Okay, hang onto your hats. We're clearly in for a bumpy ride over the next couple of years; even discounting the worst-case scenarios (I'm a happy pessimist: I always need something to worry about) it looks like we're in for a recession that will be at least as bad as the 1990-92 one, and possibly much worse. Now is the time to go long on Baked Beans and short Hummers; I'd love to see an index of the price of second-hand Herman Miller Aeron chairs (personal experience last week suggests they're sliding — there's a glut on eBay).
But this isn't 1990-92, nor yet 1929-39, much less 1872-73. this isn't just going to be the first recession of the 21st century — it's going to be the first recession of the internet age.
(I'm going to stipulate that the dot-com crash in 2000 doesn't count as the damage was specific to the IT and telecommunications industry; it didn't affect society at large — growth overall took a dent and there were a lot of windbags with MCSEs looking for what jobs there were, but you didn't see banks going bust or governments panicking.)
The conventional wisdom has it that if there's one thing the internet does to the wider economy, it can be summed up in one word: disintermediation. Back in the dim and distant prehistory of the 1980s, we used to buy our daily bread, or Armani suits, or whatever, from retailers. The retailers in turn were fed by a supply chain of wholesalers who were plugged into distribution channels which ran all the way back to the factory doors where manufactured or farmed stuff was put together and slung at the public. But the internet lets end-users plug into the same computerized ordering systems that used to be the privilege of the wholesaler. We've gotten awfully good at agile distribution, just-in-time manufacturing, business-to-business networking and outsourcing and a bunch of other -ings that only make sense if you have a responsive, high bandwidth communications network.
One one level, the systems we depend on are far more fragile than they used to be. Instead of the supply chain being a pipe with stuff flowing through it in regular quantities, goods tend to be ordered, built, and despatched like network packets, as and when they're wanted. This sort of system has very little overhead and is highly efficient, but it's prone to catastrophic breakdown; visualize a car factory that has outsourced all its components and simply does final assembly and customization, and the hole it falls down if the steering wheel supplier suddenly goes bust.
On another level, the whole agile logistics thing works in our favour; our hypothetical car factory can in principle zap the CAD blueprints for the steering wheel molds and tooling over to another factory somewhere, whereupon they can be up and pumping out units within a couple of days. Assuming they own the IP that went into the blueprints for their steering wheel, of course ...
... and assuming anybody is still buying cars.
We've never actually seen a true global recession in a Web 2.0 world. What's it going to look like? How is it going to differ from a recession in a pre-internet world? Is it going to accelerate the hollowing-out of the retail high street as economy-conscious shoppers increasingly move to online shopping and comparison systems like Froogle? Are we going to see homeless folks not only living in their cars but telecommuting from them, using pay-as-you-go 3G cellular modems, cheap-ass Netbooks, and rented phone numbers to give the appearance of still having a meatspace office? Is the increasing performance curve of consumer electronics going to give way to a deflationary price war as embattled producers try to hold on to market share as Moore's Law cuts the ground away from beneath their feet?
What have I missed?