Building new communities in burst bubbles

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2009

foreclosed property sale signYesterday Cory at BoingBoing pointed out a story about a small artist’s community springing up in the now-notorious $100-housing districts of Detroit:

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

All of a sudden, you’ve got a little nucleus of people turning the current economic crisis to their advantage; they’re even building their own miniature power grid based on renewable energies, and looking at ways to get by as cheaply as possible. [image by The Truth About…]

Much hay has already been made by commentators far more erudite than myself about the sea-change in public attitudes toward frugality and conspicuous consumption in the wake of the economic collapse, but the story above highlights the fact that it’s a lot easier and cheaper to avail yourself of the basics of modern convenience than it ever has been before… provided you’re willing to forgo your status symbols and think hard about what you need rather than what you want.

Artist communities, communes and cooperatives have cropped up again and again in recent (and not-so-recent) history, but I’d argue that never before has there been such viable potential for them to survive and thrive with a minimum of dependence on the state, nor a situation where the state would be willing to let it happen as a matter of expedience. Now, if Rushkoff is even partly right about the corporatist economy dying off for good, can we consider this Detroit community (and others like it elsewhere, like the squats of Berlin or Brighton here in Europe) to be the first signs of nation-statehood eroding from within?

Obviously the Detroit option is only available to those with enough capital to buy a foreclosed and deeply discounted property, but think about all those abandoned towns and towerblocks sat empty all over the world – how long before people stop waiting for their governments to find them somewhere to live, and start doing it for themselves? And how much in the way of resources will their governments be willing to expend on preventing them from doing so, considering all the other things they have to worry about?

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6 Responses to “Building new communities in burst bubbles”

  1. Robert Koslover says:

    Although this wasn’t the point of your post, I couldn’t help but notice the outrageous language (by Toby Barlow, New York Times) in the cited essay: “..stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers.” Scrappers? Excuse me, the proper word is “thieves.” By calling them “scrappers,” Barlow far-too-casually excuses inexcusable criminal behavior. This too-typical politically-correct wordsmithing in the New York Times is an insult decent, honest, law-abiding people everywhere.

  2. Tom James says:

    I’d like to believe that what you describe could happen, but I suspect there’s always going to be a large proportion of people for whom the comforts and assurances of a powerful state and a whitecollar job within some huge corporate entity outweigh the spiritual, intellectual, and literal freedom of this kind of independent community.

    Still, it’d be great if this sort of thing became more widespread, with every town and city with it’s own self-reliant exurb. My favourite Heinlein quote:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

  3. Rindan says:

    Call me when it is a commune of semiconductor engineers. A bunch of artists deciding to go fool around in some stripped houses doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. You can pooh-pooh the current order… but your lamentations are being sent out on a computer across a vast network that is about as far from being DIY as you can get. You might be able to slap together components together into a computer, but I can promise you that you are not going to be designing, much less making 40 nm (that is 10^-9 meters) processor architecture, unless you happen to have a multi-million dollar photolithography tools and fondness for working with hydrofluoric acid (HF + human = dead human).

    The fundamental problem is that in order to achieve some sort of post-corporate utopia you need to revert back to the technology level of the dawn of the industrial revolution. You can basically say goodbye to electronics and complex machines.

    As the Carl Sagan quote goes, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Capitalism, for all of its faults, does an extremely good job in directing the production of the endless list tools and components to make modern equipment and machines. It would literally take a life time to list the tools and steps it takes to make a computer from sand.

    So, hurray for the hippie artists. It sounds like they have fun something fun to do. It sounds like a great time. They can play and have fun while the rest of the world grinds on producing their photovoltaic cells, paint, paper, wiring, and highly energy efficient appliances. A few artists playing on the fringes in some run down hovels channeling the full force of the capitalist machine to meet their needs (unless they are turning sand into solar panels and metal into energy efficient appliances) though isn’t going to bring about the end of capitalism any time soon.

  4. Paul Raven says:

    You’re coming down pretty harshly on people just for wanting to live as cheaply and efficiently as they can, there, Rindan; sure they’re dependent on modern technology, but who isn’t? I guess my point was unclear, which wasn’t that capitalism per se is on the way out, but that the corporatist/protectionist model might well be, as a result of the ongoing failure of nation-states to adapt to a world being rapidly altered by exactly the technologies you mention.

    And while it’s not quite a commune of semiconductor engineers, you might find this story about a peer-to-peer bank for open source hardware developers of interest. 😉

  5. Dagon says:

    I wouldn’t want to discount the complexity of society and what unprecedented gains it has produed, but…

    …. society exists for humans, NOT vice versa. Capitalism is just a system, and the jury is still out whether or not it is very good. I am not swayed – especially in a long-term sense. I am not all that sure.

    Look at it from a utilitarian perspective – lets say that in modern history (say, since 0AD) some 25 billion people lived, total. How many of those have been subjected to unfettered Capitalism? How many of those to clearly “something else than Capitalism” ? How many were better off, their society more capitalist, and how many worse off? How long do we still have, and how many billions still can be reasonably expected to benefit from the undilluted blessings of Capitalism? – Or can we expect the billions still to arrive to aborted *because* of the current capitalism paradigm?

    So I can get a bit annoyed when someone dismisses the value of individual humans when they have “off-grid” or “noncontributing” or “outsider” or “loser” qualities. Thats a meatgrinder/insect hive value system.

  6. Rindan says:

    I actually am not coming down hard on the artists. I think what they are doing sounds like a wonderful thing for artists to do. I am a huge DIY self fan and have an Arduino board sitting next to me blinking at me. I am coming down with a big eye roll on the idea that this is the start of some grand new model for human society.

    The capitalist system with corporations and all is, for better or for worse, is the only system that produces the technologies that are so delightfully disruptive. I don’t doubt or question the disruptive nature of technology. One only needs to look the dying newspaper industries, the hammering that RIAA is taking on a daily basis, or just how the Internet has changed our daily lives to see disruptive technologies in action. These things though are a consequence of a capitalist system.

    A university smart scientist or government lab might very well be able to discover and make a crude semiconductor a few cm across. That said, only a corporation can then take that crude semiconductor and shrinking it 100 million times over, slap few billion of them into a chip into a coherent order, and then do it a few hundred million times so that computer chips get spit out of a factory cheap enough for us mortals to afford them. Even if it didn’t take a massive nearly undreamed of collection of experts grinding away with millions of man hours, it would still take trillions of dollars and undreamed of accumulations of capital to actually do the producing. Perhaps a super human AI could manage the whole ordeal outside of the capitalist corporate system… but if you had AIs that strong running around humans are already cockroaches on the evolutionary scale.

    So, I do indeed think that these folks are near non-contributors to human society. Our society has grown so complex that it takes the coordinated grinding away of many millions of hours of human lives to inch it forward. Even these folks make their small self progress while utilizing the full workings of a capitalist corporatist system as they wire up their photovoltaic cells and high efficiency appliances.

    I am not them as a bad, and what they are doing might be great for their own personal self actualizations, I am just realistic about the impact that these people are going to have on society or what kind of roll model these people can serve to society as a whole. If everyone quit their day job to become an artist doing DIY eco friendly work, in a dozen years technology we would be back to pre-industrial revolution technology, the population would be halved, and the few scraps of technology sitting around would be what hadn’t yet finished its full decay.

    I think that you are going to see disruptive technologies continue to alter, shape, and shatter society. Despite this, a lasting monument in our world (unless strong AI drops from the sky) will be corporations coordinating humanity on a massive scale that only money, capitalism, and corporations can to grind out the mass production of the disruptive technologies that we all follow and find fascinating. I am not saying this is a good or bad thing, it is just is.