“The ‘abstract’ and the ‘concrete’ from now on would have lives of their own, participating in a perpetual ballroom dance where partners are exchanged promiscuously according to design.”
Two threads of discourse dominated twentieth-century urbanism in the United States: the Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses dichotomy and the rise of the suburbs. The former was fundamentally a question of power. Should hyperintelligent master planners decide how cities develop, or should more agency remain at the block level, in the hands of city-dwellers themselves? The questions of how cities should function and whether they should favor vibrant street life or big business, infrastructural megaprojects and automobile throughput all followed from that primary question of power.
The suburbanization debate was slightly more one-sided and, as the trend intensified, the discussion assumed a more urgent tone. The car-dependent developments that exploded on the urban peripheries after World War II not only had their own serious social, environmental, and aesthetic problems, but they were undermining the central cities themselves by draining their residents, money, and cultural vitality without offering a satisfactory replacement. A long list of essential urbanist texts supports the argument against conventional suburbia, with few convincing rebuttals in favor of the trend.
By the 1990s, cities started making a comeback and the sense of urgency about solving the problems of suburbanization began to wane ever so slightly. It became easier for urbanists to ignore the difficult periphery and focus on the city—the Jacobs-Moses question—once again. Many continue to ponder the recent revitalization of American cities, a phenomenon exemplified by New York’s transformation into the tourist-friendly Giuliani/Bloomberg project that by now has fully matured and proven itself a model for smaller cities to emulate. Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida, among others, have made careers on explaining this phenomenon, flawed though their accounts may be. The suburban threat to the continued existence of cities had subsided—cities were back—but a nascent phenomenon had by then raised fresh doubts about the abiding need for classical urban space: the internet.
The Information Age city, it seems, is qualitatively different than its predecessor. For the twentieth-century city, location was the central issue: people physically leaving the city for the suburbs, and the infrastructure that made that movement possible. People and material objects couldn’t occupy two locations at once, so being in one place meant not being in another. The spatial allocation of urban resources was a zero-sum game, and cities were losing.
Today, a different dichotomy has surpassed the urban/suburban one in relevance: the increasing separation of lived experience into physical and digital components. The question of which human activities need to keep happening in “meatspace” and which ones can fully migrate to the internet is a question that both cities and suburbs must answer, and it pulls the rug out from underneath the suburban problem (to the extent that the problem still exists). The growing pains and upheavals that cities underwent in the late twentieth century can be understood as early steps in the transition to the present mode. Sanford Kwinter writes that “the City of the 1970s and 1980s was arguably the laboratory—testing and training ground—for the internet-driven, image-glutted, global, deregulated market capitalism of the 1990s.” Software and the digital are now eating the physical city like the suburbs once were, and if the new trend is less visible, it’s almost certainly more potent. As urban culture detaches from the places that have historically generated it, metropolitan vapors swirl into formerly unlikely places. Places like Manhattan take on characteristics of suburban shopping malls as suburban malls themselves are increasingly designed to resemble urban commercial districts.
The internet, like suburban growth before it, forces an affirmation of why cities are necessary. As suburbs boomed and cities emptied out and decayed in the 1960s and 1970s, we had to decide whether cities were indeed obsolete and the suburbs an adequate replacement. Intuitively, we knew that wasn’t the case, but we had to hope the course of history would prove us right. Likewise, the eruption of digital replacements for urban functions—from commerce to social interaction to cultural production—forces us to reexamine any beliefs we held that those functions are the reasons we still live in cities. We can inhabit physical and digital space simultaneously, as opposed to choosing between the city and suburbs, but as Glaeser and Florida have pointed out, cities are as vital as ever in the Information Age, and the digital entities that have begun eating the city’s traditional roles—Amazon, Facebook, and even Craigslist—are not undermining cities themselves.
Cities, ultimately, embody the battle against entropy in which human civilization is always engaged. Entropy—a system’s passage from difference to uniformity—is precisely what cities enable us to avoid. The work that it takes to build cities and maintain them is the very act of humanity resisting a descent into randomness, and everything that can truly be called urban actively opposes that uniformity. The real threat of twentieth-century suburbanization was not its inefficiency or even the social limitations it imposed, but that it indicated a societal failure to resist entropy. The hollowing out of urban centers and the rebirth of those places as blandly repetitive bedroom communities, in this light, threatened more than just cities themselves as it suggested an acceleration of civilizational heat death.
Digital space, then, is the next front in the civilizational war on entropy that we have always been waging. Cities are as important as ever in this phase, although the form they will assume is uncertain. The internet may absorb certain time-honored functions of the city (and it’s already doing so) but there is a limit to how far this process can go. Algorithmic recommendation systems will eventually descend into entropic noise unless fed by the real cultural wealth that cities generate. Apps like Yelp, Meetup, and Foursquare are built directly upon the geography of the physical city and cannot exist without it, and Amazon’s supply chain requires dense population centers to work efficiently. Like suburban sprawl, the tendency of the digital world is toward entropy, endlessly piling up data and discarding nothing. Without the restraining and ordering effects of cities that world will eventually become a Library of Babel, a channel muddled by bots talking to bots. We might stop using the physical city to shop, meet strangers, or consume entertainment, but when we finally escape every need we have for cities, it will mean we’ve also finally escaped our need for civilization.