Mega and meta


They’ve been human aspirations before they were concepts and companies—they were complicated ideas that are now complex.

Some words we use, some words we abuse.

Mega- —from Ancient Greek μέγας, mégas in Latin—is a unit prefix in metric systems of units denoting a factor of one million (10 to the 6the power or 1,000,000.) Literally ‘great.’

Everything large is ‘mega.’ Think megapixel and megabyte in computing, megahertz is frequencies, megastar in popularity, megaplex and mega mergers in size.

There’s more nuance in meta. As an adjective, meta is self-referential, at a higher level. For example, a joke about jokes is meta. From the Greek μετά, meaning ‘after’ or ‘beyond,’ meta as a prefix means ‘more comprehensive’ or ‘transcending.’

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality. Literally, what comes after physics. Transcending one’s own limits is a human aspiration some companies take literally.

But before we get to the use and abuse, I want to talk about an Howl.

Howl is a long poem from 1956. It oozes vitriol at the establishment. It recounts insistently all the ‘collateral damage’ of an epoch that these days seems to get romanticized as being before everything got so damned complicated.

Beat Generation Allen Ginsberg pours out his feelings. His friend lies dying and he howls his words from a broken heart, weeping over the suffering of his generation. Ginsberg’s friend was put in a mental institution.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg illustrated by Eric Drooker.

The poem documents the point when the ‘50s became the ‘60s, and America as a nation ushered in a new dawn. Society itself has gone mad—everyone crazy.

Ginsberg writes about the passion of that insanity, the search for stability, the consequence of crazy, maddening liabilities when what used to be your mind takes over. Moloch is responsible.

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

via Poetry Foundation

As with words, with works of art context matters.

With the rapid urbanization, industrialization and quest to pursue the ‘American Dream,’ working class people started to work hard in America. The Superpower after world war II, America extended its business globally.

Capitalism triumphed—class difference became distinct. Money ruled over humanity and intellectual pursuits. The value of poetry, ethics, and morality declined. The best mind of Ginsberg’s generation were they destroyed.

Moloch is the Hebrew Bible’s idolatrous god which demands the sacrifice of children by burning. Capitalism is Moloch. In that construct, there was no place for the intellectuals and the humanists of the generation.

Out of caution, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had the poem printed in England. As soon at it arrived at City Lights in San Francisco, police arrested the bookseller. They charges Ferlinghetti with obscenity. There was a trial.

A movie was made about it in 2010. In it, James Franco “does a mean, understated impersonation of Allen Ginsberg.” [Vulture] Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem had not been written with crude intent.

But the poem still provokes criticism today. Mega and meta concepts, combined.


Geography was one of the subjects I studied at University. Along with the history of religions—a high school course—it was one of the most fascinating topics. We talked about the megalopolis, a region made up of several large cities.

Cities along with their surrounding areas that were in sufficient proximity to be considered a single urban complex. From mega, large, and polis, city.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jean Gottmann, a professor of political science at the University of Paris and member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, directed ‘A Study of Megalopolis’ for The Twentieth Century Fund.

Gottman described a megalopolis as a ‘world of ideas.’ He applied the term megalopolis to an analysis of the urbanized northeastern seaboard of the U.S., in particular from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C.

[Source]

It’s not a new concept.


Only now we’re going ‘meta’ on the mega.

Thanks to technology and digital media, we’re not tied to a specific place to work. Extrapolating from an HBR article.

More and more people live in this new, expanded form of city called the ‘Meta City’ ­— a web of cities that operate as a distinct unit and are attached to a major—often global—economic hub.

The various communities that make up the Meta City may be in different time zones and non-contiguous locations, but they function together as a coherent network with a distinct structure and logic.

It’s physical and virtual agglomeration, in seeming defiance of the laws of physics, making it possible to occupy more than one space at the same time. As a result, urban areas within the Meta City network can share economic and social functions.

Viewed from this perspective, labor markets and talent pools did not randomly disperse across countries and the globe over the past three years but rather did so according to clear patterns.

As workers spread out from major cities, they often followed others in their professions, creating clear ties between major hubs and smaller satellite cities. Think: finance workers leaving New York for Miami; tech workers leaving the Bay Area for Austin, Texas; workers in London decamping for Portugal or Spain.

Mapping these connections and talent flows across the Meta City—between the hub and the satellite locations that comprise it—provides a powerful new lens to view our evolving economic geography and the future of corporate location.

And Richard Florida, Vladislav Boutenko, Antoine Vetrano, and Sara Saloo in HBR.

Business leaders need to respond to the Meta City—and how they do so will dictate their ability to attract and retain talent. Employees’ moves are not ad hoc decisions, or simply about real estate cost cutting. Navigating this shift requires a more sophisticated frame than ‘work from the office versus work from home.’

Companies must change how they think about their headquarters, innovation centers, satellite offices, home offices, and more. This new era of location strategy entails selecting and managing across a portfolio of locations for various functions.

The term ‘Mega City’ has been used to indicate the largest cities in the world. Because we’re still tied to a specific place or places to live. But now, people are starting to expand their horizons to several cities within a connected network.

We don’t see them as migrations. There are more palatable terms for it—expats, digital nomads. But that’s what the patterns of workers are. And as the article hints at, people in certain professions are gravitating towards certain centers. Incentives.

The concept can be even more ‘meta.’ For those who have a choice, the idea of moving just because you prefer one climate, one geography, one culture over another is a very new thing.

If you’re one of those people, you’re lucky. 110 million people are displaced by forces outside their control. Governments are having a hard time treating this issue in a comprehensive manner. Also incentives.

For those who have a choice, it’s still not easy. Because laws (especially tax laws), bureaucracies, politics, economics, climate, and health systems are all considerations along with the ability to make a living (or pay.)

Cities and countries have varying degrees of incentives (or disincentives) to attract those who have a choice. City and region rankings are the new University rankings. These incentives for some and strive for others are mega-problems.

But where it could get meta is in the very definition of ‘nation.’ Europe is an attempt at creating some common parameters. But we all know, both in Europe and in the United States, that there are large differences between countries and states.

Differences of laws, customs, language, and culture.

Can humankind go meta on the species? Or are we limited to scaling to mega and calling it a day?


References

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Poetry Foundation

Ginsberg, Allen, Howl: a Graphic Novel (Harper Perennial, 2010)

‘The Rise of the Meta City,’ Richard Florida, Vladislav Boutenko, Antoine Vetrano, and Sara Saloo, HBR (November 29, 2023)

‘The American dream for some is leaving the U.S.’ Shauneen Miranda, Axios (December 3, 2023)

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