The Internet has long been touted as a major weapon in reducing road congestion, through enabling and stimulating telecommuting. More recently, it has been promoted as a means to fight global warming. But these hopes fly in the face of centuries of experience. It is likely that the Internet will play a major role in alleviating problems caused by several energy crises that we face, but this will not take place as commonly expected.
There has been widespread expectation that communication and transportation are substitutes for each other. There is a direct stimulation effect -- for example, higher capacity on fiber cables enables offshoring jobs to India. But the workers there have to be trained, supervised, and coordinated, which means a jump in air travel to and from India.
There are also improvements from one technology that are absorbed into another (computer and communications improvements led to better and much less expensive printers, which satisfied the latent demand for printing on the desktop -- and made a mockery of the "paperless office" concept).
All these combine to yield a simple observation, with overwhelming evidence going back centuries, that as society develops economically, both communication and transportation boom. They are both services whose consumption grows with technological and economic advances. (For extensive compilation of evidence on the spread of various communication technologies in synergy with apparent competitors, see my 2000 manuscript, "The history of communications and its implications for the Internet.")
Thus simply deploying the Internet more widely and with increased capacity is likely, in the absence of other developments, to stimulate travel and energy usage. This would be true even without counting the energy usage of the Internet and the computers connected to it.
The centuries of experience where both communication and transportation have grown vigorously were also centuries in which energy has been getting steadily less expensive (in inflation-adjusted terms) and more convenient to use. Human society started with wood, and then went on to coal, oil, and natural gas. But there does not seem to be any successor to these, at least in the short term. Instead, we appear to face three serious threats, any one of which can drive up the cost of energy by itself:
- Rapid growth in the developing world: With China's economy growing at 10 percent, and India not much less, the traditional rate of technological improvement in economic efficiency and the rate of discovery of new energy sources can't keep up.
- "Peak oil": The widely predicted, although still controversial, start of a decline in total world oil production.
- Global warming: Surely no need to explain.
So, unless all three of the energy threats above are avoided, the price of energy will continue to go up. And if energy becomes more expensive, the Internet may become a substitute for transportation (as well as an aid towards greater efficiency in a variety of ways), not because that is the usual outcome, but enforced by drastically changed circumstances. So in that sense, the advocacy of greater broadband deployment may be very productive.
But it will be a very different world than the one that led to our current technological and economic state. We may drive less, but not because we love to telecommute, or because we are tired of traffic jams, but because the costs will get too high. Many of the rules we relied on to judge economic and technological developments will simply not apply.
— Andrew Odlyzko, Director, Interdisciplinary Digital Technology Center, University of Minnesota