The Cheapo Stuff Wins
“Why Is Everything So Ugly?” (Issue 44) was a pleasingly dyspeptic essay about something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately: the unremitting ugliness of life in early 2020s America. But since the editors were more preoccupied with describing the ugliness than explaining it (a few references to supply chains and global capital aside), I thought I’d try to actually answer their rhetorical question by looking at the economic transformations of the post–New Deal era that led us here. I see us as the victims of four interlocking phenomena, tackled below in no particular order.
Phenomenon 1: state capture. Five-over-one construction has become ubiquitous in new multifamily developments, leading one popular TikTok to describe a five-over-one building as the paradigmatic “gentrification building.” I have mixed feelings about five-over-one buildings. I live in one; it’s fine. In general, I approve of more multifamily construction, especially in high-cost, high-opportunity, transit-rich areas. The fact that some new construction is relatively ugly troubles me less than the fact that we don’t have enough housing of any type.
It would be nice if we could build something else every once in a while. However, five-over-ones have taken over in no small part because they satisfy the legal requirements we’ve imposed on multifamily construction in the United States. Compare the five-over-ones to the handsome multifamily apartment blocks found in most (if not all) major European cities, which have no parking garages, no ground-floor retail, and (judging by their width) only one staircase per building. None of these architectural elements would fly in the US: providing ample subsidized parking for residents is usually mandatory, cities often impose a ground-floor retail requirement as a condition of getting permitted, and single staircases are a big no-no under the standard building codes in American cities. And this is to say nothing of design review, which the editors mention.
Some of these regulations are well-intentioned, but many are not, and their cumulative impact is disastrous. They drive up the cost of construction, which in turn pushes housing prices even higher. They reinforce residential segregation and car supremacy. And by imposing arbitrary limits on a city’s organic evolution — the ability of its residents to experiment with different built forms, different modes of transportation, and different architectural styles — they make our urban spaces uglier, less vibrant, and more sclerotic.
Phenomenon 2: “the shareholder revolution.” As the economist J. W. Mason writes, “For most of the 20th century, rentiers did not play an active role in the governance of ‘their’ corporations. But since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic power shift within US corporations, to the extent that the old managerial firm has been mostly replaced by the rentier-dominated firm.”
One critical difference between managers and rentiers is that managers have traditionally tied their careers to a specific industry, whereas rentiers are more likely to own a little bit of a number of companies spread out across the entire economy. This tendency to be involved in a little bit of everything has become even more pronounced during the era of asset-manager capitalism, and it means that the people who own, say, a publicly traded entertainment company often have no specific interest in the production of entertainment — let alone any specific knowledge of how and why entertainment gets produced.
The companies that manufacture our aesthetic universe are now almost wholly governed by people with no extra-economic investment in the businesses they oversee. If the line goes up, great; if the line goes down, they can simply liquidate their stake and move on to something else. Disney, Netflix, NBCUniversal, and all the rest are not businesses that make discrete cultural products; they are lines that are always either going up or going down.
Phenomenon 3: the timeline. Plenty has been written about how the algorithms that serve us content have created perverse incentives for both the consumers and the producers of that content. (I recommend reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and subscribing to L. M. Sacasas’s newsletter.)
To summarize a handful of common observations: Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, et al recommend content to us based on what is most likely to keep us “engaged” — that is to say, diverted by the platform’s offerings. This quality of engagement has nothing to do with the substance of what we’re being served. People who create content for these platforms have every reason to reverse engineer their offerings so that they are as “engaging” as possible. Subtlety is anathema, as is anything confusing, demanding, or otherwise potentially alienating, including anything that requires additional context to be understood (a favorite theme of Odell’s). The content also needs to be short and capable of transitioning seamlessly into the next thing, with no intervening time for reflection. It must also be viewable on a small screen and audible on crappy speakers with minimal loss of fidelity. Anything but the loudest, brightest, most blunt-force sensory experience is not going to work.
Importantly, because the sole objective is engagement — and because these companies have incredibly sophisticated tools for measuring and predicting engagement — no independent aesthetic judgment is required to develop satisfactory entertainment content. That is why, as the New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang recently pointed out, AI has gotten increasingly proficient at serving us more of the above. Consumers who liked x also liked x +n.
Phenomenon 4: the asset economy. In the 1970s, the glue that held the New Deal compact together — a rapidly expanding economy that could underwrite both high wages and high corporate profits — fell apart, resulting in a wage-price inflation spiral. As Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings tell it in their book on the subject, the major states of the Anglosphere (America, the United Kingdom, and Australia) tamed stagflation by transitioning to an “asset economy” characterized by wage stagnation, consumer price stability, and rapid asset price inflation — the latter of which, it was hoped, would offset the wage stagnation through broadly available investment vehicles like homeownership.
In addition to the promise of asset democratization, part of the bargain with workers was that everyday consumer goods would become cheaper even as wages stagnated for the next forty-odd years. But an interesting thing has happened over that time: while the American market has been flooded with cheap goods from all over the world, the price of many actual necessities has continued to rise drastically. The costs of housing, education, and health care all have gone into the stratosphere; labor income, of course, has not kept up. The low cost of a pair of Skechers hardly seems compensatory.
This bargain has made it near impossible for people without inherited wealth to become full-time artists. But there’s another dynamic that I think is worth exploring: the consumption behavior of people who can barely afford housing and health care but whose dollar goes further than ever when it comes to hoovering up low-cost cultural output. As fixed costs have come to eat up more and more of household budgets, is it any wonder that a larger share of any remaining disposable income has gone toward low-quality consumables?
My own experience in that regard is somewhat typical of my generation and class. When I lived in Washington DC, circa 2017, I remember paying an exorbitant sum to live in a pretty nice apartment. I loved that apartment. I also furnished it pretty much exclusively with the most economical IKEA crap I could find. What was I supposed to do? After paying for the apartment itself, I didn’t exactly have a robust couch budget.
Make no mistake, I was in no sense deprived; I was a senior editor making a solid white-collar salary and living (as I said) in an apartment I really liked. But that’s exactly my point: when some of the basic elements of a professional-managerial-class lifestyle start to cost a lot more, members of the PMC are going to adjust by spending less on other elements. Some of them may develop the expertise and commitment to hunt out bargains on quality goods, but many more will default to what the market is most intent on serving them. Thus my IKEA and Amazon Prime furniture, my Uniqlo wardrobe and Warby Parker glasses.
Of course, it’s even more perverse than that. Because if the people with even a little bit of disposable income are spending it on fast fashion and fiberboard furniture, that’s going to further erode the economic basis for doing anything higher quality or more ambitious. The cheapo stuff wins.
This is all precisely ass-backward. Everyone should have housing and health care; these things should be cheap and abundant. If anything should cost more, it should be the optional purchases — the stuff that comes appended with a value-added tax in other countries. When you pay more for a pair of shoes, there’s at least the possibility that those extra dollars reflect the quality of the materials and the wages of the people who stitched them together. The price of my DC apartment mostly reflected the fact that there weren’t enough of them to go around.
There’s no question that the United States is years into a sort of profound cultural malaise. John Ganz, citing several others who have noticed the same thing, summed it up in his newsletter Unpopular Front as such:
My premise is that something is wrong. There’s something very slight and unsatisfying about recent film, television, art, architecture, design, fashion, cuisine — you name it . There are refreshing exceptions, of course, but they seem to quickly get counterfeited or compromised. Even mediocre genre movies that would’ve seemed unremarkable in past ages can seem like monuments of a lost civilization today.
Ganz’s explanation for “Why Culture Sucks” (as the post is titled) draws on Arendt and the destabilizing, ephemeralizing character of the internet. I think he’s more or less right, but his explanation is incomplete. Our broken phenomenology is inextricably bound up with the broken material basis for cultural production. Yes, the internet as it is shares some of the blame — but that’s the internet as it is, not as it had to be. Background economic conditions helped build that internet.
I don’t want to suggest that materialist explanations are the only explanations that matter. But I do want to argue that a nation’s material and economic circumstances have profound implications for its spiritual, moral, and artistic health. Sickness along one dimension leads to sickness in the other. And reinvigorating the cultural realm is going to require close attentiveness to the economic conditions that make certain types of culture possible.
— Ned Resnikoff
“Despite its $275 million budget, the movie looks like it was filmed underwater in a polluted lake.” That sentence — and many others in “Why Is Everything So Ugly?” — really made me laugh. The flaneur of a shitty built environment is a funny character on the page; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a good example of it. The images feel completely accurate and finely observed. The last scene kills. And of course, I am honored to share a footnote with the legendary Molly Fischer.
You suggest that it’s generally neoliberal shittiness and indifference, but is there a more specific force that connects LED streetlights, the bong shop, urgent care, the building facades, et cetera? That’s what I’m left wondering. Maybe I’m missing something obvious. But if New York looked better at one point in the past (the piece’s implicit suggestion), then what were the construction materials/techniques that made it look better?
In a Bloomberg piece from a few years ago [“Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look The Same” by Justin Fox, published in February 2019 — Eds.], the writer asked why all new condos in the US look identical. (They don’t call it cardboard modernism, obviously, but it’s cardboard modernism.) And I think the conclusion is “stick framing” — a cheaper way of framing buildings that then naturally necessitates cladding the cheap frame with cheap materials, which then look like shit. Stone, in contrast, looks awesome but is heavy and expensive. Stick framing apparently has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t the default construction method until recently — I’m not sure why. Something about 2008?
I live in LA now, but I vividly remember how the vibe in my favorite café in Crown Heights, Cafe Rue Dix, was threatened when the city switched to the white LED streetlights. No matter where you were sitting, it was like a cop was shining a flashlight through the window at you. Speaking of lighting, there was a funny incident in a bungalow colony I used to live in out here, in East Hollywood, where the landlord switched all the outdoor lights to LEDs, and I replaced them all myself, one by one, an act of bourgeois vigilantism. My neighbors appreciated it, but they also thought I was crazy.
— Jesse Barron
The article on the “new ugliness” is a page-scroller. I’d like to congratulate you on an excellent read, and thank you. I once read an article about five-over-ones that claimed these developments look the way they do because of changes in codes across the nation: allowances have been made for reinforced stick-builds that can go up five or six stories.
The piece made me think about how the Seagram Building’s facade is actually non-structural: its steel is decorative. Like wow, that blew my mind.
Your essay also returned me to Schizopolis, a highly underrated Soderbergh gem about true suburban alienation. I think about the car in that movie sometimes, and how at one point in the late ’90s there was this trend toward blob cars that was probably seen as very ugly at the time, but now represents an infinitely more beautiful path lost to the auto industry by the late ’00s. Now all we have are cars that are soft and hard at the same time, like the swole AF backend coders we all apparently want to be.
I still drive a ’97 Jeep Cherokee and make furniture by cussing. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but it’s better than being a wiggly candlemaker, hands down.
— August Neuscheler
I was surprised that “Why Is Everything So Ugly?” didn’t actually argue or demonstrate how the visual culture of New York City is symbiotic with “neoliberalism.” The only contention was that the apparent popularity of five-over-one mixed-use apartments coincides with a period of low interest rates (compared to what?). Some attention was given to the environmental and labor problems with fast furniture, fast fashion, and the circular economy, but these were given far fewer words than the piece’s aesthetic commentary.
It would have been helpful to consult a construction expert to understand whether the “Josh” apartment building is actually decaying and whether the old “perfectly serviceable” building it replaced was actually such. I know from other news stories that rainproof paneling is a new technique to protect buildings, and that new apartments of any price point usually have more efficient and healthy HVAC, better insulation, double-pane windows, and none of the asbestos/mold/lead residue that plague so much of our country’s substandard urban housing.
Without any strong attempts to actually prove new visual cultures and built environments are inferior beyond the eyes of the beholder, your criticism is indistinguishable from archconservative attacks on brutalism and modernism. What unites both types of criticism is knee-jerk cynicism.
Time marches on. I’m afraid that derogatory insinuations (“behemoths” and “monoliths” governed by insidious “logics”) and winking callbacks (“all that is solid . . .”) will grow ever poorer as a substitute for deep, patient inquiry.
— Cameron Wilson
Spelling It Out
I was fascinated by Emma Healey’s “Caption Place” in your summer issue (Issue 43), although perhaps for different reasons than most readers. I’ve often wondered how captions are created. Are they computer generated? Typed by a stenographer? Generated by a gerbil running on a wheel? Healey’s essay cracks the mystery, and I appreciate how surreal transcribing the audio from random television programs must seem. Removed from their context, the bizarre phrases make wonderful found poems.
But something is missing from the essay: an acknowledgment of the deaf and hard-of-hearing people, like myself, who depend on this vital service. Captions are a lifeline for me. Deafness limits my opportunities to participate in cultural and social life to an extreme degree. Plays, readings, comedy shows, and any other presentation programs are incomprehensible. Panel discussions are a waste of time. Concerts? Why bother? Podcasts? Forget it. In movie theaters, the captioning equipment rarely works. Eating in noisy restaurants is nerve-racking. Losing my hearing is like being stranded on a tiny island while all around me floodwaters rise. One sound of disempowerment is no sound at all.
This is my day-to-day. Trying to talk to someone, watching her mouth move, but what comes out sounds like someone gargling a mouthful of rocks. Dropping my keys and not hearing them clatter on the pavement. Once I warned a mother at my daughter’s school that I wouldn’t be able to understand her because my hearing aid batteries had died. “You’re hard of hearing?” she asked. “Really? I thought you were a stuck-up bitch.”
At this, I cried. These kinds of misunderstandings hurt. Sure, others have it worse than I do, but when has that thought ever comforted anyone? This loss must be processed like any other.
Could there be a bright side to hearing loss? Actually, yes. Imagine how great it is, after navigating the minefields of daily miscommunication, to come home and turn on the TV. Every show is captioned — the law requires it. Trash or treasure, it’s all available for me to decide for myself whether or not to watch, just like hearing people. I can no longer enjoy many pastimes, but TV remains.
For me, a caption that says [birdsong] conjures complex emotions. I haven’t heard birdsong in years, but I see the words and imagine birds singing. The sound is imaginary, but my memory of birdsong is real. A mesh of connections creates meaning. While I understand how bizarre it must feel, and how boring, to transcribe lines like “WOULD YOU PAY TO SEE A VASECTOMY IN REAL TIME?” I hope the transcribers won’t forget the reasons why we have captions in the first place. The job may not be meaningful to them, but it is to me.
— Mary Bunten
Brendas of the World, Unite!
Like Laura Preston, I worked as a human fallback for Brenda, the real estate chatbot she describes in “HUMAN_FALLBACK” (Issue 44). I wanted to offer an update: in the spring of 2022, our team won our union election forty-two to sixteen as what I’ll call Brenda Operators Together (BOT), making us — to our knowledge — the first labor union in prop tech.
The main obstacle to organizing at the company was that all Brenda operators were both part-time and remote workers. Organizers were nervous that the company Slack account might be surveilled, so they would strike up conversation with a coworker over Slack DMs with the aim of asking for a phone number, a strategy that felt awkwardly similar to online dating. From there, operators could be invited to another, secret Slack account where coworkers eventually discussed work conditions under code names.
When I took the job I was, like Preston, a recent MFA graduate. In my job interview, I talked about how working at a house museum had prepared me to offer vague answers to questions about utilities. As Preston described so accurately, my shifts as a human fallback were full of small uncanny moments. I felt a little sad every time I blocked Aleksandr, a Russian bot that spammed the properties we worked with, whom I thought of as a colleague.
I knew about the union effort before I started (ten of my MFA classmates also worked as Brendas), and although I had no organizing experience, I started attending union Zoom meetings in my first month. My coworkers pushed me to think about the job beyond collecting party anecdotes (my favorite was about a prospective renter who encountered a boa constrictor at a self-guided tour) and consider its context at the intersection of tech and real estate.
The union platform was focused on better pay, benefits, and a path to career advancement, but the organizers also wanted Brenda to be better, for example by requiring the properties Brenda worked with to be transparent about whether they offered wheelchair-accessible units or accepted Section 8 vouchers.
Like ChatGPT and DALL-E, Brenda the chatbot depended on the work of writers and artists. The company hired opera singers and creative-writing adjuncts because these professions tend to draw perfectionists accustomed to precarious work. Then, the software engineers designed and adjusted conversation flows in response to operator feedback. I’ve come to resent phrases like “human fallback” and “chatbot operator” that obscure that we were underpaid bot trainers and technical writers.
Maybe it was naive to think a union could address that. The company announced its intent to outsource Brenda operators to an international staffing company at the very first bargaining session. Still, the union secured a tech stipend for all remote workers at the company, pushed the company to comply with state paid-sick-leave laws, and became a resource for career advice. An increasing number of former BOT union members now hold full-time jobs in the tech industry. A union can’t make the uncanny valley beautiful, but it meant something that we tried.
— Irina Teveleva
This letter was adapted with permission from a post by Ned Resnikoff, policy director of the nonprofit California YIMBY, on his personal Substack. ↩