Friday, December 14, 2018


"We are in danger of making our cities places where business goes on but where life, in its real sense, is lost."
--Hubert Humphrey

I went downtown a while back to do some Christmas shopping and hit my bank to turn in a check.  The place was a ghost town, it was scary how few people were out in stores.  Maybe I was out too early in the day to see the crowds, or there before the Christmas wave really hit, I don't know.  But it got me thinking and a chain resulted in some future speculation.

Currently, we're still in a system of economics and social structures that has been in place for thousands of years.  Even when people lived in huts and walked to work, towns were built around economic activity.

The way it works is this.  People need goods and services.  They offer their services and goods to others, in exchange for the goods and services of those other people.  This original system was barter, and it works okay on a small level.  The more established this becomes, the more you end up with markets, where people bring all their stuff and offer their services in a convenient, central location.

This location is so convenient that some of these people set up shop permanently and build homes there.  When the market meets, they're already set up and always ready to go.  They get supplies from others and offer them at these fixed shops.  As time goes on, more and more people start using this model, and a town begins to form.  The town then starts offering goods and services to take advantage of the fixed shops: blacksmiths, bakeries, clothiers, etc.

Certain businesses which develop cannot work in the farm-to-market model, such as factories.  They need to gather all the goods used to make something more complicated in a central location.  The existence of towns and an economic hub makes that kind of thing possible, so things become increasingly more sophisticated over time as a result.

The convenience of having everything in one location cuts down on labor and travel time, resulting in... leisure.  Which when you're living hand-to-mouth sun up to sun down just to eat and survive you have little to none of.  And leisure means people want something to do, so entertainment arises: plays, paintings, music, parks, movies, games, etc.

And while barter works between a few farmers out in the field, in a town it becomes a bit awkward to trade your cloth for chickens when what you need is firewood, but the firewood guy only really wants liquor from the supplier who needs honey... well you get the idea.  It starts to become one of those really obnoxious time-wasting quests in a computer game.

So money was invented.  All money is, is a representation of barter.  We're all still bartering, we're just using these coupons that represent our goods and services, or time spent at labor.  That dollar has virtually no intrinsic value, and even it did, the clothier needs firewood, not strips of cloth with a president's face on it (or even silver coins).  The value is that everyone has agreed upon it representing a certain amount of barter, so instead of trading cloth for firewood, we trade money for firewood, as a universal barter coupon.

As time goes on, these towns get bigger and bigger, as more people are attracted to the money and potential the town offers, and more people set up shop to serve these people.  Joe works in the restaurant to earn money to buy paintings from Fred, who uses that money to buy clothes from Jane, who uses her money to buy... well you see how it works.  Its all an interconnected, self-supporting system.

Now, let us propose that a system arises which allows everyone to connect remotely to a network of exchange which allows them to purchase what they want from that central network and have it delivered to their home.  And let us suppose that nearly everything you used to buy at the market/town you now can do from the comfort of your La-Z-Boy on your phone and have sent right to your door.  Down to food and groceries, and some of it just delivered directly to your device like entertainment.

What happens to the towns, when people stop going to stores, and buy everything from central delivery services?  Well some stuff its best to buy in person such as a car or clothing (although not always).  And people still like shopping in stores, so culturally some momentum will keep the shops open at least seasonally.  And let's be honest, its good to get out of the house once in a while, no matter what a shut in kind of introvert you might be.

However, after a while that cultural momentum may slow and end, with the culture being instead isolationist, with everyone in their safe space getting what they want and shunning everything else.  But here's the thing: why live in a town, then?  If the shops close down, where are you gonna work?  When you don't buy shoes from the Shoe store, but instead, then the shop closes down for lack of sales -- or closes its store front and just ships shoes out online.  And when they're gone, the support network for them goes too.  Restaurants can't stay open if nobody working nearby eats there any more.

Online work is the only reasonable alternative -- that and either government work or laboring at BigDelivery.Com's warehouses and fulfillment centers.  You can deliver stuff, so that you earn enough to get them delivered to you as well.

So is it possible that towns as we know them begin to just melt away, leaving only the municipal structures of government and infrastructure, and big delivery hubs?  You don't need the library, book store, art gallery, playhouse, clothing shop, grocery store, etc any longer.  Just places to deliver those things to you at home or in your hand to your device.  And the people living nearby there who work at the delivery places and for the government

So how rural would it get, if the towns aren't towns any more but rather are big corporate hubs with a government protecting them?  And what happens to the economic structures we know and are familiar with if everything is overturned like that?  Since at latest Akkadia, humans have been living in clustered communities, sometimes with walls to keep out the barbarians.  But without barbarians and without the pressure of religion or economy to keep people close by each other, will people spread out more?

Particularly as technology advances, delivery may become less dependent on huge infrastructures like roads and railways.  Older technology such as Airships make landing areas less significant while carrying huge loads, and newer technology such as drones which right now are little more than toys, could be able to some day actually deliver goods directly to homes rather than just the publicity stunts Amazon engages in.

Except for the very poor.  Unable to afford to get many deliveries and heavily dependent on the largess of the government, the poor would cluster near municipal centers for handouts and sustenance, in slums that spread out around the area.  These would be people who don't have the skills or ability (or desire) to work in the big delivery places or infrastructure like fire and police.  And they'd simply survive based on how many goodies the government hubs give them, like bread from Caesar.

This sort of feels like Medieval times, with the lord in his castle surrounded by peasants that he protects and allegedly cares for like children, taking from them what he desires to survive with.  Feudalism never really has gone away, but its been modified with the times; people still cluster around cities to live off the government's handouts and pay heavy taxes to the state in exchange for protection and goodies.

I don't know if any of this is reasonable or not.  It just seems like a plausible future where the entire structure of human civilization is overturned by the information highway.  People talk about how the internet is the next big thing like the steam engine or the industrial revolution but... it could be even bigger, changing civilization entirely.  Changing what we even know and understand about society and structures such as cities and towns, even nations.

Time will tell but one thing is for certain: time moves a lot faster than it used to.  Big cultural shifts like this used to take generations.  Its taking years now, not decades.

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