A Sense of Place – Why Geography Matters
Pick up an old Fortune magazine. It doesn’t matter how old it is—it could be from the 1930s or the 1960s. As it still is today, Fortune was then a primary showcase for institutional corporate advertising, a place where the giants of world commerce tell their story in expensive full-page or multi-page ads. But there’s a curious difference. In ninety percent of the old ads from before the 1980s, you will find a reference to the headquarters location of the company. A Coca-Cola ad will name Atlanta, Ford mentions Dearborn, Cunard London. But pick up the most recent issue of Fortune, scan through those same beautiful full-page ads, and geography is nowhere to be found. By my own count, today fewer than fifteen percent of the ads mention the home base of the advertiser.
The word is out: this is the Internet age, we are all one click away from each other, everything is global, and geography doesn’t matter anymore. Marketing professionals are telling these companies that the sense of place is no longer important.
Yes, we have gone global; and, yes, we are all just a click away from each other. But the real truth is that, because of these things, not in spite of them, geography does matter. It matters more than ever. For we humans are still creatures of place. We were all born somewhere, we were all raised somewhere, we all live somewhere now. And each of us is shaped by our geography.
I am a product of central Indiana in the 1950s – cars and car racing, basketball, factories, and big labor, but no foreign languages, no classical music, no crime, no divorce. When I hear a basketball game on the TV, I cannot help but turn my head. It is not up to me, it comes from Indiana. You are shaped by your place of origin, whether it was a small town in the deep South, an inner-city neighborhood in the Northeast, a suburb in California, a village in India, or a ranch in Argentina. We carry our places with us wherever we go. Whenever I meet someone new, my first two questions remain two of the most significant – Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
We even name industries after places. Hollywood means movies. Detroit means cars. Specific streets in New York City designate businesses: Wall Street (finance), Madison Avenue (advertising), Seventh Avenue (fashion), Broadway (theatre). Silicon Valley (and its successors, the Silicon Alleys, Highways, and byways that have sprouted around the world) will not be the last time that we name a part of our economy, perhaps even a lifestyle, after a place.
So geography is much more than a physical place. It is culture, history, ethnicity, way of life. Those who ignore geography do so at their peril. For example, let’s say you have put together a startup company. You are growing fast from your base in Mountain View (California) and now have offices in Milan (Italy) and Melbourne (Australia). You are planning to hold the most critical business meeting of the year, using an advanced videoconferencing system. When the Milan office says, “The date you propose won’t work—we have to go to a football game,” you will be clueless unless you realize that, in Milan, football means soccer, and that soccer in Milan is even bigger than the Super Bowl in the US. Then when the folks in Melbourne object to a different date, this time because they have to go to a test, you will be lost again unless you know that a test is a cricket match – which can last up to five days.
The world does indeed get smaller and smaller each day. I picked up three shirts at a Van Heusen shirt shop in Texas; they were made in Bangladesh, Egypt, and Indonesia. There are Avon ladies in the Amazon basin. The world was not always so closely interlinked. As I watched the huge Millennium fireworks show televised from Beijing and Shanghai on December 31, 1999, I reflected that the Chinese did not participate in the last millennium observation. It was not because they were culturally or technologically backward – by most accounts, they were well ahead of Europe at the time. It was because China followed its own calendar, and December 31, 999 did not even exist in their minds. No one had told them that “the world” reset the calendar when Christ was born (give or take a few years). Will we all be on the same calendar when the next millennium rolls around? Whose calendar might it be?
The Internet, the jumbo jet, globalized culture, and globalized production make it more important than ever to understand geography. Knowing “where other folks are coming from” is critical – where they are coming from historically, culturally, commercially, artistically, musically, and in every other way.
Everything happens in time and space. In the last two chapters, we discussed the importance of history—how things change through time. Geography is how things change through space, how things differ at different points on the globe or different points in your city. In fact, time and space are inextricably intertwined. New York is 800 miles from Chicago, but it is also three hours from Chicago (measured by a Boeing 737). A particular village in rural China is 100 miles outside Shanghai, but it may also be 30 years behind Shanghai (measured in terms of economic, political, and cultural change). In 1850, New York was a month away from San Francisco; today, it is milliseconds away (measured by the flow of information on the Internet).