The virtual and real cities are closely enmeshed. Information gathering and community building can take place more easily online than in the vast cities of the Anthropocene, where members of a group may live far from each other or be unable to meet easily for momentum-building. But the discussions and real-world changes these online gatherings initiate move easily to government chambers, mainstream media outlets in television, radio and press, or onto the streets. The Arab revolutions across Northern Africa and the Middle East since 2010 were coordinated via the virtual city of Twitter, Facebook, SMS messaging and other apps, but they took place on the streets and squares of the real cities, uniting flesh-and-blood individuals who had united online using computers and smartphones. Starbucks was compelled by a Twitter campaign to pay billions of pounds of tax to the UK government after its perfectly legal offshore tax evasion was revealed in 2012.
So the virtual city is as global as it is local. I can get hourly updates on air-pollution levels in my neighbourhood or buy a new battery for my phone from Korea. People from across the world can gather online to share ideas, pressure for change, innovate, spread their artistic talents or make friends. The virtual city provides a way of shrinking and filtering the real megacity, saving time and energy on real journeys across complicated spaces, of accessing multiple conversations with relative anonymity, and of individually helping steer humanity through collaborative creativity and problem solving. It enhances but doesn’t replace the real city with its face-to-face social cues, physical exchanges and wealth of information humans use to make judgements about trustworthiness and other value-laden decisions.
The virtual city does have a more problematic side, however. Never has there been so much information about so much of our lives in such an accessible form. In the course of a day, the average person in a Western city is said to be exposed to as much data as someone in the 15th century would encounter in their entire life. The digital birth of a baby now precedes the analogue version by an average of 3 months, as parents post sonogram images on Facebook and register their infant’s domain name before the child is even born. Governments, groups, individuals and corporations can access data about us and use it for their own purposes.
This erosion of individual privacy can be benign or malevolent, but it is already a part of life in the Anthropocene. Customer data collected by the US supermarket Target allows it to identify with a high degree of accuracy which shoppers have recently conceived and when their due date is. The store uses this information to target such women for advertising of its pregnancy and baby products in a timely fashion, even if she has not yet told anyone else. Sinister? Maybe. What about police officers identifying householders as marijuana growers by analysing energy use data? Or neighbours targeting individuals for cyber or physical bullying because of information they discover online? We’re all generating data, every time we make an ATM transactions or log onto a website. In the Anthropocene, we will have to decide who owns our data and whether it can be shared.