More than half the world’s population are concentrated in urban areas, and this is having an effect not just culturally, but biologically too. And advances in technology are adding an entirely new dimension to people’s lives.
Imagine a city of the future. Do you see clean streets, flying cars and robots doing all the work? Or something less rosy?
Cities cover just 3% of the planet's land surface, but are already home to more than half of its people. That means cities are bringing people into ever greater contact, where collectively they act as a giant physical, biological and cultural force. Transport links and communication between cities, from superhighways to express trains and planes, allow businesses to operate planet-wide, shrinking the human world and making the global local.
The great homogenisation of the Anthropocene includes human culture and lifestyle as much as any effect on the natural ecosystem. And cities are the biggest expression of that. They truly are universal. I feel at home in cities around the world precisely because they essentially provide the same experience. Some are more violent, or more sleepy, or more wealthy, but the urban environment is at its heart the same. There is not the vast diversity of landscape and experience that exists across the natural world.
The sheer concentration of people attracted by the urban lifestyle means that cosmopolitan cities like New York are host to people speaking more than 800 different languages – thought to be the highest language density in the world. In London, less than half of the population is made of white Britons – down from 58% a decade ago. Meanwhile, languages around the world are declining at a faster rate than ever – one of the 7,000 global tongues dies every two weeks.
It is having an effect not just culturally, but biologically: urban melting pots are genetically altering humans. The spread of genetic diversity can be traced back to the invention of the bicycle, according to geneticist Steve Jones, which encouraged the intermarriage of people between villages and towns. But the urbanisation occurring now is generating unprecedented mixing. As a result, humans are now more genetically similar than at any time in the last 100,000 years, Jones says.
The genetic and cultural melange does a lot to erode the barriers between races, as well as leading to novel works of art, science and music that draw on many perspectives. And the tight concentration of people in a city also leads to other tolerances and practices, many of which are less common in other human habitats (like the village) or in other species. For example, people in a metropolis are generally freer to practice different religions or none, to be openly gay, for women to work and to voluntarily limit their family size despite – or indeed because of – access to greater resources.
Now that the technology exists for individuals to communicate instantly with companies, government departments, to broadcast to millions or to specific groups over the internet, the city has gained an entirely new dimension. This “virtual city” of communities formed online, using social networks like Twitter or Facebook, is incredibly powerful and not necessarily limited to the geographical contours of the real city. Like-minded individuals can find each other easily, gathering in online forums or through hashtags and comment streams in the same way as special interest clubs and cafe movements coalesce in the real city. Virtual applications make it easier to sift through a crowd – the Grindr app, for example, allows gay people to find other users of the app in a public setting. Online clubs – like the shopping network Groupon – are attempting to personalise trade exchanges and perhaps develop a proxy for the relationship people might have with a neighbourhood store.
Those petitioning for social or political change can hold governments and companies accountable in a manner never possible before. Instead of ploughing through books of corporate ledgers in libraries, vast amounts of data are now published online and can be searched and filtered in minutes with algorithms, allowing journalists and other groups to discover corruption, tax evasion or other information of public interest. Such information can be self-published in seconds, where it is available for billions to see. In a few seconds, I can compare hospital cancer survival rates in my area or nationally, I can look up how much profit popular stores shift to offshore accounts to avoid taxation, or read hundreds of reviews of a product I’m thinking of buying.
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