Lea Degen on Cities, Optimism, and the Danger of Floating off With No Grip on Empirical Reality

I occasionally get emails from young people asking me what they should do with their lives, and implicitly asking how they can become well-connected. My answer to the first half depends highly on your circumstances, but the second half is easy: just do what Lea Degen does.

She’s interviewed the likes of Tom Kalil (Chief Innovation Office at Schmidt Futures), Morgan Levine (Assistant Professor of Pathology and Epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine) and José Luis Ricón (Nintil). I’m not sure exactly how old Lea is, but her bio reads: “I grew up in Germany and spent the past year working toward my move to the US for college.”

So if you are young and looking for advice, she is the person to talk to, not me!*

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the conversation:

ADS: In a recent Bloomberg column, the economist Tyler Cowen writes about the privatization of beauty, particularly investment in interior design rather than exterior architecture.

There seems to be a similar effect in San Francisco, but it’s more like the privatization of quality of life, or the privatization of decency itself. Walgreens closes, so you start ordering everything online. Public trust is failing, so you take an Uber.

…I don’t mean to demonize this–it’s a reasonable reaction to a bad situation–but it is a downward spiral, right? And a coordination problem? As you said, the more tech-workers come to see the city as temporary housing, the less they’ll invest in the community.

Lea Degen: I resonate so much with this characterization of privatizing the quality of life. During my time in the Bay Area, this was actually the major point of cognitive dissonance that made me want to write about the issue. Perhaps coming from Europe, I was used to lots of life filling the core of cities. People taking Sunday strolls through the narrow city centers, running into friends and catching up over pie and coffee at the local bakery.

…As you say, the more we privatize, the more we take away from what makes life in a city wonderful: most notably, the potential for surprise–unplanned, serendipitous interactions that happen in parks and streets filled with people.

And later:

Simultaneously, the rise of those protocols means that even when agency is exerted, it’s in service of the system, or by naked appeal to it. There’s the familiar cushion of the bureaucratic absolution: “I was just following the process”. [But] it’s not even “following orders” anymore, it’s an entirely dehumanized thing. As Tanner Greer put it: “What decides the destiny of Western man? Credit scores he has only intermittent access to. Regulations he has not read. HR codes he had no part in writing.”

Here’s the upshot: we’re automating away personal decision-making, resulting in the shrinking of agency, resulting in a low-accountability, and thus low-trust society. That’s the root of privatization in San Francisco. Through greater instrumentalization, the potential to create a healthy social fabric, the potential to be more human, is stripped of us.

It might be tempting to dismiss Lea as a contrarian conformist, but pay close attention to her meta-contrarian stances on VR, new cities, and more.

You can read the full interview here.

*In the process of doing this interview, I met and had a phone call with one of Lea’s friends, which I expect to lead to several more introductions in the future. So the weird magic of Lea’s world is that she has somewhat succeeded in recreating the very serendipity she’s found lacking in the physical world.

*You can still ask me if you want, and I will tell you some version of “Build good institutions. Figure out how to simultaneously think more pragmatically, more philosophically, and more ambitiously.”

But you shouldn’t feel that you have good reason to think that’s good advice.