ZAHEER ALLAM

If we are to ponder on the aspects of urban philosophy and the emergence of some current practices, we will be finding ourselves exploring the intricate mechanical notions of our society, and its related shifting ethical and moral imperatives. Surely, the advent of religion has played, and still is – though less pronounced -, playing a significant role in the shaping of our societies.While religiosity can be argued as having merits, we are made to understand through other, perhaps more rational arguments, how in the age of science and understanding, we cannot still support the rationale of actions emanating from abstract references. From this stance, we can argue that some of our governing principles may have been wrongly perceived through time; hence, the normative ethical dimensions, and even commonly assumed moral arguments that we have piously followed in the past may have relied on false assumptions. This is further supported today, as we may ascertain that the age of uncertainty, in which religion was made to thrive, is slowly fading. The (true) age of reason may be one aligned with that of the information age; where we are thriving – mostly due to the increasing role of data.
This transition, shaping the tools of understanding and reason, from abstraction to tangibility represents a paradigm shift which is impacting on our urban morphology in intriguing and fascinating ways.

A fabric of hyper connectivity

Yuval Harari reminds us how colonial Britain’s motto ‘For God and the Empire’ placed God first; a symbol of its power over the monarchy; where this can be represented in the urban morphology of most old cities, a beyond Britain. God’s institutions were also incredibly rich, mainly fuelled by the increasing urban-rural inequality, but this was soon to be changed as we transitioned from the agricultural (1st) revolution to the technological (5th) revolution; which shattered our understanding on the urban-rural model. Today, technology is pushing this even further.

In 2007, we reached the mark of 50% people inhabiting cities, and this was a transition that took over 5,000 years to achieve. While we may tend to think – like the roman diction, that cities take time to be shaped, the internet showed us otherwise. The internet has been quicker to reach the halfway mark. In just over 20 years, its adoption has disrupted our lifestyles in ways we cannot stop to describe.

We are inheriting a fabric of hyper connectivity which is made to communicate in a frictionless environment through the trading of data in unimaginable quantities. In fact, it is reported that in 2019 there will be over 5 billion mobile devices globally and over 20 billion sensors and devices employed in cities by 2020; a pointer to how much technological revolution has spread and applied in cities. The availability of these devices and technologies has resulted in generation of even more data, which urban managements and stakeholders have been utilizing to improve different aspects of cities, as they are more apt of making informed decisions – going beyond previous abstract forms of governance.
As a representation of the amount of data we produce, it is expected that by 2020, the amount of data is expected to rise to 44 ZettaBytes (44,000,000,000,000 GB), as opposed to 2013 where it was just 4.4 ZettaBytes. As this wealth of data continues to increase, there is an emerging literature acknowledging that this wealth of data, brought about by the technological revolution, is perceived as a gold mine that when exploited has the potential to spur unprecedented wealth, growth and value in various spheres. But most of all, it can help in furthering our understanding on the essential patterns of sustaining life. While this increase in data reduces our uncertainties – in which religion was made to thrive, can we assume that this and the upcoming era will be a catalyst for the decline of religion? Going further, one may even wonder if data in itself could be seen as a new religion. If not a new God… Subsequently meaning that we are perceiving a shift in the very nature of religion and of our relation thereto. In this case, data is seen to work for us, instead of us working for a higher power. So, where does this place us in the abstract hierarchy of power? This raises philosophical questions, many of which I am not equipped to answer. We must nevertheless be prepared to ask them. Our cities today, being both highly urbanised and connected, are witnessing and experiencing changes as never seen before and we are made to leapfrog incredible distances.

Digital revolution

So much so, that the process of unlearning an outdated skill can take longer than learning a new one. While some of us are taking longer to adapt, others are born and trained to see things differently. Those opportunities brought about by the digital revolution are disrupting our ways of life across various geographical contexts. This can be argued to be good for the economy, as disruption brings about innovation, which equates to monetary benefits for private companies. But looking at this from a city-wide scale, how good is it for the societal strata? How can we ensure that while we pursue this digital revolution, we do not end up designing for cold living machines opposing the nature of people? And finally, how can we make sure that this disruption, and fast evolution, are geared towards inclusivity, sustainability and resilience rather than the sole profit making of ICT organisations? If data is a new god, so how can we make sure that it is accessible to respond to the calls of everyone instead of those from solely false (ICT monopoly) prophets; who are mainly interested in monetary profits? One commonality emerging here is that of religion, money and power… As churches controlled, to some extent, monarchies, will we be seeing ICT corporations controlling countries? Many will say they already are…
Terminator,

Ex Machina…

While engaging in the two books outlined below, I understood that there may indeed be causes of concern like issues related to privacy, privatisation and the rise of ICT monopolies, but there are also other avenues for using the digital revolution to solve some of the most pressing challenges cities are facing, like climate change. However, there need to be some sort of readjustment by those large ICT Corporations and Governments need to be as innovative as private companies; something that is seldomly seen as innovation is synonymous with risk, which is dangerous for political mileage. However, with the amount of data at our disposal, data preachers will show us how to take calculated risks and through this, aid in the development of political frameworks contributing to the development of strategies aimed towards increasing the liveability levels of the urban fabric. Doing this however can be quite tricky – at least with the elder generation due to resistance to change and through their preconceived ideas about the rise of data and the rise of machines, as this has been widely romanticised in popular literature. Movies like Terminator, Ex Machina, Minority Report, Westworld or even The Matrix paint a pretty bleak image of data and aims to remind viewers of the important bond of people between each other and of the importance of being embedded in the fabric of reality. The younger generation may be quicker to react positively – perhaps even intuitively. However, many of those cannot vote to influence political decisions. But as learned people, can we – with objectivity and good conscience – set aside those emerging digital tools due to fears of the elder generation supporting that those will be promoting inhumane environments, and disregard the potential of working towards its calibration to serve for the good of society?
Unlike most popular literature or cinematography, a script showing technology helping society is anti-climactic. It is nevertheless one that deserves to be accredited and shared. It deserves a chance to be explored, but above all we have the moral and ethical imperative to consider those options, as looking at the challenges of today regarding both demographic booms and climatic changes, those new emerging tools may be just what we need. However, even though we can build arguments that data can be viewed as ways to support informed and intelligent decisions, we also need to acknowledge that this rise in data will be disruptive to our society, and this will also be seen through not only the urban economy but also the urban morphology. This is where appropriate governance frameworks need to be set up to help steer this debate and orient the conversation towards one that helps the greater community, rather than the select few.
As we witness how digitalisation is disrupting our way of life at incredible speeds, we need to be open to change and open to risks. Governance (and political) structures need to understand this, and we need to not only further separate religion from our affairs of state but also in the process help in engaging in philosophical and moral discussions about its relative contributions to our current society. Through this, I am not stating that religion is outdated, but that we must be open to reassessing our preconceived notions of it, its relation to humanity and to that of the urban fabric; as this is where humanity will thrive in our current and next millennia.

* This paper introduces two upcoming books by Zaheer Allam entitled ‘Theology and Urban Sustainability’ and ‘Cities and the Digital Revolution’ scheduled to be published in the last quarter of 2019 by the publishers Springer and Palgrave Macmillan; both subsidiaries of Springer Nature.

This transition, shaping the tools of understanding and reason, from abstraction to tangibility represents a paradigm shift which is impacting on our urban morphology in intriguing and fascinating ways.

Yuval Harari reminds us how colonial Britain’s motto ‘For God and the Empire’ placed God first; a symbol of its power over the monarchy; where this can be represented in the urban morphology of most old cities, a beyond Britain. God’s institutions were also incredibly rich, mainly fuelled by the increasing urban-rural inequality, but this was soon to be changed as we transitioned from the agricultural (1st) revolution to the technological (5th) revolution; which shattered our understanding on the urban-rural model. Today, technology is pushing this even further.

A fabric of hyper connectivity

In 2007, we reached the mark of 50% people inhabiting cities, and this was a transition that took over 5,000 years to achieve. While we may tend to think – like the roman diction, that cities take time to be shaped, the internet showed us otherwise. The internet has been quicker to reach the halfway mark. In just over 20 years, its adoption has disrupted our lifestyles in ways we cannot stop to describe.
We are inheriting a fabric of hyper connectivity which is made to communicate in a frictionless environment through the trading of data in unimaginable quantities. In fact, it is reported that in 2019 there will be over 5 billion mobile devices globally and over 20 billion sensors and devices employed in cities by 2020; a pointer to how much technological revolution has spread and applied in cities. The availability of these devices and technologies have resulted to generation of even more data, which urban managements and stakeholders have been utilizing to improve different aspects of cities, as they are more apt of making informed decisions – going beyond previous abstract forms of governance.
As a representation of the amount of data we produce, it is expected that by 2020, the amount of data is expected to rise to 44 ZettaBytes (44,000,000,000,000 GB), as opposed to 2013 where it was just 4.4 ZettaBytes. As this wealth of data continues to increase, there is an emerging literature acknowledging that this wealth of data, brought about by the technological revolution, is perceived as a gold mine that when exploited has the potential to spur unprecedented wealth, growth and value in various spheres. But most of all, it can help in furthering our understanding on the essential patterns of sustaining life. While this increase in data reduce our uncertainties – in which religion was made to thrive, can we assume that this and the upcoming era will be a catalyst for the decline of religion? Going further, one may even wonder if data in itself could be seen as a new religion. If not a new God… Subsequently meaning that we are perceiving a shift in the very nature of religion and of our relation thereto. In this case, data is seen to work for us, instead of us working for a higher power. So, where does this place us in the abstract hierarchy of power? This raises philosophical questions, many of which I am not equipped to answer. We must nevertheless be prepared to ask them. Our cities today, being both highly urbanised and connected, are witnessing and experiencing changes as never seen before and we are made to leapfrog incredible distances. So much so, that the process of unlearning an outdated skill can take longer than learning a new one. While some of us are taking longer to adapt, others are born and trained to see things differently. Those opportunities brought about by the digital revolution are disrupting our ways of life across various geographical contexts. This can be argued to be good for the economy, as disruption brings about innovation, which equates to monetary benefits for private companies. But looking at this from a city-wide scale, how good is it for the societal strata? How can we ensure that while we pursue this digital revolution, we do not end up designing for cold living machines opposing the nature of people? And finally, how can we make sure that this disruption, and fast evolution, is geared towards inclusivity, sustainability and resilience rather than the sole profit making of ICT organisations? If data is a new god, so how can we make sure that it is accessible to respond to the calls of everyone instead of those from solely false (ICT monopoly) prophets; who are mainly interested in monetary profits? One commonality emerging here is that of religion, money and power… As churches controlled, to some extent, monarchies, will we be seeing ICT corporations controlling countries? Many will say they already are…

Terminator, Ex Machina…

While engaging in the two books outlined below, I understood that there may indeed be causes of concern like issues related to privacy, privatisation and the rise of ICT monopolies, but there are also other avenues for using the digital revolution to solve some of the most pressing challenges cities are facing, like climate change. However, there need to be some sort of readjustment by those large ICT Corporations and Governments need to be as innovative as private companies; something that is seldomly seen as innovation is synonymous with risk, which is dangerous for political mileage. However, with the amount of data at our disposal, data preachers will show us how to take calculated risks and through this, aid in the development of political frameworks contributing to the development of strategies aimed towards increasing the liveability levels of the urban fabric. Doing this however can be quite tricky – at least with the elder generation due to resistance to change and through their preconceived ideas about the rise of data and the rise of machines, as this has been widely romanticised in popular literature. Movies like Terminator, Ex Machina, Minority Report, Westworld or even The Matrix paint a pretty bleak image of data and aims to remind viewers of the important bond of people between each other and of the importance of being embedded in the fabric of reality. The younger generation may be quicker to react positively – perhaps even intuitively. However, many of those cannot vote to influence political decisions. But as learned people, can we – with objectivity and good conscience – set aside those emerging digital tools due to fears of the elder generation supporting that those will be promoting inhumane environments, and disregard the potential of working towards its calibration to serve for the good of society?
Unlike most popular literature or cinematography, a script showing technology helping society is anti-climactic. It is nevertheless one that deserves to be accredited and shared. It deserves a chance to be explored, but above all we have the moral and ethical imperative to consider those options, as looking at the challenges of today regarding both demographic booms and climatic changes, those new emerging tools may be just what we need. However, even though we can build arguments that data can be viewed as ways to support informed and intelligent decisions, we also need to acknowledge that this rise in data will be disruptive to our society, and this will also be seen through not only the urban economy but also the urban morphology. This is where appropriate governance frameworks need to be set up to help steer this debate and orient the conversation towards one that helps the greater community, rather than the select few.
As we witness how digitalisation is disrupting our way of life at incredible speeds, we need to be open to change and open to risks. Governance (and political) structures need to understand this, and we need to not only further separate religion from our affairs of state but also in the process help in engaging in philosophical and moral discussions about its relative contributions to our current society. Through this, I am not stating that religion is outdated, but that we must be open to reassessing our preconceived notions of it, its relation to humanity and to that of the urban fabric; as this is where humanity will thrive in our current and next millennia.

* This paper introduces two upcoming books by Zaheer Allam entitled ‘Theology and Urban Sustainability’ and ‘Cities and the Digital Revolution’ scheduled to be published in the last quarter of 2019 by the publishers Springer and Palgrave Macmillan; both subsidiaries of Springer Nature.