Epistemic Orders of Magnitude

14 March 2011


Above is a photograph that I took of Prague when I visited in 1992. There are many readily identifiable elements in the image. Even individuals without deep geographical knowledge might recognize the Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral, even if they didn’t know the names of these structures. More generally, a person is likely to notice that it is a European city that is in the photograph. The closer up your view, the more detail you see, and the more detail you see, the more knowledge that you have — though it is knowledge of a certain kind, specific to a particular scale. We could call this knowledge of a particular order of magnitude, or an epistemic order of magnitude.

This Oslo street scene (above) that I took in 2009 reveals more detail than the landscape view of Prague — for example, one can read individual signs, and perhaps even recognize a particular advertising campaign — but it would be difficult to identify the city unless you had really encyclopedic knowledge of the area. While this probably holds true for street scenes in most cities, there are, of course, immediately identifiable street scenes, such as that below, since it includes a portion of the readily identifiable Brandenburg Gate.

When we pull back further, looking at a city from a great distance, the texture and fabric of urban space presents a certain sameness to the eye, although a keen observer will still be able to pick out distinctive features. In Modernization, Industrialization, Urbanization I wrote regarding this distant perspective:

“Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm’s length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.”

The photograph below of San Francisco might be mistaken for another large city of the industrial era, and it could be just about anywhere, except it does reveal some of those distinctive features, such as the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid.

Pulling back even farther, moving to another order of magnitude in perspective, identifying a city can become quite problematic. Individual landmarks mostly disappear, except for truly monumental constructions, and most cities lack truly monumental constructions and thus become indistinguishable at this level. Consider the photograph below:

I cannot remember where I found this photograph, and I can’t identify it. The photograph admirably shows the road and rail networks that cut through all cities of the late twentieth century, and I suspect that it is in Europe or North America, but it could just as well be on other continents. There are details that can be picked out, but what we must notice at this level of magnification is the overall structure.

Some cities, even from orbital distance, are immediately recognizable, as with Brasília, which we can see (above) retaining the structure of its original plan (below). Generally speaking, planned cities built rapidly in accordance with a recognizable geometry are likely to be readily identifiable, whereas organic cities that grew up without a plan are less clearly differentiated.

Other cities have distinctive harbors or a relation to a distinctive river or ocean coastline or other natural feature that would make them identifiable, although few people have an encyclopedic knowledge of harbors and would be able to identify a city on that basis. Here (below) is Naples from space:

It used to be said, “See Naples and die,” such was its reputation for urban beauty. Whatever the reputation of Naples today, this kind of beauty is not recognizable from a great distance. Probably Naples would be a little more recognizable if the entire Bay of Naples were included. Here (below) is Tokyo’s harbor from space:

Whatever one knows or does not know about Naples and Tokyo, the satellite photographs tell you something important about their economies that may well not be revealed by a photograph of a street scene: both are major ports, and their economies are therefore tied to trade. And here (below) is São Paulo from space:

São Paulo is close to the coast, and while many maps make it look like it is on the coast, it is in fact an inland city. While São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, and therefore an economic force to reckon with, we can see that a port does not play the same role in its economy that port facilities play in Tokyo or, for example, Seattle, which is as wedded to Puget Sound, into which ocean-going ships can freely enter, as Tokyo is wedded to Tokyo Bay. While not a satellite photograph, this picture gives a great sense of Seattle’s dependence on water-borne commerce:

Some cities are a surprise from an aerial view, and present an aspect not at all evident from the ground. Take this city for example:

Who would have guessed that Khandahar is so orderly, with its regular grid plan and cruciform center? No street scenes give a sense of Khandahar’s overall order. It certainly surprised me. I suspect there is an interesting story behind Khandahar’s macroscopic order, and I would like to know that it is. My first intuition is that Khandahar has grown up from an ancient Roman street plan, which centered a city on the perpendicular crossing of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus. This may be the case, but I have not confirmed this. The city of Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula, known for retaining it Roman street plan, has a far less obvious cruciform plan than Khandahar:

Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula

Barcino, Split, Umm Qais, and Damascus are also known for their preservation of Roman planning, and now that I think of it I will need to look at aerial or orbital pictures of these cities and see if they approach the rectilinear regularly of Khandahar. In any case, at least part of a city’s history may be evident from the abstract perspective afforded by distance.

If we pull back far enough, a city ceases to even look like a city. In the NASA photograph above, it has been observed that London at night looks like a constellation. Many of the satellite images above reveal cities that, from a distance, look like organic growths — or, if you prefer a more threatening image, like a cancer on the land.

There is a sense in which an view of cities from a distance gives us an abstract perspective — both upon the city itself, as a whole and as an artifact, and upon urbanized human life, which is inseparable from the city upon which it supervenes.

Abstract perspectives of necessity lack the kind of detail of a concrete perspective, but we learn particular kinds of things from an abstract perspective, and different kinds of things that we learn from close up concrete detail. The abstract and the concrete represent distinct (though complementary) epistemic orders of magnitude.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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