Jan 5, 2017

3 min read

The Fascinating Study of Historical Everyday Logistics

If asked to describe what makes a really good non-fiction book to me, I would say that it’s the simple act of bridging the everyday with something larger.

Here is a youtube video that contains a few brief minutes of hitting that form of nirvana in speaking about city layout.

The argument about countryside towns really strikes at something huge in my opinion. Towns, as the narrative goes, are all approximately the same size and all evenly spaced. This was driven by the need for people to live within the town’s core and walk to the fields that they tend during the day. Because of this, the town spacing was necessarily equal to the amount of distance that peasants could practically walk to their fields.

When speaking about the notion of progress, I feel like this is something that we are constantly neglecting. Consider algorithmic control of traffic flow. I consider that to be an inevitability of autonomous cars, but it could happen with an Uber-like system before then (although it may be less likely or less complete).

But yet, I see the reception of these ideas completely miss the true impact. Consider this article on exactly the subject of algorithmic traffic optimization.

I would say that the comments are bellwethers of our common ignorance about the impact of these technologies, but if you read what is written, even the primary authors and the scientific reporting media won’t attempt to delve into the implications. If they do, it is to say that congestion can be reduced, and never goes much further than that.

Yet, historically, we should know just how short-sighted these views of the benefits are. It would be like someone commenting on the impact of the automobile, saying that goods could be moved so much more efficiently between the tiny European towns that are spaced due to non-mechanized farming constraints. New tech didn’t make those small towns more efficient.

Technology outright destroyed those small towns.

We should predict nothing less from the 3rd industrial revolution when it comes to the distribution of population and the fundamental service and industrial activities that we engage in. If we replace the majority of our economy with robotic self-service, we don’t make the current economy more efficient — we fundamentally destroy the current economy. Presumably, it is then replaced with a new economy. But of course, we don’t know what actually happens.

This may also be an interesting reflection on the predictions by Steve Case that the next wave of the internet will see the rise of the smaller cities. I think he has a good argument… if we assume that transportation technologies remain relatively constant. If not, we could see a future where the US really only has a handful of economic relevant urban centers, from which they grow out into massive megalopolis, powered by arteries that algorithms nurse and actively maintain to keep the flow fluid against unfathomable demand.

But again, that’s just one possible future. It’s possible that the 3rd wave of the internet will come and go before the transportation sector is reformed… but I have a definitional problem with that terminology. If the internet becomes the internet of things, and the internet of everything, then anything short of a restructuring of our physical reality will fall short of those expectations.

Obligatory analytical writing, online participation account for Medium. Engineering, software, books, space, constant daydreaming.

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