We lived in Beaumont, TX for one year. It was the early 1970s, I was fresh out of college, getting my feet wet in the work world. I was a youth minister, but really preparing for my preaching years. Every week, (sometimes more than once a week), I would drive to a small bookstore. These days, we would call it an “independent bookstore.” It was a Christian bookstore – i.e., books that dealt with faith, and church, and preaching… The woman who owned the bookstore knew her books, and kept up with the new releases. I mean, she knew what was in these books, what they dealt with… I got to know this woman. She was “middle-aged,” and smart. I was young, hungry to learn. She was not a “clerk,” she was a teacher. When I resigned, and readied to leave Beaumont, she was one of the first I told.
I loved that bookstore – and her wise counsel.
I could tell other such stories. I am a serious Nero Wolfe fan. I have every volume of the Rex-Stout-written volumes, and re-read the entire corpus every few years. In Snyder Plaza in University Park, there used to be a Mystery Bookstore. The woman who owned it (at least, I assume she owned it), tried to tell me that the newer Nero Wolfe mysteries, written by Robert Goldlborough with the approval of the Rex Stout estate, were worthy of my time. I did not warm up to them, though I appreciated her recommendations.
But now… as much as I love the customer reviews on Amazon (our blogging colleague Bob Morris has written many, many of them), they do not quite mean as much as those conversations with that Beaumont bookstore owner meant to me.
And now, a few “fulfillment center” workers, and lines of code getting me my Kindle App versions of books, have replaced how many countless book-loving bookstore owners across the country?
Call this a snapshot of the modern economy, and one of the reasons why many jobs are disappearing, and others are “less” than they used to be. In recent weeks, we have learned that “temp workers” are rising rapidly in the overall percentage of jobs. Here’s the current national look, from this article:
Workers at temporary-help service agencies accounted for about one-third of U.S. job gains in June.
And, read this from Andrew Sullivan: Temps Are Here to Stay. It has links to more. Here’s a key paragraph.:
In the early 1980s, employment in the “temporary help services” industry—which covers both temp workers and employees of the firms that supply them—stood in the several hundreds of thousands. Now it’s 2.5 million, a seven-fold increase in less than four decades. By 2020, the BLS foresees more than 440,000 new jobs in the sector. In the meantime, the temp craze has expanded from air-conditioned offices to warehouses and construction sites.
And, I recently posted about Farhad Manjoo’s rather alarming look at the ascendancy of Amazon and its threat on all retail. And I am part of the reason – blame me. It so happens that I like this development. Over the weekend, I ordered: numerous household items, ink for my printer, a book or two for my Kindle App, and did so while never leaving my iPad or my easy chair. In other words, I am helping put people out of a job. I called my take on Manjoo’s article: Amazon’s Secret – Make it Easy; Make it Fast; Make it Insanely Convenient. And that is what Amazon has become for me – easy, fast, convenient. (Oh, and money-saving).
But, here is the thing. In our quest for convenience and speed, and in the successful efforts of so many companies’ innovative techniques in giving us “what we want” (Amazon is clearly #1 in this regard), the outcome is this: it takes fewer and fewer people to provide us what we want. (And, if you have not read, Amazon has invested in some robot company that will replace even more fulfillment center workers).
And, so… temp workers are on the rise; automation is on the rise; retail is threatened. And so I ask again, as I have numerous times on this blog, where will the jobs be?
I am a convert. As I have written before, I now buy most of my books (all that are available digitally) on Amazon’s Kindle App for my iPad. I get my protein bars though Amazon. I get my ink for my printer from Amazon. And a whole lot more. And my experience on Amazon has made me a more energetic, frequent on-line shopper from other outlets (stores). And, with my Amazon Prime purchase, I get practically everything in two days.
And it is about to get faster.
I have written before about our growing desire/demand for no hassles! (quoting Frank Luntz): We Really Don’t Like Hassles — So, our Agenda: Create “Hassle Free”. And after I presented Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, a participant at our First Friday Book Synopsis said to me: “Here’s what that book said. You’ve got to make the change convenient – you’ve got to make everything convenient.”
Well, Amazon is about to really up the bar on the convenience competition for customers.
We first learned this from Netflix. Their business became more convenient (more convenient than the many, many minutes it took to drive to the local Blockbuster, and browse the shelves). Netflix took off when it became highly likely that you could get your DVD in the mail the day after you ordered it. Convenience! – the day after! (Blockbuster is now bankrupt, by the way). And now, of course, on Netflix you can watch your movie or TV show immediately, streamed onto your computer or your iPad or your iPhone or your Apple TV.
Well, today, Slate.com reminds us that Amazon has matched the Netflix convenience model on practically everything. They are on the verge of providing same-day delivery for most of the country. SAME-DAY DELIVERY FOR THE WIN! This truly is the win in the Super Bowl of the convenience league. As usual, it is the Slate writer Farhad Manjoo who makes this so understandable in his article I Want It Today: How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail.
Mr. Manjoo describes how Amazon has quietly been making many of its deliveries, promised to Amazon Prime customers in two days, in just one day. A convenience surprise! Now, it is about to raise the bar even higher. Partly prompted by the loss of their “no sales tax” advantage (we started paying Amazon our sales taxes in Texas this month), Amazon is getting ready to do provide “fulfillment” even faster.
From the article:
If Amazon can send me stuff overnight for free without a distribution center nearby, it’s not hard to guess what it can do once it has lots of warehouses within driving distance of my house. Instead of surprising me by getting something to me the next day, I suspect that, over the next few years, next-day service will become its default shipping method on most of its items. Meanwhile it will offer same-day service as a cheap upgrade. For $5 extra, you can have that laptop waiting for you when you get home from work. Wouldn’t you take that deal?
I bet you would. Physical retailers have long argued that once Amazon plays fairly on taxes, the company wouldn’t look like such a great deal to most consumers. If prices were equal, you’d always go with the “instant gratification” of shopping in the real world. The trouble with that argument is that shopping offline isn’t really “instant”—it takes time to get in the car, go to the store, find what you want, stand in line, and drive back home. Getting something shipped to your house offers gratification that’s even more instant: Order something in the morning and get it later in the day, without doing anything else. Why would you ever shop anywhere else?
So, here is the lesson for your business. Make it easy. Make it fast. Make it insanely convenient. This is the level of customer service that we will all come to expect.
Amazon will force us all to make it easier, make it faster, make it even more insanely convenient. And if we fall too far behind, well… we will be left behind.
Best Buy is in a lot of trouble
The robot population is growing…fast.
Put this in the “what have you read recently that makes you stop and think?” category.
Yesterday, I read the article by Farhad Manjoo, Making Best Buy Better: The electronics chain’s only hope is to stock fewer products and sell them a whole lot better. Here’s a key excerpt:
Best Buy is in a lot of trouble. Once the undisputed leader in technology retail—it vanquished Circuit City, CompUSA, and every mom-and-pop electronics store in the country—the company is now being killed by Amazon online and Apple offline. In March, Best Buy reported a $1.7 billion quarterly loss and announced that it would close 50 stores.
And, don’t forget:
Amazon recently bought Kiva Systems,a company that makes robots that bring items to warehouse workers for packing, instead of the workers having to run all over the warehouse finding the items. That’s fine for now, but it’s pretty obvious that before too long, the robotic systems will become sophisticated enough that you won’t need the workers at all (or at least you’ll only need a few of them).
That paragraph comes from an article linked to on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Our Robot Future. I have posted before about the rise of automation (in fact, quite a few times), asking “Where will the jobs be?’” This latest news does not bring me any comfort. Here is the key excerpt from Rise of the Machines by Paul Waldman, linked to by Sullivan:
We’re all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won’t have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots’ labors.
…the problem won’t be that the robots will kill us, but that the rise of robots will disintegrate our society, none of us will be able to make a living, and we’ll kill each other. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if a robot cleaned your toilet for you?
Don’t think human looking robots. Think software, automation… Now, I don’t know about you, but my life is increasingly filled with such robots of one kind or another replacing work that used to be done by humans. Just this week, I ordered multiple items from two sources. Amazon and Drugstore.com. I talked to no one. I clicked my mouse, and two days later the products arrived at my front door. Oh, some humans were involved in the transactions. A driver delivered the boxes. Someone supposedly fetched the items from the giant fulfillment center shelves. But I did not go into a store and interact with any humans; software facilitated the orders.
The issue is not “will there be more robots replacing more human jobs?”. There will be. A lot more! (Read the Waldman article. Or, just google it. And the Google automated software will fetch you a mountain of articles describing our automated future).
The question is (and the chorus asking this question is growing), “Where will the jobs be?” Oh, there will be industries adding jobs all along. But will there be enough new jobs, in enough new industries, to provide work for all the unemployed former Best Buy, Circuit City, Amazon.com, workers?
Anyway, that is some of what I read this week.
One of the most popular books for our CCN on-site presentations last year was The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010). In that book, he discusses how the Internet tinkers with the brain, reamps its neural circuitry, and reprograms the memory. While the mind does not go, it certainly changes, and deep reading and concentration become struggles.
I thought that Carr’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Books That Are Never Done Being Written” (December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3) took these thoughts further. In the essay that I reproduced in its entirety below, he argues that digital text ushers in an era where constant revision and updating is not only possible, but becoming normal, for better and for worse.
Have you ever thought about what can happen with this kind of access? Carr says, “School boards will be able to edit textbooks, and dictatorial governments will be able to meddle, too.” The never-ending story will become a reality.
Editable content strains credibility of sources. We already pooh-pooh Wikipedia for that reason. Even though there are controls within its system, they are not great, and people receive laughter when they cite it as a reference in professional and academic circles. I don’t think it’s entirely bad, but I caution people to use it only to get background information about a topic, and to then use its external source links for additional substantiation and elaboration.
For me, the simple addition of an “afterword” to a subsequent printing suffices. In fact, that is what you will find when you purchase Carr’s book. You will find an additional chapter where he provides reactions and updates to his premises from an earlier printing. The same is true of the famous Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear by Frank Luntz (New York: Hyperion, 2007). Between printings, he added a chapter with seven new “words that work.”
The difference between this approach and the massive digital editing approach is that these are author-controlled, and they are also refereed. Today, anyone can put up an e-Book, and no one has to review or approve its content. And, if it is open to massive external editing, the author will have lost control. Whose words are we really reading? And, how do we know that they are factual and accurate?
This essay by Carr is worth reading and contemplating. Before we just jump into the all-digital era, stop reviewing content for accuracy, cast away professional refereeing, and halt publishing of paper-versions of books, maybe we should all take a deep breath and be sure this is what we want to do.
Technological advances are good, but they are amoral. It all depends in whose hands the advances land, and how they use them.
Read the essay below. Then, tell me what you think! Let’s talk about it really soon!
BOOKS THAT ARE NEVER DONE BEING WRITTEN
By Nicholas Carr
Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2011 – January 1, 2012, p. C3
I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.
Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.
A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb “to finalize” became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.
Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention.
Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.
That’s an attractive development in many ways. It makes it easy for writers to correct errors and update facts. Guidebooks will no longer send travelers to restaurants that have closed or to once charming inns that have turned into fleabags. The instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.
Even literary authors will be tempted to keep their works fresh. Historians and biographers will be able to revise their narratives to account for recent events or newly discovered documents. Polemicists will be able to bolster their arguments with new evidence. Novelists will be able to scrub away the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.
But as is often the case with digitization, the boon carries a bane. The ability to alter the contents of a book will be easy to abuse. School boards may come to exert even greater influence over what students read. They’ll be able to edit textbooks that don’t fit with local biases. Authoritarian governments will be able to tweak books to suit their political interests. And the edits can ripple backward. Because e-readers connect to the Internet, the works they contain can be revised remotely, just as software programs are updated today. Movable text makes a lousy preservative.
Such abuses can be prevented through laws and software protocols. What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover. What will be lost, or at least diminished, is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.
Not long before he died, John Updike spoke eloquently of a book’s “edges,” the boundaries that give shape and integrity to a literary work and that for centuries have found their outward expression in the indelibility of printed pages. It’s those edges that give a book its solidity, allowing it to stand up to the vagaries of fashion and the erosions of time. And it’s those edges that seem fated to blur as the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.
The Parable of the Japanese Steel Executives – Don’t Even Try To Do Everything; Do! One! Thing! Very, Very Well
Let’s call this the parable of the Japanese Steel Executives.
I remember an interview years ago with Walter Mondale, then the Ambassador of Japan. He was touring the largest steel plant in Japan, and he asked his hosts, the leaders of the company, what they thought of Bethlehem Steel. After 30 minutes of Japanese deference and politeness, they paused and asked Mr. Mondale why Bethlehem Steel was branching off so far afield from steel with their investments/holdings. Mr. Mondale said that it dawned on him at that moment that the Japanese steel men loved steel – while the American steel men chased after profits. Mondale’s conclusion: the men that loved steel would end up winning the steel wars against the men who chased profits.
Or, in other words – don’t try to do everything, just do! one! thing!, and do it very, very well.
I thought of this as I read the always helpful/educational/useful Farhad Manjoo this morning. He writes about the demise of the HP Tablet, and the absolute dominance of the iPad. (Yes, I have one – – yes, I love it!).
He states that there is actually an opening for a “competitor” to the iPad. No, not quite a competitor. Anyone who can afford a Tablet will opt for the iPad. It is simply that much better than all the pretenders. Instead, there is an opening for those who wish they could afford an iPad, and can’t. The idea is a less expensive, “partial” tablet (my phrase). He describes such a lower priced gizmo, and suggests that Amazon just might be able to make it work. But it won’t be a competitor to the iPad, it will instead open up that next market “down” from the iPad users.
Here’s the line that grabbed me:
In the tablet market, doing more stuff with a worse user experience isn’t as good as doing less but doing it better.
(Read the full article, Do Less, Do It Better: A recipe for Amazon’s rumored iPad competitor).
Doing less, but doing it better. Now this is a formula for success, regardless of your endeavor. Do your one thing; keep to that one thing; and do it better than anyone else.
So, what is your one thing? And, how good are you at it? Define it carefully. Get better at it. Become the best. There’s your agenda for the next few months/years.
An increasing number of consumers now download and read books on electronic devices, such as the popular Kindle by Amazon, the Nook from Barnes and Noble, or the iPad from Apple.
As you survey my blog posts, I have long been an opponent of these devices. I have previously argued why traditional books should be the way to go. I will not repeat those arguments here – they are readily available in our archives.
I think the “show-stopper” will be the investigation and results that come from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the Federal Government. This watchdog association is notorious for its detailed and long-lasting impact on products that put consumers at risk.
My prediction is that tests will continue to reveal a negative impact on consumer exposure to these devices. An increasing number of reports available on the internet now reveal questions about the effects from reading text with these devices, including eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, and short and long-term vision loss.
To be fair, there are also a number of reports that call these claims “silly,” and there are also available posts that show consumers how to adjust the backlight and contrast in order to make the exposure more suitable for the individual.
All of this is fine, but the reports have brought enough attention where we will see serious, not anecdotal investigations into the effect of these products. You can regularly see recalls of products that the CPSC has deemed unsafe. Their decisions have brought dozens of manufactured products to their knees.
Will the CPSC be bold enough to go forward to apply the standards for safety that they have long used to these electronic devices for reading? What will the scientific investigations reveal? And, regardless of the findings, will enough consumers be scared, and return to the purchase of traditional books? I believe that this will happen. One credible report, with one major recall, that is announced with enough publicity, will be enough to significantly debilitate consumer acceptance of these devices.
In the meantime, what is your own tolerance level for risk? Reports from both sides are available on the internet. Who and what do you want to believe?
Let’s talk about it really soon!