“….are we there yet?…..”
In the first half of the 20th Century, we had an economy that was based on manufacturing stuff. That is, the bulk of the economy was based on making physical, tangible things, like bricks, or steel, or cars or bread for that matter. Even newspapers were tangible, physical things that had to be manufactured.
In the early 1950's the Eisenhower Administration, driven (so the speak) by Sen Al Gore Sr., by the way, began to build the vast interstate highway system that criss-crosses America now with ribbons of concrete. Ironically, the I-network, (as in I-95) was really built and paid for, not to move cars, but to move missiles around, so as to protect us from Russian invasion.
The Interstate Highway System soon moved a lot more than those missiles. Amost as quickly as it had been built, it was moving big trucks and commerce and lots of people. (The railroads were just accidental roadkill in this new world of interstate highways).
What the highways brought more than anything else was mobility; a mobility that had not ever existed before. For those who could see this, it represented an enormous opportunity, and an enormous challenge: it provided the underpinnings of a new economic order, and of course brought about a massive change in American life.
William J. Levitt was one person who saw it.
Returning from the Second World War where he had been a Seabee and had learned simple construction techniques, he began to build whole communities alolng the new highways - mass produced and standardized; Levittowns. The houses were fast to build, cheap and all the same.
Kemmons Wilson saw it.
He understood that if people were going to start driving the Interstate, they would need a place to stay, so he started building Holiday Inns. Mass produced and standardized, they gave everyone exactly the same experience no matter where they were.
Ray Kroc understood it.
He understood that if people were going to start driving the Interstate, they would need a place to eat, so he started building his MacDonald's restaurant chain. Mass produced and standardized, they gave everyone exactly the same eating experience, no matter where they were.
Fast forward to 2007.
Now we have an economy that is largely intellectual property. Very few people actually make things with their hands anymore.
And instead of moving along highways, that intellectual property moves along the Internet. (Built by the Department of Defense as yet another bulwark against the Soviet Union, ironically, and largely driven by Al Gore, Jr.).
For those who can see the Internet and what it is doing to the economy and the way we work as well as Kroc or Levitt or Wilson (or scores of others) saw the Interestate Highway System, there is enormous opportunity. We are all, after all, commuters now on the web. And commuters need to be serviced.
So instead of driving down to the town center to buy stuff at Walmart (nice job, Sam Walton), we go to Amazon.com; where you have the same, standardized experience whether you log on in New York or New Delhi.
Instead of dropping in at the travel agent with their posters of Carribean holidays, you log on to Expedia.com and have the same exact experience whether you log on in Tokyo or want to buy tickets to go there.
Instead of moving to Levittown, you move into MySpace, where you have the same experience and live in the same 'house' as everyone else (although as in Levittown, you can paint it and decorate it and customize it as you like).
The world of online is, in fact, so standardized that it makes going to the MacDonald's on 7th Avenue and the MacDonald's on 54th Street vastly different experiences. (One has a plastic Ronald outside).
The desire to standardize in the 1950s was infectious. As we became a commuting nation, it brought us comfort to know that although our work in this mobile new world might cause us to move from Atlanta to LA, we would always find the same Benneton, the same KFC, the same Walmart in the same shopping mall, driving the same car and gassing up at the same station. In a surreal sense, it was as though we had never left. We would always be 'at home', no matter where we went.
This desire for standardization also impacted on the media. A mobile culture that wants to feel 'at home' in the shopping center or their living room, also wants to feel at home when they gets news and information, no matter where they are. Turn on a local tv news program in NY, Detroit, Birmingham Alabama or Birmingham England for that matter, and they all look, with minor differences, exactly the same. Just like the MacDonald's down the street. They don't have to be the same, but they are.
Want some insight into the future?
Take a look at what happened in Interstate world and adapt it to web world. A singular, standardized experience, universal in fact.
Why have 150 local TV news operations when, really, one will do? You want local stories? It's non-linear, VOD anyway. Plug and play.
It's far more cost effective; but the interesting thing is, it also makes people feel more comfortable no matter where they are. Like calling up Google on your laptop at 3 in the morning in Beijing, suddenly you are at home.
But, is this the kind of world we really want to live in?
Perhaps the fractionalization of content production gives us another option.
If we have the courage to try something different.