Why Conservatives Might Be Left Out of the Next Wave of Tech

Only 4 percent of consistently conservative Americans want to live in cities, but urban environments are where the tech action is. 
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Pew/Reuters/The Atlantic

It's one of those stats that just smacks you across the face: In a recent Pew poll, only four percent—4%!—of consistent conservatives want to live in America's cities.

Meanwhile, about a quarter of people with mixed political views want to live in cities more than they want to live in small towns, suburbs, or rural areas. And nearly 46 percent of consistently liberal people want to live in cities. 

For someone who writes about technology, this is particularly significant. It's not just that the latest round of hot companies are deciding to headquarter in cities like New York and San Francisco; it's also that many of these companies make sense, for the most part, only in urban environments.

All the startups clumped under the heading Uber for Xof which there are dozens—require high concentrations of people (i.e., cities). Take companies like Airbnb, which works best with a lot of listings in a given area, or Yelp, which declines in utility as fewer people contribute reviews. But take, as well, the range of other technologies that make the most sense within dense agglomerations of people. The most prominent example is autonomous vehicles, which require detailed, expensive, and regularly updated maps to operate. For that reason, those vehicles will almost certainly deploy in cities first, and maybe only in places where enough people drive to make the investment in mapping the area worth it. 

Cities are also where developers generally want to live—so if you wanted the best people to build some other kind of technology, you'd need to go there to find them. The San Jose Mercury News, a Silicon Valley paper, had this amazing passage recently:

Having a San Francisco "employee strategy" is Silicon Valley's biggest challenge, said Jeff Clavier, founder and managing partner of SoftTech VC, a venture firm. "Everything you can," he said, "you push as a perk for your employees to make it more interesting for them to come down to the office."

That's why you see fast-growing tech companies like Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Uber, and Salesforce deciding to make New York or San Francisco their homebases rather than suburban office parks. 

None of this is especially new. Cities have been engines of technical and economic dynamism for as long as cities have been around. But the Pew poll could suggest a new digital divide emerging—a general line between rural conservatives, who do not have access to new technologies and services, and liberals in the cities who do. If so, it would be one more way in which the country grows polarized, and a(nother) rebuttal to the old idea that, in the networked age, geography would become irrelevant.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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