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.