Home Blogs Borders bankruptcy and the not-so-mysterious demise of the ice-barons

Borders bankruptcy and the not-so-mysterious demise of the ice-barons [What do you think will become obsolete in the next decade?]


Last week, US Borders filed for bankruptcy, sparking contentious chatter throughout the interwebs that books in their traditional form have become obsolete.

To see my twenty-something brother-in-law grip his Kindle with the passion of an 11-year-old wielding a Nintendo DSi on Christmas Day, I can understand why this prediction has resurfaced. (Let’s face it. It’s been doing the rounds for decades.)

Times, they are indeed a changin’.

Yet, they always have and always will.

The demise of the ice-barons

When media commentators (including those for Anthill) start writing about “the death” of something (“The death of email”, “The death of the electric car” and even “The death of death”), I’m always reminded of a short article that was published in an early edition of Anthill Magazine (when it was still available in print form).

This article, about the demise of the ‘ice-barons’, talked about how this enormously profitable industry had evolved over generations, creating ice-dynasties — families whose fortunes were built on the shipping and sale of ice.

The industry was enormously difficult for newcomers to enter — requiring shipping, freight and other expensive logistical elements — creating monopolies and oligopolies.

Recently, I saw this quote from The New York Times on an amateur blog:

“The sixty million dollar ice trust, known as the American Ice Company, which has succeeded in securing what is practically an absolute monopoly on the ice business in New York City, has just increased the cost of ice to consumers 100 percent… Resentment against the trust exists under every roof, but there seems to be no way of evading its oppression.”

The quote was published in May 1900 and references the ‘Ice famines’ of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Of course, where are the ice-barons today? Entire empires, employing thousands, were progressively dismantled over the following half-century. Now the industry has become a quaint footnote in the evolution of commerce and industry.

Yet, for the ice-barons (and their employees), the invention of the refrigerator was an extremely frightening and painful event.

“But I still love reading words on paper”

I find this ‘quaint’ example of industry obsolescence fascinating because it was before my time but recent enough for my mother to recall sitting alongside the driver of her local ice-wagon, as it worked her local neighbourhood, when she was a small child.

Not so long ago, after reading a piece penned for Anthill, on “The death of print”, my mother remarked, “But I do love reading words on paper.”

Perhaps cruelly, I couldn’t help myself from reminding her that her mother (my grandmother) had once lamented that she still missed riding her horse to the city.

Things change. Shift happens. But everything stays the same.

Ice is still delivered in Australia (largely to service stations). People still ride horses (largely for pleasure). And people will continue to read words on printed paper.

It’s just that the practice might well become an exclusive luxury or ‘lifestyle choice’ for a few, rather than a practical necessity for the many.

What do you think will become obsolete in the next decade?

The bankruptcy of Borders naturally got chins wagging at Anthill HQ, prompting us to consider what other big changes might be on the horizon, leading us to create our own short-list of things on the commercial endangered list.

Here are three of our most thought-provoking and contentious:

Buttons: This prediction might seem glib (even outrageous). But have you noticed recently how few buttons our various gadgets now have? The remote for an Apple computer only has two, while an iPod is similarly bare. Then, if you consider smartphones and touch screens, the clickable button barely features at all.

Journalists: The concept of ‘citizen journalism’ is not new. In fact, aren’t all journalists ‘citizens’? The advent of the internet, followed by the ‘web 2.0’ revolution (characterised primarily by user-generated content), has reduced the amount of resources needed to produce quality journalism. While the complete demise of journalism is unlikely to ever eventuate, funding for journalism is already coming from unusual sources, that don’t fit the traditional cross-subsidy advertising model.

Cables: Wireless is the new cable. Sure, our floors, walls, footpaths, etc will be loaded with cables for decades. But, for most of our devices, from computer keyboards to toasters, the humble cable is proving increasingly needless. This is a trend likely to continue, unless someone discovers a health risk associated with the possession of so many damn chargers!

And then there’s:

  • Corks
  • Handwritten letters
  • Fax machines
  • Any others?

So, what do you think will become obsolete in the next decade?