The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape
Joel Kotkin. New York: Random House, 2000. 242 p. $22.95, hardcover. ISBN 0375501991.
Joel Kotkin's The New Geography (which claims to explain, "How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape") is concerned mainly with the shifting proclivities of the newly emerging economic elite of the information economy. Blessed with exorbitant wealth and freed from geographical necessities that tied the earlier industrial elite to urban centers, this new class is free to relocate based mainly on the aesthetic qualities of their new "homes." Kotkin speculates, "increasingly, wherever intelligence clusters, in small town or big city, in any geographic location, that is where wealth will accumulate" (5), but ignores other factors that contribute to the value of this wealth (particular skills, specific cultural knowledge, connections, and capital). While Kotkin is enthusiastic about the importance of place for those with enough wealth to afford it, he is sensitive to the fact that notions of "place" are tied exclusively to the cultural capital of each locale. However, he is uncritical of the possibility that these cultural capitols of the postindustrial landscape may be parcels of virtualized real(i)ty, conjured up from televisual fantasies -- the promised land for a generation spoiled by remote controls and engaged in the construction of impulsive economic mechanisms. The logic of such relocations more closely following that of the internet browser than any true yearning for an "authentic" experience.
Kotkin does pay some attention to the fact that these relocations may ultimately be deterritorializations -- ambitious drive to restructure localities through migration. And that such movements by this new demographic may ultimately undermine any sense of place that these places may have had. But the text is overwhelmingly optimistic, at times coming off like a president's state of the Union address. In a chapter on the role minorities and immigrant populations play in the new economy (which, I might add, makes little connection to new technology), he ultimately concludes, "No longer 'lily white' enclaves, midopolitan communities must increasingly draw their strength, as the great cities did before them, from the energies, skills, and cultural offerings of their increasingly diverse populations" (109). While such a statement bursts with the feel good exuberance of a Clinton speech, it ignores the fact that this hopeful possibility is the direct fallout of shifting economics and a widening gap in wages. In other words, these immigrant communities are rising up in spite of the fact that they find themselves rooted in depressed communities. To attribute their success to the digital economy ignores the hard work that has enabled these people to beat the odds.
Kotkin goes on to explain the cultural knowledge and wealth that the members of the new elite bring, foster, and yearn for. He gushes, "These often-unattached new urbanites [single, childless, etc.] constitute the critical fuel for the post industrial economy" (19), singing the praises of this leisured class of neo-aristocratic yuppies. Kotkin goes on to explain this new entrepreneur by discussing the cultivation of "taste": "In many ways the shift can be traced to the 1960s and early 1970s, when observers started to note a growing disenchantment by a large segment of consumers with the sameness, lack of originality, and dullness of what increasingly seen as a monolithic mass society" (124). While many postmodern citizens may aspire to this sort of existence, yearning for third-world food (without the flies), funky little ethnic enclaves (without the crime of traditional ghettoes), cattle ranches (without the hearty aroma of fresh manure), such attention and glorification of a decadent lifestyle (the grandchild of colonialism) betrays the true members of the working class. An exotic cup of coffee is nice, but social justice is much nicer. This interest in the value of aesthetics during the era of Ben and Jerry's capitalism might make every robber baron an "artist", but it says little for the underclass denied access to the high life.
Kotkin does pay some attention to the possible pitfalls of the new economy, drawing attention to disparities in wealth and education, but he fails to treat these issues with the gravity they deserve, ultimately positing, that the new elite, "will seek out a new kind of geography, one that appeals to their sense of values and to heir hearts, and it is there that the successful communities of the digital revolution will be found" (189). Such wishful thinking, however, assumes that these hearts and these values will ultimately prove to be humanistic and charitable. Kotkin's book is valuable for the vast amounts of data and research it represents. It is accurate insofar as it describes the objective features of these new communities, even if it does lack the critical edge of a book by Mike Davis or the theoretical bent of a work by Paul Virilio. The text is very useful and quick to read, making it especially suitable for college courses on urbanism or for anyone interested in the subject. However, its lack of concern for the possible downsides to this New Geography suggest that it should be approached with skepticism.