Whole Earth Optimists


Edge marks the new year by asking 160 notables what they're optimistic about these days. Here's part of Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand's answer:

Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban….

Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down—perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.

Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities—the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades.

Globalization and urbanization accentuate each other. Medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers. The newly liberated women in the slums create and lead CBOs (community based organizations, some linked with national and global NGOs) to handle everything from child care to micro-finance. If the city has some multinational corporations closely surveiled by do-gooders back home, their pay rates and work conditions will raise the standard throughout the city.

The sudden urbanization is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the resourcefulness and ambition of billions of poor people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Brand overstates the extent to which people are leaving the countryside voluntarily—he notes that China "helps the process," but doesn't mention that one way it does this is by seizing people's farms—but his larger points about the benefits of urban life, and of do-it-yourself neighborhoods run by the people who live in them, are well-taken.

Another former Whole Earth editor, Howard Rheingold, answered Edge's question as well. Here's an excerpt:

The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds….The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire—unprompted by adults—to learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation, young people are creating and mobilizing politically active publics online when circumstances arouse them to action.

As an increasingly cheap and portable Internet penetrates the Third World's squatter cities, expect lots of fascinating surprises as Brand's favorite trend intersects with Rheingold's.

Elsewhere in Reason: In 2003, I interviewed Rheingold about smart mobs. Later that year we named Brand one of our 35 heroes of freedom.

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  1. Please keep in mind when reading Brand’s answer that what we call “suburbs” are, functionally, just really, really spread out sections of the city. The issues we have about suburban vs urban are completely outside the scope of his ideas, and wholly irrelevant to the Developing World urbanizatio he’s talking about.

  2. Rheingold is right about 14 year olds now having digital production and communication skills. Where he goes wrong is in thinking that the average 14 year old has anything important to communicate.

  3. I think you miss a point, Papaya. Maybe Charles Dickens had something important to communicate. Probably he didn’t. But he was probably reading and writing. You need a literate population for writers to emerge. Prior to print literacy, only an ecclesiastical or royal elite, and mostly those who worked for them, were able to write. After Gutenberg, millions people were able to write. As always (Sturgeons Law — “90% of everthing is crap), not many of those millions had something world-changing to write about. But some of them did. And as Benkler points out in “The Wealth of Networks,” the citizen who is only a passive consumer has a very different self-image from citizens who create — however clumsily or unimportantly — as well as consume cultural products.

  4. Oops. That was supposed to be “Maybe Charles Dickens had something important to communicate when he was 14 years old.”

  5. Where he goes wrong is in thinking that the average 14 year old has anything important to communicate.

    I don’t know that the numbers are any worse for fourteen-year-olds than they are for the general population. And even if they were, “important” and “interesting” aren’t necessarily the same thing. The kids’ art show at the state fair is always a lot more fun to walk through than the “regular” one.

  6. I’m not against literacy and communication skills and technology, of course. And there is a (slim) chance that a 14 year old might create something interesting. I just think it’s a bit of high-tech boosterism to think that these tools in the hands of 14 year olds really changes much of anything. If they were learning how to write well and use logic, now that would be a reason for optimism!

  7. Sounds like you read the excerpt, PapayaSF, and not my entire statement, which was quite carefully worded to avoid “high-tech boosterism.” And it sounds like you failed to read my comment, since it was about what that 14 year old might grow into (c.f., Charles Dickens at 14 analogy), not what the 14 year old is able to do in the early stages of media literacy.

    You are taking the stance that Walter Lippmann took at the beginning of the 20th century. I am taking a position more akin to John Dewey’s. In both cases, people, not technology have the power of agency; technologies, however, can enable actions that were not possible before, or were confined to a small group.

  8. If you had simply written about greater numbers of people of all countries and classes having advanced communication tools, I’d have silently agreed.

    The reference to 14 year olds was the focus of my snarky comment, but not because I’m agreeing with Lippmann. It’s a combination of partial agreement with Clifford Stoll and a sense of dismay at the “isn’t it great when teens get politically active” attitude in your original comment. IMHO, the vast majority of teens are political morons, whatever they believe. They’re simply too young to have the life experience or education to do more than parrot their parents or teachers or friends or advocate the simplistic adolescent solutions that nearly everyone that age falls prey to.

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