Introducing B21 Scholar: Julien Otis-Laperrière

For your pleasure, I recommend that you put on Nils Frahm’s “Kaleidoscope” to accompany this text (Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVSo2rdmTOA ).

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This story begins with another’s: Clifford D. Simak’s “City”. In a few short stories from the 1940s, Simak paints humanity’s long-term future: cities breaking down because of technology, systematic isolation because of abundance, a mass exodus to a “paradise” found on Jupiter, and the solitude of the few humans that remain on Earth in massive fortresses where death is replaced by suspended sleep[1].

Simak’s first three short stories recount how cities fell. He saw air travel as the logical extension of ground travel; suburbs expanding so far that they became autonomous homesteads powered by small atomic reactors, fed by hydroponic farms, maintained by robots, and connected to the rest of the world with holographic calls. As humans scattered their dwellings, their physical communities got increasingly localized and nuclear, and eventually all collaboration could be carried out without meeting face to face.

Humans became islands but prospered regardless.

It’s this idea of decoupling abundance and socialization which caught my eye. In Simak’s world, it happened with the emergence of extreme autonomy; in ours, this decoupling arises in the anonymous interdependence that supports our way of life. In cities, our population has grown so large that the logistics of keeping it all running—waste management, utilities, police, emergency services, to name a few—have required fleets of dedicated workers to be recruited and organized in vast companies and municipal services. No matter how vital, though, these workers are anonymous to city-dwellers.

Beyond cities, the development of product supply chains that span the globe and myriads of cultures further shows how broad our “network of dependency” has grown. Again, most of us know neither where the parts of our finished products were made, nor the individuals who contributed to production. In saying this, I am suggesting neither condemnation nor praise, as truly caring about everyone who infinitesimally contributes to our lives is exhausting to conceive, and impossible to survive. What I am suggesting, however, is that our transition from known craftsmen to anonymous and distant workers might foreshadow the shift of more parts of our lives to anonymous, infinitesimally influential actors.

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Today, we’re seeing a sharing economy develop that relies on strangers sharing assets—cars, rooms, parking spots—with other strangers. And this sharing economy is showing us an alternative world where we can maximize the use of the assets society produces: cars could spend less time unused, more time driving with full loads (Uber); apartments or houses could always be lived in (Airbnb); valuable parking in city centers could always have a user (SpotShare). In theory, a sharing economy gets better deals for customers by connecting demand and supply and reduces the ecological footprints of individuals by maximizing the use of assets which embody energy. In practice, we know things are more complicated, with ride-sharing often blamed for increased congestion in cities, and Airbnb seen as responsible for increased renting costs. Beyond these widely discussed impacts, I’m interested in how a sharing economy extends our sphere of anonymous interdependence.

I’ll be using cities as a physical manifestation of the joint evolution of human communities and technology; drawing from case studies, history, and economics to understand and explain how anonymous interdependence emerged and on what trajectory it might propel humanity. Some topics of interest are rural exodus, demographics, communications infrastructure, corporate agglomeration, energy systems, privacy efforts, blockchain technology, digital peer-to-peer services, and more. It’s not a closed list. I’m not well-read enough to substantiate all my claims with sources, and I don’t want my breadth to be shackled by undue fact-checking; where divergence from common sense occurs, however, expect either explicit speculation or sources. The series of essays that will emerge from this project will be conjecture about the future fueled by legitimate research about the past and present; a coherent patchwork of ideas that paints a world that could be, based on the world that is.

I am a mechanical engineering student taking a minor in Urban Systems, and I am also a propulsion lead on the McGill Rocket Team.

David Jhave Johnston