Tag Archives: innovation

Work is Irrelevant

Work, that of pursuing a specific passion or purpose, has become irrelevant. As technology increasingly gains momentum, we’ve moved from the age of work/life blur to the age of tech/life blur.

For instance, if you’re a writer, it’s not the content that matters (the work itself), but how the content is consumed and packaged. “We are on the brink of accessing digital content through what they call the ‘splinternet,’” argues Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath. “Devices, hardware, software, applications and content, rather than being offered interoperably in a wide-open World Wide Web are increasingly going to be stacked up in proprietary ecosystems in which denizens can talk only to each other.”

So iPad apps like Flipboard, Zite and others like it are becoming the norm and offer “a much more natural way to consume content on a tablet, and the aggregation they provide is like having a customized newspaper available at any time,” argues Matthew Ingram on GigaOm. “The aggregation, personalization and customization that such apps allow is the future of content consumption.”

The introduction of the tablet has changed the reading experience such that it is now acceptable to charge for content. This is really the way the New York Times metered subscription is set up. When you pay for a New York Times subscription, you’re not really paying for content (the work), but paying to read it on your computer screen, your tablet, your Kindle, and your mobile app. You’re paying to read it how you want to on the splinternet. You’re not paying for the work, but the technology to consume it.

In the age of newspapers, we did charge for information, but now we charge for the customizability of how that information is delivered. It’s the media company’s job to design the experience of their digital offerings, not just create the content and they can’t keep up. So now, even though newspapers didn’t invent the printing press (the rapidity of typographical text production led to newspapers), they’re being pressured to invent the next revolution.

In reality, what will happen is just how the Internet created blogs (and what many are now calling a sub-optimal reading experience), tech start-ups will continue to invent new ways to consume information, and as a result, new companies and creators will come along with new types of content in response.

This is all happening at such a rapid pace (and in all industries, not just media which I’ve only used as an example), that we’re much more concerned with the rhythm and output of innovation than we are of the work itself.

We know most content on the web is crap. We know there’s nothing really amazing or revolutionary about what we consume on our iPhones. The most popular activity is Scrabble. I like to look and see where people are on Foursquare. You might check on the weather. On Google, I rarely find what I’m actually looking for, but I will receive twenty-four million results for trying. The tech/life blur says nevermind the banality of what you consume on technology, just be subservient to the fact that it exists.

That is why there is such a ginormous focus on work fulfillment when we have never cared about such a notion before. We want to work towards something bigger than ourselves, but technology is already bigger than ourselves, and so there’s a certain confusion, an aimlessness and a fractionation of our work. That which tells us that if you’re a writer, you’re no longer a writer. You’re a blogger, and an amateur coder, you can sell, you’re a marketer, you know PR, software and a bit of graphic design, you’re an accountant and you’re a publisher. Your side projects feed into your day job. And all of your jobs feed through the Internet. This is what it means to live on the Internet, consumed by the processes instead of the action.

Work is empty. Technology fills us. It’s not what we do, but how we do it. Of course that can only last so long before the focus on how we do something obliterates all meaning of what we’re doing.

How the iPad is (Thankfully) Destroying Our Economy

iPad 2 - HomescreenPhoto: connorsmac

There are a cohort of people who are still buying McMansions in the suburbs; I see the photos on Facebook, “Our New Home!” revealing beige wall-to-wall carpeting (still mysteriously associated with upward mobility), reminiscent of the early 90s, chosen to soften the echoes of monstrously high ceilings usually reserved for public spaces. The outside of the home is similarly beige with french windows framed by a brick veneer and a peaked roof that inevitably evokes some strange sense of American pride and envy… for it does look nice if you’re just glancing by in a car.

But despite the constant commercial endorsement of this wearisome American Dream, such idyllic photos no longer sway the hearts or pocketbooks of the majority of young people who have made it clear they will not be the ones to save the housing market. Even the young billionaire Mark Zuckerburg rents, and in the city, not the suburbs.

It wasn’t too long ago that people flaunted materialism. “Goods [were] exclusive or status related rather than universal, private rather than public” reports economist Tyler Cowen. But whereas the automobile enabled freedom for previous generations, today’s generation use digital devices as a means for self expression. That has made possible an economy focused on knowledge and experiences, not consumer goods.

E-book author Ev Bogue took a photo of every single item he owns and encourages visitors to his site to “count, there aren’t many.” His belongings total a fundamental 32 things. Bogue is a proponent of augmented humanity, and encourages his readers to “cultivate presence at the intersection of life and Instagr.am,” a popular iPhone photo app.

“The incentive with these apps is to live a more extraordinary and present life,” Bogue argues. “If you aren’t living, there’s nothing much to Instagr.am, and thus people will forget about you. No one necessarily wants to see an Instagr.am of a desk. We know this, so I don’t often see photos of desks on Instagr.am.”

While Bogue may fall on the side of extreme in the experience economy for his privileged stylings, his penchant for walks in the forest over a new dining set is shared by his peers. We prefer to live by our screens, not among objects, and so the knowledge economy is just that – in our minds (and on our iPads) and not in the revenue-generating sector of the economy.“The funny thing is,” Cowen argues, “getting away from materialism on such a large scale – whatever the virtues of the switch – really, really hurts. It is the hurt that we in America are living right now.”

We assumed innovation would arrive the way it always has, but technology gave innovation new forms, and insistence on the-way-it-always-was kind of economy subsequently delivered the situation we’re in today: a growing income inequality, stagnant median income, and the financial crisis.

Cowen admits “you can be an optimist when it comes to our happiness and personal growth yet still be a pessimist when it comes to generating economic revenue or paying back our financial debts,” and “even if we can, at the personal level, manage to feel fulfilled under slower economic growth, it is not compatible with how modern politics [and economics] is structured, namely as a ravenous beast.”

Obviously Cowen knows something screwy is happening. But for all of Cowen’s awareness of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, he never goes as far to eschew the current economic framework, a system simply not suited for a knowledge and experience-based economy.

That system is legacy-based, and its “operating system for money is obsolete,” argues media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. “It is optimized for a different era than the one we are living in today. It is incompatible with Web 2.0 and the Interneted world.”

The Internet has allowed an economy where money, the dependency and abstraction of which has caused the financial crisis, is not the singular centralized currency. On the decentralized web, reputation is a currency. Authority is another. Data, influence, badges, credits and identity are also currencies. There are several currencies on the free and open web in fact – none of which are widely recognized at J. Crew. Increasingly that’s because the point is not to exchange value for consumer goods, but for the stuff inside our screens.

I’ll take a deeper dive into the economy and currencies our digital lives are creating in part two of this post later this week.

“Chain of Fools” No Longer

Chain, chain, chains…. the seduction of big-box stores call to us in the deep, sultry sound of discount, and the lure of low prices are hard to deny. But things are changing. As suburb residents flee back to the city, the scale of monotony is being downsized and localized.

National chains are becoming local brands.

The average Walmart store is close to 200,000 sq ft; that’s the size of Facebook’s new office, four football fields, and three-hundred sixty-three New York studio apartments. But in 1998, Walmart tested a 40,000 sq ft Neighborhood Market store, and now has 200 of those around the country. Not be outdone by itself, Walmart then cut their stores in half again to the 15,000 sq ft Marketside prototype that focuses on fresh food. This month, they’re down to a miniscule 10,000 sq ft in an existing building on the college campus of Arkansas. And soon, Walmart will materialize in New York City, one of the last bastions of place.

But it might all end up alright; don’t shed a tear just yet.

The U.S. Constitution’s basic tenet is based on the federalist rule of national governments allowing States to operate independently. National chains can do the same. I like to call it corporate federalism: the notion that national brands can allow local stores to operate independently. Imagine a business where novelty isn’t fed to us as New and Improved!, but as genuine difference and discovery. The national chain’s local brand would depend on the area’s local identity and needs.

Here’s an example. Duane Reade recently responded to chain disdain from young hipsters and yuppies in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn by including something most neighborhood drugstores do not have: a specialty beer bar that features nine local, craft and imported beers – and the store allows for tastings.

Duane Reade is the first to undercut local businesses not just on price or assortment, but on experience.  And not just a brand experience (any old chain can do that), but a local one. In an ideal world, corporate federalism would mean local chains purchase goods and services from other local businesses and return more of their revenue to the local economy – just like local businesses do.

Essentially, national chains would create local brands within their umbrella that would benefit from the efficiencies of the larger organization. Local employees would be free to adapt the brand to their neighborhood. It’s a tall order, but with the behemoth giant Walmart actually becoming smaller, and Duane Reade customizing their stores to match neighborhoods, it’s not too far off.

Our shared experiences no longer need to be those of purchases and parking debacles from Ikea, Walmart and Starbucks. Instead, national chains have the opportunity to build and expand upon the je ne sais quoi feeling that defines a sense of place.

If chains operated as local brands, the money would stay local. The focus would be on the depth of the experience, not the scale of the box. Economies would improve. And there wouldn’t be too much to crow about anymore. Perhaps there wouldn’t be as many local jobs since the national headquarters would remain elsewhere, but that is the reality of scaling a business, and the changing nature of work. Our jobs can be location-independent, but the places we live cannot.

Indeed, if chains were operated as local brands, it would be hard to find a weak link.