Amid increasing concern about growth, pollution and gridlock in many cities and towns in the Sunbelt and Mountain West, some people see advanced telecomputing technologies as part of the solution. Reason: Telecom advocates believe telecomputing will reduce the demand for travel as digital traffic on the national information infrastructure (NII) replaces, air, truck and other vehicular traffic on the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Economists call it the “substitution” of telecommunications for transportation.
There are many examples: Working at home replaces commuting to the office; teleconferencing replaces air travel to meetings; E-mail (including everything from personal letters to the electronic filing of income taxes) replaces postal delivery; electronic deposits of payroll checks eliminates a trip to the bank; interactive shopping and entertainment (including more TV channels and movies on demand) may keep consumers at home rather than traveling to the mail or theater; and telecomputers on trucks can save trips by permitting the consolidation of loads and the elimination of empty backhauls.
Yet, John Niles, a Seattle-based telecommunications policy analyst, warns in a recent report to the U.S. Department of Energy that telecommunications may actually increase travel.
Reasons: 1) The use of advanced telecom technology increases productivity, which increases wealth. “More money means more travel,” says Niles; 2) Telecommunications expands economic and social relationships. At some point, you want to meet the people you E-mail with, nor matter where they are; 3) Telecommunications is a powerful force for decentralizing business and dispersing of residential settlements; and to suburbs, edge cities and rural areas. Result: More “travel consumption” as trip origins and destinations tend to spread out; 4) Telecommunications permits rapid response systems that generate travel: Home delivery of Dominos Pizza and other fast foods, FedEx and other overnight express mail services, just-in-time logistics, temporary employment services; 5) Telecommunications — e.g., wireless mobile phone — makes travel time more productive and hence more attractive.
Accordingly, the Niles Report argues that “NII applications in health care, public education, government and manufacturing offer opportunities for general societal benefits that are more significant than travel savings.” These include better access (e.g., to health care through telemedicine and to education through distance learning) and more efficient use of existing systems and resources (e.g., through location tracking, which uses telecommunications to track express mail packages or materials and reduces dependence on large inventories in warehouses).
Other benefits include more convenience, symbolized by the automatic teller machine and home shopping; more choices (e.g., home working, job-sharing, flextime); and more control (e.g., the ability to monitor latch-key kids or elder parents located far away).
Here is yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. Technology’s impact is hard to predict and nearly always surprises us — and reveals why efforts by government to regulate innovations in advance always fail. The alternative for government: Get out of the way and then fix problems as they arise or risk stifling innovation at its source.