After a century of hit-driven thinking, it's hard to shake the habit. Seeing the world though the lens of the most popular things is second nature, and we all do it. But that doesn't make it any less of a mistake. I call this tendency "hitism" (or, to go with my Tail metaphor, headism) and the latest example of it I spotted was an article in this month's Atlantic by Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class), entitled "The World is Spiky".
Florida's piece, which is nicely illustrated with fascinating maps, is meant to be a rebuttal to Tom Friedman's "The World is Flat." But it fails, but for a non-obvious reason.
John Hagel, who has posted his own interesting critique of the article, summarizes Florida's argument as follows:
Richard focuses on one particular quote from Tom’s book: “In a flat world you can innovate without having to emigrate.” Richard responds that location still matters and that, by a variety of measures, the world is extremely spiky – meaning that activity is very concentrated in a relatively few locations. Richard looks at:
- population concentration in urban areas
- light emissions (as an interesting proxy for economic activity)
- patent filings
- citations to scientists in leading fields to demonstrate this spikiness.
Focusing on the peaks definitely highlights the spikiness of the world. For example,
When it comes to actual economic output, the ten largest US metropolitan areas combined are behind only the United States as a whole and Japan. New York’s economy alone is about the size of Russia’s or Brazil’s . . . Together New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston have a bigger economy than all of China. If US metropolitan areas were countries, they’d make up forty-seven of the biggest 100 economies in the world.
That seems indisputable. So what's the problem? The problem is Forida's insistence on measuring the world in terms of concentrations, which is akin to measuring culture in terms of hits. He defends this as follows:
Concentrations of creative and talented people are particularly important for innovation, according to the Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Lucas. Ideas flow more freely are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers, and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.
Again, it's hard to argue with that. But Friedman's point is that ubiquitous connectivity--broadband, cellphones, FedEx and so on--can achieve much the same effect as proximity. Sure it's easier to be a software programmer in Silicon Valley. But if you happen to be Indian and poor that may not be an option. Not long ago, being a poor Indian would have meant that you couldn't help make the next great operating system. But now you can.
In between Florida's geographic spikes are a million smaller concentrations, ranging from one person to a few thousand. Many of them choose not to live in big cities; many other don't even have that option. They don't show up as bright line on a map where the scale is set by cities, but they're there all the same in a faint tint spread across the land, just as the niches in the Tail of entertainment demand curves are overshadowed by the Head. Collectively--and that's what networks do: collect people by connecting them--all these distributed talents can add up to a real force, even though they'll never earn a pointy peak on Florida's radar.
In a previous life, I briefly built a videogame software company based around a microcluster of talented programmers based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They lived there because it offered a concentration, to use Florida's term, of the quality-of-life factors that they cared about, from family to culture. Once, that would have come at the cost of their careers. But thanks to the Internet, they're now able to live in Friedman's Flat World, collaborating and competing with other programmers around the world. And there are hundreds of thousands of other talents like them, scattered to the four corners of the globe. They don't figure on Florida's map, but any one of them can have an impact.
If you set your viewing scale to hits, that's all you'll see. But the real surprises are just as likely to come from below, in the noise below the spikes. I can't find Tallinn, Estonia amongst Florida's beautifully mapped peaks, but that didn't stop some smart people there from changing the world not once, but twice.