Functional Territorialization as the Essence of Civilization

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Jordan Hall:

"Consider one of the core innovations discovered early in the history of urbanization: the conversion of complex nature into functional territory. Near the center of the city, the function of land is as a place for business and population density. Fields and forests and streams (complex ecology) are cleared to make room for these specific functions. Near the periphery, the function shifts to lower density residential and perhaps industry. Farther from the center you enter the territory of food production and waste disposal.

The logic of civilization is simply the expansion of the idea of “functional territory” over a large space. “All roads lead to Rome.” In a crucial sense, every aspect of a civilization is, ultimately, a piece of the technical solution of increasing the population of the Capital. Secondary and tertiary cities and the “outlying territories” are simply part of the extended body of The City. Agricultural, industrial and even cultural centers producing material for the Capital."


Jordan Hall on How Ephemeralization through Digitalization Is Creating a Post-Urban Civilization

Jordan Hall:

"My second thesis is that the superlinear scaling observed by West is very closely related to the similarly shaped scaling observed by Metcalfe (e.g., Metcalfe’s law or the “network effect”). What we are observing in superlinear scaling is a consequence of the nature of information and communication networks. At the most fundamental level, in order to get superlinear scaling, we don’t need people to “live” next to each-other, we need them to communicate with (and collaborate with) each-other.

Of course, for the majority of human history, “collaborating with” and “living near” amounted to the same thing. But here we notice a crucial reality. While a tremendous part of the work of civilization has been to reshape physical reality so as to facilitate getting as many human bodies as possible into proximity, there has always been another solution: ephemeralize communication. Rather than solving the problem of collaboration by bringing bodies into proximity, innovate new ways to afford communication that are not bound to physical proximity.

If we are looking at population through the lens of networking, the question of “who is in the same city” ultimately amounts to the question of “who can potentially come into communication”? Physically, this might be afforded by my walking from my home across the street to your home. Or by riding a bike down the road to the local coffee shop. Or by taking a bus across town. Or a train between towns. Or a plane across the country.

Transportation affords a solution to increasing population along the direction of ephemeralization. The “population of a city” is some rough accounting of the total number of people with whom any given person can come into communication. It therefore includes, to a greater or lesser degree, everyone who can physically travel into face to face encounter.

Roads and triremes enabled “all of Rome” to be in some degree connected and part of the same population. In the 19th century, trains connected the populations of nation-states. In the more recent era, planes have produced a physical network for the planet.

Transporting people has greatly solved otherwise impossible problems for increasing the population of the city. But the bigger possibility has been afforded by technologies for facilitating communication entirely separately from the body, aka “telecommunication”. First the oral messenger (“tell your father to come to the field”). Then the written message. Then the telegraph and the telephone. Then a whole proliferation of different media that ephemeralize the means of communication.

The advantages and disadvantages of telecommunication are well-known. By allowing bodies to “stay where they are,” they radically change the energetic and temporal costs of communication. But, by removing the full context of embodiment, they lose an enormous amount of collaborative capacity and raise entirely new problems for both mind and culture.

Until recently, this tradeoff has relegated telecommunications to a secondary role. To be sure, the innovation of the printing press massively increased the communicative capacity of Western civilization and radically rebalanced the psychocultural sensibility of the West. But, even then, the majority of communication was face to face and the center of collaboration was grounded in physical proximity.

Until recently.

My third thesis: the invention and development of “the digital” brings an end to the cultural logic of the city that has been driving civilization since the beginning. We are now exiting the epoch of the city and entering the epoch of a new relationship. The civium.

From city to civium

Let’s take a moment to examine the nature of “the digital.” When Andreeson pointed out that “software is eating the world,” he wasn’t kidding around. Digital represents the absolute essence of ‘mediation’. Consider: writing mediates some aspects of language while the telephone mediates other aspects. The telegraph still others. A photograph mediates some aspects of image, a moving picture still others. But digital can (and does) perform *all* of these functions. Digital can express any particular form of mediation.

What this means is that this notion of the ephemeralization of communication will reach its ultimate extension somewhere in the domain of the digital. Barring a significant social collapse of our technological civilization (which is entirely plausible!) it is just a matter of time. The helter skelter endeavor to solve the problem of how to get more and more people into communication by means of innovation and wealth finds its end point somewhere in the digital.

And if the power of superlinear scaling is as I suggest, then the driver moving the history of civilization will continue to do its work. But, with the center of superlinear scaling moved from the physical to the virtual, the balance of power between these two regimes will begin to shift. While the territorial powers will do their best to hold onto their populations, and may succeed for quite some time, ultimately the dynamo of superlinear scaling will subordinate them, just as the city subordinated the indigenous modes of humanity that preceded it.

In the end, this attractor will seek to bring everyone into a single “network”. But, instead of a giant megalopolis, the forces of superlinear scaling will turn their attentions towards the formation of a planetary network connecting, in principle, all minds.

The story of this planetary network, the dangers it poses, and the diverse forces that will govern its shape and trajectory is interesting, but will have to wait for another telling. The point of focus for this essay is that the shift we are witnessing portends a tremendous change in the winds for our physical lives.

For one thing, the city (as we know it) will begin to fade from the earth. With wealth and innovation increasingly found in the virtual, rather than in the urban, those people who are most lightly connected to the city will begin to go elsewhere. And this produces a feedback loop in the opposite direction: as the population of cities *decrease* their wealth and innovation also will decrease — superlinearly.

We might expect this to produce a series of interlocking feedback loops that could accelerate the evaporation of cities. What took thousands of years to create might fade in centuries or even generations.

Of course as people leave cities, they will go somewhere. But where? My thesis is that with the superlinear scaling attractor no longer driving people into cities, the new dominant attractor will become the oldest dominant attractor: we will begin to return to wholesome, human-scale, ‘indigenous’ contexts.

As the earliest pioneers of this new world leave cities in search of a new way of living together, they will begin to congregate around places guided by deep values. Values that guided human choice for hundreds of thousands of years and which have been subordinated by the logic of urbanization for only a brief (ten thousand year) moment.

Liberated from the allure of the city we might expect people to be naturally attracted to places that are physically beautiful, that are safe and clean. Places that are rich in community and make raising a family as easy as it can be. Where meaningful life is most fully supported.

In most cases, of course, we will have to re-build these kinds of places. In most cases, in fact, we will need to re-learn how to live in this way.

Civium is the name that I am giving to a hypothesis: that the most powerful form of network is a properly architected planetary virtual network populated by wholesome, healthy humans who are in intimate relationship with place and each-other.


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