Smart Cities of Tomorrow

Shannon Mattern on how the 1939 World’s Fair anticipated our current obsession with urban data science and “smart” cities.

mattern-05-worlds-fair-1020x623
Exhibits at the 1939 World’s Fair. Left: Consolidated Edison, “City of Light.” [New York Public Library] Right: General Motors, “Futurama.” [General Motors]
The World of Tomorrow, Leonard Wallock writes, “was the city’s perfected dream of itself.” It manifested desires for “scientific rationality, technological progress, modernist aesthetics, industrial design … consumer prosperity, and … corporate capitalism” in spatial form, via rational urban planning and progressive civil engineering, modernist architecture and sterilized suburbs. Just as important — though much less discussed — was the dream of efficient urban administration.

Who dreams of files? Well, I do, to be honest. And I imagine Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Le Corbusier did, too.

Who dreams of files? Well, I do, to be honest. And I imagine Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, and Le Corbusier did, too. It’s not only the files and cabinets themselves that enchant, but their epistemological and political promise; just think of what you can do with all that data! The dream has survived as a collective aspiration for well over a century — since we had standardized cards and papers to file, and cabinets to put them in — and is now expressed in fetishized data visualization and fantasies about “smart cities” and “urban science.” Record-keeping and filing were central to the World of Tomorrow and its urban imaginary, too. [Read More]

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