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Futurists forget that we have bodies Plans for a post-city world of virtual interaction would rob us of our essential physicality

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves are a reworking of the brain in a vat’ thought experiment

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves are a reworking of the brain in a vat’ thought experiment


August 20, 2020   5 mins

I don’t have a lot of time for futurists. And I don’t mean the Italian art movement that fetishised technology and fascism (though I don’t have any time for them either). I mean those nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future that increasingly seem to fascinate so many. There used to be something slightly cranky about predicting the future — you know the sort of thing: living under the sea, jet packs, colonising Venus, eating protein pills — but not any longer. There is even an Association of Professional Futurists.

I suppose — to be charitable for a moment — this is what used to be called planning, getting ahead of the problem. But futurists take all this to quite another level. They are usually highly serious, geeky overgrown teenagers, generally men, who have been brought up on way too much science fiction. And they have turned what is basically a sucked finger raised into the air into a highly technical sounding art form. As the old Yiddish proverb has it: “Man plans and God laughs.”

Even so, all this MIT-meets-end-of-the-pier stuff does sometimes have interesting things to say. And the American futurist Jordan Hall’s “Civium Project” is a case in point.

Civium is a way of looking at cities, and specifically what a post-city world might look like. It imagines an alliance between technology and the countryside replacing the city as the focus of creativity and wealth-creation. It is the idea that there is no longer much point living in the middle of a large conurbation when you can now move out, look at fields through your window, breathe clean air, and do all your meetings with video conferencing. Covid has accelerated this fantasy. Rightmove has just announced that August has been one of the busiest months ever for buying and selling houses, with many moving to places such as Cornwall and Devon.

“Cities are to people like stars are to atoms,” explains Hall. Like stars, cities have this inward gravitational pull. The more people that pack into an area, the more ideas it buzzes with and the greater its capacity to make money. The bigger the city, the more money (on average) that one can make there — so he argues. It’s all about the economies of scale. But just as there is a centripetal force that sucks in people, so too there is a centrifugal force that pushes them out. Because people have bodies, they take up physical space, and have physical needs like food. Thus the dynamic of the city is created by the intense inward pressure of the economic pull to the centre, and the resistance to this constant pull that our physicality engenders. People can only be packed in a small space so much before they want to break out of it.

But can technology — always the futurists’ deus ex machina — really square this circle? The Civium project imagines that the density of people that has made the city so much of a money spinner can now be recreated online. Indeed, when people can be translated into digital images, they can be packed together even more tightly, with even greater creativity and prosperity being created. The “gallery view” of Zoom, for example, allows many people to cram into the tiniest of spaces. And if density of people = creativity = prosperity, then the city as we have known it is doomed — because in the digital realm, the thing that attracted people together, what Hall calls “minds in relationship” can be de-coupled from the negative consequences of being physically piled up on top of each other.

The Civium imagines that we can have it both ways. We can live by the River Tamar, soothed by gentle music, without a neighbour for miles — yet we can also, and without commuting, instantly become a member of the sort of community that has made cities the economic hubs of civilisation for centuries. Yes, online conferencing has its own unique ennui to contend with. But that’s why we are moving to the Tamar. With all that time saved not commuting, there will be ample opportunity to chill out in your hammock and work off that disturbing feeling of existential dislocation with some good, old fashioned, country walks.

“It’s because minds are embodied that we have cities. Up until very recently the only way for minds to interact was to have bodies close to each other,” Hall says.

In other words, cities were an unfortunate consequence of the fact that minds have to carry around with them their physical bodies. Today, however, the virtual world allows us to jettison those bodies when we want to be “minds in relationship” and then relax by the river when we want to put body and soul back together again. This will not be an “adjunct to civilisation” Hall argues, but “a fully symmetric basis to civilisation with the physical side”.

He even imagines the virtual, the Civium, could represent a “single city” with the kind of scale to be maximally generative in terms of wealth creation. This is Capitalism 2.0.

What most interests me most about Hall’s proposal is that it recreates in such sharp focus our old friend the mind/body dualism and of a sort very similar to that imagined by the philosopher René Descartes, he of “I think therefore I am” fame. Hall’s idea of “minds in relationship”, and minds that have jettisoned their troublesome physicality, would inscribe into the very basis of civilisation the division that has created so much philosophical trouble since Descartes.

 

Perhaps the best way to critique the Civium project would be to argue that minds do not have relationships: only people do. And people are an indivisible unity of mind and body.

Yes, it is unfair to suggest that Hall neglects the body — after all, his vision of the bucolic life freed from the crowded, polluting, traffic rammed city is in many ways a return to our one-ness with the natural world. But this is achieved by pulling us apart — the creative, innovative mental part of ourselves making money in the virtual world and the bodily part being soothed in the physical.

And I am highly suspicious of this split. Physicality has a much greater role in innovation and creativity than Hall allows. In many disciplines, creativity is a very tactile business. My wife, for example, teaches weaving at university. She researches innovation in weaving technology. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what this could mean as simply “minds in relationship”.

Likewise, to pick another example among many, the sort of trust that is necessary for creative and economic collaboration requires a much stronger sense of the face to face encounter than made possible over a screen. Morality is a remarkably physical business, I find. The obligations we have to other people make much more sense when we can see and touch them.

I began this piece being rather rude about futurists. I called them geeks — which is partly a way of talking about physical awkwardness, I suppose. Now I know that, these days, geeks are people with extraordinary power. They are the algorithm creators that shape so much of our lives.

And what terrifies me about the Civium project is that it is a way of imagining the world in which all this geeky awkwardness about physical bodies is turned into a civilisational principle.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

“My wife, for example, teaches weaving at university”. Weaving is not an academic subject it is a handy craft, a skill. Your wife should never have been persuaded that such a wonderful, ancient, necessary, creative,artistic skill as weaving should be made meaningless, niche, and dumbed down by becoming a university course or module.

Graeme Caldwell
Graeme Caldwell
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

His wife, Lynn Tandler, teaches at the Royal College of Art, has a phD in material design and engineering, and is a well-regarded researcher in the area of textiles, weaving, and material design. It seems entirely appropriate that the Royal College of Art should have a tutor focused on the “wonderful, ancient, necessary, creative,artistic skill” of weaving.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Doesn’t sound to me as though she actually teaches weaving so much as uses the term to be folksy while being pan-galactic

Nil points Graeme – Sorry

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Little hint, Lee: if you’re looking for points, youtube and Twitter are only a click away. I think most people are trying to do something a little different in these pages.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Trying to do something different ? Why ? What’s wrong with actual weaving ?
I’m a wood-turner btw

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Excellent, the irony is devastating and pointed; the University has become another factory, mindless & soul-less, like everything else in the contemporary polis (viz, developed world) so far out out of human scale, so hypertrophied by the manic obsession with the getting & spending, it’s lost all capacity for human warmth, intimacy, fertility, wholeness on any dimension above the barnyard.

I despair of any solution.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Yes, Giles, I agree with you to some extent, but ….
Did your ancestors worry about the dangers of the train? Some people were worried that travelling at such a speed would cause death.
Did your ancestors worry about the phone? After all talking to people over the phone, is not the same as talking face to face.
What about the disaster of piping water into peoples homes, we used to meet and talk at the well. The disaster of washing machines, we used to meet by the river bank!
Look what happened when everybody moved off the farm and went to work in office or factory?
Change is always difficult, but it will happen, it is just that we do not know what they are, until they happen.
Perhaps the city has had its day, after all commuting for an hour or more is not very useful. New computer technologies like the new railways, the new phone, the new washing machine will alter our way of life. From a rational point of view if it stopped people wasting time and money commuting that must be a benefit.
From a selfish point of view, as I live in a small market town, I certainly do not want an influx of city dwellers. The though that my idyllic spot on the Tamar might have somebody else there is horrifying!!

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

Interesting but i think the article is based on too many connections between tenuous threads. For example, I don’t suppose too many people are keen to ‘escape ‘ the cities of Durham, Lancaster, York , Edinburgh, Southampton, Cardiff or even Manchester (although that might well be heading in the same way as London). It might well be that many have tired of the super conurbation that is London and many have tired of commuting to London from places as far as Northampton, Milton Keynes or any of many places south and west of London. But that is very much a London problem – a city that is overcrowded, terrible to live in during hot summers, far to expensive to live in and or commute to ( with commuting times well in excess of an hour). London definitely has problems and who could blame anyone wanting to find a better and cheaper work- life balance. But as for wanting to get out of the ‘better ‘ cities ?

Nicholas Rynn
NR
Nicholas Rynn
3 years ago

I’ll give it a couple of years before the “Good Lifers” tire of the rural charms of what is clearly going to be an overcrowded Cornwall and Devon. Small one lane roads, no Waitrose, limited cultural opportunities, small hospitals and then being snowbound. However the principal problem of living in the country is the limited wifi on which all this “Civium” depends.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Do people actually want peace / beauty / nature / solitude ?
I’m afraid not, the lure of having your face shoved into someones armpit so you feel as though you are ‘where its happening’ is too strong.

Frederick Foster
FF
Frederick Foster
3 years ago

It could of course be said that the psychotic split between body and mind has its origins in the Christian mis-understanding of the nature of existence and what we are as human beings.
Summarized in the trope that has energized Christian and Western culture altogether – the deeply psychoticwar of “spirit” versus “flesh”

Simply put, to one degree or another most Christians believe that “real life” and/or eternal life begins in the “next life” when they die and go to “heaven”.

Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers
3 years ago

You can’t dance with anyone on Zoom. And in the immortal words of John Hegley, “Dancing needs not wait upon occasion, it is the natural state of the human animal”

jnrishabh2001
jnrishabh2001
3 years ago

Disembodied mindedness is hardly a trendy, new idea; but nor is it necessarily tied to dualism. Hegel’s notion of Geist (Spirit), for just one example, was specifically posited to explain the world with just one substance. If technology really can help us rearrange our mindedness according to our wishes, overcoming the inconveniences imposed by current physical limitations, that, I would imagine, is something to celebrate.

Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers
3 years ago
Reply to  jnrishabh2001

My totally undisembodied mind is currently minded to posit its substance in such a fashion as to experience the touch/breath/sweat/lipgloss of another body (whether in or out of its mind) on the dance floor. That’s what my particular Geist longs for at this particular Zeist. And if reports of the proliferation of illegal ‘raves’ (as probably no one actually taking part in such events has refered to them since about 1995) are acurate, my Geist is very much of the Zeist.

Frederik van Beek
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

Interesting article. I wonder if worrying about a split between body and mind, driven by virtual technology, will make any difference, considering the human evolution so far. It’s inevitable that physical reality as we know it will some day be an experience within virtual reality. In the end, if the creators of the virtual world do their job well, it will not make any difference in the way reality will be experienced. That is to say: the experience of virtual reality itself will not feel less physical then when I pinch myself right now. Maybe the ‘physical’ intensity of the pain will be even higher by then (if the right button is pushed).
Why is virtual reality inevitable? The article talks about the density of cities which is ofcourse a function of the density of our species which can be expressed in simple numbers of individuals or, more complex, by the amount of energy we consume. That energy is concentrated all around and within our cities.
Subsequently density of cities is a consequence of growth. The Civium project, as I understand it claims that density can be escaped by making communication virtual so that our bodies do not anymore have to be there where the work is. We can escape to the green country. But it is plain tot see that escaping to the green country can only mean 2 things. The green country will soon not be so green anymore or the escape route remains an option for the rich and famous (which is quite often the case already). Either way: the Civium project is just a function of growth and therefore by definition it can not create enduring space for physical bodies. What it does is that it creates an alternative possibility for growth because the cities are reaching maximum density, so now it’s time to make our children populate the space outside the cities untill density will reach the same level, etc, etc,etc…. What remains is that in the end the only place where space can be created on this planet is virtual reality and we want space don’t we? It’s that simple. Of course some people say that some day growth will stop (at around 10 to 15 billion) and birth control will take over. Maybe they are right about birth control, but human growth in the broader sense of the word? I doubt it, but I hope they are right.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
….
The bourgeois metropolis anyway has been long perceived an ugly, sterile, dirty, noisy, menacing, dehumanizing aggregate of atomized economic actors. For the vast preponderance of citizens it is in its initial centrifugality a deeply pathetic exigency of desperation for subsistence.

Dave Smith
DS
Dave Smith
3 years ago

I have never lived or wanted to live in a city. Well once I lived in a very small city that you could easily walk out of. Not so now as it has been wrecked by motorways and developers. I chose not to do so at an early age.
Country towns are for me. Our Anglo Saxon ancestors took one look at the abandoned Roman cities and turned away. .
There lived some years ago a Colonel Stephens( son of Frederick Stephens of Pre Raphaelite fame ) He knew William Morris as well.
He built and ran a number of rambling railways that left shire towns and went out into the countryside to nowhere in particular. . His vision of England was of self sufficient country towns served by a rural hinterland and of an free independent people . Using the machine age to serve us rather than them.
You mention the Tamar. . Very much when i was young a frontier river so that to this day I treat it as such. Colonel Stephens built the line from Bere Alston to Callington including the splendid viaduct ( he was a very talented engineer ) at Calstock . Part of it still survives as far as Gunnislake.
I like to think he was trying to humanize the coming machine age and adapt it to us rather than us to it. . The Civium project maybe yet another try .

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Courageous defiance against the impending Matrix, sir!

dan3099
DO
dan3099
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

I was looking for a comment in support of his stance so I wouldn’t have to make one myself, but yours is depressingly consigned to defeat.

I often reassure myself that no matter what there are and will be luddites.

God forbid the state of affairs you refer to as the matrix ever transpires.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  dan3099

Thank you for some much-needed balance and hope to my doom-laden comment. I’m wondering if there is a coming movement of Neo-luddites: people like me who have (moderately) embraced the digital technologies for decades, but now are seriously searching for ways to bow out…

gioia.joycel
gioia.joycel
3 years ago

In this blog, Giles Fraser unfairly characterizes all futurists as “nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future.” In fact, The Association of Professional Futurists has very high standards for membership, including the fact that to qualify, we must be using accepted futures’ methods and processes or conducting hard research or writing books and speaking about the future, as we have forecast it. We do not predict the future; we forecast it—using research tools and careful methods. We take great exception to Fraser’s description of all futurists as “nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future” and welcome anyone to visit our website at APF.org to see what real futurists do.

Kenneth Crook
Kenneth Crook
3 years ago

So the “best way to critique” the Civium project is to claim that bodies don’t have relationships, but rather people. I’d love to hear how Fraser explain how the mind is different (based on biology, chemistry and physics) from the body.

Anthony Devonshire
Anthony Devonshire
3 years ago

Article and ideas that it’s about remind me of arthur c clarke’s “the city and the stars”. As someone else here has commented, ‘hardly a trendy, new idea’.

Joyce Gioia
JG
Joyce Gioia
3 years ago

In this blog, Giles Fraser unfairly characterizes all futurists as “nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future.” In fact, The Association of Professional Futurists has very high standards for membership, including the fact that to qualify, we must be using accepted futures’ methods and processes or conducting hard research or writing books and speaking about the future, as we have “forecast” it. We do not predict the future; we forecast it—using research tools and careful methods. We take great exception to Fraser’s description of all futurists as “nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future” and welcome anyone to visit our website at APF.org to see what real futurists do. This is the second time I have tried to post this comment.

caseycastille
caseycastille
3 years ago

Is there not room for both? Why must we choose The Beatles or The Stones? I don’t consider myself a ‘Futurist’, but as an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, I feel wholly liberated by the idea that I can live in an environment in which I am physically comfortable, not have to contend with the stressors of commuting, of migraine-inducing overhead fluorescent lights, of packed trains and shops, and still have a viable and relevant career and community in my field of expertise. Add to that I now enjoy social interactions which don’t drain me because I can engage in them without having to tune out all the enviromental stimuli forced upon me in an urban environment.

Certainly, the beauty of technology is that it provides options which did not exist to prior generations. Many of my colleagues want to return to an urban office after our lockdown ends; a roughly equal number do not and wish to move (or already have moved) to the bucolic outerlands. Given the strain on many urban infrastructures, this seems like a positive trend, but it doesn’t mean everyone needs to leave their physical spaces to go completely virtual. I’m just happy it’s a viable option!

Greg Greg
Greg Greg
2 years ago

Fascinating article. One of the many reasons Gnosticism was deemed heretical by the church, early on, was because it asserted that the material world was corrupted and of no consequence. Thus, the incarnation was a mirage, as God would or could never inhabit human flesh. Techno Gnosticism is a new name for an old idea which denies the goodness, even in its fallen estate, of the material word for the simple reason that a good God created it. I suspect that, at root, one of the reasons we want to discredit the material/physical world is that, like death, it constrains us and, as such, makes the illusion that we are gods (in this case, capable of omnipresence) harder to pull off.