Some questions for physicist and former president of SantaFe Institute Geoffrey West, Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.
For the past few years Geoffrey West, a physicist former president of SantaFe Institute has been calling for “a science of how city growth affects society and environment”.
After years of focusing on scalability of cities and urban environments, West, is now is bringing “some of the powerful techniques, ideas, and paradigms developed in physics over into the biological and social sciences”. He is looking at a bigger picture and asking the following question: “to what extent can biology and social organization (which are both quintessential complex adaptive systems) be put in a more quantitative, analytic, mathemitizable, predictive framework so that we can understand them in the way that we understand ‘simple physical systems’?’
This is a fairly short piece for a complex subject. Including studying cities, the economy and businesses and finding ways they parallel biological systems was the tantalizing part for me. There is not much there that is not better suited to physics and sociology ( especially demographic trends). While ecology is a result of the possibilities and limits of individual organism and the cells within those organisms, that does not directly translate into human systems or modern human ecology. There is a certain strain of sociological functionalism at work. Our cities and suburbs are the result of forces working with and against each other. Many of which we can make a contribution, but the end product is outside individual control. I sense a little O.E. Wilson and some approximation of the ant colony model in explaining human habitats and behavior. We’re social animals so drawing parallels to other creatures that are also social are bound to find some commonality.
When we come to social organizations, there’s an interesting question. Do we have economies of scale or what? How do cities work, for example? How do companies work in this framework? That’s one thing.
The second thing is, (again, comes from the data and the conceptual framework explains it) the bigger you are, the slower everything is. The bigger you are, you live longer. Oxygen diffuses slower across your various membranes. You take longer to mature, you grow slower, but all in a systematic, mathematizable, predictable way. The pace of life systematically slows down following these quarter power scales. And again, we’ll ask those questions about life … social life and economies.
The work I got involved in was to try to understand these scaling laws. And to make it a very short story, what was proposed apart from the thinking was, look, this is universal. It cuts across the design of organisms. Whether you are insects, fish, mammals or birds, you get the same scaling laws. It is independent of design. Therefore, it must be something that is about the structure of the way things are distributed.
[ ]…A provocative question is, is New York just a scaled up San Francisco, which is a scaled up Santa Fe? Superficially, that seems unlikely because they look so different, especially Santa Fe. I live in Santa Fe and it’s a bunch of dopey buildings, and here I am in New York overwhelmed by huge skyscrapers.On the other hand, a whale doesn’t look much like a giraffe. But in fact, they’re scaled versions of one another, at this kind of cross-grained 85, 90 percent level.
It is fascinating that the type of scaling he is talking about can be traced back to small ecological communities and cellular organization. On the other hand it is not really necessary to reduce back to the cellular level to see the patterns. Such pattern recognition goes back years. The CIA and the United Nations uses pattern recognition to tell us about future food shortages, population movements and possible revolutions ( the latter is one where the CIA could use some better software or analysts).For those who are freewill fundamentalist the study of such scaling might cause a little depression. In many ways humanity is remarkably predictable in its behavior. Our less than stellar behavior has long been a built in feature. Our fascination with relationships and all the literature, poetry, scientific studies, religious tracts and self help books that go with that fascination should have endowed us with other worldly insights by now. Yet we plow along asking the same questions and feeling the same angst for generations. Only the hair and clothing styles seem to change. Business too has been plagued by its own litany of issues for centuries. Rather then conquering the worse moral aspects of business, a large swath of humanity has embraced them, making old evils the new good.
“The Waste Land”: T.S. Eliot takes the app store – Old, difficult and unsexy, a 20th-century masterpiece becomes the best example yet of how to make a digital book. Eliot is among many of those artist in which one has to separate the art from the creator. He was an American who became a resident Anglophile. he thought of British imperialism as a gift to those poor semi-savages who were conquered. He even described himself, “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” Yet much of his art was a beautiful acknowledgement of human frailty and the accumulation of regrets one acquires over the course on one’s life. Now available for your iPad. Somewhat ironic that a colonialist and Calvinist would have his modernistic stream of consciousness style writing available to all those egalitarians out there. And why did someone who believed in a particular kind of universal moral order feel the need to use a revolutionary style of writing to convey those thoughts. Ultimately even dogma finds it must use free license in order to be creative.