“You Didn’t Build That” – The Key To Progress

Are we individuals who achieve great things on our own, or do we achieve progress collectively?

This question is usually viewed as an either/or proposition, although I have suggested elsewhere that we are actually both individuals and members of collectives at the same time.

According to Matt Ridley – a British science writer, former banker and Wall Street Journal columnist – when it comes to progress the collective is key. In a talk he gave at Zeitgeist 2012 (sort of Google’s answer to TED), he observes that the modern world achieves many things that nobody actually knows how to do. He concludes “it’s run by collective, not individual intelligence.”

How can this be? Ridley argues that an essential ingredient for progress is the exchange of goods and information. He notes:

Exchange is the source of innovation. Exchange is playing the same role in technology and economics that sex is playing in biology…Sex enables two genes to come together and mate. Technology depends on ideas meeting and mating in the same way…

He uses as an example the pill camera, which can be used to examine parts of the gastrointestinal tract. Ridley says “…it came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.”

It’s an interesting talk – a helpful counterpoint to the American myth of the lone tycoon. It reminds us that others play a vital role in our own accomplishments.

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“The End” Is Past

Happy New Baktun!

There’s been a bunch of hoopla lately about today being the end of the world. Supposedly, according to the Mayan calendar today is the end of a 5,125-year era. Some people took this to mean the world was going to literally end. Apparently they were unfamiliar with the way the modern calendar ends every December 31st without dire consequences – except for maybe a hangover – following the next day.

Anyway, the media has called it and the world hasn’t ended. Next thing you know, they’ll be reporting that a dog bit a man.

As I’ve written before (as in Came The Apocalypse), there’s a lot of talk these days about “The End Of The World As We Know It.”

Generally this apocalypse is talked about as a future event, usually tied to some provision favored by the person or group proclaiming The End. “The World/Civilization/Whatever will end if we don’t change our ways and start blah blah blahing.”

If you look past the paranoia and the politics, at some point you have to recognize things really have changed. The world as we knew it has already ended; the “apocalypse” has already come and gone.

Many of the problems we are seeing today may indeed be signs of an apocalypse. But those signs reveal an apocalypse that has already occurred. They reflect a period in time in which many of those in power – who are products of the old world view – are having problems coming to terms with our current, “post-apocalyptic” world. The chaos and upheaval we are experiencing is due to people who either a) don’t understand this new era or b) are disturbed by its changes and are resisting them.

These times are certainly troubling. But there is still some cause for optimism.

Young people today are growing up with an easy familiarity with today’s changed world. Unattached to old ways, they are developing an intuitive understanding of new ways of doing things in this world. Eventually they will grow into positions of authority in our political and cultural institutions, and they will successfully guide those institutions through this new world, using what they’ve learned in their lives.

When that time arrives, much of the tumult we are experiencing these days will subside. And once again we’ll be able to say “It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

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Rx for Disaster

On Halloween, there are always some people looking to scare you. But in our seemingly never-ending election season, politicians have been trying to scare us for months about zombies who are going to kill the economy.

Who are these economic assassins? “Job-killing regulations.”

It’s an article of faith of many politicians and pundits that this phrase describes key culprits in our current economic malaise. If we could only get rid of them, the power of our economy could be gloriously unleashed.

According to these (mostly Republican) politicians and pundits, regulations act like sand in the machinery of our American economy. They are destructive weapons often used by those who “hate success” (or are advocates for the “nanny state”) to create unnecessary friction in the enterprises of our noble “job creators.” While regulations may appear to address problems, they aggravate the more important issue of creating jobs by tying the hands of our entrepreneurs.

OK, maybe I’m laying it on a little thick here. After all, not all businesses are against regulations in general. And other businesses aren’t necessarily opposed to all regulations. In some cases they actually advocate for regulations – especially when those regulations will have the effect of benefiting themselves.

For example, in the 1990s some of those companies providing New York State’s accident prevention classes proposed increased regulations on course providers – including a requirement that the courses be proven to actually have a positive effect on driver behavior. One catch: those regulations would only apply to new course providers. Current providers would have been grandfathered in. Good thing – as none of the current providers could have met the requirements of the proposed regulations. That’s one way of eliminating competition!

Nevertheless, the meme of “job-killing regulations” is alive these days. The fact that there don’t appear to be any facts behind such claims doesn’t seem to matter. Even the corporate media plays along with the claim.

All this raises a question: what would happen if conservatives and anti-regulation advocates got their wish, and all these “job-killing regulations” were eliminated? Would we achieve some kind of Free Market Paradise?

Well first off we have no factual basis for expecting the job market to noticeably improve. As I just noted, there don’t appear to be any facts behind the “job-killing regulations” claims.

On the other hand, there is a likelihood that without “job-killing regulations,” some jobs would become killers. As Jim White noted in his September, 2012 post:

Workers were suffocated or burnt alive at the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, which made ready-to-wear clothing for Western export, when a massive fire tore through the building during the evening shift on Tuesday.

Up to 600 people were working inside at the time, in a building that officials said was in poor condition without emergency exits, forcing dozens to jump from upper storeys to escape the flames, but trapping dozens in the basement where they perished.

But we don’t need to look to other countries for examples of this; we can look at our own history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which happened in New York City on March 25, 1911, killed 146 people in 18 minutes. The horror inspired by that event, as well as the dreadful and unsafe working conditions that led to it, inspired major changes to New York State’s labor laws and national standards for fire safety.

We don’t even have to look at history for examples of how eliminating “job-killing regulations” could prove deadly. We can look at today’s news.

Lately, there has been a continuing story about an outbreak of fungal meningitis that developed from steroidal injections of a drug compounded in a Massachusetts pharmacy. As ABC News reported:

The outbreak has been linked to contaminated vials of methylprednisolone acetate, an injectable steroid used to treat back and joint pain. Sealed vials of the steroid, made by the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass., contained exserohilum rostratum, a fungus found in soil and plants.

It turns out that from a regulatory standpoint, compounding centers are treated like a typical local pharmacy, in which the pharmacist may occasionally create drug compounds as part of filling a prescription. However, NECC was compounding drugs on an industrial scale and shipping them around the country. So even though they were acting like a major drug company, this company wasn’t regulated like a regular drug manufacturer. As Kevin Outterson, director of the health law program at BostonUniversity, explained on the PBS News Hour:

Well, it’s a pharmacy. So, just like the CVS or Walgreens on your corner, it’s regulated first by the state, by whatever state it happens to be in. And the FDA is in charge of regulating drugs and drug manufacturing.

So, if Pfizer or Glaxo wants to produce a drug in China or Ireland or anywhere else in the world and sell it in the United States, that factory is under FDA regulation, very strict rules on how the — how sanitary it is, how careful they are preventing contamination.

But a compounding pharmacy, especially one that is industrial in scale, just doesn’t have that type of FDA regulation.

And why is this? Because Congress and the Supreme Court, apparently in an effort to limit “job-killing regulations,” restricted the authority of the Food & Drug Administration. As Outterson explains:

In 2002, the Supreme Court actually struck down a law that gave the FDA some authority in this area. It’s the Thompson vs. WesternStatesMedicalCenter case. And the Supreme Court said on First Amendment grounds that compounding pharmacies have the right to advertise their services.

And the FDA had taken the opposite position based on legislation from Congress in the 1990s. Congress held some hearings in 2003, but really nothing ever came of those hearings.

So we have a situation in which the FDA used to have more clear authority, but it was taken away by the Supreme Court.

So in this case we wound up with a few less “job-killing regulations” – but also a few dead patients. Hmmm.

Look, I think I have an idea of where Free Market advocates are coming from. They’re basically saying – though they might not use these terms – that the Market is an emergent phenomena. As Wikipedia explains:

The stock market (or any market for that matter) is an example of emergence on a grand scale. As a whole it precisely regulates the relative security prices of companies across the world, yet it has no leader; there is no one entity which controls the workings of the entire market. Agents, or investors, have knowledge of only a limited number of companies within their portfolio, and must follow the regulatory rules of the market and analyze the transactions individually or in large groupings.

The thing is that many people get distracted by the emerging/growth part of the equation – the “job creators,” for example. They don’t seem to recognize the other aspect of emergence – the context, or regulatory rules part of the equation.

Take an ecosystem, say a wetland. Its ingredients – the plants and animals that live within it – behave pretty much like a market. There’s no single leader, no King Beaver (for example) who controls what grows where and what each animal can or cannot do. Instead, every resident of the ecosystem has an influence on how the ecosystem develops.

But this ecosystem exists within a context – where in the world it is located, the local climate, even the other residents of the system. Everything about that context restricts, to one degree or another, what happens within that wetland. It maintains a balance among the ingredients of the system. As long as the system is balanced, nothing is immune to that context.

However, a change to that context will introduce instability into the system. If a predator that keeps the animal population in check disappears, or if a new and invasive species arrives that has no natural enemies to control it, the balance is lost and things will go haywire. Unless it regains a balance among all of its parts, it’s likely to fail.

A human society is an emergent system, much like that wetland. When it is healthy and in balance, everything within that society restricts – to one degree or another – what happens within that society. No one is or can be free to just do whatever he or she wants without having an effect on that society. The government is also an ingredient in that system, and in a democracy it is expected to represent the interests of the people.

Those who argue against any form of governmental regulation of businesses are basically seeking to destroy the balance of power within society.  They want to allow an elite few to do what they want without any restriction by other members of society. These others are apparently expected to just endure the actions of the few – even if it means dangerous working conditions or unsafe drugs and other products.

Such an arrangement by its very nature would be unbalanced and unsustainable. It’s unlikely that those on the losing end of this arrangement would put up with it for long. In the long run, blindly advocating for unregulated business practices is not just a terrible idea.

It’s a prescription for disaster.

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No Faith Left (NFL)

Caught as we are between two epochs (the fading Newtonian and emerging Quantum ages), we find ourselves in a period that appears to be without rules. Experience repeatedly shows us the many ways our old rules no longer apply; but we don’t yet have any faith in what rules we should now be following.

You may wonder what a period like this might look like. I’d suggest it could look a lot like today’s National Football League.

For those who haven’t been following the story, the owners of the NFL teams have locked out the regular game referees who enforce the rules. The referees’ union contract has expired, and the NFL wants them to accept a new deal with significant concessions – including changes to the refs’ pensions and modifications that might affect their job security.

Taking a hard line, the owners had the NFL bring in “replacement refs” (some call them scabs) so the games can go on. The results have not been pretty.  The replacements have demonstrated an unfamiliarity with various league rules and a tendency to be intimidated or star-struck by the superstar players and coaches they’re supposed to regulate. Meanwhile, players and coaches have been pushing the envelope, testing to see what rules they can bend without getting caught.

Over the first three weeks of the regular season, complaints about these refs have grown to a crescendo. As Deadspin’s Drew Magary observed:

One of the great fallacies of this ongoing NFL replacement ref disaster is the idea that the refs will get better with each passing week, that a mere month or two of seasoning will magically make the scab refs as good as the old ones. If you watched any football yesterday, you know that the refs aren’t improving. They’re getting even worse.

Things got even worse at the end of last night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg explained:

If you have not seen how that Green Bay-Seattle debacle ended, I will give you a recap. Since I am clearly a Football Expert, I may use some Technical Terms to do it, but bear with me.

The Green Bay Guys had a 12-7 lead on the Seattle Guys with one play left. A Seattle Guy chucked the ball into the end zone, where a Green Bay Guy caught it. This was known as an “interception” in football for a long time, from roughly 1906, when the “forward pass” was invented, until Sept. 24, 2012, when the definition suddenly changed.

A Seattle Guy put his hands on the ball that the Green Bay Guy clearly caught, and so Roger Goodell’s officials conferred and immediately called for a pizza. This was an odd decision, since the game was still going on, but replacement refs have metabolisms too, and it is exhausting to run around a football field all night trying to remember what the rules are. They decided the Seattle Guy was probably a good Guy, and he had his hands on the ball too, and he surely INTENDED to catch the ball, and who were they to judge what is in a man’s soul? They gave the Seattle Guy a “touchdown”.

This confused a few people, especially the Packers, the announcers, Football Experts like myself and the two billion people around the world who have watched a football game and were not recently concussed. Nonetheless, the Seahawks “won” the “game”.

The result has been a firestorm of criticism of the NFL from it’s fans and followers. While a sports league generally wants all of the focus on the teams, the games and the results, the big news coming out of this weekend’s games is the incompetence of the officiating.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that things in the NFL are spiraling out of control.  Those responsible for enforcing the rules are clearly not up to the job, and that fact has become clear to the players, the coaches and the fans.  As Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks observes:

We have indeed reached the “Emperor is not wearing any clothes” stage of the proceedings, and there’s no going back after Monday night’s Golden (Tate) moment. If you thought the pressure was on the replacement refs in the season’s first three weeks, wait until you see what life after Seattle is going to be like for them, starting with Thursday night’s Cleveland at Baltimore game to kick off Week 4.

What is at the heart of this debacle? Simply put: money and power.

Actually, the money for the NFL is miniscule. As Banks reported:

…my colleague Peter King reported that the difference between the NFL and the refs’ union is $3.3 million a year. Well, there are 256 regular season games. The NFL could have the real refs if it forked over an extra $12,891 per game.

That is less than 20 cents for every paying customer.

What’s really at stake here is a question of power: who is in control and who calls the shots. The NFL had reduced the pensions on all other League employees, but the referees had resisted that change. Plus, the League wants to create a larger pool of referees, to give itself more control over who officiates the games.

Those changes may or may not be reasonable, depending on your perspective.

However, the issue appears to be that – as with the players’ lockout the year before – the owners were less interested in negotiating and more interested in simply dictating terms. The owners, almost all of whom are extremely wealthy and powerful men, are apparently used to calling the shots and having everyone else fall in line behind them.

But that didn’t happen this time. (It didn’t really happen with the players last year either, for that matter.) The referees, perhaps recognizing their very specialized skills and value, resisted. In a bid to assert their control, the League locked out the officials and brought in the replacements…and here we are.

As Don Banks noted:

But in the case of the referee issue, at what price glory when it comes to the league winning this war? The league, in essence, created this problem for itself, came up with a bad solution to address the problem, then tried to insult our intelligence by telling us repeatedly that there really wasn’t a problem with which to be concerned. Nothing to see here, move along, the NFL keeps saying.

While the obvious problem here is enforcing the rules in NFL games, the more significant problem involves the issue I mentioned at the start of this post: the old rules about how things are done no longer apply, and there are not yet new rules in which we can have faith.

In the old days information – and therefore power – was controlled by the very few at the top. In today’s world, information is much more broadly (and quickly) distributed. So in the past an Emperor or King or Sports Commissioner could call the shots and nobody would know any different. Today the underlings can have a much better sense of the big picture. Plus, if they’re so inclined they can take steps to alter or amplify the information about their situation.

This dynamic is still emerging. As with any major change in epochs, there isn’t a clear break between the way things used to be done and the way they will be done in the future.

Powerful people like the NFL owners got where they are “the old fashioned way.” It worked fine for them, so they are most likely to resist any efforts to change things. The fact that the times have changed is not part of their perspective. Meanwhile, those more in tune to the way things are today don’t generally have the power to actualize any new rules they may be growing aware of.

The end result is that we find ourselves living in a period of weak and unpredictably enforced rules. Our faith in those rules has been diminished. Many today are pushing the envelope, trying to see what they can get away with. This generates a great deal of anger – both at the rule breakers and at those responsible for fairly and competently enforcing the rules.

And so the NFL has become a microcosm of our current national state: corporations are the players pushing the envelope, while governments are the bumbling officials who all too often don’t have a clue.  Meanwhile, the rest of us are watching on TV or in the stands – alternately cheering or booing the latest action, but inwardly fuming at the whole deplorable spectacle.

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Came the Apocalypse

This week featured the premier of a new TV show – Revolution – which offers a view of America 15 years after electricity mysteriously disappears. Needless to say, this has a profound effect on life as we know it.

Popular entertainment these days has a big thing for the End of the World.  As Brian Stelter of the New York Times notes:

…the new show calls to mind the entertainment media’s current cycle of fascination with postapocalyptic survival stories. The zombie infestation of AMC’s “Walking Dead“ and the alien invasion of TNT’s “Falling Skies“ have resonated with viewers, as have films like “The Hunger Games” and “The Book of Eli.” Reality show makers have responded with series like “Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic Channel and “Doomsday Bunkers“ on Discovery.

One thing that’s notable about “Revolution” is that it strikes at the heart of what has changed our world so profoundly: modern technology.  As I’ve noted before (like here, for instance), modern technology has greatly disrupted our world. Thanks to all of our electronic devices we are much more interconnected – which has an unsettling effect on many of us and our institutions.

A potential appeal of this TV show is it offers a “reboot scenario” where we can escape to a perceived better past.  As the show’s executive producer Eric Kripke the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan:

“We talk about the world [the audience sees in “Revolution”] not as a bad or harrowing place — we talk about it with a lot of wish fulfillment. Like, “Wouldn’t it be great to live that simple life and be with your family and be connected?” I’d be dead on Day 2, by the way. [Laughs.] But hardier people would find it a very romantic place to live. [We’re] hoping that that concept resonates with people, because we all sort of feel in our guts that we’re over-extended as a technological society. Beyond all our Blackberries and iPhones, we’re dangerously separated from our food and water supplies. And this idea — where hopefully everyone asks, what would they do in that world and how would they survive and realizing how reliant we all are on technology — it’s hopefully a way in that makes people think, as that’s happening in the background of what is really a character drama.”

As I noted back in January in “Keep the Change,” all of the upheaval technology has provoked in today’s world has made us uneasy about the present and wistful about the past. I believe this is at the heart of the current fascination with post-apocalyptic stories. I think it’s also the major reason for the appeal of ultra-conservative politicians for many people today. Things seem so strange and complicated these days. How tempting it is to return to a simpler past – even if it’s just in the fantasies of a TV show or ambitious politician.

But sooner or later we have to escape fantasy and return to reality. The world has changed, and we either must adapt to its new rules or pay the price. Which brings to mind another video that had a lot of viewers this week…

A hint for politicians – and anyone else – speaking at supposedly private gatherings. The world really has changed: with today’s technologies, anything you say can and will be used against you!

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The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of our biggest issues today. With so many changes happening in the world, and with nobody in charge appearing to know how to deal with them, the uncertainty of it all can feel overwhelming.

However, it appears that some people are oblivious to the larger issue here while pushing their own dubious agenda. Some business people and politicians – especially Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner – claim that businesses can’t operate unless we “remove the shackles of uncertainty.”  Boehner says:

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration isn’t taking small business owners’ concerns seriously.  Last month, the Treasury Department launched “a full-fledged effort to knock back Republican claims that overregulation is slowing down economic growth” (Politico, 10/24/11), arguing in a Treasury Department blog post that one of the “most commonly repeated misconceptions” is that “uncertainty created by proposed regulations is holding back business investment and hiring.”  Yesterday’s report confirms what small business owners have already made clear: “complying with government regulations is the most important problem facing them today.”

Apparently, in these folks’ eyes small businesses are in no way affected by the uncertainties related to (among other things) energy costs, credit availability in the wake of our recent financial meltdown, consumer confidence and ability to pay for what those businesses offer, potential economic and/or political crises in other parts of the world that could affect the American economy, vulnerability to the stray extreme weather event – possibly or not caused by global warming – which could wipe out their business or at least increase their insurance on it, and the potential for chaos arising out of the political mischief playing out in Washington and caused by these politicians themselves.

Nope, according to them the primary concern these small businesses have is with government regulations. Get rid of them, and everything would be swell.  (Hmmm, isn’t inadequate regulation a key part of what led to our recent financial meltdown?)

The problem for Republicans and their small business friends who claim to be paralyzed by uncertainty is that uncertainty is an integral part of modern life. Unfortunately, these folks seem to be mentally stuck in time somewhere back in the pre-20th century era of classical physics, when determinism ruled the day and the workings of a clockwork universe offered an assured certainty of how things worked. (Either that, or these folks are just using “uncertainty” as a political talking point to advance their anti-government agenda – take your pick.)

In any event, the reality is that uncertainty is a fact of life. This is true on the macro level of the world we see and experience. And it’s true on the micro level, in which quantum mechanics explores the workings of the subatomic world. If we want to successfully adapt to this uncertain world, we need to understand this fact.

So what does science have to say about uncertainty? I recently came across a couple of fascinating videos of a lecture on the subject by one of 20th century physics’ leading lights.

The first is a brief 8 minute video titled Probability and Uncertainty in quantum mechanics – the introductory part of a lecture given in 1965 by Richard Feynman at Cornell University. At one point, alluding to the strange ways of the quantum world of which he’s about to speak, Feynman offers a warning:

Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain,” into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

That’s only the introduction. The video cuts out just when Feynman is about to get into the specifics. A video of the full hour-long lecture is available – which I’ll get to in a moment. First though, while Feynman was known for his ability to explain complex ideas from physics in a way that we can understand, some may still find it pretty tough going. If you’re not familiar with the double slit experiment and what it says about the dual nature of elementary particles, I’d suggest first watching this short cartoon video.  I found being familiar with the concepts presented there helpful in getting through some parts of Feynman’s lecture.

Then if you’re still up for it, here’s the hour-long video of Feynman’s full Cornell lecture, titled “The Character of Physical Law.”  While it’s a little more challenging to understand than the cartoon, I was interested in seeing how he presented the science behind the idea. It’s also interesting to see a lecture by one of the great minds of 20th century physics. He has a charming, alternately casual, passionate and humorous style in presenting such a profound subject.

A key point of Feynman’s lecture – and one of the major discoveries of 20th century physics regarding how the world works – is that on a basic level things are imbued with uncertainty. Before quantum mechanics, physicists and others believed everything was – while complex – inevitably deterministic and predictable. It was just a question of gathering sufficient data and you could accurately forecast what would happen. As Laplace put it in 1820:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Thanks to quantum mechanics, we now know this is an illusion. At the most basic level of matter, things by their very nature are uncertain. If that is true of the world at its basis, then uncertainty must be a fundamental element of the world we live in.

This fact is something we still, as human beings, are having a hard time adjusting to. Humanity has lived a long time with a confidence in certainty; it’s hard letting go of that. Some are resisting with whatever certainty they can find. But this leads to other problems. As Feynman once noted:

Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.

While Feynman saw a problem with people seeking – or proclaiming – absolute certainty, he also recognized that uncertainty offered the only hope for progress and growth:

We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.

Perhaps, as we learn to live in a troubling and uncertain world, we can take solace in this thought.

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Mitt Romney, Quantum Politician

Today’s New York Times opinion section has a great column titled “A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney.”  Drawing on the recent comparison of Romney’s campaign strategies to an Etch-A-Sketch, David Javerbaum observes:

The imagery may have been unfortunate, but Mr. Fehrnstrom’s impulse to analogize is understandable. Metaphors like these, inexact as they are, are the only way the layman can begin to grasp the strange phantom world that underpins the very fabric of not only the Romney campaign but also of Mitt Romney in general. For we have entered the age of quantum politics; and Mitt Romney is the first quantum politician.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek he suggests:

…close and repeated study of his campaign in real-world situations has yielded a standard model that has proved eerily accurate in predicting Mitt Romney’s behavior in debate after debate, speech after speech, awkward look-at-me-I’m-a-regular-guy moment after awkward look-at-me-I’m-a-regular-guy moment, and every other event in his face-time continuum.

The rest of the piece borrows various principles from quantum physics, such as complementarity, probability, uncertainty and even a variation of the many worlds theory.

Ironically, while it appears to have been written in jest it actually does seem to offer a way to understand some of the quirks of Romney and his campaign.

Now that’s just weird!

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100 Seconds on Why Everything Is Connected to Everything Else

Brain Pickings has an intriguing post with a video titled “Why Everything is Connected to Everything Else, Explained in 100 Seconds.” The speaker is “rockstar physicist” Brian Cox.

While the clip was intriguing, I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical at first. You can hear some pretty bizarre claims related to quantum physics; I feel some people can get carried away with the quantum mystical stuff. I wondered at first if this was one of those cases. (How seriously should we take a “rockstar physicist”?) But apparently Cox has some serious credentials.

As for what he’s talking about with the Pauli Exclusion Principle, I guess I’ll have to take his word for it. Reading about it here it sounds like the rule is “no two electrons in an atom can be identical.” I didn’t see anything saying that no two atoms in the universe could be identical. Then again, it’s all pretty technical – and I’m no physicist.

His talk reminded me a little of entanglement – which even Einstein thought was so weird that he called it “spooky action at a distance.” I don’t know if there’s a tie-in, but entanglement really does demonstrate a mysterious form of non-local connectedness.

Interesting stuff, this quantum physics…

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Beyond Fortress America

As we go through this year’s American election cycle, we hear politicians talk about American power in ways that don’t reflect an understanding of today’s interconnected world. The talk is about how America must be strong on its own – with no consideration of the implications of this connectedness. Consider these statements by current Republican candidates:

Mitt Romney“As President, I will reverse the Obama-era defense cuts. I believe a strong America must–and will–lead the future. I will insist on a military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it.”

Newt Gingrich“We live in a world where if we gamble wrong, and the current proposed defense budget is much too small, if we gamble wrong whether it is a major power like China or Russia, a medium sized power like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, and North Korea is a medium sized power by possession of nuclear weapons. Or it is a fanatic group willing to die in the process of killing us. We live in a world where there are weapons capable of ending civilization as we know it. And we need to be prepared in a very militant and aggressive way to defend America from having a catastrophic disaster of the first order.”

Rick Santorum“I would absolutely not cut one penny out of military spending. The only thing the federal government can do that no other level of government can do is protect us. It is the first duty of the president. And we should have all the resources in place to make sure that we can defend our borders, that we can make sure that when we engage in foreign countries, we do so to succeed.”

These statements might make sense if you view the United States like a fortress in enemy territory. In such a case, having impregnable defenses and overwhelming firepower could be useful in defeating the enemy. (Though military history has many cases of smaller forces overwhelming larger ones.)

But today such views can come across as overly simplistic, not recognizing the much more complex world in which we now live. Countries like Russia and China are not just simply “the enemy.” If they were, why would we be doing so much business with them? Even with countries like Pakistan and Iran, things are complex; at one point or another we have worked with both countries – most notably in the current war in Afghanistan and in the Iran-Contra affair.

Of course this raises the question: what are the implications for America’s security in an interconnected world? Some relevant insights into this question can be found in a couple of TED talks.

Many people have an at least a vague knowledge of the concept of entropy, by which it is said things tend to go from order to disorder. This concept has been used by some to claim that the world as we know it is dying, and that this process is inevitable. However there is another way of viewing things, which Robert Wright addressed in one of his TED talks. He started by talking about evolution:

Because what happened in the beginning, this stuff encases itself in a cell, then cells start hanging out together in societies. Eventually they get so close, they form multicellular organisms, then you get complex multicellular organisms; they form societies.

But then at some point, one of these multicellular organisms does something completely amazing with this stuff, which is it launches a whole second kind of evolution: cultural evolution. And amazingly, that evolution sustains the trajectory that biological evolution had established toward greater complexity. By cultural evolution we mean the evolution of ideas.

What he is describing is the phenomena of complexity: open, dynamic systems have a natural tendency to grow more complex. This is true whether you’re talking about biology, economics, societies, cultures, etc.

Within this context, Wright addresses the implications of complexity for the world as we know it.

Now, I explained this growth of complexity by reference to something called “non-zero sumness.” …the key idea is the distinction between zero-sum games, in which correlations are inverse: always a winner and a loser. Non-zero-sum games in which correlations can be positive, OK. So like in tennis, usually it’s win-lose; it always adds up to zero-zero-sum. But if you’re playing doubles, the person on your side of the net, they’re in the same boat as you, so you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with them. It’s either for the better or for the worse, OK. A lot of forms of non-zero-sum behavior in the realm of economics and so on in everyday life often leads to cooperation.

The rest of his talk is devoted to the implications of this “non-zero” phenomena, which can be either good (win-win) or bad (lose-lose). The point is that as our world has become more complex and interconnected, our relationships with others around the world fall increasingly within this realm. While we often tend to view things in a zero-sum context (e.g., “the more power and wealth China has, the worse off the United States is” or “it’s perfectly OK to get rich by laying off or cutting the pay of workers”), the reality is different.

In today’s world, China’s economic well-being is inextricably linked to that of the US: if Americans don’t have money to buy Chinese goods, China will suffer. By the same token, the more wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, the less economic and financial stability we will all have.

This theme of interconnectedness and “non-zero sumness” is also evident in a TED talk by Paddy Ashdown, a former member of the British Parliament and a long-time diplomat. In his talk he noted:

Today in our modern world, because of the Internet, because of the kinds of things people have been talking about here, everything is connected to everything. We are now interdependent. We are now interlocked, as nations, as individuals, in a way which has never been the case before, never been the case before. The interrelationship of nations, well it’s always existed. Diplomacy is about managing the interrelationship of nations. But now we are intimately locked together. You get swine flu in Mexico, it’s a problem for Charles de Gaulle Airport 24 hours later. Lehman Brothers goes down, the whole lot collapses. There are fires in the steppes of Russia, food riots in Africa.

One implication of this is that many of our current governmental institutions have the wrong kind of structure for the world we live in:

And this tells you something very important. It tells you that, in fact, our governments, vertically constructed, constructed on the economic model of the Industrial Revolution — vertical hierarchy, specialization of tasks, command structures — have got the wrong structures completely. You in business know that the paradigm structure of our time, ladies and gentlemen, is the network. It’s your capacity to network that matters, both within your governments and externally.

This, in turn, leads to a conclusion that is very similar to Wright’s “non-zero” concept:

If it is the case, ladies and gentlemen — and it is — that we are now locked together in a way that has never been quite the same before, then it’s also the case that we share a destiny with each other. Suddenly and for the very first time, collective defense, the thing that has dominated us as the concept of securing our nations, is no longer enough. It used to be the case that if my tribe was more powerful than their tribe, I was safe; if my country was more powerful than their country, I was safe; my alliance, like NATO, was more powerful than their alliance, I was safe. It is no longer the case. The advent of the interconnectedness and of the weapons of mass destruction means that, increasingly, I share a destiny with my enemy.

It’s not yet clear how exactly we should enhance American security in this changing world. That’s part of the price we pay for living in a period of great change.

But what is clear is that the rules have changed – that simply having the biggest and baddest military around is no longer enough. This should have become clear to everyone over ten years ago, when a bunch of fanatics in one of the most isolated countries in the world managed to stage a devastating attack on American soil.

In his talk, Ashdown noted the many security threats a country faces today, from pandemic to food safety to cyber security to immigration of possible terrorists. He observed: “It’s no longer the case that the security of a country is simply a matter for its soldiers and its ministry of defense. It’s its capacity to lock together its institutions.”

What Wright and Ashdown appear to be saying is that building bigger and better walls to protect us is no longer adequate; it’s time we focused on strengthening our networks.

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Keep the Change

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

“So how’s that hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya?” – Sarah Palin

It’s hard to believe that only four years ago the winning campaign for the American Presidency offered hope and the slogan “change you can believe in.” These days there is a sizable group whose attitude appears to be “keep the change to yourself – we want things the way they were.”

The Republican primary campaign currently seems to be most focused on who can best express the anger and resentment felt by the party faithful. After the South Carolina primary, the winner appears to be Newt Gingrich.  As Howard Schweber observed in the Huffington Post:

…only Newt has captured the key emotive element that drives the Republican core this year: resentment. The hard right core of the Republican Party is filled with resentment, and they have found just the man to let us all know about it.

This raises questions. Why are these people so angry? What do they resent?

For much of the 2000’s, Republicans controlled the White House, Congress and (arguably) the Supreme Court. During that time they did all they could to give free reign to large corporations and the wealthy through tax cuts and deregulation. They worked to shift the balance of power firmly in favor of corporate management over the rights of workers, both in terms of work safety regulations and in terms of union power. They worked to discredit legitimate concerns about environmental degradation and climate change. They even distorted political debate to the point that just being called a liberal is a bad thing.

And yet the Republican base is still angry and resentful, saying things like “it’s time to take our country back.”  From whom, exactly?

All this anger and resentment can be puzzling – if not infuriating – to those who disagree with conservative Republican ideas. And some of the results of Republican primaries can seem crazy for those out of that loop. I mean really, Newt Gingrich is the champion of family values and is a Washington outsider? Really???

But beneath all of the current drama, it’s important to realize that such behavior may be both natural and logical – once you look at the big picture.

The root of the problem is that our world has changed in fundamental ways. For the first time in human history, technology has brought all humans into close and immediate contact. It has also disrupted traditional channels of power and information.

This change has altered societies around the world in myriad ways. But such change has not been welcomed by many – especially those whose identity and values were firmly rooted in the previously established cultures. This reflects a basic but rarely considered fact:  change happens differently for a culture than it does for the society of which that culture is a part.

Ideally, cultures by their nature offer enduring, lasting values. In this way they satisfy the human need for meaning and stability. In the chaos and confusion of life, we need to have a dependable framework that gives meaning to what is happening around us. 

By the same token, healthy societies are continually changing. This is a reflection of changes in demographics, as well as the growth of knowledge and awareness that are a part of a dynamic society. In this way, societies satisfy the human need for freedom and creativity.

However, there is a basic conflict inherent in this dichotomy: cultural values cannot long endure unchanged within an evolving and changing society. Just as pressures build over time along fault lines until there’s an earthquake, over time pressures build up between culture and society until conflict erupts.

That is where we are now.  The world has changed profoundly over the past 40+ years. We humans are much more interconnected, empowered and diverse than we used to be. This change has opened up vast arrays of opportunity for many people – especially those who were marginalized by the prevailing culture’s institutions and power structures. But it has also shaken to the foundations those institutions and structures. And such change is hard for some people to handle.

David E. Stannard discussed this issue in his book The Puritan Way of Death – A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. He observed:

Whereas certain individuals and certain cultures find adapting to change relatively easy, many others, for various reasons, do not.  Their resistance, which may seem revolutionary because it tends so often to focus on overthrowing the new social orthodoxy, is in fact no more than an effort to forestall or at least postpone dealing with the changes taking place around them.

William O. Beeman, a professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival,” also notes this varying response to change and talks about the responses of those who resist change:

In essence, all such movements are a natural consequence of human processes of cultural change. In every society on earth change proceeds at an uneven pace. Some society members embrace change with relish. Others find it oppressive and troubling. When people feel that change is being imposed on them, some will find it necessary to resist–sometimes violently. The dynamics of revitalization thus are tied to inter-group dynamics. When a group in society perceives itself as having its power and authority usurped in the course of social change, the group comes to blame both internal and external causes for its fall from power.

As far as internal issues are concerned, Beeman notes that decline is often associated with individual failings. “They accuse members of society of becoming weak and irresolute to the point where they let others oppress them.”  Regarding external issues, Beeman says “…the group objectifies an Other, and identifies it as an oppressor. Usually the movement advocates resistance — sometimes violent — to that oppressor.”

Beeman also talks about the historical perspective of these movements:

All of these movements invariably create a dual myth. This myth links a supposed Golden Age in the past with a Utopian future. The past Golden Age is seen as a time when the members of the movement or those they identify with were strong, vital, and in control of the world. The Utopian future presages a time when movement members will return to that sense of group strength and wholeness.

This may sound a bit familiar to those who follow the news. Take Islamic extremism. Back in September 2001, David Plotz posted an article in Slate titled “What Does bin Laden Want?”

These extreme “Islamists,” as Bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky dubs them, hope to re-establish the Caliphate, the golden age of Muslim domination that followed the death of Muhammad. They regard the Taliban’s Afghanistan as a model for such Islamic rule.

Elsewhere, while we haven’t heard much about it in the United States, Israel is having problems with members of its ultra-Orthodox Haredi population. Among other things, this group has been pressuring other members of Israeli society regarding the segregation of women from men. In writing about this issue in Jewish Ideas Daily, Yehudah Mirsky refers to “…an imagined Haredi idyll in the shtetl that never was. ”

Meanwhile, back here in the USA we have Newt Gingrich expounding on an “historic America.”  This prompted one of his acolytes at the American Spectator – former Reagan aid Peter Ferrara – to invoke a “Golden Age” and to “objectify an Other” in claiming:

Gingrich is the only candidate remotely capable of carrying the flag for the true, original, historic America in this fundamental, existential battle for national survival. He so rightly identified the public mood in his South Carolina speech, saying, “The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system.” He further identified the pending danger, “If Barack Obama can get re-elected after this disaster, just think how radical he would be in a second term.”

Obviously, there are many differences between Islamic extremists and conservative Republicans. But one thing they appear to share is a certain myopia about the source of today’s social change. This change isn’t the result of an invasion by infidels or a conspiracy by shadowy elites. Instead it’s a product of  modern technology, with its concomitant interlinking of humanity. As Walter Truett Anderson observed in his book “Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be”:

The collapse of belief we have been witnessing throughout the twentieth century comes with globalism. The postmodern condition is not an artistic movement or a cultural fad or an intellectual theory — although it produces all of those and is in some ways defined by them. It is what inevitably happens as people everywhere begin to see that there are many beliefs, many kinds of belief, many ways of believing. Postmodernism is globalism; it is the half-discovered shape of the one unity that transcends all our differences.

There is an absurdity inherent in much of the resistance we see to modernity and its attendant social change: the resisters are frequently using the tools of modern technology to advocate resistance to its effects on society.

If resisters truly object to how the world has changed, they should live their lives in accordance with their supposed Golden Age – whether it’s the 12th century or the 1920s. They should at least have the integrity of groups like the Amish and do without televisions, telephones, computers, the internet and the like.

But as soon as they begin using modern technology they are co-opted by it. There is no logically consistent way you can protest modernity with a videotaped message, or claim to be an anti-government individualist while using communications technology that was developed by the government and that was created to link people together.

It is this inherent conflict between past values and present facts that inevitably dooms the aspirations of those who resist the social changes we are confronting today. As Stannard says regarding those resisting social change:

…such movements rarely enjoy long-range success.  They result from an opposition of the needs of the emerging social structure with those of the existing group culture…and when such incongruity is not resolved by effective integration of the two competing elements, it has historically been the almost inevitable fate of the traditional culture to give way to the needs of the ongoing social structure.

Today’s changing world is unsettling to most of us; an unfortunate fact of life is that when you’re in the middle of an era of great change you’re unlikely to have much confidence in how things will turn out. We humans are not comfortable with such uncertainty.

In times like these, perhaps we can seek counsel and solace in the wise words of others who were confronted with similar times in the past. Consider, for example, the words of Thomas Carlyle:

Today is not yesterday: we ourselves change; how can our Works and Thoughts, if they are always to be the fittest, continue always the same? Change, indeed, is painful; yet ever needful; and if Memory have its force and worth, so also has Hope.

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Signs of the Times – 1/19/12

I often come across items that I believe reflect the changes I’m describing on this blog. To me they are “signs of the times.” Here are a couple.

“The Rise of the New Groupthink”

The New York Times recently ran an article about a paradox in the way we work today. For many organizations, there is an emphasis on the idea of collaboration. As author Susan Cain notes:

Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

However, she notes that there is a problem with this approach:

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Later in the article she says:

…I’m not suggesting that we abolish teamwork. Indeed, recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.) The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.

But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.

To me this is an example of a basic principle of the Quantum Age: contrary to the popular myth that we must choose between individualism and collectivism, we are inherently both individualistic and collective by nature.  We often have a hard time grasping this because it’s impossible to see both qualities simultaneously. You can see a group or you can see a person in that group; you can’t see both at the same time. But just as subatomic particles have an intrinsic dual particle/wave nature, we humans have a dual individual/collective nature. We will only resolve many of our current problems when we recognize this fact and proceed accordingly, disposing of the prevalent mythology regarding individualism versus collectivism.

Country in Crisis: Looking to America’s Mayors to Rise to the Challenge

Arianna Huffington recently wrote an article regarding how America’s mayors are working to develop solutions to problems that seem to be stumping the politicians in Washington. As she notes:

We’re now in the midst of a battle to see who will sit atop the pyramid in official Washington. This battle will dominate the media in the year ahead, but what the last year showed is that the more important story is what’s happening outside Washington. It was a year in which Time declared “The Protester” its Person of the Year and “Occupy” was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. It was a year of solutions and energy and activism from the bottom up. And given that top-down thinking not only brought us a Depression-level crisis, but also shows no signs of getting us out of it, it’s bottom-up innovation that will be more relevant.

The rest of her article offers examples of such bottom-up innovation.

These examples demonstrate the power of emergence, the principle that living, self-organizing systems develop from the bottom up, within the context of their environment. As I’ve written here and here, many heads of institutions believe things are best run from the top down; that is a major reason why many of those institutions are in trouble. The solution will not be to accord more power and wealth to the heads of those institutions. The solution will be to recognize the power of emergence, and to learn how to rebuild our institutions in a way that harnesses that power.

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Where Are The “Deciders”?

In yesterday’s New York Times Thomas Friedman asked “Who’s The Decider?” He observes:

No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone — even China’s leaders — seems more afraid of their own people than ever. One wonders whether the Internet, blogging, Twitter, texting and micro-blogging, as in China’s case, has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory, and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own.

Friedman apparently believes that today’s leaders’ reluctance to make hard decisions is due to their “fear of their own people” – that they’re listening more to the opinions of others than to their own inner voices. The implication is that if these folks just mustered the courage to take a stand then everything would be better. He concludes:

Yes, it’s true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That’s a good thing — in theory. But at the end of the day — whether you are a president, senator, mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street — someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples’ lives and then build a majority to deliver on them. Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don’t just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply.

That all sounds great, and in a way kind of easy. “C’mon folks, just suck it up and decide!”

The only problem with Friedman’s argument is that it totally ignores another angle on today’s leaders: they actually are making lots of decisions – frequently with disastrous results. These decisions have resulted in the omnipresent stench of institutional failure that has permeated our world today – something I’ve already written about here and here. As Jeff Jarvis wrote recently:

We don’t trust institutions anymore. Name a bank or financial institution you can trust today. That industry was built entirely on trust — we entrusted our money to their cloud — and they failed us. Government? The other day, I heard a cabinet member from a prior administration call Washington “paralyzed and poisonous” — and he’s an insider. Media? Pew released a study last week saying that three-quarters of Americans don’t believe journalists get their facts straight (which is their only job). Education? Built for a prior, institutional era. Religion? Various of its outlets are abusing children or espousing bigotry or encouraging violence. The #OccupyWallStreet troops are demonizing practically all of corporate America and with it, capitalism. What institutions are left? I can’t name one.

While the leaders of these failing institutions may be concerned about what the common folk think, it’s not a matter of waiting to see what people want and then doing it. After all, most Americans want the rich to pay more taxes. So why are so many politicians resisting raising taxes on the rich?

Rather than tailoring their behaviors to accomplish what “their people” want, today’s leaders all too often focus on their own agendas and try to shield their decisions and objectives from the prying eyes of the public. When I first wrote about this, I mentioned the problems confronting institutions like Toyota and the Catholic Church. But we regularly get news of new cases of institutional cover-up of embarrassing and inexcusable behaviors. Right now the focus is on Penn State. Does anyone doubt we will soon learn of others?

Unlike Mr. Friedman, I don’t think today’s problems are stymied by leaders’ fear of making decisions. Rather, I think the problem today is that our world has changed profoundly; as a result, the rules for how things work have changed. However, most of our leaders are products of an earlier time, with different rules.

While we live in an interconnected world, our leaders are largely products of a culture rooted in individualism. As a result, while they may be aware of what the public thinks and wants, many of these leaders value their own interests and beliefs over the greater good. Meanwhile, those who are focused on the greater good are still stymied by the fact that they don’t know what the new rules are.

So what are we to do? We might start by recognizing that while we live in a brave new world, it’s not the first time humans have been confronted with profound change. Much of what we’re seeing today – some desperately clinging to the past while others flounder around looking for different options – is probably standard fare in such situations. Change is hard, and it takes time.

At first, nobody has the answers. But as time goes on and people become more familiar with their changed world, they begin asking the right questions and finding answers in sometimes unexpected places. They learn to adapt to change, and show others the way.

Some of those who most benefited from the way things were before would be the most resistant to change; this would include many leaders who find themselves confronted with today’s strange new world. In such a world, they would have the most to lose. But sooner or later they will be confronted with a choice: adapt or fail. That choice will be pressed upon them by others who have little to lose and much to gain under the new rules.

Contrary to what Friedman might think, leaders willing to confront today’s world are not in short supply. We just don’t know who many of them are right now; the world is still being run in many cases by members of the old guard. But they’re out there.

The growing impatience expressed with today’s leaders could be a sign that we will soon have a changing of the guard. Time will tell.

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Bottom-up in Rio

With events like the Arab Spring and OccupyWallStreet, it has almost become a cliche to talk about the empowering potential of technology. Such events have emerged largely thanks to our interconnected technology – most notably things like Facebook and Twitter.

The PBS NewsHour recently offered a segment about technology’s potential in Rio de Janeiro. There social entrepreneur Rodrigo Baggio has created the Center for the Democratization of Information Technology (CDI), which is focused on developing computer literacy and infrastructure in the slums of Rio. As Baggio says (through a translator):

Technology and technological inclusion allows for an impact that’s greater than just learning how to use a computer and being able to have access to the Internet. The big impact is that it empowers low-income communities because it teaches them to utilize technology to understand their reality in a better way and identify the challenges that they face.

He then discusses an example:

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Baggio’s favorite example is this video posted on YouTube by a group of young people.

RODRIGO BAGGIO (through translator): These kids went out with cell phones and digital cameras and they were interviewing community members and taking pictures in order to better understand their reality, the challenges that they face in the community. They chose an example of a photo of rats. One of the kids had taken a photo of rats.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They traced the rat problem to garbage not properly disposed of or collected. Then they spread word through handmade and computer-generated fliers.  They sent this video to the mayor, posted it on YouTube, and Baggio says all the publicity got a response from city hall that resulted in better trash services.

RODRIGO BAGGIO (through translator): I mean, this is a story, you know, 10 kids from a class that used technology, use the Internet to discover a problem, and find a solution for it and change their reality as a result.

This is a great example of the empowering potential of today’s technology; it shows how a social action can emerge using only computers, cell phones, the internet…and a little creativity.

There are those who view power as a top-down phenomena; they argue that the way to improve things is to cater to the rich and powerful and then count on the benefits to “trickle down.” As this case illustrates, those familiar with the power of technology and social media are likely to respond that such views are increasingly out of date in today’s world.

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