Apparition

For a while now I’ve been trying to think, in my head, about what sort of planning economics paper a Very Serious Person would write about apparition (Harry Potter, magic)/ teleportation (Star Trek, science!).

For the purposes of this thought experiment, here are the rules of apparition/teleportation:

  • Apparition entails disappearing from one spot and simultaneous or near-simultaneous reappearance in some other spot, however distant
  • You can only apparate to a place you have previously visited and are able to visualize intensely.
  • You can bring someone with you if they hold onto your arm.
  • You can “splinch”–leave some body parts behind–if you do not concentrate sufficiently on your destination.

What’s unclear? Plenty.

  • How common are serious splinching accidents?
  • How far can a chain of people extend before it is not possible for one apparator to pull all of them along? In order to follow an apparator, must one be in physical contact with the apparator, or is it sufficient to be in physical contact with someone who is in direct physical contact with the apparator (a “chain”)? If a “chain” is possible, how long can the chain be?
  • Can only people “follow” an apparator? It seems clear an individual can apparate with a backpack or purse, but what about something substantially larger?

Discrepancies between apparition and teleportation:

  • As far as I know, teleportation is initiated by a machine, which must be the exit-terminus of the trip. This is fairly constrictive compared to apparition, which is initiated by the individual and not restrictive in terms of destinations (except as regards the apparator’s prior experience and ability to concentrate when apparating).
  • Because of this restriction, teleportation (as envisioned in Star Trek) actually does not offer free and unrestricted travel. It seems likely that teleportation equipment, if it were introduced into our world, would be the property of a very large multinational corporation, which would seek enormous rents from its use. Already then teleportation is not free. In addition, because teleportation is initiated not by the user but by a controller–Kirk can’t beam himself up, he has to ask, “Beam me up, Scotty”–teleportation would likely be highly regulated, especially for international travel. (It is easy to imagine a black market then emerging, and countermeasures taken, ad infinitum.)

The purpose of this post is to predict how our world would change if apparition or teleportation became possible tomorrow.

  1. It seems reasonable to suppose that commercial passenger air traffic would cease or decrease by at least 90%, eliminating businesses overnight but also considerably reducing humankind’s environmental footprint. In the apparition case, it would seem that individuals would still need to fly if they have never been to their destination. However, I believe that “travel agents” would quickly take care of that by offering to ferry individuals to novel destinations. Since there are no costs to travel, they would be able to sell their knowledge of a destination, apparate with a follower, then quickly return to their home base. Teleportation, however, would probably require a fee–probably less than a flight, though we don’t know much about the energy it takes to teleport one person.
  2. Heck, why stop at air traffic–families would likely still need a car, but probably not much more. Cars would still be necessary for shopping–you might be able to do groceries by apparition (remember, it’s basically costless, so even if you bought more than you could carry, you could apparate to your kitchen, drop off three bags, apparate back and grab three more)–but you certainly couldn’t buy a new TV, for example, without physically transporting it back to your home.
  3. What would happen to land use? On one hand, work and play could now be entirely divorced, as there wouldn’t be nearly as much reason for you to live in the same city that you work in. (It’s like telecommuting on steroids.) If you could live in one place and work somewhere else entirely, would you? Hint: I think most people would. I think what would happen is that population density would become very extreme: as commutes become less important, we would see a quick abandonment of the suburban project. Why live in a tract home when you can have a nice ranch in the country? A higher number of people would live in rural areas, but dispersed rather than clumped. Cities would continue to exist and even grow, because there are still activities that require physical proximity–industry, shipping, manufacture–and because of the positive externalities that already power the urban advantage.
  4. Land values would get really weird. Because transportation costs would be so low, the rich would be even more likely than they are now to invest in multiple homes. Today some people think about having a mountain home in North Carolina and a beach home in Florida, but they might be deterred by the prospect of the 10+-hr drive from Miami to Asheville. That deterrent would no longer be relevant in the apparition scenario. I believe the premium would cease to be based on proximity and become, basically, about environment. There is plenty of beautiful rural real estate, in the West especially, that is currently unoccupied because it is not near anything. If people start looking merely for a pleasant place to live, that real estate could get snapped up quickly.
  5. For similar reasons, I fear that we’d see flight of many corporations to pastoral locations that their employees might prefer to the cramped quarters of the city.
  6. The downside of this may sound silly, but I think a huge limiting factor to both commercial and residential flight would actually be infrastructure. I’ve already said roads would be less important, but they wouldn’t be zero, because many companies make things that have to be transported by other means (it is possible that teleporters can transport inorganic materials, but as that’s unconfirmed I won’t go there). Moreover, you have to deal with waste, both human refuse and trash. Perhaps you would see a shift towards in-unit microsystems, such as micropower and on-site waste repurposing. Or maybe individuals would be held responsible for their trash: you have a bin at work, which you take home and consolidate with your home trash, which you can then teleport with to a waste collection point.

I’m not done with this. But just want to show you what sorts of things a man can think about when he’s bored stiff.

 

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