When dominant powers assume that they make the rules

My friend Adrienne Dellwo (if you are in search of fibromyalgia info, she’s the authority) today posted a worthwhile article on how Wizards of the Coast has managed to lose the Dungeons & Dragons market. For those of you who don’t want to read it or have never cared about fantasy role-playing games, a few years ago WotC decided on a complete remake of the tabletop game (which is still popular). Whether the new edition was a good one or a bad one was up for debate; most players a) didn’t think it felt like D&D, and b) weren’t very interested in repurchasing all the basic books again. It’s safe to assume the move was revenue-driven in a saturated market (declining sales of expensive source books), and one empathizes with the need to keep customers buying stuff, but planned obsolescence always creates a crossroads. When deciding whether to buy the new thing, and annoyed about it, people may decide on someone else’s new thing.

It isn’t the first time that’s happened in some way. We can learn from the trend, which spans most aspects of human life. The pace has sped up as communication and transportation have accelerated.

The Roman Catholic Church defined religion in Europe for centuries, with an authoritative hand in economic, political, military and social life. A variety of reformers decided that heresy wasn’t nearly as sinful as venal, oppressive, centralized ecclesiastical leadership, and today a good chunk of Europe isn’t Catholic–and a good chunk of what remains nominally Catholic really doesn’t care.

In the Civil War, the South starved because “cotton was king!” Thus, wealthy planters kept growing the stuff rather than food, even though getting it to its European markets was problematic. A primarily agrarian population, with a healthy chunk of the workforce that didn’t have to be away at war, found a way to starve. The South also insisted on going to war to preserve slavery, when a quick look around the world would have told them it was unsustainable. The Confederate States are no longer a country.

Chrysler, GM and Ford forgot how to make cars that people wanted to buy. Never mind: buy Murrican! In Detroit, social pressure (patriotism, union allegiance) worked. Everywhere else, people bought cheaper, more reliable Japanese cars. They still don’t get it. The American companies remain at the top of the Consumer Reports recall lists, people who value reliability buy Toyotas and Hondas, and the whole industry had to be bailed out. Detroit? Not much left of it.

IBM popularized the personal computer and set all the standards. Just eight years later, it was flailing about helplessly as it tried to dictate that the market pay double for a new architecture and operating system that were mostly incompatible with all the previous IBM stuff. Everyone told IBM to pound sand and bought Compaqs, Epsons, Acers, HPs, and ASTs running the same OS in evolutionary form. Do you own an IBM computer?

AOL looked poised to redefine the Internet. AOL startup CDs were a primary form of junk mail. For a great many people, AOL was the Internet, despite the steady grumbles of the tech-savvy libertarian-leaning old school who had thought typing Unix commands wasn’t too bad and viewed with fear and loathing the influx of screaming, clueless newbies with their text-speak and tendency to call IRC channels ‘chat rooms.’ Then AOL users began to learn about the Internet, and came to realize that AOL was now more in their way than paving the way. How long has it been since you got an AOL CD ride-along?

CNN was all the rage after the first Gulf War. Now it’s just one of three incompetent news entertainment stations. Those who want their existing perceptions reinforced now watch the version of the competition whose slant they prefer. People who plan to think read it online. CNN may still be in business, but they aren’t really in the news business, and their reputation is lower than ever.

Flush with the market dominance of Windows, Microsoft insisted on shoving a lousy web browser at its customers. It became the Web Browser Most Often Used to Download a Real Web Browser. Microsoft can still make the rules for Internet Explorer; it’s just that no one will care. Microsoft also kept repackaging a boondogglier boondoggle and calling it the Next Great Windows. Apple’s stock sells today, as I type, for $483/share. Five years ago it sold for about $160. You can get a share of Microsoft for $32/share. Five years ago, you’d have paid about $26 for it. New Microsoft product announcements don’t change much, especially as many are flops that drive the stock price backward.

SEIU, one of the dominant labor unions, truly believes that it got Barack Obama elected. It neglects to consider that organized labor, so long accustomed to having its way and having its sloganeering taken at face value, no longer has the power to get anyone elected. It has lost the battle for public influence. It has allowed its enemies to convince people that they are better off without the right to bargain collectively. That’s like convincing landowners that polluted water is actually better than clean water. Today, maybe 10% of American workers are in a union, and many of the other 90% would object strenuously to the concept.

Google perfected the search engine, then broke its “Don’t Be Evil” motto all over the place. People are increasingly open to search engine solutions that don’t feed the Google data hydra. Google Plus was rolled out to a tremendous yawn. Everything Google does raises the question: “in what way is this meant to spy on me?” No one will lament its downfall, when it comes.

USC college football had a motto: “Win Forever.” At one point, that looked likely. A private school, it treated NCAA inquiries with disdain. The resulting sanctions sent the Win Forever coach packing his bags for the NFL, led to the hire of a mercenary coach who has floundered, caused a demoralized team of stellar athletes to lose a bowl game to a team with a losing record, and lost the program its star power. Last week, USC struggled to defeat Utah State, a team with few athletes that USC would have recruited even when it wasn’t under scholarship reductions.

Adrienne commented to me: “To add to your list of companies that toppled themselves, I think the Big Three TV networks are next. When a show gets knocked off of my DVR and I can’t find it either on the network’s website or On Demand, and they don’t show it again for several months, it’s just plain stupid.” She’s got a point. The major networks have become increasingly less relevant, in large part because they’ve been difficult about content. Faux is the worst. Increasingly, the most compelling TV content is not on the major networks at all.

The American mindset continues to insist that its system is the world’s greatest, that its military might is unchallengeable, its currency is the world standard, and that every country’s most important relationship is that with the United States. This, as it: lags the developed world in most quality-of-living categories, tucks tail from Afghanistan, and tries to decide whether its worst enemy is a a) major world religion with a few extremists, b) people who want to sneak across its borders to pick fruit and mow yards, or c) two old Cold War adversaries who watch its missteps with bemused anticipation. It requires an enemy, lest its people look inward and see that its own government and corporations are a greater threat to them than all of the above in union. And in the meantime, increasingly, it fails to adjust to a changing world and falls behind, losing relevance and prestige.

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8 thoughts on “When dominant powers assume that they make the rules”

  1. Excellent examples, well presented. And I love this: “It requires an enemy, lest its people look inward…” Truth. I just started The Five Stages of Collapse by Dmitry Orlov. He has similar sentiments.

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    1. Thank you, Christi. It seems like we have always needed an Emmanuel Goldstein, from Communism to Islam. I first began to note this when the USSR came apart and we had a golden opportunity to get along. Our leaders refused. After a brief period of confusion, they just continued the Cold War and spiked the ball, adding to NATO most of Europe without the slightest thought for how that affects Russian security thinking. Then came Al-Qaida, and we had our new Emmanuel Goldstein. Most of what we are told to hate and fear is just a distraction, in my view, from domestic looting at the highest levels.

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    1. It disturbs me quite a bit too, Shannon. I think, however, that the fears of the Grand American Apocalypse are an almost Wagnerian form of paranoia. What I think will really happen will make less interesting news entertainment but be far more permanent: the rest of the world developing and catching up, so that we become less relevant, and less able to impose our will. My days will probably be done by the time Americans come to accept that.

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  2. Very thoughtful essay, with well-researched examples. I wish I thought you were wrong about the USA, Mr. Doorman. Sadly, I think you are correct. Shannon S. said it more eloquently than I ever could: “That last paragraph is a disturbing, stark and frightening truth.”

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    1. I’d be glad to be wrong, OSG. All it would take to fix it is a national commitment to respect other nations as peers, and truly join the world community not as its bouncer, but as another partygoer. But that is not in our culture, sadly.

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