Food-tech companies like Hampton Creek, as well as Soylent, Juicero, and others, present an enhanced reality within the present. They frame real, global problems in such a way that their products could resolve them, and posit the existence of products that could solve real, global problems. The products are consumable goods, but more than that, they provide a blueprint for a better future, so the decision to believe them or not often represents more than a straightforward evaluation of fact. Because these start-ups construct aesthetic worlds that muddle the boundaries between the scientific veracity of their product and the future it implies, to believe the science is, on their terms, to assent to live in that future. Buying the parafiction with the product can feel compulsory, and consumers respond with anxiety, or enthusiastic embrace. Sometimes, when the illusion falls apart, it feels like a dam breaking: there’s an outpouring of derision at the debunked future, a silly story that won’t become real quite yet.
One morning in the spring of 2010, while standing in line in the New York Public Library’s majestic Rose Reading Room, I was approached by a middle-aged librarian, a man I had known for years; we had common interests and would frequently chat while he was on duty. He read The Nation and knew I wrote for it. On this particular morning, he leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Our trustees are planning to sell the library across the street”—by which he meant the Mid-Manhattan Library, a decrepit facility on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. “It stinks,” he continued. “You should look into it.”
I was busy with other projects and let his tip go. But a year later, I received an assignment from this magazine to profile Anthony Marx, the New York Public Library’s incoming president. Early in my research, I quickly grasped what the librarian had tried to tell me a year earlier: The NYPL’s leadership—aided by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton—had conceived a wildly ambitious transformation plan. The grand library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue would undergo a massive renovation in which 3 million books would be removed from the historic stacks in the center of the building and sent to an off-site storage facility; the stacks would then be demolished, and a new, modern library (designed by the celebrated British architect Norman Foster) would be built in the space that, for a century, had held the books. Foster would create a library within a library, one that carried a heavy price tag: $300 million. To pay for this Central Library Plan (CLP), two nearby libraries that occupied prime real estate—the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry, and Business Library on 34th Street and Madison Avenue—would be sold. In a soaring Manhattan real-estate market, the NYPL (which is the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s latest film, Ex Libris) would not be excluded from its share of the spoils.