Posted by: brian | July 21, 2007

Break out your shades, cuz the future is blazin’

The other night I saw this show – well, part of it – on the Science Channel called “2057.” Actually, it was three shows. There was one about “The Body” (which I didn’t see) and one about “The World” (which I also didn’t see) and one about “The City” (which I saw in part). I was intrigued by this concept of the future of the city. Given my studies in landscape architecture and my leaning toward urban design, I wonder what the future of the city holds. So I thought, This should be interesting.

Do I need to say at this point that I was disappointed? Apparently the city of the future is defined entirely by technology. I did learn a few things from the 20 minutes or so that I watched.

1) In 50 years, everyone will have a personal holographic pet that follows them around and apparently keeps children safe via its GPS module. Or something. It didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, and makes even less now that I see it written down.

2) In 50 years, bipedal robotic assistants will be common. They will exhibit basic human form (a torso, head, two arms, and two legs). Everyone will have one, and old people will still cherish their 35-year-old models of these devices. Really? Given the rate at which technology becomes obsolete in the year 2007, I’m finding it hard to believe that a dusty old manbot from 2020 will still be around 37 years later. Also, which would we restrict them to the limited humanoid form? Why not give them 4 or 6 legs, so they’ll be more stable? And throw on 6 or 8 arms, to increase their capacity to carry our groceries.

3) In 50 years, some fogey will build his grandson a souped up holographic cartoon shark buddy, and then run away from home (but leave his archaic robot friend behind). The kid will proceed to hook up grampa’s 50-year-old laptop to the 2057 version of the internet (which, by the way, will be EVERYWHERE), and put his new pal into the city-wide internet, where it will swim from one gigantic holo-billboard to another. With it, unbeknownst to the annoying brat, it will carry an ancient computer virus that will cause the entire urban network to crash. (This reveals a couple of things: again, it appears that within the next 10 years or so, technology will stop being obsolete, and backwards-compatibility will extend so far into the past as to make obsolescence … obsolete. With any luck, they’ll be able to read those 5-1/4″ floppies I’ve got in the bottom of my desk drawer.)

4) In the ensuing chaos, traffic jams will reappear for the first time in 40 years, because automated cars and networked roads and GPS satellites will make sure that the traffic is always flowing smoothly (up to that point, at least), and there will never be any technical glitches that cause that system to fail. Thankfully, this seamless flow of traffic has also eliminated traffic accidents and related fatalities, and, as previously noted, there are never any major malfunctions in the system. Looks like Microsoft will be losing the contract on that one. (Note to self: Invest accordingly.)

5) The police force will oversee all manner of things, including the city-wide network. In the ultimate irony, the kid who brings down the city (in a performance reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day) turns out to be the son of the Chief Inspector of Integrated City Network, or whatever title this apparent police state will bestow on the person in charge.

There was no talk of the actual city of the future. Will suburbia continue to dominate the urban landscape of the industrialized world? Will multi-nodal cities spring up around present metropolises? Where will people work, relative to where they live? Will the concepts of New Urbanism finally be implemented in an effective way, or will we continue to see contemporary suburbia dressed up in ever-fancier tuxedos? Will “urban sprawl” – however you define it – be curtailed? What about poverty and race? Will segregation of the poor, blacks, and poor blacks continue to be de rigeur? What about environmental and ecological issues? How will cities of the future address the problems associated with massive impervious surfaces and the urban heat island effect? Will green space be recognized as a valuable sociocultural and physical component of the city, and will metropolitan areas be planned accordingly? Will urban planning itself become a more holistic and proactive discipline?

What about the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population is (and will continue to be) located at the meeting point of water and land? What effect will rising sea levels have? What about climate change? Signs point to more frequent and severe tropical storms. Will New Orleans be remembered as the first of many coastal cities destroyed by storms?

And we havent’ even looked at developing countries. What of the inconceivably massive slums that accompany so many major cities worldwide? How will continued population growth and urbanization in the developing world affect the quality of life in Bombay and its ilk?

Apparently, these are not questions that matter. Apparently, in 50 years, the city will continue to be defined as it matters to middle- and upper-class Caucasian Americans, and how technology will make their lives easier and safer.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected much from a show on the Science Channel.

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