The coming age of dispersion

In the future, cities may not be defined as physical places but as what MIT’s late futurist William Mitchell described as “cities of bits.” This is something that did not exist during the Middle Ages, when the most knowledgeable survived in the isolation of monasteries. New digital connections could incubate a new urban culture unlike any we have seen.

As dispersion grows, our cities will become flatter and less dense. Many primary functions—food service, media, business and professional services, finance—will operate mostly free of unwanted human contact. They will be less like Le Corbusier’s super-high density “Radiant City,” and far more like American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of a “Broadacre City”—an expanse of houses and gardens spreading far and wide across the landscape.

Mitchell predicted that these virtual cities could become heavily bifurcated with the wealthy clustered—like the socially isolated, germ-phobic “spacers” described in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction—in hermetically sealed corporate campuses or around university districts.4 The rest of the population could end up living in small apartments—constantly worried about infection and living increasingly in virtual reality—a new serf class dependent on subsidies or “income maintenance” provided by the state.