Monday, November 23, 2015

In the Bowels of Future Cities

I’m working on a story focusing on the theme of how cities will be in the future.  I have a story idea.  I have about 80% of a plot.  
What’s holding me up from actually start to write the story is this feeling that I’m not quite getting the point.  What I mean is, when I think about “The City of the Future” and what it might be like, I find myself asking myself the question...  Why?  
Not “Why” as in, “Why will it be this way.”  It’s “Why” as it, “Why will cities even be?”  
I’m looking at the history of cities in a historical sense, and every thing tells me that cities exist to concentrate something for a purpose.  
Going way, way back, when cities were first formed sometime after the beginning of agriculture, cities came together to concentrate the output of this new endeavor to efficiently trade the produce and services being created.  If I grew wheat, and you raised sheep, then the city nearest to both of us would be where you and I would get together to swap what we produced.  This way, I could have some mutton go to with my bread and you’d get bread with your lamb.  I would have to try to raise sheep myself, which might be difficult in my region due to climate and terrain, and you wouldn’t have to turn part of your pastures, perfect for feeding sheep, into more mediocre farmland.  
The city would also be a place where specialists could live to help us both.  The butcher, or the weaver to turn your sheep and their wool into other useful products.  Or the brewer, who figured out how to turn my grain into beer (whom I’m sure we’d both vote to become the city’s mayor, seeing how so damn smart such a guy would be regarded).  
This concentration of goods and services would accelerate during the industrial age.  This is when human populations begin pouring into the cities at faster and faster rates.  The need for a steady and local supply of workers to run the machines and work the assembly lines, as well as to purchase the products being processed and made, drives this concentration.  
But now, I’m wondering if this dynamic has changed.  
In the new age we find ourselves in, the Information Age, I am wondering what is there that needs to be concentrated.  
I’ve been reading more about the increased automation that our future will encompass.  Robotics and smart systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  They’ve already taken over numerous industries, such as automotive manufacturing and textiles.  An example cited in Martin Ford’s, “Rise of the Robots” (page 8) is that of a textile factory in South Carolina.  It employs 140 people, in a plant which has a level of production that would have required over 2,000 people in the 1980’s.  The workers in the plant today move half-finished  yarn from one machine to the next, “interfering” with the machine functioning as little as possible.  Even the task of packing and preparing the finished yarn for shipment is handled by computerized machines hanging from the ceiling of the factory.
I think this trend toward automation will continue.  I also think that the tools of the Information age, the computer, the Internet and similar networks, are decreasing the necessity of concentrating employees as needed in previous eras.  
It took until the year 2008 for the majority of people on the planet to be city dwellers.  There seems to be a belief that this trend toward increased urbanization will continue, with cities, which still only take up about 2% of the available surface area of the Earth, to get bigger and sprawl farther and farther out from their centers.  I’m wondering, though, if this trend is being driven by the momentum of a previous era’s need. 
When I look up information about how cities will be in the future, I get a lot of information, or speculation, about how cities will or should solve specific problems.  Cities should, or ought to be greener, with people proposing buildings that resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon, with walls that sprout planets to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint and maybe even grow more food locally, to reduce the level of carbon emissions to transport them. There’ll be solar panels on top of buildings, or weaved into the material used to pave our roads and sidewalks, as well as piezoelectric actuators in the hallways, to turn even the force of our footsteps into clean energy.  We’ll have a more diverse transportation system, where people will borrow vehicles to take them places, leaving them at their destination for someone else to use, along with with more robust, more efficient and more dispersed modes of public transportation.  
But none of these things focus on the question I have gnawing at me in the back of my mind.  What purpose will future cities serve, given that their previous functions of concentrating exchange of products and services, or of concentrating the necessary labor to make the economic engines of society work, are no longer needed?
There is only one possible answer that I can come up with.  Data.  
It is data that drives the Information Age.  And it is people that generate the data that is useful.  What they buy, what they sell, what they want, what they do in the aggregate.  So, if cities were the repositories of grain, meat, wool and leather, and the specialists that worked, traded and processed them, and then later the dormitories for the people that manned the machines and factories that processed the metals, coal and materials that built our vehicles, our homes and utensils and tools that formed the fabric of our daily lives, will they become the centers were the information that our computer driven society needs to function.  Places where our interactions generate billions of terabytes a  day that systems will sift through to find correlations of value.  
It sounds a bit like something from the Matrix.  Except, instead of our body heat to power them, it is our interactions that feed them.  
The only problem with this point of speculation, though, is that data isn’t like wheat or a lamb.  It can be concentrated anywhere at any time.  And people can interact with each other today even if separated half a world away.  A case can be made that direct interaction, face to face encounters, which I think people still need on a visceral level, can produce data that is somehow “better” or “more true” than online interactions.  But that may be my own philosophical leanings on the topic coloring my perceptions.  
There is another possible reason for the continued existence of cities in the future.  It could be that cities continue to exist because they want to.  
Going back to my point of view on the continuing and accelerating automation that will be overtaking us.  It is not difficult for me to imagine a day when any job you can think of today, no matter the profession, will be done by a computer or a robot.  Just as bank tellers had part of their jobs taken away by ATMs, and companies are building similar interfaces for fast-food restaurants today, just about any service job being done by a person today can, and very likely will, be performed by an expert system run on a computer running twenty-four hours a day somewhere else.  Most stock trades today are done automatically, by computer.  There are already websites where you can input your symptoms to get something of a diagnosis.  Crude and with inherent inaccuracies, but they show how, with increased sophistication, even the medical field can be impacted.  
So, what about the task of running the city itself?  A city remade with “smarter” materials, asphalt that can tell a city planning program that a pothole has developed for instance, or a surveillance system that dispatches police units (again, not necessarily human) to the scene of a crime, one with an information and energy grid that becomes not unlike the human nervous system, checking on and responding to inputs from all over the area that defines it.  
Such a city would become something that is more like a single, living entity instead of a collection of individuals working and living together.  Just as the first multi-cellular creature came together from a group of single-celled organisms working in concert for survival, a new sort of city, a living city, might be born.  
And if that city somehow became aware of itself...?  It might just decide to do what it needed to do to sustain its existence.  
And us, living inside such an entity?  The closest analogy I can think of would be the relationship we as living entities have with the bacteria living in our guts.  Colonies of organisms, in number greater than the cells of our bodies, living inside us and on our surfaces.  Organism that help us digest our food, prevent other more malignant organisms from infecting us and are so closely tied to who we are that the can be used to identify us.  A symbiotic relationship, where, from the city’s point of view, when it has one of its own, we exist to help make the city healthier.  
Or maybe something completely different.  


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