The Internet vs. the City

Will digital communications make cities obsolete, or can online connections actually complement the face-to-face interactions and the cities that support them?

Fifteen years ago, it was commonly believed that the Internet would take the place of in-person meetings and face-to-face contact. But Edward Glaesar and Jess Gaspar wrote a paper suggesting the new universe of online connections would actually make personal contacts more valuable than ever, along with the cities that enable them.

Now, with years of evidence and research to support him, Glaesar argues that there are actually three reasons why online connections can increase personal interactions and the value of cities. New technologies increase the returns to innovation, the Internet fosters new contacts faster than interpersonal meetings decline, and cities will always beat out online interactions in certain areas (like meeting for dinner at a great restaurant). Glaesar points to geographic clusters of industries like Silicon Valley and data on phone calls as additional evidence that electronic communications can complement in-person connections, but won't replace them.

He writes, "Humanity is a profoundly social species, with a deep ability to learn from people nearby. I believe that the future will only make that asset more important."

Full Story: E-Ties That Bind



Things to Come...

Isaac Asimov and E. M. Forster foresaw the likely effects of virtual/telecommunication long ago:

Forster - 'The Machine Stops' published 1909:

Asimov - 'The Caves of Steel' published 1954 (synopsis):

"electronic communications can complement in-person connections, but won't replace them"


Electronic comm replacing face to face

I think it's kind of an exaggeration -- although it serves Glaeser's argument -- to say that anyone really thought electronic communication would replace face-to-face communication. Yes, there was Alvin Toffler with The Third Wave, and notions of electronic cottages, and in fact some of that has proven out. Many professionals in rural areas are able to maintain their businesses from afar in ways they could not have, previously, and the urgency around gaps in rural broadband service underline the potential for rural areas to participate in the larger economy in new ways. Rather than replacement, the idea was that internet/telecom would increase choices and potentially save travel expenses without reducing "net communication." Early on, researchers recognized that if a team (of people) was formed and proceeded altogether virtually -- meaning its members never met one another -- it would not work as effectively as one in which members met, and then used electronic communication to supplement or replace working sessions. I haven't read all of Glaeser's book but so far I think he underplays the role of technology in spurring new urban economies -- such as the role of international satellite deregulation in the 1980s to establish links that initially permitted bits of software code to be outsourced to India -- and I think he also underplays the role of capital. A little satellite story: one of the first stories I heard of using technology to "offshore" work was when American Airlines in the 1980s would use its airplanes to carry used ticket stubs down to the Caribbean, where highly literate workers (women, of course) in Jamaica and Barbados would key in data from the stubs, and that data would then be sent back to AA headquarters via satellite. I believe it was AA; don't think any of this has ever been fully documented.

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