Some Counter-Conventional News

This will be my last post of 2014, so I figured I’d pull together a collection of some recent news items that you may not yet have come across.  I’m not sure what these all have in common except to remind us that the conventional wisdom we so often hear is also often wrong.  (To read the full story for any of these, just click on the embedded links.)

A suburban world: The emerging world is becoming suburban. Its leaders should welcome that, but avoid the West’s mistakes – Despite all the talk about people moving to cities (meaning downtowns), “[in] the emerging world almost every metropolis is growing in size faster than in population.”  See, for example, this suburb of Buenos Aires.


America’s New First Screen– “It has finally happened: Mobile has bumped TV as America’s first screen.”

The USPS spends far more on city mail carriers than rural ones – to be precise, “city carriers’ compensation costs averaged 58 cents per delivery point, while rural carriers’ averaged 49 cents”

Jack Ma explains why China’s education system fails to produce innovators – “Ma’s argument is that China’s education system doesn’t give students enough time or encouragement to just mess around, have fun, and experiment.”  (Jack Ma is the founder/CEO of Alibaba and now the richest man in Asia.)

Here’s the First Line of Code Ever Written by a US President – “Barack Obama just became the first U.S. president to write a line of computer code” in Javascript.

Estonian e-residency – “E-residency is a state-issued secure digital identity for non-residents that allows digital authentication and the digital signing of documents.”  Considering how easy it is to do this kind of thing, we’ll start to see more of this kind of thing and it will really mess up traditional understanding of the nation-state and citizenship.

Everything you think you know about the news is probably wrong – “Around the world, people have a pretty good sense of the life expectancy of their country’s inhabitants.  When it comes to most other social statistics, they have no idea.”

Obama Is a Republican – A view in the American Conservative magazine that many conservatives “saw in him a classic conservative temperament: someone who avoided lofty rhetoric, an ambitious agenda, and a Utopian vision that would conflict with human nature, real-world barriers to radical reform, and the American system of government.”

Voters Know Themselves Better Than the Pollsters Do– This fall’s “elections provide further ammunition for the idea that we should pay less attention to polls of voters’ intentions, and more to polls asking them who they think will win.”

How Technology Could Help Fight Income Inequality

Costa Rica is number one – “If you’re looking for a change of scenery and considering moving to a new country, you may want to consider Costa Rica. According to the Happy Planet Index (HPI), it’s the happiest country on Earth.”

42.9 million Americans have unpaid medical bills – “Nearly 20 percent of U.S. consumers have unpaid medical debts, according to a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

The Art of Not Working at Work – “At first, the ability to check email, read ESPN, or browse Zappos while on the job may feel like a luxury. But in time, many crave more meaningful — and more demanding — responsibilities.”

I wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful new year – and fun, fulfillment and more insights 🙂

© 2014 Norman Jacknis


Countryside Complaints Collapse?

You often hear how the countryside is collapsing in various ways.  And clearly the remaining sixty million Americans who live in small towns and rural areas have faced a variety of challenges. 

As I described in my presentation at the Walsh University Leadership Academy a few weeks back, I’ve heard eight major complaints to explain why rural areas are in trouble.  While each of these has been true over the last few decades, increasingly the changes in our world mean that these complaints themselves are no longer relevant – the complaints are collapsing, while the countryside has new opportunities for renewal.

Let me address each of these, briefly, one at a time.  (If you’re interested in a fuller explanation, I can send you a copy of the whole 80-slide presentation.)

1. “We’re not big enough to have sustainable business clusters.”

So many economic development officials have had the cluster strategy drummed into their minds that they don’t realize how out of date it is.   As economist, Paul Krugman, said when he was given the Nobel Prize for his early work on economic geography, “[Clustering] may describe forces that are waning rather than gathering strength.”  My favorite example is the growth of the BATS Exchange at the expense of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street.  BATS is headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas.

2. “We’ve lost most good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

So has everyone else.  Just as economic changes over the last hundred fifty years meant that we need very few people on the farm to produce the food the rest of us need, so too productivity in manufacturing means fewer people are needed in plants.  That is part of the growth of the economy.  But there has been a parallel increase in the service sector of the economy and the Internet has made possible a new range of intangible, digital products and services – from which people can make a living.  That, of course, doesn’t even account for the many unmet needs of our economy and society – for example, curing major diseases – that will generate employment.

3. “We don’t have skyscrapers filled with office workers.”

But work is no longer tied to these “places of work”.  Many people can work from home, without the need for a cubicle in a skyscraper.


4. “We’re isolated in the middle of nowhere.”

You may be physically far from large metropolitan areas, but digital communications connects everyone everywhere, even face-to-face through video-conferencing.  (Of course, this assumes you have broadband connectivity sufficient for video – but that’s part of the point of this argument.  If you get the connectivity, there are all kinds of options open for you, even in the countryside.)

5. “We don’t have a major research university.”

There is an incredible amount of learning available on the Internet, including courses from traditional universities (like edX) and non-traditional sources.  And most of the research at the major universities is now available online, especially the kind of later stage research that is most easily commercialized.  So what you need is not the research university, but people with sufficient entrepreneurial imagination – and those folks can be found all over.


6. “Whenever we get sick we need to go to a big city for care.”

With telemedicine (and even remote surgery, in the longer run), not all health care requires a visit to a big city.

7. “We can’t participate in developing new ideas and our innovators have no one to talk to (so they leave).”

Again, anyone with an innovative disposition can now reach out to others on the Internet.  Moreover, with the growth of the open innovation movement in corporations and governments, there are a variety of opportunities for people who live in the countryside to offer their new ideas – and be rewarded for them.

8. “There are not enough customers nearby and many of the business skills we need are also not nearby.”

Yet, economic opportunities and services are global.  All you need to be is connected to the global economy.  By the way, this isn’t limited to people who want to write computer software.  There are all kinds of interesting examples of people who live in the countryside making a living outside of the tech industry – for example, by teaching English to foreign students, or selling their works of art and craftsmanship, or providing help desk/customer support or even selling lobster bait bags.  Now the market is not limited to the small number of people who are nearby.



So before people in the countryside give up on their futures, they should consider how these old obstacles of the past will collapse in the future.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis


A Sharing Economy?

[This is a continuation of my previous blog post about the changing meaning of money in the Internet age.]

In the movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”, this bit of conversation took place –

Gillian: Don’t tell me they don’t use money in the 23rd century.

Kirk: Well, we don’t.

The implication of this dialogue is that in two centuries we will have evolved from a monetized economy to something different.  But what is that?  Is it like the sharing economy? 

This is a huge topic and one that is hard to get a handle on. 

There have, of course, been scholars of the phenomenon.  Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers brought initial intellectual focus on the phenomenon with their excellent and wide-ranging 2010 book, titled “What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise Of Collaborative Consumption”.   (Unlike many others, the book covered or at least touched on the questions I ask in the rest of this post.)  She extended these ideas to larger companies in the Harvard Business Review – “Sharing’s Not Just For Startups”.


More recently, New York University Professor Arun Sundararajan, has been the academic leader on the sharing economy.  You can see his views at NYU and in his talk, “Our Collaborative Future? Ownership, Equity and Growth in the Sharing Economy”.   He has also launched an experimental platform, PeerCollaborative.

But part of the problem in understanding the “sharing economy” is that the phrase has been used in different contexts.

First, to go back to Star Trek, there is the idea of an economy without money.  One could assume this is based on some form of barter or non-monetary rewards.  Historically, of course, barter economies don’t go far.  Rewards that don’t include money have been a prominent feature in the Internet, with the people who write and edit Wikipedia entries as the most obvious example.

In his book, “Who Owns The Future”, Jason Lanier asks how people will be compensated in a digital age where so much of value is in the form of ideas (and observation of human behavior).  His solution is a system of micro-payments whenever one of our ideas or patterns of behavior is used for some other form of business.  Thus, if someone used one of your creative products, they would have to pay a small fee.  If Google sold some advertising based on data about your life that you made available to them, you would get a piece of that ad revenue.

There are all kinds of issues and weaknesses in Lanier’s book – which he mostly admits to.  But it’s worth noting that his aim is admirable: he hopes to monetize these Internet activities to preserve enough income for everyone so that the middle class survives the growing inequality that seems to have accompanied the ascendance of the Internet.

Despite its noble aims, there have been numerous critiques of his proposal.  Among the more interesting are “Jaron Lanier’s Strange Fantasy” and “Facebookers of the World, Unite!”.  But what replaces monetary compensation still remains an outstanding issue.  Can we live on sharing alone?

Time banks and time-based currency is another form of non-monetary payment, although it predates the widespread use of the Internet.  In its simplest version, people exchange their time – an hour of plumbing for an hour of web design, for example.  The example of sharing and collaboration on the Internet has provided additional justification for the advocates of time banking.  So there has been new attention to it, as you can see from this ABC News report earlier this year and more recently this TV story, “Forget Bitcoins, what about time as currency?”.


And then there’s what has come to dominate the meaning of “sharing economy” – for-profit business services like Uber and AirBnB.  One sharing aspect of these businesses comes about because not everyone has to buy an asset, like a car, for it to be available.  Another way is when a person makes available – “shares” – an asset he/she owns, like an apartment. 

The growth of these “sharing” services has not been without complaints about:

  • Abuses of the people delivering services – like the complaints against Uber by drivers who feel insufficiently compensated;
  • Abuses of the people receiving services – like the fear of attacks by guests of AirBnB hosts or the trashing of the host’s apartments;
  • Various violations of state and local regulations intended to protect consumers and ensure properly functioning markets.  (You might want to see the recent, November 19, session of Legal Hackers NYC and Launch LM concerning “Legal Issues in the Sharing Economy

To an extent, I’d chalk up these problems to the newness of this approach to business. 

For me, though, the longer term issue is whether these services are as transformative as their advocates claim.  Are these “sharing economy” businesses more than just another example of the way that the Internet can help decentralize business activity and decompose hierarchies? 

While decentralization is not unimportant, the answer would seem to be no.  These businesses, by and large, have not fundamentally changed the role of money nor set out to provide a way to measure the increasing share of human activity that is intangible services and digital products. 

Perhaps a version of Bitcoin is needed that is not merely another currency that can be exchanged for dollars or euros, but can instead be used as a measure of time given, resources shared, and data or creative product provided.  Whatever the answer is, I hope we don’t have to wait until the 23rd century to figure that out.


© 2014 Norman Jacknis