Robert A. Beauregard
University of Chicago Press
Robert A. Beauregard’s premise in Planning Matter is the application of French philosopher Bruno Latour’s “actor-network” theory to urban planning. This notion sees all players in events as equal in meaning, stature, and influence, thus non-humans (inanimate objects, other living creatures, processes, ideas, etc.) are as important as we are. All participate in creating the networks in which and through which relationships and events are created and shaped. Actor-network theory rejects the idea of human “privilege” in the world. Beauregard has very obvious political leanings whose expression generates much of the book’s content, but this review will focus instead on a couple of aspects of the book that I believe might be of interest to those in the field of foresight.
As an example of actor-network theory’s workings, the author describes a hypothetical meeting at a city planning department where approval for a potential project is being discussed. Here not only the human participants’ actions, words, and body language shape events and outcomes, but the inanimate drawings and cardboard models, and relationships between the parties and with outside actors such as banks do as well. Notwithstanding that Beauregard could have selected a more significant illustration—architects have routinely participated in such meetings forever and can testify to the power of presentation materials—the ability of non-living things to shape human conduct is a well-worn path. Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us.” Neuroscientist Steven Pinker has noted, “We make tools, and as we evolved our tools made us.” Similarly, despite his emphasis on the importance of non-human actors, Beauregard doesn’t seem to consider them as more than tools. Quite influential ones perhaps, but tools nevertheless. In this sense, he reflects Laura Majors and Julie Shah’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots, who similarly see automatons as powerful instruments, but always a notch below their human creators (see my previous review of this book).
Such myopia highlights a missed opportunity. Beauregard could have shifted the book’s focus and investigated a potentially fascinating outgrowth of Latour’s theory, namely what happens if these “tools” continue to advance and learn. Once past the technologically rudimentary or enhanced levels, to where the machine is truly autonomous or self-aware, it becomes much more than an implement—it is some sort of “being.” In Planning Matter, we are left with a vision of how “things” influence and shape human action, but not how we might all negotiate among ourselves if these things actually possess some level of sentience. Perhaps technology will never reach this level, but it is intriguing to ponder the possibilities.
The author comes tantalizingly close to exploring another aspect of relevance to foresight but is unable to make the leap. While he pines for a centralized planning structure, Beauregard wishes to avoid the shortcomings of a top-down model such as that which characterized the “Modern” period during the twentieth century. He seeks a participatory process that would allow a multi-directional flow of power and action nested within a centralized model, a process that he terms “emergent.” It’s clear, however, that he believes involvement should be limited, and this raises a process issue. In constricting participation, the number of initial conditions of his planning system is likewise limited. Since emergence is an outcome of spontaneous interactions that are dependent on scale (see Richard Feynman, Stuart Kauffman, or Geoffrey West), the likelihood of its occurrence is greatly obstructed when the number and variety of these initial conditions are limited. In other words, outcomes will need to be predetermined because they will not likely occur of their own accord. This is why any centralized structure ends up attracting only those interested in its control. A more intriguing exploration would have been to imagine a system in which the number of actors approaches infinity rather than zero and see what emerges in such a case.
Perhaps my expectations of Professor Beauregard are misguided. After all, he had a different agenda than the one I am seeking to impose on him here. My view, however, is that Planning Matter raises some issues that introduce other even more interesting ones that I wish would be explored--somewhere.
According to Wikipedia, Robert A. Beauregard is and author of many books and professor emeritus at Columbia University where he taught urban planning in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
Richard Feynman pointed out that the basic laws of physics are simple; what creates complexity is the sheer number of possibilities generated by interactions among quantum particles. Stuart Kauffmann, theoretical biologist at the Santa Fe Institute, highlighted how increasing numbers of basic conditions create exponential growth in connections among them, resulting in “autocatalytic” self-organization. Another Santa Fe Institute scientist, Geoffrey West, describes scaling laws by which increasing social interactions generate disproportionate benefits—the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Following this progression but veering into the socio-political realm, Yglesias states the case for the U.S. to get big in the future—really big—if we want to remain competitive in the world. The alternative, he says, is a declining standard of living and diminished freedoms.
While the figure of a billion seems arbitrary, the author claims that we must reach this number because only with volume can we ensure a sufficient quantity of ideas, innovation, and wealth to support a continuation of our global stature. For example, China and India will soon surpass us in economic might should they achieve even modest growth in income and wealth, solely due to the mathematics of their huge populations and scale. Yglesias may not have referenced Feynman, Kauffman, or West, but he is making their argument. The output of social interactions will multiply simply on account of the volume of inputs. This basic diagnosis is on target.
His solution is free education, expanded welfare benefits, and other measures to provide the economic security that middle class families need in order to have more children, which he maintains they want. Internal population growth and selective immigration will then get us to the billion. You might disagree with some elements of his prescription.
An interesting aspect is his exploration of population density. Comparing the U.S. with other nations in the world, he says that we have plenty of room here for many more people. According to United Nations data, India had 1,077 persons per square mile in 2019, and China 387. The United States had 87. We are still a nation with empty spaces.
Yglesias sees a future of greater density in cities, especially the ones in presently depopulating areas in the Rust Belt and the Great Plains. But some powerful trends would need to reverse for this assessment to come true. Available population data shows that densities in Western nations increased during the initial stages of industrialization, then slowed and reversed. Furthermore, data from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy indicates that urban densities have declined globally since 1920, at the same time that urban populations have grown overall. In other words, while the imprint of cities on the earth’s surface widens, it also lightens.
But I am nitpicking. Whatever analytical weakness one might see in this book is overshadowed by the basic premise, which has merit. Go big or go home, as they say. Yglesias makes a formidable case for the former.
According to Wikipedia, Matthew Yglesias is an American blogger and journalist who writes about economics and politics. Yglesias has written columns and articles for publications such as The American Prospect, The Atlantic, and Slate. He is a co-founder of Vox.
Simon Sebag Montefirore
In Jerusalem, the Biography, Montefiore has written a combination history book and gossip column about the Holy City. The history part chronicles wave after wave of conquerors or rulers of the city, from King David to Menachem Begin. Until last century, these conquests were all accompanied by beheadings and more beheadings. The losers’ heads end up on display in the victors’ trophy cases. Along the way, the conquerors have had sex, in many different ways, with just about every woman they met (and sometimes men). Frankly, it all gets a bit repetitious.
Despite the constant stream of violence experienced in the Holy Land, Montefiore cites a prevailing undercurrent throughout the ages of tolerance for peoples of all faiths. This is due to the close interactions among families, who often value familial good above religious differences. Given the omnipresence of conflict, however, this seems a bit contradictory and more wishful thinking than reality.
Surprisingly, Jerusalem has not been an “important” city in the standard sense for much of its history. It’s not an important port, and has not been located on important trade routes. It has not been a center of economic or political power, and its population has been quite unstable, shrinking and swelling through the ages. Its importance has been, obviously, religious and cultural.
Despite the constant drumbeat regarding violence and conquests, the book is actually very informative. For example, I never before knew the difference between a Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jew. The notes along the bottom of the pages throughout are very interesting too, adding much context to accounts in the main text.
According to Wikipedia, Simon Sebag Montefiore is a British historian, television presenter and author of popular history books and novels.