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2/10/2017 A City Is Not a Computer

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ACityIsNotaComputer
Thisseemsanobvioustruth,butweneedtosayitloudandclear.Urbanintelligenceismore
thaninformationprocessing.

SHANNONMATTERN FEBRUARY2017

AwallinBairroAlto,Lisbon,coveredwith
circuitboardspaintedwhite.[Daniel
Gonalves]

Whatshouldacityoptimizefor?EvenintheageofpeakSiliconValley,thatsahard
questiontotakeseriously.(HecklersonTwitterhadafewideas,likefishtacosandpez
1
dispensers.) Lookpastthesarcasm,though,andyoullfindanideologyontherise.The
questionwasposedlastsummerbyYCombinatortheformidabletechacceleratorthat
hashatchedathousandstartups,fromAirBnBandDropboxtoroboticgreenhousesand
wine-by-the-glassdeliveryastheentrepreneursannouncedanewresearchagenda:
2
buildingcitiesfromscratch.Wiredsverdict:NotActuallyCrazy.

Whichisnottosaywise.ForeveryreasonablequestionYCombinatoraskedHowcan
citieshelpmoreoftheirresidentsbehappyandreachtheirpotential?therewasa
preposterousone:Howshouldwemeasuretheeffectivenessofacity(whatareits
KPIs)?ThatsKeyPerformanceIndicators,forthosenotsteepedinbusiness
intelligencejargon.Therewashardlyanymentionoftheurbandesigners,planners,and
scholarswhohavebeenaskingthebigquestionsforcenturies:Howdocitiesfunction,
andhowcantheyfunctionbetter?

Ofcourse,itspossiblethatnocitywillbe
harmedinthemakingofthisresearch.Halfa
Techcompanieshavecomeout
forcefullyagainsttheMuslim
yearlater,thepublicoutputoftheNewCities
projectconsistsoftwoblogposts,one
travelban,butwherewillthey
announcingtheprogramandtheother standonsubtlerquestionsof
reportingthefirsthire.Still,therhetoric
deservescloseattention,because,frankly,inthis
socialoptimization?

newpoliticalage,allrhetoricdemandsscrutiny.Atthehighestlevelsofgovernment,we
seeevidenceandquantitativedatamanipulatedormanufacturedtojustifyreckless
orders,disruptingnotonlypoliticsasusual,butalsofundamentaldemocratic

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principles.Muchoftheworkinurbantechhasthepotentialtoplayrightintothisnew
modeofgovernance.

TechcompanieshavecomeoutforcefullyagainsttheMuslimtravelban,butwherewill
theystandonsubtlerquestionsofsocialoptimization?Autonomousvehiclesand
pervasivecamerasandsensorsarejustthesortofdisruptivetechnologiesthatan
infrastructure-championingpresidentmightdeemtremendous.DonaldTrumpschief
strategist(who,yearsago,rantheBiosphere2experimentintotheground)isalsoonthe
boardofadataminingandanalyticsfirmthatseeksgovernmentcontracts.Willthe
presidentstarttweetingabouthowcrime-ridden(andracialized)innercitieswouldbe
awholelotbetteriftheywererunlikecomputers?

Itsapoliticallycomplicatedenvironment,tosaytheleast.Intotheringstepsthefirst
hireatNewCities:BenHuh,founderofthememe-and-cat-picempireCheezburger.
Theresnoshortageofspacetobuildnewcities,heeffervesced,inapostexplaininghis
decisiontojointheYCombinatorproject.Technologycanseedfertilestarting
conditionsacrossnationsandgeographies.Hisgoalforthesix-monthresearchposition:
tocreateanopen,repeatablesystemforrapidcityformingthatmaximize[s]human
3
potential. Nopressure.

ParkourinAl-AzharPark,Cairo.[Nasser
Nouri]

QueerdancepartyoutsidetheRepublican
congressionalretreatinPhiladelphialast
month.[JoePiette]

CiclorutainMrida,Mexico.[IanMorton]

Meanwhile,Alphabet(neGoogle)ismovingforwardwithplanstobuilditsown
optimizedcities.Itsurban-techdivision,SidewalkLabs,hasalreadyinstalledpublicWiFi
kiosksonNewYorkCitystreets:infrastructuralnodes(knownasLinks)thatmay
somedayexchangedatawithautonomousvehicles,publictransit,andotherurban
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systems. ThecompanyisalsopartneringwiththeU.S.DepartmentofTransportation
oneffortsliketheSmartCityChallenge,whichawardeda$50milliongrantto
Columbus,Ohio.LastJune,onthesamedayYCombinatorannounceditsNewCities
project,TheGuardianpublisheddetailsofAlphabetsFlow,thecloudsoftwarebehind
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themobilityexperimentsinColumbus. Withinmonths,partnershipswereunderwayin
6
16othercities.

Aseveryonewaswatchingthe Urbantransportationisthefirsttargetfor
disruption,butitwontendthere.DanDoctoroff,
dramaatTrumpTower,Google
theMichaelBloombergassociatewhofounded
wasbettingonafourth SidewalkLabs,wonders,Whatwouldacitylook
revolutioninurban likeifyoustartedfromscratchintheinternet
infrastructure.
eraifyoubuiltacityfromtheinternetup?In
November,thecompanytookanotherstepin
thatdirection,launchingfournewlabsthatwillworkonhousingaffordability,health
careandsocialservices,municipalprocesses,andcommunitycollaboration.The

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companyplanstorunpilotprojectsinselecturbandistricts,thenscaleup.Announcing
theexpansion,Doctoroffrecalledpastrevolutionsinurbantechnologies:

Lookingathistory,onecanmaketheargumentthatthegreatestperiodsof
economicgrowthandproductivityhaveoccurredwhenwehaveintegrated
innovationintothephysicalenvironment,especiallyincities.Thesteamengine,
electricitygrid,andautomobileallfundamentallytransformedurbanlife,butwe
haventreallyseenmuchchangeinourcitiessincebeforeWorldWarII.Ifyou
comparepicturesofcitiesfrom1870to1940,itslikenightandday.Ifyoumakethe
samecomparisonfrom1940totoday,hardlyanythinghaschanged.Thusitsnot
surprisingthat,despitetheriseofcomputersandtheinternet,growthhasslowed
andproductivityincreasesaresolow.Soourmissionistoacceleratetheprocess
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ofurbaninnovation.

WhileDoctoroffhasbeentellingsomeversionofthisstorysinceSidewalkLabslaunched
in2015,thetimingofthenewexpansion,threeweeksaftertheU.S.presidentialelection,
altersthecontext.AseveryonewaswatchingthedramaatTrumpTower,theworlds
largestsearching-mapping-driving-advertising-information-organizingcompanywas
throwingitsresourcesbehindafourthrevolutioninurbaninfrastructure.

ALinkNYCkioskgreetsNewYorkerson
November15,2016.[BillieGraceWard]

DreamsofanInformaticUrbanism
Ofcourse,majorcompanieslikeAlphabethavealreadydramaticallyreshapedthecities
8
wheretheyareheadquartered, buttheyhavenotyethadtheluxuryofbuildingona
blankslate.Theideaofthenewcitycertainlyisntnew,andthemodelnowemergingin
theUnitedStateshasprecedentsinAsianandMiddleEasterncountries,whereCisco,
Siemens,andIBMhavepartneredwithreal-estatedevelopersandgovernmentstobuild
smartcitiestabularasa.

Wedontknowhowtheseurbanexperimentswillfare.Sincetheyareinaconstantstate
ofdevelopment,alwaysversioningtowardanoptimizedmodeleveronthehorizon,
9
theyarenoteasilyevaluatedorcritiqued. Ifyoubelievethemarketinghype,though,
wereonthecuspofanurbanfutureinwhichembeddedsensors,ubiquitouscamerasand
beacons,networkedsmartphones,andtheoperatingsystemsthatlinkthemalltogether,
willproduceunprecedentedefficiency,connectivity,andsocialharmony.Were
transformingtheidealizedtopologyoftheopenwebandInternetofThingsintourban
form.

ProgrammerandtechwriterPaulMcFedriesexplainsthisthinking:

Thecityisacomputer,thestreetscapeistheinterface,youarethecursor,andyour
smartphoneistheinputdevice.Thisistheuser-based,bottom-upversionofthe
city-as-computeridea,buttheresalsoatop-downversion,whichissystems-based.
Itlooksaturbansystemssuchastransit,garbage,andwaterandwonderswhether
thecitycouldbemoreefficientandbetterorganizedifthesesystemsweresmart.
10

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WhileprojectslikeSidewalkLabsandYCombinatorsNewCitieswereconceivedinan
ageofbigdataandcloudcomputing,theyarerootedinearlierreveries.Eversincethe
internetwaslittlemorethanafewlinkednodes,urbanists,technologists,andsci-fi
11
writershaveenvisionedcybercitiesande-topiasbuiltfromthenetup. Modernist
designersandfuturistssawmorphologicalparallelsbetweenurbanformsandcircuit
boards.Justasnewmodesoftelecommunicationhavealwaysreshapedphysicalterrains
andpoliticaleconomies,newcomputationalmethodshaveinformedurbanplanning,
12
modeling,andadministration.

Modernityisgoodatrenewingmetaphors,from
thecityasmachine,tothecityasorganismor
Ourcurrentparadigm,thecity
ascomputer,appealsbecause
ecology,tothecityascyborgianmergerofthe
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technologicalandtheorganic. Ourcurrent
itframesthemessinessof
paradigm,thecityascomputer,appealsbecause urbanlifeasprogrammableand
itframesthemessinessofurbanlifeas
programmableandsubjecttorationalorder.

subjecttorationalorder.

AnthropologistHannahKnoxexplains,Astechnicalsolutionstosocialproblems,
informationandcommunicationstechnologiesencapsulatethepromiseoforderover
14
disarrayasapathtoanemancipatorypoliticsofmodernity. Andthereareechoesof
thepre-modern,too.Thecomputationalcitydrawspowerfromanurbanimaginarythat
goesbackmillennia,tothecityasanapparatusforrecord-keepingandinformation
management.

Wevelongconceivedofourcitiesasknowledgerepositoriesanddataprocessors,and
theyvealwaysfunctionedassuch.LewisMumfordobservedthatwhenthewandering
rulersoftheEuropeanMiddleAgessettledincapitalcities,theyinstalledaregimentof
clerksandpermanentofficialsandestablishedallmannerofpaperworkandpolicies
(deeds,taxrecords,passports,fines,regulations),whichnecessitatedanewurban
15
apparatus,theofficebuilding,tohouseitsbureausandbureaucracy. Theclassic
exampleistheUffizi(Offices)inFlorence,designedbyGiorgioVasariinthemid-16th
century,whichprovidedanarchitecturaltemplatecopiedincitiesaroundtheworld.
Therepetitionsandregimentationsofthebureaucraticsystemtheworkofdata
processing,formatting,andstorageleftadeepmark,asMumfordputit,ontheearly
16
moderncity.

U.S.PostalServicedeliveryboxesonastreet
cornerinlowerManhattan.[ChadCarpenter]

Yetthecitysinformationalrolebeganevenearlierthanthat.Writingandurbanization
developedconcurrentlyintheancientworld,andthoseearlyscriptsonclaytablets,
mud-brickwalls,andlandformsofvarioustypeswereusedtorecordtransactions,
17
markterritory,celebrateritual,andembedcontextualinformationinlandscape.
Mumforddescribedthecityasafundamentallycommunicativespace,richin
information:

Throughitsconcentrationofphysicalandculturalpower,thecityheightenedthe
tempoofhumanintercourseandtranslateditsproductsintoformsthatcouldbe
storedandreproduced.Throughitsmonuments,writtenrecords,andorderly
habitsofassociation,thecityenlargedthescopeofallhumanactivities,extending
thembackwardsandforwardsintime.Bymeansofitsstoragefacilities(buildings,

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vaults,archives,monuments,tablets,books),thecitybecamecapableof
transmittingacomplexculturefromgenerationtogeneration,foritmarshaled
togethernotonlythephysicalmeansbutthehumanagentsneededtopassonand
enlargethisheritage.Thatremainsthegreatestofthecitysgifts.Ascomparedwith
thecomplexhumanorderofthecity,ourpresentingeniouselectronicmechanisms
18
forstoringandtransmittinginformationarecrudeandlimited.

Mumfordscityisanassemblageofmediaforms(vaults,archives,monuments,physical
andelectronicrecords,oralhistories,livedculturalheritage);agents(architectures,
institutions,mediatechnologies,people);andfunctions(storage,processing,
19
transmission,reproduction,contextualization,operationalization). Itisalarge,
complex,andvariedepistemologicalandbureaucraticapparatus.Itisaninformation
processor,tobesure,butitisalsomorethanthat.

LewisMumforddescribedthe Werehealivetoday,Mumfordwouldrejectthe
creepingnotionthatthecityissimplythe
cityasafundamentally
internetwritlarge.Hewouldremindusthatthe
communicativespace,richin processesofcity-makingaremorecomplicated
information.Hewouldreject thanwritingparametersforrapidspatial
thecreepingnotionthatthe optimization.Hewouldinjecthistoryand
cityissimplytheinternetwrit happenstance.Thecityisnotacomputer.This

large.
seemsanobvioustruth,butitisbeingchallenged
now(again)bytechnologists(andpolitical
20
actors)whospeakasiftheycouldreduceurbanplanningtoalgorithms.

Whyshouldwecareaboutdebunkingobviouslyfalsemetaphors?Itmattersbecausethe
metaphorsgiverisetotechnicalmodels,whichinformdesignprocesses,whichinturn
shapeknowledgesandpolitics,nottomentionmaterialcities.Thesitesandsystems
wherewelocatethecitysinformationalfunctionstheplaceswherewesee
information-processing,storage,andtransmissionhappeningintheurbanlandscape
shapelargerunderstandingsofurbanintelligence.

CityLightPowerControlCenter,Seattle,
1968.[SeattleMunicipalArchives]

InformationalEcologiesoftheCity
Theideaofthecityasaninformation-processingmachinehasinrecentyearsmanifested
asaculturalobsessionwithurbansitesofdatastorageandtransmission.Scholars,
artists,anddesignerswritebooks,conductwalkingtours,andmakemapsofinternet
infrastructures.Wetakepleasureinpointingatnondescriptbuildingsthathold
thousandsofwhirringservers,atsurveillancecameras,camouflagedantennae,and
21
hoveringdrones.Wedeclare:thecityscomputationhappenshere.

Yetsuchworkrunstheriskofreifyingand
essentializinginformation,evendepoliticizingit.
Thereismorethaninformation
processinggoingonhere.
Whenwetreatdataasagiven(whichis,infact,
theetymologyoftheword),weseeitinthe
Urbaninformationismade,
abstract,asanurbanfixtureliketrafficor commodified,accessed,
crowds.Weneedtoshiftourgazeandlookat
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dataincontext,atthelifecycleofurban secreted,politicized,and

information,distributedwithinavariedecology
operationalized.
ofurbansitesandsubjectswhointeractwithitin
multipleways.Weneedtoseedatashuman,institutional,andtechnologicalcreators,its
curators,itspreservers,itsownersandbrokers,itsusers,itshackersandcritics.As
Mumfordunderstood,thereismorethaninformationprocessinggoingonhere.Urban
informationismade,commodified,accessed,secreted,politicized,andoperationalized.

Butwhere?Canwepointtothechipsanddrives,cablesandwarehousesthespecific
urbanarchitecturesandinfrastructureswherethisexpandedecologyofinformation
managementresidesandoperates?Ivewrittenaboutthechallengesofreducing
complicatedtechnicalandintellectualstructurestotheirmaterial,geographic
22
manifestations,i.e.,mappingwherethedatalive. Yetsuchexercisescanbeusefulin
identifyingpointsofentrytothelargersystem.Itsnotonlytheinfrastructuralobject
thatmatters;itsalsothepersonnelandpaperworkandprotocols,themachinesand
managementpractices,theconduitsandculturalvariablesthatshapeterrainwithinthe
largerecologyofurbaninformation.

StreetartinRiodeJaneiro.[PaulKeller]

SothenexttimeyourestaringupataDomainAwarenesscamera,askhowitgotthere,
howitgeneratesdatanotonlyhowtheequipmentoperatestechnically,butalsowhat
informationitclaimstobeharvesting,andthroughwhatmethodologyandwhose
interestsitserves.Anddontletthetotalizingideaofthecityascomputerblindyoutothe
countlessotherformsofdataandsitesofintelligence-generationinthecity:municipal
agenciesanddepartments,universities,hospitals,laboratories,corporations.Eachof
thesesiteshasadistinctiveorientationtowardurbanintelligence.Letusconsiderafew
ofthemorepublicones.

Dontletthetotalizingideaof First,themunicipalarchive.Mostcitiestoday
havearchivesthatcontainsrecordsof
thecityascomputerblindyou
administrativeactivity,finances,landownership
tothecountlessotherformsof andtaxes,legislationandlabor.Thearchivesof
dataandsitesofintelligence- ancientMesopotamianandEgyptiancitiesheld
generation.
similarmaterial,althoughhistoriansdebate
whetherancientrecord-keepingpracticesserved
23
similardocumentaryfunctions. Archivesensurefinancialaccountability,symbolically
legitimizegoverningbodiesandcolonialrulers,anderasetheheritageofprevious
regimesandconqueredpopulations.Theymonumentalizeacultureshistorical
consciousnessandintellectualriches.Inthemodernage,theyalsosupportscholarship.
24
Thus,theinformationinherentinthearchiveresidesnotsolelyinthecontentofits
documents,butalsointheirveryexistence,theirprovenanceandorganization(theres
muchtobelearnedabouttheidealsofaculturebyexaminingitsarchivalforms),and
25
eveninthearchivesomissionsanderasures.

ArchivalphotooftheBarrikadyGunFactory,
Stalingrad,ca.1942.

Ofcourse,notallarchivesareideologicallyequal.Communityarchivesvalidatethe
personalhistoriesandintellectualcontributionsofdiversepublics.Meanwhile,law

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enforcementagenciesandcustomsandimmigrationofficesarenetworked
withgeographicallydistributedNationalSecurityAgencyrepositoriesandotherfederal
blackboxes.Thesearchivesarenotofthesamespecies,nordotheyprocessdatain
thesamefashion.

Practicesandpoliticsofcurationandaccesshavehistoricallydistinguishedarchives
fromanotherkeysiteofurbaninformation:libraries.Whereasarchivescollect
unpublishedmaterialsandattendprimarilytotheirpreservationandsecurity,libraries
collectpublishedmaterialsandaimtomakethemintelligibleandaccessibletopatrons.
Inpractice,suchdistinctionsarefuzzyandcontested,especiallytoday,asmanyarchives
seektobemorepublic-facing.Nevertheless,thesetwoinstitutionsembodydifferent
knowledgeregimesandideologies.

Modernlibrariesandlibrarianshavesoughttoempowerpatronstoaccessinformation
acrossplatformsandformats,andtocriticallyassessbias,privacy,andotherissuesunder
26
therubricofinformationliteracy. Theybuildacriticalframeworkaroundtheir
resources,ofteninpartnershipwithschoolsanduniversities.Further,librariesperform
vitalsymbolicfunctions,embodyingthecityscommitmenttoitsintellectualheritage
(whichmayincludeheritagecommandeeredthroughimperialactivities).

Similarly,thecitysmuseumsreflectitscommitmenttoknowledgeinembodiedform,to
itsartifactsandmaterialculture.Again,suchinstitutionsareopentoideologicalcritique.
Acquisitionpolicies,displaypractices,andaccessprotocolsareimmediateandtangible,
andtheyreflectparticularculturalandintellectualpolitics.

UrbaninterventionattheVeniceBiennale,
2015.[RgineDebatty]

Justasimportantasthedatastoredandaccessedoncityservers,inarchivalboxes,on
libraryshelvesandmuseumwallsaretheformsofurbanintelligencethatcannotbe
easilycontained,framed,andcatalogued.Weneedtoask:Whatplace-based
informationdoesntfitonashelforinadatabase?Whatarethenon-textual,un-
recordableformsofculturalmemory?Thesequestionsareespeciallyrelevantfor
marginalizedpopulations,indigenouscultures,anddevelopingnations.Performance
studiesscholarDianaTaylorurgesustoacknowledgeephemeral,performativeformsof
27
knowledge,suchasdance,ritual,cooking,sports,andspeech. Theseformscannotbe
reducedtoinformation,norcantheybeprocessed,stored,ortransmittedviafiber-
opticcable.Yettheyarevitalurbanintelligencesthatlivewithinbodies,minds,and
communities.

Finally,considerdataoftheenvironmental,
ambient,immanentkind.Malcolm
Whatformsofculturalmemory
dontfitonlibraryshelvesor
McCulloughhasshownthatourcitiesarefullof
fixedarchitectures,persistentterrains,and
cityservers?Performative
reliableenvironmentalpatternsthatanchorall knowledgelikedance,ritual,
theunstructureddataandimagestreamsthat cooking,sports.Ambientdata
28
floatontop. Whatcanwelearnfromthe
nonsemanticinformationinherentinshadows,
likeshadows,wind,andrust.

wind,rust,inthesignsofwearonawell-troddenstaircase,thecreaksofabatteredbridge
alltheindexicalmessagesofourmaterialenvironments?Idarguethattheintellectual

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valueofthisambient,immanentinformationexceedsitsfunctionasstablegroundfor
thecitysdigitalflux.Environmentaldataarejustasmuchfigureastheyareground.
Theyremindusofnecessarytruths:thaturbanintelligencecomesinmultipleforms,
thatitisproducedwithinenvironmentalaswellasculturalcontexts,thatitisreshaped
overthelonguedurebyelementalexposureandurbandevelopment,thatitcanbelost
orforgotten.Thesedataremindustothinkonaclimaticscale,ageologicscale,as
opposedtothescaleoffinancialmarkets,transitpatterns,andnewscycles.

MillRuinsPark,Minneapolis.
[Flickr/Commons]

TheCaseAgainstInformationProcessing
HeressomegeologicinsightfromT.S.Eliots1934poemTheRock:

WhereistheLifewehavelostinliving?
Whereisthewisdomwehavelostinknowledge?
Whereistheknowledgewehavelostintheinformation?

ManagementtheoristRussellAckofftookEliotsideaonestepfurther,proposingthe
nowfamous(andwidelydebated)hierarchy:Data<Information<Knowledge<Wisdom.
29
Eachlevelofprocessingimpliesanextractionofutilityfromthelevelbefore.Thus,
contextualizedorpatterneddatacanbecalledinformation.Or,toquotephilosopherand
computerscientistFrederickThompson,informationisaproductthatresultsfrom
applyingtheprocessesoforganizationtotherawmaterialofexperience,muchlikesteel
isobtainedfromironore.Swappingtheindustrialmetaphorforanartisticone,he
writes,dataaretothescientistlikethecolorsonthepaletteofthepainter.Itisbythe
artistryofhistheoriesthatweareinformed.Itistheorganizationthatisthe
30
information. Thompsonsmixedmetaphorssuggestthattherearemultiplewaysof
turningdataintoinformationandknowledgeintowisdom.

Urbanintelligenceinvolves Yettheterminformationprocessing,whether
employedwithincomputerscience,cognitive
experience,observation,
psychology,orurbandesign,typicallyrefersto
sensoryengagement.Weneed computationalmethods.AsRiccardoManzotti
newmodelsforthinkingabout explains,whenneuroscientistsadoptthe
citiesthatdonotcompute.
metaphorofthebrainascomputer,theyimply
thatinformationisstuffthatsmentally
processed,whichtheyknowisnottrueinanyrealsense.Themetaphorsurvives
becauseitmakesanirresistibleclaimabouthowmarvelouslycomplexweareandhow
31
cleverscientistshavebecome. PsychologistRobertEpsteinlamentsthatsomeofthe
worldsmostinfluentialthinkershavemadegrandpredictionsabouthumanitysfuture
32
thatdependonthevalidityofthemetaphor. Buttheappealofanalogyisnothingnew.
Throughouthistory,thebrain(likethecity)hasbeensubjectedtobadmetaphors
derivedfromthetechnologiesofthetime.AccordingtoEpstein,weveimagined
ourselvesaslumpsofclayinfusedwithspirits,ashydraulicorelectro-chemicalsystems,
asautomata.Thebrainascomputerisjustthelatestlinkinalongchainofmetaphors
thatpowerfullyshapescientificendeavorintheirownimages.

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Thecityascomputermodellikewiseconditionsurbandesign,planning,policy,and
administrationevenresidentseverydayexperienceinwaysthathinderthe
developmentofhealthy,just,andresilientcities.LetsapplyManzottisandEpsteins
critiquesatthecityscale.Wehaveseenthaturbanecologiesprocessdatabymeans
thatarenotstrictlyalgorithmic,andthatnotallurbanintelligencescanbecalled
information.Onecantprocessthelocalculturaleffectsoflong-termweather
patternsorderiveinsightsfromthegenerationalevolutionofaneighborhoodwithouta
degreeofsensitivitythatexceedsmerecomputation.Urbanintelligenceofthiskind
involvessite-basedexperience,participantobservation,sensoryengagement.Weneed
newmodelsforthinkingaboutcitiesthatdonotcompute,andweneednewterminology.
Incontemporaryurbandiscourses,wheredatarhetoricisoftenfrothyandfetishistic,
weseemtohavelostcriticalperspectiveonhowurbandatabecomemeaningfulspatial
informationortranslateintoplace-basedknowledge.

KidsplayinghandballatLeCorbusiersOpen
HandMonumentinChandigarh,India.[Lian
Chang]

Weneedtoexpandourrepertoire(toborrowatermfromDianaTaylor)ofurban
intelligences,todrawuponthewisdomofinformationscientistsandtheorists,
archivists,librarians,intellectualhistorians,cognitivescientists,philosophers,and
otherswhothinkaboutthemanagementofinformationandtheproductionof
33
knowledge. Theycanhelpusbetterunderstandthebreadthofintelligencesthatare
integratedwithinourcities,whichwouldbegreatlyimpoverishediftheyweretobe
rebuilt,orbuiltanew,withcomputationallogicastheirprevailingepistemology.

Wecouldalsobebetterattunedtothelifecyclesofurbaninformationresourcesto
theircreation,curation,provision,preservation,anddestructionandtothe
assemblagesofurbansitesandsubjectsthatmakeupourcitiesintellectualecologies.If
wethinkofthecityasalong-termconstruct,withmorecomplexbehaviorsand
processesofformation,feedback,andprocessing,architectTomVerebesproposes,then
34
wecanimagineitasanorganization,orevenanorganism,thatcanlearn. Urbanists
anddesignersarealreadydrawingonconceptsandmethodsfromartificialintelligence
research:neuralnets,cellularprocesses,evolutionaryalgorithms,mutationand
35
evolution. Perhapsquantumentanglementandothercomputerscience
breakthroughscouldreshapethewaywethinkabouturbaninformation,too.Yetwe
mustbecautioustoavoidtranslatingthisinterdisciplinaryintelligenceintoanewurban
formalism.

Insteadofmoregratuitousparametricmodeling,
weneedtothinkabouturbanepistemologies
Weshouldrejectdata-driven
modelsthatdelegatecritical,
thatembracememoryandhistory;that
recognizespatialintelligenceassensoryand
oftenethicaldecisionstothe
experiential;thatconsiderotherspecieswaysof
knowing;thatappreciatethewisdomoflocal
machine.

crowdsandcommunities;thatacknowledgetheinformationembeddedinthecitys
facades,flora,statuary,andstairways;thataimtointegrateformsofdistributed
cognitionparallelingourbrainsowndistributedcognitiveprocesses.

Wemustalsorecognizetheshortcomingsinmodelsthatpresumetheobjectivityof
urbandataandconvenientlydelegatecritical,oftenethicaldecisionstothemachine.We,
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humans,makeurbaninformationbyvariousmeans:throughsensoryexperience,
throughlong-termexposuretoaplace,and,yes,bysystematicallyfilteringdata.Its
essentialtomakespaceinourcitiesforthosediversemethodsofknowledgeproduction.
Andwehavetograpplewiththepoliticalandethicalimplicationsofourmethodsand
models,embeddedinallactsofplanninganddesign.City-makingisalways,
simultaneously,anenactmentofcity-knowingwhichcannotbereducedto
computation.

pjppb.
pbb.

1.AdoraCheungandSamAltman,NewCities,YCombinatorBlog,June27,2016.Thepost
drewresponsesonTwitterfromdesignerandurbanistFredScharmen(fishtacos)and

visualjournalistErikReyna(pezdispensers),amongothers.

2.MargaretRhodes,YCombinatorsPlantoBuildaNewCity?NotActuallyCrazy,Wired,July

8,2016.

3.BenHuh,ShouldIPursueMyPassionorBusiness?,Medium,October25,2016.

4.SidewalkLabsisakeyinvestorinIntersection,themunicipalmediacompanythatisa
partnerinLinkNYC.SeeShannonMattern,InstrumentalCity:TheViewfromHudsonYards,
Circa2019,PlacesJournal,April2016,https://doi.org/10.22269/160426;EliotBrown,
AlphabetsNextBigThing:BuildingaSmartCity,WallStreetJournal,April27,2016;Jessica
E.Lessin,AlphabetsSidewalkPrepsProposalforDigitalDistrict,TheInformation,April14,

2016;CoryWeinberg,IsAlphabetGoingtoBuildaCity,TheInformation,April5,2016.

5.MarkHarris,SecretiveAlphabetDivisionFundedbyGoogleAimstoFixPublicTransitin

US,TheGuardian,June27,2016.

6.TransportationforAmerica,pressrelease,16CitiesJoinT4AmericasSmartCities

CollaborativetoTackleUrbanMobilityChallengesTogether,October18,2016.

7.DanielL.Doctoroff,ReimaginingCitiesfromtheInternetUp,Medium,November30,2016.


8.SeeSusieCagle,WhyOneSiliconValleyCitySaidNotoGoogle,NextCity,May11,2015;
SeanHollister,WelcometoGoogletown,TheVerge,February26,2014;ChrisMorris-Lent,

HowAmazonSwallowedSeattle,Gawker,August18,2015.

9.OritHalpernandRobertMitchell,TheSmartnessMandate:NotesTowardaCritique,Grey

Room(forthcoming).

10.PaulMcFedries,TheCityasSystem[TechnicallySpeaking],IEEESpectrum51:4(April

2014):36,https://doi.org/10.1109/MSPEC.2014.6776302.

11.M.ChristineBoyer,CyberCities:VisualPerceptionintheAgeofElectronicCommunication
(NewYork:PrincetonArchitecturalPress,1996);ManuelCastells,TheInformationalCity:
InformationTechnology,EconomicRestructuring,andtheUrban-RegionalProcess(Oxford:
BaselBlackwell,1989);WilliamGibson,Neuromancer(NewYork:AceBooks,1984);WilliamJ.

https://placesjournal.org/article/a-city-is-not-a-computer/ 10/13
2/10/2017 A City Is Not a Computer
Mitchell,CityofBits:Space,Place,andtheInfobahn(Cambridge:MITPress,1995);WilliamJ.

Mitchell,e-topia:UrbanLife,JimButNotasWeKnowIt(Cambridge:MITPress,2000).

12.StephenGrahamandSimonMarvin,TelecommunicationsandtheCity:ElectronicSpaces,
UrbanPlaces(NewYork:Routledge,1996);JenniferLight,FromWarfaretoWelfare:Defense
IntellectualsandUrbanProblemsinColdWarAmerica(Baltimore:JohnsHopkinsUniversity
Press,2004);MarkVallianatos,UncoveringtheEarlyHistoryofBigDataandSmartCityin

LosAngeles,BoomCalifornia(June2015).

13.Somearguethatthecity-as-machinehasamuchdeeperhistory,asevidencedbyuseofgrid
layouts,linearpatterns,andregulargeometricformssinceancienttimes,andbytheuseof
standardizedpatternsforcolonialurbandevelopment.See,forinstance,KevinLynch,Good
CityForm(Cambridge:MITPress,1981):81-88.SeealsoMatthewGandy,Cyborg
Urbanization:ComplexityandMonstrosityintheContemporaryCity,InternationalJournal
ofUrbanandRegionalResearch29:(March2005):26-49,https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-
2427.2005.00568.x;PeterNientied,MetaphorandUrbanStudies:ACrossover,Theoryanda
CaseStudyofSSRotterdam,City,TerritoryandArchitecture3:21(2016),
https://doi.org/10.1186/s40410-016-0051-z;WilliamSolesbury,HowMetaphorsHelpUs
UnderstandCities,Geography99:3(Autumn2014):139-42;TomVerebes,TheInteractive
UrbanModel:HistoriesandLegaciesRelatedtoPrototypingtheTwenty-FirstCenturyCity,

FrontiersinDigitalHumanities3(February2016),https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2016.00001.


14.HannahKnox,CitiesandOrganisation:TheInformationCityandUrbanForm,Cultureand

Organization16:3(September2010):187-8,https://doi.org/10.1080/14759551.2010.503496.

15.LewisMumford,TheCityinHistory:ItsOrigins,ItsTransformations,andItsProspects(New

York:Harcourt,1961):344.

16.SeealsoFriedrichA.Kittler,TheCityIsaMedium,NewLiteraryHistory27:4(1996):721-2,

https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.1996.0051.

17.ShannonMattern,OfMud,Media,andtheMetropolis:AggregatingHistoriesofWritingand
Urbanization,CulturalPolitics12:3(November2016):310-31,https://10.1215/17432197-

3648870.

18.Mumford,569.

19.MarcusFothsconceptionofurbaninformaticsissimilarlycapacious:itencompassesthe
collection,classification,storage,retrieval,anddisseminationofrecordedknowledge,either
(1)inacityor(2)of,relatingto,characteristicof,orconstitutingacity.SeeFoth,Ed.
HandbookofResearchonUrbanInformatics:ThePracticeandPromiseoftheReal-TimeCity
(Hershey,PA:InformationScienceReference,2009),xxiii.Suchadefinitionacknowledgesa
widevarietyofinformationalfunctions,contents,andcontexts.Yethisfocusonrecorded
knowledge,andoninformaticsreputationasascienceofdataprocessing,stilllimitour

understandingofthecitysepistemologicalfunctions.

20.Formoreonthealgorithmasatimelyconceptualmodel,seeMassimoMazzotti,Algorithmic

Life,LosAngelesReviewofBooks,January22,2017.

21.Forasurveyofthiswork,seeShannonMattern,CloudandField,PlacesJournal,August
2016,https://doi.org/10.22269/160802,andShannonMattern,InfastructuralTourism,
PlacesJournal,July2013,https://doi.org/10.22269/130701.Forprominentexamples,see
AndrewBlum,Tubes:AJourneytotheCenteroftheInternet(NewYork:HarperCollins,2012),

andtheworkofIngridBurringtonandMlHogan.

22.Mattern,CloudandField,op.cit.SeealsoLouiseAmoore,CloudGeographies:Computing,
Data,Sovereignty,ProgressinHumanGeography,August2016,

https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132516662147.

https://placesjournal.org/article/a-city-is-not-a-computer/ 11/13
2/10/2017 A City Is Not a Computer
23.JamesJ.OToole,BacktotheFuture:ErnstPosnersArchivesintheAncientWorld,The
AmericanArchivist67(Fall/Winter2004):161-75,

https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.67.2.h124276213041315.

24.AlexandraWalsham,TheSocialHistoryoftheArchive:Record-KeepinginEarlyModern
Europe,Past&Present230,IssueSupplement11(2016):9-48,

https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtw033.

25.AnnStoler,AgainsttheArchivalGrain:EpistemicAnxietiesandColonialCommonSense

(Princeton:PrincetonUniversityPress,2010).

26.ShannonMattern,PublicIn/Formation,PlacesJournal,November2016,

https://doi.org/10.22269/161115.

27.DianaTaylor,TheArchiveandtheRepertoire:PerformingCulturalMemoryintheAmericas

(Durham,NC:DukeUniversityPress,2003).

28.MalcolmMcCullough,AmbientCommons:AttentionintheAgeofEmbodiedInformation

(Cambridge:MITPress,2013):36,42.

29.NikhilSharma,TheOriginoftheDataInformationKnowledgeWisdom(DIKW)Hierarchy,
February2008;DavidWeinberger,TheProblemwiththeData-Information-Knowledge-

WisdomHierarchy,HarvardBusinessReview,February2,2010.

30.FrederickB.Thompson,TheOrganizationistheInformation,AmericanDocumentation19:3
(1968):SeealsoMarciaJ.Bates,Information,inMarciaJ.Bates,MaryNilesMaac,eds.,
EncyclopediaofLibraryandInformationSciences,3rded.(NewYork:CRCPress,2010):2347-
60;andRafaelCapurroandBirgerHjrland,TheConceptofInformation,inBlaiseCronin,

ed.,TheAnnualReviewofInformationScienceandTechnology,Vol37(2003):343-411.

31.RiccardoManzottiandTimParks,DoesInformationSmell?,NewYorkReviewofBooks,

December30,2016.

32.RobertEpstein,TheEmptyBrain,Aeon,May18,2016.

33.MarcusFoth,NancyOdendaal,andGregoryN.Hearn,TheViewfromEverywhere:Towards
th
anEpistemologyforUrbanites,inProceedingsofthe4 InternationalConferenceon
IntellectualCapital,KnowledgeManagementandOrganizationalLearning,CapeTown,South

Africa,2007.

34.TomVerebes,TheInteractiveUrbanModel:HistoriesandLegaciesRelatedtoPrototyping
theTwenty-FirstCenturyCity,FrontiersinDigitalHumanities3,February2016,

https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2016.00001

35.See,forinstance,theworkofMichaelBatty.


ShannonMattern,ACityIsNotaComputer,PlacesJournal,February2017.Accessed09

Feb2017.<https://placesjournal.org/article/a-city-is-not-a-computer/>

https://placesjournal.org/article/a-city-is-not-a-computer/ 12/13
2/10/2017 A City Is Not a Computer

ShannonMattern

ShannonMatternisacolumnistfor
Places.SheisAssociateProfessorin
theSchoolofMediaStudiesatThe
NewSchoolinNewYork.

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