From the Horseless Carriage to Haute Cuisine; what the emergence of the motor car can reveal about the Metaverse
“And, again, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the taste of rubber!”
At the turn of the 19th century, the brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, founders of their eponymous tyre company started distributing pocket-sized, red guides with useful information such as maps, information on how to change a tyre, where to fill up with fuel, as well as tips on local restaurants and hostelries. By the 1920s, the iconic Michelin Guide was rating the best hotels and eateries in Paris and beyond.
Today, amongst the general public, the Michelin Guide (and stars) are better known than the tyres themselves; and in culinary terms their impact is equally tangible. According to research from 2018, upon receiving one star, restaurants usually increase their activity up to 20%, 40% more when receiving two stars and 100% when receiving 3 stars.
The connection between the combustion engine and finer culinary arts would have been difficult to spot in first days of the ‘horseless carriage’ a hundred years previously. As such contraptions became more ubiquitous, the The Locomotive Act passed in 1865 (first in the UK and then other countries) required them to be preceded by a flag bearer to alert other road users of its impending arrival.
Even at the naissance of the Michelin brothers’ inaugural guide there were less than 3,000 cars operating in France and the link to fine dining would have been tenuous, to say the least.
I love to imagine a modern brand agency getting to grips with the brief: “So, you are trying to establish a connection with your product . . . the art of ‘rubbery dining’ perhaps?”
Fortunately, les frères Michelin were smarter than that, and could see how association with France’s culinary culture could, ultimately, benefit their more mechanical aims.
The above story provides an apt metaphor for the potential and likely trajectory of the Metaverse. A new set of parameters which will enable individuals to engage with brands and each other on their own (ie individual) terms, the promise of integrity of ownership and access at the same time as full anonymity (an apparent contradiction in our current physical or online existence).
In this regard, the decentralised aspect of Web 3 is of particular relevance. Our current world (online or otherwise) is largely centralized and defined by a series of apparent absolutes reinforcing the same. The financial system is underpinned by clearing houses – centralized structures that validate transactions on behalf of both parties. In addition to a continued dependence on the same financial system, the online retail space is more centralized than any time in history with few dominant players (from Amazon to Alibaba) calling the shots.
The advent of social media (Web 2.0) provided a false dawn in this regard – the promise of truly peer-to-peer broadcast. The reality is dependence on a series of dominant players – from Facebook to Google – whose activities include ‘validating’ (censuring) content and whose principal interest is maintenance of the same. Today, the situation resembles little more than an online version of the traditional, physical power structure.
This is where the development of the private automobile sector provides such a compelling metaphor. As a cursory look at any street scene from the 1890s – or even just its soundtrack – would confirm, the horse was the defining mode of transport of the age. During the 19th century, over 35,000 horses traversed the city every day; each required feeding, stabling and veterinary care, not to mention disposal of the 700,000 pounds of manure they would deposit on a daily basis!
Before the turn of the 19th century, these realities where considered absolute, determining not only who could travel, but in what conditions and for what distance. Horse breeders exercised a type of market dominance; little could be performed in business or at leisure without them.
Take a trip around Paris 20 years later and the difference – above all the sound – is astonishing. Personal transport has almost exclusively been replaced by cars, whose motors have replaced the sound of horses’ hooves as the city’s soundtrack.
This corresponds to precisely the moment when les frères Michelin started charging for their travel and gastronomy guide. They perfectly understood the power shift; the emergence of a new set of absolutes and the decline of their predecessors.
I’m not claiming that the Metaverse is about to replace our current incumbents; but I’m convinced that it’s a matter of time. At the turn of the 19th century, it proved impossible for the equine community to transfer their dominance into a new age of motor cars; horses became pets, items of indulgence, opulence and sport. A long way from the ‘fundamentals’ they were for centuries previously.
I believe that the current incumbents face a similar challenge; the promise of Web 3.0 is that brand and individual credentials enjoyed under the ancien régime of Web 2.0 risk counting for little.
And here the Michelin brothers offer a lasting lesson; value may be found in the most unlikely of combinations, if we look hard enough. Cuisine and rubber . . . not an obvious combination, but 100 years later Michelin is the World’s most valuable tyre company and Michelin Guides are the World’s most popular gastronomic guides!