Thursday, December 17, 2009

Some Ideas Whose Time Has Come (Again)

The other day the WSJ ran a story on a low-tech craze sweeping Silicon Valley—entrepreneurial evenings devoted to the board game “Settlers of Catan.”  Of course, in SV it’s called “live networking” (where we used to just call it “game night”), but it’s all the same thing: people moving off their keyboards and socializing in person.  How quaint.

That’s not the only oldie but goldie making a comeback as we round the bend into a new decade.  Look at what’s happening on TV.  The biggest hit, attracting 22 million viewers every week, is “NCIS.”   As the WSJ reports, it “barely has a fan Web site. . .its viewers seldom time-shift,” and they are anything but the “young, urban demographic” that advertisers craze.  But “’NCIS’ is proof that even if the economics of the business are in upheaval, large swathes of the audience still want traditional storytelling, righteous heroes, and reality that’s not offensively gritty.”  Producers even say they avoid parochial or offensive humor.  How quaint.

(What's next?  Do you suppose people will begin playing solitaire again with actual cards?)

How about this: AOL is once again independent. The company that introduced many of us to the Web was also, ten years ago, supposed to herald the new era of synergistic “old and new media” when it combined with Time Warner.  The result has been an unmitigated disaster with more than $100 billion in shareholder value lost.  Earlier this month the companies separated, both as smaller entities, mostly (in the case of AOL) behind the competition, or (in the case of Time, Fortune and People) trying to weather the advertising recession and movement of eyeballs to the Web.  Old media is once again old media and looking for ways to survive and grow.  New media is once again new media and battling for technological advantage.  How quaint.

An article by Alan Tonelson in the recent Harper's magazine suggests “old things new” in national economics far transcends even the AOL/Time Warner debacle.  Tonelson says the story our business and political leaders have been telling us for decades, that the alarming decline in the U.S. manufacturing sector was simply the ushering in of a spectacular new era of information technologies—well, that story turned out to be so wrong.

It seems that manufacturing, something we used to be good at, might be something we really should be good at again, and fast.  “Today,” Tonelson writes, “the idea of maintaining a genuine American prosperity without a vibrant manufacturing sector stands exposed as a fairy tale.”

“American business leaders are cooling their long infatuation with ‘post-industrialism,’” Tonelson adds.  “Manufacturing is suddenly all the rage.  After forty years of outsourcing and globalization, business leaders are beginning to understand that real, self-sustaining American recovery and prosperity require a manufacturing base that is not only highly productive and innovative but is a much larger share of gross domestic product.”

Americans building real stuff.  How quaint.

I could go on.  Remember the age of conglomerates in the 1960s, which all came to a screeching halt when we were warned (by In Search of Excellence) to “stick to the knitting” and by folks like Chris Zook to “profit from the core?”  Well, when the world’s largest, revered on-line bookseller expands into blenders and socks, it seems like a logical expansion from the core.  But cloud computing?  E-book hardware?   Or how about when the world’s largest search engine, the-greatest-company-built-on-algorithms-ever-devised-by-man decides to launch its own phone?  Algorithm. . .search. . .hardware.  Of course--a natural progression from the core.  Sounds like the 1960s to me.  Very quaint.   

And, how about the coming disaster in cloud computing, or so tech prognosticator Mark Andersen predicts.  With everyone, big and small, storing sensitive corporate, consumer and personal data “somewhere else, in somebody else’s server” (my simple definition of “the cloud”), the time is ripe for massive espionage, fraud and theft.   That’ll encourage lots of folks, big and small, to reconsider where they store their sensitive data.  Some may even keep it on a server in their company or home.  How quaint.

Finally, and unlike (I reported) last holiday season, Christmas tree sales are exploding.  This is a good sign for all retailers, and a good sign for the economy.  More spending.  More stuff under the tree.  The Ghost of Christmas Past.

Maybe someone will even buy me a board game, like “Settlers of Catan.”  One that I could play with real people, in person.  Live networking in my own home.

Old things new.  How quaint.