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Opinion

Why the Web may unleash the largest construction boom in history

The rise of ships, trains, and cars transformed cities and the way we live. Now it’s the Web’s turn.

By Bill Davidow / February 25, 2011



Menlo Park, Calif.

The Internet has already reshaped our mental space. Thanks to the Web, the way we read, recall, and relate is vastly different from the way it was just 15 years ago. Today, an even bigger change is afoot. The Internet is about to change our physical space. And this change may well usher in the largest construction boom in human history.

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This goes far beyond laying fiber-optic cables to reach every home. It will entail rebuilding our cities, suburbs, the places we work and shop, and our homes. The best news of all is that the jobs required to make these changes will be high-paying local jobs, isolated from low-wage foreign competition.

Every important advance in the way we interconnect has spawned a construction boom. Civilization demands a different physical infrastructure to derive the full benefit of the new technology.

Connections promote growth

In ancient times, the advent of wagons, domesticated animals, and crude ships made possible the first cities. They were all needed to bring food and fuel to support the lives of city residents. Centuries later, sailing ships that could cross oceans and bring back exotic goods led to the growth of great seaports like New York, London, Venice, and Genoa. The railroad necessitated the building of thousands of miles of track, changed the configuration of cities, and ushered in the development of suburbs near major rail stations. It also led to the creation of industrial cities such as Manchester, England, and Pittsburgh, with their working-class slums – a distasteful side effect. Most recently, cars created a construction boom – highways, shopping centers, office buildings and factories outside the city, and suburbs.

The Internet, the world's most powerful interconnection technology, will similarly drive tremendous changes to our physical world.

Much of our current physical infrastructure is really an information proxy. We go to the office to communicate with others, access our files, and facilitate the interaction between customers and business operations. We go to retail stores to find out what is available, check prices, and see how merchandise looks. But if we can move information cheaply enough, there is less need for either these locations or our physical presence there.

Physical presence is very expensive. It costs a lot to get from where you live to where you work or shop. Office and retail space are expensive to build, rent, and maintain. Keeping the space cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and clean at all times, is expensive as well.

When I shop in virtual space, I reduce the need for bookstores, drugstores, and many other retail functions. Many retail functions will shrink to vanishingly small size or evaporate. Do you remember when travel agents were everywhere?

Today our office is our computer. Physical mail and the need to sort it and deliver it is less important. Most of our files are electronic. Many of us spend little time at our office desks and more time working at home. More firms are having their employees share office space or are making offices very small and sharing conference space.

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