Or as Shannon Mattern puts it, “A City is Not a Computer”
By Chris Guillard
I’d like to share what I think is a very thoughtful piece by Shannon Mattern in Places Journal. I’m sending it on with a preface because I’ve been thinking along the same lines and I imagine many of you have as well. To those of us who have made cities and their complexity and beauty central to our work the title of the article should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the article raises a critical path of inquiry, experimentation, and debate. The arc of this discussion will inevitably trace the course of much broader societal and techno-economic shifts that will continue to evolve with the convergence of hyper-capitalism, computing/networks, and cities.
I moved to the Bay Area because I was inspired by what I envisioned as a unique mixture of social, cultural, environmental, and political awareness and activism coupled with technological innovation. Ok, yeah there was the incredible beauty of the place and the promise of getting pretty much as far west as possible. The amazing thing is that my intuition hasn’t fallen short! I’ve been moved, inspired and enlightened by the confluence of people and ideas that have defined my life here over the past 20+ years. But as of late, I have to admit that the predominance of the technological and capitalistic culture and the essentially singular idea of technology (no pun intended) has shadowed and clouded my view. While I agree that there is ample room for innovation and yes optimization in the way that we conceive of and organize our cities and communities, I have always held that cities are implicitly messy, and for good reason. In fact, it is messiness that has lent them a unique and uncanny potential to generate new and provocative ideas, to allow for incredible levels of social and cultural cross pollination and in the end a powerful form of understanding.
On another front, the idea that one can simply go off and create ideal forms of habitation that generate wonderful new models for cities around the world is as alluring and illusive as it has always been; think of the Garden City Movement or Ville Radieuse. I have a strong utopian strain of my own, but I can’t help but recognize the hubris and similarity between these earlier speculations and the Y Combinator New City Project, Alphabet’s Flow initiative or the Seasteading movement. Yes they are compelling and could be transformative, but are they really relevant to a community of 7 billion and growing? Are idealized and absurdly disconnected alterna-realities truly the epidemic of our time? Are these not similar to previous utopian endeavors that sought to inure and enlighten us? Don’t get me wrong, we live in an era that requires bold imagination, leadership and experimentation, but we also need to ask a few simple questions; who will own and operate these cities and infrastructures; who will govern them; who will define their citizenship? Will they be open source or proprietary and closed environments? Interesting times and interesting questions!
All of us are aware of the relative stasis that has defined urbanization over the last half century and I applaud and support the initiatives that entrepreneur’s and technologist's bring to the question of how we occupy the planet and design the environment. On the other hand, I’m not in any way confident that the KPI’s, the optimizations, the flows, or the algorithms that capitalist technologists devise will significantly improve our cities or our communities in the deepest and most fundamental ways. Particularly if they fail to acknowledge the social, political and economic complexity of community and the innovations that are required to change the way we organize and share resources, the way that we create space for economic and cultural exchange and the ways that we mend and tend to past injustices. While I welcome and look forward to working with those who bring a fresh perspective, I am emphatic in my belief that what we really need are political and social innovations that are rooted in community. Otherwise, technology based efforts to optimize the city will continue to benefit primarily those with privilege and affluence.
So with that windy rant of an intro, I will note that Shannon Mattern’s article is a compelling survey with insightful observations about the relationship between information and urbanism among other topics. I share her concluding observation that, “City-making is always, simultaneously, an enactment of city-knowing — which cannot be reduced to computation.” The essay definitely has an academic bent … but if you made it this far you should find it interesting.