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The Future, or What's Left of It



July 22, 2014 – Comments (0)

Board: Macro Economics

Author: Goofyhoofy

I'm gonna talk about the internet in a minute, but for some reason I feel the need to opine about cars.

The actual inventor of the automobile is a matter of dispute, but if we had to pick a time and person it would probably be Karl Benz in Germany, around 1885. There were lots of Americans who jumped in, The Dodge Brothers, Randsom Olds, Walter Chrysler, Louis Chevrolet; Henry Ford famously went bankrupt twice before his third attempt made history with the assembly line. That would have been around 1913. It's already 25 years and it's just beginning!

But there wasn't much but muddy ruts to drive on until the advent of the "Good Roads Movement", a collaboration between cement producers, asphalt manufacturers and citizens agitating for better highways between towns; that didn't really get traction until the 1920's, although bicycle clubs have been advocating it for three decades prior.

But wait! We entered World War II around 1940 with an army that mostly relied on horses; the Jeep was a last minute panic invention funded by the Pentagon. Hitler, of course, pushed for the Volks-Wagen ("People's car"), and at long last, in the 1950's and '60's, the American public began to buy in earnest; it wasn't "a chicken in every pot" but "two cars in every driveway." Interstate Highways were born and a filling station popped up on every corner. That changed everything: the suburbs bloomed, shopping malls blossomed, buildings went horizontal instead of vertical, petroleum companies went from merely huge to gargantuan, franchise businesses appeared everywhere, mass consumption followed.

That all took, by my count, 70 years plus or minus, although each year anywhere in the middle didn't look so much different from the one before it or after it.

So I am now remembering that quaint phrase from the 1990's about the internet. "This will change everything." Those who didn't believe included newspaper owners, who were busily gobbling up these lucrative monopolies in city after city until one day, the bottom fell out. And ask Borders if they'd like to have their 90's back for a do-over, and hey, remember Tower Records? There are a lot of fallen priesthoods: the retail stock broker has been supplanted by discount brokerages, who needs a Sears catalogue when you have Amazon, and hate them or not, call centers in Mumbai do that same job as the one in Arizona for 1/10th the cost.

And it's been only 20 years since the Netscape browser. I am quite sure that the effects have barely started, and that there are bigger, more fundamental changes to come. It took Airbnb four years to get a million room placements, now they do that many in a month. Do you want to bet on Hilton 10 years from now? Sure, they'll be around, but then my local newspaper is still around too, and that's not a business I want to own anymore. Taxi medallions in major cities are going for hundreds of thousands of dollars each these days; how will that work as Uber continues to accelerate its growth?

AT&T is planning for a soft landing of its wireline business, and they've seen it coming, but the death spiral started years ago and it's accelerating. Comcast has seen the future, and it isn't in "cable", it's in "content", which is harder to reproduce (although increasingly easier to pirate. Hmmm.) Step up your cable speeds 100x, and how do movies not go through the spiral that music did? File sharing abounds!

We're not so far away from rudimentary artificial intelligence, not 50 years, anyway, so many those call centers in Mumbai might not last so long either, eh? Sports stadium owners are adding ever larger scoreboards and wifi's and special cameras, even juice bars, the better to entice people off the living room couch and into the stadium (where they sell you overpriced hot dogs, beer, and parking spaces, none of which happens with your smartphone on your back porch.)

The internet has been around (as a practical matter) for two decades. It will be another two, maybe more, before kids look back and say "Whoa, that was weird. People really used to go to a store to buy a book? And all those funny yellow cars in the city; what did they do, again?"

Thinking about it, I find it hard to see the positive changes ahead of time (OK, OK, UPS will probably do fine), but I think it's possible to see those fields which might be damaged. I've already listed a few: taxicab companies, wireline delivery outfits, hoteliers. Maybe the automotives will suffer, as people realize they can make do with one car (and Uber or ZipCar) instead of two. Advertising, couponing, and the Postal Service will surely change, although it's hard to predict how. (OK, OK again. The USPS will reduce service, accelerating the death spiral, and, uh, then something something something.)

Radar detectors will be less useful if Waze gains adherents. MetroTraffic reports? Why? Radio station audiences will be reduced by streaming music. Some electronics manufacturers will go toes up, especially if they don't have a foothold in mobile, as many do not. Well, the list goes on and on, and surely will for decades to come.

Since this is the Macroeconomics board, I thought I would ask you to peer into the crystal ball and jot a thought or two about what's coming. If you can see the positive possibilities, great, but really, who would have thought "Google" in 1994? On the other hand, it wasn't hard to think "Uh oh, Borders" the first time you waded around, so I'll happily entertain those kinds of shorting thoughts, too.

Oh, yeah, one last: the "internet" itself. Seems to be changing from a broad scale "it can do anything" to a siloed approach of "this app does nothing but call a cab." Not the same thing. I'm not sure how to profit from that, exactly, it's just an observation.

Any that you have are welcome, obviously. Think, people, think. There's another 30 years of future waiting and somebody's going to make money from it. It might as well be me, er, us. 

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