Undoing the Industrial Revolution

by Jakob Nielsen on November 22, 2004

Summary: The last 200 years have driven centralization and changed the human experience in ways that conflict with evolution. The Internet will reestablish a more balanced, decentralized lifestyle.


For the last 200 years, humankind has lived and worked in ways that conflict with evolution. The primary culprit, industrialization, harks back to Watt's steam engine in 1769, but truly picked up steam in 1801 with Jacquard's loom, which used punched cards to automate the weaving process. A vast number of nineteenth-century engineering innovations followed and literally changed the world.

Before I start tearing it down, I should acknowledge the industrial revolution's positive outcome: it has generated unprecedented wealth during its 200-year run. In most industrialized nations, the biggest health problem today is that people get obese because there's too much food and it's too cheap. My own discipline of usability exists because material needs are so amply cared for that society can devote resources to making things easy and pleasant as well.

Implications of Industrialization

For the sake of this discussion, I don't differentiate between classic "industry" (manufacturing plants) and other industrialized operations, such as mechanized agriculture or companies run according to the classic book, " The Organization Man."

Industrialization had the following consequences:

  • Mass-produced products streamed off the assembly line, giving everyone the same thing, with few variations.
  • Centralized manufacturing and business emerged due to the cost of establishing efficient factories.
  • Big companies emerged in response to these economies of scale.
  • Distance between decisions and execution increased as companies grew and thus required several management levels between executives and workers.
  • Employment and jobs became the predominant way to make a living.
  • Centralized cities (and later suburbs) attracted most of the population, concentrating it within a very small percentage of each country's landmass.
  • Work and leisure separated, with each occupying fixed times and places.
  • Mass media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, motion pictures, and so on) emerged and began broadcasting a small set of messages to a large number of people.
  • Mass marketing used mass media to sell mass-produced products to the working masses.
  • Image building became a primary means of sustaining market position in a mass-marketing environment crowded with similar products.

Together, these developments have driven unprecedented centralization in human affairs. This effect is contrary to our dominant historical experience as a species, 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 Pastoral Internet

This subhead is somewhat in jest: I neither expect nor desire a return to the shepherd lifestyle (the dictionary definition of "pastoral"). But I do think the Internet can revive many of the pre-industrial era's positive, but lost, aspects:

  • Custom-built products instead of mass-produced ones. With a computer controlling the equipment, a company can manufacture each item to the individual customer's specifications. The Internet allows for efficient transmission of these specs to the factory, and an easy-to-use website lets users quickly state what they want. Example: CardStore.com (disclosure: a consulting client) lets you get customized greeting cards manufactured individually or in quantity.
  • Niche products. Example: 57% of Amazon's sales come from 2.2 million non-best-selling books. Individually, such books sell so few copies that they're not even carried by real-world superstores with 130,000-title inventories. At Amazon, each of these books sells only a few copies per year, but there are a lot of them.
  • Virtual companies instead of big firms in centralized locations. Sorely needed improvements in collaboration software will let people better work together, even if they're in different locations and work for different companies. Teams will come together for projects based on the required expertise, and then disband. Example: my own company is relatively small, but nonetheless has people in five U.S. locations and operates worldwide.
  • Geographically dispersed companies and services. Offshoring is the most dramatic example of this trend, but it's also occurring within individual countries, where highly productive people can work at home and live far from big cities. Not only is this good for the environment (less commuting), but the dispersal also reduces terrorists' ability to strike big.
  • Work/life integration. Not only will more people work from home, but personal life will also permeate more traditional offices through IM, e-mail, and other communication forms. Conversely, people will never really leave work, because mobile technology will let them take their offices wherever they go.
  • Narrowcasting and one-to-one media are what the Web is all about: providing exactly what individual users want in each individual moment. Narrowcasting is also what makes search marketing so effective. Rather than blast uniform messages randomly, a search ad is seen only by people actively looking for the exact thing being sold. Traditional mass media will diminish in importance: TV networks, for example, are irrelevant when you're picking shows from a menu.
  • Reputation replaces image as the way to build a company, product, or brand position. This is partly because you can't establish an empty, slogan-based brand through mass marketing when there's no mass media. Also, reputation becomes more salient in the virtual world where it can be stored and aggregated. Example: reputation manager systems like Google place the most highly rated offers first, regardless of the vendor's size.

These trends drive decentralization and reduce the advantages of being big.

The Experience Switch

In the physical world, you win by being big, with economies of scale in manufacturing, worldwide distribution, and branding. Most of these benefits accrue even if you're mediocre, and in fact, you usually benefit from targeting the lowest common denominator.

In the virtual world, you win by being good: Automation reduces the benefits of scale, the Internet equalizes distribution, and reputation follows from quality rather than incessantly repeated slogans.

I'm talking here about a level of experience that goes beyond the concept of user experience that I usually write about. The switch from centralization to decentralization goes to the heart of the human experience. And because the switch will drive up quality, it will tend to be a force for good.

We typically overestimate what can be done in the short term. Improvements seem so close we can smell them, but human behavior and social institutions are slow to change. At the same time, we underestimate what will happen in the long term, because changes accumulate and accelerate.

Of course, we haven't undone 200 years of history in the Internet's single decade as a commercial environment. We are changing aspects of the human experience that have great inertia, however, such as the size of cities and the nature of the corporation and entrepreneurship. These changes can easily take thirty or forty years, but the eventual outcome will be dramatic.


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