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After the Gold Rush

“From this moment on, continuity no longer breaks down in space, not in the physical space of urban lots nor in the juridical space of their property tax records. From here, continuity is ruptured in time, in a time that advanced technologies and industrial redeployment incessantly arrange through a series of interruptions, such as plant closings, unemployment, casual labor, and successive or simultaneous disappearing acts. These serve to organize and then disorganize the urban environment to the point of provoking the irreversible decay of neighborhoods, as in the housing development near Lyon where the occupants’ “rate of rotation” became so great—people staying for a year and then moving on—that it contributed to the ruin of a place that each inhabitant found adequate…”

-Paul Virilio, “The Overexposed City”

North Dakota has urban decay that could drive away. “There are empty campers everywhere,” says one North Dakotan interviewed for this article, describing the abandoned trailers that litter the shale towns of a thinly populated state overwhelmed this past decade by a fracking-induced flood of migrant labor. The speed of the initial boom and the frantic need for labor meant neither the oil industry nor the workers could afford to wait for permanent settlements to develop, lest they leave money on the table, so like the gold rushers of yesteryear the arriving workers stayed in trailers, shacks and “man camps” while the real estate market tried to catch up.

The present slump in oil prices, having reduced the viability of fracking, means that last year’s fully-employed roughnecks are this year’s surplus labor, and so is their quickly-built housing, mobile as well as stationary.

Natural resources have always stirred up strange eddies in economies and cultures, from tulip bubbles to gold rushes, but information and money move faster in the destabilized contemporary version (that Nassim Taleb calls Extremistan) and those eddies are increasingly the choppy texture of the landscape rather than breaks in a smooth surface. Global commodity prices can make a local commodity effectively disappear: In North Dakota, cheap oil stays underground when drilling through shale to get it becomes a money-losing operation, despite no natural or human-caused change in the local environment. In such an event, even houses with wheels—the nomadic huts of the modern industrial world—become sunk costs and can’t travel fast enough to simply take advantage of the next opportunity. Instead their inhabitants (drivers?) scatter elsewhere, in planes and cars, not necessarily to the next oil boom site (which doesn’t just pop up as a replacement) but to a multitude of other gigs and industries.

The Virilio passage above instructs us that there’s a dimension of reality that moves faster all the time, and another that stands still by comparison. The latter encompasses cities, housing, and usually the people who live there, while the former comprises the information that sets the values and prices that determine how much those houses are worth, what jobs will exist in those cities, and ultimately whether it’s time to leave those places entirely. Continuity breaks down in time, not space, through “a series of interruptions”—the residents of Watford City, North Dakota were in the wrong place, then the right place, then the wrong place again, and it may yet become the right place again, depending on the schedule of said interruptions.

Human settlements in Taleb’s Extremistan are the residue that remains when the economic tide goes out, and as the speed of information accelerates, those ruins—the lifeless objects that remain when their usefulness goes away—will keep looking fresher than ever and might even seem brand new.

2 Comments on “After the Gold Rush”

  1. […] arrive late to the party and then overstay their welcome. The informal settlements that flourish on the fringes of every economic boom and in the center of every rapidly urbanizing country, from North Dakota to Nigeria, are examples […]

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