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Super Intelligence

Some people, some very smart people, believe that through the magic of genetic engineering, we'll soon have a new generation of “super intelligent” people. There may even be a legal requirement to optimize the designated genetic make-up of new humans. Sounds like a science fiction novel, but the technology is close to making this kind of scenario practical.

Of course, it would take a “super intelligent” person to create a new generation of “super intelligent” people. And certainly, replication of “super intelligence” would appear to be the intelligent goal. How will we ever solve the great problems that confront us without a greater and greater supply of super intelligent people?

Apparently, no one is working on a genetic model for creating super compassionate people. Mostly because super compassionate people aren't a dominant force in the science of gene editing. And, after all, compassion isn't going to solve global warming, seas filled with plastic or the sixth mass extinction.

I wonder what would happen if you took two planets and filled one with super intelligent people and the other with super compassionate people of varying intelligence? After a few hundred years had passed, which planet do you think you'd prefer to live on?

 

Hamartia: American Anti-Poetics

At its point of origin, American poetry felt great anxiety about the influence of Europe. The roughness of early American life created the impression that the continent was devoid of grist for the mill of poetic thought. Dan Chiasson writing about Emerson in a recent “New Yorker” magazine in an essay entitled “Ecstasy of Influence,” gives us the lay of the poetic landscape.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans let “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

The poet Emerson was looking for, of course, was Walt Whitman.

Chiasson's thesis is that if Emerson had been a better poet, somehow more in touch with his grief, emotion and vision–he would not have been looking for someone like Whitman. And without Emerson, it's possible that Whitman, and American poetry, would not have emerged in the same way.

But to me, the interesting part of Tocqueville's prophecy of American poetry is that it implies an empty landscape filled only with emigres struggling for survival. America was a wild place where everything needed to be built from scratch. You can almost hear a voice say, “when we got here, there was nothing.”

In this telling, authentic American poetry started in complete blindness, unable to see the surrounding new world. Oddly, this blindness was expressed as a freedom from the cultural traditions, legends and folklore of old Europe. The anxiety of influence created a hysterical blindness that set the foundation for the virgin birth of Titans that could hammer out an American poetry that owed nothing to its predecessors.

Since that time, American poetry (and most other aspects of being an American) has been a long coming-to-terms with the continent that was here all along. In attempting to escape the influence of old Europe, the European ideal of the heroic individual in a strange land was fully embraced and internalized. The European influence was boiled down to a concentrated elixir, smuggled in through the back door, and eventually emerged as our harmartia. We stood at the edge of a continent, hit the reset button, and declared that a new world had been discovered.

 

Only the Rich Can Save Us

The Sunday paper brings two related stories. Last year San Francisco was number one — it had the fastest-growing rate of income inequality of any city in the country. Now this year, it turns out that San Francisco's rich people are far richer than any other city's rich. Go us.

The other story is about a retired venture capitalist leasing a large industrial building in the Dogpatch district to create below market rate spaces for art galleries. San Francisco's art galleries are being priced out of the market, and once they're gone it will be almost impossible to bring them back. According to the article:

Andy and Deborah Rappaport, who have never been in the arts business, plan to invest “tens of millions of dollars” in a cluster of buildings that will include studios and other arts amenities under the umbrella of the Minnesota Street Project.

This for-profit business venture aims to lose as little as possible or at best break even. They have a 15-year lease and are offering galleries 3-year leases at below market rates.

One of the moral failings of the techno-rich, in the city with the richest of the rich, is that they've operated as though the city and the world around them has no relationship to them. They take no interest in the diversity of the city, the schools, the parks, no interest in the arts or culture, no interest local politics (except when it comes to tax breaks). It's possible that a few of these rich folks have looked up from their piles of cash and seen the city changing radically around them. The Minnesota Street Project was inspired by a conversation the Rappaports had with veteran gallerist Catherine Clark. Again, according to the article:

“We were talking about how we didn't want to live in a city that didn't have a vibrant arts community,” Deborah says. “There have to be galleries, and there have to be artists' non-profits, and artists have to be able to afford studios.”

Frankly, the real estate market doesn't care what kind of city you, or anybody else, wants to live in. The “market” gives the non-rich the option to move somewhere else, its invisible hand will determine what kind of city you will live in. If the market decides that art galleries, artists, non-profit workers, teachers, nurses, day-care workers and librarians are under-resourced to live in San Francisco, then they'll have to find somewhere else to put down stakes.

The non-profit achive.org has been studying the unaffordability problem and come up with its own solution to help its workers. According to their blog:

The Internet Archive and the Kahle/Austin Foundation are trying a new model to help. Foundation Housing as a name for a new housing class : Permanently Affordable housing for non-profit workers.

In this model, a new nonprofit, the Kahle/Austin Foundation House, has been set up to purchase apartment buildings. These rental units are then made available to employees of select nonprofits at a “debt free” rate– basically equivalent to the condominium fee and taxes. Typically, the debt makes up about 2/3 of the cost of a building and the other costs (tax+maintenance+insurance) makes up about 1/3. Since the employee does not pay the debt part, the monthly fee is now about $850-1000/month rather than $2700-3000 current market rent. This way, the fee to those employees is about 1/3 of the cost of market rent, and we believe more stable than market based rents.

In the face of ever expanding income inequality, these are the only solutions that seem to have a chance. Real estate is simply moved out of the real estate market to create affordability. If this kind of a proposal came from a community organizer it would be shot down as unrealistic — a socialist redistribution of wealth from the rich to the undeserving poor. And heaven help the elected official suggesting this kind of scheme. They'd be run out of town on a rail.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Inc., recently joined the ranks of the super rich who have pledged to give away most of their fortune. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are two other notable members of that clan. Technology money rarely supports the arts. It's more disposed towards funding medical advances. The possibility of immortality is a primary fantasy of the techno-elite. While often quite smart, most of them have the cultural outlook of an adolescent boy. Some believe that Bill Gates will outshine Steve Jobs when we look back at these years because of his post-Microsoft charitable work. For most of the rich, helping the poor is simply beyond their control — the market will do what it will.

To address the issue of income inequality, wealth will have to be redistributed. The gap has grown so wide there's no other way to bridge it. Despite the fact that the poor are in the majority, they seem have no voice in the matter. For the moment it's up the the wealthy to do things like the Minnesota Street Project. archive.org needs to do what it can for its employees and other non-profit workers. Perhaps another retired venture capitalist can address the other half of the problem for artists. While they welcome below market rate studios and gallery space, artists still need a place to live.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed building 1,500 affordable housing units for artists and creatives at a cost of more than $30 million. This action came after musicians David Byrne and Patti Smith commented that New York was no longer a good place for young artists. The same could be said about San Francisco.

Great wealth confers the gift of being able to interfere with market dynamics without being called a socialist. The invisible hand can be shoved aside, and other priorities can be manifested. The Minnesota Street Project will bear watching. Let's hope they make a go of it. And here's hoping the peers of Andy and Deborah Rappaport are paying close attention. They're the only players in this game that are allowed to make a move.

 

Architecture: Ruptures in the Standing Reserve

 
 
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.
 

As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.

Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.

Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.

When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.

Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.

While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.

Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.

 

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