Graveyards of distinctiveness: how cities are making us all the same

Passengers on the Seoul metro, wearing a uniform familiar from cities around the world. Image: Getty.

The latest column in the “Critical Cities” series, which questions the rise of colossal and globalising “Urban Industry”.

Globalisation amounts to tsunami after cultural tsunami, flattening out our differences. Aside from the “Middle East”, where men wear the thawb, and across the Indian subcontinent, where women wear sari and salwar kameez, the rest of us, when not at work, wear variations on a uniform of blue jeans, T-shirt and trainers. Trendsetters from Jakarta to Delhi, Cape Town to London to Toronto, are a carbon copy of tech start-ups tattoos, beards, rolled-up trousers, and bicylces.

Portrait photographs taken on Ellis Island, the gateway new immigrants to New York were required to pass through, show that, in the early 20th century, even people from different parts of Europe wore distinct clothing. What would a portrait photographer capture people wearing as they pass through a US port today? Westernisation – or as they say in polite society, “globalisation” – is flattening out our differences and distinctiveness.

Graveyards of distinctiveness

The centralisation of the world’s population into cities, a result of forced and heavily promoted urbanisation, is one of the main reasons for the rapid destruction of many thousands of distinct languages.

As people are uprooted and abstracted from reality, their survival in cities depends on finding and keeping work. Fitting in – minimising chances for discrimination, and maximising opportunities for work – means adopting the everyday practices of the dominant group as quickly as possible.

Self-reliance and independence are not possible in cities. Yet integration and assimilation results in the steady decline of a person’s existing culture, as they amputate their own culture in an attempt to adopt and be seen to adopt the governing group’s practices and values.


The process of levelling out and enervating one’s identity is actively encouraged in schools, local and national events, and heavily championed in academia. Often one is told to minimise, hide or give up one’s culture for entirely contradictory reasons like “tolerance” and “community cohesion”.

The London School of Economics’s Professor Richard Sennett, in his recent input to Deutsche Bank’s Urban Age 10 event, emphatically stated:

“In order to make the city more tolerant we should have a less strong identification with home. We should learn to use the city and live in the city in a more impersonal way. It is why I have argued against the many, many projects that seek to strength community.”

This is a profoundly troubling statement: while it didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter, frustratingly, it was not challenged as it ought to have been in the LSE lecture theatre at the time.

The Urban Industry persistently promotes cities as places of “cosmopolitanism” – often alongside photographs of people in street cafes, crowd shots at public events or families visiting museums. Cities, they say, offer a mouth-watering slice of cosmopolitan culture.

Cosmopolitanism, however, isn’t as so many want to think it is. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that human beings are the same: global citizens, citizens of the world, citizens of one thing – people who share a morality and an outlook and a willingness to dissolve away differences. This almost always results in the enervating of identities, except for consumable and somewhat superficial attributes like food and festivals.

While London, for example, has a high percentage of non-English people, it is White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) norms that dominate the public sphere of schooling, culture, law and politics, as well as penetrate homes, places of worship and study. It is difficult to think of even one structure or institution that is today influenced by Bantu laws or Nyulnylan language, for example.

Like Sennett, Professor Saskia Sassen, at an earlier Deutsche Bank Urban Age 10 event, also extolled the “sausage machine“ processes of cities, saying that they

“… shape an urban subject and urban subjectivity. [The city] can override the religious subject, the ethnic subject, the racialised subject and in certain settings, also the differences of class.”

Cities, despite effervescent statements of “complexity”, “diversity” and “incompleteness” are sites of high-speed cultural homogenisation. Cities are the graveyards of distinctiveness.

Unfortunately, persuasive academics like Sennett and Sassen celebrate and actively encourage this position. The processes of standardisation speed up in cities – perhaps in ways similar to Moore’s Law and computer processing speeds – doubling in ever-shorter periods.

An advertising hoarding for British style housing in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

Lingua franca

The death of distinct languages is particularly informative and illustrative of urban processes. Without use, a language dies. Without language, a culture has a death sentence.

Second-generation urban dwellers, particularly intercontinental migrants, regularly don’t speak the same language as their parents, a condition labelled “First Language Attrition”. Conforming is often a matter of survival for “minorities”, perhaps understandable given the level of prejudice inflicted and prosperity dependent on successfully mastering school exams. Within three generations an individual can be entirely alienated from their relatives’ language and experiences, and also of knowledge of living a pre-urbanised life.

Despite the hype about London’s “diversity” – a key element of the city’s pretentious claim to be one of just two “global cities” – English is overwhelmingly the dominant language, with 80 per cent of London’s population using English as their main language.

There are just 53 main languages spoken in London according to the 2011 Census. In Papua New Guinea, currently one of the least urbanised places on earth, over 800 distinct languages are spoken today. There are still over 2,000 living languages across the continent of Africa. Cities, contrary to the Urban Industry narrative, have been swiftly undermining a world abundant with distinctiveness and diversity.

Without language, the culture that created it swiftly dies and is either disappeared or appropriated and then repacked for and by the dominating group. It is nearly impossible to resurrect a language and culture once this occurs, though there has been a very small handful of dead or near-extinct languages being re-started (Hebrew is one of them).

For the last century, every 14 days one of the world’s remaining 7,000-plus distinct languages has been killed off and supplanted with English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Today, 95 per cent of the world’s population speaks just 6 per cent of the world’s languages. It is estimated that by 2100, though probably earlier, over 50 per cent of existing languages will be have been destroyed, leaving us with just a handful of dominant, though graciously self-confessed “rudimentary” and “bullying” languages.

Citizenship itself is often dependent on the successful passing of spoken and written language tests, and the controlling group of course determines the language chosen for testing. Citizenship is conditional on passing spoken and written English tests for the US, Australia and Canada. (In Australia alone, there were over 600 distinct languages before the British invaded in 1788.) 

English is the official language of 83 nations and regions, few of which are remotely geographically close to England. Only recently, British prime minister David Cameron said that families would have to be broken up and their members deported if one or more didn't speak English.


People in cities dominantly use and have the greatest access to the Internet and the World Wide Web. English dominates the internet, the ultimate homogenisation tool, with 851.6m users (26 per cent of the total). Chinese is next with 704m (21 per cent). There is then a dramatic drop to Spanish with 245m (7.5 per cent) and Arabic with 155m (4.8 per cent).

Perhaps more importantly, currently 54.2 per cent of all web content is English and a tiny 2.1 per cent is in Chinese. Despite there being 497m Hindi speakers, making it the third most-spoken language in the world, just 0.03 per cent of websites are in Hindi.

Perhaps our grandchildren will be left with just the English, Mandarin and Arabic languages. Perhaps English will dominate officialdom to the four corners of the world. Perhaps a Chinese elite will rule the world, but will have to use the English language to do so.

Same clothes, same languages, similar ideas, morals and understandings; the world is getting smaller and many, like Sennett and Sassen, see this as unreservedly a good thing. The decline of distinctiveness and the rise of sameness are regularly legislated for. We see this with language tests for citizenship, compulsory education, proscribed curriculums in schools and a global standarisation for laws and finance.

The argument is that sameness increases the chances for communication, collaboration and tolerance. Advocates regularly suggest alikeness and familiarity with each other results in a reduction of war and other conflicts. Polite society also like to call it “harmonisation”. (Perhaps it is worth noting at this point that the majority of crimes against persons happen in the home, by people known to the victim, very often a family member.)

Communication and collaboration are also argued to be good things in and of themselves. Some even argue sameness is important in the pursuit of creating level playing fields, so that everyone can compete equally. Others argue they find the regularity and repetition of clothing, languages, architecture and ideas comforting, evidence of a global village, a sign of progress.

Yet the result is the same: globalisation is flattening out our differences and enervating our distinctiveness.

If you follow the money it is evident that these processese, almost entirely and without exception, benefit western nations and just a small select elite of other nations. If you follow the politics, having a handful of cities that contain most of the world’s population, where its inhabitants have over generations had their distinct cultures eviscerated from them, you find a people who no longer know who they are, which is a nudge politician’s utopia. Our cultures, our different and differing identities are arguably the most valuable thing we have, not just for ourselves but also for each other. Without culture and identity we are the walking dead. 
 
A good question to ask any organisation or person arguing that you or I should give up our culture or identity to fit in is get them to list what they themselves have given up, and what they are asking their children to remove from their own lives. It will become evident very quickly that their list very short indeed. 

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

This is the fourth column in the Critical Cities series. You can find the first three at the links below:

1) Urbanisation is not natural or inevitable. It’s being inflicted upon us by the forces of capitalism.

2) Everything you thought you knew about cities is wrong.

3) Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as part of human evolution?

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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