As we continue to work our way west toward the Pacific, we move into states with lower population densities, and greater distances between towns. And, as we are learning, a dot on a map doesn't necessarily indicate even the bare minimum social center with, you know, stores. On more than one occasion, we've rolled into a small farm town to find the businesses on Main Street boarded up, and only a smattering of occupied homes in what was once a thriving community.
The ongoing decline of Middle America's small towns is not news, but I sometimes wonder if it is inevitable. On this trip, we have relied on Wi-Fi and 3G phone service to maintain connectivity – and have discovered that neither service is as widely available in the hinterlands as we might have supposed. In hindsight, we would have been better served by a satellite based system such as the Spot Messenger. In the next few years, cellular coverage will undoubtedly continue to improve, and new compression technologies will make satellite communications ever more cost effective and data intensive. The reason I mention these advances is because I believe connectivity will help shape the next American population migration.
Right now, it would be next to impossible to move to a town like Florence, Kansas and find gainful employment. Connectivity will change that. An increasing number of professions no longer require office time, and as more and more professionals realize they are able to work from home, or a remote location of their choosing, they may decide that a change in venue is in order. Over the course of our travels, we have passed through quite a few small towns that left us saying: "we could live here." Certainly, we are not the only people who feel this way. Sooner or later, cyber commuting professionals with the desire for a small town lifestyle will begin to act on their dreams, trading the monotony of the suburbs and chain-store plazas for more authentic slices of Americana. It may only be a trickle, or it could become a flood. Only time will tell, but my guess is that some of this country's small towns will begin to experience an upward reversal of fortune, and now-abandoned downtowns may once again be filled with the hum of commercial activity.
This is an optimistic viewpoint. What will be the initial impetus for the 3G and wired broadband providers to provide connectivity to diminishing little towns that promise little revenue? The promise of a future utopia of highly-paid telecommuting workers doesn't pay the bills today.
Furthermore, why would these presumably young, educated, socially liberal workers make a beeline for the Bible Belt? I'm certainly not itching to move to Kansas anytime soon.
I thought about this same line of thinking when I saw the movie "Cars", and it seemed flawed then as well. While small towns are picturesque and produce pleasant nostalgia for a time that may have only existed on a television set, they don't have a fundamental right to exist.
The cross-country EcoTour is about energy efficiency. Cities are far more energy efficient than small towns. Mass transit is feasible. Electricity has less loss over power lines. Distribution of goods and services is more efficient.
Obviously, farmers need to live near their farms. But if a computer programmer wanted to produce the smallest carbon footprint, she should live in Manhattan without a car rather than Mankato, KS.