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Economies of scale, pt. 2

June 4, 2012

A follow-up, of sorts, to my post a few days ago about the size of Facebook.]

This old Paris Review interview with William Gibson (author of Neuromancer, inventor of the term “cyberspace”) has a lot of interested stuff in it (including a lot of harsh asides about America as shining beacon of hope, which I pretty much agreed with), but what most struck me was the following:

Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies. There’s a mathematics to it—a city can’t get over a certain size unless you can grow, gather, and store a certain amount of food in the vicinity. Then you can’t get any bigger unless you understand how to do sewage. If you don’t have efficient sewage technology the city gets to a certain size and everybody gets cholera.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of cities a lot recently (probably a side effect of recently moving from suburb to city) and have wanted to gesture in the direction Gibson goes here but hadn’t quite formulated it. I want to say something like, we are the urban animal.

Now in a sense this is obviously insane. We’re the social animal, the linguistic animal, the technological animal, the rational animal, the self-reflective animal, … , but urban? Cities have been around for a few thousand years, while humanity has been around for much longer. But we are the urban animal, in the same sense that we’re the historical animal. Humans were around before history began, and many humans on earth today don’t really have any historical consciousness to speak of; but it’s not insane to say “humans are the creatures who have the possibility of history,” and that’s an ascription of a formal cause that suggests a final cause to go with it: humans are the creatures whose purpose is to activate their possibility of history.

“We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities.” I want to go further: our purpose is, as Gibson puts it, to “do cities.” Not to have cities, but to do them. Cities are what communities can and ought to do together. Telling everyone to leave the city and be a yeoman farmer is not the Answer. And of course it can’t be; we end up in Jerusalem, not amber waves of grain. And expanding, advancing technologically–aren’t those good too? I want to say yes–but we do have to avoid Babylon after all. (Strange how America is that too.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 7:12 pm

    I rather like the idea of being a city animal. I just wish our cities could be more beautiful than ugly, more often (thinking mainly of concrete hulks erected in the 60s and 70s, here).

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