Detroit’s collapse reveals the awful dystopia the US is becoming
July 20, 2013

The big question is whether Detroit’s bankruptcy and likely further decline is a fluke or whether it tells us something about the dystopia that the United States is becoming. It seems to me that the city’s problems are the difficulties of the country as a whole, especially the issues of deindustrialization, robotification, structural unemployment, the rise of the 1% in gated communities, and the racial divide. The mayor has called on families living in the largely depopulated west of the city to come in toward the center, so that they can be taken care of. It struck me as post-apocalyptic. Sometimes the abandoned neighborhoods accidentally catch fire, and 30 buildings will abruptly go up in smoke.

Detroit had nearly 2 million inhabitants in its heyday, in the 1950s. When I moved to southeast Michigan in 1984, the city still had over a million. I remember that at the time of the 1990 census, its leaders were eager to keep the status of a million-person city, since there were extra Federal monies for an urban area of that size, and they counted absolutely everyone they could find. They just barely pulled it off. But in 2000 the city fell below a million. In 2010 it was 714,000 or so. Google thinks it is now 706,000. There is no reason to believe that it won’t shrink on down to almost nothing.

The foremost historian of modern Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue, has explained the city’s decline. First of all, Detroit grew from 400,000 to 1.84 million from 1910-1950 primarily because of the auto industry and the other industries that fed it (machine tools, spare parts, services, etc.) From 1950 until now, two big things happened to ruin the city with regard to industry. The first was robotification. The automation of many processes in the factories led to fewer workers being needed, and produced unemployment. (It was a trick industrial capitalism played on the African-Americans who flocked to Detroit in the 1940s to escape being sharecroppers in Georgia and elsewhere in the deep South, that by the time they got settled the jobs were beginning to disappear). Then, the auto industry began locating elsewhere, along with its support industries, to save money on labor or production costs or to escape regulation.

The refusal of the white population to allow African-American immigrants to integrate produced a strong racial divide and guaranteed inadequate housing and schools to the latter. Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, you had substantial white flight, of which the emigration from the city after the 1967 riots was a continuation. The white middle and business classes took their wealth with them to the suburbs, and so hurt the city’s tax base. That decrease in income came on top of the migration of factories. The fewer taxes the city brought in, the worse its services became, and the more people fled. The black middle class began departing in the 1980s and now is mostly gone.

Other observers have suggested other concomitants of the decline, like poor city planning or the inability to attract foreign immigrants in sufficient numbers. I suspect that the decline of Detroit as a port is important somehow to the story (only one of the four old locks at Sault St. Marie lets big ships come down to the lower Great Lakes and therefore to Detroit any more. A new, big [pdf] modern lock is being built to accommodate larger vessels, but it will be a decade before it opens. Some observers point out that Detroit would make sense as a Midwest hub port for international shipping containers if its harbor was expanded and linked by rail to the cities of the region, but I suspect the new lock at the Soo is a prerequisite.

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Plan for Robotification of Everything Proceeding Apace


Plan for Robotification of Everything Proceeding Apace

In the late 19th century, major American cities began installing networks of underground pneumatic tubes between post offices, enabling them to whisk hundreds of letters back and forth at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, with the satisfying thurp sound as an added bonus. Most of the systems were dismantled in the 1920s, but somehow New York’s managed to stay in use until the 50′s (here’s a description of this odd bit of postal history).

Sadly, the dream of universal pneumatic tube delivery to the home was never achieved. But in a 14-minute ad for Amazon that was cleverly staged as a report on 60 Minutes (“If you can do this with all these products, what else can you do?” gushed Charlie Rose on the floor of a fulfilment center. “You guys can organize the world!”), the company revealed the future of package delivery: drones.

It isn’t as though they’re the first ones to have thought of this; people have been making jokes about things like pizza-delivery drones for a few years now. But as the world’s biggest internet retailer, Amazon might be be able to make it happen. Before we talk about whether this is serious and what the problems might be, here’s their little promotional video:

Bezos did say it was years away from actual implementation (Rose, showing his keen journalistic skills, saw the drones and said, “Wow”). There are some real technical issues, at least given current drone technology. The most basic may be fuel: the kind of small, relatively inexpensive drone we’re talking about can’t hold much, so it can’t lift a lot of weight or go all that far (it wouldn’t be cost-effective to use a Global Hawk with a 130-foot wingspan to deliver your toothpaste). Make the drones bigger to carry more and you could have some accidents when thousands of them are zipping around neighborhoods. And I know that if I was a young rapscallion and not the responsible adult, stealing an Amazon drone when it comes in for a landing would seem like an extremely cool thing to do.

There would also be a security concern with regard to your package—the drone’s GPS can get it all the way to your driveway or lawn, but it can’t open your screen door and place it inside the way your friendly UPS man does. So you might not want those diamond earings delivered via the air.

Having said all that, this is one of those technological/commercial developments that makes you say, “Well of course they’re going to do that.” It’s just a question of getting the cost low enough to make it cheaper to fly that package to you than to send it through the mail; if it isn’t right now, eventually it will be. Governments are finding new uses for drones all the time, and once big business wants to expand their use, chances are the FAA will open up regulations to accomodate them in ways they wouldn’t if it were just a bunch of hobbyists who wanted permission to fill the skies with quadrotors and octocopters.

So if you were a clever inventor, this would be a great time to start working on a window ledge-secured drone delivery landing pad system. Patent that bad boy, and in five years Amazon will buy you out so it can offer them for 50 percent off with every Amazon Prime membership.

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The robotification of society: Humans Need Not Apply