Monday, September 13, 2004

Jane Jacobs, Cities, the Internet . . . Not Presidential politics

It's been a long week. Seeing my girlfriend off to Ireland for a semester abroad, getting classes settled. I've watched Bush bounce, Kerry flounder and talk tough, the assault weapons ban pass into obsolescence (barring some last minute, James Bond-ish rescue operation), and the propsects of a happy November 3rd (and 2005-2008) decline. So I'm sick of talking Presidential politics right now. When I started this blog, I conceived of it as a place to discuss interesting things that might not be overtly political. So in pursuit of that goal . . .

Jane Jacobs, an economist, has written a great deal about thow cities grow and why large cities, despite their inefficiencies of transportation, high rents, crowding, and pollution, are still the centers of economic growth. Basically her theory, backed up by a body of empirical work, argues that cities allow vast economic growth when they retain diversified industries. Innovations in one industry spur innovations in others, employees form breakaway efforts that further divide labor, create new products and services, and increase the vigor of the economy. Cities that become "company towns," like Rochester, where I spent my teen years and which is dominated by Kodak and Xerox, tend to stagnate. Cities where growth is most vigorous are cities where new businesses are constantly being started, which means businesses are also constantly failing. There's an inefficiency built into the system--trial and error--but it has a huge return--economic progress. Cities sacrifice efficiency of production for development.

So, if that explanation seems to make sense . . . The proximity of businesses and industry that cities afford can be approximated by the internet and the information technology revolution. It has long been argued that the developments of the IT revolution have collapsed space and time; suddenly the global economic system seems more urban, with the potential for growth that spacial proximity has afforded city-based innovators. There are still senses in which knowledge and innovation remain local. If a great deal of innovation and information is being developed and traded in English, then English-speakers will be able to tap that resource. Of course, the nice thing about language is that it's not exclusive. Although you can only live in Chicago, you can speak and read English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, so that you can inhabit a number of spaces all at once.

All of this discussion is somewhat reductionist. Anthropologists and other acamedicians have written at much more length at the reduction of space and time, the overlapping of "ethnoscapes," "mediascapes," "technoscapes," "financescapes" and "ideoscapes" (Arjun Appadurai's "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy). Cities, as Jacobs explores them, are technoscapes, in which new techniques of production jump between industries, creating ever newer types of production, and new divisions of labor to go along with them. A global economy that can mimic the density of an urban technoscape, through exchange of information, cheap trade of goods (allowing engineers in one country to see what engineers in others have come up with), might allow innovation to occur anywhere in the world, and increase the chances of global prosperity.

Another way in which the internet and information revolution have changed how growth happens: value is created in the software industry by writing code to fit new functions. The resource of open source code is an obvious instance in which a product developed for one industry--one software solution--could be examined and reengineered to fill a function in another industry, or create a whole new set of software solutions.

Anyway. Ideas I've been thinking about. Not too much to get shrill about, but toss me what you got.


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