Take Me Now, To the (Living) Cities of the Future

John Wang '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

Cities behave very much in organic ways, growing and metabolizing like a creature as the flow of information and resources circulates through its infrastructure. Thanks to the new technology and culture of Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, however, the cities of the future appear to be dying. The cycles of masking and growth suggest a slow and subtle loss of control, as self-awareness fades and convenience rules. Only a few characters realize the frightening, asphyxiating direction of growth, as shortsighted demands obscure the original planning and machinations of urbanization. Just as the unwary consumer slowly poisons his or her circulatory system with convenient foods, so do the cities of the future slowly destroy its inner mechanism through the workings of wealth and grasping greed.

"It's so fucking old," Sally Shears said absently, her glasses reflecting a convex wall sheathed in white ceramic tile.

"I beg your pardon?"

"The tube." A new tartan scarf was knotted under Sally's chin, and her breath was white when she spoke. "You know what bothers me? It's how sometimes you'll see ‘em sticking new tile up in these stations, but they don't take down the old tile first. Or they'll punch a hole in the wall to get to some wiring and you can see all these different layers of tile. . . ."


"Because it's getting narrower, right? It's like arterial plaque. . . ."[Gibson, 66]

This was nothing like Tokyo, where the past, all that remained of it, was nurtured with a nervous care. History there had become a quantity, a rare thing, parceled out by government and preserved by law and corporate funding. Here, it seemed the very fabric of things, as if the city were a single growth of stone and brick, uncounted strata of message and meaning, age upon age, generated over the centuries to the dictates of some now-all-but-unreadable DNA of commerce and empire. [Gibson, 5-6]

Gibson's use of organic imagery for the urban environment opens all sorts of new perspectives, such as the influence of genetic mutation, metabolism, and homeostasis. How could some of these concepts apply to urban growth, and how might denizens of today's world view the growth of tomorrow?

Paul Rozin, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term the "omnivore's dilemma" to describe the bewildering amount of choice in food for omnivores such as humans, and how such choice opens possibilities for both nutrition and poison. What tastes great and is unrealistically convenient might wreak havoc on the environment and organism. How might this concept apply to Gibson's cities of the future? Is the widening availability of coffin housing, heavy drug and derm use, and simstim entertainment a cause for concern, such that humanity need be cautious of what might be a poison in the urban or cultural realm?

How does the conceptualization of the city as animal suggest a potential for evolutionary competition, for survival of the fittest? What is predator, what is prey, and how do cities adapt?

London and Tokyo grew vastly differently, in their attitudes of evolution and preservation. Does Gibson's sudden placement of a Japanese girl in London give a fresh perspective on what is unusual in London, or of cities in general?

The "DNA" that drove the growth of the city seems all but invisible now, yet careful study of the strata of the city's growth might lead to the truth of the past, much in the same way geologists study ancient rock outcrops to understand natural history. Is self-awareness and knowledge of history and science of development an essential piece to growth? Does the DNA evolve as time goes on, and is the understanding of the inner workings really necessary?


Gibson, William.Mona Lisa Overdrive. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Pollan, Michael.The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Cyberspace OV Cyborg  Mona Lisa Overdrive

Last modified 1 October 2006