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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
Founder and Board Member
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
Senior Counsel, Proskauer Rose LLP
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Vivien Li

Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

E-Ties That Bind

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011
By Edward Glaeser

Will electronic connections make cities obsolete? In the giddy early days of e-mail and the Internet, some prophets proclaimed that humans would no longer bother with the inconveniences of density and would instead retreat, in Alvin Toffler’s phrase, to “electronic cottages.”

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a paper with Jess Gaspar suggesting that cyberspace connectivity could make face-to-face interactions, and the cities that enable them, more valuable than ever.

In the language of economics, the core question is whether face-to-face interactions and electronic connections are substitutes or complements. If they are substitutes, we should expect cheaper, better e-contact to make personal meetings rarer; if they are complements, new technologies will strengthen the value of interpersonal contact – and of cities.

Little cleverness is necessary to think that using e-mail is a substitute for meeting in person, and certainly, electronics does substitute for some live connections. Anyone who has taken part in a virtual meeting has had at least one experience in which new media substituted for personal presence.

The alternative view, that electronic connections complement face-to-face meetings, requires a more sophisticated world view. In our original paper, we argued that the number of human interactions was hardly a zero-sum game, and more electronic interactions didn’t have to mean fewer meetings face-to-face.

If the new media increased the number of relationships – the connectedness of the world – more than it decreased personal meetings within any given relationship, then better electronic communications could increase the number of face-to-face meetings.

In later research and in my book “Triumph of the City” (The Penguin Press, 2011), I emphasized a slightly different idea: electronic connections and face-to-face connections are complements because new technologies increase the returns to innovation.

Better electronic interactions make it easier to produce new ideas in low-cost areas (think New York fashion designers’ ideas that are manufactured in China) or to sell creativity worldwide (think the global success of “Avatar”), and that means bigger returns to innovation.

As long as interpersonal contact – the sharing of knowledge at close quarters – remains an important ingredient in innovation (as it seemed to be in Facebook), then better electronic connections can make face-to-face contact, and innovation-assisting cities, more important.

There is yet a third, consumption-related reason why technological progress could make face-to-face contact and cities more important.

If progress provides humankind more wealth, then we may be drawn to higher-end pleasures that require some face-to-face contact, like great restaurants, and that have always been disproportionately present in cities.

“Connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal or a smile or a kiss,” I wrote in my book, trying to capture that essential desire for the joys of human contact. But does the evidence suggest that long-distance communication is a substitute or complement for face-to-face interaction?

My older paper with Mr. Gaspar showed that even controlling for income, urbanization and telephone usage went together across countries. We found no evidence that increases in telephone usage were associated with less urbanization within the United States. People in big cities used the phone more than people in smaller cities.

We also cited earlier research that found that people tended to call people who were physically close: in the 1970s, more than 40 percent of phone calls connected places less than two miles apart. More recent data from Japan confirmed that proximity and phoning seemed to complement each other.

It shouldn’t be surprising that people both call and meet with their friends, and that suggests a certain kind of complementarity.

We supplemented this evidence by looking at business travel, a very tangible measure of face-to-face contact. Business travel seemed to rise, rather than fall, as the costs of electronic connection fell, quite possibly because – as our model suggested – cheaper electronic communications led to a more connected world.

We supplemented this data with evidence on co-authorship among economists, which has risen substantially over the decades. Writing a paper with a co-author in the same city was far more common in the 1990s than in the 1960s.

Another piece of evidence suggesting that information technology and face-to-face contact are complements is the geographic concentration of the tech cluster. America’s cutting-edge computer scientists have access to the best electronic means of long-distance connection, yet they have come together to form the world’s most famous industrial cluster: Silicon Valley.

A similar cluster exists in Bangalore. The Googleplex, in Mountain View, Calif., is a physical symbol of the value that successful technology companies place on physical proximity.

In my own industry as well, there is little evidence that long-distance learning is eliminating demand for the high-intensity in-person education that places like Princeton and Yale provide. Anyone who teaches knows that good lecturing is far more than proclaiming wisdom from on high.

The teacher constantly struggles to understand what is getting across, and that’s far easier at close quarters. The more complex the idea, the more you need to rely on the rich cues that humans have evolved for signaling confusion or comprehension.

No one can tell what the future will bring, but so far information technology doesn’t seem to have made physical connections or cities obsolete.

The current recession hit many far-flung areas far worse than it did New York or Boston or San Francisco. America’s big metropolitan areas still produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s income, and the wage premium associated with working in a big city is as large as ever.

Humanity is a profoundly social species, with a deep ability to learn from people nearby. I believe that the future will only make that asset more important. 


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