Americans Spread Out in Order to Come Together

Cincinnati. (Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.)

In his 1976 book America’s Third Century, British economist, editor, and futurist Norman Macrae posed the question: Would the United States follow the same cycle of rise and fall as its mother country did from 1815 to 1914, or would the 21st century be another American century that would make the British Empire look like “the fuse that lit the rocket?”

Given the 15 years America had just endured when he was writing, it was not a time of easy optimism about our future. A country marred by domestic unrest, political violence, foreign policy humiliation, political corruption, and economic stagnation did not sound much like a rocket ride. And Macrae’s little 116-page volume, which began as a long essay in what was then called the London Economist in the fall of the year before, could hardly be called optimistic. But it did point to reasons for hope.

One of Macrae’s biggest questions was whether Americans could again use our vast continental expanse to exploit technology in ways that other nations could not. Writing more than a decade before Cisco would ship its first router and 14 years before commercial dial-up online access, Macrae described a world in which those he called “brain workers” would be able to do their jobs from home. That, in turn, would give Americans more choices about where and how to live.

The revolution he foresaw was born of “telecommunications allied with the computer” and predicted what must have sounded pretty wild in an era when a three-minute coast-to-coast call at off-peak hours was sold as a bargain at what would be $5.50 today.   

“[Brain workers] are going to be able to stare into computer screens and communicate through them, from their own homes in pleasant parts of the world,” he wrote “with the cost of communication not depending on distance.”

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