Cultural Shifts Among Coffee Shops, Newspapers and Shoppers

A few articles related to our everyday culture caught my eye today:

First, a very short article about the widening generation gap when it comes to "buying American."  I will admit that the idea of "Buy American" is a bit foreign (interesting choice of words) to me.  I didn't grow up in a household that was "always buy American" (we usually had a Honda or something in the family to go along with our GM or Ford), so I didn't have that influence growing up.  I remember when Walmart first started to expand nationally and started to come into the Northeast, their big thing was "American-Made Goods."  As that positioning fell away in favor of "always low prices," it is ironic that Walmart's push for lower cost goods is part of what has driven so many companies to switch to overseas manufacturing.  

However, separate fromthat influence, sales of foreign-made goods have obviously been growing for years, to the point where I think those of "generation y" and younger don't really think twice about buying something made in another country.   We don't remember a time when goods made in an Asian country meant something that would fall apart.  In many cases, we now equate it with a higher level of quality than many American-made products.  And when it isn't, we equate it with being cheap enough to just throw out and get a replacement.  When all of the Star Wars toys you played with growing are stamped with "Made in China" on their little plastic feet, you don't really think twice about buying a radio, TV, or car made in Asia. 

In addition, we live in a more globally connected world, one where you can easily speak with someone in China, India or Japan - not just over the phone, but via video conference, Skype, IM, or email.  Someone who is over 55 may remember when the only way of getting to the Far East involved slow moving ocean liners.  Now we can get there in under 24 hours on high speed jets that fly several times a day.  When you can overcome the geographic distance between people so easily, the thought of holding a physical object in your hand from that same country isn't as bewildering.  You don't question the technology that allows you to communicate or visit with them, so why question the fact that you're using a product made in that country? 

The second article is about the banning of laptop computers in coffee shops.  What struck me most about this article is not about the controversy over whether or not these cafes are doing the right thing for their business, but rather the fact that the articles refers to out-of-work professionals shacking up in these cafes so that they can use the wi-fi connections for the things they need to do: look for a job, pay bills, etc.  We've become so strongly connected to the Internetthat we simply can't operate without it.  What do you do when you do all of your on line "life management" using your work's internet connection, and then you suddenly don't have a job?  You're sitting there in limbo with no connection at home and unable to afford one, and in the meantime you've gone "paperless" with every company you do business with.  Where do you go? 

We may be creating a new type of homeless – those who have someplace to live, but no place to connect.  The "wandering netless" we could call them.  Forget tent cities and a 55-gallon drum filled with scrap wood for warmth under the overpass; we may see former professionals huddling around a router, vying for a sliver of bandwidth.   How long until the stories of widespread "hi-jacked WiFi signals" start to appear?  Perhaps it is just a matter of time until the local soup kitchen offers food, winter coats and free WiFi.  I don't mean to sound flip, but rather pose a serious question – as we become more connected (which most would say is a good thing, unless you want to buy American) how do we survive when we can no longer connect?

Last, but not least, and probably not completely unrelated to the above, is this analysis on what is killing the newspaper industry.  I admit that as net-centric as I am, I still love the traditional newspaper, especially the Sunday paper.  I like the tactile sensory experience of it, and the intellectual nature of paging through, browsing the news and feature articles.  With all the newsletters and web sites I read through during the course of a week, I still find new and interesting information in the newspaper whenever I pick it up. 

So basically, I have a soft spot for the traditional newspaper, and it makes me sad to think of it dying the slow, painful death that it is going through right now.   I agree with the analysis, even if I never thought about it in the way it is described: newspapers weren't in the business of delivering news – they were in the business of delivering ads right to the doorsteps and into the living rooms of their customers. 

As time and technology marched on, far more efficient and specialized ways have replaced that expertise, and in response, newspapers dug in their heels, and shed off some of the thing that made them unique in the first place.   They were able to keep making money by cutting costs and consolidating, but didn't keep their eye on the long game. 

I don't think the analysis offers up a lot of useful advice on turning things around, but I hope that someone out there reads it and figure out a way to save an industry that can be important… especially when you are carrying around your Japanese-manufactured laptop and can't find a place to get on the internet for the latest news!

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