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A road trip through the outer cities of most Western countries can feel rather dystopian: car yards, big-box factory outlets, signs and billboards, fast food and liquor stores as far as the eye can see.
On road trips I often shake my head and think, “We could have fashioned the world in any number of imaginable ways, and this is what we’ve done with it.” Most Western cities look like a meteor has struck – steel and metal cast-offs as far as the eye can see.
I often imagine what towns and cities would look like if they were fashioned by women, a kind of ‘social daydreaming’ if you will. It’s clear that the social scaffolding we live amongst – its freeways, high-density living, car parks and shopping malls, its roundabouts and pedestrian crossings – is the work of man; his love of technology and science, his love of construction, concrete, and steel. Railway engineer John Peak Knight granted us the pedestrian crossing, for example, and traffic engineer Frank Blackmore the mini roundabout.
The word ‘infrastructure’ for some men has a sacred ring to it, much like a Tibetan bell sounds for a monk. Just count the number of times male leaders say the word “infrastructure”; the word must give off a jolt of internal joy. Little boys play with trucks and spend their precious youth making transport utilities out of interlocking plastic bricks. Later they grow up to continue the work of their fathers and brothers – building bridges to nowhere.
A major Russian school of utopian city planning, known as the Disurbanists, grew out of a repugnance for urban life. Inspired by E. Howard’s To-morrow (1898), which described an anti-city town set amidst natural greenery, Russian “gardenists” dreamed up alternative visions for urban communities and cities. “The Disurbanists in particular disdained modern cities as museums of eclectic styles, haphazard reminders of uneven growth, ‘irrational’ accretions created by ignorant power, and clusters of concretised evil,” writes Richard Stites in Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. The Disurbanists, which included sociologists, social theorists, journalists, political figures, economists, and professional planners, was partly led by sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich, who called for a “destationed world” without cities, capitals, or even a “centre” of power of any sort. “Under the slogan ‘down with the city’, Okhitovich called for the depopulation of Moscow and other cities and their re-greening as parks,” writes Stites. Okhitovich’s vision of life was somewhat fanciful: he envisaged people living in prefabricated, portable houses, which could be set up and later collapsed at will, granting the populace ease of mobility. Houses would be flanked front and rear by a green world, and on both sides by neighbours. Stites notes that the Disurbanists’ vision closely resembled American Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Broad Acres’ utopia, a dream of blending living within the contours of nature.
Town planning is only one aspect of ‘social dreaming’. Spend just a few hours at a Western airport and your despair quota will rocket. Cheap perfume and liquor, salty and fatty food, larger-than-life screens of women in call-girl underwear – Western airports are a dystopian nightmare.
I often shake my head and wonder if we could have done better than this. I ‘social daydream’, picturing an airport lounge resonating with the moody sounds of a cellist; people seated in groups chatting and drinking hot drinks out of earthenware mugs. There are rugs on the floor where children sit and play; there’s a single canteen selling wholesome, nutritious food and water, and there isn’t a billboard or electronic gadget in sight.
In his book How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction, philosopher Matthew Crawford notes that many of what he calls “cultural jigs” – put in place by society – have since been ripped out from under us by a liberal-minded ideology hell-bent on ensuring that we have the ‘freedom to choose’ at every juncture in life. Whereas once protestant thrift ensured that we diligently saved our pennies and didn’t get into debt, today we’re sold cheap credit and then scolded if we get in over our head.
The same goes for fast food, liquor, gaming, tabloid news, gambling, sex, and so on. The market is flooded with stuff that’s, let’s face it, disastrous for our wellbeing and flourishing, but we put up with it because we’re told that choice is good for us. “If you don’t like call-girl underpants, just don’t buy them,” we’re told.
“The left’s project of liberation led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs that once imposed a certain coherence (for better or worse) on individual lives. This created a vacuum of cultural authority that has been filled, opportunistically, with attentional landscapes that get installed by whatever ‘choice architect’ brings the most energy to the task – usually because it sees the profit potential,” writes Crawford. Is it freedom to choose, or just freedom to make a fast buck?
In any event, the next time you happen to find yourself staring blankly at a billboard, take a moment to ‘social daydream’. If you could re-fashion the world, what would your utopia look like?
Artwork: Arachne, by Andrey Remnev