Monday, July 25, 2005

Humanity transcends material wealth

Another chapter in the broad theme of "an idea whose time has come" is the interesting element of social coercion in behavior influencing. It is now not politically correct or even socially acceptable to smoke, drink heavily, eat fatty foods or to have poor posture in most professional and social settings. It is becoming less acceptable to just have a job and hobbies, rather than a direction and mission.

There is of course, regional seepage to this cultural phenomenon; the ideas generally begin, intentionally or not, in California and other clean living, high actualization environments and pervade other urban areas and even extend slow fingers out from cities. Witness anti-tobacco lawsuits superseded by anti-fast food and anti-trans fat lawsuits. The interesting aspect is that behaviors we have known for years to be unhealthy sat untransformed until the eye of social disapproval turned to them. While social disapproval can be seen as an invitation for anti-conformist counterbalance when it pertains to ideas, maybe it is all right when it pertains to statistically supported facts that enhance human life, especially those that hit low on the Maslow hierarchy.

It is increasingly unacceptable to show material trappings or any other sign of success. Indeed, pecuniary interests matter less and less, both directly and as a proxy for success. The brain - ideas, creativity, innovation and skill flexibility and acquisition - is the new currency of success, and it is measured intangibly. The impact is an increasingly interconnected actualizing civilization cleanly focused on true progress, ensconced in the true freedom of ideas.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Content Smorgasbord

What a wonderful time to be alive! There is more content than ever now available in a variety of formats.

News. Of course the content smorgasbord trend started with the Internet, although really the library was the predecessor, in fact most European nations do not have the public library resources that are often taken for granted in the US. With the Internet, information became free and consumable. News. All functions and items from newspapers and much more.

Audiofiles. Starting in 2004 or earlier, audio files from conferences, lectures and talks started to be available for free on the Internet, provided by IT Conversations, the Long Now Foundation and Xerox PARC.

Music. Music content has also been evolving quickly. The best service (note service not product as the current market delivery mechanism) this month seems to be YahooTunes, where for $5 a month, a vast collection of music is searchable and downloadable to computers and MP3 players. While not every artist and title is currently available, especially newer titles, there is a seemingly inexhaustible collection of music to absorb and enjoy. YahooTunes applies to copyrighted music; Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive project has already made a variety of older out-of-copyright audio and video content available.

Video. Video content is not quite there. Being "there" would be having all video content (from all countries) available in a searchable repository for on demand viewing. Tivo and other personal video recorder technologies have allowed significant advances in effecting content on demand; content viewing without commercials and time-shifted for convenience.

Books. The content of all printed matter and media is the subject of several projects including the Brewster Kahle Internet Archival project, Google's university library digitization project and other efforts to put the whole of human knowledge available and online. Also exemplar of information sharing is MIT making its undergraduate courses available for free on the Internet.

Content is becoming freer and more fungible. A content consumer's dream. Content is also becoming increasingly manipulatable, as there are more ways to mix, match and alter content and create new content. Some examples of content creating are blogs, podcasts and citizen media à la Dan Gillmor; note the BBC requesting and posting pictures and comments from bystanders minutes after the July 2005 London tube station bomb incidents. Creating content, aside from being fun, is a great way to satisfy those human urges to personalize, individualize and actualize...

Saturday, July 16, 2005

World's Ruling Elites Must Power Share

The Long Now and other future prognosticating outfits made the prediction that an end to human suffering would occur in this century. This means an end to starvation, massively preventable disease, poverty and other impediments to basic life fundamentals.

Indeed, this will probably come to pass more quickly than originally expected in this century due to a variety of factors. First and most basically, eradicating third world need is an idea whose time has come. Perhaps somewhat guilt-triggered, it is increasing unacceptable and unpolitically correct for the developing world not to have its basic human needs met. The July 2005 Live8 worldwide concerts exemplifies this reigning attitude.

Second, together with the unacceptability of developing world status quo is the belief that it is possible, even easy, to resolve these issues. Although, as Paul Saffo reminds, we should not mistake a clear view for a short distance, it is increasingly clear that solutions exist and have not been implemented as a matter of choice, partly due to the choices of the ruling elites and geopolitical influences. Amy Chua's "World on Fire" notes that development or indeed any modicum of progress is not in the incentive of ruling elites (in industrialized or developing worlds!) because it erodes their power base.

Third, the simultaneous realization that previous aid programs failed and the implementation of programs with results as a requirement is helping to eradicate poverty and disease. Former World Bank officer William Easterly points out in "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics," that aid recipient countries were worse off in nearly every dimension twenty years after the formation and deployment of the World Bank and IMF. Unstructured and unmeasured financial aid failed. Newer philanthropic, NGO and non-profit efforts such as the Gates Foundation malaria program and Dr. Paul Farmer's Partners in Health tuberculosis and other programs are generating success with a results-oriented focus and willingness to address the cause rather than the symptom.

But.......the really interesting idea is not that humanity will progress (this is excellent but not the most interesting aspect), the really interesting idea is that world power and influence dynamics must necessarily change when there are suddenly hundreds of millions of people "coming online." Hundreds of millions of developing world people will be becoming independent, capable, educated and healthy and competing in and contributing to the global market. For example, Africa's labor force could quadruple rapidly because malaria is no longer an issue. What is really interesting is how the (current) industrialized world will respond to the increasing weight and influence of the (currently) developing world.

Economist Jeremy Siegel's view is that this will be a fairly smooth transition. The retirees in Europe, Japan and the US will welcome, indeed rely on, developing world purchasers of their stocks, bonds and businesses as they liquidate their assets to retire. Multinational brands, as recent trends suggest, will continue to matriculate to developing world ownership.

However, cultural issues and value systems are very difficult to manage, especially with the perceived diversity that currently exists in this world. There can be hope but not likelihood in the possibility of industrialized nations not seeing the inevitable and hastening decline of Western world rule but rather focusing on the continued higher levels of human achievement that will now be possible, massive innovation and transcendence into the next era of human civilization and advancement.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

China's sure-footed lurch into a capitalist society

Tim Clissold's book, titled "Mr. China" in the US distribution, is an interesting account of ten years (roughly 1985-1995) of the author's experience visiting factories all over China and investing in about forty of them. Clissold and partners established one of the first foreign private equity firms in China and invested approximately $500M in controlling interests in joint ventures with apparently unimpressive returns; it is not clear how much of the original investment capital put up by investors (primarily US pension funds) may have been returned.

The book is a light and entertaining read featuring some funny comments such as these examples: the localized version of flavored condoms might be spicy bean curd, the image that investors might have to take their dividends in shampoo like some factory workers had to accept their wages, and the government trade representative accusing the investor of "talking in dog farts."

The major Chinese cultural themes highlighted in the book are indirectness, ambiguity, lack of transparency, and a different outlook on theft and morality in dealing with others, especially outsiders. The Chinese culture is portrayed as being quite different from Western cultures: speech is elliptical and metaphorical, not direct; infinite reserves of patience are required to wait out bureaucratic and regulation-heavy processes and saving face and giving others the opportunity to save face is critical. The government and the communist party wield control through rules and regulations that they may not even know themselves and which may not communicated externally to those being regulated. The relationship between the government/party and the budding business community is that business people/entrepreneurs generally look down on the sinecured and possibly corrupt government/party officials. One further challenge to business is the absence of a functioning and trustworthy legal system.

The book does an excellent job of showing exactly how different and much more challenging doing business in China was the early 1990s than doing business in the US or Western Europe. Some people would say "Forget it, that's way too hard" when presented with these challenges while others, like the author, grabbed the opportunity. Clissold's firm initially went about matters in the ways of their Western cultural background and met with less than successful results until they switched to more of a Chinese approach which understood and responded to the cultural business challenges more locally; for example, instead of depending on the bank to freeze accounts under dispute, the firm moved the money to another account first.

The implication of Clissold detailing how business was being done in China in the 1990s is the implication for any interaction between different value systems. As with any communication, those who receive and understand the other party and meet that party in their words, body language and cultural values will succeed. The world may or may not be going to brown, the increasingly homogeneous globalized poli-econ-social landscape of work, life, consumption, enjoyment, dreams and values, but chameleons who "speak local" will always have value.