The Null Device

Cities and Ambition

Paul "Hackers and Painters" Graham has an interesting essay on the implicit messages that cities send to their inhabitants:
Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.
What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.
Graham lists the messages sent by other cities: while New York is about money and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is about knowledge, Silicon Valley is all about power, Berkeley is about being civilised and living better, while Washington DC and Los Angeles are about whom you know, although in different ways. Internationally, Oxford and Cambridge (the original one) are intellectual, though not as strongly as Cambridge, MA. Paris is about style (people care about art there, though it's not an intellectual centre). Meanwhile, London is residually about being more aristocratic (at least, when viewed from an American viewpoint), though also places a value on "hipness", and keeping abreast of trends.

He also speculates that this effect, by which a city accumulates a set of values and, in its outlook, encourages certain motivations (whilst implicitly discouraging ones at odds with them), was behind historical phenomena such as mediæval Florence being home to a disproportionate number of artists compared to other, equally big, cities.

You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you've heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren't genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?
If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn't beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?
The power of the invisible cultural environment, as manifested in a myriad tiny things, to nurture or thwart ambitions is powerful:
No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do
There's an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: they'll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. Similarly, though there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that's what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about.
Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there's a concentration of smart people there, but that there's nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.
At the moment, San Francisco's message seems to be the same as Berkeley's: you should live better. But this will change if enough startups choose SF over the Valley. During the Bubble that was a predictor of failure—a self-indulgent choice, like buying expensive office furniture. Even now I'm suspicious when startups choose SF. But if enough good ones do, it stops being a self-indulgent choice, because the center of gravity of Silicon Valley will shift there.
Speaking as one who has moved from Melbourne to London, this rings true. Melbourne seems more about creativity and collaborative expression, whereas London is more about status and success. In Melbourne, people get involved in creative projects that don't have a career or strategy for success attached to them, be it making zines, playing music or other arts. In London, it's more about success; all the artists want to be Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin (or, indeed, Banksy) and all the indie bands have stylists and want to be on the cover of NME. (All of this reflects itself in the nature of art produced here; the calculatedly stylised nature of it, falling in a spectrum between naked commercialism and (equally mercantile) fashion-driven hipness.) People pay more attention to keeping score here, and that affects the way the game is played. If you tinker around on creative projects with no commercial potential, you may as well be building model train sets in your shed, or, indeed, playing World Of Warcraft. (In fact, if you did the latter, you'd probably have more of an impact on the world.) People humour you, but nobody's interested in that any more than they are in what you had for lunch. I don't know whether this was always the case in the capital, or whether it was a result of Thatcherite/Blairite entrepreneurial values being adopted by the broader population, though it is a noticeable phenomenon.

There are 8 comments on "Cities and Ambition":

Posted by: toby Thu May 29 01:39:49 2008

I'm willing to bet that the Florence example is just ascertainment bias. everything else is just a restatement of the old adage 'birds of a feather flock together'. There's probably a degree of feedback associated with any group of people living in proximity; that's hardly surprising. I can't see any reason why a city divorced from its populace) might promote a particular set of values and desires.

Posted by: ianw Thu May 29 07:17:46 2008

does he (Paul Graham) really believe that "most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time"? surely the great artists of Milan just had a PR problem.

the interesting thing about what you (Andrew) say in the last paragraph is, this is exactly how I would once have compared Brisbane and Melbourne - that the former was the land of creativity freed from commercial incentive, and the latter a bed of slickness and stylist-tweaked careerism.

Posted by: acb Thu May 29 09:14:11 2008

@toby: I guess it is a truism, though it's too easy to underestimate it. People are intuitively Aristotelian essentialists, who overestimate the effects of the "essence" of a person or object and underestimate the significance context; hence, it's more intuitive to reason that a creative or enterprising person will be equally such whether they're in New York, Nottingham or Norilsk, and that the effect of the receptiveness of their environment on their motivation will be minimal.

Posted by: acb Thu May 29 09:18:52 2008

And I think there's a bit more than "birds of a feather". Graham's point appears to be that the implicit biases of a city's values (such as which ambitions it encourages and which ones it rejects) permeate the subtle details of the city's culture, and interplay with its architecture and planning. His example of Cambridge (MA) vs. Berkeley is an example of this. As for a city divorced from its populace, that wouldn't exist here, as a city is a living thing with a culture. Were a city abandoned and subsequently repopulated by an alien populace, its culture would be different. (While its climate and layout would influence it, the new inhabitants could interpret them far differently than the old ones did.)

Posted by: acb Thu May 29 09:20:25 2008

@ianw: Or maybe the promising artists of Milan (and elsewhere in the area) flocked to Florence, because that's where the action was. And your Melbourne example holds up if you ignore north of the Yarra. :-)

Posted by: Commonpeople Thu May 29 10:13:31 2008

Although I agree with some of what he (and you) says about London - its obsession with hipness, for example - I think he gets it wrong with this idea of being more aristocratic. I think it's truer to say that most people in London are just trying to survive! It's so impossibly expensive for most that being hip is actually an act of creativity - being able to shine with so little. Also, the move of the artistic and the wealthy to such places as Shoreditch and Hackney shows that they want to be as far as possible as the dull aristocrats as possible. Nobody takes them royals seriously in London - as can be seen in any gossip magazine or tabloid.

Posted by: acb Thu May 29 11:12:10 2008

@Commonpeople: well, Graham is American, and from an American perspective, Britain could look inherently aristocratic/classy/olde-worlde. (Note how charming many Americans find British accents, even those which sound common in Britain.)

Posted by: Niall Thu May 29 16:01:53 2008

I really agree with your assessment of British (London) culture - it's one of the myriad reasons why I don't live there anymore...