Like neo's pink, hairless body in The Matrix's great reveal, cities have been invaded by tubes for nearly their entire lives. Over the centuries, water pipes, gas pipes, steam pipes, electricity cables, and air ducts have crept across buildings and landscapes, coursing through walls, floors, and sidewalks on their way to making the modern world.
By a long margin, the water came first. Earthen conduits moved stormwater in Xi'an, China, millennia ago; lead tubes led drinking water under the stone-paved streets of classical Rome. In response to the waterborne pandemics of the 19th century, the modern European and North American city became defined by sewers and drains so extensive as to be beyond imagining. Today, when water tumbles out of the tap into your sink, it is but a cameo turn in an epic journey from faraway reservoir through final sewage treatment, across dozens—even hundreds—of miles, and months or years of time.
Like the blood vessels of our own bodies, the pipes and wires of modern buildings and cities structure our lives while remaining almost entirely hidden. Yet they inexorably define the spaces we inhabit. These conduits bring us the ubiquity of suspended ceiling grids—designed to screen the mess behind. They also brought us the grand expanse of the Champs-Élysées—engineered to cover the enormous masonry sewers that ushered in Paris' ultimate triumph over cholera.
Today's urban infrastructure is the latest step in this long history, but unlike the tubes and wires of the past, it doesn't merely shape the city. Rather, it presents challenges more akin to the larger conflicts of The Matrix itself—between the city's real body and a newly present, virtual reflection of it.
This new infrastructure is one of information. While cities have always been defined by the flow of ideas, for most of human history these were stored in our heads, or in objects we carried—scrolls, tablets, books, and paper. In the Industrial Age, however, huge swells of productivity and connectivity were unleashed by the machinery of connected data—from pneumatic tubes for paper telegrams to the mid-century telex, the wired telephone infrastructure, and the wireless networks now displacing it.
This architecture of media and information has transformed public and domestic space—whether in the form of the phone booth, the Wall Street trading floor, or the TV-centric layout of our living rooms—just as surely as the fountain and the sink did in their days. An x-ray of a skyscraper would reveal an agglomeration of hundreds of miles of cable and conduit wrapping around the structure, enabling human beings to live in densities greater than at any point in human history and connecting their bodies and minds to a vast, shared system of resources and communication.
Yet one constant throughout these centuries of development, extending into the Information Age, has been the premise that infrastructure is a shared, public good. In the long history of Rome, the link between flowing water and good governance has always meant that, even in a modern drought, the city's mayors turn off the nasoni—Rome's ubiquitous public drinking fountains—at their peril. In the 1970s, contracts were handed to US cable television providers only in return for the promise of public programming—from school board hearings to city council meetings. This balance of real and virtual, public and private, remained fairly constant for most of the 20th century.
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What's more, the public good of shared infrastructure includes something more intangible and encompassing than the simple provision of stuff. By providing the same thing, in the same way, everywhere, traditional infrastructure opens up a space of innovation—whether for business owners or appliance designers or even sidewalk vendors—in which further experimentation and invention is possible. Whether street grid or electricity grid, this foundation of public infrastructure is what enables much of our global culture's inventiveness, resilience, and meaning. It makes neighborhoods and collaborations possible.
It is not just the pervasiveness of infrastructure but its relative neutrality that is at the core of such possibilities. When you can walk everywhere, you might end up wandering anywhere. You see the whole city on your way, but you are, to all who don't yet know you, whoever you wish to be. And architecturally, the space you find, empty but with utilities, is not a liability so much as a cultural and social possibility. Just as much as running water, the city's infrastructure supports the serendipity, anonymity, and reinvention at the core of all of our best possibilities—and the city's generative role in our economy and society.
This is also where the transition to a third age of information-led city infrastructure represents a break with the past—and where The Matrix, for all its prescience, likely misread the future.
In 1999, the virtual world of computing was still something we thought of as quite separate from our real bodies and cities. As in The Matrix's own influences—William Gibson's cyberspace, Neal Stephenson's Metaverse—a digital, networked reality was another domain, unconstrained by limitations like space and gravity and untethered from our real-world selves. The Matrix, accordingly, is premised on a clear division: between reality, where the rebels' ship coasts through underground caverns in a postapocalyptic wasteland, and the virtual realm of city streets and office buildings in which most people live out their simulated lives. In today's landscape of urban data, by contrast, the effect of technology working its way into every body, object, and environment has been to create a parallel world that is bound indelibly to the real one—but, like the Matrix, still operates by very different rules.
This new world is inhabited by our digital shadows. They follow our steps in the real one and are born from the data trail we leave when we post on social media, search on Google Maps, order things from Amazon, or leave reviews on restaurant sites. Some companies now favor the phrase “digital twin” to describe this doppelgänger—not even our ghost, but our constantly reshaped reflection.
Yet the virtual city is a mirror that distorts as much as it reflects; our virtual shared space remains radically different from our physical one. Offline, our infrastructure is largely public, our movement is still mostly free and without surveillance, and laws govern our interactions. Online, we exist in an entirely privatized world with weak governance, few civil liberties, and an entirely commercial raison d'être. To simply gain access to today's digital environments, we have allowed a degree of control and intrusion—the tracking and storing of every fragment of our online lives—that we would never accept in what we still refer to as “reality.”
Much of the blame for this predicament lies precisely with the nostalgic 1990s idea, implicit in The Matrix, that our real and virtual selves are separate. But, as should be obvious by now, they are not. Indeed, our compromises in the digital realm are what allow Google and Facebook to transform our data into supra-governmental economic might in the physical one. While such companies are not powered by anything quite so literal as the hibernating human batteries of the movie's dystopian towers, they do subsist on our humanity—the extracted value of our relationships, ideas, and experiences.
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This power is now evident in the shaping of our cities as well. The effects are sometimes subtle, like expanded building lobbies for package delivery or the closed storefronts of local merchants put out of business by online retailers. Sometimes they are more dramatic. When Egyptian activists used Facebook to coordinate protests in Tahrir Square a decade ago, we marveled at the virtual world's ability to reshape civic space. When social media algorithms, optimizing for sustained attention and outrage instead of truth or transparency, helped drive people toward the US Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, the events left their scars in the form of fences around the Capitol.
Compared with such upheavals, the changes to our behavior and environment wrought by something like Google's Live View, which overlays walking directions on the view through your smartphone camera, may seem mild, or even useful. When Google points us toward the perfect coffee shop or Amazon suggests those just-right mugs or Facebook shows us things that consistently pique our interest (and outrage), it appears to us as coincidence. But what we are actually experiencing is the opposite—the optimization of our attention through surveillance. It exists in contrast to the serendipity we experience as we wander a city, in which boredom, chance, and the ability to inhabit different, unexpected versions of ourselves and our experience are all instrumental. And it is the polar opposite of the anonymity, and opportunity for reinvention, that the city best affords.
Consider, once more, The Matrix. Twenty years on, one of the most essential but anachronistic elements of the plot structure is the idea that Morpheus' crew can relatively easily evade surveillance in the virtual world they occupy. The spaces most celebrated by the film—dingy, fabulous nightclubs, stylish down-at-heel neighborhoods—are those of transgression, invention, and remaking of the kind the movie as a whole celebrates. Today, the prevalence of surveillance in our digital lives and the growing use of AI-powered technologies like facial recognition scraped from social media profiles to track our real bodies make the prospect of such easy digital anonymity seem as dated, if charming, as the film's Nokia banana-phones.
In the later Matrix movies, the walls between the real and virtual world collapse, and the human-batteried AI juggernaut comes to its own kind of reckoning. In the fabric of our cities and landscapes, we face a reckoning too. As the infrastructure of the virtual world becomes ever more twinned with our physical reality, will the decisions and compromises we've made in virtual space come to define our physical one? Or will we instead begin to bring some of the principles that have made civic space a public resource into the virtual world?
Today, some of the best prospects for doing so are afforded by activists, researchers, or journalists who use the tools of digital data collection to create graphics and visualizations that render visible that which we tend to overlook in today's urban environments—from the racial and social disparities between neighborhoods to the structures of informal transportation. Such work embraces the prospect that digital data can be a tool for more just, sustainable, and even beautiful cities.
With the third wave of urban infrastructure now upon us, we face a fundamental choice. On the one hand, we could continue to allow the optimization and exploitation of digital space by private companies to define our shared, civic reality. On the other, we could embrace the guiding principles that have best shaped cities across history—equal access, accountability, even anonymity—and demand them of the cities of tomorrow as well.
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