Monday, June 3, 2019

Radio Flyer

Why would you name your wagon after a home appliance?  It turns out the answer is pretty complex.

Today we hear a lot about "cyber" this or "e-" that.  If you want to sell a product, predicate it with an "e-" or call it a cyber-something or maybe an e-cyber something and it will be sure to sell.  The plebes love all this high tech stuff, and anything sounding tech-y and trendy will surely please them.

And this has always been the case.

Back in the 1920's and early 1930's, radio was a big thing.  The idea of sending "wireless" messages astounded people, almost as much as the heavier-than-air flying machine.  Was their no limit to man's imagination and capabilities?   David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant, bought up a lot of the radio Patents, and founded RCA - Radio Corporation of America - and created something called "Broad-Casting".   Until then, radio was a point-to-point thing, like the Internet or Ham radio.   You called up someone and talked to them, or did a dit-dot-dash in Morse code.   By the way, that Morse fellow was quite something, not only did he invent Morse code, he was a talented painter. 

Yes, even back then, we had our Elon Musks, and Steve Jobs.  The names were different was all - Edison, Ford, Wright, Westinghouse, and so forth.   Americans have always worshiped their tech heroes.

But getting back to "Radio" - the name became a handle, much as "Cyber" is today, for anything trendy and high-tech.   So you have a wagon called "Radio Flyer" which doesn't mean it has a radio in it, but that it is new and modern.  Or the movie studio called "RKO Radio Pictures" used "Radio" in its name twice (RKO standing for "Radio-Keith-Orpheum" after it was acquired by RCA).  The second "Radio" in "RKO Radio Pictures" is thus redundant.   I suspect it was thrown in there to be "modern" and all.

And modern we were, what with the Bauhaus designed buildings and Raymond Loewy streamlined locomotives.  The future was so bright, we would have to wear shadesWhat a beautiful world it will be.

Modernism and the worship of technology is nothing new.

So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China (with tariffs applied)?   Not much, other than the patterns we see today in our society and in our markets are the same exact patterns we saw back in the 1920's when "radio" was the new high-tech, or maybe a few decades previous when steam power seemed like the end-all to technology.   People travelling at 20 miles and hour!  What will they think of next!

And with each iteration, there are winners and losers - more losers than winners, of course.   For every tech success story, whether it was in railroads, telegraph, steel, coal, oil, radio, telephone, automobiles, computers, internet, cell phones, smart phones, or whatever, there are always a few who come out on top and a host who go by the wayside.  Have you driven a Locomobile lately?

I think sometimes our fascination with technology blinds us to the realities of the business world.   We go all ga-ga over technology companies, even as they are losing money or as it becomes clear that a bubble is forming and that a shakeout is long overdue.

We tend to think of ourselves as modern and sophisticated, and look back at the dusty "technology" of an early age and shudder in the same way we do when looking at antique medical devices or abandoned mental asylums.   People actually thought that this stuff was technology?

I suspect folks in the future - and the pretty near future - will look back at our era and shudder in horror as to how naive we were.   In fact, many are already doing so.  Myself included.