I seem to be in the mood lately to reflect on sociological matters. Yes, today’s entry has two foci on sociological aspects of our economy: one on Facebook, and the other, prompted by an NPR interview with the CEO of GE’s Global Growth and Operation, on a perennial well-chewed topic, “competition.”
“Facebook” puzzles me. I have an account that was totally inactive for a couple of years, and I only recently breathed some life into it for reasons not worthy of the space here. Suffice it to say that I am now present on it but still not profoundly active. I have a few friends who have similar relationships with this social (inter)network. I also know a couple of friends with very busy daily (several times a day) Facebook activities; one exercises them with reservations and the other with enthusiasm. The rest of my friends, not of the current young generation, are cautious or even weary of Facebook. My son can take it or leave it, as can most of his (male) pals. So, even in my limited social circle, attitudes toward Facebook range widely.
But the bottom line is, what kind of product does Facebook sell? What true innovation(s) has Facebook provided to our economy, society, and humanity? Yes, it offers a convenient and expansive way for people to stay in touch, but does convenience make it worthy of the estimated market capitalization value of $100 billion when its stock becomes available? I understand that the information age offers very different “products;” but Google I can grasp, eBay’s value I can almost see, and so on. Why use “PayPal” other than for convenience? Yes, I am old-fashioned; I would be extremely reluctant to park my credit card information with every online outfit. But back to Facebook, its only viable sources of income are advertising and harvesting the personal data of its users. With all the information technologies out there vying for the exhaustible pool of advertisers, these newly arrived companies better had start thinking about different business models, lest another bubble bursts and drags down our economy.
Yes, the young generation baffles me too; why are they so willing to let others reap enormous profits by harvesting their personal data? What do they get in return beside the 2,000+ “friends” with whom to exchange mostly unimportant stories and occasional interesting information? Talking about have’s and have-not’s; here is one huge gap staring at us. I don’t get Facebook nor anything associated with it.
On competition. I don’t necessarily trust any CEO’s words, be (s)he CEO of GE or GM. But part of what Mr. Rice (of GE) said appealed to me: “…too many people in the United States and other places think that job creation is a zero-sum game. By creating a job in China, you’re creating one less job in the United States.” His punch line is that foreign operations can help stimulate domestic economy. Whether GE actually practices in this spirit, I cannot tell, but I do know that the zero-sum mentality can only succeed in the short term, and only for certain types of operations. It’s not that competition is inherently bad – I’ve discussed this before (Pfeffer and Sutton’s “acting on knowledge” and Pink’s on motivation, links here) – but both individuals and collectives need to understand when and where to engage in competition, and know when not to be competitive.
That was one point I left out in my last entry on the critical investigatory news on Apple. Apple is the current leader in its category (what is it?), and the darling of many consumers; a good portion of Apple users behave like fans. So, Apple would be in a good position to make inroads in “better manufacturing practices” if it chose to; it also can afford to do so. Its competitive mode leads to its obsession with secrecy, which in turn partially contributes to its blind spots for abuses in overseas manufacturing practices.
When Steve Jobs was alive, he could have made a really big splash with a different kind of visionary leadership; he could have evoked his conscience to become a “leader for humanity,” as well as an unmatched business leader, and pushed some reforms in the overseas operations. Instead, he also fell into the “either/or” trap: If we don’t go with the existing cheap and flexible labor, we’d lose. Given Jobs’ reputed brilliancy, I did hope that he could have surpassed the mundane and found a third alternative to the usual business practice. One possibility might be to invest in educating next generation skilled workers? Some internship and exchange programs with the Chinese manufacturers? I am not brilliant enough to offer the third alternative, but I expect others who are much smarter than I am could do better. So, in the end, he was an above average business thinker, but not really a great leader.
Interesting times with interesting problems. Let’s work on creating interesting solutions. Till we find them,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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