What kind of zombies have we created?

I was reading Bill Bonner’s recent post Zombies Born of Government Spending where he posits the notion of zombies in our economy. As Bill defines it:

“In economic terms, a zombie is a parasite. He contributes less to the economy than he takes from it. He lives at the expense of others.”

His argument is that social welfare programs as practised by most of the developed world only work during good times. As he argues:

“It’s relatively easy to turn people into zombies. And it’s fairly easy to support them when an economy is healthy and expanding. But when an economy goes into a contraction, you can no longer afford to give the zombies their meat. Then what?”

This is an interesting question. Western societies have created a group of people with few skills and no means by which they might generate value to exchange.  Nor do many in this group appear to have bonds to the society within which they exist and they exhibit few loyalties to ideas or ideals outside of mere existence and consumption.

But the real issue is how we create a new economy, one that is founded on creation of real value and its exchange, and not ephemeral things (like hybrid securities and CDOs). One that sustains and nurtures community rather than destroying it through extreme competition and crazy ideas like the priority of shareholder value above all other things.

This raises some important questions:

  • If the government can no longer sustain them (or us) then what happens?
  • How do we create ways of connecting people with skills to share with those who want to learn?
  • By what mechanism can we develop shared values that support the creation of valuable skills?
  • How do we create communities of people that choose to contribute and collaborate for the common good?

We don’t have to let what’s happening in other places happen here. We have the choice. We can create communities where real value is exchanged between real people. Not what passes for value in the some places – faux celebrity, immediate gratification, and continuous consumption – but sustainable and sustaining value.

There used to exist such things as commons in the past – commonly held land and other resources. But we have few of these remaining to us nowadays.  It might be times to create some new common resources to share in a fair and equitable manner?  We have already seen the rise of new forms of sharing and common ownership through Creative Commons on the internet. It makes me wonder what other things for which this approach will work. I suspect that Mark Pesce’s work on his Plexus innovation is a beginning in this quest.

It is worth considering how we can each begin to nurture collaborative behaviour and thinking in our local spheres to work against the zombie world view.

How do we create and share value in a jobless economy?

Jeff Jarvis sparked my thinking on this recently with his post on The Jobless Future. As Jeff so bluntly stated:

“We’re not going to have a jobless recovery. We’re going to have a jobless future.

Holding out blind hope for the magical appearance of new jobs and the reappearance of growth in the economy is a fool’s faith.”

If that is the case in the US, and we have riots on the streets in the UK, Spain, Greece, north Africa and the middle east, then things are not looking good in large portions of the world. There will likely be flow on economic and social effects around the world, especially since Richard Florida is pondering if riots could come to Canada too.

Nouriel Roubini may be right in his assertion that “Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself.”

The inherent instability of markets in the US and Europe mean that jobs are going to be harder to come by, especially for the less educated and the less skilled.

All of this got me thinking about what skills are really useful in this new world that is developing before our eyes? What kinds of businesses and communities will be more resilient in the face of changing economic verities? How do we need to recast our expectations and aspirations for this new world that is unfolding?

That kind of thinking led me over to John Robb’s blog and one of his recent posts, Entrepreneurs and Open Source Hardware. Perhaps we are all about to become open source entrepreneurs?

The kind of economic environment that is emerging is one where sustainable and ethical business models can come into their own. Not large scale, top-down, industrial operations. Rather there is an opportunity to develop peer-to-peer and networked organisations. Social innovation, social enterprise and ideas like collaborative consumption become significant, and a return to older ways of organising businesses – like co-operatives and mutual associations – become critical.

We also need to find ways to create and exchange value in an environment where traditional mechanisms might no longer be available to us. This means creation of new means of value exchange, or even new kinds of currencies. Reverting to gold is not really feasible, after all it’s rather heavy to tote around. Thus virtual currencies might even come to replace some of the existing ones

If you consider it unbelievable that major currencies can fail then it’s time to go read some history. Just to put it in perspective there’s a great visual post by Jeff Clark over at The Daily Reckoning that illustrates the risk rather neatly: A Thousand Pictures Is Worth One Word.

My Geek Origin story, what’s your story?

This post was inspired by Michael Kordahi, well known to many as @delic8genius, who put out a call encouraging to geeks to share their geek origin stories.

My geek origin is shrouded in the mists of time.  It was so long ago that there is no only one photographic record [update: which is now in the hands of Michael Kordahi, heaven help me].  But there was a revolution going on and I became part of it.

During school and university I had no interest in technology or gadgets.  My passion was for the humanities – history, philosophy, anthropology.  Nothing to do with any of the so-called ‘hard sciences’ or mathematics.

But my first job was in a bank, one of those boring jobs I mentioned recently. Thus my first exposure to computers was to the mysterious mainframes to which one submitted requests that were returned, if you were lucky, two days later.

Yet I was still not attracted to technology. After all, what was there to love about the cold hard mainframe? And where was the immediate gratification?

After escaping from the job in a bank to a stockbroking firm I was given client trust accounts to manage.  There were lots of things to track. Again we relied on the slow and klunky mainframe (oh the joys of JCL and TSO I could recount).  Then a colleague showed me his new gadget – a personal computer running MS DOS – it was the only one in the office, nay the only one in the building.

That gadget fascinated me and, before my colleague realised it, I had co-opted the machine for myself.  I was suddenly able to keep track of things using new fangled things called spreadsheets. Then I discovered you could make it do what you wanted by writing programs.

Not yet a geek, but well on my way toward it.

Landed my next job partly due to my PC skills, still doing finance work.  But one day I was standing in the kitchen chatting with the CEO (as you do) and happened to mention that there was a problem with the computer system in the office.

[Pro-tip: never casually mention problems to a CEO unless you are prepared to help fix them]

She mentioned that we needed an IT manager and, since I sounded like I knew about that ‘stuff’, asked if I wanted the job.  My ‘prudent’ response (having no experience at all for this job) was “yes”.

Thus began my geek apprenticeship: inheriting the world’s most unstable and unreliable Unix system and applications. From there I discovered how hardware, operating systems, networks and databases work; and how various programming languages work (starting with shell scripts and moving on from there). It was endlessly fascinating.  Eventually I had to accept that no one can ever know everything about technology. I also had to accept that I am a very bad software programmer and an even worse metadata modeller.

The next interesting thing I came across was a guy in Finland who proposed an open source version of Unix, eventually known as Linux. In retrospect, by that time, there had been an evolution in my life: from the early days of humanities studies, to hanging out with friends for days on end (eating pizza) while we fooled about reverse engineering kernels. By this stage I was an unconscious geek (i.e. a geek but completely unaware of this fact, even though a member of AUUG).

Then came the web.  From the first time I heard about the web and hypertext it held enormous fascination. The power inherent in the notion of hyperlinking and hyperconnecting documents, people and things seemed to have great promise.

From the early days of the web I worked on enterprise web development, managing teams who were building large scale web applications.  The roles varied: project manager, enterprise architect, software development manager, consultant.

In the late 1990s I worked as one of the architects on a large scale middleware application – we called it a “multi-channel integration architecture” – that enabled multiple front end channels to interconnect with heterogenous backend systems.  Off-the-shelf middleware like we have now did not really exist so it had to be created from scratch.

From there I moved onto development of early e-commerce for both B2B and B2C, and customisation of supply chainERP and CRM systems. The power of technology to revolutionise business and business models inspired me to study management, marketing and e-commerce at university.

While working on all these large-scale enterprise systems, I was also playing with what has come to be called web 2.0 and experimenting on my own time. Learning HTML and other scripting languages for fun.  Started blogging for fun too, before blogging tools existed.  Was an early user of Blogger, Typepad and finally migrated to WordPress.

It was during the blogging that I finally became conscious of my geekiness.  But I didn’t really come out of the closet then since there weren’t many women geeks in my circles of acquaintance.

But with the advent of Twitter, and connecting with many amazing women who were also geeks, I finally came out of the closet and embraced my geekiness.

And that is the story of my geek origin, what’s your geek origin story? And, as Michael Kordahi (a.k.a. @delic8genius) said:

“This year at TechEd (super secret but super high profile project for now), I want to profile and capture your Geek Origin Stories.

What memories do you have that define you?

I’m looking for your personal stories that tap into what makes you geek. Stories like mine that tap into your geek DNA and the (tacit) attributes that define you.

So, please email me one or a few of your Geek Origin Stories. Also please include a photo or video of you being a young geek.

Email me at michael.kordahi@microsoft.com or post your own online and send me a link.”

Business, boring jobs and social good

Over the past 150 years businesses have dealt with the challenges of increased scale by optimizing processes, resource allocation and expenditure. However, there is a limit to how much one can optimize a business and not damage the society within which that business exists.

I have spent a goodly part of my career working on optimizing large scale businesses and increasing productivity.

The main way to achieve that is by automating routine and repetitive tasks or outsourcing them to lower cost regions, thus making low paid jobs redundant. That process generally takes bottom line cost out of the business and increases productivity as a by-product. Where it does create new jobs they are rarely suitable for the workforce that has been displaced through this process.

Many older workers have been pushed out of the workforce due to the disappearance of these types of jobs. For them it seems too late to re-train, and many face ageism from employers who are unwilling to give them a chance at different roles.

Thus we are wasting the talents, energy and skills of many older workers who now languish unhappily on welfare payments.

But it is also interesting to consider this: if the many young unemployed people across the western world had been born twenty years earlier they would be doing those repetitive jobs and earning an income. Those jobs have disappeared. And they have disappeared either due to optimization and productivity improvements.

So what do we do with all of the people who used to do those old jobs? In most western countries (except the USA) we pay them some kind of social welfare benefit. That allows them to subsist. But what do they do with their time while subsisting? Are they included somehow in the community? Do they have a role, apart from being passive recipients of welfare, that make them feel part of society?

A boring repetitive job is boring for many young people. But it does provide some benefits: they earn an income; they learn real-world work skills; it gets them out of the house; it gives them some kind of purpose outside of themselves; and it is really a good way to get them thinking about what else they can do with their life.

My first job was utterly dull and boring. It gave me the impetus to get back into study and work out ways to never have a job that dull again. It also gave me a perspective on how business works, and it is a perspective that I could not have achieved from outside.

But now most of those entry level (boring) jobs have gone. And many young people do not want to take them even if available. That is a bit sad.

We seem to have mostly banished boredom in our society, and that might not be an entirely good thing. The social benefit provided by those lost jobs has not been replaced.

Is ‘social’ the right term to use for everything online?

There is a tendency to put the word social in front of many other words to day to describe some new use of technology. I remain uncomfortable with the way we have plonked the word ‘social’ in front of so many other things, for example; networking, media, computing, business, etc.

One reason for this discomfort is that everything that human beings do is social in some way. But that discomfort about the term aside we’ve got to call it something and that will do for the time being.

Going back to the origins of the word social we can see it comes from the Latin socius and meant companion or partner. That makes it an ideal word to use about collaborative acts or practices.

The trouble is that adding social in front of everything begins to devalue its descriptive utility. Instead it seems to become yet another piece of jargon as voiced by the shallow spruikers of the latest thing.  Using it in front of everything makes it into a joke.

I’m interested in how we keep things real. I think people need clear and simple communication. Meaningless jargon is not how we keep things real.

It makes me wonder though, is it the quality of the communicator and the truths that they speak that wipes away the feeling of jargon? Does it really all come down to trust?

Riots, desire, consumerism, community and values.

Want is a funny word. It can mean different things, such as:

“absence or deficiency of something desirable or requisite” or
“to be lacking or absent, as a part or thing necessary to completeness”, or
“to feel a need or a desire for; wish for”, or
“to wish, need, crave, demand, or desire”
(Source Dictionary.com)

The scenes in the UK of rioters and looting were awful on many levels. But one scene that was repeated that was especially revelatory was the looters trying on goods in the stores before they stole them.

That behaviour spoke to me of want.

In the past, usually riots were because people lacked some necessity – food, freedom, the right to vote. That is, the rioters acted in response to want in the sense of absence or lack of something. This is the kind of rioting we have seen in the middle east in recent times, places like Egypt and Syria.

But in the UK we saw rioters, unfocused on anything except inflicting damage on property and helping themselves to goods for which they had a desire. That is, acting in response to want in the sense of desire for something. And that something wanted was material goods rather than aspiration to freedom or truth.

This is different. It is about people who have learned to desire those things for the acquisition of which they do not have sufficient economic resources. And yet, they do have the means – through a collective act of will – to achieve access to the goods they desire.

The looters have achieved their want, they now have the material goods that they sought. However, in achieving those goods they have destroyed the community facilities upon which they and many others rely. They have reinforced their other-ness. They have achieved a short term goal while simultaneously creating the platform for increased levels of dissatisfaction.

I suspect that material goods will not really fulfil the wants of the rioters and looters in the UK. Their anomie will remain. And they will recall the power of their collective action. They will also recall the powerlessness of the authorities in the face of that collective action.

It might be as Winston Churchill once said (in slightly different circumstances):

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Source: Sir Winston Churchill, speech at Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House, London, November 10, 1942

The jobless future and social innovation

I have argued previously that capitalism is broken and that we need to find new approaches that are good for people, animals and the planet.  Further I asked if social innovation might be part of that new approach.

The world is facing an unprecedented financial crisis that is creating a future in which traditional jobs are being destroyed.  Jeff Jarvis outlines this future well in his post The jobless future. Before our eyes entire industries that thrived during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are disappearing.

The consumer driven economy of the late twentieth century is teetering due to:

  • the demise of the debt fuelled growth to support consumer spending, and
  • a lack of jobs to provide the income for consumers to continue acquisition of goods and services.

In the period 2008-2010 the car industry is a good example.  A confluence of high fuel prices, a global financial crisis (GFC),  tightening of credit markets, and job losses across Europe and North America meant that demand for new vehicles dropped to historic lows. This in turn drove job losses in the car industry around the world.

But the car industry has for many years produced more new cars than the world really needs to replace old or damaged ones.  Driven by consumer leasing arrangements that saw people acquiring a new car every few years, debt was fuelling an artificial demand.  And when that debt fuelled demand dropped away during the GFC, demand levels for new cars fell back to more ‘real’ levels. With demand down, jobs will go in this industry.  It is unlikely that the lost jobs will return.

This is a strange situation.  Motor vehicles are a great social good.  They have enabled us to achieve mobility to move people and goods in ways that our ancestors could not even imagine.  But even a social good, when inflated by debt driven acquisition, might not be good for us.

Faced with the kind of jobless recovery and jobless future that the US is so kindly modelling for us we need to consider what means of value creation and exchange need to be created to replace the old models. In some places we are even seeing tent cities arise for those who have lost access to traditional housing and jobs.

One response is a top down Keynesian approach, with centralisation and extensive government intervention.   However, the scale of the economic crisis facing us today means that governments simply do not have the resources for continued intervention.  After a variety of interventions in the US and Europe the first world governments cannot afford to keep spending.

But another response is a grass roots and bottom up response that finds different, diverse and sustainable ways to re-create an economy.

It is here that the notion of social innovation comes into its own. It is the notion that we can create innovative businesses and business models that generate value for us from both a social and economic perspective.

Just repeating the same old models will not get us out of this situation.  It is time to broaden our perspective and look to each other, to our local communities for sustainable and ethical ways to generate value.

An interesting place to start thinking about this is the work that is being done about resilient communities: