“Disruption” is one of Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzwords. The word carries myriad connotations, but in the collective conscience I tend to think it conveys “technology screwing up a product, service, or market that worked before.” We might not have liked the way that thing worked but hey, at least it worked. Some of these disruptions have been fairly inconsequential. My new television is flat and cheap, for example. Others are fairly significant: My TV is watching me back. That’s just creepy and unnecessary.
A list of industries disrupted during the last twenty years would be much longer than I care to write or you care to read, so here are ten examples from my own little corner of the universe. I’d like to read yours in the comments.
1. My Local Bike Shop:
The joint was located less than a mile from my house. It was a true local business, opened by a cycling enthusiast who rolled the dice and left his square job for a better life. He ran it wisely, too, with a competent shop in the back and everything from cruisers to carbon fiber racers up front.
He seemed to be doing well, so I was surprised to see the “going out of business” sign in the window. “What happened?” I asked. “You always had people in here.”
“Yeah, they’d come in and I’d spend an hour fitting them for a bike, and then they’d go online and buy it,” he said.
Replaced By: An empty storefront.
2. My Land Line: I held onto my old-timey, three copper wire, four volt telephone line as long as I could for one simple reason: It was bullet proof. In a world that increasingly suffers from voip clip (“I wo- i- you wan- -o -o t- the mo-ies -night?”), a telephone that reliably functioned as a telephone was worth the money to me.
Unfortunately, the telephone company disagreed. They grew more and more reluctant to maintain their old infrastructure as they pushed cruddy, bundled, all-in-one packages that were overpriced and suffered the heinous voip clip. No more land line for me, but not by choice.
Replaced By: Cellphones that work best as everything except telephones and voice over internet packages that work great when they work and suck when they don’t.
3. Dictionaries/Encylopediae: Every grade school book report I turned in was thoroughly researched via an encyclopedia that was 25 years out of date. America didn’t have 50 states. Israel wasn’t a country. On and on. They were worthless for current events; however, I tended to thumb through those 26 volumes with no certain purpose, looking at birds and world heritage sites and yada yada. Spending time poking through those books exposed me to a lot that I wouldn’t have otherwise bothered to pay attention to, which is true for the internet, too, but not in quite the same way.
As for the dictionary; well, I still have one with my initials next to the words that I looked up. I tried doing the same on my computer screen, but it just made a mess.
Replaced By: Spellcheckers have rendered most people’s dictionary usage obsolete, and if its definitions you’re after those are readily available online. And while Wikipedia is prone to hacking and other mischief, the site’s articles provide a good starting point for basic question answering.
4. Road Maps: For my $3.95, trips were more fun with road maps. I remember getting out a piece of string and tracing my path across the country so that I could estimate my mileage, planning my stops, and imagining what big adventures awaited me.
Replaced By: GPS is significantly more accurate and convenient, but I miss highlighting my route from A to B and writing on my map as I go.
5. Privacy: This is the big one. During my lifetime, privacy has gone from a cornerstone of American culture to an afterthought. Thirty years ago the idea of stoplight cameras would’ve been derided as an overreaching surveillance state, and now we shrug our shoulders at the actual overreaching surveillance state. We send our DNA to private companies because it’s fun to learn that our great-great-great-great-great granddaddy was French. We leave digital footprints wherever we go. We literally submit to x-rays just to board an airplane.
Replaced By: Constant surveillance, both public and private.
6. Must See TV: When M*A*S*H’s final episode aired on February 28, 1983, 125 million people tuned in. A little over 200 million people lived in the United States at that time. Most of us were lounging in our own living rooms, but of course there were viewing parties scattered across the country. Regardless, 125 million shared a collective experience that night.
M*A*S*H was a great show, but the big driver there was that most of us only had three channels to watch back in ’83. If you didn’t want to watch the big finale, your only other choices were That’s Incredible or a made for TV movie starring Desi Arnaz, Jr. Fewer choices meant more of us shared similar pop culture touchpoints.
Replaced By: In the era of on-demand programming, the only collective viewing experience that occurs on that scale is the Super Bowl. Boutique, or targeted, must-see TV like a Game of Thrones season finale, for example, draws rabid fans but doesn’t come near the collective, cultural impact of the Big Three era.
7. Movies For Grown-Ups: Since we’re on the subject of pop culture, let’s talk about movies. Bad movies have always existed, and I love them (I really do), but the big studios used to make more movies about actual people with actual problems living actual lives. That sounds boring, but The Godfather can be described that way, as can Annie Hall or Looking For Mr. Goodbar. Even The Bad News Bears falls into this category, as does Rocky.
Replaced By: I don’t know whether the driver is international markets, the relatively low cost of CGI, or an assumption that movie theaters must compete with video game consoles, but character-driven stories have been supplanted by caricature-driven stories. I don’t care about superheroes, nor do I want to watch Vin jump a dirt bike over a passenger jet. I just want a story about people.
8. Shopping Malls: Shopping malls were once the hub of suburban life. They were enclosed, miniature cities with something for everyone: toy stores, arcades, record stores, book stores, clothes, jewelry, novelty gifts and “back massagers,” greeting cards, snow tires, tobacco pipes, haircuts, shoes, photo developing, hot nuts, cheese and meat in log form, sunglasses, wicker chairs and hammocks, and Chess King.
Replaced By: Suburban decay in many areas, and malls devoid of all but clothes, jewelry, and an Apple store in others. The rest of you can take your pick of Wal-Mart or Amazon.
9. The Trivia Guy: Being the trivia guy used to mean something. Mostly it meant you were an annoying jackass, but it still meant something. Who played the kid on Courtship of Eddie’s Father and what did he do later in his career? What was the name of the Munster’s car? What album was “Strawberry Fields Forever” initially released on? My buddies and I would argue for hours over this junk, and unless there was a reference book or something similar handy the closest we came to a resolution was either consensus or agreeing that the trivia guy was probably right. If nothing else, he always sounded sure. It wasn’t really about the answer anyway. Just having something to talk about for an hour or two was fun.
Replaced By: Google, Siri, Alexa. Questions are answered in seconds now. The trivia guy is dead, long live the trivia guy.
10. Cars You Had To Drive. My first car had a manual choke. Whether to engage the choke was dependent on how long the car had been sitting, whether the ambient temperature was hot or cold, what the moon phase was, etc. It had roll-up windows, too, and a clutch pedal, two carburetors that frequently needed to be synchronized, points and a rotor that needed to be adjusted, on and on. Braking was a harrowing experience that required downshifting while pumping the brake pedal and praying loudly. No power steering, power windows, power brakes, power anything. My first car was a glorified go-cart. In other words, the driver was an integral part of the car.
Replaced By: Reliable vehicles that all but drive themselves, and it won’t be long before they do that, too.
Things change. Progress marches on, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. I guess what concerns me about all of this disruption is the potential unintended consequences. Television kind of sucked in the Big Three era, but maybe the shared experience had more social value than we realize. Perhaps there’s a correlation between political tribalism, selective “facts,” and our new, on-demand pop culture. And all of those great online bargains mean your thousands of friends and neighbors who used to work at the local shopping mall don’t. What are they doing now? I don’t know, but those jobs are gone. That has to have some kind of consequence. I know that the death of my local bike shop means I can’t grab a tube when I need one, or drop in and get my wheel knocked back into true.
But there’s no pointing in bitching, I guess. We can’t put the disruption toothpaste back into the tube. Instead, I think I’ll go sit in front of a surveillance camera and answer trivia questions. Do you know the Professor’s and Skipper’s names? I do.