The city considered as a very large organism

Roads - the veins of the living city?A few days ago Cosmic Variance was plugging a talk by a chap called Geoffrey West, a complex-systems boffin, which sounded like it had some very interesting angles. Here’s an extract from his abstract:

to what extent are cities or corporations an extension of biology? Are they “just” very large organisms? Analogous scaling laws reflecting underlying social network structure point to general principles of organization common to all cities, but, counter to biological systems, the pace of social life systematically increases with size. This has dramatic implications for growth, development and particularly for sustainability: innovation and wealth creation that fuel social systems, if left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their inevitable collapse.

Man, I love this sort of stuff; that’s the sort of question that pushes the same buttons as good science fiction, at least for me. So much so, in fact, that I’ve spent much of the holiday weekend here in the UK expounding similar ideas to inebriated friends, accompanied by brisk hand-waving. There’s a certain innate logic to the analogy that I feel anyone who’s lived a long time in one city – or maybe many – would instantly glom onto. Of course the city is alive, of course it is a system, an organism – how could it be anything else? [image by Nrbelex]

Once that assumption is agreed, though, the challenge is to work out what that actually means in human terms – which is more of a book-sized challenge than one suitable for a blog post, I suspect[1]. But I’m leaping ahead here, assuming that everyone feels the same way; maybe it sounds daft to you.

So, tell me: do you think cities can be considered to have a kind of life of their own, an organismic existence of emergent phenomena? Or is this a case of anthropomorphic projection? Or maybe both at once?

[ 1I’m imagining some sort of hybrid authorial chimera of Jeff VanderMeer, Geoff Manaugh and Mervyn Peake, with a sprinkling of Bicycle Repairman-era Chairman Bruce for the techno-weirdness element… ]

7 thoughts on “The city considered as a very large organism”

  1. “Life” is a loaded word, and the debates about it are usually (pun intended) sterile*; I’d say that cities clearly have emergent organization at several levels (neighborhood, district, city, metropolitan area, …). And there are dynamic emergents within the city, like traffic patterns, more ephemeral than the organization that’s maintained over years or decades. Of course it’s been popular to talk about “living cities” since the first time-lapse movies of traffic and building construction were made. But many of the emergent patterns are invisible, at least at first order: the growth and change of political, racial, and ethnic neighborhoods, the flow of information, water, electricity, gas, and sewage through pipes and cables, and the creation of micro-climates by building shadows, heat-retentive materials, and convection transfer of heat.

    * Is a prion alive? I don’t think anyone would say so. Is a virus alive? Most biologists think not, I’m sort of on the edge, tending towards not. But does it matter? What characteristics of a virus would we think of differently if we thought it alive as opposed to not-alive**?

    ** It can’t be dead if it was never alive; it certainly isn’t inert whether or not it was ever alive. So I use “not-alive” as the opposite of “alive”.

  2. You should read the book Nonzero by Robert Wright. His thesis is that civilization and organisms development both proceed according to the laws of evolution, and these laws have driven both categories toward ever higher levels of complexity and sophistication. Like you said, it pushes the same buttons as good sci-fi.

  3. Robert Kegan’s book is worth the time.
    Adolf Bastian’s “the psychic unity of mankind” is worth a glimpse.
    Peter Russell’s “The Global Brain” is applicable.
    “Collective Minds” in Nature 445, 715 (15 February 2007) | doi:10.1038/445715a; Published online 14 February 2007 has some related thoughts.
    Pibram’s ‘Holonomic Brain Theory” may apply.
    Simulation Theory definitely applies.
    “European Cities, the Informational Society and the Global Economy”
    Journal article by Manuel Castells; New Left Review, Vol. a, 1994 has applications.
    Google my name with the keywords ‘Social Singularity’ for additional references about how technology applies to your scenario.
    Coordination games, memetics, distributed cognition…there’s a lot to think about, here.

    If ya need some additional references, Paul, gimme a shout. wrsteel at blackhawke dot net.

    (If ya think that’s sumpin’, ya oughta see my ‘mind control’ folder.)

  4. And for the mystical side (and there’s a deep level of that in both organisms and cities), I’d recommend Iain Sinclair and Grant Morrison (especially the first parts of The Invisibles, on the city-virus).

  5. Now there’s an interesting question that pops up when I read this – corporations, religions, states (etc) benefit (emerge) from memetic conveyance – books, data storage etc. Institutions benefit from really fast iterative cycles of selection of this stored data and adapt in months, where life can barely keep up over years. As the amounts of technomass start expanding, squared against biomass (often displacing the latter) and we will probably see an explosion of selfreplicating technomass – I was wondering, what might biologists do to introduce a similar device in genetic code?

    Say, for instance, you have a rat. Rats adapt and evolve in a decade to evolutionary pressures. Now imagine rats had an extra gene, on which all the data for success is accumulated, which rests in something like RNA. Then introduce a tool that can easily select desirable qualities, more easy and faster than blind selection, and have rats (or any animal or plan) exchange this data by “rubbing together” – being close. Similarly, rats could store features dependent on longterm cycles – resistance to disease, features that only work in specific places, etc.

    I don’t see this being easy in rats – but simple organisms? What would be the benefits (for us/for the creature) be to create a means of faster feature selection and feature transmission? Or would this feature be gamed to extinction by diseases and parasites?

  6. I’ve been studying redwoods as the ultimate organic city as research for a new novella, and it’s fascinating to think of applying the connectivity and symbiosis and parasitism apparent in a “community” or “city” like a redwood tree to a human city.

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