Imagining the City to Life 💡
Field Notes from the Future | 003
I’d like to take a brief moment to let you know that I was kindly invited onto the Kings and Priests podcast recently and had an amazing conversation with host Michael Whittle about web3, the creator economy, optimism and more. If you’re reading this, it’s the kind of thing you’d like.
At the beginning of the 2020s we were taken on an unplanned and involuntary journey into the future. I’ve been taking notes. Let’s get equipped.
One of the biggest lightning rods in the web3 space right now is the fact that the majority of the projects and ideas seem to begin so far from reality. Every passing month seems to bring new visions and schemes that draw the instant wrath of online cynics. A decentralized network that plans to replace the Internet? Yeah right. A currency backed by captured carbon assets? Please. A utopian Mediterranean city-state build and organized like a DAO? Like that will ever happen. A lot of the time, these reflexive naysayers are right, but they are responding to the wrong thing. They think that because an idea isn’t already present and provable in the physical world, it must therefore be a laughable dream or a scam. But we know from a brief look around history that many ideas we now assume as basic began in this same embryonic state. Many grand structures begin with so little practical evidence that they might as well have been scams, gradually drug into the real world until they suddenly appeared all at once, inevitable through the power of hindsight.
But the other extreme holds dangers as well. Many true believers in web3 or anywhere else forget that idealism needs to have a good working relationship with reality to change the world. I don’t just mean that we should stop being so excited or hopeful, I mean that in a literal sense what we believe has to come from true reality and needs to alter the reality around us. Our minds were meant to be a free ground of interchange between the physical reality we see and the potential reality that we can understand. If we choose only one of these, we stagnate.
And stagnation is so very tempting. We all know someone who has spent their whole lives looking forward, insisting they’ll be ready to change or create or live once they make enough money or change cities or get through this current crisis. Maybe we’ve been that person for long seasons of our life. But recently I heard the founders of the Praxis, the “Crypto-city-state-in-the-Mediterranean” project mentioned above, say something extraordinary. They noted that it was tempting to retreat into utopian thinking, imagining that we would all live better lives if we could just make it to somewhere sun-soaked and leisure-filled. But the quiet truth is that our lives will never change in perfect future circumstances if they cannot begin to change at this moment. “This is why we have gatherings and Praxis dinner parties now, before the city exists” he said. (I’m quoting from memory here). “We have to bring a tiny piece of the city to life now.”
How could we practically bring more things to life out of the romanticized world of our imagination? Let’s head to the drawing board, then get started in our living room.
I. Sketching the True City
If you want to bring something beautiful to life, you have to know what Beauty is in the first place. We cannot afford to drift through life without any principled ambition beyond weekday survival and accrual of baubles. Use your imagination for something better than fantasy and escape. Sit down with a notebook and imagine something True. Start with your home, or even a room inside it. Push past what is real now and maybe even what you cynically believe is possible. Write down everything you desire for the room, what it would ideally look like if you were using it for the best things you can think of. If your living room were perfect for the hospitable chaos you know it ought to contain, what would have to change? What would make the place a joy, a haven that would fill you with the desire to do everything you claim you would do if only? Where would you put the tools of your trade, the art and décor that transports you? You need at least one space in your world that is more than just a container for the lowest forms of sedentary entertainment. Draw and write and dream in the ideal space, before you do anything else.
II. The City in Your Living Room
Ok, now we have to do the hard work. Take your sketches and ideas and bullet points and drag them into the real world. Immediately you’ll discover all the stumbling blocks. All the reasons why most people abandon the project at this point. It will be disappointing to see that you can’t make every part of your vision come true just how you had hoped. You’ll be tempted to give up, to tell yourself that trying to make things different in the first place was naïve. You’re going to have to make some compromises, to start somewhere. But if you don’t give up, you’ll start to notice your surroundings start to change. And even a little improvement is encouraging. If your living room is more than a sanctuary for your television, you’ll start to realize that stacks of books and comfortable chairs and open seating and houseplants are more than just set dressing. They are tools to shape your own desires. Maybe the habits and hobbies you wish you had begin as LARPing by redecorating your living room, but who says it stops there? You’re building what Irish Christians called a “thin place,” a space where the heavenly realm approaches earth. Some of you might start to protest at that cosmology, but you can’t argue with the ability of the Medieval world to instantiate works that nobody else has been able to imagine, let alone build. We have much to relearn.
III. Don’t Wait for the Future
Unfortunately, now you’ve called your own bluff. “I’ve always wanted to paint more, but it’s just hard to find the time” evaporates when you’ve got even a tiny studio with your tools all at hand. “I know I should pray and study, but it’s hard with so many distractions” sounds plausible until you’ve built yourself a retreat designed to make reading and meditation a personal delight. Now is the time to discover what we are made of, whether we are fit yet for the City that we hope to inhabit someday. After a while the thin spaces will begin to gently reproach us as we leave them unvisited, because they expose the real desires and bankruptcy of our own souls. Again, this is another fork in the road, an opportunity for discouragement and disillusionment. But until we choose to take a good look at our real desires, we can’t know what needs to change. I’ve already been quite clear with the spiritual nature of the discussion, so let’s not kid ourselves: when we approach the thin places, we will be confronted. We won’t measure up. But if we run from the spiritual confrontation, we will never know what could have happened if we allowed ourselves to be searched, and then sanctified.
We started with rearranging the living room furniture and now we’re asking questions about the spiritual nature of living in rooms. Are we losing touch with reality? I’d saying we are getting back in touch with it, actually. You can wall off your dwelling from any intrusion of disturbing spiritual change, or you can flee to the world of imagination and never discipline yourself to bring those flights of fancy home. But the practical work begins when you do your best to unite the two. It’s a way of life that modern people have all but lost, but that’s no reason to despair. We just need the humility to learn from the faithful pietists who have gone before us. And we must demand of ourselves that the City we’re journeying towards be a real place, capable of providing all that we truly long for. The first thing we can do is reclaim the word “imagination” from underneath the scalpel of bland materialism.
You see, when I encourage us to imagine the City into existence, or to use our holy imagination to think of what could be made right and good around us, you might still be thinking of Imaginary as conceptually equal to Fake. This is the language of cynicism, the assumption that prevents the real discussion from happening. Before the word imagination was gelded and presented back to us as childish fancy, it carried the ideas of mental capture of a picture or concept so that it could be imitated. You can see how that would be a little bit more effective, and destabilizing. I’m not asking you to dream in the world of fiction and then make your world more imaginary. I’m insisting that the world I live in become gradually more Real every day.
I’ll see you in the Future.
There are, it seems, two Muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. The first muse is the one mainly listened to in a cheap-energy civilization, in which “economic health” depends on the assumption that everything desirable lies within easy reach of anyone. To hear the second muse one must move outside the cheap-energy enclosure. It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live in the bitterness of disappointment. ~ Wendell Berry, Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” ~ Luke 17:20-21