It is Day Four of the Democratic national Convention and while this is the first Zoom/Webex/Skype meeting in US history, it's had some unexpected, positive consequences. We got to see 50 states in the virtual nomination roll call instead or a bunch of drunken conventioneers wearing funny hats, pushing and shoving to get air time. It enabled us to have an appreciation for the diversity, not only of our people, but of this incredible land that we're blessed to live on. It was something to celebrate at a time when there is so much pain, tragedy and division. You would think we'd be unified about our incredible landscape, wouldn't you? Maybe not...
Biden's campaign theme and strategy is based on decency and normalcy, neither of which has been in great supply during the past 20 years, no less the last four. The metamessages were pretty clear too: We're better than this. This crazy quilt of people, backgrounds, ethnicities and skills are what's always made America great. And finally, all this is under existential threat and worth fighting for. We're all in and all in this together, because if we're not, William Butler Yeats becomes even more prophetic,
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In some ways, this was as much about media as message. Without histrionics of 20,000 people and the need for speakers to command a chaotic room, this convention was far more thoughtful and intimate. By necessity, we were one-on-one with each speaker, not at all influenced by camera angles, intensity of applause, or cutting to reaction shots of the crowd. It was pure. It was direct. Whether it will be successful as a campaign tool is yet to be seen.
Political strategists often talk about trying to encourage confirmation bias for their candidates and their ideas. Much of that comes from crowd reactions--people seen applauding, waving signs, and talking together--which is why mass-media TV remains a more powerful advertising medium than one-to-one digital media. When lots of people support a candidate, that in itself is validation. Which is why Trump is so addicted to his rallies--he gets instant confirmation that his every narcissistic utterance is good and right. It's the living version of the dopamine hit people get when their social media posts are liked and attract thousands of followers--on a grand scale.
so, on the eve of what promises to be perhaps the most brutally negative and polarizing convention since the South seceded from the Union, it remains to be seen how media as a vehicle will play. Initial post-DNC polls show Biden holding steady and not getting a big bounce in preference, but gaining significantly in enthusiasm. Wonder how much of that was due to the presentation, not the content--one can only imagine what might have happened if the same themes were delivered in a room of 25,000 people.
It remains to be seen how this will play for Trump, who's base is set in concrete, much like his hatred and contempt for our country, its laws and mores. He needs to bring new people in, not activate an insurrection if he's going to win. From what I can gather from the pollsters and pundits from both sides who know these things, there is about 6%-8% of voters in play--Trump needs everyone of them. But his tactics will makes that virtually impossible. It is clear that he's conceded any chance of winning a legitimate election and is working overtime to ensure the entire process is either deemed illegitimate or that the process itself is so broken that is simply cannot function. He's been crystal-clear about his intentions. Why he hasn't been locked up for sedition at this stage in a mystery.
Author, comedian, former hedge fund manager, lifelong New Yorker, James Altucher wrote a gut-wrenching epitaph to his beloved city in a recent article in the NY Post, in which he declared the most vibrant city in the world "dead forever." I was in the city last Fall, just a few months before Covid. If New York was facing terminal conditions, they were terminal affluence and complacency. It was Epcot, a Potemkin city with the sheen and veneer of perpetual superiority. With more than pep in its step and the swoosh of Armani meeting Louis Vuitton, New York seemed all the world like the nexus of power, progress and creativity. That it would be proclaimed "dead" a short six to eight months later was unthinkable.
Yet here we are. Altucher reads the tea leaves of the city's current plight and they're not promising. Ninety percent of the city's hundreds of millions of office square footage are empty and not likely to be refilled any time soon. New York's famous for many things, not the least of which is its restaurants. More than 60% are closed, no telling how many of them, permanently. Cultural fixtures like Broadway, museums, jazz clubs, concert halls, art galleries, dance clubs and neighborhood hangs are closed, suffocating any chance of keep the city's metabolism working at its usual high speed.
Most of the people who can leave, have left for garden spots like Florida, Denver and Phoenix. Sure, Phoenix is spread out and it's cheap. But I've spent a lot of time in Phoenix and well, it's Phoenix. NYC rents have cratered. Celebs like Jennifer Lawrence are taking multimillion dollar hits on the sale of their condos just to get out--something unthinkable a few months ago. With vacancies comes price reductions and depression. With vacancies, neighborhoods die and crime escalates.
Of course, New Yorkers boldly claim this is a short-term circumstance--New York always bounces back. After all, neighborhood establishments like Jonah Shimmel's (above) have seem WWI, The Spanish Flu, the Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Crack & Mafia '70s, 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy come and go. NY will survive Covid, and it always bounced back, so goes the conventional wisdom. But Altcher isn't so sure and points to the real culprit: better bandwidth. He writes:
"In 2008, average bandwidth speeds were 3 megabits per second. That’s not enough for a Zoom meeting with reliable video quality. Now, it’s over 20 megabits per second. That’s more than enough for high-quality video. There’s a before and after. Before: no remote work. After: everyone can remote work.
The difference: bandwidth got faster. And that’s basically it. People have left New York City and have moved completely into virtual worlds. The Time-Life building doesn’t need to fill up again. Wall Street can now stretch across every street instead of just being one building in Manhattan.
We are officially AB: After Bandwidth. And for the entire history of NYC (and the world) until now, we were BB: Before Bandwidth. Remote learning, remote meetings, remote offices, remote performance, remote everything.
That’s what is different."
For decades, the march of technology has gobbled up whole pieces of the human experience: Commerce, engineering, creativity, music, photography, painting, meeting with friends, large-scale manufacturing, journalism, objective truth, travel, education. That a simple seemingly innocuous tech spec like increased bandwidth would so quickly and completely subvert one of the most sophisticated cities in the world is shocking, but it should come as no surprise.
It is important to remember the larger context of the times we live in. We are in a period of radical adaptation, not merely social political and institutional cyclical change. Since the advent of the PC, every digital advance, from Ethernet to 3D printing and Quantum Computing has not been just another step-up in capabilities, but a more robust way to preserve ourselves. As a species, we're clearly threatened by the climate holocaust our past technological advances have wrought. It was 130F in Death Valley yesterday. California had a rare "firenado," a tornado caused by a fire so big and hot, it created its own huge funnel cloud. Thousands of acres in Iowa were devastated by a Derecho, a rare inland hurricane. These events are not random, but are quickly becoming the norm with greater frequency and intensity.
As all species of plants and animals are instinctively on the move, so are we. But in a very different direction. On a deep biological basis, we know we are going to have to be less physical to survive. The air will be toxic, climate too hot, energy resources, too scarce to just hop in a car or on a plane to see the sights, visit family and friends or do business. Like Maryland Blue Crabs that find themselves off the shore of Maine, we find ourselves migrating to a digital tier. Text replacing conversation. Zoom replacing conference rooms. Streaming replacing DVDs and CDs. Ablelton and Pro Tools replacing orchestras and guitars. 3D printing supplementing and ultimately replacing large scale manufacturing.
The speed of this transformation has more or less mirrored the rapid increase in greenhouse gases and temperature. But with the Trump Administration hostile to any consideration of climate change as part of its policies, humans have been losing ground. Until Covid. While pandemics have been planned for for decades and much of the devastation clearly predicted, the speed and potential finality of an event like Covid was clearly underestimated, in some cases, deliberately. That New York City would be almost totally unraveled in less than six months is the tragic consequence of callous ignorance on the part of our leadership on the one hand, and a lack of awareness and imagination as to the true fragility of our seemingly bulletproof way of life on the other.
Most of us will get through Covid. But it's a wake-up call. If we remain on the same path regarding climate change, no such assurances can be made.