California Uber Alles Forever

Gillian Rose has some interesting thoughts on the promo art for the California Forever boondoggle utopian settlement project announced not long ago.

Why use this visual style? Well, one thought is that there is one other recent proposal for a very large-scale urban redevelopment project which also promises to bring a green utopia to a dry land: Neom’s The Line. When I’ve given various talks about the digital visualisation of new urban development projects, it surprises me how many people mention The Line – and not in a good way (see too the comments made about its YouTube promotional video). The many criticisms of this sort of urban utopia vision might have fed into existing widespread scepticism about computer-generated images of new urban redevelopment projects that go for the ‘photo-real’ sort of look that the Neom promotional materials adopt (although always saturated with a golden glow – there’s something to say here about the aesthetic that Unreal Engine has enabled, I think, too). They are perhaps beginning to look more absurd and even offensive than simply a bit of typical marketing to be cynical about. So maybe the developers of ‘California Forever’ want to distance themselves from that critique and that visual style. (I recall that Google’s images for its ill-fated Sidewalk project in Toronto also used what looked like pen-and-watercolour sketches as well as CGIs in their publicity materials, perhaps for the same reason.)

I have written about NEOM before, though as I’m not out treading the boards and talking in public about this stuff like Rose, I wasn’t aware that there’s a vibe of distaste around its reception outside of the internet circles in which I tend to move—the vibe of which is so generally tech-critical that I tend to assume that its collective opinion is an extreme outlier.

Then again, it’s maybe not a massive surprise, given that NEOM combines technoprogressive hubris with a distinctly Gulfcentric sort of swagger. It’s meant to look showy, to embody power over land and people: that’s how monarchies tend to think about architecture. That it offends liberal Westerners, who disapprove of your way of doing things but who are nonetheless totally hooked on the fossil fuels that bankroll your regime, is presumably an added bonus, if not a baked-in intention.

The science-fictionality of it, meanwhile, is merely the aesthetic DNA of the Progress metanarrative re-expressing itself in a new niche: scale, seamlessness, spatial control. Those unironised Ballardian signifiers still feel fresh in the Gulf, perhaps because the development curve there started late and has been running to catch up—but perhaps also because there’s a feeling that they have both the money and the conviction to complete the Sid Meyer civilisational skill-tree that the weak West gave up on once it got near the finishing line.

In the West, however, many of us (per Gibson) have learned to distrust that particular flavour. Rose notes that Sidewalk Labs in Toronto went for a much softer aesthetic: a velvet glove for the cybernetic fist, if you like. (Fortunately, not everyone fell for it.) But California Forever is something else again. I’m less interested in the “AI or not?” question, not least because it seems obvious that the answer is “duh, yeah“; these dorks wouldn’t pay an artist if they thought they could get away with not paying an artist.

However those things were made, though, the people behind this project signed off on the vibe, because this is marketing material first and foremost—and given the players involved, and the general cultural and political tenor of the SilVal scenesters which we can reasonably presume to be the target market, then this post-war picket-fence fantasy makes perfect sense in a world where e.g. the tradwife is a small but significant cultural phenomenon.

But that’s interesting, because it means that either that scene has decided to mask their techno-optimistic futurisms from public view for fear of backlash, or they’ve fallen into the same nostalgic trap that is propelling reactionary politics all over the Western world at the moment—a trap which they and their “products” have played some role in setting and baiting, whether intentionally or not. If the architects of “The Future” no longer see “The Future” as aspirational for themselves, how much longer will they be able to peddle it convincingly to anyone else?

Perhaps this is just the class-political equivalent of the cash-out: the game is up on the big grift, so you might as well sell your stock options and get in on the older, safer money games, like property development. In the unlikely event that California Forever makes it beyond the stage in which lots of consultants and investors make a decent dayrate for promoting real-estate vapourware, the truly wealthy will move on long before the project is finished: assets are meant to be sweated for rent, after all.

As for the long run in drought-prone California, as average temperatures continue to climb, it’s not just the assets that are gonna be sweating.

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