The End of the Jet Age: America After 2020

After World War II, highways and suburbs reshaped the United States from coast to coast. In a decade, a nation that was cities and farms had a third option for millions of young families. Malls, fast food, lawn mowing and commutes to the city became commonplace.

In the years since, America settled into a monoculture of nondescript suburbs surrounding nearly every city from Miami to Seattle. There might be slight differences and different climates between the suburbs of Austin and Minneapolis, or Raleigh and Phoenix, but in all of them and many others you are, generically, in early 21st-century America.

American suburban expansion had a good run. But history will show that 1945-2020 was one historical period, and a virus that swept in from China marked a new time in our history. How different things will feel depends on how you lived in the years leading up to 2020.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson, The Economist, 2004

While concern for disease and urgently keeping the distance between people will fade, the biggest shift resulting from this truly unique year is that much of the business world, as well as churches, universities, and school districts realized they could, in fact, work, communicate, collaborate, play and interact remotely.

This shift certainly won’t be welcomed by all. There will be months and years ahead of argument to defend the way things were, as there always is, and long essays and podcasts and political speeches about the importance of place. Or at least, of places. Why kids need to sit in classrooms like the Victorian Era. Why offices need in person meetings and to monitor employees attendance. But the future was already previewed, and it won’t just go away quietly.

Which leads to the suburban sprawl – the communities of America. The chain reaction of remote work is enormous, and will reshape the landscape in ways that you must be at least 70 to remember first hand. Once a sizable percentage of us don’t have to drive to work, and especially once the best school district in the state is the online one, everything about a home is up for discussion. From size to type to physical location.

Do people prioritize more space, leaving the crowded cities for more square footage? What about proximity to family, no longer assuming we can always freely travel by plane? Do people reassess what they are living close to, as well? Does delivery radius become a key search term in residential real estate?

But homes are just one of the trillion dollar, multi-million person shifts.

What becomes of the now empty, or at least far less full, office buildings? The economics of office space, from the schedule to repaint the parking lot to the size of the AC units, dictates that the place be full all week. Will there will be millions of square feet of what was called prime real estate just sitting empty? How long can that be the case before it is repurposed or torn down? What is a prime location if a short commute leaves many workers calculus? Not every town has a logical center or a strip of beach – a big opportunity for creative developers to reset the maps.

As we continue our drive around Near Futureville where the homes and offices have all begun to shift and change, what other buildings make far less sense than they did when they were designed – and very little sense at all since March?

The Mall?
Movie theaters? (really?)
Big box retail?
Many of the restaurants?
K-12 schools?

Add places that will continue on, but are due for a major reimagining, to the list of places slated for significant change.

College campuses?

Video killed the radio star.

– The Buggles, 1979

But, many will say, all these places cannot be simply be replaced by video. Our world is not online. It isn’t just Zoom and Netflix.

Of course it isn’t. But that’s not how change happens. The Mall did not just knock a wall out of the local shoe store. The Internet didn’t replace the Mall. Streaming movies didn’t instantly replace the movie theaters.

Video killed the commercial real estate market.

– Not quite as catchy, but I’m not a song writer, 2020

But it only takes a relatively small percentage of people – the right demographics or income or influence or youth or all of the above – to shift the culture.

Suddenly the right school will be online, where only the best young teachers with the most modern methods would apply to work, and the smartest parents know their kids must attend or be left behind.

The right job will be at home, as commuting that is now seen as necessary but annoying daily chore will seem like the prehistoric drudgery of our great-grandparents milking cows by hand.

Travel will split into private and secure or just stay home, as coach class fares that have disregarded customer experience for years will be seen as sailing in steerage. If can’t afford distanced travel options, you’ll have to fly the legacy flying buses of Delta and United, sadly.

Large crowds at stadiums? That was already a tough sell. Sports is a media product now, and the leagues have understood they are in the content business for awhile now.

Of course, nothing mentioned on the list is new. That’s why the future was already here.

Many people already shopped online, dated online, preferred binge videos and multiplayer games over booking airfares. Many parents, and certainly many students, could see the education system is a relic of a lost age and not relevant to today’s workforce. Most universities treated online education as just a video presentation of campus lectures and really were selling brand name credentials, not actual knowledge.

So while the end of the Jet Age will be full of handwringing and hand washing and loud pronouncements about freedom from people that got a solid C- in History during sophomore year, the future waits for none of us. The technologies have arrived to support more remote work, less travel, more leisure time, and less environmental impact than the days since Levittown was becoming the next America and FLY DELTA JETS meant steak and martinis, not virus protection masks and carbon emissions.

The Shared History of Seinfeld and the MP3

In 1982, Suzanne Vega wrote a song about a small restaurant in New York City. It was first recorded in 1984, but Tom’s Diner didn’t become an international hit and earworm until it was remixed, without permission, in 1990.

For reasons we’ll leave for audio engineers to geek out about, an a capella track with a beat – like Tom’s Diner – made for a great song to test high end (at the time) speaker systems. This led an audio compression engineer, Karlheinz Brandenburg, to use the song on a project he was working on.

The compression algorithm his team developed allowed music to fit into small files and be widely distributed on the Internet and played on multiple devices. Today, we take the MP3 for granted, but it started with Tom’s Diner.

The actual Tom’s Diner? The real name of the place that inspired Vega is Tom’s Restaurant, the familiar meeting place of Jerry Seinfeld and George – played by Jason Alexander – across many seasons of Seinfeld.

Video on Great Big Story.

Podcasts in a World of Walled Gardens

Podcaster Joe Rogan signed with Spotify this week. The headline grabbing deal was the $100 million price tag Spotify paid for exclusive rights to the show. For Spotify, it makes sense – in a war with Apple with Amazon to get and keep subscribers, a show that is highly regarded and downloaded almost 200 million times per month is a prime asset.

But in signing up for Spotify, Joe Rogan’s podcast is, ironically, no longer a podcast. We don’t have a good word for this new animal – a licensed audio media thing. It would’ve been a radio show in the days of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, but that seems quaint when most of Rogan’s listeners don’t realize radio is still a thing.

The entire idea of a podcast was, and is, that the format allows anyone on any format with any device that play standard audio files to listen to audio content. It was a demographic idea, in the same way sites like this one, posted on the actual world wide web, were before Facebook locked its content to the outside world and demanded payment by personal data collection.

Of course, this idea of paid content is nothing new. If you want to watch all the seasons of Seinfeld, or some oddball show where celebrities in costumes try to sing, you need Hulu. If you want to watch Poldark, you’ll need Amazon Prime. You can’t watch Better Call Saul without Netflix.

This tie between media and its subscription service has left podcasting alone for the most part, with a few exceptions. But with nine figure deals at stake, you could now make that case that podcasting is just a rolling tryout for the big leagues of serious cash and professional production. And advertising, of course. Someone is going to have to pay the $100 million.

Where does this leave listeners? The same place it leaves viewers. Consumer choice will mean that the services to which you subscribe will shape what news and entertainment sources will reach you. Why does that matter?

If you are like most people, half of your friends and family have decided this whole virus thing is overblown and/or an affront to Jeffersonian ideals of freedom. The other half are very worried about a dangerous contagion our medical professionals are still trying to grasp and therefore may reappear only with Clorox in hand late in 2022.

This sort of divide will continue to happen, but instead of clear sides of an argument, all of our hours of content consumption slowly shape how we see the world. More concerning, of course, is that there will be no access to other opinions and other news sources unless you happen to subscribe to alternative sources. Your content will agree with you and you’ll agree with your content. Any other idea will be increasing foreign.

Seems obscure, but if you were on trial for producing methamphetamine, would you want Netflix subscribers or people without access to Breaking Bad on the jury?

The well rounded, educated view of someone that might have access to all the media available and all sides of an argument will belong only to those with the subscriptions. Subscriptions add up, and will increase each year as they become social necessities, much like your $400 per month iPhone family plan that would’ve been sheer lunacy in 2004.

Much like Europe in the Middle Ages, the wealthy will read Latin while others will be left out of the conversation. But instead of Latin, important conversations, new trends, new ideas – both entertaining and important – will continue to take place behind expensive walled gardens.

Exactly the scenario podcasts were meant to avoid.

Original content of FUTURE&tense.
Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash