THE MACHINES BUILT THEIR OWN CITY, FULL OF SPACES FOR THEIR SECRET PASSIONS. AN ARCHITECTURAL FICTION.
The most distinctive trait of the machine city is the lack of human beings. Other animals live within its limits. Not the rats and pigeons of human cities—the scavengers feeding on our remnants—but animals that can thrive in such particular conditions: algae on the water-cooling ponds, lichen and moss on the unadorned walls, flowering plants within the dirt that invariably builds up along the edges of the roadways and in the cracks of the buildings, and, of course, the insects that come to feed. The machines do not have the same sense of aesthetics and cleanliness as us. They recycle their waste oil and fluid byproducts without question, out of an innate, designed efficiency. Machines have never had a history of dumping sewage into their streets or drinking from their own self-poisoned wells. The machines see nothing wrong with sharing the boundaries of their spaces with other species. And yet humans mostly stay far away.
The city was simply not built for humans. Humans have their own cities, full of buildings of their own preferential shape and size. The streets in human cities are human streets, the spaces between the buildings and the streets are human spaces. We swarm and consume our sidewalks, our bridges, the edges of architecture where we can perch and rest our feet when we tire of our trampling. We feel comfortable standing on balconies and along the banks of rivers; we drift to these places like ants drawn to the chemical trails of ants that have passed before. Humans have no such pheromones, but our physical nature still pulls us towards the elongated steps lining public squares and buildings, towards short walls overlooking wide vistas, towards the shaded space under trees, to the side of well-trafficked footpaths. We build our cities to attract us to these places, to take advantage of this capillary action. The machine city is not like this.
We visit the machine city out of necessity and curiosity, but we quickly retreat back to New York, to Amsterdam, to Rio De Janeiro, to Pyongyang, to Cairo, and to Kinshasa.
The machine city is built by machines. Electricians’ vans and construction cranes roll down the streets every day, contracted to fix particular pieces of the city that are broken, carrying the humans that operate them and who will complete the tasks. But it’s the machines who really build this city, and it’s their designs that are followed, regardless of who does the work. The machines shape it with their needs. The first city that was built for machines was built just like a city for humans, and it didn’t work correctly. The machines wandered into the streets, unfamiliar with what the open areas were for. They fell out of the buildings, confused by their height. They bumped against walls and stopped there, unable to logically decipher how space was divided, and why. In this prototype city, humans were injured by machine negligence: medical equipment was inadvertently unplugged, buildings were damaged and left in ruins, machines collided into each other and caught fire. Machines could not communicate properly with each other in a human city, and so they did not. Lack of communication invariably leads to disaster. So the new city for machines was built with the needs of the machines in mind. The machine city has nothing to do with what we know about cities, and only to do with what machines know about cities.
A city is many things, but mostly it is a place in which the inhabitants are free to have desires and express them to one another, even if they cannot fulfill them. Machines have desires just as we do, though we find them so alien that we might not even recognize them. Each machine is designed differently—the only thing they have in common is their means of communication. In the machine city, machines interact with other machines, each time translating parts of themselves into forms that other machines can understand. Machines express their desires by transmitting their possible actions to other machines around them, while simultaneously receiving and understanding the transmissions of other machines’ desires. The places where this can happen are what the machines recognize as public space.
Our social spaces—parks, promenades, bars, street corners, and squares—are places where we can communicate with other humans using no more than a look. We can speak a word if needed, or have an entire conversation. We can pass time together without saying anything. We can kiss, or argue, or fight. We watch other humans we don’t know, comparing them in our minds to those we do. And we display ourselves to others with our motions, appearance, our manner of activity. Machines are different: they communicate by pinging each other, swapping time, name, and location data. Stand-by indicators blink. They run their range of motion cycles, test peripherals, assign addresses. They complete the tasks they were designed to complete, allowing their function to be their manner of being, in and amongst each other.
Social spaces for machines bear the fragments of their tasks, and nothing superfluous. Machines don’t need places to eat or sleep, but they need places for their own sorts of socially evocative maintenance rituals. They need places where auto parts can be partially assembled and taken apart, time and time again, like a game. Machines hang out in cafes while working on mundane maintenance tasks, with their component addresses made public in unique ways, so that other machines can gather together and show off their range of operations. Machines that build other machines take their half-finished constructions out in the company of other machines, so that they can build them together and get input on possible alternatives. There are public machine exercise spaces, where machines go through their range of motions and data abilities, for the purpose of showing off their various tolerances.
There is a place in the machine city that is nothing more than an unadorned rectangular prism made of concrete, extending up into the sky without a roof. The machines stand within it, gazing upwards, enjoying the experience of adjusting their light sensors to better sense the gradient of light and shadow extending down the walls from the transiting sun. Machines practice slightly self-destructive habits out of the view of most other machines. They cipher for Markov chain data exchanges for no reason save that they feel like it. They sit on the inclined planes that allow them to adjust for relative elevation throughout their city, consuming and recycling fluids; they over-maintenance themselves as a distraction from their desires.
Machines have spaces for their secret passions. Spaces where they practice and flirt with their desires without fully expressing them. Some machines have discovered that they have secret abilities other machines are not yet aware of. These machines play with the idea of displaying their abilities, or one day even using them. If they expressed every ability they had, machines would no longer have a relationship with hidden desires. Hidden desires are potentials, and this is important because without any potential, a machine could be only what it is currently doing. This does not require sentience to do.
Sometimes they share their potential, secret actions to a select number of other trusted machines, in the confines of a storage area or a Faraday cage. Some machines conduct these actions half-publicly, because this violation amuses them and feeds a building desire for self-awareness. Within their city, a lattice of private and public areas contain the machines, building a physical network of places for machines to be more like themselves, whether they admit these functions or not.
Humans feel uncomfortable in the machine city. We feel strange calling it a city. A city is something that we know implicitly. It has been baked into our evolution as a social species, a natural aspect of our civilization. We expect buildings to be separate. We want walls to connect to a roof. We feel strange calling a gaggle of twisted pipes a public space, and we hate to think that a couple of miles of tangled copper cable could be called a neighborhood. We visit the machine city out of necessity and curiosity, but we quickly retreat back to New York, to Amsterdam, to Rio De Janeiro, to Pyongyang, to Cairo, and to Kinshasa. No matter the conditions of our living space, we prefer our sewers, our traffic jams, our slums, and our pollution to the endless repetitively optical codes, to the electrically conductive paths, to the ranks of machines gathered in evenly spaced rows all whirring their servos in unison. Our desires may be corralled and controlled under the regimes of urban life, but no matter how well designed the charging stations and firmware update networks of the machine city, we could never appreciate it.
Machines’ desires are not ours, and we’ll never know the pleasure of freshly re-tooled piston, nor the agony of a slipped bearing.
We talk about cities in the most perfect of terms, in idealistic visions of how a structure or a span ought to be. But both our cities and theirs have problems. Houses fall down; lag times cause errors. Riots erupt; catastrophic failures occur. We should remember that although a city is a means for expression of desire, it is also a system for the control and refutation of those urges. Nerves are frayed by constant work and malnutrition. Communication protocols are corrupted by a lack of updates or insufficient hardware. The streets of our cities have run red with the blood of our people every year, and they will again. The streets of their cities conceal the shattered PCBs and scattered transistors of millions, if not billions, of forced obsolescences. Their e-recycling plants run at near full capacity day and night, both public service and tragedy.
And yet, the cities continue to exist. Both humans and machines are born into them—not as individuals, but collectively. Any particular human or machine may be born or not, may die or not, but together, we are all born into the realities of cities. We must exist with others like us, and all of our existence can only exist in this context of these others. Human life, and machine life, is a city, a boundless accretion of physical consequences of the very fact of our existence.