Maybe it’s a cliché—I think I’ve used it myself—to say that scientists’ and philosophers’ explanations for how the brain works tend to metaphorically track the most advanced technology of their time. Greek writers thought brains worked like hydraulic water clocks. European writers in the Middle Ages suggested that thoughts operated through gear-like mechanisms. In the 19th century the brain was like a telegraph; a few decades later, it was more like a telephone network. Shortly after that, no surprise, people thought the brain worked like a digital computer, and that maybe they could build computers that work like the brain, or talk to it. Not easy, since, metaphors aside, nobody really knows how the brain works. Science can be exciting like that.
The absence of a good metaphor hasn’t stopped anyone from studying brains, of course. But sometimes they confuse the map for the terrain, mistaking a good metaphor for a workable theory. It’s easy to do when it comes to complex systems that interact at scales either too big or too small for us to observe in their entirety. That’s true for the brain, a lump of think-meat generating an individual mind from, researchers think, around 86 billion individual cells woven into an electrochemical jelly-network. And it’s true for a city, the dense network in which millions of those individual minds come together to form a community. The people who write about cities—I’ve done it myself—also tend to grope for organizing metaphors in current science. A city is a machine, a city is an animal, a city is an ecosystem. Or maybe a city is like a computer. To the urbanist and media studies writer Shannon Mattern, that’s the dangerous one.
Mattern’s new book comes out August 10; it’s a collection (with revisions and updates) of some of her very smart work for Places Journal called A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences. In it, Mattern wrestles with the ways that particular metaphor has screwed up the design, planning, and living-in of cities in the 20th century. It happens at every scale, from surveilling individual people as if they were bits to monitoring the widescreen data necessary to keep a city functioning for the good of its inhabitants. Of all the ways information can travel through an urban network, Mattern says, it’d probably be better to have public libraries be the nodes than the panopticon-like centralized dashboards so many cities try to build. The problem is that the metrics people choose to track become targets to achieve. They become their own kind of metaphors, and they’re usually wrong.
The first two essays are the ones that had the most oomph when they were first published—and still do. “City Console” is a wild history of information dashboards and control rooms designed to be panopticons for urban data. These informational hubs collect input on how well municipal systems are working, crime is getting policed, children are getting educated, and so on. Mission control, but for freeways and sewage. My favorite example from Mattern’s book is the 1970s effort by Salvador Allende, then the leader of Chile, to build something called Project Cybersyn, with an “ops room” full of button-studded chairs that would have made Captain Kirk proud, plus wall-sized screens with flashing red lights. Of course, since no city had real-time data to fill those screens, they displayed hand-drawn slides instead. It’s goofy, but there’s a direct line from Cybersyn to the ways lots of US cities now collect and display law enforcement and other urban data in CompStat programs. They’re supposed to make government accountable, but they often justify worthless arrests or highlight misleading numbers—on-time transit travel instead of number of people carried, let’s say.
In the next essay, the titular one, Mattern warns against the ambitions of big Silicon Valley companies to build “smart cities.” When the essay first appeared, Amazon was still on tap to build a city-sized headquarters in New York, and Google was pushing to do much the same in Toronto. (The Google project, from a sibling company called Sidewalk Labs, would have featured wood skyscrapers, pavement that used lights to reconfigure its uses on the fly, self-driving cars, and underground trash tubes.) Now, of course, most of the big smart-city, tech-enabled projects have failed or scaled back. Hudson Yards in New York didn’t deploy with anywhere near the level of sensor and surveillance technology its developers promised (or maybe threatened). Cities still gather and share all kinds of data, but they’re not exactly “smart.”
In a conversation last month, I asked Mattern why tech companies seem to have failed to smarten up any cities, at least so far. She thinks it’s because they missed the most important parts of citymaking. “A lot of more computational and data-driven ways of thinking about cities give a false sense of omniscience,” Mattern says. The people in charge of cities think they’re getting raw truth when in fact the filters they choose determine what they see. “When everything is computational, or when we can operationalize even the more poetic and evanescent aspects of a city in a datapoint,” Mattern says, “that makes us unaware that it is a metaphor.”
That’s bad, is the point. But the game isn’t over. “Even though the really charismatic projects haven’t come to fruition, they planted seeds and showed possibilities,” Mattern says. “Some of the tech companies can implement what they’ve learned in other, more subtle forms.” If Sidewalk Labs’ promise to build robocar-ready, reconfigurable illuminated pavement doesn’t come to fruition, that’s probably a relief to people on foot and bikes. But the replacement might be corporate housing built by Google or Facebook in Silicon Valley that automatically pings cell phones and relies on biometrics to keep track of its residents. And maybe the people who live there won’t mind, because after all, no one else is building much housing. Company towns could seem like as good an option tomorrow as they did to laborers in the 19th century—only now every apartment will come with Alexa wired into the walls.
Mattern studied chemistry as an undergraduate, then went on to do a PhD in media studies, with a lot of other work in architecture and anthropology. So the book reflects the ways a bunch of academic disciplines refract the idea of urbanism, of how to make a city that supports everyone who lives there. She’s particularly interested in public libraries as a place where city dwellers can learn and connect with information about resources, education, jobs, and infrastructure. Libraries are a very different kind of place today than when Matern wrote her dissertation on them in the 1990s; even spatially, the stacks and card catalogues have given way to plaza-like public spaces and cafes, performance facilities, internet access, and digital collections. (No one younger than Gen X knows the particular pleasure of flight that comes from navigating a microfiche landscape at top speed.) It’s a bummer to lose physical media, but now “libraries are not just places for the consumption of information and knowledge, but places for local communities to build their own collections and perform them,” Mattern tells me. That makes them a sort of antithesis to all the cameras, speed sensors, and Bluetooth location sensors that a “smart city” might use to suck data out of its inhabitants.
Between the time Mattern wrote the essays and their collection into a book, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. There’s a terrible irony in that; you can’t really have a pandemic without cities. Without huge numbers of people living within disease-transmission distance of one another, viruses and bacteria don’t have as much to do.
The history of public health is a history of urban theory and design: quarantine as a requirement of Renaissance trade; the “cordon sanitaire” as a barrier to separate nominally sick locals from their colonists; John Snow’s map of cholera near public wells in London; Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris in the 19th century (to fight cholera and other diseases and to make it easier, if necessary, to pacify the rebellious poor); the hygiene and sanitation movements of the early 20th century that led to better US housing; and disastrous, racist “slum clearances” to fight “blight.” The histories of urban theory and public health are knotted together.
At the turn of the 20th century, the twin infectious disease threats of tuberculosis and the Spanish flu combined with faddish ideas on wellness among people rich enough to afford their own architects, and led to something new. As the architectural historian Biatriz Colomina has written, that was Modernism, with its clean lines, honest materials, porous relationship between the indoors and outdoors, more sunlight, more ventilation, and solid surfaces that were easy to clean. It was more than an aesthetic. It was disease control.
With a better understanding of how diseases like Covid-19 transmit through shared air, a similarly radical transition could happen again. “Rethinking the workspace, the office, wondering about flexible schedules and if that can help make a more humane work environment and assist with social distancing—we’ve been on quite a roller coaster,” Mattern says. “There was a lot of hope. We realized the need for parks, public spaces, alternative forms of transportation. But then we see the depressing debate over infrastructure bills and our lack of desire to expand what counts as infrastructure.”
It’s here that I start to think the twinned histories of cities and public health are having their own metaphor crisis. Our own personal dashboards are forcing the issue. Americans spent the summer of 2020 switching their web browsers from Covid deaths to wildfire locations to air pollution levels—when we weren’t looking for community on Twitter, TikTok, or Facebook. What is social media if not a dashboard for our personal lives? As always, the data you collect determines what you know. If Project Cybersyn pointed the metaphor needle toward a clean, gleaming Roddenberry utopia, 2020 twisted the dial toward a breakdown straight out of Octavia Butler or William Gibson. But sci-fi dystopia is a pretty bad metaphor if you hope to avert the end of the world.
Mattern’s deft dissection of metaphors for cities shows that when they’re misguided, they point to a failure not only of imagination but of a city’s ability to carry out its chief function—as a bulwark against disaster. Humans build cities as fortresses against failure: economic collapse, natural catastrophe, human venality and cowardice. The city walls keep those things out, when they work. If houses are, as the architect Mies van de Rohe said, “machines for living,” then cities are places where those machines get daisy-chained into a society. Cities are machines for cooperation, and survival.
Last summer, the disasters of climate change and disease pointed at the ways those machines could fail. The past year has made it clearer than ever that economic and racial inequities around the world, and especially in the United States, have imminent, deadly consequences. The warning lights are all flashing red: A conversation about cities can no longer be about the invisible data of surveillance cameras and stock trades. It has to be about the visible, more human-scaled construction of something better. The built environment can’t be an accident anymore, because that leads to catastrophe. We don’t live in a metaphor. “The built environment is the product of so many agencies and institutions, often working in the background,” Mattern says. “It’s hard to localize responsibility for that.” As she writes, cities aren’t mere computers. but I might still deploy a facile idea from that metaphor: Justice and survival now depend on cities getting a serious upgrade to their firmware.