We hear much talk about globalization and its effects on human societies, but relatively little about the promise a more globalized and technologically advanced world holds for improving fundamental aspects of our daily lifestyles. Much discourse around the topic over-complicates globalization, which is fundamentally the integration of societies and economies across space. When human civilization expands beyond Earth, the same logic will extend to integrating the resources of outer space into the “global” economy, rendering the ultimately rather geocentric concept of the “globe” as the practical horizon of human life obsolete.
This will likely occur in the 21st century, but meanwhile the terrestrial economy will continue to integrate to the extent the people of the world enjoy economic freedom. A free market produces integration because people seek the most efficient means to accomplish their goals; unless the goal is local production (virtually always a niche preference, and even then almost always using global supply chains), this will lead to greater integration over time as people seek ever-greater efficiency. This is also the same process that leads to technological advancement, including advancements in communication technology, which decrease the cost of shipping information over space, and in transportation technology, which decrease the cost of shipping people and products over space.
This is not a description of how the economy of human civilization actually works, since the market is far from fully free, but the point is that these processes will occur to the extent the economy resembles a free market. In particular, to the extent the economy resembles a free market, the economy will tend to become as integrated as the technological state of the art permits.
Faster Transportation: The Revolutionary Implications
The driving question here is what will advances in transportation technology mean when coupled with advances in information technology in a context of a growing and globalizing society and economy? In a previous post I touched upon the rather revolutionary implications of substantially faster personal transportation, particularly the supersonic personal aircraft which will eventually become available if technology continues to advance.
Even a near-future cheap personal aircraft capable of 600 mph, about the speed modern jetliners travel, would enable 10 times as much distance to be traversed in the same amount of time. A 20 minute commute that today covers 20 miles could instead cover 200 miles. A day trip of 3 hours that today covers 250 miles could cover 1800 miles. This more or less erases metropolitan areas as we know them, as potentially dozens of what are now distinct metropolitan areas could be within easy commuting distance. Even the most remote mountain slopes of the Sierra Nevada would suddenly be an easy commute from San Francisco and Los Angeles, to use but one of many examples.
More importantly, urban sprawl has been enabled by the rise of the automobile, expanding commute times and the supply of land within easy commuting distance. Traveling ten times faster opens up 300 times as much land; the same populations that now must confine themselves to quarter acre lots can then spread over 70 acre lots. This is the ultimate end state of urban sprawl: the larger process of population de-concentration sprawling it out so much it becomes rural again, leading to the end of the urban area as the place most people reside.
The most advanced personal airplanes will most likely have a top speed around Mach 5, since at speeds higher than that, in the “hypersonic” range, it is actually easier to travel into outer space in a ballistic suborbital or orbital trajectory than it is to stay in the atmosphere. While spaceflight will become much cheaper in the future, if we confine ourselves to Mach 5 aircraft we find a 20 minute commute covers 1300 miles, extending to 3800 miles in one hour. Interestingly, it only takes a bit more than 3 hours at Mach 5 to reach any point on the Earth. A super-commuter would be truly location-independent in his or her choice of residence; any place on the Earth may be chosen and still remain within viable commuting distance of any workplace. Resorting to spaceplanes might bring this down to the normal commute time of (very roughly) an hour.
The Desirable Real Estate of the Future
This induces a condition of near-total mobility, especially if the aircraft used can be piloted automatically for even most of their journey; accommodations and luxuries akin to a second home might even be provided on board much like first-class cabins on today’s airliners, enabling a seamlessly comforting life akin to that enjoyed by the wealthy today. Eliminating the aggravation of commuting and opening up all parts of the planet to all the job and business opportunities that exist by themselves will greatly increase quality of life.
As vehicular residences, especially aircraft, converge with the offerings of traditional homes, perhaps with automatic piloting becoming the norm, they will become much more common, especially if travel distance to business opportunities becomes progressively less relevant. Perhaps the most marked effect, though, will be the opening up of currently remote or inaccessible areas to residential and touristic development, for either mobile or immobile abodes.
At the scale of a Mach 5 aircraft, places like Greenland and Alaska start to look centrally located, being within very easy travel of much of the world’s population. The current center of the world’s population is near the Hindu Kush, but as the population de-concentrates and flows into today’s more lightly populated regions it will move closer to the center of Earth’s land, located in western France. At these scales, the Sahara Desert, Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, and northern Canada become centrally located.
The natural beauty and central location of the taiga will make it the obvious choice for the most intense development of residential acreages and tourist resorts, especially compared to what we see there today. South America, Antarctica, and and Australia are more peripheral but will also be great beneficiaries of development as globalization enters its more advanced stages.
In the future we may well see the craggy coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Greenland, the Russian Far East, and Labrador become as much of a magnet for the rich to build their mansions and enjoy the scenery as the coast of California is today. Conveniently, Alaska alone has 10 times as much coastline as California does, meaning there is plenty of room for a wide diversity of living environments. Given so much choice and so much mobility, however, will people even opt for a single fixed residence?
The Future of Housing: Flexible and On-Demand
Thinking a bit more radically, consider the upper class today. Even though even they do not enjoy the kind of mobility a Mach 5 aircraft would bring, they nevertheless usually have multiple residences. Given a far greater supply of land this practice may become much more common in the future.
In the future; every home might be akin to what we think of as a vacation home or hunting lodge, inhabited by its owners only a small part of the year. This, however, collides with the logic of advances in information technology and the rise of the network-based sharing economy.
While the transformation into a network, sharing, or gig economy is actually greatly overhyped as far as our present condition goes, the technology needed already largely exists along with the mass desire to use it, so its eventual emergence is very likely. Indeed, isolated examples exist today in the form of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, ride-sharing, and home-sharing. The likes of AirBnB are the most relevant here, but a true sharing economy would require a fully peer-to-peer network based on free and open-source software, a protocol rather than a centralized platform. This is fundamentally a technical problem and will eventually be solved, as it has already been for other peer-to-peer protocols such as microblogging and file-sharing.
Eventually a peer-to-peer protocol supporting a vast global network of housing for rent may become standard, perhaps with anonymous cryptocurrency (such as Monero) serving as the payment method, enabling people to, with the swipe on their phone screen or the sound of their voice into a smart speaker, rent the housing they want in any location for any length of time desired, from a few hours to a day to years on end. This will bear similarities to the system used by hotels, and indeed so-called apartment hotels might serve as prototypes for the housing of the future.
The convergence of apartments, hotels, and rental housing into one unified system has already, even in its embryonic form, been challenged by regulators, but there is good reason to believe in the future governments will surrender either by choice or by necessity; after all, in principle darknet markets may be used to sell housing too, not just drugs and weapons, and these markets will only become more decentralized and sophisticated with time, especially if governments are loathe to permit free markets.
In any event, the possibility exists that various services associated with hotels and that are baked into the price might become unbundled. Easy transportation and communication means that maid service, room service, cooking, and the like could easily be brought to any location in the world on demand, rendering it unnecessary to permanently station such personnel at a given location if their services aren’t needed or wanted on a continual basis.
Fixed infrastructure will not be unbundled to anywhere near the same extent for obvious reasons, but even there options for mass customization might exist in the future. The rise of greater automation and robotics opens up the possibility that walls suitably computerized might be able to get up and move around as the occupant demands, re-configuring the floor plan to whatever the occupant wants. While there are structural limits assuming people don’t resort to modular housing, as many walls could be made non-load-bearing as possible in future construction. Rapid re-configuration could be engineered to a much greater degree than is commonly appreciated if there was a great demand for it, which in this future may very well be present.
Ownership and contractual terms could even be secured on a blockchain and be enforced that way, possibly to the extent of a whole computer network controlling and effectively “owning” the housing. Perhaps even more intriguing is short-term home ownership instead of home rentals. While actually owning, as opposed to renting, a house for perhaps a few hours might sound (and usually is!) insane today, it is worth noting that owning a share of a company’s stock for such short periods of time is so common as to be unremarkable. Yet there was a time, only a few short centuries ago, when the concept of holding stock for only a few hours would have seemed equally crazy.
A Future of Greater Liquidity
Expressed another way, stocks are far more liquid than housing, but if trading volume increased and transaction costs decreased bid-ask spreads and time to sell would both contract markedly. Although bubbles have overinflated the financial sector, “financialization” is a natural product of a developing economy, i.e. the financial sector’s share of the economy should grow over time. This implies greater trading volume and greater liquidity over time, which we see most obviously with stocks. Options and other derivatives are in an earlier stage of this process, having become much more liquid over the past several decades, and eventually will become as liquid as stocks are today.
While houses are more similar to whole companies rather than shares of stock, there is no reason in principle why shares of ownership in each unit of housing couldn’t be publicly traded, assuming there was sufficient liquidity to make it worth bothering. Indeed, large combinations of real estate, real estate investment trusts, are routinely publicly traded today. Futures contracts tied to real estate indices in various metropolitan areas, the vast majority of which is not owned by a publicly traded company, are actually publicly traded now. So the whole concept isn’t quite as far-out as one might think.
Keep in mind that in a world with liquid individual housing properties, small businesses will also be able to offer stock for the public to trade as liquidly as large corporate stocks do today; options on large stocks will be as liquid as the underlying assets are now, and virtually all of today’s publicly traded futures contracts will be very liquid.
The Dawn of the Mass Leisure Class
Such an advance in economic development also implies capital stock will continue to become ever-more dominant in the economy. As the economy grows and becomes more developed, personal incomes will rise, with savings and investments rising along with them. Over time an ever greater number of people will become financially independent, then (by our standards) independently wealthy. Much as the original middle class expanded into the mass middle class, the original leisure class may expand in the future into a mass leisure class, where capital, rather than labor, will sustain the population’s living standards.
Where the economy goes from there is an interesting question, because the human labor input that is still needed might be able to fetch a very high price due to the supply becoming much more limited compared to today. It might be this process that finally kick-starts the highly automated economy often predicted by futurists. After all, there are currently a very large number of tasks where automation is technically feasible but not profitable; in a society of this nature that economic calculation will change.
The remaining population that labors for money, including those who do so without being driven by sustaining their living standards, might be subject to a general trend of dis-intermediation. Instead of large corporate bureaucracies acting as middlemen between consumers demanding a product or service and the workers that produce it free, open-source, and peer-to-peer protocols might make it more and more feasible for today’s employees to become tomorrow’s independent contractors, sole proprietors, and business owners.
Indeed, a flexible labor supply is perennially attractive prospect for workers and employers alike, as evidenced by the fact that long-term (even life-long) stable employment by a paternalistic corporate bureaucracy is looking more and more like an aberration of the mid 20th century. Before the 20th century employment tended to be temporary, contractual, independent, part-time, and characterized by payment in cash instead of benefits, high rates of turnover, and very low barriers to entry (getting a job right off the street was common even in large companies until well into the 20th century).
The gig economy is the most famous trend yet to break the paternalistic mold, but the rise of the contingent workforce in general is a long-term trend dating back to the mid 20th century. It is distinctly possible, even probable, that the vast majority of the workforce, including highly-paid jobs, will eventually become contingent.
Regulators, interestingly, have tried to stymie the rise of the sharing economy and gig economy, but between the lack of central control of information (and thus political discourse and propaganda) built into the very architecture of peer-to-peer computer networks (i.e. the Internet) and the ever-rising strength of encryption shielding their communications from surveillance it is highly likely that governments will eventually lose this struggle. Indeed, the entire regulatory explosion of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the labor market as evidenced by the rise of licensing and other legal barriers to entry might have been a counterattack by the corporate bureaucracies to maintain their control of the working class in the face of social trends weakening it.
Community in a fully Globalized World
This future of a completely mobile, even nomadic and location-independent, population that earns their money from investments and works completely independently, all backed up by complete financialization, securitization, and tokenization of assets, might seem like it has no place for traditional communities. This is emphatically not the case.
Traditional rooted communities are often associated with the nation-state, which is bizarre considering that nation-states are a quite synthetic modern creation; in any case nation-states would inevitably fall as the primary actors in world affairs, if not disappear altogether. Nationality, however, will remain a part of human identity for a long time to come as it always has. If nothing else a preference to associate with those of similar language, culture, or racial heritage (the markers of nationality) will persist to some extent. The primary difference is that the social connections that bind such groups together will become less and less tied to particular locations, much like the wandering tribes of old.
Indeed, social connections not tied to nationality will likely become much more important in the future. Many people across the world in the modern age have found they have more in common with groups that inhabit certain quarters of the Internet than they have with their own neighbors. These connections will assume a greater and greater offline presence, and in the future these subcultures and interest groups will likely be the font of friendships rather than physical proximity to fixed abodes, which increasingly won’t even exist.
These friendships will be fertile ground for marriages and family formation. These families may well be extended families; after all, you can maintain social ties with cousins and the like at will no matter where you live or work if the whole world is within easy day trip distance. Family ties are still compelling even to the most globalized modern people; it is the intermediaries (such as neighborhoods and nation-states) between families and their members’ far-flung friends across the world that are flailing, not social ties in general, and this trend will continue into the future. Social and civic life may be reinvigorated, but only by giving the masses real power in how they are governed and re-centering the political community around the emerging reality of wandering bands and tribes.
Far from precluding a sense of identity and rootedness as is often supposed, the advance into a completely globalized future will give unprecedented opportunity to forge and affirm a sense of community based around true social ties rather than those imagined by a state bureaucracy that is almighty within the confines its citizens are allowed to live and work in. As they have globalized societies have through the same process also fragmented themselves. Condensation and concentration of various elements in human societies, both progressive and conservative, is the inevitable result, leading to diversity and experimentation on a scale hitherto unseen, which will open up pathways for the future of humanity hard for us to imagine today.