Friday, November 10, 2017

Why do we still have cities?

Following up on "remembering the future."

Smart people, like statisticians' models, are often most interesting when they are wrong. There is no better example of this than Arthur C Clarke's 1964 predictions about the demise of the urban age, where he suggested that what we would now call telecommuting would end the need for people to congregate around centers of employment and would therefore mean the end of cities.







What about the city of the day after tomorrow? Say, the year 2000. I think it will be completely different. In fact, it may not even exist at all. Oh, I'm not thinking about the atom bomb and the next Stone Age; I'm thinking about the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and above all the communications satellite. These things will make possible a world where we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on earth even if we don't know their actual physical location. It will be possible in that age, perhaps only 50 years from now, for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London. In fact, if it proved worthwhile, almost any executive skill, any administrative skill, even any physical skill could be made independent of distance. I am perfectly serious when I suggest that someday we may have rain surgeons in Edinburgh operating on patients in New Zealand. When that time comes, the whole world will have shrunk to a point and the traditional role of a city as the meeting place for man will have ceased to make any sense. In fact, men will no longer commute; they will communicate. They won't have to travel for business anymore; they'll only travel for pleasure. I only hope that, when that day comes and the city is abolished, the whole world isn't turned into one giant suburb.


Clarke was working with a 20 to 50 year timeframe, so it's fair to say that he got this one wrong. The question is why. Both as a fiction writer and a serious futurist, the man was remarkably and famously prescient about telecommunications and its impact on society. Even here, he got many of the details right while still being dead wrong on the conclusion.

What went wrong? Part of this unquestionably has to do with the nature of modern work. Clarke probably envisioned a more automated workplace in the 21st century, one where stocking shelves and cleaning floors and, yes, driving vehicles would be done entirely by machines. He likely also underestimated the intrinsic appeal of cities.

But I think a third factor may well have been bigger than either of those two. The early 60s was an anxious but optimistic time. The sense was that if we didn't destroy ourselves, we were on the verge of great things. The 60s was also the last time that there was anything approaching a balance of power between workers and employers.

This was particularly true with mental work. At least in part because of the space race, companies like Texas Instruments were eager to find smart capable people. As a result, employers were extremely flexible about qualifications (a humanities PhD could actually get you a job) and they were willing to make concessions to attract and keep talented workers.

Telecommuting (as compared to off shoring, a distinction will need to get into in a later post) offers almost all of its advantages to the worker. The only benefit to the employer is the ability to land an otherwise unavailable prospect. From the perspective of 1964, that would have seemed like a good trade, but those days are long past.

For the past 40 or so years, employers have worked under (and now completely internalized) the assumption that they could pick and choose. When most companies post jobs, they are looking for someone who either has the exact academic background required, or preferably, someone who is currently doing almost the same job for a completely satisfied employer and yet is willing to leave for roughly the same pay.

When you hear complaints about "not being able to find qualified workers," it is essential to keep in mind this modern standard for "qualified." 50 or 60 years ago it meant someone who was capable of doing the work with a bit of training. Now it means someone who can walk in the door, sit down at the desk, and immediately start working. (Not to say that new employees will actually be doing productive work from day one. They'll be sitting in their cubicles trying to look busy for the first two or three weeks while IT and HR get things set up, but that's another story.)

Arthur C Clarke was writing in an optimistic age where workers were on an almost equal footing with management. If the year 2000 had looked like the year 1964, he just might have gotten this one right.

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