Slow Revolution

16 01 2014

Are you happy with the way your country is being run these days? Are you happy with environmental degradation, with the depletion of natural resources and the prospect of climate change? Are you happy with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy? Are you happy with the calibre of political discourse today? Are you happy with your politicians?

There is a better way.

There is a better way.

I’m going to venture a guess and suggest you’re probably not terribly thrilled with many, or even all, of these things. Neither am I.

So what are we going to do about it?

It seems the time is ripe for revolution. The Occupy Wall Street movement called for one. So has Russell Brand. Egypt had one (and is still having one). And with dissatisfaction in government increasing in many developed countries around the world, it’s likely there will be many more itching for one.

But “traditional” revolution is not easy to get going. And even harder to get right. It takes a critical mass of people ready to risk all they have in order to push for something better. This works when the revolutionaries have little to lose, not so well when they covet their widescreen TVs and iPads. It also takes a wave of support to mobilise everyone at once; a trickle of rabble rousers doesn’t a revolution make.

I haven’t much stomach for the kind of fast and loud revolution that people like Brand are calling for. I’m not really the activist type. I’d prefer to think up a snappy slogan than hold one aloft in a crowd. I’d prefer to enact change carefully and methodically than risk it running out of control – which is how revolutions normally go (*cough* Egypt).

So I want to propose an alternative approach to overhauling The System, one that aims to enact the same radical change called for by OWS, Russell Brand and others, but seeks to do so without the pitchforks and guillotines.

I call it Slow Revolution.

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The Old as a Barrier to the New

19 04 2012

Techdirt has an interesting piece on the follies of the publishing industry in shifting its business model over to ebooks and digital publishing, focusing on the utter and infuriating pointlessness of DRM, or digital rights management.

It makes the salient point that DRM fails because it makes a legitimate product less useful, and therefore less valuable, than a pirated one, which can be acquired easier and cheaper than the legitimate product.

However, the piece also raises a bigger point about the impact of change on existing industries. And there’s a little psychology and decision theory to explain why almost all industries almost always screw up the transition phase, largely motivated by their desire not to go extinct, and then go extinct anyway. This is particularly true of publishing and the media.

Here’s the story:

Company A has an existing product, X,  which sells for a high price and achieves a good margin.

A new disruptive technology emerges which, like most disruptive technologies, make things less expensive to produce and/or disseminate.

This results in a cheaper product Y that competes with the more expensive old technology product X.

Company A now has a number of choices – and it’ll always choose the wrong one:

1) Lower the price of X to compete with Y, thus crippling its margins and forcing it to lower the quality of X to appalling levels. This is what most newspaper publishers have done in response to the internet. Now their print editions and online editions are scraping the bottom of the barrel, while online outlets, like the Huffington Post, boom.

2) Sell both X and Y. However, now they’re competing with themselves, and Y will win, putting the long-established X department out of business. But X makes a good margin and the company doesn’t want to lose that, or change its business model. So the company raises the price of Y well above its cost to make X competitive against it. However, now Y is unreasonably overpriced in the eyes of consumers, who can probably easily get Y free illegally. This is what book publishers are doing by pricing ebooks at only a fraction lower than print books, and television and movie studios with DVDs vs. downloads. Then company B comes along, unhindered by the old technology, and it only produces product Y, and puts company A out of business anyway, like iTunes did to the music industry.

3) Transition from product X to Y, and either phase out X entirely, or find an equilibrium between the two. Y will rarely entirely replace X, and X will likely have to change, such as bestseller fiction moving to ebooks while quality hardbacks remain in print, or top 10 music going digital while vinyl lives on. Y will be priced such that it’s competitive, and it’ll supplant X fairly rapidly, with the business model adapting and departments probably closing. Businesses almost never take this option, even though it’s the most rational.

Basically, management, when faced with the decision of competing with themselves or continuing business as usual, will almost always continue business as usual. And, in doing so, they effectively let other companies compete with them and put them out of business anyway.

This is because most management are intrinsically conservative, they seek to protect the business model they know (and thus their own jobs), even at the expense of the business at large. Few managers have the courage to actively destroy part of their company in order to compete in a new environment, and thus passively destroy the entire company.

I’ve seen this phenomenon unfold a dozen times in my career, and I expect it’ll continue as long as new disruptive technologies emerge.

The upshot is we’re currently living in a transition time where many industries are busy making their mistakes, but they haven’t gone out of business quite yet. When they do, and new business emerge that embrace the new technology, then things will settle into a new equilibrium – and BitTorrent will suddenly decline in popularity, as did music filesharing systems once iTunes emerged.

I look forward to that day.





Wellbeing > GDP as Metric of National Progress

8 12 2011

The Sydney Morning Herald has kicked off an interesting ongoing feature looking at replacing gross domestic product as our default and singular metric for national and social progress. It has even commissioned an external consultancy, Lateral Economics, to develop an alternative metric, which they call the Wellbeing index.

Now, there are many ways to render such an index, and I don’t necessarily subscribe to the SMH’s method, but… I wholeheartedly support the notion that GDP is a terrible metric to reflect how our society is benefiting us as individuals. Of course, quantifying things is useful, and GPD is a nice well-defined metric. But as easy as it is to latch on to, it’s just not measuring the stuff that matters. And that’s wellbeing (whatever that is).

I touched on this in my earlier posts about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The problem, I believe, also runs deeper than just GDP being a convenient quantification of national progress. It’s also tied to the Hayekian brand of free market liberalism that places too much stock in that economist’s Swiss army knife: utility.

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Beyond OWS: The Slow Revolution

20 11 2011

In three earlier posts I outlined what I believe to be some of the core underlying problems that have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement – problems with our current economics, politics and society – even if the Occupy movement itself is yet to identify these problems itself while it rails against the symptoms of inequality and greed. In the next couple of posts I’ll offer some solutions to these three underlying problems.

The good news is they’re fixable. The bad news is that we have to do the fixing by fixing ourselves. And that’ll take time. And discipline. There are no quick fixes. That’s why I refer to my approach to fixing these deep societal problems as the Slow Revolution.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

7 11 2011

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

30 10 2011

This post is one of my series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the problems that I believe are underlying the protest and, at the end of the series, some proposed solutions. This post is on the first of the three core problems: that the market makes us miserable:

The Occupy Wall Street movement began as a collective expression of outrage at the current economic conditions in the United States. Crippling public and private debt, high unemployment, gaping income inequality and a recession caused by excessive borrowing and reckless behaviour on Wall Street. Yet, at the same time that many people can’t find a job, there are massive bailouts for those on Wall Street who precipitated this economic disaster.

But these are just the surface problems. While many OWS protesters are championing these issues (among others), they’re but symptoms of a far deeper malaise. If the OWS movement is to go beyond being a protest, it needs to direct its outrage not only at the present economic circumstances, but at the deeper causes of those circumstances. And that’s what this post is about.

Because economics is wonderful tool, but a horrible master. And we let it become our master.

The word “economy” originally meant “efficiency” or “frugal”, particularly in terms of management of resources. It used to be an approach. But now it’s a thing, and it’s a thing that we serve.

This is arse-backwards.

Economics is a science that helps us understand how to manage resources to reach a desired end. If people desire X, the market will often be the most efficient process to produce X to meet that desire.

But sometime around the mid-20th Century (1944, to be precise – the year in which Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published), we let economics stop being the arbiter of the means to achieve some valued end, and opened the door for economics to become the arbiter of the values themselves.

According to this ideology (now often called ‘neoliberal’), if the market deigns not to produce some product, that’s because we, by definition, don’t value that product. Likewise, if the market encourages the production of some product, that’s because, by definition, we value that product.

This is wrong.

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