I have the intellectual habits of an annoying teenager. Contradictory for the sake of it. I went to see a Richard Long show a few years ago and thought, fine, but you should do that in cities. And I've been listening to and reading all sorts of incredibly smart people talking about urban computing and cities for a while now. Adam, Dan and Matt particularly are always writing astonishingly thoughtful, well-researched stuff about these things. But the annoying teenager in me is feeling the impish, ill-informed urge to say, yeah but, what if something else was true, what then, huh? huh? huh? What if we thought about the countryside instead? That was some of the urge behind Lyddle End 2050. (I know, I know.)
So I thought I'd bash some notes down here and see if it might congeal into a Wired column. Not because I'm convinced there's a real argument here. But because of that annoying dilettante columnist habit; the urge to poke at assumptions a bit to see if there are 800 words in another point of view. It's not big, it's not helpful but it's sometimes interesting.
1. The remaining half
It is useful and thought-provoking to point out that more than half the world's population now lives in cities. That's significant. But it must also be worth realising that:
a. This is only just true, in the last few years. So for almost all of human history, most of us have not lived in cities. This would suggest that we're pretty well adapted to not living in cities. I'm not calling for a retreat to a bucolic paradise, but I'm saying this is worth thinking about.
b. Half of us - an entire half - still don't live in cities. This may be a shrinking proportion of the world but it's still a lot of people, and (apart from some privilged bits of the West) it's the poorest, less mobile, less educated proportion. Most people are moving to cities to escape poverty, surely the people left behind merit some attention.
Lots of very smart people are thinking hard about the future of cities, and about how to instrument them and what living in augmented cities would be like. They are imaginative and rigorous people, so I've no concerns about how cities will pan out. Not so many people are thinking about equivalent things in the countryside. (A crude measure: "urban computing" returns about 15,800 results on google, "rural computing" returns about 2,160) This is at least unfair. If the countryside is indeed hollowing-out, should we just accept that, let everyone move to the city and make everywhere else a park? Maybe. But might it also be missing a trick? If some of the benefits of these technologies are about eliminating distance and enhancing community then they're probably more valuable in rural and small town settings. A lot of the stuff technology does cities can do for themselves, but I'd be interested to know what successful ruricomp would look like. Could it help some people stay out of the maximum cities? One of the best arguments for getting people into cities is an environmental one. Living in the countryside is a sustainability disaster; the city offers all sorts of energy efficiencies. But, again, maybe communications technologies can help to overcome some of that. That's got to be worth thinking about.
3. Rural designI suspect one of the reasons the countryside gets overlooked in all these conversations is that the aesthetics are so disappointing. Certainly the natural stuff's good; landscapes, hedges, skies etc. But as soon as something gets designed it looks like either Poundbury or Hobbiton, and it seems compulsory for any project involving a tree to get its typography from a Gong album. Are helvetica and leaves mutually exclusive?
That's probably why I find Matt Cottam's thoughts about Computational Wood so stimulating. Certainly he's mucking about, but he's mucking about with a contemporary version of the countryside, with chainsaws and tractors, not an imagined idyll with pooh sticks and pony clubs.
Maybe a decent ruricomp aesthetic would get some smart thinkers trying to prevent the hollowing-out.
4. Next largest context
I think it was Mr Hill (possibly via the medium of Mr Jones) who introduced me to the that lovely Eliel Saarinen quote "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." But, of course, in that quote, and in a lot of the conversations about the urban world, we've forgotten the next largest context for the city; the suburbs, the rural world and the small towns and villages that populate it.
So much city thinking seems mad keen for a return to city states; autonomous islands, connected to each other through finance and fibre but not to land that surrounds them. It's a little bit collapsist; let's wrap the city around us while we still can. But maybe we could think about network technologies as a way to reintegrate rural and urban rather than accelerate the dominance of one over the other. Perhaps all this brilliant city thinking could lift its eyes a little and look beyond the city walls - I'd love to see what we'd come up with then.
If we can stop the countryside becoming a Cursed Earth, we might not need a Mega-City.