What Would the 'One Word' to a Graduate Be Today?

If Mr. McGuire, half in the bag and feeling magnanimous, wanted to say one word to Ben today, what would it be?

"Disintermediation."

Great word, isn’t it? It has lots of syllables, it sounds intellectual. It must be important. It’s a consultant’s word, meant to make what you’re saying sound scientific and impressive. (If you aren’t a consultant, you say something like “taking out the middle man.”) Whatever you call it, though, it’s the key to all of the various business and social revolutions that have come about because of the Internet. Consider:

Blogging. It’s hard to remember — and even harder to believe — but not terribly many years ago, the only sources of news were the major networks and major newspapers, along with a few special-audience magazines like The Nation and National Review.

In the late 1990s, people realized this new thing the World Wide Web could be used to create your own web pages and put them onto the internet for everyone; then web search, and especially Google, made those web pages easy to find.

Suddenly, everyone was a publisher. You didn’t need to go through a printing press and ship four pounds of pulp paper to have thousands or even millions of people read what you wrote.

The Web and blogging removed all the many layers of middlemen -- printers, shippers, distributors, newsstands -- because you could deliver text for fractions of a penny when the physical pulp bricks cost dollars.

Newspapers and networks hated it. We were derided as just a bunch of people in their basements in their pajamas. But it didn’t matter; people liked being able to write -- and read -- freely and across the whole spectrum of opinion.

 Music Publishing. At roughly the same time, iTunes and the iPod became available; you could buy music online, have it delivered essentially instantly. Music publishing had, since the '20s, been arcane, byzantine, and basically crooked. iTunes took out many layers of middlemen -- publishers, distributors, record stores -- because it could deliver bits for fractions of a penny, where physical recordings cost dollars.

Music publishers hated it. They said that musicians would starve and piracy would bankrupt everyone. But that didn’t matter either, and in fact now there are musicians like Lindsey Stirling who have become stars using nothing but YouTube — and talent.

Retail. Starting with Amazon, online retailing took off. As with the others, book publishing was byzantine, complicated, expensive. At first, Amazon took out some of the layers of middlemen: they kept their own warehouses, did their own fulfillment, shipped directly to customers, and so were able to exploit economies of scale by eliminating layers of distribution and square miles of bookstore space. Once again, the Internet meant you could buy retail for fractions of the cost of traditional methods.