Great and little change

There are no shortage of people who think that technology makes for a “sure thing” when planning a business idea for themselves.

It’s certainly true that fortunes have been made in technology — lots of them. You don’t need to come anywhere near close to being a Bill Gates, Larry Ellison or the like to make the big time. Even a small, local, “me too” business, done right, can create the money needed to sell out and retire before you’re forty (as happened, for instance, with Chicago-area Internet service provider MCSNet founder Karl Denninger).

For all that, the waves of technology landing on our doorsteps have mostly created little changes, not big ones. The introduction of the Internet has changed some notions of community and connection to other people (if it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this). The rest of the personal computer, online and mobility “revolution”, on the other hand, has been more an exploitation of Moore’s law (the declining cost for the same power, or the rising power at the same price) in electronics production.

Why do I say this? Think back, if you can, to someone born in, say, the 1880s, coming to adulthood in the early 1900s, and whose working life spanned, say 1905-1945.

In their lifetime, they went from candles and/or gas lamps to electric lighting. They went from a wood stove to either a gas or electric range. They went from an icebox (if they had refrigeration of any sort) to a refrigerator and freezer. They went from a scrubbing board and a galvanized tin bucket to a washing machine, and from a clothesline to a dryer. They probably went from an outhouse and that same tin bucket in the middle of the kitchen on a Saturday night to indoor plumbing and a tub/shower.

They went from saddling horses or hooking up a horse to a carriage/cart to the automobile and the truck. They went from dirt roads and cobblestones to pavement. They went from open railway coaches to streamlined trains that ran faster than do ninety-five percent of North America’s railways today. They had streetcars galore, were riding subways (in the cities that built them) and saw the rise — and fall — of an interurban rail system that connected villages to towns and cities cheaply, reliably and frequently.

They went from the last of the sailing ships to crossing the Atlantic and Pacific routinely: in their lifetime emigration from “the home country” stopped being a one-way trip to being a trip you could make back-and-forth (affordably) several times in a lifetime. As they looked up, they saw the first aircraft systems flying regular routes.

The telephone entered. So did the radio — and, as retirement beckoned, the television arrived. But they’d also gone from the vaudeville routine and home-made entertainment to the movie theatres (a newsreel, a cartoon, a short feature and the main attraction all for a nickel or dime). They had morning and evening newspapers delivered — along with delivery services for fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs, meat, and the like.

They started by canning and salting foods at harvest time and by the 1920s could buy frozen foods, convenience items, and (by the 1940s) pre-made meals. They went from glass and metal to plastics. Clothing using artificial fibres arrived.

Every one of these items was an opportunity that would provide decades of growth and prosperity.

They went, in other words, from a world we can’t imagine to one we can easily recognize even today. I’m a baby boomer (born just after the period I’ve described). Things have evolved, but they haven’t radically changed, in my lifetime.

If you want to know why your life — and your career — seems tougher than the stories of the glory days you get talking to parents and grandparents, start here. There just haven’t been enough fundamental changes in the past sixty years to drive the kind of rising tide that lifts everyone’s boat.

That’s why doing your own diligence matters so much. Now you’ve got to figure out how to rise on flat seas (at best) and ebbing tides (at worst).

We are headed toward another era of great change, mind you. Too much of the world around us depends on what it no longer has — there’s not enough cheap energy, or cheap resources, or cheap production processes left to drive widespread prosperity. We’ll adjust to that, but “ever onwards and upwards” might not be the way we’ll do it (settling into a lower energy, more reuse, closer to home future might be how we transition).

Believing that “technology solves all problems” (including mine) is the belief in magic. (Believing that “government solves all problems”, or “our corporate leaders have all the answers” is another form of this.)

No, to succeed in today’s world you have to take your own blinders off and look hard at the world around you. You also have to be clear about what your objectives are in this: to truly change the world, or simply to secure your own future as best you can.

But, in 2013, the one sure way to fail is to just keep plodding along.

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