So we’ve been talking about how everything is broken. Yes, I know I haven’t gone into everything, but that’s easily explainable: first, I don’t have the rest of my life to do this series of articles; second, I don’t have visibility into a lot of areas (while I have visibility into a lot of them because I have a wide circle, and I like listening to people talking about what they do.)
Now, to a certain extent everything has always been broken. I mean, we’re humans. Humans are…. not perfect. yes, I know, I was surprised (and annoyed) too when I found out. For the longest time I thought it was just me.
But — unless this is a mirage caused by the fact that we’re not living then — it seems that not all times were as broken as ours.
We can see it from “real signs” too — for one, in most times the technological and therefore the social change waves were smaller or further apart. So there was time for stabilizing in between. For another we know that things were more stable from the fact that at times in the past (though not all times) the population grew.
Population growth requires both real world stability that allows for marriages and for kids to survive infancy, and confidence in the future that has people actually want to have kids. (Yes, contraception in the past was nowhere near as efficient, but people managed, thank you so much.)
Also, judging from “things accomplished” at various times in history things were more stable than now.
Now we are in one of those in-between states, or at it goes in internet parlance, the time in history before the map goes angry and full of arrows. Which tends to coincide with really fast — i.e. catastrophic — technological change, funnily enough.
People in general seem to like and be designed for stable times with slow improvement. When things change very fast, be they for good or ill, the culture can’t adapt fast enough.
This ends up causing a mismatch between demand and supply. In either direction.
Now I think as a libertarian (ish) at this point I’m supposed to don my ceremonial dance outfit, and shake my rattles, and intone solemnly “the invisible hand will provide” while the rest of you roll your eyes. But bear with me a little.
Let me illustrate the technological change, and the mismatch in the field I know best: books.
Although publishing has been embuggered (totally a word. Also not a swear word. There was a case in Oz that ruled it wasn’t) for a long time, maybe since the time monks copying manuscripts by hand and drawing snails on them was the biggest production effort, they got particularly embuggered as to production and distribution as a result of WWII and the agreement that sellers could send back whatever they didn’t sell, which led to the onus for whether a book sold or not to be all on the publisher, not shared between publisher and distributor, which already led to some interesting side excursions. In fact, over time, it led to a concentration of publishing in very few, large houses, because smaller ones couldn’t take the hit of large, unexpected returns.
You can tell the field started running aground then, because advances stopped keeping pace with cost of living, and reading for amusement fell steadily since then.
Yes, you can blame radio, or movies, or TV, or gaming. Why shouldn’t you? Publishing did. But the fact is, given compelling enough reading material those shouldn’t have had an impact as the total leisure time per capita increased over that time period, and also a lot of other forms of entertainment — associations and clubs, neighborhood ties, etc — decreased over the same time, leaving more time for reading.
When something falls steadily like that, as a class, there’s a fundamental mismatch between producer and consumer.
However, it took until the advent of computers for the distribution time to get truly stupid. Because humans can be dumb, but for really weaponized stupidity they need computer help.
Because the producers — publishers — took the main risk in books, you can’t blame them for trying to have more control over the distribution. But it took a chain bookstore — Borders — going weaponized stupid to drive the whole thing over the edge over the course of a decade and change.
You see, Borders realized that they could keep track of what sold via computer, and had the brilliant idea of “ordering to the net.” Say they had a hundred books in stock, and 80 sold. Next book by the same author order only 80. Then fifty sold. Order only 50 of the third.
This both saved the bookstore a ton of space, and allowed it to take incentives from the publisher for stocking more of the books the publisher wanted to push, which in turn led to rapid expansion of the chain. and its being copied by other chains.
There was only one small problem with the reasoning: First, no book ever sells a hundred percent. For one, there’s always theft. So, you were left in the best of cases, with a reductive spiral that ended in zero over a decade or so. Second, if you had only one or two books on the shelves, the chances of selling any of them were close to zero, no matter if the book was brilliant. Most people would never see them. And this led to the deaths of careers (or at least change of name for authors) within one or two books.
This in turn made the real producers — writers — into “lottery tickets.” Unless you were one of the few the publisher chose to push, your chances of selling enough to sell another one were essentially zero. But the publisher kept getting more midlisters and burning through them in the hopes one of them would be a freak multimillion dollar ticket. Which didn’t happen because the stores were no longer set up to do that. (For the stores to do that, you needed a system in which the staff could discover a book and start handselling it to customers. Impossible, when what’s on the shelves is dictated by the tri-state area manager which was another effect of the efficiencies of computer management.)
Trust me, because most of my career was consumed in this: the system sucked for everyone. Publishers might have thought it didn’t suck for them, but in fact, printruns were falling straight down. A meh print run when I started out was around 10k, (which is what my first book sold within a year.) Nowadays a 2k print run will make the publisher give you another chance. That’s how bad it was.
Meanwhile, writers were breaking. Most of them only had one or two books to prove themselves, and by the time people found their long-out-of-print books, they had disappeared. Writers don’t do well with this. The best of us vibrate like tuning forks. Meaning even when we try to be super-realistic and hard working, we still work largely by “this idea that won’t let go.” Not knowing if you’ll ever sell any other book makes you suggest books that are likely to be sold, and not spend three years chasing the wild idea.
More writers gave up. More writers became bitter. The ones that survived through multiple name and genre changes just burned out slower. And the offerings became more blah.
Meanwhile publishers who never had any real idea what the public wanted just started buying to impress other publishers or their college teachers. And the distributors kept consulting the computers like they were oracles. AND and this is really important: the reading public had nothing to read. I know, because I’m one of those people who are broken, and who mostly READS for entertainment. I ran from genre to genre looking for something I COULD read (as Dan described in his post yesterday, for himself.) For a long time I took refuge in popular history, before that too went sour. I stopped going to new bookstores. I was really grumpy about it.
There might be some hope on the horizon for Barnes and Noble, though, you know, believe it when I see it and all that. (And they’re still impaired by concentrating on paper bricks, no longer the efficient way to distribute story. Until they figure out how to integrate stores with the sale of ebooks, they will be vulnerable.)
Anyway, everything was broken and getting worse and worse.
And then the winged hussars arrived. Okay, it was Beezosbub riding on Amazon. And yes, Amazon has its own issues, is following the path of a monopolistic distributor, and we desperately need alternatives, BUT for a while at least (I’m questioning their algorithms right now) they fixed the mismatch between distributor and consumer for books.
Which fixed one issue while breaking everything else around it, because all of a sudden even the pretense of working was taking from the system. That kind of breaking is actually needed before things can re-organize.
Note the only reason the early kindle with the green screen, or the early indie ebooks with their weird formatting and often sounding like the author had just heard of the genre for the first time yesterday (I have in mind the author who spent a hundred pages explaining robots in a science fiction book. No, really.) made inroads enough to keep improving and get followers is that the break between supply and demand in story was so bad that anything was an improvement. Anything at all, no matter how bad.
I’d also maintain we’re in the middle of the same thing with politics. It had been ticking along, stable, but selling to a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, until most people really had no use for it. (And partly it was because of the means of communication that held up the narrative needed for centralized politics losing their monopoly on information distribution.) What the purveyors of governance want to give us, and what we want are widely apart. Hence that dreaded “populism” emergence.
And let us face it, the only way that Trump could ever have won was under the same conditions that the ugly green kindles survived. Right now, what we’re seeing is the equivalent of the publishers back then pricing ebooks higher than hardcovers to “prove” ebooks aren’t wanted. That’s what electoral fraud is. That’s what the shenanigans with controlling social media are. And like with ebooks, it’s all whistling past the graveyard. Because with that wide a mismatch between supply and demand you can’t paper it over. And you can no longer control the landing, either. But the established parties, like B & N won’t do the logical thing until nothing else is possible.
We’re in the middle of the same thing with education. Hence the “professionals” screaming that parents shouldn’t have a say in the education of their children.
And we’re in the middle of the same thing with employment, where it seems impossible to get an actual job, unless you’re female and have a politically-inclined degree, in which case you’ll find a job in the regulation apparatus that is making everything more broken.
Dons snazzy libertarian sacred robes in red white and blue: When you see these signs, rejoice, for it is a sign that the invisible hand is… er…. at hand.
Okay, here’s the thing. You’re listening to someone who has immense trouble with invisible anything. My actual religious faith is more a matter of convincing myself I have faith than actually having faith.
So, yeah, I’m really leery about the invisible hand. I’m also really leery of stuff like “trust the process.” I’m always mildly baffled and put out when both of those work.
BUT think about it: Economics is a science. No, it’s not a hard, hard science to an extent. Not if you try to drill down to the ultimate individual level. That’s because it involves human behavior. And in the individual level, humans are as predictable as … well…. as avatars of chaos.
That doesn’t mean that economics isn’t a science. Just like quantum physics, though, it’s limited as to what it can predict.
What it predicts fairly well is what happens at the intersection of supply and demand. And large enough demand will find a way to be met. Fast or slow. Peacefully or not.
The corollary to “everything is broken” is that there are forces already working to fix it. Now, in the way of such things, most of those will of course fail. And some of the ones that survive will also become part of the broken (looks at social media and paypal.)
But while demand continues, the forces working to bridge it towards being supplied will continue. And eventually a path will be found. Causing more disruption around it, as it starts.
(This btw is why regulations cannot control the market, only distort it.)
Think of it as a river insufficiently dammed up, while the pressure builds. When it breaks, it’s going to cause a lot of destruction before it finds its natural bed.
But in the end the river will flow, and demand will be met.
Our best hope as individuals is not to go under and not to drown.
Next up: the signs of the invisible hand at work already.
And hopefully new years day some advice, so this will lean heavily on comments, as mine is the same it’s always been, except for the added “keep at it, and don’t lose heart.”
Anyway. More tomorrow.