Joel Mokyr on the death of distance (2013 edition)

I would think that one of the things that is coming… is the death of distance. We are basically no longer having to use airplanes in order to communicate for most of human need. I say most, I’m not saying all, I fully well understand that at times it’s very important to have that personal contact, to share that beer, to have that meal together. But by and large I think what we’re going to see is communication – human interactions – are going to be digitalised to a degree that we can’t even imagine yet – except when you’re looking at two kids at high school sitting next to one another and instead of talking, they’re texting… they’re comfortable with this… Kids who are twelve, thirteen year olds now, this will be perfectly natural to them.

Once you text with somebody sitting next to you, there is no reason for that person to be next to you. He could well be in Idaho and you could be in Maryland. The same would be true for conferences, for meetings, for family reunions, for a lot of reasons that people are not flying. … If something, God forbid, were to happen to transportation… I think that this technology would take off like a rocket.

If that kind of thing is going to happen, it isn’t just airline traffic that will be affected, it will be regular traffic. And so if you’re stuck in a traffic jam at rush hour in L.A. or in Chicago… Twenty, thirty years from now the vast bulk of people who have to drive to their little cubicle or their little office today may well be able to do things from their living room at home.

And think of the liberating effects that this has. It isn’t just that we’re saving innumerable human hours which are wasted in commuting. By the way, the cost of commuting is not figured in national income accounts. If you spend an hour and a half each day day – bumper to bumper traffic – that counts as leisure. If I can spare you that, that would be a major improvement in your economic welfare without making one iota of difference to national income. [This refers to an earlier part of the discussion about unmeasured improvements in welfare do to technology]

Here is one more thing about this that I think is terribly important: the death of distance will not just save in commuting costs and of course pollution and gasoline use and wear and tear on the tyres. It’s also incredibly liberating, because what happens is for tens of thousands of years – until the Industrial Revolution – women were working at their homes while raising kids. They were multi-tasking, we would call it today… They were producing textiles, they were milking cows, and they were feeding the chickens, while at the same time taking care of kids. What the Industrial Revolution did, by creating the factory system and then later on the offspring of the factory system the office system, which is basically a factory system in which people sit at desks but is essentially the same, is they separated the worker from her household and put her in a different environment… That didn’t exist before 1750 – everybody worked at home. By 1914 in most industrialised nations whoever worked worked away from home.

With the electronic digital revolution, we can return people to work at their homes if they so choose… This is what the death of distance will really do. It will return people to their families, it will return people to their homes, because they no longer have to go to offices and factories. … This sort of nine to five commitment, five days a week, that will slowly erode for more and more and more people, and that is a huge development, because that is the way humanity lived before the Industrial Revolution.

Joel Mokyr on Econtalk with Russ Roberts, Nov 25, 2013

Post-Covid, and a lot of this is already happening. I highly recommend the whole podcast, even if it paints a somewhat rosy picture of domestic multitasking.

See also:

Extract from Frances Cairncross’s The Death Of Distance (2001 re-issue)
Why it’s worth paying for Zoom (post covid)
Resource: Zoom Videoconferencing (2019)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...