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Canceling the City

The balance between creativity and conformity is being disrupted, with dire consequences for cities. A hundred-year-old theory helps explain why.

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
9 min read
Canceling the City

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.

— Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life

The Urban Gaze

City people are different. In 1903, the Sociologist Georg Simmel examined why. The city stimulates the senses like no other place. Even a simple act like crossing the street exacts a “different amount of consciousness.” The homeless man on the pavement, the lady walking out of that building across the street, the sirens in the background, the fragments of conversation coming from all directions — too much is going on.

The mind cannot handle so much stimulation. To cope, city dwellers adopt what Simmel calls a “blasé attitude,” an indifference to the things perceived by the senses. They do not ignore the things their senses perceive; instead, they experience these things as insubstantial. The city’s constant flow of sights and sounds “appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other.”

But even city folk care about some things. That’s where money comes in. The urban attitude is the internalization of the “money economy.”

What does this mean?

Time and Money

Let’s consider how money sees the world. Says Simmel:

Money is concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the exchange value, it reduces all quality and individuality to the question: How much?

Simmel uses the term “money” to refer to the free exchange of goods and services en masse.

In the past, people often exchanged one thing for another. They sold their own produce or handiwork to people they interacted with personally. Each product was different, and each customer was different. Interactions were direct and, at times, emotional.

Money helped smooth out all differences and boiled everything down to a simple, quantifiable price. It reduced all qualitative into quantitative ones. Money existed for thousands of years, but it came into its own in the industrial era. One mass-manufactured shoe is as good as the next, and they all have a clear and specific price.

Shoes were not the only ones who lost their individuality. Economic activity and trade migrated from the world where “intimate emotional relations between persons are founded in their individuality” to the world of “rational relations” under which “man is reckoned with like a number.” Mass-manufacturing reduced humans themselves into undifferentiated factors of production: Their input became measurable, and their roles became interchangeable.

First, on the factory floor and then, at the office.

Abundance reduced people and goods to that which can be easily measured and compared. But urban dwellers are not just victims of this attitude; they internalized it — it is how they see the world. The only things worth paying attention to, the only stimulations worth responding to, are the ones that have a clear and quantifiable value. The logic of the factory and the market gradually permeated all social relations.

The city itself is a machine in which human activity is coordinated by the pricing mechanism and clocks. Without these, it could not function:

The relationships and affairs of the typical metropolitan usually are so varied and complex that without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into an inextricable chaos. Above all, this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism

But humans did not move to cities to become cogs in a machine. Quite the opposite, they moved in order to become themselves.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Small communities have historically been characterized by strong personal ties, limited economic mobility, and social conformity:

a relatively small circle firmly closed against neighboring, strange, or in some way antagonistic circles… this circle is closely coherent and allows its individual members only a narrow field for the development of unique qualities and free, self-responsible movements.

A city in which people are indifferent to who you are is a city where you can be anyone you like. The metropolis, says Simmel, “grants to the individual a kind and an amount of personal freedom which has no analogy whatsoever under other conditions.”

This is the contradiction at the heart of the urban economy. The city draws people into a melee in which their various qualities are reduced to that which can be quantified. But the city also provides individuals with the opportunity to differentiate themselves from one another. This opportunity is not without a cost, as many personal experiments end in failure and poverty. In a big city, you can be the next Andy Warhol. But making a living is more manageable for those who conform to mainstream norms.

The urban machine does not merely allow the process individuation; it depends on it. In pursuit of efficiency, the division of labor intensifies over time. As we noted a few weeks ago, a bigger pool of specialized employees leads to a better allocation of resources and increased productivity (and wages).

The degree of individuality we are allowed is a function of the prevailing economic system.

Mass Differentiation

To quote Marx, the “hand-loom gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”

In other words, when the economy was based on land, we had a system of landlords and serfs. When technological advancement shifted the balance of economic power towards those who owned machines, a working-class emerged under a new class of private factory owners. Even the American system of slavery expanded and contracted in response to technological changes that affected the demand for hard labor and the economic viability of different crops.

This process continues apace. Towards the middle of the 20th Century, it reached a unique equilibrium. A broad stratum of middle-class and working-class people could work in somewhat routine jobs and enjoy a reasonable degree of self-expression and freedom. These mass-employees weren’t exactly special, but they felt special. They felt special because they got to buy a house and live better than their parents. They felt special because they could buy more goods in more colors and shapes. And they felt special because television told them they are.

This equilibrium has been eroding for a while, but it is now collapsing. On city streets, the battle between conformity and creativity rages anew.

Double-edged Algorithms

Let’s look at our largest cities. In 2020, there is no longer a middle that offers reasonable stability with a comforting sense of freedom and self-expression. Instead, we have two extremes. I am not talking about politics; I am talking about the structure of the labor market.

On the one hand, Simmel’s description of the metropolis is even more true today:

The relationships and affairs of the typical metropolitan usually are so varied and complex that without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into an inextricable chaos. Above all, this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism

Simmel was speaking figuratively — as if all the employees in the city work for some complex machine that regulates their movements and interactions. Today, his description can be taken literally. A growing number of urban workers are aggregated into platforms and are dispatched and routed around the urban landscape. Complex algorithms determine their journeys, tasks, and priorities. These people prepare your food, deliver your groceries, and provide other so-called essential services.

I do not wish to overstate this point. In itself, the choice to work for an on-demand platform is not unreasonable. It does offer a certain degree of freedom. The overall experience does seem to compare favorably with spending whole days in a factory with a boss breathing down your neck. The question is whether these people genuinely have a choice. I will leave this question open for now.

At the other extreme, a growing number of working people — not artists — are being more creative than ever. Designers, engineers, founders of large and small companies are building increasingly specialized services and products. In 1903, Simmel was impressed that Paris had people working as “quatorzième” — getting paid to join tables on-demand to ensure that parties have 14 diners and not 13 to avoid bad luck. Back then, the quatorzième was an interesting curiosity; today, people who provide services that cater to the most exotic needs and desires are par for the course in large cities.

But creativity entails risk. And thanks to the internet, that risk has grown exponentially.

Lottery Winners

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the notion of scalable and unscalable professions. An unscalable profession is one in which your income is constrained by your location and the amount of time you have. A dentist, for example, can only be in one place at a time and can only see a fixed number of customers a day. Even if she is the highest-paid dentist on earth, she cannot become a billionaire by working for only a single day or even a decade. The same goes for teachers, plumbers, barbers, trial lawyers, pilots, and brain surgeons.

Scalable professions, on the other hand, are those in which a fixed amount of work can lead to unlimited returns. A pop singer, for example, can spend six months recording a hit album and then collect royalties for life. She puts in the same amount of work regardless of whether shes ends up making a single dollar or a billion.

Sounds nice, right? But Taleb does not recommend choosing a scalable profession. As he explains:

A scalable profession is good only if you are successful; they are more competitive, produce monstrous inequalities, and are far more random, with huge disparities between efforts and rewards—a few can take a large share of the pie, leaving others out entirely at no fault of their own.

Most aspiring pop singers never make it (even those who do, often end up consumed by the emotional rollercoaster). Meanwhile, most doctors or plumbers end up making a good living. But the vagaries of showbiz are no longer restricted to those looking to touch the sky. The outcomes for a growing number of professions are starting to show a moderate version of the same distribution. This includes software developers, product designers, niche writers, investment professionals, product managers, and various other specialists.

The internet is bringing scalability to the masses. Anyone can become a YouTube star overnight. A blogger can suddenly make a living by reaching exactly the people who are interested in his perspective. A programmer can deliver a specialized tool to the 500 people on earth who would pay for it. But for each success story, there are millions of failures.

And even those who succeed do not enjoy the stability of an average doctor or (in the past) a clerk in a middle-sized firm. Look at me, for example. I manage to make a living from writing and speaking. But I had to take considerable risk to get to where I am, and it is still a precarious existence. It is wonderful that the internet now allows many creative people to choose a lifestyle that works them. But here, too, the question is whether these people genuinely have a choice.

The Visible Hand

The number of stable, unscalable professions is diminishing. Even jobs that seemed “undisruptable,” such as school teachers or strippers, are being disrupted by the internet, allowing a small number of stars to cater to an unlimited number of viewers.

There are fewer stable jobs because there are fewer stable corporations. In 1977, Alfred Chandler wrote that the giant corporations of the 20th Century became viable only once “the visible hand of management proved to be more efficient than the invisible hand of market forces.” Companies signed long-term contracts with people because it was the most efficient way to access the labor and talent they needed.

The internet redefines this equation. Today, algorithms and software platforms make it possible to find, contract, and pay specialized professionals by the minute. This means that I am now able — while still in my pajamas — to advise some of the world’s largest corporations. It also means that it would be much harder for me to ever get a lifetime job in one of them. Why pay for 100% of my time for the next ten years if you only need 5% of it this year?

The City beyond the City

The internet is antagonizing the urban economy. It forces more laborers to conform to management-by-algorithm. And it undermines the stability of many middle-class occupations, which are, too, left to the whims of the algorithms behind search engines and social media feeds.

The struggle for “autonomy and individuality” that Simmel identified in 1903 is as relevant as ever. Back then, Simmel saw the city — with all its faults — as the alternative to the “unjust inequalities” of the traditional world in which people were bound by chains of a “political, agrarian, guild, and religious character.” Liberation came from the power to move. A hundred and twenty years ago, that meant moving to the city.

The internet disturbed the urban balance between conformity and creativity. The middle disappeared, leaving the working class staring into a screen and the middle class looking at the stars.

But for big cities, the internet is not merely an irritant. It is also an alternative. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol could only emerge in a metropolis like New York. In the 2020s, he is much more likely to emerge on the internet itself.

Wishing you a healthy and sweet Jewish New Year from New York!

Photo by Guillermo Latorre on Unsplash