Technology's Effect On the Modern City

THAT old saw about ``where you stand depends on where you sit'' is another way of saying that value judgments, experience, professional training, or even mere opinion color one's view of things.

Whether my - or any other reader's - impression of popular science writer James Trefil's ``A Scientist in the City'' is good or bad depends on where we sit.

Trefil is a professor of physics at George Mason University near Washington, D.C. Among his 14 other books are ``1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Science,'' ``Dark Side of the Universe,'' and ``From Atoms to Quarks.''

In his latest work, Professor Trefil looks at the history and likely future of metropolitan areas. From the standpoint of a scientist fascinated with the physical world, he explores the major inventions and developments that have made cities what they are today, and he outlines several scenarios for the future based on the most recent technological discoveries.

While he does not go so far as to argue that technology alone determines how cities will develop, he does assert that ``technology defines the `envelope' inside of which cities can develop.''

Trefil explores three general areas: human ability to manipulate atoms and thereby construct things like steel and glass; to unlock stored energy through the steam engine and internal combustion; and to store and transmit information electronically.

Within the past century each area has seen rapid advancement, which Trefil explains clearly and in some detail. He adopts a chatty and anecdotal style that makes the information accessible; if anything, he errs on the side of informality. It's not exactly condescending, but sometimes (especially in the attempts at humor) just lame.

Another danger (or at least challenge) with popularizing science is that important facts can be glossed over. In talking about the insulating properties of glass, for example, Trefil makes general comments about energy loss where he could have been much more precise.

When he poses problems involving such things as the growing demand for power supplies and water, Trefil adopts what he acknowledges is ``the scientist's standard conceit'' - the belief in a technological fix. He ignores, for example, the fact that ``negawatts'' created by generally low-tech efficiency and conservation have accounted for more new energy over the past decade than all other sources combined.

Trefil tends to either dismiss, ignore or skim over most of the sociological impacts of technology as well as the nontechno- logical reasons why human beings build communities the way they do. He acknowledges that there may be cultural, historical, and certainly economic reasons why cities may not evolve in a certain way. But, he asserts, for the first time ``there are no technological constraints.''

From that base, he speculates on future cities, including so-called ``edge cities'' in space and even ``virtual'' cities in cyberspace.

These are all interesting concepts and possibilities, and Trefil probably is right when he states that information technology ``has within it the seeds of radical transformation not only of cities, but of our basic ways of life.'' (For better or for worse, he might have added.)

In many ways this is already happening, particularly in parts of the American West as ``lone eagles'' and ``modem cowboys'' move their professional operations away from the stresses and strains of urban life.

One place where I think Trefil is just flat wrong is his assertion that ``building a city is just one more example of a process that goes on in nature all the time,'' that cities ``aren't unnatural, any more than beaver dams or anthills are unnatural.''

Beaver dams do not create climate-changing pollution, mountainous landfills, or pools of toxic waste. Cities do.

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