I was sitting on my balcony yesterday afternoon, watching the blinking lights of the CN tower and the cityscape of Toronto in the distance, contemplating the nature of life and reality when a thought suddenly came to me: “wow, I’m paying a lot for rent”. A similar thought has probably crossed the mind of anyone who lives in one of the economic engines of the industrialized world: Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Sydney, London. The rent prices of these urban centres has become astronomical, yet people keep coming, and the prices keep rising. Why? Besides the pull of excitement and culture, much of the unyielding demand for housing in these areas comes from economic imperatives.
In an increasingly knowledge based economy, old industries are shrinking. Manufacturing is one of the biggest examples of this. The vast majority of manufacturing jobs are either in medium sized cities or, if they are connected with natural resources, in small towns and rural areas. The death of decent jobs in these areas forces migration to a select few urban centres. In Canada, this is most evident in Toronto and Vancouver, where outcry over the cost of living has made many headlines but few tangible results. To many, this is simply the inevitable outcome of a developed economy.
But is it?
Increasingly, technologies have started to wear away at the idea of physical presence in the workplace. The rise of the “internet nomad” (the sometimes insufferable freelancers who travel while working over the internet) has provided a glimpse into the first trickle of the “live anywhere” lifestyle. The initial technology of the internet has made freelancing viable, but what about regular employees? Anyone who has worked in a fast paced office environment knows, despite everyone’s desire to work from home, that certain efficiencies are better maintained in person. There’s something about face to face and human to human interaction that email (and even Slack) can’t replicate.
But what if you could replicate it? One of the most exciting prospects of virtual reality isn’t in film or video games, but in social and workplace interaction. If we get to the point where we can viably recreate the intimacy of an office environment, then what is holding us to that physical office anymore? If we are not held to our physical office, then what is holding us to a particular city? Of course big cities are not going to die out, many people will remain for the culture, food, and other benefits. But I have to guess that there’s a lot of people who spend two hours everyday commuting from Brampton or Surrey, who aren’t hanging around these areas for the thriving indie vegan electronica scene.
So, if you can have your work, and most of your entertainment completed from the comfort of your own home, without the usual drudgery of staying in the same room everyday, where are you going to go. A place with good community? A place with fresh air and minimal pollution? A place with a cheap cost of living? I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems like rural areas will hold vast appeal in this scenario. In many ways, this is a more distanced form of suburbanization, but instead of the inconvenience and environmental damage of the car, it is brought about by clean, instantaneous technology.
Will this lead to unforeseen social and political issues. Of course, this is true of any large scale migration. But we are already seeing families have to make harsh decisions, watching communities fall apart, all as a result of never ending urbanization. Perhaps some balance wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the very least, it will hopefully lead to lower rent.