The Neogeography of Virtual Cities: Digital Mirrors into a Recursive World

The Neogeography of Virtual Cities: Digital Mirrors into a Recursive World

Andrew Hudson-Smith (University College London, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-152-0.ch019
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Digital cities are moving well beyond their original conceptions as entities representing the way computers and communications are hard wired into the fabric of the city itself or as being embodied in software so the real city might be manipulated in silico for professional purposes. As cities have become more “computable,” capable of manipulation through their digital content, large areas of social life are migrating to the web, becoming online so-to-speak. Here, we focus on the virtual city in software, presenting our speculations about how such cities are moving beyond the desktop to the point where they are rapidly becoming the desktop itself. But what emerges is a desktop with a difference, a desktop that is part of the web, characterized by a new generation of interactivity between users located at any time in any place. We first outline the state of the art in virtual city building drawing on the concept of mirror worlds and then comment on the emergence of Web 2.0 and the interactivity that it presumes. We characterize these developments in terms of virtual cities through the virtual world of Second Life, showing how such worlds are moving to the point where serious scientific content and dialogue is characterizing their use often through the metaphor of the city itself.
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The idea of the ‘computable city’ is one that stretches back to a time when the convergence of computers and communications first began to make an impact on the way cities functioned. New forms of electronic interaction began to display themselves in the need for wired infrastructures to support everything from smart buildings to new kinds of information industry (Batty, 1997). The notion that the city through its hardware might become ‘intelligent’ is something that has been with us since the 1980s. But during this time a somewhat different prospect has emerged with the city itself and its many functions being encapsulated and articulated in non-physical terms, in virtual space rather than real space. At first the impact of the Internet was largely in terms of cities advertising their services to ‘virtual tourists’ who browsed or shopped the web through simple passive browsing. The early web site Virtual Bologna represented the portal to urban services and information about the Italian town of Bologna which become a favourite example of early commentators on the power of the web.

Virtual Bologna was typical of its time with its iconic representation of the city as a gateway to real urban information but what is now happening is that these many technologies which display and transmit information in somewhat passive terms through the web are beginning to take on new forms of interactivity. Increasingly cities and city-like media are being captured on the web and disseminated not as passive web pages but through virtual worlds where the user enters a digital space that is in many ways akin to a real space and engages in interactions which mirror what happens in real space. Virtual cities are being built and inhabited using systems such as Second Life, with millions of users making rapid decisions thus shifting these virtual realities minute by minute into new manifestations of digital urban form.

The concept of the ‘computable city’ is still alive and well in the city itself as more and more computable devices exists within our physical environment. We have not quite reached the stage where such devices are embedded into themselves but all this is becoming routine. It is in terms of what is happening within the computer itself that now marks the cutting edge. The circle has turned completely: computers in cities exist in abundance of course, but it is cities inside computers that now define the digital frontier. This notion of the ‘city inside the computer’ changes rather remarkably our vision of how one can build virtual cities. Rather than being based on any single real place, they increasingly embody a mix of fiction and reality, digital cities linked together in a virtual urban sprawl, forming part of the ‘metaverse’ so eloquently anticipated by Neil Stephenson and William Gibson, that genre of science fiction writers that based their visions of the near future on ways in which the physical and virtual merge.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Recursion: Is the activity of representing and accessing digital media which is nested in some form within computers and networks.

Recursive Worlds: Are aspects of reality often represented in literal graphical terms which are captured digitally and recreated within different spaces which can be accessed from each other within the computer and across the net.

Neogeography: In its most literal sense this means a new geography but one which is digital From the Platial weblog (, it is defined as: “Neogeography, as we see it, is a diverse set of practices that operate outside, or alongside, or in the manner of, the practices of professional geographers. Rather than making claims on scientific standards, methodologies of neogeography tend toward the intuitive, expressive, personal, absurd, and/or artistic, but may just be idiosyncratic applications of “real” geographic techniques. This is not to say that these practices are of no use to the cartographic/geographic sciences, but that they just usually don’t conform to the protocols of professional practice”

Mirror Worlds: Are representations of the real world in scaled down simplified form that were originally pictured as working in parallel to the reality itself but with strong interaction both ways between reality and its mirror. The term was first popularised by David Gerlernter.

Virtual Worlds: Are representations of reality usually formed in 3D which enable users to enter the world and represents themselves as avatars, thus communicating with other in the world while at the same time transforming the world for educational, leisure or business purposes

Web 2.0: From Wikipedia ( “Web 2.0 is a trend in World Wide Web technology, and web design, a second generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, which aim to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing among users. The term became notable after the first O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in 2004.”

Virtual Cities: Are digital representations of city forms which may range from the services of cities embedded in web page through to representations of the geometry of buildings streets and landscapes comprising cities which one can manipulate on the desktop or across the web.

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