Spikey or Flat?

Spikey or Flat?  That depends in part on which theory you buy into – Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” or Richard Florida’s “The World is Spikey.”  For me, I started with Nick Bostrom’s Ted Talk (2015)– and was fascinated by several descriptions (scare tactics?) he used.  Using this as my starting point, I then dipped into the synopsis of Friedman’s book (Chapters 1-3) and then Florida’s article.

Bostrom got my attention at first with his description of where we are in the development cycle – if the earth were a year old, the human race would be only 10 minutes old, and the industrial revolution would there be only two seconds old.  In the grand scheme of life, this perspective really hit me that we are here but for a moment, and much of what we are talking about, we may not be around to even see.  As Bostrum shifted to his discussion of machine super-intelligence, I was struck by his cautionary tale to be careful of what we are wishing for and to plan for all facets of our wishes.  The King Midas example was perfectly placed here as the example of how not to plan for the growth of artificial intelligence.

Reading the synopsis of Chapters 1-3, I felt like I agreed with the premise of the world being flattened.  I still do, actually.  The Ten Forces that flattened the world were accessible for me – easy to understand and relate to, as well as to think back on, having been a recent college graduate when the Berlin Wall came down.  Thus, I have lived through all of these events.  Our students today – not so much.  Their experience is more of being integrated with their devices, having grown up with a personal digital device as opposed to learning how to use one.   With the introduction and advent of all of this technology, the world has become more accessible, as has information.  So what has really flattened is the access to knowledge.  You no longer have to be “somewhere” to know or share “something”.  The barriers to entry have been eliminated for many more people than were historically considered knowledge brokers.  So yes, I see and agree with Friedman’s premise.  Sort of.

As I turn my attention to Florida’s response, at first I felt defensive.  Maybe it was because I was agreeing with Friedman.  The text of Florida’s response was definitely more data-driven, appealing to my logical side.  The charts really drove home his point, and the argument is tough to, well, argue?  As flat as I want to think the world is, be it socially, economically, or racially, is it really?  Our cities are getting bigger and more congested – my reason for opting out of Corporate America 15 years ago was prompted in part by too many business trips, nights on the road, and hours lost in traffic jams on the Tobin Bridge.  That hasn’t changed.  We don’t hear about new innovations coming out of some backyard in Kansas (not picking on Kansas).  As Florida points out, the economic output is coming from a surprisingly few places.  So the power is still in the spikey places.  And the resources are as well.

So – the end result?  We live in a flatter world with spikier centers.  I can create an idea from wherever I am, share it with the world through technology I carry in my hand that didn’t exist for the masses 20 years ago.  I have access to more information than I could ever need in the palm of my hand.  We all do – barriers to access have been flattened.  But so what?  I can’t do it alone – I need resources.  Money, people, space, equipment, logistics, etc.  They aren’t in my back yard or my basement.  My access to knowledge is unlimited, but my access to everything I need to turn that knowledge or idea into something still has barriers, still requires entry, still relies on catching a break or knowing someone.  Spikey isn’t going away.  Neither is flat.

Pulling Bostrum back into the argument, does the speed of change and innovation now make the spikes higher and the valleys flatter at an even faster pace?  Cities can only get so big – how we define them is changing.  We are getting closer and closer to calling every city inside of 128 (okay, 95) as “part of Boston.  How soon until that shifts to be everything inside of 495?  Food for thought.  I just hope the traffic stays away!

3 thoughts on “Spikey or Flat?

  1. Nice post. You captured the three assignments well…and I was just in Boston last weekend for a conference. A two-hour drive from Natick to Logan Airport in the rain…with thousands of my closest friends on the Mass Pike…not fun!

    Tom Friedman’s latest book – THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE (2016) – picks up where THE WORLD IS FLAT left off. When he finished his 3rd edition of TWIF, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram did not exist. His latest book (which is as scary as Bostrum’s video) explores the triple acceleration of technological change, climate change, and human population growth (we added a billion people between his two books).

    Last year, I blogged about how AI has passed a threshold where it “thinks” in ways we cannot comprehend. One wonders what machines think about Friedman versus Florida?

    http://bwatwood.edublogs.org/2017/04/26/defining-online-ask-the-machines/

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  2. I agree with “we live in a flatter world with spikier centers.” I am very happy to live on the seacoast of NH – 45 minutes to a major tech hub (Boston/Cambridge), 90 minutes to the mountains and 5 minutes to the beach :). Living so close to Boston, we have some amazing academic institutions (Harvard, MIT, Tufts, etc), yet I am far enough removed that these resources are available without having to live in the city. Over the past 15 years, 128 has become Boston’s “tech corridor” and a new tech corridor has started in the Merrimack Valley. Lawrence has experienced significant growth the past 5 years.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your post. It struck so many of the notes that I thought of and experienced in the readings, as well.

    Your summation that “spiky isn’t going away, neither is flat” perfectly captured my feelings. It was very clear to me while reading both articles that flattening trends and spiky trends are occurring at once. Access to information has never been freer in all of our history (by our recollections or Bostrum’s extended look at it), but participation in what that information can gain (especially economically) clearly rests in spiky urban centers.

    I liked that Florida referred to the spikes as “ecosystems,” as it seems to get to the heart of the concentration of resources (money, opportunity, education, talent, public transit, etc.) that can enable someone to thrive when they have access to so much information.

    I also chuckled at your mention of “scare tactics” in relation to Bostrum’s talk. When he referred to things as “science fiction-y” and showed the image of the Terminator, he certainly drew my attention!

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