Pages

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Mind Made Manifest

I'm currently reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, a mixed bag of observations and reflections woven together with his experiences bicycling through cities around the world.  Some of the observations are astute, some less so, but it is not my purpose here to write a book review.

Riding in and around cities offers what Byrne calls his "panoramic window" on the world. He writes:
Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in.  Cities, it occurred to me, are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are. (Byrne 2009, 2)
He continues, a bit further on:
Our values and our hopes are sometimes embarrassingly easy to read.  They're right there - in the storefronts, museums, temples, shops, and office buildings and in how these structures interrelate, or sometimes don't. They say, in their unique visual language, "This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play." (Ibid.)
This is an appealing idea, one to which I return from time to time.
Eight or nine years ago, when I first started working on ethics of the built environment, I thought of my work as a kind of "ethical survey" of landscapes, systematically recording value judgments and value conflicts the way a geological surveyor would record elevation and slope.  Before that, I had considered casting my work in environmental ethics a kind of "landscape criticism" through which I could read, interpret, and critique existing landforms as a reflection of values.

More recently, I had a group of students engage in a set of back-to-back thought experiments.  First, I had them devise a master plan for Plato's Republic: given this ideal vision of political life organized around the Form of the Good, what concrete form would the city take?  Where would the guardians live? Where would the annual . . . um . . . eugenic breeding festival take place?  In short, how would this particular set of values be made physically manifest in the structure of a city?

Then, I had them do the same thing in reverse.  I had them imagine they were intelligent extraterrestrial aliens who are studying Earth in order to plan their first contact.  Based entirely on a view from orbit of a particular large settlement - provided by Google, of course - what could they infer about the intelligence, worldviews, values, and social arrangement of this particular population of the species, Homo sapiens?  One conclusion: they don't seem to like one another very much, or at least they seem to want to keep their distance.

There is a crucial difference between these two thought experiments, though: a master plan of the Republic would be the thought and values of a single mind made manifest (by way of a draconian, top-down planning regime, no less), but the historical process that shapes actual cities is bound to be much messier than that.  It would be a stretch to say that any given city is the product of one way of thinking or one set of values, and certainly not the thinking or values of any one person.

Byrne seems to cast about for a way to capture this difference between the values of individuals an the outcome of collective action in urban landscapes: in the passage quoted above he notes that we are social animals, and later in that same paragraph he refers to a collective psyche. "Riding a bike through all this," he writes, "is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind" (Byrne 2009, 2).

There's something to this, perhaps, but it seems unlikely to me that anything so simple as a single, unified collective Mind expresses itself simply and directly in the forms of cities.

What I have settled on in my own work is a view of metropolitan areas as large, heterogeneous systems in which a number of different dynamics - natural, social, and technological - all interact with one another. I adapted this idea from scholars in the field of technology studies, who write of technological systems or sociotechnical ensembles.  Recently, I came across an interesting idea - about which I'll write more at some point - from Thomas Hughes, a historian of technology: he proposes that we think of what he calls the "ecotechnological environment," rather than wilderness, as the locus of environmental concern and environmental policy (Hughes 2005, 156).

I develop the idea of cities as systems in chapter 3 of The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth:
For the purposes of explanation, thinking of a metropolis as a system implies that a single cause or a single effect cannot be fully understood in isolation from other causes and effects.  So, while it may be useful to analyze the system into its various components - transportation technology, for example, or cultural values - in the end we have to find some way of considering those components and their interactions all at once (61).
So, the values and decisions of individuals will play some part in shaping the built environment, as will the shared values and institutions of the broader society, but the technological and natural dynamics of the place will also play some part in shaping the values and decisions of individuals.  Even the relationship between the values held by individuals and those embodied in social and political institutions may be complicated: otherwise, why would it be a problem, as the saying goes, that "you can't fight City Hall?"

This brings me to the punch line of my forthcoming paper, discussed in the last post, "Did Americans Choose Sprawl?" (Kirkman 2010).
So, did Americans choose sprawl? Yes, in a sense, and no.  Choices people have made for their own reasons surely have contributed to the continuing expansion of the metropolitan landscape, but it seems highly unlikely that at any point people got together, articulated a vision of the contemporary landscape, developed a critical understanding of what it would be like to actually live in such a landscape, and then gave their wholehearted consent to all of the processes that drive sprawl and all of their results.  Instead, sprawl is more likely the result of piecemeal decisions and consequences, both intended and unintended.
I set up this part of the conclusion a bit earlier in the paper, where I discuss how the processes driving sprawl are somehow larger than any of us, and perhaps larger than all of us together.  In inventory some of the components of a metropolitan area as a system and illustrate how those components interact.

I point out that, from the point of view of the free-market critics of the anti-sprawl position, for example, there would be no car-based system of transportation if people did not choose to drive.
On the other hand, it may well be that many would not have chosen to drive if there were not already in place a well-established system of transportation based on the private automobile.  Contrary to the anti-anti-sprawl position, there have been larger forces at work shaping the transportation system and, with it, shaping people's choices.  Some opportunities open up, other opportunities are closed off, values and visions are realigned in response.  There may ultimately be people behind all of these larger factors - corporations and governments and cultures - but the systems that result from the interactions of their various activities seem to exceed the desires, the intentions, and the hopes of any one of them.
 I repeat this point for emphasis:
though individual choices contribute to the development of metropolitan areas as sociotechnical ensembles, the resulting ensemble has emergent properties beyond the intentions of any particular individual or group.  These emergent properties may then act as constraints on the choices and actions of those living within the system. In short, sprawl may be the product of human endeavor, but it is not a transparent medium through which the preferences or the will of particular individuals can express itself in the landscape.
To return to the punch line, I go on to ask whether we can choose our future built environment, even if it cannot simply be said that we we chose our present environment.  The answer is no less equivocal: "no, in a sense, and yes."

The answer is no in the sense that it is unlikely to involve anything so grand as converging on a single, coherent vision.  citizens of a democracy are unlikely to go for anything that looks like detailed, collective planning of a single environment for everyone . . . What is much more likely is a lot of little debates and choices about various components of the system: the scope of individual liberty, the way markets are shaped, opportunities here, restrictions there, incentives everywhere.
But then:
The answer is yes in that any and all of these choices will have some impact on the future shape of the built environment, and it is at least possible for people to make their choices deliberately - precisely through processes of ethical and political deliberation - and with some attempt at foresight.  That human choice is only one factor in the overall system that shapes the built environment all but insures that foresight will be limited, deliberation will be contentious and difficult, and the actual outcome will be surprising.  That does not make the need for deliberation any less pressing.

Sources
Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking. 
Hughes, Thomas P. (2005). Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kirkman, Robert. (2010 forthcoming). "Did Americans Choose Sprawl?" Ethics and the Environment 15.

No comments: