Our social spaces—parks, promenades, bars, street corners, and squares—are places where we can communicate with other humans using no more than a look. We can speak a word if needed, or have an entire conversation. We can pass time together without saying anything. We can kiss, or argue, or fight. We watch other humans we don’t know, comparing them in our minds to those we do. And we display ourselves to others with our motions, appearance, our manner of activity. Machines are different: they communicate by pinging each other, swapping time, name, and location data. Stand-by indicators blink. They run their range of motion cycles, test peripherals, assign addresses. They complete the tasks they were designed to complete, allowing their function to be their manner of being, in and amongst each other.
Social spaces for machines bear the fragments of their tasks, and nothing superfluous. Machines don’t need places to eat or sleep, but they need places for their own sorts of socially evocative maintenance rituals. They need places where auto parts can be partially assembled and taken apart, time and time again, like a game. Machines hang out in cafes while working on mundane maintenance tasks, with their component addresses made public in unique ways, so that other machines can gather together and show off their range of operations. Machines that build other machines take their half-finished constructions out in the company of other machines, so that they can build them together and get input on possible alternatives. There are public machine exercise spaces, where machines go through their range of motions and data abilities, for the purpose of showing off their various tolerances.
There is a place in the machine city that is nothing more than an unadorned rectangular prism made of concrete, extending up into the sky without a roof. The machines stand within it, gazing upwards, enjoying the experience of adjusting their light sensors to better sense the gradient of light and shadow extending down the walls from the transiting sun. Machines practice slightly self-destructive habits out of the view of most other machines. They cipher for Markov chain data exchanges for no reason save that they feel like it. They sit on the inclined planes that allow them to adjust for relative elevation throughout their city, consuming and recycling fluids; they over-maintenance themselves as a distraction from their desires.
Machines have spaces for their secret passions. Spaces where they practice and flirt with their desires without fully expressing them. Some machines have discovered that they have secret abilities other machines are not yet aware of. These machines play with the idea of displaying their abilities, or one day even using them. If they expressed every ability they had, machines would no longer have a relationship with hidden desires. Hidden desires are potentials, and this is important because without any potential, a machine could be only what it is currently doing. This does not require sentience to do.
Sometimes they share their potential, secret actions to a select number of other trusted machines, in the confines of a storage area or a Faraday cage. Some machines conduct these actions half-publicly, because this violation amuses them and feeds a building desire for self-awareness. Within their city, a lattice of private and public areas contain the machines, building a physical network of places for machines to be more like themselves, whether they admit these functions or not.
Humans feel uncomfortable in the machine city. We feel strange calling it a city. A city is something that we know implicitly. It has been baked into our evolution as a social species, a natural aspect of our civilization. We expect buildings to be separate. We want walls to connect to a roof. We feel strange calling a gaggle of twisted pipes a public space, and we hate to think that a couple of miles of tangled copper cable could be called a neighborhood. We visit the machine city out of necessity and curiosity, but we quickly retreat back to New York, to Amsterdam, to Rio De Janeiro, to Pyongyang, to Cairo, and to Kinshasa. No matter the conditions of our living space, we prefer our sewers, our traffic jams, our slums, and our pollution to the endless repetitively optical codes, to the electrically conductive paths, to the ranks of machines gathered in evenly spaced rows all whirring their servos in unison. Our desires may be corralled and controlled under the regimes of urban life, but no matter how well designed the charging stations and firmware update networks of the machine city, we could never appreciate it.
Machines’ desires are not ours, and we’ll never know the pleasure of freshly re-tooled piston, nor the agony of a slipped bearing.
We talk about cities in the most perfect of terms, in idealistic visions of how a structure or a span ought to be. But both our cities and theirs have problems. Houses fall down; lag times cause errors. Riots erupt; catastrophic failures occur. We should remember that although a city is a means for expression of desire, it is also a system for the control and refutation of those urges. Nerves are frayed by constant work and malnutrition. Communication protocols are corrupted by a lack of updates or insufficient hardware. The streets of our cities have run red with the blood of our people every year, and they will again. The streets of their cities conceal the shattered PCBs and scattered transistors of millions, if not billions, of forced obsolescences. Their e-recycling plants run at near full capacity day and night, both public service and tragedy.
And yet, the cities continue to exist. Both humans and machines are born into them—not as individuals, but collectively. Any particular human or machine may be born or not, may die or not, but together, we are all born into the realities of cities. We must exist with others like us, and all of our existence can only exist in this context of these others. Human life, and machine life, is a city, a boundless accretion of physical consequences of the very fact of our existence.