If you want to understand economic progress in the 21st century, go into one of the world’s thousands of huge new shopping malls. Be sure to choose one in a “developing country,” that is, any nation besides the world’s 20-30 richest. That gives you about 150 options. Better yet, let’s pick a specific mall—the Grand Indonesia in Jakarta, the capital of the world’s 4th most populous country. Go to a specific spot, the exit, and wait for a taxi.
It’s standing here, trying to re-integrate your body into the world outside the mall, that you can have the experience that is truly emblematic of globalization, the pinnacle of human development, the experience toward which almost all of modern civilization is hurtling, at great cost.
Emerging from the cold, air-conditioned hallways of the mall itself, you breathe in the hot, humid pollution. You walk to the back of a long line of people waiting for cars to split off from gridlock traffic. You stare at your phone for 20 minutes or so. The line doesn’t move much, and the smog and stress are so overpowering, you consider just giving up and letting gravity pull you back inside, where you can wander aimlessly for 20 more minutes, maybe have a cinnamon roll. You’ve done this—all of it—before. A couple of your line-comrades succumb and head back in.
Because inside, within a space built entirely for private consumption, things sort of work. Outside, all of the systems that are meant to deliver public goods—transportation, clean air, open space, education, safety from harassment—don’t work at all. In much of the developing world, it’s insane to even assume they are supposed to work. You must be from another world, or from the past. The goal, now, is to build those malls and get inside.
This line is important because to be standing here, you must command an amount of wealth that is unimaginable for most people in this country. To be standing here at all is to be incredibly rich, and technically, enjoying your leisure time. You have the cash to splurge at a nice mall, and you are waiting to splash out for a motorcar taxi, rather than take a bus, or motorcycle. It means you have become rich enough to buy yourself out of the bullshit, at least for a little while.
There is something about the political economy of development, something about the states governing most of the world, that makes them perfect factories for creating these malls and pretty bad at everything else. Mostly, these states are theoretically powerful, but extremely porous to private interests. If you take the incentives of big property developers, the possibility for politicos to skim off the top, a surplus of “empty” land, and a bit of new pocket money spread among a growing consumer class and pour them all into the matrix of contemporary liberal capitalist development, it’s going to spit out a 3-5 story air-conditioned building with lots of places to buy hot pretzels. The same recipe isn’t going to yield new public transportation systems, or educational investments, or even sidewalks.
During Brazil’s most recent boom years (2005-2012, RIP), workers built so many malls, or shoppings, as they say in Brazilian Portuguese, that it became easy, later, to find giant, half-empty buildings far from much else—except for other big malls. But even during all the years of economic growth, there was no improvement in public safety and certainly not enough investment in socially-useful infrastructure. All the money went to new washers and dryers and crap, or piled up in the secret bank accounts of the mega-elite, who could always run away to Miami and Portugal when things went to shit. As small and medium-sized cities around the world “develop,” a mall is often the sign that your area has finally made it. This often means the mall will take on the role that parks, or beaches, or even living rooms play in rich countries. In much of the world,even if you are morally or aesthetically repulsed by malls, you have no choice but to enter for many of your basic activities. In Indonesia, the mall will also become a cultural center, host to things like frequent live concerts whose output echoes horribly through the giant building with the acoustics of, well, a mall.
The music is pop-American approximately 100% of the time. In the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the only non-American voices you will hear over the radio speakers (Ed Sheeran is a very notable, perhaps emblematic, example) will have at least been recorded by the American entertainment industrial complex. In these malls, you will not hear Indonesian music. You will not hear Japanese music, or anything from Asia. No European or Latin American music. It will all have been packaged and sold in the USA.
If you are in an Indonesian mall at the end of the year, you will see Christmas decorations in the North American style. Despite all the complaints about a putative “War on Christmas” in the U.S., the reality is that Christmas Culture has conquered even the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, and really, the whole world. Christianity is a recognized minority religion in Indonesia, but that’s not why malls have Christmas music. It’s because that music is what they are meant to play. Malls may not be so fashionable anymore in the rich world that created them, but that’s what Jakartans are getting, and they fucking definitely will be listening to English-language songs about Santa Claus.
Of course, the very phenomenon of the mall itself is American. The things evolved out of the early 20th-century U.S. department stores, which were nationally homogenized by corporate expansion and then transformed into, or abandoned for, suburban re-creations of the downtown shopping experience as white people abandoned city centers. From Main Street to Mall, by Vicki Howard, recounts this evolution, and importantly—for me, at least—gives the origin story of the central escalator system. The idea, she writes, was to“permit customers to move in a continuous flow,” which elevators did not. When Philadelphia’s Gimbel Brothers built their lavish 12-story addition in 1927, it included two sets of up-and-down escalators in the center of the building.
Mall-makers these days have added a special twist to that escalator system. They are now arranged and configured to actually trap you inside the mall.
I spent much of 2018 in Central Java, interviewing the survivors of mass anti-communist violence unleashed in 1965 and used as the foundation for the modern crony capitalist state. It was emotionally difficult work, and I had to go to my local mall constantly: to go to the gym, or see Crazy Rich Asians, or see Searching, or eat mediocre sushi. To move up the levels and reach your destination, you have to take one escalator on the West side of the building, then walk all the way across the cavernous space to another on the East side, and then walk back again, to another escalator. The obvious idea is that you have to walk by all those shops and donut places, and will be forced to buy something you don’t want, perhaps through sheer fatigue.
Then after you get to the top and spend your money, you’ll find that there are no escalators going back down. You might as well just move in. The best you can do is to find the one big ramp packed with a line of people, carefully pushing their shopping carts and their strollers downhill. But at least you can push wheels down this one. A shopping mall I frequented for many years in downtown São Paulo, Shopping Light, took this logic to an even more aggressively ridiculous extreme. After a certain floor, all the escalators go up. Once you have finished buying your phone charger (that turns out later is actually a fake phone charger, just some plastic in the shape of a phone charger, that does not work at all) you are stuck, until finally you find that there is a tiny stairwell, literally hidden behind big closed doors, that you can use to get back to the ground floor.
If you are disabled, or have even felt what it’s like to be injured for a few weeks, this kind of shit is an obvious act of cruelty. And it’s everywhere in the “developing world.” Many new South American airports feature arrivals terminals that intentionally dump you into the middle of an enormous Duty Free store with no apparent exits, leaving you, lost, harried, with no recourse except to give in and chomp down into three kilos of Toblerone. I would do anything to meet the architects that designed these places, and to confront them. I’m fully able-bodied, and even at my most spry, these kinds of spatial tricks make me more infuriated than anything else that has happened to me in the last ten years. You can shoot at me, rob me, shut off my electricity for a week, and at least I will get it. None of that enrages me as much as making me take those extra steps across a part of a building that shouldn’t exist at all, that was built poorly on purpose, with human blood, sweat, and tears, in the attempt to make me give in and waste my money and harm my body with something that shouldn’t exist, either.
But I admit, when this red-hot rage comes over me, the sweet iced coffee and Cinnabon help me get through it.