This Was Never Almost Us, After All

In 1988 the LA Times published a futurist edition in which we would travel to work in 2013 in smart cars.    Robot maids with arms would clean houses.  There would be robo-pets mimicking the charm of canines.   Efficiency would rule the day. The city would mandate staggered shifts for businesses to ease traffic!

You could say it was a tad theoretical.

Among the things it didn’t predict:
Three million feral cats.
Sidewalk homeless encampments.
A vast brown service class.
Any service class at all.
The wealth effect.
A glorious reclamation of every pre-war building in the city.
Craptastic cheap Chinese consumer goods.
The million dollar bungalow teardown.
Cultural civil war.
Middle-class diaspora to Texas.
Maximalist landscaping.
Pharmacopeia.
Social media influencers.
Open borders.
Doggie daycare.
The rich calling the little people bigots.

The Times got much of the technology right: fiber optics, wallet-sized computers, streaming video; and placed it in the hands of a presumed to be a white middle-class family living in a ranch house in Granada Hills. What it failed to imagine is how technology would reshape the culture to a point where middle-class families no longer obtain purchase in Los Angeles. The Times guessed at coming of the iPhone. It didn’t imagine how the design and implementation of the iPhone and its applications would generate such vast wealth as to explode the class structure to the point where Granada Hills, like the rest of the Valley, became irrelevant to the grand design. The Times didn’t imagine the paper itself would be obsolete here, with but one reporter, commuting in.

The Timesian future of two hundred-story buildings and pneumatic tubes turns out to be Bento Box apartments peering down on ranch houses, with a light frosting of tagging.

Blade Runner was also going to be our 2019.
Air taxis? Clearly, no.
Massive electronic billboards, yes.
Clutter and cacophony. Check.
Ubiquitous street food.
Old buildings.
Asian influence.
The revival of 1940’s aesthetics.
Sexbots, almost here.
Corporations achieving power by providing a simulacrum of human companionship?
Most definitely.

It’s worth noting Syd Mead provided the original sketches for the set design as well as for the Times piece.   Blade Runner feels truer to where we are today downtown, even if it got ahead of itself with the technology and the apocalyptic weather.

Adding a layer of irony, Philp K. Dick toiled in semi-obscurity living in a tract home near sunny Disneyland, a neighborhood steadfastly untransformed by his prognostications to this day.

What was designed to be enclaves of detached homes with broad yards, fed by arterials, -the Valley 1.0- remains exactly mostly that.  Once built, the world is not easily re-engineered.   You can install a fancy kitchen and an accessory dwelling unit behind the garage. You can squeeze ten people in a house built for four.     You can make cars more gas efficient, you can structure ridesharing arrangements, but you can’t get people out of their cars.  That’s not what we built.

Regression to the mean trumps master planning. Human nature resists perfection, thank goodness.

1099-Miscellaneous

It is possible in Los Angeles to list your apartment on AirBnB on Friday afternoon, crash with friends or lovers until Monday morning, pocket the cash flow, and in the right sort of neighborhood prize the rent without a day job.  That’s one kind of gig.

There’s an app you can use to clean the place and handle the next booking for you.  That’s a gig for the cleaners.  Also, the bookers.

If the guests can get hungry, they can scroll through their phone, and someone will shop for them, then dash to the door with food. That’s a gig for the dashers.

If your guest gets bored she can press a button on her phone and a car will arrive at the door in minutes and take her to the club. Driver gig.  Or side hustle, to borrow the corporate sales pitch.

Her boyfriend can beg off, stay in the house and go online.  “Take off your underwear,” he can text, and somewhere on the other side of the city or the planet a woman will remove her underwear, slowly, to keep the meter running.  The sharing economy, in action.

More of us are working, but fewer us are employed.  Our world is rounded in 1099 forms.

Uber has been extraordinarily good to me. So good I don’t have to consider renting a room in our house on AirBnB.   Everyone knows what it’s doing to the taxi business. Few know Uber has become so ubiquitous in the past two years it has displaced rental cars as the most commonly utilized ground transportation, even among corporate clients.  Last week Hertz disclosed massive losses, and may default on its bond debt.  Its fleet of aging cars are flooding the after-market. The inventory spike will put pressure on the dealerships to unload inventory, which makes for a buying opportunity if you want a new car to drive for Uber.

Whole Foods has been good to me, but its formerly dominant position in organic foods is under extraordinary price pressure from all sides and it may not survive another two years in its current form.   Uber has been selling rides at a loss  since arriving in LA, with no plans to stop doing so.  Amazon and Etsy are slowly strangling Fashion Square.   On the other hand, the Century City mall is expanding, upscale.  Our economy is bifurcating into hyper-luxury and dollar stores. Concierge service or waiting at bus stops with street people. UberPool is getting cheap enough to displace Metro riders. Soon, perhaps only derelicts will ride the bus.

Steve Jobs’ bicycle has democratized capitalism.  It means MacLeod Ale can rise out of an auto repair shop, find a clientele, and prosper where retail never could. It also means 100 people are simultaneously gripped by the same fever dream of selling biscotti made from their kitchen. Ninety-nine of them end in tears.  But they can console themselves by renting out the spare room.  Unless there isn’t one. Then they make themselves scarce while tourists cavort in their bed and rifle their drawers.

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It’s an extraordinary time to be grinding out a living in Los Angeles. Unless you’re not.

Perhaps we should hedge our bets, like my friend Johnny.

Davening, iPhone, Boulevard

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When did this happen to us?  When did communing with the handheld device take the form of liturgical prayer?  How did we come to worship our devices in public with the same fervor we once gripped the wisdom of the Patriarchs, and without embarrassment?

No, that’s not quite right. Embarrassment requires an understanding, or perhaps a mere awareness of those sharing the space around us.  Gadgetry has obviated the membrane between the public and private sphere.

Our spines crumple forward in submission to our appetite for escape. Our necks droop like penguins in the zoo, staring down at a created Antarctica balanced on our webbed feet. Time travelers from the 1990’s would be puzzled by the sight of us.  They would wonder if all the Vitamin D had been removed from our diet in a diabolical plot.

I’m hardly one to comment.  Even perched upon the stern unforgiving yoga stool at which I labor, inevitably my posture sags, shell backed and slack-jawed, as I type.  Occasionally I catch flies in my mouth.

There is antidote for this,  in Van Nuys, where one can re-establish the plumb line from the back of the head to the heel.

MacLeod Ale.  Calvert Street. No screens. No gadgets. Just British Ales, peanuts and conversation.  Occasionally music.  Remarkable what a little fellowship conducted eye-to-eye, standing upright, glass in hand, can do for your spirit and your love for your fellow man.

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