Why American Manufacturing Declined

And four other intriguing things: aural curiosities, an itching disease, employee badges, and the conscience of Flappy Bird's creator.
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1. A powerful argument that investor-driven changes in corporate structure—abetted by communication technologies—are largely responsible for the decline in American manufacturing.

"Digitization and the Internet continue in multiple ways to enable the fragmentation of corporate structures that financial markets demand. The breakup of vertically integrated corporations and their recomposition into globally linked value chains of designers, researchers, manufacturers, and distributors has had some enormous benefits both for the United States and for developing economies. It has meant lower costs for consumers, new pathways for building businesses, and a chance for poor countries to create new industries and raise incomes. But the changes in corporate structures that brought about these new opportunities also left big holes in the American industrial ecosystem. These holes are market failures. Functions once performed by big companies are now carried out by no one."

 

2. Meet Marc Weidenbaum, tireless cataloger of aural curiosities.

"Since 1996, Weidenbaum's been quietly documenting from the Richmond District all manner of experimental and electronic sounds on his incredible Disquiet.com site. (Some have referenced the site as one of the earliest blogs.) It's one of our great sonic secrets: Pretty much once a day for the past 18 years he's been opening ears to everything from random satellite-based sound sculptures and square wave coding antics to looped Sumerian myths and compressed Fugazi-discography experiments."

+ Disquiet.com.

 

3. This story will probably make you itch and cringe.

"One evening, nearly a year after his first attack, Paul’s wife was soothing his back with surgical spirit when she noticed that the cotton swab had gathered a bizarre blue-black haze from his skin. Paul dressed quickly, drove as fast as he could to Maplin’s, bought a microscope and placed the cotton beneath the lens. He focused. He frowned. He focused again. His mouth dropped open. 

"Dear God, what were they? Those weird, curling, colored fibers? He opened his laptop and Googled: ‘Fibers. Itch. Sting. Skin.’ And there it was — it must be! All the symptoms fit. He had a disease called Morgellons. A new disease."

 

4. A worthy artifactual obsession: the employee badges of another era of American work

"The badges represent a mother lode of stories waiting to be told. Who were these people? How did they come to be working for these companies? Were the photographers professional studio cameramen, or were they just "the guy who takes the head shots" at each company? What happened to the companies (most of which are now defunct)? Were there certain manufacturers that specialized in making the badges? And how did the badges become available on the collectibles market — like, did the employees keep them when they retired and then the badges became available at estate sales when the employees died, or did the companies keep the badges and then the badges found their way to vintage dealers after the companies went belly-up?"

 

5. It's fascinating how hard it is to believe that the creator of Flappy Bird simply felt bad that he'd created something addictive.

"But the hardest thing of all, he says, was something else entirely. He hands me his iPhone so that I can scroll through some messages he's saved. One is from a woman chastising him for 'distracting the children of the world.' Another laments that '13 kids at my school broke their phones because of your game, and they still play it cause it's addicting like crack.' Nguyen tells me of e-mails from workers who had lost their jobs, a mother who had stopped talking to her kids. 'At first I thought they were just joking,' he says, 'but I realize they really hurt themselves.' Nguyen – who says he botched tests in high school because he was playing too much Counter-Strike – genuinely took them to heart."

 

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

audience. The battle of the purists to restrict the meaning to hearers is lost. It has been applied to spectators & reading public for over a century and insistence on the distinction is now pedantic.

Why try to restrict it? Audience comes "from Latin audientia, from audire 'hear.'" Same root as audio. Who knew?

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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