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Creative Destruction

Posted on Saturday 15th October 2011 at 19:39
The World is changing very fast at the moment. Institutions that we thought would stand forever have fallen in recent years, and others that we never would have imagined now rule supreme. It is a time of much creative destruction, and I wonder where it will end?

Those who were reading this blog over at Ignorminious.co.uk in the early days may remember that I regularly made reference in my posts to one of my favourite films of all time, You've Got Mail. Why yes, I do mean the 1998 chick flick in which Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks email each other until they fall in love. No, I'm not ashamed to say I love it. The story line is all well and good, but the aspects of it that inspired me to blog in the past were more to do with the New York lifestyle portrayed in the film, which has appealed to me for as long as I can remember.

Today though, I'm referencing this particular film (which I just happened to watch last night) because of a different element of the story that I think is oddly relevant at the moment.

One of the themes that runs through the whole film is that of creative destruction. The most obvious example is that of the larger, newer bookshop arriving at the beginning of the film and gradually driving the more traditional bookshop out of business. But there are other, less obvious examples too, such as email replacing the need for letter writing, the laptop replacing the typewriter and the blossoming online romance between the two central characters causing both of their existing relationships to come to an end.

The ultimate irony of You've Got Mail, which we can only now see with hindsight, is that at the very time that a film came out depicting the supremacy of a large bookshop selling cheap books over a smaller, more expensive one, the online retailer Amazon was beginning to flex its muscles in a way that would cause even the largest real world book stores to go into terminal decline in the years that followed. And how did they manage it? By following the exact same principles of the fictional Fox Books, but taking economies of scale to their only logical conclusion.

Like The Shop Around the Corner in the film, shops like HMV and Waterstones are learning some unhappy facts about the market. In real life, as in the film, shoppers may love everything about going to a physical store, handling books (or DVDs) and interacting with the staff, but ultimately none of these are things that they are willing to pay for, and the cheaper price offered online almost always wins out.

We've all known this to be true for at least the last decade now, but what I've never been able to make up my mind about is whether or not this is a good thing or bad? I am a technology enthusiast and am entirely comfortable with online shopping, but I also love book shops. In fact, unless I'm being forced to buy, out of necessity, I rather enjoy shopping in general. It's the reward for working hard to earn that money, and buying online just doesn't give you the same buzz as walking out of a store, clutching your latest purchase, ready to take home and enjoy.

True, not all things are determined by price. The cost of a coffee from Starbucks is infinitely more expensive than getting the same coffee from a vending machine, but I'd always choose the coffee house, because there I'm willing to pay for the extra benefits of sitting in a cosy room, watching the world go buy, reading a book, chatting to friends, or even blogging.

It seems that the constantly shifting economic realities of the 21st Century are forcing all of us to reconsider our spending priorities. I wonder what institutions we shall collectively consider worthy of our money, as well as our hearts, especially if the humble and beloved book shop is condemned to die.

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