The Quaintly Archaic Realm of Pointless Professors: A Case Study

Of course, when you are paying tuition fees (deferred or otherwise) the aim of the game when doing an undergraduate degree at a university is to pass all your courses and gain the intended qualification. What is the point otherwise? And these days, all undergraduates pay tuition fees (of one sort or another).

When your progress through a degree is measured by examination results, you will be wanting to avoid failures. The routine is pretty straight forward: follow what’s being delivered by your lecturers and return the answers that your instructors would judge as being correct for all assignments, tests and formal examinations. There is no real place in this routine for a good old argument. Usually. You either get a grasp on what are perceived by your instructors to be the ‘correct’ answers to likely examination questions or you fail. All of which is reasonably tried and true and perfectly acceptable to most students, particularly at the undergraduate level. Most undergrads have yet to derive a hot critical capacity through which to question the established wisdom of their instructors; so they mostly accept what they are taught as being, more or less, correct.

Now there is a huge cultural infrastructure behind this standard routine of trusting in what you are taught. All students come to appreciate the traditions of academic pecking orders and the related ascendency of apparent omniscience as an instructor progresses from the mere tutor level through to the god-like pinnacle of perfection embodied by full professors. But it is not just the students who tend to lap up this hierarchical pedigree thing; most academics believe in this ranking system with all the passions of a religious cult.

I am reasonably sure I started to question the perfection of this scheme by about the second year of my own four year undergraduate degree. Mainly because it was perfectly possible to uncover completely opposite opinions on some of the cardinal facts presented for our dutiful regurgitation. All you had to do is follow a few references down the chain into at most the mid-depths of grey upon which each fact floats to inspire ugly scenes of dissent in our orderly lecture halls. Libraries are dangerous places! Naturally, there are some teachers who like a good argument and reward those who seek nuance to the basics of any subject with higher marks. But there are even more teachers who take arguments from undergraduates as a personal assault. You can pick these latter instructors by the yes/no, tick box style exams they design.

Way back in the 1970’s, I completed a bachelors degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. My favourite courses were those that welcomed argument. My least favourite were those which demanded unequivocal, pin-point precision: like mathematics. Which is why, I now believe, the very least intelligent economists are those who like to articulate their thoughts through mathematics rather than equivocal prose. Which kind of explained why there was such a huge emphasis on mathematics as the language of economics at the University of New England at that time…

Marriage brought me back to Armidale ten years later after a wonderful stint as an economist with the then Department of Agriculture (where I could specialise in my favourite subject of the bee keeping industry). My wife was on a farm so was kind of fixed location wise (its hard to move house with 8,000 sheep in tow). So I applied for a tutorship as a pathway to a PhD.

Now that I was on the teaching side of things, I recalled the frustrations of argument avoidance when the pleasures of argument could be so much more fulfilling; for both me and my students. I bet you can see a problem developing here…

In the mid to late 1980’s, the ‘agricultural’ side of the agricultural economics teaching domain was regarded by my almost universally mathematically bent colleagues as a the crude, embarrassing side of an otherwise illustrious disciplinary domain. Our esteemed ‘senior colleagues’ would universally carve out the mathematical economics side of things as their own and find some poor schmuck to take on icky stuff like ‘farm management’ and the like. The tradition was to dump the dirty boots stuff on tutoring staff; like me. Fortunately, that suited me just fine! At least from my point of view.

You see, as I implied above, when mathematics is not the language of instruction, the prospect for argument and endless loops of animated research debate are free to reign. The very first thing I did when I took over the farm management dimension of my school’s agricultural economics undergraduate degree was to throw out all the archaic nonsense of programmable management; like linear programming and the like. Real farmers don’t construct elaborate mathematical predictive pathways to the resolution of perfect, optimal solutions to the conundrums that confound the vagaries of their cash flow. Most farmers know that all those unknowable bits like the weather, casino -like commodity prices and government policy shifts will always get in the way of any pretence to predictive precision. Rather, farm management is all about being systematic at interpreting and understanding the fundamentally chaotic system within which they operate. The more you admit the real world of chaos into farm management, the less and less mathematics has to offer. This suited me just fine. So I shifted the entire teaching programme towards farming systems management, with a big emphasis on understanding the various and numerous sources of chance that confront any real world manager. I kept hiring busses and kept on bussing my troops out to farms and forests to interact with primary producers first hand. My course started to cost a lot… Questions started to be asked. My contract renewals never exceeded two years at a time.

Incrementally, I stepped up from tutor to lecturer (level A to level B). Then I started to take on natural resource economics as well. Which is pretty well in line with the direction of my PhD (focused on the pollination business of the beekeeping industry). I started to observe some disquieting things. Like an active market in used major assessment projects for one of the courses I had just taken on. One of our Associate Professors had a kind of relaxed approach to the design of his student assessment projects: he’d simply rotate two projects over an ever recurring two year cycle. Canny students would search for high ranking projects from past students and simply tinker with their workings and resubmit for top marks. The market for these high ranked past project reports had become busy to say the least. So I had some major re-design work to do here as well.

As time passed, I started to develop some rather strong misgivings with regard to some of my colleagues. There were a few professors, I noticed, who contributed almost nothing at all. These kings were kind of light-on. One would tend to turn up irregularly only to lounge in his office listening to the cricket. Another, ‘highly esteemed international star in his field’ tended  mainly to visit to pick up his more than regular deliveries of wine. Then one day, my PhD supervisor (an Associate Professor en route to full Professorship two years hence) confronted me in the corridor and suggested that he would need to resign as a supervisor because ‘your inevitable failure will put a black mark on my record’. Now this guy had contributed virtually nothing to my work from day one (he was appointed to me rather than the other way around) and my work had started to diverge well into territory he considered to be heretical; but I still, naively, thought academics loved a great argument so this would be a journey for both of us. That was the big turning point for me in relation to my hitherto at least marginal acceptance of the hierarchies of grandeur upon which academics are wont to pose. This bloke was an embarrassment to my ideals for what a Professor should be all about! Yes, he was mathematically bent. He had diverted me onto pointless mathematical dead ends from day one. He even insisted that I visit his own personal academic hero when I went off on a study tour to the USA. At least I had the chance to meet an academic of at most equal worth to my supervisor and thus confirm the international spread of this academic malaise. But I got my PhD and it won an award. No doubt this helped my supervisor to get his promotion to full professor. He has only barely grunted at me since. He’s probably still embarrassed by my heresies… But this guy was a wonderful mentor for how to supervise a PhD. Henceforth, I would adopt an opposite approach in every way; which worked over the 20 PhD’s I supervised since.

But it all got worse when, following the duties I perceived for the teaching of natural resource economics, I started to explore the very new territory of ecological economics. I could have started to urinate in church by the reaction from my professorial colleagues. The Head of School started to receive complaints (he loved to tell me all about the antics of these complaining dorks). When I went on the organise the inaugural Ecological Economics Conference for Australia, I discovered that one of my ‘colleagues’ had threatened his own post graduate students with expulsion if they went to the event. This Conference was a huge hit. Academics came from around Australia (we located the event in the beach venue of Coffs Harbour). Not one academic from the University of New England attended. Not one. Two of my own students turned up. Something was wrong at the University of New England. And something was wrong with the renewal of my academic contract. I was to be ‘let go’ at the end of the year.

At this point I discovered the one and only Professor for whom I ever had any regard (in Australia). Professor John J Pigram. A geographer by training, he was then the Director of the rather world famous Centre for Water Policy Research at my university. John’s Centre was, literally, an island out on its own. A long and successful Centre with a cast of of high repute players on board; this crowd were disciplinarily eclectic to the core. So together with two of my PhD students, we went to pay John J Pigram a visit. Would he like all my Phd students (four at the time) and two of my Australian Research Council grants to add to his Centre’s core? He considered for a minute or two, picked up the phone and we were in. I was put on the books as a ‘consulting academic’. I would be paid in accordance with the research income I would bring in. I ended up being paid more than a full professor within a year. My PhD students grew to 18 within two years and our research income grew to the same degree. This Centre for Water Policy Research had taken on Ecological Economics with a passion. We prospered. We had a great time.

Like a hoard of Miss Haversham’s, my ex colleagues muttered and brayed behind closed doors; but I had plants on the inside to tell me all. I connected with the University’s Vice Chancellor who could see the merits of what it is that we could do. I eventually became the Centre’s next Director on the retirement of John J Pigram, ‘normalised’ (in the magical language of this University’s HR bureaucrats) down to a five year contract at the level of Associate Professor. And so we went for five great years. My emphasis was on matching PhD research projects with real world issues of significant regional concern. We were always testing the capacities of our ‘transdisciplinary’ team based approaches to dealing with hitherto intractable issues like logging in Tasmania and resolving unresolvable regional planning issues like the management of floods and the development of regional visions through which to underpin community-driven regional development planning.

But it all came crashing down. My supportive VIce Chancellor came to the end of her contract and moved on. The university’s professorial elites banded together to influence the selection of a replacement who would ‘respect their traditions’ and, generally, make their lives more comfortable than had been the case thus far. So they selected one of the most profoundly appalling intellectual dullards of all time to take over the show. They selected a pathological managerialist to drive the ship. They selected a professor who’d developed the notion that an organisation as complex as a university could be managed like a self regulating machine. His task was to rewire the works so that his autopilot could work. Out went anything vaguely challenging to his vision of sharply connected disciplinary cogs. His vision was for mechanisms of self regulating silos under a cascade of pathologically linear command and control. A ‘transdisciplinary’ research centre unconnected to the silos of his dream was hardly a sustainable proposition, as we were soon told.

In his first week, this Professor in charge came to pay us a visit. I had arranged for our impressively enthusiastic cohort of students, mentors and staff to entertain his visit and seek pathways through this vision with which we could never agree. We presented our work and our aims. We noted that what it was that we did was a precise fit to the new University Vision he had imposed (via a process of ‘consultation’ that Hitler would have admired): Regional Relevance with Global Impact. That’s precisely what we had been doing for years. Very few groups at our university had become so involved in work of strong regional relevance by way of extension to Global Impact as us. But I soon became crippled with embarrassment as this astoundingly appalling man declared that we would be wound up no matter what: we did not fit into his grand silo plan. As we were transdisciplinary, we would always be an ill-fit for a structure to be built around disciplinary concentration. This guy set the University back by, I reckon, 100 years.

So, they waited for my contract to fizzle out and like a bunch of cowards, refused to discuss any ideas for keeping an at least laterally re-conceived version of our show on the road. Like a bunch of cowards, they would avoid a hefty redundancy bill by simply waiting for my contact to expire before declaring our doors to be shut. That this would involve, literally, throwing my five remaining PhD students out on the street was considered to be ‘attrition’.

I will never forget my very last day. After 26 years on the teaching staff, I expected someone, somewhere, might like to actually express an at least insincere expression of farewell. By my last day, all our staff had moved on and my students had started to seek out other universities with which to enrol. (My adventures in seeking out these positions is a story for another time…) While we had a few big budget projects to complete, no one would be left to do the work. No one but me was left to explain the contempt of this university to those who had invested in us. I will never forget that last day. There was a phone call from the Vice Chancellor’s deputy: I should make sure I leave my keys behind and return my library books. That was it. That was the last word. I took my stuff and off I went. Never, ever, to return.

I wish I could report that things have improved at the University of New England in the past five years since my Centre was destroyed. But from all accounts, the managerialists have won. That Vice Chancellor left soon after me (in an unseemly hurry it would seem). The new guy suggested to me that the past was none of his concern. It was all ‘before his time’. He didn’t want to know. I was seeking formal resolution from the University to all my Centre’s clientele: I was seeking apologies and explanations to those who still, it would seem, are blaming me.

But, and here is a wonderful irony, on my last day that VIce Chancellor, as some kind of perverse parting gift of astonishing inanity, appointed me to the illustrious level of a full professor (adjunct). Which, I guess, helps defray any claim that my abject contempt for that most generally worthless class of academia – the Professors – is driven by any kind of jealousy on my part.

I could never, ever, recommend the University of New England to anyone. Until that appalling floating raft of tenured professors has ceased to clog the arteries of what could be a university of value and relevance to its own, ludicrously misplaced Vision. The true cutting edge of academia is rarely, if ever, driven by these tenured elites. The cutting stuff, in my experience, is always attributable to PhD students and junior staff still engaged with enthusiasm and something to prove. The role of a Professor is to facilitate learning and connection. It is not to serve as a brick wall to the learning journeys of others. Professors should never be there there with the aim of producing clones. If we are to take Professors as role models for learning, those professors at the University of New England with whom I had the misfortune to interact must be regarded as role models for disciplinary fundamentalism and self-constrained, blinkered thinking. But the biggest insight all is that these professors should never, ever, be appointed to lead universities and pretend competence with management. A publication record of (always limited) peer reviewed contributions to unutterably arcane disciplinary journals does not automatically qualify anyone to lead a complex organisation, let alone one where egotism has an institutionalised free rein.

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What’s the Business Model for Next-Gen Record Stores?

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In the past month, I’ve been busy upgrading my stereo Hi-Fi. I’ll underline the word ‘stereo’ there. As in two channel. CD’s, LP’s. Not video. Not home cinema. Hi-Fi. I love music. I am an audiophile. But now, it seems, I am to be a dispossessed music loving audiophile.  

For many years, I’ve been tinkering away at my Hi-Fi hobby via the good graces and enthusiasm of a local retailer. He’s a one man band operating like a store within a store. It’s my local RetraVision; purveyors of fridges, stoves and vacuum cleaners, all of dismal Chinese descent. But way up the back, my local Hi-Fi man has been keeping a store of Hi-Fi bits; some extraordinarily brave – like turntables and stereo speakers (speakers for stereo, not the usual Home Theatre super 8.1surround thunder-in-a-box-for-$599.99). And he’s the keeper of the keys as an agent for anything I might ever want to order in. Which I have been doing. Furiously. For the past two weeks. Why? Because no sooner had I put my order in for a new CD player, he announced that this business was, well, out of business. Closing down. Finished. After 30 years. So, I’ve been measuring my orders against the final closing day. Because after that, the nearest retailer is 550km away. My last pair of bookshelf speakers are due to arrive at 4pm Friday, one hour before final closing time…

Now all we’ll have left in this town (Armidale, New South Wales) are two mega chain purveyors or mattresses, Home-Threatre-in-a-Box, hair dryers and digicams for the purposefully undiscerning, without the bit up the back selling Hi-Fi gear. 

But we do still have a record store! Which is for sale. 

So why is there, apparently, no demand for music playing gear these days? What happened to the record industry. What happened to Hi-Fi? Who cares? 

Culture shifts come and go. Once we had pyramids for Pharaohs. Then we had the penny farthing craze. We had mini skirts and punk. Cravats and bear baiting. Hula hoops and Lady Gaga. But is the wholesale disappearance of proper audio equipment really a culture on the move? Over the past 100 years, we’ve had plenty of shifts from one manifestation of music reproduction to the next, but the basic game stayed the same: the reproduction of music in as realistic a manner as possible. Always getting better; in perpetual pursuit of the perfect sound. 

But now, for the very first time, the fidelity of music is on the decline. These days, the demand is for lo-fi MP3 downloads, preferably for free. I suspect that the latter is more important than quality for most consumers of such stuff. Free has become the key here. This is the culture shift. It’s almost as though it’s an insult to suggest that someone should actually have to pay for recorded music these days. Twenty somethings raise their eyebrows in dismay, if not incomprehension over the prospect for actually paying for the recordings they demand. An entire generation has emerged that has never, ever, heard music played to a standard that could be called Hi-Fi. And that applies even if they actually did attend a live show, where the music is now so loud that it’s almost impossible to hear. Fidelity has been redefined. Where once we received music via vibrations in the inner ear, now the demand is for our whole bodies to vibrate. And then pass out. 

So, what’s the business plan for a Hi-Fi retailer these days?

What’s the business plan for a record store?

What’s the business plan for making penny farthing bicycles?

There are multitudes of frantic business people searching for answers here.

These days, the default for sellers of stuff such as this is to hope for a landing in a nice cushioned niche.

You can observe that reaction from the shifting nature of record stores (amongst the few that remain). Way back in the 50’s and 1960’s, the record store was usually a small,  local, independent family run affair. Every shopping centre had at least one. There were even specialists (one for Jazz, one for Classical, and one for Rock and Pop). When I was living in Sydney back in the 1980’s, I would do a weekly traverse of my local classical retailer only a suburb away. Then I would hop on a train to visit the big city Jazz store. The local shopping centres catered for all the rest. 

Then came the mega store.  Virgin/HMV, Tower Records and an entire floor in the Meyer Department Store. In 2003, you could spend all day browsing across any conceivable genres, with CD’s stacked from ceiling to floor. CD’s by the million. There were five stores within 5km in the Sydney CBD. By 2009, they were all gone. Every last one. 

From 2010 the trend was to go all ’boutique’. Interior decorated with wood panelling for the classicals and glass and metal for rock and roll. They were trying hard. And failing all over again. 

Then came the shift from physical retailing to one-time record stores selling on-line. But that rarely, if ever, worked. Site after site went down to follow demand. 

Now  the record companies are trying to direct sell via their own web-stores, when they are not selling direct through the global behemoths like Apple’s iTunes store, Amazon and now Google. Even artists are getting in the game. Hi-Resolution audio files to cater for the audiophile and MP3’s for all the rest. You can now purchase virtually anything on-line. But how much business now happens this way? Is this the final niche? Has the industry now entirely dispensed with the wholesale/retail game? 

So, what happens to those few remaining record stores? What’s their business plan? Now they even seem to have been deserted by the record companies, if not entirely by the customers they once had. And if no one’s buying records, there’s going to be even less demand for gear to play it on. 

Is Apple Inc the final player in the music game? With both players and media tied together in the Apple Store, what’s left for anyone else? The entire industry has restructured itself out of wholesaling and retailing. It’s now all about direct sales. 

From the consumers’ point of view, our needs are still covered. I can spend extraordinary sums on a high-end DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) with an asynchronous USB interface to my Mac. That connects me to some seriously great Hi Resolution download files (via sites like HDTracks.com). Instant downloads and instant gratification. I can even listen to previews on-site. I can download from my favourite record labels as well. Chandos and Hyperion to name but two. Music itself is not going away.  

But, what’s gone is the community of search and discovery that we once got at our local record store. What’s gone is the independent view and advice. What’s gone is the artistry of display and the tactile sense of something hard and real. What’s gone is the atmosphere. The intentionality and dedication of purpose to travel to a record store. The thrill of finding a bargain, of discovering something entirely new. Web based search is just not the same. Even iTunes can only display a handful of new releases at any one time. My old HMV had an entire floor of stuff that rotated through the release cycle. Touch, sound, atmosphere. Noise, overheard customer critiques. Box sets. Imports. Special deals. I miss the condescensions of the record store man… ‘You want what? You can’t be serious…’ or, ‘These guys are vastly better… try this one out instead’. Sometimes, I’d be in the front row for an hour long lecture on the latest performing style, or on why Havergal Brian is the next Big Thing. Or why, over his dead body, he’d never be selling albums by Yes in his store… I miss all that. Like a cherished, now dead, friend. How can I argue and cajole, rail and declaim, if I am just shopping on line? Having a two hour argument with a record store clerk is much more fun than inserting a comment in a chat box or posting to a forum of people I’ve never met. So now I’m set to become a music recluse. Shut off behind ear buds attached to an iPod. Alone in my listening room.  It’s all too much like going underground. In a bunker. After the holocaust.

So is there a way of capturing the social dimension of record collecting and audiophile fanaticisms to keep a physical shop on the street? Perhaps this is the core for a 2012 record store business plan. I rather think this might be the key. That’s the essence of the recent Record Store Day movement (for example check out Record Store Day Australia), but this model can be extended further still. Let’s celebrate our physical record retailers. Put celebration into the shop. Live bands, events. New release celebrations. Celebration is the key. It seems that we need to turn record retailing into a show. 

Borders tried to merge book retailing with latte-sipping and a newsstand. They failed. But it was worth a try, that’s the right direction to go. We shouldn’t assume that the socialisation of retailing in the music game is necessarily going to fail because a few corporates failed a similar test. There were other reasons to underpin their demise, not just falling sales. 

I am hoping for a new era of what might be described as a Music Campus Store. It seems to me that the prospect is for a synthesis of social hangout, record retailing, audio equipment retailing, live music making, maybe even instrument lessons and associated teaching. Let’s have a Music Campus in every town. In other words, bring together everything that on-line music retailing cannot provide. Live instruments and good audio gear. What a combination to reconnect our youth with music and the fidelity of sound. What a combination to extend horizons and reintroduce diversity outside the Lady Gaga commercial mainstream. 

It’s either something along those lines or just hanging out for the next closing down sale. 

Facing the Crisis

Tv2

I wasn’t there when they first invented the TV. But I do recall once watching an early era black and white set before colour broadcasting began. I remember the wooden box-like set. I remember the small glass screen. I remember the single mono speaker and the big fuel tank  filler cap-like channel switcher. I remember the turned cylinder legs and the flower pot permanently planted on the top. I do definitely remember that all this felt so amazingly modern. And I do not ever recall thinking that all this technology would be in for much in the way of change. Colour was not something that ever occurred to me. Yes, that little Pye set was bigger and better in every way than its predecessors that more resembled a gramophone set with a window than a Jurassic Home Theatre array. But progress felt… gradual. Not frantic. We didn’t purchase on the knife edge of fast paced imminent redundancy. We didn’t worry that what we might purchase today would become an antique the very next day. 

Which is how I feel when I buy a TV these days. Which is exactly how I feel two days after installing the one I have just bought. Two days after purchase, that model has been deleted. But it was current two days before. So now, apparently, I have an antique…

But it’s not just TV’s that give me this riding-a-technology whirlwind feeling these days, And that’s not because I am some kind of grumpy technologically outpaced old man either, I might add…

This latest model Macbook Air I am using here was fresh for five days. Then Apple added USB 3. So now I am a legacy user disconnected from the world of high speed devices to which, it seems, every other Mac user now has access, except me. Now I’m stuck with USB 2.0.  One day I was on the cutting edge. Now I am in the dust. Feeling like the victim of technological assault. Inadequate. Left behind. Old. Which is all very odd because before the latest Macbook update, USB 2.0 was just fine. I was happy using the equivalent of black and white TV serial bus technology. USB 3.0 was for PC users and I wasn’t one of them. And that was just fine. 

Which is why, and I am sure I am not alone, so many folk are having such fun with LP records once again. Vinyl has become a concrete barricade of protection from the howling gale of technological change. We can tinker and enjoy without any fear of becoming out-of-date. Indeed, in those Jurassic vinyl grooves is a sound that even the highest end computer audio would  find it hard to match. But I digress.

If you are a person subject to techno-adadequacies or insecurities of this kind, the whole world becomes a little unsettling. We seem to be tuned to the pace of being left technologically behind. Most of us know that what we have today is not going to cut it by some time mid next week. Some of us don’t care at all (to a degree that improves the closer we get to the nursing home), some are mildly unnerved. And some are in a perpetual state of panic (like those who choose to queue every time Apple releases a new iPhone). 

My bandwidth of concern is pretty wide. Relishing, as I do, the technological resilience of bicycles and vinyl LP’s, I can drift off to an island of unconcern. But when it comes to computer IT, I dread every upgrade. I am, after all, that guy who bought into DCC and MD (remember those?) only to watch both music formats completely disappear within a space of two years, along with the media needed to keep that equipment in use. Go on, try to buy a Digital Compact Cassette these days. Go on. Try. I feel like I have been robbed. Dropped. Ditched. Redundant without redundancy pay. And no one cares…

All of which explains why I seem to be permanently carrying a back pack of worry around whenever I enter some kind of electronics store, or search for a new car, or search for a new ebook to download. Will I be left with unusable stuff all over again? It’s like carrying a permanent virus, or having to live with a permanent limp. All the while knowing that, really, it’s all self-inflicted and induced by the evils of modern marketing and a raging culture of consumerism. Which is why it’s so great to know that I can aways drift off to that moated barricade of bicycles and vinyl LP’s when ever I like. In that place, I can overtake anyone’s million dollar cutting-edge super car when all that oil-fuming technology trickles down to a sludge in congested city streets; and from where I can nuance away all I like to the nth degree of fidelity on my LP’s while the techno buffs are all reinventing bit rates and DAC codecs in a battlefield mess of unsettling audio attrition. 

But all this presents a context through which to frame every visit I choose to make to my local bookstore, my local record shop, or even to my local newsagent. I pick up a book and find myself Amazoning the price of its ebook counterpoint for my iPad. I pick up a magazine and check out the price of subscriptions on Zinio. The latest issue of Peloton magazine is $15.99. An annual sub for my iPad is $12. Knowing these choices makes it so hard to commit. Which translates into a non- commitment to the continued existence of these stores dancing their death throes on the tipping point of relentless change. Every time I buy an ebook, my local book store is one page closer to that final closing down sale. I can’t enjoy buying the latest cycling ezine without reflecting on the abject economic disaster about to dump on my friendly local newsagent. What’s life going to be like without those local stores? Is our community to become an array of disconnected social recluses all hardwired to the internet while the village green transcends to jungle and unemployment reaches 100 per cent?

Stop the bus. It’s time to get off. 

I’m done with all those awkward silences of unsaid condolence I feel whenever I visit my newsagent, bookshop or that last, assaulted record store. Is it time to become a technological recluse? 

It’s hard to listen to music on my bike with a LP turntable strapped to my handlebars. I want the latest toys but want the social infrastructure of community commerce as well.

It’s hard to put my head in the sand. But I don’t want to put a knife into those gentle decent folk who run their Last Stand book/record/newsagency stores, waiting for the vultures to finally swarm the poverty of their final days. 

Where do they all go in these days of 10 per cent plus unemployment and global recession? Too young to retire, too old to begin again. Do they all just go off and die? Do they all just go off to live under a bridge? What happens to the human-centred purveyors of technologies-left-behind. Who’s going to provide the spare parts for TV sets rendered obsolete when the product cycles cycle around to less than a week? Who’s going to service anything when all commerce is transacted by faceless drones in cyber space. What happens when the economic efficiency of technological improvement leaves us all unemployed? Do we only ever reflect on such things when the impacts hit us hard in the face?

Of course, the world these days is not just transmitted in black and white. Fortunately there are lots of shades of grey in between. But I do fear that it’s that grey scale that’s the real issue under assault. Are those shades reducing to a five tone scale? At one end, we have the Made-in-China globalised cess pit of the economic rationalist’s  sado-massochistic perverted world view. On the other end we have us cyclists and LP lovers ignoring the assault. But in the middle are all the struggling record stores, magazine sellers and book store purveyors bleeding tears as they reconcile their tills at closing time. I can see a time when the technologies of the recent past reduce to be serviced by niche markets of residual cranks and luddites perverse in their pleasures from stuff from the past. Like readers of paper books and magazines. And cyclists eschewing the bestialities of e-motors and even stupider electronic gears. What’s the ideal market size for a niche of paper books and plastic compact discs? One store per town or one store per million of population? Who’s going to catch a plane flight to visit the nearest record store? What’s the business plan for my local newsagent these days? Or worse, for that local record store? We know that technologies get left behind (remember the Digital Compact Cassette and Mini Disc?). So stuff will fail and markets will crash. They can’t all be sustained by niche markets for the hardcore. The grey scale between no market and the global market place is going to get really thin. And we all need to consider this final point. How many local jobs will there be when the global market place has entirely diverted to an exclusive serenade between the Chinese shop floor and their faceless, country-less global corporate sponsors? 

Which is why, maybe, this current post- Global Financial Crisis Crisis is a good thing after all. When the world economy slows to a crawl, the wheels of commerce slow and we get time to work out a better plan. There are some economists who have given this process a name: Creative Destruction.

Which is why, in turn, I have that unsettled feeling of impermanence and insecurity when it comes to making technology choices these days. We are in a world just like we were when black and white TV became mature. We are sitting on the edge of a great tipping point. The grey scale is about to turn into colour. Hopefully the next spectrum of our economy will be displayed in something better than VGA. Hopefully, the middle will fill out and niche markets will return to a broader base; just like the LP industry these days where more and more and ever more people are re-introducing themselves to the latest technical iterations of the good-old turntable and the latest grades of heavy weight vinyl. And, yes, as more and more people discover the whole-of-life enhancement of cycling as a wondrously steam punk synthesis of the old and the new, cycling and re-cycling all over and over again.