Buying Local—the Google Angle

OK, I'm biased -- but I think this is an interesting new project.
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An emerging theme from our times in such otherwise-dissimilar cities as Holland, Michigan; Sioux Falls and Rapid City, South Dakota; and Burlington, Vermont has been the profound difference that local consciousness makes.

Locally based corporations and rich families think differently about a place where they live, versus some branch-office location they occasionally drop by. Local development efforts make a difference in whether traditional downtown areas die off or survive. Locally oriented publications can help enhance a sense of community, which in turn enlarges their own audiences, as we saw with Seven Days. Et cetera.

Through the modern economic era, most people have assumed there is a sad but inevitable tradeoff between pure efficiency, and the inefficient touches that make life livable. Extreme example: you could argue that New York would be "richer" if it bid out all of Central Park to developers. Even though this would turn the city into hell. Routine example: towns face this tradeoff with every decision about new shopping malls. On the one hand, big-box stores can mean lower prices. On the other, they usually mean the loss of fabric and texture in a small town.

Seeing how different towns have struck their balance is going to be a continuing theme in our travels. But here is an aspect I hadn't considered: a globalized high-tech offering with a potential local benefit.

As will become obvious if you get about 45 seconds into this report from the ABC station in San Francisco (with 15-second pre-roll ad), my wife and I are highly biased about the new SF-area Google service being described here. The project director who does the describing is our older son, so apply whatever discount seems appropriate. But -- kids these days! they never call, they never write -- until this public unveiling even we hadn't realized the local-shopping implications of what Google is attempting. 

Short version: for reasons of its own, Google needs to compete with Amazon as a venue for on-line commerce. And the niche it has chosen to exploit includes giving local merchants an edge in competing with national chains or Amazon's virtual nationwide marketplace. 

Of course I first noticed this program mainly for family-pride reasons. But having noticed it, I'm interested in the larger survival-of-the-local pattern into which it might fit. If you're in the Bay Area, see what you think.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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