The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves are a reworking of the brain in a vat’ thought experiment

August 20, 2020   5 mins

I don’t have a lot of time for futurists. And I don’t mean the Italian art movement that fetishised technology and fascism (though I don’t have any time for them either). I mean those nerdy trend predictors and philosophers of the future that increasingly seem to fascinate so many. There used to be something slightly cranky about predicting the future — you know the sort of thing: living under the sea, jet packs, colonising Venus, eating protein pills — but not any longer. There is even an Association of Professional Futurists.

I suppose — to be charitable for a moment — this is what used to be called planning, getting ahead of the problem. But futurists take all this to quite another level. They are usually highly serious, geeky overgrown teenagers, generally men, who have been brought up on way too much science fiction. And they have turned what is basically a sucked finger raised into the air into a highly technical sounding art form. As the old Yiddish proverb has it: “Man plans and God laughs.”

Even so, all this MIT-meets-end-of-the-pier stuff does sometimes have interesting things to say. And the American futurist Jordan Hall’s “Civium Project” is a case in point.

Civium is a way of looking at cities, and specifically what a post-city world might look like. It imagines an alliance between technology and the countryside replacing the city as the focus of creativity and wealth-creation. It is the idea that there is no longer much point living in the middle of a large conurbation when you can now move out, look at fields through your window, breathe clean air, and do all your meetings with video conferencing. Covid has accelerated this fantasy. Rightmove has just announced that August has been one of the busiest months ever for buying and selling houses, with many moving to places such as Cornwall and Devon.

“Cities are to people like stars are to atoms,” explains Hall. Like stars, cities have this inward gravitational pull. The more people that pack into an area, the more ideas it buzzes with and the greater its capacity to make money. The bigger the city, the more money (on average) that one can make there — so he argues. It’s all about the economies of scale. But just as there is a centripetal force that sucks in people, so too there is a centrifugal force that pushes them out. Because people have bodies, they take up physical space, and have physical needs like food. Thus the dynamic of the city is created by the intense inward pressure of the economic pull to the centre, and the resistance to this constant pull that our physicality engenders. People can only be packed in a small space so much before they want to break out of it.

But can technology — always the futurists’ deus ex machina — really square this circle? The Civium project imagines that the density of people that has made the city so much of a money spinner can now be recreated online. Indeed, when people can be translated into digital images, they can be packed together even more tightly, with even greater creativity and prosperity being created. The “gallery view” of Zoom, for example, allows many people to cram into the tiniest of spaces. And if density of people = creativity = prosperity, then the city as we have known it is doomed — because in the digital realm, the thing that attracted people together, what Hall calls “minds in relationship” can be de-coupled from the negative consequences of being physically piled up on top of each other.

The Civium imagines that we can have it both ways. We can live by the River Tamar, soothed by gentle music, without a neighbour for miles — yet we can also, and without commuting, instantly become a member of the sort of community that has made cities the economic hubs of civilisation for centuries. Yes, online conferencing has its own unique ennui to contend with. But that’s why we are moving to the Tamar. With all that time saved not commuting, there will be ample opportunity to chill out in your hammock and work off that disturbing feeling of existential dislocation with some good, old fashioned, country walks.

“It’s because minds are embodied that we have cities. Up until very recently the only way for minds to interact was to have bodies close to each other,” Hall says.

In other words, cities were an unfortunate consequence of the fact that minds have to carry around with them their physical bodies. Today, however, the virtual world allows us to jettison those bodies when we want to be “minds in relationship” and then relax by the river when we want to put body and soul back together again. This will not be an “adjunct to civilisation” Hall argues, but “a fully symmetric basis to civilisation with the physical side”.

He even imagines the virtual, the Civium, could represent a “single city” with the kind of scale to be maximally generative in terms of wealth creation. This is Capitalism 2.0.

What most interests me most about Hall’s proposal is that it recreates in such sharp focus our old friend the mind/body dualism and of a sort very similar to that imagined by the philosopher René Descartes, he of “I think therefore I am” fame. Hall’s idea of “minds in relationship”, and minds that have jettisoned their troublesome physicality, would inscribe into the very basis of civilisation the division that has created so much philosophical trouble since Descartes.


Perhaps the best way to critique the Civium project would be to argue that minds do not have relationships: only people do. And people are an indivisible unity of mind and body.

Yes, it is unfair to suggest that Hall neglects the body — after all, his vision of the bucolic life freed from the crowded, polluting, traffic rammed city is in many ways a return to our one-ness with the natural world. But this is achieved by pulling us apart — the creative, innovative mental part of ourselves making money in the virtual world and the bodily part being soothed in the physical.

And I am highly suspicious of this split. Physicality has a much greater role in innovation and creativity than Hall allows. In many disciplines, creativity is a very tactile business. My wife, for example, teaches weaving at university. She researches innovation in weaving technology. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what this could mean as simply “minds in relationship”.

Likewise, to pick another example among many, the sort of trust that is necessary for creative and economic collaboration requires a much stronger sense of the face to face encounter than made possible over a screen. Morality is a remarkably physical business, I find. The obligations we have to other people make much more sense when we can see and touch them.

I began this piece being rather rude about futurists. I called them geeks — which is partly a way of talking about physical awkwardness, I suppose. Now I know that, these days, geeks are people with extraordinary power. They are the algorithm creators that shape so much of our lives.

And what terrifies me about the Civium project is that it is a way of imagining the world in which all this geeky awkwardness about physical bodies is turned into a civilisational principle.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.