A City is Not a Computer 

A review of ‘A City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences’ by Shannon Mattern

Written by Jenna Collignon, Staff Writer at Matrix Group Publishing

‘A City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences’ by Shannon Mattern is a compact little book that packs a punch when you open its pages.  From its eye-catching design to how easy it is to cart around with you, this book is a subtle winner to add to your collection and your scope of knowledge.  The book is broken up into four main chapters, accompanied by an introduction and back matter that will lead you to more reading material.

Mattern makes it clear from the start of her book that this discussion mainly focuses on the Western lifestyle and the Western city, as this is where her research has centred.  The ideas brought up in this book discuss a reassessment of “smart cities” that reveals what is lost when we think of urban spaces as computers.

This book takes an anthropological standpoint in the analysis of cities and the interactions of all the systems that exist within them: from actual digital systems and interfaces to the human people who live within it all, using and interacting with the knowledge databases and interfaces that exist within the Western ideas of a city.

“In ‘A City is Not a Computer’, I argue that “smart” computational models of urbanism advance an impoverished understanding of what we know as a city, as well as what’s worth knowing.” (page 12)

Chapter One: City Console 

Chapter One of this book covers a lesson in material objects: i.e. the urban dashboard, which is a control panel or universal interface that lays out and describes the methods, epistemologies, and politics of data-driven urbanism discussed throughout the rest of her book.  This traces the history of the dashboard and its uses throughout cybernetic management, aviation, car design, etc., to better understand where and how this “control room” view limits the realities of a city itself.

Chapter Two: A City is Not a Computer 

Chapter Two dives into additional urban intelligences and builds on the ideas that Mattern brought up in the introduction, expanding on Alexander’s tree model that was the foundation for the city-as-machine, city-as-organism, and city-as-operating system ideologies.  The chapter discusses the limitations of modelling a city after a computer, as many city planners and companies have done throughout history. Mattern also discusses the various cities and other forms of urban intelligence that do not line up with these ideas or are otherwise said to “not compute” with these designs that are not merely computational operations.

Chapter Three: Public Knowledge

This chapter specifically analyses the library, and how they function as a knowledge infrastructure and a social infrastructure that provides essential services to the public.  Mattern then imagines how these spaces could (and do) play revolutionary roles as digital sanctuaries and filters, and “champions of open-access materials and public interest tech” (page 17).  Libraries are an interesting accumulation of what the urban space around them requires and looks like, and Mattern suggests that if libraries everywhere were properly funded, simply imagine what they could do for the public.

Chapter Four: Maintenance Codes

Finally, in this chapter, Mattern discusses the many invisible, embodied, and quotidian knowledges that are required to keep an urban space in good working order.  Without the people with the skills to keep an urban space running, like maintenance workers and caregivers, no city, not even one deemed “smart,” can survive.

“Rather than building an institution, or even a whole society… we could instead imagine communal spaces, public-interest technical systems, and social contracts that mutually reinforce one another and advance more inclusive and just epistemological and ethical values: a library that uses its infrastructures to care for, maintain, and build the rich diversity of public knowledges that already define our cities.” (page 105)

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this book is an incredible analysis of cities and the lives that influence them, and what should be done when designing and building a city.  Mattern touches on the systems that map cities, archives of information, and how marginalized communities and more-than-human inhabitants are all crucial aspects to the life of an urban space.

It looks at how technological cities can become and will become in the future as we as a society lean into the “smart” city idea.  However, Mattern makes it very clear that society and people live in a much more organic way, and there are aspects to cities that co-exist with the organic nature of people in an incredibly interesting way.  Mattern concludes her book with a discussion on arboreal intelligence, bringing readers back to the idea of Alexander’s tree model of a city in a much more modern way.  She discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our view of green spaces and cities as well.

I highly recommend you pick this book up, whether you wish to further your anthropological knowledge of cities and the lives of urban people in the West or whether you simply wish to think a little bit about how cities and lives interact.

“A city built to recognize the wisdom ingrained in its trees and statuary, its interfaces and archives, its marginalized communities and more-than-human inhabitants is ultimately much, much smarter than any supercomputer.” (154)

A City is Not a Computer 

About Shannon Mattern

Shannon Mattern is a professor of anthropology at The New School in New York City.  Mattern’s research and teaching address how the forms and materialities of media are related to the spaces (architectural, urban, and conceptual) they create and inhabit. She writes about libraries and archives, media infrastructures, the material qualities of media objects, media companies’ headquarters and sites of media-related labor, place branding, public design projects, urban media art, and mediated sensation.

A City is Not a Computer 

About the Author

Jenna Collignon joined the Matrix team in 2019, fresh out of the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Honours English Degree.  When asked what she most likes about her position as an editor at Matrix, she has trouble answering. “That’s because,” she says, “what ISN’T there to like?  There is something new on my plate every day, with new challenges and lessons to be learned along with that. It also doesn’t hurt to be part of such a great team.”