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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    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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