The (almost?) Inevitable Death of Cities

Telecommuting, Telemedicine, Teleeducation, Telepresence…

By David Vandervort

It’s survival in the city, 
When you live from day to day, 
City streets don’t have much pity, 
When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay.

 — In the City, The Eagles

Today, most Americans live in cities. In the rest of the world, not only do a lot of people live in cities but the percentage of city dwellers is increasing — especially in the developing world. Some people see the future as belonging to ever bigger mega-cities, housing the entire human population.

Not so fast! Cities are something of a conundrum in history. Arguably, civilization probably wouldn’t have gone very far without them. People have long flocked to cities for safety from attacking hordes, relief from bad crops, or to find work. Moreover, the intermingling of peoples from widely varied regions meant they were exposed to diseases to which they had no resistance. Mass death was the result. Cities have been great sources of crime, plague, dirt and rats but also centers of trade, education and culture.

It seems the benefits greatly outweigh the problems, at least as long as there is no Black Death to worry about. So cities keep on growing. Technology is bringing new forces to bear, however, making the great benefits of people massing together seem more and more like an illusion. We’ll start with the simplest of those forces: Telecommuting. I work from home. I’m a web developer (more or less), which means I can do my work from any computer with an Internet connection. It was not very many years ago that web development didn’t exist and telecommuting wasn’t an option, for any job. Now, it is an increasingly common choice. And that, is only the beginning…

Most employers I have known still cling to the idea that people must come to the office in order to do “work.” Most managers harbor the suspicion that if you can’t see someone, they must be up to NO GOOD (Not that being able to see them really makes a difference. I used to work with a guy who would walk around with an empty box on his shoulder, pretending to be pulling stock or putting it away. Later, he stopped carrying the box and carried a piece of pink paper. It was much less effort). This is a cultural norm more than a logical necessity. There are better ways of measuring work output than watching it happen.

Another important force assaulting that antique norm is the new technology of decentralization. The DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) may have failed, but it failed because of flawed software. The concept was and is still good. With more carefully built technology, it is now possible for people all over the world to form their own organizations, to follow their own purposes, coordinated by software. That coordination includes paying for work performed, which brings up the question, “How do you go to the office when there isn’t one?” It’s all just code.

Work is also only one aspect of the technical changes that are pulling culture away from cities. Let’s consider medicine. Traditionally, the best hospitals have been in cities. They go where the patients are, after all, and where the doctors can maintain a certain standard of living. Centralization works well for medicine. But telemedicine is a real and growing thing now. Doctors can consult by video conference and do surgery using a distant robot as their eyes and their hands (An interesting take on telemedicine, mostly without the robots, is here:http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-telemedicine-is-transforming-health-care-1466993402). This doesn’t even consider how developments in Artificial Intelligence for diagnostics may soon free us from having to go to the doctor for anything but the most critical issues. The need to be in the cities to get the best medical care is not yet a thing of the past but it is definitely going that way.

Education is another one of those things we expect to get from cities. Universities take up large amounts of space and have an outsized influence on the region around them. In Rochester, NY, where I was born, the biggest employer in the city is the University of Rochester (including the UofR medical center). Yet, a decade ago when I attended (online) an information session for a master’s program, I heard an interesting thing. Someone asked if he could attend physical classes rather than taking the program online, since he lived near campus. The answer was that when they started offering classes online, students stopped coming to the campus entirely. The school was in Maryland. I graduated from it without ever leaving New York.

There are still people who claim that an online education cannot be the equivalent of one gained sitting in a classroom. In particular, there is a significant shortage of PhD programs that enroll distance students. Again, it seems to be a cultural issue. Online education options, including self-help systems such as Khan Academy, intermediate systems such as Coursera and full university offered programs, continue to increase. It’s a simple question. Why get up early in the morning, fight traffic, fight for a parking space and hope you remembered to bring your homework, when you can just walk into the other room and log on? Why move to a distant city, when all the formal education in the world is just a few clicks away?

Wall Street in New York and Fleet Street in London are two examples of places that attract people who want to be part of particular industries (finance in New York and publishing in London). They are regions where multiple businesses in the same field congregate, creating opportunities that do not exist elsewhere. Both of those industries are being reshaped by technology, as are most others. Blockchains, enabling distributed trustless commerce, is the leading edge of the new fintech. The DAO, too, is poised to upend the finance industry. As for publishing, I used to work for a newspaper. It still exists but has no more than 25% of the employees it had when I started there. That industry is not being transformed by technology so much as it is being erased.

Now that we have seen that some of the prominent reasons why people have lived in cities are fading away, we are faced with the question, does that mean cities will be erased as well? I think the answer is both yes and no. They will cease to be (already are ceasing to be) the centers of commercial and cultural life they have been for so long. The new technologies provide choices, not imperatives. Just because you can do your job from a distance doesn’t mean you have to move out of the city. It just makes it easier for those of us, like me, who want to live somewhere else. Those who want to live in the city can still telecommute from within the city. But gone will be the days when people move into the city in order to be close to their job, or their university, or their industry. Many will move out of the cities. Many will stay but live utterly different lives than before.

It seems likely, then, that most cities will become less dense, their populations more dispersed. This will inevitably decrease the tax base and, inevitably, a scaling back of many services will follow. Why should the city run subways or bus lines when people hardly ever need to travel around? Drones bring them their groceries, the Internet brings their jobs. With those services reduced, people will no longer be bound to them, either.

The end result (which may take a hundred years to reach, though the process has already begun) will be smaller cities, with much less traffic (and that are completely automated), less pollution and less crime (except the white collar variety). People used to how cities are now may find them disturbingly quiet. But that’s okay. They can just use telepresence to live in some place they like better.

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