16 November 2008

City Living

Seedmagazine.com The Seed Salon
The Seed Salon just published this talk between Steven Strogatz, a fine mathematician at Cornell, and, the lunatic MIT teacher/architect, Carlo Ratti: (Carlo does amazing work and I suggest you take some time to peruse his page.) I've got to say that MIT does produce the best crazy people in the world.

Carlo, in this interview, makes one claim that I just had to laugh at: namely, that people are moving to cities today because it is intrinsic to our nature, i.e. selected for via the mechanics of natural selection, and catalyzed by modern communications. His beautiful vision of cooperation and communal (city) living is very appealing to me –and you too I’m sure if you’ve looked at his work-; but I have to reject his description "that this law is something related to how we communicate as humans." When he says "this law" he means his general guess at a statistical model of human interaction which leads him to believe that humans innately want to live in cities.

We have many of these kinds of statistical models (say laws): for example, we can say, with a great amount of statistical accuracy, that X amount of people are going to commit suicide in Y season based on weather, economic, and other environmental conditions. So we have some sort of scare quoted "law" which accurately represents reality: (of course our laws of physical world are almost wholly statistical at this point, so it isn't unreasonable to think that modeled results just are what the world is.) But what I reject from Professor Patti's argument is that this movement to cities is innate.... That is, the movement to cities has increased because something intrinsic (natural) in the ways we create language (say communicate) and that has been accessed through new media and communication. That is to say that the new way we communicate, just now discoverable because of modern technology, is actually deeply old – we’ve just never found it before. He says: “from an evolutionary point of view it is good if we have a higher number of chances of meeting and mating with more people." This is of course nonsense and pseudo-sense at the same time.

The nonsense first: over all there is very little reason to believe that natural selection would be ‘benefited’ by increased availability of mates. For one it confuses availability, or access, with control. If you want a biological example, look at the, so called, Anglerfish: Lophiiformes; the male of most of these various fish physically attach to one female for all of their adult life -meaning no possibility of promiscuity: (Steven Jay Gould has a great article on this, "Big Fish, Little Fish," in his collection Hen's Teath and Horses Toes.)

Second, the pseudo-sense: some interesting studies have shown that human evolution is a current and continuing process, probably aggravated by the development of agriculture some 10k years ago. (Here is a not so terrible article from SciAm on the subject, who I normally don't care much for. There are other better articles out in the world too, if you look.) So we might, and further studies will answer this, be able to say that agriculture provided environmental changes which were sufficient to drive evolution in humans at a very rapid rate of change. Perhaps this 'unnatural' development -because a plowed field is just as unnatural as a road- drove evolution towards city living... but that is really testing, and slightly abusing, credulity.

And what's more, and more important, agriculture is an unnatural development: that is, not innate. Perhaps a better example is writing, which was invented, or mathematical notation, which was invented within the last 400 years, or any other number of unnatural mental constructs (what we call ideas). Ideas are how we interact with the world, and, while there may be natural limitations on the scope of our ideas -only so much our brain can do after all- that does not mean they are themselves natural. At least not in any sense of the word as it is used in the language game. If they were they would be deterministic: once the prereques are satisfied we'd get the output. But if we look at history we find that this is not the case; many civilizations has the prereques for mathematical notation, and they had them for a long time, but only the Western European nations developed it.

But leaving off natural science, saying that people are moving to cities more and more because of communication looks at one very isolated variable in a very large system, as Steven Strogatz tries to point out. If I were to make a wild claim about why people were moving into cities in record number, it would be that the IMF, the World Bank, and all the various US development models which we impose upon the developing world, are causing people en mass to flee the country and become part of the working poor required by our economic structure. Maybe Ratti could look at the architecture of money and make a beautiful corollary building.