⚡ New Event: A City Is Not a Computer ft. Shannon Mattern

How to get wiser about the future of cities

It shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a huge overlap between technologists and urban enthusiasts. It can be tempting to model cities as a complex system or a set of optimization problems; I myself have analogized platforms to cities in the way that both environments require designers to build infrastructures on which people and communities interact. But as Shannon Mattern poses in her book A City Is Not A Computer, this reductive approach can go too far.

📖 a city is not a computer by shannon mattern

Our guest for Tuesday, August 17 is anthropology professor Shannon Mattern.

Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School, where her research and writing focuses on urban data, design, and media. Her newest book, A City Is Not A Computer, criticizes techno-solutionist approaches to urban design and calls for us to embrace cities in all their diversity and complexity.

Join us next Tuesday for a Q&A on the limitations of the "smart city" agenda and what comes after.

Register Here

🔊 our take: wiser, not smarter cities

By Anson Yu

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information

T. S. Eliot’s 1934 poem “The Rock”

Smart cities, data-driven urban planning, algorithmic administration — does a silver bullet by any other name smell as sweet? Regardless of what we call it, these computational models of urbanism all seem to promise efficiency and convenience. The tradeoff? Just a couple sensors here and a few data collection apps there. In A City Is Not a Computer by Shannon Mattern, we’re offered a healthy dose of skepticism about this techno-solutionist promise. Instead, she spotlights alternative urban intelligences in all of their messy, complex, and unquantifiable forms.

The anthology-like collection is broken into five pieces joined by a common ethos: a craving for civic justice, open access, and communal well being. Mattern begins with “City Console,” which probes at how data dashboards sanitize and decontextualize important information. Segueing into the titular section, “A City is Not A Computer,” the book questions our understanding of cities as refracted through metaphor. If a city isn’t a computer, is it a tree? An organism? A service? What does that mean for us as citizens, participants, and increasingly so, as users? When innovating on software and computers, we have the luxury of tight feedback loops and isolated feature development. Meanwhile, adopting that approach with city-building creates a metric-driven tunnel vision that is prone to multiplying surveillance and exploitation. 

“Public Knowledge,” my favorite section, brings us from the streets to the shelves by asking us to see libraries differently. Often limited to being hubs of childhood nostalgia or quiet workspaces, Mattern shows us how many libraries are also community epicenters of social support, digital literacy, advocacy, intellectual freedom, and much, much more. The theme of public goods carries through to “Maintenance Codes,” an ode to the quiet labor that chugs away in the background. After reading, you might find yourself in awe of how everything just works. Mail is delivered; roads are repaired; internet cables transit information. This chapter contrasts the glamor of innovation labs and makerspaces with the overlooked infrastructure that repairs, fixes, cleans, and cares. Again, we are asked to pay attention to what works.

With its subtle quips, buttery prose, and ethos for the ages, A City is Not A Computer is for anyone who cares about the future of cities. The 200-page book is deceptively short, yet bursts with nuance. However, readers might finish with more questions than answers: What now? What can I do about this? These are left as exercises for the reader. 

Ultimately, Mattern asks how we can piece together interdisciplinary lenses to better understand cities, not through more data, but different data — specifically intelligence that blends binary logic, sensory experiences, and local knowledge. Perhaps we should aspire not to a smart city, but a wise one.

Join our Q&A with Shannon

🌀 microdoses

💝 a closing note

The next time you take a stroll through your neighborhood, check out these podcast recommendations from the Reboot community:

Toward wiser cities,

Jasmine & Reboot team