Not long ago I was sitting with my friend Valerie on the porch of a cabin at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, AR after a great day of climbing talking about life, the universe, everything. I had recently heard a talk at a LaunchCode event about their expansion to Miami and other places where they mentioned the importance of being in urban areas, places where there were plenty of tech talent and jobs already, and couldn’t help thinking, “What about everyone else; the people who could really benefit from something like this live in the areas where this doesn’t already exist.” Val is a programmer and volunteers with LaunchCode and CoderGirls, and spends quite a bit of time outside the city, so our conversation made its way around to how could we get programs like that to rural areas, places where there isn’t necessarily great internet connectivity and definitely no ready made tech infrastructure. How do we more evenly distribute the future that is already here? What difference would it make for the people in those communities? The world at large?
At the end of his book will “Scale”, Geoffrey West writes:
One final point: The IT revolution is our most recent great paradigm shift, and like all previous ones it is driving us toward a ‘finite time singularity’…. It was enabled by the invention of a startling assortment of extraordinarily ‘smart’ devices that are producing enormous amounts of data. And, like previous major paradigm shifts, it has predictably resulted in an increase in the pace of life. In addition, it has metaphorically brought the world closer together with instant communication anywhere across the globe at any time. It has also led to the possibility that we no longer need to live in an urban environment to participate in and benefit from the fruits of urban social networks and the dynamics of agglomeration, which are the very origin of super-linear scaling and open-ended growth. We can devolve to develop smaller, or even rural, communities that are just as plugged in as living in the heart of a great metropolis.
Does this mean that we can avoid the pitfalls that lead to an ever-accelerating pace of life, finite time singularities, and the prospect of collapse? Have we somehow stumbled upon a way to avoid the ironic quandary that the very system that led to our great socioeconomic expansion of the past two hundred years may be leading to our ultimate demise, and that we can have our cake and eat it to? This is clearly an open question.
West doesn’t seem to think the answer to these questions is yes, as he closes the book with the following.
…I suspect that life will continue to speed up and urbanization remain the dominant force as we head toward an impending singularity. How this plays itself out will determine much about the sustainability of the planet.
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I’d like to find out.