It’s common knowledge that as new technology develops, old technology becomes obsolete. By and large that’s the truth. Cars replaced horse-drawn carriages; trucks replaced ox-carts; tractors replaced horse-drawn plows. Airplanes spanned the oceans faster than any seagoing vessel, and ships were soon on the outs. More recently, email has put handwritten letters and postal mail into near-obsolete status.
But have you noticed that these obsolete technologies haven’t completely disappeared? Most of them are still around in some form. The truth is the more pervasive or iconic a technology once was, the more likely it is to be transformed rather than disappear.
Horse-drawn carriages, for example, are still around for rides through Central Park, for departing from a church after the wedding ceremony, and for winter sleigh rides (as a variation). They’re nowhere near as widely used as they once were, but they are iconic of time gone by, one we aren’t yet ready to lose altogether.
The same is true with ships. They serve commerce still of course, as freighters. But as people movers, while planes are efficient, cruise ships have been transformed into vacation destinations. Cruise lines are building new, even bigger ships than those that once served more practical purposes.
And with the advent of email, postal mail and handwritten letters have become rare, but they have not disappeared. Instead they’ve become displays of affection, for special occasions, or for particularly personal matters.
In all these cases, there’s a pattern to the way these obsolete technologies have been transformed. They’re all used for leisure or for special occasions. They are not as efficient as modern conveniences, which is an American must. They are utterly impractical. But neither are Americans completely lacking in their nostalgia. Thus, these formerly efficient technologies are now niche products for special occasions. And as such, the need for them is small, so there are much rarer.
Recently, I heard Lance Strate give a lecture on “8 Bits About Digital Communication.” In it, he identified another technology that is becoming obsolete: the city. The city, until now, has provided immense brainpower in a concentrated area. This proximity of knowledge and information was essential to keep to world of business moving. Indeed, that was the case, and it did so quite efficiently. Until the computer. The computer is the new city, Strate suggests. It is a concentrated place for inputting and processing knowledge and information.
Of course, until 15 years ago, computers were quite isolated from one another. It was as if no two cities had any roads between them, no matter how close. It was the feudal era of computing. Information could only be transferred by externalizing a limited amount of information onto a floppy disk and then carting it to a new city on foot or horseback. Of course, the Internet changed everything. It became the expressway that connected computers together. It should be telling that at one time we described the Internet as the “information superhighway.”
So, will the city become obsolete? The process will likely take a long time, and it may never be total, just like the horse-drawn carriage. Some transitions take longer than others. There were still buggies around into the 1930s. The transition to air travel happened relatively quickly, but the transition to cruise liners kept pace. Computers and the Internet still cannot imitate face-to-face communication, and this still gives the city a leg up. Things like Skype are certainly making headway. But at the cost of efficiency, face-to-face meetings may be a sacrifice we’re eventually willing to make in most cases.
Still, cities are pervasive, and their skylines are iconic. Don’t think that they will simply disappear. Instead like the horse-drawn carriage and the cruise ship, cities will be transformed, and likely into a place of leisure. Indeed, many see some cities as cultural centers more than business centers. I ride the train in to Chicago a few times every year, and it’s always for a cultural experience, not a business transaction. I spent New Years in St Louis for the cultural experience, not to do business.
I think cities have enough cultural value, enough iconic status to sustain themselves at some level as leisure destinations. Certainly not enough to sustain whole cities or every single city. But that’s part of the transformation through obsolescence. There aren’t nearly as many ocean-going vessels with paying passengers on them as there once were. The number of horse-drawn carriages is a fraction of what it once was, almost certainly less than 1 percent. And this may be the case with cities.
The number of cities may shrink over time. Only a few of them may hold our interest as cultural destinations in the long run. Meanwhile, they may become smaller and more condensed, as well. Indeed, one of the first casualties of this transformation may be Detroit, the Motor City. This irony may be telling. Now the city resides in our living rooms and home offices. We commute down the information superhighway without ever getting out of our slippers. It’s seems to be the perfect marriage of leisure and efficiency.