Thursday, March 24, 2011

The death of "mass"

No, I'm not talking about some physics discovery that portends the end of the universe. I'm talking about "mass" in the context of mass production, mass media and mass education. We're in a transition period that, perhaps fifty to 100 years from now, will clearly mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. The industrial age led to the era of mass production. Mass production, electrification and the invention of wireless technologies led to mass media. Demand for skilled workers and the migration from farms to cities led to mass education. All of these trends were well-established by the early 1920s, and now, almost 100 years later, the post-mass era is beginning.

Mass production, as implemented by Henry Ford and others, brought the cost of manufactured goods down to a price that almost anyone could the cost of the humanity of people who work on production lines. However, we're now replacing everything physical that we can with bits, and bits have no need for mass production. A single copy of a song, eBook, video, television show or movie can be endlessly reproduced at effectively no cost, and sent anywhere in the world that can be reached by broadband or a wireless connection.

Today, our demand for new products and new technologies is stretching the ability of mass production to respond. We've taken all the slack that we can out of production systems--implemented just-in-time manufacturing, minimized inventories, and created processes to eliminate defects rather than fix them after they've occurred. However, the mass production environment we've built doesn't work well when chains of supply break (as with the Japanese disaster), or when wars break out that increase the cost of raw materials or interfere with transportation.

Our mass production systems also don't work well when markets can change at a moment's notice. Rapid hikes in the price of gasoline killed demand for gas-guzzling trucks, undermined the business strategies of U.S. car manufacturers, and ultimately led two of the Big Three to file for bankruptcy. A one-hour presentation by Apple announcing its iPad 2 made most of its competitor's tablets obsolete overnight. Samsung was able to respond and reengineer its Galaxy Tab 10.1 to compete, but Motorola faces the prospect of taking huge losses on its Xoom and replacing it with a new model much sooner than expected.

By definition, mass production requires making a commitment to manufacture of large numbers of products in order to keep costs down. However, those large commitments increase the risk of having to discount unpopular or obsolete products, or of having to scrap some inventory entirely. The solution is to manufacture products only in the way that consumers specify them, when customers are ready to buy them. That means a return to localized, bespoke manufacturing that uses the same technology as mass production, but in smaller, less capital- and space-intensive forms. It also means that manufacturing will once again be done close to the customers, rather than thousands of miles away in plants chosen for the lowest possible manufacturing cost. This doesn't mean that mass production as we know it will go away completely, but it does mean that an ever-increasing percentage of what we buy will come from local manufacturers, reversing a forty-year trend.

The next "mass" that's evolving out of existence is mass media. The very concept of mass media is fairly young; even in the golden era of newspapers, each one served a single city, and Hearst, the largest newspaper chain owner, covered only a small percentage of the U.S. It wasn't until the advent of network radio broadcasting that media in the U.S. truly became mass, and that didn't occur until the 1920s. Starting in the 1950s, we entered a period where everyone watched the same television shows and got essentially the same news and the same viewpoints, whether they were reading newspapers, watching television or listening to the radio.

The mass media era first began to break down when talk became the dominant radio format, which eroded the influence of the original radio networks. The next crack in the wall was when the viewing audience for cable television networks exceeded that of broadcast networks, and the third break was the erosion of newspaper circulation, which actually predates the Internet era.

The Internet, however, represents the death blow to the mass media era. There are more sources of entertainment, information, news and opinion available to more people today than at any time in history. Anyone can write articles, record audio and shoot video, and they can make their work available to a worldwide audience without going through a publisher, distributor or broadcaster. An increasing number of people find out what to pay attention to not from editors, but from people they follow on Twitter. Writers still write, producers still produce and editors still edit, but the process of curation, of deciding what's worth paying attention to and what isn't, is now in the hands of ourselves, our friends and people whose opinions we respect.

The average age of print newspaper readers, television viewers and radio listeners has been increasing for years. The most likely advertisers on U.S. national television news programs and late night talk shows are makers of denture cleaners and adhesives, arthritis and pain medications, and drugs to treat gout, erectile dysfunction and depression. Younger consumers get their information and entertainment from the Internet, and when they watch television, they increasingly watch it online or use DVRs that allow them to skip commercials.

The number of cable television subscribers has been declining for almost a year, and the growth of multichannel video services (cable, satellite and IPTV) in the U.S. has just about come to an end. The audience for broadcast radio is being eroded by Internet services like Pandora and Spotify. Newspaper publishers are "circling the drain". In short, mass media as we've known it, especially advertising-supported mass media, is on its last legs.

That brings us to the last "mass", mass education. The modern public education system in the U.S. dates back to after the Civil War, when huge demand for educated workers in factories coincided with a mass migration of people from rural areas to cities. The single-room schoolhouses that were found in most communities, and provided all the education for students from the first to eighth grade, were replaced with factory-like buildings that applied mass production techniques to education. Curricula were standardized and the subjects taught were based on the knowledge that employers believed that their employees needed to master in order to succeed. Even sports programs were introduced to improve the fitness of workers for factory jobs; this was especially true in areas with heavy industry such as automobile manufacturing, steel and mining.

Today, however, the mass education techniques used in most primary and secondary school districts in the U.S. are failing to engage students and meet their educational needs. For example, a high school student in the Chicago Public School district, one of the largest school districts in the U.S., has only a 50% chance of graduating. Schools and school districts have hierarchies of teachers, unions and administrators that are every bit as as bureaucratic and sclerotic as the worker/union/management hierarchies found in the most backward, old-guard factories. The U.S. government has responded by implementing national standardized tests, which try to fix the problems of mass education by applying yet another mass production technique.

The solutions to the problems of mass education have to come from individualized instruction, education based on mastery of subjects rather than completion of a certain amount of time sitting in a chair, and tearing down the bureaucracies found in schools. We need to go back to the one-room schoolhouse, but with 21st Century technology and the latest thinking in educational theory. Otherwise, the mass education system will collapse under its own inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

We've entered the post-mass era--the decline and fall of mass production, mass media and mass education--but we'll truly understand what's going on only when we can look at it in hindsight.
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