Getting a handle on the increasing complexity of large cities

Richard Florida interviews the author of a new book on cities and complexity. Here is one of the more interesting questions:

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

I like this response: we have a tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to understandable objects (like machines – think of how often the brain is compared to a computer) but this often isn’t possible. Understanding all of the social relationships involved – and this could include relationships between people as well as between people and objects or nature – should lead us to some humility of how much we can know and predict as well as a fascination regarding how it all works. (Or, perhaps this fascination just applies to people like sociologists)

If indeed cities are complex systems, this could lead to questions of whether that complexity has drawbacks in the long run that cannot be overcome. (Parenthetically, such questions could also apply to nation states.) At some point, complexity may produce diminishing returns as argued by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. This reminds me that Jane Jacobs suggested organizing cities in districts that weren’t too big or small so that they could attend to smaller matters while also allowing community involvement. Americans tend to like smaller local government but the combined resources and interactions between larger groups of people can lead to more unusual benefits.

Stores have cash registers, give receipts to prevent cashier theft

Megan McArdle explains that businesses don’t have cash registers or receipts for the good of consumers; it is to prevent cashiers from taking money.

The great innovation of the National Cash Register company was to market registers not so much as adding machines but as devices for preventing theft. Here’s Walter Friedman’s “Birth of a Salesman” on how these machines were made ubiquitous:

Because of the high price of NCR cash registers, sales agents had to convince proprietors that the machine would eventually pay for itself. NCR’s early advertisements resembled the contemporary flyers of life-insurance. In both, the aim was to heighten customer fear and uncertainty. In the cash-register trade, the fear centered on stolen revenue. One of Patterson’s advertisements, proclaiming “Stop the Leaks,” depicted shop owners ruined by clerks who stole from their cash drawers. This marketing strategy posed problems for NCR, because clerks and bartenders resented the implication that a mechanical “thief-catcher” was a necessary coworker. Some even organized protective associations to keep the product out.

In instances of intense opposition by clerks to newly installed registers, Patterson sent detectives to supervise the machine’s operation. NCR for June 1888 printed a letter from a merchant in Detroit whose store had been watched by an NCR-hired detective. “Your operative’s report relative to my man not registering is at hand. I was very much surprised, as it caught a man, above all others, I have relied upon, not only in the bar but in other matters in the house.”That’s why cash registers ring loudly when the cash drawer opens — so that a clerk with decent mental arithmetic skills can’t pretend to register your sale and then pocket the cash. And that’s why you get a physical receipt — so that the clerk can’t ring up part of your sale, and then siphon the rest into his own pocket.

In other words, NCR helped create the market for their goods by playing up certain fears. Friedman’s link to life insurance is an interesting one; sociologist Viviana Zelizer has written about how life insurance was once viewed as morbid but came to be viewed in the 1800s as a necessary provision for one’s family. This is like the cash register as the good businessperson has to have a cash register. It also sets up an interesting new source of alienation between companies and workers: the basic retail employee can’t be trusted with money.

One reason to look at the social history of products is to note how they are not objects humans inherently need. They are social constructions.

Thinking about Americans losing the ability to work with their hands

A New York Times essay argues we are losing something as Americans because fewer people can work skillfully with their hands:

“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”

That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income…

Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture…

As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.

I don’t doubt that the ability to produce craftmenship is worthwhile, particularly if one is a homeowner. But I wonder about the larger value of working with one’s hands. Why can’t using a mouse or a controller be considered “working with one’s hands”? Of course, it fits in a literal sense but there is a difference in production and skills. Yet, it still requires effort and finesse to be able to effectively utilize the newest machines. Perhaps we have swapped our traditional toolbox for a “digital toolbox.”

If the world is moving toward an information and service economy, is this necessarily bad? This reminds me of a piece in The Atlantic months ago about a contest where programmers had to try to put together a computer that could converse like a human. Working with tools is not uniquely human but thinking and reasoning might be. Does this make working with our hands less valuable compared to other possible activities?

Basic sociological question: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”

Big questions about society can be great for Introduction to Sociology courses. Here is are the sorts of questions that I think could work quite well:

So, what sort of machines do you need to create an industrial civilization—kind of like the ones we have now, but more sensibly sourced. I remember taking a sociology course years ago where we started out with a similar question, although we conceived the question more broadly—what does civilization as we know it rely on? The answer then (decades ago, before the impact of The Whole Earth Catalog had been felt) was something along the lines of “technology.” But this is a much better question.

If we stuck with the second question here, “what does civilization as we know it rely on?”, I could imagine a class could generate a lot of answers:

1. The Internet. In the vast scope of human history, this may seem silly. But for people raised in the Internet era, it would be pretty hard to imagine life without it.

2. Electricity. This makes all sorts of things possible.

3. The steam engine. This helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution.

And so on. But these are all technological changes that could go back to the plow and the wheel and illustrate the human capacity to create and utilize tools. We just happen to live in an era where such technological change is rapid and our daily lives are full of machines. But what about more cultural or sociological phenomena?

1. Language. The ability to communicate in formalized ways gave rise to oral traditions, writing, etc.

2. Government. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean the big bureaucracies of today that impressed Max Weber. But just a form of ruling or authority that helped bring about communities.

3. Sustained agriculture. This has been the traditional answer to how humans were able to create more complex societies in the Fertile Crescent. This is now being challenged by a new argument based on evidence of early religion in Turkey.

I’ll have to think about using these questions in class. They seem particularly good for helping students consider the basic building blocks of human social life before diving into specific sociological phenomena.

From awe to impatience with machines

Christine Rosen at writes about our relationship with machines. Her argument: people in the 1800s and early 1900s were awed by machines while today, “the more personalized and individualized our machines have become, the less humility we feel in using them.” Rosen suggests how this came about:

The awe experienced by earlier generations was part of a different worldview, one that demonstrated greater humility about many things, not least of which concerned their own human limits and frailties. Today we believe our machines allow us to know a lot more, and in many ways they do. What we don’t want to admit – but should – is that they also ensure that we directly experience less.

A thought-provoking essay. Machines are now so common and cheap that I think we often hardly recognize how they have changed our lives. In fact, new machines need to be almost life-altering (or have some new image attached to them) to gain our attention. Many of our common machines, like the automobile or many kitchen appliances, haven’t changed all that much over time as they still perform the same basic functions.

Having a sense of awe about a machine might also help us recognize some of the downsides of using new machines. If we are used to computers, we don’t think much anymore about the implications of joining a site like Facebook. Or we may not consider how having a search engine like Google affects how we think or gather and process information. We tend to accept new machines today as inevitable signs of progress (and we are progressing, right?) rather than stepping back and assessing what they mean.