Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse

by Venkat on September 27, 2012

The fable of the town mouse and the country mouse is probably the oldest exploration of the tensions involved in urbanization, but it seems curiously dated today.  The tensions explored in the fable — the simple, rustic pleasures and securities of country life versus the varied, refined pleasures and fears of town life  – seem irrelevant today. In America at least, the “country” such as it is, has turned into a geography occupied by industrial forces.  The countryside is a sparsely populated, mechanized food-and-resource cloud. A system of national parks, and a scattering of “charming” small towns and villages pickled in nostalgia, are all that liven up a landscape otherwise swallowed up by automated modernity.

In America, larger provincial towns and cities that are just a little too large and unwieldy to be nostalgically pickled, but not large enough to be grown into metropolitan regions, appear to be mostly degenerating into meth-lab economies or ossifying into enclaves of a retreating rich.

So the entire canvas of the town mouse/country mouse fable is being gradually emptied out. If there is a divide today, it is between two new species of mice: metro mice and cloud mice.

The New Digital Divide

Now that the digital divide is slowly fading into irrelevance in the developed world (Google will go door-to-door to finish the job if necessary), the cloud mouse/metro mouse divide is going to define the virtual and physical geographies of our time.

Both are digital-native species. Both view their smartphones as extensions of their bodies. Both blend digital and physical lives harmoniously. Both hate being without an Internet connection for long. Both recognize and accept the inexorable rise of megacities and greater metro areas packed with millions of human beings.

The difference is that metro mice embrace and celebrate the last point. Cloud mice reluctantly accept and adapt to it. Metro mice view cloud-mice as philistines, incapable of appreciating the finer things in life, represented by megacity cultures. Cloud mice view the metro mice as  self-absorbed, urban supremacists with embarrassingly limited horizons (the term “urban supremacist” was coined by Dougald Hine, but as far as I know, he hasn’t written anything about it yet).

Metro mice exult in the potential of superlinear urban growth, and rhapsodize about how large cities grow more productive and energy-efficient as they scale. Cloud mice accept those empirical realities, but regard the glorification of the megacity as a case of putting lipstick on a (necessary) pig.

The differences arise from whether physical or virtual experiences have primacy in the mind of each. For metro mice, digital realities are about enhancing material realities. For cloud mice, material realities merely help enable primary digital realities.

It is easy to figure out which kind you are. In a new metro area,  do you first seek out variety via Yelp, to find the best local coffee shop? Or do you first seek out familiarity, via the Starbucks app, to find a Starbucks location to turn into your temporary local home?

Or as a more social test, do you value big cities because being in them increases opportunities for renewing existing relationships (since more people travel through or to megacities), or because they offer potential for new relationships?

Variety and Familiarity

Variety and familiarity are the two poles of the digitized experience economy, and each of us values, and is drawn to, one pole or the other.  Those drawn to local variety are metro mice. They care deeply about, and argue over, whether New York or San Francisco is the better city. They rail against cultural homogenization. Metro mice in each major metro area pride themselves on their detailed knowledge of the quirks of local transit systems, local hacks, and secret worlds.

Those drawn to familiarity across the mega-urbanizing landscape are the cloud mice. They might sample the local variety on offer for a change from their routines, but they fundamentally don’t care deeply about it.  They learn as little as possible to navigate local environments, and try to avoid the local quirks of systems that otherwise behave the same around the world. Only grudgingly do they devote neurons to learning arbitrary local facts that have no value elsewhere. They are not particularly curious about secret, hidden worlds in the local physical environment. They make heavy use of tools that enable them to not think about local complexity (Google Maps has been a blessing for me, since I have absolutely zero interest in learning the quirks of different transit systems).

It is easy to see why metro mice should be called that. We are experiencing a period of mega-urbanization where cities compete for the attentions of the creative class by trying to embody all the uniqueness that local conditions allow. In doing so, they appeal primarily to the metro-mouse sensibility that actually values local variety. Metro mice build their social identities around the city cultures that they adopt.

But cloud-mice are arguably at least as important to the emerging economy, if not more so.  But to understand why (and why they should be called “cloud mice”) you need to appreciate the distinction between familiarity-seeking and variety-seeking as basic behavioral tendencies, and how each instinct shapes human environments.

Colonial Comforts versus Functional Familiarity

Across Europe and Asia, you can watch Americans retreat to McDonald’s for relief from the relentless assault of the non-American around them. As befits the economic colossus of the twentieth century, the United States is the only nation whose global presence is marked by cultural outposts that occupy mainstream positions in foreign cultures, rather like Roman towns, Islamic mosque neighborhoods and British colonial settlements from previous imperial eras of global scope.

McDonald’s is the quintessential twentieth century business. It is a sort of global cultural extension of America; a giant security blanket draped across the planet to comfort the American abroad. In particular, it is a cultural extension of small-town/city America (that American cultural imperialism in the last century was a low-culture imperialism, rather than a high-culture imperialism of the Roman, Islamic or British varieties, made it more powerful, since sophisticated elites around the world routinely underestimated its power).

Starbucks though, despite superficial similarities, is an entirely different beast. It is not an extension of a comforting home environment for Americans. It is a home environment for a global class with a very decentered sense of geographic identity.

The familiarity is a functional familiarity for those indifferent to local variety, but forced by circumstances to inhabit it.  It is not a comforting familiarity for those intimidated by foreign-local variety. The familiarity of Starbucks is designed to sustain your routines anywhere, rather than shelter you from strangeness.

If Starbucks is your home, every local environment is a foreign zone.  You are not particularly intimidated by the foreign (at some level, there is no such thing as “foreign” anymore), but aren’t particularly tempted to engage it either.

Starbucks has more in common with the global network of American military bases than it does with civilian cultural outposts of Americanization. Geography matters less than whether you are on base or off base.

Streams, Scenes and Subcultures

For me, there is no question: I am a cloud mouse. I might visit cities qua cities, in the sense of occasionally seeking out and sampling the variety and uniqueness every city offers, but I primarily stay rooted in invisible global streams that pass through every city.

Streams are not local scenes or subcultures.  They do not particularly celebrate their uniqueness. They are not secret worlds that value the mystery shrouding them. They do not consciously cultivate illegibility.

Streams scale globally, and are open to anyone seeking the simple pleasures of a routinized life, in a world where such a life seems increasingly impossible.

If you are a cloud mouse, you want to inhabit streams rather than scenes or subcultures (I realize I am badly mixing metaphors here with “stream” and “cloud”, but think “jet stream” if you want to harmonize them; unfortunately my neologisms don’t emerge from a master plan that keeps everything coherent).

Premium coffee shop chains are one such stream element. They are always hidden in plain sight, invisible only to those manically dowsing for the best-kept local secrets with Yelp.

My routines are designed to the extent possible around the familiar building blocks of a globalized culture based on streams, not local patterns of life. If there is no Starbucks, I seek out the most similar local clone.  I adapt to local environments to a greater or lesser degree depending on how much time I plan to spend in the environment. My ideal amount of adaptation is zero.  And most of my adaptation is driven by a concern for minimizing costs rather than maximizing experiential value. Behaviors are expensive things for cloud mice. It pays to develop only the most highly portable ones. We are creatures of habit in a world that does not particularly value habits.

This is something that many devotees of urban culture simply do not understand. They don’t get why I would pass up an opportunity to sample the varied delights of a city like San Francisco or New York and retreat to work at a local Starbucks. Why, they ask, would I travel all the way to a different city only to spend most of my time doing exactly the same thing I do in my home city?

It is actually the same uncomprehending contempt the town mouse had for the country mouse in the fable. That fable was ultimately about choosing between variety and familiarity. Yesterday’s country mice and today’s cloud mice are united in choosing familiarity. Town mice and metro mice, by contrast, choose variety. In every age, the loci of familiarity and variety shift.

What makes the twenty-first century such a confusing place is that the new locus of familiarity is not a geographical locus at all. It is a digital locus: the cloud (the world of air travel as portrayed in Up in the Air is a good geographic metaphor though). Starbucks may consist of physical stores, but that fact is designed to fade into irrelevance, just as well-designed physical computers allow you to forget the physicality of the experience of being online. Both are portals to a virtual place to which you can retreat when you want to get away from variety. I have now been drinking coffee at various Starbucks locations for over a decade. I’ve been using my Gmail account from a variety of computers, phones and tablets for almost a decade as well.

The cloud is the new countryside. In a world where dreams of country estates are unrealizable for most of us cloud mice, it is the home from which we venture forth into the metropolitan landscapes loved by the urban supremacist metro mice.

Our needs and preferences are what create the forces of homogenization against which metros battle, to retain uniqueness and character. We are the reason Starbucks pops us everywhere, much to the dismay of metro mice. We are the reason there is a struggle between the forces of variety and uniformity.

Us cloud mice, we are homebodies from nowhere, warring with the people from somewhere, for the soul of the future.

People from Nowhere

For perhaps the first time in history, through much of the world, there is no physical countryside of simple, limited pleasures to retreat to, for familiarity seekers. There is no point in retreating to what used to be the countryside. There is nothing to do there: no work, no relationships, no culture (virtual or physical, varied or familiar).

But as flesh-and-blood humans who cannot dematerialize into a TRON like world, we have to be somewhere. So us cloud mice, we seek to create islands of coherent familiarity everywhere.

The reason we gravitate to places like Starbucks is that because it is everywhere, Starbucks is nowhere in particular. It is a stable base on which the routines and patterns of life of nowhere can be built. It is to coffee what Dropbox is to files. Like many, I am slowly shifting to using Dropbox as my primary filesystem, and my local hard-disk as a backup location when I need the extra security.

The geography of nowhere is not complicated. Like the countryside, it has fewer elements than urban environments.  Just a few long-term relationships evolving in an uncomplicated environment with very few moving parts, to satisfy a few simple needs.

You need a place to work, a place to shop and a place to sleep (and store a few non-digital material necessities that are too expensive to rent, or too precious to discard). That’s all there is to a countryside. That’s all there is to a cloudside.

Starbucks, Amazon and an as-yet-unidentified entity that we might call X. 

We want to rent or buy permanent homes in the middle of nowhere, to suit specific patterns of location-indifferent mobility.  That might be the greatest unsolved problem in the economy today. Cars used to be the answer. They aren’t anymore.

Once some enterprising company (perhaps Starbucks itself) creates a uniform and affordable housing model for cloud mice who want to live in the middle of nowhere in particular, following economic opportunity wherever it takes them physically, the construction of the new countryside will be complete. Until then, we will humor the metro mice and pretend to care about which creaky, quirky, chaotic megacity is best.

Cchelberg September 27, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Are these really the only two types of mice? Might the not be room for mice that like specific locales, but despise the urban environment? Yes, they would accept the benefits of them (productivity, efficiency) and enjoy the digital cloud, but they would specifically avoid urban areas rather than travel through them begrudgingly. Some kind of leftover country mice.

Venkat September 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm

This is getting gradually harder. Economic opportunity is being sucked into big cities and major metro areas.

Cchelberg September 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Isn’t that what the cloud is supposed to fix though? The ability to do intellectual work from anywhere? Not that this precludes the occasional trip into a metro area for a meeting, but the same technology that allows for a mobile workflow should also permit a remote, but static one as well.

Other than this feeling of wanting there to be a third class (admittedly smaller though) this post really hit home with me. That is for your thoughts on this matter.

Venkat September 27, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Certainly it will remain so for many, but rather paradoxically, the ability of the cloud to support a work-anywhere lifestyle is also increasing the leverage of being in a major metro area in variety of ways, especially for the free-agent economy.

There is a vicious/virtuous cycle pair here. A sort of “evaporative cooling” effect of the hinterlands as the best talent migrates to metros, which creates faster evolution there, which sucks even more talent there. The hinterland is slowly hollowed out. Kinda like the Schelling sorting effect.

Jane Huang September 27, 2012 at 9:02 pm

All dichotomies are false, but this one more so than others, I think. At least, this post did not resonate with me at *all.* I’d rather go to local coffee shops than Starbucks, but I hate the idea of living in a city.

I think you might be biased because you travel a lot for work, and that doesn’t describe very many people.

Venkat September 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm

You live in a metro area. I was careful not to say just ‘big city.’ so you’re a consistent metro mouse.

And there are more of us than you might think. Travel makes it more likely that you’ll turn into a cloud mouse, but is not necessary.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

I agree with Jane — this dichotomy is strange. How is this a useful distinction? I’m not sure I see any interesting insight this distinction gives.

I’ve noticed in my travels across the state, that whether I seek “familiarity” to support routines or “variety” depends on the city.

Memphis surprised me. There’s a great deal of history and culture. I sampled the local stuff, though I did not get a chance to taste the Blues scene they have down there.

St. Louis was like a semi-rust-belt version of Atlanta. I was there to visit a friend, rather than to visit St. Louis. Since the place I got had a kitchenette, I regularly went to Whole Foods to stock up. Like a fellow traveller I met in Memphis said, you know exactly what you get.

Both Independence, MO and the Bailey Yard in North Platte, NE were interesting. I didn’t get a chance to stay at either as long as I’d have liked. I went to “local” places, but they were obviously more touristy. I certainly did not use Yelp: I walked around.

The only time I went to a Starbucks was at a rest break in Cheyenne, WY. It was more opportunistic, there happened to be one at the gas station. I went there exactly for the reasons you go to Starbucks: I had a specific purpose (rest stop) and went there with a certain expectation (homogonized Starbucks service). Cheyenne is not that interesting culturally, and it is there because it is a confluence of several routes.

Rock City, WY is an old mining town that happen to sit at one of the three corridors across the Rockies. It has no culture, though it has a community college and a museum. I consciously decided to stay at a motel instead of a chain. I didn’t use Yelp (I doubt I will ever use Yelp). I drove in and got a weekly rate at the first inn I found. It happened to be next door to an adult entertainment shop catering to non-locals. It’s a pretty crappy place, but all of my internet equipment worked fine. I was going to use IHOP as my main source of food (again, known quantity), but ended up sampling almost every Chinese restaurant in town before settling on one for the rest of the week. It’s not great, but it tasted the most like my mom’s home cooking.

It happened to be next door to a large antique shop. I went in there and chatted up the owners, found some interesting pieces. The other day, I climbed up several bluffs after work and meditated a bit at its peak, overlooking the town. This past week, I had mentioned to friends via LiveJournal that, while I have never been a climber, living here for a week at 6,200 ft is getting me addicted to rock climbing, and that I want to train up to climb the Vedauwoo. They started giving me suggestions on climbing places in Seattle to train up for it.

I think your model is useful only if you are willing scope it down to certain social values. The most interesting people I have met do not fit well in this dichotomy. Many of them feel quite comfortable without any particular social identity. That’s probably why I don’t resonate with this at all, since Cloud Mouse and Metro Mouse all assume an underlying attachment to social identity. In other words, the Metro Mouse seek the familiar in variety whereas the Cloud Mouse seek the familiar in a land of craziness. The Metro Mouse is still tied to city infrastructure for life support, so the “variety” they seek is an illusion.

In a way, I almost think that the Metro Mouse you described here are actually Hipsters. It’s just that I have no idea who or what a Hipster is.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Ah! That’s what it is. Ok, I see where the flaw is.

Variety sounds like it is the polar opposite of familiarity. It is not.

Variety-seekers seek novelty, itself an aversion to boredom. Boredom is subtle aversion to suffering, the same kind of suffering that familiarity-seekers shield themselves from. Further, when you add in the idea that you are unique because you have knowledge of unique local features, that’s the same kind of attachment familiarity-seekers have: comfort. (“Because I know these unique things, I prove that I am unique, and therefore not you, and I feel better about myself”). As far as being aware of aversions and attachments, it is all the same aversion and attachment.

Not all people who enjoy variety or novelty are driven by an underlying boredom. Not all people who like their routines do so out of anxiety for the unknown.

Venkat September 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm

In a broad sense, factoring in motivations for behaviors, you are right. In the narrow sense that I think matters for thinking about city economies and markets, they are approximate opposites in a useful way, because industrial models are so good at scale and scope and so bad at true variety, it serves as an interesting sorting dimension. In a pure information-theoretic sense, variety and familiarity are almost exact opposites and are linked via learning (variety becomes familiarity via learning).

I have a post brewing on this in a more general sense. Variety is an imporant and difficult concept to analyze in economic terms. You might be interested in reading about Ashby’s law of requisite variety to get an idea of where I am going to take this in future posts.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 28, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Ok, I can buy that they are opposites if the model is scoped down to economics.

On the other hand, your article on Money As Painreliever is very interesting and well, by extension, the study of economics would be a study of pain relief. Therefore, I think worth investigating Variety-as-pain-relief and Familiarity-as-pain-relief.

But maybe that’s what that more general article is going. I’ll look forward to reading it.

I’ll put Ashby’s law in the queue. Thanks for the tip.

Strangeattractor October 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm

The cloud mouse, metro mouse distinction and choice of metaphors did not resonate with me either.

I feel like the categories are describing something, but that they are grouping things together that do not necessarily go together, and that have many combinations. Things such as:

- Wanting to have a daily routine
- Caring about location-specific features of the environment
- Preferring to eat and shop at independent establishments vs. chain stores
- Being able to use chain stores, having one’s needs met there (Not sure how to say this, but something about the match between the individual and the choices on offer at the chain store. This is distinct from a preference for chain stores.)
- Preferring a rural or urban environment

Also, the idea that the urban/rural distinction doesn’t matter anymore, and the way that small towns and rural communities are described doesn’t ring true to me. Urban vs. rural is still a big deal. Differences in culture, including the way time is experienced and expectations around social relationships, are very real.

There are some ways in which a small town in rural Africa and a small town in rural Canada have more in common with each other than they do with cities in the same country, or so says my friend who has lived in all of those places.

The post reads to me like it is a very urban-centric point of view, for both mice, and not by someone who has spent any amount of time in a small rural community. (Though, correct me if I’m wrong.)

For one thing, there are few occupations more location-specific and unpredictable than farming. Each plot of land is different, and there can be differences of rainfall in pieces of land just a few miles away from each other that can substantially affect the harvest.

Small town life, and farming, demands much more adaptation than city life. Yes there are routines. For example, if you have animals to take care of, then you need to do that every day. However the extent to which you must change what you’re doing according to the weather is huge. People in rural areas are exposed to the risks and rhythms of nature in a way that that people in cities can usually ignore. Characterizing country life as being more secure and predictable than city life seems to me to be backwards. The original fable might suffer from an urban perspective too.

Additionally, if there are only one or two cafes in town, and you don’t like either of them, you are out of luck. So, in that way, there is less variety. But there is also more of a demand to adapt yourself to what is locally available.

Also, if you like what’s on offer at the chain stores or restaurants, then they could be comforting, but if none of the options they offer are applicable or appealing, then the comfort factor does not accompany the familiarity. If you can’t eat anything on the menu at McDonalds because of dietary restrictions, then it is not a viable option no matter where it is located. A person might seek out local options in that situation, when they would be just as happy to use a chain store if it met their needs.

There can be other reasons to go to McDonalds than the food though. A friend of mine who travelled across Europe by train ended up going to McDonalds on a regular basis for a different sort of familiarity – clean well-maintained washrooms. She said she could pay less than a dollar for an ice cream at McDonalds, and use their washroom, or she could pay about the same amount to use a poorly maintained public washroom that was further away.

For what it’s worth, of the two options, I identify more with metro mouse. But I feel like neither really describes me or the people I know.

Prakash September 28, 2012 at 1:58 am

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson depicts a future where gated communities are mass produced by franchising systems and operate as sovereign city-states known as “burbclaves”.

Paul Romer had floated the concept of charter cities, new cities to be built on uninhabited land (to be free of the original sin of all capitalist systems) where free entry of migrants is allowed and new rules can be experimented with. The law and order is to be supplied by a present day developed country until the trust equation is well established in the city and leaders can come from the city’s population.

The idea really is to multiply Singapores and Hong Kongs all around the world. Start with a charter city whose rules are well established and multiply it around the world.

The sovereignty of these burbclaves is the big future issue, of course. Not sure how the social security systems and the taxation systems of the future nation states will handle them. They present easy, legible, visible targets for taxation or annexation.

Jen September 28, 2012 at 8:42 am

Stephenson takes it further in Diamond Age, with allegiances shifting toward moral/aesthetic (and aesthetic-as-moral) values and away from nationality/locality. The idea of the nation state has pretty much disappeared, and the book draws heavily on the tension of what this means for haves vs. have-nots.

Patrick September 28, 2012 at 3:59 am

“The don’t get why”

Venkat September 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Fixed, thanks.

Kay September 28, 2012 at 4:48 am

You need a place to work, a place to shop and a place to sleep (and store a few non-digital material necessities that are too expensive to rent, or too precious to discard). That’s all there is to a countryside.

After former reading I’d expected that you at least would also need a “place” to have a walk.

Personally I lean towards areas which are joints between the inside and outside of a city, like large city parks or river-side strips with low or no industrial usage, or other “inside outbacks”. In Munich one can travel through the whole city from north to south along the Isar river by bike or as a pedestrian without actually being in the city but one can also escape the thin stripe easily and everywhere. This axis also structures my geographic intuition.

I’d say that this doesn’t quite fall on either or the other side of your comparison. It is not portable and ubiquitous, but bound to the physical geography. The local variety is not of much interest either and there is no gathering for peak experiences and the high life in local scenes. I also experienced that this feeling of an inside-outside is not bound to a sentimental idea of nature and its supposed stillness. I could, for example, also live in or close to the art nouveau center of Barcelona for similar reasons.

aepxc September 28, 2012 at 7:05 am

If money stopped being an object, would you have a detailed picture of what you would be doing 20, 30, 40 years from now? If yes, you are a country mouse. If no, you are a town mouse.

Country mice would be in streams only out of economic necessity – they’d be thankful for the limited scope for familiar patterns that the cloud provides, but would physicalise and localise as much as possible, if given the choice – own house, own office, personal relationships with specific people in the places they buy their stuff from. Due to the increased difficulty of comfortable living in the traditional countryside on a modest income, some country mice also set up a virtual countryside of narrow habits even amidst the urban bustle, metro-like in its preference for local haunts, but low in variety. Again an actual non-urban community would be chosen the moment equivalent quality of life there became economically affordable.

Town mice are stream-native, but differ in their preferences of capillary-vs.-artery, tributary-vs.-stem (metro-vs.-cloud, respectively). Both prefer variety, but differ in the types of experiences they most like to vary. By conservation of attention, this means lack of variety elsewhere. But unlike country mice, cloud-style town mice would never want to quit the stream and settle down, regardless of whether or not they had the money to do so.

Christian Molick September 28, 2012 at 7:50 am

Variation and fragmentation loom as challenges to the familiar. Howard Johnson’s used to be the standard bearer for homogenization of services, but now they command a relatively small share of the market and much of their recent success comes from the Howard Johnson’s Express variant which targets performance and speed over homey comforts. Marriot Hotels had great success, but when their growth slowed they diversified into Renaissance Hotels, Fairfield Inns, Courtyards, Residence Inns, and other variations. Perhaps this is merely testemony to the overpowering influence of metro mice and their incessant Yelping and novelty seeking, but it does seem that big hits like McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks are difficult acts to follow with far greater fragility and need for ongoing transformation than is immediately apparent.

There may also be something fundamental about the domains where providing food and drink and a place to eat and be for a short time is different from providing a place to stay for one or more nights and both are substantially apart from the whole space of coworking environments.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Hmmm, I am not sure I buy this. I know too many people who don’t fit easily in either mould. My sample is probably skewed though.

So taking one grouping for example, would you say outdoors people are metro mice or cloud mice?

Goblin September 28, 2012 at 10:47 pm

For perhaps the first time in history, through much of the world, there is no physical countryside of simple, limited pleasures to retreat to, for familiarity seekers. There is no point in retreating to what used to be the countryside. There is nothing to do there: no work, no relationships, no culture (virtual or physical, varied or familiar).

I know you don’t think much of my opinion, and I will be surprised if this posts, but this wholesale denial of meaning, digital or otherwise, from those in the countryside is shocking I could take you to task on this but I will not, I just feel strongly that I should register my own amazement.

et October 2, 2012 at 9:20 pm

As someone who has always opted to live in the “physical countryside” I object. But if that’s your view of us and how we live there’s really no reason for you to see that there are many, fulfilling ways to live. Your loss and our gain.

goblin October 2, 2012 at 10:21 pm

I do live in the, “physical countryside” and enjoy the benefits of the community there.

What and who exactly are you objecting too? I was speaking up in support of those who do live in the countryside.

Felix September 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm

The reason I find this interesting is that from the other side of the world it reads as such an American perspective, with all the assumptions about the universality of that experience that usually accompany this, and this is surely a refutation of your thesis, unless you meant it purely for your American readers?

The other aspect is something I’ve been thinking lately, and I’m sure it’s not original but I can’t put a name to it, is that this networking of large parts of the world might actually be leading us to a world that is far more centralised culturally, with less opportunity for unique cultures to spring up at the margins.

Bill Seitz September 29, 2012 at 11:12 am

That “place to sleep” idea, mixed with your “entrepreneurs are the new labor” made me think of having apartment buildings with coworking spaces.

Run by incubators? Do you get thrown out of your apartment when your startup tanks (or gets acquihired)?

Is there a coffee tap next to the hot and cold water?

Are there no light switches?

Piped in subliminal music/messages?

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 29, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Coworking/hackerspace. That’s a good idea. Similar to mixed residential/retail spaces.

Venkat September 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm

The number of people wanting/trying/actually-doing this is quite large.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao September 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Do you have an example? Or better yet, the name of area I can walk around in? I’m assuming it would be in the Bay Area …

Admittedly, Atlanta is not a hotbed for startups.

Venkat September 29, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Yeah, bunch of such pickaxe sellers/wannabe in the Bay Area. Met two yesterday.

Jordan Peacock October 18, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I’m working on this in the Twin Cities south metro.

Nancy Lebovitz September 30, 2012 at 7:03 pm
Alexander Boland October 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Reminds me of how people are so short sighted in trying to figure out whether it’s nuclear or solar or gas that’s the successor to petroleum. The real successor is virtualization. The cloud, both as conventionally used and as extended to ideas such as Starbucks, is the new suburbs.

goblin October 2, 2012 at 10:04 am

I emphatically disagree with the notion notion that the “cloud” is anything more then a layer of data and extended-relationship over top the superstructre of the existing communty.

This isn’t to say I don’t see the cloud as unimportant, it is important; yet I resist that the idea of “cloud as community.” The cloud may have its various “communities” but they are havens of both self-selection and site-owner fiat. This is not to say that real communites are not also these things, but at least in the real community there is a government one may appel to, and there is less politics of self-selection.

So no I don’t think “people” are short-sighted so much as there are other trends within society other then the cloud and its new found power as a status quo.

John Terracina October 1, 2012 at 6:28 pm

It seems to me that the distinction between metro/cloud mice isn’t really some constitutional characteristic, but is more a result of one’s life experiences and circumstances. Personally I used to be a metro mouse until I was forced out of my original metro area. I loved the coffee shops back home (New Orleans, Baton Rouge) and I would have never dreamed of going to a Starbucks. With each new city I inhabit I invariably try out the Yelp favored local coffee shops but I’m always disappointed. Where are the beignets? Why aren’t they open past midnight? etc. So I get discouraged and settle for Starbucks. In fact I’m in a Starbuck’s now because the it is past 6pm and all the other coffee shops nearby are closed.

If I were to stay in a place long enough, I would probably adapt to the local cultures and start to prefer the local establishments. Starbucks and McDonalds succeed by approximating a wide swath of local metro tastes at the same time. It is clearly the lowest common denominator. That sameness/blandness is simultaneously the appeal and repulsion of the cloud mouse lifestyle.

The rise of cloud mice, which I think is inevitable, is sort of sad. It is a measure of the unsettledness of our culture. There is a lot of richness in local culture that we are losing because we move around too quickly to experience any of it. Such is progress.

The cloud mouse life style is a huge boost to productivity in the same mode as standardized shipping containers. As such, it is inevitable.

Drew Austin October 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

This is one of my favorite things you’ve written, and ties together a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve actually got too much to say about it, so I’ll most likely channel my comments into a blog post of my own.

Kyle B October 3, 2012 at 10:52 am

I’m not sure I buy the distinction or perhaps I’m just not absorbing the content. First of all, I feel like an huge swath of the population living in the suburbs, watching TV or playing video games for entertainment don’t really fit into this model at all. Heck, I would wager most people with spouses and children don’t fit into this model at all. Most people just don’t have time to relish either pattern.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao and aepxc touched on this a little bit between a comment about hipsters (whatever those are) and what one would do if money were no object. I think the key there is that time or money must not enter into the equation or be a minimal factor for someone to adopt either mode, cloud or metro. People with the responsibilities of raising children and an household and typical “working stiffs” don’t have the time or money to either travel a lot or drown themselves in metro variety. The post feels like it’s scoped for a very specific set of circumstances that allow for the choice.

Second, I know a lot of people in the tech space as that’s my business and several of whom have migrated to one megacity or another as a rich move, but all of them respectively were driven to a particular megacity because of its superiority to other megacities. These are serious information workers who were answering the siren’s call of talent-dense cities (and I know they were regular Starbucks inhabitants with all that implies) and yet had a strong opinion on which megacity best fit their personality.

One interpretation of that anecdote may be an internal struggle between the cloud and metro mice within. In principle, some would like to be metro mice but they cannot eschew the economic advantages that come from cloud mouse mentality. It’s tempting to call these folks lost souls searching for a mouse-identity, but I don’t think I buy that either. Frankly, I think people are more complicated than metro versus cloud.

Third, this is not a new phenomenon. Culturally concentrated districts have always existed in cities to provide exactly the comfort and familiarity that you’re describing; a homeland away from the homeland. Little Italies and China Towns exist in many metropolitan areas around the US. My city has an Ethiopian area and a Korean area. I’ve seen the same thing in European cities; Turkish districts in German cities for example.

If there is a difference with what you’re describing it is the decentralized nature of your cultural habitat; it’s the fact that all Starbucks-bound workers are close together digitally so they can be far apart physically. The square-footage of your new cultural zone is probably comparable to the square-footage of a China Town or Turkish district, but it’s not contiguous square feet in the physical world. I’m not sure that constitutes a real difference which means it’s not a new thing but a culturally shallow version of an old thing.

I’ll have to think about this more…

Aaron Davies October 5, 2012 at 8:05 pm

“We psychologists have found that about ten percent of the population will always be mice.”

Brett October 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Is it safe to say that the Cloud mouse is the modern equivalent of a pastoral nomadic Barbarian? Does this make the variety seeking Metro mouse into a sedentary agriculturalist? Did the ancient agriculturalist enjoy a variety of experiences due to his sedentariness? Seems not.

Please expound.

Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv) October 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm

With this:

Across Europe and Asia, you can watch Americans retreat to McDonald’s for relief from the relentless assault of the non-American around them. As befits the economic colossus of the twentieth century, the United States is the only nation whose global presence is marked by cultural outposts that occupy mainstream positions in foreign cultures, rather like Roman towns, Islamic mosque neighborhoods and British colonial settlements from previous imperial eras of global scope.

You absolutely nailed McDonald’s, but I suspect that many who are inclined to reflexively hate McDonald’s miss the broader point — namely, that there is now a generation of non-Americans who have grown up with McDonald’s and view it as wholly mainstream (that is to say, theirs), be it a Hungarian McDonald’s or a French McDonald’s, and do not look upon it with loathing — and as Strangeattractor pointed out, see McDonald’s in a surprisingly positive light in some specific contexts.

To second Strangeattractor, my Hungarian mother-in-law, once recounted how she (rest assured, she is no fan of the food at McDonald’s) welcomed visiting McDonald’s for a meal in Rome because she could not find a satisfying substitute, and was tired of the high-variability in quality of local food choices.

Lest the naive of you jump at her throat for being a Philistine, the reality is that good, reasonably priced Italian food in touristy parts of Rome is surprisingly hard to find* — I don’t doubt that it exists and that locals know where to find it but most Italian restaurateurs serving one-off foreign tourists are more than happy to sell you overpriced Italian slop.

She knew that while McDonald’s certainly wasn’t as good as even middlin’ Italian food, the price mapped to a certain consistency & quality, while most of the restaurants she had tried, didn’t. At McDonald’s, for 7 euros or so, she would get a decent meal. At any of the many “Italian” places, for 20 euros, it was likely she wouldn’t.

*FWIW this tends to be true of many European cities, Budapest included.

Probably because a) the vast majority of tourists don’t have a clue as to what authentic local food tastes like, b) high-rents and the c) one-off nature of the business impels restaurateurs to create palatable caricatures of local dishes with low-quality ingredients with high-margins.

Steven Moody (@sjmoody) December 2, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I wanted to reject this dichotomy because I conflated international Starbucks and McDonald’s as the same experience and try to avoid Starbucks in the US. If you take away this moral unease, however, Starbucks stands as an excellent consistent third place (second if you don’t have an office). McDonald’s seeks to provide familiar food while Starbucks provides familiar space.

Valya Golev December 18, 2012 at 3:58 am

> You need a place to work, a place to shop and a place to sleep (and store a few non-digital material necessities that are too expensive to rent, or too precious to discard). That’s all there is to a countryside. That’s all there is to a cloudside.
>
> Starbucks, Amazon and an as-yet-unidentified entity that we might call X.

AirBnB seems just the thing! :-)

Kevin January 11, 2013 at 7:29 pm

(that American cultural imperialism in the last century was a low-culture imperialism,
rather than a high-culture imperialism of the Roman, Islamic or British varieties, made it more powerful, since sophisticated elites around the world routinely underestimated its power).

Do you mind elaborating on this? Any sources to point towards on Roman, Islamic, and British High Imperialism? I’m intrigued by this idea and would like to dive deeper.

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