Use of The City as a metaphor for the Internet/Web
April 12, 2013 9:19 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for examinations of the Internet and World Wide Web that use the structure and/or history of the city as a metaphor.

I'm afraid I have no original example of this phenomenon to kick things off. I have this image in my head of 'the city' that always goes back to Plato and his Republic. Plato's city was a physical, social construction, as well as a philosophical metaphor, at one and the same time. It feels that many have talked about the Internet in similar, overlapping, terms.

(It need not be 'the city as metaphor', rather any social, physical space that humans build and live in will suffice. Also, metonymy rather than metaphor would be great.)

Writings that explore the political history of the city, it's technological expansion, that consider the city as a nexus for theories of human civilisation, of emergence perhaps, of structure, social and political control and, perhaps most importantly, of space vs place - all as a way to think about similar phenomena taking place online. The Internet as emerging network with similarities to the city; the World Wide Web considered as spatio-social metaphor?

etc. etc.

Any ideas?
posted by 0bvious to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Wasn't that the concept behind Geocities?
posted by asockpuppet at 9:37 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You'll want City of Bits by William J. Mitchell.
posted by thetortoise at 9:44 AM on April 12, 2013

Best answer: Here's what I found when I looked into this a few years ago (2009), mostly personal essays from people discussing their experience of the internet:

From Flâneur to Web Surfer: Videoblogging, Photo Sharing and Walter Benjamin @ the Web 2.0 (Transformations, 2007): "Lefebvre’s theory on The Production of Space is...fitting in many respects when it comes to the ways in which web interactants, as well as commercial actors, employ a number of social strategies to render the rooms of cyberspace as physical realities" and so on.

Bright Lights, Big Internet (New York Times, 2009): "The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless…residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them…the presence of an audience causes online residents to style themselves as outsized personae."

Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City (New York Times, 2009): "Like a city, Wikipedia is greater than the sum of its parts; for example, the random encounters there are often more compelling than the articles themselves."

World-viewing city walking (imomus, 2009): "I’m thinking more of the internet as a medium in which you can go for a daily walk, without really doing, or expecting to do, anything significant."

My own private metropolis (Financial Times, 2008): "That freedom to experiment with personae, to play out fantasies of self, once the unique gift of the metropolis, is available on everyone’s laptop."

Stephen Fry: The internet and Me (BBC News, 2009): "But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums…there are also slums…but you don’t pull down London because it’s got a red light district."

The Internet as a City: Thoughts on the Connected Brain (Digital Natives, 2009): "Vast expanses to explore, anonymity, a nebulous web of connections, and of course, the many possible distractions…but give newcomers a few months, they’ll be able to navigate the city like any seasoned urban dweller."

For slightly more context, here's my MetaTalk comment and blog post where I was looking at these things.
posted by dreamyshade at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

So this is fiction, and I'm not sure it fits exactly what you're looking for, but your question makes me think of a book I read quite a long time ago: by Arne Tangherlini. It's kind of an Odyssey if conceived by Neal Stephenson, starring a grumpy 14-year old girl, and it definitely explores the ideas you've talked about. I also think the movie Summer Wars addresses similar ideas, again in more of a fictional exploration way than anything analytical. You might also find Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino's work interesting, especially Labyrinths or Invisible Cities. Their work predates the internet as we know it, but they both explore questions about the kind of 'space of the mind' which I think relates very well to your idea of 'space vs place'.

I love this question! I can't wait to see what other people recommend.
posted by augustimagination at 9:51 AM on April 12, 2013

The closest I can think of is a piece on Evaporative Cooling of Online Communities. It uses the (business related) social scene in San Francisco as an example or metaphor for what happens in online communities.

Here is the complete list of related articles. Some of them use metaphors about traffic control or citizenship to explore the dynamics of online communities.
posted by Michele in California at 10:00 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not quite sure if this is what you're looking for, but viewing the internet (or its fictional stand in) as a city or virtual space you can navigate as if your digital avatar was wandering about a virtual city shows up in lots of fiction.

A few examples off the top of my head:

-Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash has "The street" where essentially IP address correlate to real estate, the internet presented as a landscape you can (un)physically navigate while interacting with others.

-William Gibson's Neuromancer has a similar deal, with private computer networks representing buildings that are more or less accessable.

- Iain M Banks' Hydrogen Sonata, a Culture Mind considers it's internal network as a castle with turrents and gates etc. A friend takes up residence in one imagined "tower" in its mind.
posted by pseudonick at 10:01 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few more links:

Steven Johnson on the Web as a city (TED, 2003): "'s Steven Johnson says the Web is like a city: built by many people, completely controlled by no one, intricately interconnected and yet functioning as many independent parts. While disaster strikes in one place, elsewhere, life goes on."

The city is a hypertext (Tim Carmody, 2010): "You could argue that the arguments we have about the cognitive effect of reading for the web are largely a replay of the upheaval surrounding mass urbanization at the turn of the century."

Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity (Dana Goldstein, 2012): "Webstalking and flânerie have so much in common: nighttimes and sex, insomnia and social anxiety. The flâneur roamed the city in search of artistic inspiration, yes, but in search of women, too--hence Baudelaire's haunted images of prostitutes and young lovers emerging from the shadows."
posted by dreamyshade at 10:24 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Incredible responses so far. Thank you. I'm looking forward to delving further into these
posted by 0bvious at 1:24 PM on April 12, 2013

A few people/books pop to mind:

- A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History By Manuel De Landa. This book knocked my socks off and I continue to go back to it.

- Kevin Kelly's Technium Essays:

Stretching a bit more with:

- Geoffrey West's work:

- The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood By James Gleick
posted by postscapes at 5:11 PM on April 12, 2013

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