On Cities

Cities are the culmination of human activity on Earth.

Cities are accumulations of history, the detritus of yesterday.

But cities are also alive--they also grow and evolve. They are in a constant flux, and humans are always disrupting their composition.

A shopping complex emerges one night in a rural field. A year later the entire character of what used to be that landscape is erased. Roads are paved, trees cut down, a large part of the ecosystem is completely wiped off that part of the map. In a hundred years the shopping center has taken on a unique character of its own. The buildings have grown closer, more active, more useful for every day human life. The buildings are not static--they mold themselves to the needs of the people they serve every day.

They also die. One day that shopping complex might vanished back into prairie, with only its overgrown ruins to hint at what the bustle of that market might have felt like.

An awe-inspiring fact about the world we live in is that all our cities, all our culture, our values--the things that shape our lives more than anything else all this only emerged from the veils of written history mere thousands of years ago.

This isn't just a historical fact, it is also a physical fact of the universe. Something got mixed up in the past 10,000 years of the history of the world--some admixture of culture and biology and technology got catalyzed and led to a bloom of activity that rivaled any in entire the course of life on Earth. It transcended Earth when we landed on the moon. Perhaps one day our cities will change the composition of other planets.

Perhaps the most important impact that cities have on our lives is the way that they influence human destiny. Herbert Simon famously said that the complexity of an ant's behavior is greatly influenced by the complexity of the physical environment that it inhabits so it is with people. We are led into our adulthood on a guided course, the walls of our cities and culture narrowing in on us with each passing year. We are not necessarily forced to lead lives governed by cultural norms, but when we do we are so greatly rewarded by the cultures that accept these norms.

It seems to me that all the great peaks of civilization the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Babylons, were characterized by their ability to grant individual humans the possibility of transcending the cultural background around them and invent new and better ways of living. In our endless fight for greater affluence and better quality of life, the potential of each individual human is greatly increased.

It is important then, that we give careful thought into the societies that we are creating. When we invent a new technology, it is important that we take a long hard look at whether that technology is a benefit or a detriment to the world at large. Is it beneficial to have an entire society that is subtly manipulated by addictive apps and deceptive news stories? That remains to be seen we are performing this great civilizational experiment right now. Only time can tell if the experiment will be a failure or a success.

We know from history that even the greatest civilizations are not immortal. A city is given character and life by the people who live in it, and people die. After a few generations of rebellious teenagers fighting against their culture's norms the entire character of a culture and the possibilities it offers may change, or amplify, or be forgotten. People may one day grow disillusioned with the benefits of living in such a society, and allow that civilization to drift off into irrelevant senility. Or people may develop a wonder for the possibilities of life and invent new ways of being human. As Yuval Noah Harari explained so elegantly in his book Sapiens, Homo sapiens is the species that reinvents itself. Our civilization with grow or perish as a result of the choices we make while reinventing today. Do we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet with a catatonic biosphere and deeply unequal society? I can't answer that question because I don't know the answer. It's a question that needs to be answered by all of us.