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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

A few days after the US presidential election, colleague JP Rangaswami posted two maps of results from the 2004 election.  The first map showed the results by states, portraying them as red or blue. (NB: In the US quite oddly and contrary to the political color-coding used in the rest of the world, blue represents the sometimes left-of-center Democratic Party while red is the color of the right-of-center Republicans).  The second map showed results by county, giving a more variegated portrait of results.

JP writes that the difference between the two maps suggests that there are neither red nor blue states — nor counties, cities, and households — but only purple ones. My own take is that America’s red/blue divide is very real, albeit one that can no longer be encompassed by geographic boundaries gerrymandered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Just as in digital photography, what appears purple from afar is divisible on a pixel-like-level into primary colors.  Fault-lines separating red and blue are increasingly divorced from geography.  They might be hard to chart but they are very real nonetheless. My short comment on JP’s post can be read here, for a far sharper take on the reality and permutations of the red/blue divide see Frank Rich’s The Moose Stops Here.

The larger implication is that America’s states appear purple because they are entities without substance, irrelevant to real fracture lines that divide the country and define the issues that confront it.  States are administrative inheritances from a past age and are increasingly obsolete as clusters of interests or self-identification.  Immigration and trans-state migration within the US, the rise of megalopolises that span state boundaries, and the divorce of economic functions from locational agglomerations call into question the utility of states and their efficacy in coping with or resolving economic, infrastructural, and environmental challenges.


5 Responses to “Purple vs. Pixelated: The Obsolescence of States and the Reality of Differences”

  1. Beat Bolli said

    Here in Switzerland 7 million people are living; less than in one of your big cities; and we have 26(!) confederated “cantons”! Each canton defines separate rules for taxes, school curricula, building codes, etc. Just imagine the money wasted on duplicate work…

  2. Bill Seitz said

    See Joel Garreau’s “Nine Nations of North America” book.

    See also Jane Jacobs’ “City Region” concept.

    And the “Urban Archipelago” piece.

  3. Beat Bolli … Thanks for the comment. The situation you describe in Switzerland underscores the present-day absurdity of the national borders and administrative we have inherited, whether based on national/tribal/traditional-autonomy fictions or barriers posed by geography in times prior to 20th/21st century developments in transportation and communications infrastructure. I was a graduate student in urban management back in the days when decentralization of services was the panacea. The idea was to maximize “listening” and responsiveness and get away from standardized services/solutions, the cost was duplication and new layers of administration. A couple question to us both: Will the internet and present-day mobile communications allow us to maintain or increase responsiveness as we cast off obsolete administrative units and layers? Also (if I am correct I noticed your name on Doc Searls’s VRM list) is a VRM like approach feasible?

  4. […] to Purple v. Pixilated below and JP Rangaswami on Reds and Blues and Purples, I point to two recent entries on the […]

  5. […] to Purple v. Pixilated below and JP Rangaswami on Reds and Blues and Purples, I point to two recent entries on the […]

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