A day after I posted this, my comment appeared on the Che Futuro web site. Hmm.
I am almost done with my next book and will start blogging immediately after I am done, but the last part of my book on Spenser’s Book of Holinesse is taking far longer than I thought it would. My current estimate is that it will be done by June 30 and for sale by July 30th. But I am breaking my 6 month web silence today in protest of something that happened to me today.
I posted a long response to this piece in response to an article I found translated here. It has to do with why Italian (to my mind the most beautiful language in the world) is so far behind English as the dominant force of the Web. Google News has been posting a lot of articles on the “domination” of English (here’s another article on the threat to Arabic posted on Google News today), a situation they lament but don’t understand.
I think that Enlish is the dominant language in the world for some very important (and by all means temporary) reasons. So I thought I’d respond with a thoughtful piece on why Italians are not dominant in the media. It has to do with the inward-looking nature of Italians, who may not know much, but they do know that they are smarter than Anglo-Saxons. The piece is based on my book of Poker Tales, where I deconstruct the notion there is any sort of permanent value that cannot be gainsaid. So I spent a couple hours writing my response, and I posted it on the original Che Futuro web site (which you can find here).
That was on Saturday. They told me it was being held for review. So I waited again and checked back on Sunday. Still no sign of my post. So I waited until Monday, when I went back and found that all the comments (not just mine but 5 others) had been deleted from the Che Futuro web site.
Now I understand that I am not in complete agreement with Che Futuro, but in light of their not posting my response, this article seems to me now to be a call to action but not a call to discussion of any sort. That, according to my post, is why Anglo-Saxons are dominating the Internet.
In any case, if you want to read my response to such issues as arise in closed societies (like Italy), this is what I had to say:
I found your article posted on Google News this morning in Chicago, IL., so Mark may be correct in his feeling that there are problems with perceptions of Italy by outsiders, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon dominated media world. However, I suspect that he is missing a part of the equation that has made English the most common language in the world and America still the #1 innovator in the world. My comment is addressed to Mark’s comment that “On a national level, Italy (and other European countries) will need a more structured approach.” On the contrary, I think a less structured approach may be the answer to the problem that Mark is addressing.
One day, when I was walking in front of the cathedral of Florence, Italy, I was approached by a guy who immediately spotted me as an American. I asked him how he knew, and he said it was on account of my shoes. They looked too comfortable. I asked him what was wrong with that, and he told me I looked sloppy, whereas he looked stylish (he was correct on both counts). The lesson I took away from my encounter with this European was not that he had insulted me, but the fact that it was more important to look good than it was to be comfortable. And this is why I think Italians have missed the cultural boat on account of their “cultural bias” (to use Mark’s term). It is perhaps best to have a sense of style about you, but comfort is paramount, and given a choice between the two, comfort will win out with the majority. Here’s why:
As an author who has a PhD in English and who has started more than one business, I have given this problem a great deal of thought. I put my thoughts into a book: Poker Tales. At the center of that book, I deal with the vast cultural differences between Paris, France, which was the center of the cultural milieu at the beginning of the 20th century, and Las Vegas, NV, which dominated the end of 20th century.
I love French culture, but my conclusion in my book of Poker Tales is that the French live in a culture in which one’s ability to grasp the “truth” matters. This “cultural bias” towards “truth” turns out to be a disadvantage in Las Vegas. I demonstrate this by making the hero of the central tale in the book, “Four Parisians,” a cultured guy named Claude, a French university professor who has become one of the leading lights of French intellectual culture. But when he goes to Las Vegas, he loses his money to an uncultured hack named ‘Belcher’ Owens. And this is because he thinks that intellect—which is all that matter to him in his life—is all matters in the world.
The question I ask is: why is it that ‘Belcher’ Owens can defeat a superior intellect like Claude? It turns out to be a question of the approach that each takes to a game in which the cards don’t matter as much as the person you are playing against. ‘Belcher’ knows this, and Claude doesn’t. What is more, Claude would be loathe to give up his intellect for mere money (as frankly would I). Claude will NEVER be able to win at the poker table if he thinks only of winning in terms of money. But attention to money is not an attachment to base material things (as opposed to “higher” things). That, too, is a “cultural bias,” though it has a long history going back to Plato and Aristotle. It remains dominant in the European educational system.
I maintain that the European “cultural bias” against money works against the four Parisians by occluding their appreciation of facts as they are. When the tale is over ‘Belcher’ has won money from all four of the four Parisians, but each of the Parisians has gotten something of value from their encounter. Each has written a book on their experiences at the Las Vegas poker tables, and the sales of their books are inversely proportional to the “cultural” impact, with Claude’s book selling a mere 500 copies but winning him a prized seat on the Académie française as one of the 40 Immortals, which is all that really matters to Claude. And this is why I believe that the socially destructive game of poker (when looked at from the point of view of an outsider) wins out over the “cultural bias” of Europe, where one first has to earn a place in a rigidly-oriented hierarchy. Hierarchy, order, social position, and other forms of order do not matter in America as much as efficiency. Or, to put it in terms that my Italian interlocutor would understand, my individual comfort trumps the hoops that he has to go through in order to be seen by others as belonging to a certain class or group.
He is definitely spending more money than I am micro-economic level, but when I think of his choices at the macro-economic level, I can see the social problems that come from his choices. Culture has the power to make choices that most will like, but some will be always be left out. When that happens, the culture will have to demonize them, or coerce them, or allow them to exist as forgotten people on the margins of society. That will cause the culture to expend some of their resources managing the errant choices of some of its population. That causes a net loss in economic activity when the choices of his culture are measured against those of an economy that does not put up barriers to inclusion such as that which we find in America. Individuals can always chose what they want, because their needs are immediate to them. This lessens the distance between themselves and the culture that is producing things for them. There is no need to manage an ordered society that is built on individual choice, because all choices made by consumers are equal. This makes me feel that I am more self-determined than he is. And I have more money to spend on obscure items like books that appeal to me but sadly (to my mind) do not appeal to the majority of Americans.
Things look different to the leaders in industries. Steve Jobs once said, “people don’t know what they want until I show it to them.” That puts a great deal of emphasis on Jobs as an innovator, but I beg to disagree with him. The secret to Steve Jobs success was not his focus on innovation—he, like Bill Gates, largely piggy-backed on the ideas of others. Jobs was a guy who could remove layers that interfered between user’s desire to have a product and their ability to get it. Jobs transformed whole industries in the process. But he did it by the process of marketing his better ideas to others, not by designing anything new. Others (at Xerox Park) had designed a better computer. Steve Jobs marketed it better than they did. Bill Gates stole Steve Jobs’ idea, and marketed it to a wider marketplace. Yahoo! may have invented the search engine, but Google made it better. When they did, it did not take Yahoo! to lose most its business to Google.
Marketing is an idea that makes scientifically-oriented people nervous, because by definition if lengthens the distance between products and consumers. This is only partly true. If you are focused on the product itself (let’s say you are a cattle producer), you may not recognize any advantage to shipping your cattle to a processing plant for redistribution so that they can reap the benefits of your labor. But if you are a consumer of cattle, you want to be able to a store and buy a steak without having to go to a farm and buy a whole cow and butcher it yourself.
Marketing has other advantages over having a product in your hands, and these advantages can be treated separately from products. Marketers are people who are focused completely on giving people what they want, whatever that is. This makes them more flexible than producers of things that have specific value. Producers merely assume that what people wanted last year they will want again next year. That may be the case with cattle, though it may not be at the forefront of all industries. Google AdWords has marketed one of the best ways to target individuals, and in the process they have cannibalized the newspaper industry. The fact that newspaper people complain about the loss of jobs in their specific industry or the lack of editorial control over content from the distributer’s point of view does not affect the consumer, who clearly is not obligated to consume things just because their parents did. The economy follows larger trends, not individual products.
The hard lesson of economic reality is that consumers matter; producers don’t. If you want to succeed in the world, separate the product you are selling from the marketing of your product. Keep your eye on the user of your products, not on your products themselves. Remove all obstacles to getting your products in the hands of consumers. That is the lesson that Mark is attempting to effect in writing about Italy in English. But by dismissing the dominance of English as merely an instance of (regrettable-but-necessary) Anglo-Saxon “cultural bias,” I think he is missing the same important point that my Italian friend was missing in his conversation with me.
In Poker Tales, I take the Italian Vilfredo Pareto’s take on the fundamental imbalance in nature (where 20% of pea plants produce 80% of pea) as my starting point, and I build on it. In the world of making money (which I repeat is not coincident with the whole of experience), some ideas are vastly better than others. If you want to maximize your yield, you will cull the 20% from the 80% and build your garden on only the successful peas. If you don’t, another pea-producer who does will dominate the market. As a social policy, the same policy would lead to decimation of 80% of the populace, and would be disastrous (it was this that motivated my work, and not any attempt to glorify America or Americans like ‘Belcher’ Owens).
Some “cultural biases” are better than others when it comes to making money, and in the world dominated by Anglo-Saxon “cultural bias,” it is worth thinking about whether there is a reason that “really stupid” Americans (to quote the European poet Czeslaw Milosz) who have embraced the turning outward required by marketers, rather than the inward turn of their news focus “as Aljazeera has done for world affairs” (to quote Mark once again). That may not be a bad plan for Italians, but it is not a true innovation in the Steve Jobs/Google transformation of whole industries sense. It Mark wants to be a true innovator in his or any field, he should examine his inward-looking European nature and decide how much (if any) of that needs to be corrected. The choices he makes will determine his success in any venture he undertakes, and cannot be determined in advance by a merely theoretical decision.
Here are my rules for competing in the public environment of commerce:
- The measure of value in the universe of money is how much others are willing to spend on you.
- Don’t just assume that what you are offering is adequate to meet the demands of consumers. Have something that is worth something to consumers.
- Be willing and able to measure the value in terms of monetary value. More than one business has gone to their destruction with the notion that their products serve a need and they don’t need to worry about sales, as their products will “naturally” sell.
- There is nothing “natural” about sales, just as there is nothing “natural” about marketing. It is something that 20% of Americans learn (the people who go into the financial world, where they reap the outsized benefits of their education) while 80% blissfully ignore the harsh lessons of the business world (to their economic deficit).
- Recognize the fact that if you are not at the top of mind of the consumer when it comes to making their decision, you will not be considered in their evaluation of the product category.
- Use marketing techniques to draw consumers into your experience. If they resist, don’t ask why, and don’t become a snob about stupidity of consumers if they resist your best efforts. The marketplace follows the harsh rules of evolution: Adapt or die.
- Recognize the fact that others may have better ideas than you do about the value of experience that you are offering them. If your experience is not the best, consumers will turn away from you towards the experience that serves them better. This has been my experience of living in America, where the Chinese have stolen most of our manufacturing base from underneath us because our industrial leaders got complacent during the Cold War, when we faced no competition in the world.
- The “Anglo-Saxon cultural bias” is in no way permanent, but that does not mean that it is not significantly better than other existing models.
These rules make for a very Machiavellian experience in the world of competition, but the retreat from that insanely imbalanced world to an equitable world because it accords with your education or your preference does not alter the reality of nature. It simply means that you will be left behind in the forward race of progress, which is built on principles that many do not, will not, or cannot understand.