the most impressive new consumer technologies. They spray the fields with pesticides, fungicides and plant hormones often without respiratory, eye or skin protection. Instead, they wear scarves over their hair more for the odor than the toxicity. It is all the same to them.
Above the farmworkers in the food chain (globally), are those households who are gainfully employed for minimum wages. The minimum wage law is not enforced in rural areas of California (and probably elsewhere). The common subterfuge involves paying people for 40 hours or less, while requiring 60 hours or more of work time.
This demographic includes a part of those who the U.S. Labor Department refers to as “recently and chronically unemployed”—men and women of all adult ages but since most of the work they are doing can’t be out-sourced; such as landscaping, house cleaning, janitorial, and so on, those among them who are affected by out-sourcing have lost jobs cleaning factories and commercial buildings whose tenants have gone out of business. The demographic also includes many households of people who immigrated legally or illegally during the last twenty years and their children, who have citizenship since they were born here. Like their counterparts from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Central America, who work in the fields and farm product industries all over North America, these people could care less about voting, national or international politics, although they are sometimes asked to register and vote by friends and more often employers, in what they see as a kind of lottery in which nobody ever wins. They do not expect change and since they are already aware of the benefit value ratio of their labor to their employer, they don’t expect to be affected one way or another by any election and over the years, they haven’t been. This group and the farmworkers make up a large economic demographic, perhaps 30% or more of us. They are still only the lowest paid service workers, whose wages are too low to be subject to taxes and among them are elderly people who have never voted and never will, and young adults and children who are detached if not alienated from political processes or even reading news or magazines or any other cultural activities of greater sophistication than necessary to hook up, family fests. These are adults between the ages of 25 and 60 who work in the local economy and factories, a tiny minority of whom are locally politically involved, most by dint of their employment.
This is the reality of America—a population unrelated to the antics that inspire media attention and untouched by economic forces that according to the media, roil the nation, irrelevant equally to Wall Street or those who would occupy it. Members of this demographic don’t identify with popular mythology, they are like children, adrift in a sea of incomprehensible forces, sharing their crumbs, forming close alliances, surviving.
Another distinct population I came to know in my travels I call, the “nostalgists”. They are mostly older, white Americans most of whom are 3rd and 4th generation Americans, descended from European immigrants, and they view those in the demographic described above in a particular way that is rather bizarre under the circumstances. They attribute the differences between their values, in contrast to values of the descendants of people who were native to this hemisphere, to ethnic and racial causes in much the same way that German Nazis viewed the European Jewish population. These are the people who respond to the rhetoric of neo-conservative radio talk show hosts. The salient truth about both the talk show pontificators and their religious disciples, the nostalgists, is that what they are saying is at least relevant, irrespective of veracity, logic or reason and since it is their relevance that makes them succeed, I felt it helpful to respect that if nothing else.
The most radical among the nostalgists see themselves as super-Christians and this group also includes many recent immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Syria, Lybya, Lebanon and generally, places of long standing totalitarian rule. Obviously, this demographic group only includes descendants of Asians and recent Asian immigrants associated with Christian missionary groups. They believe the current financial wreckage of the United States is the work of the anti-Christ, who they also associate with Islam and laxer forms of Christianity, which to them is bogus and co-opted by Satan (the anti-Christ), who they describe is actually part of God’s plan to annihilate the inherently sinful, if pathetic, unintended, mistaken creation, we know as humanity. Nostalgists believe that God’s plan includes global warming, which is the precursor of apocalypse, and as far as they are concerned, the sooner the better. They see all natural disasters as evidence of the approaching end of the world and devastation of places that have been developed without regard for risk of earthquakes, tsunami and floods is only evidence of Satan’s hand in directing mankind to pursue short-term profits to bring about the end. If the view of the nostalgists can be seen as their parable, as a useful fiction, it need not be resisted and can be accommodated in Agorica’s design.
I haven’t completed the picture yet but you are already sensing the disconnect between the views of the sponsors of TED talks and the real world. This people I have described make up a substantial number of people completely alienated from what we think is the mainstream. Beyond their use of mobile phones and PCs and access to the Internet with it’s related media products, there is no connection between the realities of these people and the world envisioned by Jane Fonda. Not to use her as an example, I have always loved, respected and admired her and her spirit, but just to face the facts and to acknowledge that, if the Prince of Wales, with his tremendous access to information and intelligent analysis, is even marginally correct in his estimate that we have 100 months to save the world, what does he mean by, “we”? Does Jane understand that, without doing something that directly and quickly engages and affects the conditions of most people, the more eloquent the appeal, the more hollow?
And what is the relevance of Prince Charles’ “100 months” (unless based on arcane science of which we are unaware, or is this just another statistic for the sake of quantification, required for computation.) What difference would it make on principle if this number were 100 years, except that 100 months suggests that the end will happen within a decade, which means during your lifetime? But this urgency is irrelevant unless communicated with people who could act to alter or transform this paradigm and for this to happen in a meaningful way, this means making such acts available and interesting to the demographic sets I’ve described above, wherein you begin to see the domain of physical development in which we need to act if we are to save the world. It seems like simple logic to me that if you can provide an envelope for activity that includes the demographic on the bottom rung of the ladder, the middle comes along.
In Agorica, before I began my journey, I already understood the kind of physical development that is needed and how it can be implemented immediately requiring no extraordinary changes to the political and economic elements of contemporary commerce. Agorica addressed this with a design using available technology, resources and economic motivations. My knowledge of the audience now informed the program but some important issues remained, mainly a question of integrity: can Agorica be something that does not add to the chemical and electronic pollution of the world? Yet this question is critical to the long term aspirations of technology entrepreneurs, especially in view of the 100-month declaration made by Prince Charles. How do we safely accommodate and use telepresence technologies that currently rely on enormously high (relative to naturally occurring) background levels of microwave radiation?
More to come…