Some people are into spelunking through the urban ruins and crevasses of unfamiliar cities. The National Counterterrorism Center has a term for these sorts of people: terrorist dupes.
“Urban Explorers (UE) — hobbyists who seek illicit access to transportation and industrial facilities in urban areas — frequently post photographs, video footage, and diagrams on line [sic] that could be used by terrorists to remotely identify and surveil potential targets,” warns the nation’s premiere all-source center for counterterrorism analysis. […]
Urban exploration is not typically the reconnaissance mission of al-Qaida. While it’s not crazy to think that terrorists might be interested in studying an urban landscape, the vanishingly few cases of domestic terrorism in the post-9/11 era typically involved shooting up places like Fort Hood or leaving a would-be car bomb in Times Square, rather than recon from the top of a bridge or the depths of a subway tunnel. Such tips aren’t even a part of the DIY terrorism advice column in al-Qaida’s English-language webzine.
Have you ever seen … say, a telephone pole which no longer carries a line, but still stands on the sidewalk? Or maybe you’ve seen a second story doorway in the outside wall of a building that didn’t lead to a landing — or to much of anything — anymore. Ever seen a “stairway to heaven,” a staircase that goes nowhere, or awalkway that ends abruptly in midair? These are Thomassons.
Last year four members of the London Consolidation Crew were caught exploring the abandoned platforms of Aldwych tube station four days before the Royal Wedding. They were let off with a warning. But now Transport for London is trying to stop the group from even associating with each other:
Last month TfL applied to issue anti-social behaviour orders which would not only stop them undertaking further expeditions and blogging about urban exploration but also prohibit them from carrying equipment that could be used for exploring after dark. Extraordinarily, it also stipulates they should not be allowed to speak to each other for the duration of the order – 10 years. […]
For Garrett, part of the goal is helping to iron out the security loopholes they exploit. But this “service to the city” has proved a double-edged sword. “What this all comes down to is the Olympics because what we’re doing could make London’s security seem weak, which is embarrassing for TfL,” he says.
“But rather than stifling our free speech to tell Londoners there are security weaknesses all over the system, they should probably call us and bring us on as consultants to help fill these gaps.”
Tomorrow’s towns in Transhuman Space have certainly evolved from eras past, and there’s no doubt that they’re still vibrant, exciting places. Cities on the Edge is your guide to the dangers and delights to be discovered downtown.
Written by noted transhumanist and futurist Anders Sandberg, with science journalist Waldemar Ingdahl, this gigantic guidebook includes:
A tour of cities in 2100, from an overview of what they are and have become, to a look at what makes the towns of tomorrow tick. Unearth the allies and enemies of urban areas. Learn how police, health, disaster management, transport, and trade in the cities of Transhuman Space work. Discover how they’re run, and what happens when it all goes wrong . . .
A look at the bleeding edge of advanced architecture. Ultra-modern metropolises include mile-high skyscrapers, giant arcologies, biological buildings, high-density communications, and more!
Insight into urban culture: gray-collar crime, animated graffiti, urban AIs, self-configuring hotels, and other elements that make downtown dynamic.
A huge worked example: Stockholm in 2100! Visit the capital of Sweden, where eco-engineers discuss the restoration of the Baltic in trendy bistros run by Russian refugees; surrendering your privacy is so last year; and flaunting your naked brain in public is the height of fashion.
A sample scenario: “In the Walls,” a murder mystery that centers on Stockholm. Whodunit, and how?
The future is a foreign country, and there’s perhaps no better place to witness the wonders of the world than by visiting the grandest of the global villages. With Cities on the Edge, you’re at the center of excitement!
One of the primary ideas behind IBM’s Smarter Planet concept is a web of sensors all over the planet, leading to a data explosion. But what if that web of sensors was more directly under the public’s control? Strategic forecast consultant Chris Arkbenberg hits on an interesting idea in a recent blog post. He muses on the idea of using mobile phones for grid computing, a la SETI@home, to create massive distributed supercomputers for processing all of this data. “Consider the processing power latent across a city of 20 million mobile subscribers, such as Tokyo,” he writes.
Arkenberg takes the idea further by suggesting that sensors could be built into mobile phones that could monitor air quality or act as a sort of distributed surveillance system. The possibilities are endless. “Consider what could be done with an API for addressing clusters of mobile sensors,” he writes.
In contrast to the rural decencies of Tolkien, Moorcock’s writing belongs to an urban tradition, which celebrates the fantastical city as a place of chance and mystery. The wondrous spaces of M John Harrison, China Miéville, Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe and Alan Moore are all part of this, as are Iain Sinclair’s London, Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, the part-virtual cyberpunk mazes of William Gibson and the decadent Paris of the Baudelarian flâneur. Like these other urban fantasists, Moorcock delights in a kind of sublime palimpsest, in imagining an environment that through size, age, scale or complexity exceeds our comprehension, producing fear and awe. Crucially, the city isn’t a place of moral clarity.
Moorcock’s dislike of authoritarian sentiment has led him in many directions: Jerry Cornelius’s ambiguity is sexual, social and even ontological; one of Moorcock’s most popular heroes, Elric, was written as a rebuke to the bluff, muscular goody-goodies that populate so much fantasy fiction. Elric, a decadent albino weakling, is amoral, perhaps even evil. As a not-so-metaphorical junkie, Elric allowed Moorcock to revel in unwholesomeness, and helped return fantasy to its roots in the late romanticism of the decadents, a literary school close to Moorcock’s heart. In a recent introduction to The Dancers at the End of Time, which is set in a decadent far future, Moorcock claims to have sported Wildean green carnations as a teenager, not to mention “the first pair of Edwardian flared trousers (made by Burton) as well as the first high-button frock coat to be seen in London since 1910”. Elric, much less robust than his creator, who admits his dandyish threads gave him “the bluff domestic air of a Hamburg Zeppelin commander”, is part Maldoror, part Yellow Book poseur and part William Burroughs; within a few years of his first appearance in 1961, British culture suddenly seemed to be producing real-life Elrics by the dozen, as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and others defined an image of the English rock star as an effeminate, velvet-clad lotus-eater. Moorcock was very popular among musicians, and it’s tempting to see him as co-creator of the butterfly-on-a-wheel character, which still wanders the halls of English culture in guises ranging from Sebastian Horsley to Russell Brand. I ask him whether he felt at the time that the 60s rockers were living out a role he’d imagined. He’s too modest to agree, but tells an anecdote that seems to sum up psychedelic London’s openness to fantasy of all kinds. “I’m in the Mountain grill on the Portobello Road, where everyone used to meet to get on the tour buses. I’m sitting there, and this bloke called Geronimo is trying to sell me some dope. He says ‘have you heard about the tunnel under Ladbroke Grove?’. He starts to elaborate, about how it’s under the Poor Clares nunnery, and you can go into that and come out in an entirely different world. I said to him, ‘Geronimo, I think I wrote that’. It didn’t seem to bother him much.”
The Plot: Springfield comes into a few million dollars from Montgomery Burns, who had been fined by the EPA for dumping nuclear waste in city parks. At a town hall meeting to decide what to do with the funds, Marge suggests they fix up Main Street, and the people of Springfield appear ready to agree on that, until Lyle Lanley steps in from nowhere and sings a song about the benefits of a monorail. Long story short, Lanley sells Springfield a faulty monorail and skips town with the profits. It turns out—like Florida—that he had been doing his song-and-dance routine all over the country.
Now I am not suggesting Florida went from town to town deliberately scamming people just like Lanley did (MacGillis stops just short of doing so). But, his product—shiny and new as it is—simply isn’t a fit for every community, just like Lanley’s monorail.
As MacGillis points out, a “tautology lies at the heart of Florida’s theory that has limited its instructive value all along: Creative people seek out places that draw a lot of creative people.” Worse yet, Florida is now admitting that this is true, and by doing so, he “has now taken this closed-loop argument to another level by declaring that henceforth, the winners’ club is closed to new entrants.” And yet before taking this stance, Florida spent years selling his brand of economic development to places like Elmira, New York and Sackville, New Brunswick.
PlanIT is building a city in Portugal as a test of its “Urban OS” concept, hoping to sell “instant cities” in China and Inida in the future.
“It’s a bit of a bloodbath really,” says Lewis, who began studying it while still at Microsoft. “They’re using techniques older than God. All of the technology is being used on the design end. No one can look into the future and ask ‘If I put better glass into this building, what does that do for energy efficiency down the road?’ You have developers building to do a quick flip, and eventually the building becomes so inefficient and so expensive to fix they have to knock it down. There’s no process and no lifecycle management. The industry is fragmented and the consolidation that’s happened everywhere else hasn’t happened here.”
A Harvard Business School case study (pdf) published earlier this year echoed this view. Despite being a $4.6 trillion global industry, construction firms have had little incentive to integrate, consolidate, or otherwise become more productive. While non-farming industries have made productivity gains averaging 80% since the 1960s, the construction industry has become 20% less productive over that span. “Studies suggested that up to 75% of construction activities typically added no value,” the authors noted.