The Agrarian-Industrial-Digital Age Loop: Everything Old Is New Again
By Ariel Nishli
Following the agricultural revolution that took place circa 8,000 B.C.E., humanity’s next significant step forward was arguably in the early 1800’s. Machine-based manufacturing began to overtake localized manual labor, ushering in the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Today, much industrial power is consolidated among a handful of large corporations. KoldCast TV’s conspiracy series “Tyranny” explores a world five minutes in the future, where corporations monitor and control the lives of millions of people in a twisted conspiracy.
Tyranny – The Beginning of the End
Two hundred years of progress leading up to the Digital Age has indelibly changed our way of life, yet recent trends in small business reveal interesting similarities to the agrarian economies of old. Significant milestones along the way help explain how past and present are meeting again.
Agrarian economies were parochial, often localized to one or more villages, and centered on farming. Non-agricultural workers were specialized artisans and craftsmen producing handmade goods from concept to completion. With no division of labor, products were relatively more expensive and unique. Apprenticeships were the means to enter and rise in these cottage industries. Cobblers, furniture makers, blacksmiths, etc. would pass their skills to a younger generation of local artisans, who would in turn service their community.
The industrial revolution, at its most fundamental level, gradually replaced these specialized artisans with machines that produced goods faster and far less expensively. Perhaps the most famous example is the Spinning Jenny invented by James Hargreaves. This device allowed yarn makers to work eight or more spools at once instead of one at a time by hand. This meant less yarn makers, so naturally there was some backlash. French industrial workers, disgruntled by their threatened livelihoods, intentionally damaged new machines by throwing wooden clogs or sabots into them. It didn’t get them very far, and the word “sabotage” was born.
Mass-production brought an unprecedented level of wealth to quickly industrializing nations. The old economic order was completely disrupted by modern corporations distributing high quantities of very similar products made on assembly lines. The need to differentiate these products spawned the advertising industry in the mid-1800’s. In order to distinguish a Coca-Cola from, say, Dr. Candler’s Yum Yum Koke, advertisers sold it as more than merely a soft drink. Coke was now a means to happiness, beauty, and fun. And as the multitudes of loyal Mad Men fans know, advertising itself became big business.
As advertising evolved, so did criticisms against it for manipulating people to part with their hard-earned money for the false promise of a better life. Sut Jhally, Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts, argues “almost the entire media system (television and print) has been developed as a delivery system for marketers, and its prime function is to produce audiences for sale to advertisers.” The explosion of media outlets in the 20th century trained society to expect constant advertising, and indeed, over time the onslaught of ads blended together to become part of the urban landscape. The largest corporations had the resources to buy the best advertising space, whether outdoors, in newspapers and magazines, on radio, or on movie and television screens. Repeated exposure to a particular logo or slogan proved just as effective at fostering brand recognition as seeing something creative and new. Smaller brands experienced more difficulty reaching eyeballs and, as a result, advertising became quite monolithic.
Enter the Internet. A new low-cost platform, the website, would allow businesses to compete for attention on a level playing field. Websites for Walmart and Tom’s Auto Repair could look equally impressive as Internet use grew and became more sophisticated. In addition, remote small businesses could now operate internationally, ushering in a truly globalized economy. Marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon would subsequently emerge, allowing consumers to stop paying as much attention to the brands themselves, focusing instead on the price point. The means for purchasing products was moving online, drastically changing the paradigm again. One touchstone is Black Friday, the annual free-for-all shopping spree that occurs each year after Thanksgiving. In the last five years, it’s been steadily losing ground to its Internet cousin, “Cyber Monday”.
Interactivity soon became the Internet’s new mantra. “Web 2.0.” sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter allowed people to create online profiles for themselves. Our lifestyle choices, political inclinations, favorite books and fleeting thoughts were suddenly on display. Essentially, we were now marketing ourselves. People became the hottest new brands.
In conjunction with Web 2.0 technology, the local web took off, digitally intertwining people with their immediate surroundings. Craigslist, Google Maps, Yelp, and most recently mass coupon sites such as Groupon and Living Social would allow small businesses to once again have a larger stake in flesh-and-blood customers. People now had more power to search for the best deals, hidden gems, and interesting places they had yet to explore. Instead of using the Internet as an end in itself to shop, it became a means to more refined shopping in the real world.
Gone were the days of one-way communication from corporations with ad dollars to spend. An entirely new channel had opened through which consumers could demand their preferences online, and the call was unanimous: something they hadn’t seen before. Big brands were by definition at a disadvantage. People (with disposable income) were tired of Kraft, Starbucks, The Gap, and Supercuts. They wanted something personal; something skillfully crafted and complex.
The call was answered in the mid 2000s. Artisanal microbusiness sprouted up in Brooklyn, NY and the trend spread to every major American city over the last decade. These establishments were often no bigger than an 8’ x 4’ room with a service counter and a Macbook Pro. They sold maybe three or four items, usually variations of the same carefully designed product.
In 2009, The New York Times chronicled the wave of creative handmade food shops overtaking Brooklyn, highlighting the appetite for specialized goods. The IFC series Portlandia pokes fun at the phenomenon. In the pilot, Fred Armisen persistently asks his waitress, “Is it local?” regarding the chicken he’s about to order. Though she assures him it is, Fred leaves the restaurant mid-meal to see the coop for himself, unconvinced the bird was cared for with love. Another episode features him feverishly addicted to his numerous social networking platforms, until he quite literally burns out.
The satire speaks to the current state of consumer behavior. People are eager to announce their specific tastes as a means to differentiate their profiles or personal brands they’ve created on the ever-crowded web. If you’ve checked out that new hipster barbershop, bacon-only restaurant, leather belt tannery, or miniature cupcake shop, odds are you’ve probably “checked in” on Foursquare upon arriving as well. It’s the same mentality we have when throwing our two cents onto the ubiquitous “Comments” section of every video, article, photo, status update, and even other comments posted online. Old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing has gone into hyper-drive.
The result is a reemergence of the artisan economy, wherein people connect and define themselves through local, specialty businesses – in very much the same way they did before industrialization turned everything on its head. However, this conversation is now online and therefore accessible globally. It’s created a neo-parochialism of sorts, the ever-expanding global village. With a simple Google search, out-of-towners unearth the best-kept secrets of the city they’re visiting and add a notch to their virtual belt of consumer conquests.
In response to the demand for authenticity, small businesses continue to diversify. That new Vegan coffee shop disguised as a local bodega, which grinds its beans with Mesoamerican mortar and pestles, uses groundwater from a remote township in Central Ontario, and only brews individual cups at 197.6° F didn’t get the greatest reviews on Yelp, but I’ll still try it. Sounds a heck of a lot more interesting than Starbucks.
Tyranny – Evaluation
Tyranny – That Day in November