The New Human Wilderness

“We’re living in a stylistic tropics. There’s a whole generation of people able to access almost anything from almost anywhere, and they don’t have the same localized stylistic sense that my generation grew up with.”

-Brian Eno

“Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri.”

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Most of us live in cities; a lot of what we deem significant happens in cities; and our society is more “urban,” however we define that word, than ever before. The moment in 2008 when the world’s urban population passed the 50 percent mark possessed great symbolic importance for many who are part of that majority. Interestingly, contemporary authors like Ed Glaeser have built careers upon advocating the continued importance (the “triumph”) of the city, although urbanization, as a trend, doesn’t appear to need any more support than it naturally gets. Of course cities are important, and of course they’re still the focal points of the present economy and culture—they’re where civilization happens.

A counterargument that cities might become obsolete does surface from time to time, however: It’s possible to imagine that the internet and other technology are eliminating the need for us to live and work in close physical proximity to one another. This notion is typically a straw man for those who rebut it, though, since little evidence has suggested that humans will stop clustering and start spreading out uniformly across rural land just because we’re able to email and Skype each other.

Yes, cities are more important than ever, but they’re also less important than ever. As a resident blogger at Ribbonfarm, I’ve grappled with this paradox for the past year. Thinking about cities the way we did even twenty years ago means misunderstanding the landscape that almost all of us (and certainly anyone reading this) now inhabit. We don’t simply live in cities, we live in a much more expansive, fluid, and ambient space that meets these cities at countless critical points, flows through them constantly, and cannot be separated from them. The physical material of the city, of course, lives on, and functions much the same way it did one hundred years ago. Increasingly, though, this physical material is input for a more sophisticated system, and is not encountered in embodied reality alone. Few of us have the option, like Melville’s Ahab in the passage above, to just live in the world.

Today, cities are like paper currency—an advancement from something more primitive, but now the simplest and most tangible element of a complex, world-encompassing system that still rhetorically invokes its visible components. If you’re trying to understand the global economy, you aren’t thinking much about bills and coins, though the cover of the book you publish might depict them; likewise, if you’re trying to understand the global urban system, the traditional notion of the “city” is a hobgoblin that will lead you astray (though the cover of your book will likely depict “a city” as well).

The title for my residency series at Ribbonfarm this year has been “Metropolitan Vapors,” and reading back over my posts, I’m surprised to find that title perfectly suited for what I ended up writing. As always, there’s someone else who already expressed my main idea better than I can, and it’s worth reprinting the passage here, as it’s the DNA for my whole series:

“If our culture has lost interest in the ‘city’ is because we no longer know what it is (or whether it exists at all). But this is no license for complacency or passive acceptance of what has come to replace it: exurb, garrison communities, middle landscape, edge, etc. The urban is the primordial modern human wilderness…It is one thing to let go of the classical city, another entirely to abandon the emancipatory notion of the urban.”

This is a mere footnote in Sanford Kwinter’s essay collection Far from Equilibrium, but it introduces the idea that the urban is no longer confined to cities, as it was for millennia. That “primordial human wilderness” had to incubate in physical cities until communication and transportation technology enabled complex interactions between people who weren’t in the same place. If we imagined the classical city as a solid, its successor is a liquid or gas, as attested by the metaphors that I (and many others) have used to describe it: clouds, vapors, streams, swarms, and tropics.

Here at Ribbonfarm, I began by just trying to describe what happened to the classical city, and how our relationship to that city has changed. My first two pieces explored the fragmentation and discontinuity that digital communication and high-speed transportation induce: It’s easier than ever to bypass space, as well as information, and portions of the physical metropolis have thus lost importance while others (like airports) have become more important than ever. The key characteristics of the digital are speed, lightness, and mutability; the urban built environment is not, and in many ways it fits uneasily with digital modes of living.

As the year continued, I focused more attention on how we inhabit this physical/digital space as humans. The internet and the iPhone allow us to meet digitally and then “swarm” into public spaces (an idea Venkat has similarly developed). More than ever, cities are staging grounds for meaning that has been created in digital environments, rather than the true sources of that meaning. The built environment has largely lost its informational role to other media, and I stressed the importance of narratives and the avoidance of entropy in its many forms—both risks that digital immersion present to human civilization. The urban “primordial human wilderness” that Sanford Kwinter describes is a bulwark against these threats, whether city-bound or not.

We increasingly live our lives in a series of environments that are also networked, whether physical or digital. My most recent Ribbonfarm post assumed a slightly darker tone by acknowledging that we are less free in these networks than we were in the more purely physical space that Captain Ahab and the grizzly bears inhabited. There is an obvious reason for this: The heavy infrastructure upon which these networks rely, whether container terminals, interstate highways, data centers, or trans-Atlantic fiberoptic cables, lend themselves to centralized control.

There’s another, more fundamental reason that networks are less free, though: Networks are inherently legible in a way that even the most legible cities rarely were. There are fewer places to hide. We no longer inhabit space—now we search that space, and the result is that there are fewer places to hide. Some of the most alarming developments of the past decade, from the financial instruments that intensified the 2008 crash to the NSA’s intrusions on individual privacy, are direct consequences of this new relationship to space. In the classical city, you could know your own block or neighborhood better than any outsider, and this gave you power in a small corner of the world (at least in one domain). In the new spaces of networked life, local knowledge is less common and less potent: We know less about the places we fly over or drive past on the freeway, and even when we know more, we have to compete with algorithms that process the patterns in our own lives better than we do. Thus, the NSA and big banks have more power than you even on your own block, because they have better tools for probing and manipulating our networked environments.

I’ve ended my Ribbonfarm series on a foreboding note because this criticism is my best possible synthesis of the ideas I’ve developed here throughout the year. The new urban space that continues to “eat” the classical city has been my focus all along, and my series has progressed from describing that space to understanding how living in that space affects us. Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of American Cities as an affirmation of her love for the classical city, but her criticism of the antisocial and dehumanizing forces she observed within cities was her truest expression of that sentiment. The metropolitan vapors that have detached from the physical city are still relatively new and not quite familiar. We need to criticize our new urban environments as diligently as we have criticized the old ones in order to realize their potential as the vessels of human civilization—which cities have always been, after all.

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About Drew Austin

Drew Austin is a New York based technologist. His ribbonfarm posts explore the nature of the changing nature of urban environments . Follow him on Twitter.


  1. I think I follow your claim that “metropolitan vapors” have detached from cities themselves to extend their reach across time and space.

    Clearly, the classical city has often been a central hub for administration (taxes, politics, etc.), but today the need for an actual city to be that hub (or even for there to be a “hub” at all) is questionable. With server farms popping up all over the Midwest, are farm towns now the true administrative centers of civilization?

    As far as cities being “the new human wilderness,” I’m not so sure. I think the true wilderness involves mitigating one’s technology use. After all, “wilderness” tends to be confusing and lacking landmarks: all things that one experiences without a cell phone and an internet connection.

  2. “… since little evidence has suggested that humans will stop clustering and start spreading out uniformly across rural land just because we’re able to email and Skype each other.”

    Yes, there is little evidence, but why? This was a huge promise back in the 1990s when the web started to grow explosively. Not a single one of the Zeitgeist theorists and futurists who refused to claim that space ( qua geometry ) was done, that only time and topology still matters and so on. It was so cool. The only thing that happened since then in a city like Munich/Germany where I live is that residence has become more expensive that prizes have gone up. Instead of a society of decentralized little towns which are linked with each other we experience that infrastructure becomes even more centralized than it did before.

    When we ask what cities are than we find they are places of the centralization of culture, trade, consumption/shopping, administration and public events. They are ambiguous about being the central locations of human work. Of course there is work in the cities but the office parks are likely to be found in the suburbs and factories may be a matter of trade and foreign affairs from the perspective of the capital. Because of the decentralization of work cities haven’t been “solids” but “vapors” at least since the beginning of modernity and digital technologies have contributed little to it. The “American Cloud” is not the result of a sudden decentralization caused by Skype, Facebook, Github and cloud-working. In Germany all the media and internet startups seem to be right in Berlin, as if the hot spot of politics, party culture, art galleries etc. also attracts the digital. The periphery becomes invisible and soon one believes it doesn’t matter anymore, it is all about the theater of life, the creativity and shopping habits of people living in the center.

    So does new media theory need a bailout because it didn’t explain anything and have foreseen nothing?

  3. Kay – the little towns only stay little if they’re not allowed to mature. Berlin was once a little town. The problem is all the bad pseudo-urbanism of the 1950s, all the stuff that forgot about human-scale outdoor rooms etc., has made people knee-jerk anti-growth. If Berlin is getting more and more expensive, that demand should spill out into other growing mid-sized towns. If it doesn’t, it’s because those towns are badly managed, because they’re not maturing into great cities.