Why Local Innovation Is the Answer

The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome
The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome. In 2003, archaeologists discovered evidence that Emperor Caligula had turned this temple into the front porch of his residence. “Everyone knows this guy was a little crazy. But now we have proof that he was completely off his rocker, that he thought he was one of the gods,” Darius Arya, one of the directors of the excavation, said after the discovery. (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?

It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.

He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.

Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:

I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.

I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …

It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.

However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.

Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …


The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:

  • the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
  • the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
  • the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.

What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.


Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.

This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.

I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.

This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.

Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.

There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.

Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.

This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”


The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive

Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.

My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!

I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …

The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …


Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”

I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.

Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …

I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …

And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.

And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.

Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?