The end of the 'Spiky' world: Talent & the return of nations

'Spiky' world

I am, of course, referring to Richard Florida's observation that the world was not flat (as Thomas Friedman observed) but spiky. The demise of Berlin Wall, the fall of Soviet Union and the rise of globalism might have undermined the national borders, but its most important resource - talent - tended to be concentrated in certain geographies. This is a very much 1990s idea marked with the celebratory mood of globalism. But the vision was empirically sound: the new globalism not only propelled Silicon Valley to unparalleled dominance, it also regenerated the great urban clusters of New York and London. There were newly affluent and expansive cities brimming with cosmopolitan talent, such as Bangalore, Singapore and Gurgaon. Each country and every region had their own centres of attraction and the history of the last two decades has been a history of migration of talent into these vast ecosystems of enterprise and commercial creativity.

But the magnetic attraction of a Singapore and Bangalore emptied out its hinterland and other cities of its talent. The competition to maintain the dynamism that sustained these extraordinary wealth-creating machines meant that lesser places lost their most gifted people to the more attractive locales, while sucking out their own hinterlands in turn. And, within the network of these urban clusters, as people and businesses moved between them, a common culture emerged, along with a somewhat uniform language, values and ways of looking at things. The Great Recession of 2008 changed this only but little, with all the government-created money flowing into these great centres making them even more attractive and their hinterlands even less so.

The downside of this was visible not just to those who were throwing rocks at Google buses in California, but also to those whose towns were increasingly emptied out of younger people. With the rising share of national income going to financial and technological services, this emptying out also meant decline of businesses. As money played an outsized role in democratic governments, this meant loss of influence and increasing disconnection with politics for all those who were losing out.

Pulling down the spike

Much of the rebellion against globalism that we have experienced since 2016 can be explained in the light of the disaffection against the spiky globalisation. Much of it was seen as a revolt against politics as usual: The English north rebelled against London, Appalachia pushed back against Washington, India revolted against the Lutyens and so on. But, underlying all this were disaffection with experts, of lack of social mobility and loss of control over everyday life - a battle between the hinterland and the spiky cities. Indeed, one could argue that this rebellion is partially fostered by the mind-control techniques originating in those very clusters against which it is directed, but that would be discounting the legitimacy of the grievances a bit too far. The deprivation created the vast field of dissent; the tools only gave it a politically significant platform.

The political fortune-hunters like Trump, Johnson, Modi and the like have struck gold by combining the popular disaffection and money from landed and manufacturing interests with a targeted use of the anger against those professionals sitting on top of the spikes. What we are living through is not just a push-back against globalism: It's a revolt against an arrangement of the world that concentrates brain and influence into clusters unattainable by the many.

Indeed, 99% protests failed because it was a protest of the top 10% against the 0.1%. Trump wins because he is channelling the grievances against the 10% - of the 90% plus some of those fearful 0.1 percenters. The policies that arise from new politics, while not against the concentration of wealth and power, are directed against cosmopolitan centres. One could see multiple factors blending in a perfect storm - a battle against democracy, revolt against impersonal expertise etc - but the banner of localism is one banner flying high. On that count, there is no conflict between Trump's business friendliness and the banning of H1Bs, his obsession with stock markets and his demand that American companies produce at home, his love of towers in foreign towns with supposed nativism of his politics. We are looking to tear down the spikes in a hurry.

The Unflattening

The thesis that the populist revolt is one against flat world obscures the little local fires burning against spiky world. But unmaking the cosmopolitan clusters runs against the grain of creative enterprise, built around exchange and engagement among the initiate. From Athens to Xi'an to Edinburgh, Paris and Vienna and modern-day Silicon Valley, clustering was at the heart of creativity. And, diversity of views and tastes, rather than monotone conformity, is at the heart of new ideas. Dispersing the gifted along national lines reduces their effectiveness but does not correct the inherent structural problems of spikiness.

One may argue that COVID19 and the consequent dispersion of work may help pulling down the Spikes, as remote collaboration becomes more the norm. But that is too optimistic a reading of the global situation: It's not just the pull of the global centres of creativity that creates the spikiness, it's also the push of the uncreative places that force people out. Global clustering of talent also meant that the places left out developed a decidedly anti-creative culture in the places left out. The cultural universe of these places is designed to send the creatives and the entrepreneurs out to take advantage of the current arrangement of global architecture of talent; if and when people return, they are unlikely to find welcoming ecosystems that let them work at their potential. Besides, the business-friendliness of the leaders of their native places extend only up to inviting the expatriates' money but not to themselves. For those leaders, the global talent architecture is settled, and they are happy to live on the crumbs; rearranging the system and making the locals creative again is too much of a risk to the happy mediocrity.

So, it's likely that the cosmopolitan creatives, heroes of the age that's just closing, may find themselves caught in the middle - between their natural habitat where they may become unwanted and their native places where they would be unwelcome. Many years ago, after the 2008 credit crunch, I wrote an optimistic post about reverse migration under the title 'India's chance'; subsequent experience has taught me that the reality is much more nuanced. One hopes that there is some magic that these footloose creative entrepreneurs can bring into the equation, transforming the mindsets and bursting through the localised cocoons of mediocrity; they can, one hopes, bring aspiration back again.


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