It's a race that none of the runners really wants to win. Rapid, technology-driven change is accelerating in virtually every industry. Speed kills, but in certain sectors, including what I would call the "nuts and bolts" low paying jobs, the pace of "progress" still seems painfully slow. It's a little bit like watching a slow-motion, multi-car pileup on a black-ice covered highway.

But there remains an oppressive air of inevitability because we all know it's coming; we've all seen this movie before, and sadly no one has the faintest idea how to stop it. Massive job losses - whole lines of work that will no longer be relevant or economically viable - and millions of people looking for a better life, but lacking the skills needed to get them and their families there. I realize that you can't spend your whole life preparing for future catastrophes, but that doesn't keep many of us from worrying as we look ahead at a very uncertain future. It's like sitting on a bed of tacks - pretty hard to focus on much of anything else.

And, as the media reports on the latest soul-crushing slide of some industry sector--  trucking, retail, manufacturing-- into oblivion, we also know that we're talking about major structural and fundamentally irreversible changes that will adversely impact the livelihoods of tens of millions of employees. And while everyone is happy to blame the technology boogie man, no one is suggesting any concrete solutions to offset the coming displacements.

And, to be brutally honest, it's not just the technology that's causing the trouble. The main driver of many of these seismic shifts isn't the implementation of new and powerful combinations of big data, technology and automation; it's also the fact that we're seeing that the center will no longer hold.

Consumer behaviors and expectations continue to change at an accelerated rate and the need to push the delivery of everything to the perimeter - all part of the "right now" economy - makes it increasingly clear that there's no longer a need to be "there" wherever "there" used to be. Today, to compete, you've got to be everywhere all the time or you're nowhere.

In more and more cases, strategies based on concentration, centralization, and critical mass mean less and less because, through connected combinations of technology and mobility, we can distribute and decentralize functions in ways that are more localized, far more fluid and flexible, easier to staff, and considerably cheaper than trying to bring zillions of people together in overlit, sterile and sweaty places to spend eight hours staring at a screen and trying to sound cheerful on the phone.

Call centers largely grew out of a single invention--the 800 number--which enabled national, toll-free, inbound calling that didn't become ubiquitous until around 1980. You could basically call anywhere for "free" if you had a question, needed service, or wanted to buy something from a mail order catalogue. At its peak, there were several hundred million 800 calls being made every day. To handle the volume, huge physical facilities were built in places like Omaha and Salt Lake City and eventually other parts of the world.

Today, no one wants to spend more time sitting on their phones waiting for an answer for anything. Most mobile phone users don't even understand the concept of a long-distance call. Just like we no longer want to waste any time standing in a line at the bank or supermarket. Everyone's in a hurry today. And it's clear that the race is on. Who really wants to talk to a human when you can text?  And who needs a teller when your phone's a wallet and an ATM?

I'm not sure whether the first victims at scale will be those millions of retail cashiers who may have largely disappeared by the time we start to see U.S. call centers (yes, they are back in this country, but that's another story) become empty shells of themselves. Or it could be that it's the call centers that will fold first. We'll have big sheds with row after row of desks, chairs and monitors and no one sitting there to answer the calls that no longer come. The big credit card companies are already reporting that inbound calls now make up less than 10% of their daily inquiries.

But whatever sector sinks more quickly, we know that it's not good news for anyone and that the unforeseen consequences of these changes may be even more draconian and have a far wider impact than we expect. Self-service machines and automated checkout aisles, not to mention online shopping and automated fulfillment programs, are killing the gum/candy business, which depends greatly on the impulse purchases we make to reward ourselves for standing patiently in line while Mr. and Mrs. McThrifty scan their 46 coupons at the supermarket. (It's not all bad: the sleazy tabloids are getting hammered as well.)

Who needs to drive out to the suburban auto mall when there's a Tesla dealership sitting on the main high-end luxury strip, right between Tiffany's and Tommy Bahama?  And frankly, who wants to go to the mall at all? This is why 90% of the malls in this country are in trouble and why a small number of extremely well-located ones represent almost all of the valuable real estate.

The bottom line is that the ideas around distributed everything are only the tips of the iceberg of decentralization, which will change every part of our lives as the growing centrifugal forces generated by the promise of constant connectivity and limitless mobility conspire to pull whole worlds apart. 
 

Published on: Apr 4, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.