Mapping the Economy Onto Socio-Urban Space

I recently returned from last weekend’s Theorizing the Web conference, which I described to people as “a sociological perspective on web and digital phenomena.” It was two days packed full of talks on everything from drones and big data to selfies and feminism online. I was particularly excited (duh) for the session titled “Streetview: space, place, and geography.” The Q&A made it into the video below, but unfortunately not the talks themselves.

Tim Hwang gave an excellent talk titled “An Urban Geography of the Web Industry” that I’ve been thinking about a lot. On a take off of Jane Jacobs’ seminal text, his first slide read “The Death and Life of Great Internet Cities.” He opened with a mention of some of the outlandish-yet-true headlines that have come out of San Francisco lately, like TechCrunch’s “How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained).” We’re seeing things like intense gentrification, the explosion of housing prices, and displacement en masse. In layman’s terms, SF is looking real messed up right about now.

Tim argued that to understand these features of the urban landscape, we have to go beyond the decisions of any individual company, municipality, or policy to look at “the economics of web as it’s presently structured and the types of businesses that have been able to thrive in that structure.” For instance, networks (like social ones and search engines) become more valuable as more people enter: there are more people to socialize with [and serve ads to]; there’s more data and better results. When businesses capitalize on networks like this, we very naturally get an industry like the telecommunications one with a few poorly-regulated monopolies–because the structure incentivizes large networks. Moreover, the venture capitalist model incentivizes investment in high-growth companies that will pay back that cash infusion in spades. So this, plus the aforementioned economics of networks, gives us companies that (have pressure to) grow furiously and then are sold off at astonishing valuations.

What does any of this have to do with the urban landscape? According to Tim, high-growth companies mean we get a large influx of employees that don’t always integrate gracefully into the existing social fabric of the city. The city’s existing housing stock and policy may not easily accommodate the incursion of newcomers. A slower-growing industry that created less of a population jump might make for less of a housing shock.

Moreover, web-based businesses don’t exactly exhibit a trickle-down effect the same way as, say, the auto industry which generated a whole secondary economy of automotive suppliers and jobs. You could argue that the tech-based growth does stimulate demand for other sorts of businesses–restaurants, transportation services, etc.–but those are generally service-sector jobs that only deepen the socioeconomic stratification that SF is a microcosm of. For every Uber passenger, an Uber driver.

So these observed phenomena–gentrification, displacement, inflation in housing prices–are in fact closely connected to the fundamental economics around the web. As Tim says, “businesses are viable in a certain way which produces very real socio-urban effects.” The urban landscape is reflective of the local (and national, and international) economy. So if we want to influence these outcomes–say, cut down on displacement, or provide affordable housing options–we have to understand what’s at play in the predominantly tech-based economy and what that economy incentivizes. These things have implications for urban space. “Interventions come from trying to design a structure of the web that produces certain types of businesses that produce social results.”

Most all of the above is Tim’s material; props to him for providing a thoughtful lens into why a particular socio-urban landscape looks the way it does. My question to him (which was asked right before the video above starts) was: how about places like Chicago and Detroit, which are making a concerted effort to attract technology-based businesses and cultivate entrepreneurial ecosystems modeled after the Valley–Silicon Prairie, or whatever. These are places that have developed differently from the Valley, and have an industrial heritage that remains in many ways, structuring the urban landscape. Detroit’s auto industry isn’t entirely dead.

So how do these different developmental histories change the way we might think about treating some of the social ills? How do we better map the connection between the economy (which is not just one thing, not just web-based businesses in SF) and social outcomes in local space? In Chicago, a city that’s seen massive population loss and deepening poverty since the post-industrial shift of mid-last century, how do we ensure that, yes–we’re building a strong tech hub that creates jobs and attracts stable middle-class workers, but also being cognizant of how the economy we’re (literally) structuring our cities around might be more closely tied to the severe segregation the city exhibits than Rahm & co. might like to think? And then, what might we do, with the economy or otherwise, to mitigate those inequalities?


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