August 25, 2011
Two mansions, two miles apart, spark intrigue in Palm Beach, Florida. The first, on the northern end of the oceanfront street nicknamed Billionaire’s Row, is 30,000 square feet of arched windows and red, Spanish-tile roof, a villa that includes a ballroom where flappers danced and sipped moonshine in the 1920s.
This is David Koch’s vacation home. The billionaire oil baron, along with his brother Charles, has gained recent notoriety as the sugar daddy of the Tea Party. In 1979, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, and he and Charles have since given more than $100 million to right-wing causes and organizations, according to a 2010New Yorker profile that exposed their tremendous influence in politics. David lives in New York City and winters in Palm Beach.
The second mansion is a short drive south on Billionaire’s Row, a narrow strip of asphalt that buffers colossal wealth from the ocean. With an open driveway and a generous front lawn, this house bears little resemblance to its neighbor up the road. The original historic villa was leveled, replaced by a 42,000-square-foot mansion built in efficient Colonial style, with square windows, gray peaked roofs, and columns framing the front door. The pool is a long rectangle, and the backyard stretches all the way west to the Intracoastal Waterway. Inside, prized artwork graces the walls, and millions of dollars worth of wine cools in the cellar.
For two decades, the owner of this $25.9 million mansion didn’t speak to the owner of the first. He is David Koch’s twin brother, William “Bill” Koch. A feud over the family business kept the brothers warring in court for years. Bill, 71, a rumpled and white-haired chemical engineer, was labeled in the press as the black sheep of the family. One of the Forbes 400 richest people in the world and the second-richest man in Florida, he made headlines for his salacious romantic affairs and his penchant for suing his enemies, and for burning cash on historic wine bottles and a $2 million photo of Billy the Kid.
He also earned the wrath of environmentalists. A mine owned by his energy company, Oxbow, was the site of two of the three coal-mining deaths in Colorado in the past 11 years. Bill Koch poured millions of dollars into fighting America’s first offshore wind farm in Massachusetts, and is now angling to take over 1,800 acres of federal land in Colorado for his private ranch.
But now that Charles and David are alternately reviled and admired for their Tea Party ties, “Wild Bill” Koch has been cast in a peculiar new role: the good brother.
He donates tens of thousands of dollars to mainstream Republican candidates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, but doesn’t publicize his opposition to Barack Obama. Rather than fund Tea Party groups, he gives money to impoverished kids in Palm Beach County and to hospitals and schools in Colorado, where he has another home. In September, he will open a private high school in West Palm Beach, Oxbridge Academy. “Bill Koch isn’t Charles Koch and he isn’t David Koch,” says his spokesman, Brad Goldstein. “He’s not his brother’s keeper.”
Even as a child, Bill Koch lived in his brothers’ shadow. Of the four Koch boys—David, Bill, Charles, and the eldest, Frederick—Bill was the “family nerd,” he once told the New York Times Magazine, which profiled the family after their legal battle in 1986. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Bill wasn’t as skilled at basketball as Charles and David. Although he’s six foot four, he was smaller than them. They would play together, but exclude him.
By the time Bill was six, he was so resentful of Charles that his mom said they had to send the 11-year-old Charles to boarding school. “We had to get Charles away because of the terrible jealousy that was consuming Billy,” Mary Koch told the Times. ”Billy had always been too emotional.”
Emotionalism was not prized in the Koch family. The boys’ father, Fred C. Koch, was a hard-nosed “monarch,” a family friend told Fortune magazine. Not wanting his sons to become pampered rich kids, he put them to work on the family cattle ranches in the summers. He was a self-made man. His dad—Bill’s grandfather—ran a small-town newspaper in Texas. When Fred wanted to study chemical engineering, a local businessman helped pay his tuition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Goldstein says—a gift that would later inspire Bill’s own school philanthropy.
In the 1920s, Fred Koch launched an engineering company in Wichita, and invented a refining process that increased the amount of gasoline produced from crude oil. When competing oil companies sued him for patent infringement, he moved to the Soviet Union to build oil refineries under Stalin. Watching colleagues be killed in the dictator’s purges, Koch was horrified. By the time he returned to Kansas to expand his business and started a family, he was staunchly anti-Communist. Fred Koch became a founding member of the hard-right John Birch Society and imbued all of his sons with a strong distaste for government.
Bill attended high school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, then joined Charles and David at M.I.T., dutifully following in their dad’s footsteps. Bill eventually earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Frederick Koch studied English and drama at Harvard and Yale and grew up to become a reclusive art collector who buys European castles, including estates in Monaco and London…
August 25, 2011
When politicians were debating where to put the headquarters of the new United Nations in war-torn 1946, one place stood out as a potential unofficial capital of the world. New York (pictured above) was then the world’s biggest city, with 12m people. It was the largest and most influential metropolis in the richest, most successful economy. It was a hotbed of ideas about how to make cities better. It was a cultural magnet, home of skyscrapers and abstract expressionists, bebop and jazz. Joan Didion, the writer, describes arriving in New York in 1954: “it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already…and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that [life] would never be quite the same again.”
Six decades later, the cold-war order is gone; America’s economic dominance is under challenge from China and others; the UN is in need of an overhaul. Over the years, there have been many proposals to uproot the general assembly, recently by Russia to move it to St Petersburg (2001), by Canada to Montreal (2007), by Singapore (2008) and Dubai (2010) to those city-states. So it is not a stretch to imagine the UN might move. And it is not a stretch to ask the bigger question, what might be the world’s next unofficial capital?
If global panjandrums were to pick the world’s largest city, as they did in 1946, the choice would fall on Tokyo, which overtook New York in the pecking order soon after the UN settled there, and now has a population over 30m. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. Power, economic connections, culture, education—all these things matter, too. Throughout history, the world’s largest cities have been dominant not just because of their numbers but because they were capitals of international empires. This was true of Rome in the first century (the first city to reach a million people); of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the fifth; of Chang’an (now Xi’an), China’s capital in the seventh; of Baghdad in the tenth century; of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, at the end of the 15th century; and of 19th-century London (the first city to reach 5m). Huge though it is, Tokyo is not in the same category. It is not very international and is home to comparatively few foreign residents for a city of its size.
Power is important, but the capitals of the world’s two most powerful countries—the nearest things to imperial cities today—do not quite fit the bill either. Beijing is a non-starter as a global city and will continue to be so as long as the Communist Party maintains its iron grip. In New York and London, between a quarter and a third of residents were born abroad. In Beijing the share is below 1%. Outsiders have to have a stake in a city if it is to get global status.
Washington, DC, looks a more plausible candidate for that. It contains more people who take the rest of the world seriously than any other place. The IMF and World Bank—the two prime international financial institutions—are based there. Washington takes itself seriously too, but so it should: as in 19th-century London, decisions made there matter more to the rest of the world than those taken elsewhere. Powertown has the capacity to make and unmake wars, to rescue or cripple economies. Yet there is more to being a dominant city than political authority or a multitude of think-tanks. Washington—a city of “northern charm and southern efficiency”, as John F. Kennedy said—has little going for it except the authority of the United States, and that is slipping. It is international without being cosmopolitan; it inspires respect but not imitation; it has political power, but not the power of example.
In 1957, five years after the UN moved into its headquarters on East 42nd Street, Jack Kerouac was finishing his book “On the Road” a few blocks away in Times Square. After returning from a trip round America, he found himself at rush hour amid “the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair [sic] of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck amongst themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying.” Kerouac was criticising 1950s consumerism, of course, but his description captures what makes a city thrive: millions hustling for a buck. And the more things people have to hustle over—the more occasions they have for grabbing, taking and giving—the more their city becomes truly international.
Cities are products of trade. Market towns trade crops; second cities trade manufactures; international cities design and trade everything, especially services; and global cities—a category comprising only New York, London and Tokyo—specialise in international financial services. Over the past 50 years, the world has seen a trading revolution. Cities used to send each other finished goods (cars, say, or computers). Now they trade services and parts as well (spark plugs, or recording heads for hard drives). Every step in the production process is broken down; parts are made separately and shipped for assembly. The result is that trade around the world has boomed, the number of international cities has boomed with it—and more are vying to join this select global club…
August 25, 2011
Someone who wanted to know how we live might ask how we talk. Madame de Rambouillet talked in bed, stretched out on a mattress, draped in furs, while her visitors remained standing. Blue velvet lined the walls of the room, which became known as “the French Parnassus”: a model for the 17th- and 18th-century salons, where aristocratic women led male philosophes in polite and lively discussion.
Talking, of course, is nothing new. But conversation, in the 17th century, was a novel ideal of speech: not utilitarian instructions or religious catechism, but an exchange of ideas, a free play of wit. Thus the hostesses of the Enlightenment received visitors in a new kind of furniture. In 1667, the Gobelins tapestry-weaving workshop became Louis XIV’s official furniture supplier. Previously, fabric—like Madame de Rambouillet’s velvet—had been confined to walls and clothing. The Gobelins were the first to apply it to chairs, which for many long, uncomfortable centuries had been small and hard. Now they were wide and soft—more like beds. The fauteuil confessional, for instance, had wraparound wings against which the listener might rest her cheek, as the priest had done behind his screen. Listening and talking became even easier in the 1680s, with the introduction of the sofa. Seating for two! For the first time in history, people could sit comfortably together indoors for long stretches—thereby making it easier for them to speak comfortably together for long stretches. Thus was conversation enshrined—en-couched—as a vehicle of Enlightenment, fundamental to the self-improvement of civilization.
Face-to-face exchanges continued in the exchange of letters. As the salon had the sofa, “written conversation”—as one style manual called it—had the desk, another invention of the 17th century. For men, there was the bureau—a big, heavy table for conducting official correspondence. (From bureau comes “bureaucracy.”) For women, there was the secrétaire. Unlike the flat bureau, the light, portable secrétaire featured stacks of shelves and cubbyholes, which were kept locked. Some writing surfaces slid outward, like drawers. Others opened from the top, as if the desk were a jewelry box—or a laptop.
If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is chat?
In the early days of the internet, chatting was something that happened between strangers. “Wanna cyber?” millions of people asked, and millions answered: Yes! OnAOL—as of 1994, the most popular internet service provider in the US—half the member-created chat rooms were for sex. AOL also launched the first mass IM interface, which was where the real action happened. Each conversation appeared as a flat, white square on your screen—it was like having sex on a tiled floor. But at least it was someone else’s floor. Signing off was like walking out of a public bathroom. Nobody knew where anybody went: answers to “a/s/l?” were likely lies, screen names universally inscrutable. Because AOL permitted five screen names per account, it was possible to use one for strangers, another for friends. Before the introduction of the Buddy List—in 1996, dubbed the “stalker feature” by AOLemployees—you could come and go without any of them noticing.
Eventually, AOL’s dominance waned as people signed up for free web-based email and downloaded desktop-based chat clients, like AOL’s own Instant Messenger (1997). In AIM, all that remained of the original AOL was the AOL Buddy List, which hung in the corner of our screen. (Chat rooms were still out there, but mostly for terrorists and pedophiles.) Chatting now required constant tabbing between applications: browser for email, IM window, browser for search. Like hermit crabs outgrowing their shells, people kept shucking their old screen names for new ones.
Gmail changed all this. We signed up using our real name. So did our friends, and one day those names appeared in a column on the left side of our inbox. This was Gchat, and whenever we signed in, up came the gray, ghostly list of Gchattable names. And what names! Previously, we’d decided which screen names to include on our “Buddy Lists” (poor AOL: it came first and had to name the animals, and it named them in a corporate-Midwestern way that couldn’t help but become comically creepy). Gmail made the choices for us, pulling names from our email contacts. It was like standing outside the door of a party that all your friends had been invited to. Maybe they had already arrived!
Gmail began “in beta” and by invitation only in 2004 and remained technically in beta for the next five years; it continued to feel exclusive long after everyone was using it. (Registration opened to the public in 2007.) Being new, it was also youthful: you could tell when a person signed up for email by the client they used—AOLbetween 1994 and 1999; Hotmail or Yahoo! between 1999 and 2004; after 2004, only Gmail. When Gmail automatically added Gchat to every user’s inbox in 2006, it was like a conspiracy of the young against the old. We would chat while they thought we were working; they would grow old and die; we would inherit the earth and chat forever.
So what do we chat about? Not sex. Our real name is right there, and anyway the mood is all wrong. AOL was a series of semi-private suites; Gmail is an open loft, wallpapered with distractions. PROTEST HYDRO-FRACKING! says one email. Another is from our grandmother (email@example.com): she misses us. Hard to picture anything less erotic than the inbox, that cluttered room whose door can never be locked. Imagine having sex and someone from the alumni association bursts in to ask for a donation. Everywhere the professional intrudes: a former coworker signs in; a friend’s status message links to his latest article (Congrats, dude!). And as the virtual setting is all wrong for eros, so too is the actual one, because most of our Gchats happen at the office. We chat all day as we work, several windows open at once—windows into all the offices in all the cities where our friends spend their days Gchatting. Or we chat with coworkers, carrying on an endless conversation that sounds, to the half-aware ears of our superiors, like the soft tip-tapping clatter of real industry.
Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession. Gmail saves the histories of our chats, should we ever care to look. It turns out we use the internet to talk about what other people are talking about on the internet: “Oh god please look at what she just tweeted.” “Hang on I’ll find the link.” And then there are the tactical chats—“I guess I am not that in the mood for Thai food?”—that would be harmless enough on their own. Mixed in with the rest, and preserved for all eternity, they assemble further evidence of our gross mortal wastefulness. Time is misspent twice: we talk about life as thoughtlessly as we live it. And the server farms know this.
In contrast to chat rooms, where we talked to many people in public, in Gchat we talk to many people in private and simultaneously. (We could gather our friends together—Group Chat has been around since 2007—but mostly we don’t.) “As long as one is in society,” said 18th-century salon hostess Suzanne Necker, “one must occupy oneself with others, never keeping silent out of laziness or from distraction.” But distraction is endemic to daytime Gchatting, especially at work. The medium creates the illusion of intimacy—of giving and receiving undivided attention—when in fact our attention is quite literally divided, apportioned among up to six small boxes at a time. The boxes contain staccato, telegraphic exchanges, with which we are partially and intermittently engaged. Together the many chats divert us from work, speeding up time—yet look closely and you see time break down and stop. The clusters of text are followed by time-stamps, which Google inserts whenever the conversation lags. For David Hume, increased conversation between men and women corresponded to “an increase of humanity, from the very habit of conversing together.” But Hume didn’t know about Gchat, which offers us so many opportunities for conversation that conversation becomes impossible. We are distracted from chatting by chatting itself.
Eventually, we apologize for dropping the ball, invoking a more pressing technology: “Sorry, on the phone.” But now it is our friend who doesn’t respond! Is he really gone, or has the sneak downloaded that add-on that allows users to appear idle when they’re chatting? Like a shield, the round orange icon affords protection—to the person behind it, who is permitted to ignore any unwanted chat, and to the sender of the unwanted chat, who can tell herself, I guess he’s not there. The way we chat now—using plug-ins or hidden behind Gchat’s own Invisibility feature—suggests that what we really want is a way out of chat. Consider chat’s entry in theOED, which includes what must be the most melancholy example sentence in the history of example sentences: “I keep getting messages popping up on my screen from people wanting to chat.” What anguish, when the definition of chat implies the desire not to chat! We, too, keep getting messages from people wanting to chat. And we keep being those people, too…