I’m on vacation this week, and let me just say, that lounging around in pajamas all day is a lot more fun than I had previously imagined. It’s not just the snack binging, or leaving the bathroom door open in the midst of doing “serious business”—oh, no. Those are the proverbial icings on the cake. For me, the true bliss of staying home from work is in the freedom of time space (not to be confused with Einstein’s spacetime). Time space refers to those hours for which you have no plan and nothing to do. Think, bum status. Unscheduled time has amazing perks, though. For one thing, it means that the moment inspiration strikes I’m at its beck and call.
That’s why I’m here, sitting on the oversized couch of my tiny living room, sipping tea and reading the news. And, that’s also why I’m writing this post. Upon a leisurely browsing of CNN, I happened across an article that left a bad taste in my mouth. Like candy from one of those mystery heart boxes, where the sweet taste of chocolate cannot hide the gag-inducing flavor of the center’s unknown filling, there was a hidden deception in the message of this article.
Entitled “Underground Cities: The Future of Business”, the story featured an ex-banker named Ajit Chambers who leads a London campaign for the development of underground spaces. According to Mr. Chambers, the new market is teeming with investors ready to spend billions on revamping long-forgotten underground cityscapes and turning them into business fronts for shopping and recreation. Teeming indeed, for what could possible make millionaires and billionaires foam at the mouth more than, dare I say, MORE MONEY? But, what really caught my attention were a number of implicit questions the headline evoked, such as:
If business is interested in selling us goods and entertainment underground, will they eventually sell us homes there too? Who would ever WANT to live underground? Who stands to benefit from putting people and commerce under the Earth? And, will Judge Dredd become a real public icon once these mega-cities are completed?
I’m only half serious about that last one, but the others are certainly valid inquiries for exploring the implications of subterranean urban development. For example, if you’ve ever used the New York City subway system, you know the air quality and ventilation are likely to be barely legal—especially in the summer. Can you imagine the kind of investment needed to create adequate ventilation for vast living and working spaces underground? We’ve already seen how well politicians manage urban infrastructure as it is: with endless tax cuts for the wealthy. Last year, for 2013, the United States received a grade of D+ for its upkeep of public infrastructure. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer that my air quality be at LEAST a B+, and even that’s stretching it.
But the real concern I have in contemplating the future of underground development has to do with recent trends surrounding urban landscapes, where the marginalized populations of society are being pushed out by white wealth. It would seem that the inevitable end of this "urban innovation" will be a future of gentrification that pushes downward instead of out. As current urban boom trends push the brown and poor outward and away, the opportunity to put future minorities underground will likely prove far too easy and alluring. This evolution of urban “business” planning is only the beginning. The success of such ventures could then result in the development of residential planning that demands the construction of all future low-income housing underground, while housing for the rich exists on higher levels and the surface, nearest to the sun.
Marginalization of this kind and the separation of classes is nothing new. Barely a shoulder shrug is found in the midst of our systematically ousting society’s most disadvantaged citizens. Soon the expulsion of the poor and brown to the center of the Earth will be normalized as well. Just as upperclass whites had once pushed minorities into the crowded corridors of inner city ghettos, leaving for the picket fences of paradise suburbia, they have now returned to reclaim those same cities without question. In the case of underground development, a similar fate will ensue. We’ll watch on in impotence, horrified as we witness life imitating art, awed by the fulfilled predictions of our story telling futurists in the scramble for the ultimate privilege of humanity: sunlight.
Oddly enough, our culture is ridden with warnings about the future of segregation. Modern art mediums speak of our proclivity for banishing the poor below. In 1997, Squaresoft (now know as Square-Enix), released a revolutionary installment of the videogame series, Final Fantasy. The seventh sequel of the wildly successful franchise went on the be one of the best selling games of all time and, even today, boasts a hardcore fan-base that is nearly indestructible. In the game, the main characters live in a futuristic city called Midgar, where classes are vertically segregated; the poor exist in slums below a large “plate” upon which the rich live. Coincidentally similar to our current state of affairs, rebels from the slums take down the “plate” in revolt of income inequality and environmentalism.
But modern art isn’t the only place we’ve received warning about vertical segregation. H.G. Wells exposes this very theme of human civilization in his 1895 classic book, “The Time Machine”. The Eloi, a beautiful and fortunate people, eat fine fruit and bask in the sunlight all day long while the Morlocks, ugly and dirty, inhabit vast tunnel systems below. But much like the rebels in Final Fantasy VII, those below aren’t taking their beatings lying down. It is also the case that in “The Time Machine”, the Morlocks hunt the Eloi.
Though each artistic example portrays a unique vision of a society split into the privileged and unprivileged, their warning is both encouraging and one in the same: those below will rise.
The fewer privileged and favored of society have—and always will—attempt to carve out their own personal Eden on the backs of the underserved majority. And in their quest to serve themselves a greater helping of more, there are the rest of us, exploited and marginalized. But, in pondering that scenario now, where the future of big business seeks to dive deep into the Earth, I am no longer concerned about what prisons they might build for the rest of us. History and art has taught us well that the oppressed will not go quietly into the darkness, and that all the power in the world could never keep them there.