There’s a terrific article in today’s New York Times about theoretical physicist Geoffrey West’s attempt to build a general-purpose logical model of cities. The way West describes his motivations, “I’ve always wanted to find the rules that govern everything,” offers an elegant summation of why I find procedure a more compelling object of concern than process.
These are the laws, they say, that automatically emerge whenever people “agglomerate,” cramming themselves into apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn’t matter if the place is Manhattan or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same. West isn’t shy about describing the magnitude of this accomplishment. “What we found are the constants that describe every city,” he says.
Among the many sweeping gestures that will no doubt make some readers conclude wrongly that he isn’t concerned with urban dwellers, West argues that his laws “scientifically confirm” the theories of Jane Jacobs, the famous urban activist of the 1950s and ’60s. “Cities can’t be managed,” concludes the article’s author Jonah Lehrer, “and that’s what keeps them so vibrant.”
All that said, the main problem with West’s approach can be found in the implication of Lehrer’s title—”A Physicist Solves the City.” For indeed, nothing is being solved, at all. Rather, West is deploying techniques to capture and measure the radiation of a city, the concepts and effects that emerge from it like heat rising from asphalt. The city itself is not its components nor its history, but a thing rising above its constituents and its flow through time, existing independently from them. West’s attempts at characterizing the hidden, inner mechanisms that drive cities offers one example of the principle of withdrawal in object-oriented ontology. A unit like a city doesn’t just experience growth, renewal, and decay, but also withholds something in reserve.
I’m sure West wouldn’t agree with the charaacterization, but I see his work as metaphysics as much as physics, perhaps more. What we have here is a partial example of what I call an alien phenomenology of the city itself. The main difference between his approach and mine is in its implications: while science still tries to dupe us into thinking that it describes a real world without, it inevitably focuses only on the ways that world relates to (and for) human beings. But cities exist for themselves and for other creature too, from rats to automobiles to microclimates to electric power grids. And that’s why we need philosophy to stand next to science, rather than to be enslaved to it.