[FoRK] Cities without borders

Victor B. Stan victor_b_stan at yahoo.ca
Sun Nov 7 17:43:55 PST 2004

An interesting article scooped from slashdot...


Place matters.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? A no-brainer. And yet, sociologist Saskia
Sassen at the University of Chicago has spent over a decade articulating
precisely that point. In an era of increasing globalization and
telecommunications, while most pundits laud the opportunities for
decentralization, Sassen’s observations suggest that economic production
is centralizing away from national economies to an emerging network of
"global cities." Because these global cities have closer ties to each
other than to their surrounding regions or national economies, they mark
a fundamental change in the nature of production. Or so the theory goes.

But what of digital culture? Does place matter? Is there a similar logic
at work in the production and reproduction of digital culture? As Paul
Gauguin once asked, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We

The Global Cities Network

"Cities are strategic places that concentrate command-and-control
functions for the global economy" — Saskia Sassen, The Global City.

The great economist Maynard Keynes warned against the effects of
transnational capital mobility in the early 1900s. One hundred years
later, we are just beginning to see those effects in the global economy.
Because businesses depend heavily on a wide array of services —
financial, legal, etc. — they must locate themselves in places that
provide easy access to those services. Reciprocally, these transnational
"producer services" must locate where their clients are. The net effect
of this process has been the increasing importance of certain cities —
New York, London, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Sydney, Miami — that not only
support complex webs of businesses but also participate in a global
network for the production and distribution of finance and capital. The
rise of a city is less a property of the city itself, and more a
property of its position and relation in the network of global cities.
As economists are fond of saying, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

But Sassen points out that this tide only lifts a few boats: those
within the global cities network. As the middle zone splits, a new
topology of core and periphery emerges. This process creates increasing
inequality not only between cities, but also within them. The forces
that originally created the rising middle class are now gone, replaced
by forces of polarization and marginalization. In the end, Sassen
wonders if such inequalities are sustainable, or if they are grim omens
of future conflict.

But the centralization of global finance is only one criteria one can
use to discover global networks of cities. In fact, Sassen admits that
different forms of production may have their own global networks. For
example, Miami acts as both a hub in a regional network of capital
flows, as well as a node in the global cities network. Its power in both
networks is a condition of the fact that it acts a bridge, or gateway,
between the two networks, filling what Ron Burt has termed "structural
holes." But is there a network of cities that acts as the core of
digital culture?

Cultural (Re)Production

Digital culture is potentially global culture. We find theatre
productions from London, like "Les Miserables", becoming mega-hits on
Broadway in New York City. The city scenes in the first Matrix film were
shot in Sydney, the second in San Francisco, and yet on-screen they
constituted an architecturally homogenous unidentifiable "global city."
The increasing globalization of production creates a "global culture"
that is cosmopolitan and robust in its diversity. Balancing this trend,
however, we find a resurgence in international arts. Films like "Amelie"
succeed because they inflect the emerging global culture with a local or
regional cultural flavor. In addition, Chow Yun-Fat is not only a
successful Chinese actor, but more importantly a successful global actor.

By contrast, Sassen notes that global cities take on a distinct identity
as they disconnect from their regional geography. If this is reflected
in cultural reproduction then we can expect to see changes in people’s
sense of identity. We might find individuals thinking of themselves as
New Yorkers first and Americans second, or Parisiennes first and French
second. This tension between global and locally inflected forms lies at
the heart of digital culture.

The resolution (or exploration) of this tension is to be found in the
fact that cultural production and reproduction does not rely on the same
factors as Sassen’s command-and-control economy. In fact, what are
increasingly called "technologies of cooperation" create new ways of
producing and reproducing culture.

Music: Owing to the decrease in costs and the computerization of
production, music is increasingly self-produced and then distributed
over the Internet. Standardized formats, such as MP3, have created an
enormous "underground" music economy.

News: In what began as a primarily geek phenomenon at Slashdot.org,
individuals now create and rate news through bottom-up participatory
processes on sites like Kuro5hin.org and OhMyNews. In addition, weblogs
are the primary news source for an increasing number of people who need
up-to-the-minute coverage of important events.

Information: Where once centralized encyclopedias were the norm, now we
find instead Wikipedia, huge and accurate information archives created
and maintained by a decentralized global mass of users.

Money: Douglas Rushkoff has even suggested in "Open Source Money" that
mobile technologies used for the creation, distribution, and consumption
of culture could undermine governments’ and businesses’ stranglehold on
money and capital, creating a boom in alternative currencies.

Tools: What Howard Rheingold has termed "tools for thought" provides a
whole new market in cultural goods, a market that is extraordinarily
crucial to digital culture. The development of Linux and the evolution
of the pro-sharing norms of the open-source community are quite possibly
the pre-eminent cultural explosion of our day. As Steve Weber has
pointed out in The Success of Open Source, these new cultural norms can
have profound implications for economic production.

Property: Our notions of property are being reshaped in the new era.
There is a trend away from privatization and towards a "managed commons"
method of production and distribution. From its beginnings as "copyleft"
to the more recent "Creative Commons" licenses (explored by Lawrence
Lessig in Free Culture), more and more individuals are being able to
redefine property out of the hands of the "power elites" of yesteryear.

Sassen does briefly mention the emergence of a new social aesthetic in
luxury consumption resulting in a proliferation of cuisine, fashion,
boutiques, and art galleries, and she admits that the shift to global
cities cannot explain this. However, she just as quickly writes off the
trend as something that is not important because it isn’t happening
among the "power elites" of the multinational corporations. One is
reminded of turn-of-the-century analysts predicting the future of
horse-drawn carriages while ignoring the invention of the automobile.

Digital Cultural Networks

The point of all this is that Sassen may have her definitions of "the
center" and "the periphery" exactly backwards. During the era of
decolonization after World War II, nation-states were reducing their
massively decentralized empires and re-centralizing their
command-and-control structures, but this was a sign of decline, not of
power. The same might be true of multinational corporations and their
command-and-control network of global cities.

In The Future of Work, Thomas Malone suggests that we may be moving from
"command-and-control to coordinate-and-cultivate." Insofar as
telecommunications facilitates decentralized coordination, and
"cultivation" — even etymologically — refers specifically to cultural
modes of production and reproduction over economic ones, I think that
Malone’s insight is a good one. Thus, analytically, we must move from
understanding merely the wage economy to examine a broader definition of
"work" including cooperation, non-profit work, work in the home, and the
entire social economy.

In so doing, we may find that the inequalities Sassen notes in the wage
economy dissolve when viewed under the broader context of social
production. Perhaps, the middle class is now producing in a way that
doesn’t engage the wage economy but rather creates what is increasingly
called "the sharing economy." Peer-to-peer networks, and "trash trading"
networks like Freecycle.org or eBay constitute new forms of social

There are definitely some questions to consider. Does the demise of
mp3.com and Napster mean that the multinationals are "winning"? Lawrence
Lessig is deeply concerned that they may be. Similarly, does the
consolidation of global media outlets mean that "they" exercise
increasing control over what we see and hear? And what of the
privatization of most creative works emerging from universities and
employees, called the "corporate confiscation of creativity" by Michael
Perelman in Steal This Idea?

Here, as I’ve implied above, I must disagree with the doomsayers. In
fact, it is my contention that as progressive centralization creates
more inequalities and obstacles it summons into being the very drivers
that compel people to create new modes of expression. (This is called
putting yourself out of business). To paraphrase a famous pop-culture
quote: The more you tighten your grip, the more slips through your fingers.

Persons act. Out of face-to-face interaction, discussion and debate,
culture emerges. Cities offer us places to congregate, to rally, to
express, to build, and even to conflict. They are the crucible of our
evolution, a pressure-cooker for the social. To say that place matters,
or cities, is to risk distraction, or worse misdirection, away from the
true locus of value in any culture, even digital culture. What matters?

People matter. You matter.

- Victor B. Stan
Two hundred years ago, Rousseau wrote with withering contempt about his
civilized countrymen who have lost the very concept of freedom and "do
nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in
their chains.... But when I see the others sacrifice pleasures, repose,
wealth, power, and life itself for the preservation of this sole good
which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals born
free and despising captivity break their heads against the bars of their
prison; when I see multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European
voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve
only their independence, I feel that it does not behoove slaves to
reason about freedom."

More information about the FoRK mailing list