Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dot Connectors Wanted

I read this past week a fascinating exchange by Shane Harris, author of a new book called The Watchers, and Patrick Radden Keefe. Both of them have covered the various controversies over government spying and data collection, and Harris' book takes a deep look at John Poindexter and the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project that created a stir during the Bush administration.

What struck me, as I read the exchange, was their observation that the government has become good at "collecting the dots", without increasing its ability to connect them. TIA was meant to automate this process to some degree, but when they ran tests on its effectiveness it failed. The job of connecting the dots, it seems, cannot be outsourced to computers, at least not yet.

So that begs the question: are we failing to teach human beings to connect the dots? This seems like one of the basic building blocks of both wisdom and creativity, and yet it is a skill in short supply. Part of the problem, I think, is that people are increasingly encouraged to specialize: don't just know advertising, be a strategic planner. Don't just do advertising, do healthcare advertising. Don't just know healthcare, know oncology. (Just to cite a personal example.) While that intense specialization might help a person find the conventional answers within their space faster and better, it does not help them incorporate new knowledge from other areas that might revolutionize their area of focus.

The explosion of knowledge made possible by the Internet rewarded specialization, as there is just more to know in every field. Yet in many areas, the dot connectors have been left out, and each isolated topic has tapped a lot of the value it can get out of specialization and narrow focus. The dots have been collected, and the future will belong to those people who can take the critical step of connecting them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The End of 'Europe'

Last summer, my wife and I took a wonderful trip to Greece. The weather was delightful, I saw some amazing archeological sites, we ate some terrific meals...the usual events of a happy vacation. But in the midst of our good time, we had to twice dodge riots occurring mere feet from our hotel in Athens. We didn't think much of it at the time, beyond registering mild amazement that the rioters seemed to feel it was the government's job to provide them with jobs.

But reading now of Greece's increasingly acute financial problems makes me think that the riots, and the attitude that drives them, are central to an understanding of Greece. As the blogger Spengler and his correspondent point out, the country is infused with corruption and graft of epic proportions. Everyone is trying to get on the public payroll, and many of them don't expect to do much work for the privilege. The country finances an unsustainable amount of spending to keep all these connected operators happy.

And how were they able to keep borrowing to this point? Because they're part of the Eurozone, and lenders have assumed that the Frances and Germanies will keep the peripheral nations from going under. And maybe they still will, but their voters seem unenthusiastic about sending their money to help out countries that have already received a huge economic boost by being included in the European economy.

Not long ago, Greece was a poor country. Its inclusion in the European experiment has given its people a taste of a good life they never really earned. Greece has no great industries, and its public sector is far too large, its social benefits far too generous for what it produces. As great as its cultural and natural gifts are, tourism isn't enough to keep it afloat.

When the productive nations of Europe realize that this scenario isn't limited to Greece, and that a pan-European economic system is a drag on their futures, they're going to demand out, or else kick out the parasitic nations at the periphery of the continent. And that, over a longer time horizon, is likely to render large patches of Europe less charming, prosperous and peaceful than they are today. We will miss visiting those places almost as much as their citizens miss the brief burst of prosperity bought on credit.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Space and the Modern American

As a neophyte science fiction writer, I find myself daydreaming about the different ways we will reach the planets and then the stars with some regularity. For most Americans, from our President on down, space exploration seems like an afterthought, of much less technological interest than the latest iWhatever, of much less cultural significance than Jersey Shore. Thus the announcement that we're essentially warehousing human exploration of space.

The political response to this from some quarters of the conservative movement is that Obama is taking a step away from American Greatness. However, he isn't doing anything more than reflecting our apathy about space exploration in his budgeting decisions. As this article by Craig Nelson notes, George W. Bush's announcement of a mission to Mars was just a bit of political fluff, and almost no one is willing to extend themselves to push for publicly-funded space flight the way JFK did in the early sixties.

So, while the Russians now have a seeming monopoly in sending people into space, we have to ask ourselves what the future holds. Are we destined to stay turned inwards, extending our lifespans and cushioning ourselves in conveniences and amusements while the rest of the galaxy remains a mystery? Obama has cited the possibility of private enterprise taking up some of the slack for NASA. But until the corporate world finds ways to make money in space, that's not going to happen.

Ultimately, I think the lack of interest in reaching space is cultural. First, we have become an incredibly risk-averse species. Most of our political debates now are about how to ensure there is ever-less risk of bad things happening to people. That attitude does not mesh well with the notion of sending many of our best and brightest into situations where they well may die (and die with TV cameras on them, which makes it that much more politically difficult). Secondly, we have lost the idea of the frontier, that great things can happen if you're willing to leave your stagnant past behind and take a leap into the unknown. It has, I'd argue, been replaced by the notion of moving as a lifestyle upgrade. You don't relocate to the place where life will be harder but you can build something for future generations, you relocate to the place with better weather or more Thai restaurants. Having moved to Brooklyn for just that reason (well, not literally the Thai food), I am not condemning anyone for making that choice, but I wonder what our future holds if no one is willing or able to choose the frontier.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Only Be Different

I find politics an interesting place to study communications because all the polling and elections provides rich feedback as to what works and what doesn't. And right now, we are clearly searching for novelty. Look at the low poll numbers for each party, look at the unpredictable voting results (Obama won Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, Republicans won major races in New Jersey and Massachusetts in 2009).

Which is why I find the current strategies of both parties so pathetic. The one thing they seem completely unable to deliver is novelty. Now I don't mean novelty for its own sake, I mean looking at the issues and proposing a completely new, bold solution instead of rehashing previous positions (like the Republican's latest plan.)

Imagine, for example, if someone came out and said, "I propose a two year hiring freeze on all federal government jobs outside the military." They'd have your attention, right? Or, to take on another issue, "I propose every American under 65 have 'catastrophic health insurance' for any illness or injury with average treatment costs over $100,000." OK, one more: "I propose that the government stop issuing marriage licenses and provide domestic partner licensing to any two people who want it."

Now, I chose those as examples because they represent three points I believe in, but they may not fly as national policy. But any politician who said them would instantly get more attention than a Republican who talked generically about tax cuts or a Democrat pushing for a healthcare 'public option'. Because those ideas are old, stale, and predictable.

In marketing, we constantly ask if an idea is 'differentiating', but we use the word incorrectly, to mean "can my competitor say this, or have they said something similar?" But the real definition of differentiation should be "would this create a powerful sense in my audience's mind that my brand represents something unique and valuable?" If we're going to expend the time and money to say something, we should ask ourselves if it will strike anyone as truly different.