Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Usefulness and The Banality of Business

Seth says that bloggers blog too much; that they're littering an "attention commons".

This is a deeply interesting statement, which gets to the heart of all the problems with American business (and culture) - doubly interesting because it comes from Seth.

There's this curious notion in America: everything must be useful. This is why, at heart, there's little, if any room, for thinking; for the long-term; for the creative.

It's the naive culture of the market taken to an absurd extreme: the old economists' notion of utility. By itself, utility is deeply insightful. It lets us understand decision-making and the microstructure of value creation in powerful ways.

But it's no basis for a society, or a culture. The useful, too often, is the banal. Strip-malls, freeways, suburbs, fast food, sitcoms - all these things are useful; but they're also deeply banal.

What's "useful" to the too often myopic and narrow discussions that happen in boardrooms has deep, pervasive hidden costs; in America, these are the death of social and cultural capital. Put another way, usefulness is the enemy of creativity.

And, ultimately, it is creativity that is going to be the single source of tomorrow's strategic advantage. Utility is the enemy of strategy in a world where coordination is cheap; a world where the cost of bringing new products and service to market is melting, where global hypercompetition is accelerating, where global supply chains can be accessed and reconfigured in hours - not years.

The shift to this world - what I call the post-network economy - is why innovation is becoming both the single reason for firms in Europe and the US to exist; and why innovation seems, today, more difficult, confusing, and costly than ever.

It's not just that focusing so heavily on the useful makes America a deeply, inescapably boring place to be; it's also that the last hundred years of American business have been about building structures to make myopically focusing on near-term utility as efficient as possible. It's no surprise, then, that America finds itself confronted by a gap in innovative capacity: usefulness, too, has its costs.

More to the point: should we see the new world of micromedia as a limited resource; a commons, like Hyde Park, or a fishery? Are we really having externalities on each other when we blog, podcast, and vlog?

I think Seth's post is this kind of misuse of economics. The genius of micromedia is that it blows apart the notion of distribution of a scarce resource. The whole point is that attention is no longer a commons; now, it's about individual expectations and preferences.

Attention is only a commons when distribution is scarce; that's when I end up having to share space with Nascar fans, militarists, and religious fundamentalists. That's essentially how Fox News, cheezy Hollywood flicks, and advertorials happen. That's when other people tread on my attention; people I wouldn't want to get within shouting distance of in real life. But in a mass media world, we literally have to share the same space.

And this is the heart of the problem. Too often in America we use the tools of economics and the language of the market to try and understand everything. But these tools require care and knowledge, like a surgeon's scalpel. They also require other tools, to guide them, just like a surgeon does.

Unsusrprisngly, we end up misunderstanding and misusing them, and reaching conclusions that are valid in the short term, but completely, obviously, totally unsustainable, because their hidden costs are far greater than their obvious benefits - and the result, too often is the banal; strip malls, freeways, Wal-Mart.

Does it really take a PhD in economics to understand that strip malls and discounters kill the social and the cultural dead, or that Wal-Mart's strategy is built around essentially being subsidized by the consumer (viz, by not paying even the most basic of benefits)? How is it possible that an entire nation can't see what's under its nose?

For the same reason that Seth thinks we're littering an attention "commons" when we blog - we've been fooled by thinking too narrowly, because the language of the market and the concepts of economics, used without care, limit our vision: we've been fooled by economics.

-- umair // 12:13 AM // 9 comments


The "Tragedy of Attention" analogy assumes that attention is the scarce resource and the content producers as the "commons". But then what is the "common good" (or the utility function that measures it)? I think it helps to think of "New Media" as a market with infinite supplies (due to the zero cost of production/distribution) and demand which is dictated by "individual" utility functions (or "preference" in your words) .
// Blogger isb // 7:41 AM

Cool post. This is why we love ya Umair.
// Blogger phil jones // 4:50 PM

word up! seth is bubble.

from korea
// Anonymous Anonymous // 6:42 PM

Put another way, usefulness is the enemy of creativity.

Real insightful. I suppose every building you've ever admired that housed a family or business, every breathtaking, soaring suspension bridge you've used to avoid getting wet or traveling by boat, every pill you've taken that was designed by a chemist who synthesized a product in a way nobody had thought of previously ... all these things must be completely devoid of creativity because they are useful!

Yeah, real insightful post :P
// Anonymous Anonymous // 7:21 PM

Hey "anonymous" we dont do poorly structured straw man posts here, please take it outside. Umair, nice post.
regards Lindon
// Anonymous Anonymous // 1:25 AM

So...said another way.. bloggers aren't "taking over the media", they're obsoleting it.
// Anonymous Jim Gilliam // 6:47 AM

This one resonated with me on so many levels.

I love many things about America, many of the ideals that America was built on, the national parks and wilderness areas, but I get so depressed around the consumption and capitalism-run-amok which ends up manifesting itself as strip malls, chain stores, etc.

I consume just like everyone else in the first world but I don't want each meal to be the same as the last, and I don't want to wear the same thing that everyone else is wearing.

There is enormous value in fresh food. Local food. Seasonal food. Regional food. Is it really the efficiency of Americas markets that has destroyed this?

I will say this to Americans who read your blog- it won't be until you move out of the US for a few years until you understand even the very basics about how the rest of the world views America. It is very, very instructive and worthwhile (and not just for that reason of course.)
// Blogger Gen Kanai // 5:25 PM

Usefulness is an external measure. Perhaps we should also look at the internal measure. To what extent does something make us feel good?

I don't blog because I want to build up an audience and monetize it...I do it because it makes me feel connected to a larger community.
// Blogger Chris // 9:05 PM

Utility is a measure of aggregate consumer value. Thus, utility maximization is a lowest common denominator calculation. The number of consumers that this denominator must fit is inversely proportional to the efficiency of a given market. As markets approach perfect efficiency (a discontinuous event), the number of consumers that must be served by any given product approaches 1 (or 0 if the producer is also a consumer, as in the blogosphere).
// Anonymous Jonathan Strauss // 8:08 PM

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