31 May 2008

It Only Gets ...

Tonight, my wife and I went out to dinner and found ourselves waiting behind large groups of kids dressed for prom. Watching one large group gathered around a table, I couldn't help but laugh. They all look so obviously confused and uncertain about how to act with the opposite sex, wondering what to do. That was not what made me laugh. What made me laugh is that they probably thought that it would all become more clear in time.

30 May 2008

A New Kind of Conversation - A New Kind of Democracy

In the old media, people chose between various options, magazines like the Nation or the New Republic, for example. In the new media, people write their own material on blogs rather than simply commenting on the essays of elites.

In the old democracy, people chose between various options, candidates like George H. Bush and Michael Dukakis, for example. In the new democracy, people will collaborate to create their own policies, rather than simply griping about the proposals of elites.

There are a variety of technologies that will enable this. Publishing and communication no longer needs to be routed through central points like the local newspaper or TV and radio stations. The Internet is going to be essential to this at some level. But the real advances in technology have little to do with hardware and a great deal to do with our ability to create a conversation.

Creative dialogue ought to be the fuel for policy formulation. Simply learning what is going on in people’s lives and, rather than imposing some notion of how or why they deserve their fate or are victims, creating a conversation about what is and what is possible. Currently, with the emphasis on elections, this kind of conversation is nearly impossible for candidates. It’s hard to formulate policy that works when you’re busy imposing your view of the world onto people’s consciousness.

The real catch 22 for policy formulation is the seeming intractability of reality from perception. A rock doesn’t much care about your perception of it: thrown at the proper trajectory, it’ll smack you in the side of the head. By contrast, social realities are rooted in perceptions. You’ll see it when you believe it, is the quip. David Bohm said that most apparent problems were actually paradoxes that traced back to a root paradox about self awareness.
“However, when one beings to think about himself , and especially about his own thoughts and feelings, then if one observes carefully, he will find that this approach leads to a paradoxical pattern of activity. The paradox is that whereas one is treating his own thinking and feeling as something separate from and independent of the thought that is thinking about them, it is evident that in fact there is, and can be, no such separation and independence.”

The technological innovation that is needed for the next major advance in democracy is the ability to suspend advocacy. The next democracy will have more to do with conversations than speeches. The point is not to win the argument; the point is to adapt and adapt to reality.

Lest you too quickly scoff at this possibility, we might be moving in this direction. McCain has proposed regular sessions with Congress akin to those argumentative bouts between the British Prime Minister and Parliament. Obama has said that he will post all non-emergency legislation online for five days, soliciting comments from anyone and everyone before he would sign it. These are small steps, but they seem to me indicative of the kind of promises candidates must make to get our vote.

When groups begin to convene to formulate and implement policy, we have a chance for policy to become more important than campaigning. Maybe the best part about this is what it suggests about a shift in power.

Russell Ackoff makes the distinction between "power over" and "power to." If you have power over someone, you can restrain them from doing certain things. You keep them from polluting or driving on the wrong side of the road. If you give people power to, you enable them to do certain things. They can make money in jobs you prepared them for with education or live longer in spite of cancer that you cured.

As democracy is now practiced, it seems to much focused on power over - who is going to win, which party is going to rule? In this alternative democracy, the focus can land where it ought: on power to.

28 May 2008

Wrigley's Gum Sold

Recently, the Wrigley's Chewing Gum company sold for about $23 billion. There is no truth to the rumor that founder Bill Wrigley said, when seeing his first customers approach, "They have the change we have been waiting for."

Bush and the Obsolescence of Democracy

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan charges that the Bush administration "took a “permanent campaign approach” to governing at the expense of candor and competence."

To me, particularly when enabled by Rove's discernment of American impulses, Bush represented the triumph of politics over policy. Like a dog chasing a car, Bush knew how to get elected but was largely clueless about what to do with the position once he got it.

As the world gets more complex, the job of voters gets harder.

In some ways, Bush’s administration might represent the culmination of "old" democracy. One of the big reasons that people are more frustrated during elections than they are at the mall has to do with order of choice. Imagine that you were not choosing cars but were, instead, choosing car designers for body shapes and engines. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that I'd want to drive a car I helped to design. I don't know much about engines. I just choose between final products. By contrast, when it comes to government policies, we're choosing engine designers, not final product. This suggests that we know something about the principles of policy design - an assumption that is not borne out by facts. And when we don't know any better, we ask the designer things like "Have you ever cheated on your wife?" and "What is your religion?" Questions we would not have of any car designer, a person (or team) who might be agnostic or asexual for all we know or care.

Bush knew politics well enough to get elected twice to the highest office in the land. As the unfolding of economic and international events is beginning to suggest, his grasp of policy was about on par with a freshman at Yale. In the old democracy that brought him to power, what matters is the politics. I'm going to write another post that suggests that a confluence of new technologies might allow us to move into a new kind of democracy, one that makes the candidates and politics secondary to the people and policy. Any other alternative – subverting democracy or discarding policy – is simply too dangerous. It is not enough to have Bush out of office by January; we need to change the process that put him in office.

16 May 2008

A Safer World

We are gradually choosing a safer world. It is less obvious that this pursuit is making ours a better world.

Canadian teenagers are generally unable to get their driver's license until they are 18. Data proves that drives aged 16 and 17 are more likely to destroy property and lives. It only makes sense that these teenagers ought not to drive, and increasingly, American states are following this lead. Of course, if one follows the data to its logical conclusion, we ought to stop all young adults from driving: even a 21 year old is more likely to wreck than is a 30-something driver.

I'm unable to find the reference, but a town in Brazil instituted a ladies night some years ago. They wanted the ladies in this macho town to be able to go out without harassment or concern. On this one evening each month, no men are allowed out after dark. What they had not anticipated is a drop in violent crime of about 95%. Again, to logically follow from this, it makes sense to have a curfew for all men, every night.

Finally, 21st century laws like the Patriot Act and new executive orders are seeking to make ours a safer world by monitoring your mail, reading, phone calls, and Internet activity without a warrant and by allowing detention without cause for an indefinite period. This, too, is making America safer.

"There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where the police were allowed to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your e-mail communications; if we lived in a country where people could be held in jail indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, the government would probably discover and arrest more terrorists or would-be terrorists, just as it would find more lawbreakers generally. But that wouldn't be a country in which we would want to live, and it wouldn't be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that country wouldn't be America.
- Senator Russ Feingold, October 11, 2001, in a debate over the Patriot Act. Senator Feingold was the only senator to vote against it.

These are just the first steps towards making this a safer world: stop young adults from driving, keep men in their own homes after dark, monitor all thinking, and lock up and / or deport anyone we think is suspicious.

15 May 2008

Gay Marriage in California

California's Supreme Court today struck down state law's same-sex marriage ban, finding the state's constitution "properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples."

There might be no better articulation of why this makes sense than this bit from San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders. Sanders is a conservative who had vowed to veto a city council resolution allowing gay marriage. He changed his mind and very poignantly and clearly explains why. I, for one, can think of nothing more to add.

13 May 2008

Why Sports Matter So Much

I suspect that we obsess about sports for at least two reasons. One, during a game is one time where a guy can pull up a chair and ask "What is the score," and anyone can tell him. In love, relationships, politics, careers, parenting ... in all these arenas the score is always, at best, murky, and one hears only conflicting reports. Not so in sports. No one doubts that Cleveland beat Boston last night.

We focus on the sports heroes for a number of reasons but I wonder if that doesn't trace back to some evolutionary hijacking. Battle and the warriors who represent us have mattered for millennia. We've probably evolved to be acutely interested in how our warriors are doing and feeling. Sports have, of course, become the outlet for the impulse for war. We still pay close attention to the athletes because we're still interested in how the battle will turn out. Of course, what was vital to survival of the tribe or state in one period has become of no consequence in the next. If the Boston Celtics beat Cleveland, the Celtics don't get to take Cleveland's factories and women. There is no longer any consequence, but we still pay attention.

11 May 2008

What if Race Didn't Matter in November?

Colin Powell was once one of the Republican Party's luminaries, one of the country's most respected men. Was, that is, until he was made to be dubya's good soldier and distort the facts about the threat of Iraq at the UN. This single egregious act basically destroyed his further political prospects.

The Republicans chose McCain as their nominee, obviously wanting a man with military experience. Powell could have done that - and offered the experience of a successful commander instead of the experience of a less than successful pilot.

Had he not been violated by his relationship with Dick and dubya, Powell might be running against Obama in November's general election. And think about how cool that would be - race as both the most notable feature of the campaign and a complete non-issue.

09 May 2008

Egg - Happy Mother's Day

When she was about 2, my precocious daughter was riding with me in the car when she said, "Daddy, sky is blue."
"Yep," I replied.
I said, "Well, you've seen a prism that breaks light into colors like a rainbow?"
"Yes," she said.
"Well, when sunlight comes through the atmosphere, it works kind of like a prism, but it just breaks off the blue color from the sunlight. So, the sky looks blue."
She was quiet, digesting this. Finally, she said, "No. God made it."
"Well, that too."

I wish I had written this poem and know that C. G. Hanzlicek was writing for all of us with inquisitive children - which is to say, all of us who have had children. This is for Sandi, the wondrous mother of my children who kept me from more parenting mistakes than a therapist could ever hope to keep track of.

C.G. Hanzlicek

I'm scrambling an egg for my daughter.
"Why are you always whistling?" she asks.
"Because I'm happy."
And it's true,
Though it stuns me to say it aloud;
There was a time when I wouldn't
Have seen it as my future.
It's partly a matter
Of who is there to eat the egg:
The self fallen out of love with itself
Through the tedium of familiarity,
Or this little self,
So curious, so hungry,
Who emerged from the woman I love,
A woman who loves me in a way
I've come to think I deserve,
Now that it arrives from outside me.
Everything changes, we're told,
And now the changes are everywhere:
The house with its morning light
That fills me like a revelation,
The yard with its trees
That cast a bit more shade each summer,
The love of a woman
That both is and isn't confounding,
And the love
Of this clamor of questions at my waist
Clamor of questions,
You clamor of answers,
Here's your egg.

Happy Mother's Day.

07 May 2008

Will the Baby Boomer Retirement Wave Trigger Corporate Transformation?

Already, businesses in Canada are closing – not because they cannot get customers but because they cannot get employees. Meanwhile, the employees inside of corporate America are characteristically bright, articulate, and capable. The US has yet to experience a drought of able employees or figure out how to create – rather than simply employ – productive employees. The projected shortage of employees as baby boomers retire may help to trigger a necessary transformation of the corporation.

A couple of months ago, a friend from Canada told me about the employment problem where he lives – a community about 200 km east of Vancouver, BC. He said that three businesses had recently closed there. Not because of a shortage of customers but because of a shortage of employees. He claimed that throughout all of Canada it is becoming a huge problem to find good employees – or any employees. They appear to be ahead of us on the baby boomer retirement pipeline that is scheduled to reduce the US workforce by millions.

I often get to work inside of large multinationals. What I find most remarkable about the companies is the quality of the people there: organized, smart, personal, and articulate seems to define the norm within these organizations and the longer I work with them, the less surprised I am that organizations able to hire and retain such people are able to generate billions in sales and profits. These are the people who did their homework and took the time to properly format footnotes. It seems to me that these multinationals rely more on the quality of their people than the quality of their systems. But what happens when the supply of quality people begins to drop off?

It may be that companies will succeed by begin to focus on creating great jobs for people who, in turn, can create goods and services. Issues like the design of work to engage people (like the design of video games to draw in players) will become a focus of the companies that succeed in an economy where the supply of employees is shrinking faster than the supply of customers.

To date, the corporation has largely built its success on pleasing customers and putting demands on employees. To turn the corporation into a vehicle for pleasing employees will require massive changes. This will be one element of the transformation of the corporation.

It still baffles me that organizational innovation – the particulars of how to create this new corporation – does not get more attention. This is – like product creation – a design issue, but one that is generally addressed only by exception, and rarely. The transformation of the corporation seems to me necessary: sadly, necessary does not mean inevitable.

06 May 2008

Kevin's Career

Kevin told me that this was no way to make a living. I should have believed him, but I was at a loss about what else to do for money. We were lined up in cubicles every morning. Kevin stood out, though. He began his career as the bane of every manager's existence. He was the one who never accepted the simple lie about why a job mattered. He made me squirm. I did not like his ready indolence, his obvious disinterest in keeping his job. It made us all a little uneasy. "Why do they have to make these cubicle walls grey?" he would ask. "And make us wear ties. You know that a tie cuts off just enough blood flow to the brain - on average about 6% - to encourage conformity? When a brain is short of blood, it takes care of essential business first - creativity last. That's why the ties," he explained. Kevin was not himself creative but he was sympathetic to the cause - like people who feinted at the sight of blood but nonetheless sent money to the IRA.

Kevin would walk over to people’s offices to inform them that he had sent them an email. On holidays, he had the strange habit of reading songs. Songs. I hated him for it. None of us ever knew where to look as he read aloud, favorite songs suddenly made senseless, sounding stupid, as he read in his sonorous voice lines like,
“They said, ‘I bet they'll never make it’
But just look at us holding on
We're still together still going strong”

At another time, Kevin walked into a small enclave where a few of us were meeting, and sang (to use the word generously) this:
"Oh I am a lull dancer
I dance while I rant
I have issues with flatulence
And wear special pants"
And then left without explanation. None of us ever mentioned it again.

But Kevin made a big change about two years into his career. The catalyst for the change was a bet with me. It transformed him. In just a few short weeks, he fell off the radar of misfit and began to blend into the grey walls. In one of my weaker moments, Kevin talked me into a contest. The objective? See who could attend the most meetings. Kevin did not just win – he actually was in meetings 32 hours during our contest week – but he found a new strategy for coping with work. He would sit in meetings and work on his computer. Everyone knew that he had a heavy work load, so he was forgiven for working during meetings. But then everyone knew that he had a heavy meeting load, so he was forgiven for missing work deadlines. The net effect was that no one expected anything of him. As far as I know, Kevin is using his strategy to this day, and no one quite knows what he does or what to expect of him. His outlook calendar is always full, though. Kevin probably has about another decade before anyone notices what he is doing. Or, rather, what he is not doing.

05 May 2008

The Fragility of Female Happiness

Maddie was giggling about something when I sat down.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“What’s up? It’s just a concept,” replied Bernard. “If we were in Australia, it would be a completely different direction.”
I stared at him, but he was not volunteering. “Maddie,” I asked. “Why are you laughing?”
“My brother here,” she said, touching Bernard on the shoulder, “thinks that he understands happiness.” She giggled again. “Tell him what you told me,” she said.
Bernard almost looked like he was pouting. “No.”
“Oh come on,” Maddie laughed. “Tell him.”
I could tell that Bernard was both pleased with what he was about to say and also felt more than a little inhibited because of Maddie’s reaction. His pride won out. “I was saying that happiness comes from alignment, a sense of integrity.” He began to motion, gesturing to his head and torso, “when your thoughts and feelings – your head, heart and gut – all line up, you feel happy. When you have conflict between those, you are not happy. It seems pretty simple,” he finished with a small thrust of his jaw and lower lip.
“Oh but it is,” says Maddie. “It is!”
“So why are you laughing, Maddie,” I asked.
“It makes sense to you, too, doesn’t it?” Maddie giggled again.
“Yeah,” I said hesitantly. “It does.”
“That is such a guy view of things. You consult yourself and determine if you are happy.”
“Well, yeah,” I said.
“That is so self contained, so self absorbed a view of the world. Your happiness comes from whatever is going on inside your skin.”
At this point I could begin to predict where she was going and I sat glumly, waiting for the indictment from her.
“Before a woman can be happy, she has to assess lots of people. Are the kids happy? Is my husband happy? My best friend? My sister or brother? My mom? A woman doesn’t know if she’s happy until she knows how the people she loves are doing."
“Men love too,” Bernard said, petulantly.
“Love? Really? Until your happiness is mixed up with the happiness of other people, Bernard, you don’t really love them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s possible for you to feel happy even when your wife is feeling punk?”
“Yes,” Bernard said hesitantly. “Well, my ex-wives, I mean.”
“Ex-,” Maddie said. “Of course they are.”
Bernard stared at the wall. “So this is why women hate men?
“Because we love you?” Maddie said. “Yes.”
“If that is true,” I asked, about three points behind, “then how are women ever happy? I mean, if everyone in their network has to be happy first?”
“Female happiness is a fragile thing,” Maddie said. This time she was not laughing. She looked wistful. "Happiness for a woman comes from a web. A broken strand can ruin it.”
“Well, why don’t you adopt my philosophy,” inquired Bernard, obviously pleased that he could offer a solution. “It would make things simpler, no?”
“Why don’t I think like a man?” Maddie inquired. “Sure, Bernard. I’ll do that. And why don’t you grow wings?” And with that she began to giggle again, making me wonder if female happiness was so fragile then why was she the only one of us who did not look glum.

02 May 2008

Are You Among the 100 Least Influenced?

Time announced the 100 most influential people. Topping the list is Shigeru Miyamoto. Second is Rain. If, like me, you've never heard these names, you may be among the world's 100 least influenced people. (Miyamoto is Nintendo’s game designer - creator of titles like Mario Brothers. Rain is a Korean pop singer whose influence might stem from the possibility that he may some day literally provoke the collapse of karaoke-loving Kim Jong Il, who I can imagine trying to imitate Rain's snappy dance moves.)

The list seems to support the contention that the hive mind found on the web is, in fact, programmed to spew out random results. A couple of years ago, a researcher in the UK wanted to find the world's funniest joke. Dave Barry heard about this and had his readers send in a variety of random joke set ups that all ended with the same punch line: "there is a weasel chomping on his privates." The research into the world's best joke was forever skewed by the overwhelmingly favorable response given to these jokes. I suspect that something similar might have happened in this poll. (And you are free to conclude that I’m denial about the degree to which I’m clueless about the outside world.)

What is weirder than Mike Huckabee finishing 9th? George W. Bush was ranked 158th - narrowly beating out China's president. Huckabee 9th? Heads of the world's richest and most populous nations are 158 and 159? And why couldn't they finish in the top 10? Well, Heidi Klum (4) and Tyra Banks (5) obviously wield more influence.

John McCain (56) might be pleased to have beaten out Tina Fey (57), but can't feel good knowing that the cast of High School Musical (55) wields more influence. (But at least he can commiserate with the Pope (59) and the Dalai Lama (207)). Yet even McCain has to feel better than poor Hillary Clinton (183), who finished behind Ho Ching (a person, not a verb), and Barack Obama (63), who ranked just above Madonna.

But if you are wondering who might finally win this Democratic primary, you should know this. None of the remaining candidates came close to Al Gore's 8th place finish among the most influential. Could this list of the most influential be predicting a last-minute upset? Or has traditional media like Time just completely given up on the pretence of relevance?

Maybe the first George Bush had it wrong. Perhaps it is not so much a new world order as a new world disorder. Because if this list makes sense, the new world does not.

01 May 2008

Making the World Safe Again for Sex

Sadly, little has changed on Pennsylvania Avenue even though this new month brings the promise of hope-filled procreation.

"President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said `mission accomplished' for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday. "And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner."

So now the problem is one of specificity? Hm. And by fall, Dana Perino will say that "President Bush is well aware that he should have been much more specific and said, "The economy is looking better for the Leander Moore family of Nashville Tennessee."

And because the Bush administration seems to never make a policy decision without first thinking about whether it'll make life easier for late night comedians, they've put Nelson Mandela on the terrorist watch list. I would elaborate, but one hardly knows where to go with this. Is it possible for something to be too absurd to be made fun of?

And is it any wonder that George Bush's approval rating is now just above Marilyn Manson's and just below Britney Spears? The man is destined to go down in history as the synonym for incompetence. If he had the decency to step down, I'd have the decency to begin feeling sorry for him.

On a lighter note, Bush has only 264 days left in office. Pregnancies last 266 days. Children conceived this week will come into the world just as George leaves office. It is once again safe to have sex. But if you do chose to procreate, promise me this. If the child should grow up to become a person uninterested in complexity and consequences, please don't, in a moment of encouragment, tell him that even he can someday be president. I think that some things are best kept a secret.