In “Regulation by Network,” Amitai Aviram explains how opportunistic behavior is disciplined when markets are networked, and how regulation in networked worlds differs from regulation by private enforcement of contracts or regulation by government. This article came to mind last night as I was reading Dana Gioia’s “Fallen Western Star,” his account of the decline of San Francisco as a literary center. By way of illustration of a point, Gioia indulges in an aside about the emergence of West Coast Jazz from the clubs of Los Angeles.
I’ve quoted the entire paragraph for context, but the key element and the lines that triggered the association for me are right in the middle:
The term critical mass may be a metaphor, but it is an illuminating one for understanding cultural life. In nuclear physics, critical mass refers to the minimum amount of fissionable material necessary to create a self-sustaining chain reaction. Something similar occurs in urban culture. A city or region needs a certain critical mass of enterprise and opportunity to create a self-sustaining local culture. Part of the reason is pure economics: artists need employment. Post-World War II Los Angeles had dozens of nightclubs and dance halls that provided jobs for jazz musicians, even rank beginners. There was also abundant work in film and television studios, as well as numerous local record labels. These various institutions provided the economic base for artistic vitality. The wealth of employment for jazz musicians in L.A. also created a fluid local culture in which soloist and sidemen could move from club to club and group to group without penalty. One quarrel did not end a career, nor did undistinguished colleagues permanently stifle a strong soloist. Musicians followed opportunities according to their temperament or instinct, and created a living tradition that focused and developed local talent. The result was the great West Coast jazz movement of the 1950s. Dozens of major players appeared seemingly ex nihilo from the streets of Los Angeles—Art Pepper, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes, Zoot Sims, and Eric Dolphy, to name only a few. No single intelligence or program willed this international phenomenon into being. It grew naturally out of a dynamic milieu that gave public context to individual talent—and it created art at once local but worthy of export.
From Gioia, “Fallen Western Star: The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region,” in his collection of essays Disappearing Ink (Graywolf Press, 2004).