The Metropolis

Last weekend my friend and I sat on a rooftop of a building in New York City. I marveled at the sights and even took a picture with my bad camera (when are you going to get better, oh iPhone camera?) so I wouldn’t forget those few hours I spent pondering the future of mankind.

There are some skyscrapers, but surprisingly the view was dominated by relatively short (six- or seven-story) buildings. The picture doesn’t do it justice at all, of course, but you can see some of them in the foreground. My friend called these structures “ugly” and continued looking at the skyscrapers. Then it dawned on me that those very “ugly” buildings represent a dying era; and the skyscraper, spread in a gridlike fashion, omnipresent, dominating, commanding, looking down on you, is a harbinger of a new age. The age of the Metropolis.

What’s the difference, you’ll ask. The differences are subtle, but that’s how changes happen, through a deluge of subtleties. I could imagine–I nearly saw it unravel in front of me–how in the near future, the skyscraper will be everywhere. Wherever you look, you’ll see a wall. It won’t matter that you’re in a high-rise building, because all the buildings around you will also be high-rise. Being on the fiftieth floor will be indistinguishable from being on the second. The rooftop, perhaps the last standing symbol of the old days, will cease to exist as increased security and–quite frankly–unremarkable sights discourage landlords from opening it to the public.

The differences are even more apparent if you close your eyes. The late-twentieth Century City (let’s settle on such a name for the passing era) is alive. You can hear everything that’s happening in the City while sitting right there on the rooftop. The sirens of emergency vehicles dozens of blocks away get transformed as they bounce off the irregular structures; the sound interferes with itself as it diffracts off the buildings. What reaches your ear is a remarkable narrative compression of the inner workings of the City, a true symphony. I encourage you to try the same — go somewhere high enough so thenoise of the city starts blending into music.

What will replace this symphony in the new era? Silence. The new era has no need for noise. Everything is hermetic, sealed off from the world. You can’t even make out what is behind that tinted glass. The emergency vehicles will cease to exist as well: in a well-engineered Metropolis, all emergencies are taken care of locally (plus, it would be impossible for emergency vehicles to get anywhere in the Metropolis). Maybe they will be kept around to appease the tourists who will walk through a Times Square and want to experience the thrill of an emergency, a sudden rush of blood as an ambulance passes by. How will schoolchildren learn about the Doppler effect?

The 1927 movie “Metropolis” comes to mind. At first glance it may seem obsolete–that’s not that the future looks like!. But if you watch it more closely, you’ll see that it’s closer to what the future will bring than you think. If we simplify things and assume there are discrete eras in the evolution of Man, and that we’re living in era n, we’ll notice that eran+1 is heavily influenced by the current era (which was heavily influenced by era n-1). The Skyscraper, for example, is really an invention of the twentieth Century. What the movie “Metropolis” (which was arguably made in era n-2) does is describes era n+2, an era which we cannot even begin to comprehend, a City that’s distant, remote, un-human. It’s a City that we don’t want to be part of. Finally, it’s a totally silent City.

I was saddened by the thought that my friend, who today calls the artifacts of the near-bygone era “ugly”, will in just a few decades struggle to convey the magic and mystery of the late-twentieth Century City to his children. No wonder though–the new age will maximize the probability of its success, even if it means vilifying, banishing, destroying the old one before its time comes. And looking at my friend–a covert (though he doesn’t know it) agent of the new age–the probability of its success is high indeed.