What "future" do we want?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

God and the tsunami

Monday morning public radio broadcast interviews with several religious leaders considering how disasters such as the recent tsunami could be compatible with their faith. That evening the ABC Evening News aired a report on the same question. Responses varied from "God doesn't micro-manage the Universe," to asserting that the victims had bad karma, which could date from a previous lifetime, to we'll understand God's purpose in the hereafter. See, for example, Was God in This Disaster? by Rodger Kamenetz writing for Beliefnet.com.

In a subsequent segment on the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, public radio aired a report about the risk of substantially more loss of life due to the spread of disease caused by unsafe drinking water. That report noted that 85% of the people living in the areas affected by the tsunami had never had access to clean water. The report went on to note the grim statistics of the large numbers of deaths that routinely occur in that part of the world from diseases we have long known how to prevent.

In short, many more people, and especially children, than were drowned by the recent tidal waves routinely perish at the rate of one life every 15 seconds. Because these deaths are scattered in geography and time, they have escaped the attention of most of us who are not at risk.

If the tsunami offers a "message," it could be to get us to pay attention to the plight of others. Disaster relief that provides a reliable source of clean water to people living on the shores of the Indian Ocean, would save more every week than the death toll of the recent disaster.

Jeffery D. Sachs, writing in Time magazine, notes that disasters often hit the poor the hardest ["The Class System of Catastrophe", January 10, 2005].
"The rich, unlike the poor, can afford to live in fortified structures away from floodplains, riverbanks and hillsides. The rich, unlike the poor, have early-warning systems--seismic monitors, weather forecasts and disease-surveillance systems. The rich, unlike the poor, have cars and trucks that enable them to leave on short notice when a physical disaster threatens."
As a society, we respond generously in the face of disaster, but we have not paid nearly enough attention to making tragedies less likely in the first place. Sachs writes:
"Almost three years ago, the Bush Administration signed a pledge, the Monterrey Consensus, to 'make concrete efforts' to provide 0.7% of national income in assistance to the world's poor. Currently, the U.S. provides less than one-fourth of that pledge, just 0.15%--a mere 15 cents out of every $100 of U.S. income. If the U.S. raised its level to 70 cents we would save millions of lives and enable many more to escape their poverty and their extreme vulnerability to natural disasters. Currently, our military spending outpaces our development aid by roughly 30 to 1."
If we are going to create a better future for ourselves and everyone else, wouldn't it make more sense to invest more in quality of life and less in destruction? Sadly, even the seemingly generous pledges that governments make are seldom realized.
"The Iranian city of Bam, for example, where an earthquake killed some 30,000 people in December 2003, has so far seen only $17 million of the $1.1 billion in aid pledged by foreign governments at the time of the disaster... In Afghanistan, donors pledged $2 billion in 2002 for the first crucial year of rebuilding. But Afghan officials said the country saw only a fraction of that, $90 million" ["How Much Will Really Go to the Victims?" Time, January 17, 2005].
The $4 billion pledged to aid tsunami victims should be enough for short-term relief from the immediate crisis, but it will take a larger sustained effort to reduce the risk of future mass disasters. The recent tsunami could become a turning point in our history if we decide to use the tools of modern communications technology to insist that our governments back their pledges with actual spending, and if we can sustain our compassion beyond the drama of cataclysmic events and resolve to relieve the everyday deprivation that afflicts the majority of our race.
Murph 12:58 PM | (0) comments |

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Irrational choices

The Edge, a Web site devoted to science, posts an end-of-year question for a list of distinguished scientists. The end of 2004 question was: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

I was struck by the response of Roger Schank, Psychologist and computer scientist; author of "Designing World-Class E-Learning, who said:
"People believe that are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made - who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them."
Dr. Schank may not feel he can prove this assertion as a general principle, but there is plenty of corroborating evidence in the everyday behavior of many consumers. It follows that, if we are going to create a future we want to live in, we must learn to become more thoughtful about our purchase and consumption decisions. A reasonable question is: how are we going to do that? What steps can we take to resist our natural tendency to decide based on (not always conscious) emotion rather than thought?
Murph 10:23 AM | (0) comments |

Friday, December 31, 2004

Keeping in touch, or not

It is tradition at the end of a year to recall those who passed away during the preceding 12 months. Among those whose name and face is not recognizable to most people was Joseph Zimmermann Jr., the inventor of the first telephone answering machine to become a commercial success (in the 1950's). A recent New York Times article notes that "...Zimmermann's invention was also a key marker in a less celebrated history -- the history of what could be called the technology of avoidance [Rob Walker, "Only Disconnect," Dec 26, 2004]. Although the original intent was to enhance our ability to communicate, people quickly discovered that it also could be used to avoid talking to someone they do not want to speak with--a luxury that previously had been affordable for only the wealthy and powerful who employed others to act as "gatekeepers."

Zimmerman's invention was the first of a string of new ways to make communication both easier and more difficult. Today, voice mail, email, hundreds of television channels, and Internet information services are at our fingertips. We have become so enamored of these innovations that we are spending more than three times (in constant dollars) the amount that we did thirty years ago when the typical family had one telephone line and television was received through a (free) over-the-air antenna [Rob Fixmer, "It Adds Up (and Up, and Up)" New York Times, April 10, 2003].

Modern communications technologies offer an undeniable example of how the future that inventors and marketers thought they were creating turned out quite differently than expected. These services do make it possible for us to connect with each other and quickly obtain information, but they also are being deliberately used as a barrier. For example, "...by punching or typing in a sequence of numbers, or by speaking to a machine that has been programmed to understand human speech, you can have access to information previously impossible to obtain without a human - the whereabouts of a package, for instance, or the balance of a bank account. What is increasingly difficult to obtain, though, is the actual human" [Katie Hafner, "Customer Service: The Hunt for a Human," New York Times, Dec 30, 2004].

In short, it seems that our society welcomes ways to contact anyone anywhere any time, while simultaneously adopting methods that limit who can easily contact us. This effect may not be as contradictory as it seems. These technologies are relatively new, and our culture is still figuring out how to assimilate and adapt to them. We are likely to be alternately thrilled and frustrated by how they are used for some time. What's more important is the lesson that "progress" isn't as predictable as we think and controlling the consequences of our "advances" isn't as easy as we'd like to think it is.

And, by the way, there is a website (what else) with corporate consumer contact phone numbers for many organizations that deliberately or otherwise omit them from their own web pages (courtesy of the U.S. Government).

Murph 11:55 PM | (0) comments |

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What happens if we do live forever?

The New York Times: Just How Old Can He Go?: "...most people would scoff at [Mr. Kurzweil's] notion that emerging trends in medicine, biotechnology and nanotechnology open a realistic path to immortality - the central claim of a new book by Mr. Kurzweil and Dr. Terry Grossman..." Essentially, the forecast is that, in 25 years or so, human beings will be able to halt, or at least drastically slow down, the aging process using technology that permits changes to the body at the cellular level.

The notion of "reprogramming our biology" brings to mind Bill Joy's "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Dr. Joy's article ponders the potential for dire unintended consequences of commercializing cutting-edge technologies that are so new that we don't yet fully comprehend their implications.

It's possible to dismiss Mr. Kurzweil and Dr. Grossman's book as wildly optimistic and Dr. Joy's article as excessively gloomy, but the idea that we are on the verge of developing biotechnology that might continue extending life expectancy while at the same time creating the potential for substantial environmental damage doesn't seem all that farfetched.

So, before we find ourselves confronted with a fiat accompli whether we like it or not, shouldn't we consider whether a world in which many human beings live well into their second century makes sense?

Any of us would look forward to living a longer, healthier life, but there are some downsides. Would we restrain birthrates in order to limit overpopulation? How would we finance all those extra years? A higher average age is one likely consequence. Do we simply re-scale the periods of our lives (schooling, working, retirement years), or will other social adjustments be required. Will there be more of a burden on younger people to contribute to the care and upkeep of older generations? Will we be "manipulating our cells" during the period of our lives when we are reproducing--that is, might we alter the genetics of our offspring as well?

There are also moral issues. The cost of the technology is likely to make it disproportionately available. Is wealth (particularly inherited wealth) the most socially desirable way to allocate access to a longer life? Assuming the technology can't be made readily available to everyone, how will who benefits and who will not be decided?
Murph 9:08 PM | (0) comments |

Pay attention to marketing

In 1937 Ronald H. Coase published "The Nature of the Firm," a brilliant analysis of why organizations and their managers exist. That article also provides the economic rationale for today's "downsizing" and "outsourcing," and Dr. Coase eventually received the Nobel prize in Economics for the body of work that followed.

However, the theme of this web log comes from Dr. Coase's reply, in 1997, when he was asked whether he believed we are "embarking on a golden age of economic expansion." "I think we could be," he said, but he added a note of caution. "Whether we'll mess things up is another thing," Coase said. "There are more wrong ways of doing a thing than right ways."

I have been teaching the subject of marketing to college students for 34 years. Marketing managers and their organizations pursue their goals individually, but the collective social consequences of their decisions influences how we think about ourselves and others.

Marketers seek to achieve their goals by providing goods and services that people want but in doing so they also influence what we want. Everyone who grows up in our modern consumer societies develops beliefs and attitudes that are strongly affected by what we learn as consumers and the object of marketers' attention.

In short, marketing and our reaction to it is creating the future we all will live in. The implication of Dr. Coase's note of caution is that if we don't individually and collectively think about the implications of marketing decisions, we are likely to be creating a future that is less satisfactory than what would could otherwise achieve. That is, if we don't actively manage the direction our society is taking it is more likely to turn out badly than well.

Two examples of marketing's effect on our present and future are: violence as entertainment and an obsession with body-image. Young people today grow up inundated by vivid images of violence in publications, in cinema, on television, and in video games. It's hard to believe that exposure to all the violence doesn't have some negative impact--insensitivity to the plight of others, for example. The fact that females are so much more likely than males to suffer from eating disorders is hardly surprising given the heavy promotion of slim, carefully lit and made-up women in images retouched to eliminate even the slightest blemishes.

Marketing does matter; it is largely responsible of our extraordinarily rich standard of living, but it also can lead to less desirable consequences. Therefore, it is important that we take note of the current state-of-the-art of marketing practice and to ponder the extent to which we are (or are not) creating a future we want to live in).
Murph 2:34 PM | (0) comments |