Writing science fiction, one area I end up studying and contemplating is change. I was happy to come across this Harvard Business Review (Walter Frick) interview with Tyler Cowen. Cowen’s newest book, ‘The Complacent Class’, addresses how America has become complacent and averse to change in recent years.
I’ve watched this develop. NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – was the rallying chorus to battle many new construction suggestions. Property values and appearances take precedence over more pragmatic uses of land, usually in the name of property values, especially when one small set who don’t live in the area will benefit to the detriment of those living in the area and fighting the action.
Yet, we can see the concrete results in places like Oroville Dam. Oroville Dam was headline news during some of February as record rains struck parts of California. The dam’s spillway was opened but damage caused it to be closed. With water rising behind the dam, the emergency spillway was employed but the visibly fast erosion taking place concerned many. Fears that the dam was going to collapse caused mass evacuation. Many area residents were pissed because the water behind that dam in their back yard benefited others living hundreds of miles away.
Almost as an extension of NIMBY, Homeowners Associations (HOAs), have developed to protect individual neighborhoods and developments here in southern Oregon. A large part of that is the agreement to establish a new development is centered around having an open green space, or mini-park, as part of the development. That park, and the attendant common areas, need a management focus. Hence, the HOA is used. To protect property values, the HOA restricts changes and uses. Home owners are limited to what they can plant; fruit and vegetable gardens are generally off-limits, frustrating people who want to grow their own produce. Some common interest developments address this by creating a community garden.
So, from the economic and social ramification of residing in America in the early twenty-first century, to watching and thinking about politics, to imagining our future, Cowen’s book entices me.
HBR: And all this is happening during a time when we see a lot of change in technology, particularly in IT and machine learning, and, potentially, artificial intelligence. How does that progress fit with your thesis?
Well, there is a lot of change, but it’s concentrated in some areas. Look at a classic 20th-century notion of progress: how quickly you can move through physical space. That hasn’t gotten faster for a long time. Planes are not faster. With cars, there’s more traffic. It’s actually harder to get around, and that makes the physical world less dynamic. It’s harder to build things in the United States.
The thing that’s much easier to do is sit at home and have all of life come to you. You speak to your Alexa or your Echo, and you have things be ordered. You use the internet. You watch on Netflix. It’s made us all much more homebodies, feeling we don’t need to change things, more comfortable in our consumption patterns. And obviously that has big private gains, or people wouldn’t be doing it. But there’s nonetheless a collective effect that I think is worrying when our physical and geographic spaces become less dynamic, less mobile, less intermixed. And that’s the America we’re seeing today.
Read the entire short, engaging interview at HBR.