It was about 20 years ago that the language began to change, when the first Internet-focused businesses emerged as dominating forces in finance and economics. Businesses emerged with names like InfoSeek and Napster, and Pets.com, engaged in activities that were hard to grasp and often hard to credit, but somehow the newness and opaqueness of these business simply added to the assurance that something so intriguing had to be viable and profitable. The oddity or even weirdness of the names of these businesses was a signal of their newness, something no one else had. Recognizable names like U.S. Steel and Sears, with clearly stated assets and liabilities, were discounted because they offered no excitement.
It was not just the language that changed. This was the original dot-com economy, and because some elements of it have lasted and thrived it is easy to forget how ephemeral much of it seemed at the time. Especially, I suspect, if one was accustomed to businesses based on product design and development, engineering and manufacturing, and customer service (like forging), the dot-com economy was hard to grasp. Why did businesses that produced nothing earn so much leniency from analysts? How did businesses that had earned nothing manage to raise so much working capital?
The dot-com boom was the beginning of the upheaval for communications and retail and entertainment businesses, but it was especially disruptive to manufacturing businesses which had somehow to figure out how to preserve the integrity and reliability they had established with customers, while adapting themselves to the higher-margin, faster-ROI standards that analysts, lenders, and investors now demanded.
The fact that some businesses emerging from that era have thrived, like Amazon or Google, and in thriving have altered how business is done by every enterprise, changes how we recall that earlier era. It has changed how we think about all business, about what we prioritize, demand, and reward.
We prioritize ascendency, we demand immediacy, and we reward novelty, however nominal. We’re conditioned to respond to limited-time offers and service on-demand. We respond sooner than we consider.
We do not devote our own energy or resources to long-term planning or deep research. Either we have forgone our concern for our own future prospects, or we trust (or expect) someone else to attend to those concerns.
Google, for one, is doing that thinking. ‘Thought leaders’ at that most influential of businesses are prioritizing the ‘circular economy’ theory of planning, an approach that would shift businesses’ prime directive from financial growth to ‘carbon neutrality’ or ‘sustainability’. When we reorient ourselves to operate ‘circularly’, what will we count as progress? What is growth?
Google is at liberty to change its own priorities, but as we have seen over the past two decades Google (and other tech businesses) have shifted priorities for everyone else too. It’s not a stretch to imagine how such businesses may direct us to eliminate certain practices, or penalize those who do not. Resetting our values so that various products are required and others are restricted, setting value on materials or resources that must be preserved regardless of need, is a fundamental challenge to how businesses (especially manufacturers) organize and manage their activities, and how individuals conduct their lives. Who sets the resource priorities in a circular economy? Who decides how surpluses are rewarded and deficits are penalized?
Assessing progress and direction as businesses and individuals is appropriate at any time, especially as this year ends and another begins. It’s startling to note how much we have changed, not simply because of how much remains to be done to achieve our goals, but because we may find that ideas and values we have discarded would serve us well again as we move ahead.