E. M. Forster revisited

One of the issues we worried about in our first test of telecommuting in 1973-74 was the impact of telecommuting on land use. In particular, we were concerned that the location independence feature of telework might induce people to move away from the cities to rural — and particularly to scenic — areas in such numbers as to destroy the primary reason for their move. That was more thirty years ago.

Now comes an article titled “Circling the Welcome Wagons” in the 26 November 2006 edition of West, the Sunday magazine section of the Los Angeles Times. The piece highlights the trend for “equity-rich boomers” to move to rural places, particularly Utah, Montana and Wyoming.

The article, focusing on the rise of the “third coast” (the Rocky Mountain cordillera region), points to the validity of our concerns in the ’70s: “We understand why boomers are bailing out of their fouled nests elsewhere and coming here. It’s for the safe schools, the abundant nature, the lack of traffic snarl, the fact that you can walk from City Hall to the mountains in 10 minutes, or get into a car and be fishing on a river in 20. And the old days have passed when you had to reside somewhere because your job or business was there [emphasis added]. FedEx, computers, a change in the nature of work and a mammoth transfer of wealth from parents to their boomer kids have all combined to create a New America.”

The gist of the article is that the boomers are indeed moving to these scenic and heretofore unspoiled areas and trashing them. Telework and the startling difference in land prices between places like Los Angeles and Bozeman are the driving factors. Homes in the third coast cost less than a quarter of comparable space in the big cities and commute times tend toward zero. Developers, of course, are eager to build new homes for these affluent clients, new homes that tend to encroach on sensitive ecological areas. The throwaway culture and homogenization are spreading to the remaining pristine areas.

In the first paragraph of our 1976 book on telecommuting* I wrote:

Just after the turn of the century, in a story entitles “The Machine Stops,” E. M. Forster depicted a telecommunications dominated world of the future. Designed to rescue mankind from a hopelessly polluted and ravaged world, the “machine” housed people underground and provided for their physical needs through the use of such things as a worldwide communications network, videophones, central data files, voice-activated machines, and high-speed printers. Because society became totally dependent on the machine without knowing how to repair it, the inevitable breakdown of the machine resulted in the demise of most of humanity. At the time the story was written, such technological wonders were fantasy; today, they are becoming accepted as commonplace by many Americans. Telecommunications technologies are becoming ubiquitous and powerful.

In a later chapter on technology assessment and telecommuting I wrote:

As with all cases of increasing freedom of choice, however, we must begin to consider the possibility that freedom may become license — the urban growth equivalent of the “tragedy of the commons.” For example, one of the potential results of the greater locational flexibility provided by improved and less expensive telecommunications technologies is that people will move to areas of great scenic beauty or recreational potential in such numbers as to destroy the resource they moved to be near. The choices are to risk the destruction of such major natural resources, through our typically inadequate planning for this possibility or, through careful planning, to provide alternative scenic and recreational areas in cities. We may have to combine limitations with access to our extraurban resources in order to conserve them. It seems possible that as people spend more time living their entire days in suburban areas, they may take more care in providing parklands in these areas, thus avoiding the urban monotony so typical of U.S. cities.

Well, you can’t say I and E. M. Forster didn’t warn you.

* Jack M. Nilles and F. Roy Carlson, Jr., Paul Gray and Gerhard J. Hanneman. The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976. ISBN 0-471-01507-5. Pages 1, 150-151.

One thought on “E. M. Forster revisited”

  1. Dear Jack Nilles,
    As I said in my last comment and you reply (many thanks!), We are planning the development of territory in Portugal for next 25 years.

    I beleive we will assist to an urban exod in next decade. The life in cities has no quality and is very expensive.

    Thanks to telework and telecentres, we will improve quality of life with less costs.

    Kind regards

    Trancoso, Portugal
    Medieval Village; Population: 2000

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