The city that keeps building better mousetraps.
The pulse of civilization invariably beats stronger in some parts of the world than others. Something special happens when science, commerce, and the humanities resonate in the interplay of geography and culture that makes a great city. Was it Florence that created the Renaissance, or did it create Florence, a city with so many milestones in art, literature, science, and government?
Culture is far more interconnected these days, so one doesn’t find the towering preeminence of a 16th-century Florence. Even so, there are cities where the throbbing beat of civilization creates a dynamic tension. Visitors to these cities catch them in the act of changing the world.
Seattle is one of those places, and this is its time. A generation ago it was a sleepy third-tier city in the Northwest, dominated by timber and Boeing. When the aerospace industry hit a downturn, an infamous billboard was erected, saying, “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”
What a contrast to the present, when trends started in Seattle have an impact on every part of life. It’s hard to imagine a world without Nintendo games or Microsoft software; both came from Seattle companies. Do your kids play with Magic cards or dote on Pokémon games? They’re also made in Seattle. The world talks on cell phone networks pioneered by Seattle company McCaw Cellular, now part of AT&T, and buys things online at Amazon.com or offline at Costco Wholesale—two more Seattle companies. And with the downturns of the 1970s behind it, Boeing’s jumbo jets still rule the sky.
With this much business success, you might think the place is Mammon incarnate, but that’s an oversimplification. Seattle is infamous as the focal point for riots against global capitalism and world trade. An antiestablishment theme also runs through its music. How else could a city that is home to more billionaires than any other also be the birthplace of grunge rock?
Maybe it’s the coffee. Starbucks is the most famous Seattle coffee expert, but the city is a hotbed of latte shops and espresso stands, each with their devotees. So much coffee is consumed that scientists have found that caffeine permeates the local seawater.
Despite its recent successes, Seattle remains comfortably down to earth. Hollywood and Wall Street, to pick two examples, have a huge influence on society, but their residents know it—and it’s gone to their heads. There is a humility and informality about Seattle that seems out of sync with its new role in the world; to most of us it’s just not a big deal. Billionaires, grunge heads, and everybody else go to the same coffee shops, eat in the same restaurants, and wear the same Birkenstock sandals. In a way, you don’t need to visit Seattle to experience what’s happening there—indeed, you can hardly escape it. But there is still something special about being in a place where the future is being invented while you watch.
After 14 years as a chief technology officer of Microsoft, NATHAN MYHRVOLD co-founded Intellectual Ventures, which focuses on biotechnology, intellectual property, and computer science.
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