Is The City-ularity Near?

The land around New York City is worth a lot.  A 2008 analysis estimated prices for land, not counting buildings etc., for most (~80%?) of the nearby area (2750 square miles, = a 52 mile square).  The total New York area land value (total land times ave price) was 5.5T$ (trillion) in 2002 and 28T$ in 2006.

The Economist said that in 2002 all developed nation real estate was worth 62T$.  Since raw land value is on average about a third of total real estate value, that puts New York area real estate at over 30% of all developed nation real estate in 2002!  Whatever the exact number, clearly this agglomeration contains vast value.

New York land is valuable mainly because of how it is organized.  People want to be there because they want to interact with other people they expect to be there, and they expect those interactions to be quite mutually beneficial.  If you could take any other 50 mile square (of which Earth has 72,000), and create that same expectation of mutual value from interactions, you could get people to come there, make buildings, etc., and sell that land for many trillions of dollars of profit.

Yet the organization of New York was mostly set long ago based on old tech (e.g., horses, cars, typewriters).  Worse, no one really understands at a deep level how it is organized or why that works so well.  Different people understand different parts, in mostly crude empirical ways.

So what will happen when super-duper smarties wrinkle their brows so hard that out pops a deep math theory of cities, explaining clearly how city value is produced?  What if they apply their theory to designing a city structure that takes best advantage of our most advanced techs, of 7gen phones, twitter-pedias, flying Segways, solar panels, gene-mod pigeons, and super-fluffy cupcakes?  Making each city aspect more efficient makes the city more attractive, increasing the gains from making other aspects more efficient, in a grand spiral of bigger gains.

Once they convince the world of the vast value in their super-stupendous city design, won’t everyone flock there and pay mucho trillions for the privilege? Couldn’t they leverage this lead into better theories enabling better designs giving far more trillions, and then spend all that on a super-designed war machine based on those same super insights, and turn us all into down dour super-slaves?  So isn’t the very mostest importantest cause ever to make sure that we, the friendly freedom fighters, find this super deep city theory first?

Well, no, it isn’t.  We don’t believe in a city-ularity because we don’t believe in a super-city theory found in a big brain flash of insight.  What makes cities work well is mostly getting lots of details right.  Sure new-tech-based cities designs can work better, but gradual tech gains mean no city is suddenly vastly better than others.  Each change has costs to be weighed against hoped-for gains.  Sure costs of change might be lower when making a whole new city from scratch, but for that to work you have to be damn sure you know which changes are actually good ideas.

For similar reasons, I’m skeptical of a blank-slate AI mind-design singularity.  Sure if there were a super mind theory that allowed vast mental efficiency gains all at once, but there isn’t.  Minds are vast complex structures full of parts that depend intricately on each other, much like the citizens of a city.  Minds, like cities, best improve gradually, because you just never know enough to manage a vast redesign of something with such complex inter-dependent adaptations.

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