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(Ideas Having) Sex and the City

2011 June 19
Sex_and_the_City

We all love Carrie Bradshaw.  And why not? She’s beautiful, charming, witty and intelligent.  She lives glamorously, goes to cool parties, meets fascinating people and provides insightful social commentary.

Yet her story is not just about sex.  As the title implies, at least half of it is the city.  If Carrie lived in rural Kentucky rather than Manhattan, we wouldn’t admire her, but consider her lifestyle “trailer trash.”

Many would attribute this strange dichotomy to bias and perhaps there’s some truth to that.  However, there’s a growing body of evidence that cities and the social activity that they catalyze are the key to our future.  Even with our ability to connect across great distances, it is our local environment that spurs innovation.

The Sociology of Cities

Cities have a sordid history.  Dickens chronicled their rise accompanied by increased proliferation of sweatshops and poverty.  So it wasn’t surprising that as cities started advancing rapidly at the beginning of the last century, their onward march was viewed with trepidation.

Louis Wirth made the first major effort to analyze the effect of cities on our social fabric in his classic 1938 essay.  He argued that the increased density of metropolitan areas led to specialization and diversity, which in turn broke traditional bonds of social cohesion and replaced a network of primary contacts with secondary relationships.

(Ironically, Malcolm Gladwell recently made similar arguments about social media with respect to political movements)

The vision of cities that Wirth presents is one of moral and social decline, where individuality is replaced by “categories,” meaningful conversation by mass media and social involvement giving way to detachment.  For him, Carrie’s dalliances are symptoms of the city’s dehumanizing effect.

The Ecosystem of the City

In 1960 a magazine writer named Jane Jacobs published a book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with an altogether different view.  In her telling, it was the diversity of cities that made them vibrant and innovative.

She described neighborhoods that were kept safe by constant usage.  The mix of people coming and going, the variety of people and businesses and the organic way that cities go through decay and rebirth, all combined to create both stability and vitality.

What made Jacobs’ view so revolutionary is her critique of urban renewal.  In her view, the economic life of the city wasn’t dependent on big infrastructure projects or tax incentives for businesses, but in the promoting the same diverse culture that Wirth decried.

For Jacobs, it was the mixing of people and their ideas on sidewalks, cafes and bars that held the key to prosperity.

A Tale of Two Cities

Most of the stuff that we’re really excited about  at the beginning of the 21st century can trace its roots back to the early 20th century and just two cities: London (by way of its exurb, Cambridge) and Budapest.

Cambridge was the home of Cavendish Laboratory, which pioneered both quantum physics (the stuff of computer chips and lasers) and genetics.  At the same time the Bloomsbury group was revolutionizing ideas about literature, number theory, logic and economics through it’s luminaries such as E. M Forster, G. H. Hardy, Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.

While growing up in Budapest, future Nobel prizewinning physicist Eugene Wigner developed an inferiority complex in math class sitting next to his schoolmate John von Neumann who invented both game theory and the modern computer architecture.

He might have felt the same way if he next to the somewhat younger Paul Erdős who, among other things, pioneered concepts in network theory or John Hasarnyi who recieved his own Nobel for helping to complete von Neumann’s work by introducing random variables to games.

There were, of course other cities of particular note, such as the Vienna of Freud, Wittgenstein and Gödel.  However, it is astonishing that a century later we can trace most of the really important ideas back to just a handful of places.

The Flat World vs. The Spiky World

In 2005, Tom Friedman published his book announcing that The World is Flat,  It occurred to him that the increase in global connectivity was making it possible for anyone anywhere to be as productive as people in places like pre-war Budapest and Cambridge and post-war America.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in emerging markets and I see what he means.  In Ukraine, you can hire a 20 year old girl who looks like a supermodel, speaks five languages and can do econometric modeling for $200/month.  Talent isn’t exclusive to any geographic area, why should innovation and the wealth that comes with it?

Soon after Friedman’s book came out, Richard Florida published an article (pdf) in The Atlantic proclaiming that the world is not flat at all, but “spiky.”   What he meant was that while innovation could happen anywhere, the fact is that it’s concentrated in relatively few places and the disparity is increasing, not decreasing.

Even more striking is Florida’s explanation of why some places are more innovative than others.  According to him, it takes more than research labs and universities, but a cool music and art scene, tolerance toward people of varied lifestyles and other soft qualities. As Jane Jacobs said, “When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.”

Ideas Having Sex

If Carrie Bradshaw was young and nubile in the sixties, she probably wouldn’t have moved to New York, but San Francisco’s Bay Area.  That’s where all the sex was going on! Free love. Smoking dope.  Tie-dye shirts.  The whole scene.

But that’s not all.  Many of the ideas pioneered by the guys in Budapest and Cambridge combined to make products there.  As Matt Ridley puts it in the video at the bottom of this post, those ideas had sex.

In other words, it was exactly the aspects that Louis Wirth lamented about cities that makes them engines of innovation.

Specialization: As Matt Ridley points out, King Louis XIV of France had 498 people preparing his 40 dishes to choose from for his dinner.  However, the average person living in a city today has far more.  Instead of doing things for ourselves we all now specialize in a few skills that we offer to many.

Diversity: Charles Kuralt once remarked that New York wasn’t really a big city at all, but a bunch of small cities right next to each other.  Every neighborhood has its own flavor. Jane Jacobs insisted that it was this diversity that was essential for the long term success of cities and proposed that urban policy be designed to promote it.

Interestingly, despite being the world’s most important financial center, New York bounced back much more quickly than manufacturing centers after the financial crises.

Exchange: Biologically, the function of sex is to recombine information.  Our DNA mixes within our own bodies (through a process called meiosis) and then with someone else’s. This is what creates the incredible diversity of people, not only within populations, but even within families.

Richard Florida’s research shows that the same type of ongoing recombination and renewal is crucial for innovation.

Go to the campuses of innovative companies in Silicon Valley and the first thing that strikes you is how many places there are for people to mix, from volleyball courts to ping pong tables to internal cafes.  In other words, lots of ideas for ideas to have sex.

And therein lies the lesson.  We fell in love with Carrie Bradshaw not simply because of sex (although that never hurts), but because of the endless possibilities unleashed when DNA combines.

- Greg

16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 19, 2011

    I forget which psychological researcher pointed out that people actually have better social lives in cities than we do in small towns and rural areas. Because cities have more people and greater diversity, you’re more likely to find people with common interests.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Good point.

    Thanks Cathy.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  2. June 19, 2011

    Living in Greece and Canada I can see how this applies, While I’m in Greece I feel more alive since there’s so many small diverse places to go, it’s just not one big city.

    Where in Canada, it’s almost forced to happen, if it happens at all…

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I’ve only been in Greece once, but I see what you mean.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  3. Robert H. permalink
    June 21, 2011

    Well… maybe.

    Plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    ********************************************
    http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/immigration-diversity-and-social-cohesion

    [snip - down the page]
    Does increased diversity undermine social cohesion? The evidence from the US suggests a negative relationship
    [snip]

    Most of the empirical literature on this subject finds that the relationship between diversity and trust is negative – the more diverse a community is, the less likely individuals in it are to be trusting. The trend seems to hold especially strong for the US. Costa and Khan (2003) established with the General Social Survey that people in more diverse neighbourhoods trust their neighbours less and are less likely to be politically or communally involved. Alesina and La Ferrara (2000, 2005) found that trust in general and more specifically interpersonal trust is lower in more racially heterogeneous communities in the US. Stolle et al. (2008) comparing US and Canada observed a strong negative effect of diversity on trust; however, they also found that contact may neutralize but not make this relationship positive. Most notably, Putnam (2007) argues that diversity seems to alienate people in general and in his words pushes them towards ‘hunkering down’ i.e. towards segregation and isolation.
    [snip]

    http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/05/the_downside_of_diversity/

    The downside of diversity
    A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life.

    IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

    But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

    “The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.
    [snip]
    ********************************************

    I’m old enough to remember how the “diversity” mentioned for New York was a collection of *very* homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods with *intense* hatred in-between. And the most cooperative and “neighborly” place that I’ve ever heard of is also the most homogenous. Of course I’m speaking of Japan.

    (shrug)

    But maybe having your hated different neighbors a few streets over *is* an advantage, compared to the alternatives. Don’t know. And also the entrepreneurial efforts you’re mentioning here have traditionally had a high proportion of people where such matters have *always* been less important.

    Robert H.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    I’m not sure that I can agree with you on this one. As I understand it, your basic argument is that diversity lessens social cohesion, which seems true enough, but I don’t see how that speaks to my general point about cities and innovation.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

    Robert H. Reply:

    “I’m not sure that I can agree with you on this one. ”

    I don’t even agree with myself in that I don’t know what’s really true about these matters. Just counter examples of why great diversity makes a great/good place.

    “…don’t see how that speaks to my general point about cities and innovation.”

    Innovation, no. But cooperative endeavors is what my evidence is about. Or even “livability” of the environment where those endeavors are supposed to happen. Like the remark above about ““When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave.” ” Well, when people are killing each other (either in reality or metaphorically) then I’m not sure it’s a good environment for cooperative ventures.

    But that’s where I was waffling at the end. I’m not so sure if those qualities for a better “living” environment are necessary for your examples of “innovation”. It’s just that with the “positive” quoted benefits for diversity I thought I’d throw in the [recent] data for some of the problems.

    Don’t know which matters more. The relative importance probably differs place to place.

    Robert H.

    [Reply]

    Robert H. Reply:

    Thinking about it further, maybe the ‘granularity’ of the diversity is the key. Too much at the local level seems (if you can believe those recent studies) to be a problem but that local a level is a fairly recent development.

    Thinking about it I remembered back when I was younger there was a popular theory (anthropology? sociology?) that ‘genius’ was produced from a heterogeneous collection of groups. (I forget what the homogenous groups produced, empires?) The examples used were the city-states of early Greece such as Athens and Sparta, *very* hard to become a citizen if you weren’t one => intensely homogeneous as a city-state. *And* intensely antagonistic/contemptuous of the other city-states. And they produced more works of genius than the much larger Empires of the day (0r most any other day). The other example was the city-states of Italy during the Renaissance. The same environment, the same expression of genius.

    So, diversity *and* homogeneity inter-playing at different scales.

    [shrug]

    Don’t know.

    Robert H.

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    It’s an interesting point, especially in light of Thomas Schelling’s models of racial segregation where a little bit of preference toward homogeneity can gentrify a society (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Schelling). So perceptions of identity can in itself create segregation (i.e. news media, tea partiers vs. RINO’s etc.).

    Athens and Sparta are an interesting case actually. Athens was a free society where Sparta was very militaristic and regimented. The intellectual activity was really centered in Athens. However, the prominent thinker of the time, Plato, thought Athens should model their society on Sparta – a bit ironic.

    - Greg

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    It doesn’t really seem like we have any disagreement here.

    - Greg

    Robert H. Reply:

    Don’t have a reply link under your answer/post so have to do it here.

    You said: “Athens was a free society where Sparta was very militaristic and regimented. The intellectual activity was really centered in Athens. ”

    Yes, it was [relatively speaking] free but *only* if you were an Athenian. You couldn’t join if you weren’t. Pericles, the great Man of Athens, created the law that only people with both parents Athenian could be citizens. There had to be a special exemption made for his son with Aspasia just before his death.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pericles_the_Younger

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pericles

    So intense isolation of the in-group with hostility/aggression to those other groups ‘outside’.

    Robert H.

    Greg Reply:

    Yes, that’s true, but it was still extremely free and democratic with respect to the times. You could make similar arguments in reference to the founding fathers of the USA.

    - Greg

  4. June 22, 2011

    I would just love to live in New York; my city is boring, uninteresting and people here are just plain un inventive. Alas! that is why we have television and the internet. Thanks for the post. ONe of my ul-time fav movies.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Glad you liked it.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  5. June 23, 2011

    LOL! so true about Ukraine!! reminds me about my friends – economics graduates from Kyiv Mohyla Academy :)
    starting full-time salary is bigger now – about $500, but still it’s easy to hire smart young people

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes. Excellent people in Ukraine. Government…not so much:-)

    - Greg

    [Reply]

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