Cyberspace can improve our living space

One of the more interesting paradoxes of our age is that the more we live

and work in cyberspace, the more important real place becomes.

Although this notion runs counter to much of today's popular literature,

we are already seeing knowledge workers and high-tech, knowledge-sensitive

industries migrating to highly livable communities — communities with mountains

or lakes, open spaces, clean air and, as in the case of Portland, Ore.,

and other communities that have established urban-growth boundaries, relying

less on the automobile as the primary mode of transportation.

The growing concern about urban sprawl, coupled with the nostalgic yearning

that the new urbanism movement represents, is evidence of sweeping changes

in public attitudes toward physical space. As the Internet revolution moves

into full throttle, however, there is every reason to believe it will have

a dramatic impact on the architecture and landscape of communities worldwide.

In recent years, it has become popular to refer to the domain in which

Internet-based communications occur as cyberspace — an abstract communication

space that exists both everywhere and nowhere.

But until flesh-and-blood human beings can be digitized into electronic

pulses in the same way in which computer scientists have transformed data

and images, the denizens of cyberspace will have to live IRL ("in real life")

in some sort of real, physical space — a physical environment that will

continue to dominate our future in the same way that our homes, neighborhoods

and communities do today.

One of the main reasons that information networks can so profoundly

transform people, businesses and communities is that every other major technology

advance that has shrunk space and time also has remade society in fundamental

and important ways. Transportation improvements, over the past few centuries,

for example, have done more than perhaps any other technological advance

to bring the world's people closer together.

The Internet, the World Wide Web and their successors are likely to

produce consequences that are as great or greater than anything we have

seen so far — and are apt to be equally unexpected.

Until recently, advances in telecommunications and transportation have

contributed to our disconnectedness. Although we can travel easier and work

from home, a sense of community, of a "town square," has been lost.

Many communities, sensing the trend, are positioning themselves to be

both smart and sustainable. But the recognition that we can be both, or

that one is a natural extension of the other, is just beginning to enter

the lexicon of urban planners and architects, as well as those involved

in economic development.

Technology is already helping planners with difficult tasks such as

comparing the value of various tree covers used for storm water containment;

using desktop geographic information systems to allow community leaders

to put the natural environment into their city planning; and using satellite

data, aerial photography and on-the-ground surveys to help define a city's

ecostructures.

Technology is also being used by citizens in one part of the world to

link environmentally concerned citizens in another, providing an effective

means of organizing how to plan and design the smart communities of tomorrow,

protect the earth and share ideas on how to build smart but sustainable

communities.

But much more seems within our reach. As the World Wide Web becomes

part of the web of life, perhaps technology will ultimately enhance and

secure our connectedness to the physical world, preserving and protecting

it for future generations.

If successful, the smart and sustainable community will dramatically

reverse an adverse trend precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and will

help lead us toward a future in which our communities and technology can

peacefully coexist.

— Eger is a professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State

University and president of the World Foundation for Smart Communities.

He can be reached at jeger@smartcommunities.org.

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