The man who saw forever


Arthur C Clarke
Sir Arthur C. Clarke

On March 19th 2008, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away in his adopted home of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The nonagenarian left behind a stupendous legacy. He was at once an author, inventor, futurist, visionary, mathematician, pilot, radar specialist, nature lover, scuba diver and underwater explorer. To categorize him as any single one of these would be an injustice to his myriad talents.

As a science fiction writer, he was par excellence. He made his name dealing with space adventures and alien civilisations. His fertile imagination, grounded in an unshakeable knowledge of astrophysics, put him in a league of his own. With a penchant for the cosmic, a vast repertoire of knowledge, and an ability to see things before they became visible, Clarke was quite simply a visionary. He was the man who saw forever.

Arthur Charles Clarke was born in Somerset, England, in 1917. He had the same humble beginning of any astrophysicist: stargazing. The young Clarke showed an avid interest in American science fiction magazines, which whetted his appetite.

Unable to afford a university education, Clarke joined the Royal Air Force after his secondary education. He served in several capacities, such as Radar Specialist, Pilot Officer, Flying Officer and Flight Lieutenant. After the Second World War, he earned a first class degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College, London. He served in the British Interplanetary Society.

Clarke started writing to scientific magazines such as Wireless World. In 1948, he wrote a short story called “The Sentinel” for a BBC competition. The story was rejected, but went on to be a turning point in Clarke’s career. It introduced a mystic and cosmic element to Clarke’s work, an element which would define him forever. He wrote his first novel, Prelude To Space, in 1951, and there was no turning back. He later wrote over 30 novels and 20 non-fiction books.

He wrote The Fountains of Paradise, portraying a space elevator leading from earth to a space station. Rendezvous With Rama depicted an alien spaceship mistaken for an asteroid and named after the Hindu god Rama. The Sands of Mars described a human colony on Mars, where colonists adopt numerous scientifically believable techniques to make the planet inhabitable. Dolphin Island was inspired by his adventures as an underwater explorer. The Hammer of God depicted a religious sect attempting to convert humans into terabytes of computer information.

He is most famous for his 1968 novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, about an ancient and unseen alien race performing evolutionary experiments with humanity. The aliens use devices with the appearance of large crystal monoliths to investigate faraway worlds, and if possible, encourage intelligent life there. It revolves around Captain Bowman, who is drawn into one of those monoliths and turned into an immortal “star child”, charged with the task of coming back to earth and catalysing evolution. The novel was simultaneously made into a movie by director Stanley Kubrick. Clarke followed 2001: A Space Odyssey with three sequels.

His contributions were more than just literary. His vision proved to be the catalyst for two important technological breakthroughs of the 20th century. He was the first to suggest that geostationary satellites could be ideal telecommunications relays facilitating near-instantaneous transmissions. He conceived this in 1945, and saw his dream bear fruit barely 20 years later. His prediction that man would set foot on the moon by 2000 was a driving force motivating NASA to realize the vision as early as 1969.

He was human though, and some of his predictions went off the mark. He cheekily predicted that humans would use apes as household servants by the end of the 20th century. He also warned us that the apes will form unions and create a ruckus!

Compared to Clarke’s other achievements, his formulation of the Three Laws of Prediction may seem a little trivial. But they are noteworthy for their sheer wit.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

He later formulated a fourth one:

4. For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.

In 2007, Clarke completed 90 orbits around the sun. He was now in a wheelchair, but his mind continued to reach the farthest outposts of the universe. He marked his 90th birthday by speaking to his followers through a Youtube video. He expressed three birthday wishes: For ET to call, for mankind to quit his addiction to oil, and for lasting peace in Sri Lanka. He could not resist making more predictions. He declared this the beginning of the golden age of space travel. He predicted that thousands of space tourists will travel to the moon and beyond within the next 30 years.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Captain Bowman attains the status of an immortal star child, and is sent back to earth to inspire evolutionary leaps. That may well describe Arthur C. Clarke himself. Evolutionary catalyst, immortal star child.

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Virtually another life

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard murmurs about the virtual world called Second Life. I had pushed it to the recesses of my mind, thinking it’s just another game. What did not help was the similarity the name ‘Second Life’ had with the name of the game ‘Half Life’. I felt it was one among the crowd.

Then I heard something that aroused my curiosity. Second Life has its own economy. Now, economy is a big word. Your run-of-the-mill games don’t have economies. For the first time, I sensed that this was something different. I finally became curious enough to find out more, and what I found out was beyond my wildest expectations.

First of all, Second Life is not a game. It’s a virtual world, with an economy and real estate of its own. You are known as a resident. You own houses, cars, clothes and accesories. You socialise. You form communities with people who share your tastes. Here’s the icing on the cake: You can make real money in this virtual world. Yes, real money.

Whatever you can do in your first life, you can do in this second life. It’s virtually another life. You acquire a representation of yourself, called an avatar. Through your avatar, you live in this virtual world. You buy land, develop it into prime real estate, and sell to other avatars. You make cars and sell them. You design clothes and sell them. You can even make music and sell it. The currency here is Linden Dollars, which can be converted to US Dollars anytime you wish. This is how you make real money.

It seems counter-intuitive. Why would anyone want to buy a virtual house or a virtual car? Believe it or not, it makes business sense.

Let’s say I buy a house for 5000 Linden Dollars, and I rent it out to another resident for 12 months, for 500 Linden Dollars a month. At the end of the year, I’ll make a profit of 1000 Linden Dollars, convert it to US Dollars, and have real cash.

But why would another resident want to rent my virtual house? Because just like in our first life, we need a home in our second life. We need a virtual home as a base, and go about our virtual business. Another resident can rent my house, paying 6000 Linden Dollars to me over a year. The same resident can make music and sell it in Second Life. If he earns more than 6000 Linden Dollars a year, he makes a profit and converts it into real, hard cash.

So what’s in it for Linden Labs, the San Francisco company which created Second Life and runs it? They make money primarily by leasing “land” to residents (who use it for their virtual business purposes by creating houses, shops, and even virtual tourist attractions with the land).

Linden Labs have another source of income. Brands who want a slice of the pie. A company or advertising agency can buy an “island” for a one-time fee and a monthly rate. General Motors and Nissan have started selling virtual cars in Second Life. Coke has created Coke Studios, where avatars mix songs and play their mixes to other residents. Nike and Adidas sell digital and real-life versions of their products. Financial institution Wells Fargo built Stagecoach Island in Second Life, and calls it the world’s first virtual-reality financial literacy game. Starwood Hotels raised awareness of its new brand of hotels (called Aloft Hotels) by building virtual hotels in Second Life. Sun Microsystems held a pavilion showcasing its products. Pop artist Ben Folds promoted a new album with two virtual appearances.

Now that is something!

secondlife coke
Coke’s “island” in Second Life

secondlife sun micro
Sun Microsystems pavilion in Second Life

But there’s one thing I simply do not understand. There are red light areas in Second Life! Come on, surely we know certain things cannot be simulated!

You know it’s truly a complete world when there is terrorism in it! There is an organization known as the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA) modeled on real-life separatist organizations such as the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The SLLA stages attacks on virtual stores. The SLLA says it’s fighting for stock in Linden Labs, and voting rights for avatars.

slla reebok
The Second Life Liberation Army attacks a Reebok store!

Second Life is probably the most successful instance of a virtual world dominating people’s consciousness to such an extent that almost every real-life phenomenon is replicated there. There are other virtual worlds like Entropia Universe, which I hear are not bad either. Maybe the virtual world is no longer an amusing curiosity but a serious world with real opportunities.

Let the games begin (on second thoughts, is it really a game?)

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Understanding glocalisation

It’s often debated whether globalisation destroys indigenous cultures. We hear outcries about worldwide McDonaldization. But we have not yet understood a phenomenon called glocalisation, where people have global and local perspectives at the same time. Glocalised folks zoom in and out. They have tremendous global awareness and insightful local knowledge.

The first thing that comes to mind is HSBC, the bank which calls itself “The world’s local bank”. They also say, never underestimate the importance of local knowledge. They show their awareness of local sports in several countries by sponsoring English Rugby League side Telford Raiders, American Ice Hockey club Buffalo Sabres and Mexico’s Pachua Football Club. They sponsor the Great Canadian Geography Challenge and the Celebration of Light, an annual musical fireworks competition in Vancouver.

The next thing that comes to mind is the Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), an international network of environmental organizations in 70 countries. FOEI founder David Brower coined the slogan, “Think globally, act locally”.

The slogan “Think globally, act locally” in Sofia, Bulgaria

FOEI campaigns against the creation of genetically modified organisms,  industries that exacerbate global warming, and conversion of forests to agricultural areas. To do so, they need to act with insightful local knowledge, and marry it with a global perspective. In their own words, “Our international positions are informed and strengthened by our work with communities, and our alliances with indigenous peoples, farmers’ movements, trade unions, human rights groups and others”. Looks like they walk the talk when it comes to thinking globally and acting locally!

There’s a pertinent need for management consultants to understand and interpret localised phenomena. For instance, management consultants advising corporations on microfinance need a detailed understanding of institutions like Banco Caja Social Colombia (BCSC), a leading microfinance institution in Latin America. Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank has become another favourite microfinance case study.

grameen bank meeting
Inquisitive visitors at a Grameen Bank meeting in Bangladesh

The entertainment industry is another arena where glocalisation is the name of the game. Analysts of Indian cinema have recently observed a glocal phenomenon among the Indian diaspora, particularly those in the USA. They all want to watch movies in their mother tongues. According to this article, India’s Reliance Entertainment has started making films in several Indian languages to reach out to this diaspora.

President of Reliance Entertainment, Rajesh Sawhney, says, “We have observed that as people start earning more, entertainment actually goes local, rather than turning towards the global English language…..Indians staying in overseas markets want their children to learn their native language and cinema is the best way”. The word glocalisation could succintly describe what he’s talking about.

If glocalisation is correctly understood and promoted, there is no need to fear that globalisation will destroy local cultures. The global village is actually glocal.

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How Lexus broke the mould

In the 80s, Toyota had a problem. It wanted to break into the luxury car market. But it had a status as a maker of mass cars. Toyota Corona, Corolla, Camry, Vios and Crown were all mass cars. They could not just launch a Toyota some-thing-else as a sub-brand, and expect it to break into the luxury car niche.

What they needed was a standalone brand, whose attributes were independent of those of Toyota. They embarked on a top-secret project named F1. They took on the world’s best luxury car makers at their own game. They observed the Mercedes closely and designed the Lexus. The proportions, angles and curves of the Lexus closely followed the Mercedes. A string of awards proved that Lexus was high on quality, on par with Mercedes. We say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Mercedes was not flattered when Lexus captured a sizeable share of the market!

Toyota and its long-term advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi went into overdrive (spot the pun) to market Lexus. Lexus had its own persona and its own corporate mission statement. It had its own slogan, “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection”, which was later changed to “The Passionate Pursuit of Perfection”. An image consulting firm was hired to develop a list of 219 prospective names. Five top candidates were chosen, including Alexis. Alexis became Lexus.

lexus balance
A marketing pitch demonstrating the smooth driving experience offered by Lexus

Lexus has grown to be the top-selling luxury car in the United States, and the fourth largest luxury car brand in the world. It competes with other luxury brands like Jaguar, Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. It is not considered as being under the Toyota umbrella the same way as Toyota Crown or Toyota Camry. Toyota is the parent company which takes the back seat (another pun) and lets their standalone cash cow do the trick.

Lexus reminds me of regional economies which perform better than the countries they belong to. Kenichi Ohmae wrote a memorable book called “The End of the Nation State: The Rise of Regional Economies”. He spoke of regional economies within countries, which operate with significant autonomy from the national economy. To quote him, “nation states have already lost their role as meaningful units of participation in the global economy of today’s borderless world…..It makes even less sense today to speak of Italy or Russia or China as a single economic unit.”

Examples he cited include Penang in Malaysia, Catalonia in Spain, and Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany. I would add two further examples to strengthen his case: The Rhone-Alpes region of France and the Lombardy region of Italy. These two along with Catalonia and Baden-Wurttemberg constitute The Four Motors of Europe, four highly industrialized regions in Europe with high potential for economic growth.

Such regional economies are standalone brands like Lexus. They have brand attributes independent of the country they belong to, just like Lexus took a detour from Toyota brand attributes. Countries with consistently high growth rates across the entire nation are like Mercedes or BMW. But countries with uneven growth rates are like Toyota, and fast-growing regional economies within these countries are like Lexus. These regional economies can grow at rates higher that the national average, and compete with fast-growing countries. Toyota may not be able to compete with Mercedes or BMW, but Lexus can.

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