We all know what computers can do. They can drive us crazy when we hit the wrong key. They can simplify tasks that once took hours of scribbling and calculating. And now, abracadabra, they are rewriting the rules of American geography.
In the olden days, B.C.A.M. (Before Computers and Modems), where you lived had a major role in determining where and how you worked. You didn't run a financial complex in a cornfield anymore than you would farm pigs in central Manhattan.But as corporate chieftains increasingly are coming to realize, in today's economy all states are created equal - and it can be just as convenient, and arguably a lot more pleasant, to do business on a remote Appalachian mountaintop as in an urban skyscraper.
The customer doesn't always realize the extent to which conventional geographic boundaries are being obscured by high technology. Consider how the map is blurred by these bits of technological prestidigitation:
- Dial "411" for phone information in Washington, D.C., and inquiries will be handled in West Virginia.
- Send insurance premiums to Boston-based Mutual Insurance Co., and the check will be recorded in Minneapolis.
- Drop a payment in the mail for goods ranging from compact discs to magazine subscriptions, and chances are the check is headed for a processing center in Fargo, N.D.
- Use one of a number of major credit cards, and (no matter where the issuing bank is located) payment will be handled in Des Moines, Iowa - a city that has gained about 2,500 jobs from this development.
- Make a purchase in one of 1,182 Wal-Mart stores, and (thanks to its new $20 million satellite network) the transaction will be processed in Bentonville, Ark.
- Buy Frito-Lay snack foods in one of several hundred thousand retail outlets, and computers wielded by 10,000 of the company's route salespersons record replacement products the same day in Plano, Texas.
- Companies such as J.C. Penney and Mrs. Fields have abandoned urban hubs for rural settings (Plano, Texas, and Park City, Utah, respectively) boasting state-of-the-art technology.
- Even the federal government is following suit; the FBI, in search of a more "modern" home for its computer filing operations, has moved 2,500 jobs to Clarksburg, W.Va.
Clearly, the task for cities and states that have traditionally taken such business as their birthright is to re-examine policies (including tax policies) that they may have gotten away with when many firms had nowhere else to go, but which these days simply form an added incentive to relocate.
For the image map is being redrawn, too. Take West Virginia, which as recently as the 1960 election was used by John F. Kennedy as a symbol of rural poverty.
The state is now vigorously exploiting the latest technology as "the great equalizer" in the economic War Between the States. Corporations like Bell Atlantic, Key Data Systems and Pacific Encore Furniture - not to mention the FBI - have brought thousands of new jobs to West Virginia. As Gov. Gaston Caperton puts it, "They've discovered that advanced technology has the power to eliminate geography and tradition as barriers to doing business in the 1990s."
Caperton has fostered a $70 million arrangement with IBM, an aggressive educational program whose centerpiece includes installing computers in every classroom in the state. The idea is that businesses that formerly wouldn't have given West Virginia a second look will have to be impressed by the promise of such widespread computer literacy.
West Virginia is scarcely alone. Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and Utah are among the other states conspicuous for their efforts in using high-tech finesse to turn predominantly rural areas into thriving 1990s-style business centers.
In an era when the same data can be received at the same time from Maine to Maui, America bids farewell to the days when the plains were for farming, mountains were for mining and urban canyons for banking. These days, Dorothy and Toto might have a much harder time determining whether they were in Kansas any more.