I realize that the title of this post is something of a rip on E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful, but small is not always beautiful. Sometimes small just leads to being crushed. I started thinking about this when I was listening to an interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. She was talking to Stanford historian, Richard White, about his book, Railroaded: The Transcontinental and the Making of Modern America.
In his book, White lays out the mostly-sordid business history of the building of both the Transcontinental Railroad and other major expansions of the railroads in the late 19th Century. Railroads were the first large corporations in America. It was not possible to build something as capital intensive as a railroad without major investment. It was also not possible to operate such a large enterprise without layers of management. The Transcontinental Railroad was built mostly through political favors, bribes, and kickbacks. There was no business reason at the time of the Civil War that could justify building a rail line through mostly unpopulated areas. But the railroad got built because there was money to be made in railroad construction costs, land grants, and subsidies.
|Model-T Assembly Line|
With these examples in mind, I started to muse about what the next big waves of personal control might be? The starting point is to look for high capital intensity today. What demands a large corporation to provide the capital to make the technology possible? I think it would be fair to eliminate those corporations that supply network services like power and oil companies. But even as I write this I think of Skype which has done a lot to eat into the phone companies' business. Maybe the two areas that might come to pass next are manufacturing and health care.
Right now, if you want a new widget, you have to look for someone who makes it and offers it for sale. But 3-D printing is changing the paradigm. Now, you can design or scan an object and send it directly to a 3-D printer that can pop a widget out in nothing flat. The technology is still early and you won't find a 3-D printer in your neighbor's house but give it a decade or two and see where we are. I predict that manufacturing is going to undergo a sea change - and that sea change which will put more power into the hands of the individual.
The second area that comes to mind is health care. Right now, hospitals and clinics are capital intensive. Most people have to go to a physical facility to talk to a nurse or doctor. Medical records are closed for both privacy and competitive reasons. I think the forces of personal computing and the internet are going to change the way a lot of health care is practiced. Small sensors built into your smart phone or tablet will measure your physical status and convey it to a doctor who will make electronic "house calls" to you via video links. For most minor situations, you will no longer have to go to the clinic or hospital to be seen. Even for major procedures like surgery, you will be able to choose an expert who might live half-way around the world to do your procedure via robotic surgery. Health care is ripe for change due to its taxing infrastructure and exploding costs.
People want control of their lives and technologies. New technologies that give them the sense of control at affordable costs will be rapidly embraced. The world awaits the next waves of change. Small can be beautiful.