Sept. 5, 2018

New Seminar on 'Histories and Theories of the Computational City'

I’m teaching a new class at MIT DUSP, which takes Shannon Mattern’s essay ‘A City is Not a Computer’ (2017) as a launching point for a long-form examination of the history of urban computation (and of theoretical responses to the same).

Our lives in cities are governed by algorithms, threaded by apps, stored in clouds, and sensed, surveilled, and monitored by a densifying mesh of networked, autonomous observers. Our daily lives give off a thick mist of digital exhaust that can be captured, profiled, capitalized upon, and precisely located. Optimistically, advances in urban science, the rise of big data, the drive to build smarter cities, and the widespread embrace of the open data movement are coalescing into new opportunities for planners to make data actionable through analysis and visualization. However, these same phenomena should also trouble us; they lay the groundwork for widening digital divides, automated inequality, and the erosion of public accountability. “A city is not a computer,” as Shannon Mattern reminds us (Mattern 2017, n.p.) even as our cities are becoming more pervasively computational.

This history and theory seminar has two goals: first, we will place contemporary urban technology within a much longer history of technoscientific urban governance. Second, we will develop a theoretical vocabulary for thinking about our pervasively mediated, monitored, and sensed cities, drawing on extensive readings in urban planning, science and technology studies (STS), human geography, and media studies.

We will strive to avoid the twinned perils of technophobia and technophilia; we will not be articulating a purely critical or stridently affirmative position. Instead, we will be cultivating a responsible stance that is simultaneously optimistic about the affordances and critically attuned to the problematics of algorithmic life, big data, new spatial media, smart cities, and environmental monitoring. Our efforts will be channeled into the production of a volume of essays that we will publish digitally at the end of the semester.

Banner image is Geoff Dutton’s American Graph Fleeting, a holographic experimentation with 3D cartographic visualization. (1979).


Dutton, Geoff. 1979. “American Graph Fleeting.” Harvard Laboratory of Computer Graphics; Spatial Analysis.
Mattern, Shannon. 2017. “A City Is Not a Computer.” Places Journal.

  • Eric Robsky Huntley
  • They/them/theirs.*

  • Eric Robsky Huntley is a Lecturer in Urban Science and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT where they maintain affiliations with the Data + Feminism Lab and the Healthy Neighborhoods Study. They also serve as a Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School …