Epidemiology of the Knowledge Virus

Concerning innovation, we need to think of distance in a different way. Knowledge moves like a virus.
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Concerning innovation, we need to think of distance in a different way. Knowledge moves like a virus.
Apple headquarters on Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California. (Photo: Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons)

Apple headquarters on Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California. (Photo: Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons)

The world is flat. We've collapsed time, annihilated distance. Geography is dead. So go the polemical claims of globalization. Contrasting effective distance with absolute distance is a more useful construct. Finding a signal in the noise of a pandemic:

We know speed of air travel makes it easy for disease to spread between major transportation hubs, even ones separated by hundreds or thousands of miles. But even taking transportation networks into account, the most sophisticated outbreak models can't accurately predict where diseases will emerge next. The solution, according to a new study out today, may be to throw out the maps, or at least redefine distance.

Dirk Brockmann, professor of theoretical biology at Berlin's Humboldt-Universität and author of the new paper in Science, says geographic distance means very little when it comes to disease. "When you look at a map of the world, a certain distance symbolizes the actual geographic distance," he says. "We thought, maybe that's where all the trouble is. Maybe we need to think of distance in a different way."

He and coauthor Dirk Helbing of the Swiss university ETH Zurich say "effective distance," rather than geographic distance, can more accurately pinpoint an outbreak's origin and predict where it will strike next. "Now we finally understand the models that we're simulating in the computer," he says. "The patterns that appear so complex when we look at them on ordinary maps—they aren't really complex. It's just we're looking at them in the wrong way."

Emphasis added. Concerning innovation, we need to think of distance in a different way. Knowledge moves like a virus. Which is to say, knowledge doesn't diffuse like many urbanists think it does. Wired speculating why Apple doesn't need to abandon suburban Cupertino for urban San Francisco:

Regardless, it’s not like an urban headquarters was ever really a possibility for Apple. Cities overall, with their messy, chaotic, open-ended ways, their dense public spaces that encourage interaction and collaboration, don’t fit Apple as a company or culture. In a way, a closed circle is an ideal metaphor for Apple’s product philosophy: Our design is so seamlessly perfect you never have to leave our world. The question is whether walling itself off from the real world will one day lead to cracks in that perfection.

The greatest icon of American innovation, Steve Jobs, stands opposed to Richard Florida and the supposed density dividend that cities offer. Who do you think is right, Jobs or Florida? People follow Jobs.

Jobs didn't think Apple needed cities. As long as the effective distance is short, where Apple is located doesn't matter. The same goes for crime:

CeaseFire and The Interrupters reframed Chicago crime to study the idea of violence as a virus, and it’s become both a familiar metaphor and guide for real-world policy; “epidemic” is no longer just a scare word for homicide counts, it’s a conceptual frame. ...

... Chicago’s social network of homicide is a knotty mess: 98 percent of all Chicago gangs were connected within the city’s homicide network during that timeframe, 32 percent higher than Boston’s shooting network. The network density of black gangs in Chicago is particularly intense, 30 percent compared to 4.5 percent for Latino gangs.

“There’s a lot more back-and-forth violence among the groups in Chicago then there is in Boston,” Papachristos says. “It’s just thicker. It feels like more stuff going on around you. It’s like the Balkans in the ’80s and ’90s—everybody’s warring with everybody else. The pattern’s quite stable and quite distinct from Boston.”

And Balkanized violence comes from generations of redrawn territories and historical tensions carried over the generations, grieveances refreshed anew even as the old structures that created them dissolve. “There are potentially a lot of reasons why that’s the case,” says Papachristos. “One, in Chicago, especially with black gangs we have a long history of high-rise public housing. The way it cut up different areas of the city became defined by that. If you ever want to increase interactions among people you shove them in big boxes going to produce all sorts of bad things.

“The second is that in Boston, the groups don’t have as long a history. They’re smaller, they don’t endure the same way as in Chicago, so they don’t build up this reservoir of conflicts. So in Chicago there are groups that have hated each other for 40 years and they don’t even know why. The Two Six and the Latin Kings, they don’t know why they hate each other, they just hate each other.” (The former dates back to the 1970s; the latter to the 1960s. The city’s largest gang, the Gangster Disciples, is about 50 years old.)

Emphasis added. Public housing isolated black neighborhoods, increasing the effective distance from the rest of the city. Whereas in Boston, the economically distressed areas aren't as effectively far from the wealthier and better connected locales. In Chicago, increasing interactions among people produced bad things. Where's the innovation Richard Florida predicts? Any place that is well-connected globally, regardless of density or quality of place (urban or rural), is innovative because new knowledge is readily exchanged. Migration, birthplace diversity, makes the difference. Churn, baby churn.