Notes from the Field

The Death Of Distance

by / June 30, 1998
Even before President Thomas Jefferson's purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory, great expanses of geography were key to American history. The Revolutionary War itself was spurred in part by new realities little understood by European leaders an ocean away. In 1787, it took George Washington four days to travel 150 miles from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Commenting on this, British author James Burke noted that America's representative democracy was largely the result of the young nation's bad roads and vast distances.

From railroad to automobile, telegraph to television, restless Americans have harnessed new technologies to shrink distances on this continent and around the globe. As we close out this century, the United States is ground zero in the latest assault on geographic impediments.

Today, the revolution in computing and telecommunications is dismantling the formidable barriers of physical location, time zones and local, regional and national borders -- reshaping the way we work, live and ultimately govern ourselves.

The net result of this for governments is an increasing encroachment of a new set of global influences on communities and regions throughout the world. Witness Europe's ongoing, almost Sisyphus-like struggle to erect a user-friendly "common market," understanding that capital now travels over electronic networks at light-speed to where prices are low, interest rates are favorable, and investment returns are swift.

While the communications revolution is fueling a robust domestic economy that's swelling state revenues and driving down unemployment, the United States is raising a new set of policy issues for public officials, including:

* Governors, mayors, town councils, county supervisors and local government groups trying to solve the problem of disappearing tax revenues resulting from the growth of "friction free"Internet commerce.

* College administrators negotiating with faculty over intellectual property rights as educators realize that "virtual universities" and "distance leaning" operations open broad new markets -- well beyond the four walls of their lecture halls -- for course content.

* Parents and community leaders struggling to deal with the proliferation of "anywhere, anytime, anyplace" pornography as well as the increasing loss of privacy as the World Wide Web extends its reach.

A recent U.S Department of Commerce report, The Emerging Digital Economy, notes computing and communications are a booming industry, responsible for more than a quarter of the nation's economic growth over the last five years. Anticipating where this digital behemoth is taking us -- for good and ill -- must be a priority for public-sector leaders attempting to construct rational polices for the future. Along this line, a new book, The Death of Distance by Frances Cairncross of the Economist magazine, is a handy road map.

Cairncross outlines in useful detail the coming explosion of high-bandwidth, low- cost, unregulated global communication networks and their implications for a wide scope of fields, including regional economic development, taxation, education, business structures, financial markets and the fate of cities.

Cairncross contends that the death of distance "will probably be the single most important force shaping society in the first half of the next century." And while you might not agree with all her conclusions, the author does a good job in following the advice of quantum physicist Carver Mead, who suggests we more closely "listen to the technology and find out what it is telling you." As a result, Cairncross' book gives the reader a timely framework to make their own judgments regarding the coming "death of distance."

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"New means of moving information will alter any power structure."
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media