City of the Sun

The City of the Sun is a utopia written by the Dominican Friar Tommaso Campanella.  Perhaps the most interesting feature of Campanella’s imaginary city is what might be called its architecture of knowledge. The city is made up of a number of walls upon each of which are inscribed all the knowledge of a particular set of sciences. On the outer wall are inscribed all the truths of mathematics, on the second metallurgy, geography, meteorology, the third botany, the next biology of fish, insects, reptiles, the one that follows the biology of large animals, then the mechanical arts, and finally history, war, philosophy, religion and law.

That Campanella’s divisions of knowledge are a little confusing makes perfect sense given that our current fields of inquiry had yet to really crystallize.  Yet, what should be clear is that he has imagined what is in effect an archive of all human knowledge from the least to the most complex. The architecture of his city itself is a storehouse of human knowledge and physically embeds all that we know. This is a little like the current Rosetta Disk project of the Long Now Foundation which attempts to create a store house of knowledge about human languages on a micro-disc.

Contrast Campanella’s City of the Sun with IBM’s current Smarter Cities project and one gets a feel for the revolution in our understanding of knowledge from Campanella’s time to our own. For him the new science, just being born when he imagined his ideal city, would soon discover all that was knowable. All of human knowledge could be inscribed on the walls of a small city. For us, knowledge is dynamic, expansive. The space granted by Campanella would unlikely be enough for even the most obscure specialty. IBM’s Smarter Cities imagines the knowledge center of a city not as a sort of library or museum, but as akin to the body’s central nervous or immune systems, capable of getting feedback from itself and responding to real time information regarding things like traffic, crime, social services, fire/disaster response, medical care, and education.

One might wonder what might happen to the “feedback” system of democracy if cities were ever effectively run by computers, but that is another question, for another time.

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