The digital city

It’s certainly not a digital city what Woody Allen sees and tells of his New York at the opening of Manhattan: “He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…”

The beginning of arguably the most representative film in Allen’s universe is not far from what Simmel had written 76 years earlier, when he outlined the first portrait of homo urbanus, that is, of the contemporary human being. It will be progressively more difficult to find human beings out of the city, according to one of the many reports (for example this one of the United Nations). Simmel explained that “the psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality is in the intensification of nervous stimulation, which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli” (1903).

G. De Chirico, Piazza d’Italia (1960)

We could say, therefore, that the urban human being coincides, all in all, with the metropolitan individual. Which type of individual is this? The urban human being stems from steel and concrete, loves to be transparent as the glass facades of the city buildings. But he often ends up being aridly rough as a strip of asphalt, where he wants to drive at crazy speeds. The contemporary city wants to be a synthesis of organization and efficiency, but its plans and its geometric lines cut out, isolate, exclude. 

The masters of urban planning have long explained this, from Lefebvre – with his Révolution Urbaine – to Jacobs – who told us about the Death and Life of Great American Cities – to Sennett, or De Carlo, who wondered: “Do squares still make sense today, and for whom do they have it? Squares do not make any sense any longer in any city, or whose parts have been adapted to the uncontrolled presence of cars. This has destroyed the relationship between the full and the empty and had consequently separated human activities. In this type of city no one meets more in squares and some perhaps do not meet at all” (De Carlo, 1988, p. 4).

The city is process, life, even confusion. The city must not divide, separate, but it must encourage encounters, exchanges, markets and merchants. It is the great contrast between the open city vs the closed city, where Popper’s view of the whole society echoes. The city is not a corporation and, at least, it is not that kind of corporation that stands on assembly lines, production optimizations and robotization.

J. Mann, NYC32 (2016)

However, urban rationalism, Le Corbusier, Lúcio Costa’s Brasilia somehow revive thanks to the pervasive digitization of life. The computer makes everything digital, that is, transmissible and manipulable; digital also means that transmission must be economic, because it has to be efficient, that is, it has to work, whatever works – to mention Allen once more. The standard model introduced by Shannon and Weaver on communication is a mathematical model and the entire digitalized world turns into a binary sequence, in which every element must be either 1 or 0, on or off, alive or dead. No space is more granted to the complicating human being – the most complicating of animals, according to Piovani; the analogical world of hermeneutics, of symbols, of allegories, even of myths, disappears, because it does not know how to fit into a numerical sequence. Nonetheless, urban ethics is following the path of ethical cities, which are called even smart cities: they must be technological, resilient, predictive, computerized and informative, but perhaps very little formative.

The fabric of the digitalized city swallows individual relationships, which become arid, instrumental, grounded in the economic reason: “I don’t have time to pass,” “if I have a moment, I’ll come and see you,” “it’s too far to come,” “no, I don’t go there, there’s never enough parking.” The anthropology of the homo urbanus is, at the end of the day, one of the homo oeconomicus. The economic-monetary character of city life, already depicted by Simmel, along with individualism, is what similarly leads Taylor to define the malaise of modernity. The malaises are based on the “instrumental reason”, that is, an economic principle, which interprets and bends reality on the basis of cost-benefit ratios, responding to an ongoing optimization. The working relationships seem to extend their characteristics to all kinds of interpersonal relationship and the individual’s action seems to be justified only on the basis of an economic assessment, a convenience (on this, for example, see The right to futility in the society of functioning). It is not only the end of ideology, as Bell foreshadowed; it is the end of Simmel’s sentimentality or Ortega y Gasset’s authenticity, that is, it is the progressive de-personalization of human relationships and, eventually, the unstoppable drying up of human nature.

The urban individual, rather than a pocket watch, takes the form of a calculator, favored in its functions by the mobility that marks urban life in modern industrial societies: “Form its very inception, this kind of society has involved mobility. Mobility is, in a sense, forced on us. Old ties are broken down. This involves much more impersonal and casual contact, in place of the most intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times. All this cannot but generate a culture in which the outlook of social atomism becomes more and more entrenched. Our technocratic, bureaucratic society gives more and more importance to instrumental reason. This cannot but fortify atomism, because it induces us to see our communities, like so much else, in an instrumental perspective” (Taylor 1991). As if to say, social atomism, the real and pernicious one, is not that of a quarantine imposed by a pandemic (see, by the way, the contribution on Virus and social tracking).

E. Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)

A central question is still unresolved: does the contemporary city make human life inauthentic? Literature, poetry, fine arts have made countless contributions in an attempt to answer this question. And the answer has often taken on gloomy and unpromising hues. At the end of the modern age, Baudelaire sees the city as the subject of careful observation and in Wordsworth the city is linked to markets and theaters, as a place of commerce and entertainment by definition. Of course, narration is often dependent on the specific city: at the end of the 19th century, London and Paris were the cities of future. Eliot’s London is a city in great expansion, perhaps the first real metropolis. Novels and poems often pinpoint the contrast between the great opportunities of development and progress on one hand, and poverty, filth, and beggars’ misery, as Dickens did, or the exploitation of workers, as pointed out by a morally disgusted Marx, on the other hand. Rousseau (1761) identified in mid-18th century Paris the place of this contrast and this inequality.

The association of the concept of metropolis with that of an industrial centre that crushes the masses is, however, often a forced view: London, for example, grew more as a financial, trade and distribution centre, rather than as an industrial city (the first railway, as it is known, was built not in London, but to connect the port of Liverpool to Manchester and to the industries of the Midlands, in order to transport goods, not commuters). London was not only oppression, nor the earthly place where the omens of Lang’s Metropolis took place; London was also life, as said Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who was almost excited to cross the streets of Westminster to the chime of the Big Ben: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead, was what she loved: life; London; this moment of June” (Woolf 1925). It might almost sound like the opening scene of another Woody Allen’s movie…

And it was June even when Bloom and Dedalus crossed their paths in Joyce’s Ulysses, while Mr. Duffy, one of the Dubliners, unlike Woolf, found the “vulgar, modern and pretentious Dublin suburbs” (Joyce 1914). Literature between the 19th and the 20th centuries cultivated the soil of individual existence, often indecipherable, incommunicable. This was the result of intertwined processes, rooted in personal vicissitudes, which are as deep as Freud’s psychology. Proust, Kafka, Pirandello, among others, attempted to dig the impenetrable, between memory and anguish, in rivulets that cast long and ambiguous shadows. The existential question about “who am I?” is posed in all possible colors. But it is a question that often remains unanswered.

Fra Carnevale, The Ideal City (ca. 1480)

Benasayag, in the evocative title of his last work, wonders – almost rhetorically, but also sadly – whether we have to work or exist. The city works as long as it remains a good metaphor of life, that is, as long as it not only works, but also exists. The city is alive as long as it fosters encounters, clashes, unforeseen events, out-of-program and existential flows of individuals, ideas and dreams. The real trouble is that the digital city, even before the lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, is the result of a precise trend: the city was already moving towards a process of digitalization, the same process that is impacting every area of life: traffic, smart highways, cameras, sensors, drones, tracing apps.

Computer science has extended its principle of efficiency of the transmission of information, purely mathematical, made up of binary codes, to every communication, making us lose the true meaning of the messages, of the relationship, which are more than a sender and a recipient transmitting a sequence of numbers. There is no more room for interpretation, for a necessary heuristic, for a desirable hermeneutic. No interpretation. No complication. Digitalization deletes every analog space, every possibility to annotate, overwrite, pin, color, create. All is unable to be converted or compressed into a zip, jpg, mp3, mp4 and the likes ceases to exist. It is what Heidegger explained in his work on technique: what is not a technikon, that is able to produce or to be produced, it’s nothing.

What space would remain to humans if every message, every movement, every meeting, every look were planned, optimized, if only efficient communication and meetings would be allowed in life? If there was no room for misunderstanding, for the street someone accidentally takes on that evening, for that restaurant table someone suddenly booked, for that theatre you entered despite you had planned to go to the bookstore, for that detour to go home, for that stop on a bench… could you still communicate? Would you still think you are living in a city? Would you still think you are living?


  • Caws M. A., ed. City Images. Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film, Routledge, New York.
  • De Carlo G. 1988. “The squares still make sense, and for whom?“, Space and Society, 42, April-June.
  • Jacobs J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Modern Library, New York, 2011.
  • Joyce J. 1914. Dubliners, Grant Richards, London en.: People of Dublin, Einaudi, Turin, 2012).
  • Kasinitz Ph. 1995. Introduction, in Id., ed., Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, NYU Press, New York.
  • Rousseau J.-J. 1761. Julie ou la nouvelle Hélose, in Rousseau J.-J., Auvres Complètes. Vol. II, Gallimard, Paris, 1961 en.: Giulia or the new Eloisa, Rizzoli, Milan, 1964).
  • Sennett R. 2006. “The Open City,” Urban Age, Nov.
  • Simmel G. 1903. Die Grosstadte und das Geistesleben, Koehler, Stuttgart, 1957 en.: The metropolis and the life of the spirit, Armando, Rome, 2013)
  • Taylor Ch. 1991. The Malaise of Modernity, Anansi Press, Concord en.: The discomfort of modernity, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2003).
  • Woolf V. 1925. Mrs. Dalloway, Hogarth Press, London en.: Mrs Dalloway, Einaudi, Turin, 2012).

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