Golden Age & Polis
Essays Technology Innovation

Golden Age & Polis

Anirudh Pai

“I tell you, you Athenians who have become my killers, that just as soon as I’m dead you’ll—meet with a punishment that—Zeus knows—will be much harsher than the one you’ve meted out to me by putting me to death. You’ve acted as you have now because you think it’ll let you off being challenged for an account of your life; in fact, I tell you, you’ll find the case quite the opposite.”

— Plato, Apology

Upon receiving his sentence, Socrates prophesied that his execution, echoed through the streets of Athens, would be paid back to the city with a vengeance. The turning of the city against its wisest man is itself part of a bigger puzzle. Ashamed of his countrymen’s actions, Plato renounced Athens, swearing never to return again. However, he later changed his mind and returned to the polis, building his akademia and tutoring the city’s best minds. Yet, the question remains: why should he have come back to Athens?

In hindsight, Socrates’s execution was also the definitive death of Athen’s golden age; to gadflies everywhere—and throughout all ages—it was a sign that if you thought differently, you would be persecuted. For Socrates’s disciples, like Plato, it was apparent that Athens had both intellectually ossified and turned wary of critically reflective thinkers. Yet, without these idiosyncratic personalities, how could the city and the minds of its inhabitants develop? Luckily, the city retained enough of a luster to convince Plato to return and enable the greatest school of thought the world had ever seen; instead of fleeing, the philosopher returned with a goal to inspire philosophers and leaders alike for generations to come.

The history of human civilization and the polis are intertwined; the city feeds art alongside scientific progress while science and culture shape the city and its inhabitants. During the Italian Renaissance, the Medici family was a patron of artists and thinkers such as Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Machiavelli. In modern Vienna, the Wittgenstein family bankrolled much of the cultural and musical scene, paving the way for the Vienna circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein himself—alongside artists such as Johannes Brahms and Francçois Auguste Rodin. The combination of capital and fellow creatives to compete with and learn from helped to create unparalleled networks; to create golden ages. As such, the seeds of the greatest intellectual movements and their catalysts have always been planted deep inside the heart of the polis.

Indeed, a city’s golden age implies that the city is undergoing a unique transformation, that it’s doing something differently than other cities. “Creative cities,” urban researcher Peter Hall writes, “are almost certainly uncomfortable, unstable cities, cities in some kind of basic collective self-examination.” Beneath the surface of any remarkable city is a tension that begs to snap, much like Athens in antiquity with the coup of the 400 hundred, an oligarchy of elites.

In this view, our time is peculiar. From all over the world, people flock to great cities—London, San Francisco, New York, Shanghai—only to witness abject poverty, social atomization, and despair among the youth. For instance, San Francisco’s streets are notoriously child-free: 13% of its citizens are under the age of eighteen compared to 21% and 23% in New York and Chicago, respectively.

For discerning eyes, is the underlying message that the technological metropolis is too transient to support families? Do people stay just long enough for the promise of untold riches and leave for the suburbs once achieving success—forcing others to deal with the consequences? Perhaps, this will be the dominant ethos of our cities in the future: Galt’s Gulches for the affluent that price out everyone else.

The Decadent Society

Within the United States, the wealthiest country on record, the cost of basic goods like housing, education, and healthcare has seen runaway inflation across the board. Simultaneously, no critical amount of young people are, as of yet, relocating to rural areas. The gig economy and increased connectivity have, paradoxically, increased the need for peer-to-peer collaboration.

Every major city is transforming into a knowledge agglomeration economy, meaning that the breakneck speed of information results in compound intellectual growth for its inhabitants. When people work and socialize together, the gains can be enormous; for example, Walker's Wagon Wheel bar in Mountain View saw the first semiconductor engineers discuss chip designs—after a few beers and without NDAs, knowledge was shared and used freely.

To understand which ideas will be realized in the 21st century, it is vital to understand how, across time, the city lays the foundations for cultural innovation. René Girard once claimed that “mimetic contagion” compels people to act differently in groups, compared to how they would behave as individuals. The polis has a psychology all its own, where its citizens can be persuaded by their leaders to cause, at the worst of times, unparalleled disaster while being capable of immeasurable accomplishments when collectively maneuvering for greatness in the arts, politics, and sciences.

Athens peaked in the 5th century BC but its successes inspired many who came after, notably the generation of the American Revolution. Athens humbly began as a regional trading hub and only later became a seat for learning. Wealth was necessary for the cultural flourishing of its citizens; Plato’s personal prosperity allowed him to pursue his eclectic interests. The Akademia itself represents how knowledge, much like anything, compounds: Plato taught Aristotle, who later taught Alexander the Great, who Hellenized the countries he conquered. The spread of Plato’s teachings continued to grow, throughout this still-expanding network. Moving to a city during a golden age contains its own Knightian uncertainty—equal chances of failure and success for those citizens.

To maximize intellectual returns, one must be in the right place at the right time; that is, to be a part of the city’s founding—a revolution is often not enough. Ex post, we can see that many cities which underwent revolution never addressed its fundamental issues: Buenos Aires, despite its poetic scenery and exceptional wineries, is experiencing unchecked inequality, debt, and inflation by the hands of Argentina’s government and foreign investors.

In his Der Untergang des Abendlandes (Decline of the West), Oswald Spengler wrote that subordination of the arts to the sciences was an unmistakable indication of a decadent society. If there is a city that can claim to fit that criterion today, it is San Francisco. The city has a greater collection of technological talent than anywhere else on Earth but it remains plighted by ever-growing domestic homelessness and crime.

When we ponder why certain cities become economic powerhouses without culturally blossoming, San Francisco is a case in point. Despite boasting the largest number of billionaires per capita in the world, one cannot claim that the city is a cultural staple anymore.

Continuing cultural growth requires understanding of a city’s cultural differences vis-à-vis other cities and honing in on them. In a world dominated by talk of remote work, only the cities that have excessive value will attract the best human capital.

Urban Creative Destruction

In his book Order Without Design, Alain Bertaud makes the case that cities are job-centers first and cultural hubs second. People flock to a new city because they have a greater chance of finding interesting work. Once enough people band together, the community they generate will be entirely unique too, which is necessary, but not sufficient, for a golden age. Hollywood, and effectively LA, began as a business exodus from Edison’s pugnacious Motion Picture Patent Company in New Jersey. The 1920s in America saw the influx of radio, and the 1930s witnessed the rise of the talkies. The creation of new means of communication and expression, secured to the entrepreneurial spirit of LA, made it possible to wrest control from East Coast producers.

Did the media industry want to adapt to the changing reality of the American landscape? Far from it. These brash and predominantly Jewish founders like Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make stories that catered to people like them—immigrants who had escaped hellish conditions abroad and moved to America in search of a better life. In this sense, LA developed on the fringe of the world, without any regulatory oversight. Despite Wall Street bankrolling the studios, the city was the final frontier.

While recounting his homeless wanderings in the memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell remarked that our deepest hatred is for those who do the most for us. So it was that film entrepreneurs despised those who funded their untamed, on-camera experiments. It was, and to some extent remains, a perverse symbiosis.

Eventually, the studios were able to sustain their businesses and shake off most of the shackles placed on them by financiers. In a classic case of the innovator’s dilemma, Menlo Park, Thomas Edison’s R&D laboratory, would never reap the riches that Hollywood would because of its open knowledge economy.

Today, iterations of these same, ironic twists play out around the world. Shanghai is leaching control from Beijing, Melbourne from Sydney, and San Francisco from New York. Hong Kong is watching its best minds flee to the UK, US, and Singapore as China continues to swallow the eastern world whole.

Across Europe, Berlin and even Warsaw are experiencing a cultural and financial resurgence as London reels from its EU divorce. Although the extent of Berlin’s rise remains to be seen, areas that were once cheap real estate and cafés are now sprawling urban shopping malls and venture capital firms. Yet, it doesn’t take decades for cities to lose their allure—as London has shown.

Matters of status and prestige are zero-sum, and any disruption is met with aggression. The same is true with urban development catering to a similar subset of young, ambitious people. We are already seeing conflicts emerge between cities that are vying for influence in this zero-sum battle.

“Old” York

Facebook, Apple, Google, and their ilk all have something in common. It’s not the fact that they are technology companies, but that their founding myths consist of unique elements. Apple embodied the Edisonian troublemakers tinkering away in their garages; Facebook was the story of an overzealous, aggressive dropout, hell-bent on moving fast and breaking things; while Google espoused “Googleyness” in doubling down on one’s nerdiest hobbies.

Cities are similar. New York, for example, has an uncanny ability for reinvention. It began as a trading hub, but it became a global presence after World War I: an international jewel where bankers became celebrities in their own right and Broadway actors could command the attention of world leaders. The city boasted the world’s best universities and minds, with talent nourishing both industry and academia. Indeed, Columbia University’s School of Business was founded by a banker, the president of Chase Manhattan, A. Barton Hepburn. New York’s geography, its proximity and intimate relationship to the world’s artistic and financial talent, became its destiny.

This has changed during our century. Today, the fastest growing sector of the city seems to be technology, hurdling past the once-coveted advertising and media jobs that occupied the urban skyscrapers.

While the internet has enabled untold numbers of dabblers and dilettantes, it has also demonstrated winner-take-all distributions in business and in urban life. Contemporary Silicon Valley has consumer internet companies, technology investment banks, and even companies working on spaceflight. Self-driving cars whiz by on the streets of Mountain View as PhDs furiously program their drones to compete in the upcoming Drone Racing League tournament.

Nevertheless, even highly educated people presume that the technology industry was already assembled out of the box. Of course, the Valley didn’t start this way. The myriad nature of Silicon Valley’s industries makes it seem like every city has to be good at everything. This is false, the Bay Area’s success can be linked all the way back to being good at one thing: the research and development of semiconductors.

The Contemporary Age

The internet has only made these effects more stark. Boston was once world-renowned for its shipbuilding industry but now its main attraction is the life sciences research that universities and companies hope will cure aging and disease. Likewise, we’re seeing analogues in cities that can move from singular pre-internet hubs to ones that are finding new ways to glean attention for themselves in the digital world. This is why it doesn’t make sense to invest in another attempt at Silicon Valley. Success is not found in a city’s plans; it is a possibility that can emerge once conditions have been met. The best that other countries and cities can hope for is to attract talent that’s bright enough to dream for the future and, hopefully, stumble upon something as powerful as microchips, with the innumerable cultural factors that entails and involves.

Therefore, to avoid disruption, local and national governments must be aware of their branding and distribution, much like a startup wondering how it can differentiate itself from its competitors. The future will be made by regulators and politicians who understand their country’s corporate appeal to future immigrants. The concept of the nation-state as such is evaporating—the Western world has already become a homogenous whole. When everyone is selling the same goods, stronger external incentives are required to attract the best human capital.

Some countries have already seen this future and are beginning to adapt. For example, the Netherlands has been doing a spectacular job with all of the above. Amsterdam is one of Europe’s three fastest growing cities; when officials were confronted with the unexpected labor shortage in crucial sectors like IT, they immediately acted by instituting reeducation programs for these skills.

The speed of a government’s reaction is what matters, and cities like Barcelona are following in Amsterdam’s footsteps by integrating sustainable infrastructure reforms such as smart lights and waste disposal facilities. These improvements coupled with a remarkably cheap cost of living have allowed Barcelona to become a booming technology hub. According to venture capital firm Atomico in partnership with Linkedin, Spain is now the third most popular destination for European technology talent.

Yet, it’s possible that the efforts of these countries might be wasted if Europe, as a whole, cannot resolve its issues—excessive debt and short termism can derail even the best of cities. This is the reason Peter Thiel quipped that “Europe’s future is in its past.” When confronted by questions of technological regulation, the European Union has largely decided to cease and desist rather than aspire to become better than their American counterparts. What does that say about the myriad societies that make up Europe? Operating out of spite, regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation have only aided the biggest companies (e.g., Facebook and Google) and strangled smaller, European businesses who cannot compete with these juggernauts.

In the modern era, one can’t help but wonder if our contemporary Plato has left Athens, whichever city that currently may be. But, without question, we have the means to make our cities a place where he would seek to return; if those in government don’t see the writing on the wall, it is perhaps better to exit and start anew. While it may be too late to prevent the exodus of some innovators, the western world still has the power and luster to attract a million more and reinvent itself through a new golden age.