Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Friday | July 17, 2009
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Technology and the Michael Jackson memorial

Wilberne Persaud, Financial Gleaner Columnist

I can hear it. What connections are you trying to forge, to cobble together? Could there really be a teachable moment arising from Michael Jackson's Staples Center memorial in Los Angeles?

The answer: yes there is!

Yet, even if true, why comment on this, rather than two of the most significant events of the past fortnight? Why not do both?

United States (US) President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reached preliminary agreement last week to reduce their nuclear arsenals by one third - a vital decision partially lost in the continuous loop of the 'king of pop' Michael Jackson's cable news coverage.

This single decision makes it possible to defeat some of the world's most intractable problems.

Closer to home and Jamaican consciousness, the next event holds perhaps greater meaning - an event also linked to Obama.

He visited Ghana, and toured the infamous Cape Coast Castle, British staging point for the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa until its abolition in 1807.

Immediate reactions

He walked into the dungeons, came face to face with the exit door of no return and spoke with CNN's Anderson Cooper about his immediate reactions.

He compared his emotions upon walking through the holding dungeon to the exit door of no return to his experience of visiting former Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in Germany. He made the connection between the evil of slavery and the holocaust.

These things "should be remembered," he said.

Hopefully, many watched the interview and can perhaps relate to slavery in the way Jews do the holocaust - not something to forget, but rather to "serve as a reminder of humanity's duty to fight the spread of evil," declared Obama.

We might add: The robustness of our people to survive these hardships is in and of itself wondrous - that spirit still healthily exemplified and vibrant yet perhaps in need of channelling to greater good. But we must leave further elaboration to our historians, film and documentary makers and civics teachers.

Now to the memorial and technology: the connection lies in the seamless weave of new technologies and creation of intellectual property, requiring imagination and creativity, organisation of diverse skill sets for cooperation, all put together with what appears to be lightening speed amidst an awesome organisation of social capital.

In the late 1950s early 1960s, two economists - Solow and Abramovitz - did empirical work that initially puzzled practitioners of the discipline.

They concluded after considering long-run income growth in the US that additions to investment in capital stock and labour could not completely, indeed not even reasonably, account for the tremendous growth the country experienced.

The reason for this apparent puzzlement stemmed perhaps from the proclivity of economists after the Keynesian revolution gave us the concept of the investment multiplier, to focus on economic stabilisation in the developed countries coupled with the ceteris paribus assumption - the idea of other things being equal - so beloved by the discipline.

Economic analysis

Innovation was assumed as happening outside the purview of economic analysis, in other words, it was taken as data, a given.

Upon recognition of this 'unexplained residual' having such a huge impact on economic growth, economists set about exploring reasons for the mystery.

They came upon neglected insights long exposed by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and more recently - mid-twentieth century - Josef Schumpeter in his idea of 'creative destruction' in capitalism.

It still is difficult to convince people that investment is really not the central key to the kingdom of growth. Yet one simple historical fact makes the point clear.

Consider the leap from our hunter gatherer-past into the realm of farming systems and livestock rearing.

The impact on production and standards of living was profound. But this was not an investment.

It was innovation - it was the application of knowledge to the task of sustaining life.

And note, it was not application of scientific knowledge as we know it today.

Our forebears had no big universities, no scientific institutes researching new methods of doing old things, just inquisitively perceptive guys who figured out that instead of roaming and foraging miles of forest in search of fruit and prey, they could drop seeds in a given area and befriend some of the animals they speared or bludgeoned for food!

Much later, we used the compass at sea prior to understanding principles of magnetism and when radio was first invented it was thought of as a perfect means of ship to shore communication.

No one knew it would revolutionise human organisation, around politics, advertising and so on. IBM's Watson thought there might be demand for about three computers when they were first developed.

Definitive exploitation

So the Staples Centre creation of the Michael Jackson memorial included almost spontaneous and definitive exploitation of our relatively new information and communication technologies (ICT).

It merged facility with these new ways of doing old things with a complete 'buy-in' to the future of innovation.

But without the social capital and organisation of the city of Los Angeles' logistics and law enforcement, without the discipline of thousands of fans who got tickets via the internet, proceedings could have been a disaster.

I am not sure whether I've been able to make the point I set out to establish: technological change is the true driver of economic growth, requiring inquisitive minds. It requires social organisation and social capital more so than mere investment.

Our Caribbean social, business and bureaucratic environments must approach the condition of being not only receptive to innovation, but also enabling host.

As it stands, it appears that apart from sporadic nodal points of enabling host, there exists an autoimmune system of attack against potentially beneficial innovative thrusts.

To counter this we need an informed citizenry, engaged not only in day to day foraging for existence, but also governance systems that exude tolerance equity, functionaries with competence and confidence in their remit to achieve "Out of many one people".


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