Glaeser: Cities and the Internet

Alright – we had Montaigne slated to be the next text, but I’ve not found any compelling purchase in his Essays. I got about 600 pages through the complete set, and – yeah, just nothing compelling. I have a long list of things that I could write on, things about education and cannibals and all sorts – and I’ve even got a little group of four posts that I’d drafted up and put in the queue. But I’m ultimately not happy with them, so I’ve pulled them entirely. They’re still in the drafts, and I might let them out in the future, but for now we’re switching gears.

I recently picked up Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. Subtitled How Urban Spaces Make Us Human, it fits into my architecture focus quite neatly, and it might even have some interesting angles on the broader theological concerns that we play with here. I mean, it probably won’t, but I ended up writing about the 1932 German elections while I was reading Arendt, so whatever. I’m ultimately happy seeing these in-between texts developing out as a bit of a palate cleanser.

Glaeser, then. In Chapter One, ‘What Do They Make In Bangalore,’ Glaeser points out that the information age hasn’t destroyed our need for the city. There’s a whole historical process of our world getting more and more connected, right – and in many ways, it’s true that the world has shrunk. In the 19th century, the trip from Europe to New Zealand took “75 to 120 days.” Now it’s a matter of hours. But at the same time, this increased connection has often been attended by claims that the city would become irrelevant. Glaeser notes that “one hundred years ago, the telephone was supposed to make cities unnecessary.” That’s obviously not happened. The internet’s probably not going to change things either – it’s certainly not going to undermine the very concept of the city. But why not? If we’re getting more connected, why is the need for physical proximity not decreasing? In other words: why the fuck does Silicon Valley exist?

Silicon Valley is one of those places that really crystallises our current situation, with regards to technology and the nature of the city. All of these digital connections and proximities are spilling out of Silicon Valley – all these technologies letting you get in touch with your family overseas, or buy things online from international vendors with the click of a button – it’s levels of connectedness that we could have never imagined even fifty years ago. And they’re all coming out of this one geographical area. The city isn’t threatened by our digital connectedness, because it’s the premise of digital connectedness. Silicon Valley gives the lie to any notion that digital technology is making our cities obsolete.

Well, alright – I mean, it is pretty funny that digital technology is largely streaming (heh) out of this one geographical location. But isn’t it still possible for technology to eventually murder our need for physical proximity? Just because it starts proximal doesn’t mean it will always need to be. Isn’t it possible that technology will eventually shed its geographical roots – that Silicon Valley will have been a sort of bridge between work in the physical and virtual worlds? Sure, I guess, that’s theoretically possible. But, to put it bluntly, technology isn’t anywhere near good enough.

In my previous job, back in New Zealand, I was working in online education – so we were all about that digital life. We’d built our business on the internet. However, our team managers all worked from a distance. They were all in other cities, while the bulk of the underlings hung around in Dunedin. And it was awful. We never saw the managers, barely ever heard from them, didn’t get to socialise with them – which, like, nobody gets excited about socialising with managers, but you do actually end up having these little conversations in passing where you learn about people, and those conversations are important – even purely on the level of networking. You also get to see how your managers interact with other people, how they handle setbacks, how they handle conflict. You learn just by sheer physical proximity. And the internet can’t make up for that. As Glaeser puts it, “to defeat the need for human face-to-face contact, our technological marvels would need to defeat millions of years of human evolution that has made us into machines for learning from the people next to us.”

And to be clear, the argument isn’t that the internet and digital proximity have no benefit to our working relationships. They pretty obviously do. But for Glaeser, digital connection and physical proximity are “complements rather than substitutes.” He notes that phone calls are overwhelmingly made between people who are geographically close to each other, and that more urban countries send far more emails. Connection begets more connection. Efficiency increases consumption – that’s Jevons’ paradox. Digital communications give us a wider, more global reach than ever before, but they also make us more connected to the people down the street. They supplement the ordinary operations of the city, making it stronger and more effective.

As something of a postscript, I guess I find this stuff interesting as a sort of counter-balance to all the guff about the digital era. Obviously the internet does bring us all closer together – this blog is even a good example of that. This year alone, I’ve had viewers from all the usual places – the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (although the NZ audience is almost exclusively one person (what a cutie)) – but also places as far-flung as Italy, India, Ecuador, Romania, Pakistan, Kenya, Latvia, and Montenegro. Fifty-three countries, as of writing, and every continent on Earth. That’s crazy. But there’s also been a lot of nonsense hype about what technology will do for us. We were supposed to be seeing the rise of the paperless office – fuck knows where that’s gone. Kindles were supposed to end the book trade – nope, didn’t happen either. It’s not all failed attempts – streaming has done a pretty good job of murdering the music industry – but in some ways there’s been more smoke than fire. More sensible voices are now starting to develop measured discussions around how new technologies are integrating with the pre-existing world. The focus is more on continuity and development, rather than radical breaks. From the historical perspective, that seems like a better way to go.

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