Towards a spatio-temporal theory of vibe shifts

At the time of writing, I am aware that a vibe shfit is coming. This is strange news to digest: I was just in Portland, Maine, where cultural time has progressed no later than 2011: craft goods stores are ready to put a bird on it; fingerless gloves are cool. Portland is definitely a cool place, with a handful of the nation’s best breweries and restaurants, but the people of Portland are not participating the production of new vibes the way the influencers of New York and Los Angeles are.

Time travel

I take as given that America is flat, that idiosyncratic patches have given way to a mostly homogenous cultural geography of nowhere, where the most meaningful cultural distinction across space is the local Whole Foods to Cracker Barrel ratio. Yet, there remain meaningful differences in fashion across places due to uneven adoption. Why is the march of cultural time so heterogenous across space, decaying by the mile as you leave the big cities?

It makes sense that hip goods are slow to diffuse across space: economic geography informs us that economies of scale are required to sustain a large variety of goods, and that trade costs matter. The sluggish spatial diffusion of technology and production knowledge is also understandable: the tacit process knowledge involved in technology adoption is embodied in people and capital goods who are slow to move across space.

For reasons of economic geography, then, I would suspect that vendors Portland would not sell a large variety of the hippest goods, and that the city would not support the vanguard of postfordist capitalism. But why are they still selling moustache temporary tattoos at wannabe Urban Outfitters? As fashion is transmitted through space in ways that don’t obviously decay with distance, I would imagine that Portland would be closer to New York on the cultural frontier than the industrial one.

Size matters

Urban economists love regressing things on log population, and my theory is also a projection onto size and density. A bad but useful model of social interaction in cities is one of a nuclear reactor, where social fission causes interpersonal collision, and the exchange and production of new ideas. Density heightens the reaction, and the intensity of social forces present in a particular place. In big cities, the “fashion social multiplier” is larger, and therefore aggregate demand for trendy goods and habits is more elastic. This means it is easier to jump from one social equilibria to another – the cultural clock ticks faster – in larger places.

When new goods and trends are introduced in less populated places, their price (inclusive of the fashion shadow value) is higher, and there is less substitution towards them, and thus the adoption of new goods and habits is slower, even if there are no transport costs required to ship them.

This, I believe, is a shift from a (potentially imagined) past brought about by new technology. Globalization and urbanization have kind of altered the geography of culture; variety is no longer supported by geographic isolation, but instead by the scale achieved in cities. That scale also governs the pace at which the cultural frontier evolves across space because of the economics of social forces.