Advance Australia Where?

Australia is going through a transitional period. It used to be the young western nation, trying hard to keep up with the bigger brothers and sisters, yet in recent times Australia has matured to the point that it even surpasses some of the older nations in aspects of multiculturalism, social security, health, etc. Unfortunately whilst the country has matured, the government has not. Governments of Australia continue to label itself as the ‘deputy sheriff’ of the region, happy to ride on the coat tails of the larger more established western empires.

Yet the detriment of lacking a bold vision for Australia is that the people will not learn how to aspire to greatness. China has actively developed its own space program, something which its people can and should be very proud of. Where is Australia’s space program? Too expensive? Oh the USA has already has an established program so we don’t even consider it? Unfortunately Australia is facing some tough challenges ahead as it matures to becoming a truly independent state that others may look to as an equal rather than a nation that just follows the leader.

 

Cannot see the trees for the forest

Google recently announced that they are retiring their feed reader service due to declining usage and realignment of focus on products that generate profit. Ultimately it seems that Reader does not fit in the current ‘walled garden’ philosophy being applied to all the big social networking platforms (i.e. Google+, Facebook, Twitter). Perhaps less so with Twitter, but it seems that Facebook and Google+ would like you to stay within their confines as long as possible. But contrary to rhetoric, these walled gardens are not necessarily beneficial to the users of these services, but rather are attempts to maximise advertising revenue by taking browsers hostage – an approach we have seen since the early days of the web where sites would use frames to keep browser traffic going through their sites.

The problem with these All Of Internet sites is that they dismiss the potential for mashups, or combining different sites and web resources to make new sites and resources. Yahoo Pipes is a good example of a service that provides mashups for RSS feeds, and whilst it may not have been a raging success it does set the stage for more services that are open and accessible without first having to sell your soul.

Google says Reader’s problem was declining usage, however it is hard to believe that Google couldn’t afford to maintain the status quo without being concerned with profit-making. Unfortunately it seems they are yet another example of an organisation that has been infiltrated by bean counters – and bean counters will always destroy what is great, before they move on to their next target..

 

20/20 Hindsight

What is the role of government? Should their priority be the economy or a vision for the future? There seems to be little focus on vision from anywhere in Australian politics right now, and the neglect is starting to show. Figures like the unemployment rate are constantly bandied about as a sign of economic health, yet at the same time an increasing number of jobs are being off-shored. In fact many of the largest Australian companies – those deemed “too big to fail” – are at the heart of this race to the bottom in a bid to maximise profits. So what is the long-term strategy? For organisations is it a systematic approach to reducing the median wage for knowledge workers? It would seem so. Obviously not every job can be sent to India, but the lure of paying wages as little as one tenth that of the local wage is very tempting. And of what of those jobs that can’t possibly be off-shored, even with the wildest imagination? Well you can always outsource to a global company with a large employee base in the developing world. Sure these companies will have a local cosmetic presence, but the bulk of their workforce is also earning as little as one tenth the local wage. And what does a global company like this do to service the needs of local clients? Import staff from their overseas workforce. Staff used to earning as little as one tenth the local wage, and willing to work in Australia for one fifth the local wage. But shouldn’t Australia’s work visas protect against this kind of economic sabotage? Probably, but I guess someone has discovered how to work the system.

So what does it mean for government? Well they look at the record profits made each year by these large Australian companies and tell everyone the economy is strong. The economy is growing, because everyone knows that profit = growth right? Well actually not necessarily. There is certainly profit to be made from reducing the median wage of local knowledge workers, but did anything grow? Isn’t this kind of short-term profit grab actually destabilising the economy, by reducing the quality of our knowledge workers (anyone that denies this is ignoring the fundamental rule: you get what you pay for)? Contrary to accountants’ belief knowledge is not a commodity that you can put a price on. You cannot quantify an ability to think, and you cannot assume equality across a room full of thinkers. But you can assume that a culture based on thinking and autonomy like Australia will produce better thinkers than one ruled by authority and hierarchy. In such a society you will find people good at doing what they are told, which is fine if you can always tell someone exactly what to do. But you can’t. Don’t pretend you can, you just look silly. You need autonomous individuals, in all kinds of jobs.

So where does the government stand on this issue? Do they even know it is happening? Probably, but they likely don’t care. Politicians, economists and accountants all have faith in the capitalist market. The belief that capitalism will right all wrongs, and heal any anomalies  that emerge in course are based on a brief view of the past. We study capitalism as if it was always they way of the world, yet we dare not consider that perhaps it has a finite lifespan. Market forces will continue to dominate more aspects of our lives, as the crafty bean counters find ways to squeeze a few more dollars from their market position. In the past we had no issue as these dollars were flowing back into our hands by way of employment, but now they have found a way to squeeze the dollars from our pockets, to drive down the median wage and report bumper earnings for their shareholders. Which will make them happy, at least in the short term. Which is all anyone wants now right? Short term happiness. Government, shareholders, and us. Who cares about vision? We are all happy right? At least until we are not. Only then might we consider, albeit briefly, the true cost of a lack of vision for the future.

A Well-Oiled Machine

Sarah recently posted about a troubling scene where bystanders jeered at a motorist in the wrong place. I am witness to such events on a daily basis – not quite as blatant but similarly disturbing. Usually related to pedestrian traffic, and usually involving public transport.

A sigh, or a grunt, even a look of disgust at people not following to explicit or implicit rules. I must admit I am guilty myself of getting annoyed when people don’t move down the carriage and block the doorway on trams and trains.

These are afflictions of an increasingly segmented life. Time-box everything to the nth degree. It allows two things: 1. Operate on auto-pilot – no need to think about routine tasks, we can instead peer into our smart phones at twitter, facebook, news feeds, etc. 2. Improve the efficiency of the well-oiled machine, eliminate gaps, delays, interruptions to our momentum.

Public transport operators have a reason to act this way: they have SLAs to meet and if they run late they get penalised – evident in the recent Footscray station debacle where getting the train moving was more important than the safety of a sick/injured passenger. We can’t really expect anything more from an organisation, which has emphasis only on efficiency and profit, not on ethical values and moralistic behaviour.

Many believe we need to change our organisations to act more ethically, with a conscience. But perhaps, in reality, it is organisations that are changing us. We are losing our compassion for others in our increasingly mechanistic behaviour, replacing moral thought with concern only for meeting our own personal SLAs.

A Culture Of Blame

It seems not so long ago that we used to look at the litigious nature of American society with bemusement. Not only did people refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions, but they also felt a need to find someone to blame for events that are out of everyone’s control.

We no longer find this attitude so alien in Australia, with the ruthless search for people, organisations and governments that we can find guilty as charged. With an unprecedented season of natural disasters, we are seeing tremendous community spirit – people pulling together to help each other in the face of adversity. But for the media there is only so much news to sell about goodwill: finding the guilty parties is much more lucrative.

But who is to blame for natural disasters? Can we charge God with being insensitive? Whilst it may not be politically correct to cast doubt on God’s will, politicians are certainly fair game. Was there enough warning? Did the government do enough to protect the public? If the police advise evacuation in advance but people refuse to heed the warning, is it really the fault of the public services if there is injury or loss of life as a result? Surely we don’t need to ask these questions – we all make our own choices each and every day, and we value a society that allows us to do so. Why then do we try to blame someone else for our own poor judgement?

And what about the cost – will they force us to foot the bill for the damage that we are not responsible for? If we are altruistic enough to actually donate some money to those in need, any additonal levies should be offset by the tax deductibility of the donation. But of course the people that complain the loudest are also the ones that are the least likely to be altruistic.

But of course the media will hype anything that generates fear, uncertainty and doubt in people’s minds, and a natural disaster brings all of these with it. Perhaps however the doubt should be cast on the real benefits of such a media, and whether a world without it would be a more forgiving and compassionate one.

Do you fit the mould?

Statistics are the cornerstone of every modern Western society. Governments use them to guage public opinion, and more increasingly private enterprises rely on statistics to narrow the focus on their target audiences. Contemporary business procedures almost universally dictate that you need to understand your target audience in order to provide services and products that will best serve the customer. Unfortunately, as with most dogmas, when these principles are applied without reservation the original purpose is lost and a large part of society becomes marginalised.

Polls, surverys and focus groups can all generate a wealth of information, however there is one piece of information that is typically the focus: what does the majority want. Of course there is nothing wrong with responding to the majority on individual issues, however when the same methodology is applied to a group of issues collectively, a poll becomes a profiling excercise, whereby the implementors use statistics to predict the overall feeling of a populace on a number of issues. The problem with profiling however, is that it doesn’t necessarily represent any form of reality.

The best we can realistically hope for with this type of social profiling is that the majority will have some of their opinions on individual issues addressed, but as a whole you would expect noone to be represented in the entirety of their views. To achieve even this level of representation for the majority, the issues being addressed collectively must be related, in that unrelated issues can generate wildy different opinions amongst individuals, and any attempt to consolidate such opinions into a collective majority view would be futile. The danger then, is that companies, governments, etc. may not fully understand how issues relate to each other, and may build their campaign on a foundation of poorly implemented statistics.

Australian politics is at a crossroads right now, with no party being able to capture the favour of the majority. As political parties rely so much on polling the electorate, it would suggest that in Australia the number crunchers have failed to generate meaninful statistical data regarding the issues that resonate most strongly with the public.  Or maybe the parties have just lost their faith in statistics. Whatever the reason, it is clear that noone really understood what the electorate wanted.

Perhaps more of a concern is how companies, both large and small, seem to give greater importance to servicing existing markets than allowing new markets to form around their products and services. This is the act of entrepeneurs without an idea – leaders without vision. The only thing companies seem clear on is that they want huge profits, and however they achieve that goal isn’t really all that important. So they rely on statistics and social profiling, trying to determine what people want and are willing to pay for. For these companies the unfortunate truth is that without even a moral compass to guide you, generating reliable and useful statistics is very difficult. Unfortunately for the rest of us, these companies also have greater liberties than government when it comes to smoke and mirrors magic tricks (i.e. advertising), often leaving us deceived by the fine print. And as for companies like Woolworths, Kmart, Costco, what do they stand for? Lower prices, every day? That’s not a moral position, it’s a slogan. But we all know that the consumer majority will happily choose lower prices over morality, but what we don’t see is that these choices are slowly eroding our own individuality.

As more companies focus on serving the consumer majority, the diversity of products and services is sacrificed. The resulting homogoneity in turn forces the consumer to change their behaviour, and start buying products that everyone else buys. Start doing things the way everyone else does. Stop thinking for yourself and fall into line. Hang on, wasn’t it supposed to be companies that respond to consumer demand for products and services? How is it then that companies can change consumer behaviour? Has the moulder become the moulded?

So the next time you deal with a profit-focused enterprise, consider the alternatives, even if they are more expensive. Nothing less than your own individuality is at stake.

Duplicity Rules

Marketing is the cornerstone of every product or service in a modern society. Branding, slogans, product placement; all of these techniques contribute to promoting awareness in the marketplace. More recently however, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant in an increasingly connected world, we see marketing strategies becoming more and more deceitful.

It is not uncommon for a marketing budget to exceed that of a product’s entire development, highlighting the importance that companies place on promotion. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount spent on marketing is often directly proportional to the inverse of the product’s true value, i.e. the more useless a product is the more it will be flogged off to consumers.

So what then,  is the real purpose of this marketing machine modern society has created? Is it to promote the real benefits a product will bring to our lives, or is it just a mechanism for fooling us into parting with our wealth for something that, more often than not, is simply a waste of our time and money?

But marketing is not entirely without its benefits as, used wisely it can help to gauge public opinion about the true benefits of a product or service, and so help to measure if we really are on the right path or just cluttering the market with yet more snake oil.

How Do We Rate?

Recently I have noticed a significant increase in the number of email surveys I am receiving. Regardless of the industry – from health insurance to charities – it seems that practically anyone that has my email address wants me to complete an online survey about myself, their current services or potential future services. I guess it seems like a reasonable way to gather information about your customer base, and I probably wouldn’t mind so much if these surveys weren’t so excruciatingly boring!

Which I guess is why they tend to offer prizes as incentive to complete the survey. But here’s a cheaper option guys – figure out how to make a survey short and to the point and you’ll find more people will do it for nothing. As it currently stands, if I have to read a page more than once (usually due to a bad layout), there are more than three (3) questions to a page, or there are more than five (5) pages, chances are that I won’t finish your survey. Now if I, as a Gen-X/Yer (somewhere in between – I still don’t get these classifications!) cannot concentrate on your survey, then the ADD generation to follow will have no hope whatsoever.

And whilst the number of booths in shopping malls trying to sell you something are steadily increasing, their numbers are dwarfed by the proliferation of people with clipboards asking for a moment of your time to do a survey. Even if I had the time to spare for a survey, these days I just wouldn’t do it for fear that if they get my name and address there’s a good chance I’ll end up on yet another spammers list somewhere.

Because that is the way it works. The more cooperative you are in sharing information the more likely you are to be punished – harassed no less – either by phone, fax, email or snail mail. So the lesson we (eventually) learn is don’t trust your details to anyone unless you have no other choice. But even then you will not be able to completely avoid the harassment we all must experience.

Quick question, Sir

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the credit card salesmen that hang out in shopping centres these days. Standing in front of their little stall and calling out to random passers-by, trying to lure them into a sales pitch. Or maybe the people that come knocking on your door selling heavily discounted newspaper subscriptions are more familiar. Either way, you cannot escape the aggressive sales tactics that so plague modern society.

Did it all start with snake oil? Perhaps not, but that is probably the most apt analogy to the strategies employed today by the traveling salesmen. Rule of Sales #1: Have belief in the product you are selling, or at least appear to have belief in it. Maybe it is the sheer proliferation of people trying to make a quick buck, but I think many salespeople these days haven’t quite nailed this one. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone that was trying to sell me something they actually would buy for themselves (apart from electronic gadgets – I think we all marvel at what technology can do these days). No, these days sales experience is a commodity that you can (apparently) apply to anything and expect success. This is why credit card companies and newspaper corporations are all willing to outsource their sales to some generic reseller that will flog off a product using their generic sales skills.

Have the outsourcers considered that the aversion of the general public to these sales tactics may in fact translate to bad publicity for the product? Probably. In fact they have probably found that people don’t hold a grudge for too long, and as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Rule of Sales #2: Everything can be sold, as long as the price is right. Heavily discounted subscription fees, waive the annual fee for the first year, the first hit is free. Sure it may be a bargain to someone, but if you don’t need it – or even want or have a use for it – chances are that it isn’t the bargain you bargained for.

So anyway, sure it’s a free world and salesmen – like everyone – have a right to earn a living doing what they do – after all they are just doing their job. But is it really a necessary job? Is it making our world a better place? Or are they like mosquitoes – something you probably wouldn’t miss if they were to become extinct tomorrow.

So to you, Mr. Salesman, Sir, I have a quick question: Do you actually like your job? Do you get satisfaction from selling things to people that they probably don’t need? Rule of Sales #3: There is a better salesman than you somewhere in the world, and they are probably the one that sold your job to you.

I’m Just Doing My Job

Did you know there is a position at an abattoirs whose job it is to fire a bolt into the side of a cow’s head? Cow after cow on conveyor is locked into place ready for the executioner to pull the trigger. Would you sleep at night if this was your job? Some wouldn’t, but many would – after all they are just doing their job.

What about police, soldiers and, dare I say it, ticket inspectors? Are they all “just doing their job”? Many will use that excuse when confronted with a morally challenging and/or confrontational situation. But this is not a valid excuse for a rational, thinking human being. We are not machines programmed to perform tasks, nor can we suggest that we are in no way accountable for any one of our actions. We are complicit in every single thing we do, be it through choice or that which is dictated to us.

So how far are we from a society such as those portrayed in movies such a V for Vendetta, or Children of Men? If governments – or, more commonly these days, private companies to which governments are outsourcing responsibilities – continue to dictate morally ambiguous job descriptions, is this not leading to a world that disregards any moral responsibility?

Unfortunately our future society may in fact be even worse than those alluded to by the movies. Our future will not be one where the detriment of society can be traced back to a single individual or group of individuals. Rather we will find that most of the bereavement of our moral responsibilities is the result of some seemingly innocuous decision made in the bowels of a government or organisation. A decision made to streamline a process, or to improve efficiency. Moreover, these decisions will be made by morally just individuals like you or I, who didn’t have the foresight to understand the repercussions of such decisions. Such decisions will be made for the benefit of the organisation or, more ironically, society as a whole. And those that make these decisions cannot be held accountable as, after all, they were just doing their job.