June 06, 2017
How many of you have seen the movie Manchester-by-the-Sea? That’s where I live — in the seaside hamlet of the same name. It shares region of Massachusetts called as Cape Ann with the city of Gloucester and the towns of Essex and Rockport.
Even though most of the movie was actually filmed in neighboring Gloucester, it shows something close to the reality here: an inelegant mix of struggling working class against a silent backdrop of the ultra-rich who own the mansions on the coast. Everything closes at 5pm. It’s affluent but under-served. It’s vacationland.
Cape Ann is also 45 minutes north of Boston. People are getting priced out of the city faster than you can spell “gentrification.” Salem and Beverly to the south are already bristling with condos, ready to be filled up by young families and folks who don’t mind a a quick commuter rail ride.
Thus, there’s been a lot of talk, both before and in the wake of the movie, about turning Cape Ann into an “innovation hub.” There are marketing initiatives to get hackathons, co-working spaces, and TED-style tech talks here. I think people have their hearts in the right place, but I think this is misguided. I made this mistake myself when I moved to Cape Ann 3 years ago. I thought of it as a fresh canvas to paint on, and I was wrong.
Because… here’s the thing that I learned: Cape Ann has already been a hub of innovation for 300 years; just not the kind people like. Look up Essex Shipbuilding. Maritime Gloucester. Birdseye. Kestrel Educational Adventures. John J Hammond Jr. Ocean Alliance. Countless others that I’m forgetting who have collectively been working for over 350 years to make sure tuna ends up in your cans, goods end up in your living room, and the weather ends up on your phones.
Most people confuse innovation with start-up culture. They think they coffee shops, fiber internet, and a so-called “diverse” population of upper middle-class hipsters between the ages of 19 and 30.
Innovation is good. We need it in both the private and the public sectors. We need it to cure diseases, make transportation cheaper, fix ocean acidification, and get to Mars. However it comes with a cost, and humans are often very bad at weighing the cost of such endeavors. So, I’ll be so bold as to say: While innovation is positive and crucial, start-up culture is absolute garbage.
Unicorn success stories like Dropbox and Uber make it look appealing, but the start-up world is really just a wasteland of failure and sunk costs. It’s a miasmic cloud over our society as a whole, rewarding cunning psychopathy and, in this case, further stranding the fisherman and shipbuilders who made this region what it is.
Sardonically: if you want to see an influx of blowhard know-it-alls from the city who are going to come in, try to court the region’s wealthy with promises of ROI, drive up property values even further, and ultimately economically strand the region far beyond what a bridge 45 minutes away, then go ahead. “Innovate.” I can’t stop you.
Or, when you get here, take time when you get here to find out who the players are, specifically in the marine industry. Find out what they’re doing and what their needs are.
This is the website of Mark Robert Henderson. He lives in Cape Ann, works in Cambridge, and plays with distributed apps and tech philosophy online.
Mark's social media presence is slowly and deliberately withering away, so the best way to reach him is via e-mail.