Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Whole Story

Matt Yglesias points out something interesting that is often overlooked when we discuss important people: place.  He refers to a concept in the economics of cities known as "agglomeration externalities", "basically the idea that individuals and firms obtain productivity boosts by clustering together."  He sees the ways in which a Steve Jobs could not have existed outside of his particular place and time.
"As a sophomore in high school, for example, Jobs worked at an electronics store called Haltek that Isaacson describes as “a scavenger’s paradise sprawling over an entire city block with new, used, salvaged, and surplus components crammed onto warrens of shelves, dumped unsorted into bins, and piled in an outdoor yard.” The presence of an excellent electronics stores is helpful to the young Jobs as he builds his skills. But there would be no gigantic electronics specialty store except in a place with an unusually high concentration of people interested in electrical engineering. The presence of the engineers creates the market for the store, which drives the interest of the younger generation of engineers."
These patterns exist throughout history.   Often emerging organically, serendipitously, they tend to gain their own momentum, as others are attracted to what has become something important.  Aside from no small element of happenstance, this process can be best explained by the interaction of human and social capital.  In Silicon Valley, individuals with the human capital - the educated, success-minded parents, combined with the concentration of technological resources, created a tinderbox of creativity and enthusiasm for building new technologies.

In America there seems a curious resistance to this notion of social collectivity.  There seems a preference for the vision of solitary genius and individualism.  One wonders how much this has to do with the immigrant experience, and the forced severance of connections to our past.  Of course, despite the attractive notion of the immigrant going it alone, succeeding on his own merits, this is rather the exception to the rule.  The history of immigrant communities is one of networking, cooperation and group goal orientation.  Where individuals have succeeded without family help, they have done so despite the odds.

And yet, the fact remains that America is incredibly heterogeneous, with great generational mobility, and a national character defined in no small part by communal isolation.  A number of known cognitive biases could contribute to this tendency to see American success in isolation, removed from communal context.  A basic impulse of the sentiment could be a desire to deflect the painful experience - the anxiety, the stress - of "going it alone", by remembering events as not just better than they were, but as positively productive.  In this sense, one's trials and tribulations are not seen merely as unfortunate handicaps, but actual necessities for personal success.

This is certainly not a valid model of social activity.  Success is almost always built from human and social capital resources.  To the degree that it is not, more often has to do with good fortune.  Now, there certainly is an element of success-inducing tribulation.  Being forced to make do with little can be profoundly inspiring of creativity and tenacity.  But tribulation alone does not equate with success - that is surely absurd.  A crucial component in leveraging tribulation is sufficient human and social capital to allow for both its weathering and subsequent creative transcendence.  To a large degree, this capital is formed by an individual's family - how he is raised, but also by community resources and availability of alternative options.  Where there is success, no matter how devoid of opportunity an environment may appear at first glance, there will always exist an underlying story of human and social capital.

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