This is a story how self-driving cars will, through cheap delivery, change how we interact with our world.
Let me say at the outset: I am acutely aware that predicting human behavior is the pinnacle of folly. My goal is not to be 100% right. My goal is to find a new way to think about the problem.
Put another way, my aim is to start the conversation, not finish it. Comments appreciated.
Still from a video about JD.com’s robot delivery vehicles, already launched on college campuses in Beijing.
In the late 1990s, my father became a thief.
He would stay up late into the night in his office upstairs, his desk perched where my bed used to be. The green glow of the CRT reflecting off his forehead in the dark, he would sit nearly motionless, hour after hour watching the progress bar fill as he pirated old radio shows, books on tape, and music from the golden age of rock and roll.
Back in the early 1990s, it was not obvious that the internet would launch a global army of greying men into the world’s most tedious crime spree. It was not obvious college students and housewives and kids obsessed with Jamiroquai would join them to take down the record industry. And journalism. And video stores, encyclopedias, and travel agents.
In retrospect, we misunderstood what the internet was. In the mid 1990s, we saw the internet as communications technology, a way to send notes for work or update family about the kids. But as the internet grew and download speeds increased, it turned into something far more profound: History’s cheapest distribution technology.
Self-driving cars will bring the next great disruption in distribution. Like the internet, they will restructure not just their intended market – transportation – but every single thing they touch.
This post describes how.
Distribution is hard to write about because it is deliberately hidden from sight, buried as pipes and quietly routed through the backs of buildings. But distribution systems bring us every shirt we wear, every meal we eat, every plank of lumber that supports the houses we live in. It was a change in the technology of distribution that allowed my father to engage in petty larceny from a bedroom. It was a change in distribution that brought the record industry to its knees.
Self-driving cars will launch in 3-4 years, and immediately drop the cost of distributing objects to just a fraction of today. Distribution-by-robot has already started in China, and has the potential to herald as profound a change in society as the introduction of the car, train, or airplane – changes not seen in living memory.
And although it has been over a century since the last disruption in transport, we have a light to guide our understanding of what’s coming: The deployment of the internet. The turmoil that followed the roll-out of digital distribution – the demise of print journalism, the growth of sharing, and the end of music ownership, to name a few – gives us a roadmap for understanding what may soon unfold in the world of things.
In a very short time, cheap physical distribution could carry our newly-acquired digital habits to the physical world. We could share objects. We could subscribe to stuff. We could go through life accessing every thing we desire from a mechanized, Lysol-misted cloud.
Disruption from the internet blindsided us. But this time, we have a chance to learn from history, to have a conversation about what world we’d like to build next. Prediction carries risks – and predictions involving people are the riskiest of all. Yet there is much to gain from reflecting on the disruption we just experienced, so we are not surprised to see, for example, the very concept of owning things recede into the rear-view mirror.
But we’ll return to ownership. To begin, the best way to glimpse what our future may bring is to dial back the clock a couple decades, and consider what my father and his friends did to the world of music.
Paid subscriptions (peach) and satellite and internet radio (SoundExchange, pink) are now a bigger revenue stream than purchased music (purples and blue). Source: RIAA.
In the mid-1990s, when I was living in Pasadena, California, I would walk from my student apartment through neighborhoods of stately Tudor homes to buy music at Tower Records. Tower didn’t have the best prices, but it was well-lit, with friendly staff, and stocked a copy of almost anything I needed.
It is, of course, gone now.
We did not fully respect it at the time, but Tower’s reason for existence was its selection – it was built to hold inventory. And in a world where music distribution was expensive, this was a sensible and economic thing to do.
Inventory let a customer browse for music. Inventory assured that sales closed. Inventory served lovers of pop, classical, or punk rock with equal facility.
And this is the primary function of retail today: House product, and wait for customers to arrive. Implicit in this business model is the assumption that a good’s lowest cost path to the home is for a consumer to drive, park, fetch, and return.
The internet created a cheaper solution. Optical fiber was the instrument of Tower’s demise, but any cheaper and faster distribution path would have sufficed; Amazon, FedEx, and UPS have steadily whittled away at the cost of distribution, and in doing so have ever so slowly chipped away at brick and mortar’s dominance.
Online sales keep going: Source: Census.gov
A gallon of milk or a bag of frozen French fries can’t fit through a fiber, and even today, with Amazon’s average delivery cost of about $8, makes little sense to ship from warehouse to door. But what happens when self-driving cars cut the cost of home delivery all at once to $2, or $0.50?
In a world where an electric self-driving vehicle costs less than $0.20 per mile to operate, a customer would be happy to step outside and pick produce from a market that pulls up to the door. At that price, a consumer could afford to take just a single apple, and consign the store to its next destination. Can retail survive that kind of discontinuity in distribution?
When distribution costs fall, the advantages of inventory can be duplicated by multiple quick, small deliveries. There is no requirement to design retail around a loading bay; with cheap self-driving distribution, grocery stores could be made smaller, nestled deeper into neighborhoods (and closer to customers) without sacrificing selection. Retail could focus more on its other roles: providing a place to meet, a place to gawk (like the Apple Store), or a place for inspiration and community (like a farmer’s market). And for some goods, retail could shrink into the delivery truck itself; compress into a kiosk; or vanish entirely.
But most interestingly, the conversion to digital distribution in music didn’t just snuff out the inventory at the retail store: It dispersed the inventory at home as well.
We never really wanted to own music.
For my entire childhood, our basement held shelf after shelf of reel-to-reel tapes, recordings of a crooning Bobby Darin or Fats Domino to remind my dad of the thrill of his teenage years. But the tapes were artifacts; they were clutter that got in the way of the real goal.
What mattered was music. And when music arrived on demand, the shelves in the basement could move on.
Our apartments and houses are full of clutter, closets and cupboards full of goods sitting silently in the dark, waiting like my dad’s tapes for their shimmering moment of service. My pantry spills over with cans of tomatoes and boxes of trendy grains; yet ingredients provide no joy until I cook. My pantry exists to save myself future trips to the store. My pantry exists because distribution is expensive, and slow.
A pantry is inventory. In a world where distribution to my door is cheap, fast, and reliable, why would I need it? Why not shrink my own storage, and receive small shipments on demand instead?
It’s not just our pantries; our lives are choked with inventory. Find any collection of things, at home or at work — it almost certainly piles up because the cost of distribution is high.
A shed? Your garden tools are used only a few times per year, and if properly cared for will outlive you. Why do you store them?
Your closet? Your winter sweater is inventory, and earns no interest. Every suit or pair of shoes you own represents your savings, slowly dying.
When you follow this simple logic – when distribution costs fall, goods disperse – the conclusions surprise us, in exactly the same way that music surprised us.
The average renter has $20,000 to $30,000 in possessions. An affluent homeowner has likely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stock his home with things which sit unused for 99.9% of their lives.
While a favorite T-shirt or a collection of shoes might inspire passion, most ownership provides no joy: We do not fondly reminisce about the extension cord in the garage, or develop an emotional connection to our colander. We carve out spaces in our homes – shelves and cabinets and closets – at a cost of over $1000 per square foot in a city like London or San Francisco, simply because there is no distribution system that could deliver a thing at the moment we need it.
So what would happen if we spent thousands of dollars not buying stuff, but grasping it only during use, and releasing it when we are done? What if distribution was cheap enough that the cost of summoning and returning things was economically sustainable? What if it was widespread enough to be quick and reliable?
The answers can be found in music. For this is, of course, the basis of Spotify’s business.
There are already startups seeking to make the closet obsolete, offering to ship you new clothing once a month, or more. There is no need to do laundry; dirty clothes are simply packed for return. This is, simply put, Spotify For Clothes.
It’s possible to build a Spotify to distribute garden tools, or wine glasses for parties, or single-purpose kitchen equipment. When we use a thing so sparingly why, exactly, do we own it? Why not subscribe to stuff instead, trying out a fun gizmo, but not make the commitment to house and care for it for the rest of our days?
It’s a sushi bazooka. Admit it, you want to try it. Image: coolstuff.com
There are plenty of motivations to subscribe, storing stuff ‘in the cloud’, and summoning it only when required. Just as with Spotify, we would benefit from access to a greater variety of supply, the ability to try something new, and freedom from clutter. The logic of subscription does not end with bits; the benefits of sharing do not stop in kindergarten.
Ownership is not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of distribution.
We learned with music that you don’t have to own a thing to benefit from it. You could, for instance, share.
The sharing of music surprised everyone, because upper middle class people – by which I mean most everyone who works in technology – do precious little sharing (at least in the US). Our friends, the people we feel most comfortable asking for a favor, are scattered miles across town. And getting the stuff from them – distribution – is expensive. So we buy things ourselves, perhaps borrowing a serving platter from the neighbors when visitors arrive.
But when digital distribution became cheap, behaviors changed sharply. People swapped music with strangers. We gave up ownership (full disclosure: It took a year of lobbying by my children to convince me to let go). And we found three new ways to engage with this modern concept, music and information-on-demand, that could map directly to stuff if distribution gets cheap enough.
The first was to share.
Western society has produced at least an order of magnitude more things than it actually needs; we could sustain ourselves for years, if not decades, by temporarily checking out items and returning them when we are done. This is, in its extreme form, a radical socialism of stuff, powered by cheap technology.
Of course, unlike music, physical things chip, scratch, and wear; it is not clear whether it is in the best interest of ourselves or society to release our precious possessions to the wild. But we can do great service by distributing that which we treasure least. The things we exile to the top cabinet in the kitchen or to a table at Goodwill could instead be assimilated into the world’s largest thrift shop, invoked from the cloud. The death of the estate sale could be celebrated, not mourned.
The second path we followed was to subscribe, to pursue a corporate sponsor to ensure quality, ease of use, and reliability.
It is hard for us, as individuals, to make a guess as to how many times we will use an egg slicer or a guest room towel over the course of our lives. It is even harder to estimate how long a product will last. So a logical response is to buy cheap crap, cross your fingers, and hope it doesn’t break.
But a business can integrate use over thousands of customers; they can understand which zippers are built to withstand a tug from a toddler, which dishes will survive a teenager’s casual toss across the table. Companies invest for lifetime value, not sticker price; they see things as infrastructure rather than product. Back in the good old days, goods were built to last simply because we had not learned how to build them cheaply. With shared stuff, goods will last because building cheaply makes no sense.
If ownership wanes, we would have to rethink all of our stuff, designing not just for reliability but for all aspects of a good’s life. Clothing could be constructed to be folded by robot or washed with less energy. Quality and artisanship could be rewarded more effectively if people felt they were procuring an experience with every use, rather than acquiring stuff. It is only half in jest that I tell my sixteen-year-old daughter that I’d rather she work in design than computer science, because that is where the jobs will be.
The third path, for music and all of the internet (including this blog), was to contribute.
This is the Linux model of stuff, where a person could make a bowl in a pottery class and then donate it for the betterment of humanity. Another person may feel a calling to patch a torn quilt, or retap a stripped screw hole. The low cost of digital distribution has enabled Patreon as well as Amazon, nurtured individual writers such as Tim Urban as well as conglomerates like Buzzfeed. We could build an artisanal cloud, erected on the same mix of altruism, reputation, and community as Wikipedia or StackExchange.
The cost of distribution is a barrier to giving as well as receiving. All of the unconventional business models of the internet could apply to stuff as well, if distribution becomes cheap enough.
Concept for a Mercedes delivery van that can be loaded robotically. And yes, that’s a delivery drone on the roof. From Fortune.
Are we there yet? Are we even close?
I am greatly aware that all of this sounds rather like science fiction: A choreography of robotic shelf-pickers and self-driving cars combine to form a clumsy Replicator. A modern-day Captain Picard commands “Alexa: Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” and 15-20 minutes later, a steaming pot appears at the door.
It would be slow and clunky. It would not fit on a space ship. It won’t work to summon every thing, to every place, with equal facility.
To be fair, the internet did not sweep the world instantly either: It was eight years from the first www site to the peak revenue of the music industry; a decade after the launch of Spotify for music subscription to dominate purchases. And to be fair, we don’t yet know how fast the price of distribution will fall, or what levels it will need to reach to unlock new behaviors.
But to point out that the future will not unfold all at once should not blind us to the realization that, thing by thing, our world could be transformed. Pantries refurbish to social space. Cabinets make way for art. Closets turn to bedrooms. A world of cheap distribution could be a world of fewer, better-designed things, ones that consume fewer resources, and leave more for humans.
And not only will products and apartments change, we will as well.
Consider mealtime. In the middle of the last century, distribution by truck forged a national food network, with fresh fruits and vegetables changing the way we ate. Produce and grains were selected for their ability to withstand spoilage on the journey from farm to truck to aisle to table, farmers famously breeding out rapidly-oxidized omega 3 fats in the name of shelf stability.
And now our bodies lack those omega-3s. The last great change to distribution technology altered the composition of our cells. The next is likely to as well.
Technology defines who we are as much as we define our technology.
My father never got to subscribe to Spotify, but would have been thrilled by the experience. My teenage daughter, earbuds ever-present, can’t imagine a world structured another way. A drop in the cost of distribution took away the clutter of listening, leaving just the music, and the enjoyment.
Does it make sense to stop there? Or is it, as they say, time for things to change?
31 thoughts on “When delivery is free, will ownership survive?”
I was thinking about the new businesses that send you clothes every month (and you send them back), and then you mentioned that. There is a “tool library” in West Philadelphia where you pay a nominal fee to be a member and then you can borrow various tools — makes much more sense than buying something you won’t use regularly. And I’d love to be brought food nearly instantly (and fresher) than my every-other-week shopping trips. (I like to cook, but like you, we accumulate a lot of food I just don’t get to as expected…) I think your thinking on this makes a lot of sense, as long as the distribution pipeline holds up. If the infrastructure for distribution fails — if we don’t invest in roads or bridges, or the air gets too crowded with drones to be safe, etc. — then maybe not. But it does seem as if we’re heading that way.
I would love access to a tool library; we certainly have enough screwdrivers in this world to keep us going for generations. We have a maker space near me, but I don’t need bandsaws and 3D printers (though props to those who use them!) But I’d love to not have to go buy the 5-prong screwdriver to replace the hard drive on my laptop. It’s funny how it’s the little inconveniences that inspire, but that would be rad.
I think we have a tool library in Boulder County.
It’s been quite a while since you wrote this, so I assume you already know, but both Resource and I think Home Depot have tool libraries.
Very interesting implications.
If goods come to you instead of you going to the goods, what’s the effect on traffic patterns? If ownership and consumption patterns are static, then traffic doesn’t increase (it just reverses direction between retail point and consumer, basically). It could actually descrease because distribution could be made more efficient (multiple deliveries per vehicle, route optimisation, more flexibility in delivery times).
But if we are talking about renting/borrowing most things, it’s not so clear. Would it require a magnitude more traffic, for example? If so, how much does this new distribution infrastructure (vehicles, roads) offset the gains made in reduced production of goods, both in economic and environmental terms? Reduced production of goods will of course change some other aspects of transportation where the new goods are moved into and through the distribution channels. As you mentioned, storage/inventory would also likely look quite different throughout the supply chain.
Another thought: does this reduce the amount of food that has to be thrown away due to spoilage, both in the supermarkets and at home? I’d guess that it does. Increased efficiency of food distribution and consumption means that production can decrease, and land use can decrease correspondingly, which is a great outcome.
There is an economic concept called elasticity of demand, which represents how much more demand is created when price falls. For transportation, the short term elasticity is about 0.3, which means that you’ll see 3X commerce if you drop prices by 10X. In the long term (accounting for the time it takes to build new infrastructure), the elasticity rises to 0.7. It’s hard to know if we should believe those numbers, because a small delivery bot seems very different from a car, but it’s a place to start.
As for waste, I think you hit the nail on the head. I am very excited about that as well, because 40% of food is wasted, and that is a huge contributor to global warming. Right now “land use” accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emission; if you are right, and we can decrease land use, it’s a big deal. It’s a story I’m trying to wrap my head around as a potential future post; if you run across anything on it I’d love to know!
This paper suggests that food waste contributes 2% of total emissions and also has a breakdown of waste between distribution/retail/consumer & by food category: http://centmapress.ilb.uni-bonn.de/ojs/index.php/fsd/article/view/198/182
This document is also interesting, although it focuses on transportation: http://www.cleanmetrics.com/pages/ch9_0923.pdf. It suggests that food production is by far the largest contributor to emissions when compared to transportation, cooking and waste disposal. Storage seems to be quite a large contributor (and can result in imported food producing fewer emissions!), which I thought was also pertinent to this discussion.
More papers linked here: http://www.cleanmetrics.com/html/library.htm
I’m by no means an expert so I don’t know if these are good sources. I was just looking it up because I was curious.
Those are some fantastic links – I took a quick tour, and have bookmarked them for later use. Awesome stuff, thanks!
The possibilities for sorely-needed restructuring of the economy of goods are worth exploring. So-called durable goods, which as you have pointed out elsewhere can be much more durable than they are made to be today, for economic reasons, become far lower in cost-per-use than perishable ones. This changes the definition of scarcity, and by extension the definition of wealth. This could be as disruptive as the transition, say, from feudalism to mercantilism. Will it have a correspondingly large and positive effect on human dignity and freedom? One might hope.
I honestly see technology as a threat to capitalism, though coming from both directions: Sharing on one end, monopoly on the other. I am not sure how that one is going to go, but it’s one of the stories I’m thinking about tackling next. We can hope that dignity wins over feudalism; not ready to lay down my chips yet, but I can hope.
You don’t mention 3-D molecular printers, which may be able to produce almost anything in-house. You won’t even need Amazon to deliver items…just print out what you need, from a diamond to a spoon, to a hamburger, to a shirt. Just fill the printer with the raw materials…probably powders or liquids providing various elements or small molecules, and load the software to control the printing of whatever you want.
I’m a chemist by training, and back when I was in graduate school I was excited about the prospect for molecular building blocks. But man, it turned out to be hard – to give some context, the average time from lab to product in materials science is about 20 years. I’ve worked on stuff that finally hit the market 50 years after invention. It’s tough stuff.
That said, I am *very* interested in 3D printing overall. The opportunity for customization is compelling; as much as I love the idea of sharing, it won’t work for arch supports and ergonomics. Innovation is coming from all directions, and it’s pretty cool.
Brilliant Sir! Your article is actually a very practical window in terms of the enabling of the sharing economy. Given that UBI might come into the picture as well, we might have a situation which enables local self sufficient communes enabled by highly efficient supply chain. Companies may start seeing themselves as enablers to P2P commerce. Possibly the end of capitalism may be (as one of the comments above puts it) might be capitalism again.
Thank you! And I like that thought – the end of capitalism might be more capitalism. Just a very different sort.
I have read your article and shared it extensively. It does provide a solution to peak oil potentially reducing the peak. And getting a fully- charged autonomous car would make our lives much richer. We already do JIT food with condiments because we rent our place in the winter when we snowbird for 5 months. This just makes the process much easier. Like I only have one sweater but sometimes need some variety even though I am in perpetual summer. I do rent tools after downsizing.
I wonder if by changing the distribution model such that less stuff is needed, how that changes the producer business model. Is the cost of entry (R&D) too high if you don’t make and sell as many widgets, even if the per widget sales price is higher because it is shared? I’m curious how this balance would be struck.
A good question, Jenny. I did not directly state in this post (though will in subsequent ones) that delivery is fairly undifferentiated. This means it tends towards economies of scale (there is little difference between companies other than price and on-time performance, and both get better as you get bigger), which means that monopolies or oligopolies will control distribution. If oligopolies control distribution and have some pricing power, then manufacturers end up with very little margin.
I think that structure also tilts product design towards specialized experts who have a brand name that matters (e.g., Oxo); if people demand that brand, then the distributor will be forced to carry it. So brands can make money on one end, subscription/delivery will make money on another, and producers have razor thin margins, and will invest as little as possible in R&D.
The best reference I can think of would be this post from Stratechery: https://stratechery.com/2017/intel-mobileye-and-smiling-curves/. Take a look, and see what you think.
Thanks for this thought-provoking view.
One sentence made me curious: “that I’d rather she work in design than computer science, because that is where the jobs will be.”
I’m a software engineer myself and have two kids. Until now I saw computer science as a “safe field” for the future. Could you please share your opinion why you prefer design over CS? Thanks a lot.
Uwe, thanks for catching that. I can try to articulate this in a metaphor: Coding used to be a high skill, artisanal profession like metalworking, something you had to train for years to be good at. So let’s look at history: As the value of metal became evident, and technology improved, we learned how to make metal with machines. The skill levels needed dropped: We developed pre-formed pieces. The bulk of metalworking ceased to be artisan; work standardized into screwing or riveting something in place.
This looks roughly like what is happening with the modern coding. Design is different in that it is inherently a systems level activity – when one person designs the door, and another person the handle, and a third person does the install, we end up with a bunch of doors that no one knows whether to push or pull. Human behavior ends up being both diverse and contextual, and technology means the context keeps changing, so my hypothesis is that there is much less opportunity for standardization in design.
Take all this with the grain of salt it deserves. But if the previous generation led to the rise of managers as the glue that held together bureaucracy, and the current one features nerds as the glue of technology, the next generation may witness the rise of designers as the glue of functionality. Because the designers will be more than capable of screwing together the components themselves.
I agree with you. I think a simpler analogy might be that as lower level skills become totally automated, it is best to get trained on higher level skills in order to secure your future. When I started in the computer industry, all my skills became totally obsolete, so I shifted to sales because professional sales skills are timeless. I had a very successful career and eventually retired. Now I manage my pile of money and find that outsourcing what I do is impossible.
I do agree, that design and sales seem to be “safe” professions (not becoming obsolete in the future).
I do not agree with coding becoming obsolete (at least not “soon”). But as a coder myself I’m very biased 🙂
Thanks for both your replies. It is food for thought.
Your blog offers valuable insight that, on a macro scale, I cannot disagree with. I think much of your predictions are true, and I find it very troublesome, partially because while I don’t doubt the validity of the claims, I think that they are short-sighted. The troubling aspect is that I think people, too, are shortsighted, and things will be overlooked in pursuit of these advances. More specifically, these moves that appear to be for the sake of themselves- advancement “just because.”
I disagree with your assessment of music, as there is something ritualistic, ethereal, whatever you wish to call it, about putting on a vinyl record. Yes, that is a very hipster thing to say, but for many people there is also a lot of truth to it. The ritual of listening to a record — the intent, of sitting down, and focusing on a record. Sure, I listen to 2 Chainz on my iPhone at work, but sitting down and listening to Sonny Rollins or Mountain on vinyl is a different experience, and it’s worth mentioning. There is also the hunt — something that even Amazon cannot truly provide — in seeking and eventually finding the first pressing of your favorite hardcore band circa 1988. Sure, I have it on MP3 already, and CD, and even cassette — but the last piece of that puzzle was vinyl, and I finally got it.
This also brings me to another point that I find disconcerting — that all of these advancements, are they truly advancements? Sure, you can store things on the cloud, but what does this afford you? Not having as many physical possessions? Not requiring the physical space to store these things? It avoids the greater topic, and encourages /more/ rampant consumerism, I would think. Or at least, if it doesn’t avoid the topic, I think that is how it will be utilized — to further the notion of quantity over quality. What is truly gained by not possessing a physical copy of a CD? A smaller home? Being realistic, I cannot imagine that actually being how this will play out over time. What is gained by not having to drive to the store to get your produce? What will people honestly do with that time? Will we be bettering ourselves, our society, or will we be watching Judge Judy (or perhaps more appropriately, reading blog posts at night)? What about the social interaction one gets in pursuit of these things? I know the people at my grocery store. I know the owners of the record store I go to. Those relationships, while not what I would call friendships, don’t lack meaning or value.
Ownership matters, at least to me. I don’t collect much, and I like to think that I do not over-consume, but what I do own is thoughtfully procured in some form or another. I’ve heard the argument that no one is saying you can’t still own things, in such a future as you describe, but the problem is that the market will dictate that you cannot — ownership will become antiquated, rapidly. Again, I find this disconcerting.
I also have some concern about your assessment of the pantry. As far as modern society is concerned, you are mostly correct. The pantry means nothing; ingredients come to life when you cook them, etc… But the pantry, traditionally, was intended for long-term storage; over-wintering, canning, so on and so forth. While this may no longer be /necessary/, what happens when that drone vegetable delivery service is down? What happens when the power is out? What will you rely on then, without a pantry or some other ample food storage? Surely, if my previous remarks didn’t make me sound crazy, this probably will — but it incorporates with my previous statements as well… ownership matters. I can listen to music without the internet, because I possess it (I don’t own a hand-crank phonograph, so I do still require power). I can feed myself because I have a pantry.
I’m a bit afraid that my two main topics are so far apart that this will seem too disjointed. My apologies for that.
You’re a good writer, and I enjoy your posts. Keep it up.
Great comment, you raised a lot of interesting questions!
I just want to comment on your point about the pantry. We already depend on an uninterrupted supply of water and electricity, continuously maintained roads, supermarket supply chains etc. for our survival. If any of this infrastructure breaks, somebody (service provider, local government, central government) has to come up with an infrastructure-level solution quickly. Individuals don’t really have the option to do much to manage the situation – not for any extended period anyway.
It seems to me that technological development has generally led to increased dependence. Based on that historical trend, I think the practicality and sheer convenience of getting stuff on demand will easily win out over independence and emergency management.
My personal data point: When I lived in LA, I kept the designated 5 gallons of water in storage, just in case of earthquake. But most of the people I knew did not. A quick Google search shows that about 40% of Californians have water ready, and I bet that is an overestimate (responding ‘yes’ so as not to feel silly’). We mostly live in the moment, and are continuously rewarded for doing so.
As for vinyl, you are not the only person I know who loves it, and you can actually see its comeback in the music sales data starting in 2010. I think there is comfort in the ritual of the thing – the object ties us to our history. Its why people maintain old cars, or keep gun collections, or knit.
And yet I do wonder if my kids will do any of that, because the new generation is not growing up with things in the first place. No one in my generation collects reissued wax cylinder recordings or carriages, whose history ended before ours began. Who what could the next generation bond with? My 16 year old hates the typeface used in my wife’s collection of 80s and 90s sci-fi books, so she reads everything on the kindle. What physical thing will be left to cling to, beyond a few stuffed animals from childhood and the posters on her wall?
Maybe this lack of mooring is a loss. I don’t know, because she gains such a richness of digital memories (pictures, music, film), and can express her rituals there. But thanks for making me think about it.
It’s particularly ironic for me as I don’t hold sentimental value in much, as far as physical objects are concerned. I’m not a total Luddite, and I believe it’s all about balance. I use a Kindle, though I primarily use it for things that I don’t plan to read again (I read a fair amount of garbage fiction, and enjoy it, but it’s a “one and done” kind of deal). The concern initiates from the idea that the incentive will be far more fleeting for providers of tangible, physical goods to continue to provide them. There will always be a niche, for sure, but as the major players start to suffer from profit loss, the remaining companies will be able to charge a higher premium, and as such only the economically prosperous of us will have those goods.
Perhaps it’s not a loss to a generation that hasn’t experienced it, but I don’t really think of it as a promising aspect of the future. In particular, the fact that a book on a Kindle is not mine, it is merely a lease for a period of time that is to be determined by the entity leasing it to me. The same is true for cloud computing, and I don’t think that people really consider the impact of that. I think that as technology advances, the general population becomes more blinded to how it actually works. Computer users no longer have to understand how things work to use them. In a sense, it’s revolutionary and freeing to an average person to be able to do things that were once solely in the domain of nerds. In another, that freedom can be taken away at someone else’s discretion.
“The cloud isn’t real; it’s just someone else’s computer” rings very true in many ways, though proponents of the technology loathe the phrase.
I guess I am of the mind that the idea of ownership by the masses is relatively new in human history. The idea that we can exist independently of the community also strikes me as very modern, and ephemeral. So it would not shock me to see either decline.
The idea of moving off the land to specialize in a trade was probably equally scary back in the day, composed of both freedom and dependency. The cloud strikes me as just as (un)real as the marketplace, with the same risks and rewards. Whether the marketplace itself was the right step for humanity… now you are talking about a late night of philosophy!
I think it is a generational thing. We are likely the last groups that cherishes things. Kids today are in the moment. Snapchat will throw away that picture for you after sharing it. A far cry from the photo albums of the past. Same with Storage Wars. The Inventory will dry up as we die off.
If something does not come into your home via a wire or a tube, you’re looking at an obsolete distribution system. Much of what we consume is already delivered by wire or tube… water, gas, electricity, entertainment, information, communication, education, employment, routine family contact, routine business contact, e-government, intellectual stimulus, and many emotions. Let’s call them STREAMABLES.
Then there’s OBJECTS such as food, drink, clothing, tools, electronics, equipment, etc. Lumpy things that one has to go fetch or get delivered.
Finally, there’s HUMAN INTERACTIONS such as medical visits, meetups, sitting at cafes, hanging out at the mall, sports and travel activities, and sex with humans. Difficult to stream.
But you can’t stop evolutionary optimization. As with the food-chain, things will try to move up the “stream-chain”. OBJECTS will be turned into STREAMABLES as soon possible.
So how do we stream all OBJECTS into people’s homes ? Easy. Lay 20 centimeter tubes to all homes, modify all objects, even pizza, so that they fit into standardized 20 centimeter shuttles, and zap them around with pneumatics. Hyperloop on a smaller scale. Let’s call it “microloop”.
There are a few steampunk-era technical challenges such as nodes and routing, but since this system was already extensively used in the 19th century without any digital help, today’s geeks should be able to optimize it. Simple old hat post-steampunk aeronautical tech such as hub-and-spoke, GPS and digital signalling will solve most problems. Experimentation can go fast, because there is no human risk involved. We’ll leave human transport to Elon.
No one knows who killed Pneumatics, but they retarded human development by decades and led to today’s peak fossil.
It’s the physical fuel-driven carting around that’s legacy, even if it’s done by drones or self-driving cars. And Amazon is the last dying spasm of the old fossil world. Yes, the telegraph did replace the Pony Express.
More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pneumatic_tube
That’s a neat point. Ultimately, the question of whether we will ever get pipes to our homes depends on the cost of those pipe, relative to the profits that can be reached from installing and controlling the piping. The things that we use the most consistently – like electricity, or telephone in the old days – merit their own pipes. For those cases, there is no real alternative for on-demand service.
Yet the cost of setting up the pipes is severe, as Google Fiber found out – unable to offer cable TV at a competitive price, they could not underwrite the cost of the fiber based on internet access alone. And I think this is the right metaphor to use – just as with fiber to the home, an alternative exists (driving) whose development and deployment costs are being defrayed by another application (moving people). So I struggle to believe that delivery to the home will be competitive.
Here is your alternative hypothesis – delivery of electricity by battery may become competitive with delivery by wires, which currently runs in the range of 4-7¢/kWh. If the cost of autonomous driving drops as low as I believe it will, and the cost of batteries continues to fall, in a decade or so we could see real competition for grid transmission. A crazy thought, but if the roads are paid for by other activity, not an impossible one.