Space & Time at the End of the World

/ January 2024

Italo Calvino’s short-but-sweet story, “Before You Say Hello,” (1985) describes a European businessman obsessively calling his various business-trip lovers. Unfortunately, the calls never go through, and our Sisyphean hero is left dialing one number after another, desperate to hear an answer. Towards the end of the story, the narrator explains to his prospective interlocutors:

My great ambition is to transform the entire global network into an extension of myself, propagating and attracting amorous vibrations, to use this instrument as an organ of my own body through which to consummate an embrace with the whole planet. I've almost made it. Hang on by your phones.

Perhaps it is Calvino’s fortune to have died before witnessing how widespread this pathology has become. His story anticipated the intensification of one of the master projects of capitalist modernity: the annihilation of space.

It has always been inconvenient that production and consumption happen in different places. The railroad, the steamship, and the automobile all sought to contract distances. The parallel development of communications technology like the telegraph, fax machine, and telephone similarly aimed to quicken the transmission of data, if not objects. All of these technologies were revolutionary in their own right, but pale in comparison with the current generation of anti-spatial systems.

Let us begin with the physical. Never have distances been so short as in our era of commercial aviation. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” traveling long distances has long been viewed as a source of wisdom. Whitman’s mythos of the open road centers on the serendipity of unforeseen encounters. The open road teaches us what we did not know we needed to learn – it expands our worldview through unpredictable connections.

Not so for the card-carrying jetsetter. Like wanderers of yore, the modern-day frequent flyer can “inhale great draughts of space,” to borrow Whitman’s wording, but with a crucial difference. Flight has reduced distances to such an extent that places and cultures are now nothing more than images to be consumed as part of a balanced cosmopolitan diet. We inhale tourist-oriented simulacra which flatten centuries of complexity and countless human interactions into pre-packaged, tour-group-friendly spectacles. We can go anywhere and do anything, but it all ends up being the same: land at another indistinguishable airport, connect with local guides who speak the imperial tongue, and be herded along an optimized route to harvest as many social-media-ready shots as possible before hopping back on the next flight home to the metropole.

The pressure of international tourism homogenizes cities: ancient monuments are surrounded by English-speaking, tourist-serving stores. The cities of the world fall one by one, converging to shopping centers which differ merely in local color. We have more options than ever, but less differentiation between them. Consuming as much stimuli as possible in their brief time off from work, the Western tourist lacks the time to delve deeply enough to experience the uniqueness of each place. We grow obsessed with expanding our repertoire of images rather than developing lasting relationships and meaningful experiences.

The same plague of homogenization has befallen the cities of the imperial core. One can take a quick rideshare to an endless variety of bars and restaurants, but they all come to seem curiously similar. Like in the case of air travel, the purchasing power of the well-heeled has brought with it certain expectations. After yet another glass-walled, exposed-lighting, reclaimed-wood-table venue serving “contemporary fusion” takes on a new-to-you cuisine, the modern urbanite starts to wonder: is this all there is? Does the city have nothing else to offer?

As different as they might seem, nearly all urban spaces are converging to a single model: the Store. Gone are the union halls, churches, libraries, parks, and community centers of old. The only acceptable uses of space in our late-capitalist machine are the Factory (site of production); the Store (site of consumption); and the Road (connecting the two). It grows ever harder to find spaces where one is allowed to exist without making a purchase or selling one’s labor. Like nature, these types of spaces commit the greatest transgression against the market’s regime: they cannot be quantified. Like a forest, a free public space adds no numbers to a balance sheet, and thus it becomes “irrational,” existing outside of the market, and is slated for destruction.

The quantification of land-value is not the only threat to public space. Besides the sacrifice of land to industry, car-centric urban planning has led to huge amounts of space becoming concrete wasteland with the sole purpose of storing and supporting automobiles. Thus the large majority of postwar spaces are designed not for humans, but for machines. A hapless human caught out in car-world is left with no doubt that they are unwelcome. Again, this immense sacrifice was nominally done to expand our options. By surrendering our ability to move around a city without a private vehicle, we were supposed to gain a vastly expanded freedom of the open road. Decades into this mad experiment, we have awoken to find ourselves able to visit many thousands of parking lots, identical stores, and hyper-alienating suburbias. But we have lost our ability to navigate on foot, experience nature, and live near where we work.

The strange counterbalance to this new spatial order is that while long distances have shortened, short distances have lengthened. Yes, we can fly across the world in a day, but it now takes a suburbanite twenty minutes in a car to reach the grocery store that used to be a five minute walk away. Rather than shorten journeys, cars have merely enabled sprawl. Each suburban dweller is promised a backyard fiefdom and a big-box superstore to accommodate for losing out on wilderness, on the one hand, and the variety and spontaneity of dense pedestrian life, on the other.

If every enclosed space converges to the Store, suburban design shows the convergence of public space to the Mall. Public space is only allowed as a conduit between consumers and stores – one is not supposed to feel comfortable merely loitering. Public space is only for transit, and all actual living must be done in an enclosed, privatized box from which someone is profiting, be it producers of products or landlords charging rent. As Chris Wright points out in his piece “Its Own Peculiar Decor” (Endnotes Vol. 4, 2015), this new organization of space makes resistance increasingly difficult. Workers live farther and farther from their workplaces, meaning they do not live densely enough to disrupt flows of people and products in their communities. Such disruptions are yet harder due to wider and faster traffic flows and the lack of large, open spaces in which to congregate.

Synthetic spaces replicate themselves through the vicious cycle of climate change. Our reliance on heavy machines to move around in our daily life has led to many tons of carbon emissions. The result is more and more space rendered uninhabitable, either through actual destruction from natural disasters or degradation due to unbearable heat, increased precipitation, or other climatic mutations. Thus what little public space we have becomes less usable, and we are forced into (private) indoor spaces and personal vehicles to navigate an increasingly hostile environment.

Coupled with the global reach of transit networks, the loss of habitable space has led to unprecedented mass migration. Residents of the Global South, facing crop failures, economic decline, and political turmoil caused in part by climatic degradation, are able to use relatively cheap mechanized transit to make a desperate pilgrimage to the empire to try to survive. On my first visit (June 2021) to Tapachula, the southernmost city in Mexico and the bottleneck through which nearly all migrants heading north pass, I remember being struck by the hundreds of African migrants camping in the streets. They had managed to scrape together the money for a flight to Central or South America, from which they could make the perilous journey on foot to Mexico. From there, they hoped to reach the United States, which has now begun to pay the Mexican government large sums of money to prevent the migrants from progressing north from Tapachula (for a more in-depth look at the cruelty on Mexico’s southern border, see Ross Hernández’s piece “A Border Run Around the Planet” in Commune, 2020).

We are witnessing only the beginning of what is to come. Vast amounts of land will become uninhabitable due to climate change, and the rich countries will be shocked to find that shortening space goes both ways. Already we are seeing the political transformation of the rich countries, with anti-immigration positions becoming ubiquitous even among the “left” parties. Domestically, countries will face a bifurcation in land values – property prone to floods and fires will plummet in value, while that in better-positioned climates will skyrocket, becoming unaffordable to the inevitable waves of internally displaced people seeking new homes. Walls, fences, and patrols will proliferate as the individuals and states with livable land seek to control this dwindling resource.

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, the techno-barons have provided a knight in shining armor to save us. The communicational equivalent of the airplane is the internet, which now acts merely as the vessel for the all-mighty Algorithm. If our cities have become unnavigable and incoherent due to car-centric planning, the Algorithm can provide us with optimal routes. If we are trapped inside because the air is too smoky to breathe, the Algorithm can supply the perfect content to pass our time. And if we can’t meet a romantic partner in person because public social spaces have vanished, the Algorithm will provide a mate. The Algorithm age is one in which no part of ourselves can be left outside of the market, when no part of our lives may escape quantification.

The Algorithm seeks to fully capture our time just as previous expressions of market logic have fully captured our space. Just as how unquantified space is an affront to the market, so too is unquantified time. Why waste time just sitting around watching leaves sway in the wind, when you could be consuming stimuli or responding to work emails? No matter where you are, or what you might be doing, the Algorithm is beside you. It is the genie in your smartphone bottle offering as many wishes as you’d like – as long as you wish to buy or sell images. As spatial barriers proliferate, temporal barriers vanish. No longer can you expect to have separation between work and leisure time. A white-collar boss often now expects constant connectivity, instant responses to work queries at any time. This expectation of constant availability is even more intense socially, as it is now considered increasingly weird to take time to respond to messages. Deeper and deeper are we enmeshed in this ethereal web. Our time homogenizes. Whatever else we may be doing, we are on our phones, always-on producers and consumers in the new economy of images and concepts.

This dissolution of time is an extension of the warping of space. The shortening of long distances is, of course, the decreasing of travel times. This has morphed into the modern expectation of immediacy – instant digital responses, same-day delivery, rideshares around every corner. Waiting is for fools, patience for the weak. Time is no longer an unchangeable, constant component of being alive, but just another commodity to be fed into production. Mechanization justifies itself by saving us time, but what is that time used for? Either to produce more (through constant or even longer workdays, despite higher productivity), or to consume more (watching shows, buying objects, being a tourist). For all that we have given to technology in search of free time, people feel more and more pressed. Everything is rushed. The tempo keeps increasing.

The end-stage of Algorithmic logic is the fantastically absurd Metaverse. It dreams of the universe as Store, in which every micro-motion is absorbed into a privately-owned, all-encompassing quantized cosmos. The Metaverse is the idealized world of capital in which no aspect of life is outside of the market. Every preference is tracked, every image a product. It is a new world to save us from the dying Earth. If our forests have burned to the ground, just let corporations simulate new ones! If we cannot go outside due to unbearable heat, just escape into your own personalized utopia! The advent of generative AI will only intensify this silicon Babel. Now each Metaverse will be customized to your exact specifications. The Algorithm will know your desires better than you, and be able to serve you the images you didn’t know you craved. It is the new hand of fate to replace the open road.

We are ceding immense control and autonomy to digital oligarchs. Our current loss of physical space still leaves open some avenues of resistance. Yes, everything is a store, but you can at least break some windows. The metaworlds are unprecedented in that the very fabric of reality is controlled by corporate design. Maybe your Metaverse will have a tree, but you’ll have to pay extra for the leaves to blow in the breeze. While the Metaverse (which hopefully is a long way off) is the most extreme form of this phenomenon, the same forces apply to existing applications. Social media, workplace messaging, and online marketplaces are all pseudo-spaces which have replaced physical spaces, but over whose design and intention we have essentially no control. Moreover, they are designed to be as addictive and engrossing as possible. These virtual spaces are not satisfied with your mere participation – they demand your devotion.

Besides agency and autonomy, what do we lose in this mass shift to e-living? In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin developed the idea of the aura of artworks, arguing that art objects have essential qualities which cannot be mechanically reproduced. Briefly, aura arises from knowing that what you see before you was made by a real person with thought and care. Similarly, the designer and political theorist William Morris, writing decades before Benjamin in the late 19th century, argued that “those who are to produce beauty must live amidst beauty.” He believed that homes should be filled with craft objects, lamenting the homogeneity and disposability introduced by mass production.

The Algorithm makes such concerns seem quaint. Amidst the flood of digital content, we are fortunate if the mass-produced trash we see is physical. We consume images which are obsolete as soon as they are seen. We stumble through a hazy unreality of light and sound which has no correspondence to the material plane. The world of the Algorithm is devoid of aura. It does not even offer things which may or may not have aura – only effervescent stimuli which make no attempt to be remembered. They are objects without history, ghosts without a past.

Beyond this, the Algorithm intensifies the great curse of life under the market: judgment. Every consumption carries with it the burden of evaluation. We assign stars, leave reviews, broadcast our likes and dislikes. The amount of time we linger on a video is tracked and used to decide what other images we see. Everything must be absorbed into a hierarchy, everything judged to be “better” or “worse.” At least in our physical mall-cities, one can wander around public space, look around, and just be alive without ranking the quality of whatever one’s gaze touches.

But even pre-Algorithm urbanites fell victim to judgment-as-lifestyle. Human-designed spaces and products demand our critique. We inevitably wonder if we would have made the same decisions, what we would change about this creation. This is why we cannot lose access to green space. A tree does not justify itself – it simply is. We cannot judge a plant for how it grows – it just grows. We would do well to remember that judgment is a choice, one which inevitably weighs more on the judge than on the judged.

We must imagine and create new spatial orders. We must recover our lost sense of place and recall that physical community is priceless. After centuries of absorption into mechanical production, we are colliding with this project’s limits – there simply is no more space to be consumed. In a new twist, time itself seems finite, as the impending climate transformation threatens to permanently end or alter long-standing ways of being. This transformation will make it even more important to protect and expand the livable spaces which remain. Finally, let us not forget that before “green” became a buzzword, it was a color, and our cities will need to become literally green to be livable and sustainable. Among others, we can look at the visions of the late Austrian architect Friedrich Hundertwasser, and the active Nigerian-American Olalekan Jeyifous, to imagine dense, modern cities which are still filled with vegetation.

Centuries on from the first industrial revolution and at the dawn of its knowledge-work, AI-powered successor, we are faced with the eradication of space as we know it. Spaces for public discourse, reflection, socializing, organizing, and revolution are becoming things of the past. We are consigned to a sea of cosmetic variations on the Store. Now, the era of the Algorithm threatens amnesia about the very existence of physical space. Humans cannot be transformed into machines whose inputs and outputs are merely symbols. We are made of the dust of the earth, and we cannot surrender tactility itself. Machines and algorithms are valuable tools, but the people must remain in control, not corporations attempting to further dominate and alienate us. To feel the breeze on our skin and the sun on our face – that is to be alive, to be aware, to awaken to the possibilities of consciousness. Public space is the most basic substrate of self and society, and we must fight to preserve it.