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Revisiting reductionism

Cities, ecosystems, and the universe in its most general sense share an affinity for unpredictable, even chaotic, forms of behaviour. Though appearing nonsensical and messy, these machinations manifest a profound logic; innumerable cascades of information coalesce and bifurcate, build-up and tear-down, explore and consolidate, all the while weaving and harnessing flows of energy to ever greater degrees of complexity. These structures demonstrate a remarkable capacity for problem-solving and resilience and do so precisely because of — not in spite of — their arcane and mysterious workings. It is, therefore, interesting that our minds, ironically products of this unfolding emergence, are peculiarly and frustratingly confounded by its logic. Worse, we exhibit a perpetually confident yet naive notion that we can somehow tame these workings and neuter any semblance of complexity by enforcing a reductionist outlook that is sufficiently simple for our minds to grasp. Packaged concepts look so much neater, so incredibly logical, so precise, so (ahem) scientific! We can treat them like checklists, flowcharts, and formulas, optimise them “for our own good”, and bend them to the will of grandiose masterplans fit to inspire the oft frail egos of architects, property developers, and civic authorities alike.

At heart, cities and their emergent complexity are artefacts that simultaneously manifest and catalyse the open-ended accretion of human networks. This ceaseless proliferation of connectedness occurs in lock-step with the evolution of technology, and it is through this emergent enmeshing of human know-how that increasingly capable tools are developed: Modernity brought mass-production and sanitary conditions for the post-War masses; digital networks, whether the Internet or IoT, further intensify the networking dynamic underpinning societal agglomeration; Digital Twins promise to help us use our sparse resources more effectively.

So, what is the problem? A pesky li’l wrecking-ball that refuses to die and that we can sum up with one sufficiently simple word for our human minds to fathom. Reductionism.

Every technological development rests on countless co-evolutionary processes of trial and discovery that have led to that point. Each of these leaps forward emerges from entangling streams of information coursing through cities, engendering evermore sophisticated assortments and configurations of knowledge, the ever quintessential hallmark of agglomeration. It is this proclivity that allows human societies to do such fantastical things, yet, given the faintest glimmer of a new buzzword and the predictable stampede for the Twitter feeds ensues, a thousand thumbs clamouring to the first to regurgitate the gospel of reductionism anew. These comical hype-trains are as unfortunate as they are ironic; but look, see how innovative we are, with the latest technology we can finally control ‘all-the-things’ and solve all those pesky problems so inextricably linked to these monstrously complicated cities with all of their unpredictable moving parts and hopelessly inefficient processes. Why is it that our first reaction is this hell-bent aspiration to straightjacket complexity, the very mechanism affording the evolution of technology in the first place?

If this tendency seems strangely familiar, that’s because it is. These stories we tell ourselves seem to change only in form but not in substance, and all proffer variations on one elementary theme: ergo, if only we had enough information and control, then we could tame cities, ensure their orderly behaviour, conjure those ever-promised utopian cities that have motivated people since time immemorial and yet have remained, perpetually, out of reach. Whether Modernist masterplans, Smart Cities marketing brochures, ML & AI’s omniscience, IoT, the Cloud, Digital Twins and connection and observation of all things [insert next technology here…] the problem is not the use of new technologies, per se, but the reductionist logic with which we persistently attempt to apply these shiny new tools to cities. This short-circuit occurs because we imagine that models of abstraction and control that may have worked well for controlling human contraptions — steam turbines, aircraft engines, Apollo missions, Formula 1 cars — would work equally well if applied to societal systems arising from emergent complexity. They emphatically do not. They indiscriminately sever the infinitely intricate forms of feedback underpinning the emergence of such systems in the first place.

As always, Jane Jacobs has beaten everyone else to the punchline (see the last section of Jacobs, 1961 (Jacobs 1961) and much of Jacobs, 1969 (Jacobs 1969), see the valuable inefficiencies of cities for a related discussion). Nevertheless, here we are repeating the same ol’ mistakes even if we’ve already paid dearly for the lesson. Per Modernism and the necessitated backlash (Harvey 1989), cities and their ‘messy’ complexity should not be tamed but celebrated. Cities are not abstract ‘things’, nor geometrical figures on drawing boards, nor schemata: they are people and the continuously evolving networks of relationships that bind them. Taming cities means taming city citizens. Controlling cities means controlling city citizens. Making cities more orderly means coercing the behaviour of city citizens, and to whose purposes? For these reasons, efforts to prescribe and simplify city processes are invariably destined to fall short while potentially causing untold damage à la Robert Moses. Why? Because these gimmicks undercut the deeply imbued logic of self-organising emergent complexity, the very essence of human societies since time immemorial. We already know how this story goes, and we already know how it ends. As inexorable as the arrow-of-time, things only ever become more complicated, never less so.

So, the next time someone tweets reductionism in the guise of the latest technological buzzword, remember that we have a counterpart to our li’l wrecking-ball friend, this one called cynicism, and it should be applied in equal or greater counter-measure. The starter pack goes something like this. Stop subsidising simplistic short-cuts — motorways, malls, fumes, hegemonic land development — at the expense of everything else. Instead, encourage resilient spatial structures that allow complexity to unfold and persist across space and time: connective pedestrian-accessible street networks, granular and dense urban morphologies, mixed land-uses permitting incremental adaptation. Provide open and equitable access to insightful information with due care for privacy and fairness while holding off the heavy-handed and oft questionable impositions of technological wizardry invoked in the name of observing, predicting, and controlling every last action and reaction of an unwitting populace. There is no need for bot-overlords commandeering control centres, nor this endless stream of brittle and biased contrivances endlessly invoked in the name of neatness, order, and those ever-elusive efficiencies.

Harvey, D., 1989. The condition of postmodernity : an enquiry into the origins of cultural change., Oxford: Oxford : Basil Blackwell.
Jacobs, J., 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities Vintage Bo., New York: Random House.
Jacobs, J., 1969. The Economy of Cities Vintage Bo., New York: Random House.
Copyright © 2014-present Gareth Simons