Edward L. Glaeser

City air still makes you free

By Edward L. Glaeser
February 24, 2011

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THE UPRISING in Egypt has been called a Facebook revolution, and Twitter has been given credit for toppling a Tunisian strongman, but virtual communities only end dictatorships by conjuring real urban mobs. As we watch anti-government protests throughout the Middle East, we should recognize that electronic media are making cities more, not less, important for the future of the world.

For decades, cyber-seers have predicted that electronic communication would make face-to-face connections and cities obsolete. Why put up with the inconveniences of New York’s density if you could just telecommute from your “electronic cottage?’’

But that hasn’t happened. Humanity has just passed from being predominantly rural to be predominantly urban. Two hundred and fifty-two million Americans live in the 3 percent of the country’s land area that is urban. America’s cities are more productive than ever. The techno-prophets who thought that technology would hurt cities ignored centuries of history, during which information technology has usually increased urban concentration. Gutenberg’s printing press was a more seismic communications revolution than any modern innovation, and the press helped usher in the technology and social change that made cities grow.

The press helped the spread of knowledge during the scientific revolution that led to Manchester’s steam engines and Chicago’s railroads. Martin Luther called the press “God’s highest act of grace,’’ because it was so indispensable in the Reformation, and the Reformation helped make Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) friendlier to urban commerce by eliminating anti-commercial relics like usury laws. The press enabled anti-Hapsburg agitators in the Netherlands to build support for their revolution that ushered in an urban republic that helped populate cities from Manhattan to Jakarta.

Some experts first thought that the telephone would act mainly to solve “the problems of country life,’’ but by 1906, one phone expert could reasonably assert that the phone was “the greatest urbanizer on record.’’ Telephones allowed businessmen like John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan to direct ever larger business empires and still benefit from high-level personal interactions in New York. Since Morgan wouldn’t lend to a man that he didn’t trust, he needed to know his clients personally.

As late as the 1970s, more than three-quarters of phone calls connected callers who were less than 6 miles away, which suggests face-to-face meeting and telephoning were complements rather than substitutes.

Dense urban cores have also thrived during the Internet era. Today, workers in the five zip codes in Midtown Manhattan collectively earn more than all of Oregon or Nevada. New technologies have also extended the reach of the Los Angeles film industry, whose movies reflect the magic of personal interactions in Hollywood between actors, directors, writers, and producers. America’s most technologically connected industry is also the world’s most famous geographic cluster — Silicon Valley — that allows software engineers and entrepreneurs the benefit of immersion in a culture of innovation. From an American vista, Bangalore may seem like some far-flung spot, but from an Indian perspective, the city is the quintessence of physical connection: a place crammed with smart, connected people.

Globalization and new technologies make cities more important by increasing the returns to being smart. The ability to connect worldwide makes new ideas even more valuable, and new ideas have always been collaborative affairs. Facebook enables far-flung friendships, but it was itself created by ideas shared in the dense corridors of an urban college. The most complicated ideas are still best transmitted in person.

Humanity’s greatest gift is our ability to learn from people around us, and that ultimately makes us an urban species. The ability to connect electronically will never replace sharing a meal. And if you want to topple a dictator, you’ve got to take to the streets. The outcome in Egypt is still unclear. If the uprising in Cairo achieves the best possible outcome — a free, representative democracy connected with the outside world — then Facebook will have made the old adage “stadtluft macht frei,’’ — or “city air makes you free’’ — true once more. If things go awry, then we will have witnessed a darker example of urban power. In either case, Cairo reminds us that we need to understand the cities that are shaping our future.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.