Friday, May 31, 2024

"The City Makes the Civilization"

And in quite a few cities we are seeing retrograde motion.

From Palladium Magazine, May 31:

Social and political theorists have tied the emergence of cities to the origin of civilization since the earliest written records we have found. The perhaps four-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, which shaped and inspired later literature, including the Bible, opens on what is best understood as an extended meditation on the nature of city life. In it, a wild man named Enkidu, who is created by the gods to humble King Gilgamesh, the ruler of the city, makes his way to the great city of Ur.

The observations in this story span the entire breadth of the phenomenon of society and are echoed by other Sumerian sources. Hunter-gatherer and pastoral people migrating to the city when hunting is sparse; the addiction—strange to them—that comes with drinking beer and eating bread; the role of temple prostitutes in recruiting people to the city, or even as agents of Gilgamesh sent to evaluate threats; the potential for tyranny that would be impossible outside the city; and how barbarians might make for better personal guards of the king of a city than those raised in the city, those with less personal martial skill yet with a vested interest in political infighting.

This close attention the epic pays to cities and the choices and situations therein is more than a prelude to the eventual friendship struck up by former nemeses Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Rather, it reveals itself to the careful readers as an inquiry—both an explanation and critique—of the city from the time when Sumerian civilization was still young. This focus on the effects of the great city of Ur on the wild man Enkidu is not surprising: of all social technologies, cities are, after all, perhaps the most important to a civilization.

Political thinkers thousands of years later, such as Plato and Aristotle went so far as to argue that the very minds of citizens of a Greek city-state—the polis—develop differently depending on the ordering of the city. The mere biology of Homo sapiens is, in this view, not the final word on what kind of being man is. Rather, that can only be discovered by examining the city and state individuals find themselves in, and that, in turn, actualizes and gives context to what they become. This thesis on what it means to be human is plausible since cities are the forges of human capital needed to maintain all other social technologies.

When industrial civilization was young in the 19th century, much of that era’s literature, as well as political and social theory, attempted to explain how Paris, London, or New York reforged peasants into factory workers and how it remade the foreign rural values in the great cities’ image. While cities have been demographic sinks both in the 21st century BC as well as the 21st century AD, requiring constant in-migration of wild men, pastoralists, and farmers to replenish their numbers, it is also cities that produce rapid social differentiation into different professions and classes needed by complex society—and always have.

Streets Give Coordinates to Society
Cities are the coordination landscape of society manifested into the physical world, allowing this landscape to be measured and studied. In all cultures, a physical address is something of a social rank, and a fairly fixed one at that, since it comes to determine who socializes and works with whom and in what ways. Where you live is always intimately tied to where you stand in society. Those who live near each other interact more frequently. Even in modern America, a society that expends much energy in obscuring a non-meritocratic class structure, one of the most mundane questions is also the most revealing and one you are obliged to answer in polite society: “Where do you live?” In a city like San Francisco or New York, the answer is suggestive for guessing income and net worth without fully revealing it, and it outright announces and defines one’s social milieu....


We've looked at the metropolis from quite a few different angles:
"Cities Are Rising in Influence and Power on the Global Stage"
A subject near and dear to our jaded hearts.
It's the manifestation of the age-old thirst for power, to make the world as you want it, and an acknowledgement that fixing potholes is boring....

Very related over longer time frames:

"BAD LOCATIONS: Many French towns have been trapped in obsolete places for centuries"

From the Economic History Society's blog, The Long Run, July 17:

John Speed (1610), 17th century map of Beaumaris. Available on Wiki Commons

Only three of the 20 largest cities in Britain are located near the site of Roman towns, compared with 16 in France. That is one of the findings of research by Guy Michaels (London School of Economics) and Ferdinand Rauch (University of Oxford), which uses the contrasting experiences of British and French cities after the fall of the Roman Empire as a natural experiment to explore the impact of history on economic geography – and what leads cities to get stuck in undesirable locations, a big issue for modern urban planners.

Urban Warfare In A 'Smart City' Environment


How Markets Shape Cities

One of the arguments against urban planning is that, since complexity itself introduces fragility into a system, attempting to overlay some human's conception of order rigidifies the system, reducing resilience and raising the chances of catastrophic failure. Sometimes chaos is good.
NVIDIA Wants to Run Your City: Smart City Control Centers (NVDA)
First off, let's make something crystal clear. From The Register, September 7, 2017:
Smart cities? Tell it like it is, they're surveillance cities

Apparently I get cranky when thinking about this stuff.
"Urbanisation might be the most profound change to human society in a century, more telling than colour, class or continent "

"The Spectrum of Control: A Social Theory of The Smart City"
One of the more important—and surprisingly popular—pieces we linked to in the past year..


"The Unrest In Hong Kong And China's Bigger Urban Crisis"

"Henry George’s Land Value Tax: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?"

I realize that linking to two pieces on Mr. George in three days puts yours truly at risk of exemplifying Churchill's definition of a fanatic:

"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

But here we are. And this one takes a slightly different approach to get where we are going.Plus some footnotes that would make even Matt Levine envious

The Real Real Estate State and Artificial Scarcity, Technology and Planning

"Tokyo proves that housing shortages are a political choice"

Of course it's a political choice.
You don't think homelessness in U.S. west coast cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle etc. just happened do you. You don't think the fact Oregon has a black population of 1.9% versus 14.6% for the U.S. as a whole is just the natural order of things? It's all politics.

"Why you’ll be hearing a lot less about ‘smart cities’"

Today On Book Nook, the FT's Izabella Kaminska Reviews "Scale" (Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations And People Always Die, And Life Gets Faster*)
Oh and she interviews the physicist/complexity-scientist author as well.

"The technological decoupling of geography from economic opportunity could make Gen Z filthy rich"

And thousands more. (okay, maybe hundreds)