Will New York City go the way of the newspaper?

The digital effect rolls on. The record store has been vaporized by iTunes. Retail is being disintermediated by Amazon. The newspaper has been dealt a mortal blow by Craig’s list, the print magazine by PSFK, Huffington, etc.  Clearly, education is next.

No one talks about cities.  However natural they seem to anyone born in the 20th century, cities are arbitrary constructions.  They are predicated on the idea that humans must congregate and colocate.  But this idea is contingent.  A "face to face" connection matters only when there is no digital alternative.  

And now there is.  We can interact digitally.  You can be in a cab in Singapore and I can be in a cab in Philadelphia and our voices have real fidelity.  If we don’t need to be in motion, we can use the camera build into our computers, adding facial expressions to voice.

The fidelity of teleconferencing is still pretty horrible.  Jack Conte and I tried to create a conversation on line Friday using Ustream and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. (I ended up called Jack on the phone, and he held the received up to his computer microphone.) But this is merely a technical problem.  By the end of the present decade we will have perfect fidelity of audio and video.  (See Cisco’s Umi for a glimpse of the future.)

And then what?  I wonder if it isn’t the end of New York City as we know it.  

Here are a couple of crude speculations that will indicate what I mean.  In a perfect world, we would have Steve Crandall build one of his amazing thinking machines to help us work this through.  In the meantime:

Let’s say there are 8 million people in NYC at any give time.  And let’s say 1 million of them are there as commuters, traveling in from New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island each day.  

When there is TCWTF (teleconferencing with true fidelty), these people will no longer commute every day.  They will probably commute once a week, because, and here I am making the BFA (big, fat assumption) that some face-to-face contact is called for, especially when the people in question or idea workers, cultural creatives or, as I like to call them, Floridians.  

The commuters who now come in one day a week will need perches more than offices and the corporation will now be in position to cut space requirements substantially.  Let’s say they do so by 15%.  

We have remaining 7 million people who live in the 5 boroughs.  (Forgive me if I am way off. I just need some figures to paint the picture.)  Let’s suppose the 2 million of these residents qualify as idea workers or Floridians.  I think we can assume that some 80% of this group will give up their homes or rentals in the city.

No longer tied to the city by the need to be there everyday, these people will give up tiny living circumstances for something larger, cheaper and less onerously taxed.  (Again, I am assuming that these people will want to be in the city say a day a week.  Face to face contact will continue to be important.  This too may eventually change and then there won’t be anything stopping us from moving to the rain forests of the Amazon or the stormy coast of Newfoundland.  For the time being we will telecommute from Philadelphia or New Haven.)  

Now the city is really up against it.  With a decline in demand for office space and housing, the tax base will take a tremendous hit.  (Given the kind of taxes paid by idea workers and the companies that employee them, it’s not unthinkable that this exodus would remove something like a third of the city’s tax base.  This without actually reducing very much of the need for the services that taxes support.  Actually, Richard Florida is exactly the guy to run these numbers.  I hope he will favor us with some rough calculations.)

We might be looking at the return of the 1970s "downward spiral" scenario.  Tax base falls, social services falls, crime rises, the city becomes chaotic, even more people leave, and the tax base falls again.  The city tries to correct by charging fewer companies more, and more companies leave.  After all, the tech now makes this easier and easier to do. 

Thoughts, please!

28 thoughts on “Will New York City go the way of the newspaper?

  1. steve

    We are now at a point where half of the world’s population is in urban areas and that figure is growing. I clearly don’t have a crystal ball (nor do I have a thinking machine:-), but I suspect the serendipity we get inside of work is very difficult to recreate. I think we’ll hhave some social surprises along the way. As someone who mostly works remotely I find a bit of good (I can concentrate for hours at a time without interruption), but a lot of bad in the form of lost contact outside of my area. My electronic connections are anything but rich.

    If white collar work moves to more remoteness I wonder how fun it will be? Perhaps such work will be populated by self selected loners. (I say this partly in jest) A young computer programmer I know is unable to get a reasonable job that also has healthcare. He can’t take a chance as he was married last year, his wife’s job doesn’t have insurance and they have a baby on the way. He took a job at Trader Joe’s and loves the human contact he’s getting.

  2. Frank Romagosa

    This seems right, and perhaps (a bit plaintively, on my part) too true. But as with all change that involves communication, at some point how we measure change itself will change. If we think back to very early first moment of media change, the concept of literacy entered our conversations because of the printing press .. we could travel more because we read what a priest was saying, no longer in Latin but in a language in which I spoke with my neighbors. The printing press was an early transportation device.
    And so have gone the centuries. The story is standard, from Guttenberg to horse-drawn carriages to train tracks (not trains) and so on .. internet draws us closer, of course, but by this era’s (don’t all feel this way?) dizzying acceleration, we now can soon expect billboards to market with minute precision what this person might purchase, and as the next car drives by (if we are still driving) that billboard will change likewise. Life will be ever real time. Location may well be a thing of the past? Immanence essential?

  3. German Dziebel

    Well, parts of NYC such as Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the World Trade
    Center have already buckled, as physical and commercial spaces, for various
    reasons. The digital effect is surely one of them. They will continue to
    live on as textual metonyms and metaphors, but for the American Dream to
    survive as an effective symbol it can’t rely anymore on the mystique of
    its discrete constituents alone. The same goes for Gotham.

  4. Brill

    This is an interesting idea. Grant, you posit that cities are ‘predicated on the idea that humans must congregate and colocate’. People like to congregate and colocate. New York’s appeal is stronger than upcoming digital opportunities. When I look at New York, I see a place that’s as desirable and as popular as it’s ever been. Probably more so, right? Manhattan’s experienced something of a baby boom in the past 10 years, as reported in the NYTimes. Young parents are choosing here (and other big cities) and bucking the post WWII suburban ideal. Good schools, cultural resources, diversity, networks of like-minded folks. NYC is a robust place. Environmentally kind, too. Everyone who lives here gripes at one point or other about the subway or leaving or more space but there’s more that keeps them tied here than jobs. I know..there are other cities with this kind of richness. And richness. 🙂

  5. Eric Nehrlich

    I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about cities based on an observation of Clay Shirky but haven’t gotten around to it (maybe this will inspire me).

    One of the key thing cities provide us is aggregation of demand. In a small town, there simply isn’t enough demand for specialists to thrive – the particular skill set they have is not needed enough for them to make a living as a specialist. So we have the general store (formerly) or Walmart (now).

    In a city, there are so many concentrated people that there is sufficient demand to support any niche. This is one of the reasons I believe that urban concentration is growing – I remember hearing a talk from the author of “Shadow Cities” (who studied the slums around cities like Rio de Janeiro) and found people doing some crazily specific tasks that were a result of the urban concentration. And those tasks, low-paying though they were, were still better than working on an tiny plot of land back at the village.

    I’d also argue that part of the power that the Internet provides is to aggregate demand – with the Web, I can reach my customer no matter where they are. However, that mostly works for products, not services, and that’s where the city will still reign supreme. If I want to go to the symphony, or check out art galleries, or go to a great restaurant, or have a cocktail at a mixologist bar – I have to be in a city.

    Something like that – if I flesh it out, I’ll post a link.

  6. Scott

    Unless there is a massive shift in basic human needs, I cannot forsee the “city” going anywhere soon. The fact is, the need to cogregate is a base human need. Mobile & web technologies certainly allow for easier transactional relationships…however the desire for human conactact and the energy/vibrance that is created in our urban hubs is something that cannot be replicated digitally…not even by mighty Facebook.

    That said, the role of “the city” will undoubtedly change. Just as our largest and most progressive cities evolved from manufacturing & production hubs to management and operational nerve centers, we will see an continued socialization of these spaces, where the role of the corporation is subservient to that of the society, by which i mean culture.

  7. Indy

    I think cities may have a future – the following trends are important:

    1) Environmental/Resource Futures – Cities are actually pretty energy efficient – and density of people makes sharing resources more possible.

    2) Eric references the good things in life that gathering people into one place provides. That’s a strong draw – and as Brill notes – there is a whole generation that now likes city living. It’s also true that many forms of infrastructure are easiest to finance in a city, because of the density of consumers. You can get good bandwidth in rural areas, if you happen to be on top of a link that runs between cities… but that only works up to a point.

    3) Steve mentions serendipity – I’m not sure, because in principle the Internet should be able to do serendipity – and yet so far my working life is still propelled as much by physical serendipity as virtual. In particular, the virtue of the physical is that we don’t fully choose whose call to take. Teleconferencing? Our biases come up when someone unknown pings us… My experience of teleworking is that it’s much harder to get people to take a call than get them to agree to “oh, you’re here for that meeting, let’s have a drink.”

    4) I think there’s a risk shift issue as well. It’s definitely true that some corporations will head the way you’ve described. I know some people at one large entity that has gone to distributed working even without TCWTF and it basically works. But it’s noticeable that the people suffer from all the usual “living in a home bubble” troubles of teleworkers – and innovation seems to be hit too. As soon as you’re talking about independents or smaller companies living various kinds of “network business models” connectivity in the human sense gets more important again.

    All this said, I think cities are ripe for reconfiguration. The population will decline some, which allows the remaining to build bigger living spaces – not McMansions – but places better suited for modern families than some of the crash pads that commuting culture has created in the last 10 years. And yes, the change in density may threaten the economics of some cities – Detroit is proof that this can happen, and perhaps NY and Tokyo must change, but I don’t think they’ll disappear.

  8. Brad M

    There were two recent columns that seemed related to this. One from Financial Times columnist Parag Khanna pointing to the new Middle Ages and a multipolar world; the decline of the nation-state and rise of city-states and corporations and non-profits and philanthropists: http://www.paragkhanna.com/?p=103

    Another interesting piece from the Guardian pointed to how social networking and technology connects people of similar classes and education, but removes them from their location: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/05/facebook-generation-poor-inequality Something similar to what Hernando de Soto argues in how there are groups connected to the global economy and vast, impoverished, majorities lacking this connection and functioning in an uncounted gray zone.

  9. amoeda

    Referencing Steve’s point about serendipity, I would add that this is a quality of urban life whose value cuts across work and personal spheres. Location/status socialstreams like Foursquare and Twitter are popular in large part because they allow urbanites to learn about and take just-in-time advantage of social and cultural opportunities that are uniquely accessible to those nearby. (The just-in-time aspect is critical because it supports the need to balance work, family and personal interests. Without that ability, those starting families and/or working longer hours would see a greater decline in their ability to enjoy those niche pleasures that make their city lives worth the expense.) In the workplace, years of experience have shown me that when highly collaborative work must be done remotely over long time periods, quality suffers. This is due in part to lack of serendipity in daily communication but also to overall reduced morale when the pleasures of direct human contact and multisensory shared experience are lost. Certainly, increased fidelity in teleconferencing will change the balance for many. In addition, workplace communication etiquette is changing to allow for more serendipity in remote collaboration, through the concurrent requirement to be available for these interactions has significant costs. But I fail to see what could supplant face-to-face contact as the “gold standard”. The question is, then, when face-to-face is a “premium” or “high-performance” option rather than a requirement of collaboration, what choices will businesses and workers make? Will they opt for less urbanism, or lighter-weight collaboration? Thanks for the post, Grant!

  10. grant mccracken

    Great defenses of the city, cities in general and New York City in particular. I would just say that while all of these things are no doubt true, commuting obliges you to endure people who are noisy, smelly and near. Well, living in NYC the same. This taxing when not punishing when not assaultive. I think people who can live in more pleasant places for much less money are inclined to seize the opportunity.

  11. Rasmus

    Very interesting 🙂
    Maybe the implementation of ROWE (Results Only Work Ethics) on a larger scale in companys will also be a factor in the Floridians move away from the cities.

    ROWE has proved to very effecient regarding both the amount and quality of work getting done and work-satisfaction or the mental and psychological well being of the individual Floridian.

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  13. Eric Nehrlich

    Grant, agreed that there’s a tradeoff between the inconveniences of urban life (crowded, smelly, noisy) and the advantages of urban life (serendipity, more options, etc). Everybody makes their own choice about that tradeoff. I’ve chosen to live in Mountain View, about 35 miles south of San Francisco – it’s quieter with a short commute to work, but means I don’t have the serendipity of living in the city itself with the greater number of activities there. Most young people I know live in San Francisco, even those working at Google, as they feel that the activity in the city is worth the commute. I don’t think there’s a “right” answer, as this is a massively multi-dimensional optimization problem, and people choose to tune how they live differently.

    1. Grant Post author

      Eric, well said, I haven’t lived in SF but I believe it is pretty benign, certainly compared to NYC which is Tokyo without the manners.

      1. Eric Nehrlich

        I have a friend who likes to say that if you took the busiest night in any other American city, that would be a typical night in New York. If you took the busiest night in New York, that would be a typical night in Tokyo, and so on, through Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc. And he says that by far the busiest and craziest city he’s been in is Mumbai. And all of these cities are growing, not shrinking. Ithink we should be figuring out what is drawing people to these cities, since that appears to be what is happening, rather than figuring out reasons for their decline.

        1. Grant Post author

          Cities are expanding. To get my flight in Sao Paulo recently, I had to be on the road at 4:00 in the morning, and the roads were jammed with people headed into the city to work. Cities are were the jobs are, and for manual labor this will always be true. But I think culture creatives would prefer to “phone it in” and that when they can they will!

          1. Eric Nehrlich

            Interesting. I’m surprised to hear you make that argument, since such a critical part of cultural creative work is being aware of the world around you, noticing things and figuring out what implications that observation may have. Cities provide the fuel for that noticing work – the suburbs and rural life do not provide enough diversity, enough surprise, enough chances to break out of one’s routine (another version of the serendipity argument that others have stated). In your own work as anthropologist, even though you don’t live in the city, do you feel it is critical to give you new ideas? Why is that not true of any other creative?

            Most of the creative people I know flock towards the city partially because that’s where the other creatives are and partially because there are more opportunities there (see my aggregation of demand comment). But I also believe the creative process involves being knocked off course by something around you, the chance to be derailed and end up with a new thought, and cities provide that opportunity in spades. Otherwise, you can end up in a rut of thinking the same thoughts over and over again.

  14. William

    Your whole argument is based on the singular notion that a city’s success and future viability is proportionate to the employee/employer relationship as it is dictated by technology: that the lack of technology drove the necessity of cities.

    But you conveniently discount every other reason to live in a city. As an anthropologist, I would have expected a broader view. As an aesthete, I live in New York City primarily for the restaurants, museums, live music and shopping experiences possible. If the future workforce is devoid of culture and its influence on the human being, the death of cities will be the least of our worries.

    Thoughts Grant?

    1. Grant Post author

      Wow, this is very city – centric and New York City centric. There is culture outside the city! And what isn’t in Philadelphia (as a feeder city for NYC) can be piped in digitally.

  15. srp

    The urban defenders here are overstating their case in economic terms but understating it in social terms. Especially for twenty-somethings, the city is a much more interesting mating environment than most suburban areas or small towns. On the other hand, the notion of density–>serendipity–>innovation is flawed because the first link tops out at fairly low density. That’s why we have research universities and institutes. In fact, if you think about recent big innovations–fossil fuel exploitation, discount retailing, nuclear weapons, aeronautics, Hollywood–these were developed in what were at the time low-density “frontier” environments where specialists in a particular area gathered.

  16. Piers Fawkes

    Am going to have to disagree with you Grant.

    Cities are where ideas hatch and grow and that’s because of the physical mixing of people who spread those ideas every day. The presence of others also drives competition and collaboration. Sure, digital can Do this, but not with the dynamism of a physical city,

    New York remains the place where the future comes to rehearse.

    1. grant mccracken

      Piers, thanks for your note, I like the idea of NYC as a rehearsal space for the rest of the world. And everyone here seems to feel I am shortchanging the city’s creative and aggregative and dynamic effects. When culture starts to come from people working in Mumbai, Tokyo, Tel-aviv, this will create creatives accomplishments that will humble the present city. This is the kind of line that always gets a snotty reply, “but of course kids are already working together from Mumbai, Tokyo and Tel-aviv.” So let me so straight off, yes, and we ain’t seen nothing yet.

      1. Jason Laughlin

        I’m a little confounded by this post and your response to the above comment. Florida’s entire hypothesis of “Who’s Your City” is based on the fact that creatives are already congregating in cities. The major cities around the world are getting bigger along with certain cities that are doing all they can to attract “creative” talent. I suppose I can look at this post as being New York centric and it makes a little more sense, but barely. The fidelity of telecommunication may not be where it will be in a few years, but I just don’t see people fleeing the more dynamic cities simply because they can phone it in. Additionally, this taxation spiral seems a little far-fetched. People are already flocking to London, and New York and Cupertino. The taxes seem to simply be the price you pay to live in these creative hotbeds.

        Don’t get me wrong. I live in Louisville, Kentucky which affords me some fantastic culture at a comically low cost of living. But I also understand that living here means there are certain doors that don’t open to me. There are certain elements of the world I will never come into contact with and that has a cost as well. All of this being a long-winded way of saying that as much as technology is changing us, the more we are staying the same.

  17. Dave

    A few days late. But an interesting subject. Personally I still cling to the belief that city are incubators for innovation. And that is driven because of forced diversity. Just as we really worry that digital media dependency will narrow our interest palate so the idea of digital “freedom” from the urban environment might also deprive us of the joy of having to notice new things.

    And the reality is that cities really do matter to us. Wherever we are. As Grant will know from a study summary I sent him last week I have been looking at what cities inspire people. Beyond the lists and the contentious nature of what might or not be the cities that drive transformations in life I was surprised to learn or re-learn that people are passionate about cities, what they teach and what they get from them..

    Personally I will be in NY this coming week. Visiting from Tokyo. And yes while the latter might be more phrenetic than the former and I might argue still a better measure of what is to come NY forces me to absorb new. The beauty of cities.

  18. Renina

    Race and the Future of the Global city is one of my research interests.

    New York is an interesting case study for a few reasons. The first is
    because of the ways in which the Euro functions to allow folks to be displace
    Manhattanites, who then displace Brooklynites, who then move to Atlanta,
    Philly etc. Gentrification is a tool of global capitalism.

    My thinking about this is greatly influence by Neil Smith @ Cuny.

    Second, Cities don’t work without city workers. There are arguably 40K
    police officers. Tens of thousands of teachers and MTA employees. They all
    need somewhere to live and a 3 hour commute is not sustainable.

    The question that I ask myself is Who does the city belong to and why?

    ~Renina (Feminist scholar and Blogger.)

  19. Gia

    As someone who left the city nearly 20 years ago for the mountains of Colorado, I say that there will always be an appeal to urban life. Havens like Boulder, Colorado suggest the kind of cities of the future as places where people will congregate not out of necessity for work but out of nice-ities of the lifestyle. Here I can enjoy the comfort of home or outdoor office, fire up my computer (or mobile device), telecommute, play with my kids, hold hiking meetings with local colleagues and yet do world class work. While I could afford more square footage in a true suburb or rural location, I would miss the cafes and bars with my friends, the farmer’s markets and playgrounds with my kids, biking to the super market, local hiking trails and parks all easy access from my house (without getting into a car!). The natural was what I missed living in New York. But the urban is what I miss when I get too far away from easy places to congregate and enjoy my village-mates face-to-face. I will suggest that cities are not going away, but the new urban movement is creating a new type of social space one meant to suit a new balance of living and work.

  20. Bree

    I saw a doc a few months ago on Netflix (I don’t think it’s there any more and can’t remember the name of it to save my life), but it was about gas peaks and suburban living. Basically, it posed that the concept of the suburb has had an impact, mostly negative, on America as a whole.
    What I found especially interesting, though, were the social implications of driving a car. The doc talked about how people act more aggressively and ill-mannered when in a car because of the physical separation from other people; they do things on the road that people walking would not do and more frequently.
    Also, the doc theorized that perhaps suburban living is making us feel less connected to each other and diminishing the concern for social responsibility and “help-thy-neighbor”. A reductionist view of this could be that a house, separated from neighbors by at least a few meters, makes the family feel insular and lose that connection with the idea that “what I/we do affects others”. I think there is something in the apartment culture, the subway culture, that subtly conditions us to be maybe more respectful.
    I mean, look at the political layouts. In places where people live with more land and separate from each other, there tends to be less concern for things like social programs and public welfare.
    There is something, I personally feel, almost healthy, about jamming people together in a grid of boxes where they realize that if they turn their music on too loudly, they might wake someone else.
    I’m obviously not an expert, it’s just a feeling from someone who could NEVER think of leaving the city.

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