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May 20, 2018

The end of the century of privacy

Filed under: Privacy,Urbanism,Urbanization — Razib Khan @ 10:40 pm

Reading The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War has made me think more about the unique nature of urban civilization of the long 20th-century. The expansion of public health, in particular provision of clean water, meant that for the first time in the history of the world you had a situation where people in cities actually had a higher life expectancy than those in rural areas. Prior to this cities were demographic sinks. We have data from the 19th century which makes it clear that morbidity was higher for city dwellers. This is probably the major reason, in my opinion, the cosmopolitan worlds of antiquity had such a marginal demographic impact: the culturally vibrant city-dwellers who dominated Classical civilization politically and socially didn’t leave many descendants.

Even though cities were dominant politically and central to many earlier societies, only in the last century so have predominantly urban societies emerged. Before that most humans lived in villages or in hunter-gatherer bands. Everyone was in everyone else’s business. Anonymity was simply not a thing for most humans in most periods of our species’ history.

This changed with the rise of cities. In the early 2000s the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that people could maintain ~150 genuine social relationships in their mind. This is Dunbar’s number. Over the past two decades, there have been lots of arguments about Dunbar’s number. One can stipulate that the value may not be 150. Additionally, it seems likely that some people have a higher Dunbar’s numbers than others. But the general point that human social competencies have a ceiling value seems to be right.

And, that ceiling is smaller than the number of people who live in close proximity to each other in cities. The potential facelessness of your neighbors in a city, and its diversity and cosmopolitanism is one reason that it was in cities that written laws displayed in public places emerged as a custom. Societies not bound together by social interaction and kinship needed abstractions which could scale. Laws, kings, and religions are just some of the cultural inventions that were essential to maintain order in a city where strangers interacted daily.

But were these cities really incubators for anonymity? I would argue that the premodern city offered far less anonymity, and therefore privacy than the modern city. Premodern cities were dense, due to limitations in transportation. They were defined by neighborhoods. Additionally, economic activities in cities were often defined by relationships between people, whether it be between a patron and an artisan, or members of a cooperative guild. In some ways, premodern cities were a collection of villages.

What defined the 20th-century was the rise of massive corporations that rationalized economic consumption and production. The supermarket is cheaper than your local green-grocer, but there is also less of a personal relationship between you and the supermarket staff. Similarly, they may not know who you are. Rather than having economic relationships directly to other people, you have an economic relationship with an institution, which acts as an intermediary.

By the second half of the 20th century, individuals in cities could be totally self-sufficient and isolated from other human beings if they so chose when it came to personal relationships. The rationalization of modern life made deep human interaction a choice, and to some extent, privacy was the default state.

The rationalization of economic relations continues. But over the last 20 years, and especially the last ten or so, the default state of privacy has disappeared. If you know someone’s name you can usually find their age, where they have lived their adult life, who they lived with, and who their relatives are. Websites like Zillow can tell you their home-value or when/if they bought their home and for how much. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media make it so you can find out many things about a person.

Recently a friend of mine who became newly single after ten years in a relationship decided to try out online dating (for the first time). One thing he found is that you have to assume that your matches may have Googled you beforehand (presumably this depends on whether the site gives you full name or not). If you are too shy to talk to your neighbors, just look up who lives at the various addresses around you.  Once you have their names you can find out everything else.

Obviously, modern information technology doesn’t make it so that we live in a premodern village. But, it does mean that the faceless anonymity enabled by rationalized modern economics and socio-political systems is stripped away. In its place, you become a set of values for various parameters (age, income, political orientation, geographical mobility). You don’t know people in a tacit and natural manner, you know them through their data.

Whereas the political and social views of most employees of a corporation were out of view in the 20th-century, today many companies are snooping around in Facebook feeds and doing simple background checks. You may not have a personal relationship with a large company, but it has a relationship with the data that it defines you by.

The 20th-century was the century of privacy because the machinery of information distribution appropriate to hunter-gatherers and villages did not scale to cities. And 20th-century technology never caught up to the scale of the cities and economies of that period in terms of distributing information. As the 21st-century proceeds, it seems that information technology is finally now in place.

March 25, 2012

The revival of the American city?

Filed under: Demographics,Urbanism — Razib Khan @ 1:37 pm

I’ve never watched Mad Men, but I really can’t help but hear all about the show. One thing that has struck me about the change from then, ~1960, to now, ~2010, is the alignment of quantitative demographic trends with impressionistic cultural ones. The 1970s were a disaster for the old urban order. Below are the top 10 cities by population in 1960 and 2010.

Rank 1960 2010
1 New York New York
2 Chicago Los Angeles
3 Los Angeles Chicago
4 Philadelphia Houston
5 Detroit Philadelphia
6 Baltimore Phoenix
7 Houston San Antonio
8 Cleveland San Diego
9 Washington Dallas
10 St. Louis San Jose

The rise of the “Sun Belt”, housing bubble notwithstanding, is a real and awesome phenomenon. Below the fold I’ve taken some demographic trend data for the top 10 cities of 1960. The first two panels show raw population data. The second two panels show the decade-to-decade change in population in terms of multiples (i.e., 1.2 for 2010 means that the population in 2010 was 1.2 times that in 2000).

 

For me the biggest surprise is how much the trajectory of Chicago resembles stereotypical “Rust Belt” cities. Unlike New York City Chicago lost population in the aughts. In some ways New York City is sui generis. I went through the precipitous near collapse in the 1970s, just as the smaller cities of the Heartland, but over the past few decades it has refashioned itself, exhibiting a demographic vigor to match Los Angles on the West coast. A second surprise is Philadelphia’s robustness. Unlike the Midwestern cities it seems to have developed some “stabilizers.”

More starkly, observe the rate of change in the 1970s. We often reflect upon the cultural shifts in the 1960s, the first half of which are arguably part of the long 1950s. But chaos of the late 1960s bore fruit over the 1970s, and echoed down into the 1980s. Though the worst of the decline was over by the 1980s, a pall of decline still hung over much of the decade (e.g., “Japan Inc.”) due to the experiences of the 1970s, Ronald Reagan’s robust counter-narrative notwithstanding. And the great urban revival of the 1990s clearly leveled off in the last decade.

Source data.

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