Density & Interconnection

By Mike Koetting January 9, 2019

Just before the election, a crew delivering cabinets to our next door neighbor sheared off a sprinkler head in the hall. It responded as sprinklers are designed to do. Fifteen units were affected and total damage will be between one quarter and one half million dollars. We spent a lot of the next two months living in hotels, dealing with insurance, and working with and around demolition and construction crews.

It got me thinking about the ways our society had changed over the years. As folks have moved closer and closer to each other, stacked on top of each other in our case, much of our daily lives are interconnected in qualitatively different ways from our ancestors. Population density and technology are locked in a symbiotic relationship— technology thrives on density and density breeds technology. The result intertwines people in ways never previously imagined.

This is not a new thought. In 1970, I was totally arrested by a passage in a book by Donald Michael called The Unprepared Society. He asserted that the 1965 blackout in New York City (at the time, the biggest in the city’s history) could not have happened 100 years before–because someone would have had to steal all the kerosene lamps in the city! But once there was an interconnected electrical grid, faults got magnified by being projected throughout the entire system.

But for an idea that has been around at least 50 years, its impact has been scant. People do not seem to grasp this fundamental shift in the way society operates. The gap is particularly acute in the US, where the ethic of the rugged individual and the wide-open spaces has not adjusted to the fact that we live increasingly close to each other and are inextricably more bound into our neighbors’ lives than ever before in human history. And the future suggests only more of the same.

In a very broad sense, the scope of this impact is beginning to dawn on people, say at the level of realizing that in the US, or indeed most parts of the developed world, economic growth is almost exclusively in metropolitan areas. Rural areas are left behind as rural population has declined as a share of overall population and, recently, absolutely.

The change in economic importance is even more striking. In 2000, Al Gore won 22% of the counties, but they accounted for 54% of the economy. In 2016, Hilary Clinton won only 15% of the counties, but they accounted for 64% of the economy.

A recent New York Times article described the issue most succinctly:

This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become. 

I note this in this context less because of what it says about the economy but to underline the forces increasing density—and why we need to understand how density and technology are changing the fabric of life. The tolerance for fault decreases (the worse thing that would have happened in an unsprinklered building would be a small gouge in the wall) and the spread of the impact increases (15 units).

These trends aren’t going to reverse. We aren’t going back to a spread-out, agrarian society and technology isn’t going to abate, at least not short of some catastrophe we’d just as soon not contemplate. Moreover, I pretty much like the ability to pay my bills by computer, to fly to California in an afternoon, and to be able to choose from multiple cultural offerings in Chicago any day of the week. Or consider the miracle of fresh water on demand, something we basically take for granted. The story of Flint has been correctly understood as a story of racism and venal politics. But it is also a reminder of how things we take as a basic, fundamental part of how we live are dependent on a web of interconnected phenomena, no one of which can ultimately be taken for granted. In short, we need to learn to live with this hitherto un-invented, hyper-connected society.

I am not entirely sure what helps us address these concerns. Maybe some of you have better thoughts to share. But a couple things do come to mind.

First, as a society we need to acknowledge that we live in a qualitatively different world than previous generations. Getting the admission, of course, is trivial. Politicians regularly use the rhetoric of changing times. But few are willing to tackle the profundity of the implications. (And some would even lead us in a collective fantasy that some halcyon past can be recovered by wishing it so.) Instead, we need to think more systematically about the web of connections that are part of density and technology that have the capacity to un-end everyday life. It would be helpful to make a real cultural commitment to a way of life that is specifically not “rugged individual” and “wide-open spaces”. Whether these were ever what they are remembered to be is a fair question. (See, for instance, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year History of Class in America.) But accurate or not, it is time to relegate these memes to our history. We need to collectively embrace the fact that we are densely connected by a web of technology that is much bigger than any of us. Eyes must be on the future not the past, real or pretend. And the future is dense and unbelievably connected.

Second, we need a way to call a truce in the war between urban and rural. This is much more complicated than splitting the country into the city and countryside. As Colin Woodard and others have pointed out, these are complicated by sectoral cultural histories and other local factors. But, underneath these important nuances, three generalities remain:

  • Population is moving from less dense to more dense
  • Rural areas are losing economic vitality—and it makes them grumpy
  • The historic structure of American government over-represents the rural areas

I don’t see much that can be done about the first and the last, so we need to find ways of making life better for rural folks. Again, this isn’t easy—particularly given the direction of the economy. But if we don’t, the differences will continue to keep the country from thinking more clearly about how to address the problems of urban density.

Finally, more broadly, we must proactively incorporate the reality of density and interconnectivity into virtually all our policies. There are the obvious examples—gun ownership makes less sense in a crowded city than on the frontier–for instance. But there are countless other ways that we are just starting to think about. Michael Lewis’ sobering article in Vanity Fair details, among other things, the fragility of our electricity grid—and the lack of coherent oversight. Think for just a moment about our dependence on electricity. At every turn in our daily life, we’re totally wired into the grid. But that is in no way reflected in the reality of our government policies. When Donald Michael talked about the impact of the electrical grid on the connectivity, I don’t think he had any idea exactly how unprepared society was—and is—to deal with these consequences.

We must find ways to see policy issues not in isolation from one another, but as part of a web of densely connected policies and technological interfaces. Society is now evolving more in the shape of man than through the historic forces of natural selection. We are more closely packed, have more powerful technology and are a much greater risk to one another–and the species. These bring mostly good things, but we must keep an eye on the risks.