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House Cleaning and Waymarkers to the 'New Normal'

In extraordinary circumstances it’s tempting to look for extraordinary factors to account for changes. Occam’s razor calls us back to simpler explanations and more mundane data points: all things being equal, a simpler, non-falsifiable explanation is likely the better one.

One of the simplest, yet most far-reaching influences of the digital era is the concept of “house cleaning.” Items that get clicks remain, while items that get less attention become irrelevant and eventually disappear. These metrics have become tokens of relevance, the rent paid to exist in the digital era. Accordingly, we’re witnessing a targeted strategy to push SaaS (Software as a Service), streaming, and subscriptions over private ownership, whether it’s Adobe Creative Suite, MS Office, or -- my own unique point of sadness – iTunes.

Some of you may know I own a LOT of music. iTunes has somehow managed to perform “house cleaning” on most of it, progressively and mysteriously, over the past three years. We’re talking over 600 albums down to about 45. Meanwhile I get offers for free trials for Apple Music, Spotify, and other subscriptions regularly. Subscriptions are great, I suppose, if your cell phone plan has a ton of data, and you don’t listen to any rare, local, old, or unusual recordings that would be subject to “house cleaning.” My wife and I have Spotify, but I’m amazed that Apple and others have basically sunset the concept of personal ownership and local storage of music.

Similarly, midway through my second graduate degree, Syracuse University effectively established an anti-book policy in University Libraries. Books could be checked out for two years, and there were effectively no fines if the books weren’t returned. If I were interested in a book which hadn’t been checked out in the past five years, the librarian would often tell me to keep it. Why? SU is investing in digital books and journal subscriptions, and the powers that be don’t care about books by “dead white men” enough to get them back. It’s an Orwellian cultural shift as well as much as a practical/technological one.

Let’s bring it home for a bit. Have you noticed any changes in your family’s cuisine as we all increasingly turn to Serious Eats or NY Times Cooking for recipes? The internet is a fantastic marketplace for recipes – i.e. bad recipes get poor reviews and fewer clicks, and become irrelevant. In our house, this has improved our first-time success rate when cooking new recipes. But we’re also less likely to reach into that recipe box and pull out a 3x5 card with grandma’s handwriting on it. One intermediary is the app Paprika, which allows saving/sharing of your own recipes, as well as recipes from food sites.

As I see it, all of this migrates centers of cultural power toward the middle class (i.e. the majority of consumers). We used to say “he who holds the purse holds the power,” meaning power is tied to wealth, and specifically to the “bursar” who holds the purse strings and “disburses” funds. Now were seeing the same principle applied to cultural content delivered via streaming/subscriptions, and therefore subject to data analytics and housecleaning, etc. This proves that data is money, and money is power. Content streaming and SaaS have potential to improve the lot of the middle class, who now have greater, cheaper access to content, and don’t have to store content at home (who keeps a 1980s VHS library in their house?).

This arrangement also bears the risk, however, of accelerating a certain social/economic Darwinism. Good or bad or indifferent, I don’t see that Darwinian/capitalist contest ever ending; and accordingly, I love our work at DaLand CUSO, limited in scope as it is. Each day, we empower our “underdog” community FIs to accumulate those tokens of relevance, stand tall, and demonstrate their value in that contest. Community FIs that embrace Daland CUSO’s philosophy and approach can offer everything that larger FIs offer, and more; and that’s the simplest explanation!

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