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Cloud Census

“Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. He lived in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled Missouri.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

One of my favorite blogs, Venkatesh Rao’s ribbonfarm, posted an amazing piece last week titled Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse. The full post is a must-read (as is the rest of the blog), especially if you’re interested in the topics I write about on Kneeling Bus.

Rao argues that the distinction between city and country has become largely irrelevant as the latter has given way to “a geography occupied by industrial forces.” National parks and other artificially-preserved small towns are the exceptions, but they are insignificant as anything but tourist destinations. As internet culture finally seeps throughout every square inch of the inhabited Earth, a new distinction replaces the urban/rural divide: “cloud mice” and “metro mice.”

To simplify Rao’s more nuanced explanation, cloud mice are people who embrace the placelessness of modern technology and make that lifestyle work by seeking out familiar environments like Starbucks wherever they find themselves. Think of George Clooney’s Up in the Air character. Metro mice, by contrast, live in major cities and embrace those cities’ particularities. They avoid Starbucks if possible and would much rather Yelp a unique coffee shop in whichever city they happen to occupy (it’s helpful to note that the hipster, by almost any definition, belongs to this category).

The metaphor is nearly perfect, although it mainly describes the educated middle and upper classes. Nonetheless, it differs from the city/country distinction in an immensely important way: The two identities are determined less by a person’s physical location than by one’s preferences and behaviors. As Rao explains, “Both are digital-native species. Both view their smartphones as extensions of their bodies. Both blend digital and physical lives harmoniously.” In short, both use the same tools, do much of the same work, and often (but not necessarily) live in the same cities and even the same neighborhoods. In contrast, “city people” and “country people” lived in different places by definition, and their cultural differences followed from that. A country person might have moved to the city, but if he remained a country person it was because he had spent so much time actually living in the country.

In a neighborhood like Chicago’s Wicker Park, dive bars and Mexican restaurants share the block with Starbucks and other chains. Yelp, foursquare, or word-of-mouth recommendations will lead you to the former if you care about finding interesting and unique things to do in Wicker Park. If you’re a different type of person, you’ll bypass the unfamiliar storefronts and head to the Starbucks without thinking twice. Cloud mice and metro mice both inhabit places like Wicker Park—although metro mice have more reason to—but they are able to live parallel lives to some extent (also, almost all of them have moved to Wicker Park from somewhere else).

In July, I wrote a post about the increasingly blurry distinction between the urban and suburban, as suggested by an analysis of several major Canadian cities. I argued that in a highly mobile, globalized society, the behavior of people in a place, rather than fixed qualities of the place itself, determine that place’s character. This was also true when everyone lived in either the city or the country, but without cars or air travel it was much harder to move around, so where a person lived told you a great deal about what kind of person he was. Today, instead, many people move too fast and too frequently for any one place to “explain” who they are (or vice versa). Even if they stay in one place, the global flow of information ensures that they’ll be influenced by countless forces beyond the limits of their own city. The constants, instead, are the behavioral patterns that recur wherever they go (such as the choice between a local coffee shop and Starbucks) and the tools they use everywhere (smartphones, Yelp, Dropbox, Facebook). Like Ahab in Moby-Dick, censuses literal and figurative are trying to sort us according to the piece of earth that we call home, but the explanatory power of that single fact is getting weaker all the time.

2 Comments on “Cloud Census”

  1. Mark says:

    “Today, instead, many people move too fast and too frequently for any one place to “explain” who they are (or vice versa).”

    Maybe so, but I still prefer to date women who live in the country as opposed to the city. Despite lower mobility barriers, where a person comes from and where they currently live can predict a lot of personality traits.

    • kneelingbus says:

      Mark, I agree completely that where someone lives still matters a lot. The cloud mouse/metro mouse distinction is most applicable to a small but quickly-expanding group of people who really do move around too much to be identified by a place. On the other hand, most of the world’s population still tends to stay in one place. For this majority, the place where they live still explains a lot about them, but greater mobility (of oneself, of information, etc) seems to be the direction that everyone and everything is headed. Overall, I think location explains less than it used to, although it still explains plenty.

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