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Cities as Social Networks

November 29, 2011

Çatalhöyük Village, Anatolia - Turkey


Professor Sandy Ikeda has an excellent piece in The Freeman on social networks and city life.

In the first large settlements, such as Jericho and Çatalhöyük, agriculture and trade exploded, launching the so-called Neolithic Revolution, in which socially distant groups were for the first time able to extend weak ties to one another, making it possible to form unprecedentedly large and complex communities. Opportunities for trade and free association expanded exponentially, in turn creating more weak links and more opportunities.

A free society is a great arbitrator, allowing people with disparate ends and beliefs, all over the world, to cooperate peacefully with one another. But commerce and free association also help to erode bigotry and the fear of others. Legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs has written that among the ‘symptoms’ of societies organized around commerce are:

  • Shun force
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Respect contracts
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Be optimistic
  • Be honest
Ikeda echoes advocates of competitive governance by bringing these ideas into the 21st century:

And just as on Facebook, where you can “unfriend” or “block” connections that you no longer like, the Great Society both encourages and enables people to leave the little platoons that stifle them and to form new ones. The genesis and development of early cities, the foundation of the Great Society, depended as much on the freedom to break old, strong ties as on the freedom to form new, weak ones. The “freedom to” presupposes the “freedom from.”

Which is why I find cities so fascinating and so important for understanding social and economic development. As I’ve written before, they are the birthplace of liberty. Cities were the first social networks. They play that role today, and despite the rise of Facebook, Twitter and the others, I believe they always will.

Competitive governance is the logical companion to the ebb and flow of commercial society. People are free to break from old bonds that stifle and form new ties that enhance their lives. A world of a Thousand (or a Hundred-Thousand) Nations is a world of ‘little platoons’: cities of the past bred mankind’s earliest trials with liberty; cities of the future will incubate liberty’s rebirth.

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