Friday, November 18, 2011

Tesla's Legacy Under Threat

On Long Island, roughly sixty miles east of New York City, sits what remains of the Wardenclyffe Tower, one of the world’s most ambitious dreams ever – or at least, what was meant to be, but which never materialized. The tower was built between 1901 and 1917 by one of the world’s most incredible geniuses, Nikola Tesla. After an already illustrious career in inventing such things as alternating current, which laid the foundation for our modern everyday existence, the tower was meant to be part of a wireless telecommunications system that would show that wires were not required for telephones. It might have been an shocking concept in the early years of the 20th century, but a century later, wireless communications dominates the world. Indeed, it remains a total puzzle to me how thousands of megabytes seem to float in mid-air and yet somehow reach their destination!
In short, the world we live in, is Tesla’s. But the world does not remember Tesla; the tower is one of the few remaining monuments that physically remind us of his genius. There isn’t even a Tesla home, as he largely spent his life living in hotel rooms. And even the tower itself was never complete; in 1917, the uppers structure was blown up on orders of the United States Government, who feared the landmark would be used by German submarines approaching the East Coast. After the war, the facility was sold a number of times, eventually ending up with the Belgian photographic company AGFA, which closed the facility in 1992. Today, the tower stands for sale – for just over 1.5 million dollars – and there are plans to build a shopping mall.

When you read about the Wardenclyffe Tower, most commentators are quick to point out that the facility was never truly operational. To some extent, that is correct, as the tower was never used for the purpose it was built for. But Tesla did use the facility for a number of years, for other experiments. The reason why the tower was never used, has nothing to do with its original purpose, and all with what Tesla wanted to use it for.
The tower was almost operational in 1903, when Tesla decided he would demonstrate one other aspect of his genius: how electrical energy could be transmitted without the need for power lines. The entire project was sponsored by one of the richest men in America, J.P. Morgan. When he found out that wireless electrical consumption could not be metered, he stopped the development and made sure none of his fellow millionaires would offer Tesla funding for its completion. By 1905, all activity on the site was stopped, with employees laid off the following year. It marked the beginning of Tesla’s demise; he had become a dangerous eccentric, one who could upset the economies that ruled the world.

Today, Tesla is largely a forgotten genius. Ask people whether they know Edison, and they will. Tesla, not so much. But it is a fact that Tesla’s genius was several times that of Edison. It is just that Tesla was far more controversial. And thus, in the end, he was shunned and “actively forgotten”. But he retains a small but strong following. They have been vociferous in their attempts to designate the tower as a historic site, a campaign which started in the late 1960s. Today, the campaign is all about preserving the tower, as if a shopping mall will
be developed, one of the last physical reminders of Tesla will be destroyed. The cost of keeping his name alive, it seems, is 1.65 million dollars. The question is whether more than a century on from J.P. Morgan stopping Tesla, the economies of the 21st century are any different.

Friday, November 11, 2011

One Global Market

The “Cluetrain manifesto” was written in 1999, when the Internet was still in its infancy. The 95 step manifesto asserted
that the new medium would create a revolution for business marketing, which would need to be reinvented for this new medium. The central insights was that the internet allowed for human to human conversations, which is unlike the marketing models that big business was using. It argued that what was happening, was that the Internet was a global conversation, of people.

Markets, in the past, were places where people met. Trading was only part of a more total, more personal experience. People went there for social interactions, not just buying goods. “In many ways, the internet more resembles an ancient bazaar than it fits the business models companies try to impose on it.”
But then, as our society changed, the importance of the personal experience of going to the market disappeared, and was replaced by a one-way communication: the market and its leaders were talking to the customer and all they cared about was buying and what the customer should buy. But then the internet arrived and all of a sudden, the customer was empowered to talk back to the providers and about the products they offered.

A decade ago, Borders bookshop had two decades of advantage over Amazon. But what Amazon introduced in its market experience was that each book could be commented upon and rated. New markets like eBay allowed everyone to offer their goods without any real investment in shop fronts and like, meaning that everyone was competing at an equal footing. Trust in providers was once again created by a system of customer feedback and their experience and ratings.

But most refreshing of all was that the new methodology of buying had become more personal; these markets were conversations, not just when it came to leaving comments, but even the possibility of asking the sellers additional questions about their products. And everyone communicates in a language that is natural, open, honest, direct and often funny.

It was, in short, the end of business as usual and a return to "business as before” – the markets had functioned
for millennia. But what the Internet had managed to accomplish was substitute the traditional, physical market place with a global market place, one where everyone could come to, hang out, and if they enjoyed what they were seeing, buy some products.

The 2012 phenomenon is all about the creation of the global village; the internet as the global market is an aspect of this, and it is no coincidence that this new market was created and grew from ca. 1993 onwards, the final katun of the Great Cycle of 13 baktuns of the Mayan calendar system. The Mayans’ message was always
that the final katun of a Great Cycle was one that would see tremendous change and this has clearly been the case for our world. We have become a global village, but we should not forget that we are also becoming a global market.

What the web accomplished, was to bring back humanity and personality back to the marketplace. It satisfied a primordial need, which the corporate world is still largely incapable of delivering. For it to survive, it will need to find and put on a more human face and realize that when it comes to selling, we are back to basics. The internet is a global bazaar.