Years ago, when you were a kid and I was a kid, something changed in America. One moment we were players of baseball, voters, readers of books, makers of dinner, arguers. And a second later, and for every other second since then, we were all just shoppers.
Shopping is what we do; it’s entertainment. Consumers are what we are; we go shopping for fun. Nearly all of our energy goes into buying—thinking about what we would like to buy or earning money to pay for what we have already bought.
We invented credit cards, suburban shopping malls, and day care just to make our consumerism more efficient. We sent our wives, husbands, children, and grandparents out to work, just to pay for all the stuff we wanted—needed—to buy. We invented a thousand colors of eye shadow and more than 400 different models of automobiles, and forced every garage band in America to make a recording of “Louie Louie,” just so we’d have enough goods to choose between to fill what free time remained. And when, as Americans are wont to do, we surprised ourselves by coming up with a few extra dollars and a few extra hours to spare, we invented entirely new classes of consumer products to satisfy our addiction. Why else would anyone spend $19.95 to buy an Abdomenizer exercise machine?
I blame it all on the personal computer.
Think about it for a moment. Personal computers came along in the late 1970s and by the mid-1980s had invaded every office and infected many homes. In addition to being the ultimate item of conspicuous consumption for those of us who don’t collect fine art, PCs killed the office typewriter, made most secretaries obsolete, and made it possible for a 27-year-old M.B.A. with a PC, a spreadsheet program, and three pieces of questionable data to talk his bosses into looting the company pension plan and doing a leveraged buy-out.
Without personal computers, there would have been— could have been—no Michael Milkens or Ivan Boeskys. Without personal computers, there would have been no supply-side economics. But, with the development of personal computers, for the first time in history, a single person could gather together and get a shaky handle on enough data to cure a disease or destroy a career. Personal computers made it possible for businesses to move further and faster than they ever had before, creating untold wealth that we had to spend on something, so we all became shoppers.
Personal computers both created the longest continuous peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history and ended it.
Along the way, personal computers themselves turned into a very big business. In 1990, $70 billion worth of personal computer hardware and software were sold worldwide. After automobiles, energy production, and illegal drugs, personal computers are the largest manufacturing industry in the world and one of the great success stories for American business.
And I’m here to tell you three things:
1. It all happened more or less by accident.
2. The people who made it happen were amateurs.
3. And for the most part they still are.