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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Something Will Turn Up

A long time ago I went to a Christian Brothers Academy in Rhode Island. I did not like the brothers and they did not like me. Yet, the school had one redeeming feature. In each of my high school years several lay teachers exposed me to some good literature. I recall having to read three Charles Dickens novels--Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield.

My favorite Dickensian character was Wilkins Micawber who was in David Copperfield, published in 1850. He was always in financial straits and was said to be loosely based on the author's father, John Dickens, who once served time in debtor's prison.

A famous Micawber quote from Copperfield is "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound nought and six, result misery."

Micawber could never live within his means. Yet, he was a buoyant optimist. I vividly remember the Cliff notes describing him as "living in hopeful expectation."

The struggling character, Micawber, when up against the financial wall, would often say--"Something will turn up."  This phrase or attitude strikes me as how companies and governments are reacting to the tech revolution both in terms of long term employment and effective marketing.

Let’s face it. We are in a period of creative destruction. (See Media Realism, “Schumpeter Lives in 2009 Media, 1/30/09). The problem is that the technology or digital boom is different from previous business cycles. What people do not seem to grasp is that tech does not move smoothly or predictably. Technology is not there to create jobs; it is growing as it allows innovators to cut costs and steal market share from old tech forms (i.e., conventional media or brick and mortar retail). The benefit of tech is that it allows you to do more with less, especially people. Government solutions are often more spending in existing systems that would not alleviate the problem.

So, many jobs lost as technology grows (robots in factories or in fast food joints, self drive cars and trucks, and in mining) will never be replaced. Can anyone turn this around? Some World War II style mobilization to move us from reliance on fossil fuels to  alternative energy would be a possibility but no clear program has seen the light of day and political resistance from pressure groups would be huge. A massive infrastructure build-out would create many blue collar jobs for a few years but, again, is it politically viable as it is sure to be a budget buster?

In the media world, I continue to talk with people who remain in denial about the last 15 years. Local broadcasters say that when the economy bounces back more strongly, so will they in a big way. Have they forgotten about commercial avoidance? Do Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and DVR’s have any significance? How about viewing with another device in play as well?  Even the most slow witted broadcasters have to see this but the denial continues.

Clearly, old models no longer apply. The psychological foundation for a conventional media revival no longer exists. Our world has changed for good.

So, will something turn up for either displaced workers or conventional media? Sorry, Mr. Micawber. I just do not see it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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