Mull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.

The megacities are doomed!

Post Apocalypse
Post Apocalypse.
At the moment, the megacities of the World (such as London, New York, Paris and Tokyo) seem to be unstoppable. They sook up more and more economic activity, and it’s getting harder and harder to have a decent career unless you live in one of them. House prices keep increasing inside them, while they might very well be falling elsewhere in their host country.

However, as a long-term investment I wouldn’t touch metropolitan property with a bargepole, because I think these great cities are going to collapse within the next few decades, and here’s why:

Young people don’t get attracted to the huge cities because life there is good – property prices are so high in them that newcomers will have to pay a fortune for a room in a shared flat with an hour-long commute.

The reason young people flock to the cities is because that’s where the jobs are (and especially because you’ll be able to find a new job within your field every three years or so, which means you won’t suddenly find yourself in a employment cul-de-sac).

As soon as somebody as somebody invents a piece of workplace collaboration software that companies are willing to use for their in-house staff, everything will change.

Suddenly you can apply for a job in London, New York or Melbourne while living in Orkney. And when you move on, your next job can be in Paris, San Francisco or Ruhrstadt while you remain in Orkney.

(This is increasingly already the case for small companies and freelancers – I’ve undertaken work for people living in Hamilton (New Zealand), Edmonton (Canada) and Birsay (Orkney) without ever going there. It’s today normally only the admin staff that have to be in the office.)

Once people’s normal place of work is their home (or a neighbourhood office if they prefer to leave home for work), companies don’t need huge offices in expensive locations. They can rent a hotel or a conference venue if they want to arrange a yearly get-together for their staff, or for having meetings with clients, and all they need is a small registered head office.

The companies will save an enormous amount of money by getting rid of their city-centre offices (more than enough to make up for a potential fall in productivity by letting people work from home), as will the staff by being able to live in much cheaper locations.

However, modern cities rely on the synergies of having a lot of people in one place. As soon as some companies and employees move out, the advantage of being in the city will decrease for the ones that remain. Why move to a city if you can get the same job without moving? Why pay for an expensive office if you can employ the same people by paying for a much cheaper piece of software instead?

Once a few people and companies start moving, prices will start falling. That will make the property investors move out, too, which will make prices fall even faster — at the moment, investing in property in central London is an easy way to make a profit if you have enough money to invest — and this will presumably continue until house prices reflect the attractiveness of living in that location – and for large parts of modern cities that’s not a lot. Of course people people will still pay good money to live in a luxurious penthouse flat overlooking the Thames or the Seine, but how attractive is it really to live in a concrete high-rise an hour away from the city centre?

So if I had a lot of money to invest, I wouldn’t touch unattractive residential areas on the outskirts of cities with a bargepole, but I’d try to snap up idyllic houses with good internet connections within a reasonable distance from a railway station and an airport.

I also think governments should be careful not to invest too much money on prestige infrastructure projects in their capitals (Crossrail and HS2 spring to mind in the UK) and instead invest in projects such as fast Internet connections in rural areas (such as what the SNP is promising in their manifesto).

Working from home, and the collapse of the metropolises



My Home Office III
Originally uploaded by TranceMist

Surprisingly, the Internet still hasn’t enabled the majority of people to work from a home office. Of course there are many freelancers who do just this, but lots of offices have many employees who are supposed to turn up every day, sit down at their computer, do their job and leave at the end of the day, in spite of the fact that they could just as easily have done their job from home.

Why is this? My impression is that most of the actual work people do can just as easily be done remotely.

One potential reason is that virtual meetings still aren’t as useful as face-to-face ones. Cameras aren’t good enough, and it isn’t easy to be looking at the same presentation or the same computer screen while talking (I’m not saying it isn’t possible, just that tools for this aren’t ubiquitous).

The other potential reason I can think of is that bosses find it hard to supervise their staff if they cannot physically sneak up on them. In theory, this could be resolved by putting a webcam in every home-worker’s office so that the boss can see what people are doing. I doubt many people would like that, but I presume some people would find it a price worth paying for avoiding the commute.

Anyway, let’s assume for now that it’s likely that a software company will one day soon release a program that makes working from home feasible and desirable, to a point where companies wouldn’t actually provide office space for most of their employees.

What would the consequences be? Many people would quickly realise that their is little point in paying astronomical rents in London, New York or one of the other global metropolises when they could do their job just as easily from a remote location where the costs of living are lower.

Soon people would start moving to cheap locations with decent weather, beautiful scenery and good food. Other things people would be looking for would include the quality of the schools, the presence of an international airport (for the rare occasions when you need to attend a face-to-face meeting or a conference), and the attractiveness of the tax system for people with foreign incomes.

Of course there would still be many good reasons for living in London or New York, but if just 20% of the current inhabitants were to leave without being replaced by a new influx, rents would collapse and whole areas would become ghost towns, and this process would make it even less attractive to live in a metropolis.

On the other hand, I imagine that areas such as the Scottish Highlands, the depopulated villages of many Mediterranean countries and the Caribbean islands would become new property hotspots.

This would be a huge difference compared to the last few decades. It seems to have become more and more attractive to live in a metropolis, probably because the disappearance of jobs for life, as well as the increase in couples where both have a career, has made it imperative to live in a place where there are plenty of job opportunities within commuting distance. However, as I’ve argued above, this might all be about to change.

Another way to build cities



A House on Stilts
Originally uploaded by Steve Dinn

Fitting cars into cities at the same time as houses and people seems to be a really hard task.

Has it ever been tried, I wonder, to create a new town or city by designing the roads and parking spaces on an empty field, and then put in pillars and build the houses and green spaces on top of these?

In this way, cities would appear to be entirely traffic-free — there would just be gardens and lawns with pretty paths filling up the space between the houses — while the roads would be very straight and efficient, and quite safe too because of the lack of pedestrians on the roads.

It’s possible that it’s more expensive than I imagine to build houses and gardens on stilts, but apart from that I cannot see any problems with my idea.

Has it ever been tried?

Glasgow is dying

The last couple of times we’ve gone into Glasgow on a Saturday, we’ve noticed how Sauchiehall Street and Buchanan Street have been half empty. We were wondering whether it had anything to do with the recession.

However, the Silverburn shopping centre was so crowded that the cars were almost blocking the motorway exit.

So it’s the combination of more and more expensive parking charges in central Glasgow and more and bigger shopping centres surrounding the city that is finally taking its toll.

It was probably not obvious during the boom years when there were enough consumers for both, but now people are having to make a choice, and they’re opting for the shopping centres.

It’s made worse by hospitals and other organisations leaving the city centre, too.

It’s really dangerous. If the trend is not reversed soon, we’ll end up with cities without centres, a bit like Los Angeles.

It’s important to make the city centre the centre of the conurbation, placing all the important institutions there, and to provide plenty of cheap parking spaces in the centre.

Of course shopping centres have a role to play, but if they start taking over as the primary shopping location, it’s time to change track.