“Cities and Ambition”
Commenter Rivsdiary referred me to an essay by Paul Graham called “Cities and Ambition“. Graham has lived in New York City, Silicon Valley, and Cambridge, Mass and developed a feel for the status messages transmitted by these centers of influence. Some snippets:
That’s not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.
Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.
As a blogger and an observer of journalists, pundits, and meme-transmitters of all kinds I find this point interesting. The internet is democratic in terms of regular people coming into contact with a larger quantity of information and analysis, but it is perhaps less democratic in the sense that the powers-that-be interact in networks and spheres of influence that are made stronger by the internet. Look at Twitter and the way that all of these pundits and prestige pressers know each other and regurgitate each others blog posts and ideas. It’s all still centered geographically through the NYC/DC corridor.
So far the complete list of messages I’ve picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life.
My immediate reaction to this list is that it makes me slightly queasy. I’d always considered ambition a good thing, but I realize now that was because I’d always implicitly understood it to mean ambition in the areas I cared about. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it’s not so pretty.
On closer examination I see a couple things on the list that are surprising in the light of history. For example, physical attractiveness wouldn’t have been there 100 years ago (though it might have been 2400 years ago). It has always mattered for women, but in the late twentieth century it seems to have started to matter for men as well. I’m not sure why—probably some combination of the increasing power of women, the increasing influence of actors as models, and the fact that so many people work in offices now: you can’t show off by wearing clothes too fancy to wear in a factory, so you have to show off with your body instead.
How many times have you read about startup founders who continued to live inexpensively as their companies took off? Who continued to dress in jeans and t-shirts, to drive the old car they had in grad school, and so on? If you did that in New York, people would treat you like shit. If you walk into a fancy restaurant in San Francisco wearing a jeans and a t-shirt, they’re nice to you; who knows who you might be? Not in New York.
One sign of a city’s potential as a technology center is the number of restaurants that still require jackets for men. According to Zagat’s there are none in San Francisco, LA, Boston, or Seattle, 4 in DC, 6 in Chicago, 8 in London, 13 in New York, and 20 in Paris.
The whole thing is interesting.