The Slow Fade of Meatspace

When will this Internet thing catch on?

When the New York Police Department revealed last year that it had spent nearly $1 million on typewriters over the course of a year, commentators mocked the two-fingered flatfoots for wasting scarce resources on obsolete machines.

“The city is plunking down nearly $1 million on typewriters for its keystroke cops,” the New York Post wrote in a story headlined “Typewrite & Wrong: NYPD ‘wastes’ $1M on relics.” Gothamist said, “It’s looking like robots could rule the subways before the NYPD ditches its last Selectric.” Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed astonishment, telling reporters, “Why are they using any is the question you should ask, and where do you find them?…I didn’t think anybody made them anymore.”

But maybe New York’s Finest were ahead of the curve. While business experts, futurists and most of the media are out to convince you of the game-changing power of new communication technology, one important technical feature of the 21st century has been the persistence of really old-fashioned ways.

Think about this: We live in an age of deserted shopping malls and online sales of nearly everything. Brick-and-mortar retail stalwarts such as Tower Records, Sharper Image, and Mervyn’s have vanished; Blockbuster lingers in isolation like a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over. Just a decade ago, behemoth bookstore chains were being vilified for driving independent stores out of business (there was even a Hollywood movie about it with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan); now the only question is whether Borders or Barnes & Noble will die first. The physical book itself, object of a thousand years of quasi-religious veneration, may be passing into history as e-reader users rapidly lose their taste for paper.

So what percentage of retail business in the United States would you say is done online? In my world, where people seem to be using their iPads to buy new Kindles, the answer feels like 90 percent, and certainly no lower than 60 percent. Maybe you run with a more old-school crowd, but the figure must be at least 20 percent, right?

Wrong. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a mere 3.8 percent of retail business in the United States falls under the rubric of “e-commerce.” Some analysts say this figure is an underestimate, but even the broadest definitions put e-commerce at no more than 8 percent of total U.S. retail.

True, e-commerce is nothing to sneeze at, with revenues of nearly $140 billion in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. But we’re almost two decades into the commercial Internet, and for a good 15 years the conventional wisdom has been that if you are not devoting 100 percent of your efforts to digital transactions you are moments away from becoming a bump on a deer caught in the headlights of a horse and buggy. How can the Internet still be playing such a small part in our lives?

“These trends take decades to play out,” says Jim Friedland, a researcher covering the Internet and new media for the investment bank Cowen and Company. “We are definitely seeing a secular trend toward e-commerce based on convenience and the likelihood that you’ll pay less if you buy online. On other hand, this growth can seem faster than it is. If you asked people whether they’re going to buy an iPad, you’d think the per capita sales would be two and Apple would sell 600 million by the end of this year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.”

Since the Census Bureau began keeping track, e-commerce’s share of the retail pie has grown at about 0.1 percent each quarter, but the rate can vary greatly by sector. Sales of automobiles are not highly susceptible to replacement; online grocery shopping, a fad that peaked during the dot-com boom but lingers in some big cities, may never take the place of supermarkets. But even areas ripe for electronic replacement grow only gradually. Despite the popularity of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, Friedland estimates more than 90 percent of the company’s book sales are still on old-fashioned paper.

If you relish tactile experience and the charm of old technologies, it may be a relief to learn that analog modes are refusing to go quietly—or even in some cases gaining a second wind. Robin Hemley is the editor of Defunct, an online magazine dedicated to “reviews of everything that has had its day: defunct magazines, defunct technologies, defunct theories, defunct fads, etc.” He notes that the death trend is not so simple. “The notion of defunctness may be defunct,” he says. “In a way everything is preserved now because of the Internet.”

This interplay between what old timers used to call cyberspace and meatspace is one of the signatures of our time. In the early days of eBay (which itself has been facing fairly severe market pressures lately), the company’s flacks cooked up a story that founder Pierre Omidyar had started the site to help his fiancée build her collection of old Pez dispensers. The fake story had an element of truth: Thanks to the Net, every old thing lives forever. Rhonda Vigeant, co-owner of Super 8 Sound—a Burbank-based business that provides comprehensive sales and service for the allegedly antiquated technology of Super 8 film—says the company’s sales have been growing during the last 10 years. About 1,000 professional filmmaking projects use Super 8 Sound every year. 

Even the humble, mockable typewriter continues to clatter along. Ed Michael, sales manager for the Moonachie, New Jersey–based Swintec (which provides the NYPD with its machines), says his company recently discovered a growth sector in selling clear plastic typewriters to correctional facilities. Swintec had more sales in 2009 than it did in 2008, many of which were executed through the company’s website. 

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles. His site simpleton.com is made with handcrafted html and a quality guarantee of no dynamically generated pages. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

Tim Cavanaugh is Managing Editor, Reason.com





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