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Car talk

The most interesting thing I've heard all week was a snippet on CNBC in which a commentator talked about cars going out of style. The story was that in 2009 the US fleet of cars shrank by four million. That is, four million cars were scrapped without being replaced.

The commentator and the original story have a number of reasons: increasing urbanization, uncertainty about oil prices, frustration about climate change, and so on. But the really interesting trend is a declining interest in cars on the part of young people. (Presumably these are the same young people who don't watch enough TV.)

A pause to reminisce. In 1967, when I was 13, my father bought a grey Mercedes 230SL with a red interior. It should tell you something when I say that I don't like sports cars, have always owned Datsuns/Nissans (including a pickup truck and two Prairies), and am not really interested in cars that aren't mine but I still remember the make and model number of this car from 42 years ago. I remember hoping he wouldn't trade it in before I turned 16 and was old enough to drive. (He did. Nerts.)

When, at 21, I eventually did get my own first car (a medium blue Nissan 710 station wagon with a white leather-like interior), it felt like I had finally achieved independence. Having a car meant that I could leave my parents' house any time I wanted. The power of that was shocking; it utterly changed how I felt about being in their home.

In London, I hardly drive. The public transportation is too good and the traffic too dense. There are exceptions, of course, but the fact is that it would be cheaper for me to book a taxi every time I needed a car than it is to own one. And yet, the image of being behind the wheel on the open road, going nowhere and everywhere retains its power.

People think of the US as inextricably linked to car culture, but the fact is that our national love affair with the car is quite recent and was imposed on us. The 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had it right: at one time even Los Angeles had a terrific public transportation system. But starting in 1922, General Motors, acting in concert with a number of oil companies, most notably Chevron, deliberately set out to buy up and close down thousands of municipal streetcar systems. The scheme was not popular: people did not want to have to buy cars.

CNBC's suggestion was that today's young people find their independence differently: through their cell phones and the Internet. He has a point. As children, many baby boomers shared bedrooms with siblings. Use of the family phone was often restricted. The home was most emphatically not a place where a young adult could expect any privacy.

Today, kids go out less, first because their parents worry about their safety, later because their friends and social lives are on tap from the individual bedrooms they now tend to have. And even if they have to share the family computer and use it in a well-trafficked location, they can carve themselves out a private space inside their phones, by text if not by voice.

The Internet's potential to destroy or remake whole industries is much discussed: see also newspapers, magazines, long-distance telecommunications, music, film, and television. The "Google decade" so many commentators say is ending is, according to Slate, just the beginning of how Google, all by itself, will threaten industries: search portals, ad agencies, media companies, book publishers, telephone companies, Mapquest, soon smart phone manufacturers, and then the big man on campus, Microsoft.

But if there's one thing we know, it's that technology companies are bad bets because they can be and are challenged when the next wave comes along. Who thought ten years ago that Microsoft wouldn't kill everyone else in its field? Twenty years ago, IBM was the unbeatable gorilla.

The happening wave is mobile phones, and it isn't at all clear that Google will dominate, any more than Microsoft has succeeded in dominating the Internet. But the interesting thing is what mobile phones will kill. So far, it's made a dent in the watchmaking industry (because a lot of people carrying phones don't see why they need a watch, too). Similarly, smart phones have subsumed MP3 players, pocket televisions. Now, cars. And, if I had to guess, smart phones will be the most popular vehicles for ebooks, too, and for news. Tim O'Reilly, for example, says that ebooks really began to take off with the iPhone. Literary agents and editors may love the Kindle, but consumers reading while waiting for trains are more likely to choose their phones. Ray Kurzweil is very likely right on track with his cross-platform ereader software, Blio.

All this seems to me to validate the questions we pose whenever we're asked to subsidize the entertainment industry in its struggle to find its feet in this new world. Is it the right business model? Is it the right industry? Is it the right time?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


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