Web 2.0 – Undoing the Industrial Revolution?

Internet usability guru Jacob Nielsen has argued that the Web will “undo” the Industrial Revolution, and lead to the re-establishment of “a more balanced, decentralized lifestyle.”

Industrialization is characterized by mass centralization:

  • mass centralization of manufacturing in big factories and of production itself, especially of the assembly-line variety;
  • mass centralization of decision-making in big companies, whose executives are far-removed from the workers;
  • mass centralization of people in cities;
  • mass centralization of media; and
  • mass centralization of marketing.

The workers of the Industrial Age spend their days in factories and evenings at home, becoming alienated from the products of their labour (of course, this is Marx not Nielsen I’m paraphrasing). Work is thereby reduced to a mere means of making money – money which can be spent consuming, even if those workers can’t afford to purchase the particular products of their particular labour, further alienating worker from work.

The products of the Industrial Age are mass-produced, aimed at the lowest common denominator. One sprocket varies only slightly – if at all – from another.

In order to stand out, then, “image building [becomes] a primary means of sustaining market position in a mass-marketing environment crowded with similar products.” We call it branding.

The economies of the Industrial Age are economies of scale, where only the big survive. That means big money and big brands.

Where, in all this, is quality? Real need? Fulfilment?

The Internet Revolution will undo this.

Custom-built and niche products will mean the end of bland lowest-common-denominator goods; geographically-dispersed and virtual companies will allow less time spent (and less pollution from) physically commuting, but more collaboration between the best people for the job; and greater connectivity will encourage the blending of work- and personal-life, not to mention more people can work from home.

These trends will re-establish a more balanced, decentralized lifestyle, Nielsen argues. Re-establish because the result of the Industrial Revolution is that we often live and work in ways that in fact conflict with evolution. “Our dominant historical experience as a species,” he says, is one

wherein we lived in places where we knew everyone; worked either for ourselves or directly for the leader of a focused team (as on a hunting expedition or farm, or in a crafts shop); and had work and lives that were tightly integrated (typically, our homes doubled as our workplaces).

The less people are alienated from their productive capacity, the more fulfilled they will be and the more pride they’ll take in their work. This means, you guessed it, the return of quality – meaning the reputation of the producer and the product will again take precedence over the “image” of the company or brand.