Cities have always been special places that evolved as efficient locations for exchanging goods, services and ideas. Mass populations working in open markets accelerated the division of labour, making all kinds of work more specialized and valuable. They also provided the "critical mass" for important pursuits like the arts, sports and culture.
Sadly, as the terrorist suicide bombings in New York and Washington have so forcefully reminded us, huge agglomerations of people and infrastructure are vulnerable to the most extreme whims of ideology and politics. The September 11 attacks will likely accelerate a well-established trend — decentralizing infrastructure and services away from densely populated cities. The economics of "almost-free" communications will relentlessly continue to undermine the business case for central commercial districts and face-to-face contact in large groups.
The Internet's already great, and will soon be even better. An estimated 90% of the world's fibre optic line capacity, rapidly expanded during the recent boom, presently lies unused, ready to service powerful video conferencing and data transfer activities. A revolution in wireless Internet devices is dramatically cutting the cost of networking hardware. Against this exciting backdrop, the miracle of "Moore's law" quietly rolls on — plummeting computer chip prices combined with staggering increases in their computing power.
All this is spreading populations. After all, the American military developed what became the Internet during the 1970s when strategists realized that centralized communication plants were plum targets. They devised a decentralized, convenient, and invulnerable system, ergo, the Internet, the most democratic and effective tool for human interaction to date.
Manitoba's landscape and infrastructure lend themselves to effective decentralization. Emanating from Winnipeg, with its unique downtown (where old policy models effectively forbid residential revival), the suburbs, then "exurbia," then small towns and the hinterland, a seamless web of lifestyle options opens up. Citizens using our burgeoning technological infrastructure can burrow into a variety of occupational niches, another of Manitoba's unrecognized advantages.
This dispersal, a small part of it derided as "sprawl", is already occurring at a rapid pace thanks to the Internet, e-mail and a desire to live in areas of lower population density. Many now choose to live at their summer homes. Robert Sopuck, Director of the Frontier Centre's new Rural Renaissance Project, dubs it a "quiet migration". With his wife, Caroline, he lives and works in a remote, scenic area by using cheap technology to communicate. "It's not the end of the earth, but you can see it from here," he quips. But from Riding Mountain way he writes and does policy analysis, while Caroline operates a small auditing business. All this happens in a log house tucked far back in the forest, with the odd moose track just outside the back door.
The Sopucks and many others in North America fall into the relatively recent category of workers known as "Lone Eagles." A Colorado think tank coined the term to describe "a growing number of entrepreneurs and freelance professionals who are taking advantage of new technologies . . . to change the way they live and work." Lone Eagles are people "who live by their wits and are tethered to the outside world by faxes, modems, express mail and airline tickets." They typically operate from a Single Office Home Office (SOHO), a home business.
The Lone Eagles, says the Center for the New West, divide into a number of amusing categories like Payrollers (employees who work from home), Freelancers (independent consultants), Golden Eagles (focused on easy living), Bald Eagles (retirees) and finally Country Hawks (people who want to live in rural areas). New West suggests "The Lone Eagles phenomenon is the most important social movement since the rise of the two-wage earner family."
The Sopucks describe themselves emphatically as "Country Hawks." Not for them the bright lights of the city, fancy restaurants or the opera; they prefer the wide-open space of their 480 acres, a low population density and pristine water and air. Technology gives them the ability to mix traditional country living with high-value work. Sopuck notes that it is not unusual for them to be on the phone or computer for most of a day and spend the rest cutting wood, gardening, fishing or hunting. "It's really something to send electronic messages all over the world from a log cabin," he says, "and then use a primitive axe to ensure next winter's wood supply. Our cold room is stuffed with potatoes, preserves and homemade wine, and the freezer will soon be full of venison and moose meat. We'll eat well this winter."
This lifestyle represents only one end of the spectrum. Manitobans can choose from an infinite array of possibilities: the downtown's rich cultural and entertainment pulse, the suburb's predictability, the acreage's privacy, the small town's friendliness or the hinterland's bonding with nature. As is their unfortunate wont, our governments will inevitably lag behind with old thinking, but some will soon start to think about the opportunities, as well as the problems, of location and density.
Our sophisticated and prosperous society, routinely under attack from within, and now, from without by a fringe of radical fanatics, will solve the problem by expanding living choices.
It will come out stronger in the process.