A City Is Not a Computer

 at Places Journal: “…Modernity is good at renewing metaphors, from the city as machine, to the city as organism or ecology, to the city as cyborgian merger of the technological and the organic. Our current paradigm, the city as computer, appeals because it frames the messiness of urban life as programmable and subject to rational order. Anthropologist Hannah Knox explains, “As technical solutions to social problems, information and communications technologies encapsulate the promise of order over disarray … as a path to an emancipatory politics of modernity.” And there are echoes of the pre-modern, too. The computational city draws power from an urban imaginary that goes back millennia, to the city as an apparatus for record-keeping and information management.

We’ve long conceived of our cities as knowledge repositories and data processors, and they’ve always functioned as such. Lewis Mumford observed that when the wandering rulers of the European Middle Ages settled in capital cities, they installed a “regiment of clerks and permanent officials” and established all manner of paperwork and policies (deeds, tax records, passports, fines, regulations), which necessitated a new urban apparatus, the office building, to house its bureaus and bureaucracy. The classic example is the Uffizi (Offices) in Florence, designed by Giorgio Vasari in the mid-16th century, which provided an architectural template copied in cities around the world. “The repetitions and regimentations of the bureaucratic system” — the work of data processing, formatting, and storage — left a “deep mark,” as Mumford put it, on the early modern city.

Yet the city’s informational role began even earlier than that. Writing and urbanization developed concurrently in the ancient world, and those early scripts — on clay tablets, mud-brick walls, and landforms of various types — were used to record transactions, mark territory, celebrate ritual, and embed contextual information in landscape.  Mumford described the city as a fundamentally communicative space, rich in information:

Through its concentration of physical and cultural power, the city heightened the tempo of human intercourse and translated its products into forms that could be stored and reproduced. Through its monuments, written records, and orderly habits of association, the city enlarged the scope of all human activities, extending them backwards and forwards in time. By means of its storage facilities (buildings, vaults, archives, monuments, tablets, books), the city became capable of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation, for it marshaled together not only the physical means but the human agents needed to pass on and enlarge this heritage. That remains the greatest of the city’s gifts. As compared with the complex human order of the city, our present ingenious electronic mechanisms for storing and transmitting information are crude and limited.

Mumford’s city is an assemblage of media forms (vaults, archives, monuments, physical and electronic records, oral histories, lived cultural heritage); agents (architectures, institutions, media technologies, people); and functions (storage, processing, transmission, reproduction, contextualization, operationalization). It is a large, complex, and varied epistemological and bureaucratic apparatus. It is an information processor, to be sure, but it is also more than that.

Were he alive today, Mumford would reject the creeping notion that the city is simply the internet writ large. He would remind us that the processes of city-making are more complicated than writing parameters for rapid spatial optimization. He would inject history and happenstance. The city is not a computer. This seems an obvious truth, but it is being challenged now (again) by technologists (and political actors) who speak as if they could reduce urban planning to algorithms.

Why should we care about debunking obviously false metaphors? It matters because the metaphors give rise to technical models, which inform design processes, which in turn shape knowledges and politics, not to mention material cities. The sites and systems where we locate the city’s informational functions — the places where we see information-processing, storage, and transmission “happening” in the urban landscape — shape larger understandings of urban intelligence….(More)”