Today my spouse teleported to work. She was supposed to be at her college to give a lecture, but then due to unforeseen emergency circumstances it was decided that instead of walking to the train station, getting on the train, get to the destination, getting off the train, getting on the bus, getting off the bus, and walking for another five minutes to the college, that she and her students would instead use their home teleport devices and transmit themselves to the classroom. After class was over, each one then teleported themselves effortlessly back to their home.
Does this sound like science fiction? It’s what people do by Zoom every day. The revolutions in communication have created the potential for change that in certain ways is similar to that teleportation would have if it existed. In Larry Niven‘s Flash Crowd he describes society that underwent a teleportation revolution in the form of transfer booths. These booths look like large telephone booths and would, when entered, enable a person to dial another location and to be instantaneously transported there. Niven then goes on to describe society a few decades years after this discovery and what changes have been made.
Naturally, to make the story more visual, Niven emphasized the physical, tangible elements:
Highways have been turned into golf courses or into pedestrian walkways (older people stick to sides where the sidewalks used to be, while younger persons walk freely down the median). The Sahara desert is blooming due to teleported water. Space travel has also been revolutionized.
What is more relevant to this discussion is how the transfer booths changed society and the economy. In Niven’s world, driving is a thing of the past. People live in the thick of the woods or in renovated roadside motels, using transfer booths to instantaneously commute to offices where they consult paper lists or printouts. Down-and-out Western expats squat in tropical paradises, turning them into slums. Some places enact laws keeping them out, or even forbid instant access to them.
(Niven isn’t the only SF writer to emphasize transport over communications. Asimov’s Galactic Empire was traversable by spaceship in days, only to have travelers pick up a physical newspaper to find out the news on the planet of destination).
Some of the societal changes Niven thought would occur due to teleportation can be seen today. Fast internet and inexpensive computers have made remote working feasible. People live across state lines, working from home in Florida for a company in Manhattan. Interestingly, what has replaced distance as a limiting factor is the time zone, with companies hiring workers who live thousands of miles away in South America, as long as they can be connected in the same working hours as their colleagues in California or New York.
The transfer booths increased anomie. There was no need to interact with anyone in your physical vicinity other than at work. It also enabled new forms of crime, with criminal mobs flicking into and overwhelming security at a given location. We see these problems enabled by connectivity as well, with people remaking inside their homes having everything delivered and with rioters and looters descending on convenience stores, coordinating by social media.
Much of science fiction has been seemingly outdated, but the example above shows that with some adaptation it’s still possible to understand and extrapolate today’s trends.