A world wide web of unintended consequences


For 20 years, I’ve advocated for high speed internet to create economic sustainability in rural areas like mine. And I still believe that this policy remains necessary. But in my latest piece for the Minnesota Reformer, out today, I explore the unintended consequences. All this time, I’ve had a blind spot.

The divides that existed between rural and urban economies weren’t just technological. They were deeply cultural. Better internet only widened that divide.

Read my latest for the Minnesota Reformer, “Rural broadband isn’t closing gaps; it’s widening them.”


  1. Gerald S says

    Good article.

    I personally don’t doubt that someday broadband internet will make the Range economically viable again. Remote work and independent web creations are becoming more, not less, important.


    I think it will still be true that some — even many — native Rangers will benefit from the trend, since not all Range residents have their ultimate ambition be to drive a big truck at a mining operation. But it now seems clear that many of those who benefit from the trend will be outsiders, moving to the Northeast drawn by natural beauty, low real estate prices, abundant outdoor recreation, schhols that are safe and effective at least for the children of the well-educated, and the high speed nterenet. And it seems likely that many of these people might be immigrants, many people of color, finding a working niche in the economy of the land of hope and glory.

    And, as you have written in the past, it is highly likely that many native Rangers will be upset by the arrival of these “other” people, who will obviously change the culture of the region by injecting the cultures they brought with them. But not upset enough to refuse to sell grandpa’s place on the lake or in the woods to them for prices that seem sky-high to us but seem laughably low to people used to prices in the Sunbelt and on both coasts. Meanwhile, ongoing automation and mechanization will have reduced employment at the mines, both ferrous and non-ferrous, to a few hundred local workers, mostly in maintenance and security, supporting the drone equipment drivers based in far-away countries.

    I think this will happen because nature deplores a vacuum, and the only other alternative is collapse of the population and the economy into a colder clone of rural West Virginia. The decreasing numbers of remaining locals will certainly include many people who hate the newcomers and are supporters of politicians dedicated to the memes — facts are not important; values are important.

    The world will continue, as it always does, to hum along, without the help of the Range holdouts.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    The boreal forest along with deserts have the lowest carrying capacity for humans. The Iron Range has far more population than it could normally support. In the past, mining and logging made it possible for more people to live here. But feller bunchers and 120 yard haul trucks require very few workers to put out production. It’s productivity increase, not environmentalism, that reduced the number of blue collar jobs in the north. So when Roger Skraba rides a truck in a 4th of July parade that says “Make Logging Great Again,” it’s not going to happen. Logging requires very few people. Value added wood products, on the other hand, do.

    As a result, young people move out. But who moves and who stays? The change is part of the Big Sort. Liberals leave and conservatives stay behind, resulting in a Republican majority. Iron Rangers still vote DFL, but they do so in the Twin Cities. Those people who can most take advantage of the internet to produce jobs have either left or are from somewhere else moving in because of the nature benefits the region provides. A good example is Ely, which is full of well-off retirees. No Iron Range city has the variety of local businesses and community activities that Ely and its surroundings, an end of the road community, has.

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