Everything is possible, and almost nothing is certain (Havel)

“The single planetary civilization to which we all belong confronts us with global challenges. We stand helpless before them because our civilization has essentially globalized only the surface of our lives. But our inner self continues to have a life of its own. And the fewer answers the era of rational knowledge provides to the basic questions of human being, the more deeply it would seem that people, behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe… The abyss between the rational and the spiritual, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, the technical and the moral, the universal and the unique constantly grows deeper… Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence. Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world. Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction. The Declaration of Independence, adopted two hundred and eighteen years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”      – Vaclav Havel, July 4, 1994, Philadelphia, PA, USA accepting the Liberty Medal Read the entire, probing, timely, deeply relevant speech  

Last Meal

On death row you celebrate your last night with your last dinner, your choice, your last craving to make at least your stomach happy before it stops craving anything at all. Many choose simple food: a hamburger, mac and cheese, ice cream. What might it be for you, my friend? Duckling Rouenaisse? A roast of unborn lamb? Washed down with Veuve Cliquot ’59 and old Armagnac? And how do you know, my friend, that you are not eating your last meal at this very table now? Chew slowly. Make sure you take in all the body and the blood – Bill Holm, Chain Letter of the Soul, Selected  

The Vanishing Interface

The tools that connect us are increasingly temporary. With each new technology, the distance between humanity shrinks or, in some cases, disappears. And not just physical distance, but all distances — time, feedback systems, meme spread, tribal and ideological identity … much of what defines us individually is accelerating collectively. Moore’s Law tells us that computers will continue to get more powerful, shrink in size, and converge to near-zero cost. Within generations, the “devices” we use to connect to this emerging network will become a generic and transparent part of life, integrated into clothing, furniture, walls, vehicles, and anything else we encounter throughout our day. This evolution took another big step with India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development announcement of a $35 tablet in the works.  This isn’t a full-featured computer, but rather a cloud device. As more and more heavy lifting is done in the cloud, tablets such as this become a common user-interface. Yet in a few generations, the idea of “tablet” will seem quaint, as connective technologies become an invisible part of everyday life, and perhaps even part of human biology. The cloud, of course, is where virtual tools and all but the most sensitive information will eventually reside, with all people and cultures having equal and immediate access. The cloud includes communication protocols that will eventually offer a seamless language bridge for all data (text, speech, visual, etc.). It really won’t matter what language we write or speak — the intelligence of the cloud will make virtually all human symbolism understandable to everyone, at any time, in real-time. Anyone on the planet will connect with anyone else without the historical barriers of language, time, or border. This assumes, of course, that the Internet(s) remain free from overt government or commercial restrictions (see prior post, China, Iran, etc.). The distance between us will continue to collapse (cost, size, ubiquity) until we literally become the interface, if we chose  

Wonder Never Gets Old

My friend Seth Raphael shares some wisdom today on the TED Blog. A graphic (below) caught my attention, something he calls “The Chain of Wonder.” I like the concept of “expectation violation.” So often we get into life routines that don’t violate anything – same old, same old. I’m convinced that a life worth living is a life that is constantly violating the status quo – not for violation’s sake, but to breakthrough into new levels of experience, awe, wonder, and revelation.  And in breaking through, we can legitimately call others to new places of awe, wonder, and breakthrough. But when expectations are violated, some people are not excited or positively motivated. They instead become fearful and suspicious. I think this describes much of religion – a fear response – a flight response – a call to circle the wagons. And fear coupled with Raphael’s next stage of obsession en masse perhaps describes religion’s darkest legacies. Conversely, when an expectation violation is embraced with awe and wonder, I think it can make for a much healthier life, both individually and in one’s contribution to the larger global family. Call it spirituality or whatever, how we react to uncertainty defines much of who we are, and how we perceive others. Seth has a great handle on this and I encourage you to learn more about his work. As he says, “wonder never gets old.” Seth’s Website (click on the rabbit!)  

Happy Father’s Day

… I lost my dad to prostate cancer in 1994. We took care of him in the last few months of his long life (85). He died in my arms. He spent his last few weeks on morphine to dull what he described as horrible pain, but on the last couple of days, when I put the pills to his lips, he spit them out. He couldn’t talk, could barely move, but I knew he was all there inside, sensing transition and wanting to experience his last days of life with drug-free clarity. Dad had 5 brothers and 2 sisters, all of them now gone. Richard was the youngest brother, who left us in 2008. Dad spent the last decades of his life near his closest brother in the Nevada desert. He and Henry loved the desert. Henry had a favorite place he would go, miles into the Nevada wilderness. His ashes are spread in that place. My dad directed us to spread his ashes in the same place. A few years later, his brother Raymond also asked to be remembered in the same wilderness. Maybe someday I will do the same. My dad was an avid golfer all his adult life, until the cancer prevented him from walking. Some of my greatest memories are playing golf with dad and always being in awe of his skill. He loved to play golf at Lake Tahoe. One day, a freak August electrical storm rolled in without warning and struck him on the 3rd fairway. I still have the front page newspaper clipping from 1965. The headline read:   “Lightning KO’s Golfers” We were tent camping that week. When he came back from Barton emergency room (broken finger), the first thing he said to us (in his gruff, matter-of-fact manner) was:  “we’re getting a motel.” The urn I brought to his memorial in the desert was a sealed copper canister. In fact, it was sealed so well, I couldn’t get it open. Raymond and I considered our options and rummaged around the rental cars for something that might pry the lid. And then we found it – a golf course green repair tool. It worked splendidly, and we knew dad was smiling down on us. When we spread his ashes, we added some golf balls, tees, and of course the green repair  

Debt

Coincidence? Over the last 48 hours, I have read or heard the phrase “double-dip recession” no fewer than four times. In each instance, the phrase was used via a major media outlet. Robert Reich said point-blank “we’re falling into a double-dip recession.” CNN repeated the phrase. British PM Cameron said yesterday that Britain’s peacetime record budget deficit could anchor us for decades. Fed Chairman Bernanke used the phrase yesterday in a speech, as a foil. The meme is spreading. Since the economic meltdown of 4Q08 (and subsequent bailout) I have been skeptical of a theory that seeks to build prosperity on a foundation of massive debt and worthless paper. Is Reich right? Does this growing loss of confidence portend a downturn? I want to briefly explore what are arguably the three key markers of economic health. 1. Employment As a former Secretary of Labor, Reich makes his central point: “the labor market continues to deteriorate… the median wage continues to drop.” He argues, and I would tend to agree, that we have artificially prolonged an inevitable reckoning by (1) increasing liquidity via massive debt, (2) coaxing a temporary boost with near-zero interest rates (which cannot be sustained), and (3) deferring replacement of aging hard goods (cars, capital, etc.). Of course, Reich has the solution:  raise taxes so government can fix it with more redistribution programs (!) An outrageous contradiction. 2. Real Estate Interest rates are at near-historical lows, yet new mortgages are at a 13-year low. IMF economists are predicting a dramatic continued downturn in real estate values – in some markets as much as 40%. The taxpayer-funded housing credit has expired, there are over 1 million bank-owned homes not yet on market, another 5 million mortgages are expected to end in foreclosure, another 6.3 million homes sit vacant (not to mention a growing amount of distressed commercial property), April year-over-year real estate values are down 4.1%, and interest rates cannot remain at record lows much longer. According to WSJ, post-tax-credit home activity (May) is down 25-30% – a trend they say will continue. 3. Debt Ratios & Unfunded Liabilities U.S. national debt has just surpassed 90% of GDP ($13 trillion – adding $1 million every 30 seconds) – a peacetime record. Click on the link and compare the external Debt-to-GDP ratios of USA and China (hint: it’s 94% vs. 8%). Total U.S. unfunded liabilities are $109 trillion, and growing without any sign of turning back. This is nearly twice the GDP of the entire world ($58 trillion). And with an aging population, the growth of these unfunded liabilities (medicare, social security, etc.) are showing no sign of slowing. They are, in fact, accelerating. We lifted ourselves out of a wartime debt (125% of GDP) because our 1940’s economy was roughly 60% primary productivity (industrial, agricultural, manufacturing). Today, 80% of U.S. GDP is based on secondary activity (services, tax funded, etc.). The economic engine has shifted to the Far East, which holds dramatically increasing amounts of U.S. debt. We have a serious and worsening Debt-to-GDP problem. I would call it a National Emergency. The Federal Government is not the solution. It is, to a large extent, the problem. We are moving steadily away from producing what we need in this country. We are also moving away from producing on a scale that enables us to trade for what we do need. Rather than do without, we are increasingly importing things with a promise to pay later. This cannot go on. When our trading partners, especially China, no longer want to loan us hundreds of billions of dollars a year to be paid later, we will have little productive capacity left and we will be a poor nation. We need successful industries and we need to innovate within them to keep them thriving. However, when your trading partner is thinking about GDP rather than profit, and has adopted mercantilist tactics, subsidizing industries, and mispricing its currency, while loaning you the money to buy the underpriced goods, this may simply not be possible.“ – Ralph Gomory, President Emeritus at Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Former Head R&D IBM; Research Professor at NYU With a nod to King Crimson, I repeat myself when under stress:  we can’t build (let alone sustain) a free, buoyant society on a foundation of massive debt. When seen in the light of increasingly scarce natural resources, the U.S. is heading for a national train wreck, effectively becoming a debt slave to a new world financial order. From the New York Times, It was too much debt that caused the problem in the first place: a new report by the International Monetary Fund warns that “high levels of public indebtedness could weigh on economic growth for years.” The world’s budget deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product now stands at 6 percent, up from just 0.3 percent before the financial crisis. If public debt is not lowered back to pre-crisis levels, the I.M.F. report said, growth in advanced economies could decline by half a percentage point annually. Furthermore, financial policy makers find themselves running out of weapons in their arsenal. After borrowing trillions to stimulate their economies and ease credit concerns during the last wave of fear in late 2008 and early 2009, governments cannot borrow trillions more without risking higher inflation and shoving aside other borrowers like individuals and companies. Short-term interest rates, already near zero in the United States, cannot be lowered any further. And vital steps like raising taxes or cutting spending increases could snuff out the beginnings of a recovery in northern Europe and worsen the pain in recession-battered economies like Spain, where unemployment recently passed 20 percent. With the exception of wartime, the public finances in the majority of advanced industrial countries are in a worse state today than at any time since the industrial revolution. A little group called Consumer Metrics Institute has been remarkably accurate at predicting economic trends roughly six months before they happen, including the 2008 crash. As their model predicted, 2010 U.S. GDP has been growing at a 3% annual rate. But CMI now predicts a 3Q drop into 2% contraction. At best, they call for an “extended mild slowdown” in the recovery — at worst they are predicting the early stages of a deep, prolonged structural economic shift, also known as a double-dip recession.  

Favorite TED Talks 2010

Great to see Bill Gates taking global energy seriously. In fact, he publicly stated from the TED stage last week what I’ve been saying since 2003:  energy is this century’s greatest structural issue. Fellow TED’ster Richard Branson went public this week with a similar clarion call. Worldchanging founder Alex Steffan, whom I spoke with at length, calls this “the most important climate speech of the year.” Sir Ken Robinson defined once again the highest art of public speaking. TED curator, Chris Anderson, noted after Ken’s talk that he may be the only person who can break all the TEDTalk rules – and we love him for it. Robinson focused on why education needs to change from an industrial model to an agricultural model. I think the same can be said of religion. Echoes of Wendell Berry. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot took us through a stunning visualization of design simplicity, in the form of fractals. I had a chance to spend some time with Benoit at TED, discussing emergence theory in light of fractal geometry and the Mandelbrot set. The music at TED this year was stunning: David Byrne (who also gave a TEDTalk), Thomas Dolby, and Natalie Merchant melted us with a brand new suite of songs based on romantic poets from the last 100 years. Cheryl Crow showed up, but probably shouldn’t have. Not much there musically. Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and family, and other musicians were soaking up the TED experience, but not there to perform. Oh, and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro captivated everyone. I’ve never heard a uke played with such subtlety – a true master of the instrument. I understand he gave impromptu concerts back in the lobby of the TED hotel. Anyone who takes the stage at TED is unpaid, including the invited musicians. Drawing from the field of Behavioral Economics, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman presented what amounted to an intellectual foundation for our activist social-media site Compathos.com. Dan asks, “when we return from a vacation, do the memories we bring back have intrinsic value?” Compathos (still in beta) seeks to realign the concept of “vacation” as a proactive event in which we aid or assist our destination with skills we possess (medical, engineering, skilled labor, crafts, etc..) and in doing so, we become deeply changed – bringing back to our own communities a new perspective, a new heart, and transformed motivations – far more than a traditional vacation memory. Sam Harris gave a surprisingly engaging talk. Rather than rehashing his views on atheism, Harris focused on finding an objective framework for morality and ethics. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke, who said “one of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.” Kevin Bales presented a detailed, moving account of global slavery. It’s Kevin’s academic work that gave us the estimate of 27 million slaves worldwide. His work in slavery has effectively paved the way for most of today’s anti-slave efforts. I was honored to have lunch with Kevin after TED ended on Saturday – what a truly amazing man. Game designer Jane McGonigal sees video gaming as a core solution to many of today’s social problems. Don’t laugh – her TEDTalk is a must-watch. Brilliant. Cell biologist Mark Roth is onto something big. He’s discovered a way to put biological systems into suspended animation. Using his techniques, people who would otherwise die from serious trauma on the battlefield, in car accidents, etc.. can be placed into suspension (heart and breathing stopped – effectively dead) for hours without tissue damage while they are transported to a trauma center. Jaw dropping. Entertainer Sarah Silverman reminded me of those shallow and bawdy Las Vegas night club comedians from my parent’s era (Redd Foxx, etc..). With kids sharing the live TED experience both in Long Beach and virtual associates worldwide, this was not a wise choice. Live and learn. But many of the best talks were those that happened between sessions, in the halls, in the social spaces, at the lunches, and dinners, and parties, and spontaneous gatherings that define the TED experience. To elaborate on all the amazing, emotive, high-energy, a-ha! conversations I had this year might sound like name-dropping, so I’ll spare you the details. I go to TED to get energized, inspired, challenged, and awestruck by and with amazing people doing amazing things. I spend a week of my life here to renew a sense of childlike wonder and remind myself that I’m not crazy – that there are others who dare to dream big. ADDED:  Eighteen-year TED veteran Jack Meyers captures the scope and nuance of a TED Conference in his Huffington Post essay ADDED: Scoble’s excellent summary of attending TED ADDED: Overview of Bill Gates’ energy talk, at  

Life on the Virtual Frontier

New Frontline documentary by Douglass Rushkoff on the benefits and dangers of connective technologies. About 80 min and well worth your time. I especially like Sherry Turkle’s interviews. Sherry is among the world’s foremost experts on human-machine interface, with 30 years as MIT professor. Sherry and I were on panels together at Renaissance in Charleston last month – we had some really great conversations.