Our shift towards digital world and why architects should dive into it
uploaded: 2010. 09. 13. updated: 2010. 10. 10. – by Attila Bujdosó
In the followings I will describe some ideas on how important is the change we are experiencing now and why I consider future much less predictable as we ever imagined.
1. Introduction: coffee, large cities, Internet
In 2003 I joined iWiW, (
) the Hungarian equivalent and preceding of Facebook. After registration I was asked “about myself” on my profile page. I wanted to fill in the form to state me being a very social person. It was clear to me, as a happy new member of this community, I shouldn’t write something very essential about my individuality but something what reflects my openness and strong connectivity towards my friends. members in my social network.
In the end I happened to write down my addictions: Internet, coffee and cities. I was not sure whether I should declare my Internet addiction, might being a negative thing to tell about myself. But I just did it, admittedly.
Some years later I realized that these three addictions of mine have something very important in common. They all mean or indicate social platforms just of different size.
Coffee is something over you discuss with someone. It is an excuse to meet someone, to slow down in our daily rush and stop for a second. Having a coffee with someone automatically generates a situation which involves some sort of communication. So coffee is not important as a drink, it could be tea or anything else, but as a tool to create such situations. It is a metaphor to something that provokes and defines a space for communication.
City is a space where large amount of people live within a certain area, usually in a higher density. Already settlements and villages are places where human interaction just happens because high density makes people to meet. They just can’t avoid each other. But in cities the amount of people sharing the same neighborhood reaches a critical mass. You see hundreds or thousands of people every single day if you live in a city. The high density of a city makes the statistical measures of chance for communication relatively high.
Finally, Internet is a tool to connect even larger amounts of people together. This network does it much more efficiently than do cities where physical proximity is still an issue. Internet is just another (platform and) space for communication, same as coffee and city before, but now growing global in size. This growing size does matter, as I will explain in the followings.
I often refer to this as the coffee-large cities-Internet phenomena.
2. Cities particularly
Several thousands of years ago the first cities were founded. (
) I think we don’t realize the fact how important change this made to the history of humanity. This change affected our history entirely and irreversibly. I would like to highlight that so many things originate from people living in cities. You can think of any field… science, culture, art, historical events, politics. Most of the ‘important things’ that happened in the last thousands of years happened in or were at least linked to cities. Until recently human history has definitely been characterized and marked by cities.
The reason is simple. People contribute to history, people make art, science and culture happen. So if more people are tied together in one space the more things they make happen. But there is another important aspect, which I would like to highlight. It is the rate between the number of interconnected people and the intensity of their creative activity.
3. We always lived in exponential times
Famous scientists, thinkers and artists we remember used to live and work in cities. It is very hard to find exceptions. Why is that? According to a UN report, the number of people living in towns and cities has grown to 50% of the total world population by 2008. (
This is a significant rise but it also means that approximately half of the world’s population still lives outside of urban areas. If so, statistically, half of achievements in science, art and culture should come from outside of cities. Which seems not to be the case. Why aren’t our books filled with amazing achievements of people living in the far countryside?
Creativity never comes out of nothing, out of no-context. Creativity is never individual but always contextual. Any new piece of knowledge people give birth to, let it be part of science, art or culture, builds on the top of others people’s knowledge or at least relates to it somehow. And this relation always arises from communication between humans, this link is always based on interpersonal communication. Twice as many people do not only make twice as many things but exponentially more. Maybe four times more.
I argue that the growth is proportional to the volume of communication between people. Which basically depends on two things: the amount of people who share the same communication space; and the intensity (or efficiency) of communication this space allows.
Until recently, real-time social interaction for large amount of people was limited to cities. For long time, means of transportation were not yet well developed nor were widespread. Even later, when efficient and affordable long-distance travels became available, the infrastructure of travel industry was built in such way to link cities. As an end result, only cities allowed face-to-face interaction for large amount of people.
Existing communication technologies (post, books, newspapers, telegraph, landline phone, radio, telex, telefax, tv, mobile phone, email, etc.) suffered from several limitations such as transmittable formats, latency, dependence of infrastructure or fixed devices, one-way transmission or high costs. Such limitations were severe enough to prevent from developing a strong community within a certain communication space. Therefore cities enjoyed the privilege to offer space for communication with almost no transmission cost, minimum data loss or noise and zero latency.
All these explain the revolutionary importance of ‘inventing cities’.
4. Cities have overwritten our history
Now we can understand why the idea of the city is so important. It is populated by a large amount of people, significantly larger amount than any other form of social coexistence before.
City was the big step in history to concentrate a significantly higher amount of people living and working in one area. This rise in the amount of people sharing the same communication space caused an exponential rise in the volume of communication. This is why cities growing in size boosted an exponential growth in the creative activity of humankind which led to major achievements in science, technology, art and culture.
This single reason, one great jump in the amount of people sharing the same communication space, made an entire change. The outside world did not disappear but lost focus, shrank in importance and potential. This change caused that everything, what is relevant, started to happen in cities.
The history of cities have overwritten human history.
5. Internet makes us go super-exponential
And now… Internet comes into the picture.
In the history we experienced strong development of both cities – growing enormously in size and population – and communication technologies – becoming faster, cheaper and more easy to access by the time.
Internet is somehow exceptional in the sense that is combines the key features of cities and communication tools. It connects large amount of people, and by this I mean: a greater number of people than any city did before. Internet is almost as efficient as a city (low transmission cost and little data loss). It is widely accessible. It enables face-to-face communication but also mass communication at the very same time. Networked mobile devices, instant messaging, micro-blogging, VoIP and other web-based communication tools grant very low latency. Next to these, Internet also lifts communication to a higher quality level by introducing new features. It is archivable, searchable, it is independent from physical location (in principle). It provides more freedom in the format of content.
Internet is super efficient, more flexible and has already attracted more ‘inhabitants’ than any big city before. And if I follow the logic described above, Internet is just another communication space after the city. It is the next big step, the next significant rise in the number of people who share the same communication space. And this significant rise will be reflected exponentially in the total volume of communication between humans. Which is proportional to the creativity of humankind and the speed of growth.
To conclude all this, I think we cannot overestimate the revolutionary importance of ‘inventing Internet’. Similarly as cities did before, Internet will overwrite human history. It is already happening but we have to understand that we are still at the very beginning.
Let’s imagine ourselves walking in one of the first Mesopotamian cities, let’s say 27 years after founding Uruk. Could we have every predicted, in that very moment, how many things, how many achievements, how much of the human history would arise from cities? Can we predict now how many things, how many achievements, how much of the human history will arise from the Internet?
I don’t think so.
Upcoming sections (to be written in the near future)
6. Translating rural areas into cities and cities into Internet
7. Fragmentation is the new cool
8. The bit of architecture