Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mesofact Migration

Most Livable Pittsburgh still raises a few eyebrows. Hipsburgh is a running local joke. That's today. In 1985, the world doubled over laughing at the Steel City sitting on top of Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac". Something must have been horribly wrong with the metrics.

Geographic stereotypes are powerful. A computational biologist explains:

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

Samuel Arbesman is the mind behind the mesofacts paradigm. I read Arbesman as the flip side of Jared Diamond. For Diamond, world history is about cataclysm, dramatic change. Arbesman is interested in the transformations that slip by us unnoticed, hence the Pittsburgh analogy.

Diamond-like cataclysms dominate truth games. Pittsburgh is brain drain, the exodus of the 1980s. This legacy acts like a wall to in-migration. That wall is reinforced each and every time the population numbers decline. Something must be wrong and you dismiss Shittsburgh.

Another way to look at mesofacts is through urban planning. The temporal scale of redevelopment starts at the hand-off between one generation and the next. Blog-wise, we want our cities to be great next week. We won't know how good your idea is until we see the results 20-years from now. However, students of mesofacts wouldn't be so encumbered.

How do we better identify incremental changes that will prove to be significant?

Tomorrow, I will tackle that question.

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