Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paul Graham on cities

While I broadly agree with Paul's points he is thinking too much like a VC when he talks about Silicon Valley. For many entrepreneurs and geeks in the valley, the message is build something cool -- not you should be more powerful. It's true that after having some ups and downs in the valley most people would want to be more powerful -- would want to be able to ensure funding for a startup or technology that was really deserving -- but I think that power is more a means than an end for the people who are the real heart of the place.

I'd still rather live in Berkeley :-) Via Educating Silicon.

Cities and Ambition

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you've been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

That's not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.


How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.

...I'd always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It's probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it's not humming with ambition.

In retrospect it shouldn't have been surprising that a place so pleasant would attract people interested above all in quality of life. Cambridge with good weather, it turns out, is not Cambridge. The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. It's expensive and somewhat grubby, and the weather's often bad. So the kind of people you find in Cambridge are the kind of people who want to live where the smartest people are, even if that means living in an expensive, grubby place with bad weather.

As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. I realize that seems a preposterous claim. What makes it true is that it's more preposterous to claim about anywhere else. American universities currently seem to be the best, judging from the flow of ambitious students. And what US city has a stronger claim? New York? A fair number of smart people, but diluted by a much larger number of neanderthals in suits. The Bay Area has a lot of smart people too, but again, diluted; there are two great universities, but they're far apart. Harvard and MIT are practically adjacent by West Coast standards, and they're surrounded by about 20 other colleges and universities. [1]

Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups.


When you talk about cities in the sense we are, what you're really talking about is collections of people. For a long time cities were the only large collections of people, so you could use the two ideas interchangeably. But we can see how much things are changing from the examples I've mentioned. New York is a classic great city. But Cambridge is just part of a city, and Silicon Valley is not even that. (San Jose is not, as it sometimes claims, the capital of Silicon Valley. It's just 178 square miles at one end of it.)

Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won't matter where you live physically. But I wouldn't bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.

One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge in 1960, but you'd never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it's just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley. [2]

A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I'll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

A friend who moved to Silicon Valley in the late 90s said the worst thing about living there was the low quality of the eavesdropping. At the time I thought she was being deliberately eccentric. Sure, it can be interesting to eavesdrop on people, but is good quality eavesdropping so important that it would affect where you chose to live? Now I understand what she meant. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you're among.

...What cities provide is an audience, and a funnel for peers. These aren't so critical in something like math or physics, where no audience matters except your peers, and judging ability is sufficiently straightforward that hiring and admissions committees can do it reliably. In a field like math or physics all you need is a department with the right colleagues in it. It could be anywhere—in Los Alamos, New Mexico, for example.

It's in fields like the arts or writing or technology that the larger environment matters. In these the best practitioners aren't conveniently collected in a few top university departments and research labs—partly because talent is harder to judge, and partly because people pay for these things, so one doesn't need to rely on teaching or research funding to support oneself. It's in these more chaotic fields that it helps most to be in a great city: you need the encouragement of feeling that people around you care about the kind of work you do, and since you have to find peers for yourself, you need the much larger intake mechanism of a great city.


zarkov01 said...

"The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized."

Perhaps before 1965, but contemporary Berkeley says "conform." I lived in Berkeley, I found the intolerance suffocating. People also tend to engage in a kind self censorship by always taking care never to violate one of the unwritten rules of conversation. As for civilized-- hardly. During the Rodney King riots a big piece of Telegraph Avenue was burned and looted. I remember the workers at the North Face telling me that some of their own friends vandalized the store. Residents throw rocks at fire trucks that fly and American flag. The list goes on. I don't see how one can call this a "civilized" place. Anything but.

Anonymous said...

I find it quite disappointing that Paul Graham's view on entrepreneurship is limited to software start-ups.

I have fond memories of the times I spent working at a Silicon Valley-based laser start-up. The lab alone was worth over 10 million USD, and it was a technologist's heaven. We built "real" stuff: lasers, optical filters, electronics, etc.

Not everyone in the Valley wants to be the next Facebook. Some of like to build stuff that cannot be deleted with the press of a button. So-called start-up guru like Paul Graham should be reminded that software usually runs on hardware. And someone needs to build hardware too. He hardly ever mentions hardware hackers in his essays...

Steve Hsu said...

A.: I think your memories of Berkeley are a bit out of date. These days it's very affluent and expensive. Alice Waters ("slow food", Chez Panisse) or founder and software entrepreneur Wes Boyd are more representative than anyone who ever threw a rock at a fire truck! Paul's characterization is on the money, at least right now.

stochastix: you might enjoy this post
hardware vs software :-)

zarkov01 said...

As far as I can see Berkeley still lacks tolerance and civility. Just recently the US Marine recruiting office has been subjected to a blockade. Then there is the disgraceful behavior by the city government and the local Jewish community towards Sane DeWitt (who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor) when she brought in Bus 19 in 2005. Bus 19 was bombed by Arab terrorists in Israel. BTW her husband is a well known astrophysicist.

Berkeley is as Berkeley does.

Anonymous said...

This guy's hometown must be Houston. The "cities" he names are just super expensive boroughs.
When he speaks of NYC, he's speaking of midtown. I'm sure he isn't speaking of the Bronx.
Bel Aire, Beverley Hills, and Malibu are nice too. What a rediculous person.

Anonymous said...

Well I love that dirty water...Oh, Boston, you're my home.

I like this article, it articulates nicely my feelings re: some of the debates I've had with people about the best things about Boston, and what casual visitors often don't appreciate. : )

Anonymous said...

addendum, upon reading further: I do think some of the points made could bear to be backed up better with data, for example, before contending that NY is a bad place for or tech incubation, or before comparing it and Boston to Silicon Valley, it would make sense to compare VC dollars as a whole, rather than just the number of really rich people; talking about DC, insider-dom and "who you know" is power by another name, influence.

Still, some interesting questions posed - will have to discuss with people back in New Haven about what -that- city says : )

Anonymous said...

"I do think some of the points made could bear to be backed up better with data"

Data? For such a trivial subject?

Seth said...

Boston is used to the idea of having money and is ready for the proverbial "good things in life". Silicon Valley is peopled to a larger extent with people either still on the make or only recently arrived. Once upon a time, this distinction was made succinctly with the terms "old money" and "new money". But of course, tech money is the new new thing, so it pretends to be something entirely ... well ... new.

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