Grant McCracken: Will New York City Go The Way Of The Newspaper?

However natural they seem to anyone born in the 20th century, cities are arbitrary constructions. They are predicated on the idea that humans must congregate and co-locate. But this idea is contingent. A “face to face” connection matters only when there is no digital alternative.

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The digital effect rolls on. The record store has been vaporized by iTunes. Retail is being disintermediated by Amazon. The newspaper has been dealt a mortal blow by Craig’s list, the print magazine by PSFK, Huffington, etc. Clearly, education is next.

No one talks about cities. However natural they seem to anyone born in the 20th century, cities are arbitrary constructions. They are predicated on the idea that humans must congregate and co-locate. But this idea is contingent. A “face to face” connection matters only when there is no digital alternative.

And now there is. We can interact digitally. You can be in a cab in Singapore and I can be in a cab in Philadelphia and our voices have real fidelity. If we don’t need to be in motion, we can use the camera build into our computers, adding facial expressions to voice.

The fidelity of teleconferencing is still pretty horrible. Jack Conte and I tried to create a conversation on line Friday using Ustream and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. (I ended up called Jack on the phone, and he held the received up to his computer microphone.) But this is merely a technical problem. By the end of the present decade we will have perfect fidelity of audio and video. (See Cisco’s Umi for a glimpse of the future.)

And then what? I wonder if it isn’t the end of New York City as we know it.

Here are a couple of crude speculations that will indicate what I mean. In a perfect world, we would have Steve Crandall build one of his amazing thinking machines to help us work this through. In the meantime:

Let’s say there are 8 million people in NYC at any give time. And let’s say 1 million of them are there as commuters, traveling in from New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island each day.

When there is TCWTF (teleconferencing with true fidelty), these people will no longer commute every day. They will probably commute once a week, because, and here I am making the BFA (big, fat assumption) that some face-to-face contact is called for, especially when the people in question or idea workers, cultural creatives or, as I like to call them, Floridians.

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