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How to Create a Fantasy World: Build Portals
We all spend too much time staring at screens. I like to romanticize the experience by saying it’s “inhabiting digital spaces” or “living a partial cyborg existence.” But, yeah, technically it’s just screentime.
Everyone talks about this problem—about how modern technology makes it harder for people to leave their homes and experience the real world. Cue the boomer pundit scolding digital-native types to “Go outside and touch grass!”
I don’t see this as bad advice. But it’s not sufficient. It’s past time for the physical world to respond to this underlying reality: Digital spaces very often bring people more stimulation, more novelty, and more chance for personal engagement than the real world has to offer. If the real world wants to stay relevant, it has to try harder to entice us out of our virtual paradises.
What the hell am I talking about? The real world is real. At what level can it or should it compete with pixels? Good question. Let me back up for a moment.
Beyond Touching Grass
Human beings are always looking for a good story. It’s the same as how we thirst for water and crave salt and fat. It’s built into us. No doubt it has something to do with the parts of the human brain that effortlessly comprehend language and how, using language and other symbols, we make sense of (and construct) reality through metaphors.
And so we organize our lives around stories, great and small, whether it’s following a religion, building a career, starting a family, or discussing baseball stats. To live a fulfilling life, we cultivate these stories, becoming lead characters inside of them. I’m not Joe from Kansas. Not even close. I’m God’s chosen son, a farmer of life-sustaining grain, a father of two, and the number-one fan of the Kansas City Royals. When they win, I win. When they lose, I drink Bud and ask God for a better 2nd baseman.
Every new story starts with a portal. This is most obvious with narrative forms of art—books and movies. When you pick up a book, if it’s good, it pulls you in. When you set it down, again if it’s good, you take something away and carry it with you. When you open up Netflix, all those vibrant movie posters are portals. You’re not looking for an escape. You’re looking for a new story to make a part of your life.
When we talk about “screentime” or “touching grass,” we’re talking about jumping into a portal and living in a story. Digital spaces are overflowing with portals. Every website has dozens, some of which can occupy you for a moment or two, while others can suck you in and never quite let you go. Real-world spaces have this power too. And back to my point: Real-world spaces can be better. They’re hardly even trying.
In the vast majority of cases, the physical spaces we visit are utterly banal. One physical space can hardly be distinguished from another. Whether it’s a grocery store, a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, or a Hilton Hotel, nearly all of civilization is one bland reproduction after another. This phenomenon is worst in the suburbs, where every public space within reasonable driving distance is corporate simulacra. But it holds true many urban places as well.
There are exceptions. There are places that serve as true portals to enlivening experiences. The first place that comes to my mind is Brick Lane in East London. Brick Lane is a long, narrow street that’s home to a large Bangladeshi community and features an expansive market. When you walk down the lane, it’s a very similar experience to logging into Netflix: you’re bombarded with colorful opportunities to jump into a movie. Amazing food, charismatic vendors, enchanting storefronts. I remember stumbling into a coffee shop that turned out to have a long list of boozy-cocktails. In the back of the shop, which featured flowing tapestries and dozens of half-melted candles, there were bunkbeds in place of chairs.
Big cities serve as fertile ground for developing portal-rich areas. You don’t get the Red-Light District in Amsterdam (so many portals!) without the surrounding urban architecture and the busy port. You don’t get North Beach in San Francisco or the French Quarter in New Orleans without a rich history of artists, musicians, and a close proximity to global industries.
Dense cities are always expensive places to live. The more density, the more expensive. And urbanists are just coming to the realization that you can’t improve the affordability of a big city by adding more house. That’ll just further increase the density, which increases the desirability and hence the price.
It’s usually said the cities are expensive because they offer high paying jobs. This is only a small part of the story. I’d argue that cities are expensive in large part because people are willing to pay more for the chance to experience more portals (sometimes called “cultural amenities”)—which is equivalent to experiencing more life.
But portal-rich areas don’t just grow out of old, historical districts in major cities. They can also be built into modern facilities. These tend to be simulations of established cultural centers, such as the themed casinos in Las Vegas, or straight-up theme parks like Disneyland. Regardless, people flock to these places as eagerly as they flock to the streets of Paris. Ask anyone: would you rather spend the night exploring the Vegas Strip or watching Netflix. They’ll say the Strip every time.
What does it take to build more of this? It takes three things: a ton of money, new zoning laws, and visionary developers. God knows we have plenty of rich people in this country, so in theory the money isn’t a problem. Zoning laws are currently designed to favor single-family-home developments and the car-centric lifestyle, but there’s a burgeoning movement trying to change this. As for the vision required… I don’t know where it is or who has it, but it’s out there.
I have some hope for the various futuristic city proposals. From The Line in Saudi Arabia to Telosa in the US, billionaires are starting to move forward with amazingly ambitious plans to construct ultra-modern cities. It’s hard not to be skeptical about these projects, but it’s also hard not to be at least a little excited about them.
As for revitalizing our current cities, the buzzword of the moment is “Repurpose.” Really, there’s never been a better time for developers to realize ambitious, even outlandish visions to repurpose old structures. Got an old cathedral that no one goes to anymore? Not a problem. That’s a perfect chance for a new type of portal, as Ian Bremmer recently noted:
Thanks to work-from-home initiatives, city centers are being hollowed out, which leaves a TON of retail space sitting vacant, waiting to be repurposed. During the recent Bloomberg Tech Summit in San Francisco, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky expressed excitement at the “massive opportunity” now open to the city “to create new community spaces for people in the modern, technologically driven world.” He suggested converting vacant office space into residential and mixed-use space. Mayor London Breed, at the same event, suggested tearing down the soon-to-be-vacant Westfield Mall and building a soccer stadium in its place.
What kind of portals-to-other-worlds would you like to see built in your city?
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