The Dark Enlightenment (Part 4a)

A multi-part sub-digression into racial terror

My own sense of the thing is that underneath the happy talk, underneath the dogged adherence to failed ideas and dead theories, underneath the shrieking and anathematizing at people like me, there is a deep and cold despair. In our innermost hearts, we don’t believe racial harmony can be attained. Hence the trend to separation. We just want to get on with our lives away from each other. Yet for a moralistic, optimistic people like Americans, this despair is unbearable. It’s pushed away somewhere we don’t have to think about it. When someone forces us to think about it, we react with fury. That little boy in the Andersen story about the Emperor’s new clothes? The ending would be more true to life if he had been lynched by a howling mob of outraged citizens.
— John Derbyshire, interviewed at Gawker

We believe in the equal dignity and presumption of equal decency toward every person — no matter what race, no matter what science tells us about comparative intelligence, and no matter what is to be gleaned from crime statistics. It is important that research be done, that conclusions not be rigged, and that we are at liberty to speak frankly about what it tells us. But that is not an argument for a priori conclusions about how individual persons ought to be treated in various situations — or for calculating fear or friendship based on race alone. To hold or teach otherwise is to prescribe the disintegration of a pluralistic society, to undermine the aspiration of E Pluribus Unum.
— Andrew McCarthy, defending the expulsion of JD from the National Review

“The Talk” as black Americans and liberals present it (to wit: necessitated by white malice), is a comic affront — because no one is allowed (see Barro above) to notice the context in which black Americans are having run-ins with the law, each other, and others. The proper context for understanding this, and the mania that is the Trayvonicus for that matter, is the reasonable fear of violence. This is the single most exigent fact here — yet you decree it must not be spoken.
— Dennis Dale, responding to Josh Barro’s call for JD’s ‘firing’

Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.
— Bladerunner

There is no part of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, or very many other East Asian cities where it is impossible to wander, safely, late at night. Women, whether young or old, on their own or with small children, can be comfortably oblivious to the details of space and time, at least insofar as the threat of assault is concerned. Whilst this might not be quite sufficient to define a civilized society, it comes extremely close. It is certainly necessary to any such definition. The contrary case is barbarism.

These lucky cities of the western Pacific Rim are typified by geographical locations and demographic profiles that conspicuously echo the embarrassingly well-behaved ‘model minorities’ of Occidental countries. They are (non-obnoxiously) dominated by populations that – due to biological heredity, deep cultural traditions, or some inextricable entanglement of the two – find polite, prudent, and pacific social interactions comparatively effortless, and worthy of continuous reinforcement. They are also, importantly, open, cosmopolitan societies, remarkably devoid of chauvinistic boorishness or paranoid ethno-nationalist sentiment. Their citizens are disinclined to emphasize their own virtues. On the contrary, they will typically be modest about their individual and collective attributes and achievements, abnormally sensitive to their failures and shortcomings, and constantly alert to opportunities for improvement. Complacency is almost as rare as delinquency. In these cities an entire — and massively consequential — dimension of social terror is simply absent.

In much of the Western world, in stark contrast, barbarism has been normalized. It is considered simply obvious that cities have ‘bad areas’ that are not merely impoverished, but lethally menacing to outsiders and residents alike. Visitors are warned to stay away, whilst locals do their best to transform their homes into fortresses, avoid venturing onto the streets after dark, and – especially if young and male — turn to criminal gangs for protection, which further degrades the security of everybody else. Predators control public space, parks are death traps, aggressive menace is celebrated as ‘attitude’, property acquisition is for mugs (or muggers), educational aspiration is ridiculed, and non-criminal business activity is despised as a violation of cultural norms. Every significant mechanism of socio-cultural pressure, from interpreted heritage and peer influences to political rhetoric and economic incentives, is aligned to the deepening of complacent depravity and the ruthless extirpation of every impulse to self-improvement. Quite clearly, these are places where civilization has fundamentally collapsed, and a society that includes them has to some substantial extent failed.

Within the most influential countries of the English-speaking world, the disintegration of urban civilization has profoundly shaped the structure and development of cities. In many cases, the ‘natural’ (one might now say ‘Asian’) pattern, in which intensive urbanization and corresponding real estate values are greatest in the downtown core, has been shattered, or at least deeply deformed. Social disintegration of the urban center has driven an exodus of the (even moderately) prosperous to suburban and exurban refuges, producing a grotesque and historically unprecedented pattern of ‘donut’-style development, with cities tolerating – or merely accommodating themselves to – ruined and rotting interiors, where sane people fear to tread. ‘Inner city’ has come to mean almost exactly the opposite of what an undistorted course of urban development would produce. This is the geographical expression of a Western – and especially American – social problem that is at once basically unmentionable and visible from outer space.

Surprisingly, the core-crashed donut syndrome has a notably insensitive yet commonly accepted name, which captures it in broad outlines – at least according to its secondary characteristics – and to a reasonable degree of statistical approximation: White Flight. This is an arresting term, for a variety of reasons. It is stamped, first of all, by the racial bi-polarity that – as a vital archaism – resonates with America’s chronic social crisis at a number of levels. Whilst superficially outdated in an age of many-hued multicultural and immigration issues, it reverts to the undead code inherited from slavery and segregation, perpetually identified with Faulkner’s words: “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.” Yet even in this untypical moment of racial candor, blackness is elided, and implicitly disconnected from agency. It is denoted only by allusion, as a residue, concentrated passively and derivatively by the sifting function of a highly-adrenalized white panic. What cannot be said is indicated even as it is unmentioned. A distinctive silence accompanies the broken, half-expression of a mute tide of racial separatism, driven by civilizationally disabling terrors and animosities, whose depths, and structures of reciprocity, remain unavowable.

What the puritan exodus from Old to New World was to the foundation of Anglophone global modernity, white flight is to its fraying and dissolution. As with the pre-founding migration, what gives white flight ineluctable relevance here is its sub-political character: all exit and no voice. It is the subtle, non-argumentative, non-demanding ‘other’ of social democracy and its dreams – the spontaneous impulse of dark enlightenment, as it is initially glimpsed, at once disillusioning and implacable.

The core-crashed donut is not the only model of sick city syndrome (the shanty fringe phenomenon emphasized in Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums is very different). Nor is donut-disaster urbanism reducible to racial crisis, at least in its origins. Technological factors have played a crucial role (most prominently, automobile geography) as have quite other, long-standing cultural traditions (such as the construction of suburbia as a bourgeois idyll). Yet all such lineages have been in very large measure supplanted by, or at least subordinated to, the inherited, and still emerging, ‘race problem.’

So what is this ‘problem’? How is it developing? Why should anybody outside America be concerned about it? Why raise the topic now (if ever)? – If your heart is sinking under the gloomy suspicion this is going to be huge, meandering, nerve-wracking, and torturous, you’re right. We’ve got weeks in this chamber of horrors to look forward to.

The two simplest, quite widely held, and basically incompatible answers to the first question deserve to be considered as important parts of the problem.

Question: What is America’s race problem?

Answer-1: Black people.

Answer-2: White people.

The combined popularity of these options is significantly expanded, most probably to encompass a large majority of all Americans, when is taken to include those who assume that one of these two answers dominates the thinking of the other side. Between them, the propositions “The problem would be over if we could just rid ourselves of black hoodlums / white racists” and / or “They think we’re all hoodlums / racists and want to get rid of us” consume an impressive proportion of the political spectrum, establishing a solid foundation of reciprocal terror and aversion. When defensive projections are added (“We’re not hoodlums, you’re racists” or “We’re not racists, you’re hoodlums”), the potential for super-heated, non-synthesizing dialectics approaches the infinite.

Not that these ‘sides’ are racial (except in black or white tribal-nationalist fantasy). For crude stereotypes, it is far more useful to turn to the principal political dimension, and its categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in the contemporary, American sense. To identify America’s race problem with white racism is the stereotypical liberal position, whilst identifying it with black social dysfunction is the exact conservative complement. Although these stances are formally symmetrical, it is their actual political asymmentry that charges the American race problem with its extraordinary historical dynamism and universal significance.

That American whites and blacks – considered crudely as statistical aggregates — co-exist in a relation of reciprocal fear and perceived victimization, is attested by the manifest patterns of urban development and navigation, school choice, gun ownership, policing and incarceration, and just about every other expression of revealed (as opposed to stated) preference that is related to voluntary social distribution and security. An objective balance of terror reigns, erased from visibility by complementary yet incompatible perspectives of victimological supremacism and denial. Yet between the liberal and conservative positions on race there is no balance whatsoever, but something closer to a rout. Conservatives are utterly terrified of the issue, whilst for liberals it is a garden of earthly delight, whose pleasures transcend the limits of human understanding. When any political discussion firmly and clearly arrives at the topic of race, liberalism wins. That is the fundamental law of ideological effectiveness in the shadow fragrant shade of the Cathedral. In certain respects, this dynamic political imbalance is even the primary phenomenon under consideration (and much more needs to be said about it, down the road).

The regular, excruciating, soul-crushing humiliation of conservatism on the race issue should come as no surprise to anybody. After all, the principal role of conservatism in modern politics is to be humiliated. That is what a perpetual loyal opposition, or court jester, is for. The essential character of liberalism, as guardian and proponent of neo-puritan spiritual truth, invests it with supreme mastery over the dialectic, or invulnerability to contradiction. That which it is impossible to think must necessarily be embraced, through faith. Consider only the fundamental doctrine or first article of the liberal creed, as promulgated through every public discussion, academic articulation, and legislative initiative relevant to the topic: Race doesn’t exist, except as a social construct employed by one race to exploit and oppress another. Merely to entertain it is to shudder before the awesome majesty of the absolute, where everything is simultaneously its precise opposite, and reason evaporates ecstatically at the brink of the sublime.

If the world was built out of ideology, this story would already be over, or at least predictably programmed. Beyond the apparent zig-zag of the dialectic there is a dominant trend, heading in a single, unambiguous direction. Yet the liberal-progressive solution to the race problem – open-endedly escalating, comprehensively systematic, dynamically paradoxical ‘anti-racism’ – confronts a real obstacle that is only very partially reflected in conservative attitudes, rhetoric, and ideology. The real enemy, glacial, inchoate, and non-argumentative, is ‘white flight’.

At this point, explicit reference to the Derbyshire Case becomes irresistible. There is a very considerable amount of complex, recent historical context that cries out for introduction – the cultural convulsion attending the Trayvon Martin incident in particular – but there’ll be time for that later (oh yes, I’m afraid so). Derbyshire’s intervention, and the explosion of words it provoked, while to some extent illuminated by such context, far exceeds it. That is because the crucial unspoken term, both in Derbyshire’s now-notorious short article, and also — apparently — in the responses it generated, is ‘white flight’. By publishing paternal advice to his (Eurasian) children that has been — not entirely unreasonably — summarized as ‘avoid black people’, he converted white flight from a much-lamented but seemingly inexorable fact into an explicit imperative, even a cause. Don’t argue, flee.

The word Derbyshire emphasizes, in his own penumbra of commentary, and in antecedent writings, is not ‘flight’ or ‘panic’, but despair. When asked by blogger Vox Day whether he agreed that the ‘race card’ had become less intimidating over the past two decades, Derbyshire replies:

One [factor], which I’ve written about more than once, I think, in the United States, is just despair. I am of a certain age, and I was around 50 years ago. I was reading the newspapers and following world events and I remember the civil rights movement. I was in England, but we followed it. I remember it, I remember what we felt about it, and what people were writing about it. It was full of hope. The idea in everyone’s mind was that if we strike down these unjust laws and we outlaw all this discrimination, then we’ll be whole. Then America will be made whole. After an intermediate period of a few years, who knows, maybe 20 years, with a hand up from things like affirmative action, black America will just merge into the general population and the whole thing will just go away. That’s what everybody believed. Everybody thought that. And it didn’t happen.

Here we are, we’re 50 years later, and we’ve still got these tremendous disparities in crime rates, educational attainment, and so on. And I think, although they’re still mouthing the platitudes, Americans in their hearts feel a kind of cold despair about it. They feel that Thomas Jefferson was probably right and we can’t live together in harmony. I think that’s why you see this slow ethnic disaggregation. We have a very segregated school system now. There are schools within 10 miles of where I’m sitting that are 98 percent minority. In residential housing too, it’s the same thing. So I think there is a cold, dark despair lurking in America’s collective heart about the whole thing.

This is a version of reality that few want to hear. As Derbyshire recognizes, Americans are a predominantly Christian, optimistic, ‘can-do’ people, whose ‘collective heart’ is unusually maladapted to an abandonment of hope. This is a country culturally hard-wired to interpret despair not merely as error or weakness, but as sin. Nobody who understands this could be remotely surprised to find bleak hereditarian fatalism being rejected — typically with vehement hostility — not only by progressives, but also by the overwhelming majority of conservatives. At NRO, Andrew C. McCarthy no doubt spoke for many in remarking:

There is a world of difference, though, between the need to be able to discuss uncomfortable facts about IQ and incarceration, on the one hand, and, on the other, to urge race as a rationale for abandoning basic Christian charity.

Others went much further. At the Examiner, James Gibson seized upon “John Derbyshire’s vile racist screed” as the opportunity to teach a wider lesson – “the danger of conservatism divorced from Christianity”:

… since Derbyshire does not believe “that Jesus of Nazareth was divine . . . and that the Resurrection was a real event,”; he cannot comprehend the great mystery of the Incarnation, whereby the Divine truly did take on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and suffered death at the hands of a fallen humanity in order to redeem that humanity out of its state of fallenness.

Herein lies the danger of a conservative socio-political philosophy divorced from a robust Christian faith. It becomes a dead ideology spawning a view of humanity that is toxic, fatalistic, and (as Derbyshire proves abundantly) uncharitable.

It was, of course, on the left that the fireworks truly ignited. Elspeth Reeve at the Atlantic Wire contended that Derbyshire had clung on to his relation with the National Review because he was offering the magazine’s “less enlightened readers” what they wanted: “dated racial stereotypes.” Like Gibson on the right, she was keen for people to learn a wider lesson: don’t think for a minute this stops with Derbyshire. (The stunningly uncooperative comments thread to her article is worth noting.)

At Gawker, Louis Peitzman jumped the shark (in the approved direction) by describing Derbyshire’s “horrifying diatribe” as the “most racist article possible,” a judgment that betrays extreme historical ignorance, a sheltered life, unusual innocence, and a lack of imagination, as well as making the piece sound far more interesting than it actually is. Peitzman’s commentators are impeccably liberal, and of course uniformly, utterly, shatteringly appalled (to the point of orgasm). Beyond the emoting, Peitzman doesn’t offer much content, excepting only a little extra emoting – this time mild satisfaction mixed with residual rage – at the news that Derbyshire’s punishment has at least begun (“a step in the right direction”) with his “canning” from the National Review.

Joanna Schroeder (writing at something called the Good Feed Blog) sought to extend the purge beyond Derbyshire, to include anybody who had not yet erupted into sufficiently melodramatic paroxysms of indignation, starting with David Weigel at Slate (who she doesn’t know “in real life, but in reading this piece, it seems you just might be a racist, pal”). “There are so many … racist, dehumanizing references to black people in Derbyshire’s article that I have to just stop myself here before I recount the entire thing point by point with fuming rage,” she shares. Unlike Peitzman, however, at least Schroeder has a point – the racial terror dialectic — “… propagating the idea that we should be afraid of black men, of black people in general, makes this world dangerous for innocent Americans.” Your fear makes you scary (although apparently not with legitimate reciprocity).

As for Weigel, he gets the terror good and hard. Within hours he’s back at the keyboard, apologizing for his previous insouciance, and for the fact he “never ended up saying the obvious: People, the essay was disgusting.”

So what did Derbyshire actually say, where did it come from, and what does it mean to American politics (and beyond)? This sub-series will comb through the spectrum from left to right in search of suggestions, with socio-geographically manifested ‘white’ panic / despair as a guiding thread …

Coming next: The Liberal Ecstasy

[Tomb]
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Re-Animator (Part 3)

What makes a great city?

By far the most interesting element of World Expo 2010: Shanghai, was Shanghai. Whilst deeply-rooted regional traditions of courtesy sustained the fiction that this World Fair was about the world, it really wasn’t. Whatever the diplomatic benefits of the almost universally convenient internationalist pretense, to China and Expo’s foreign participants alike, Expo 2010 was about Shanghai, and for Shanghai. The Expo was global because Shanghai is, it was about China because Shanghai is China’s gateway to the world, it was about cities in order to be even more about Shanghai, nobody uninterested in Shanghai paid it the slightest attention, and Shanghai used it to restructure, intensify, and promote itself.

Expo as an institution was in decline before 2010, and continues to decline. Shanghai was rising before 2010, and continues to rise, but now infrastructurally upgraded, thoroughly renovated, and decorated with the historical merit-badge of Expo hospitality. Better City, Better Life, a typically airy and aspirational Expo theme, is a cold-sober description of the Expo-effect in Shanghai.

Cities are, in certain important respects, generic. There is such a thing as ‘the city in general’ as the work of Geoffrey West, in particular, has demonstrated. We know, thanks to West, that cities are negative organisms, with consistent scaling characteristics that structurally differentiate them from animals and corporations. As they grow they accelerate and intensify at a quantifiable and predictable rate, exhibiting increasing returns to scale (in sharp contrast to animals and businesses, which slow down in proportion to their size). Organisms and firms die normally and by necessity, cities only rarely and by accident.

Cities belong to a real genre, but they are also singularities, undergoing spontaneous individuation. In fact, they are generically singular – singular without exception – like black holes. It is not only that no city is like another, no city can be like another, and this is a feature that all cities share, arguably more than any other.

Beyond such generic singularity, there is an additional level of enhanced differentiation that emerges from the position cities occupy within larger systems. These systems are not only internally specialized, but also hierarchical, dividing core from periphery, and distributing influence unevenly between them. Ultimately, within the fully global incarnation of the ‘world system’, cities acquire secondary metropolitan characteristics, to very different degrees, in accordance with their geographical and functional proximity to the center of the world. They transcend their local histories, to become hubs or nodes in a global network that re-characterizes them as parts of a whole rather than wholes made of parts, as metropolis-versus-periphery rather than (or on top of) metropolis-versus-town.

The geographical structure and historical instability of modernity’s core-periphery architecture has been the focus of the ‘world system theory’ developed from the Annales School of Fernand Braudel (1902-85) by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) and – most impressively — Giovanni Arrighi (1937-2009). According to the world system theorists, the revolutions that matter most are not national regime changes, such as those in France (1789) and Russia (1917), but rather global re-organizations that mark out the basic phases of modern history, jolting the world into new core-periphery structures. Modernity has undergone four of these shifts up to the present, with each phase lasting for a ‘long century’, introducing a new core state, or hegemon, with enhanced capabilities, and a new urban center – successively, Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York – that operate as an effective capital of the world.

As the example of New York attests, this status is not primarily political. Nor does prominence in manufacturing seem to be a relevant factor (the ‘world capital’ has never been the dominant industrial center of its respective region or state). Over the course of modern history to date, the crucial features of the world capital seem to be that it is the largest urban agglomeration in the leading (‘hegemonic’) region or state; that it is an established financial center that quite rapidly attains a position of global pre-eminence in this respect; that it is an open port city with clear maritime orientation; and that it has an exceptionally internationalized demographic profile, with a large segment of internationally-mobile, opportunistic residents. A significant period of leadership in the creative arts might plausibly be added to this list. Functionally, the world capital serves as the supreme nerve-center of the global economy, specialized nationally, and then super-specialized internationally, as the financial, logistics, and business services hub of a system whose global integrity is reflected in the city’s privileged singularity.

The exceptional drama of our age lies in its nature as a time of transition between phases of modernity, somewhere in the winter of a long century, when an epoch of hegemony is exhausted. More specifically, the walls are closing in on the American Age, as commentators of almost every intellectual and ideological stripe are increasingly aware. Overstretched, essentially bankrupted, politically paralyzed and disillusioned, America sinks into self-conscious crisis, its mood dark and clouded. It would be a mistake to limit attention to America, however, because the crisis is world-systemic, heralding the end of an international order that arose among the chaos of the world wars and achieved definition in the post-WWII United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank, and the descendent of GATT, now the WTO). It affects not only the role of the US dollar as international reserve currency, an Atlantic-centered NATO and an Occidentally-skewed UN apparatus, but also the European Union, the post-colonial Middle Eastern state-system and (very) much else besides.

Over the next two decades, under the impact of economic forces of extreme profundity (far exceeding the responsive capacity of existing institutions), a revolutionary re-ordering of the world can be expected to unfold. If America succeeds in maintaining its position of leadership within the global system for a period that significantly exceeds the long 20th century (which began no earlier than 1914, and thus might be expected to persist for some additional years), it will have broken a pattern that has remained consistent throughout a half-millennium of history. Whilst not strictly impossible, perpetuation of the present hegemonic order would be, quite literally, a stretch.

Another vision of a break from historical precedent, this time transparently utopian, envisages – rather than the continuation of US pre-eminence — the obsolescence of the core-periphery global structure in its entirety, ending hierarchical geography and hegemony in general. Even If such a vision truly rises to the level of a definite expectation (rather than a nebulous exercise in wishful thinking), it remains ungrounded in reliable historical and theoretical foundations. Altruistic political intentions – were such ever credible – would still be quite insufficient to overcome the spontaneous, dynamic trend to approximate world systemic equilibrium, in which a core zone, and its metropolitan capital, are automatically nominated, by diffuse economic currents searching for a central clearing house.

Whilst no doubt deeply disappointing to utopian eschatology, and to all dreams of historical conclusion (or passage to the promised land), phase-shifts in the world-system are less ominous than they are often depicted as being. Among Arrighi’s most important insights is the reminder that whenever an attempted reconstruction of the world order has been based upon a frontal military and geo-strategic challenge to the hegemon, it has failed. This is exemplified, above all, by the German and Russian histories of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which repeated direct confrontations with the established Anglophone-dominated international system led only to frustration, regime collapse, and subaltern re-integration.

Perhaps ironically, a marked subjective aversion to hard power assertion and the assumption of hegemony can be quite reliably taken as a positive indicator for the objective emergence of hegemonic status. Holland, Great Britain, and the United States of America were all, in certain crucial respects, accidental imperialists, whose successive ascents to world dominance shared a prioritization of commercial motives, retarded state involvement, strong ‘isolationist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ cultural currents, and a determined avoidance of ‘Clauswitzean’ decisive collision (especially with the prior hegemon). The British and American ways of war, in particular, are notable for their common emphasis upon hedging and triangulation, such as the exploitation of offshore position and maritime supremacy to avoid premature entanglement in high intensity ‘continental’ conflicts, the usage of financial and logistic capability to manipulate conflicts at a distance, and the diplomatic inclusion of defeated adversaries in reconstructed, poly-centric, ‘balanced’ systems of power. Hegemony was, in each case, peacefully inherited, even when it was cemented by war (in partnership with the previous hegemon) and later gave rise to opportunities for increasingly aggressive imperialistic adventurism.

Given this broadly uncontroversial historical pattern, it is all the more surprising that the German example is so widely invoked in discussions of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. In fact, China’s ascent has stuck far closer to the model of hegemonic hand-overs than to that of confrontational challenges, as indicated by the prioritization of commercial development, the highly cooperative (even synergistic or ‘Chimerican’) relationship with the prevailing hegemon, the gradual accumulation of financial power by way of spontaneous, systemic re-distribution, and the equally gradual consolidation of maritime interests, emerging out of the global trading system, which draw the focus of government strategic policy – perhaps reluctantly – from domestic concerns out into the high-seas.

Historically, China has been far more a continental than a maritime power, and this fact provides the single most persuasive objection to the assumption of an impending Chinese (Long) Century. The emergence of a continental world system core would be as decisive a departure from precedent as any yet discussed, and if such a possibility is entertained, disciplined prediction falters. If inverted, however, this problem becomes a forecast in itself: the trajectory of China’s rise necessarily implies its transformation into a maritime power (an insight already tacit in the controversial 1988 Chinese TV series River Elegy).

A vague intuition, partially but elusively crystallized by Expo 2010, is now precipitated by sheer historical pattern-recognition into the form of an explicit question:

Is Shanghai destined to become the capital of the world?
(Part 4 to come)

[Tomb]

Decelerando?

Charles Stross wants to get off the bus

Upon writing Accelerando, Charles Stross became to Technological Singularity what Dante Alighieri has been to Christian cosmology: the pre-eminent literary conveyor of an esoteric doctrine, packaging abstract metaphysical conception in vibrant, detailed, and concrete imagery. The tone of Accelerando is transparently tongue-in-cheek, yet plenty of people seem to have taken it entirely seriously. Stross has had enough of it:

“I periodically get email from folks who, having read ‘Accelerando’, assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. I find this mildly distressing, and so I think it’s time to set the record straight and say what I really think. … Short version: Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

In the comments thread (#86) he clarifies his motivation:

“I’m not convinced that the singularity isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I am deathly tired of the cheerleader squad approaching me and demanding to know precisely how many femtoseconds it’s going to be until they can upload into AI heaven and leave the meatsack behind.”

As these remarks indicate, there’s more irritable gesticulation than structured case-making in Stross’ post, which Robin Hanson quite reasonably describes as “a bit of a rant – strong on emotion, but weak on argument.” Despite that – or more likely because of it — a minor net-storm ensued, as bloggers pro and con seized the excuse to re-hash – and perhaps refresh — some aging debates. The militantly-sensible Alex Knapp pitches in with a threepart series on his own brand of Singularity skepticism, whilst Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence responds to both Stross and Knapp, mixing some counter-argument with plenty of counter-irritation.

At the risk of repeating the original error of Stross’ meat-stack-stuck fan-base and investing too much credence in what is basically a drive-by blog post, it might be worth picking out some of its seriously weird aspects. In particular, Stross leans heavily on an entirely unexplained theory of moral-historical causality:

“… before creating a conscious artificial intelligence we have to ask if we’re creating an entity deserving of rights. Is it murder to shut down a software process that is in some sense ‘conscious’? Is it genocide to use genetic algorithms to evolve software agents towards consciousness? These are huge show-stoppers…”

Anissimov blocks this at the pass: “I don’t think these are ‘showstoppers’ … Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.” The question might be added, more generally: In which universe do arcane objections from moral philosophy serve as obstacles to historical developments (because it certainly doesn’t seem to be this one)? Does Stross seriously think practical robotics research and development is likely to be interrupted by concerns for the rights of yet-uninvented beings?

He seems to, because even theologians are apparently getting a veto:

“Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.”

This is so deeply and comprehensively gone it could actually inspire a moment of bewildered hesitation (at least among those of us not presently engaged in urgent Singularity implementation). Stross seems to have inordinate confidence in a social vetting process that, with approximate adequacy, filters techno-economic development for compatibility with high-level moral and religious ideals. In fact, he seems to think that we are already enjoying the paternalistic shelter of an efficient global theocracy. Singularity can’t happen, because that would be really bad.

No wonder, then, that he exhibits such exasperation at libertarians, with their “drastic over-simplification of human behaviour.” If stuff – especially new stuff – were to mostly happen because decentralized markets facilitated it, then the role of the Planetary Innovations Approval Board would be vastly curtailed. Who knows what kind of horrors would show up?

It gets worse, because ‘catallaxy’ – or spontaneous emergence from decentralized transactions – is the basic driver of historical innovation according to libertarian explanation, and nobody knows what catallactic processes are producing. Languages, customs, common law precedents, primordial monetary systems, commercial networks, and technological assemblages are only ever retrospectively understandable, which means that they elude concentrated social judgment entirely – until the opportunity to impede their genesis has been missed.

Stross is right to bundle singularitarian and libertarian impulses together in the same tangle of criticism, because they both subvert the veto power, and if the veto power gets angry enough about that, we’re heading full-tilt into de Garis territory. “Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it” Anissimov insists, as any die-hard Cosmist would.

Is advanced self-improving AI technically feasible? Probably (but who knows?). There’s only one way to find out, and we will. Perhaps it will even be engineered, more-or-less deliberately, but it’s far more likely to arise spontaneously from a complex, decentralized, catallactic process, at some unanticipated threshold, in a way that was never planned. There are definite candidates, which are often missed. Sentient cities seem all-but-inevitable at some point, for instance (‘intelligent cities’ are already widely discussed). Financial informatization pushes capital towards self-awareness. Drone warfare is drawing the military ever deeper into artificial mind manufacture. Biotechnology is computerizing DNA.

‘Singularitarians’ have no unified position on any of this, and it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just people – and people are nowhere near intelligent or informed enough to direct the course of history. Only catallaxy can do that, and it’s hard to imagine how anybody could stop it. Terrestrial life has been stupid for long enough.

It may be worth making one more point about intelligence deprivation, since this diagnosis truly defines the Singularitarian position, and reliably infuriates those who don’t share — or prioritize — it. Once a species reaches a level of intelligence enabling techno-cultural take-off, history begins and develops very rapidly — which means that any sentient being finding itself in (pre-singularity) history is, almost by definition, pretty much as stupid as any ‘intelligent being’ can be. If, despite the moral and religious doctrines designed to obfuscate this reality, it is eventually recognized, the natural response is to seek its urgent amelioration, and that’s already transhumanism, if not yet full-blown singularitarianism. Perhaps a non-controversial formulation is possible: defending dimness is really dim. (Even the dim dignitarians should be happy with that.)

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Edward Glaeser on Triumph of the City

that’s Shanghai interviews the world’s most topical urbanist

Shanghai isn’t one of the featured cities in your book. It’s massive and massively high-rise. Did you ever consider writing about it?

Shanghai is one of the world’s great cities, but I don’t know the city well enough to write about it. I hope to get to know the city better and feature Shanghai’s successes in some later work.

China is a place where cities have grown incredibly quickly and there’s been a massive exodus from the countryside to urban life. What do you think China’s cities should focus on as they grow?

Cities, today, succeed as forges of human capital and engines of innovation. China clearly recognizes this and is investing massively in education. That should continue. Just as importantly, China needs to focus on fostering more entrepreneurship by eliminating any remaining barriers to small start-ups.

You talk about how cities should be seen as “masses of connected humanity,” rather than agglomerations of buildings. Do you think this is well understood at this point, or are too many places still attempting to “build their way back to success”?

Unfortunately, too often political leaders try to garner headlines with a splashy new structure. The key is to focus on those infrastructure investments that will really benefit the people in the city.

Are you optimistic about city planners around the world finding the balance between Paris and Mumbai, i.e. between Haussman-style central planning that risks sterility and a chaotic free-for-all?

That’s the 10 trillion dollar question. I wish I could be more optimistic, but city planning is hard and many governments are either unable to manage chaos or too inclined to central control. This requires not just knowledge but political strength and that’s a rare combination.

Which cities around the world are getting it right? Which aren’t?

I believe that Singapore is the best-managed city in the world – good schools, a superb transportation policy, and a sensible approach to regulation. But Hong Kong is also quite impressive, and I personally prefer it’s somewhat more chaotic style.

The west has many urban powerhouses, but few of them are really models of perfect management. For example, I am a big fan of Mayor Menino in Boston, but despite more than 15 years of hard work, Boston’s schools are still struggling.

Obviously, Barcelona, Paris, and Milan are all lovely, wonderful cities, but they are not necessarily models of good management.

You’re cautiously optimistic in your book, but what worries you most about the future of the city?

The biggest challenges are in the mega-cities of the developing world, especially Africa. We are a very long way from providing even the core essentially like clean water in many places.

In the US, we have huge problems of fiscal mismanagement that need to be addressed. Moreover, there is always the possibility of really major physical disasters – either natural or man-made.

Is there any way around the fact that the most vibrant cities also become the most expensive – or, as you say in the book, is this simply the price of good urban health?

The laws of supply and demand cannot be repealed. If a city is attractive and productive, demand for its real estate will be high. The best antidote for that is abundant supply, but it is a mistake to subsidize urban housing. The best path towards greater affordability comes from private housing construction that is regulated only as much as is absolutely necessary. Still, building up can be expensive and that will always make prices in successful cities more expensive.

By functioning as engines of economic opportunity and as refuges, cities tend to concentrate economic disparity. Do you think a case might be made that such inequalities could be interpreted as a symptom of urban success? Might you be subtly suggesting this in your own work?

I am suggesting just that. National inequality can be a real problem, but local inequality can be a sign of health. Cities don’t typically make people poor they attract poor people. The inequality of a city reflects the fact that it attracts rich and poor alike, and that’s something to admire.

How can cities strive to control inequality and avoid ghettos of rich and poor? Should they even be trying to?

Education is the best weapon against inequality. Cities should be striving to make sure that the children of every parent have a chance of being successful.

Some degree of stratification by income is inevitable, but segregation can be quite costly because such separations mean that isolated people lose the urban advantages of connection. There aren’t great tools for reducing segregation, but governments should make sure that their policies do not exacerbate segregation.

Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute has been studying cities as ‘complex systems’ and identified a number of reliable and quantifiable patterns on this basis. Do you find this type of analysis informative or relevant to your work?

Cities are indeed complex systems.

Even in the modern world, with nationalism ascendant, city states seem to be unusually successful. Do cities provide a challenge to dominant conceptions of large-scale political organization? How do you rate the prospects of devolutionary politics, with a municipal emphasis?

I don’t think that nation-states will be likely to surrender all that much power, and cities can remain economically dominant but politically weak. The path in the US has continued to be towards more, not less, national power and I think that is probably a mistake. In many cases – such as Mumbai – local choices would surely be better than the choices imposed on cities by above.

Other than your own work, who do you consider to be the most important writers on cities today?

I deeply admire the Columbia historian Kenneth Jackson.

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Implosion

We could be on the brink of a catastrophic implosion – but that’s OK

Science fiction has tended to extroversion. In America especially, where it found a natural home among an unusually future-oriented people, the iconic SF object was indisputably the space ship, departing the confines of Earth for untrammeled frontiers. The future was measured by the weakening of the terrestrial gravity well.

Cyberpunk, arriving in the mid-1980s, delivered a cultural shock. William Gibson’s Neuromancer still included some (Earth-orbital) space activity – and even a communication from Alpha Centauri — but its voyages now curved into the inner space of computer systems, projected through the starless tracts of Cyberspace. Interstellar communication bypassed biological species, and took place between planetary artificial intelligences. The United States of America seemed to have disappeared.

Space and time had collapsed, into the ‘cyberspace matrix’ and the near-future. Even the abstract distances of social utopianism had been incinerated in the processing cores of micro-electronics. Judged by the criteria of mainstream science fiction, everything cyberpunk touched upon was gratingly close, and still closing in. The future had become imminent, and skin-tight.

Gibson’s cities had not kept up with his wider – or narrower – vision. The urban spaces of his East Coast North America were still described as ‘The Sprawl’, as if stranded in a rapidly-obsolescing state of extension. The crushing forces of technological compression had leapt beyond social geography, sucking all historical animation from the decaying husks of ‘meat space’. Buildings were relics, bypassed by the leading edge of change.

(Gibson’s Asian city-references are, however, far more intense, inspired by such innovations in urban compression as the Kowloon Walled City, and Japanese ‘coffin hotels’. In addition, Urbanists disappointed by first-wave cyberpunk have every reason to continue on into Spook Country, where the influence of GPS-technology on the re-animation of urban space nourishes highly fertile speculations.)

Star cruisers and alien civilizations belong to the same science fiction constellation, brought together by the assumption of expansionism. Just as, in the realm of fiction, this ‘space opera’ future collapsed into cyberpunk, in (more or less) mainstream science – represented by SETI programs – it perished in the desert of the Fermi Paradox. (OK, it’s true, Urban Future has a bizarrely nerdish obsession with this topic.)

John M. Smart’s solution to the Fermi Paradox is integral to his broader ‘Speculations on Cosmic Culture’ and emerges naturally from compressive development. Advanced intelligences do not expand into space, colonizing vast galactic tracts or dispersing self-replicating robot probes in a program of exploration. Instead, they implode, in a process of ‘transcension’ — resourcing themselves primarily through the hyper-exponential efficiency gains of extreme miniaturization (through micro- and nano- to femto-scale engineering, of subatomic functional components). Such cultures or civilizations, nucleated upon self-augmenting technological intelligence, emigrate from the extensive universe in the direction of abysmal intensity, crushing themselves to near-black-hole densities at the edge of physical possibility. Through transcension, they withdraw from extensive communication (whilst, perhaps, leaving ‘radio fossils’ behind, before these blink-out into the silence of cosmic escape).

If Smart’s speculations capture the basic outlines of a density-attracted developmental system, then cities should be expected to follow a comparable path, characterized by an escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion. Approaching singularity on an accelerating trajectory, each city becomes increasingly inwardly directed, as it falls prey to the irresistible attraction of its own hyperbolic intensification, whilst the outside world fades to irrelevant static. Things disappear into cities, on a path of departure from the world. Their destination cannot be described within the dimensions of the known – and, indeed, tediously over-familiar – universe. Only in the deep exploratory interior is innovation still occurring, but there it takes place at an infernal, time-melting rate.

What might Smart-type urban development suggest?

(a) Devo Predictability. If urban development is neither randomly generated by internal processes, nor arbitrarily determined by external decisions, but rather guided predominantly by a developmental attractor (defined primarily by intensification), it follows that the future of cities is at least partially autonomous in regards to the national-political, global-economic, and cultural-architectural influences that are often invoked as fundamentally explanatory. Urbanism can be facilitated or frustrated, but its principal ‘goals’ and practical development paths are, in each individual case, internally and automatically generated. When a city ‘works’ it is not because it conforms to an external, debatable ideal, but rather because it has found a route to cumulative intensification that strongly projects its ‘own’, singular and intrinsic, urban character. What a city wants is to become itself, but more — taking itself further and faster. That alone is urban flourishing, and understanding it is the key that unlocks the shape of any city’s future.

(b) Metropolitanism. Methodological nationalism has been systematically over-emphasized in the social sciences (and not only at the expense of methodological individualism). A variety of influential urban thinkers, from Jane Jacobs to Peter Hall, have sought to correct this bias by focusing upon the significance, and partial autonomy, of urban economies, urban cultures, and municipal politics to aggregate prosperity, civilization, and golden ages. They have been right to do so. City growth is the basic socio-historical phenomenon.

(c) Cultural Introversion. John Smart argues that an intelligence undergoing advanced relativistic development finds the external landscape increasingly uninformative and non-absorbing. The search for cognitive stimulation draws it inwards. As urban cultures evolve, through accelerating social complexity, they can be expected to manifest exactly this pattern. Their internal processes, of runaway intelligence implosion, become ever more gripping, engaging, surprising, productive, and educational, whilst the wider cultural landscape subsides into predictable tedium, of merely ethnographic and historical relevance. Cultural singularity becomes increasingly urban-futural (rather than ethno-historical), to the predictable disgruntlement of traditional nation states. Like Gibson’s Terrestrial Cyberspace, encountering another of its kind in orbit around Alpha Centauri, cosmopolitan connectivity is made through inner voyage, rather than expansionary outreach.

(d) Scale Resonance. At the most abstract level, the relation between urbanism and microelectronics is scalar (fractal). The coming computers are closer to miniature cities than to artificial brains, dominated by traffic problems (congestion), migration / communications, zoning issues (mixed use), the engineering potential of new materials, questions of dimensionality (3D solutions to density constraints), entropy or heat / waste dissipation (recycling / reversible computation), and disease control (new viruses). Because cities, like computers, exhibit (accelerating phylogenetic) development within observable historical time, they provide a realistic model of improvement for compact information-processing machinery, sedimented as a series of practical solutions to the problem of relentless intensification. Brain-emulation might be considered an important computational goal, but it is near-useless as a developmental model. Intelligent microelectronic technologies contribute to the open-ended process of urban problem-solving, but they also recapitulate it at a new level.

(e) Urban Matrix. Does urban development exhibit the real embryogenesis of artificial intelligence? Rather than the global Internet, military Skynet, or lab-based AI program, is it the path of the city, based on accelerating intensification (STEM compression), that best provides the conditions for emergent super-human computation? Perhaps the main reason for thinking so is that the problem of the city – density management and accentuation – already commits it to computational engineering, in advance of any deliberately guided research. The city, by its very nature, compresses, or intensifies, towards computronium. When the first AI speaks, it might be in the name of the city that it identifies as its body, although even that would be little more than a ‘radio fossil’ — a signal announcing the brink of silence — as the path of implosion deepens, and disappears into the alien interior.

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Event Horizon

People gravitate to cities, but what are cities gravitating into? Some strange possibilities suggest themselves.

Cities are defined by social density. This simple but hugely consequential insight provides the central thesis of Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (2011), where it is framed as both an analytical tool and a political project.

“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection,” Glaeser remarks.

High-density urban life approaches a tautology, and it is one that Glaeser not only observes, but also celebrates. Closely-packed people are more productive. As Alfred Marshall noted in 1920, ‘agglomeration economies’ feed a self-reinforcing process of social compression that systematically out-competes diffuse populations in all fields of industrial activity. In addition, urbanites are also happier, longer-living, and their ecological footprint is smaller, Glaeser insists, drawing upon a variety of social scientific evidence to make his case. Whether social problems are articulated in economic, hedonic, or environmental terms, (dense) urbanism offers the most practical solution.

The conclusion Glaeser draws, logically enough, is that densification should be encouraged, rather than inhibited. He interprets sprawl as a reflection of perverse incentives, whilst systematically contesting the policy choices that restrain the trend to continuous urban compression. His most determined line of argumentation is directed in favor of high-rise development, and against the planning restrictions that keep cities stunted. A city that is prevented from soaring will be over-expensive and under-excited, inflexible, inefficient, dirty, backward-looking, and peripherally sprawl- or slum-cluttered. Onwards and upwards is the way.

Urban planning has its own measure for density: the FAR (or Floor-to-Area Ratio), typically determined as a limit set upon permitted concentration. An FAR of 2, for instance, allows a developer to build a two-story building over an entire area, a four-story building on half the area, or an eight-story building on a quarter of the area. An FAR sets an average ceiling on urban development. It is essentially a bureaucratic device for deliberately stunting vertical growth.

As Glaeser shows, Mumbai’s urban development problems have been all-but-inevitable given the quite ludicrous FAR of 1.33 that was set for India’s commercial capital in 1964. Sprawling slum development has been the entirely predictable outcome.

Whilst sparring with Jane Jacobs over the impact of high-rise construction on urban life, Glaeser is ultimately in agreement on the importance of organic development, based on spontaneous patterns of growth. Both attribute the most ruinous urban problems to policy errors, most obviously the attempt to channel – and in fact deform – the urban process through arrogant bureaucratic fiat. When cities fail to do what comes naturally, they fail, and what comes naturally, Glaeser argues, is densification.

It would be elegant to refer to this deep trend towards social compression, the emergence, growth, and intensification of urban settlement, as urbanization, but we can’t do that. Even when awkwardly named, however, it exposes a profound social and historical reality, with striking implications, amounting almost to a specifically social law of gravitation. As with physical gravity, an understanding of the forces of social attraction support predictions, or at least the broad outlines of futuristic anticipation, since these forces of agglomeration and intensification manifestly shape the future.

John M. Smart makes only passing references to cities, but his Developmental Singularity (DS) hypothesis is especially relevant to urban theory because it focuses upon the topic of density. He argues that acceleration, or time-compression, is only one aspect of a general evolutionary (more precisely, evolutionary-developmental, or ‘evo devo’) trend that envelops space, time, energy, and mass. This ‘STEM-compression’ is identified with ascending intelligence (and negative entropy). It reflects a deep cosmic-historical drive to the augmentation of computational capacity that marries “evolutionary processes that are stochastic, creative, and divergent [with] developmental processes that produce statistically predictable, robust, conservative, and convergent structures and trajectories.”

Smart notes that “the leading edge of structural complexity in our universe has apparently transitioned from universally distributed early matter, to galaxies, to replicating stars within galaxies, to solar systems in galactic habitable zones, to life on special planets in those zones, to higher life within the surface biomass, to cities, and soon, to intelligent technology, which will be a vastly more local subset of Earth’s city space.”

Audaciously, Smart projects this trend to its limit: “Current research (Aaronson 2006, 2008) now suggests that building future computers based on quantum theory, one of the two great theories of 20th century physics, will not yield exponentially, but only quadratically growing computational capacity over today’s classical computing. In the search for truly disruptive future computational capacity emergence, we can therefore look to the second great physical theory of the last century, relativity. If the DS hypothesis is correct, what we can call relativistic computing (a black-hole-approximating computing substrate) will be the final common attractor for all successfully developing universal civilizations.”

Conceive the histories of cities, therefore, as the initial segments of trajectories that curve asymptotically to infinite density, at the ultimate event horizon of the physical universe. The beginning is recorded fact and the end is quite literally ‘gone’, but what lies in between, i.e. next?

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Beyond Urbanization

‘Urbanization’ doesn’t capture very much of what cities are up to

(This post is basically a pre-emptive footnote. Please feel even freer to ignore it than you usually would.)

The principal topic of Urban Future is the development of cities (with Shanghai as exemplary case). It is peculiarly frustrating, therefore, to find that no single term exists to describe a process that is arguably the most important of all social phenomena, and even the key to whatever meaning might be discoverable in human history.

One thing, at least, is clear (or should be): urban development is not urbanization.

‘Urbanization’ is a comparatively rigorous and well-defined demographic concept, referring to the dynamic re-distribution of populations from non-urban to urban existence. Because it describes the proportion of city-dwellers within a population, it can be quantified by a percentage, which sets a strict mathematical limit to the process (asymptotic to 100% urbanized). When plotted historically, the approach to this limit follows a steep curve, echoing the (open-ended) exponential or super-exponential trends of modernization and industrialization.

Whilst theoretically indispensable, clear, meaningful, and informative, the concept of urbanization is inadequate to the phenomenon of urban development. Cities are essentially concentrational, or intensive. They are defined by social density, uneven distribution, or demographic negative entropy. Urbanization describes only a part of this.

Within the entire demographic system, urbanization provides a measure of the urban fraction (based on an at least semi-arbitrary definition of a city, by size and by boundary). It says nothing about the pattern of cities: how numerous they are, how they differ in relative scale, how fast larger cities grow compared to smaller ones, or in general whether the urbanized population is becoming more or less homogeneously distributed between cities. In fact, it tells us nothing at all about the distribution of the urbanized population, except that it is somehow clumped into ‘city-scale’ agglomerations.

Once ‘clumped’ – or drawn within the spatial threshold of a city-sized cloud – a demographic particle switches binary identity, from non-urbanized to urbanized. Registered as a city-dweller, there is no more to be said about it. Yet the city is itself a distribution, of variable density, or heterogeneous concentration. Within each city, urban intensity can rise or fall, irrespective of the overall level of urbanization. The limit of urbanization sets no restriction upon trends to urban intensification, as exemplified by high-rise architecture.

Urbanization is a proportional concept, indifferent to absolute demographic scale. In contrast, measuring intensity, or negative entropy, provides fine-grained information that rises with the size of the system considered (since the entropy measure is a logarithmic function of system scale, defined by the totality of possible distributions, which rises exponentially with population). Whilst social scientific or demographic phenomena are highly intractable to quantitative intensive analysis, their reality is nevertheless intensive, which is to say: determined by distributive variation of absolute magnitudes. The measure of urbanization is not affected by the doubling of a city’s population unless the overall population grows at a lower rate. Urban intensity, in contrast, is highly sensitive to absolute demographic fluctuation (and not uncommonly hyper-sensitive).

Intensities are characterized by transition thresholds. As they rise and fall, they cross ‘singularities’ or ‘phase transitions’ that mark a change in nature. A small change in intensive magnitude can trigger a catastrophic change in system behavior, with the emergence of previously undisclosed properties. When measuring urbanization, a city is a city is a city. As an intensive concentration, however, a city is an essentially variable real individual, passing through thresholds as it grows, innovating unprecedented behaviors, and thus becoming something ‘qualitatively’ new.

Whilst summoning the courage to float an adequate neologism (‘urbanomy’?), Urban Future will stumble onwards with awkward compounds such as ‘urban development’, ‘urban intensification’, ‘urban condensation’, or whatever seems least painful at the time (whilst meaning, in each case, what ‘urbanization’ would describe if urbanists had managed to grab it before the demographers did).

Yet, despite this linguistic obstacle, a surprising amount can be said about the urban process in general. Making a start on that comes next.

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Introducing Urban Future

What can readers expect from this blog? Since it promises to be oriented towards the future, it makes sense to begin with some preliminary forecasting about itself.

Most basically and predictably, Urban Future has been programmed by its name. Its principal topic is the intersection of cities with the future. It aims to foster discussion about cities as engines of the future, and about futurism as a dynamic influence on the shape, character, and development of cities. More particularly, it scavenges for clues, and floats speculations, about the Shanghai of tomorrow. It anticipates a global urban future in which Shanghai features prominently, and a coming Shanghai that expresses, both starkly and subtly, the transformative forces of global futurism. This is to get quite far ahead of ourselves, which is where we shall typically be.

For some readers, ‘futurism’ will invoke the early 20th century avant garde cultural movement crystallized by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto. Futurism, they might reasonably object, has been defined and even closed by the passage of time. Like modernism, it now belongs to the archive of concluded history. What exists today, and in the days to come, can only be a neo-futurism (and a neo-modernism): no less retrospective than prospective, as much a repetition as a speculation. Such considerations, corrections, and recollections, with all their attendant perplexities, are extremely welcome. The time to address them will soon come.

Since Shanghai is cross-hatched with the time-fractured indices of historico-futuristic ambiguity, from paleo-modernism to neo-traditionalism, the blog will have every opportunity to discuss such things. For the moment, casual reference to the strangely-twinned architectural icons of such time-tangles, the Park Hotel and the Jinmao Tower – each a retro-futurist or cybergothic masterpiece – has to substitute as a mnemonic and promissory note.

Also, in time, the obstacles to forecasting need to be thoroughly addressed: such topics as historical catastrophism, the efficient-market hypothesis (EMH), Karl Popper’s critique of historicism, Knightian uncertainty (or Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”) and the Black Swan theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In order to get up and running, all these complicating thoughts have been temporarily bracketed, like cunning and ferocious beasts, but they will not remain caged forever, or even very long.

Because there’s something irresistibly twisted about starting with the future, the first flurry of posts will head straight into tomorrow, with topics becoming increasingly city- and Shanghai-focused as things progress. An initial series of interconnected posts will outline futuristic thinking in broad terms, including preliminary sketches of principal way-stations on the mainline techno-scientific tradition that supports it.

Ultimately, nothing relevant to the future of Shanghai is alien to this blog’s purpose. It will draw upon Shanghai history, geography, and culture, traditional Chinese philosophies of time (Yijing and Daoism), theories of modernity and urbanism, evolutionary biology, science fiction, techno-scientific discussions of complex systems and emergence, the economics of spontaneous order, long waves, technological trends, robotics research and developments, models of accelerating change, and anticipations of Technological Singularity. Things should get continuously weirder.

Tomorrow, it begins.

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