subways, cyberspace, synapses…

Recently back from Japan, I was struck by something the travel writer Pico Iyer said in an article in yesterday’s newspaper, about Tokyo:

It’s best to browse, to get lost, almost as if you were in some virtual reality; more than any city I know, the place is like a website, alight with odd links, hobbyists’ addenda, animated figures and racing graphics…

The analogy seems, to me, spot on.

Because here is a map of the Tokyo subway system:

And here is a map of the internet:


The first map is published by Japan Rail, tracing the journeys of 6.3 million passengers per day.

The second, from the Opte Project (more info here), traces the movements of the c.2-billion browsers currently online.

Both are centreless, fractalline, nesting lines within lines and systems within systems.

In each, there are multiple possible routes between destinations, and the closest distance between two points isn’t always a straight line. More likely, it’s a curve – a swerve between two locations, a leap sideways and slant.

And perhaps most importantly, both networks – the abstracted internet at one extreme, and the tentacled topography of Tokyo, at the other – are intensely creative, generative places.

They seem to be very good at making weird, unexpected connections.

Like, for example, between pets and couture:

Or roadwork and, um, pinioned frogs:

Call me reductive, maybe, but it makes me think of another analogy, and it makes me want to tap Iyer on the shoulder and say: no, Tokyo is not so much a website as a brain.

Or rather, maybe the brain is a kind of Tokyo.

I don’t know much about network theory, but thinking about the Japanese subway in terms of neurons and hyperlinks, daydreaming and browsing makes me feel, at least, that all that time I spent wandering around confused wasn’t actually a bad thing.

See, I wasn’t lost – I was surfing.


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