Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

The Black Hole Theory
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

A dreadful realization about America has been creeping up on me. It seems to be a land almost devoid of computer magazines. Now that may be nothing earth-shattering to you but, to me, it is a serious matter. I love computers and computer magazines are an important accessory to that fact. Computer literacy came very late to me and much of my knowledge of them is self-taught, partly through experience, otherwise through reading magazines. To be without computer magazines will be hard enough but it also leads me on to notice that the computer world is very different here.

Britain has a gloriously chaotic computer market. The big boys are involved, of course, and you will see Dell and Hewlett Packard pushing their wares as hard as they can. But there is a second tier of PC manufacturers in the UK - firms like Carrera, Mesh and Time are big enough to compete with the multinationals and, so far, there seems to be no evidence that they are losing the battle. They exist by building faster and prettier machines than the big guys, specializing in the home market while the name brands retain their hold on the corporate scene.

There is yet a third layer beneath this, however. In every town there are little concerns throwing together computers, often to order, sometimes through a shop but more usually from an old industrial unit of minimal rent. These small companies have a hard life, trying to survive alongside the giants who can drive down the costs of their components by bulk ordering, and they usually die within a few months of their birth. But there are always others that replace them, new ventures by innocents believing that they can get rich quick by cashing in on their knowledge of computers (I shall return to this in a moment).

A few of these smaller firms survive, some growing to join the second tier of computer assemblers (one cannot call them manufacturers since the PC was designed to be modular and to make one it is merely necessary to combine the bits and pieces into a coherent whole), others eking out an existence by supplying components to those brave members of the public who build and repair their computers at home ( I confess to being one of these dabblers in the art of computer assembly).

To return (don't say I didn't warn you) to the apparently endless supply of innocents eager to make their fortunes by becoming computer builders and sellers, this means that Britain has a large reservoir of computer-savvy people, some bold enough to consider their skills marketable. For the sake of brevity, let us call these adventurous souls "geeks" (I intend no insult by this term - indeed, in my opinion it is a compliment). The thing about geeks is, they love magazines as a cheap and entertaining way of acquiring new knowledge. And the publishing industry has been happy to oblige them.

The British computer magazine is a thing of wonder and delight. It is a great, fat thing, bulging with informative articles, help pages, news, views and specialist tutorials (real geek fodder). Added to this is a wonderland of advertisements, sometimes the most important part of the magazine since it is in sifting through this that one can find the best components for the cheapest price. But that is not all. Every magazine has its crown, the fabulous and alluring cover disk (these days two or three of these is the norm). This is a true treasure trove, containing a mountain of free software to provide for every need. Only a geek can know the joy of inspecting and assessing the offerings contained within the latest cover disk. Some of my best-loved programs have originated on cover disks.

The number of computer magazines in Britain is astounding. There are the big beasts (Computer Shopper, PC Advisor, PC World and the incomparable PC Plus, to name a few for those who might be interested) and there are the specialist species dealing with such things as the internet, web design, programming and operating systems. And most of these are on sale everywhere. Any supermarket, gas station, newsagent or book store that sells magazines (and most do) will have at least a few computer magazines on offer.

To me, that indicates a large market.

If I can now turn to my experience thus far in America, I do have to admit that I once bought a computer magazine in the states. This was several years ago, probably during my first visit to the land of the free. I do not recall exactly where I bought it but I do remember that it was the only one on offer. And it was a poor, thin thing, almost apologetic in its humility. Of course, there was no cover disk.

Since I first formulated the Black Hole Theory (don't worry, I'm getting to it), I have established where it is possible to buy a computer magazine in America. If you look very hard you will find them on sale in stores that sell computers. Now, that seems logical enough - but wait. There are so few in evidence here - I counted a paltry four in the store where I made my momentous discovery. One of these was my old friend, Computer Shopper. But what have they done to it? It is lightweight, obviously the victim of a severe bout of anorexia. And where is the cover disk? I flipped through it briefly, found nothing of interest and replaced it alongside its similarly starved companions.

Note, if you will, that I referred up there to stores that sell computers. This is because I cannot call them computer stores; they are stationers that happen to stock a few computers and components, that's all. The few computer stores that I have seen are not computer sellers but offer computer services instead. They will come in and heal your PC if it's ill or give advice and assistance if you need to expand your office network or teach employees how to use new software. I have found no equivalent to the British computer shop run by geeks for geeks.

You may say to me that this is because I live in Lawton, a small town owing its existence to the military base, an unlikely place to find a proliferation of geeks. And I will reply that, in England, a town a quarter of the size of Lawton would have its complement of computer shops and that it would be possible to find at least a few computer magazines on sale in any village big enough to have a grocery store.

It was in pondering upon this strange state of affairs that I stumbled across the Black Hole Theory (at last we begin!). Why, I asked myself, is the computer world so different here? What can have caused this desert of computer interest, this absence of new endeavor in the land of opportunity? These are important questions, you understand; America has a much more mature computer market than Britain's and it is possible that I am staring at the future awaiting my homeland.

The first and most obvious conclusion I came to was that America suffers from a dearth of geeks. Without a healthy and vigorous geek population, there is no market for the magazines to cater for and no reservoir from which to draw new hopefuls into the computer assembly business.

But that's impossible, I told myself. This is the land that gave us the PC, Big Blue, Silicon Valley and Microsoft. The geeks are there, they must be. And then I realized that I'd answered my own question.

Certainly the geeks are here. They are at least as numerous as they are in Britain, in fact, by reason of population, there are far more of them here. But I had been ignoring the most important difference between the two markets. America has huge computer corporations that dominate the computer world, whereas Britain's equivalents are tiny in comparison.

Suddenly it became as clear as crystal. The American giants were ingesting all the geeks to work for them, leaving none in the wild. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo were creaming off the best programmers from the universities while other corporations cleaned up the residue. Dell and HP were devouring any technicians that appeared. It was as though these massive companies were acting as a black hole (ah, the point at last), drawing everything that resembled a geek into their maws, creating the terrible wasteland that now confronts me.

You see, it's the amateur that buys magazines. The geeks employed in the industry get their information from colleagues and conferences and, besides, have no desire to fill their spare time with yet more of the drudgery they experience at work. The amateur is eliminated, the wild geek extinct. Without a market, the computer magazine dies with them.

So there we have it - the Black Hole Theory. It may be wrong but it's the best I can manage at my present stage of research into the matter.

And is this the future for the computer world in Britain? Actually, I doubt it. There are no gargantuan computer corporations in Britain. The necessary ingredient to create the black hole does not exist at present. There will be some rationalization of the market inevitably, some firms will disappear and the bigger ones get fatter. But there are no signs as yet that the big guys will win (we even sent Gateway packing a few years ago, much to my approval). Dell has been conducting a ferocious drive over the last couple of years, determined to conquer our little island, but still we buy our Carreras, Tinys and Times. No, I think that the British computer market will remain an untamed wilderness for quite a long time yet.

Of course, I could be wrong.

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


But what puzzles me is: I know so many American geeks? Where are they getting their reading material? They can't all be getting all their information of the internet surely? I think the black hole theory can't completely explain it...
Date Added: 26/11/2004

I am aware of this apparent weakness in the black hole theory. But I do not have that many geek friends in America with whom to pursue my researches. Perhaps you, Mad, could ask one of them. ;) Yerdad :D
Date Added: 27/11/2004

I've got to agree, the yanks just don't have mags like us brits do. I think there's more interest in reading stuff in general over here. This thread in a newsgroup may interest you, it proposes a new 'island mentality' theory. Link is http://tinyurl.com/6kqcm. Right, i'm off to read Amiga Format.
Date Added: 28/11/2004

Gone Away
I took your advice and read the thread, Daniel. It seems I'm not the only one to have noticed the dearth of computer magazines in the states. But I'm not so sure about the car mags. While I was looking for a decent PC magazine (nay, ANY PC magazine), I came across whole sections devoted to cars. It looked to me as though you could buy a mag dealing with any car on the road as well as more general ones. Of course, I didn't pick up any and actually weigh them...
Date Added: 28/11/2004

I have now found yet another reason for you to visit our fair "city". My husband's boss also owns a computer store.. and actual computer store. And you will find humor in the fact that it is indeed called "Metageeks". Come, enjoy, and feel at home.
Date Added: 09/01/2005

Gone Away
Oh can it be? That America's one and only true computer store is in Missouri? How wonderful - and how wonderful a name for it too!
Date Added: 09/01/2005

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