Friday, January 22, 2010

Do this Week's Key Political Events Signal the Real Growth of the Long Tail in American Politics?

This week, two interesting things happened in the political world that made me realize that the fundamental restructuring of communications may be having a profound impact on our political system. These are: the election of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts (lots of articles reference this); and the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow corporations to spend whatever they want in support of candidates (one article about this from the New York Times:

In the U.S., we are, of course, based on a two-party system. There are a lot of reasons for that, which I won't describe here. (There is always a lot of debate on the subject; I also won't address that here.) The events of this week, however, call into question whether that system can continue to be the de facto foundation of our system.


-In the Massachusetts election, though many are simplistically arguing that it represents a clear referendum on the current government approach (that is, the electorate has come out clearly and said no to what they see happening in Washington). But, I have heard a number of people talking about different issues about which they cared that ultimately influenced their votes. The result may have been a seemingly binary decision. But, in reality, as a result of widely accessible real time communications, I would argue that this election doesn't signal binary decision at all. Rather, it says that people will vote on their issues -- not the candidate or party.

-The Supreme Court decision will add to this non-binary evolution of American politics. If many entities can spend what they want advocating their own individual positions, the weight of one party vs. the other will be reduced. It is likely that many individuals will vote very specifically on their own issues rather than on the compilation of issues.

Surprisingly, when I looked up "the long tail" and politics, there is relatively little written about it. But, just as today's ability to communicate easily about multiple issues surrounding a product or service has led to a long tail in markets, it is likely to have the same impact on politics.

I am not sure I know what all this means, but I hope that some thoughtful political scientists will think hard about it.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lessons of the Incas: Necessity is the Mother of "Innovation"

I just returned from Peru. It was a wonderful trip. And, as so often happens when I travel, I came away with some sort of "aha". While these trip-related insights may not be earth-shattering realizations in the grand scheme of things, they are always a great reminder of some basic lesson.

The Lesson of the Incas was a reminder that necessity is the mother of "innovation" (Yes. The wording is slightly changed over the common expression.) It was amazing to observe how advanced the Incas were so many centuries ago. This was particularly obvious in the very sophisticated techniques they had for agriculture. They planted in terraces to optimize the use of their land and then created an irrigation system to fit the demands of these terraces. And there are theories that the Incas created a deep circular terraced crater at Moray in order to provide different micro climates for various crops that were important to their survival. This is just an amazing idea!

I am not an expert on the Incas and won't try to defend these innovations or explain them deeply. It's just that the whole experience reminded me that some of the most effective innovations come in direct response to fundamental needs.

The question this raises for technology start-ups is how can this lesson be applied to optimize innovation today. For the most part, there is no survival issue driving much of technology development, whether it's building a better iPhone, social networking site, or whatever. (That's quite a bit less true of green tech and medical technology.)

We could have a long discussion here about "Maslow's hierarchy of needs" and recognize that today much of the technology work is past basic survival and have moved up the hierarchy. But the drivers are no less important. I just don't think that's true.

So, the question I took away from the Incas was: how do we fuel really important innovation in an environment where our basic survival doesn't depend on this innovation?

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