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The Recursive City
improvising after a glitch
We messed up and lost all our work from this past week 😬 and as a result, we don’t have the episode we wanted to share 😔. Sorry about that. Instead, today’s newsletter has some general musings on the urban condition.
Sometime in the last ten thousand (or twenty thousand or forty thousand - the number is fuzzy) years, a combination of tool use, the discovery of agriculture and animal domestication and the capacity to build permanent structures started us on the slow path to becoming a settler species, slowly accumulating ways to cultivate and domesticate the world around us rather consuming what we find.
We are not trying to judge; on the one hand, there are many problems with settlement - density leads to disease, per-capita nutrition is lower and egalitarianism is replaced by inequality. On the flip side:
Settled humanity has to engage explicitly with the idea of political community and that lowers violence.
Settler humanity has no natural predators - its threats are bugs rather than beasts. Bugs don’t prevent you from moving and creating new settlements. So settlerism has an expansion strategy built into it.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You be the judge, but moral claims aside it's been the most successful large mammalian growth model ever. What we call ‘history’ is a strict subset of settler humanity. Civilization is nothing but a record of how we deal with accumulation and compounding. If everything that's hunted or gathered is consumed right away, there's no question of compounded inequality. Accumulation makes inequality a lot worse because of growth - if our family earns 2% more than yours every year for ten generations, we will be 50 times richer at the end of it. Scratch that - halfway through that process our wealth will help us hire thugs - aka soldiers - who will appropriate your wealth.
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Unfortunately, while growth has no limits, the planet does and we will reach those limits sometime this century. The ever urgent race to expand and organize accumulation led to the invention of several political technologies: states, cities, armies, bureaucracies, of whom cities are unique, because they combine material accumulation (all those buildings and roads) with social accumulation (new political institutions). Further, those political technologies have spawned 'products' of their own: citizenship, borders, kingship, democracy etc. Every political technology so far has doubled down & deepened our settler identity and kicked the systemic crises down the road for future generations to solve.
We need new political technologies, ones that we have to imagine afresh, if we are to avoid extinction. Like the way Sheherzade did a thousand and one times. Perhaps we can learn from her, and her imaginary friend, Marco Polo.
In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
So begins Italo Calvino’s imaginary take on Marco Polo’s expedition to China in ‘Invisible Cities.’ The Great Khan was much tickled by Polo’s tales, first in the real world and then in Calvino’s metaverse. Where else would he go, having conquered the known world?
The Khan is a sad man, trapped in a cage of his own making. But save a thought for Marco Polo, telling tall tales to the emperor. A risky affair even in virtual reality. What if he hates your stories and the game stops at 358 out of a possible 1001? What if he believes your yarn and wants to visit a mythical land of your making? We just said ‘land’ but it’s not land per se that concerns Calvino and his cohort. Cities in the sky will do as well as their grounded counterparts. Socrates is a cousin of Sindbad in this urban imagination, in whose streets and bazaars and squares we spin our yarns: some for entertainment, others for wisdom.
‘Let me tell you a story’ and ‘let me ask you a question’ are opening gambits of the same trickster.
Cities tell us it’s possible for humans to live in harmony with strangers, but plagues and conquests remind us that any attempt to change the world can bite us on the return trip. Until recently our trips were short, from our house to the neighbor’s and on a special occasion, to the town market. It would have been impossible to believe that entire nations, or even more expansively, the entire globe, can be engineered for collective flourishing.
The road’s running out. Can we imagine a different kind of city? One that integrates with nature instead of dominating it? Can we at least imagine a better city in the Metaverse, if not in the real world?
The metaverse is build out of code, and we can use recursive recipes to reimagine anything in that computational world.
The Recursive City
The 'paper technology' cookbook will tell you how to make tortilla or dal from a certain set of ingredients - whole wheat/corn flour, urad dal, ginger, marinara sauce etc. A recursive cookbook is a superset of the paper cookbook, so it too will help you make tortilla from its ingredients, but it will also help you make the ingredients if you're so inclined - the two screenshots below capture a recursive recipe for tortillas in which there's an embedded recipe for flour.
How to make a tortilla
How to make flour
Recursive recipes are a useful strategy if you're trying to run a kitchen - if you're running out of flour, you have to make or buy that first before making a tortilla. Regular recipes work against a functioning infrastructural background. A cookbook author assumes that you have all the ingredients in front of you and it's not their job to teach you how to stock a kitchen with flour or raisins. If that's a reasonable assumption, it's only so because we take food systems for granted. During a pandemic or a climate induced catastrophe, we can't assume that everyday kitchen items are readily available for re-stocking, just as most children in Bihar can't take electricity supply for granted if they were suddenly required to perform all their schoolwork on computers connected to the internet.
Recursiveness brings the systemic nature of recipes into sharp relief. By coupling our desire to make tortillas to the availability of flour and the availability of flour to the grain harvest, we can turn infrastructure that's taken for granted into a resource that's explicitly accounted for. Unfortunately, adding this layer of systems representation can also create a new set of problems - we can immediately see the problems that arise from embedding recursiveness into our supply chains. Let's say I have a smart storage bin that sends a signal to the grocery store to dispatch a bag of flour every time my stock is below some pre-determined amount. In fact, let's assume the houses of the future have chutes for drones to land with supplies and those drones are pre-programmed to supply me with flour. Awesome? But what happens when the drone is hacked (as it inevitably will) and someone steals my flour supply?
In the absence of a fair amount of machine learning, recursive recipes are almost as ignorant of systemic disturbances as the paper kind. Every additional layer of explicit representation brings additional demands on robustness and flexibility.
Fortunately, we are still in the city of our imagination. The recursive recipe, as you might have guessed, is a metaphor for the reimagined city. It's all too easy for us to consume individual urban meals - one cable network here, one housing society there, and so on - since that's how we are conditioned to consume food and other urban experiences, but we completely miss changes in the political system as a whole. The city has to be embedded in a network of other concepts - which is exactly what a recursive approach to the urban imagination will enable.
Shaktiville is (kinda) our recursive recipe for a city.