Last Time I Checked, the Internet Couldn’t Magically Deliver Physical Goods
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To use a baseball analogy, Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead goes one for two in his Wall Street op-ed on infrastructure.
He hits a solid double by correctly pointing out the permitting and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) problems that stall infrastructure projects. Streamlining this process would get needed projects built faster
But Mead then swings and misses badly by arguing that investment in America’s infrastructure “isn't our main need at this point.” Building the "infostructure" is more important because the virtual will dramatically alter how we live in the physical:
Two things seem clear about the 21st century: Internet connectivity and bandwidth are going to improve so that today's technologies behind services like Skype are going to change beyond recognition. Each generation of young people will be more accustomed to socializing and interacting online. We are going to have more, better and cheaper alternatives to traditional business and commuting travel patterns, and our society will find it more and more natural and desirable to shift from expensive, time-consuming travel in "meat space" to doing business online.
I recall similar claims made during the Internet’s rise nearly 20 years ago. In 1994, futurist George Gilder predicted that “Telecommuting, teleconferencing, telemedicine, teleputing will change from buzzwords into basic fabric of business and life.” Boston writer, Fred Hapgood, went so far as to claim that the Internet will “erode the relevance of geography in human relations. Everybody in cyberspace is a few keystrokes from everyone else; the canonical six degrees of separation seem more like two.”
Yes, teleconferencing and much online business is commonplace, and but does this make geography irrelevant? The data doesn’t say that.
For U.S. air travel, except for dips because of recessions, there’s been as a steady rise in miles traveled since 1990, even as Internet use spread.
And until this most-recent recession we saw a similar trend in truck highway miles traveled.
We still want to move ourselves as well as stuff. Trucks, trains, and ships transport food, cars, appliances, gadgets, and a host of other products from factories all over the world to stores and our front doors.
American businesses depend on good infrastructure. America’s biggest employers like FedEx and Wal-Mart make it their mission to move atoms. America’s energy boom relies on pipes, sand, water, and other physical goods to be transported on roads and rail. Even Internet companies like Google and Facebook don’t live by telecommuting alone. They have sales, research, and operations offices all across the country with managers zipping around to ensure company operations run smoothly. All these companies need well-maintained roads, ports, airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure.
Information technology plays a critical role. It's use through telecommuting, improved air traffic control, and electronic monitoring of infrastructure condition improves operations of current transportation systems and pinpoints problems so that solutions can be more targeted. In fact, it is an efficient way to chip away at the massive needs and bring the overall price tag down, but it doesn’t eliminate the requirement to maintain and replace roads, runways, locks or levees.
Physicists may be playing with Star Trek-like transporters, but they still haven’t figured out how to transport a gallon of milk, an iPhone, or a person through the Internet. Until science fiction becomes reality, we need to adequately maintain America's infrastructure to best support its “infostructure.”