Powering the Modern Metropolis – RANIA DALLOUL

Urban History

“The contemporary house…has become a ‘machine for living’, that is, it has become an environment that is conditioned primarily by technology…Cut off the power that fuels the machine for long enough and the dwelling must be evacuated.”

(Rybczynski, 1983, taken from “Constructing the Modern Networked City, 1850-1960″, p. 72).

The modernization of cities was a conscious and calculated effort by those to whom it benefited most. Regarding hygiene, convenience, comfort and employment, surely the positive effects of the industrialization of particular cities cannot be contested. Yet, the history of the nature in which these necessities or ‘goods’ were introduced to society is just as interesting as the development of the city thereafter.

“Electricity, for example, was now pushed down high-voltage cables across regions, nations and cities, to enter the networked home invisibly, giving ‘the impression that [it] was a sourceless source, an absent presence’ ” (Graham and Marvin, 68). The effects of electricity are undoubtedly of the most significant in the history of human development. Without electricity, most technological tools relied on today would not exist, public spaces would not be perceived in the same manner, less hours of the day could be used for leisure and work, etc. Even further, electricity in the domestic realm has a tremendous effect on the human activity, behaviour and inter-relationships within the home itself.

The psychology behind the invisible presence of a powerful tool, which feels at this point like a basic human right, gave people the ability to become more independent and thereby, more secluded from society. A refrigerator running on electricity allows someone to feed themselves over long periods of time, working technologies in the home allow one to go as far as making a living on their own couch, using the internet, telephone, television, etc. These invisible threads tying people together are arguably just as effective at keeping people apart. Before the power of this isolation gets out of hand, the same giants who granted individuals this irreplaceable tool are just as renowned in using it to control their behaviour within their homes to an extent; these very technologies are the most effective way to create an extremely loyal consumer, by advertising right in his home, within his private space. “The postmodern city has become a vast and continuous system of signs that we read and obey on (mostly) a subconscious level” (Davis, 193).

There are several aspects of Graham and Marvin’s chapter which fascinated me in terms of the effects of the modernization of the city on human behaviour within the private, and thereby public realm. The picture I attached depicts the prevalence of WiFi towers within the US, illustrating a relatively new layer of the modern city, which is even more invisible than the innovative underground systems of the 19th century. The non-visibility of the multiple layers of modernization are a stark reminder that there is always room for more innovation, but their consequences may be far more tangible.

Image credit: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2012/06/19/article-2161488-13AE3673000005DC-942_964x585.jpg