The City Makes the Civilization

Asimov Collective/The city as an information-processing unit.

Social and political theorists have tied the emergence of cities to the origin of civilization since the earliest written records we have found. The perhaps four-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, which shaped and inspired later literature, including the Bible, opens on what is best understood as an extended meditation on the nature of city life. In it, a wild man named Enkidu, who is created by the gods to humble King Gilgamesh, the ruler of the city, makes his way to the great city of Ur.

The observations in this story span the entire breadth of the phenomenon of society and are echoed by other Sumerian sources. Hunter-gatherer and pastoral people migrating to the city when hunting is sparse; the addiction—strange to them—that comes with drinking beer and eating bread; the role of temple prostitutes in recruiting people to the city, or even as agents of Gilgamesh sent to evaluate threats; the potential for tyranny that would be impossible outside the city; and how barbarians might make for better personal guards of the king of a city than those raised in the city, those with less personal martial skill yet with a vested interest in political infighting.

This close attention the epic pays to cities and the choices and situations therein is more than a prelude to the eventual friendship struck up by former nemeses Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Rather, it reveals itself to the careful readers as an inquiry—both an explanation and critique—of the city from the time when Sumerian civilization was still young. This focus on the effects of the great city of Ur on the wild man Enkidu is not surprising: of all social technologies, cities are, after all, perhaps the most important to a civilization.

Political thinkers thousands of years later, such as Plato and Aristotle went so far as to argue that the very minds of citizens of a Greek city-state—the polis—develop differently depending on the ordering of the city. The mere biology of Homo sapiens is, in this view, not the final word on what kind of being man is. Rather, that can only be discovered by examining the city and state individuals find themselves in, and that, in turn, actualizes and gives context to what they become. This thesis on what it means to be human is plausible since cities are the forges of human capital needed to maintain all other social technologies.

When industrial civilization was young in the 19th century, much of that era’s literature, as well as political and social theory, attempted to explain how Paris, London, or New York reforged peasants into factory workers and how it remade the foreign rural values in the great cities’ image. While cities have been demographic sinks both in the 21st century BC as well as the 21st century AD, requiring constant in-migration of wild men, pastoralists, and farmers to replenish their numbers, it is also cities that produce rapid social differentiation into different professions and classes needed by complex society—and always have.

Streets Give Coordinates to Society

Cities are the coordination landscape of society manifested into the physical world, allowing this landscape to be measured and studied. In all cultures, a physical address is something of a social rank, and a fairly fixed one at that, since it comes to determine who socializes and works with whom and in what ways. Where you live is always intimately tied to where you stand in society. Those who live near each other interact more frequently. Even in modern America, a society that expends much energy in obscuring a non-meritocratic class structure, one of the most mundane questions is also the most revealing and one you are obliged to answer in polite society: “Where do you live?” In a city like San Francisco or New York, the answer is suggestive for guessing income and net worth without fully revealing it, and it outright announces and defines one’s social milieu.

Movement across these urban coordinates tracks movement in social roles and hierarchy. Those who migrate into a city for work without living there serve to power its incumbent institutions, functional and non-functional ones alike. Those who permanently migrate out of a city give up bureaucratic and commercial power. There is military and religious power sometimes found outside a city, and for merchant republics, sometimes some exciting opportunities for profit as well, but to truly wield those, one must eventually return to the city, like Sir Robert Clive of the East India Company returning to London in the 18th century.

Even then, it is a challenge to use newfound power to reshape urban society. The nomadic Khitan, Mongol, and Manchu peoples might have successfully conquered China’s many cities from the outside, yet ultimately, the cities transformed and Sinicized them far more than they transformed the cities. Muhammad’s return to Mecca stands out not because outsiders and exiles could conquer a city but because they could change it when they returned. The transformation of that city transformed Arab society and created Islamic civilization.

Urban geography even reveals something about the political structure of the city. The grid plan where streets run at right angles to each other is ubiquitous in the United States. We might simply assume it is a feature of the modern world, but it is instead perhaps best thought of as evidence of a central political authority to mandate building standards and tear down existing buildings that don’t match the plan. This was as true when New York adopted the grid layout in 1811 as it was when Alexander marched into Egypt with his armies, founding Alexandria. This clear physical evidence of central authority can tell us something about otherwise enigmatic ancient cities like Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, dating to 2600 BC. While some historians argue that the relative equal size of the dwellings suggests the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilization was an egalitarian society, the orderly layout of straight streets demonstrates a great centralization of power and authority.

In fact, creating a new capital city was, for most of history, one of the best ways to transform society at large. The founder of a new city, be they Alexander or Constantine, is in the best position to control how the city is set up and who lives there. This means that at a city’s founding, there is a unique opportunity to set up and pilot the institutions that will influence the city’s power structure. Opposition, in the form of rival institutions, can simply be left behind. A new city is one of the most effective ways to change the balance of power and culture. A new institution in Washington, D.C. would be predated upon by the existing institutions, sinking into the metaphorical swamp. New Washington, however, would at first only be home to the branches of government invited there.

Technology Has Made Cities More Not Less Important 

Cyberpunks and their successors have always understood the internet to be a technology that fundamentally transcends the “legacy” physical world and its limitations. The legacy powers that the internet was supposed to replace—or at least circumvent—have instead already imposed their borders onto cyberspace. But the territorialization of the internet emerged organically. New York and San Francisco are reflected with high fidelity in their cyberspace equivalents: say, Dirtbag Left or Post-Left Twitter and venture capitalist Twitter, respectively. The most popular YouTubers and TikTok influencers stream from Los Angeles, and the most popular Instagrammers post from there too.

Cities exercise power over social media. There is a strong feedback loop between physical communities or networks and their digital counterparts built online. Much of the discourse on any social media platform, for example, is essentially identical to the discourse of any number of major cities. Much of the “YIMBY” or “housing” discourse can be traced to a specific handful of expensive cities like London or Vancouver. Internet partisans have bemoaned this reality as the “mainstreaming” of the internet. This has some truth to it. When urban discourses were carried out in bars, newspapers, and over the phone, the internet was able to still function as a separate territory, and being a separate territory, subcultures that couldn’t exist in physical space grew for a time.

If you live in a city, you are more likely to be participating in its digital counterpart. Which city you live in matters too. Being well-connected in D.C., New York, or San Francisco will let you access influential users of the site formerly known as Twitter in a way that being known only in Houston will not. Journalists, in particular, are known for relying on that site for both tracking and reporting news, especially those covering national or foreign policy stories. Los Angeles dominates the list of top Instagram accounts; you are far more likely to run in to a well-known influencer there than anywhere else.

A direct message to a larger account converts to an in-person chat over coffee, which subsequently converts into a retweet or digital endorsement that grows a smaller account. The physical-digital feedback loop emerges clearly. This type of colocation is so valuable because, despite all of our devices, relationships remain best built through frequent in-person interaction. Whether those relationships are translated online as outright endorsements, friendly banter, or scripted conflicts barely matters. Any interaction or mention is an endorsement in the attention economy, after all. 

The greater visibility of these social phenomena means that even those living outside of world cities can now virtually participate in them. This network effect means the internet has increased the cultural footprint of cities to be greater than ever before, as it allows parasocial participation in their culture from anywhere in the world. In this way, the smartphone and the internet, in general, follow the trend of previous communications technologies such as television and cinema, which allowed people to imagine themselves living in Los Angeles or New York. This was also true of the printing press, where urban theological debates came to motivate peasants and soldiers fighting in Europe’s wars of religion. In fact, it was likely true even with the advent of writing when the Epic of Gilgamesh was first etched into clay tablets. 

During the already nearly-forgotten COVID-19 pandemic and the attempted top-down social revolution of lockdowns and remote work, for a time, it seemed that this long-term trend might break. That cities would, in the future, decouple from the body of civilization and be replaced by a deterritorialized and truly atomized mainstream. It seemed plausible that centers like San Francisco and New York might give up the commanding heights of power to smaller and dispersed centers, that even these smaller and more dynamic cities, in turn, might see that ubiquitous corona of American urban life, the suburb, disperse even further until it was unrecognizable. The expectation among some in the tech community and even policymakers was a digital exurbanization of decision-making power and production. This did not come to be. 

While offices of major tech companies perhaps relocated away from city centers, work-from-home policies were significantly tightened after the policies dealing with the pandemic were rolled back with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which rapidly shifted bureaucratic priorities in early 2022. While commercial real estate saw a significant slump in demand, residential real estate sustained high prices in first-tier U.S. cities. Even when work-from-home was officially preferred policy, it didn’t mean home could be anywhere. In fact, perhaps it became more important than ever for upward mobility that your home was in the right place in the right city. In the end it wasn’t cities that took a hit, but commutes. An outcome any city-dweller would welcome.

The crowning position of cities remaining unchallenged does not mean all is well with our cities—or, for that matter, our civilization. That we grasp at straws such as the advent of the internet, doubling down on car-sustained suburbs through self-driving vehicles or even personal flying transport, or state-mandated pandemic resilience and social distancing to try and bypass the problems of our cities, shows as much desperation as innovation. The contrast offered by modern China is instructive. Shenzhen, today the center of global electronics manufacturing, was as recently as 1979 a backwater fishing town of 20,000 inhabitants. Far from the only Chinese city to see such a meteoric rise, these cities are not the supposed “ghost towns” of media stories but the physical infrastructure of the next stage of Chinese civilization.

There is no way to aspire to a better future without aspiring to functional cities because all functional institutions rely on them. There is, further, no way to reimagine or reorganize society without reimagining and reorganizing cities. No exit from this problem to a different social order is possible, because any such exit will, without innovation in social technology, after a perhaps rapid growth in urban population simply recreate our cities and their parasitic city politics and social decay. Since our industrial civilization clearly needs a refounding, many of our cities will need such a refounding as well. That will require a new Gilgamesh and perhaps a new Enkidu too, to overthrow the old order of cities and found them anew.

Samo Burja is the President and founder of Bismarck Analysis. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation and chairs Palladium Magazine’s editorial board. You can follow him at @SamoBurja.