[This is an excellent essay about the differences between the “Industrial Revolution,” and the “Technological Revolution.” The things (technologies) that come and go in our internet culture – just disappear. And no one seems to care. Both the developers (who profit) and the users (who just blindly follow along). If this piece doesn’t make you re-think what you’re doing on your smartphone – then nothing will…]
“In the 1980’s, companies like Lotus Development Corp were “growth” companies, which meant they could not sell their products fast enough. The PC revolution was in full swing and Lotus 1-2-3 was the killer, must have, application. If you walked into their Cambridge headquarters, it looked like a bomb went off because no one had time to be tidy. It was all hands on deck to get the product out the door. There were not a lot of rules either. The game was to grow and that’s what mattered. All the other corporate stuff was secondary.
That did not last. By the mid-90’s, the desktop computer market was established and the default platform was Microsoft Windows, which meant Microsoft Office. It was around this time that IBM was making a hostile takeover bid, not because they wanted a growth company, but because Lotus was becoming an asset company. That is, its value was no longer in sales of its products but in the value of its patents and technology. IBM bought Lotus in order to squeeze every drop of juice from it and then, eventually, toss it away.
That’s the modern economy in a nutshell.
The Technological Revolution is often compared to the Industrial Revolution, because of the cultural impact. After the steam engine, people did not just have better stuff. People were different. They lived differently and had different relationships to one another and their rulers. A similar process is underway in the Technological Revolution. Mass migration, the elimination of the middle-class and the end of popular government are three obvious examples of changes wrought by the technological age.
One difference between the Industrial Revolution and the Technological Revolution is the trail of breadcrumbs each left behind, as it worked its way through society. Today, Americans still drive over roads and bridges built during the peak of the industrial age. Even though our consumer goods are made by foreigners, they still use the same practices the West developed for industry. Even in blighted cities, you can still find old factory buildings that remind us of the past.
The technological age is a different animal. It tends to erase its own footsteps. Lotus Development Corp is a good example. It was not just that it lost the competition for desktop productivity software. Everything about it was consumed and recycled. Walk around Cambridge today and you cannot tell that Lotus even existed. The tech economy is a soylent green economy. Once the utility of its creations is exhausted, everything about it is consumed, erased from existence, as if people are ashamed of it.
The billionaire, Mark Cuban made his first million selling software. He worked as a salesman for a software store and then started his own company, which he eventually sold. Then Cuban founded Audionet, which he sold to Yahoo for $2.6 billion. None of the companies Cuban started exist. The companies that bought his companies are all gone now, with Yahoo about to be swallowed up in a fire sale. Even the technologies he championed are now long forgotten.
Unless he uses his billions to have his name carved into a mountain, Cuban will leave this world with nothing to show for himself, nothing anyone can point to and say, “Mark Cuban built that.” It’s unlikely that Cuban or any of the tech billionaires care about this. It is the way they want it, or at least it appears that way. That explains their zeal to erase our culture and replace it with a throwaway version based on nothing but a desire to squeeze a few more drops from the societies they intend to throw away.
Hustling, renting, and no long term anything
Whether you call it the technological age or the global age, these are just polite terms for cosmopolitanism, scaled to the supranational. In the city, you don’t build, you hustle. You don’t own, you rent. Nothing is permanent because a stationary target is an easy target. Instead, you make what you can and you move onto the next thing. If you can shift the burden onto someone else, all the better. That’s how the game is played because, in the city, everyone is a stranger.
That’s the new economy we are experiencing. No one thinks about the long term because that’s a sucker’s play. The money is in the short hustle, You make your money and move on. The game is to pick the fruit, squeeze out all the juice and then toss away the rest, leaving it for a sucker to clean up later. The housing bubble is a good example. Everyone involved knew it was a grift. They are too smart to not have known. The game was to make money and not be the sucker left holding the bag.
I used to know someone who worked at Lotus in its heyday, so I had an interest in the company from the early days. I recall the owners turning up in the local news a lot and they were brimming with confidence. I wonder if those folks from the glory days of Lotus don’t look back with sadness at what happened to their company. They are rich men and did very well for themselves after Lotus, but still. I bet they would trade a lot to be able to walk past their old building with their old sign still over the door.
I could be all wrong and maybe they have long forgotten about their old firm. Maybe all those people simply made their money and moved on to the next thing. Men have lived their lives in order to be remembered since the dawn of time. Maybe as the Industrial Revolution resulted in different people and different social arrangements, this age is doing the same and the new man of the new economy is just a stranger passing through, uninterested in leaving footprints for future generations to examine.