Several years ago I was shopping for a used car. We weren’t as well instrumented as we are now, but I had a cell phone, and a father at home who happened to be in front of the computer.
The salesman, despite his youth, was convinced he was living in 1982, and as my visit went on it became clear that he was squashed under the thumb of a Glengarry Glen Ross existence. He would tell me that they just reduced the price on a vehicle, and I would tell him that it was still $2,000 over the blue book price. He would assure me that a particular model was excellent, and I would hear my father’s scoffing second opinion on the other end.
I took this trip to the car lot pretty far, even filling out the paperwork to get approved for purchase or financing, but with my cell phone in hand, my negotiating position was too strong; I refused to pay more than I knew the car was worth. The salesman and his supervisor were so visibly frustrated with me that I couldn’t help but laugh, which caused the supervisor to break all professionalism and angrily ask me what I was laughing at. I was laughing at two men grinding themselves down trying to preserve an obsolete profession. I apologize for this now. I was young, (and yet, not as young as the salesman).
I was not the first customer of my kind, not by a long shot, but I was still probably an outlier. The used car salesman preys on your lack of knowledge, or at least they used to, back when you still had any lack of knowledge . Today the poor salesman has it worse: every customer has the Internet in their pocket and on craigslist they are selling spaceships. The used car salesman example is easy to understand, yet not very obvious. When people first started selling things on eBay, when companies first started posting informational websites, you probably didn’t think “This is going to murder the used car lots.”
The common focus in tech speculation and tech joy is on what is new. What’s the next thing? What will you do that you’ve never done before? This misses a crucial aspect of how technolgy changes our lives. A more relevant question might be, What just became obsolete? What will you never do again?
What just passed is often as hard to figure as what comes next. A lot of today’s innovators aren’t delivering something new as much as they are leveraging the the freshly demolished barriers of the newly obsolete, and making sure they are the first ones to notice. Used car salesmen may not draw your sympathy, and it is well understood how the ubiquity of information has warped modern business, but this impacts more than just economics.
I recently read an interview with Malcolm Gladwell where he talked about leaving his office, going out to dinner with his family and being no more than a mile from his office when a journalistic emergency breaks out. His editor tries and tries to contact him, but fails. The next morning, Gladwell says, sorry, but he was out of touch, and that was it. Out of touch. This sequence of events is no longer possible. Nobody is out of touch anymore. It’s not even socially acceptable. You need to be on vacation or in the delivery room and even then your friends might be waiting impatiently for you post pics of your new baby and/or boating accident.
But this isn’t a nostalgic gripe about the loss of something, just an observation that the information age is changing more than just business.
I overheard two middle-aged women talking about their children, laughing at how one of them asked, “So if you didn’t know the name of the actor on a show, or who won a championship one year, what did you do?” And the answer was “You just had to sit there and not know.” Had to sit there and not know? This simple reality makes 1970 sound like some sort of unbearable Dark Age. It is at once easier and harder to be a pop-culture junkie today, because all the trivia you’d ever want is within reach, but on the other hand, all the trivia you’d ever want is within reach. As a lifelong nerd, I can say it is pleasant that the Internet has all but obliterated nerd fights: “We can just look this up,” is how they all end now.
If you are in the mood to prognosticate, I think this is the next shoe to drop. Ignorance is becoming increasingly intolerable. Ignorance-as-lost-commodity is going to come full circle. We’ve freed ourselves from the used car salesmen, but soon we will be burdened with the expectation that we can’t make simple mistakes or ask simple questions. Don’t ask me who Usain Bolt is, look it up. Don’t tell me you got lost on the way here, you have ubiquitous GPS. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard about the new movie. Don’t tell me you don’t know the name of the drummer in your favorite band. You. Can. Look. It. Up. Today’s pressure to stay in touch with each other will be parlayed into tomorrow’s pressure to stay in touch with the whole of human knowledge, complete with its attendant exhaustion. Ignorance will be obsolete.