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February 03, 2007

Richard Florida

The distance paradox

« Globalization of modeling | Main | Cities and the environment »

Financial Times columnist, Tim Hartford writing in Slate, poses the question: "If telecommuting is so easy, why do we travel for work more than ever?"

It stands to reason that distance is dead. Electronic communication is better and cheaper than it's ever been. ... Intuitively, that should mean that geography has become less important. E-mail and video-conferencing mean fewer flights. No more business conferences or meetings at Davos. Telecommuters don't need to clog up the roads, and property prices in London and New York should slide as people carry out their investment-banking responsibilities from Yorkshire or Iowa. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that there's something wrong with this argument...

Despite the ease of communication and the drop in the cost of transporting goods, geography seems to be as important as ever for most of us. People haven't stopped flying to meetings and conferences. The World Economic Forum meetings are now a round-the-calendar circus in more than 10 countries. New York is one of the few places in the United States where the real-estate market isn't stuttering. 

So, what is happening? To some extent, the same thing that happened to the paperless office. It turned out that all these computers made it easy and cheap to produce a lot more documents. Yes, the documents could in principle have been viewed on-screen, but why not print them out?

Similarly, e-mail, Internet networking, and cheap phone calls have made it easy to maintain a lot of relationships. In principle, some of the relationships could be restricted to cyberspace, but how much fun is that? The same e-mail that allows you to maintain long-distance business relationships also creates demand for more travel and more conferences as people try to establish those relationships in the first place. Mobile phones, Web mail, and BlackBerrys also make travel less costly because it is easier to keep working on the move.

Closer to home, communication technology makes it easier than ever to arrange a drink with friends. Just send a quick e-mail to a distribution list or post the invitation on your online journal. This sudden spontaneity isn't much use if your friends are hundreds of miles away. Mobile phones, far from fueling a flight to the countryside, make big cities more attractive and more manageable. E-mail and mobile phones aren't substitutes for face-to-face contact at all. As economists Jess Gaspar and Ed Glaeser have pointed out, they are complements to it.

Other technological changes have also strengthened the importance of place. If you can buy cars or films or insurance from anywhere in the world, why not buy from the place that is host to the best or cheapest producer? Cities that were once nationally dominant can now become international champions. It suddenly becomes more valuable, not less valuable, to locate in New York or London.

The modern economy demands ever more complicated, fast-moving, innovative, and creative projects. Formal contracts just aren't up to the task of keeping us honest in these circumstances, which means you need to be able to trust your colleagues—something that still requires you to look them in the eyes. Face-to-face meetings have always fostered trust and clearer communication, and they still do. So, the conference circuit is likely to be with us for a while.


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I have to agree with Tim.

Anyone who saw the opening few moments of the film "The Gods Must be Crazy" knows how the quixotic musings of the technological determinists mutate into the reality of the nightmare of feeling dominated by the technology they promised would empower you by making your life easier.


After the narrator of the film takes us on a tour of the Kalahari, we make a stop in the Metropolis. He says:

Only miles to the south, there's a vast city. And here you find civilized man. Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment. Instead he adapted his environment to suit him. So he built cities, roads, vehicles, machinery. And he put up power lines to run his labour-saving devices. But he didn't know when to stop. The more he improved his surroundings to make life easier the more complicated he made it. Now his children are sentenced to years of school, to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat. And civilized man, who refused to adapt to his surroundings now finds he has to adapt and re-adapt every hour of the day to his self-created environment. For instance, if it's Monday and 7:00 comes up, you have to dis- adapt from your domestic surroundings and re-adapt yourself to an entirely different environment. 8:00 means everybody has to look busy.


I'm glad Tim articulated some of those sentiments in a way that doesn't try to persuade me to become a luddite as condition for my agreeance. ;)


Evan - Nicely put.

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