The Big Sort

Last week’s Economist contains a provocative discussion of The Big Sort. Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. I’ve long been interested in the phenomenon of demographic clustering. See for example, the essay that I co-wrote with Anne Friedberg for the Networked Publics book. According to this model, mobility is leading individuals to cluster in communities of other like-minded individuals. In Bill Bishop’s book, and the Economist article, the concern is with the consequences of such clustering for politics. Americans increasingly don’t talk to people with political views unlike themselves. Instead, we live in liberal urban environments or conservative exurbs or whatever community turns us on. I don’t suspect Europe is going to do much better. The EU has changed dramatically in the last two decades and, with the freedom of mobility that Europeans enjoy, old ties like language and family are going to dissipate over time, in favor of a similar clustered world.

The consequences for politics are relatively clear, if distrubing, but this "big sort" also has consequences for urbanism since politics is such a huge part of thinking about cities. So when we think of dredging up Jane Jacobs yet again for models of thinking about the city, let’s remember the ideological context and the larger complexities of such situations.

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something underground


Apologies for the slow rate of posting. After bringing Networked Publics to press (I’ve learned my lesson: I will never again agree to do my own index!) and getting the Philip Johnson Tapes out the door, its back to the Infrastructural City, which should be done next week, if we’re lucky. We’ve been thoroughly unlucky (I thought that project would be done by Christmas of last year!) and my summer projects are all on hold until then, but the end is near. As my friend Robert says, "all’s well that ends."

In other news, I will be teaching a History of Theory course at MIT next fall in addition to my regular teaching and am very much looking forward to seeing those of you at MIT and in Boston.

I do have some posts on the back burner and these should see the light of day soon enough.

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the internet and neurobiology

The blogosphere was buzzing yesterday with Nicholas Carr’s article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" even if, perversely, given his argument about the spread of online reading, the article had not yet appeared on the net yet or on newsstands and could only be read by subscribers to the print version of the Atlantic. 

In this article Carr sounds the alarm about how the vast amount of information on the Net and the ease of searching it via Google are changing our ways of thinking, spurring us to replace solitary, deep thought with surface-level grazing for content. Carr’s entirely justifiable fear is that we are less able to process and analyze information these days and more prone for a quick fix, going off to search for the next source of stimulus.

This article comes at a time in which I’ve been reading a bit about Neuroaesthetics, in particular as developed by Warren Neidich in his essay "The Neurobiopolitics of Global Consciousness" and in the conference proceedings that you can find at Artbrain #4 (also Warren’s site). 

There’s likely to be much more about this on the site in the future, but for now, I’d like to observe that what leads me down this path is the suggestion that historical conditions can correspond to neurobiological changes. In other words, that it isn’t just that we’re reading differently as we learn to navigate the net, it’s that as we select for one form of cognitive processing over another we are reprogramming our brains at a fundamental neurobiological level.

In doing so, we support that activity with the tools and environments. These, in turn, pass on the changes in our brains to future generations and affect the conditions they emerge in.

In this light, network culture wouldn’t be merely a cultural condition, it would be a neurobiological state, a plateau in a long, Darwinian evolution of humanity’s cognition. Given the radicality of the changes in the last decade—comparable to what happened in 1900-1915 (the period in which modernity formed) or the 1950s and 1960s (the moment in which the postmodern generation came of age)—it seems more urgent than ever to study network culture as a period, rather than as a collection of unrelated phenomena. 

brick wall


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posturban transformation

The May 29th issue of the Economist finally came today and it has one of the most intelligent articles about suburbs that I’ve read lately. It comes back to one of the key issues for my Network City project. Cities, as Lewis Wirth pointed out in his seminal article, Urbanism as a Way of Life, had traditionally been places of difference, places in which individuals from rural backgrounds were deterritorialized (to use Deleuzean terms) to become new, urban beings. But something strange has happened over the last two decades.

The Economist piece "An Age of Transformation" talks about how minorities, immigrants, and increasingly, gays and lesbians are leaving cities (one staggering statistic: at current rates of departure, there will not be a single African American in Los Angeles by 2050). As the global city becomes increasingly homogeneous, today’s advocates of the creative city may seem as backwards to us as Corbusier did to Jane Jacobs. 


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