Tales of Technology
Post-Gazette, Sunday, November 16, 2003
The best book I've read in the past five years is Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel." He makes the bold argument that the Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European peoples dominate the world today because they lived on the Eurasian continent. which is oriented East-West in contrast to the African and American continents.
The many societies living at similar latitudes were able to exchange farming technology, so the theory goes. This advantage allowed them to develop faster and to master guns, germs, and steel, which they could use to attack and dominate more primitive societies.
If Diamond were writing a book about Pittsburgh -- perhaps titled "Glass, Pickles, and Steel" -- he would probably explain our power by the presence of our rivers and our role as the "Gateway to the West".
The businesses, the wealth, the sports teams, the culture and everything else we associate with Pittsburgh came about because of our useful location during the nation's development.
Pittsburgh was also blessed with moderate weather. We're south of the snow belt and out of the too-hot South and West. Similarly, the greater power of New York, Shanghai, Boston and London could be attributed to their position on rivers that lead to oceans. As trade became international, these cities prospered.
Perhaps the subsequent decline of Pittsburgh's importance wasn't due just to the decline of steel, the rise of unions or the Business Privilege Tax, but simply the decline of rivers as a transport medium along with the movement of the frontier farther west.
Furthermore, technology in the form of transportation and air conditioning has neutralized the value of a place with middling weather. It's better to live in Los Angeles if you can run your air conditioner in the summer, see sun in the winter and drive to Squaw Valley if you have to see snow.
Great cities, whatever the genesis of their greatness, can reinvent themselves. New York did it with arts and finance. Boston did it with education. What can we do?
A great example of making lemonade from a geographical lemon is the country of England. The island was small and cold compared to its rivals, France and Spain. Then it discovered sailing ships. This technology was invented elsewhere, but England exploited it and perfected it to its everlasting advantage.
England did this because it seemed the best way to compete. The continent had lots of farmland and good land transport, so the countries there pursued a more balanced strategy, investing as much in armies as in navies. The Brits had less choice, so they created the ocean-spanning British Empire that came to eclipse all the rest as the value of global trade outran land-based commerce.
The new equivalent of the oceans is the Internet. It is vast, connects many distant places and is rather mysterious.
Pittsburgh retains one, small geographical advantage in this regard: many fiber-optic trunks run through here, partly because the Great Lakes block the path from Seattle to New York and partly because the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center struck an early alliance with a group in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the fiber also passes.
So we are well-placed near the ocean. What about the rivers? The rivers of the Internet age are the local connections that run to businesses and homes.
Here is a way for Pittsburgh to get ahead of the relentless re-invention curve: build fiber connections to every address in the city as if the information highway were a public highway.
It would be great if the city created the information infrastructure once and for all as it did the streets and sewer system so long ago. At a minimum this would make telecommuting cheap and easy.
Many citizens could run cottage-industry information businesses out of their houses. People could sell library research, consumer guides, tax advice, poetry, and many other services without any investment other than their time. They might even pay the Business Privilege Tax happily for the first time.
Today, in our privatize-everything country, network connections are being left entirely to private enterprise. It is like having the U.S. Postal Service, United Parcel Service and Domino's each build a walking path to each house.
If a city does nothing, eventually the fiber will be installed by private companies. They will behave the way private companies behave: maximizing their profits and locking in customers. That is their duty to their stockholders.
The company that builds the pipe to your house can control the content and the price of your information. If you or the city owned the information pipe to your house, then the telephone companies, the cable companies and the Internet services would have to compete for your business.
New communication infrastructures appear to be playthings of the rich, but some of them evolve into social necessities, e.g., post offices, airplanes, telephones. The Internet is about to make that evolutionary leap.
Eventually, legislatures and courts will recognize the error of leaving communication infrastructure to private enterprise and take it back for the public. This will be as smooth as the breakup of AT&T has been -- not.
A few cities such as Palo Alto, Calif., Reykjavik, Iceland, and others in Canada and Asia are wiring themselves up, reasoning that the information highway is a public good. They estimate that it costs $1,500 per address if they do it everywhere in a city. That's about two years of what Verizon or Comcast charges for vastly inferior connections.
Have any public officials considered this idea? I know there's no money, but I'd rather invest in universal information access than another stadium.
An apology: My last column tried to make a little joke by referring to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bogus anti-Semitic document concocted by the Russian secret Service. Unfortunately, very few people understand the reference, and none I heard from was amused.