OP-ED by A. R. Bunch
If you take a quick look at the news lately (aside from the daily inappropriate workplace philandering of the latest celeb or politician) a trend is emerging. The world is changing, rapidly, and vehicles/transportation is right in the middle of it.
Here’s just a brief list of topics that are trending according to Linked In just this week:
1,500 Holiday Flights without Pilots
Uber Ex-Employee Alleges Covert Tactics to Steal Rivals’ Secrets
Sweeping Tax Reform to be debated
Bitcoin surges through $11,000 less than 24 hours after topping $10,000
What we’re seeing is a hyper-change of culture and how we move goods, services, and people around is changing just as quickly. Frankly, we’re all getting some intellectual and emotional whiplash. I wanted to dash off this quick update because it’s the holiday season and I for one hear my heart crying for me to refocus on what’s really important, while at the same time my instinct is telling me there’s a theme to all this change and I can’t really step down until I’ve sifted out the potential impact on my life.
I happen to live in a midsized town across the bridge from a midsized city that’s growing by leaps and bounds. Property values are skyrocketing as builders can’t keep up with demand. As I drive around town I notice a strange trend. Developments and apartment complexes are being built miles from other infrastructure. If I drive north on a rural road toward the next small town, which is also growing quickly, the area between is “filling in” as you might expect. What is different is that the infrastructure isn’t filling in–only the dwellings. One grocery store might be next to a dairy farm and beyond that a large apartment complex, then empty fields, then a high-density development. It hit me, we don’t need as much business support as we used to. The nearby strip malls sit empty and all those grassy fields were supposed to become more “shopping” which we won’t need because of the internet and “HOME DELIVERY.”
City planners still haven’t accounted for internet shopping so the only thing really being built are places to live. Lower density means more dependence on roads to connect us. We’ll soon need more capacity and upkeep and savvy city planners might be wise to plan ahead when budgeting, but that’s another topic.
I looked for a common thread both in my observations and the news topics listed above to see if there are forces behind what we’re seeing and I’ve come to a set of interesting conclusions.
#1 Technology and automation are making life more complicated and stressful, at least in the short run.
There seem to be two main camps, those who abstain from the tornado of technology and those who embrace it to the hilt. Camp one, like my own mother, will find it ever more difficult to accomplish the basic tasks they once took for granted like paying bills, getting a paycheck, and buying groceries. Camp two, like me, will find it impossible to keep up with the rate of change that seems to change how we do every simple thing in our lives. We’re also facing a complete life shut down whenever there’s a simple glitch in technology that gets faster, cheaper and more powerful daily but seems not to get any more stable. If you decide to not own a car, for example, how do you get home when your cell phone gets wet and turns into a brick? Just call…well, hail a rideshare…oh, I know, I’ll look up the bus schedule…nope. None of that!
Of course, most of us find ourselves stuck in the middle trying to survive, and I’m not using the word survive to be dramatic. We must not only learn to use technology instead of sticking our head in the sand, we must also learn how to fit technology into our lives in a manner that brings more life instead of impeding it.
If it seems like I’m talking about nothing new, consider technology change level two. When the PC turned from an expensive paperweight into an indispensable tool of business it didn’t just kill the typewriter, it centralized and automated business practices, we had to learn to remote sign contracts, information became trackable and searchable, online identity eventually became more real than your reputation in your community. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened rapidly. The shift to cell phones had a similarly profound effect.
I know this has been happening for a hundred years. The invention of the car and the lightbulb and so on, have all had drastic impacts on American culture as well as individual health. (Did we really have wrestles leg syndrome or insomnia before cars, desk jobs, and electric light on demand?) I’m not arguing that it’s different only that it’s happening at a pace we’re struggling to adjust to and that it may indicate a larger mega-shift is at hand.
This doesn’t have to be a scary thing. The industrial revolution did a lot of harm if you view it early on from the perspective of a child forced to work twelve hour days in unsafe conditions to help feed his family. But if we step back and look at the impact of it long term, after we’ve had a chance to adjust our laws and our culture to it. You could make a case that we’re ultimately both better and worse depending on your perspective.
This leads me to conclusion #2.
If we take the same filter and apply it to the things we’re seeing right now, a picture immerges. What if we’re in the early stages of the next great revolution? What if it already started and the next 20 years will decide the quality of life for generations? Are there skills that we can learn now to help us weather the coming turbulence more easily? I think there is.
Whether you start the industrial revolution at the invention of the cotton gin or the steam engine in the early days the terms innovation and industry were virtually synonymous. If you had a great invention or the money to capitalize on someone else’s invention you could become wealthy. The gap between rich and poor widened until a vacuum appeared where the need for educated workers required the creation of a middle class.
I predict that this new automation revolution will present with similar effect. We’re already seeing overnight success for innovators and wealth for investors. Alongside this jump in opportunity is a widening gap between haves and have-nots. The traditional answer to automation is education. Put simply, more machines will need few but better-trained operators to tend them. But this is the minor theme in this mega-shift.
The surprise side effect of the industrial revolution was that the world got smaller. Cheaper parts make cheaper items including vehicles and the need for cheaper labor means moving jobs to less developed regions. Basically, we traveled more and competed globally, and we earn the same or less. We consumed more and became less self-sufficient–less locally sufficient. Few of us can change our own oil, most of us can’t cook our own food, and that food isn’t grown anywhere near us. We’ve become dependent on glitch technology, unstable economies, and cheap goods and services. Did I mention that our spending power hasn’t gone up?
We’re stressed out and its no wonder. I’m not trying to bring you down dear reader, we’re about to turn it around. I just want to say that conclusion #3 is when you can 3D print a cell phone in your garage with plans you buy off the internet and you just made a ton of money selling a software patch for the operating system of that cell, the company that used to make money manufacturing that phone in Asia, as well as the store that used to sell it to you, are going to go the way of the typewriter. The need to move people and goods around will change radically and the world will, in many ways, get bigger again.
Before the industrial revolution was an age of enlightenment that brought us out of the dark ages. Prosperity and rationality lead to an appreciation for creativity and philosophy. Humans began to value things beyond the end of their fork. If there’s hope for the future it’s that automation will give people time to dream up better perspectives for a higher quality of life.
Rose M. from the company Patagonia wrote a great article on her company’s commitment to using recycled material in their products to reduce the depletion of virgin natural resources (link). While I don’t think environmentalist lobbying government to put us back in the Stone Age to save the planet will truly help the world, I do applaud companies that voluntarily seek market-based answers. Step one of the solution has to be giving people a good option. However, here’s a ridiculously long block quote to illustrate one perspective I think we’ll need to take head-on.
But the natural world and we, ourselves, can’t sustain this economy. Just one fact among many: between 1970 and 2012, more than half of the world’s wildlife was lost. The loss happened largely in poorer countries because their resources go to feed wealthy consuming countries. “Extinction,” as the journalist George Monbiot said, “is the bycatch of consumerism.” The consumption economy is destroying the natural world.
It’s also outdated and ineffective. “Capitalism has produced great wealth and helped lift hundreds of millions from poverty,” writes Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, “But it has also produced deep and growing inequality within many societies and eroded local cultures, traditions and livelihoods. Industrial capitalism, with its reliance on fossil fuels, has heated the planet nearly to a point of no return with potentially catastrophic consequences for all forms of life, and financial capitalism has pushed income and wealth inequality to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.”
The economy isn’t working: it’s not working for the planet and it’s not working for us. Says hedge fund founder Ray Dalio, “… for the bottom 60%, it’s a miserable economy.”
If the early industrial revolution conflated the terms innovation with industry, this new digital/automation age is conflating the terms consumerism with capitalism. Perspectives have begun to shift. We’re no longer thinking that cheaper is better, and we’re redefining our definition of better. Is it worth paying more to support products that you believe will bring you better health or a more sustainable environment? We each must answer this question for ourselves, and perhaps on a case by case basis.
But does capitalism automatically equate to rampant waste?
Capitalism is defined as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”
Consumerism is defined as “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable; also : a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.”
Isn’t Patagonia Inc. proof that corporations don’t have to be greedy? Isn’t there an answer to be found in our own decisions? Why do politicians take bribes and celebs philander? In part because we don’t hold them accountable, right? Why do corporations soak up cheap virgin resources, treat employees badly, export jobs to places they find cheap labor where they can skirt safety and pollution standards? Because we still buy their cheap products.
I promised to come to a more uplifting point and I will. I’m not blaming all our problems on simple greed so I can shake a finger at you and me. I want to empower each of us to learn two skills that will help us survive the coming changes in our society as a result of the shift in technology.
I’ve mentioned that are earning power hasn’t gone up and now I’m indicating that we need be willing to pay more for goods that echo our values. I’ve flogged the point that we are stressed and busy, but now I’m saying that we need to become better-informed consumers in order to reward some businesses and punish others. So what’s the answer?
It’s deceptively simple. Think about everything your purchases and be intentional about your use of technology. For the latter, I recommend the books “The 5 Choices” by Kory Kogon and Adam Merrill. It contains a section on making savvy tech choices. You can also find good resources at LifeHacker.com.
For the former, choose quality over quantity at all times. That goes double for anything you’d have to use debt to acquire. Advice for smart use of debt can be found around the internet, I recommend Robert Kiyosaki “Rich Dad Poor Dad.” Bottom line, don’t buy it or put in your mouth or wear it if it won’t make your life better. Just asking the question, “will this bring me more life?” That’s the standard.
What’s all this got to do with vehicles and commuting?
Simple, after houses the most expensive thing most of us will own is a car. Of course, a college education is almost in a tie with home buying and I recommend thinking twice before buying that as well. However, how you get around and how things get to you is a big part of our life. In the wake of the last crash, home buying has become more regulated, with mandatory checks and balances on your financial end as well as physical inspection of the property. Cars…not so much.
If you’re planning a trip please consider having someone look at your vehicle. Get tires rotated every time you get an oil change. Have brakes checked semiannually. For the love of all that’s holy don’t buy a used car without having it inspected. Cars represent a big expense and you need to know its value and have it’s safety verified before you spend your money on it.
Prepurchase car inspection is more affordable than you’d think, click here for more detail.
That’s it for me on this first day of December. Please be safe on the roads and try not to let the stress get to you. We’re all feeling it. Slow down. Take a break. Listen to some cheery music and enjoy your favorite dessert as slowly as you can eat it. Tomorrow will come and you’ll be okay.
As always, if you think I’m full of it, let me know in the comments below.