Unknown fields

Slightly to the east of Parkdale, and visible from the roof of the High Doganate, is a place known as “Downtown Toronto.” It consists of large hexahedra, with glassy surfaces and internal lighting that glows very bright at night. Some other, mostly convex, tri-dimensional polytopes have been added for variety; and there is one spike that rises above all these, with an annular tube tossed on it, as if by some playful, gargantuan child. On closer inspection through opera glasses one finds these polyhedra rest on a common horizontal ground array, divided into rectangles by wide ribbons of a greyish substance. Magnification may also reveal tiny, living beings crawling through this grid: in appearance some curious, bipedal species of ant. Small metal traps pass back and forth along the ribbons, randomly capturing and releasing these creatures. During daylight hours, they may also be seen going into and coming out of the fixed shiny structures, which might be their nests. Thousands and thousands of them may suddenly pour out, perhaps in response to a predatory threat; or it might be their meal time.

So, anyway, I have observed, from my elevated position. But upon walking through the array, I have discovered it is actually roads, cars, skyscrapers, and people. Things are not always as they first appear.


My little essay above was inspired by a visit to the ultra-cool website of Unknown Fields Division, a “nomadic design research studio,” in some kind of cosmic relation with the (ultra-cool) Architectural Association, of London. My attention was drawn thither by an article the scientifictionist Tim Maughan wrote in BBC Future. It is an account of a voyage with this group, by container ship between mega-ports in Korea and China. (I’ve sworn off links for Lent.)

The piece is terrifying. It is a dazzling, or more precisely, dazzled account of the giant cranes, container mounds, truck queues aground, ship queues afloat, and apartment skyscrapers surrounding, cargo ports the size of cities — within which everything is computerized for maximum efficiency. Visible from space, but invisible to us, these monstrous facilities move the consumer products between one national economy and another. The group were guests of the Maersk company, a global shipping line which is also one-fifth of the Danish economy. At sea, they were never out of sight of other container ships, travelling in lanes guided by GPS, and also marked with deep-sea buoys. Life on board is described, under direction from computers: mind-numbing routines, utterly unlike those of seafarers through history.

One may describe these things objectively and dispassionately; one might then bemoan the loss of jobs, as advances in robotics gradually eliminate the need for human skills, thus saving huge amounts of money — for humans are extremely costly to maintain. But once this is achieved, how will the former labour force earn money to buy all the “product”? It is a conundrum of which the intelligent are already aware.

A certain Liam Young, resident guru in Unknown Fields, instead dreams of “co-opting” the whole system to serve some master plan for income equality. This is the essential idea of the Left — not equality in itself, but instead the idea of co-opting — i.e. theft, rapine. Thieves, pirates, tend not to concern themselves with how the production is brought about, only with how it is to be appropriated, and re-distributed. I have tired of explaining that the wealth on which they focus their ministerial intentions was built on cost/benefit analysis; that it works on profit and loss; that Stalinesque schemes reduce efficiency. Too, I have tired of breathless technological visions of the future.

Paradoxically, the more efficient a system becomes, the more fragile. Conversely, the more robust, the more it provides for back-up and down-time and redundancy. It is ridiculously easy to imagine little irruptions of nature that would bring down our house of cards, whether the management were greedy capitalist pigs, or Gulag supervisors. (In China, they have both; but then, increasingly, so do we.)

Spiritual considerations entered into the economic arrangements of all societies, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, until quite recently in historical time. All were thus rendered inefficient by the standards of today; none could accommodate our modern “economies of scale.” The systematic elimination of “irrational” thinking, and its replacement by purely economic calculation (whether capitalist or socialist or “mixed”), is vindicated in retrospect. By ignoring the resistance of those who would rather starve than go to Hell, it has not only filled the world with shiny, vicious junk, but fed it.

Yet as the futurist sages have also shown, the spiritual considerations will be always with us. Their own moralizing confirms this. The old are replaced with new taboos — suggested, as Marx could never see, by the very means of production. Men will be equal; men and women will be equal; finally, men and women and animals will be equal. Any distinction between one and another will set off an alarm in the machine.