Megacity Living and Externalization of the Mind (updated 2016)

by Per Arild Garnåsjordet and Lars Hem

Per Arild Garnåsjordet (Norwegian, born 1945) is a geographer and senior researcher at Statistics Norway. From 1995–2006 he was managing director for Asplan Viak, a major consulting fim in urban and regional planning.

Lars Hem (Norwegian, born 1945), PhD, is an associate professor of clinical psychology, Department of Psychology, Aarhus University, and a specialist and supervisor in psychotherapy. He has written books on the theory of science, social psychology, dreams and REM sleep, and psychotherapy.

City of the Future

In 2052 most of the world’s population will live in big cities. Many of these cities will be very big (ten to forty million people). Furthermore, many of the smaller cities (one to five million) will be surrounded by huge urbanized areas closely connected to the infrastructure of the city. In the industrialized world, the infrastructure will be well developed so people can easily move and meet. In the less industrialised societies, the big cities will be divided into two kinds of communities, as they are today: The center (or multiple centers) will be part of the industrialized world, with adequate infrastructure. The periphery will be huge shantytowns basically without infrastructure. There will be “cities of gold” on a “planet of slums.”

However, the slums will be more integrated in the economy than presently. A new division of labor will develop within the megacity. Parts of the slum may, for instance, specialize in recycling, as we can observe in some of the large Indian cities today, while other parts may do intensive agriculture. Thirty percent of the food consumed in Kampala today is produced in the metropolitan area.

The huge populations in the megacities of 2052 will be part of the global community. Still, most people will live their lives as part of a local community that will form the stable frame for their daily lives. The local community will gain importance for most people as the main source of their collective identity, rather than the megacity itself. The multi-center structure will facilitate the cultivation of specific cultural traditions and help create a community for children, who  need a recognizable social world to take them through the transition from childhood to citizenship.

The megacity will differ from current cities in two important ways. One will be the very magnitude and cultural diversity of the city and the fact that there will be only small remnants of a rural world to counterbalance them, politically and culturally. The megacity will constitute the social world for the overwhelming majority of people.

The megacity will frame the societal existence of the human species and will be more important than the nation-states in which they are located. We can already perceive this: you don’t move to the United States, but to New York or Los Angeles.

Externalization of the Mind

The other main difference from present cities is that the Internet will be within easy reach for all megacity dwellers, along with traditional infrastructure like sanitation, roads, and power. The societal needs and aspirations of the city dwellers will be framed by the externalisation of human intelligence implied by ever-present access to the Internet.

Steady access to the Internet will reduce the general illiteracy in the megacity. As a result, the number of talented people will increase, and their Internet access to a world community will contribute to the economic growth and the acceleration of local societal change. But the most radical, and unpredictable, change will be in the mentality of the majority who will live their lives continually connected to the Internet. Many of us already do, but as an acquired habit in adulthood. Growing up with the externalization of one’s cognitive capacity through permanent Internet contact is another matter. It will change people’s sense of self and their emotional makeup, their basic cognitive orientation, and their coping strategies.

We believe that over the next forty years there will be a parallel evolution of the megacities and the human minds continuously connected via the Internet. The megacity will become the paradigmatic living space for humans, and constant web contact will frame how people psychologically cope and thrive in this space. Let us look at some consequences.

Education of Children

The societies of the Western world have been in constant and accelerating change through all their history, but not until the second half of the twentieth century did the change reach a pace so fast that most parents now know that their children will live in a world profoundly different from their own. Parents know that they are ignorant about much of the world their children will live in. But we can only teach children what we know. A main agenda in today’s pedagogic discourse is teaching children to take responsibility for what they need to learn and know.

Always Tracked

The traditional psychological and epistemic abyss between what is written and what is spoken is already blurred—and new norms concerning trust, privacy, and emotional sharing are under development in response. The informal electronic communications in text messages, e-mails, and social media are different because they are recorded—and can always be traced. The polite and “white” lies in informal communication risk constant exposure if they are digitalised. And a paradox: what is “on record” electronically is less stable than what is on record in paper. The latter lasts for centuries, while the former must be refreshed every ten years or so.

A Global Reality

The Internet is a medium without borders, and communication through it is from anywhere, not from any specific location, which implies a profoundly different notion of self. One’s belonging to a physical place is blurred by one’s belonging to various virtual networks.


The megacity will be the social and physical environment for the lives of the majority of people in 2052. This will be an environment that is diverse and fluid, without clear borders between locations and without stable social structures and ideologies to give guidance as to how one’s

life is supposed to be. It will be an environment with few stable necessities and of open-ended and undefined opportunities. Megacity dwellers will be shaped by constant connection to the Internet, which also has few stable necessities and is completely open-ended as to opportunities.

Their mentality will be different from ours in profound ways.