[This is a short précis of the keynote I will be presenting in Montreal for Infopresse, on 26 October 2011, for the conference called Réseaux Sociaux (Social Networks).]
The Urban Web: An Architecture Of Cooperation
The world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and we have just passed a tipping point where just over 51% of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and their immediate surroundings. The US is leading this trend, with fully 82% of citizens living in urban settings. At the same time, billions of people are spending significantly greater time online, connected through social networks. 65% of adult web users in the US now use social networks, which is the third highest app used after email and search engines. And for young people, over 80% use social networks.
So these two trends are shaping both: urban life is increasingly physically and virtually high density. Urbanites have always had more social contacts than those in the country, but now the intersection of virtual connection, the increasingly networked social spaces of cities — wifi in cafes and public spaces, ubiquitously connected devices like iPads and smart phones, and wired workplaces — are creating a melting pot of high density social connection of an unprecedented degree.
Cities, as Geoffrey West and others have shown, have superlinear economics: as cities grow, the costs associated with adding more people, businesses, and transportation decrease. New York City, the largest US city, has the lowest amount of CO2 produced per capita in the US, for example, and the lowest electricity use per capita.
Damon Centola and others have shown that increasing social density increases the speed that innovative ideas pass through a group of people, and this is true online and off. As we connect to more people, and they are connected to yet more people, many which we don’t know, we are surrounded by shells of others — social scenes — that exert an influence on us. And as you increase the number of connections people have, you increase the force of this influence, like increasing air pressure or gravity.
We are setting the stage for an unprecedented experiment in an augmented urban life, with a secondary layer of social connection through social networks, where ideas, trends, news, beliefs, and values will stream and take root at an unimaginable pace.
Cities are not controlled by a central agency, at least in the Western neoliberal approach to urbanism: it is a piecemeal and haphazard model of development and societal integration. Cities are connectives, not collectives. People in urban settings are likely to be wildly heterogeneous, and not generally working toward shared aims: instead, they are cooperative. They accord with basic conventions that serve the whole — like driving on the right, or standing in lines for service — but are actively pursuing individual aims, perhaps to the detriment of others.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This regional intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated agreements about what the city is meant to be, and do. Everyone can inhabit their own city.
The Arab Spring revolutions that leverage social networks are an example of the power of messiness at scale. The inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — has been a major impact on the uprisings it supports. The Egyptian revolution had no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees, or like the daily commute in New York City.
The participants in a social revolution — of whatever kind — do not have to agree in all particulars, or even have a common agenda. There is an architecture of cooperation latent in social networks, where the dark matter of influence supports bottom-up connective action, rather than top-down collectives.
And the grafting of social networks into every-larger and complex cities may be like the evolution of the mammalian cerebral cortex, basically a higher order nervous system, capable of an altogether different sort of mind, operating at a new tempo, and capable of new forms of thought.
Media, business, and society will be changed inexorably and massively by these transitions, and the rate of fusion of the urban and the web is accelerating.