Post-Empire & the BrainPosted: January 17, 2015
“Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.”
This NY Times reflection on dying shopping malls comes close to recognizing a few vital trends in American culture before reaching the simplistic, if still valid, conclusion that oversupply of retail space is killing the malls. The suburbanization of poverty and shrinking cities don’t arise in the discussion, while the growing gap between the affluent and poor is hinted at but not openly stated. The article does contribute to the vocabulary of junkspace by explaining what “power centers” are, but otherwise it neglects more questions than it asks or answers.
More than anything else, dead shopping malls reflect the lag between the fluid and flexible movements of culture, information, and capital, and the cumbersome physical bodies that those immaterial flows inhabit for a while before moving on to their next hosts. When consumer preferences and regional economies shift, they do not and cannot bring their built infrastructure with them, and that infrastructure becomes the residue that attests to the bygone era, visible fossils in the cultural shale. The longevity of artifacts doesn’t, however correspond to their importance, and that consequent survival bias distorts our understanding of what mattered about a previous historical era and which forces are driving the present one.
Abandoned buildings provide unambiguous evidence of failures, of projects that crashed quickly or outlived their usefulness, of the mortality of so much that we undertake. But malls are products of midcentury America, when we benefited from more obvious signs that helped us navigate our environments and know what we were looking at: The middle class shopped at the mall, lived in the suburbs, worked in the city, kept their money in the bank. The quarterback of the football team was the coolest kid in school and two nation-states dominated world politics by almost all criteria imaginable. Turning on a TV or reading a newspaper didn’t explain this reality, but it gave you an excellent grip on mainstream sentiments. It was never all quite this simple, but the narrative was unified and at least broadly accurate.
The human environment has become less legible since those golden years, in the present epoch that Bret Easton Ellis calls “post-Empire.” The popular standards for failure and success, once so black and white, are muddled, while the evidence of either is invisible thanks to a host of new forces: debt, pharmaceuticals, reality television’s tongue-in-cheek celebration of the lowbrow, and reality’s omnipresent digital substrate that has its own physics and algorithmic morality despite always talking to reality’s surface layer. The failed mall of yesteryear might remain propped up by complicated credit today, just as insolvent banks entered zombie afterlives following the 2008 financial crisis—alive but hollow. Today, a walk down the proverbial Main Street reveals less than ever about what is actually happening on that street and in the broader economy that envelops it.
As information and money swirl more and more frantically in the ether, unmoored from their physical sources of existence, it’s hard to fault the human mind for its increasing bewilderment. As Daniel Smail has written, the brain doesn’t evolve nearly fast enough to keep up with its environment and is thus easily tricked by dissonance between observed conditions and their underlying truth, of which there is more all the time. Long gone are the days when nomadic hunter gatherers detected the primary threats to their existence through their five senses, but your brain today—which is basically the same as theirs—doesn’t totally know that, no matter how much you remind it.
The subtlety of positive and negative outcomes and our uncertainty about what winning and losing actually entail make it easier than ever to welcome bad tradeoffs into our lives. A great deal of recent technological progress can be explained this way: a tangible, highly visible benefit paired with a cost that is subtle, hard to articulate, or borne in the long run. The automobile, for example, transported us with unprecedented speed and convenience but forced us to eventually rebuild our cities and society in its image; thus we accepted it. Countless smartphone apps and social networks coax us to move areas of our lives onto their platforms at the expense of our privacy, mental clarity, and even a degree of freedom. Our animal brains compel us to welcome these palpable goods that look like the simple windfalls they evolved to value in millennia past, but today those goods are just as often Trojan horses smuggling in debts that we’ll feel only after it’s too late to easily get rid of them.