I have this running series of posts grouped into “Inefficiencies”, where I want to look at really poorly-run business sectors and figure out how to attack them if I were an entrepreneur in their space. Thanks to the US’s infatuation with “free markets”, which really means protected corporatism these days, there’s a litany of examples of shitty practices that are deserving to be over-run: cable TV (which my buddy MonkeyPope just got rid of now that there are just so many substitutes like Hulu and Netflix and free downloads from the content owners themselves), US government foreign language preparedness, and near and dear to our hearts these days: cars.
I keep coming back to Clay Shirky’s amazing video on the “cognitive surplus”:
Shirky describes the “cognitive surplus” as all the hours of thought unlocked as people move from passively watching TV or listening to radio and now doing things like adding edits to Wikipedia or gaming online with other people.
He goes on to say that the internet is so much more enticing because it’s interactive, whereas before it was the content providers who determined what we were allowed to do.
And now that we have a taste for this level of interaction, we’re going to go out and “carve out” a bit of the cognitive surplus to look for interaction in all those areas we previously passively accepted what we were given.
So, where am I going with this?
Airports are the fucking worst. They are like life’s black holes. Thanks to the wonderfully competent TSA, we now spend a majority of our time at the airport circumnavigating various security roadblocks. This is already after we paid quite a lot of money to get a flight we probably weren’t completely satisfied with, on an airline we know we hate but are willing to save bucks on to fly with.
We get through security eventually and then we’re stuck in a strip mall of shitty restaurants and tchotchke stores. We couldn’t bring in liquids to drink, so we have to go buy those. What’s the worst is that we can’t even use wifi for free to escape from the misery that is waiting for a flight!! Crying babies, countless intercom messages, other passengers frazzled about their strained flights.
And we have to pay a fortune just to log on. The airports in their wisdom have whored out to access providers who grant us very generously access to 24-hour accounts (because we plan on being there for 24 hours, right?) for a low price of $15.
Hope you brought a book or iPod or feel like using EVDO or 3G on your iPhone.
Need to renew your paperwork at the DMV or the election office or get a visa? Get ready to wait in long lines with nothing to do. The government always provides buildings with a nice sterile, fluorescent-lighted linoleum feel to it, as you’re helped by workers who are just so tired of dealing with your type. The worst part is that you know exactly what you need to do and what needs to happen, but you have to wait for a gatekeeper to process you. And probably enter typos in your information at that.
The whole routine and ritual of not being able to make reservations at a place, then waiting around for a table to open, if you didn’t go somewhere else instead, and then figuring out how to provide enough cash from ten different people to pay up is such a rigamarole.
It’s tough to fault waitstaff sometimes for not attending to your every need, but it would be nice to be able to pass along your requests electronically so that they can prioritize their tasks and respond to customers without actually being there.
Looking for the Mouse
Shirky calls the internetification of everything else a process of “looking for the mouse”, a metaphor he explains he got from his kid who saw a TV and tried to find the computer mouse to use it. His kid wasn’t happy just watching the TV.
Well, I think it’s about time we found the fucking mouse in places like airports, government offices, and restaurants.
We should be able to use the internet in an airport and on the plane for free. Allow advertising on individual monitors on the planes or something to help subsidize it. I don’t know. We should have a bill of rights for being passengers on planes. We should be able to expect open, transparent ticket pricing. Why do airports sit idle all night instead of running flights 24 hours a day? I’d be willing to fly early in the morning if it meant less bullshit.
Why can we still not vote online? Why can’t we request edits to our government-held information online instead of heading to the office to stand in line? Why do we need visas to go to allied countries? Why are most government actions still requiring laborious procedures in person conducted by overworked staff? We’re sitting on the greatest social media tools to ever be available to a government to allow its many citizens to take action and make an online system that works, and we still insist that things be done the old way.
We should be able to order electronically from our tables, see how much our orders are, pay individually by selecting what we ate, and request special or extra things from the staff, including sending compliments to the chef. If eating out is such a social ritual, why are we locked in to seeing a host and a waiter? Why don’t more restaurants embrace online marketing, having better menu web sites and more engagement with the community?
I think entrepreneurs should focus on these questions and figure out how to solve them and take advantage of them. There’s just so many inefficiencies out there that it’s a massive opportunity but also just incredibly disappointing. People have come to expect the worst when they have to interact with these gatekeepers, but really the gatekeepers could fully embrace the new stuff become darlings of their customers.
We’re in the midst of a financial crisis that is still not resolved, and it’s causing a lot of pain to large, bloated, anti-competitive sectors of the US economy that refuse to change. Automotive, media, telecommunications, publishing, pharmaceutical, industrial…all the things that worked in the past, no longer work quite as well.
This is a condemnation of current American “competitiveness”. We better get our fucking heads in the game and figure out that we need to massively revamp our innovative capacity and challenge all our old assumptions, because right now we’re a rotting mess of dying companies that are begging for bailouts from a government infiltrated by failed businessmen under Bush’s corporatist regime.
Have any more places of inefficient misery that need fixing? Comment below!