It’s not just a distraction — it’s a damaging sideshow

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Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s been widely — indeed, endlessly — noted that Peloton has been a rare “winner” of the pandemic. With gyms reeling, many have opted for the high-tech home bike system, which involves a $1,900 piece of hardware and a $39 monthly subscription for custom exercise classes. The latest dramatic twist: Now the eight-year-old publicly traded company is reportedly “threatened” by its own struggles to meet the demand and fulfill orders for impatient customers. “The hype surrounding Peloton is like no other,” one analyst told the New York Times earlier this week.

This insulated slice of America — the million or so Peloton owners and their professional-class peers Zooming and home-ordering from Whole Foods through the pandemic recession — is the Peloton Economy. It’s gotten quite a bit of attention in a year when health and economic forces have simultaneously upturned and ended lives month after month. But ultimately, we need to face up to the fact that the Peloton Economy is not a bellwether — it’s a warning signal underscoring a serious problem that should be a top priority not just for the new Biden-Harris administration, but for business at large. …


Object of the Week

They tried to overthrow our government, and all they got was a stupid T-shirt

Trump supporters flying flags near the U.S. Capitol following the Stop the Steal rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Trump supporters flying flags near the U.S. Capitol following the Stop the Steal rally on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto/Getty

Nearly two weeks after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building that left five dead, including a law enforcement officer who was beaten to death by the mob, the New York Times wondered why it was still possible to buy — on Amazon, no less — T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran.” As if an insurrection was just another souvenir-worthy event.

It’s a troubling question. And as much as sedition merch sounds like dark satire, it’s worth taking seriously. The objects a culture produces and consumes can tell stories and reveal truths; the stuff we buy both reflects and projects what has meaning to us. Taking objects and consumer culture seriously is a theme I’ve pursued for years, as a columnist, author, teacher, and occasional talking head. …


Everyday Design Icons

How has the low-fi 30-year-old innovation reigned for so long?

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When is the last time you downloaded, opened, printed, or created a good old-fashioned PDF? Probably pretty recently. By one estimate, there are at least 2.5 trillion PDFs in existence today.

But when is the last time you actually thought about PDFs? The tempo of digital culture is set by fast-paced, head-snapping novelty. So it’s probably been a while — or more likely, never — since you stopped to think where the ubiquitous PDF came from. The Portable Document Format that essentially strives to replicate paper in digital form has been around since the early pre-Web 1990s. Thoroughly lacking in glamor or sizzle, the PDF has not only persisted for decades, but prevailed. Even stalwarts like Microsoft Word or PowerPoint get challenged by rival offerings from Google or Apple. But no PDF-killer has emerged. …


Off Brand

Corporate America’s sudden change of heart has less to do with politics and more to do with chaos

A big mat with a photograph of United States president Donald Trump
A big mat with a photograph of United States president Donald Trump
A mat with a photographic print as part of the ‘Jump Trump’ photo installation by artists Thomas Mailaender and Erik Kessels. Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

We appear to be living through an unparalleled moment — a turning point, perhaps — in the relationship between business and the political system. The big social media companies de-platformed the president; Apple, Google, and Amazon effectively crippled the hard-right Twitter knockoff Parler by taking away its access to app stores and web hosting; and payment processor Stripe has pulled its service from Trump’s campaign website. And that’s just the beginning.

This goes beyond the imperative for companies and brands to leave behind the usual stay-neutral, apolitical business tradition and articulate a point of view that I discussed mere days ago. These are examples of major enterprises demonstrating genuine power. …


OFF BRAND

Trump has finally pushed companies to pick a side

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Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

When Axe, the bro-body spray brand, feels compelled to speak up on behalf of the democratic process, you know something singular has happened.

In the aftermath of the shocking mob attack on the U.S. Capitol building, a slew of brands and business leaders made an unusual show of condemning or distancing themselves from President Donald Trump. Given the facts — the president’s role in encouraging the mob, and telling its members “we love you” even as the deadly chaos was indisputable — this was not a tough call, and in some cases seemed a bit belated and obligatory.

But even so, this could (should) prove to be an important and lasting turning point for business having a perspective that goes beyond the bottom line. I argued back in 2019 that smart businesses were transcending the traditional “just stay neutral” stance toward social policy and politics. This week demonstrated that neutrality is simply no longer an option. …


Malls were drastically overbuilt even before Covid-19 surfaced, but the pandemic forced a long-overdue shakeout into effect

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Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Epic Games, best known as the developer of megahit game Fortnite, recently revealed that its new global headquarters will be… a mall. Specifically, the company is buying a 980,000-square-foot mall in its hometown of Cary, North Carolina, with plans to convert it into “offices and recreation space,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

That sounds like a fable invented to illustrate the economic shift from the physical to the digital. Or maybe it just sounds like a joke at the expense of mall cops and Orange Julius employees across the United States. …


Off Brand

When it comes to accidental branding moments, this one will go down in the books

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Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

When Slack started 2021 by suffering a mass outage on the very morning most of the remote workforce revved up their computers after a long holiday break, it seemed like the ultimate business nightmare. Twitter went nuts. Virtual teams had barely reunited before being disconnected. The ultimate black eye for a company that had just been acquired for a whopping $27.7 billion, supposedly central to the work-from-home boom.

But actually, maybe Slack’s inept start to the year wasn’t all bad — for Slack, at least.

While the corporate masses dunked on the company in typical Slacklash parlance, the company’s momentary ineptitude made many of us realize that this profoundly ho-hum and fundamentally irritating component of the modern workday is, actually, kind of critical. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and everybody else covered the outage in real time bordering on national crisis, as if some core piece of digital infrastructure had failed. Online services go down all the time, but only the big ones — Twitter, Amazon, Google — attract such mainstream attention for the mere fact of being temporarily unavailable. …


From sweatpants to rubber bullets, a year in culture told through the artifacts we’ll never forget

A collection of various illustrations: skull, Fred Perry shirts, toilet paper, Peloton, mason jar, heat lamp, face masks, etc
A collection of various illustrations: skull, Fred Perry shirts, toilet paper, Peloton, mason jar, heat lamp, face masks, etc
Illustrations: Simone Noronha

This is the year that’s felt like a decade. Maybe that’s because 2020 so often seemed like a never-ending series of tests: for individuals, for businesses, for society. You can tell the story of a year in the culture through a list of books or songs or prestige TV shows. But my tradition is to tell it through objects — commercial stuff, material things, designed goods, products and artifacts large and small.

What follows is not a set of endorsements: Some of these objects are troubling, a few are ridiculous, many are ambiguous (though some, to be sure, are delightful). These are the objects that caused us to see the world in a new way this year — or the objects that this singular year forced us to consider anew. …


Its valuation doubled and then doubled again in an IPO bonanza. But is it just a well-timed flash in the pan?

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Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In mid-2019, a private funding round valued DoorDash, the restaurant delivery service, at $12.7 billion. In early March 2020, with rumors that the company might go public, the New York Times noted Wall Street skepticism about that lofty figure, quoting one analyst who predicted DoorDash would take a “significant valuation haircut.”

Instead, the company IPOed this week at a valuation of $39 billion — or $102 per share — and promptly saw its stock skyrocket, ending its first day as a public company worth $71.6 billion. …


How an iconic company became a lucrative vessel for dealmakers

An animation of the Dunkin’ Donuts logo with coins coming out of it
An animation of the Dunkin’ Donuts logo with coins coming out of it
Illustration: Erik Carter

In the 1980s, Fidelity mutual fund manager Peter Lynch became a personal finance superstar partly by insisting that investing wasn’t all that complicated. He had no taste for even slightly tricky financial instruments like futures and options, preferring “boring companies that do steady business,” as a 1989 interview with the New York Times put it. For example, there was Lynch’s investment in Dunkin’ Donuts stock, which he bought after he “noticed that many people seemed to like its coffee.” That was it; that was the insight.

Back then, Dunkin’ Donuts really did have a clear, linear story: It was a small business founded in the 1950s that grew steadily through franchises, first in the northeast then nationally and internationally. The company went public in 1968; by the late 1980s, it had more than 1,700 locations, and its “Time to Make the Donuts” ad campaign was a fixture. …

About

Rob Walker

Senior writer for Marker by Medium. Longtime contributor to The New York Times (Workologist, Consumed). Author of The Art of Noticing (Knopf). RobWalker.net

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