Friday, January 25, 2013

Networked Societies and Growth in Cities

I am currently training for the Graperide so have started putting in some hours on my bike.  To pass the time in the saddle, I've been listening to BBC's "Analysis" podcasts, today's listenings including Professor Manuel Castells' interview on Alternative Economic Cultures.

Professor Castell identifies the internet as the vehicle for new(ish) global and collective collaborations between individuals who now share knowledge in networked groups.  Previously, economics saw a similar knowledge sharing function as being the reason for the growth of city structures.  Information spillovers occurring between different groups of business and individuals cross-pollinated the thinking and ideas of other business and individuals within a tight geographic area, leading to the rise of cities.

These two ideas seem at odds and imply different "futures" for city structures, and - inevitably - the value of geographic-tied property rights. Or alternatively,  the continued growth of cities suggest internet-based networks have little eroded information spillovers associated with cities.  What Professor Castell describes may have little actual impact on how businesses and commerce transacts.  Or is what he describes something we should be looking out for in the near future.

One of the reasons people cluster is to share ideas and thinking.  Bouncing ideas between each other, discussing related issues, sharing experience and knowledge has an "externality" effect:  collective information sharing confers collective benefits on all participants.  In fact, economics has long identified these collective effects as reasons for the rise of cities.

However, Professor Castell, back in the 1990's, was one of the first commentators to view the impact of the rise of the internet as something cultural-shifting.  In his podcast, he describes the internet as leading to a "networked society", as opposed to a "hierarchical society".  The difference relates to how people cluster to interact, with hierarchical processes relating to being a member of a social organisation. Prior to the internet, people socially interacted through membership of clubs and organisations; for example, their local Cosmopolitan Club, church, sports clubs, toastmaster's group etc.  Social interaction and engagement happened "within" a structure.

The internet uncoupled social engagement from specific organisational structures, offering individuals alternative channels to exchange ideas and socially engage.  Twitter, YouTube, Blog, etc have all lead to people engaging and interacting with a network of people rather than having to find physical structures with like-minded values.  People are now free to engage, converse and transact without geographic boundaries.

I have no idea who is "right", but aren't these ideas fascinating?!?

Welcome to 2013!

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