Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Is Anything New?

I was in a vendor presentation yesterday when the topic of WalMart came up. For anyone working in the marketing industry, this isn’t a rare occurance, and in fact that was just the topic of conversation. “WalMartians,” as the presenter referred to them, were the clients who had superstore tunnel vision. Eventually something in the realm of “WalMart has ruined culture” was uttered, to which I responded, “or WalMart has become culture.”

Now I’m in no way here to defend the shopping giant, however, people make choices in their lives and things happen for a reason (or at least I believe they do). And while I certainly don’t agree with or even like everything WalMart does or the way its changed towns and cities, I don’t blame it. The way I see it, throughout the ages there have been any number of cultural forces that have “ruined things” and most of the time they haven’t really.

Not sure what any of this has to do with anything, but I thought it was a worthwhile anecdote.

What’s funny is that earlier in that meeting the same group had said something that I thought was quite brilliant (and in fact I thought they, a as a whole, were great). It was good to be an anthropologist, they explained, because “cultural models were always changing, but business models hardly ever were.” What’s so amazing about the WalMart story is it’s one where the business model actually changed the cultural model. WalMart is not just a business institution in America, it’s a cultural one. For whatever you want to say about them, they’re the largest employer in America with 1.3 million employees (just over 1 in 300 people work for them), they’ve used their size and clout to lower generic drug prices and people do things like travel across the country sleeping in their parking lots. The argument to me is not whether they’re good or bad, because like most things that kind of binary approach no longer works. Rather the more interesting question or observation is one around how they’re using their power.

I guess the bottom line for me is that sure the world is changing, however, I don’t really believe the change is any more drastic than the change in any other generation. As Rob Walker pointed out recently every generation goes through huge unprecedented change that it thinks is more huge and unprecedented than any other generation before it. In the end, however, everything settles into place and each generation is left with a handful of events and inventions that truly change the course of history.

Before I finish this semi-rant, I feel it necessary to add one caveat that may contradict everything I’ve said previously: I actually think digital is fundamentally different. Digital, in many ways, is a new kind of DNA or atom. I really believe it’s on that level. Digital technology is the fundamental building block for most of the change we will experience in the coming years and it’s unlike anything we’ve dealt with in this past (though to be honest, it’s not even really from this generation). Previously, communication (and life for that matter) mostly revolved around analog signals: Things degraded over time and rearranging pieces involved glue. For the vast majority of humanity we have only dealt with the physical (the telegraph was invented less than 200 years ago) and now we are living in this strange world where, for some of us, the majority of our time is spent manipulating pixels. It’s an amazing transition that’s happened fairly quickly in terms of human history.

However, I don’t feel nostalgia. Maybe I’m a techno-determinist, but I don’t necessarily agree with Russell Davies when he says that we’re not equipped for the world that we’re going to be living in. On the contrary I think we (and Russell is a great example of this) are more equipped than ever to deal with this new world. We are adapting to a universe where knowing how to do something is less important than knowing where to find out how to do something. That’s not a good or a bad thing in my mind, it’s just a thing like anything else.

While lots of people are worrying about the kids staying in all day playing with their computers and their video games, I find hope in it. I believe that what we’ll get is a generation more curious and prepared to deal with knowledge and information in whatever form they encounter it. I think entrepreneurialism will run rampant in the coming years as kids who grew up with Google as their door to the world believe they can build a better mousetrap.

As an anecdote, I often explain to people my domain buying justification: At $10 it’s the cheapest way in the world to provide myself a spark to make an idea happen. If one of the 50 comes to life, the $500 was worth every penny. It’s a world where “trying stuff is cheaper than deciding whether to try it”. If there’s ever been a better incentive for entrepreneurialism I can’t think of it. And while I have no idea whether this makes any sense at this point because I’m ready to go to bed, I do know that it’s a good thing.

January 24, 2008