The irony of America’s tech-fueled brain drain is that the internet should have freed us from location-based employment and helped disperse high-skilled tech workers. In her 1997 book The Death of Distance, British economist Frances Cairncross heralded the ways that digital technologies, particularly the internet and mobile phones, were “killing location” and “loosening the grip of geography.” For Cairncross, one of the many implications of ubiquitous internet access was that “companies will have more freedom to locate a service where their key staff want to live, rather than near its market” and employees “will gain more freedom to live far from their employers.” Reality proved far messier.
Cairncross says she “misjudged” the extent to which concentrated labor markets matter in the knowledge economy, because they provide an available pool of specialized skills and other agglomeration benefits. So rather than decentralizing the American labor pool, the rise of the internet and digital technologies had the opposite effect: It accelerated its concentration. The face of this change is the San Francisco Bay Area, which consistently ranks as one of the most congested and expensive regions in the US. But a similar scenario is playing out in Denver, Boston, Seattle, and other major tech-driven metro areas.
Despite her misgivings, I believe history will ultimately prove Cairncross correct. Knowledge work is currently in transition between the centralized Industrial Age when the automobile and high speed highways made it possible for office workers to work daily in communities far from their homes to an emerging decentralized “work anywhere” mode.
The trouble in the San Francisco Bay Area and other metro centers the high speed highways that made commuting a breeze in the 1950s and 1960s aren’t so speedy anymore and overcrowded with too many knowledge workers during the morning and evening commutes. Building more highway lanes only induces more commute trips. Autonomous vehicles can’t solve the congestion because there will always be a limited amount of pavement over which they can travel. Mass transit isn’t the answer either given the differing schedule and location circumstances of knowledge workers and limited practical range that has served as a perpetual disincentive.
Of course, there is nothing that beats the natural inclination of humans to socialize and exchange ideas that drive the information economy co-located, face to face. The question is whether doing that every work day remains practical in congested and expensive metro areas given the personal time and economic costs extracted by daily vehicular commute trips. These trips are lengthened by housing market dynamics. Affordable homes are often located at the periphery of metro areas.
Information and communications technology provides the best alternative means to perform knowledge work. And yes, there still needs to be old style in person social interaction. But that can be obtained at training sessions, symposia and social gatherings. Commuting should be confined to getting to and from these events and not daily to a centralized, commute in office.