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Rise of the RoboMasters | The Verge

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The second match between 1.5S and StarPro began like the first. The 1.5S hero made a beeline to the island and began filling up on golf balls. But this time, instead of focusing their fire on the hero as it climbed to the island, StarPro hunted for 1.5S rovers instead. They managed to take out two of them before the 1.5S hero filled up on golf balls and made it off the island and back into combat.

The 1.5S and StarPro teams operated their robots from a small booth on the raised stage behind the battlefield. The audience could see the engineers’ faces projected onto giant screens above each team’s hut, but the players controlling the robots could not see out; the window in front of them was made of an opaque glass. This ensured that they had to navigate using the camera feed from their rovers and hero, in addition to the high-level view from their team’s drone camera.

The 1.5S hero tried again to destroy the enemy base, but it didn’t have the damage boost from the computer vision test. It ran out of ammunition, and had to head back to the island. As it returned to the battlefield, the StarPro hero drove underneath it, trapping it in limbo over the obstacle course, leaving its back wheels spinning helplessly a few inches off the ground. The crowd went wild. It was the perfect counter to the highly technical hero that had so far dominated the competition. Everything now came down to the third and final match.

The games had been running for three days straight at this point, with battles raging for 12 hours a day. The hallway surrounding the arena had been made into a makeshift camps for competitors. Engineers soldered broken parts back together, sending small plumes of smoke into the air. Others slept on the ground beside their battered bots, spare styrofoam tucked under their heads for pillows. It was clear the students were willing to work extraordinarily hard, but they were doing it on their own terms. Over the last decade young Chinese have become increasingly unwilling to embrace the brutal grind of life on the factory floor, to take the kind of manufacturing industry jobs that gave rise to Shenzhen and laid the foundation for DJI.

There was a circular irony here. To compensate for rising wages and an aging workforce, many factories are looking to automate their production, turning to the same robotic technologies at the heart of this competition. President Xi Jinping has called for a "robot revolution" and promised $200 billion in subsidies to Shenzhen’s regional province for this transition. Many young, well-educated Chinese will find work creating, controlling, and tending to these autonomous laborers at companies like DJI. Many students saw RoboMasters as a chance to move beyond the rote curriculum of their university and prepare for the more creative future.

RoboMasters began in 2013 as an internal competition, a chance for the engineers to blow off steam while still working on technology core to DJI’s business. It was small scale, held inside DJI’s office with a makeshift course. The second year, it was integrated with a summer camp DJI hosted for college-age engineers interning at the company. Last year, it opened to the public, and teams from universities across China, as well as a few teams from abroad, signed up. It began experimenting with a more lavish production, building out the battlefield with lights, music, and live announcers. It was a hit, widely covered by Chinese media, and so this year DJI went even bigger.

The company says it spent around $9 million on the 2016 tournament, although several employees told me privately that the number was closer to $15 million. Months before the finals in Shenzhen, employees fanned out across the country to help organize regional contests between 228 teams. DJI engineers produced custom components for the thousands of fighting units that competed; the company even commissioned an anime series, set to air on Chinese TV this fall, about a nerdy teen who finds his calling, and his courage, behind the wheel of a rover.

Why all the effort and expense for a competition that doesn’t, at least directly, help sell any drones? The simplest answer is recruitment. As DJI forges a path forward in hardware development, it must tussle with international giants like Baidu and Didi, Uber and Amazon, all of whom want top talent in robotics, computer vision, and autonomous navigation. DJI is also setting itself up to be the default robotics platform. Almost every major robotics program at a Chinese university uses DJI’s infrastructure to educate their students. In effect, a rising generation of engineers is being trained to work on DJI products, and to think of the company’s equipment as the gold standard.

But RoboMasters is also a passion project for Frank Wang, DJI’s founder and CEO. The 36-year-old is now worth billions, and has proven himself as a brilliant engineer and a ruthless manager. But in many ways the competition is a reflection of a simple truth about Wang: he loves playing with robots — building them, flying them, and watching them fight.

A large LCD screen on the front of the SkyWorth Semiconductor building plays a short anime film on loop. In it, a young boy falls in love with a remote-control helicopter. But as he grows up, the drudgery of college and an office job choke his passion. A suffocating storm of papers envelops him, dragging him down to hellish landscape. He stands at the edge of a cliff, unsure how to go on. And then he makes the leap of faith, breaking free of his suit and tie, falling toward a lake of fire. At the last second he catches hold of a small white drone, which saves him from his plunge, and carries him aloft.

The inspiration for the cartoon is Frank Wang, who as a little boy loved the illustrated series 动脑筋爷爷 — loosely translated as "brainstorming grandpa." The cartoon starred an elderly MacGyver type who helped kids to get out of jams through feats of clever engineering. Wang’s favorite episode featured a little red helicopter, and he went on to collect model aircraft and remote-control copters. Growing up in a middle-class family in Hangzhou, he dreamt of attending a prestigious technical college in the US like Stanford or MIT, but he didn’t quite have the grades. Instead, he studied electronic engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

Wang was a mediocre student in college as well, but he used his time at school to work on his passion: his senior thesis was building a flight controller for a miniature helicopter. That project barely got off the ground, but it impressed his professor, who encouraged him to try graduate school and helped him find a scholarship. In 2006 Wang left academia for good, moving to Shenzhen and using what was left of scholarship money to start a new company, DJI.

Located on the 21st floor, Wang’s office commands a broad view of Shenzhen’s ever-changing skyline. It’s adorned with plastic replicas of fighter jets and origami Phantom drones. Toy mechs line one bookshelf, and plastic figurines of vintage propeller planes are arranged carefully on his desk. He displays the usual CEO reading material — The Art of War, Hatching Twitter, Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand — but also highly technical textbooks on subjects like superalloys, radio navigation, flow-induced vibrations, and high-temperature coatings.

Dressed in a white button-down and dark slacks, Wang sported a soul patch and large glasses, which added a slightly hip air to his otherwise boyish enthusiasm. Though Wang’s team insisted our conversation focus on RoboMasters, and that he would only speak in Mandarin, Wang’s enthusiasm soon got the better of him. After a few minutes, he dropped the Mandarin entirely and spoke in English, pushing the conversation to a faster pace, and roving far and wide across subjects beyond the competition.

I asked what he felt the purpose of RoboMasters was. "For engineers, they do not have a stage, a competition, to become loved by lots of people, to show their wisdom, show their precision." The tournament was designed to make stars out of nerdy college students, and in doing so, boost interest in the field. "If we can put engineering and entertainment together, not only can they entertain, they can educate lots of people." Not all would win, but even those who lost could go on to be engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs, a side effect Wang felt was "good for society."

RoboMasters is a war game, and Wang repeatedly emphasized the importance of aggression, a trait he believed was fundamental to DJI. "Very aggressive people are concentrated here, without the heritage of the bad culture. So the new things can grow in this kind of environment." Wang contrasted the the practical and hypercompetitive nature of Shenzhen to the bourgeois pleasures of Shanghai or the bureaucratic power of Beijing. "So maybe it’s the spirit, the future of the Chinese spirit, is what I’m thinking."

Aggression was a central part of Wang’s approach to innovation at DJI. A former employee who worked at DJI for years told me it was a "very burnout, six days a week minimum, competition based," environment. RoboMasters, the employee said, was a fitting entrance exam for DJI. "Pitting teams against each other and having one win is how product development works inside of DJI." Wang didn’t try to hide this. "Sometimes a smart decision will make a lot of people unhappy," he told me. "If we let the company employees elect the leader I would never be elected, because I am too tough." What works in Shenzhen, however, may not be as successful around the world. DJI has opened offices in Europe and the United States, but several employees said turnover has been high.

As to exactly what product DJI might build next, Wang was coy. "I think vision is really the key to enable new applications for robots. That is why we want to integrate it into our competition. And this is also the future of our company." DJI drones use computer vision to sense and avoid obstacles as they fly. The drones, and DJI’s handheld camera, the Osmo, can also recognize and track subjects. Tap on the athlete or racecar you want in your shot, and the device will keep them in frame without you having to move a muscle. "We first use the vision in the drone, but later we can expand to other applications, like autonomous driving, agriculture, autonomous cherry picking, this kind of thing. Lots of human, very labor-intensive things can be replaced by cheap, vision enabled robots," said Wang.

The crowd was jubilant before the third and final match between 1.5S and StarPro. It was the first time any team had given 1.5S serious competition, and losing the final round meant the team would be eliminated from the tournament. The stands were full of families, many with young children who stared, mouths agape, at the giant robots projected onto screens above the battlefield, and screamed with glee whenever a unit toppled over, spilling plastic marbles across the turf. Film crews from local TV news were on hand to interview players, and young bloggers posted updates from their phones to the Chinese equivalents of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

The match opened slowly. Both teams danced around the middle, moving warily, like heavyweight boxers cautious about stepping into the range of knockout punch. At the 5-minute mark, both teams exchanged shots at close range, losing two rovers each. The 1.5S placed one of its rovers to take the computer vision test, but was driven off by enemy fire before it could finish. Slowly the teams whittled down each other’s infantry until only the two hero bots remained.

StarPro gave chase. Its hero, less than half the size of the massive 1.5S robot, seemed to have its opponent on the ropes. The 1.5S took a half-dozen shots to its backside, and a nervous, confused murmur swept across the stadium. The two heroes came tumbling over a hill and crashed into a pedestal, rubbing paint like NASCAR drivers jockeying for space. And then, with just over a minute on the clock, the 1.5S hero finally turned to fight. Four quick shots from its golf ball cannon and the StarPro hero went dark.

A day later, 1.5S went on to win the competition for the second year in a row — several of its team members were subsequently hired by DJI. I spoke with Junru Chen, the team leader of 1.5S, who had spent 10 months preparing for the championship. His shirt was soaked in sweat and pieces of gold confetti from the trophy celebration were sprinkled throughout his hair. Now that it was finally over, "We are very excited," he said "but also relieved."

The goal of RoboMasters, in his mind, was to look for people who were "technology addicts" and test them under the most extreme conditions. "It takes the form of competitions to unleash our potential," he told me. What would he build with that potential I asked? What future did he envision? He said the goal was to integrate robots more deeply into the lives of average people, the Jetson’s fantasy of robotic butlers and maids. "To design machines which help people achieve some goals, first the robots need to listen and see," Chen said. "Computer vision is a very important field for us to achieve a smart lifestyle in the future."

Right now RoboMasters lets DJI sift through some of China’s top engineering talent, but the company is hoping to expand the tournament around the globe. I chatted with Betty Vogeley, a student the University of Washington, the only team from outside of Asia to compete in RoboMasters to date. "We haven’t been doing so well, as far as winning any games," she said with a laugh. "We’re known as the team whose wheels fall off." Vogeley has been competing in robotics events across the US for the last six years, but had never experienced anything close to this challenge. "This is everything combined. It calls for so many diverse talents, there is just nothing like it." She was eager to play host to qualifying tournament that would give US teams a chance to practice before the finals. "To make it competitive, we need to bring a regional tournament to North America."

I caught up with Liu Zi Yi, from the Xi’an team. He and his classmates had traveled two days by train to arrive at the competition, because flying was too expensive. And they had sunk their own savings into the parts needed for these robots, even borrowing from friends and family. But he didn’t seem too upset by the loss. The contestants at RoboMasters saw Shenzhen and DJI as way to make a break with the past, and to secure a good future in a rapidly changing economy. "The city I am from, it is very traditional, very conservative," said Liu. Everyone was very focused on following the rote, academic curriculum, the safe career path. "If the past of the city is good enough, they can keep this. They say, this is enough. For a city as young as Shenzhen, they have nothing to lose."

It seemed unlikely that he would find a job with DJI following his team’s performance, but Liu was eager to try his own luck as an entrepreneur. Wang’s story had clearly seduced many of the young men and women here. They were eager to work for him, or to follow his example, trying to build companies that thrived by innovating faster than the competition, not copying or undercutting them. "DJI changed the image of Chinese companies in the mind of foreigners," said Liu. "It is the first, but it won’t be the last."

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2516 days ago
Seattle, WA
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What if jobs are not the solution but the problem?

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Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

And don’t tell me that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour solves the problem. No one can doubt the moral significance of the movement. But at this rate of pay, you pass the official poverty line only after working 29 hours a week. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Working a 40-hour week, you would have to make $10 an hour to reach the official poverty line. What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn’t a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?

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But, wait, isn’t our present dilemma just a passing phase of the business cycle? What about the job market of the future? Haven’t the doomsayers, those damn Malthusians, always been proved wrong by rising productivity, new fields of enterprise, new economic opportunities? Well, yeah – until now, these times. The measurable trends of the past half-century, and the plausible projections for the next half-century, are just too empirically grounded to dismiss as dismal science or ideological hokum. They look like the data on climate change – you can deny them if you like, but you’ll sound like a moron when you do.

For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

So this Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

In short, it lets us say: enough already. Fuck work.

Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?

I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?

We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’. Without this income supplement, half of the adults with full-time jobs would live below the poverty line, and most working Americans would be eligible for food stamps.

But are these transfer payments and ‘entitlements’ affordable, in either economic or moral terms? By continuing and enlarging them, do we subsidise sloth, or do we enrich a debate on the rudiments of the good life?

Transfer payments or ‘entitlements’, not to mention Wall Street bonuses (talk about getting something for nothing) have taught us how to detach the receipt of income from the production of goods, but now, in plain view of the end of work, the lesson needs rethinking. No matter how you calculate the federal budget, we can afford to be our brother’s keeper. The real question is not whether but how we choose to be.

I know what you’re thinking – we can’t afford this! But yeah, we can, very easily. We raise the arbitrary lid on the Social Security contribution, which now stands at $127,200, and we raise taxes on corporate income, reversing the Reagan Revolution. These two steps solve a fake fiscal problem and create an economic surplus where we now can measure a moral deficit.

Of course, you will say – along with every economist from Dean Baker to Greg Mankiw, Left to Right – that raising taxes on corporate income is a disincentive to investment and thus job creation. Or that it will drive corporations overseas, where taxes are lower.

But in fact raising taxes on corporate income can’t have these effects.

Let’s work backward. Corporations have been ‘multinational’ for quite some time. In the 1970s and ’80s, before Ronald Reagan’s signature tax cuts took effect, approximately 60 per cent of manufactured imported goods were produced offshore, overseas, by US companies. That percentage has risen since then, but not by much.

Chinese workers aren’t the problem – the homeless, aimless idiocy of corporate accounting is. That is why the Citizens United decision of 2010 applying freedom of speech regulations to campaign spending is hilarious. Money isn’t speech, any more than noise is. The Supreme Court has conjured a living being, a new person, from the remains of the common law, creating a real world more frightening than its cinematic equivalent: say, Frankenstein, Blade Runner or, more recently, Transformers.

But the bottom line is this. Most jobs aren’t created by private, corporate investment, so raising taxes on corporate income won’t affect employment. You heard me right. Since the 1920s, economic growth has happened even though net private investment has atrophied. What does that mean? It means that profits are pointless except as a way of announcing to your stockholders (and hostile takeover specialists) that your company is a going concern, a thriving business. You don’t need profits to ‘reinvest’, to finance the expansion of your company’s workforce or output, as the recent history of Apple and most other corporations has amply demonstrated.

I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster

So investment decisions by CEOs have only a marginal effect on employment. Taxing the profits of corporations to finance a welfare state that permits us to love our neighbours and to be our brothers’ keeper is not an economic problem. It’s something else – it’s an intellectual issue, a moral conundrum.

When we place our faith in hard work, we’re wishing for the creation of character; but we’re also hoping, or expecting, that the labour market will allocate incomes fairly and rationally. And there’s the rub, they do go together. Character can be created on the job only when we can see that there’s an intelligible, justifiable relation between past effort, learned skills and present reward. When I see that your income is completely out of proportion to your production of real value, of durable goods the rest of us can use and appreciate (and by ‘durable’ I don’t mean just material things), I begin to doubt that character is a consequence of hard work.

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) – just business as usual on Wall Street – while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

That’s why an economic crisis such as the Great Recession is also a moral problem, a spiritual impasse – and an intellectual opportunity. We’ve placed so many bets on the social, cultural and ethical import of work that when the labour market fails, as it so spectacularly has, we’re at a loss to explain what happened, or to orient ourselves to a different set of meanings for work and for markets.

And by ‘we’ I mean pretty much all of us, Left to Right, because everybody wants to put Americans back to work, one way or another – ‘full employment’ is the goal of Right-wing politicians no less than Left-wing economists. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles such as the acquisition of character.

Which is to say that everybody has doubled down on the benefits of work just as it reaches a vanishing point. Securing ‘full employment’ has become a bipartisan goal at the very moment it has become both impossible and unnecessary. Sort of like securing slavery in the 1850s or segregation in the 1950s.


Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies – regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. It’s been the medium of most of our thinking about the good life since Plato correlated craftsmanship and the possibility of ideas as such. It’s been our way of defying death, by making and repairing the durable things, the significant things we know will last beyond our allotted time on earth because they teach us, as we make or repair them, that the world beyond us – the world before and after us – has its own reality principles.

Think about the scope of this idea. Work has been a way of demonstrating differences between males and females, for example by merging the meanings of fatherhood and ‘breadwinner’, and then, more recently, prying them apart. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined – not necessarily achieved – by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families. Of course, these definitions are now changing, as the meaning of ‘family’ changes, along with profound and parallel changes in the labour market – the entry of women is just one of those – and in attitudes toward sexuality.

When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labour – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available. No, I mean out there, in the wide, wide world.

Work has also been the American way of producing ‘racial capitalism’, as the historians now call it, by means of slave labour, convict labour, sharecropping, then segregated labour markets – in other words, a ‘free enterprise system’ built on the ruins of black bodies, an economic edifice animated, saturated and determined by racism. There never was a free market in labour in these united states. Like every other market, it was always hedged by lawful, systematic discrimination against black folk. You might even say that this hedged market produced the still-deployed stereotypes of African-American laziness, by excluding black workers from remunerative employment, confining them to the ghettos of the eight-hour day.

And yet, and yet. Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy (see above), it’s also where many of us, probably most of us, have consistently expressed our deepest human desire, to be free of externally imposed authority or obligation, to be self-sufficient. We have defined ourselves for centuries by what we do, by what we produce.

But by now we must know that this definition of ourselves entails the principle of productivity – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his creation of real value through work – and commits us to the inane idea that we’re worth only as much as the labour market can register, as a price. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and its faithful attendant, environmental degradation.

How would human nature change as the aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of all?

Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. ‘Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’, or, ‘You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned’ – such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. By now they do.

Adherence to the principle of productivity therefore threatens public health as well as the planet (actually, these are the same thing). By committing us to what is impossible, it makes for madness. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton said something like this when he explained anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming that they’ve ‘lost the narrative of their lives’ – by suggesting that they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. For them, the work ethic is a death sentence because they can’t live by it.

So the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?

Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life? Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters – as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask: ‘So, what do you do?’

We won’t have any answers until we acknowledge that work now means everything to us – and that hereafter it can’t.

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2532 days ago
Seattle, WA
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scienceisbeauty: Visions of the Future Imagination is our...

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Visions of the Future

Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.


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2551 days ago
Seattle, WA
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2551 days ago
The Mars and Grand Tour posters are amazing.
2550 days ago
grand tour got me going.

Every “Unified Republican Government” Ever Has Led to a Financial Crash

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Josh here – below, I bring you a guest post from the mysterious and clever Wall Street Ranter, whose work you’ve seen on these pages before. You can, of course, argue correlation vs causation about the below, and that’s fine. But the fact remains – unified GOP governments have universally led to financial crises and market crashes. I know this is at odds with the enthusiasm everyone seems to be fee...
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2551 days ago
Seattle, WA
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Let’s relocate a bunch of government agencies to the Midwest

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Time to shift economic activity from the overcrowded coasts to places that need more of it.

America’s post-industrial Midwest is far from being the country’s poorest region. To find the direst economic conditions in the United States, one generally has to look toward Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta region, the Rio Grande Valley, and a smattering of heavily Native American counties in the Southwest and Great Plains. What the Midwest’s recent economic struggles bring, however, is not just large-scale political salience but a particular kind of fixability.

The poorest places in the United States have been poor for a very long time and lack the basic infrastructure of prosperity. But that’s not true in the Midwest, where cities were thriving two generations ago and where an enormous amount of infrastructure is in place. Midwestern states have acclaimed public university systems, airports that are large enough to serve as major hubs, and cities whose cultural legacies include major league pro sports teams, acclaimed museums, symphonies, theaters, and other amenities of big-city living.

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But industrial decline has left these cities overbuilt, with shrunken populations that struggle to support the legacy infrastructure, and the infrastructure’s decline tends to only beget further regional decline.

At the same time, America’s major coastal cities are overcrowded. They suffer from endemic housing scarcity, massive traffic congestion, and a profound small-c political conservatism that prevents them from making the kind of regulatory changes that would allow them to build the new housing and infrastructure they need. Excess population that can’t be absorbed by the coasts tends to bounce to the growth-friendly cities of the Sunbelt that need to build anew what Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland already have in terms of infrastructure and amenities.

A sensible approach would be for the federal government to take the lead in rebalancing America’s allocation of population and resources by taking a good hard look at whether so much federal activity needs to be concentrated in Washington, DC, and its suburbs. Moving agencies out of the DC area to the Midwest would obviously cause some short-term disruptions. But in the long run, relocated agencies’ employees would enjoy cheaper houses, shorter commutes, and a higher standard of living, while Midwestern communities would see their population and tax base stabilized and gain new opportunities for complementary industries to grow.

A lot of the government doesn’t need to be in DC

There is a compelling basic logic to the idea of a capital city that concentrates government functions in one place so agency leaders can consult with Congress and staff can coordinate across agencies. The Treasury Department is located next to the White House, and there’s literally a secure tunnel between the buildings so the president and his team can take advantage of Treasury’s considerable institutional knowledge and expertise when crafting economic policy. Foreign diplomats are sent here to Washington, so America’s domestically based workforce of foreign service officers also needs to be based here.

But a lot of important things the government does are not political in this way.

The National Institutes of Health, for example, employs a staff of some 20,000 people — a disproportionately well-educated group of technical experts — out in the suburbs in Bethesda, Maryland. They play a crucial scientific and public interest role, but they’re not involved in day-to-day politics. The NIH’s work could easily be done from Cleveland, where 20,000 highly educated, taxpaying workers would be welcomed. Their presence would create secondary jobs in industries like restaurants, education, and home remodeling. And an infusion of skilled workers alongside the metro area’s existing health and educational resources would help build up the larger regional biomedical research sector.

In general, looking at which agencies are already not going through the trouble of locating themselves in downtown Washington is a decent signpost of which agencies’ core mission is not profoundly helped by proximity to the centers of political power.

  • Nearly 3,000 people work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
  • The Social Security Administration’s central office is in Woodlawn, Maryland, outside of Baltimore.
  • The 4,000 employees of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services are also in Woodlawn.
  • The US Patent and Trademark Office already has a satellite office in Detroit but maintains its main headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
  • The US Geological Survey has several thousand people working in Reston, Virginia.
  • The National Weather Service has 5,000 employees and a headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

These and other agencies moved out of DC years ago in search of more affordable real estate — a recognition that their mission does not require routine physical proximity to elected officials. Keeping this kind of agency near DC was, obviously, more convenient for existing staff who were spared the need to drastically relocate or find a new job elsewhere. But given the growing strains of regional inequality in the United States, it would make sense for Congress to insist on taking a broader view of the national interest. Many of these agencies have technical or scientific missions whose highly skilled workforce would be a tremendous asset to cities with proud legacies that are currently suffering from brain drain and population loss.

Some DC power centers are supposed to be independent

Another bloc of agencies that we should consider relocating are the ones where close coordination with elected officials is explicitly contrary to their mandate.

The alphabet soup of independent, commission-style regulatory agencies — SEC, CFTC, FTC, FEC, FCC, FAA — fits the bill here. But so do major DC players like the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and the FBI (which is moving out to the suburbs anyway). These agencies’ heads do interact with Congress more frequently than the technical agencies, so decentralization might be more trouble than it’s worth. But at the same time, these are arms of the executive branch that are by law supposed to be operating independently of the White House. Symbolically manifesting that independence by having the work done out of Detroit rather than DC could have some value.

Each of these regulatory agencies is surrounded by a swarm of highly paid lawyers, economists, and lobbyists who make careers out of influencing their decisions. Right now, those folks all live in the DC metro area, where they drive up the cost of already expensive housing. Their spending would do a lot more good in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, where they would create secondary jobs and bolster a larger regional economy.

Greater Washington will get over it

Of course, pulling tens of thousands of federal jobs out of the DC area will, in the short term, impose some pain on the local economy here. But a crucial element of the case for decentralization is that this is not a purely zero-sum transfer. The DC region of 2016 has grown big enough, rich enough, skilled enough, and expensive enough that the marginal dollar of federal spending does little real good.

Five years ago, Congress passed the sequestration deal, which imposed large spending cuts and then exempting major entitlement programs from those cuts, leading to severe cuts to the kind of federal programs whose dollars tend to stay local. At the time, DC officials worried that this would hammer the regional economy.

But we bounced back quickly. The DC region’s current big economic difficulties don’t stem from a lack of high-end jobs for highly skilled workers. We struggle instead with affordable housing, a creaking Metro system, overburdened roadways, and a consequent lack of upward mobility for the region’s less skilled workers.

If even a fairly large number of well-paid federal jobs vanished, it would just slightly stall the overall upward march of regional housing costs. If politicians from Maryland and Virginia could convince congress to throw in some money for much-needed upgrades to our mass transit system as compensation for lost jobs, it would be a win-win.

In the long term, we should think bigger

Obviously, the federal government has a unique ability to alter the concentration of economic activity in the DC area. But the general problem of good-paying jobs being overly concentrated in expensive coastal metropolitan areas that don’t particularly want to build oodles of new housing — even while existing residential infrastructure goes to waste in Midwestern areas suffering population loss — isn’t limited to DC.

My work over the years has largely focused on the idea of trying to persuade Silicon Valley, Greater Boston, and New York City and its suburbs to agree to build more. That remains a good idea under any scenario. But it’s also absurd for a great nation to leave its long-term economic trajectory so fully hostage to the whims of the Palo Alto planning commission and a motley assortment of New York community boards and snob zoning groups on Long Island.

Congress is not going to pass a law telling Google it needs to move to Toledo.

But if Donald Trump is going to invest time and energy in jawboning a single medium-size company to keep a single small production facility open in Indianapolis, he should take a little time to think bigger. I’m not sure what it would take to convince a technology giant or three to decamp from Silicon Valley — where the local political system doesn’t seem to want them — to more welcoming pastures near the Great Lakes. But it would at least be worth trying to find out.

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2552 days ago
Seattle, WA
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2 public comments
2552 days ago
Interesting. Might work. Don't send them to the mountain west though, we value our distance from DC.
Colorado Plateau
2551 days ago
Hm. Not the worst idea... Although I'd suggest scattering them all over the country, not just the midwest.
2551 days ago
I'm of two minds about this. On the positive, spreading them around to all different congressional districts would bring the federal government closer to the people, the negative is that reducing the government becomes a bit like closing down military bases or ending government projects where the factories are scattered to favored congresscritter's districts. You try to shut one down, you instantly have a built in constituency trying to keep that from happening because it would mean less income for their area.
2551 days ago
Excellent point.
2552 days ago
Even though I'm one of the people who'd have to move, I eagerly endorse this. Bureaucrats need to be in touch with private sector Americans, and private sector Americans need to be in touch with bureaucrats.
Washington, District of Columbia

Finding North America’s lost medieval city


A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city's apex in 1100, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in North America, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza, and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

Despite its greatness, the city’s name has been lost to time. Its culture is known simply as Mississippian. When Europeans explored Illinois in the 17th century, the city had been abandoned for hundreds of years. At that time, the region was inhabited by the Cahokia, a tribe from the Illinois Confederation. Europeans decided to name the ancient city after them, despite the fact that the Cahokia themselves claimed no connection to it.

Centuries later, Cahokia's meteoric rise and fall remain a mystery. It was booming in 1050, and by 1400 its population had disappeared, leaving behind a landscape completely geoengineered by human hands. Looking for clues about its history, archaeologists dig through the thick, wet, stubborn clay that Cahokians once used to construct their mounds. Buried beneath just a few feet of earth are millennia-old building foundations, trash pits, the cryptic remains of public rituals, and sometimes even graves.

To find out what happened to Cahokia, I joined an archaeological dig there in July. It was led by two archaeologists who specialize in Cahokian history, Sarah Baires of Eastern Connecticut State University and Melissa Baltus of University of Toledo. They were assisted by Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Watts of Indiana University, Bloomington, and a class of tireless undergraduates with the Institute for Field Research. Together, they spent the summer opening three large trenches in what they thought would be a sleepy little residential neighborhood southwest of Monk's Mound.

They were wrong. The more they dug, the more obvious it became that this was no ordinary place. The structures they excavated were full of ritual objects charred by sacred fires. We found the remains of feasts and a rare earthen structure lined with yellow soils. Baires, Baltus, and their team had accidentally stumbled on an archaeological treasure trove linked to the city's demise. The story of this place would take us back to the final decades of a great city whose social structure was undergoing a radical transformation.

East St. Louis palimpsest

Finding a lost city in the modern world isn’t exactly like playing Tomb Raider. Instead of hacking through jungle and fighting a dragon, I drove to Cahokia on a road that winds through the depressed neighborhoods of East St. Louis and into Collinsville, Illinois. As recently as the 1970s, the ancient city’s elevated walkways and mounds were covered over by suburban developments. Just west of Monk's Mound was the Mounds Drive-In Theater. Farmers often plowed over Cahokia’s smaller landmarks.

All that changed 40 years ago when Illinois declared Cahokia a state historic site, and UNESCO granted it World Heritage status. The state bought 2,200 acres of land from residents, clearing away the drive-in and a small subdivision. Now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Visitors’ Center is devoted to preserving what remains of the ancient city’s monumental downtown architecture.

When I arrived there last summer, archaeologists Baires, Baltus, and their team had already been digging for several weeks in the broiling southern Illinois heat. To reach their excavation, I pulled up on a gravel turnout behind some old gas tanks and trudged through the muddy grass of an unmarked field until I saw a bunch of people with shovels clustered around three open pits. It was 7am, but I was already a bit tardy—the team started every day around 6:30am to avoid working through the late afternoon heat.

Baires and Baltus chose to explore this unassuming area known as the CABB Tract based on a magnetometry survey that Watts had done several months before. Using a handy shoulder-mounted magnetometer, Watts carefully paced out the entire field, looking for signs of ancient habitation.

Magnetometers are perfect for sniffing out buried structures because they can detect anomalies that represent disturbed earth, burned objects, and metals several feet beneath the surface. Watts' magnetometry map revealed a distinctive pattern of promising dark rectangular spots, their shapes and positions too precise to be natural. They looked an awful lot like the floors of homes arranged in a semi-circle, perhaps around a courtyard.

  • An artist's interpretation of what downtown Cahokia would have looked like in the late Sterling period, after the palisade wall had been built around Monk's Mound and the Grand Plaza.

    National Geographic

  • Artist's recreation of downtown Cahokia, with Monk's Mound at its center.

  • Monk's Mound today.

  • In the 1950s, Mounds Drive-In stood at the base of Monk's Mound. The state of Illinois bought back the land as a preservation effort, and now Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

  • Elizabeth Watts uses a chopstick to dig up delicate finds in Excavation Block 1. Sarah Baires looks at their handiwork. You can see that they've just uncovered a rare pottery trowel (it's the round shape next to Baires' knees), which was imported to Cahokia from the uplands.

  • The triangle-shaped ceramic item you see is the handle for a beaker that once held Black Drink, a highly caffeinated beverage that Cahokians drank to induce hallucinations and vomiting during rituals. Archaeologist's toe included for size comparison.

The courtyard shape is what caught Baltus and Baires’ attention. Late in Cahokia's history, there was an inexplicable shift in the city's layout: People abruptly stopped building on a north-south grid and returned to open courtyard plans that imitated the village layouts from before Cahokia's founding. The archaeologists wanted to know what ordinary people were doing during the city's transition, and this spot was well beyond the elite sphere of Monk's Mound. They broke into the earth above three separate anomalies, eventually creating three trenches called excavation blocks (EB 1, 2, and 3 for short).

When I arrived, Baires, Baltus, and Watts were looking down into EB1, muttering to each other about what they’d found. "Ugh—what is this?" Baires asked, looking intently at the floor of a structure that had not seen light for almost a thousand years. I knelt down next to her at the carefully squared-off edge of the pit, trying to imagine a building here. "It's a palimpsest,” Watts suggested. The group had uncovered layer upon layer of material, suggesting many structures were built in this same place over time. Like most of the team, Watts stood barefoot in the muddy trench so as not to disturb the ground where Cahokians once walked.

Even with my untrained eye, I could tell she was pointing at overlapping building floors: one area of darker clay ended abruptly in a diagonal line like a wall, and alongside it was a uniformly colored area of clay studded with charcoal and artifacts. The walls themselves, made from posts sunk into the clay, had long ago rotted away.

These structures weren’t modest little homes, either. At least one ritual fire had burned here, its flames consuming valuable offerings like mica, a ceremonial beaker for holding the heavily caffeinated Black Drink, a beautifully woven mat, a pottery trowel imported from a remote village, and an ancient projectile point from pre-Cahokia peoples that would have been centuries old by the time it was buried here. EB 2 and 3 were similarly unusual, yielding finds that suggested feasting and ritualistic earth-moving activities.

What Baires and Baltus thought would be a bunch of private homes turned out to be a public area full of “special use structures,” the preferred archaeological term for any building whose purpose goes beyond the everyday. People used these buildings for everything from political debates and social gatherings, to spiritual practices and party venues. Looking over the neighborhood, Baires said simply, "I've never seen anything like this." Following her gaze, I could no longer see the field bordered by trees and distant gas tanks. Instead, there were meeting halls, a wide courtyard with a decorated wooden pole at its center, and a sacred pit where Cahokians borrowed clay for their mounds. A huge trash pile full of deer bones and broken pottery hinted at a big feast.

I was looking back in time to a period when the quiet fields around me would have been packed with people, houses, and mounds all the way to the horizon.

A quick primer on some of the high- and low-tech tools we used at the dig site.

The Mississippians

Mound cities are an ancient tradition in North America, going back millennia before Cahokia. The continent's first known earthwork is at Poverty Point in Louisiana, built 3,400 thousand years ago, when the earliest Egyptian pyramids were under construction. Today you can still see its remains in crescent-shaped ridge mounds that look like huge nested parentheses on a bluff overlooking a now-dry riverbed. Over a thousand years after Poverty Point was abandoned, people from the Hopewell culture built even more astounding mound cities in Ohio and throughout the northeast.

The framers of Cahokia would have known about some of these ancient places and probably wanted to build a city in their image. They also wanted to build it fast.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign archaeologist Tim Pauketat has studied Cahokia for most of his career. He writes that its mounds appear so abruptly in the archaeological record that it's as if they were built directly on top of a constellation of small towns that belonged to people known today as Woodland Indians. As the city grew, farms full of maize and other starchy seeds spread outward from Cahokia into the Illinois uplands. 

Pauketat believes that something like a religious revival spurred the city's sudden appearance. Revival movements were common among Native Americans of the southeast. Indian oral histories and writings from European observers both recount how charismatic spiritual leaders emerged to lead cultural transformations in eighteenth and nineteenth century Native American communities. Groups would come from miles around to hear the leader's teachings and set up temporary camps for feasting and celebration. The new leaders' ideas would spread like wildfire, carried by people who had gone to the revival camps or storytellers repeating what they had heard.

Many of these revivals were inspired by astronomical events. Pauketat suggests this might have been the case with the revival that founded Cahokia: In 1054, just as the city was growing, a supernova lit up the sky for almost a month. It was so bright that it would have been visible during the day and as luminous as the full Moon at night. It’s possible that an enterprising group of religious or political leaders took the supernova as a sign that it was time to found a new kind of civilization. Pauketat suggests that Cahokia’s earliest residents were immigrants from all over the area, possibly even from as far away as Mexico’s mound-building Toltec civilization. Perhaps the exploding star inspired a new set of beliefs that united previously disparate groups in a common purpose.

Shortly after Cahokia’s founding, the Cahokian way of life spread to the entire Mississippian region. Along the Mississippi River, Pauketat writes, archaeologists have found the remains of countless southern cities modeled on Cahokia, “populated by people who grew corn, built rectangular pyramidal mounds and flat plazas, and crafted or decorated objects with images of sky and earth gods and godlike ancestors.” Cahokians made a distinctive form of ceremonial pottery, called Ramey, that can be found throughout the Mississippian settlements. People shared Ramey far and wide to honor the city that founded their civilization.

How to dig up a lost city

Cahokia lies in a crazy quilt of ecosystems along the Mississippi River called the American Bottom. Rain and floods fill the area with seasonal ponds and swamps, while the surrounding bluffs give way to prairies perfect for growing food staples like maize and other starchy seeds.

Over the CABB Tract the sky was a scalding blue, and the heat was clotted with humidity.

Baires and Watts revealed their secret to staying cool: bring a bottle of completely frozen water in the morning, and it will have melted to chilled perfection by mid-day. It’s excellent for pressing against sweaty foreheads as it defrosts, too. Even though the pits were shaded with canvas roofs, we took frequent breaks to guzzle water and reapply sunblock. Everyone wore hats with varying degrees of sartorial cunning. Ultimately it didn't matter how dorky you looked, as long as you didn't go home with a burned neck or face.

At first, I wandered between the excavation blocks, trailing after Baires and Baltus as they made their rounds and checked the students’ work. At EB1 and EB2, there were dozens of finds: chunks of ceremonial pottery, a tiny human face recreated in clay, projectile points, the remains of a woven mat, and the triangular handle of a beaker that once held Black Drink, a highly caffeinated beverage used during ceremonies to induce hallucinations and vomiting. EB3 remained a mystery. It looked like part of a palisade wall ringing the neighborhood on the magnetometry survey, but Baires and Baltus had come to believe it might be something else.

The two crouched together at the edge of each block, conferring with Watts and the students. Occasionally they directed the students to wrap an especially valuable find in tin foil, or fold it into a lunch bag. Everything was carefully labeled, and even the soil itself was scooped into buckets and pushed through a sieve later to catch any remaining items.

  • A view of Excavation Block 1, where the archaeological team uncovered evidence of multiple structures full of burned offerings.

    Annalee Newitz

  • A student excavates at EB 1.

  • Make sure you label everything you find and put it in a bag! Here you can see a piece of chert that was probably for a scraper.

  • Shovel scraping at EB 2. I'm the person on the right with the extremely dorky hat. Archaeologist Sarah Baires exhibits perfect dirt tossing form on the far left.

  • Archaeologist Sarah Baires looks at the mysterious EB 3. Student Emma Wink shows her the layer of yellow soil, which the team hypothesizes is part of a ramp leading into a borrow pit.

  • Oh look, it's a little face made of fired clay. Also, a blister.

  • Some gorgeous Ramey pottery, incised with characteristic marks that are associated with the Underworld.

  • Parts of the dig are left under tarps so that they stay moist.

  • Dig deeper! We must learn more about the borrow pit at EB 3!

  • A typical scene where archaeologists Sarah Baires (green hat), Melissa Baltus (gray hat), and Elizabeth Watts (camo hat) confer about their crazy discoveries at EB 3.

  • A rare moment of calm at EB 2 during lunch.

  • Archaeologist Melissa Baltus uses a total station to get a survey of the excavation at the CABB Tract, measuring elevations down to the centimeter.

I started to learn archaeologist lingo. Strategies for “chasing out” or “following out” features that emerged from the clay were developed on the fly. “Let’s follow out this line of burned clay,” Baires directed a student in EB1. The bottom of each structure was a “basin,” because the Cahokians built with sunken floors. The massive quarries where they dug up clay for their mounds were “borrow pits.” When we found a structure wall, we “caught its edge” or “caught a corner.” It’s as if we were racing after a history that was on the verge of escape.

Pretty much every dig in Cahokia begins with “chunking out” a foot of sterile ground created by years of farmers plowing up the land. Beneath that, the city’s layers begin. With each centimeter removed, the archaeologists go backward in time, working their way through the city’s late-phase dissolution, into the classic era with its masterful pottery and art.

Digging is a specialized craft, and the students were learning it on the job. Eastern Connecticut State undergrad Emma Wink, who was working tirelessly to chase out an odd layer of yellow soil at the mysterious EB3, told me that she was so focused on her work that she forgot everything else. “I’m basically a mole person,” she joked. Over at EB1, where the most artifacts are emerging, Western Washington University senior Will Nolan followed out a tantalizing layer of burn. He said he could feel the difference between layers. The burn felt “crunchy, grainy, and harder to dig.” He knew when he’d gone through the burn because the next layer was “smooth and sticky.”

Finally I had to try it myself. Baires loaned me a shovel with a carefully sharpened edge and explained that I wouldn't be digging. I’d be “shovel scraping,” skimming off just a thin layer of the basin at EB2. Each scrape left a curled sheet of clay in my shovel like a thick, dirty scroll. Any time I felt resistance in the mud or heard a crunch, I immediately stopped and examined the ground, using a pointed trowel to dig gently around anomalous lumps. My first find was a slab of red pottery that crumbled to dust in my fingers. “Don’t worry about that,” Baires assured me. “It’s just unfired clay and it won’t hold up.” Later, I found nuggets of charcoal, blobs of yellow pigment, a few jagged pieces of fired pottery, and several burned deer bones.

The bones were the worst, because there were so many of them that it halted our digging dozens of times. We had to be careful to determine that these weren't human bones, because human remains must be reported immediately. Though we'd already identified these as deer bones, archaeologists will sometimes do a lick check to be sure. Lick check? I stared at Baires in bewilderment. “Do you want to lick it?” she asked. “Deer bones are more porous than human, so your tongue will stick to it.” The students looked at me. Would the weird journalist do it? Hell yeah, I would. I brought a small fragment of bone to my mouth, tasted salt, and felt my tongue adhere lightly to the surface. “Yep, it’s deer,” Baires shrugged.

After I’d been shovel scraping for an hour, blisters started coming up and popping on my fingers. When I fell exhausted into bed at 8:30pm, I could feel the exact part of my thigh that I used to push the shovel handle. I couldn't stop thinking about how I licked the bones of a deer that was cooked for a feast in Cahokia 900 years ago. I wish I could have been there to see the party, but this might be the next best thing.


When you're excavating at Cahokia, you start to appreciate what it was like to build the mounds here a millennium ago. We shoveled clay into buckets, sweated, hydrated, and repeated. Our hands were covered in garbage and dirt. We watched the sun’s path overhead to mark the time, always wary of looming storm clouds. Of course, we hadn't gone completely medieval. Baltus supplemented our personal observations with a couple of weather satellite apps on her phone. Even when the sky looked cloudless, the American Bottom could brew up a storm in less than an hour.

One afternoon, everyone's mobiles lit up with dire warnings about a dangerous hailstorm. Racing against the weather, we packed up shovels and bags with military precision. Once the dark gray clouds gathered over the Mississippi, it could start pouring within minutes. We crammed ourselves into a van and took shelter at a nearby Mexican restaurant as thunder rattled the windows and winds uprooted trees in nearby East St. Louis.

Over steaming plates of enchiladas and pitchers of frozen margaritas, I pumped the archaeologists for information about what social structure united tens of thousands of people in Cahokia so long ago. What could have drawn so many people to perform backbreaking labor in the broiling humidity? My thoughts went to the charismatic leaders who led Cahokia's revival movements. “Who got to be at the top of Monk’s Mound?” I asked. “Was it a chief or some kind of religious leader?” From the way the archaeologists looked at each other I could tell this was a trigger question. “This is a hotly debated topic,” Baltus said finally with a laugh.

Even if we imagined this revival coming from the teachings of one person, Baires warned that it probably wasn’t as if there was a single “chieftain” leading everyone to build their houses a certain way or line their borrow pits with colorful clay. “I don’t like the idea of a chieftain,” she explained. “I think power was more diverse than that. It was a heterarchy.”

I rolled the unfamiliar word around on my tongue. “Heterarchy—like, a monarchy except a lot of people are in power?” The margaritas didn't help my listening comprehension.

The answer turned out to be yes and no. Cahokia’s heterarchy might have been a lot of different groups making decisions and governing themselves. Perhaps there were craft guilds or neighborhood associations. Already, I'd seen that the CABB Tract was full of ritual items. Perhaps they had their own leadership council, too? “If Cahokia was a religious movement, people might have engaged with that on their own terms,” Baltus said. “Their idea of spirituality may have come from home, not the top of the mound.”

Troubled times in Cahokia

If you look online or in books for illustrations that recreate Cahokia, you’ll notice an almost universal error. The mounds and swales of the city are shown covered in a light dusting of green grass, almost like a golf course. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a fascinating book called Envisioning Cahokia, a group of archaeologists explain that the city and its monuments would have been bald black mud. No grass would have survived within city limits, though many houses would have been surrounded by gardens for growing beans, squash, and other staples.

Against the dark, swampy mud, the wood-framed and thatched houses of Cahokians would have been colorful, decorated with mats, carvings, and plaster. Public areas featured wooden poles, possibly painted and decorated with fur, feathers, baskets of grain, and other symbolic items. People also decorated themselves. Several tools for making tattoos have been uncovered at Cahokia, as have beads and jewelry. Figurines found in Mississippian cities show that people wore body paint, patterned clothes, and earrings. Men played a game with pucks and spears called Chunkey. Women farmed on their knees, using handheld hoes made with wood and sharp stone. And as huge garbage pits full of animal bones, drug paraphernalia, and fancy pottery attest, everybody at Cahokia loved to party.

Archaeologists mark the eras of the city based on the orientation of its houses. During the Lohmann phase (1050-1100 CE), when people were first building Cahokia’s Grand Plaza and Monk’s Mound, most houses were organized into courtyard patterns. During the Stirling phase (1100-1200 CE), often called Classic Cahokia, most of the city was on a strict grid with houses and mounds oriented in a north-south direction. This was also the city's heyday, when it had the biggest population. In the final Moorehead phase (1200-1350 CE), people returned to the courtyard plans of the Lohmann phase.

But these different city phases weren't just architectural fads. Indiana University, Bloomington, archaeologist Susan Alt argues the transformation “marked social change." Nowhere are these changes more obvious than in the downtown area where Monk's Mound rises above the Grand Plaza. This central meeting place was an engineering marvel, carefully sloped during the city's construction to allow water to drain off during public events. Everything about the architecture here suggests a highly stratified society led by charismatic figures who lived above Cahokia's sprawl on the smoothed top of Monk's Mound. Ordinary residents of the city spent many long hours ritualistically hauling clay in baskets from borrow pits to build the mounds. The leaders repaid them with words of wisdom and massive feasts. But at some point that wasn't enough anymore.

During the late Stirling phase, there must have been quite a bit of urban unrest. The elites of Monk's Mound erected an enormous wooden palisade wall all the way around the Grand Plaza, effectively enclosing themselves in a walled neighborhood. This may have led to more problems. If people were literally kept out of the downtown area by a giant wall, as Baltus puts it, “they might feel disenfranchised." Shortly thereafter, the Grand Plaza fell into disrepair. Alt writes, "Domestic buildings and refuse-filled features seem to have been relocated around and onto the plaza perimeter, perhaps as part of a general redesign of downtown Cahokia in conjunction with the recently built palisade wall. By 1300, there were probably few to no residents left in this inner sanctum." In other words, non-elites moved into the area and even dumped trash there. During this period, Woodhenge was also torn down.

As the city reshaped itself during the Moorehead phase, Cahokians violently rejected the people and symbols of their once-monumental downtown. Roughly half the city's population moved away, and those remaining began to retreat into their own neighborhoods, conducting smaller public rituals and events. The courtyard and public buildings in the CABB Tract reflect this new kind of social organization. The city's central authority had been supplanted by local communities.

Why did the people of Cahokia lose faith in the revival that built a city? The answer may lie inside the mounds themselves.

Theatrical sacrifice

Back in the 1960s, when scientists were still in the habit of digging up Native American ancestors without permission, an early Cahokia archaeologist named Melvin L. Fowler opened up a mound. There, he found the remains of several public rituals—and over a hundred bodies—that give us a glimpse of politics and spirituality in Stirling-era Cahokia.

Fowler knew that the classical Cahokia grid was mostly aligned on a north-south axis. But there was one oddly shaped mound that didn’t fit. Mound 72 is one of the city’s few “ridge top mounds,” meaning its rectangular body was constructed with a peaked top like a roof. And though it stood precisely south of Monk’s Mound, it was angled 30 degrees off the east-west axis, pointing in the exact direction of the summer and winter solstice. Fowler suspected this mound might be something special.

  • Here are some of the sacrifices that Melvin Fowler uncovered at Mound 72. The wooden rectangles around each skeleton are the remains of litters beneath the bodies.

    Jim Anderson

  • The remains of more than 250 people were found inside Mound 72, likely sacrifices offered as part of rituals of fertility and renewal.

    Jim Anderson

  • This schematic shows the interior of Mound 72, with its burials and caches of valuable items.

  • The Birger Figurine was discovered in an outlying neighborhood of Cahokia. It depicts a woman farming with a typical Cahokian hoe made from stone and wood. She's hoeing the back of a massive serpent with a bobcat’s head and a tail that branches into thick stalks sprouting gourds. On her back is a basket for carrying ancestor spirits.

  • The look on her face is one of grim determination and strength. Her body unites the Underworld and the Upper World; she exists at the nexus of fertility, danger, and myth. She embodies the political and religious spirit of Cahokia, a city where worlds came together to create a powerful new civilization.

When Fowler and his colleagues dug, they discovered that Mound 72's ridge top was actually built over three previous mounds, each one marking a significant moment in the city’s history during the 10th and 11th centuries. One of those mounds contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers on top of clay platforms, then ritualistically covered over with earth. Another held the bodies of men on litters, similarly arrayed. Buried beneath thousands of pounds of clay for centuries, their skeletons were pressed as flat as flowers between the pages of a book. Oxygen isotope analysis of their teeth, which can pinpoint where people were born, shows these people were all local to the American Bottom.

Perhaps the most famous burial in Mound 72 contains the bodies of two people, one atop the other, in what’s called the “beaded burial.” The top body was placed on a river of valuable blue shell beads and may have worn a cloak fashioned to look like a falcon. The burial included hundreds of gorgeous ceremonial projectile points, as well as piles of other valuable offerings. Alongside the beaded body were the remains of several other people, including some who had no heads. The find presented a tantalizing tableau for scientists who wondered about the spiritual and political beliefs of Cahokians.

Debates over the meaning of the beaded burial have raged in the archaeological community for decades. Initially the bead-adorned skeletons were described as male, with the top one dubbed “the Birdman.” Fowler and other archaeologists assumed the Birdman was a celebrated ruler or warrior, perhaps the source for contemporary Siouan stories of the superhero Red Horn. But this interpretation has been pushed aside in the wake of a groundbreaking 2016 study by Illinois State Archaeological Survey Director Tom Emerson and his colleagues, which chronicles the first comprehensive skeletal analysis of the bodies in Mound 72. They discovered that the two people at the center of the tableau are in fact a young male and female, suggesting a ritual of fertility. This interpretation is bolstered by the remains of other male/female pairs buried with them, as well as the 52 young women who also represented reproductive bounty.

Now it would seem that the beaded burial wasn’t marking the grave of a great warrior or Cahokian founder. Instead, Emerson argues, we're probably seeing the remains of a public performance where people representing mythical figures were sacrificed. The city's elites may have led the performance to show their political and spiritual power, much the way their European counterparts of the same era were conducting public executions and crusades. “This scene looks more like a theatrical sacrifice rather than a burial,” Emerson and his colleagues write. They suggest it might have been a pageant where the city celebrated creation and renewal. Many of the offerings, like shells, are associated with the Underworld in local Native American belief systems—and the Underworld, in turn, is connected to farming and the land's fecundity.

Sacrifices like the ones in Mound 72 may have involved joyous retellings of a creation story during the height of Cahokia's power. They might have been parties to commemorate a fruitful harvest. But over time they may have led to resentment, especially if decisions over life and death were in the hands of a few people ruling from on high. It's possible there was a political rebellion. Evidence from the Grand Plaza's decline would seem to support this idea. After the fall of the downtown area, we also see an abrupt end to human sacrifice. Maybe Cahokia's citizens toppled the regime that occupied Monk’s Mound and created a new social model.

The Upper World and the Underworld

Without a time machine, we'll never know exactly what the Cahokians' political struggles were about. Still, we have some hints about how they saw the world. The symbols they left behind suggest they divided the universe into an Upper World of spirits and ancestors, an Underworld of Earth and animals, and a human world in between. These worlds were not entirely separated, and the liminal spaces where they intermingled were places of great power. Images that bring worlds together are common in Mississippian art. The Upper World, represented by thunder and spirits, and the Underworld, represented by water and agriculture, are intertwined.

Baires and Baltus think Cahokians used water and fire in their everyday rituals to draw the Upper World and Underworld together.

We can see the transformative power of water written into the layout of Cahokia. Though the city's mounds attract the eye, the deep borrow pits were no less important to urbanites. Left open to the elements, they filled with water on a seasonal basis. The borrow pit that provided clay for Monk's Mound is so enduring that it's still filled with water to this day. Many pieces of ceremonial Ramey pottery are covered in images of water and fish, while shells filled burial mounds throughout the Mississippian world.

During the CABB Tract excavation, I got a chance to see how one neighborhood sculpted water into its daily activities. Baires pointed at a deep hole the students dug at EB3, uncovering several feet of a sloping ramp paved in yellow soils. It was obvious this yellow layer wasn't natural: it wasn't found in soil from the area and followed an exact 30-degree slope downward. Baires, Baltus, and Watts speculated that it was once the entrance to a shallow borrow pit that supplied this neighborhood with mud. We could see a history of this pit in its sediment layers. At first, the locals allowed the trough to become a seasonal pond. Later, they filled it back up with carefully layered clay, almost like they were building an inverted mound. “We caught the edge of a deliberately filled borrow pit,” Sarah explained with a grin. All the archaeologists are excited about this unusual find, which adds evidence to the idea that pits were as important to Cahokians as mounds.

Fire was even more important, especially late in the city's history. Fire could join worlds, because what was burned on Earth could ascend to the Upper World through smoke. Everywhere archaeologists dig at Cahokia, they find charred sacrifices. In 2013, construction workers building a freeway in East St. Louis discovered the remains of a late Cahokian neighborhood built entirely for the purpose of ritual burning. Dozens of tiny houses, full of corn and other valuables, were constructed rapidly and then torched. Nobody had ever lived in those homes. It appears that the entire neighborhood was essentially burned in effigy.

At the CABB Tract, all our excavation blocks were layered with periodic burns. The group at EB1 dug up enough ground for Baires and Baltus to figure out where all its overlapping structures once stood. The lowest level was a clay floor from the Stirling phase, at the height of Cahokia’s power. That floor was burned at some point and covered in another layer of clay for the floor of a later structure. In the later structure, people dug a pit into the floor, carefully lined it with a mat, then filled it with valuables like the beaker handle and ancient Woodland projectile point. That pit and its contents were burned too, possibly to commemorate the first burn.

Excavating burned offerings at Cahokia.

I watched as Baires and Baltus gingerly used their trowels to reveal charred remains of the mat that once lined the offering pit. Its furled edge wound across the clay and looked like a criss-cross pattern etched in charcoal. We weren't actually looking at the mat itself, but the impression it left behind in the earth as it smoldered. “It’s nuts,” Baires said. “We never find things like this.”

At EB2, there were no elaborately interpenetrating layers of ritual burning, but the structure itself was an unusually large rectangle that suggested a public space rather than a home. Plus, all those burned deer bones and broken Ramey pots inside were a sure sign that some kind of celebration happened here. It was easy to imagine the ceremonial structures we’d uncovered at EB1 and 2 standing next to a ritualistically dug trench, its floor layered with pale yellow clay.

Slowly, the layout of the neighborhood was emerging around us. This was no ordinary domestic area; people who lived here were heavily engaged in the city’s political and spiritual life, conducting regular rituals. But this place also represented a trend in late classical Cahokian culture. City dwellers stopped using Monk’s Mound and the Grand Plaza for public performances and started conducting more rituals at home, on a smaller scale. Local identity eclipsed city identity, and the rigid city grid returned to the courtyard layout of pre-Cahokian days.

This insight also shed light on the importance of the borrow pit at EB3. It was a localized version of the giant borrow pits that supplied clay for Monk’s Mound, offering people in the neighborhood a constant reminder of how the Underworld intrudes into our own.

A spiritual city

I have some of my best conversations with archaeologists in bars. And there's no better place to do it than at a pub in Edwardsville, IL called The Stagger Inn, founded by an archaeologist and known to Cahokia researchers simply as “the archaeologist’s bar.” Every Thursday, people working the digs all over Cahokia converged on the place for beer, hamburgers, and ridiculously delicious fries.

At a battle-scarred wooden table next to a stage where musicians are setting up, we were joined by Baltus and Baires’ colleagues, Susan Alt and Tim Pauketat. Alt and Pauketat were working at their own dig sites and have decades of experience studying Mississippian culture. I immediately started asking them about Cahokia's economic structure, because I couldn't figure out how Cahokians persuaded people in the outlying farms to bring them food. Was there some kind of trade network? Pauketat actually rolled his eyes when I asked that. He and Alt were both very opposed to the idea that Cahokia might have been a trade center,and called it a mistake to view the city as an economic entity. “The primary purpose of the city was not trade or work. It was spiritual,” Pauketat said after we plied him with more beer. “Wealth isn’t really the right word for what they had, but it was a side-effect.”

Alt had further evidence that Cahokia was a place devoted to spirituality. She was excavating at a site devoted to spiritual rituals called Emerald. Located in St. Clair County, Illinois, Emerald might even be the birthplace of Cahokian spirituality--it's full of Mississippian artifacts, but pre-dates Cahokia's population explosion. "Maybe people came there, then immigrated to Cahokia and stayed?” Alt mused. If true, that would provide more evidence for the idea that Cahokia's founding grew out of belief rather than trade concerns.

But there had to have been some economic system, I argued. After all, some people were growing food and other people were eating it. Was there trade with other cities along the river, or a marketplace where toolmakers from the downtown area could trade for maize from the uplands? Pauketat shrugged. “Sure, some people were specialized or getting food from other people, but practices were heterogeneous. It would have worked differently in different neighborhoods.” There was that idea of heterarchy again. Maybe people in one neighborhood traded their Ramey pottery with another neighborhood that produced particularly excellent reed mats. Maybe families another neighborhood pooled the food they gathered each day for big group dinners. And perhaps certain communities made special deals with outlying farms to get seasonal surpluses. The point is, the city didn't have a universal trade system or currency.

Cahokia's story still seems relevant in contemporary America. People didn't immigrate to the mound city just to find material wealth. They sought new kinds of political and spiritual ideas. But not everyone in Cahokia agreed on how to put those ideas into practice.

Revitalization before the fall

Baires and Baltus make a good investigative team because their areas of expertise span the city’s history: Baires focuses on the classic Stirling phase, while Baltus explores the later Moorehead phase. But both are fascinated by what Baltus calls a “rejuvenation period” late in the city’s life. Before it was completely abandoned in 1400 CE, Cahokia went through a final revitalization movement. This movement might have started with a person or group suggesting a new way to live, contact with new allies, or a new relationship to agriculture and the Underworld. As a result, Cahokia was rebuilt rapidly, by people seemingly on fire with belief.

When Cahokians dug, they often found old projectile points and other items from the Woodland peoples who lived in the area before the city was built. They treasured these items, the same way people today treasure ancient objects from Cahokia. This impulse explains why we found a Woodland projectile point in the ceremonial fires buried in the layers of EB1. It's as if people were embracing retro styles or traditional values. In the final revitalization period, people took this obsession with the past even further. They rebuilt their homes using the courtyard neighborhood layouts from Cahokia's earliest days. They were obviously re-examining history and seeing it in a different light.

“In the revitalization period, we see a return to old practices, including a decentralized religious practice,” said Baltus. But this decentralization didn't stop at city boundaries. In scattered Mississippian sites across the floodplain and the uplands, Cahokian practices slowly became unbound from Cahokia proper. Archaeologists still find ritual burnings on floors, but none of the Ramey pottery that was so characteristic of the city’s symbolism. The population of the city was draining away. As people left, they took some of Cahokia's culture with them, but left other parts behind.

In its heyday, the Cahokia revival encouraged people to build mounds and anchored their belief systems to the land. But during the city's final revitalization, those beliefs became unmoored from the city—perhaps due to disenfranchisement, or perhaps just a focus on smaller communities. Eventually this led to social dissolution. After all, Baltus explains, “if you don’t unite people around an identity tied to place, with practices that keep people together, there can be fragmentation.”

There were also environmental factors at play. Some archaeologists believe the city was inundated by a massive flood from the Mississippi River which was so destructive and deadly that the survivors didn’t want to stay. Baires and Baltus have long been skeptical of this idea, and devoted part of their summer to disproving it. They invited geomorphologist Michael Kolb to take soil cores around the edges of their dig site. Using a truck-mounted device, he punched out cores that went 3 meters deep, looking for a thick layer of buried river sediments suggesting a flood. He found nothing like that at all.

There's a more likely environmental explanation for the city’s decline. Cahokia suffered through a number of droughts, which would have made it difficult for the city to support a large population. Given that Cahokians' beliefs were tied to the landscape, any environmental changes would have affected them culturally too. “There’s a cycle,” Baltus explained. “There’s a drought and that changes people’s relationship to the land, then spiritual practices change, then land use changes, spiritual practices change again, and before you know it you have fragmentation and abandonment.”

Cahokia grew to such an enormous size because the structure of the city itself was part of its residents' spiritual and political worldview. But over time that centralized belief system began to crumble. When the last revitalization swept the city, people returned to the old ways. They looked to home for their sense of identity and community. Their once-unified city fragmented into many peoples who left the mounds behind.

They may have abandoned their great city, but Cahokians left an indelible mark on the land. Other Native American groups inhabited the city’s empty courtyards, and European colonists built farms and suburbs over them, but the monuments of Mississippian civilization still endure. There's no question that the mounds inspire a sense of wonder that transcends time.

One evening, around dusk, I climbed Monk’s Mound with a fellow adventurer. The sky was full of tall thunderheads, and the sunset was blood red between dark blotches of cloud that glowed sporadically with lightning. The tall grass around our ankles was blinking with fireflies, and the air was cool at the top of the mound. Below us we could see the graceful shape of the Great Plaza, and across the river were the lights of St. Louis. The thick air smelled like damp soil and farmland.

With our feet atop an ancient megalopolis and our eyes on distant skyscrapers, it felt as if cities here were inevitable. The land around St. Louis has been urban for a very long time. I’m not a New Agey person, but there was something undeniably magical about that. Standing on the flattened summit, we were balanced on a piece of earth that almost touched the chaotic heavens. It made sense that Cahokians believed the Underworld and Upper World met here, beneath the thunder and above the clay whose shape was forever altered by human history.

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2552 days ago
Seattle, WA
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