Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Infrastructure of Commerce and Manufacturing: It’s All in the Heavy Lifting

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 4, 2008

Often it is the most traditional infrastructure and the oldest technology that underlies and determines the fates of seeming innovations.

Nine years ago, at the height of millennial enthusiasm occasioned by the “Dot Com Boom” and the financial sector’s disposal of billions of dollars of other people’s hard-earned money floating  “IPOs” of  internet-related start-ups without viable business plans, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a seemingly wet-blanket piece in The New Yorker that presented the then sacred-cow of e-commerce as a mere twist on the mail-order business and as nothing more than a new front-end to the US Postal Service.  In Clicks and Mortars, Gladwell proposed that the real innovation behind e-commerce was the 19th-century invention of the road-grading machine that made possible government-sponsored Rural Free Delivery of post which in turn lead to the giant mail-order houses of Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (Neckermann would be Europe’s closest equivalent) the success of which led to mass manufacturing of ready-to-wear clothing.  The computer on the front-end of e-commerce was little more than a neat twist on the cataloger and payment sides of an old formula.  In the end, goods remain goods and delivery remains delivery.

The same goes for globalization.  Smart last-minute inventory systems, clever financial management, flouting of labor laws, and cozy arrangements with corrupt third-world heavies made globalized manufacturing possible but, in the end, goods need to be moved and delivered.  A summary take on the effects of rising oil prices on the house of cards that is globalization can be found in this recent report in the New York Times.


In keeping with the proud eccentricity of the New Yorker, the full text of the Gladwell article is not available online.  To find it, stop by your local bricks-and-mortar library or invest in the New Yorker’s proprietary full-archives-on-a-single-USB-hard-drive, a solution worthy of Eustace Tilley (the magazine’s emblematic 1920s dandy) in the internet age.

Neckermann, by the way, is the current incarnation of what was once the family business of the forebearers of pop singer Billy Joel.  The Joel family’s Berlin-based mail order house, which grew from their original dry-goods store in Munich, was “Aryanized” (read: stolen and plundered) by the Nazis and their hangers-on during the 1930s.


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