Victoria society’s “service engine now” light is flashing with bright urgency.
MIDDAY ON A RECENT SATURDAY, I was picking up litter in Beacon Hill Park (hypodermics capped and uncapped, sterile wipes, empty cigarette packs, fast food packaging, beverage cups, spent vodka bottles, condoms, soiled underwear, feces-covered napkins, used menstrual products, discarded diapers…the usual—our parks workers deserve a heartbreak bonus), when I was accosted by a kid, early twenties, emanating strong no-fixed-address vibes and lots of psychic static, who wanted to know where I kept my wallet.
I patted my jacket pocket: “Right next to my box-cutter.” He spat at me and stumbled off.
This happened where? In Beacon Hill Park. In what city? Victoria, BC. Honestly, why travel, with such exotic, low-carbon-footprint adventures available in your own front yard?
Victoria's Inner Harbour
I sense that things are getting noticeably free-form in the park, also in parts of Downtown and even throughout the city, if news reports of car, residential and business break-ins, stickups, rapes, abductions and killings project an accurate current image. Too much “outside” pushing against the only somewhat elastic limits of social order. Not tent-in-the-park outside, or crashed-under-a-tarp-on-Harris Green outside; that is, not outdoors, but outside: the territory beyond social agreement, where the glue weakens, the protocols (and the values and convictions undergirding them) appear iffy, amorphous, and your radar tells you that everything bearing on rules of conduct now is improvised, exigent, based on opportunity and self-interest, not structure, principle, mutuality and grace.
Regardless of the number and visibility of people wearing uniforms, packing heat, or wielding butterfly nets, Victoria society’s “service engine now” light is flashing with bright urgency. As you know, I’m not given to sweeping, apocalyptic theories of everything, so I won’t flirt with the idea that all of these little skirmishes and frictions, locally and elsewhere, are dress rehearsals for, or early signs of, imminent social breakdown or catastrophe.
I read that AI and robotics are poised to steal—no, are presently stealing—millions of jobs. Locally, fewer service staff, more self-checkouts, more people sleeping in their cars; and things are just getting started here. A counter clerk recently told me that McDonald’s expects to be “all voice-recognition, all robotic/no people” within a few years. Scoring a “10” on the crap-meter, only because there isn’t an “11,” are the preposterous assurances from the smoothocrats that, liberated by all this emergent technology, exciting new careers and vast new worlds of work and employment will open. Welcome to Liarland.
AI and robotic replacement of human work is, in our current system, an economic and evolutionary imperative that will not be denied or reasoned away. As jobless, income-less numbers swell, you may expect the incremental straining, then the complete rending, of all social safety nets and social welfare systems, as the entire clockworks of the economy goes sproing! and society’s capacity to absorb change is critically ruptured. Anticipate a stew of social panic and chaos; angry, hungry displaced fellow-citizens bent on survival—basically, every apocalypse movie you’ve ever seen—and safety, public or private, a relic.
How soon? Soon. Not in some sci-fi movie neverland, but in the near-now—in line with the speed of current change. Globally, millions of info-techies being paid six-figure salaries to “liberate” us from jobs and work. That soon.
You hold the social contract, the “deal,” up to the light and see that we’ve been careless, inattentive, distracted. We’ve misplaced the habits of citizenship and “public-y,” that is, social mutuality, a shared ownership of place and space beyond one’s home, a deep and active appreciation of shared assets.
Ironically, “we take care”—emphasis on “we”—has always been Victoria’s true semeiotic message: all those beautiful public buildings, hotels, homes, gardens, clipped lawns, the gorgeous postcard vistas. Are they real at present or just glimpses of the past, memorabilia, tourist props? The suspicion hovers that while the lawns are clipped, the social infrastructure’s rusting.
Into the vacuum of fading mutuality have flowed unsurprising expressions of privacy, self-protection, disengagement, delegation: signifiers of self-interest married to social passivity. Small wonder if there’s a rise in the sense of public risk and diminished feelings of comfort and safety—a loss of citizenship, proprietorship—in the public realm, accompanied by an up-spiraling of the lockdown aesthetic…the full NIMBY.
But as history confirms, build a better-defended public realm and life just grows more creative (and aggressive) predators.
When I got here in 1970, there was an atmospheric message: “we’re in it together.” Likely, the Depression years and war years still resonated in social memory, and both of these reinforced the values and practices of common cause, mutuality and cooperation. Then came the ’70s and ’80s, a heady payoff for that legacy of enforced emotional repression, of holding it in. While we were busy shaking off gravity, who could be bothered to consider that the terms of community—ritual, shared values, shared history, shared want and need, reciprocity, a capacity for self-subordination—were diminishing; and that while social relations were becoming looser, more voluntary, less ritualistic and seemingly more authentic and expressive, the foundations of public-y were collapsing beneath the values and messaging, the dark magic, of our cornucopian culture. Fun! Fun! Fun! Me! Me! Me!
We’re at a pregnant moment, and a city conversation must be convened to consider social infrastructure, values and intentions, and obstacles to ideal social functioning. In the absence of that conversation, life will intervene, jarringly, with some catastrophic smack, unsympathetic that such conversations are hardest to organize when they are most needed.
In my view, greater personal enlistment in public life, despite any “inconveniences,” is obligatory. I don’t mean that every single person in Victoria has to down cell phones and laptops, link arms and start singing “Solidarity Forever!” But consider: existing bureaucratic structures, seen to be efficiencies within the social project, are also surrogations, abstractions, emotional distancers: “Homeless? Oh, they look after that.” And so on.
Community: a stirring idea invoked with great fondness, just when the signals are most faint and the reach for more understanding never more challenging. “Community” is becoming a nostalgia word, like “grandma’s house.”
In the setting of such thoughts, it’s interesting to consider social sleepwalking: we see things deteriorating, but we abstract—essentially, disregard—what we witness, so it doesn’t register as grounds for worried action. Anything to preserve our psychotic belief that good things come from the good-things fairy rather than from herculean, continuous social effort.
What’s impaired is not our ability to see such declines or threats, but our distractedness and the ambiguous structure and protocols of social alarm—roughly, the difference between “Somebody should do something about that” and “Omigod, this could tear our house down!”
The smallest gestures and efforts to acknowledge and respond to today’s looming threats are met with Lilliputian annoyance, exasperation, disapproval, counter-view. Victoria’s Mayor Lisa Helps must sometimes wonder if she’s bucking the totality of social inertia in her effort to secure the future with a bike lane network. Social justice champions Ben Isitt, Jeremy Loveday, Sarah Potts and their similarly-disposed council colleagues come in for incredible amounts of contempt and scorn for their efforts to use the tools of civic policy to modestly expand housing affordability in our pricey town.
Jared Diamond in Collapse notes that social success requires “the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold, courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they have reached crisis proportions.”
Diamond effectively says in few words what I’ve tried to say in a thousand; but both Diamond’s words and mine point toward a proposition that colleague Rob Abbott and I are elaborating in a book-length writing project, working title Futurecide. The idea is that catastrophe, ultimately, is ecological, nature’s problem-solver. Catastrophe, collapse, breakdown are all messages from nature about limits and tolerances and, in humanity’s case, a cautionary note about the value of caretaking.
Remember, in an ecology, including the social ecology of this city, nothing is parenthesized and there’s no outside.
For better or worse, it’s all in.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept.