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James Wm Ball III

I read your column and really agree with you. It's amazing how the American mindset is so steeped in the past. Being American and growing up elsewhere, I've learned that Amercans, collectively, see themselves as one thing but in reality are living completely diffrent lives. Kind of a collective cognitive dissonance. Quite frustrating when trying to communicate the reality of something like living through a natural diaster with the media's coverage of the same diaster.

Dan Icolari

My wife and I, New Yorkers born and bred, raised our children in old houses in three different gentrifying neighborhoods--two in Brooklyn, one on Staten Island--sent our kids to the public schools we went to, and live here still.

A few years ago, newly retired, we considered selling and moving to a midwestern city we'd heard good things about. Just as you say, our visits to that city showed us there was a ready-made multicultural community of educated, aware, progressive people ready to welcome us. These were people with whom we shared a lot; center-left politics was almost a given. (The only worrying thing was the lack of a really vibrant jazz scene.)

I don't know whether I agree with your prognostications, but I definitely share your perception of the connectedness of urban culture and politics across the country.


Your first point has been obvious for a long time now to anyone living outside the coasts looking at the voting patterns of their own states. Where I used to live--Minneapolis/St. Paul (and maybe one other smaller urban area) was always an island of blue in a sea of red.


There is New York city and there is America. That’s not even a contestable thesis. It’s a fact—and looking at the distribution of taxes, demographic analysis, gastric habits, etc., will never change anyone’s perception. New York is a rare planet wedged up between Venus and Mars. Some of us like to admire its glory from far away, though. Why would you convince the farmer from Iowa that NY (with all its wealth and scandals) pumps life into the American psyche? He knows it already. He’d be the butt of the joke and he wouldn’t care. He’s not envious of New Yorkers; he’s quite oblivious of the prolific literary scene, the transcendental technological tools New Yorkers invent, etc., etc., etc. Still, when the sun sets behind the “real American” hills, that farmer dude is proud to have NY on the map. San Francisco, on the other hand, is a contestable thesis. It’s Fitzgerald who idolizes the good ol’ Midwest. For the rest, well, it’s just an idyllic place where you ain’t pluckin’ down $2000—on what, shoes?

Bill Seitz

blech the Times Secret graveyard

I hope you name-check the Urban Archipelago meme:

Alan Jacobs

Steven, I agree with your basic argument, but two caveats: first, the urban/rural distinction is too binary to be helpful (whichever side of the argument you take). Is Peoria urban or rural? How about Waco? Cheyenne? Northernmost Westchester County?

Steven, I agree with your basic argument, but two caveats. First, the urban/rural distinction is too binary to be helpful (whichever side of the argument you take). Is Peoria urban or rural? How about Waco? Cheyenne? Northernmost Westchester County?

Second, let's not forget that human population is not the only meaningful measurement of a geographical area's resources. New York and L.A. and San Francisco certainly are "tremendous engines of wealth creation," but at least some of that wealth is created by developing and in many cases exploiting the natural resources of less populated states, or less populated regions of populous states. The trees that make the paper that prints the New York Times don't come from Central Park, and the electricity that lights up the city at night isn't generated in the five boroughs. The "urban" and "rural" worlds, the blues states and red states, are a hell of a lot more interdependent than either side likes to acknowledge.

(One of the reasons I still support the idea of having a Senate, with its "disproportionate" model of representation, is that I think the people, often poor people, who live in the midst of great natural resources ought to have more to say about their environment than the people who, thousands of miles away, get rich from developing that environment.)

Alan Jacobs

Sorry about the doubled paragraph and the coinage "blues states" -- I guess that would be Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri. Anyway, I meant to hit Preview, not Post.


Love your blogs and books! I know I'm not new in this analysis but- why do we need a USA? Defense, trade? Or just to prevent another civil war? Curious about your thoughts.


I'll second Bill Seitz's interdependence argument, and raise him some.

There's no realism in what follows, but as a thought experiment, imagine that some hostile force were to impose a complete, hermetic separation between urban and rural America. No physical intermingling, no shipping, no transfer of capital, nothin'.

In a few years, where would you expect to find more people alive: in a distant farm community, cut off from those "tremendous engines of wealth creation"? Or in a major city, shorn of its food and water supplies, places to dispose of waste, places to site power plants, markets for its products, etc.?

The relationship between city and country is a sort of second-level social contract: both forms of organization are necessary to the whole society, and depend upon each other. Getting them to respect each other has always been the problem.

Nicolo Macchiavelli

Your thesis would become stronger if you directly attacked the parasitic economic character of suburbs. They are constructed as artificial tax and real estate value harvesting entities that suck both out of the urban centers. They are really contiguous with and part of cities. Only in the US do we draw a distinction and allow a seperate political center of gravity to exist. It is especially damaging in NY since our urban core is especially vital. However, the most extreme disparity between suburbs and city regarding political power is DC/Suburban Maryland,Virginia. The political power, dispersed by the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia, entirely overwhelms the DC residents who don't even get to vote on Federal issues. Consequently, you see the worst land use policies around DC. Suburban Virginia is a traffic disaster.


So there it was all bundled up between two baords and a plastic sheeth, the pages inside were at the top of science. Emergence was a verry informational factual story, I am glad to see there are people getting smarter. I had the feeling the people of this earth were going doun hill on the knowledge bus. Emergence told me alot about society and how things work from a giants point of veiw. I had the realization that the things I seen in my scientific thought were mine alone and no one to understand but myself , then this great book relating and relating, thats what makes good science for me because everinthing is related to somthing els, and somtimes the only way to understand one thing is to learn another, but of no way of knowing what it is you need to learn. Atoms can be explained with the studie of the Galexy, Evolution can be used as the studie of the current war, the brain with computer chips yes that is all true , but the one thing that most interested me about that book and what Steven Johnson wrote just before his ramble about the video game Sim-City was ..and I quote ;Computer-based simulations can teach us a tremendous amount about complex systems: if a picture is worth a thousand words, an interactive model must be valued in the millions.
Now what that means to me is that some people including myself, are walking around with some important knowlege cramed in and no way of telling what just may be a great vision , somthing enough to even put science further on its current edge. You know Einstein once said that the language we speak is a mear fraction compared to the language of mathmatics, I say and I'm sure Steven would also , that the language of mathmatics is a fraction compared to the language of Computer based simulations. It gives every one a sight that was only meant for higher brains thus giving influence to succeed later in life as a person of bigger insight and intelagence. Thanks for a wanderful read Steven.
About myself
I always have this problem of explaining things to people because I didn't learn science from any college, I am a studier of science through personal research, usually by hanging out in the library. It all started when I was about 11 years old flipping through an old national geografic, there was a lot of church stuff going on around me and pressure to do watever I had to do in the right way or burn in hell and all that good stuff. Then I found that mag., It was all I had to read at the time so I read the whole thing naturaly, well it didn't dawn on me what this article was saying untill a few months after I read it. I went through everything trying to find that mag but never did. Then about a year later a program was on what I think was a discovory chanel, anyways it all came out right in my face like a ton of bricks.... Holy cow mom we came from monkeys! Of coarse no one would listen and I got to the point where I wanted to just keep it secret. And thats what I did for a long time , I was on a seriouse mission of reading to find out more ever since. I think I have a big vision now but no way of telling it just like old times. Every once in a while I read a book like the one mentioned ( Emergence, by Steven Johnson and I get a little kick in the right direction. Usually books just better define wat I already know, well I mean in accordence with what knowledge I'm looking for. I don't know everything! The current vision Im on now has somthing to do with friequencies hitting the earth and causing every thing to spin into life . Sounds crazy without the vision huh? wellnot realy you see we are still spinning, we go to work then we go to school, home, school, work homeworkstorehomeschoolworkhome...etc all one big circle right? but thats just the simple stuff light hits earth, causes spin in molocules life circles to life here we are going in circles just like the atoms and the universe and solar system . Roads and highways are like pathways for electrons, you can even see them light up at night! WE are FRIEQUENCIES. Because not only does E=Mc2 but E evolves into Mc2.

Kickball Jesus

Cities "subsidizing" the heartland? Do you have any concept of where your food is grown, or where most of the material commodities around you in your urban environment originate? It's a mutual codependency between cities and rural areas yes but to say cities are subsidizing the heartland is just plain ridiculous. And without over-romantisizing them too much I still repect those who grow things, raise animals, and engage in artisanship of all varieties much more than those who sit around in climate controlled offices pushing pencils and shuffling papers in their "wealth engineering" jobs. It's our disconnection from the world outside of the city that breeds this kind of cockiness and myopia to be sure.

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My Photo
I'm a father of three boys, husband of one wife, and author of nine books, host of one television series, and co-founder of three web sites. We split our time between Brooklyn, NY and Marin County, CA. Personal correspondence should go to sbeej68 at gmail dot com. If you're interested in having me speak at an event, drop a line to Wesley Neff at the Leigh Bureau (WesN at Leighbureau dot com.)

My Books

  • Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

    Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
    A history of innovation accompanied by a 6-part TV series on PBS and the BBC, this was the first of my books to crack the top 5 on the NY Times bestseller list. Appropriately for a book that celebrates diverse networks, this was the most collaborative of any of my books. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

    Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age
    My first book-length attempt to organize my writings about emergence and networks into something resembling a political philosophy, which I called Peer Progressivism. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

    Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
    An exploration of environments that lead to breakthrough innovation, in science, technology, business, and the arts. I conceived it as the closing book in a trilogy on innovative thinking, after Ghost Map and Invention. But in a way, it completes an investigation that runs through all the books, and laid the groundwork for How We Got To Now. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Invention of Air

    The Invention of Air
    The story of the British radical chemist Joseph Priestley, who ended up having a Zelig-like role in the American Revolution. My version of a founding fathers book, and a reminder that most of the Enlightenment was driven by open source ideals. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Ghost Map

    The Ghost Map
    The story of a terrifying outbreak of cholera in 1854 London 1854 that ended up changing the world. An idea book wrapped around a page-turner. I like to think of it as a sequel to Emergence if Emergence had been a disease thriller. You can see a trailer for the book here. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

    Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
    The title says it all. This one sparked a slightly insane international conversation about the state of pop culture -- and particularly games. There were more than a few dissenters, but the response was more positive than I had expected. And it got me on The Daily Show, which made it all worthwhile. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

    Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
    My first best-seller, and the only book I've written in which I appear as a recurring character, subjecting myself to a battery of humiliating brain scans. The last chapter on Freud and the neuroscientific model of the mind is one of my personal favorites. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

    Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
    The story of bottom-up intelligence, from slime mold to Slashdot. Most of my books sold more copies than this one, but Emergence has influenced the most eclectic mix of fields: political campaigns, web business models, urban planning, the war on terror. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate

    Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
    My first. The book I wrote instead of finishing my dissertation, predicting the growing cultural significance of interface and information design. Still relevant, I think. But I haven't read it in a while, so who knows what's in there! (Available from IndieBound here.)

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