In the 1980s, James Burke hosted a BBC documentary series with the charmingly understated title The Day the Universe Changed. It was a look back at what Burke considered key moments in the ‘progression’ of ‘mankind’ – two words that, even a short 30 years later, one can hardly use without the scare quotes.
The clip above is typical, both in its bombastic rhetoric, but also in what might be its anachronism: it says the power that led to space travel is chief among humanity’s achievements, even more so than the microcomputer, a claim that might either not be very accurate – or perhaps be very prescient. The episodes all focus on one key insight, and hit all the things you’d expect for an unabashedly Eurocentric show: the Renaissance, the scientific method, Darwin, Einstein and so on.
Still – though these now seem equal parts obvious and worthy of critique, as a child I remember the thing that fascinated me most was there might be a day that changed the universe. In part, I dug it because it was reductive: it gave me simple things to hold on to and say “this one thing here changed history”. But what also set my mind-a-turnin’ (that was how we spoke in Essex in the 80s) was the idea that an entire swirl of historical change – a massive, overlapped network of consequence and upheaval – might be triggered by the events of one day. That the show never said it did was, I think, a bit too subtle for my kid brain to grapple with. I just dug the concept.
Of course now, as an adult, I can’t abide by that kind of reductionist approach because it just feels dishonest. Part of this has to do with the subjectivity of the choices involved in picking one thing. If the printing press was so crucial, it’s hard not to think of all the things that went into its creation. Who figured out how to refine iron? Who invented the cog? Or the roller? Or the pulley? Didn’t all these things count too? It all moves toward a kind of infinite regression.
But it does make me wonder if sometimes there aren’t small, obscure and overlooked inventions that allow for the things we now take for granted – some seemingly insignificant thing without which things like microcomputers or spaceships or genetic engineering couldn’t exist. What if the cog was the very core of what made us human?
The importance of small parts of larger networks is something I’ve wondered about in the past. For some reason while living in the Irish countryside, I spent a rather silly amount of time wondering about an ‘invention’ for use in green homes. A given house would have its own power generation like solar and wind, but at the point the house connected to the electric grid, there would be a box that would dynamically adjust the flow of incoming electricity. When a house was making enough, it would stop accepting power from outside, while on a cloudless, windless today (or whatever) it’d open ‘er up, so to speak. The mysterious device (‘box’ being the extent of the technical details of my imagining) would be this tiny yet crucial thing to help popularize green power, because it would make it easy and seamless to slowly switch.
Of course, something like that probably existed then. And I’m almost sure it exists now, though I don’t even know how to search for it (what would it even be called?*). But the only reason I remember it is because it was the start of me waking up to the idea that in the messy network of relations that is modern society, sometimes the things that help are those that control the flow of stuff between people and the social and economic structures they are a part of. You need valves for how you connect to things. Sometimes you want more, sometimes less; it’s the control the valve gives you that helps.
That issue is one that stuck with me. And it seems few areas are as in need of innovative solutions to help make sense and order out of chaos as cities. Among the plethora of challenges facing urban areas are how to solve a growing conflict between the luxuries of suburban living and a vision of sustainable urban life.
Now, to many people, the suburbs aren’t a ‘luxury’ at all; they are punishment, or a form of voluntary excommunication. But something urbanites often overlook is that much of the middle class suburban struggle is the fight to get your own space. Think about it: for so many, like immigrants and the working poor, the long march to ‘get a detached house in the ‘burbs’ is a dream because for years, ‘they’ (by which I actually mean ‘we’) have fought to move out of crowded, clustered living spaces in which others’ lives impinge on yours to finally have your own backyard and a house that can be as loud or as quite as one wants. The ‘emptiness’ of the suburbs is precisely the appeal because you have carved out a place for yourself where you an in more control of how much the overwhelming complexity of modern life affects you. You’ve found a valve for the flow of society into your life – and it’s one that isn’t tenable any more.
This is what you give up to live in the hustle and bustle of a city. You share space with people. You share their noise, you share their smells, their traffic, their activities. For some of us, this is a worthwhile sacrifice. But for many I know, it is not.
Which brings me to soundproofing. Yes, I know, that was rather circuitous, but here’s what I mean. For reasons of both economics (here’s a great interview with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on the subject) and sustainability, mass suburban living is no longer possible. As a result, we now need to figure out ways to mitigate the downsides of living in cramped, urban spaces like condos and apartments so that more and more people will want to live there.
So why are people not focusing on soundproofing? It seems innocuous, even silly; but the capacity to live one’s life freely of invasion by others’ sounds is a major part of what makes one feel in control of one’s space. Imagine how much less annoying condo life might be if you would never have the sounds of others’ lives invading your space, sleep and day-to-day existence.
Right now, the reason no developer really is pushing it is the obvious economic factor. But it seems like one of those ideas that could start in the luxury market and work its way down. It’s difficult to imagine it could add more than $10,000 to the price of a half million dollar condo to build in soundproofing material to the walls and floor. Push it, and make the windows and doors soundproof, and you might creep up to $15-20k. But even in 10 years, that’d surely halve, if not more. Moreover, costs could be signficantly reduced if the insulation currently used by builders were simply changed to one with soundproofing qualities.
We need to find a way to mitigate the downsides of urban living to make it more appealing to everyone. While I can already envision people who’d snarkily say something about the ‘sterility of boxes disconnected from the world’, it’s a naive view. In many places – especially somewhere like Toronto, that is seeing massive growth in downtown density and condo buildings – some solution is needed to make the inevitable difficulties of downtown living less inevitable. And maybe expanding the environmental, economic and social benefits of urbanization might be helped along by something as insignificant and unimportant as a bit of foam between walls.
*What would a box be called that ‘directs’ energy and was invented by me?… Why, The Navigator of course! Heyyo!