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The Fat of the Land

“What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic.

You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.”

-Bruce Sterling


“We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”

-Frank Sobotka, The Wire


At the beginning of 1927 there were no bridges or tunnels connecting New York City to New Jersey. Six years later there were four bridges and a tunnel. The most majestic of these, the George Washington Bridge, was built in less than four years, a speed of construction difficult to imagine almost a century later. Two of the bridges, the Goethals and the Outerbridge Crossing, opened to traffic on the very same day (the Outerbridge Crossing was named after then-Port Authority chairman Eugenius Outerbridge, not for being the outermost bridge connecting the two states).

Four bridges and a tunnel in six years: No one under the age of 50 has witnessed such a feverish pace of public construction in the United States, but most realize that there was a phase of American history, now past, during which the infrastructural skeleton of the country was more or less built. Today, our relationship with infrastructure is better characterized by frustrating stalemates, painful service disruptions, system failures, decade-plus project timelines, and delayed maintenance—all signs of a past commitment that is increasingly expensive and therefore difficult to uphold. The biggest part of the Port Authority’s current capital budget, in fact, is dedicated to simply maintaining its existing facilities in a “state of good repair,” with four of the aforementioned bridges and tunnels requiring billions of dollars worth of capital investments in the coming decade just to keep the lights on. This, of course, is at the expense of new projects that could expand the regional transportation network.

The infrastructural wealth of midcentury America established a new global standard that had to exceed the limitations of sustainability in order to achieve its innovative heights, even though no one involved could have known those limitations at the time. Last week, Washington DC shut down its transit system for a full day due to maintenance needs that could no longer be postponed, yet another example of the technical debt that today’s transit passengers have inherited from the past. A comparable analogy (that I can’t track down now) about the 2000 dot-com bubble emphasized the underrated benefit of that boom: Bubbles create useful infrastructure that future generations get for free and build on top of, even though the businesses that drive that creation turn out to be bad bets for which their original investors pay the price. The last century’s public investment in hard transportation infrastructure may have come with a bill that nobody could ultimately pay, but its built legacy was real and a boon to the millions who still got to use all of those trains, roads, and bridges in subsequent years.

Interestingly, the twentieth century’s prolific construction perfectly mirrors the values of the generations who came of age during that boom: a belief in the importance of “hardware,” from freeways to space shuttles to suburban homes. The last era’s middle class turned its disposable income into physical assets: homes, then cars, then vacation homes, plus all the accessories that support those assets. The cohort now coming of age, we’re told, value “experiences” and while this is not a thinkpiece about millennials, few can deny that the value of expensive toys is declining relative to that of less tangible wealth. A survey of what’s being built today in the United States reveals little growth in heavy infrastructure but much more growth in “lighter” areas of investment: private real estate, telecommunications, and, of course, software of all kinds. We’re also still adept at layering new facades over the same foundations, or refactoring those established systems—as parodied by the great Onion headline, “We Must Repaint Our Nation’s Crumbling Infrastructure.” Even the Port Authority, over the last 40 years, found its principal focus to be the World Trade Center, a real estate project outside of the agency’s traditional scope, pursued at the expense of its mandate to improve regional transportation. New economic imperatives envelop even the unlikeliest participants.

This week, New York magazine published a guide to traveling with friends, or “flopping” as the author calls that particular brand of Airbnb-enabled group travel. The background of the piece, though not the point, is the enormous disparity in owned assets between generations past and present, as the first paragraph alludes: “We temporarily live well beyond our means in five-bedroom New England country homes…” The young author of the article and his cohort don’t necessarily aspire to own any of the grandiose properties that they’re able to enjoy for a few days or a week: The Hudson Valley farmhouses and Sicilian seaside manors are understood as the wealth of generations past (including generations much older than the baby boomers), inherited by our present society but too expensive to buy or even use for more than a weekend.

The author of the article acknowledges the economic reality that powers the group flop, the intersection of an advantageous digital marketplace for underused assets and a financial condition that necessitates pooled funds: “The proliferation of extravagant home listings on sites like Airbnb and VRBO—made affordable if you bring enough people to fill the myriad bedrooms—has made traveling a group activity.” So many of those houses and estates are now sunk costs of society, artifacts that live on after the disappearance of the realities that birthed them.

At the heart of the Airbnb flop phenomenon, in other words, is a crucial duality of the present condition: an economic revolution wrapped in a technological one. It’s easy to attribute Airbnb’s revolutionary impact on travel to the prior lack of an efficient marketplace for unused properties—a gap that the internet was well-suited to fill—but Airbnb’s expansion of the market for short-term rental properties reveals the degree to which those properties had been abandoned by their previous owners while a more enthusiastic, largely younger, group that wanted access but couldn’t afford it waited in the wings. The same can be said of the automobile industry’s overproduction and the excess capacity that has subsequently become available on ridesharing platforms. The old owners and the new renters are largely the same socioeconomic class from two different eras, illustrating the sea change in that economy that is as much responsible for the flopping phenomenon as any web interface is.

Bruce Sterling coined the term favela chic to describe the condition of material scarcity plus immaterial abundance—an increasingly widespread reality now. There are examples of favela chic everywhere if you pay attention. Most are more dystopian than flopping vacations, like the Google employee who lived in a Winnebago on the company headquarters’ parking lot to save money. Google and Facebook, interestingly, are wellsprings of the immaterial abundance that put the “chic” in favela chic. They also generate an overflow of material abundance that their employees and immediate neighbors might be lucky enough to capture. Anyone further removed can buy in another way, by giving the platforms free content and personal data, while relying on services like Airbnb for other morsels of real wealth that spill over from more abundant times and places. It may be getting easier to live off the fat of the land but it’s also getting harder not to.

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