As the web distributes, will human beings follow?

Posted on February 14, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

I read in the Economist this week that an estimated 5,000,000 people move away from rural environments into cities every month.  That means that almost 1% of the human population will move to urban environments in 2011.  Pretty staggering to think what this means for the physical distribution of people in even 100 years.  On the surface, it looks like urbanization is the future and we will all live in cities one day.  I have written previously about the fallacy of assuming trends like this are linear, as opposed to cyclical, and lately I’ve been thinking about urbanization through this lens.  The impetus: parallels between our 7 Billion person system and the system of the web.

The concept of urbanization is a very 1.0 idea.  The web used to be dominated by destination sites that demanded that every node on the web travel to a central destination to extract whatever value they sought.  So if you were in the market for a new car or a piece of news or a date, you would travel to,, and craigslist respectively.  Everyone had to go to the central location because that’s where everyone else was, and that’s where information or value was most easily transferred.  Similarly, in our physical system, nodes (people) are flocking to the destination (cities) in order to extract greater value than is achievable in the country.  Urbanization is an optimization effort on the part of our system, increasing productivity, yield, and ultimately health of the system.

But wait a minute….destination sites are the past, not the future.  Now the web is distributed.  Nodes no longer have to travel to a destination in order to extract information or value, the information value flows away from the destination to the node.  This is a more efficient and more optimized architecture than the 1.0 destination, and in theory, could be predictive of our physical system’s evolution.

So maybe this trend toward urbanization will, in fact, reverse over a long enough time horizon.  As resources/land becomes scarce and expensive in urban environments it makes sense that the population would redistribute, sending value away from the destination to the less populated areas where people could exist in a more distributed fashion.  The internet itself, has actually lowered the requirements of city dwelling insofar as we don’t need to share physical proximity to other nodes in our system in order to move information between us.

I see the main constraint of a distributed human system being our inability to move physical matter as effortlessly as we do digital matter.  Innovations in transportation have helped to ease this constraint.  As we have moved from the invention of the wheel, to the bicycle, to the car, ship, and now the plane, our system is able to push physical matter between hubs with an ease that alleviates the need for a “destination” architecture to some degree, but the constraint is still very real.

I look to innovation in transportation as the gating factor on weather our physical system could ever achieve a perfectly distributed architecture. Perhaps teleportation will be the catalyst that will drive nodes away from cities back out to the rural environments from whence they came 🙂

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6 Responses to “As the web distributes, will human beings follow?”

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Great post. When I read about the upcoming “Mega City” in southern China, I cringe. I get images of Gotham City or something similar in my mind. I think mega urbanization is a scary thing. The web kind of shows that humans find distributed, fragmented, focused communities more attractive if the physical infrastructure permits. I do hope that we move away from the urbanization trend.

the coolest part is that we’re going to get to watch in our lifetime. it’s going to be fascinating!

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by HN Firehose, Newsery 2. Newsery 2 said: As the web distributes, will human beings follow? – – [Hacker News FH] […]


two thoughts:

1) is web consumption really more distributed today than it was 10 years ago? how can it be if facebook comprises 1/4 of all page views and google has 70+% market share?

2) counterpoint, also from the economist, 3-D printing means we don’t actually have to ship material goods. we can just make them where we are alla the startrek replicator.

This transition back to rural life has already slowly begun for certain individuals. If you are a highly talented person that has gained recognition in an industrialized area then move to a rural area, the individual can retain his/her increased level of “social/economic” gain that it achieved in the urbanized environment, in a nominal sense and even an increase in a real sense (because of living in a more rural area) and people will seek for your intellect providing you with technology (flights, web/video chat links, etc.) to keep you active while in a rural area because you provide value for others.
As technology costs decrease for this type of communication (lower priced webex, computer sharing, etc.) it will trickle down to the next layer of talented people as the marginal returns of their value is higher than the cost of the transportation of their knowledge/value. This trend should continue until it reaches some level of balance. The value of physical products in cities is not nearly as important as knowledge creation and transfer as shipping and transport of physical goods is relatively efficient.

But then again, the personal utility of individual preferences of living in a city vs living in the country are much more impactful than the utilities created by visiting vs. a metasearch site of cars.

Excellent article! Teleportation or perhaps, before that, 3D printing (additive manufacturing) will be the catalyst. Again, excellent article.

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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