Will Low Tech Solve the Jobs Crisis?

Just as Henry Ford may not have predicted the rise of drive-in movie theaters, the Internet Age will produce changes to our physical landscape we can't yet envision.


CJ Schmit/Flickr

In my last post, I suggested that the recent dip in jobs numbers might signal a long-term trend, as the Second Economy -- characterized by computers working among themselves -- continues to grow.

The post generated quite a few readers' comments. "We must ourselves become the computers" was one of my favorites. Another reader suggested "a Marxist redistribution of the proceeds of the economy." Yet another said he would be surprised if I found a solution "outside of an unrealistic Luddite proposal."

The solution I see for helping to reverse the trend isn't very Marxist, nor will it mark me a Luddite. And no, humans will not become computers.

Here's the idea: construction will be the engine for a much larger fraction of job growth in the Internet Age than we are currently anticipating. I call it a repurposing construction boom.

As a society, we organize our physical infrastructure to take advantage of interconnection technology. In grade school, we learned that early cities were located near harbors, on rivers, and at major road crossings. The railroad shaped much of the 19th and early 20th century urban infrastructure. Cities of that era were walking cities: people lived, worked, and shopped within walking distance of where they lived. Large cities depended on the railroads to carry raw materials to factories. Railroads carried food and coal to the cities, as well as manufactured products to customers. When people attempted to escape the unhealthy living conditions created by sewage and industrial pollution, they fled to the suburbs that grew up along railroad tracks.

Next came automobile interconnection technology, which created a very different infrastructure. Businesses no longer had to locate in the urban core. People no longer had to live within a mile of where they worked and shopped. Homes could be anywhere. People could drive to shopping centers with large parking lots. The automobile set them free -- and gave rise to a national wave of urban flight.

Think of the construction that came in the wake of the automobile -- roads, the interstate highway system, urban sprawl, shopping centers, parking facilities, gas stations, office buildings and factories outside the city, second homes within driving distance.

Physical presence is now competing with inexpensive virtual presence, and it is losing. It costs a lot to get from where you live to where you work or shop. Office and retail space are expensive to build, rent, and maintain. Keeping space cool in the summer and warm in the winter is expensive as well.

Much of our current physical infrastructure is really an information proxy. We go to the office to communicate with others and facilitate the interaction between customers and business operations. We go to retail stores to find out what is available, check prices, and see how merchandise looks. We go to the movies to watch information on the screen. But if we can move information cheaply enough, there is less need for these locations or our physical presence.

Many business transactions have moved to the Web, and take up almost no physical space. Electric utilities will ultimately end up with human-free billing processes. The home meter will send your usage to the billing computer, which will bill your bank's computer. There goes the office space needed to house hundreds of administrative workers. Similar displacements are happening at airlines, newspapers, and media companies -- just computers talking with computers.

The implication of all of this is clear. The faster and cheaper we can move information , the less retail, factory, and office space will be required on a per capita basis.

This means that much of the existing space will eventually be repurposed. Office buildings and shopping centers will be torn down and become locations for apartment buildings, possibly even parks. This is already happening in edge cities like Tysons Corner, Va. But I suspect that is only a minor portion of the repurposing construction boom.

In his 1995 book, City of Bits, then e-topia, published in 2000, William J. Mitchell, the late dean of MIT's School of Architecture, described his vision for the city of the future. This vision included smart buildings with "artificial nervous systems, sensors, displays, and computerized appliances -- a chassis for the sophisticated electronic systems" that play a growing role in our lives. Mitchell believed future urban centers would be "characterized by live/work dwellings, twenty-four-hour neighborhoods" rich in social relationships, complemented by "electronically mediated meeting places, decentralized production," and other Internet-driven services.

In Mitchell's scenario -- and mine -- there will be less need to travel and public transportation will become both more valued and more practical, especially if it allows people to give up an expensive car. If I go to the office only twice a week, why not trade in my car and use a Zipcar, or ride a train with a good wireless connection? This will increase the demand for public transportation, and will lead to more construction of train and light-rail lines.

On a major scale, there is a good chance that the Internet Age will make walking-friendly cities more appealing. Creating walking cities from our current ones would require a great deal of urban transformation. The walking city of the future would probably take the form suggested by the late urban theorist Jane Jacobs, with mixed neighborhoods where people can live, work, shop for the essentials, eat out, and entertain themselves all within walking distance of their homes and apartments. With the Internet supplying us with so many work, shopping, and entertainment options, the city structure Jacobs celebrated becomes very appealing. So our cities might be repurposed for the Internet Age just as the railroads repurposed cities in the Industrial Age. 

This trend appears to be well under way. A recent article in The Atlantic pointed out that fewer than half of the potential drivers under the age of 19 have licenses, compared with two-thirds a decade ago. A recent survey found that 88 percent of Millennials want to live in urban environments, where they can walk to restaurants, stores, and public transportation. Jim Lentz, President of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, has remarked that "many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver's license."

Just as Henry Ford may not have predicted the rise of drive-in movie theaters when he invented the Model T, the Internet Age will produce changes to our physical landscape we can't yet envision. And other changes that we do expect might never happen, or happen in a different way. The urban transformation may not take the form that I have suggested. But what I am certain will happen is that the Internet will drive the physical restructuring of society.

In the 1920, General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire, and Phillips Petroleum set up National City Lines, conspiring to eventually replace trolley lines with buses, and buses with cars. General Motors itself disposed of more than 100 urban trolley operations. The success of this strategy is one of the reasons for today's car-centric physical infrastructure.

So if I wanted to create the jobs of the Internet Age, I would employ the reverse General Motors/Standard Oil strategy: I would substantially raise the taxes on gasoline, to encourage the building of a physical infrastructure compatible with the Internet Age. In and of itself, construction won't solve the job problem, but it's the best way to create new jobs in the Internet Age.