That last post was about how we measure wealth, and how changes in the structure of an economy can make certain assets, including human capital, more or less valuable. The construction of railroads made parcels of land that had previously been inaccessible more valuable, and the same is true of technologies that enable telecommuting, etc.
In a similar vein, as Lisa Gansky argues in The Mesh, new technologies make it easier to share certain goods and experiences. Zipcar, the car-sharing company that took a time-tested idea that had flourished in a handful of dense European cities and married it to the latest in location-aware mobile technology, is the paradigmatic example of a firm that is changing how we think about automobile ownership:
Businesses have been sharing many platforms for decades. Manufacturing, shipping, pick and pack systems, SaaS software for CRM, accounting and database management, sales team management and customer service are just a few. In our personal lives, DVDs (Netflix), Music (iTunes, Pandora and MOG), Couriers (FedEx, UPS), taxis, commercial airplanes, public parks and restaurants are things that we have been “sharing” happily.
The Mesh difference is that with GPS-enabled mobile web devices and social networks, physical goods are now easily located in space and time. It has become very convenient to find a ride back from your meeting with someone heading to your neighborhood, or get a great deal for drinks close by, or locate an available home in a home exchange while traveling, or discover a new “popup gallery” near the dinner you’re attending. The Mesh is about creating and managing what’s perishable.
Oddly enough, something like Gansky’s vision was anticipated in Jeremy Rifkin’s quirky and remarkably prescient left-wing polemic The Age of Access. Rifkin saw “the age of access” as a fast-approaching dystopia, and he anticipated many of today’s most ferocious political debates:
In a society where virtually everything is accessed, however, what happens to the personal pride, obligation, and commitment that go with ownership? And what of self-sufficiency? Being propertied goes hand in hand with being independent. Property is the means by which we gain a sense of personal autonomy in the world. When we access the means of our existence, we become far more reliant on others. While we become more connected and interdependent, do we risk at the same time becoming less self-sufficient and more vulnerable?
The shift in the structuring of human relationships from ownership to access appears to invite a trade-off of sorts whose outcome is far from certain. Will we liberate ourselves from our possessions, only to lose a sense of obligation to the things we fashion and use? Will we become more embedded in networks of relationships, only to become more dependent on powerful networks of corporate suppliers?
Gansky, rightly in my view, sees it the Mesh as an opportunity to create a less resource-intensive economy and a more connected society. Though hardly indifferent to corporate power — my guess is that Gansky has conventional left-of-center views — she describes the start-ups that are innovating in this space as part of a bottom-up economic renewal.
If it really is true that the United States is on the verge of a Japan-style — or worse than Japan-style — slump, consider the following:
(1) Japan’s economic weakness derived from a marked lack of demographic vitality. If we put in an equally dismal economic performance in terms of unadjusted numbers, it will mean we’re doing much worse when taking demographic factors into account.
(2) There is good reason to believe that the quality of life will continue to improve for the vast majority of workers due to consumer innovation, including Meshy innovation.
(3) The real danger, now as always, comes from economic exclusion: the number of women and men in the shadow economy will very likely grow, particularly if we see higher effective marginal tax rates at the low end of the income scale, tighter labor market regulation, continued stagnation in educational productivity, and the persistence of high incarceration rates.
I certainly don’t mean to say, “Relax! Economic stagnation will be awesome!” Rather, I want to suggest that ground-level innovation will continue even in a depressed economic environment, provided we don’t choke it off completely.