City by the Bay

posted 10 May 2007

It was a few weeks ago now that I was walking home from a fun night out, and I glanced up as I walked home along Valencia, and saw something completely unexpected: Orion, framed perfectly by the buildings on each side of the street. It inspired me in the deep, profound and ultimately embarrassing way that leads me to write bad poetry.

Orion is something I associate strongly with being at home -- by which, this time, I mean Trinidad -- simply because nowhere else I've lived have I been able to see it. London is far too bright to see any stars at all, and at Warwick the lay of the land was such that I was always looking the wrong way even when it was dark enough to see the stars. And I've not lived anywhere else, which seems sort of odd in retrospect: one little island, one slightly bigger island? That's all of the world I was content to explore?

Something about seeing that constellation crystallized some thoughts that have been buzzing around in my brain for the last few months about another one of those more subtle differences between London and San Francisco, and specifically the subtle way that geography can alter culture and psychology.

It's trite to point out that the most forward-thinking of places tend to be those at the edges of things: coasts, rivers, borders, trade routes. Places where things are changing constantly stimulate their citizens into new modes of thought. London, on the banks of the Thames, at the edge of the continent and the nexus of a thousand trade routes, obviously owes much of its historical dynamism and wealth to that location. But the geography of San Francisco goes beyond that simple effect, I think.

SF is a small, crowded city on the edge of the great giant emptiness of the Pacific. That's why I could see Orion: San Francisco was shining as big and bright as it could, but it was still surrounded by big, curving, empty blackness. This odd combination of densely compact isolation makes me very conscious of the existence of the number of people outside of this litle island; it makes me want to build bridges. The physical bridges were built long ago, so instead we build digital bridges to the other little islands of urbanity across the world. It can't just be me.

Social networking in particular is an area where the geography of SF makes it work better here than almost anywhere else. Because everybody is inside the same 7x7 mile square, you know that all these interesting people are nearby if you can only find them. And in a small city where everybody seems to know everybody anyway, the idea of formalizing and searching those networks is a lot more natural than it seemed to me in London, which is more like a number of parallel and disconnected societies sharing the same space than the single pool of people that SF seems to be.

And then there's the nation it's in. Drive ten minutes out of San Francisco and suddenly you're in the middle of vast emptiness. Sometimes it's national parks, but actually a lot of the time it's just land that nobody's come up with a use for yet. Because, and here I venture into the trite again, America is big. But it's not just big, it's big and empty. Vast areas of empty, lush land fill me with an urge to use them, to build something, to fill in all that space.

These are all probably pretty simply mapped back to various monkey instincts about territory and possession. But even after you recognize that, there's still no denying your inner monkey. So it's kind of strange to think that the deep monkeys within us are responsible for a bunch of people sitting on a peninsula at the edge of the pacific being the ones to create vast chunks of high technology, and in particular Internet technology (though pride compels me to mention that the web was invented by a Brit).

Of course it's easy to say that's not the reason: it's the universities, the economics, the history, the politics. But there's a cause and effect here: all those things were shaped by the geography too. The money and the brains and everything else could have ended up anywhere else up and down the coast, but it didn't, even despite the massive inconveniences that the strange, congested geography of the bay area causes.

I don't really have a point in all this -- that's why it's a called a blog, folks -- other than to say I think it's interesting the way geography works on our minds.

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