A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences

by Shannon Mattern, Princeton University Press in association with Places Journal, 2021, 200 pp.
Paperback $19.95, ISBN 978-0-691-22675

In A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences, Shannon Mattern charts futures for urban planning and design that take into account the entangled, embodied knowledges that comprise a city. In a moment marked by heightened efforts at using surveillance and sensing technologies to control, predict, and make sense of urban environments, A City is Not a Computer surfaces the ways that “knowledge acquires and represents power” (87) in cities that are increasingly subject to datafication and quantification in service of a promise of a novel efficiency or seamlessness. As such, this book engages critical conversations for scholars of information studies and professionals in libraries, archives, and museums. It will also be of tremendous interest to interdisciplinary scholars who, like Mattern, find community in media studies, anthropology, the humanities, architecture and design, and other disciplines concerned with the shape and texture of communal life. Through data dashboards and their attendant surveillance infrastructures, libraries tasked with ever-growing social and technical demands, information storage and transmission architectures, and the strength of and stresses on networks of maintenance and care, Mattern engages tensions between cities’ local ways of knowing and increasingly prevalent smart city fixes that erase “wisdom of the community members and indigenous populations and ecosystems that preceded them” (11). For Mattern, a computational approach to urban intelligence can conceal or re-entrench extant structures of inequity, erasing a city’s rootedness in the technical and social infrastructures that sustain it.  

Beginning and ending with what trees can teach us about modern urban intelligences, Mattern introduces grafting, an ancient horticultural practice of engineering hearty, high-producing flora that resonates with how humans use technologies of surveillance and sensing to engineer cities with the “right” infrastructure and outcomes. Mattern mobilizes grafting to both critique the technocratic drive towards seamless, frictionless urban environments under the city-as-computer model and to engage a speculative approach to “the ethics and politics of city-making and maintenance” (9). Evidence of grafting, Mattern reminds us, is all around. Cities mediate “between multiple modes and means of inscription, transmission, and storage: legal codes and copper cables, algorithms and antennae, public proclamations and system protocols, clay tablets and ceramic type” (10). These traces of grafting are evident in the varied infrastructures that sustain cities, and it is in the way we “recognize our urban grafts’ layered and entangled manifestations, [discern] the stories behind each cut and fusion, [and recognize] the ethics and politics of grafting technique” that we can imagine new, smarter solutions for such grafted cities (11). 

The second chapter, which shares the book’s title, unpacks metaphors commonly leveraged to describe cities and their component parts. Here, Mattern reminds us that not all knowledge is legible to the algorithmic regimes used to make sense of urban environments. As is the case with each chapter, “A City is Not a Computer” reminds us which values count, which values get counted, and who is most often enrolled as the valuer. Through her exploration of the city-as-computer, city-as- machine, city-as-organism, and city-as-ecology approaches to urban design, Mattern asks three key questions: “What knowledge does a city foster? How do its infrastructures facilitate the creation, sharing, and storage of information? And what does a city allow us to know about ourselves?” (52). In moving through a short history of the three approaches, Mattern argues that metaphors “go a long way in determining how we conceive of urban planning, urban form, governance, maintenance, citizenship, and so forth” (59). The chapter’s discussion of a city-as-computer, the failed 2015 Google Sidewalk Labs project—built “from the internet up” (53)—demonstrates again that our present moment is precarious.1 As the persistence of the coronavirus pandemic draws attention to how urban environments function and for whom, Mattern argues that there arise opportunities for new or further appropriation of smart-city technologies. If we learn from “the bodies gathered together in protest, the move to emergency online learning and tele-health, the spread of medical and election misinformation, the distribution of aid through care networks, and the new visibility of supply chains and service workers” (57), then how will we tune our infrastructure and urban design more towards people? Justice? It is in this chapter that Mattern begins a discussion of storage facilities, infrastructural sites that on their own present an incomplete or apolitical picture of information transmission. Setting the framework for her discussion of galleries, museums, and libraries that will comprise much of the next chapter, Mattern warns that it is not enough to see the data centers, server farms, and information warehouses at the surface. It is through an intentional reframing — one in which we “look at data in context, at the life cycle of urban information, distributed within a caried ecology of urban sites and subjects that interact with it in multiple ways” (64) — that data’s multi-agential origins become legible. 

In a 2003 interview, transformative feminist writer and organizer Grace Lee Boggs imagines what revolutionary change might look like amidst rapidly shifting global sociotechnical relations. Here, Boggs reminds us that the future is something we build in community, together.2 At the same time, it is also “unknown” and “dependent on what we do in the present” (Boggs 2003). Insofar as A City Is Not a Computer is a story about urban planning and design, it is also a story about justice: about what happens when care work is devalued, when human lives are quantified and run through predictive governing algorithms, when the same governments house data without ensuring that community members understand what or why data was collected in the first place, when libraries maintain agreements with exploitative players in technology and publishing space. Mattern proposes that even in the face of significant challenges to urban life, there are limits to data-driven city planning that require solutions that are all too human. In a final return to grafting, Mattern asks us to imagine a city that “cultivated urban rootstock that prioritizes environmental, racial, and digital justice over efficiency; that draws nourishment from epistemic pluralism, blending computational logics with feral intelligences, sensory experiences, and local knowledge” (154). It’s this city, she writes, that would be “ultimately much, much smarter than any supercomputer” (ibid). Mattern turns the smart city both on its head and back at us: we are at once confronted with our own precarity and our long, grafted infrastructural past. A City is Not A Computer attunes us to how we might graft a growing array of computational knowledges onto “other ways of knowing, other ways of mapping, other metaphors” (153). As Mattern argues, it’s less important that we “build anew” (106) as we address the inequities that characterize our urban ecologies: indeed, “what we need to study is how the world gets put back together, maybe not as it was, but, instead, how we want it to be” (ibid).

1 Quotation from Dan Doctoroff, cited by Mattern on page 53.
2 Grace Lee Boggs, interview by Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer, July 22, 2003, Published online by Upping the Anti, October 8, 2009. https://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-revolution-as-a-new-beginning

Hannah R. Hopkins, University of Texas at Austin