#82: Negative Space

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The tension between abundance and scarcity is probably the definitive issue of the uncomfortable zeitgeist we’re all currently living through (that’s my verbose way of saying “the internet has made things weird”). Anyone who’s lived through the last few decades has witnessed the end of scarcity in domain after domain, but it’s difficult to simply celebrate that development for a few reasons: First, the new abundance of things like “content” increased so drastically that we devalued them immediately, without pausing to appreciate what we’d gained. Second, as David Perell argued recently, that rapid transition toward abundance destabilized entire sectors, the chaos of which we’re still reckoning with. Finally, the uneven disappearance of scarcity calls attention to everything that still hasn’tbecome massively abundant, like Bay Area real estate or Ivy League admissions. The higher up Maslow’s hierarchy we go, the kinds of scarcity we encounter seem more artificial, but they’re still very real in sense that all scarcity derives from one human desire or another.

Then, of course, there’s the kind of scarcity that Manhattan real estate developers engineer by inserting 160-foot tall “mechanical voids” into their residential skyscraper designs, a technique that pushes the building’s actual units higher off the ground and thus inflates their value. This, in a way, is a fascinating twist on the Bay Area’s well-documented housing problem: In San Francisco, established homeowners defend the growing values of their own assets by blocking the construction of multifamily apartment buildings — buildings that would in turn increase the city’s residential density and help alleviate its acute housing shortage. Like their distinct architecture styles, then, each city has its own unique way of wasting space for the benefit of the rentier class. San Francisco’s inelegant mistake is wasting it horizontally where everyone will notice it. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas praised “Manhattanism” as an ideology that rejoices in hyper-density; the city’s more recent preference for supertall towers with surprisingly few residents is a late mutation of Manhattanism where the density maximized is that of money, not population.

Urban space is just a particularly tangible example of 21st-century scarcity. The recent sharp divergence between the undersupplied and overabundant favors environments that pivot toward the latter, the internet being the prime example of such an environment. You probably remember seeing this chart, which depicts the relative price changes of various goods and services over the past 20 years, with education, health care, and childcare outpacing wage growth while TVs, entertainment, and even cars grow increasingly affordable. That chart captures the aforementioned tension in a nutshell: “Underemployment, mitigated by the escapist pleasure of eating pizza in front a $150, forty-inch TV,” as Alex Pareene put it. As long as the price of urban housing keeps outpacing the price of a car, we shouldn’t be surprised when the voids keep moving into the city and most of the people end up somewhere farther out.

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