With our presidential election just a number of days away, I found it interesting to revisit the themes that Jared Diamond explores in his book Collapse. In this video lecture, Jared summarizes his thesis. In doing so he relates the astonishment of his UCLA students when faced with examples of societies that cause their own collapse. These students ask how was it possible that the people in those societies did not see the collapse coming – what did the individual who cut the last palm tree on Easter Island think he was doing? Diamond points to a disconnect between the reality that a society is experiencing and the reality perceived by its leaders. The various chiefs of the doomed Norse society on Greenland wanted more and more livestock because the chiefs were in a competition with each other on this metric, even though the overstocking that it caused was reducing their people to poverty. In short, there was a conflict of interest between the interests of the leadership and the interests of the society they lead.
Turning now to the choice before the American people, one has to ask which of the two candidates has the experience to best appreciate the conditions that American society is going through today? Which of the two know poverty? Which of the two know uncertainty? Which of the two know the conditions that are necessary for people to move themselves from poverty to security?
Both John McCain’s father and grandfather were four star US Navy admirals. His current wealth has been widely commented upon. It is fair to say that John McCain has lived a privileged life that was in no small part due to the family into which he was born and that into which he married. These factors, suggestive of patrician envelopment, do not preclude his potential to be a good president. One could argue that this financial position allows him to make independent decisions or that by virtue of his background he comes to the job with a species of institutional knowledge. But the same could have been said for the Norse chieftains that drove their societies to extinction. By virtue of his background, McCain has been immune to the hardships and constraints felt by the majority of the American population. By contrast, Barack Obama came from an economic position in society that is closer to that of the majority. For example, his experience of his mother arguing with health insurance companies from her death bed allows him to better empathize with, and represent the interests of the 45.7 million Americans that live without health insurance. John McCain has never experienced that life-lesson. He does not know what it feels like to live, and know that one’s family lives, in perpetual fear of getting sick. Furthermore, Barack Obama is a self-made man. He owes his position to his own hard work rather than a multi-generational inheritance. He has first-hand experience of the conditions that are necessary for others to similarly advance and it appears to me from his speeches he believes that one of the key components is access to education. McCain’s record shows that for him education was a rather annoying chore.
As if to further illustrate Diamond’s thesis, the presidency of George W. Bush has clearly taught us that we all need to carefully consider who we put in power. The incompetence of the Bush administration, in particular its attitude towards financial regulation (if not foreign policy), has brought our society to, and many other societies beyond the brink of collapse. Over a decade of wealth creation has now been erased. Our world today is too interconnected for any one of us (American or not) to think that he will be unaffected by the choice of US president. I challenge anyone to point to a single asset class anywhere in the world where an isolationist can park their wealth and be beyond the incompetence of George W. Bush. In such a delicate world, facing the sort of threats described by Diamond, and of which every single one of us is now aware, we must ensure that the individual to whom we give executive power has the deepest understanding and empathy of our condition. Most of us do not have the ability to right our mistakes with a check from the family. Most of us take care of ourselves. Most of us got what little we have by working hard for it. That is why, at this point in our history, in a world as interdependent as ours is today, we cannot afford a privileged president. We need one who has lived with the same tradeoffs, incentives and compromises with which the vast majority of Americans live every day. From this point of view at least it seems clear to me that Barack Obama’s experience and achievements in life make him more likely than John McCain to make better decisions for the American people.
One of the first things I did upon my arrival in the United States some nine years ago was to try an American hot dog. The scene is recreated now in my memory as it never existed in reality. I know that it was the end of summer and the streets and skyscrapers of Manhattan heaved with the stored heat of another hectic day. Yellow taxis zoomed by and the Statue of Liberty peered between the Twin Towers at her new arrival. The vending cart was made of stainless steel and staffed by one such as I, a dreamer from a far-off shore. The regulation red and yellow plastic condiment bottles stood guard to witness the impending loss of my virginity. There was the shuffle of plastic, the splitting of the soft bun with the metal tongs, the opening of a lid and the rescue of a swimming red cigar. Self-consciously replaying a stock-scene from Matlock, I padded the sandwich with some sauerkraut and painted it with mustard. I turned out across the open waters in front of Battery Park and bit into my first American hot dog. The pickled taste of the sauerkraut and the sting of the mustard spread across my tongue. My teeth pressed through the soft bread and bit down on the meat, feeling first the resistance of the skin and then the unchanging consistency of the compressed beef within. I was unimpressed. The bread was not the crunchy banquette that I had tasted in Paris but that soft sweet air-filled bread I associated with cheap hamburgers. The meat was boiled and bland, not grilled and juicy. This was most definitely not good eats.
But over the years since that day things have changed. The textures and tastes remain the same but the feelings I associate with them are now distilled, potent, transubstantiated. America is not perfect – the bread is not crunchy, but always cheap. When I eat a hot dog today I am consenting to play a role in a great experiment. Millions arrive on this shore with wonderful cuisines, a myriad of languages and a single hope. And somehow we arrive at a messy, sometimes unsatisfying compromise. But when you think of the differences in our cultures and backgrounds, when you think of so many individuals with their own ideas, standards and desires, isn’t this peaceful compromise, this constantly evolving negotiation, a worthwhile, remarkable and rare achievement? The world is full of ridiculous conflict and yet the same people that kill each other elsewhere here work together, perhaps begrudgingly, perhaps with secret prejudices, but nonetheless effectively. Some come here for a while, some forever, some to recreate what they once had and some to forget. From each is asked a compromise, a contribution of moral capital to the idea of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, meritocratic republic. And sometimes the deal seems barely worth it, but yet sufficient enough to keep investing. The rule of law is available to all but lawyer’s bills often mean that some are more equal than others. Medical miracles can save the life of a loved one but the cost can destroy a family. You can achieve anything if you really want to but often it will be your children that will see the promised land of your imagination. You can grab a meal for two dollars, but the meat is factory-processed and the bread is soft.
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke of how at that time America was engaged in a great civil war, testing whether a nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are born equal could long endure. For many arriving on this shore there is that same internal struggle between prejudice and idealism, remembering and forgetting, evolution and loss. Stretched thin across two cultures, we each stumble through the twilight between past and future, reality and our dreams. And there is no answer – only, after a while, the realization that we are all stumbling, but still standing, and the value of that. Then this becomes our common bond, our compromise and our foundation. For me, as for many others, the American experience is the immigrant experience and I cling to that because it seems to me that it is in that light that America is at her most noble, her most beautiful and sublime. I have eaten many fine meals in countries ruled by tyrants and despotic cliques, salivated in lands infused with fear and complicit silence. And so, when I eat a hot dog today, I bite down into a humble, imperfect, democratic, noble experiment and consent.
As I looked out across the city of Bangkok this morning I marveled at how its many millions of inhabitants go about their daily business in a peaceful way. Of course one could say that about many cities, but it seems more pronounced in Bangkok because life is not easy for many people here and yet I have not witnessed a single argument or cross word in my nine days in this city. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Baghdad and the contrast between Baghdad and Bangkok leaves a marked impression on my mind. The Thai consider Buddhism to be one of the three pillars of their civilization (the other two being King and Nation). It started me thinking of religion in utilitarian terms and as analogous to a computer operating system.
In his weekly column in the Italian newspaper Espresso, the Italian writer Umberto Eco in 1994 famously declared that the world was divided in two: users of Macintosh computers and users of MS-DOS computers. He argued that the Mac was Catholic, cheerful, friendly, employing sumptuous icons and helping the user by taking them step by step towards “if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed.” Eco argued that DOS was Protestant, allowing for free interpretation of scripture, asking the user to make difficult personal decisions and taking for granted that not everyone will reach the Promised Land.
Since that famous observation much has changed in the world of technology. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was about to start at a company that specializes in virtual computing. A virtual computer is just like a normal desktop or laptop but the user chooses which operating system the computer will use depending on what he or she wants to do. For example, if you want to make music, then you might choose the Mac operating system so that you can use the Garageband program. On the other hand if you want to do some engineering drawings you might choose the Windows operating system and one of the various computer-aided-design programs available on that platform. Apple computers can now switch between the MacOSX and Windows operating systems as needed. They have thus become virtual computers.
Staying with Eco’s analogy, what is the religious equivalent to virtual computing? It’s not syncretism, though it shares the syncretic openness to new influences. Syncretism attempts to reconcile and combine disparate or contradictory beliefs. The word syncretism comes from the Greek word synkretismos meaning a union of communities. Virtual computing does not argue for a union of the MacOSX and Windows environments. It keeps them separate but allows you to use either. The religious equivalent to virtual computing, for which perhaps the term virtual religion will have to suffice, would envision all religions as schools of human technology and users as free to use any religious practice at will. Thus if you find yourself perpetually distracted, use Buddhist meditation and reduce your levels of attachment; if you think killing animals is cruel use some Jainist beliefs; if you need to motivate yourself at work use the Protestant work ethic; if you have difficulty reconciling religion and sex use Tantra; if you feel the need for mystical fulfillment use Taoism or paganism. But the active verb is always use because the perspective is utilitarian not dogmatic.
If there is a polemic underlying this thought exercise it is this; we must reach a point where we say that a religion has failed. If people are killing one another in the streets because of religion, not defending the freedom to worship, but merely because their religion has directed them to kill another human being, then that interpretation of that religion has failed. If, as many believe, the purpose of religion is to make man more divine, then if he descends into barbarism doesn’t that mean that there is some corruption in the code? Shouldn’t we at least examine religions with the same common sense that we examine computer software by asking – does this work?
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. There has also been no period of self-induced national amnesia, no cultural revolution, no sweeping away of yesterday for the sake of tomorrow. Instead, Thai culture, imbued with Buddhist tolerance, has evolved in layers, each one an incremental negotiation between the needs of the present and the traditions of the past. Exiting Bangkok airport you float along the most modern of these layers. Large elevated concrete motorways writhe over and under each other like giant earthworms petrified for my automotive convenience. Two sets of toll-booths, two newly constructed mosques and tens of the largest billboards I have every seen punctuate my progress towards the tangerine smog-haze that is Bangkok in late afternoon.
As you get closer to the city center, the taxi leaves the modern elevated highway and you drop down to street level. Mopeds are everywhere, traffic lights are merely suggestions and signs offer gems, silks, hotels, massages, import-export and all the paraphernalia of a working trading city. However, unlike Singapore, where large monolithic modern buildings replaced the native housing stock, in Bangkok the skyline is generally three to four stories high. The houses are the traditional combination of shop on the bottom floor and home overhead. There are skyscrapers interspersed here and there but the majority is concentrated in the business district. As a consequence, and despite the common description of Bangkok as vast urban sprawl, to me Bangkok feels very human, neighborly and welcoming.
It’s Monday and I can’t help but notice that about one out of every three people I see in the street is wearing yellow. I half-dismiss the observation until I enter a bookstore and the shopkeeper is also wearing a yellow t-shirt. She explains that last year, in order to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of King Rama IX, the government sold yellow t-shirts and gave the money generated from the sale to the King and his many charities. Almost everyone in Thailand bought a t-shirt. On September 19, a bloodless military coup, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, replaced the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In light of these events, she told me that the people have recently taken to wearing these yellow t-shirts every Monday (the day of the week on which the King was born) to communicate their support of the King. Thus the celebratory garb of last year has this year become a political statement.
But beneath the present there is yet another layer. The Thai names for each day of the week come from those of the Gods in ancient Indian astrology. Each one of these Gods is associated with a particular color. In the past, divine astrologers would refer to this color scheme and pick the most auspicious colors for battle tunics for any given day. Two centuries ago the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu wrote the Sawasdi Raksa, a guide to princely conduct and behavioral rectitude that is still taught in Thai schools today. In it he referred to the ancient Indian tradition and recommended colors for each day of the week, Sunday was red, Monday yellow, Tuesday pink, Wednesday green, Thursday orange, Friday blue, and on Saturday – violet. The practice of wearing particular colors on a given day was subsequently adopted by the royal court, then the wealthy merchant class, and finally the people.
This uninterrupted layering of Thai culture has thus created a rich semiotic palette through which meaning can be communicated but also obfuscated. How should General Boonyaratglin interpret these yellow t-shirts every Monday? Are they merely a quirky manifestation of an old tradition or a very personal message directed to him in response to events barely six months old?
I am generally in favor of political correctness. It has helped to create a new code of manners and etiquette that at the very least points the way to a more inclusive and respectful society for all. But it has also had a prophylactic effect, preventing an acknowledgment and discussion of the differences between social groups and cultures, a confession of our inner thoughts and ignorance and the consequent growth to a more thorough and educated view of the differences that make us unique and interesting.
With that by way of apology, let me proceed to confess my perspective. The biggest difference that I see between Western cultures and those that I have experienced to date in Asia relates to the role of the individual in society. It is not an extreme difference but one of degree. I was most recently reminded of this today when reading an article about Singaporean literature. The article made the general observation that Singaporean literature in Malay, Chinese and Tamil concerns itself with issues of daily life and interweaves these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic and social events. By contrast, Singaporean literature in the English language is described as concerned with the individual and extrapolating human experience. I have a feeling that this distinction is an urgent one, because given the economic rise of China, the West is going to have to work with China as a partner to develop a global consensus on complicated issues such as international human rights, bioethics and privacy rights. These discussions will take place in the space between these two different views of the role of the individual in society.
The Western viewpoint is that, as Lord Acton put it, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The West feels this has been the lesson of our history from the tyranny of Roman emperors and medieval kings to the great evils of Nazism and slavery. Individual rights, and the individualism that they reflect and encourage, are seen as a check on the dangerous accumulation of power by government and bureaucracy. This perspective of the central role of the individual owes something to the religious traditions of Western society. The Judeo-Christian tradition (greatly influenced by the Persian Zoroastrians), views the world from the perspective of the individual, his relationship with God, and his path through a life of choices between good and evil. The actor is the individual, choice is his script and society is the backdrop.
The Asian perspective to me seems different, at least at this point in my education; society is the actor, harmony is the script and the individual is the backdrop. While walking in a classical Chinese garden yesterday I came across a statue of Confucius, on the side of which was written an excerpt from his dialogues. It stated; “[w]hen the Great Way prevailed, every person was a part of public society and public society belonged to everyone. The virtuous and the able were chosen for public office. Fidelity and friendliness were valued by all. People not only loved their own parents and children, but loved the parents and children of others as well. The elderly lived their last years in happiness; able-bodied adults were usefully employed; children were reared properly. Widowers, widows, orphans, the childless aged, the crippled and the ailing were well cared for. All men shared their social responsibilities and all women have their respective roles. Natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends. People wanted to contribute their strength and ability to society for public good and not for private gain. Trickery and intrigue could not occur in such a society. Robbery, larceny and other crimes all disappeared. Gates and doors were not locked, no one ever thought of stealing. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.” What is clear from this description of the ideal society is that the perspective is not the individual first and then society but society first with consequent benefits for the individual.
Both the West and the East share the same goal of “the good society” but they differ in how they think it can be achieved. I think the difference in viewpoints is cultural and not the function of economic development because I have also noticed this difference in perspective in Japan, a country that has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world now for almost two centuries. As a Westerner, I am concerned that the unchecked accumulation of state power, gathered in the guise of perpetuating social harmony, will lead to a corruption with a terrible toll in human life. I can imagine that the Asian perspective is that the rampant individualism of the West has led to a disharmonious society, riven by unlimited greed that will end with a terrible toll in human life. I think that we can each learn from the other – it is true that individual rights without economic growth may be poor consolation, but it is also true that economic growth depends on individual rights. As technology and trade bring once seperate civilizations into common society, there is much to be gained from a dialogue between our different persepctives, for the sake of both harmony and freedom.
Once upon a time in a land far away I was born the eldest son to the eldest son. My position at the start of the next generation afforded me periodic access to the intimate interactions of the previous. At a young age I was already aware of the existence of an exclusive community between my father, his brothers and my Grandfather. I observed their behaviors and customs with the intense interest and feigned detachment of the reluctant outsider. Whenever the extended family gathered together, in thunder, lightening or on sunny days, my Grandfather and his sons would start retelling old stories. By the time my sister was born, several years later, even I knew all these stories, but the retellings continued. I learned the code. For example, I knew that the use of the phrase, “there was some hold on you” in the telling of one story was a quick side-reference to another story in which that was the punch-line, with the aim of picking up the theme of that side-story (say one of frustration) and layering it into the first so that those-in-the-know knew the character in the first story was extremely frustrated, though the narrative had not yet explicitly revealed that fact. This inter-textuality came naturally to us as we sat around the fire and, when I later found out that this was a feature of post-modern literature, I enjoyed the thought that we knew how to do this years before the French. Everyone listened intensely to the retellings, the slightest change of phrase, the discovery of a new relationship between the characters or indeed any new data-point had the potential in this interlaced network of narratives to rock our world. By the age of 18 I too was able to exchange knowing nods and glances with this band of men of which, at that point, I had become a member. In the subsequent years, though time put space between us and years between retellings, the code survived – we grasped at it periodically at airports and funerals.
I thought of those retellings late last night. I was searching through the collection of video snippets on YouTube for the opening sequences and theme music of American television programs that I used to watch as a kid. I entered phrases like, “the Fall Guy,” “the A-Team” and “the Six Million Dollar Man.” When I found them I tagged them as Favorites. I also searched for television shows that I hated to watch as a kid; Degrassi Junior High, Wonder Woman and the Muppet Babies. I saved them as Favorites too. I slipped gradually back into the mind of a 7 year-old and it was a nice place to be. Mom had stopped painting and was making dinner as I watched television. Dad was going to be home in an hour and we were going to Granny’s that weekend. We would see my Uncle’s new sports car there and that would be so cool. Click. The 50-second clip came to an end on my computer screen and I was once again clothed in the realization that I was now a man and all the memories of everything that has happened between then and now began to pile on top of one another. Within minutes I couldn’t smell my mother’s cooking anymore. I searched the internet again and again. In the early hours of the morning I emailed the long list of Favorites to my friend in New York. This morning he replied “this was awesome.” I knew what he meant and that felt good.
Professor Ronald Arnett wrote in a 1986 paper entitled “Communication and Community” that “for a community to survive, it must have a story. That story must be one that individuals can relate to, feel a part of, and affirm. It is a communicative vision of where they are going and why that keeps a community vibrant and healthy.” No doubt it is just another expedience of evolution that we should feel such joy and comfort in repeating well-known stories to one another – a reinforcing of shared bonds that may need to be cashed-in some day in the cynical marketplace for security. But I aspire and hope that its something more beautiful than that – I choose to feel that these stories will always be there and that we, and those we love, will live forever by dwelling within them.
If you like what you do for a living then you should be worried, that is unless you are a pervert. Let me explain. Wired Magazine recently published an article about “crowd-sourcing”. In it a professional photographer described how competition in his business had become overwhelming, given the proliferation of high quality photographs on online databases ranging from iStockphoto to Flickr. The article started me thinking about what sorts of other markets might be vulnerable to crowd-sourcing.
At the outset, the most vulnerable markets are those for products that have a low marginal cost of production and by that I mean that the cost of producing one additional unit of the product is low. Thus, for example, Apple has probably spent millions developing OSX, but once developed, the cost of making a copy of the operating system is nothing more than the cost of burning a copy of the program onto a DVD or putting it on a website for consumers to download. “Digital products” such as software, e-books, music and photographs easily fall into this category. The markets for these products are vulnerable because the low distribution cost allows anyone in the world to easily sell these products to anyone anywhere.
But fixed costs or semi-fixed also have a role. If fixed costs are too high then a market will not be vulnerable to crowd-sourcing. The difficulty or cost in developing the Google search algorithm ensures that there is not a cottage industry for search algoritms. If fixed cost is zero then no one is willing to pay for the product because it has little or no value or it is just as easy for the consumer to make it themselves – e.g. the market for people to set your alarm clock. However if fixed costs are falling then a market may become vulnerable to crowd-sourcing. Fixed costs fall when the price of the means of production falls. For the purposes of crowd-sourcing I want to focus on the cost of labor which can be more of a semi-fixed cost than a variable cost depending on the labor market and regulations. The cost of labor is the price at which a worker is willing to sell utility or alternatively buy disutility. Returning to the example of photos – “workers” are willing to sell photographs for very little because they actually get utility rather than disutility out of taking them. This is all fancy language for saying a much more simple proposition which is that people are willing to work for less if they enjoy what they are doing. If technology can increase the utility a worker gets from their job then the salary for that job will fall because more people are willing to do it for less.
The film business offers an interesting example. Back in the 1930’s making a film was beyond the ability of the average Joe – i.e. it was hard work and you had to pay people to do it – indeed you still have to pay people today. However, technologies such as iMovie and high quality video cameras now allow you to make films that would have amazed audiences in the 1930’s. Indeed, film-making has not only become feasible for the average Joe it has become fun – in other words, for some portion of the workforce, making films has gone from being disutility to utility. As a result, you have television programs such as America’s Funniest Home Videos that show hours and hours of videos that cost them nothing because the people that made them enjoyed doing it. The internet is full of video footage and even independent films that you can consume for absolutely nothing.
What’s the bottom line? If you enjoy what you do and if other people would enjoy doing it too – be afraid. If you make a digital product – be very afraid. The world is full of people who want to have just as much fun as you and you will get to exchange Cyworld acorns with them on the one-way train to the badlands. Only those that enjoy what others do not enjoy will survive and the richest of these will be the most perverted. Quel change?
I remember seeing a television science reporter, many years ago, describing the Japanese gadget freaks (now known as gadget otaku) that hung around Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. With the same hushed tones used by David Attenborough when approaching a herd of water-buffalo, the reporter described a unique urban sub-culture characterized by an intense pre-occupation with gadgets. These teenagers were keenly pursued by the Japanese electronics companies, as ideal high-maintenance consumers who would point the way to the next big thing.
I was reminded of this report from the late 1980s in the last two weeks as I witnessed demanding American consumers make two major electronics companies look rather sheepish for failing to satisfy their aspirations. The first was Apple. A number of weeks ago Apple sent out a coy low-key invitation to the launch of some “cool new products” in mid-February. The rumor mill began. The most popular desire was for a full screen video i-pod that would play feature length movies in landscape format. This vision encompassed a touch-sensitive screen with a scroll wheel that appeared and disappeared to the touch. Apple actually announced some leather i-pod carrying cases and a boom-box. The reaction of the faithful was not good. After Apple it was the turn of Microsoft. The company set up a minimalist futuristic website avec Asian-futuristic-fetish verbiage like “the Origami Project.” It promised an announcement on March 9. Everyone waited. The rumor mill hoped for a laptop with an i-pod form factor. It would be cool, it would be awesome it would be your new best friend. The promotional video, showed shiny happy people (okay so maybe they were not actually shiny) zipping around town casually designing products, starting t-shirt companies and conducting market research all while listening to music and emailing their buddies – life was going to be just so easy. Then the actual product was released. It was a disappointing shiny (“shiny plastic” not “shiny silver”) black box with almost a 3 hour battery life. The otaku tribe groaned, gathered up their tents and moved on.
Are we seeing the emergence of an American Otaku culture – where prosumers and not producers determine whether a product launch is a success? Have blogs moved the power from the marketing departments at Apple, Microsoft and Sony to the t-shirt bedecked scribes at Engadget, Gizmodo and TUAW? I think the answer, rather boringly, is yes and no. The tech blogs offer a platform for the type of consumer adulation for which GM would give its right initial. For example, one blogger returned from the Apple announcement in February apologizing for his adolescent gushing upon seeing Steve Jobs in the flesh. So in this respect the technology blogs support the mission of Madison Avenue. On the other hand, the Apple boom-box was not Apple’s finest hour and it will no doubt get that message from its fans. In this respect the blogs stamp out Fifth Avenue’s fifth column. Though it may seem tough in the short-run to face such relentless customer demands, in the long-run, these crazed prosumers will save even successful companies from the lethal comfort of their own hard-won success. Cadillac and Buick were not so lucky. In closing – konichiwa otaku.