Civilization and the War on Entropy

by Drew Austin on May 23, 2013

Drew is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Kneeling Bus.

“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.”

-Sanford Kwinter

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.

Kevin Simler May 23, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Oh man, this is great — but you leave me wanting so much more!

What’s the nature of the “entropy” you’re talking about? Is it metaphorical, or can we connect it to actual physical notions of entropy? (It takes a lot of physical work to build suburbs, too, even if they’re relatively homogeneous.)

This recent paper on entropy and intelligent systems intrigues me (although I admit the paper itself is beyond my ken): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22261742 How much can cities “look ahead” in an attempt to decrease future entropy?

Also this was beautiful and worthy of a post all its own:

“Algorithmic recommendation systems will eventually descend into entropic noise unless fed by the real cultural wealth that cities generate.”

Nancy Lebovitz May 24, 2013 at 8:43 am
Brendan May 24, 2013 at 11:52 am

Drew, write a damn book already.

James Hanusa May 25, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Great stuff, write a book and let’s talk about the future!

Scott Werner May 27, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Have to second what Kevin Simler said above. This was great, but was way too short! I really enjoyed the quote about the algorithmic recommendation systems descending into entropic noise as well.

I would love to hear you go into more detail about this one as well:
“Places like Manhattan take on characteristics of suburban shopping malls as suburban malls themselves are increasingly designed to resemble urban commercial districts.”

Alexander Boland May 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Jaron Lanier’s new book has a very very similar thesis. I haven’t gotten that far in it, but his main argument seems to be that internet businesses (as they are now), by data-mining people and not compensating them for the information they provide, are gradually destroying the economic base upon which new information depends.

The simplest example would be file-sharing, which endangers the production of new music by depriving musicians of a reliable livelihood; but Lanier believes that this general principle will apply to anything where information is plundered for free by those who control the world’s major software. I think your view on cities fits right into this argument.

Lanier’s general solution is to essentially make information a priced good rather than something that should be “free”. Even though it seems ghastly to a lot of people, it would have the effect of creating a world in which for every time a person provides information to a recommendation service, they’re given the means to produce more information; interestingly, this is one example where having more of a “market” would actually avoid a dynamic of reckless plunder.

Alexander Boland May 28, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I also forgot, his own example with data-mining and recommendation algorithms also works by the same logic: if people are continually mined for data and wealth gets concentrated in these few companies, there will come a point where everyone else is impoverished and the commercial basis of places like amazon or facebook are severely crippled.

Anyway, I still have a lot to read of that book, but it should be some great food for thought for the subject of this post.

Kay May 29, 2013 at 12:11 am

Not sure how turning the world into a global App Store where everyone leaves payment traces would be a cultural enrichment and small, unstable incomes are a source of empowerment for the petite capitalist, the darling of the Libertarians. I heard it didn’t even work out all that well in case of Apples App Store, which was celebrated a couple of years ago to bring capitalism back to the net.

If Lanier wasn’t musician but painter or sculptor I wonder if he wouldn’t draw the same conclusions about the stagnation of cultural progress in his particular niche but in that case the evil free Internet can hardly be made responsible for it.

Interestingly, this is one example where having more of a “market” would actually avoid a dynamic of reckless plunder.

In July I’m going to visit Florence, the city of Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo – and the Medicis. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that feudal patronage has been an even more successful economic model for culture to flourish than market economy with its tendency to run with the pack and fulfill the desires of the masses?

Alexander Boland May 29, 2013 at 11:23 am

Not sure how turning the world into a global App Store where everyone leaves payment traces would be a cultural enrichment and small, unstable incomes are a source of empowerment for the petite capitalist, the darling of the Libertarians. I heard it didn’t even work out all that well in case of Apples App Store, which was celebrated a couple of years ago to bring capitalism back to the net.

I’m not sure whether anything I said implies turning the world into a “global app store”, but I think I see what you’re saying. His point is that if everything is made more “efficient” by mining data from other people and as a result puts people out of work, then the very place that “data” is coming from will eventually be economically inert. I don’t think he’s necessarily proposing that some modest monetary remuneration for people’s data is going to automatically make anything better, but to him it’s a much more honest transaction because the people who are being data-mined are providing a service that is absolutely essential to the well-being of these businesses.

The way I see it is a bit more general and has to do with the concept of equilibrium. The idea of big data and machines simply making everything more “efficient” is akin to taking a landscape of mountains and smoothing out all of the rough places; that is, arbitraging away all of the disequilibria (note also that this general mathematical idea is arguably what Drew is talking about.) A sustainable economy, on the other hand, uses that energy to create more complexity, arbitraging the current hills and valleys to create more hills and valleys to be explored. Granted, the idea is a bit weird and I’m still thinking it over, but I think this is the way to reconcile the paradox that markets strive towards equilibrium for the sake of providing ever more negentropy for society.

If Lanier wasn’t musician but painter or sculptor I wonder if he wouldn’t draw the same conclusions about the stagnation of cultural progress in his particular niche but in that case the evil free Internet can hardly be made responsible for it.

It’s definitely true that his direct experience as a musician brings some bias–he seems to imply his awareness of it when he says that if he thought the problem of the creative classes being drained were to be limited to musicians and journalists; but that he’s afraid this is just the beginning.

In July I’m going to visit Florence, the city of Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo – and the Medicis. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that feudal patronage has been an even more successful economic model for culture to flourish than market economy with its tendency to run with the pack and fulfill the desires of the masses?

While I can only speculate, I’d say that the idea that the market only fulfills the desires of the “mob” is a bit cliche. Just using some conventional economic logic, it seems to me that eventually the market that just “gives people what they want” becomes saturated and people gain more of an incentive to try something riskier. Many industries seem to actually have ways of facilitating this by allocating money for small bets on things that are not likely to succeed; thus we end up getting some movies like Pulp Ficiton, which was a huge hit despite being the kind of movie that certainly wasn’t pandering to the average Hollywood movie watcher.

Both feudalism and capitalism seem to provide avenues for legitimate innovation; in each case there are outlets for people to take chances. That said, I’m not too keen on the idea of having things devolve into a world where we all have the privilege of being the peasants of Lord Zuckerberg and his vassals.

Kay May 30, 2013 at 1:31 am

Lord Zuckerberg, yes, this sounds disgusting …

Whenever a social phenomenon makes a turn into an unpleasant direction, turn it into a conspiracy – or not actually a conspiracy but into an intentional act of some mega corporations, who cleverly exploit the new social order and whose success confirms the theory. So when open media, file sharing etc. creates not much but Favela Chic and trashes parts of the creative class and dependent industries, blame Google and Facebook.

In Germany people call laws like the Ancillary copyright for press publishers that have passed the Bundestag in March of this year the “Google tax”. Publishers have realized though that it creates nothing but a prisoners dilemma among them. The GEMA already attempted some Google tax with Youtube in the past and failed. I don’t think that the absence of parts of the culture industry in Germany is a big loss for the people who joke about themselves as the “Tal der Ahnungslosen” ( the valley of the clueless – this is how those locations in the former GDR were mocked that didn’t have access to western media ) but there is also no winner.

Lanier lamented in “You are not a Gadget” that a micropayment system was not directly built into the Internet ( the IP protocol? ) but the Internet wasn’t created by the Supreme Soviet or the National People’s Congress of China. The preference of one protocol over the other is not dictated by some authoritarian regime with a humanist appeal.

Alexander Boland May 30, 2013 at 11:07 am

I think you may have read too much into my “Lord Zuckerberg” phrase. You were just mentioning feudalism and I was using some jokey language to say “feudalism could work but it doesn’t really sound very pleasant to me.” I’m not suggesting Mark Zuckerberg is an evil zerg cerebrate that’s come to rob us of all autonomy.

Nor does Lanier cry “conspiracy!” at any point. He considers Google/FB/Amazon/Apple/etc to be perfectly normal corporations acting reasonably given the incentives that they have. His point is that, moving forward, this system can’t hold because too much value is taken off the books when the data that people provide for their software isn’t compensated for in any way.

I don’t know enough details about these things you pointed out to give valuable analysis. What’s the prisoner’s dilemma that they create?

As for the internet protocol, it seems that it largely was determined by governmental forces. The infrastructure didn’t just pop out of some random company–it was originally a government project. There may have been later aspects that were privately decided, but I don’t see that as an argument for never intervening in how infrastructure is laid out. If there’s some serious problem that arises elsewhere in our infrastructure, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider directly changing it.

Kay May 30, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I don’t know enough details about these things you pointed out to give valuable analysis. What’s the prisoner’s dilemma that they create?

Google takes text snippets from news articles and publishes them in news aggregators, search results etc. The publishers don’t consider this as a service to them but they want Google to pay for an illegitimate use of their data. In the best case all of them cooperate and Google pays its “tax” but when Google doesn’t and comes to an agreement with some publishers on an individual base those who agree will take a relative advantage while the others will lose.

Understandably the publishers insist on what Lanier called a “formal economy” while Google only offers an informal one. It is perceived as a big problem for the creative class but we don’t know if it is a real one and gain and loss will cancel each other out in the end.

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