Saturday, July 24, 2004

Synthetic Serendipity

There's a heart warming story in IEEE Spectrum about the power of teachers and collaboration by Vernor Vinge, the guy who coined The Singularity. Some clips:

YEARS AGO, GAMES AND MOVIES were for indoors, for couch potatoes and kids with overtrained trigger fingers. Now they were on the outside. They were the world.
"There are many different skills," she was saying. "Sometimes it's best to coordinate with lots of other people." The students nodded. Be a coordinator. That's where the fame and money were. But they also knew where Chumlig was going with this. She looked around the classroom, nodding that she knew they knew. "Alas, you all intend to be top agents, don't you?"
"But I have a theory of life," said Chumlig, "and it is straight out of gaming: There is always an angle. You, each of you, have some special talents. Find out what makes you different and better. Build on that. And once you do, you'll be able to contribute answers to others and they'll be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn't just happen. You must create it."
Good advice. Find something you're better at than anyone and build on it. Make yourself irreplaceable and surround yourself with people that bring out the best in you.

If that leaves you hungry for more you haaaaave to read Cory Doctorow's work -- razor sharp dialogue, mind-blowing technoscapes, and characters that come alive and start crawling around your head. He releases it all for free download and remixing under a Creative Commons license and sells more books because of it. He's also a co-editor for the top shelf blog BoingBoing.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Bootstrapping Tech for Social Justice

The modern economy scares the hell out of a large portion of the population. The less educated feel doomed to lifelong Wal-Mart serfdom and the elite have nightmares about training their Indian replacements. (Some choose to outsource themselves.) Others can't even hit the lowest rungs on the economic ladder after a rough life on the street, broken families, and failing public schools drain their self-esteem. To help build the personal business networks that can drive a career forward, a San Francisco non-profit called Street Tech is experimenting with social networking software LinkedIn (others maybe more familiar with its cousin Friendster) for graduates of their low-cost computer training programs:

[The hope is] to allow marginalized and disadvantaged folks to build a personal network that allows them to leap over the old boys/girls networks that have traditionally shut them out...that social networking can be used as an effective tool for social justice. (link)
Strong social networks are one of the primary driving factors towards a successful career. Anyone can learn the skills of computers or finance or real estate but knowing the right people -- building trusted connections for leads and referrals -- is essential to accessing the best jobs, most of which never hit the jobs websites.

So after getting their Microsoft Certified Professional designation, Street Tech graduates can safely and efficiently test the jobs waters online:

One of the real advantages I see to a tool like LinkedIn is that it allows the hiring manager to feel more comfortable about a referral because, in theory, the referral is coming from a trusted source -- thus making their chances for success much higher than if that same hiring manager just received a stranger's résumé on his or her desk. Second, our students can use the tool to search out numerous employers at one time and don't have to go to numerous job boards or make cold calls without first having an inside connection. Finally, the Internet is a much safer place for our folks to start out. Here they are anonymous and will not be judged by their physical experience or lack of mainstream professional graces.
Even those on the margins of society can build tribes for support. The mighty Aztecs were once a weak nomadic tribe that got bullied all over central Mexico till they found their own swamp, er, island to build their famous capital Tenochtitlan. After serving as mercenaries (entry level jobs) for the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the Aztecs became the most powerful empire in Mexico. Likewise the Street Tech grads can build alliances with some key contacts online and eventually build careers that rival those who came up through more conventional channels.

Bootstrapping the ever faster, better, and cheaper tech tools allows the disadvantaged to close the digital divide. The common fear that a global technocratic elite will consistently outpace the poor and eventually evolve into a separate species does not fit the facts: the cost of technology per unit of performance -- especially the bio-info-cognotech products whose value lies in their knowledge, not material content -- inevitably drops to zero.

The explosion of mobile phone use in the developing world is a perfect example of this trend. More people access the internet through their phones than conventional PCs. Huge political rallies in young democracies like the Philippines are coordinated by SMS text messaging. Farmers in India can check daily market prices for their crops to avoid getting screwed by the local government commodity buyer.

The first generation of online social networking tools are still cumbersome, but they will improve. The disadvantaged will have to play catch up against those born into better circumstances, but they'll have better tools to do it with. Our greatest challenge comes back to equipping learners with the meta-skills like critical thinking and communication they need to quickly and creatively adopt the best new tools, a good subject for another post.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Fast Food World

Bashing the worldwide expansion of American fast food brands is a favorite sport amongst anti-globalization activists, but it looks like Americans aren't the only ones with their eyes on global franchising supremacy. Indian entrepreneur Dheeraj Gupta has launched his own concept to bring cheap and tasty food to the masses. His product is a traditional favorite called vada pav, a batter-fried mashed potato with bread and chutney. His brand, Jumbo King. The company's competitive edge? Hygiene and automation:

Easily the most hygienic vada pav seller in the city. The wares are untouched by human hands before you reach hungrily for one. Stainless steel machines are used to cook, mash and peel potatoes. While the bread is caramelised, the vegetable oil is changed every few hours and filtered water is used. The vada pav comes wrapped in paper, with a little onion on the side.
Gupta already has three outlets located near busy train stations -- another trick he learned from Ray Croc who always said McDonalds was in the business of real estate first and food second -- and has plans for many more.

Another example of locally-grown brands poised to give the Americans a run for their money is Halal Fried Chicken in Paris, France. Halal Chicken offers the city's many Muslim immigrants extra crispy meals they can trust. Halal, like Judaism's kosher rules, specifies rules for the care, feeding, and slaughter of animals for human consumption. The Marketplace report on this new phenomenon mentions that KFC has been halal for over three years but doesn't publicize the fact. Do they want to avoid tainting their brand as something "those people" eat? Seems like a bizarre marketing choice, but I've heard racism can be as strong in France as here in the States.

These aren't the only bright shining knights battling the forces of free market colonialism and the global consumer monoculture. Another French Muslim company called Mecca Cola looks to cash in on anti-American sentiment around the world. The company's founder, Tawfik Mathlouthi, puts it this way:
It is all about combating "America's imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods and increasing the blockade of countries boycotting American goods."
Agree or not with Mr. Mathlouthi's assessment, boycotting American products is a more productive method of dissent than blowing up buses on the streets of Jerusalem. The cola, which comes emblazoned with the slogan "No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment," has enjoyed brisk sales and might have led to the 40% decline in Coca-Cola sales to Saudi Arabia in the first quarter of 2002. And taking a cue from generous American social entrepreneurs like Ben & Jerry's, the company donates 10% of profits to charities operating in Palestinian territories and 10% to European NGOs. 

These developments demonstrate that globalization is more an additive than destructive force. The consumer gets Coke, Pepsi, and Mecca Cola. If she doesn't like the taste or values of a brand there's always alternatives. Foreign brands that fail to modify their products for local cultural conditions will lose market share to nimble, home-grown brands that understand what makes the country's consumers tick. In the end, everyone gets cheaper, better tasting, and more culturally sensitive products.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Eckotek: Wormhole to Knowledge, Fun, and Adventure

In this space called Eckotek, I push back against the information onslaught by spinning my own mix of global culture, presenting my own takes on the toughest problems of the day, and spreading my vision of a world animated by artists, entrepreneurs, and learners.

The project is borne of my refusal to be a passive receptacle for of other people’s stories, some hungry eye balls to be tickled by cathode ray tubes. My voice will not be drowned out by the dopamine-draining buzzzzz of the mediasphere and its cable news fearmongers and reality television hallucinations. The fear and ignorance that mutilates innocent children and beheads infidels will not sway my hope in humanity’s limitless capacity to invent cooperative/competitive solutions.

Many blogs choose to specialize on a specific knowledge domain but I have waaaay too many interests for that. Instead I'll be a crack you trip on heading elsewhere in a Google search, a flash in your peripheral vision, a whisper that infiltrates your own thoughts and interests, a wormhole to transport you from one knowledge universe to another.

As in the fleshworld, I'll wear many hats here -- Capitalist Shark sniffing out the Next Deal; Party Ethnographer exploring the mysterious confluence of music, place, and chemical; SciTech Junkie on the lookout for the coolest new breakthroughs; and Policy Wonk proposing solutions for our world's many woes. I welcome your comments and suggestions here at the site, but rampant comment spam might disable that in the future. Even better, start your own indie publishing empire at Blogger to engage in the blogospheric dialogue. Make your mark in the electronic sand and then encourage someone else to.

Enough introductions, let's go play.