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From the archives: The strain of civilisation
The Strategy Toolkit - October 2020 edition
Excerpt: Strategy & Language / Linguistics, part two
In part one of this investigation into the interplay of strategy and language / linguistics, we examined the role of technological change in both strengthening and weakening the use of particular languages. We also called out how technology can assist with reviving languages that have fallen out of use. Coincidentally, researchers at MIT have begun to apply machine learning to the study of “lost languages.”*
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Many commentators, in fact, have pointed out the parallels between the effects of today’s internet and the effects of earlier innovations such as Gutenberg’s printing press, Bell’s telephone, and Farnsworth’s television. And as we shall see a little later in our dive into communication theory, the effects can be so profound that, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “the medium becomes the message.”
And every bearer of bad news, up to and including today’s Facebook, has proclaimed, “Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.”
Another interesting dataset for examining the effect of technology on language is that of Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia. Leila Zia, a researcher with the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation which operates Wikipedia, recently presented at Stanford University on how the dataset varies by language and by geography.* These trends further varied by age and level of education. She then reported on what that might imply about the gaps in knowledge in the dataset which, arguably, represents a snapshot of language on the internet. To add to the complexity, her team expanded the scope of research to include all supporting resources (volunteers, editors, patrollers and other administrators) and how their decisions are affected by the current vitality of each of the more than 280 languages exigent on Wikipedia.
Of course, what constitutes a language, whether it be at a multilateral institution such as the United Nations or the European Union, or whether it be an internet non-profit such as Wikimedia or for-profit such as Google, varies with the context and varies over time.
According to the Oxford English dictionary*, the meaning of the word language differs if we mean what is used by the people of a particular country or area, or if we are referring simply to the sounds and words of communication, or to a style of speaking or writing, or more broadly to the expression of ideas and feelings using any combination of movement, symbols and sound, or even to the more technical use of symbols and rules for computer programming.
Let’s jump deeper into the first meaning (what is used by the people of a particular country or area), given its socio-political nature. Earlier we mentioned Max Weinreich’s quip regarding the importance of military might in determining the difference between a dialect and a language. It’s not that different from Stalin’s alleged dismissal of the Catholic Church as an entity without an army.
Take the example of what occurred in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the last century. The same regional chauvinisms that tore the country apart led to multiple offshoots of what was once considered a single language (Serbo-Croatian). Those who today emphasise the common elements of language across the region are referred to as “lumpers”, whereas those who focus on the differences between, say Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, are referred to as “splitters”. It’s not a simple task to detach the exercise of political power from identity or from the use of any one language. And, many countries prioritise significant investment in language as an instrument of state, e.g. the Confucius Institutes, the Goethe Institutes and les Alliances Francaises.
Which, of course, is a neat segue to our next topic, the language spoken by the most people, namely Mandarin Chinese. Greater than one billion people use Mandarin as a first or second language, more than double the next highest (English). What explains its extraordinary success? What can a strategist learn from the story of Mandarin?
According to Peter Kessler, in his fascinating analysis* of the Cultural Revolution in China and its devastating effect on the scholar of linguistics Chen Mingjia, “written Chinese is unique: a script whose fundamental structural principles haven’t changed since the days of the Shang dynasty (circa 1600 BC and earlier).” Although the evolution of written Chinese paralleled that of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the shift from pictographics (where each character is associated with one thing or idea) to logographics (where each character becomes a spoken syllable), written Chinese never converted to an alphabetic system. Not even the Communist leader Mao Zedong was able to drive such change, despite his attempts in the 1950’s. Whatever progress he started was turned upside down in the chaos following the Cultural Revolution.
* Peter Hessler, “Oracle Bones,” The New Yorker (February 16 2004): 118-131
The tradeoffs are subtle: the written form of Chinese language is universal, while the spoken forms are as diverse as the full set of Romance languages. Literacy in China is tied to learning how to write thousands of characters, and much importance has been placed over time on writing skills, including the art of calligraphy. The characters themselves have remained relatively stable across the centuries, facilitating the preservation and transmission of knowledge from ancient times to the present without the equivalent of the Dark Ages in Europe.
The stability itself, however, is, in a sense, manufactured, as linguist Imre Galambos explains to Kessler: “There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world,” he told me. “I think the literary world is the link in time that permits this thing we call ‘Chinese history.’ It’s not the number of people or anything like that; it’s the enormous written world that they produced. It’s so big that it eats them up and everybody around them.”
“There are certain cultures, like the Byzantine and the Chinese, in which the written documents create a world that is more significant than the real world.”
- linguist Imre Galambos
In other words, being able to connect the form of the language so far back in time is a tool of power. It reinforces and validates the claim of Chinese greatness over almost all of recorded history. And to present-day attempts to reclaim such power.
And thus do strategy & language / linguistics intersect.
Which brings us to the English language, what many would consider the most widely spoken language today. From the vantagepoint of Beijing, the widespread use of English and not, say, Chinese, is a direct result of the geopolitics of the past two centuries, in which the British empire was dominant, succeeded by its most powerful ex-colony, the United States. The recent rise of the Chinese economy is paralleled by an increase in the number of people studying Chinese as a second language. Possibly this trend is happening at the expense of middle-tier European languages such as French or German, more so than at the expense of English as a Second Language (ESL).
Some claim that English is the most successful language in history, as it is spoken all over the world as either a first or second language. English displaced French as the language of diplomacy and German in science. English is dominant in international business, in global culture, and on the internet. Linguists have studied the ease with which English adapts to its context, absorbing local words and expressions, facilitating communication across many sub-variants.
There are linguists who focus on how a language like English evolves as a result of the dynamics of immigrant families as they adopt second and third languages.* Other researchers have highlighted the factor of scale, i.e. the more people who use a language, the simpler and systematic it becomes.** A good strategist will note the implication for communicating effectively in circumstances involving larger groups (which may explain the “Powerpoint effect”).
* Johnson, “Big and basic,” The Economist (August 10 2019): 70
** Limor Raviv, Antje Meyer, Shiri Lev-Ari. Larger communities create more systematic languages. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2019; 286 (1907): 20191262 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.1262
As we mentioned earlier, languages thrive in conjunction with shifting modes of travel and the past decades of increasing globalisation have benefited the influence of English in no small way. If globalisation wanes in a post-pandemic world, then so might the use of English. In fact, the linguist Nicholas Ostler, in his book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel, has hypothesised a future in which English is no longer dominant. It was Ostler, who, you may recall, observed that languages rose and fell along with military conquests, trade flows, and religious conflicts.
Ostler based his hypothesis on two factors unique to English: first, that the number of users of English as a first language is not growing, making the use of English overall dependent on non-native speakers wanting ESL. This is not a given. Second, the rise of nationalism and the importance of local languages to national identities run counter to any foreign language being adopted as an official tongue. There are exceptions (Singapore, Canada) but not many. And with technology growing in ability to translate simply and quickly, there is less and less need for any one language to dominate.
Note the commonality between these two thriving languages (Chinese, English) and other widely spoken languages such as Arabic and Spanish: a written form standardised for all users accompanied by a flexible, loose, interchangeable group of sub-variants or dialects all referencing the one written form. Think of it as a federated or decentralised model. Contrast the success of this model with more strictly controlled, centralised languages such as French (with its Academie Francaise) or German (High versus Low). A good strategist might argue that the more decentralised model lends itself to broader adoption and acceptance of a language over time.
An extreme example of the centralised model is the world of invented languages such as Esperanto. More than nine hundred languages have been invented since Lingua Ignota, created by the twelfth-century German nun and mystic Hildegard von Bingen, one of the earliest known female composers. Almost all such languages have foundered. “The history of invented languages is, for the most part, a history of failure,” Arika Okrent, the author of “In the Land of Invented Languages,” writes.
The mathematician Gottfried Leibniz thought that a simple universal alphabet would unite the written world like the universal numbering system had done for mathematical literacy. Other utopian taxonomies include the attempt by musician Jean-Francois Sudre in 1827 to use aspects of music (the tonal notes do-re-mi, etc.) as syllables, allowing users to sing their words, turning us all into Maria from The Sound of Music. That fortunately was not successful. Esperanto, created by ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof in 1887, garnered the most support, coinciding with international efforts to rebuild a new world order in revolutionary Europe and in the aftermath of the world wars.
For any student of languages identifies and values certain interesting and unique features present in one language yet not in another. It is a small step from there to wanting to adopt these features, similar to how a software programmer may take a snippet of open source computer code from one application and use it in another.
For example, take positionality. One Australian Aboriginal language (Guugu Yimithirr), instead of using self-referential directional coordinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind”, uses cardinal directions such as north, south, east and west. That neatly solves the “stage left” and “stage right” conundrum.
Or take evidentiality, whereby you change verbs to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. This is found in a number of native American languages, including Wakashan in Canada and Tariana in Brazil.
The flexibility exhibited by English goes beyond just word choice; it includes the use of syllables of varying length, punctuation, grammar, euphemisms, and other colourful expressions like swearing and emojis. There is almost a free-form, “anything goes” aspect to English that makes it fun to learn and use, and, well, yes, frustrating at times. It doesn’t impose gendered associations to nouns, and keeps it relatively simple in terms of tenses and cases. The guardrails, so to speak, are fairly loose, permitting inventive ideas to circulate and capture people’s imagination. Every year there are reports of what new words and expressions have popular support, and which older terms are no longer in use. There is a vitality to this dynamic that maps the form of the language to contemporary life. Such adaptability is critical to the survival of the English language.
Henry Hitchings, in his book The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, investigates the history of arbitrary rules regarding English grammar, the reasons behind each rule, and how acceptance of each rule waxes and wanes over time. He believes that, since language reflects power, there will always be stakeholder groups with vested interest in any one rule at any time. But the efforts, at least in the case of English, are futile. As he puts it, “living languages are not in the end controllable.”
Thus we return to language and power. A good strategist will want to deepen their knowledge and understanding of this relationship. Being able to use language as a means to an end is very useful, in any profession. And there is no shortage of helpful advice out there, a lively market in manuals and tip-sheets going back almost 500 years, and a legacy of wisdom with an even longer history (to Cicero and beyond). A quick overview reveals how consistent the advice has remained over time.
For example, Cicero wrote, in his essay On Duties, that it is rude to interrupt another speaker, that good conversation requires alternation among participants. His rules for ordinary conversation are recognisable by today’s speakers: “speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; stick to subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and, above all, never lose your temper.”
Fast forward to the twentieth century and you have Dale Carnegie and his How to Win Friends and Influence People, with its six easy-to-remember rules: “remember names; listen well; be genuinely interested in other people; smile; talk in terms of the other person's interests; and make the other person feel important.”
Simple enough for the average person, but can you take it further? That leads you to politeness theory and the research of the linguist-anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson.* Drawing upon observations of self-esteem and “face” from multiple cultures, Brown and Levinson proposed a universal model of communication strategies predicated on achieving positive outcomes in social interactions.
“The Brown and Levinson model says, roughly speaking, that Person A probably does not want to be rude to Person B, but in the way of things, life may sometimes require Person A to contradict or intrude on Person B, and when that happens, Person A has a range of “politeness strategies” to draw on. There are four main possibilities, given in ascending order of politeness. The first is a “bald, on-record” approach: “I'm going to shut the window.” The second is positive politeness, or a show of respect: “I'm going to shut the window, is that OK?” The third is negative politeness, which presumes that the request will be an intrusion or an inconvenience: “I'm sorry to disturb you, but I want to shut the window.” The fourth is an indirect strategy which does not insist on a course of action at all: “Gosh, it's cold in here.”**
Other researchers have built upon this work, exploring the payoffs associated with each strategy (call this the game theoretic approach) and the relative hierarchy of the strategies, as well as applications of the theory to business, politics, the arts, etc. Politeness theory has its detractors, especially to the degree it is translatable across cultures, but something about it resonates with many audiences.
** Anonymous, “Chattering classes,” The Economist (December 23 2006): 79-82
Underpinning the ability to use language to accumulate and express power is, of course, literacy, and the willingness of powerful elites to suppress literacy in others. As Alberto Manguel outlined in his A History of Reading, “universal literacy has hardly been with us for much more than a hundred years. Before that, when reading was restricted, sometimes severely, to the clergy, bureaucrats, upper bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy, widespread reading was often viewed as a threat to social control. Peasants were not supposed to read the Bible and even upper-class women were often discouraged. Because a key tenet of both Judaism and Protestantism was that adherents should have direct contact with the scriptures, preferably through reading, there was a democratizing effect which eventually turned Europe on its head. (Just note how) the military junta led by General Pinochet banned Don Quixote in Chile, because the general believed (quite rightly) that it contained a plea for individual freedom and an attack on conventional authority."*
* John Ayre, “Facing the Books,” Books in Canada (February 1997), reviewing Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
Maintaining power structures and relative status in society becomes more difficult as general literacy increases, especially in countries where the concepts of class, caste, and place are frowned upon as antiquated or uneducated. Enter the concepts of highbrow versus lowbrow as applied to culture (think Louise Gluck or Toni Morrison versus, say, Stephen King or John Grisham).
According to John Seabrook*, “for more than a century, the élite in the United States distinguished themselves from consumers of commercial culture. Highbrow-lowbrow was the pivot on which distinctions of taste became distinctions of caste. The words “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are American inventions, devised for a specifically American purpose: to render culture into class. H. L. Mencken popularized the brow system in The American Language: “In the United States, making hierarchical distinctions about culture was the only acceptable way for people to talk openly about class… People needed highbrow-lowbrow distinctions to do the work that social hierarchy did in less egalitarian countries.”
* John Seabrook, “Nobrow Culture,” The New Yorker (September 20 1999): 104-111
It’s at this point where this chapter on strategy & language begins to intersect with the earlier chapter on strategy & biology. There is a lively set of academics studying the implications of evolution theory in linguistics and communications. One of the more prominent is Steven Pinker (whose books include The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought), whose central belief is in a Darwinian theory of language acquisition, how languages are learned.
Others include communications studies professors James Lull of San Jose State University and Eduardo Neiva of the University of Alabama–Birmingham, who argued that “the ways humans communicate with one another are strategies for adapting and surviving and hold the key to the future success of the human species as biological and cultural creatures. Evolutionary communication is a powerful theoretical perspective that applies to all forms of biological and social interaction.”
* Anonymous review of The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution, by James Lull and Eduardo Neiva , in Publisher’s Weekly (March 5 2012): 64-65
We touched upon the role of visual cues in the context of evolutionary biology, and how that led to distinctive features in the human eye. Clinical psychologist Paul Ekman, considered the world’s deception detection expert, based his groundbreaking research on the disconnect between what a person hears and what a person sees.
“We are such creatures of language that what we hear takes precedence over what is supposed to be our primary channel of communication, the visual channel,” he once said. “Even though the visual channel provides such enormous information, the fact is that the voice pre-empts the individual’s attention, so that he cannot really see the face while he listens. We prefer that way of dealing with the world because it does not challenge the ordinary boundaries of human relationships.”*
* Malcolm Gladwell, “The Naked Face,” The New Yorker (August 5 2002): 38-49
We are such creatures of language that what we hear takes precedence over what is supposed to be our primary channel of communication, the visual channel.
- psychologist Paul Ekman
While we are on the topic of conversation…
A good strategist knows the art of negotiation. One could devote an entire volume on the importance of strategy in negotiation. For this chapter’s purposes, we’d like to highlight interesting research into language in the context of negotiation.
Take the psychological effects of different grammatical structures. Israeli researchers Michal Reifen-Tagar and Orly Idan studied the outcomes of word choice on the preferences of college students, confirming that a good way to use language to reduce tension is to rely, whenever possible, on nouns rather than verbs.* Reifen-Tagar and Idan hypothesised that presenting certain (potentially inflammatory) statements in noun form rather than verb form reduced feelings of anger in the participants. Having demonstrated this to be the case, they then wondered whether the reduced anger induced by the noun form would translate into reduced support for hostile action toward others (in this case, Palestinians). Again, this was the case, supporting their conclusion that, in matters of conflict, as in so many other areas of life, it turns out that presentation or form of communication is critical. A good strategist will want to have such a reference set of tools at hand, at all times.
* Idan O, Halperin E, Hameiri B, Reifen Tagar M. A Rose by Any Other Name? A Subtle Linguistic Cue Impacts Anger and Corresponding Policy Support in Intractable Conflict. Psychological Science. 2018;29(6):972-983. doi:10.1177/0956797618772823
One last language-related topic before we turn to communications theory: rhetoric. As in all other use cases of language, the choice of words in political discourse is important. Short sentences containing common words are, all other things being equal, a good thing, sometimes referred to as Ockham’s razor, after William of Ockham, the medieval philosopher. As George Orwell put it in his Politics and the English Language, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” Orwell knew the power of simplicity, that making language easy to understand was key to winning an audience. And his observation is supported by psychological studies demonstrating that what is easy to understand is considered more truthful.*
* Feldman, Jacob. “The simplicity principle in perception and cognition.” Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Cognitive science vol. 7,5 (2016): 330-40. doi:10.1002/wcs.1406
* Schwarz, N., Newman, E., & Leach, W. (2016). Making the truth stick & the myths fade: Lessons from cognitive psychology. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), pp. 85–95.
Which brings us to the last major topic in this chapter: communications theory. The changes in communications technology of the past century are historic in scale and many academics have committed their careers to understanding the implications. Of particular note is the work of Harold Innis at the University of Toronto, who, influenced by the writings of Spengler, Toynbee, and Kroeber, drew parallels between the shifts in communications technology over time with those in geopolitics and economics.* We will devote much more space to this topic in the later chapter on strategy & media. For now, let’s just highlight the role of language.
Innis described the history of humans as a series of ways in which people communicate, from the oral tradition, to the use of stone and clay tablets with cuneiform writing, to papyrus and parchment with new simplified alphabets, to paper (hand-made, using linen rags then wood fibres) and the printing press, to finally electronics in all its forms (telegraph, radio, television and computers). Each civilisation had a dominant form of communication and, over time, initial stability gave way to instability with, as Hegel metaphorically described as Minerva’s owl, the greatest flourishing of culture and apparent vigour occurring just as that civilisation entered its declining days. Sudden extensions of communication were inevitably reflected in cultural disturbances.
One example touches on the nature of the English language itself: “The flexibility of the English language as a result of the invasion of successive languages from Europe made for common law, parliamentary institutions, and trade.”
Another describes the effect of printing with paper on Latin and Catholicism: “Introduction of paper and the spread of writing hastened the growth of the vernacular and the decline of Latin. Control of the church was inadequate to check the oral tradition, and the spread of heresies which followed the growth of trade and the weakening of the Byzantine Empire… The monopoly position of the Bible and the Latin language in the church was destroyed by the press and in its place there developed a widespread market for the Bible in the vernacular and a concern with its literal interpretation.”
As he worked his way forward to the post-World War Two era, he described changes underway in the new information industries that are similar very to today’s debates about the largest tech companies: “The large-scale mechanisation of knowledge is characterised by imperfect competition and the active creation of monopolies in language which prevent understanding and hasten appeals to force… Mechanised communication divided reason and emotion and emphasised the latter.”
Sounds very 2020.
* Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, University of Toronto Press, 1951
One of Innis’ students at the University of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan, took these ideas of changing modes of communication and their downstream effects on politico-economics to an extreme, focusing especially on the shift from Gutenberg’s printing press to the advent of television and the computer age.*
McLuhan was intrigued by human cognition and how the brain gave precedence to one or more of the senses, depending on which communication modality was commonly used. Before the advent of the printing press and widespread availability of printed materials, he argued the oral tradition was dominant, drawing upon the use of speaking and hearing. As a result, people processed information using a combination of multiple senses, and the fragmented nature of knowledge supported a more tribal model of life.
“That outering or uttering of sense which is language and speech is a tool which made it possible for (people) to accumulate experience and knowledge in a form that made easy transmission and maximum use possible… Language is metaphor in the sense that it not only stores but translates experience from one mode into another.”
In contrast, the printing press and printed materials completely overturned existing power structures and moved the world from a network of tribes towards one of nation-states. McLuhan believed that this was the direct result of a shift towards sight and use of eyes to read written materials, a different cognitive balance for information gathering. Not content with detailing this one historic shift, McLuhan went on to formulate his most famous theory that the arrival of electronic communications in the twentieth century heralded a return to the use of speaking and hearing, a return to the oral tradition of narration, and a return to a “global village” of tribalism.
“Our private senses are not closed systems but are endlessly translated into each other in that experience which we call consciousness. Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious.”
Building on the work of philosopher Karl Popper and his The Open Society and Its Enemies, McLuhan notes: “It is Popper’s view that tribal or closed societies have a biological unity and that our modern open societies function largely by way of abstract relations, such as exchange or co-operation. That the abstracting or opening of closed societies is the work of the phonetic alphabet, and not of any other form of writing or technology, is one theme of The Gutenberg Galaxy. On the other hand, that closed societies are the product of speech, drum, and ear technologies, brings us at the opening of the electronic age to the sealing of the entire human family into a single global tribe. And this electronic revolution is only less confusing for (people) of the open societies than the revolution of phonetic literacy which stripped and streamlined the old tribal or closed societies.”
Popper warns that, as a consequence of the breakdown of closed societies, “the strain of civilisation was beginning to be felt…”
It is no coincidence that these historic shifts have taken place over the past century of great advancement in science and technology. McLuhan refers to the physicist Werner Heisenberg whose The Physicist’s Conception of Nature described how these changes affected tradition-directed societies: “All values apart, we must learn today that our electric technology has consequences for our most ordinary perceptions and habits of action which are quickly recreating in us the mental processes of the most primitive (people). These consequences occur, not in our thoughts or opinions, where we are trained to be critical, but in our most ordinary sense life, which creates the vortices and the matrices of thought and action… The strategy any culture must resort to in a period like this was indicated by (philosopher and linguist) William von Humboldt: (People) live with their objects chiefly - in fact, since their feeling and acting depends on their perceptions, one may say exclusively - as language presents them to themselves. By the same process whereby they spin language out of their own being, they ensnare themselves in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.”
* Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962
We must learn today that our electric technology has consequences for our most ordinary perceptions and habits of action which are quickly recreating in us the mental processes of the most primitive (people).
- physicist Werner Heisenberg
We could go on, but instead will simply point out that these words were written sixty years ago yet describe with uncanny ease the world of social media today.
To end this digression into communication theory, and how it reflects the interplay of strategy and language / linguistics, recall Innis’ description of Minerva’s owl:
“Since its flight from Constantinople, Minerva’s owl has found a resting-place only at brief intervals in the West. It has flown from Italy to France, the Netherlands, Germany and after the French Revolution back to France and England and finally to the United States. These hurried and uncertain flights have left it little energy and have left it open to attack from numerous enemies…”
Insights: The strain of civilisation
“Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk...”
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Philosophy of Right”
Hegel is often quoted during times of transition, reminding us that we only appreciate what we have when those things are about to disappear or be taken away.
Take the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. For some odd reason, TikTok, WeChat, and Huawei and all the other attempts to decouple the US - China technology interdependencies have fallen out of the daily tech news. In its place, we find articles highlighting evidence of the opposite: a tighter coupling between the two nations, at least in terms of financial systems.*
* Anonymous, “Present tense, future market”, The Economist, September 5 2020 p 61-2
I’ve argued before that the more Americans come to understand and find ways to work constructively with the Chinese, and vice versa, the better off the world will be. And, as we saw earlier in this edition, there was a moment when the Chinese language system almost changed to a phonetic alphabetical form (akin to Turkish and Vietnamese), which in itself would have made it easier for the two sides to communicate. A missed opportunity.
Instead, watch for a signal, one that is subtle yet profound. Perhaps we’ll read about the government of PR China demanding that an American iconic firm, with growing popularity with young people in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, sell itself to Chinese owners for national security reasons. Or risk being shut down in its most profitable market.
The absurdity of it all will be laid bare, for all to see. And just might nudge the two sides to negotiate a new framework at a multilateral body like the WTO.
So, if not TikTok, then what is in the tech news headlines? A steadily growing effort to regulate the largest tech firms such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. To change a regulatory environment that was set up for the physical world and its post-Industrial Revolution businesses. A regulatory environment that will only change when society reaches a stronger consensus as to how, and why.
It’s unusual, and impolite, to talk about a social contract these days. To talk about the implicit give-and-take between those who govern and those who are governed, between those with disproportionate power and wealth and those with less, often much less.
Under the old social contract, waves of societal change followed World War Two, accompanied by a great deal of progress in terms of public health, safety, and consumption.
Somewhere along the way, we pushed the boundaries of progress beyond what is easy to understand. Most people have little clue how their smartphone actually works, or what are the underpinnings of the internet, let alone cloud computing or artificial intelligence. As a result, it will take time for society to create and enforce constraints on the leading companies that have benefitted from these innovations.
After all, who doesn’t love what Apple created: the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone, the app store? Or what Amazon made possible: the unlimited ecommerce marketplace, cheap cloud computing, lightning fast home delivery? Or how Facebook changed how billions of people communicate: the original Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp? Or how Google made the internet searchable, email simple, maps ubiquitous, language translation effortless?
In each case, the company wasn’t the first. They didn’t create the category. But they somehow understood what people wanted. And reaped the resulting rewards.
But a society unequipped to analyse and assess technological change is a society unable to form a new social contract. A society that is passive and docile in the face of the changing nature of competition.
A new social contract requires rethinking what we mean by property rights (both private and public) to include intangibles such as data and privacy. It requires rethinking what we mean by employment and individual worth, and how wealth generated as a result of effort is shared.
In last month’s edition, we noted how the shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian society, the so-called Neolithic Revolution, coincided with a decrease in the complexity and number of languages. The many different tribal groups had to learn to coexist, and how to survive in the face of increased contact and competition for resources.
Sound familiar? We’re in the middle of a similarly momentous set of changes, changes which will take decades to play out, with consequences we can only imagine.
One immediate example: Dropbox just announced its version of the future of the workplace, one in which the office is rebranded as a studio. You don’t go into the studio every day of your work week. You work remotely for the most part, and go into the studio based on the nature of any activity, the objective of the travel or meeting or event. This takes us in the direction of what many are calling the “democratisation” of experiences and access. Just as everything has gone virtual or onto zoom, post-pandemic we won’t be shifting everything back to the way it was, i.e. attend in person or miss out. Every experience, from personal to professional, will offer and monetise both in-person and virtual options, and the virtual options will be better than they were before the pandemic, having learned from the past few months of experimentation.
Your wedding will still have the 100-200 people present, but also another 200 people attending on zoom from around the world. Your dinner party will still consist of 8-12 intimates, but also another two dozen friends who pop in and out on zoom as the evening progresses. The NBA finals will charge premium prices for those who can attend the big game in person, whereas another million fans will be able to attend virtually on zoom. Davos will still be Davos, in that a few thousand of the elite will attend in person, but think how many more business people would pay a premium to attend exclusive events simultaneously, virtually, from around the world. Et cetera.
This is the world we are heading into. Ready or not.
Learnings: Building a Strategy for Operational Improvement
What was the challenge?
Rescue a high profile pharmaceutical clinical trial from its failure to enroll patients sufficiently quickly to meet tight product development deadlines
Opportunity to demonstrate the use of new innovation frameworks, making the case for investment in operational improvements to the global R&D leadership team
A high priority to overcome recent slowing in the pace of bringing new medicines to market, relative to competing firms
An early strategic initiative for a new R&D executive, who wanted to signal change
Within the context of increasing competition for study participants and clinical trial sites, across major countries (US, Europe, Canada, Australia)
The new R&D executive led the effort, with key functional leaders and technical experts (internal and external) forming the working team.
What did it take to complete the work successfully?
On a tight schedule over two months, we collaborated with the working team and focused the investigation on the most critical aspects of trial design and related operational decisions. Our approach was based on a proprietary set of innovation frameworks new to the pharmaceutical industry.
The implemented framework required reconstructing the workflows de novo, with full access to the underlying data and with allowance to question and test all built-in assumptions. The team conducted multiple site investigations, observing and auditing the status quo workflows and identifying biases and weaknesses contributing to low yields. Drawing upon innovation trends relevant to the industry, novel potential and practical solutions for each weakness were evaluated, and prioritised based on projected improvement in enrollment.
Given the timeline, we met almost daily with the working team (when not travelling to clinical trial sites). An additional timeline challenge occurred when we uncovered poor quality epidemiological work by an external team, work that had to be re-analysed to be considered reliable. Despite all the challenges, we completed the work on time and on budget, delivering a final report with a plan of action to improve clinical trial operations starting immediately. The R&D executive checked in with us a few months later to communicate a successful turnaround.
The consulting team comprised four partners, including an innovation expert, and five consultants.
If you remember just one thing from this edition…
“Mechanised communication divides reason and emotion, and emphasises the latter.”
Until next month.
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