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Davos08: Google’s environment

I’m at a surprise session with Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and the Google Foundation’s Larry Brilliant, moderated by Tom Friedman. Liveblogging:

The key difference between this and the Gore-Bono panel prior to this is that Gore concentrated on the things we must stop doing — as the movement does — while the Google team concentrates on what we can start doing, thanks to technology.

Brilliant says after the Bono and Gore session earlier: “It’s true that climate change takes the oxygen out of the room.” In other words, it takes attention and effort away from poverty and development. He says we have to get over our cultural ADD and handle more than one crisis at a time.

He outlines the Google Foundation’s priorities. They believe that people don’t know what services their governments offer and so they help inform them and help governments get that message out. Another priority is job creation. Less than 15 percent of jobs in the developing world are from small and medium enterprises and they are targeting growth there. In health, they are concentrating on diseases that jump from animal to human, such as AIDS, and become pandemics. They are funding early-warning systems. They concentrate on climate change: making ecological power cheaper than coal-fired power. And they believe electric cars plugged into a green grid will take care of much of our problems.

Larry Page talks about the renewable-power-cheaper-than-coal initiative. Buying a lot of electricity, Google knows that the cheapest came from coal. The cost of electricity as a percentage is going up, he says, and is approaching the cost of the computers themselves. So they want to get it cheaply and get it green. Startups can work selling green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour because there is a demand for renewable energy, he says, but that does not bring real change. “Our primary goal is not to fix the world,” he says, but they do have the power to drive things forward, to get to three cents.

Sergey Brin says the are concentrating on three energy sources: solar-thermal, deep geothermal, and high-altitude wind; if he had to add one, it would be photovoltaic. He says that windmills are on a par with coal but are intermittent and they think it can be even cheaper by using high-altitude wind, through kites, which are cheaper to make that metal windmills. They’ve invested in this and solar-thermal. Deep geothermal is a bit farther off because it requires more fundamental research to get to scale.

What’s the reaction of the energy companies? “They’re pretty good at pushing things into the future and you guys want to claim the future now,” Friedman says. Brin says some of these companies such as BP are invested but Google has an advantage because it does not have a legacy business to cannibalize. Indeed, Google can benefit its core business. “There’s a big bet at some point that you need to make that’s going to take capital.” And Google, he says, in a good position to take that risk.

Asked about the reaction of shareholders, Page says the investment is moderate and there is potential for payoff.

Friedman asks whether they can succeed in this space without taking more of a political position. Brilliant says very few of the people fighting against the climate change movement are bad people: “the have children, they have grandchildren.” He says that the movement has not done a good enough job to communicate. “You can’t separate the quest for dignity and fight poverty from climate change…. We have failed to get that degree of awareness in Congress.”

Friedman quotes Al Gore’s complaint that 3,000 questions asked in Sunday morning programs during the campaign included just three on global warming — equal to the three on UFOs. (Anyone have a citation for that?) “What are we doing, what is Google doing, to reframe the debate?” Friedman asks. Brilliant likens this to the second-hand smoking debate in achieving awareness.

Asked what the next president should do to help their cause, Page responds as an engineer and complains that there has been no research on transmission — which adds to costs — and so he wants a priority on that work from government — an interstate highway system for power, Friedman says. Brin’s answer: Renewable energy is not on a level playing field because of the costs of old energy: health and coal, politics and oil, tariffs on commodities for ethanol, regulation on electric-care development. Brin says they are generating 1.6 megawatts of solar power on their campus. “It’s been great. It produced shade. It reduced cost.” But he says that regulation, federal to local, adds cost. “There’s just all these barriers to clean energy that don’t exist for dirty energy.”

Dirty energy. That’s a nice phrase. As good as death tax.

Page says they are spreading the idea of holding business-plan contests: having events, giving out a little bit of money, helping winners get funding. “In Silicon Valley, they do that for breakfast.” To do that in Ghana, he says, would establish a community to keep this going.

Asked from the floor, by Time’s Michael Elliott, about the theme of the day — environment versus poverty, emphasis on versus — Page says that he gets irritated when people do not realize that the way out of these problems is technology.

I think he’s right: the discussion is too much about what we should not do rather than what we can do.

“You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” Brilliant explains. “Find a way to make electricity — not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.”

I say from the floor that I see a cultural difference between the movement and Google on this. Google has the positive message of the potential for change through technology. I ask about how they are going to get this message out to encourage investment from government and the public. Are they using lobbying, PR, education? Friedman adds that Exxon Mobil has “done a number” on the debate with PR. Brilliant says that their role is to get information to people, as much information as they can. Page says that success is the best message — that is, if they had three-cent power, everyone would come.

Gore, from the audience, takes issue with Brilliant, saying that getting information out is no longer sufficient. “That’s the way the world used to work. The world doesn’t work that way anymore. The reason that the tobacco industry was able to continue killing people for 40 years ater the surger General’s report…. they understood the power of strategic persuasion. They went about it in a very careful, organized, and well-funded way.” He says we are “vulnerable to strategic persuasion campaigns if the other side assumes that we should just get the information out there.” He says Exxon Mobil has funded 40 front groups to “in their own words position global warming as theory rather than fact.” He concludes: “We need to take them on, Goddamnit.”

Brilliant responds, saying he agrees with Gore but adds: “Each of us needs to play the role we are uniquely positioned to play.”

The other unspoken divide is about economics: Gore and Friedman favor raising the cost of carbon. Page and Brin see a victory in reducing the price of the clean energy. Tax versus investment.

The social corporation

Burda is the most social corporation I know. That’s no doubt because its chairman, Huburt Burda, loves people and playing host to them. I’ve been to dinners and parties from New York to Davos where he and his lieutenants bring together incredibly diverse and interesting bunches of people. They’ve just brought 1,000 people to Munich for their conference. I’ve seen that being a gracious host pay dividends to Burda. They bring in new ideas and talent and relationships. Most companies I know are not at all social. They live in their own buildings and worlds. Not just people are becoming more social. Companies must become social.

Tell us what our content is about

locstore.jpgLike David Weinberger, I’m excited by the Flickr Commons project with its first effort, asking us to tag and identify Library of Congress photos and find the gems in the mine. This is similar to Chris Willis’ Footnote.com and I hope they’re not in deadly competition; I’d like to see a true commons of linked, tagged, commented-upon media artifacts.

I remember a year ago talking with a TV executive who got exhausted at the idea of finding and identifying video in their vault. My answer was to open it up and let the people tell you what’s good and what it’s about. Let us forage.

The beauty of opening up archives is that the people will, indeed, tell you what your content is about and find those diamonds. In the long run, the archives will become more valuable than if they are locked behind a toll booth.

All cable companies must die

I never cease to be amazed anew at how cable companies think it is their job to make their customers’ lives difficult.

I challenge any cable executive to publicly go through the experience of being a customer at their own companies and tell me straight-faced that it’s pleasant and efficient and worth the money and effort.

Today, I drove a half-hour to the only Cablevision “store” within the area to get a cable card for our new TiVo (shhh; don’t tell anyone that I’m only now getting one). I walk in and face a wall of ladies who look more bored and angry than prisoners. I am told that they won’t give me a cable card. I must make an appointment and wait a day for the damned cable guy to come to our house to stick it in the slot. It wastes them money. It wastes me time. It wastes some more of my three free months from TiVo. It inconveniences me. It’s just stupid. I walk out angrier at Cablevision. But I’m stuck with them because Verizon tore up my street two years ago — exaggeration — to lay fibre but still has not hooked up Fios. I’m a prisoner and Cablevision knows it. But that is any excuse to treat customers this way>

For Christmas, I wanted to get my father broadband and so I contacted Bright House in Florida (with whom I used to work) to get a gift certificate. They don’t do that. Can’t I just give you money? No. So I order the service but only on the condition that the installer will hook up the wi-fi router I was wrapping for under the tree. Yes, they said, that’s included. I tell them not to tell my father and to wait until after Christmas to contact my father because, of course, it’s a present. The next day, the phone rings. They called my father. Good work, Bright House. Scrooge. I tell my father to reschedule but instead they cancel the entire account. They were going to bill him for his own present. They also tried to charge him $149 to hook up that modem. I spent a good hour and a half calling Bright House and having fits before they finally switched the billing and agreed to do what they said they would do and hook up the modem (saving the company, by the way, the expense, time, and effort of running a cable halfway around the house; I saved them money by buying a router and they complained).

And, of course, we mustn’t forget Bob Garfield’s jihad at Comcast Must Die.

The only solution to this is true competition and openness. At CES, Brian Roberts promised a Cablevision 3.0 with the customer at the center — all of you who believe him, raise your hands — and a new standard for TV devices. We’ll see.

Jeremy Allaire of Brightcove (no relation to Bright House) sets a higher standard for a fully open alternative. We must be able to plug any device we own to the connectivity coming into our homes and get to any content. It’s that simple. I shouldn’t need to call them to beg or go to their distant offices or ever, ever, every wait all day for the damned cable guy. Connectivity is electricity.

Rather than telling Comcast that they can’t grow any bigger, the FCC should be telling them one thing: Open up.

Obama, the internet victor?

I wonder whether, quietly, Barack Obama is to become the first candidate elected by the internet.

It’s not as if he has been all that aggressive in his internet strategy. That is, he has been no more and probably less disruptive in his online tactics than Howard Dean was. But I wonder whether it is the internet that has brought together the factors that are making him victorious.

First, the higher turnout among young people in Iowa — and, it appears, New Hampshire — is being credited as a key factor in his win(s). It has been said plenty of times that young people may get excited about a candidate but they don’t show up. Now they’re showing up, not only to vote but to jam public events that show the mo’. What’s different this time? It could be some magic potion of Obama as Pied Piper, but I think the change may well be the internet. He spoke to young people on their turf and they responded. They made it a point to befriend the bejesus out of him on MySpace and Facebook — they made that their own crusade — and I think media and political strategists thought that was cute but didn’t understand the full power and impact of that. It’s significant that one of Obama’s advisers is a founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes.

This leads to the second factor: the organizing power of the internet. To hell with the phone bank and campaign office downtown. And to heck with rallies, for that matter. The internet is the greatest organizational tool ever and both the campaign — and, importantly, the citizens themselves — used it to organize supporters to get out and support.

Third, of course, is money: It’s not just that Obama raised a helluva lot of money. It’s far more important, of course, that he raised it from a helluva lot of people. But what’s really important in that is that those people felt invested in Obama and his campaign. Yes, he got lots of money to pay for commercials. But what he really got was citizens with an equity stake in his victory. That wasn’t being done before Howard Dean showed how to raise money online and Obama made brilliant use of it.

There are, of course, other factors. The fact that older voters — like me — are the ones favoring Clinton shows that we hold nostalgia for the Clinton years, but young people have no fond memories of the era; they’re too young. I thought that Clinton ran a flawless campaign at the start but now it turns out to be flawed. I do think the media have from the start made Obama their darling and the mo’ was there for him to grab. See my post in April showing how the coverage of him was out of proportion to the polls. You could argue that the media were merely more in touch than the polls but I don’t think so; I believe Obama’s rise became a self-fulfilling prophecy that only he could screw up — and he didn’t.

It would be unwise to count Clinton out yet. She is smart and experienced and tenacious. And Obama is inexperienced and can mess this up. But as a Clinton supporter, I’ll concede the trajectory here.

My point is that as we analyze this fairly incredible and rabid shift in power between the two candidates, I haven’t heard the internet being given the credit I think it may deserve. And that’s not because he ran the campaign on the internet; no one will call him the internet candidate. It’s because he used it to speak to the right people and in ways that weren’t noticed or understood by big media. What do you think?