Americans were long extremely proud of settling the continent. The pioneers” struggle against nature was an objective accomplishment that enthralled the world: Westerns were one of the most popular genres of movies from 1903 to 1970. American settlers combined independence and cooperation well, especially in contrast to the fractious Native Americans, who constantly stabbed each other in the back with self-destructive rivalries rather than unite to fight the white man.
Old-fashioned science fiction”Heinlein, Star Trek, Interstellar“tended to be about opening up a New Frontier that would allow Americans to once again flourish at what they do best: contend with nature for objective gain rather than with each other for subjective pride of place. Indeed the race to the moon proved a nonviolent way for Americans and Soviets to compete against the physical universe to show off who would win if they went to war against each other.
Different kinds of science evolve best under different conditions. Evolutionary theory is very much a product of the countryside, especially of England’s culture of intellectual country boys. On the other hand, Claude Shannon worked out information theory in Greenwich Village.
In the red-blue debate, both sides view the other as horrifyingly conformist: In the country, you can”t get away from people who know you, while in the city, you can”t get away from people, period.
The kinds of businesses found in lightly populated areas tend to be agriculture, energy, and other forms of resource extraction, and, as population increases, construction and heavy industry. The type of industry found in the highest-density places tends toward finance, law, media, fashion, and marketing.
In my ill-fated venture into the marketing profession, for instance, I had a corner office directly across Wacker Drive from the Sears Tower, then the tallest skyscraper in the world. Granted, it was an inconvenient place from which to attempt to manipulate the habits of the average grocery shopper since it was an expensive cab ride from the nearest supermarket, but the view was amazing.
Silicon Valley started off on the exurban frontier between San Francisco and San Jose because early chipmakers needed open land to build fabrication plants. And the kind of engineers who wanted to work on the problems that firms like Hewlett-Packard and Intel were solving preferred living in their own houses with their own yards and, famously, their own two-car garages.
But as the tech industry has evolved away from wrestling with nature toward becoming a marketing and media juggernaut, businesses such as Twitter have flowed back to San Francisco. Sure, there’s no room for you to work on your hobby in your garage, but today’s tech titans don”t see why their employees should have time for hobbies.
In the Twitter Age, status competitions tend to be played out online in the realm of ideology, with the more implausible your dogmas, the higher your status.
In other words, we”ve managed to combine the worst of village and big-city life: There’s now an unlimited number of people at hand to take offense and remember you for it. And there’s no way to light out for the territory and start over, because now it all goes on your permanent record.
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