Imagine an urban area growing through the years like a blossoming culture in a petri dish. Filmmaker Frank Vitale extends the metaphor to reality. In his theory, the city is “a living, breathing biological organism.”
The idea may seem far-fetched, but Vitale supports his hypothesis with an array of wondrous images and video embedded in his new e-book, The Metropolis Organism. The result is “a triumph chock-full of stunning images, on scales both intimate and grand,” according to our review. We recently spoke to Vitale about marketing his idea as an e-book and how he sees hints of the future in the present.
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You call the city "a living, breathing biological organism." How so?
I look at cities from the perspective of a hypothetical scientific observer. If an observer with just two traits—he thinks like a scientist and doesn’t know what a human is—looked down at a city, could he tell whether it was an artifact that humans operate, or an organism? Scientists look at an organism as something with parts that work together to form a whole. In that sense a city is an organism. A scientist looking at a cell in a petri dish doesn’t say, “The endoplasmic reticulum is the brains and the rest is just an artifact.”
Your book is full of arresting images that juxtapose cities with living beings: old city walls with cell membranes, factories with organelles. You even compare the Norwegian town of Baerum to a "slime net."
A slime net is a green mass you might see in a swamp, but it’s kind of lacy and beautiful. It builds this net, and then the cells of the organism move through the net from one place to another, like a city with highway transportation. When I look at cities, I see the same kinds of systems that sustain organisms—supplying energy, eliminating waste products, communicating. To a scientific observer, an urban factory has stuff going in and cars coming out, just as we see nutrition going into bone marrow and red blood cells coming out.
You did your own observation of Dayton, N.J. What did you see?
From on high, using Google Earth satellite photos, I saw circulation, structures and street patterns that looked biological. Suburban streets look like mitochondria, energy-generating organelles in a cell that have their own DNA. They evolved from bacteria that joined together to form the eukaryotic cell.
Just as a city is built up from smaller dwellings, businesses and people who come together to form something bigger?
Exactly. I also noticed that Google Earth images can’t resolve a human being. A scientific observer looking at them would never know humans exist. When I drove around Dayton, I still couldn’t see many humans because the streets are mostly deserted. By volume and weight, the human presence in a city is extremely small and hard to see.
That leads you to argue that humans are not the creators of the urban superorganism, but just cogs within it. That’s quite a blow to the human ego.
A huge blow. The same thing happened when Darwin figured out that we weren’t a superior being separate from animals—that we were just one of them. All animals think they are the center of the world. I’m sure my dog thinks that my purpose in life is to feed him. But we’re not that important. Take cloud computing, nobody controls the cloud. There are a lot of things where humans are an integral part, but there’s nobody in charge.
You’re a film director, and you’ve embedded lots of video clips in the text. How do you market a multimedia e-book?
Early on I went to libraries and said, “I’d like to give a talk that’s half about e-books in general, and half about my e-book.” That didn’t turn out successfully. People were interested in the e-book part, but they didn’t come to hear about cities as organisms. Then I found out that Kirkus does reviews for independent authors, real reviews, so I sent it in. I’m now in touch with Wisconsin Public Radio, and they’re doing a series on cities for a show called Science and the Search for Meaning. I included the review as part of my pitch, and they’re considering it.
In the future, you see us tied ever more tightly into the Metropolis Organism. Where do the geodesic domes [Ed: a spherical lattice structure] come in?
The Metropolis Organism may develop a “skin” like a geodesic dome. I imagine cities becoming a whole world within that skin, like the organelles in a cell. People won’t go outside—they’ll die if they do. Outside the skin are elements we will have lost the ability to deal with, like sunlight. Solar radiation is powerful. If you’ve lived indoors your whole life and go out in the sun, you’d probably melt or get cancer. The Organism temperature would be constant, so humans would lose the ability to deal with a fluctuation of ten degrees. Outside the antiseptic Organism, we’d be vulnerable to bacteria.
Sounds like a science-fiction movie!
Things are going faster. Humans are becoming more specialized. Technology is becoming integrated with our bodies. There are a lot of artificial organs—replacement knees, replacement ears, replacement eyes, pacemakers, artificial hearts. Humans are going to have less independence and be more regimented and controlled. I just projected those vectors of evolution into the future.