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. 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?
[ 1 – I’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… ]