Note — Feb 03, 2019

Model Metropolis

Seen in → No.65

Source →

I’m always fascinated by polymaths but also by “Forrest Gumps” people who pop up in multiple important points in history or around critical inventions, like Morrison in the article above or Forrester in this one who was around Gordon Brown’s Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT, the Whirlwind computer, Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE, deploying fighters in case of nuclear war), then urban systems and influencing Will Wright, the development of Sim City, which in turn influenced urban planning students and policy. The article goes over this history and the ways in which Forrester’s ideas have had lasting, negative impact.

Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today. […]

Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters. […]

The city inside Forrester’s model was a highly abstracted one. There were no neighborhoods, no parks, no roads, no suburbs, and no racial or ethnic conflicts. (In fact, the people inside the model didn’t belong to racial, ethnic, or gender categories at all.) Economic and political life in the outside world had no effect on the simulated city. […]

When we consider the social effects of computers in political and social life, we usually think in terms of expanded power and new possibilities. This perspective on computation permeates even our critical visions of technology. But we should also be attentive to the power that computers and the accompanying language of “systems” and “complexity” have to narrow our conception of the politically possible.