Saturday, September 3, 2011

Starvation opportunities coming to a Mega City near you

It is always a bit of a conundrum to me that in a highly connected network, over time, big drives out the small.   It would seem that the small would have its niche and come into some sort of equilibrium with its larger neighbor at some point.  But in real life that does not appear to be what happens.
William Gibson, the author of the famous Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer believes that cities thrive on choices.
The interview is about the article (second excerpt):
Cities in Fact and Fiction: An Interview with William Gibson
Aaron Shattuck and Gary Stix, Scientific American, 26 August 2011 (hat tip: Global Guerilla)
The city looms large in the fiction of author William Gibson. In the September issue of Scientific American, Gibson's essay, "Life in the Meta-City," details how cities increase "the number and randomization of potential human and cultural contacts" and how they serve as "vast, multilayered engines of choice." Cities that cease to provide choice—or which try to overcontrol their denizens—lose their spark and sometimes perish.
Your fiction has depicted wide class gulfs in which "lowlifes" co-exist with the rich and feudallike corporations that concentrate mind-boggling amounts of wealth. Can the "vast squatter conurbs" that you mention in your article in the September issue be seen as a symptom of such widening income disparities? If so, do you think that this disparity will continue to greater extremes as they develop further, and could they potentially restructure the current social order somehow?
I depict those socioeconomic gulfs because they exist and because most of the imagined futures I grew up with tended not to depict them. Migration to cities is now so powerful, so universal, that people will create cities, of sorts, simply through migration—cities that literally consist mainly of the people who inhabit them on a given day.
Has the pace of changing technology made the purpose or meaning of particular cities, or cities in general, different for new generations, or is their essential character as places of concentrated choice something that you think remains relatively constant?
The Internet, which I think of as a sort of meta-city, has made it possible for people who don't live in cities to master areas of expertise that previously required residence in a city, but I think it's still a faith in concentrated choice that drives migration to cities.

William Gibson

Cities afforded more choices than small towns, and constantly, by increasing the number and randomization of potential human and cultural contacts. Cities were vast, multilayered engines of choice, peopled primarily with strangers.
You never know whom you might meet in the city. In a small town, you’re less likely to encounter people or things or situations you haven’t encountered previously. These people or things or situations may be wonderful or horrible, in either city or town, but cities have the numbers, the turnover. To a writer of fiction, this is extremely handy, a city being able, more or less believably, to mask excessive coincidence, producing, as Doyle taught me, whatever the narrative might require.
Gibson talks about choice.  But obviously he is also talking about opportunity.  The more complex the system, the more likely that someone will find an opportunity within that system.
I believe that there is a lot of truth to that observation.  But he sure sounds optomistic for someone known to right some pretty gritty fiction.
But one aspect I believe he is missing, is the leveling effect of networking.
Let us look at it from two sides.  Joe repairs watches.  He is in a small village.  When someone needs a watch fixed, Joe is the one who can repair it.   Joe decides to move to a city where there will be more people who need to have their watches repaired.
Frank, owns a watch factory.  Sometimes he needs a watch repairman.  Since he is in the city, he has a number of options as to who can repair them, and within certain bounds of quality, he chooses the least expensive one.
So you can see, how well Joe will do moving to the city, will depend a lot on how many watches there are to repair, and how many other watch repairmen there are.  It is very possible that he may do more work for less money.
And that is what networking does.  It doesn’t just give more options to the supplier (say the poor person wanting to supply his labor for $), but also gives options to the customer.  In the case of an entity that either holds a lot of the supply or consumes much of the demand, they may have an information advantage over the more diffused elements of the network.  They can use the competition to drive down the pricing.  In the networked world, you want to be one of the bottlenecks.
In addition, in areas where there are high expensive processes where even  a small difference in (real or otherwise) talent can make a difference, you will be very quickly see a winner take all situation appear if the cost of the product can be spread over a large network.  The work of an electrician can only apply to the work that is in front of them.  But if you are making a movie, and it will be sold in the millions of units (through the network), you will be more willing to pay for the very best actress.
If there are many electricians (many competitors and performing incremental work) it is very possible that the wage structure may be driven (at least for a time) below the minimum sustenance levels.  Obviously if half your electricians starve to death, that may eventually restrict the supply enough to bring wages up, but that is going to be of cold comfort if you are one of the one pushing up daisies.

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