Tuesday, January 26, 2010

essay: the clustering instinct



Photo by Ryan Ozawa of Lost fansite The Transmission.

I like to run through a little thought experiment sometimes, one that starts with a deserted island like the one on that infernal but addictive show Lost. People appear on this hypothetical island against their will via boat wreck, Dharma Initiative-sponsored teleportation, or whatever, and find themselves scattered, equally + evenly isolated from one another.

Question is, what would these poor people do next? Answers could polarize along two camps: the misanthropes, who would have our survivors live happily alone in their little kingdoms; and the utopians, who would have them build a perfect hippie commune of harmony, at least until the black smoke got to them.

Then there's the levels of gray in between where the real answers lie. I still can't imagine how this scenario would ultimately turn out years on — I usually get distracted, or just have a big orange helicopter rescue them all — but I do know I'd do what any sensible person in trouble would: I'd start looking for other people, quick. Once I found everyone else, I'd probably help build a makeshift village. Then all this "I, I, I" would become "we, we, we," as in we would stockpile resources, we would share know-how, we would put our brains together to find a way off the island.

I used to live in Yokohama, and when taking the bullet train to (say) Kyoto I'd stare at the speeding landscape and idly compare the small towns of my native Southern California, with their sprawl and relative isolation, to the ones before me in Japan, which looked more like tight little clusters sitting in oceans of farmland. I've seen similar clusters in other, older cultures, and it's easy to see their origins + what they signify: once upon a time, villagers had to stick together, pooling resources in order to thrive. In other words, they are evidence of an original survival instinct from long ago.

Seeing the sprawl of today, I struggle. Where does sprawl fit in the human experience? What instinct does it represent? The whole Wild West lay conquered at our feet, ready to be reshaped into any form we wished, and we wound up creating strip malls and eight-lane "local" roads. Do those things represent our innate capitalist urges, the desire for an ever-better life, more independence, rewards for a job well done? Maybe so. Sure, I live in a big city, but I like my individual luxuries just like anyone else: I like my scooter and its private parking spot; I like to come home from the nonstop social exchange at work and not have to chit-chat with others in my community; I like having plenty of quiet alone time in which to gather my thoughts.

And yet there's this nagging nostalgia for small towns, that old clustering instinct. Maybe it's a yearning for days when our individual wisdom wasn't so compartmentalized; maybe we just wish our problems were more immediate (stockpile the coconuts) and not so indirect (curb child obseity). But the fact is: we have all the coconuts we need. The island is infinite, so to speak, and the thought experiment collapses. Information is our collective resource today, and we cluster, mostly in urban city areas, to share + strengthen it. So again, what to make of sprawl? What does it mean if our hypothetical island survivors never meet, content to customize their home theaters in isolation? My gut (and the guts of many others) believe that cities hold the true innovation, which implies that sprawl does not. But that's a little harsh. With all physical resource needs taken care of, does sprawl represent the obsolescence of the survival instinct?

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Los Angeles, CA, United States
Writer, designer, and urban planning geek.

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