The death of distance

Aug. 1, 2001
In the first of my columns for Laser Focus World (January 1992, page 55) I suggested that the advent of high-speed, high-capacity fiberoptic networks would make the cost of transmitting data so cheap as to be essentially free.

In the first of my columns for Laser Focus World (January 1992, page 55) I suggested that the advent of high-speed, high-capacity fiberoptic networks would make the cost of transmitting data so cheap as to be essentially free. That's a view I still hold and it appears to be shared by the author of The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives. (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2001). The author is Frances Cairncross, the management editor of The Economist and the book is an updated edition of a work originally published in 1997.

Included in the material added to this new edition is a "Trendspotter's Guide to New Communications" that I thought I'd bring to your attention. Cairncross lists 25 developments to watch, each discussed in some depth in the book. I don't have the space to list them all here but I've chosen the ten that seem to me to be the most interesting and the most relevant to our industry.

  1. The death of distance. Distance will no longer decide the cost of communicating electronically. Once investment has been made in a communications network, the additional cost of transmitting an extra piece of information will be virtually zero.

  2. The fate of location. Developing countries will increasingly perform online services, such as data input and running help desks, and sell them to the rich industrial countries that generally produce such services domestically.

  3. Improved connections. Most people on Earth will have access to networks that are interactive and broadband. The Internet will continue to exist in its present form but will also carry services such as telephone and television.

  4. More customized networks. The huge capacity of networks will enable individuals to order "content for one," that is, individual consumers will receive (or send) exactly what they want to receive (or send), when and where they want it.

  5. A deluge of information. Because people's capacity to absorb new information will not increase, they will need filters to sift, process, and edit it.

  6. Increased value of niches. The power of the computer to search, identify, and classify people according to similar needs and tastes will create sustainable markets for many niche products.

  7. The inversion of home and office. People will increasingly work from home and shop from work. The office will become a place for the social aspects of work such as networking, brainstorming, lunching, and gossiping.

  8. A global premium for skills. Pay differentials will widen as companies compete for workers. Online recruitment will make the job market more global and efficient.

  9. The proliferation of ideas. New ideas and information will travel faster to the remotest corners of the world. That will help developing countries to grow more quickly and even to narrow the gap with the rich world.

  10. The rise of English. The global role of English as a second language will continue. It will become the global communications standard: the default language of the electronic world.

Clearly, this is not a book about the future of technology. There are no wild predictions of technological breakthroughs. It is a book about the effects of the communications revolution: how people use communications and the changes that communications is bringing to people's lives.

As might be expected from a writer for The Economist, Cairncross takes a global view of the effects of the death of distance. She sees enhanced communications as narrowing the gap between the industrialized nations and third-world countries. She skates quickly over attempts by authoritarian nations, such as China, to restrict the flow of information to individuals.

Undoubtedly, there is today a "digital divide" between the rich and the poor nations. But the rapidly declining costs of communications will benefit developing countries proportionately more, says Cairncross. The death of distance will give birth to new global opportunities. I suspect that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of those opportunities.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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