Where others see roads, I see networks. Whenever I drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles down I-5, I wonder to myself whether McDonald’s and every other fast-food chain would have thrived had there been no interstate highway system. Would FedEx exist but for the invisible but very real infrastructure of airports, air routes, and roads? Railroads, freighters, factories, mass production—everything happened because the power of steam was made mobile. That created the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian age, and it altered the face of the entire planet.
Today, it’s the increasing mobility of "computing engines," the marriage of microprocessors and Internet ubiquity, that is poised to reimagine our society. More than a billion people bought smartphones last year—or to put it differently, we added 1.2 billion nodes to what was already the largest network ever built. Networks—social, neural, physical, metaphorical—enable connectedness, and connectedness changes everything.
Networks compress distance and time, that concentration speeds up life, and that, in turn, creates sociological and economic change. Why is Uber so disruptive in both the literal and figurative sense? Because the ride service creates a network of drivers and riders in each city it enters, accelerating customers’ access to transportation. That density, combined with Uber’s sophisticated understanding of all those interconnections, is what lets the company deliver on its mission of making ordering a car a frictionless act that results in near-immediate gratification. Uber’s success so far hints at the longer-term impact it could have on the world, such as more people choosing not to own a car and Uber-ites opting to live within a city so that they have better access to the network.
What about those McDonald’s I pass on I-5? Mobile connectedness is creating a slew of opportunities. Postmates, a website and app that lets customers dispatch a courier in any of the 64 communities it serves in the United States, will fetch orders from restaurants that don’t traditionally offer takeout. Munchery, which started operating in New York in late winter in addition to its home base of San Francisco, takes the physical restaurant out of the equation entirely, making meals in a central kitchen and delivering them to diners when they want to eat. If you still want a communal dining experience, order-ahead apps like those from Taco Bell change the entire service dynamic at a fast-food joint, removing the largest annoyances (waiting in line and making sure personalized orders are inputted correctly). And a company called DoorDash has developed a platform that offers delivery to traditional establishments that might compete against born-for-mobile food services.
If your phone becomes an on-demand food court, maybe we don’t need 35,000 McDonald’s outlets. Maybe the next fast-food giant is a virtual one like Munchery. Or it’s a delivery system like Postmates or DoorDash, stitching together indie restaurants. The network, then, may pose even more of a threat to the future of a McDonald’s than even Chipotle does.
These new interchanges are creating a fortuitous moment for those who can seize it while simultaneously presenting a worrying reality for companies that weren’t born on the network and can’t adapt fast enough. Recently, PwC released a survey of 1,322 global CEOs, and half of the U.S. chiefs believe a significant competitor is emerging or could emerge from the technology sector. After all, just in the last few months they’ve seen RadioShack finally steamrolled by Amazon and SkyMall killed by in-flight Internet access. Just as in the Victorian age, today’s computing engine is pushing us to challenge all of our preconceptions. And similarly, the ripple effects of these changes will be felt for decades.
Poets have written about our eternal love being seven seas away. But now everything is a tap of an app away.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.