Wednesday, February 9, 2011

David Brooks on the Splendor of Cities

I try to read all of David Brook’s columns in The New York Times. He is one of the few columnists who has interesting things to say. Brooks writes about ideas and research and the impact of new research and ideas on society and politics. In my opinion most columnists, on the right and the left, are predictable, boring and simply restate their ideology in light of the issue of the day.

Brooks is different; often fresh and interesting.

A good example is his column in the February 7, 2011 New York Times. The column starts off about Rahm Emanuel running for Mayor of Chicago and why local government politics are more interesting and concrete. Brooks then discusses why cities are incubators of innovation and creativity.

Brooks also writes about the difference between in-person communication and electronic communication, saying that cities have become more, not less, important in this age of information, citing to and praising a “terrific new book” Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser.

According to Glaeser, cities have flourished “because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together.” I agree. But more important than either Brooks’, Glaeser’s or my beliefs, Brooks points out research to back up the point.

Two University of Michigan researchers brought groups of people together face to face and asked them to play a difficult cooperation game. Then they organized other groups and had them communicate electronically. The face-to-face groups thrived. The electronic groups fractured and struggled.

My guess is that many readers will recognize that electronic communications (e.g. email) splits groups faster than it brings them together. I pay close attention to how I structure discussions in my mediation practice – I use email a lot, not so much in discussions, but rather to communicate information – meeting dates, drafts of items, etc.

I don’t often try to substantively engage people in email or online debates. Others do; I have certainly facilitated my share of conference calls, webinars and even computer assisted video (e.g. Skype) meetings. But I prefer actual meetings to resolve difficult disputes.

Ideas – the grist of our mediation mill – spread and take root more easily person-to-person. Cities, according to Brooks, “magnify people’s strengths … because ideas spread more easily in dense environments.” I agree.

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