Place vs Plumbing
A thousand things are tugging at me these days as I consider our future . By “our” I mean humans living in the world in 2020 and beyond. And, yes, I know that by some standards that’s a pretty wide aperture while, by others, limiting the perspective to “humanity”makes humans the center of the universe, which narrows the aperture more than we seem to understand.
One thing that’s captured my attention is the tension between place and infrastructure or plumbing. (Thank you Leland Maschmeyer). Zoom in the time of COVID affords a potent illustration of this. When “in person” matters in significant ways – for sporting events, conventions, lunch meetings, meetings with co-workers, drinks with friends, a sense of place is a powerful magnet. When those things can no longer happen as they did before, the attraction and hold of place begins to wane. We seem to be seeing this everywhere. Does Silicon Valley retain its hold on tech dominance (“How Remote Work Could Destroy Silicon Valley”)? Does Hollywood succumb to Netflix (“He’s Why You Started Staying In,” NYTimes September 6, 2020). Will New York City, and other major cities, survive the COVID diaspora (“Cities Will See Citizens Flee, Fearing Continued Riots and the Rise of COVID”)? But while it’s clear enough things are in flux, the ultimate outcome is still very much to be determined.
A thick layer of mud has suddenly covered our windshield, blocking our visibility into tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or the next decade, but while we let up on the gas a bit, we’re still driving down the road at 60 mph, scared to death that if we slow down, someone or something will hit us from behind.
And what keeps us driving at speed? Zoom. Amazon. Netflix. Spotify. Comcast. Slack. Anything that will holds promise for letting us operate as we did pre-COVID. This is the plumbing. This is the infrastructure that makes connections, interactions, and business possible. And it also happens to be true that this plumbing, this infrastructure is no respecter of place. It doesn’t care about your city. It doesn’t care about your country or state. The person in the zoom chat in the second square from the left at the top and the person at in the third row down in the middle – they could be in the same city, or they could be separated by oceans. But they are, all of them, connecting to one another, collaborating, learning, working together. Somehow this seems important. Maybe momentous. What happens if Hollywood no longer controls movies, if Silicon Valley no longer remains dominant for tech, startups and capital, if New York City is no longer the center of the financial universe?
The irony, of course, is that this evisceration of borders has happened at exactly a time that political and economic borders are hardening. From Brexit to US/China trade wars, to travel barriers designed to protect a particular nation or state by keeping potential carriers of COVID out.
Is this merely coincidental? Or does our complex system of commerce now depend upon and support technology and tools that are both able to root around outages and are designed and determined to do this?
Consider the Internet (which makes all these other things possible – Zoom, Netflix, Amazon, etc.). Its conception and early implementation was based an ARPANET project of the US Department of Defense directed and managed by Robert Taylor and Larry Roberts, supported by Len Kleinrock’s work. The Internet with its packet switching and its TCP/ip protocol allowed information packets to travel to, arrive at and be sorted at their destination despite encountering points of failure among network nodes. My network has been routing packets, through Jane’s network node, but today, Jane’s node is unreachable. No worries. Because of the Internet’s design, the packets can travel by another route to reach their intended destination. A certain resilience has been built into the network – by design.
So I’m wondering, is our complex system of commerce laughing at our attempts to wall off things that must – from an efficient system perspective – remain connected? And if plumbing beats place – from a commerce perspective – does that actually mean that on an entirely different dimension place wins? I’ve been thinking, dreaming really, of spending the next five years or so to travel to and live for perhaps 3–6 months at a time in places all over the world.
Where would I go? TBD. France. The Netherlands. Brazil. Italy. Costa Rica. Spain. India. Canada. Japan. Singapore. New Zealand. Australia. Thailand. England. Where would you go?
And if commerce is no respecter of place, if any place anywhere in the world can be a suitable home for almost any kind of commerce, I’d expect some amazing places in the world to see an uptick in population. Of course this means I also expect to see a concomitant uptick in infrastructure/plumbing investments. Everywhere.
As usual, Elon Musk is there first: think Starlink. But there’s plenty of room for those who might lead the way this new reconfiguration of place and plumbing. In what ways will our support for interconnectedness – for commerce, entertainment, learning, and life – change the world as we know it?