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Another way to look at their downward spiral is as a parable of a housing market that is not primarily intended, or even incentivized, to actually house people. “We don’t finance housing in this country,” says Ron Shiffman, a city planner and tenured professor at Pratt’s School of Architecture. Instead, housing serves as a “financing tool.” The market encourages buyers, whether Saudi princes or the owners of yoga studios, to treat homes like banks, as places to put their money, whether or not they actually live in them. It also motivates developers to build luxury properties with the highest returns, housing fewer residents. In New York, the pandemic brought the dangers of this system painfully to light, as mass economic devastation made many people, even landlords like Gendville and Brooks-Church, suddenly desperate for real-time shelter. “The housing market isn’t meeting the needs of people who are working, who are living, in New York,” Shiffman says. Brooklyn’s runaway success, it turns out, was built on an economic disparity so intense that it has created a microgeneration of gentrifiers like Brooks-Church and Gendville who are now being priced out themselves.

Bridget Read

All those generic slender needles you see piercing the New York skyline, more and more of them every time you used to fly in to Newark, or JFK, in the Before Times, gnomons sweeping shadows over more and more of the streets you used to walk, those towers, every single one of them, are not towers; no one lives in them, as you or I understand living. They’re safety deposit boxes, for offshore billionaires who’ve never thrown parties in those penthouses—or worse, unthinkingly assembled byproducts of the financial eructations of distant hedge funds. (At least billionaires can dream of bit parts in the next Furiously Fast Impossible Mission.) —Have you noticed? Watching the teevee? All the shows filmed in the City: how easily, and how often, now, they can film on location, in great buildings with spectacular views. Somebody’s got to do something with all those empty floors.

Or used to have to have done, at least. Before.

“Plants” with “leaves” no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous “bacteria” could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop—at least if we make no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.

Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the “gray goo problem.” Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term “gray goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers.

Eric Drexler

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