Thursday, November 07, 2019

The City is the City

My brief from the wonderfully named Dream Adoption Society of the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw – for their 2019 exhibition The City is the City (the allusion to China Miéville is intended) – was to express a dream of the utopian city of the future. I’m not sure I did that, but here is what I gave them.


When trying to imagine the future, I tend to look back to the past. What we can find there are not answers but reasons to be humble.

It’s one thing to laugh at how wide of the truth the forecasts of a century or so ago were about the warp and weft of life today: all those moonbases, jet packs, flying cars. But it is more useful to think about why they were wrong.

The finest example, in many respects, of a vision of the future city in the late nineteenth century was supplied by the French author and illustrator Albert Robida in his books The Twentieth Century (1882) and its sequel The Electric Life (1892). Set in the 1950s, the first book shows the life of a Parisian woman called Hélène Colobry as she goes about her life as a recent law graduate; in the second we meet engineer Philoxène Lorris and his son Georges. In a series of glorious illustrations, Robida shows us a world of electric light, interactive televisions (“telephonoscopes”), airborne rocket-shaped cars and dirigibles, all in a style that is the very epitome of steampunk – and not a bit like the way things turned out.

The Parisians who populate Robida’s world could have stepped straight out of the fin de siècle, all elegant hats and parasols. And while the skies swarm with vehicles, the city below is architecturally recognizable as the Paris of Robida’s time. Our first inclination might be to read this as anachronistic – but wait, isn’t Paris indeed still that way now, with its art nouveau Metro stations and its Haussmann boulevards? So Robida is both “wrong” and “right”: he didn’t anticipate what was coming, but he reminds us that cities, and the entire texture of life, are palimpsests where traces of the past going back decades, centuries, even millennia, coexist with the most up-to-the-minute modernity.

More than that: the devices of modernity have built into them a visual and conceptual continuity with the past, for how else could we at first have navigated them? The joke has it that a young person, seeing for the first time a real floppy disk, exclaims “Hey, you’ve 3D-printed the Save icon!” I’ve no idea if this was ever actually said, but it is inadvertently eloquent as well as funny.

Thus forewarned, let us stroll into the utopian city – and discover that, as ever, it reflects our own image, our fantasies and fears, our current, compromised, patchwork technologies. This place is after all where we live here and now, but allowed to have grown and morphed in proportion to our old obsessions and habits, disguised with a veneer of synthetic futures. We have walked a circle and re-entered the present from another direction.


Utopia is an invention of the Renaissance, and ever since the quasi-theocracies imagined by Thomas More and Francis Bacon it has been bound up with the city and the city-state. In Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1623), the philosophical and political foundations of his utopia are inseparable from the fabric of his city with its seven concentric walls: a design that, like the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, represented the construction of the entire (now Copernican) cosmos. The very walls have a pedagogical function, covered with pictures and diagram that illustrate aspects of astronomy, mathematics, natural history and other sciences.

Palmanova in northern Italy has a radial design echoed in Tommaso Campanella’s utopian City of the Sun, reflecting the political ideals of social order and harmony.

For producing this vision, Campanella suffered 27 years of imprisonment and torture – reminding us that, when they began, utopian cities of the future were not forecasts of what technology might deliver but statements of political intent.

And, I can hear urban theorists sigh, when was a city ever not a statement of political intent? Cities speak about the societies that build them. The rich man in his high castle, the poor man at his gate – traditionally, real cities have symbolized not the heavens but the hierarchies here on earth. As the brutalist concrete modernism of housing complexes near my home in south London is slowly demolished, I see a failed experiment not just in architecture but also in social philosophy – just, indeed, as was the case when those rectilinear grey hulks of the 1950s and 60s replaced the Victorian slums that stood there before. And no one doubts that the disappearance of the hutongs of Beijing before the march of high-rise, daringly asymmetrical steel and glass makes a statement about what China is determined to leave behind and what it aspires to become.

So while my instinct, as an avid follower of trends in self-organization, complexity and new materials, is to bring science and technology to bear on the question of utopian urbanism (and I’ll get to that), I am reluctant to say a word on such matters before admitting that this question is primarily bound up with politics and demographics.

Not that I want first to make predictions about that; at this particular moment in history I would hesitate to forecast the politics of next week. Rather, I want to acknowledge that whatever fantasies (that is all they will be) I spin, they have to build on some kind of social philosophy before we think about the fabric.

But this is more complicated than it used to be, and the reason why is partly technological. One of the interesting aspects of Robida’s drawings is that his skies above the cityscape are sometimes a dense web of telephone wires. He evidently felt that whatever the twentieth century city would look like, communication and information networks would be important for them.

Now those wires are disappearing. Why? First, because they began to run underground, in optical fibres able to pack a far greater density of information into a narrow channel, encoded in pulses of light. But ever more now it is because the wires have become virtual: the networks are wireless.

“Wifi” is like that Save icon: a ghost of past technology condensed into an avatar of modernity. You need to be rather old to see it as anything more than a “dead metaphor”, meaning that it now stands only for itself and its etymological roots have themselves become irrelevant and invisible. Older readers, as the phrase goes, will hear the echo of “hifi”, which the term was coined to imitate: high fidelity, referring to the high-quality reproduction of sound in home audio systems, or more generally, to the superior conveyance of (audio) information. The “wi”, of course, is “wireless”, which harks back to the miracle that was radio. By means that many people considered semi-magical in the 1920s and 30s, sound and information could be broadcast through the air as radio waves rather than along transmission wires.

This seemed like an occult process, and indeed was initially thought by some to be allied to spiritualism and mediumship: the “ether” that was seen as the material medium of radio waves was suspected of also being a bridge between the living and the dead. When television arrived – so that you could not only hear but even see a person hundreds of miles away – the mystical aura of “wireless” technology only increased.

What has this to do with the city of the future? It illustrates that new technologies, especially of communication, have psychic implications as well as infrastructural ones. Even with a web of wires as dense as Robida’s, no one would have imagined a future in which you can sit in a coffee shop and, with a slab of glass and silicon held in your hand, tap instantly into more or less the sum total of existing human knowledge: to read in facsimile Isaac Newton’s original Principia, or watch in real time images of a spaceship landing on an asteroid. No one imagined that, thanks to technological innovation, we would in 2018 be producing as much data every two days as we produced throughout all of human existence until 2003.

And the truly astonishing thing is that this seems normal. More, it is regarded now almost as a human right, so that we are irritated to find ourselves in an unban space where every cubic centimetre of empty space is not animated by this invisible and ever expanding information flow.

Why in heaven’s name should we be expected to make sense of this situation as well as simply to exploit it? From a perceptual point of view, wifi wrecks spacetime. These ten square centimetres of reality are no longer where I am sitting in (say) Starbucks on Euston Road, but are the living room of my sister in Canberra, with whom I am chatting on Skype. Do you think it is just coincidence that the ways we interact with information technology are often indistinguishable from the symptoms of psychosis (and I’m not just talking about the associated addictions and other dysfunctional behaviours)?

Add to this now the possibility that even what might seem like the concrete existence of your own immediate environment can be tinkered with, overlain with the metadata of augmented reality. How then are we supposed to police the borders of virtual and real? Is it even clear what the distinction means? But if it is not, then who decides? And who decides where in that space of possibilities “normality” lies?

So look: a utopian city of the future must recognize that there will be more technologies like this, and also that people will adapt to them without ever quite processing them psychically. One thing Robida’s future citizens are never doing is sitting in their public-transport dirigibles staring at little black tablets in their palm, and frowning at them, laughing or weeping at them, talking to them. To Robida’s readers that would have made no sense at all.

It’s an easy matter to see how technologies and networks of information have changed our lives and built environments. Ever more people can work from home, for one thing – and the proper way to say this is that the boundaries of work and domesticity have become porous or almost invisible. What is perhaps more striking is how these technologies have been assimilated by, and altered, life in places far removed from the centres of modern development: rural sub-Saharan Africa, the plains of Mongolia. A weather app is handy if you want to know whether to take your umbrella with you in Paris; it is rather more than that if you are a farmer in Kenya.

It is precisely this importance of information that makes it a currency of political and economic power. Increasingly indices of development include the question of wifi access and screens per capita. Censorship of information technologies has become a significant means not just of social control but of employment in some countries; democracy is struggling (and failing) to keep pace with the tools that exist for manipulating opinion and distorting facts. As professor of communication John Culkin famously said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”


The struggle between, say, the Chinese authorities to censor the web and users’ efforts to evade them are, in an Orwellian sort of way, a metaphor for the tensions that exist in any complex adaptive system that unfolds in a social context. They are a dance between attempts at centralized control and design and the tendency of such systems to grow of their own accord. Both the internet and cities are often presented as exemplars of human constructs that no one designed, although of course the truth is that design and planning simply have limited impact. Christopher Wren’s orderly, utopian vision of London after the Great Fire of 1666 was never realized because of the city’s irrepressible urge to reform itself – with all the attendant chaos – while the embers were scarcely cool.

Perhaps the central revelation of the scientific study of complex adaptive systems is that this spontaneous growth is not merely chaotic and random, but follows particular law-like regularities – albeit ones quite unlike the geometric designs of Campanella and Wren, and which more closely resemble, and often exactly reproduce, the growth laws of living organisms.

The growth and form of cities like London resemble those of natural processes, like fluid flow through porous rock or the spread of a bacterial colony.

These regularities exist not because the agents responsible for growth – the people who build new roads and houses, say – are so intelligent, but precisely because their intelligence is, in this context at least, so limited. It’s not very clear what kinds of structures intelligent agents create when they are exerting their full cognitive capacities – the question is less studied theoretically – but there is some chance that they might be either too complex for any laws to be apparent at all, or totally random (the two could of course be indistinguishable). But when agents have very constrained cognition – when they act according to rather simple laws – then complex but nonetheless rather predictable and law-like group behaviour emerges. Cities, for example, show so-called scaling laws in which everything ranging from their crime rate to their innovative capacity, and even the speed of walking, varies with size according to a rather simple mathematical relation. They grow in a manner similar to tumours and snowflakes: they look like natural phenomena. Ants, wasps and termites are by no means cognitively sophisticated, but their social structures and even their architecture – their nests and mounds – certainly can be.

The complex architecture of tunnels in a termite mound, revealed here by taking a plaster cast. Photo: Rupert Soar, Loughborough University.

This doesn’t mean that humans are cognitively simple too (although who knows where that scale starts and ends?). Rather, our social systems inherently reduce the amount of cognition needed, and perhaps have evolved precisely in order to do so. It’s why we have traditions, conventions, norms and taboos. It’s why we have traffic lanes, speed limits, highways codes. (Traffic is a particularly clear example of complex behaviour, such as waves of stop-start jamming, emerging from agents interacting through simple rules.)

There is a strong case, then, why a well-designed city of the future would be quite unlike the precisely planned and geometrically ordered city-utopias of the past. Self-organized systems commonly show desirable traits, such as efficiency and economy in use of space and energy, robustness against unpredictable outside disturbances, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The trick is to find the “rules of engagement” between agents that create such outcomes and do not risk getting trapped in “bad solutions”.

Another way of saying this, perhaps, is that there is no point in trying to specify what an urban utopia would look like; rather, the important questions are what qualities we would like it to have (and to avoid), and what kinds of constraints and underlying rules would guide it to towards those outcomes. There is no reason to think that either of these things have universal answers for all cultures and all places.

What surely is clear is that the social ethos and the physical fabric will be intimately connected, as they always have been. What a city looks like both reflects and determines the values of the society it accommodates.

One piece of futurology that I am tentatively prepared to offer is that the utopian city will be protean. It will be able to change its physical state in ways that bricks and mortar, tarmac and steel never could. These capabilities are already being incorporated into materials at the level of individual buildings and civil-engineering structures. In fact to a limited extent they always have been: historical lime mortars are self-healing in their capacity to reconstitute themselves chemically and cement together cracks. Today, self-repair is being built into construction materials ranging from plastics to asphalt to steel, for example by incorporating cavities that release air-setting glues when broken open.

It’s a small step towards what have become dubbed “animate materials”, which have some of the qualities of living systems: an ability to grow in response to environmental cues, to heal damage, to alter their composition to suit the circumstances, to sense and alter their surroundings. Trees and bones reshape themselves in response to stress, removing material where it is not needed and reinforcing it where the danger of failure lurks. And they are of course fully biodegradable and renewable.

For such reasons, natural ecosystems are a flux not just of materials and energy but of information. They even contain information networks: trees, say, communicating via airborne hormones and subterranean root systems. There is no clear distinction between structural fabric, sensors, and communication and information systems: the smartness of the material is built-in, invisible to the eye. This is the direction in which our artificial and built environments are heading, so that they are ever less a tangle of wires and increasingly a seamless interface as bland and cryptic as an iPod. The mechanisms are unseen, often inseparable from the materials from which they are made.

And this is one reason why we don’t have robot butlers. What a great deal of redundant design would be needed to create such a humanoid avatar; how much effort would have to be expended simply to ensure that it does not trip on the carpet. In a sufficiently smart, adaptive, wireless environment, a mere static cylinder will do instead; shall we call her Alexa? The future’s technology needn’t pay much heed to surface and texture – faux-mahogany Bakelite, smooth, glossy plastic, gleaming steel – because the interface will be on and within us: responding to vision, voice, posture, perhaps sheer thought.

Which leads to the real question: who will we be?

Here there is another lesson to be learnt from Robida’s wonderful books. He has very evidently taken the citizens of late nineteenth-century Paris and deposited them in what was then a futuristic-looking world. We might laugh at how transparent a ruse that is now, but we’ve a tendency to do the same. All those images of utopian cities (often in outer space) from the 1950s might have granted to the futuristic citizens a bit of nifty, brightly coloured and stylishly minimalist clothing, but there were the same rosy-cheeked, smiling nuclear families, the dad waving goodbye to the blond-haired kids on his way to work. We even do this with our vision of alien and artificial intelligence, attributing to them all the same motives as ours (for better or worse) but just with fancier tech.

Yet not only social mores and norms but also the very nature of identity is mutable over time. Arguably this is more true now than ever, so there is no reason to suppose the transformation of identity will be any less rapid in the future.

Already modernity demands that we adopt multiple identities that surface in different situations, often overlapping and increasingly blurred but defining our views and choices in distinct ways. Traditional social categories that defined identity, such as age, class, and nationality, are becoming less significant, as are distinctions between public and private identity. Old definitions based on class, ethnicity and political affiliation are ceding to new divisions, for example marked by distinctions of urban/rural, well/poorly educated, young/old, connected/off grid. In our fictional dystopias, such divisions are sometimes genetic, perhaps artificially induced and maintained.

What’s more, identities are being increasingly shaped by active construction, documentation, affiliation and augmentation. The kind of manufactured and curated public profile once reserved for celebrities is now available to billions, at least in principle. We arrange and edit our friendships and our memories, attune our information flows to flatter our preconceptions, and assemble our thoughts, experiences and images into packages that we present as selves.

We still have no idea what kind of societies will grow from these opportunities for self-definition. If traditional attributes of individual identities become more fragmented, communities might be expected to become less cohesive, and there could be greater marginalization, segregation and extremism. Yet hyperconnectivity can also produce or strengthen group identities in positive ways, offering new opportunities for community-building – which need pay not heed to geography and spatial coordinates.

The city is a living embodiment of its citizens. They have selected the contours, the technologies, the interfaces that they believe best represent them. That’s why utopian dreams are just another way of looking at ourselves. So be careful what you wish for.