Arcologies and ideologies

I arrived at work today with great hopes of engaging myself by running a series of significance tests on the data, checking to make sure that our results . Less than thirty minutes later, the work was done and the search for something to do began again, amid pangs of sympathy for the poor math teachers who had found ways to occupy my brain over the years. Is my current lack of work a betrayal of their hard work and a squandering of my gifts? I certainly didn’t challenge myself getting this job, and while this may be the fruits of sloth, I have hopes that things will pick up in the coming weeks.

Searching for something more interesting than eating those last few elusive pistachios with barely-opened shells (hint: use a paperclip), I turned to wikipedia, and after a series of articles on Judaism, found myself reading about arcologies.

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Remember those ugly towers in SimCity2000 that you had to build after there was no more land, but the compulsion for “more” meant finding any way for the city to expand?

Apparently they’re called arcologies (from their combination of architecture and ecology), buildings meant to house entire communities, and to do so sustainably, recycling most of the waste for use within the facility. It is not only an attempt to reduce the ecological footprint of humanity, but to change the scale upon which our lives are lived. One part I particularly like:

The automobile divides a city by scattering it across the landscape. Greater attention is given to human scale in an Arcology. In it the pedestrian reigns. Distances are measured by walks and minutes. Within it the automobile is nonsensical. here

It is strange to think that the basics of city layout haven’t changed much over the centuries. Discrete units of city function are laid out on a flat map. We consider travel a vertical scale. The horizontal plane carries us between destinations, and it is only once we’re within a place – an apartment building, and office – that we move up/down. The costs of this mindset are glaring, creating 2+ hour commutes in traffic every day, twice a day.

And I wonder: was the Wonka Chocolate Factory, something of an arcology?

* *** *

There are, I suppose, some “obvious” objections to this kind of construction. What about my backyard? My house, the kingdom I reign supreme in? And what of the need for constant change, when the technology for waste management improves and we have to gut the whole city rather than one facility? But the questions are only obvious because of what we’ve been trained to expect. Had I been born in one of the structures, I can easily imagine being revolted by the thought of suburbs… though, that isn’t much of a stretch.

I suppose I could go off on the positive feedback loop between geographical and social architecture, but the point is that an arcology (or the lack thereof) is a social product, a reflection of ourselves (our consumerism and greed in particular) as much as anything. Some social forms – many we hold dear – simply aren’t possible in a bounded city. Ostentatious displays of wealth through home size and grandeur can’t be constructed within the space – no Mc Mansions here. Construction of a larger home requires that one leave the community, in both space and ideals. The fetish of ‘brand new’ simply isn’t possible when the future must be connected to the old. And so on…

* * * * *

It is just unfortunate that the whole concept has gotten about as much attention as most of my half-baked drawings on napkins. Only these have been posted on the internet. The resistance to arcology raises a fascinating concept, though, of the relationship between science and society. On many occasions I’ve questioned my decision to turn from the natural to the social sciences. Many of the problems we face (for example, gas usage by automobiles) would simply be solved by the magic bullet of technology (alternative energy), and many of my daydreams involve advances along those lines. Wouldn’t it have been better to choose engineering, and solve the political problems that way? But this takes a very narrow view, since our society is generally open to technological change, and thus seems to give it the upper hand. The fate of arcology suggests that the range of problems to be solved by science alone is rather small, and that it is the social scientists who must allow innovation.

Perhaps this is because we understand so little about how change occurs in a social system. Our model for action – one individual – is hopelessly overpowered against most social forces (globalization) and so change seems impossible. Hence our imaginations and our histories focus upon superheroes with extraordinary powers (not only the X-Men and Superman, but also the Donald Trumps and Eli Whitneys), who are little more than our model with a few upgrades. Ultimately, we stick to the familiar rather than venture into the unknown and test our core assumptions a bit.

There are some clear ties to Howard Dean’s political success and problems in modern liberalism, but that will (hopefully) be in a later post. For now, my brain needs a reboot. Being sick, I’m no longer human, just a disguistoid in human form, and my thoughts are all muddy.

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