Here’s the latest
The article talks about a website that allows food lovers looking for a ‘home cooked’ French meal — in Paris — to schedule themselves a small party with a home chef who will cook such a meal. Now, the meals are not the French version of meat-and-potatoes like meatloaf or whatever. My impression is some of these meals, maybe even most of them, can get pretty fancy. But the emphasis is on a chef who doesn’t work professionally at or in a restaurant, cooking for a party looking for a good meal in a not-restaurant setting.
As usual, the established order is pitching a fucking fit over it. I say as usual because we’ve been seeing it with couchsurfing (which hotels object to), car hire aka Uber / Lyft (which car hire services aka taxis object to), and of course ebooks (which the traditional pubs object to).
The factor that’s the same across the board in all of these instances is how technology and modern techniques of connecting people are allowing newcomers to bypass the usual gatekeepers of the industry. Taxis have to pay enormous sums for a ‘license’ in a city to operate a taxi; the licenses are restricted because the taxi industry wants them restricted, and these licenses trade on the open market for a lot of money. Or, they did; until mobile-application car hire has begun to bust into the old-boy network. Couchsurfing lets travelers avoid hotels; it shouldn’t matter whether they’re doing it to save money or just meet real people and get a more authentic experience.
And now we have this Internet enabled ‘amateur’ chef connection service; and restaurant owners are howling. Those are our customers, they whine. We’re the ones who’ve paid all this money for a building and a staff; that should entitle us to have a monopoly on anyone who pays someone else for a meal.
I hope it sounds as stupid to you as it does to me.
Now, I’m a huge fan of health regulations. I’m not a libertarian, but I’m also not a fan of big government. I think there’s a ton of stuff government does — poorly — that I wish it would either get out of or at least bother to do efficiently. But health regs . . . I’m a huge fan of health regs. We need way more health inspectors than we have, multitudes more. Every food place should be checked weekly in my opinion. A few months ago, when a food corp executive was sentenced to jail because he ignored health measures in his peanut butter plants . . . I hope he dies in prison. People died because that asshat wanted to pad his bottom line, and his family had the gall to beg for leniency because he was old and the proposed sentence would likely mean he’d die in prison. Good. He killed innocent people whose only crime was to buy tainted peanut butter.
So the health and safety objection to these ‘home chefs’ does ring a note with me. But I also know the restaurants don’t actually give a shit about the health concerns; they’re just using them as a talking point. What they object to is losing their lock on the dining-out market.
There’s a reoccurring theme with all these disrupted industries. Each of them had high fiscal barriers to entry. Being a taxi didn’t just require getting a car; you had to pay the city-bribe in the form of the license. And those licenses are held close to the vest by the old-boy network of rich companies who make sure anyone with the fee can’t just buy a license. What the city charged a couple ten thousand dollars for traded for up to a million — more in places like New York or Chicago — on the ‘open’ market. I call it the black market. There were even companies that specialized in hoarding the licenses and leasing them out — sometimes on an hourly basis — to third party drivers.
Hotels, well we all know building a building that can house even a few dozen rooms for guests is expensive. I used to work for Holiday Inn Worldwide, in the corporate headquarters, and I saw a little of the behind-the-scenes that went into the hotels. Tens of millions of dollars to put a building up in most major cities, even a small one on the outskirts. Maybe someone could get away with high hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for a roadside motel on some Interstate exit in a rural area, but to put a hotel into a big city was big money. A restaurant, same thing. What you didn’t spend on extra floors full of rooms, you were spending on equipping the kitchen and appointing the dining area.
Books, I hope most folks reading this already know the story there. Printing presses are expensive. Even today, an Expresso POD machine is something like fifty thousand dollars. At the median salary in America, that’s basically two years’ wages for a lot of folks. Editors demand wages on par with what a lawyer or doctor or engineer wants for their time; for a big time editor an author is likely facing a five figure tab for a single manuscript. Bookstores only dealt with old-school publishers for their stock.
The common thread was that there was a significant barrier to entry; in the form of cost. It costs a lot to buy a taxi license. It costs a lot to build a hotel. It costs a lot to buy printing presses. The idea, the passion, the drive; that wasn’t enough. The movies that get made about these people, when such stories get told, are always about the passion and drive, but the real hurdle is the money. Yet, in modern times, it’s entirely possible to put amazing things together from the ‘crowd’ that bypass all of those investment hurdles. And those who are sitting pretty on the far side of the hurdles hate it.
Now we have the Internet. A long time ago, I speculated that computers were the single greatest invention of humanity. My reasoning was — and is — that computers make everything they’re added to better. Name something, anything, and then apply the power of a computer to it . . . it gets better. Some examples are really obvious. Let’s go with a really simple, really obvious example.
Accounting. Remember Mad Men? Especially the first two seasons or so, when they were focusing more on the company and less on the antics of the cast? In the late 50s and early 60s, computers were barely a thing; they weren’t available at the company level yet. In fact, in later seasons, it became a mentionable plot-point that the company got a mainframe computer. For those who don’t know their computer history; mainframe means it’s a central computer. It wasn’t something on employees’ desks.
An awful lot of the people who worked for companies back then were doing a lot of simple math by hand. That was literally their job; week in, week out, month to month, all year, all career, they were paid to come in and do basic math for the company. Not just one guy or girl; lots of them, all doing math. Even after ‘adding machines’ became a thing, they were still paid to punch problems into the little adding machines and write down, tabulate, order, coalesce all those numbers into the figures that describe everything the company’s doing. What it’s spending, what it has, what it needs tomorrow or next year. Millions of people, all doing grade-school math for a living. Because when you’re General Motors or Boeing or anything that deals in big money, that’s a lot of math that needs doing to track all of it.
Computers become a thing, spreadsheets appear, and suddenly people don’t have to spend their lives in a perpetual fifth grade math test. But computers are ‘hard’ to a lot of people. I made good money, really good money, in the 90s as an ‘office temp’ going from office to office primarily to set up and create spreadsheets and the occasional database for companies full of folks who thought computers were black magic. These days, of course, kids graduate knowing how to input numbers into Excel. Most can’t do much more than that, but most people can take a spreadsheet someone knowledgeable creates for them and maintain it going forward, making sure income and expenses go in, and emailing out the reports that come out to others.
Engineering, aeronautics, science; some examples of what computers make better are really obvious, right? But to most people, in their every day lives where they actually give a shit about the results, it’s the not-so-immediately-obvious things that computers are improving. Ten years ago, no one expected what mobile smartphones would do for culture. Not American culture; world-wide culture. Everyone’s connected. You’re really fucking weird if you don’t have a smartphone in your pocket.
The World Wide Web was an oddity in the 90s, even into the first part of the 00s. Anyone could create a webpage, but few thought about what it meant. It meant anyone could, for basically no real investment, have a platform to talk to . . . everyone. They didn’t push a button and have everyone everywhere hear what they say; but their words were out there to be heard if people came looking. And you don’t have to just talk; once people are hooked up together, other things can happen.
Companies like PayPal rose because some online connections wanted to trade money for certain reasons. EBay eventually bought PayPal because the latter had built the bulk of its business fulfilling payments between buyers and sellers on the former. And once PayPal became a thing, so many other things started popping up to take advantage of the fiscal connection that PayPal makes possible. These days you can make money creating little home hobby crafts and taking payments via PayPal. Just about every sort of good or service you can possibly imagine is available on the Internet, an awful lot of them offered by individuals or very small businesses who are taking payments using PayPal. Why do they use PayPal? Because a merchant account with a traditional payment processing company like Visa or MasterCard is expensive. PayPal is cheap and easy and just works. Everyone loves it. I use it to hire artists and advertisers, for example.
Computers make everything better, but I think maybe I misspoke. It’s really the Internet that’s the more important invention. At this point, we enter a weed-infused haze of philosophical arguing; the Internet wouldn’t exist without computers. Which is more important? Can you argue the Internet’s more valuable, knowing that it doesn’t exist without computers? I don’t know, and it’s irrelevant for my point.
What is my point? Disruption is the new norm. I think, going forward, everyone should just give up on expecting their little piece of turf to stay inviolate. “I invested all this time and money into this thing that I’ve had for years; it’s not fair that you’ve showed up and are out competing me.” This same thing is said over and over these days; it nearly always tracks back to something connected to the Internet. Because the Internet connects . . . everything. Cloud computing is a thing where the power of as much computing as you need is made available, anywhere. Remote servers can be as big or small as necessary; and feed their results to the simplest of devices as long as that device is online.
Uber works because it applies the power of computers to maps, putting routing and hire cars and would-be passengers all on that map. It uses algorithms to connect the cars to the passengers, and more algorithms to connect car + passenger to destinations. And it uses the power of computers to repeat this process . . . really it’s not an exaggeration to say millions of times per day at this point. It’s a thing because it does what it does better than taxis. And rather than competing, the taxis whine and bitch about how it’s not fair. They don’t improve; they just reach for their bank accounts and look for politicians to bribe to outlaw the mean old innovator.
I saw a mention on Reddit this week about how some people are driving for Uber who don’t need the money. The comments were describing owners of Porches and Ferraris and tricked out Escalades and Teslas who would get done with their ‘normal’ job, and then spend a few hours in the evening Ubering passengers around. Or they’d turn it on Saturday night and do the same. Not because they wanted or needed the money — they’re driving massively expensive vehicles, they definitely don’t need the money — but simply because, for them, it’s fun to meet random people like that. Sure these casual drivers could go to a bar or something I guess; but that’s a different sort of experience. They just like driving their car around, giving people rides; they view it as a casual way to briefly meet folks.
I think it’s a really cool ramification of what a lot of old-school invested interests are objecting to. Without Uber, these casual drivers wouldn’t be able to meet those folks. Who is anyone to say they can’t drive folks around and get a bit of cash and some conversation in exchange for it? Why is that bad? Because some old-boy paid bribes out to horde taxi licenses? That makes it bad? Fuck them; let the Ubers be.
Disruption is not going away. The point of humanity has always been to keep improving. From day one, it’s always been about making things better. The only people who want nothing to change are those who are benefiting from making sure nothing changes. And that fucking sucks; they’re evil. They’re not helping us; they’re helping themselves. So many people in America love to blather and bleat about how holy Capitalism is. The point of capitalism — true capitalism — is to encourage better, faster, cheaper. Yet, looking at how modern capitalism is practiced, it seems to be about getting there first, wracking up a huge bankroll before anyone is in a position to elbow in on your action, then using a portion of that bankroll to make sure the ‘right’ people are paid off to prevent anyone else from being a serious competitor to you.
It’s bullshit. Plain and simple. I can put up with a lot of crap out of companies and politicians and life in general, as long as progress is allowed to, you know, progress. One day phones became a thing. One day computers became a thing. One day Internet became a thing. One day these things got together and turned themselves into a new thing where we’ve ‘smart phones’ that give us Internet and computers in the phone package, everywhere we go. And when everyone’s got the power of computers and the Internet in their pocket in the form of a phone, people are tapping into that to do amazing things. The very point of computers and Internet is to automate and connect, and the point of people is to use what’s available to them.
Today’s ‘disruption’ is tomorrow’s normal. Today’s smart and clever businessman will be the one who expects disruption, who plans to be disrupted, who looks for the disruption and finds a way to harness it for his benefit.
Or, he could sit in the corner and whine about how it’s not fair. Come on, say it with me:
Adapt or Die