I am mildly obsessed with the impact of technology on culture. One of the great examples of this in the last 10 to 20 years is the rise of Amazon.com … and the resulting “creative destruction” it left in its wake. I watched it happen!
First Example: Internet Commerce Decimated Retail Bookstores and Music Stores
My first memory of Amazon is in Ann Arbor the late 1990s, when one of my roommates purchased textbooks online from Amazon TAX FREE. I found it amazing that he could purchase books far more cheaply than the high prices at the official college bookstore. Besides meeting up at the cafe in the Student Union to study, other cheap forms of underage / alcohol-free entertainment were: (1) browse CDs at the Tower records listening stations and, (2) browse books at the massive “original” Borders Books just off campus (3) Rent a video from the campus video store.
Fast forward 10 or 15 years… Tower records closed in 2006 due to competition with online CD purchase and free MP3 downloads. The last Borders closed in 2011 including the original Ann Arbor mega-store. Video stores (particularly Blockbuster) don’t exist anymore.
What happened? Over time, access to online information and online purchasing made retail stores commercially insolvent and culturally irrelevant. If people can carry hundreds of books and thousands of songs in their pocket, what is the point of going to a book or record store? Even if you want real books or CDs, you can order them directly to your house.
Over the last 20 years, I have watched technology slowly change the way that regular people do things. The rest of this article gives some examples and observations from my life, and walks you through why I am so interested in all the crazy things that Amazon (and others) are doing to re-shape the cultural and commercial landscape. How will technology continue to change society? this is something I am very interested in!
24/7 Internet Connectivity Has Evolved Since The Olden Days
Obviously, Amazon is part of a larger phenomenon in the last 20 years — the rise of constant internet connectivity. When I was a freshman in college, most people did not even have email addresses or know what the ‘@’ sign meant. In the dorms, most people went to the computer lab to “get online.” If you wanted to use the internet from anywhere else, you had to dial up to the internet using an ultra-slow internet connection via modem.
People nowadays are used to having the internet on their cell phones. In the 1990s, cell phones (aka “Car phones”) were mostly used for emergency phone calls. When my friends started to buy [pocket-sized!] cell phones in 2001, we used them like regular phones, to call people and have voice conversations. We did not text or web surf on our phones; this was mostly because the cell phone companies charged people exorbitant amounts for sending SMS texts and for access to a substandard, clunky version of the internet made for small screens.
And then in the 2000s, technology started rapidly changing. It seemed like every couple years, another “game changing” technology came along and subtly altered the ways that people shop, communicate, and relate to each other. Google arrived in 2000 with an amazingly superior search engine. In 2003, I remember being amazed with digital cameras and with friends who could send picture messages on their phones. In 2004, wikipedia, blogs and gmail went mainstream and changed the way people shared information. In 2005 we got Myspace and Craigslist and internet forums and Google Maps. People started replacing dial-up with in-home wifi networks and using their digital video cameras I to upload these things called YouTube videos.
Then, people started to adapt their habits to these new technologies. People stopped thinking that online dating was only for creepers. Sometime between 2004 and 2006, Facebook was invented, killed off MySpace, and became the de facto way to share pictures. In 2008 and 2009, the iPhone and the android phone were introduced, allowing people to surf the REAL INTERNET on their phone. I remember the AMAZED FEELING I had when I realized I could ordering a pizza WHILE DRIVING HOME FROM WORK and know that the pizza delivery guy would be arriving to my house 20 minutes later exactly as I was arriving home. I could print a picture to my wireless printer from my smartphone! I WAS LIVING IN THE FUTURE!
I should have listened to the rumors of big changes
Going back to college for a second, I have to say that IN THE 1990s the futurists warned us that the “new Economy” of E-commerce would supplant the “bricks and mortar” retail stores like Circuit City, Kmart, Sears, and Best Buy. They were right, but most people didn’t really understand until later what was happening.
In retrospect, I can see this change in concrete events in my social group. Some of my friends graduated from college and moved to California to work for “dotcom” startups, but I just saw this as them getting jobs. I had friends who left college in 1999 to work for consulting firms that helped corporations make their computer systems Y2K compliant, and helped them ultra-fast T1 cable internet and cisco routers. I just saw this as “My college roommate is good with computers” versus “the internet will soon be fast and ubiquitous”
I can see now what I could not see then — technological changes which at first seem like novelties in individual people’s lives, actually affect the larger society in profound ways.
I am now constantly keeping my ear to the ground for the next big thing, and trying to predict how it will affect THE FUTURE!
Amazon (and others) have been doing big things in the 2010s.
In this decade, I have watched Amazon make some pretty substantial changes that seem to be having large effects on culture and commerce. An I am not talking about selling books or Kindles. Some examples:
- Amazon Prime — a subscription service that offers free delivery, and makes it super easy to search for and purchase pretty much everything with one click.
- Amazon Mp3 — (now called Amazon Music) a strong alternative to iTunes where you can actually download the music you buy.
- Amazon Prime music (2014)– free unlimited ad-free music streaming
- Amazon Video — (live streaming of movies)
- Amazon Fulfillment (Distribution) Centers — (to accelerate delivery times)
- Amazon Fire Phones — (extinct after 2014, but a strong foray into the cutthroat smartphone market)
- Amazon Now — (2015+) deliver within 2 hours)
- Amazon Prime Air — DRONES — to deliver thing via air??!??!??!
- Amazon Alexa — (a smart assistant akin to SIRI)
- Amazon Prime Pantry – Order bundles of groceries and save money by subscribing to regularly deliveries of these supplies.
- Amazon Storage — a way to backup your computer on the cloud
- Amazon Cloud Services — (web-based software as a service)
- Amazon Merch — (make your own tee shirts and mugs and keychains a la CafePress)
- Amazon Payments — for mobile payments from your phone
- Amazon Echo (2014) — a smart speaker akin to SONOS. responds to voice commands.
- Amazon Go (December 2016) — Bricks and mortar Amazon stores that demonstrate Amazon Pay and may give starbucks and small markets a run for their money.
- What is next??
Evidence of creative destruction as Amazon takes over the world
Meanwhile, there are stories in the news that indicate the commercial landscape is changing as the traditional stores are forced to compete with Amazon and other online retailers:
- MALLS – say a large percent of retail space in the Unites States will soon be vacant due to people buying things online instead of stores.
- BIG BOXES. Stand-alone stores like TARGET or Walgreens or Lowe’s – why drive 15 minutes to buy batteries or a hammer when you can have Amazon deliver them to you? Even big-box powerhouse Walmart is now starting to Amazonify and convince their customers to buy through Walmart.com
- GROCERIES – Why lug baby over to the grocery a store when you can have the groceries come to you? Kroger is now offfering ClickList services where you can order groceries online and pick them up in the parking lot or I have them delivered to your house for a small fee.
- ENTERTAINMENT – Why pay $15/ person for a movie or $250/month for cable when you can get all the movies and shows you want for next to nothing? Television is quickly un-bundling and going online while consumers are cutting the cord to cable providers such as ComCast. Online video services like NetFlix, Hulu are creating original concent to keep up with Amazon, and killing cable and on-air television advertising in the process. ESPN just fired dozens of their well-respected sports correspondents because they can’t afford their current business model.
- NEWSPAPERS and Journalism — YOU WONT BELIEVE THESE 10 TRICKS TO SAVING YOUR MEDIA COMPANY!!! This one is a little bit obvious, but it is widely known that newspaper and magazine subscriptions have taken a financial hit from the migration of advertising dollars to online media like Google. (You can probably see an ad below that some business paid WordPress insert ar the bottom of my blog.) With retail stores going under, the money that Sears might have paid your local newspaper to place an underwear ad is now going to online ads placed by Amazon. Will people start paying to see news behind paywalls? Or will media companies continue to fire staffs and then publish viral listicle articles to bump up their pay-per-click ad revenues? No wonder “fake news” was the word of the year in 2016 (according to the highly respected reporters of BuzzFeed, anyways)
- CARS? HOUSES? — All I know is that Sears &Roebuck used sell animals and houses from its famous (and defunct) Sears Catalog. If a thing can be shipped, I am sure Amazon will figure out a way to sell it to people.