Are we living through an Urban / Rural Phase Shift?

Historically, cities were places of knowledge, learning, and information. From a computational perspective, this makes perfect sense. Historically, computation and communication were very expensive. It made sense to do as much of those as possible in small, dense areas.

For most of the last 10,000 years, if you wanted to be exposed to the latest ideas, or a large breadth of different ways of thinking, you needed to be in a city. As a result of this necessity, the tension between urban and rural areas tended to play out like this:

Cities were places of change – progress, and growth, but also decadence and debauchery, and detachment from the parts of reality that aren’t socially constructed.

Rural areas were places of stasis – loyalty and commitment, but also narrow-mindedness, ignorance, and detachment from most of the rest of the world.

I’m wondering if those cultural/intellectual differences are about to flip because most of the world is now living in cities, and awash in essentially free computation and communication.

In the past, it was access to information that prevented people from considering and exploring different ideas about how the world works.

Now, anyone who wants to explore new ideas has more ability to do so than ever. I think what’s in short supply now are things like patience, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, and the ability to disconnect from the raucous public conversation that is increasingly detached from the parts of reality that are beyond human control.

It’s impossible to believe everything is socially constructed when you are in the middle of an orchard full of cherry trees. When you’re in a city, and every single thing you see and hear is the result of intentional human activity, it becomes far easier to believe that humans are in control of the world, and that that all flaws which exist are because of things humans did wrong.

Communication and computation are no longer wildly expensive; instead, the opposite is true. You don’t need to be in a city to be exposed to the latest ideas; anyone with an internet connection can be exposed to any idea anywhere in the world. You don’t need to be in a city to have access to the entire history of written human knowledge; anyone with an internet connection can get access to these things.

And yet most of us don’t, because we’re all distracted, all the time, by torrents of information custom made to make us anxious. Most of us don’t, because we are continually bombarded with narratives designed to make us bucket all facts and even people into a good/bad dichotomy, obliterating any hope of a nuanced – and therefore accurate – understanding of the world.

Information and computation are no longer scarce. What’s now scare is space in which to stop and think, a social license to consider ideas that differ radically from those held by your peers, and feedback from empirical reality that hasn’t first passed through countless layers of representation and narrative filtering.

Because the pressure to conform is much higher when you’re around more people, i think it ends up applying a lot less when you’re living in a less densely populated area. Because almost all economic growth for the last few decades has happened in cities, I’m guessing people in rural areas will be more than open to exploring anything that makes life better for the people living there. The cost of getting new ideas has fallen everywhere; the cost of exploring them in a city remains high, because your peers might disapprove of your beliefs and this can cost you your livelihood.

Phase Transitions in Atoms and Humans

Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius because a bunch of factors all add up to a tipping point. At lower temperatures, the attractive forces between the water molecules are strong enough that the molecules tend to form ice crystals. At higher temperatures, the average kinetic energy is strong enough to overcome those attractive forces, and the molecules flow more freely. It isn’t that water molecules choose any of this consciously; the macro scale arrangement of the system as a whole is a direct consequence of the micro scale interactions of the molecules.

Humans are physical objects; instead of being governed by Van Der Walls forces, we are governed by things like social bonds, and conflicting desire for individual autonomy and collective security. My experience is that most people are unwilling to consider an idea plausible until a majority of their peers consider to be so as well. They won’t come out and say this directly, of course. They generally tend to repeat the same sets of arguments, most of which they pick up from other people. And then, when beliefs do change, I’ve observed multiple peers, all around the same time, shifting their beliefs more or less in unison.

I’ve even watched this happen in myself, as I moved around the country as a young person. I found my beliefs changing to line up with those of the people around me. Of course, I never consciously told myself “I now believe X because most of my peers do”, but it was difficult for me not to notice the pattern after it played out a few times. It makes sense if you think about it: humans do almost everything via specialization. I don’t make my own clothes or grow my own food. Why should beliefs be any different?

It’s tough to disagree with your peers on something. It can be scary to believe something that your peers think is either absurd or evil, because there are intense social consequences for doing so. When computation was expensive, and new ideas were relatively rare, cities probably acted like a selective filter; the people who wanted to explore new ideas were more likely to gravitate towards cities because that’s where the ideas were. Cities weren’t much denser than the surrounding countrysides.

As the population in cities grows higher and higher, we should expect the pressure to intellectually conform to increase, for the same reason that putting more molecules of a gas into a the same area will increase the attractive force between them. Density of interacting elements increases the frequency of interaction, and thus the intensity of pairwise attractive forces.

So the costs of being exposed new ideas has been precipitously dropping over time, and the pressure to conform to our peers has increased, for the simple reason that we’re coordinating in larger and larger groups, living in closer proximity than ever before.

When most wealth was agricultural, people in the less densely populated areas had less reason to consider exploring new ideas. With most of the world’s wealth being produced and consumed in cities, this incentive has changed dramatically; poverty increases the value of strategies that pursue of volatility. Dramatic change to the status quo sounds a lot less appealing to billionaire CEOs of tech companies than it does to impoverished rural farmers.

Gradually Shifting Forces Can Cause Sudden Macrostate Changes

As a result of these differing incentives and cost regimes, I’m guessing we will start to see more experimentation with new social structures and new ways of living in more rural areas. Here’s just one example of how the future could look radically different from the past, in a way that would really help rural areas. These places have the most to gain, as the rural way of live has been in decline for decades. Because cities are now places of such substantial wealth, they have the most to lose from any real change in how the world works.

People tend to be more willing to consider new ideas when it’s obvious that the old ways aren’t working for them any more. There’s never been a time in human history when people anywhere in the world had access to almost all the ideas generated in human history; there’s no reason to think we should see the benefits of that dispersal of knowledge accrue over the course of a single generation.

AS a bonus EXTRA WEIRD PREDICTION, since most computation is constrained by the speed of communication (a microprocessor mostly just moves bit around and occasionally does some math on them), I’m wondering if having most data centers located in rural areas might end up representing an unintentional transfer of economic firepower away from cities, if we get to a stage where having latency on the order of milliseconds provides economic advantages.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.