Electricity: A Thing and an Idea

Cities are shaped as much by ideas as they are by things; in either case more often than not they are the result of unintended consequences. The car, which is clearly a thing rather than an idea, was meant to offer personal mobility, rather than lead to the emergence of out-of-town shopping, toxic air pollution and traffic jams. The standard shipping container, also a thing, was meant to speed up loading, cut down handling costs and pilfering. It did all that, but, rather more visibly, it also wiped out every up stream dock, wharf and warehouse in the world, and eventually resulted in Canary Wharf becoming London’s second financial centre. The three-electrode vacuum tube, or thermionic valve as it is known in the United States, was developed as a switch and an amplifier. It has done more than either the car or the shipping container to change the urban world. It has put electricity to work.

As for ideas: there are the obvious ones, from the obvious sources. The urban theorists who believed in zoning, the modernists, who wanted a tabula rasa, and the followers of the picturesque, such as Camillo Sitte, who understood the city as a work of art. But there are also the kind of ideas that are less immediately obvious in their relevance to the nature of a city, but which may have the biggest impact in the long term. These might include the legal codes that result in certain kinds of leases, the political ideas about participation or centralisation that impact on how decisions about what to build, and what not to build are taken. And the fuel subsidies that may encourage one form of transport over another, and thus favour some forms of urbanism over others. All of these are ideas that are perhaps just as responsible for the way in which our cities work as the things that we use to make them, and to move around in them. But perhaps because things are more visible than ideas, and because we have grown increasingly suspicious of big ideas about cities, we have concentrated perhaps too much on the way we use things rather than on thinking about their effects and their potentials.

Electricity is both an idea, and a thing. As a result it has had an unusually pervasive grip on our attitudes towards urbanism. It has not always been the same idea. For Benjamin Franklin, electricity was about understanding the nature of natural phenomena. Earlier scientists found that they could use electricity to give the appearance of resurrection to dead frogs. For over a century, electricity seemed closer to sorcery or magic than to production. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that it began to offer solid industrial applications, and to start to shape cities. Electricity morphed from the valve to the transistor, and then the semi-conductor, triggering the digital revolution that quickly put paid to the analogue world. The digital revolution could be understood as the culmination of the electric age. From wireless connection to GPS navigation, it certainly seems to be offering what looks very much like magic.

As an idea, electricity is what the Soviet Union promised to adopt as the road to the future. Elsewhere, out of the grip of the totalitarians, electricity was the inspiration that showed a way forward out of the age of steam and heavy machinery. The dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority offered electrification as the new-deal escape from poverty. The steam-age city was soot streaked, and smog bound. It depended for its mobility, its factories, and for its comfort on the begrimed stokers confined below ground and below deck whose back-breaking toil fed the boilers. Electricity seemed as far removed from this sweat-soaked reliance on muscle power as the digital economy now is from the analogue. Some electric power might still depend on coal-fired power stations, but they are out of sight, and out of mind. At the point of delivery electricity seemed as if it were clean, manageable, and efficient.

In the early twentieth century, electricity as celebrated by the Futurists was equated with effortless power, with city streets blazing with light, and with an irreversible break with the past. Electricity made the city more connected, metaphorically as well as literally. The endless city can be understood as a force field, its energy crackling over huge areas of apparently unconnected fragments of urban tissue, and connecting them. It is notable in this context to remember that the London Underground map of 1931 owes its graphic language to an electric circuit diagram: not so much a metaphor as a tactical way of making sense of the navigation of a complex system.

Electricity was always a thing too. A thing that has had a massive impact on the form and density of cities. Otis lifts, streetlights, tramlines, air conditioning, neon and escalators changed the face of the first industrial metropolises. Berlin, London, New York and Chicago as they are today would not be possible without electricity. And not only in the physical sense, but in their political organisation too. For better or worse, electricity made possible the technology that sidestepped literacy, and allowed politicians to speak directly to the masses eighty years ago. There is nothing new about the impact of technology on civic strife, whatever the claims made for Blackberry-fuelled mayhem in the streets of London’s Hackney and Haringey last year, or of Twitter in the Arab spring. If Hitler’s rise to power was aided by his skill as a radio broadcaster, it was also the transistor radios in the backpacks of the French conscripts in Algeria that allowed them to hear De Gaulle’s order to them to disobey their mutinous officers and so put down their attempt at a coup.

In the last two to three decades we have been overwhelmed by the impact of all the things that electricity makes possible, without perhaps the perspective to go on seeing electricity as an idea. It is in part because we have lost the ability to be impressed or charmed by speculations about the nature of the future. The fading appeal of the Expo movement demonstrates the sense of ennui that we have acquired in speculations about the future and the place of technology in it. The Expo was once the most elaborate prototype for urban innovation. Joseph Paxton’s prefabricated Crystal Palace, covering an awesome 800,000 square feet (74,322 m2) haunted the imagination of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Subsequently the Expo became a much less inspiring arena in which Robert Moses met Walt Disney, and where urban theory collided with popular culture. From the first Paris Exposition to the Brussels Expo of 1959, from the City Beautiful of Chicago to the starry-eyed futurism of New York in 1939, from the welfare state optimism of the Festival of Britain in 1951 to the grim corporate vision of New York in 1964, each of the fairs sloganised a particular view of urbanism that grew progressively more banal.

The live TV broadcast was introduced to America at the World’s Fair. Norman Bel Geddes designed Futurama, the enormous General Motors display that proudly declared itself the city of tomorrow with its 500,000 scale-model buildings and its one million trees and 50,000 cars, 10,000 of which actually moved. They were exhibits that opened the way for Robert Moses to start driving expressways through the Bronx, and demolishing swathes of Manhattan. In 1964 New York staged a second Expo, once more under the direction of Robert Moses. Walt Disney offered his services to several of the big commercial exhibitors, and afterwards he returned the compliment. He hired William Potter, one of Moses’s aides at the 1964 fair, to offer guidance on his own plans to build a city. Together they worked on Epcot, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which, to judge by Disney’s ambitions, was mooted as a direct answer to Jane Jacobs’ anxieties about the future of the city. ‘There will be no slum areas, because we will not let them develop. There will be no landowners, and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses, instead of buying them, and at a modest rental, there will be no retirees, everyone must be employed.’ We recoiled, or, worse, we sniggered at what dreaming about the future had been reduced to if Epcot was what it had become. If the Expo has declined into senility, it is all the more important to find ways to understand the impact of the electric city, not just as a deluge of things, but in its significance for our notion of what the city can be. We are far too dependent now on electricity to be able to do without it.

In less developed urban societies, the installation of electric street lighting, and the sense of security it brings at night to previously threatening streets, is still an early signal of infrastructure investment, and the maturity that comes with it. Despite the breezy way with which we continue to take the efficacy of Moore’s Law for granted, and assume that computing power will continue to double every year or two, for a halving of the cost, the developed world cannot take it for granted that the lights will always stay on. Britain’s reluctance to face the challenge of building a new generation of power plants, and German anathema to nuclear power are just two examples of the vulnerability of modern economies to electricity shortages. India’s massive power cuts in the last year are another reminder that the future for the BRIC nations is also problematic.

To explore the idea of the electric city offers a powerful way of understanding urbanism as it is being reshaped. Using the word at all involves looking back at ideas about the future, which belong to a historical moment less jaded than our own. It is to take a perspective that has not been desensitised by decades of technological innovation, so rapid, and so relentless that we have lost the ability to wonder, or even be surprised about what it has to offer.

Electricity made the key elements of the modern city possible in successive technological generations. Early on it was the metro system. More recently it was the Internet. The impact of what electricity brought into being has changed fundamentally the geography of the city, and the way we live in it, and the way in which we interact with each other. Now we need to see what it can offer for the near future. It can encourage both anti-urban developments, and their antithesis. We need to find ways in which to emphasise the latter at the expense of the former. Electricity has made new spaces, both physical and virtual, possible. It has powered technologies that have shaped the grain of life in the city. The electric city could be taken to mean a city policed by number-plate recognition systems, kept moving by car-share schemes, and crowd monitoring on the underground network, and Oyster cards that track every journey taken on every bus and metro line in a city.

The electric city that they delineate is both infinitely more transparent and more opaque than urbanism in its more traditional form. An electric city is a city of rippling neon and LEDs at night. An electric city is one that that is continually surveyed by surveillance cameras, a city navigated by GPS systems that make London taxi drivers’ painstakingly acquired knowledge as nostalgically useless as the vinyl record some of us cannot bear to discard. The city’s anonymity and privacy are under threat as never before from Google’s cameras, Apple’s location-based services and pervasive security. The iPhone leaves an indelible trail, and so do the Oyster card and the cash machine. This is turning the city into a compound in which every action is known, every form of behaviour can be predicted, every dissident suppressed.

The way in which we navigate and socialise has been transformed. So has the way in which crime, politics and consumption work. The discouraging thing about almost every new technology is how what begins as radical and empowering so quickly turns into part of the apparatus, if not of repression then of consumerism. In urbanistic terms, if the impact of electricity powered digital development is to undermine the physical city, the Internet, which, like all authentic cities has both its light, and its dark side, must step up to the plate, and stand in as the new public realm. Crime and vice hover at the edges of virtual space that also encompasses the great free library that is Wikipedia, the explosion of online archives, and the market stalls that are open source designs. It has become a polyglot mix of the inspirational and the banal. Meanwhile, Twitter is the twenty-first-century equivalent of the lavatory wall, a place for the scurrilous and the anonymous to leave their mark, combined, if we are being generous, with an electronic version of the posters on Beijing’s democracy wall.

Electricity has transformed our distribution systems, and working practices. If we have no need to work in an office, we are never really out of it now. We have no need for record shops, no need for bookshops soon, and no need for post offices. But there is plenty of call for big out-of-town sheds for distribution. All the things that people have been speculating about for a couple of decades have happened. John Lewis set about making a real investment in e-commerce only two years ago. In that time it has grown to represent £1 in every £5 it takes at its tills. Why would it think about the investment in bricks and mortar that a department store with the same turnover as its online sales would need? Christopher Bailey’s fashion shows for Burberry are now instantly streamed across the globe: no need then for a front-row seat in the tent when you can watch on your smart phone in a bar, or on a beach.

Does the impact of immateriality of the electric city in the end undermine the essence of urbanism, or reinforce it? The electric city offers the possibility of feedback loops, and of making political and technical decisions in real time. It is both an echo chamber for the global village idiot, and a genuinely liberating and empowering phenomenon. But for it to remain a positive force, we cannot turn into passive consumers.

Deyan Sudjic is Director of the Design Museum in London.