Cities & Architecture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: On City-States, Taking Orders and Bullets

This week: Are city-states in the middle of the ocean of our future, the inner lives of nannies and cab-drivers in NYC and ‘A Poem for Gauri’.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

To say it’s been a rough week would be to trivialise a great number of things – a journalist’s murder, climate change, the thousands of lives destroyed due to hurricanes, floods, earthquakes; several thousand more in jeopardy who might be kicked out of their own country; the threat of nuclear war, the list goes on and on.

But in the midst of all this, a few people wrote pieces that made me think differently about a subject or opened up a new perspective on something that I’ve given minimal thought to in the past. Hopefully, these pieces will bring you some respite too.

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Where Silicon Valley disruption meets the nation-state

That nation-states are unwieldy and don’t really work is a poorly kept secret. But the model continues to thrive because disrupting it would require replacing it and what works better than the existing system?

A number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs think they have a solution that is more suited to the digital age than the 19th century model we’re all currently subscribing too.

In ‘Return of the City-State’, Jamie Bartlett argues that for most of human history, it was the city-state that dominated people’s lives and ways of being, not the national version of it. Babylon, Athens, Venice are just a few famous historical examples. Modern day ones include Singapore and Monaco. Smaller in geographical size, more densely populated and with diverse populations – city states are more efficient not just from a governance point of view, but for their residents too. Innovating and collaborating is aided by proximity, says Bartlett.

If the world really is headed towards a scenario with 200 million climate change refugees, nation-states are going to have a much harder time preserving the myth of common identity and tangible borders. The EU’s reaction to the ongoing refugee crisis and US President Donald Trump’s attempt to secure a national identity paint a bleak picture for what’s next.

Bartlett thinks that these problems are compounded by the fact that the primary mode of production is changing from industrial to digital – and that’s bound to result in a change in how we live. Which means the internet’s fundamentally libertarian nature is also undermining the nation-state. At it’s most obvious, this looks like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies competing with state-issued currencies and people from various countries interacting with each other on the internet, completely unbound by national borders or language.

I am a rock, I am an island. Credit: Youtube screenshot/ The Seasteading Institute

I am a rock, I am an island. Credit: Youtube screenshot/ The Seasteading Institute

People like Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel want to take it even further and come up with physical spaces to reflect these changes. But building a city-state on territory that originally belonged to a nation is bound to be messy and violent. So they want to build seasteads in the middle of the oceans – where nations can’t get to them. If users don’t like one, they can simply move to another. Bartlett writes that it’s “Just as easy as switching series on Netflix, ordering an Uber, or meeting someone new on Tinder.”

This will change modes of citizen-state interaction as well. These could be some of the defining features of such a world, “Constant online direct-democracy voting, building smart-cities, using crypto-currencies.”

The Seasteading Institute has thousands of people signed up for its future marine city-states but is not going to complete one anytime soon according to Bartlett’s estimate. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

If we’re going to shift towards a socio-political system that compliments the digitisation of our lives, we must also stop to think about how this system will change residents’ emotional landscape. Will everyone feel constantly unmoored and alienated, like refugees and immigrants often do; will the loneliness that define large swathes of the internet find itself reinforced in the sociological structuring of such seasteads? Will the constant (and exhausting) possibility of finding something better – Tinder matches, restaurants, clothes – now extend to where we live?

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Can a question be a command?

How would you characterise the majority of your interactions on an average work day? Do you spend your days instructing others? When people talk to you, is it more likely to be water-cooler style chit-chat or an entitled command?

For people in the service industry, more so than others, most of their interactions are commands or orders. Some may even come couched as requests. Last spring, members of the Worker Writers Workshop debated the nature of commands while working on a poem titled ‘Instruction Manual’. Christine, a nanny, said that in her line of work, nothing ever comes couched as a question, it’s always ‘do this’; there’s no choice to be made. While Alando argued that commands are often phrased as questions or requests but the recipient, a worker like him, knows that responding no is not an option. The group decided to re-frame the problem, “Is it a question that you’re free to answer ‘no’ to?”

The Worker Writers School is a group of cab drivers, nannies, vendors and retail workers who meet once a month from September to May to workshop their written work and also create collaborative projects. Hua Hsu wrote about the poem ‘Instruction Manual’ that they were working on. It’s a list poem, meant to encapsulate the types of commands each of them receives at work.

Hsu recounts, “Most contributions were short, direct: “Two fried dumplings.” “Please go slowly, I’m pregnant.” “Put the Desitin on really thick.” They decided to make an allowance for a couple of longer entries that spoke to the universal condition of the overly demanding boss: “I may need you a week from today, keep it open. I may not need you, though.” “I don’t think the snow is that bad. Why don’t you take a cab and come?”

What are the commands and orders you hear at your job? Credit: Stephan Geyer/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s charming to think that such a writers workshop exists, where feedback and collaboration flow together and its members feel a sense of community. But Hsu ends up unearthing something universal about the catharsis of writing by talking to some of the members.

Lizeth, a nanny told Hsu, “Outside, people don’t accept you and your realities… I like it here. I can say my meanest things.”

Christine, also a nanny, explained that her profession is often isolating. Parents are demanding and often prone to excessive worrying about their babies’ smallest problems. But Christine can’t ever tell them to calm down or put things in perspective for them. She also narrated having to read bedtime stories to her wards – from the family’s collection of vintage and racist children’s books. For her, the workshop and its annual show offers a release for the difficult emotions she keeps pent up. As she told Hsu, “When you can’t tell them. Your pen is your friend. Your paper is your friend.”

It’s a charming and firm reminder that those giving the commands are not the only ones with rich, inner lives; they just have more time and money to tell the world about themselves.

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‘A bullet and three more inside you’

‘A revolution rising from print, words growing’

This week has seen an outpouring of grief, trepidation and resolves in the wake of Gauri Lankesh’s murder. There have been countless pieces, including one by me, trying to make sense of the political climate that allows for a journalist to be gunned down outside her home, the future of Indian democracy, the escalating intolerance for those who promote religious tolerance. All those pieces are important and ought to be read because together they voice the inner anxieties that circle many of our heads on a daily basis but unfortunately, it takes a violent catalyst like this one to bring it all out and also grab everyone’s attention.

But thinkpieces and obituaries only go so far when it comes to expressing complicated emotions. Here’s a poem that goes deeper.

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