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Santa Fe Is Not The Future

It sort of seems like falling communication costs should reduce the need for people to crowd together, so I can see why people say things like this:

With broadband, employees no longer need to physically be transported to work. He sees Americans moving to scenic, ideal locations such as the mountains of Montana or the hills of Santa Fe. [Joel] Garreau splits his time between Fauquier County and Arizona.

“What you’re seeing now is what I call the Santa Fe-ing of the world, or the Santa Fe-ing of America,” he said. “The fastest growth you’re seeing is in small urban areas in beautiful places, because now you’ve got e-mail and Web and laptops and iPhones and all that jazz.”

That’s not an insane piece of idle speculation, but like David Frum I don’t understand how it survives contact with an effort to look up actual population growth figures. People are moving in droves to the Houston and Dallas metropolitan areas, neither of which are small or idyllic. Meanwhile, it’s hardly like the invention of the Internet has made it super-cheap to buy a house in Silicon Valley. Quite the reverse, actually. Most of the larger northeastern cities have seen substantial revitalizations of their downtown areas over the past twenty years, and the growth in sunbelt cities has tended to take big cities like Phoenix and make them bigger.

There are two kinds of reasons for this.

One is that online and offline communications aren’t identical. They seem in many ways to be complements rather than supplements. A non-economic way to think about this is that in principle thanks to the Internet I could spend less time socializing with people face-to-face than a past person would do. In practice, that’s not what happens. Organizing face-to-face socializing is one of the primary things I use modern information technology to do. The web has also given me a vast and far-flung network of readers, acquaintances, and contacts who I socialize with face to face from time to time as happenstance puts us in the same city. The Web doesn’t crowd out real life, it enables it. By the same token, it would be wrong to say that the allows ThinkProgress to get away without meetings or in-person interaction. Rather, without the Internet, we wouldn’t have jobs and there’d be nothing for us to hold meetings about.

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The other is that lots of services can’t be provided over the internet. The web can’t cut your hair, do your nails, cook you dinner, clean your teeth, operate on your injured wrist, redo your floors, etc. You can of course get these services in small towns if you want. But large cities have more choices, more specialization, more competition, etc.