A couple of weeks ago I traveled down to Oxford to give a presentation on gladiators at Cheney School as part of the Iris Project’s ‘Festival of Lost Cities.’ The Iris Project is an educational charity which works to bring ancient history and the Classics into lower income schools. We have worked with them in the past, putting on Greek and Roman cavalry shows the last two summers. The Festival of Lost Cities involved a variety of displays and activities for the kids to get involved in across several classrooms each named after an important city in the ancient world.
At the end of the day there was a talk by Bettany Hughes which dealt primarily with the origins, function, and the idea of ‘the city.’
I met Bettany Hughes! Just had to say that.
She described the earliest sites which could be called cities as places where people congregated to share ideas and information. These are places which predate the agricultural revolution and all of the traditional narratives about food surplus and specialisation of labour. They were not permanently inhabited, but the complex structures did periodically host large gatherings of people. The primary example she gave was a site called Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey, but her description of the ways in which the site was used also reminded me a little bit of the recent research done on the landscape around Stonehenge.
Göbekli Tepe. Image taken from wikipedia.
Later in the talk she was asked what the cities of the future might look like, and it suddenly occurred to me that they are already here. If we look at the city as a place where people gather to share information and ideas, then will the cities of the future need to exist as physical entities at all? We have created virtual cities that rival the complexity of any metropolis built from steel and concrete.
Now I’m not suggesting that we all go off and herd goats on deserted mountain. There are still practical matters to consider. But actually in practical terms, a physical city is something of a liability. It cannot sustain itself, so it requires enormous quantities of resources to be drawn from its hinterland. On the other hand, if everyone moved out we would soon face a shortage of deserted mountains.
We talk about ‘online communities’ all the time. It just never occurred to me to imagine what we have created on the internet as ‘cities’ in that way before. Now I can’t get the idea out of my head. And if that isn’t a futuristic concept of what a city could be then I don’t know what is.