Androids, Rampant Crime and Unicorns

Posted on February 20th, 2009 Won't you help brighten a lonely comment's day?

I was suckled by Bruce Sterling, weaned by William Gibson, and can recite the dialogue in Blade Runner from memory.

So it came as no surprise when, flipping through the latest edition of Eye Weekly while stuffing my face with a Liberty Village jerk chicken sandwich, I was drawn to Shawn Micaleff’s article on development in Toronto and the tensions it raises between pro/anti-urban development advocates.

Like an earlier article I had written, Shawn points out that construction around the metropolis is rampant (the second largest in North America), and that many of the new highrises are indelibly changing the historic face of the city.  He also makes an aborted attempt to connect what’s happening today to a hackneyed version of the future as it was seen from the nineteen-eighties. Aside from a few weak parallels between the cyberpunk genre, Shawn mostly misses the point.

The griminess of the cyberpunk future is really a co-construction that wasn’t any one writer’s or director’s alone. The term “cyberspace” (and it’s associated imagery), came out of Gibson’s novels while the concept of antiquated urban construction being superceded by new buildings came mostly from Blade Runner scenery (though this new/old mix is never explicitly discussed in the movie). Shawn makes the point that the vision presented in the movie loosely matches what we see today; old buildings being subsumed by newer and larger ones.  Aside from this, however, there isn’t much to tether either idea to reality.

The article comes to the ebullient conclusion that, despite the criticisms and minor drawbacks that urban developments carry, we should embrace these changes as the “the new beautiful”.

Only problem is, I’m not sure what the hell Shawn’s talking about.

He’s trying to show what a “new” vision of the city should be through a descriptive frame that’s almost three decades old, and science fiction to boot. This portrait includes either behemoth, tilted buildings jutting out of an ocean of air muck, or neon-addled  “grey slabs” that serve mostly as a backdrop for cyberspace hijinks.

Whatever the case is, it’s a holding up the of past (of an imagined future), as a lens through which we can view and interpret the shaping of the city. Personally, I think the view is pretty shitty.

After all, the visions ripped out of these inspirations come with no context. Until I get my Replicant hunting license, the concepts plucked from Blade Runner don’t help me to appreciate the new building on the corner. As much as I like Gibson’s work, his prospects of a distopian setting serve more as a mood device than anything I would recognize on the street. Describing all of this as “Cyberpunk built by the Swiss” makes an already fuzzy concept fuzzier [As though sturdy, affordable bunk beds somehow make the Swiss master civil engineers].

Here’s where I prove myself the asshole in the conversation; I don’t have an alternative to this [non-constructive criticism=moaning, bitching, and/or complaining].

I don’t know how we should look at our modern, highly volatile landscape. I know I appreciate the aesthetic when I see it and, generally speaking, I’m in favour of the new as long as it’s not created exclusively for the sake of being new. Considering how much a building costs to put up, though, that’s not really a concern.

I don’t believe we’ve yet discovered how these shifting elements will affect the culture in which they’re nestled. Even if we partially mimicked something from the past (literary past included), it does the modern a great disservice to throw these used and worn labels over it. Expecting the present to conform to them is a square-peg/unknown-hole situation.

So, thanks but no thanks, Shawn. I appreciate the effort but, despite my fondness for it, there’s no way that Mona Lisa Overdrive expresses what a current metropolis is and, more importantly, what it could be.

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