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.