April 1, 2021
If there was a single news story that summed up the technological contradictions of the past year, it may be the announcement in February that Fry’s Electronics, the eccentric chain of retail electronics stores, was shuttering. Those 30 stores, which served nine (mostly western) states, were a mecca for the tech-obsessed of all stripes, who could wander the seemingly endless aisles, handling all manner of parts and components, computers, gaming systems and cameras.
Fry’s was a victim of online shopping, but the recent pandemic was the final nail in the coffin.
We did not have Fry’s where I grew up in Ohio (we had Radio Shack, which was similar, but underwhelming). Based on the stories I have read and heard, though, Fry’s was like Toys“R”Us for burgeoning engineers. Headquartered in San Jose, CA, it served as something of a go-to source of supplies and inspiration in Silicon Valley. So it is ironic that many of the developers and engineers who found inspiration at the stores went on to work for Amazon and other companies that would eventually put it out of business.
The company did manage to outlast similar outfits like Circuit City, in part because of the affection customers had for its jam-packed stores, all of which were decorated based on various different themes. In Palo Alto, CA, it was the Wild West. The Phoenix store was decked out like an Aztec temple.
But the company was already hemorrhaging customers and suppliers, by most accounts, and the pandemic-related shutdowns ripped away all the bandages. Fry’s was not alone, of course. Just a few months into the shutdown, we all got a look at how many markets, businesses and people were just a few disruptive weeks away from disaster.
Over the past year we have seen technology successes and failures. Online delivery services thrived, even as many of their gig-economy contractors have struggled. Powerful computing resources were deployed to create vaccines in record time, while aging and disconnected federal and state systems hampered the delivery of those same vaccines. Social media brought us together and pulled us apart.
As I mentioned, I never went to Fry’s, but I went to places like it. They were more than a place to buy things; they were spaces to explore, full of unexpected discoveries. I won’t romanticize shopping, but that combination of commerce and accidental inspiration is rare and growing rarer by the year.
I cannot say I would trade virtual shopping away; it has infinitely broadened my ability to obtain things I need, as well as things I want. But it has been a long time since I accidentally stumbled across something that I didn’t know I needed. Algorithms ensure that I mostly find what I was already looking for.
I have been writing about technology in some form or another for more than two decades, and the one thing that holds true across every sector I have covered is that with every advancement, there are consequences and not all of them are positive. I am not endorsing a proscription of progress, of course, but a more thoughtful attitude toward it.
In the engineering sector we hear a lot about systems-level simulation and holistic approaches to design. The effects of a design change do not just impact the component in question, but also have ramifications for the software developer, the electronics, the entire assembly, the finished product, the manufacturer, the global supply chain, the retailer and the human operator. As certain physicists like to remind us, everything is connected, and I think the past year has certainly highlighted the ways in which those connections can play out, for both good and ill.
Technologically, we are better equipped than ever before to analyze those connections. How the experience of the past year will affect what we do with that information remains to be seen.