City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

19. The waters draw back, only to return

Written in


Afternoon walk, Växholm 21 May 2020

The first waves of COVID-19 have revealed much; The ‘flailing states’ produced by the Anglo-American model; The ambient double-consciousness of the Cold War as an analogy for living with the pandemic; Writing as control

If the first part of a tsunami to reach the coast is the trough of the wave rather than the crest, the water along the shoreline is dragged back dramatically, exposing large expanses of the shore that are normally deep underwater. Briefly, the drawback reveals creatures and living environments not usually exposed to daylight, the detritus of our habitation laid bare, the sweeps and scars of previously invisible landscapes scored by the dynamics of the displaced tides.

I wrote the first set of Slowdown Papers as a kind of rapid personal reflection, amidst the intensity of the virus’s first appearance and transmission: already well-established across East Asia and Europe, beginning to hit the UK, and largely before it was hitting the Americas, Africa and the further reaches of Asia and Australasia. I then put the pen down, though hardly pausing the reading, discussing and reflecting, along with the tallying of numbers and filing of references — but also working hard, and dealing with what the virus is throwing at all of us, personally and professionally.

Like many, I was lost in a fug of Zoom and Teams, but producing some kind of work nonetheless, and like many more I was dealing with some kind of personal loss through that time too. I was writing too, elsewhere: for Disegno’s Lockdown Papers, the Vitra Magazine, Generation C by RISD’s Center for Complexity, NESTA’s Rethinking Parks, and the RMIT landscape journal Kerb, all presenting variations on themes from the original papers but variously inflected through the prism of subsequent events.

Ed. Some of the following papers may contain traces of those texts! Though fully re-written and re-assembled.

Equally, ideas were road-tested in public talks for Atölye, Dept of Dreams, States of Change, City of Melbourne, KTH, CIID, Canadian Urban Institute, Exhibit Columbus, Nordic Citymaking, State of Victoria and others — all delivered digitally and thus in places like Melbourne, Birmingham, Helsinki, Istanbul, Indiana, Costa Rica, and yet nowhere at all. Thanks to all of those folk, whose kind invitations to speak and write have prompted me to form and re-form my thoughts.

I had deliberately paused these Papers. As well as other constraints on my time, I was aware that I could add little to what I’d said at the start, a mere two months into such a powerful and long-term disruption. The landscape beyond is made no clearer by spending a further two minutes in the eye of the storm. Many of the patterns visible or likely at the start did indeed play out. Some did not; maybe they will, maybe they won’t.

But by July, it seemed a good time to pick up the pen again. There are waves within waves within waves to this pandemic, clearly, yet at this point we can say that most of the globe has felt its destructive presence. Those places that suffered first, and took it on the chin and picked themselves up, are now dealing with the fact that it won’t go away. Wave after wave rolls in. We can see different patterns amidst those places that had time to prepare, and reflect upon what they tell us about their resilience — or lack thereof.

The impact of the Australian bushfires, which precipitated this series, is clearer day by day—including now 3 billion animals killed or displaced in one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history—and now mirrored in vast fires in California. But as I suspected, it is now also largely forgotten; a footnote. It merely provides kindling for an analogy about the pandemic. Announcing further lockdowns around Melbourne, the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the coronavirus was “a public health bushfire. But you can’t smell the smoke and you can’t see the flame. This is very different. It is a wicked enemy. It spreads so fast without people even knowing.”

The broader message the virus carries is now highly legible, at least for those alert to it: that the pandemic is merely a shot across the bows, an expression of the deeper crises of climate, health, and social justice, and the many ways in which they are entwined and tangled around each other, all created and transmitted by the choices we make about our everyday infrastructures, places, technologies, and cultures of decision-making and politics. This is conveyed most powerfully by the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests in streets around the world, set within the broader context of data describing the impact of the virus amongst communities that have suffered systemic racism, and health and social inequalities, for decades.

We can learn much from the complete failures of the USA and the UK, “flailing states” according to Pankaj Mishra, who notes that the “early winners of modern history now seem to be its biggest losers, with their delegitimised political systems, grotesquely distorted economies and shattered social contracts.” Mishra’s excoriating article captures much of the general political context circa July 2020: Anglo-America’s “long-evident dingy realities — deindustrialisation, low-wage work, underemployment, hyper-incarceration and enfeebled or exclusionary health systems”.

Those realities have been abundantly clear to many for years, yet have now been horribly exposed to the entire world — “the moral, political and material squalor of two of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in history still comes as a shock to some” — with this perhaps final reckoning expressed not in subjective arguments about ideology, but in the grim realities of infection and mortality rates.

‘Watchmen’, HBO (2019)

Despite that, Mishra notes the continuing impact of the Anglo-American hegemony, not least on Modi’s India (see also many other European countries, the EU itself, and Australia especially). All this in sharp contrast to the relative competence of the East Asian states, which Mishra traces back to their 20th century histories, with Japan and South Korea absorbing, conveying and transmuting many ideas and practices from late nineteenth century Germany social-state-building. Mishra is able to underscore his message by simply contrasting their first-wave performance with that of the Anglo-American states (New Zealand perhaps excepted, though how one compares a small island in the middle of the Pacific to somewhere like India or the USA is beyond me.)

Many European states, including Italy’s recovery at time of writing, also seem more resilient than the Anglo-Americans (though far from all of them)—yet it is East versus West that provides the easy shorthand comparison. Mishra summons South Korea’s 1960s/70s president, Park Chung Hee, who stated that “the life of the nation can be developed and grown only through the state … We are different from the West that pits the individual against the state.” And this said at a point in history when many Western nations had strong states.

This too is a huge departure for recent generations. For much of the twentieth century, as Elisabeth Åsbrink puts it, Europe felt like a black and white photograph compared to the American Dream’s Ektachrome. Now, that black and white photograph of old Europe feels valuable. There may be blurry faded characters and places in the background of the image to recover, reinvent, to sharpen again. Compared to the sickly Ektachrome, Asia feels like augmented reality.

At time of writing, despite President Trump’s repeated reminder that this virus appeared to emerge in the East, every single country in the top 75 deaths-per-capita list is West of Iran (perhaps excepting Russia, which straddles many longitudes, at no.53.)

“Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmilitary defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself. What is left of it now, what it has become, I do not know.”
—Excerpt from ‘Parable of the Talents’, Octavia Butler (1998)

Yet we can also read from a possible unravelling in some of those places — Australia, South Korea, Germany, and perhaps, Greece and Japan— which were seen as early successes, in highly relative terms at least. Equally, we might learn from places like New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Nigeria and many other large African countries, where a successful dodge of the first bullets through careful, intelligent and considered state-led responses—and sometimes good fortune and geography—suggests both a powerful lesson and yet still poses the key question: ‘What’s the next move’?

We can even read much simply into the way that we read the Swedish situation. The ambivalence about the Swedish narrative, and the complexity on the ground here, is as meaningful, instructive, and possibly viable as any other response, as I’ll try to suggest. The awfully facile reporting on the Swedish context from outside will not have conveyed this, but I think there is much to learn—positive and negative. Learning to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, and moving forward nonetheless, is our reality now.

Stockholm, August 2020

In all of this, I will stress once again that a global pandemic is not something to use blithely as case study, as fodder for design research, or worse, an excuse to speculate as to things one might have wished to happen all along, using it as lever to project pre-cooked ideas onto others. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying, and millions more are suffering from the collapse of economic and social ideas brutally exposed by the virus. As I said initially, and I don’t think the situation has changed in three months: “It is not the time or the place (to draw conclusions): people are dying and I’m not a doctor. The situation is too complex to carelessly stumble into. It would be like hurling a PDF at a hurricane.”

Yet I continued by suggesting that writing in public is one way of making sense of something unfolding as it is unfolding, as indeed any kind of cultural expression could be just as useful as attempts at gathering evidence, data, analysis. I quoted Kazuo Ishiguro at that point: “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

As ever in my writing, I won’t pretend to draw a sharp line between the personal and the professional, a fraudulent distinction between the objective and subjective. So it’s worth briefly pointing out that this reminder for delicacy and care, given the situation, was not simply academic.

In mid-June, my father passed away. COVID-19 did not kill him; cancer did. But the virus, and the lockdown of all travel between Sweden, where I am, and the UK, where he was, meant that I was unable to be with him at any point in his last six months. When I started writing this series, we knew he was ill with cancer, but we did not know that the end would come quickly. His health deteriorated rapidly in the weeks immediately after the possibility of any international travel had been removed. He had ‘a good death’, in a sense; at home, surrounded by the rest of my family, and largely without pain, all of which is far more important than me being able to be there with him. My mother read out a letter I had written to him, by chance sent the night before, just as he was dying. His death was not to do with the virus. But the virus affected the way that his death happened, and heavily, in ways that I sense I will be feeling for years and which I barely comprehend right now. The peculiarity of the situation, robbed of physical presence, of direct care, and of ritual, is certainly affecting my grieving.

At a time when many are talking about technology enabling significance experiences to be displaced from physical reality and ritual, watching your father slowly fade away over WhatsApp was the most powerful of reminders that this is simply not true; that some things cannot be so easily shuffled in time and space, casually divorced from physical presence, without a fundamental diminution of what it means to be human. At some point, I’ll attempt to articulate a little of what happened, and what it meant, if I can find the courage, and words, to describe it.

While this was shattering for me personally, it is clearly nothing compared to the far greater pain suffered by many more. It was time for my Dad to go, which I think he recognised, whereas the virus has taken hundreds of thousands before their time, far more awfully. And the injustices that the virus has highlighted — health inequalities, systemic racism, climate crises and biodiversity degradation — kill many more than the virus each year. It’s hard to maintain a sense of perspective in a pandemic, it turns out, but that’s our lot. I continue to very carefully and deliberately underscore any reference to ‘teachable moments’ or ‘silver linings’ with a cold and direct dismissal of that idea. It is just not appropriate.

Yet we can, and arguably must, still find a way of recording and articulating the patterns unfolding around us, and describe and discuss what they might mean for some of the bigger challenges to come — what I originally called ‘the curves beyond the curve’. We may have to walk a delicate line between respecting widespread personal loss and grief, general economic hardship and social breakdown, and the sheer ambiguity of the situation, and still speculating as to what this might mean for our next steps, no matter how tenuous some of those allusions may be, no matter how incomplete the data, no matter how uncomfortable some of those ideas may be. Slowdown Papers are a place for me to record, reflect, and speculate, respectfully and carefully — but if you find them useful, interesting, or provocative to the point of making you do the same, so much the better.

Tracking these patterns is complex. The notion of ‘waves of the virus’, as a shared experience, makes little sense as it spreads globally, and unevenly. The idea of the ‘second wave’ initially referred to the virus peaking again in the (Northern) autumn, perhaps alongside a ‘flu epidemic. In fact, a series of second waves are emerging months earlier — in Melbourne, Florida and the mid-West, Spain, France, Tokyo, northern cities in Britain, and potentially many other places — due to attempts to ‘re-open’ places that had been locked down. The flu itself may not turn up at all, due to social distancing and hand washing. Then again, it might.

This language of ‘opening up’ betrays the primacy of consumption-oriented economics somewhat, as if places and cultures are like corner shops which are merely ‘open or closed’ depending on whether you can buy things there. This focus on a certain form of economics remains deeply problematic, just as the binary simplicity of open/closed, locked-down/re-opened seems inappropriate for something more variable than the weather. But it also tells us that this is not a simple pattern of rolling waves of peak and trough, intensity and relief, deploying the hammer or the dance; it is far more complex than that.

The virus is a pervasive, ongoing condition. In that, I’m beginning to think it may resemble the Cold War: a constant life-threatening mood—and yet life goes on for most.

During that time, nuclear attack was technically possible, but actually a distant and largely academic threat, it turned out. Perhaps we knew that, as it is difficult to imagine how life just plodded on, given the magnitude of the threat. I spent my teenage years in 1980s Sheffield, a city that was rather unhelpfully chosen as the location for the 1984 BBC drama Threads. The film started with a nuclear attack on the city and, well, descends from there. (In a 2018 article for Little White Lies, Anton Bitel suggested that Threads can now be re-watched through the prism of the “impending Brexit apocalypse”, given its “nightmarish picture of a Britain woefully unprepared for what is coming, and reduced, when it does come, to isolation, collapse and medieval regression, with a failed health service, very little food being harvested, mass homelessness, and the pound and the penny losing all value.” No comment.)

During the first half of 1980s alone, and often playing out very close to my home at least, we variously had the Miners Strike, regular IRA bombings, the Falklands War (in which HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet), the Yorkshire Ripper, the Chernobyl disaster, and all soaked in the grimy dregs of the Cold War. The novels of David Peace convey the cumulative impact of all that rather more than my selectively anodyne memories of a largely uneventful Yorkshire adolescence.

Living with the virus may begin to feel a little like that; a continued low pressure zone hanging over us, an ambivalent and unpredictable brooding presence, a background radiation occasionally peaking but often just sitting there. (Or that description of being a soldier in the First World War: “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”).

But life, art, commerce, conviviality did not stop at all during this period — if anything, it spurred some of those practices to new heights (though others to new depths, admittedly). And although living with a coronavirus might be far more affecting at a more fundamental level of sociality, it is worth reminding ourselves that many of us lived under the persistent threat of nuclear war throughout that period. And of course previous generations lived with much greater threats. (Over the last month I read Shigeru Mizuki’s four volume Showa: A history of Japan 1926–1989, which I recommend for anyone seeking a new perspective on suffering.)

Yet perhaps the fact that previous generations learned to live with those threats, living with the ambient double consciousness of constant ambiguity, a mood-world of passive-aggressive heavy weather, during the 1980s was perhaps possible due having emerged from periods of much greater threat within living memory.

Ed. I use ‘ambient’ a few times as a reference deliberately, alluding to Brian Eno’s early definition of it, a music that can “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”, with an allusion to being a place, or environment, or condition, perhaps — which he always points out, could be “sinister and quite dark”, as much as it is associated with being “mellow and quiet”. Accordingly, I've made a Spotify playlist to accompany this series: Music for Slowdown (set to shuffle mode, with crossfade to max.)

Although the virus may have the ambiguous condition of the radiation cloud that never came, or just might, there are patterns here nonetheless. The idea of living differently within a pervasive condition is akin to ‘the curves beyond the curve’ that I started sketching originally. The spirit of these Slowdown Papers is to reflect upon them as best I can, given the context of minute-by-minute narrative shifts, as a way of recording and enhancing future memories.

This third set will continue to draw out some possible ways forward, often articulated as tangible ideas for places and spaces, and the way that we collectively make decisions about them. I’ll explicitly describe a set of them as Slowdown landscapes, looking to convey a sense of these places. I am a designer after all, and so, frustratingly, my constant refrain that a hammer only sees nails can be used against me, too.

Yet the thoughts are a long way from concrete suggestions, and deliberately so. There are few drawings, for example, as this would flip the work from reflection and collation into proposition, and that does not feel appropriate, or particularly useful—yet. (I’m also conscious of being a political hobbyist.) Although the architectural historian Robin Evans said that “drawing … occupies the most uncertain, negotiable position of all, along the main thoroughfare between ideas and things,” with these pieces I remain pulled over in the hard shoulder, using writing to remain open and negotiable, for you to draw from as much as for me to draw.

“If the future isn’t the same as the past, how can we live if we only exist in the present, without planning, hope, or imagination?”—Ezio Mauro, La Repubblica,

Writing is control

Many thanks for the kind words, constructive feedback, and further thoughts on the initial sets of Slowdown Papers.

Looking back at the initial sets of Papers, despite my intent to simply observe and record, you can see a strong sense of hope, of intention. I acknowledged this at the time, knowing it would be impossible not to project, to speculate, and to hope a little. I was wanting curves beyond the initial COVID curve to be recognised, and flattened. Whilst respecting that the moment itself was very raw, I did want people to think and act about the possibilities inherent in that moment, the notion of slowing down, thinking about and discussing things that are usually impossible to put on the table. And then to start producing long term action whilst we dealt with the most painful aspects of the short term as best we could. Even by writing about people taking care of their environment, for humans and nonhumans, perhaps I was hoping this would lead to greater numbers of people taking care of environment, as some kind of odd epistemic feedback kicks in.

An old friend of mine wrote to me about the papers, saying that the collection felt like:

“A bright design studio with lots of ideas pinned up and prototyped on shelves and floors; there’s dark stuff there, dark matter in little patches, unnamed and quite clearly toxic, little shafts of black but not detracting from the quiet productivity. I sometimes think I’m on the reverse side, the material quite black, though with pin pricks through which the light shows. Or maybe I’m in the dark cellar underneath, light coming in from the polished wood knotholes above. Which sounds like I’m being snide but I’m not.”

My friend is neither snide nor in the dark, just so you know, and I liked the characterisation of the writing. But writing is not design work. They’re in the same family, and there’s a strong and productive relationship between them, but the writing is where things can be stretched out a little. There’s no client, boss, or editor — as you can tell. It’s a way of thinking things through for me. If it’s interesting for you too, that’s great, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I’m not aware there are theoretically 20,000 people on the end of it all. But the purpose is to work through ideas either way. Doing it in public forces a bit of rigour, as well as hopefully provoking thoughts outside of my own head.

An actual writer, Zadie Smith, describes this process in her own Amidst-COVID notebook, Intimations.

Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard … Writing is control … We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate … But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mold of their own devising. Writing is all resistance.”—Zadie Smith, Intimations (2020)

(Particularly given my context here in Sweden, this desire for control through sense-making, for trying to write our way through the chaos, reminds me of the Björk line in her song Hunter: “I thought I could organise freedom, how Scandinavian of me.”)

Intimations is a typically insightful set of reflections, though as Smith herself notes, they are “small by definition, short by necessity.” Constance Grady for Vox makes a perceptive point when she says in her review, “There is something of the journal entry to (Smith’s) essays, a sense of taking notes and observing for a bigger project that has not yet arrived. Of putting down details from a close view to use when enough time has passed for perspective.”

If that’s the case for Smith, it is certainly the case here. There may be a proper bit of writing hiding in my notes, waiting to be extracted, like whittling out the Dala horse latent within a block of soft pine. I’ll keep this series going. The themes fit alongside the other writing here—addressing strategic design, architecture and design, tech and cities, urbanism — without stepping on their toes too much.

Besides, it does not feel like the virus is disappearing any time soon. This set of Papers was written during the long Swedish summer holiday in July, and then rewritten in August and September, the pace slowing as the day job took over my keyboard. As soon as the ink dries here, it will be time to write more. Next up, ‘a letter from Stockholm’, on the uniquely Swedish approach to handling the pandemic, which may also turn out to be uniquely successful. We will see.

In terms of format, I’ve broken what would almost be a book-length essay into a series of smaller chunks. This new batch of Papers comprises 5-minute reads and 45-minute reads, and various stops in-between. That’s a range of price-points for you, perhaps. I hope to make a version of all this on paper at some point, as befits a slowdown theme. It seems to be heading that way.

There is no vaccine for the climate crisis

The virus may never disappear. There is daily talk of the rush for the vaccine, of the records being broken by various universities and research centres. Yet although the USA has ‘Operation Warp Speed’ running to fast-track the development of vaccine, it has no parallel operation to reverse the rejection of science-based expertise inculcated at scale by Trumpian political culture. Even if a coronavirus vaccine can be delivered faster than the decade that vaccine development usually takes, Dr. Fauci suggests the USA would need 80% of people to take a coronavirus vaccine; currently only around 50% say they would do so. That would continue to affect us all.

Even as vaccines move to stage 3 clinical trials, the Director General of the World Health Organisation states clearly that “there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.” Instead, the approach must be to: “Do it all.”

The idea that we can simply pop a vaccine and everything goes back to normal seems a little fanciful, given the magnitude of the impact. Even if we were to do so, a ‘back to normal’ would fail to address the deeper issues the virus is a manifestation of, and that many now want to address. Whilst a vaccine is no doubt part of the short-term answer, it would not recognise that many have quite fundamentally changed their behaviour, perspectives, and mental models in response to the virus, in ways that may help address the entwined crises of climate, health and social justice.

A vaccine would do little to truly address these crises, acting as a loose sticking plaster at best. In so doing, a vaccine would do nothing to prevent the likelihood of future viruses emerging, nor the more damaging wounds that cut our societies apart. It is a classic example of failing to address the core issues upstream.

If we rely on a vaccine, there can be no effective vaccine. For there is no vaccine for racism, and there is no vaccine for the climate crisis.

Next: 20. Wait, what?
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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