Consider the daily newspaper that crusades for new affordable housing in a poor urban neighborhood, which will trap residents in a geography of poverty but do nothing for the city’s economic development. Or the television station that uncovers apparent government waste and, seconds later, best deals for consumers. Or the news reporter who offers the uninformed opinion of a citizen as a counterpoint to a mayor’s well-considered policy.
The superficiality, slickness, and crudeness of much of the mass media may frustrate good government and good business, as much as the quality, tenacity, and seriousness of the enlightened media can inspire the best in government and business. Cities are where most people and businesses are concentrated and where media, government, and businesses join in a constant, if wary, dance to a tune composed largely by the mass media.
The dance between the media, government, and business is breathtakingly intricate. The mass media is itself a business — in fact, a very large industry — and journalists are businesspersons. The media industry needs the support of the government which regulates it; and politicians, often supported by businesses, need the support of the media to advance their agendas. The media, of course, know which political parties and politicians are most supportive of media interests, yet journalists, to their credit, take it upon themselves to the hold the conduct of the powerful and themselves accountable.
Journalists are people with opinions and worldviews shaped by their families, peers, and life experiences. Journalists vote for and against the politicians they investigate. They buy products from businesses that advertise on their employers’ media outlets. Politically, journalists are left, right, and center, but this does not mean that the mass media, overall, has a liberal, conservative, or centrist bias.
Advertising revenues finance the mass media, and it is not politics or personal ideology but, in the words of Christopher Lasch, the “logic of consumerism that governs the depiction of reality in the media”.
This goes beyond evaluating candidates based on their attitudes toward abortion or immigration or tax cuts or whatever titillating topic is in the air. It goes beyond exposing fraud and excess. In a mass consumer society, attachments must be of short duration. People must be receptive to, and demanding of, the novel and the new: the new product, the new idea, the new leader. Advertising revenues can be churned only if people are skeptical of the status quo and seek gratification through change. The media have thus discovered profit in treating all official announcements with suspicion. An aftereffect of the all-encompassing, profit-enabling atmosphere of apprehension and disbelief is, to paraphrase Lasch, the erosion of trust in authority, the devaluation of charismatic leadership, and the reduction of everything to the same dimension. This is how the mass media capture the cadence of urban life.
In the United States, the mass media tend to present serious matters as contests of celebrity, to elevate opinions to the status of facts, and to find scandals and sensation first and then (maybe) deeper issues. This information-gathering process has been legitimized by the marketplace and accepted by the public, as evidenced by the proliferation of “infotainment” and citizen-based journalism (“tell us what you think, what you want to hear”). There are exceptions, of course, notably The New York Times. Generally, however, it’s not obvious from media reports what matters and what is trivial. The entire news-covering process generates advertising revenues by generating cynicism and mistrust.
This is not an indictment of hard-working, serious journalists. But all Americans are products of America’s consumer culture, the culture of money. Money’s quiet but powerful pervasiveness is a structure on which much reckons. Money is ineluctably with us, consciously or subconsciously informing everything, for good or bad. Money is fundamental to our existence, and all activities deal with it, knowingly or unknowing, including research and writing.
Cities are where most business and government offices are located, where most media reports originate, and where, not surprisingly perhaps, apathy is highest. Voter participation in elections is consistently lower in core cities than suburbs.
Ironically, the most strident popular criticism of the mass media in the United States is not that it fails to maintain adequate standards for truth claims or that it sows the kind of cynicism that leads to apathy, but that it encroaches on personal space. Everything, potentially, is fair game for media exposition: the details of a child’s funeral, the selling price of a house, and, especially, who puts what into their bodies, who slept with whom, and who earns how much. The sublime verification of the success of the consumerist media is that people compete in droves for the privilege of exposing themselves and their vulnerabilities to the world, usually for money, and millions more watch this submission, manipulation, and humiliation that provide the substance of “reality” programming.
This can’t be explained simply in terms of shrinking personal space as the world gets smaller or the proliferation of media outlets that compels them to intrude on personal spaces and extract ever-smaller details and ever-more-prurient information to fill their schedules to compete in the media-saturated marketplace.
A condition of the modern world is distancing, which works to the advantage of profit-seeking businesses including the media. A button is pushed, a missile is released from a drone aircraft, but we are too far away to see the human catastrophe it produces. We purchase a product and our main concern is getting appropriate value for our money, not the conditions under which it was produced, often involving worker exploitation and environmental degradation. An employer doesn’t see the person she hired as the father of a handicapped child with major medical expenses. Why should she? The boss’s interest is strictly in the worker as a worker, a profit center.
We relate to one another through consumerism, that is, by our continual and inescapable weaving in and out of markets as workers, buyers, sellers, and brokers. We don’t relate to one another personally, as complete persons, but impersonally as abstractions, as abstract buyers and sellers of commodities. The exigencies of capitalist development almost force us to constitute people in our minds as things and not as individual human beings. People lose their characters as individuals, as potential recipients of our moral concern.
Morality is formed, in large measure, by our relations with others; in other words, by consumerism. It should be little wonder than people will support appalling behaviors and causes in which other people are targets. Distancing allows us to avoid confronting the consequences of our actions. If we can, we move away from “bad” neighborhoods. But what we are fleeing is not simply underperforming schools, unsafe streets, inadequate housing, and other people who don’t look or act quite like us. We want to avoid the guilt we feel at “having made it”, as they say, while others remain less fortunate. So while we may congratulate ourselves on having “earned” it, and distance ourselves from those who haven’t, there is always a lingering doubt about the rightness of what we do.
In other words, the media-created atmosphere of suspicion that we breathe causes us to doubt our own self-interest. In a world of religious interpretations of morality, neocolonial interpretations, feminist interpretations, and so on, personal doubt and collective suspicion have become important parts of the admixture of democracy. They pull us together as much as they pull us apart. In advanced democracies, there is a penumbra of suspicion around major institutions that keeps insisting they are not democratic enough, that they need to make the nation more diverse and spread out ownership of the nation’s past, present, and future, as well as its public and private space. On a personal level, self-doubt allows all of us, including journalists, to police our behavior and spurs a sense of obligation to others that helps balance the impersonal urgings of labor markets for people to distance themselves from one another.
It’s the reasonableness of the balance that is challenging. The fact that morality grows out of an economic context means that those with power over the means of communication can affect our moral beliefs, determining what is right and wrong in impersonal conduct — whether or not it is acceptable to disregard the poor, shun certain groups, or deprive people of constitutional rights, for example. And morality, when it’s inseparable from economics and therefore investment decisions, gets played out spatially in the living spaces we create, from neighborhoods to megacities. Cyberspace is no different from physical space. Social media facilitate distancing through legal and illegal invasions of privacy as easily as they encourage closer personal encounters. Distancing has become crucial to our economic existence, and, as long as this remains the case, parity, justice, and sustainability in our living spaces will remain elusive.
The multifold tensions of a consumerist democracy are particularly evident in American cities, which seem perpetually and precariously balanced between entropy and harmony, decline and order. And so our cities continue to be the main stage for the dance of doubt and suspicion between the media, government, and business.
June 14th, 2012
Why do some cities (and regions and countries) thrive and others decline? The answer that immediately popped into your head probably has something to do with “development” or “lack of development”. Obviously, some areas are more developed than others.
Corporations, governments, and individuals have unequal abilities to enter markets and utilize them to their advantage, and so development remains uneven. The unevenness prompts governments, businesses, and individuals to redouble their support for economic development. Why? Because economic development has become synonymous with rising incomes and increasing consumption. It offers something for everyone. Workers envision fatter paychecks, increased leisure time, and the procurement of more copious and varied shopping baskets of goods. Corporations anticipate higher revenues from selling more goods and services. And governments foresee bolstered tax bases and contented electorates.
These virtues are so coveted that it’s not a stretch to claim that the competition for economic development in the modern world is but a version of premodern struggles of good against evil. In fact, the science of economics as we know it has a moral basis.
Adam Smith introduced his Theory of Moral Sentiments with the observation, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” In other words, we do good and avoid evil, for ourselves and others, because it’s part of what makes us human.
Smith is considered the father of modern economics and competitive capitalism. He is also known, unfairly, as an apostle of greed, based on later interpretations of his Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. But Smith intended the Wealth of Nations as a companion to his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this earlier, foundational work, Smith theorized that markets depend most fundamentally, not on maximizing profits, but on a network of trust, that is, on a shared sense of material and moral well-being. According to Smith, no one wants to live in a society where most of the wealth is in the hands of a very few, and so people create markets. The buying, selling, and investing that defines all markets is the easiest, most dependable, most durable, and most predictable way for people to become aware of one another’s needs and wishes and to respond to them positively and reciprocally.
It sometimes may seem to us that the world is driven by the selfish pursuit of profit, but the morality at the heart of economic development has not disappeared. Geographic unevenness tugs at our consciences. For example, how do you react to the following: loan sharks, slumlords, redline realtors, sub-prime mortgage brokers, grocers who buy products at Wal-Mart and re-sell them at triple the price in ghetto neighborhoods? Most likely, the predatory actions — what Adam Smith would call the “selfish” actions — of such individuals and corporations provoke feelings of disgust, as they describe how profits are siphoned from American inner city neighborhoods. Historically in the United States, the profits extracted from poor urban residents were rarely reinvested in ghetto neighborhoods, or even cities, but helped fuel suburban expansion. This private investment in the suburbs, as we have seen, was stimulated by massive public investment in roads, sewers, home mortgage tax deductions, shovel-ready building sites, and so on, which stimulated further private long-term investment. On the other hand, most government funds flowing to cities assumed the form of welfare payments, rent subsidies, food stamps, and the like — money that individuals necessarily consumed immediately, leaving no lasting investment in the community.
The mismatch between urban and suburban investment in the United States is symptomatic of larger (by now, global) forces that transcend scale and lead to unevenness: locations (in the present example, suburbs) which are favored by public and private investors and thus have an economic head start over locations (i.e., central cities) that are ignored by investors, at least as far as jobs are concerned; employers who locate next to other employers to minimize risk; unequal access of different groups to adequate transportation and internet communications; a large pool of low-skilled, unemployed, socially-marginalized people who will work for minimal wages; and the geopolitical significance of marginalized areas to corporations for exploitation of material resources and workers.
In other words, we could substitute “suburban” and “urban” with First World and Third World or Sun Belt and Rust Belt because the same patterns of economic development operate at all geographical scales, from the local to the national, contributing to a geography of unevenness at all levels.
The economic imperative and the moral imperative of development are inextricably linked. Economically, cities, regions, nations, and corporations compete. They attempt to impose competitive disadvantages on one another, to consign others to inferior positions in the international division of labor. The economic imperative of development is to establish or preserve our geography’s relative advantages of wealth over others.
Morally, economic development promises to emancipate people from drudgery, to move people and their communities from what is judged to be a less desirable state to a more desirable one — to make them “happier”, in the words of Adam Smith. This moral sense informs us that economic development is good and worthy of our support. Our moral principles take the form of an unspoken agreement to remain mutually interdependent, to relate to one another as buyers and sellers of goods, services, and ideas. Without this moral imperative to reciprocity, economic development would be meaningless; indeed, as Adam Smith noted, capitalism would be impossible — the haves would simply appropriate what they want from the have-nots.
We no longer live in Adam Smith’s world, but the moral and economic imperatives of capitalist development continue to shape, weight, and distort one another. There is a constant social balancing act between wanting more for ourselves, or protecting what we already have, and sharing with others. What hasn’t changed since Smith’s time is the future-orientation of economic development — the certainty that we can actively create a good life — which encourages us always to plan something bigger and better. What many are planning for now is sustainability, essentially a recognition that the pie of wealth and resources is finite and the economic and moral imperatives of development must be rebalanced accordingly.
Today, “good” economic development is defined as providing maximum happiness to the maximum amount of people. We view the entire world as a marketplace and all humans as potential consumers of whatever that market can produce. Sustainability, by contrast, envisions an economic good situated in a particular ecosystem or a particular place. Inhabitants of that place must work first and foremost within the limits imposed by local and regional geography to satisfy their needs. Sustainability, in other words, places real limits on capitalist expansion by asking us to redefine happiness.
Will we ever be able to smoothen the unevenness on which economic development seems to depend?
Consider the following investment targets: research and development; innovation; human capital; venture capital; entrepreneurship; adoption of information and communications technology. Do they sound familiar? Add “cutting unnecessary regulations” and you have the playbook for economic development that is used by all cities, regions, and nations in the developed and developing worlds.
When everyone plays the game by the same rules, can everyone win? Of course not.
The same debate on economic development occurs at all geographic scales: What is the optimal level of investment in R&D or venture capital or other components of the accepted economic development mix? What rate of return should we expect? What investments should be made by government and what by business? What is the price that has to be paid to be competitive? And so on, along these lines.
Every geography attempts to tweak the rules to its advantage.
Similarly, successes and failures are analyzed according to the same specifications: critical mass; transaction costs; property rights; religious ethics; cultural standards; and the catch-all justification for persevering whatever the result, short-term versus long-term, for short-term failures never preclude long-term successes.
We rarely question the basic investment rules that delineate the boundaries of economic development.
The modern world mythologizes the new and the individual. We are “wired” for dissatisfaction with what we have and what we are. There is always potential for more and for better if we invest continuously and wisely in ourselves and our economy. Moreover, we are conditioned to follow the wisdom of experts and the objectivity of mathematical models as rules are being made. We are encouraged to “network” as individuals and to share our best practices, but the enlightened community we create is most often accompanied by a groupthink on the rules.
Of course, the rules governing economic development can and do change over time. Always, the shift is along a spectrum with growth and jobs (the economic imperative) on one end and the environment and citizens (the moral imperative) on the other.
However, in an advanced capitalist society, the rules change for everyone. Whether we believe the world is round or flat, we must compete on the same economic development playing field. We follow the rules because they offer a plausible promise of more and better. Since most games end with winners and losers, uneven development at all geographic scales is a given.
Adam Smith remarked in the Theory of Moral Sentiments that all life is “contrived for advancing the two great purposes of nature, the support of the individual, and the propagation of the species.” He didn’t say that all societies advance these purposes at the same rate or with the same ardor.
For three hundred years we have used economic development to advance individual happiness; our elusive challenge is to make sure future generations have the opportunity to harmonize personal satisfaction with broader economic goals.
May 31st, 2012
Economic development strategies in the United States include increasing the skill level of workers, decreasing regulations, modernizing infrastructure, and providing direct financial subsidies to businesses. The last strategy is the most controversial, based as it is on a bargain between taxpayers who agree to invest billions of their dollars to lower the cost of doing business and businesses who agree to turn the public investment into jobs and tax base.
Are direct financial subsidies a re-distribution of income from workers to capitalists — corporate welfare — or effective contributions to real economic growth? Do the myriad state and local subsidies to businesses strengthen communities or perpetuate a corrosive internecine economic warfare between jurisdictions?
The debate is overwrought in times of job losses, economic contraction, and growing income inequality. Should subsidies be awarded to such enterprises as private prisons, Wal-Mart’s, and gambling casinos that move workers from unemployment to dead end jobs providing low wages and no health insurance? (A low perch on the economic ladder is better than none at all, goes the argument.) Or would the money be spent more wisely on skills training and education, on research and development? (Let’s not shortchange our future for modest immediate gains.)
Billions of dollars of public money are distributed to public corporations each year, yet transparency is elusive. Accountability standards vary from state to state and locality to locality, and they shift from year to year; in any event, loopholes are found and exceptions made. Studies weighing public purpose against private benefits are contradictory or inconclusive. And, of course, the media dramatize the few giant successes and failures, as if economic development were a high-stakes game of roulette.
What is certain is that most of the new jobs being created in the United States are at the low end of the service sector: food preparers, data entry workers, healthcare aides, and the like. What these positions have in common are minimal wages and minimal security. Would the job situation be better, worse, or the same without the business incentives? There is probably no way to settle the debate short of stopping direct financial subsidies completely to see if businesses really need the money to create jobs. But such a move is seen as extreme and attracts little popular or political support.
It is the persistence of popular support, even in the face of occasional public outrage, that demands examination. What is the basis of financial subsidies’ appeal? Do average taxpayers underestimate the power of the business class to consolidate wealth in their hands? Are they brainwashed by politicians and ideologues who sell a distorted view of modern capitalism? Or do we behave irrationally out of fear of never again finding a secure, well-paying job?
Such dismissals, as far as they go, are too glib. Fear, ideology, and misplaced trust do not drive people to authorize the expenditure of billions and billions of dollars. Rather, public support is forthcoming because the financial subsidies reinforce deeply held beliefs and confirm daily experiences. So what are these experiences and beliefs?
In an economy in which many people endure enforced part-time employment with few benefits, chronic unemployment, and diminishing job prospects, work continues to represent a stabilizing influence beyond income. In a world where personal disintegration is a real danger, work remains a source of self-discipline and self-respect. This may seem obvious, but less well understood is how this relates to the way governments function to ensure the profitability of business.
Consider unemployment benefits. Being on the dole is embarrassing to most people. In a society in which receiving government payments for not working were not considered shameful — not something to be proud of, perhaps, but not stigmatized either — it would be easier to argue for increased unemployment benefits. Unemployed people would not feel pressured to reenter the labor market, the labor supply would contract, wages would consequently increase, businesses would start to feel constrained, tax revenues would begin to fall, and the government would have to start looking more critically at its policies towards the unemployed. All of this is obviated if the unemployed are denigrated, as they are in any advanced capitalist society.
Yes, people want and need jobs to support themselves and their families (however their families may be configured). Both self-respect and a long-term dedication to family and to others, require order, continuity, and responsibility — desires or values no longer supported by capitalism. The baby boomer generation has witnessed, in the words of Christopher Lasch, “the collapse of the family wage system, under which American enterprise, in effect, invested in the single-income family as the best way of domesticating the working class and forestalling labor militancy.” Values of loyalty and permanence are depreciated precisely because they no longer serve an economy based on advanced technology and mass consumption.
What do we see in the media? Images of the good life defined as incessant technological newness and personal excitement; the creator of the latest retail craze portrayed as a genius; possibility presented as unlimited and stimulating; change assumed to be relentless and ennobling. There seems to be no alternative to the society and economy in which we live. We view the categories most useful to an advanced capitalist society — profits, unemployment, business prowess, growth potential, mass consumption, change, novelty, mobility — as natural and eternal, not as products of our society at a particular time in its history.
Most American-born adults over 50 years of age now living in American suburbs — the baby boomers — can recall growing up as a child in a city neighborhood where it was possible to walk to family-owned shops, to the library, and to a public school where children for the most part were engaged in learning. This was a society not yet addicted to change and novelty: the new home, the bigger home, the second and third cars, the exotic vacation, and more of everything.
Clearly, the cultural issues of a society are not easily separated from the economic issues, and this brings us back to our initial concern: Why do people support direct financial subsidies to businesses year after year, decade after decade, with no unequivocal assurance of their value? Especially when good jobs are scare, why don’t people demand a nationalization of enterprises or a serious redistribution of income as they did during the Great Depression? Yes, people need a job to put food on the table, but, more to the point, Americans — perhaps all humans — desire the freedom to maintain binding commitments. In fact, the freedom to make long-term commitments to others may be a defining quality of humanity, and this requires a dependable source of income. Today’s businesses, however, define freedom as personal choice. As products of a particular cultural-historical moment, Americans see no plausible option than to work with businesses to try to meet their daily and deepest necessities.
The relationship between the general public and the business sector will remain uneasy for the foreseeable future. Big businesses control the mass media, influence inordinately the political bureaucracy, and have an outsized presence in the courts, all of which gives them an advantage in most any social and economic debate. As an example, consider “self-interest”. By defining people as rational calculators of their own interest — the basis of all product marketing and advertising — it has become nearly impossible to conceptualize any relationship not based on mutual advantage. Our self-interest is limited not by morality or the environment or anything except what the law allows. When everything is defined and codified in law as self-interest, the most powerful inevitably rise to the top, hijack the terms of the debate, and all but control the lawmaking process. Thus, when businesses say they need tax dollars to create jobs, people and their elected representatives listen. After all, the business argument goes, the insecure jobs of today will lead to secure jobs tomorrow. Economic development is thus a bargain of tax money for the ability to be bound financially and emotionally to others over time.
Seventy years of mass consumer capitalism in America may have submerged the deep human desire for rootedness, the innate longing for location rather than dislocation, but it didn’t destroy it. The concept of sustainability challenges the cardinal precept on which all advanced capitalism rests: the limitlessness of economic growth. Sustainability, in essence, subjects economic life to cultural criticism without losing sight of the tension between the cultural and the economic. In visions of a sustainable world, it’s no longer people or jobs, but people and jobs, as well as economy and environment.
The only way to break the cycle of unlimited growth is to hold all actions, including those of the economic dimension, to a standard of permanence that denies reckless innovation, impulsive consumption, and the reduction of everything to the same dimension. Sustainability, if it happens, will require more energy from the wind and sun and less from coal and oil, but also more charity and forgiveness which are the bases of all concrete, enduring human relationships and antidotes to the insecurity and restlessness arising from aggrandizement and self-interest.
Americans will continue to provide generous financial subsidies to businesses because such economic development conforms to the only plausible reality they know. However, if and when the lines between sustainability and consumer capitalism become more clearly drawn, economic development strategies, including the provision of direct financial subsidies, will be among the fiercest battlegrounds as people fight to reconcile their deepest beliefs with their daily experiences.
May 14th, 2012
“The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity”, Lewis Mumford famously wrote. Power, in its many forms, is what makes a city a city, most of us would probably agree. Even a small core city in a small region exudes energy unmatched by neighboring municipalities.
Power is transmitted many ways in a city, perhaps none more conspicuously than through the mass media and through architecture. And so the relationship between architecture and the media is worth trying to unravel.
An independent media is a necessity for a democratic society, for truth can both extend and challenge power. The coarseness and tenacity of media discourse in America may verge on prurience, but, then, flowers grow best out of manure, not beach sand. The more enlightened media outlets strive to report objective truths. The less high-minded convey their particular slants, which, presumably, people can cobble together to get an approximation of the truth. Democracy is messy, conflicted, and negotiated, and the mass media offer proof of that.
Architecture is an obvious symbol of power, from the cathedral to the mansion house to the skyscraper office. Along with the media, architecture helps create a community’s identity, meaning, and structure. In this sense, power creates truth.
At one level is the image of a city. The media can expound about job availability, cost of living, educational opportunities, cultural amenities, public health, and all the other reasons people are attracted to cities, but architecture provides the most enduring consensus. Truth, in theory, may depend on perspective — we know how wonderful our children are, despite what the teacher says — but the most powerful image of a city is conveyed by the quality of the buildings we see and the details of the streetscapes we traverse.
Social scientists tell us many things: image is fleeting and space is fungible; identities are created and re-created; meaning derives from the reality we perceive; the city in which we live is but a single node in a multi-nodal, multi-level, ad hoc, world wide web of power; and — the bottom line — the big economic, environmental, and social problems of today cannot be solved in the traditional manner.
This makes sense to us because of the destabilizing influence of financial capital, which can move globally beyond the reach of traditional regulators, particularly governments. At bottom, our world and our living spaces are unstable, not because of nuclear weapons or climate change, but because work is unstable.
How do American media react to economic and social instability? By elevating job creation to the ultimate civic virtue, with the attendant glorification of corporate executives, sanction of demeaning work, and consent for public subsidies for private enterprise.
How does architecture react to instability? By turning homes into cocoons full of indoor and outdoor entertainment devices, by trying to recreate the intimacy of pre-automobile communities, and by avoiding discussions of how to make workplaces more humane.
But perhaps it’s unfair to point a critical finger at the mass media and architecture. If it is true that power is a web of relationships controlled primarily by those who can transplant large sums of financial capital, then it is also true that all individuals have access to parts of the web, and, therefore, have at least some power. And, since everyone has power, there is, in the words of Michel Foucault, “no soul of revolt, no source of all rebellion”. There is, in other words, no cataclysmic change in advanced capitalist societies; rather, there is quiet, persistent “resistance” from all sides.
It is through such small-scale resistance that individuals and groups try to establish an identity and find meaning in their lives, as evidenced by the explosive growth of private blogs, social media, and, in the mainstream media, citizen journalism. The common denominator is a focus on particular contexts and specific local conditions and differences, and, at the same time, handwringing about proper spaces for free expression and privacy.
In such spaces, which prioritize individual judgments, the subject is all important. The thoughts and desires of the individual-as-subject are never represented as innate or neutral or universal. Not surprisingly, by far the majority of mass media coverage in the United States tracks local events, personalities, and opinions: honor students; glamour queens; hospital admissions; local foods and foodies; rodeos and demolition derbies; high school sports; the girl next door who met the president; the boy who beat the odds; grunge bands and gay bars; murders and embezzlements; bling and bullocks; local elections; dance marathons and house fires; the big businessman; the big local philanthropist (usually the big businessman); woman of the year; inner city crime; good schools and bad schools; how we rank compared to other communities; how to cook like a chef, meet other singles, dance like a pro, get a job; the missed opportunity; the second chance; store openings; interview with a new store owner; interview with shoppers; and, throughout, invitations to “tell us what you think, send us your story”.
The contemporary American media draw their power from contingency: viewpoints offering a partial glimpse are strung together and a logic emerges, a sense of truth, about a person or a place. It is a logic that is by now a cultural truth in America: success or failure is decided by constant adaptation to unforeseen circumstances, by openness to opportunity, by fearlessness in the face of chance. This is how we appreciate, judge, and engage the world through the media.
Curiously, it’s the antithesis of the cause-and-effect, outcome-oriented logic used to develop the comprehensive plans and policy goals which American urban planners and policymakers expect will result in positive, predictable, and manageable change in cities. Is planning, therefore, misguided, or out-of-step with the logic that drives American culture? Perhaps the mass media have a lesson for planners and policymakers; namely, that human control is overrated.
There is nothing abstract in the media’s portrayal of the world. It is life in the raw, concrete in the extreme.
Ironically, architecture, with its rootedness and apparent permanence, is really the more abstract (or, at least, less concrete) human achievement compared with the mass media. Architecture can provide a counterpoint to the hard particularities of the mass media worldview. Buildings designed to the measure of man link us to something bigger, something universal. The media may employ architecture critics, but, really, architecture critiques us. Think of architecture that goes beyond a single building and is concerned with the environment that supports it and the community that maintains it. Resistance to capitalist expansion is seldom more subtle, nor sustainability more poignant. Sustainability makes no sense except in terms of how the built environment meets the natural world. Think of human-scale, built spaces that offer chances to mix work, religion, politics, art, and science, and thus offer promising moments of cultural dialogue and participatory democracy.
Human life is private and social, sensual and ideal, transitory and immortal. Tradition and social life, in other words, are forms of the ideal worthy to endure. At its best, architecture, singular among human endeavors, accepts each principle, one seemingly opposed to the other, and endows the material world with an idealism while acknowledging the limitations of nature.
The affinity between great architecture and an independent media goes beyond the groundbreaking or ribbon cutting ceremony. Without the universalities of the best architecture and the particularities of the mass media, American culture could not perform its essential function, that is, the creation and transmission of a social heritage.