Much of Maine’s — and indeed our nation’s and the world’s — economic history can be understood as a series of openings created by a succession of transportation and communication investments.

Advances in sailing opened up the New World to European colonization. Canals — then railroads, followed by highways — opened up North America’s interior to rural settlers who shipped food and natural resources to cities where urban manufacturers provided tools and consumer goods in return.

Over the past generation, this process has come to include the formerly communist and colonial regions as the world economy has become truly global in scope.

The consequence of this opening of the world’s people and resources to international trade and investment has been an unprecedented explosion in standards of living, levels of consumption and age expectancy. Many diseases have been eliminated, huge swaths of the world’s population have risen from poverty and millions of people enjoy freedoms their grandparents could hardly have imagined.

At the same time, the environmental consequences of this process of specialization and globalization have become increasingly severe.

Rivers, lakes and now even the world’s oceans are filling with the residue of industrial production and the unwanted detritus of massive levels of material consumption.

Forests have been leveled, valleys flooded and whole species of living creatures forever extinguished. The very envelope of atmosphere that sustains life as our planet has known it may now be threatened.

In this context, it is interesting to ponder the consequences of the latest transportation and communication revolution that is convulsing our society — the digitization of information and the social networking of nearly everyone on the planet through the Internet.

In this case, the result is less an “opening up” to widespread human migration (and its attendant social and environmental consequences) than an opportunity to stay put.

Being close electronically rather than physically enables those with the requisite skills to live wherever they choose. Indeed, the most recent thrust of the federal government’s stimulus program is a multibillion-dollar effort to extend broadband Internet service into unserved and underserved rural areas.

In Maine, this effort is taking shape in the form of the newly created ConnectME Authority and its mandate to explore the reasons for Maine’s below-average use of Internet services.

The potential of this latest technological revolution to transform Maine’s economy is tremendous.

We live in a place that just this past week added another president to its list of vacation visitors. We have a conservation ethic that has made Land for Maine’s Future one of the nation’s most successful bond programs.

The Slow Money program — dedicated to convincing people and businesses to invest 50 percent of their assets within 50 miles of where they live — coupled with our Buy Local and our downtown revitalization programs have put Maine in the forefront of an economic development strategy whose core principles are not spreading out but settling down, not greater use but greater conservation, not greater consumption but greater enjoyment.

From the 1750s until the 1840s, Maine was this country’s frontier. In a nation hemmed in by mountains and colonial superpowers, Maine’s coastal waters and upland river corridors enabled a golden age of urban settlement and agricultural development.

In a world increasingly hemmed in by the limitations of growth as we have known it, Maine’s quality of place — coupled with a world-class digital connection — hold the promise of a similar golden age of conservation and local prosperity for the 21st century.

But to realize that promise, we must equip ourselves — all of us, young and old, urban and rural, educated and uneducated — with vastly better ways to learn how to understand and use the opportunities that worldwide digital connections provide.

As important as the physical capital of fiber cables and cell towers may be, the human capital of curiosity, imagination and determination is more important. A conservation ethic powered by technological fluency and creative imagination — that is the key to economic prosperity.

And just as Uruguay, Paraguay, Ghana and other countries comparable in size to our smallest states proved in the World Cup competition, small size does not mean noncompetitive.

With a dedicated commitment to producing the best talent, Maine could well enter another golden age.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]