Friday, April 10, 2015

The Emperor's New Watch

The Emperor's New Clothes was an example of conspicuous consumption. But it was an example of the good kind. People love stories and we can create all sorts of things in our wonderful imaginations. Even clothes. If the invisible clothes don't stop anyone else from getting anything, and make the Emperor more likely to parade around rather than leading troops in pillage and plunder, then we should cheer him on. The payment he made was a 'stupidity tax' to the cunning weaver who wove his deception.

One of the tricky problems facing many knowledge businesses is how to monetize them. Capitalism is great at dealing with allocating limited resources in a way that reflects supply and demand. Once you get to the finer things in life, we end up being faced with a brand new set of challenges. The finer things don't necessarily make for good businesses. Apple is great at weaving the kind of stories around it's products that allow it to charge much more than it costs to make. Even then, an iPhone isn't completely out of reach of the middle class. Other smartphones are also available. Information and communication is fine. Information and communication is almost free. You can slap a smartphone on your wrists and add golds and diamonds, but functionally it does the same thing. It is just sparkly and emperorfied.

If we live in a developed country, the majority of us are cultural billionaires. We likely need much less than we have. It is just a combination of weaving stories and a lack of time that don't allow us to realise it. A good kuier with your favourite people costs very little depending on your chosen 'clothing'. If you have the emperor's dress sense and the weavers thrift, you could drink water and spend the time au naturel and it will cost nothing.

The type of conspicuous spending that is a problem is when we aren't dealing in story territory. There are still lots of people who aren't in the territory of realising they already have more than they need. They still need to get the basics. Sometimes we just think the problem is too hard, so we prefer to close our eyes can get on with our own lives. Peter Singer makes lots of practical suggestions of how we can make a difference.

Those of us in story territory had a helping hand somewhere along the line. Whether we were lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country, in a culture with a legacy of learning, or just bumped into some awesome mentors along the way. All success likely comes from some sort of privilege. There is however a sense that we want to help empower people rather than come from that place of privilege with handouts. It is tricky. Saying we want to help people who help themselves may not adequately recognise how much help we had. There is the risk that we don't understand the obstacles faced by those 'not willing to help themselves'. That said, a partnership seems the most powerful way to bridge the gap. There is something we can do.

The Unogwaja Light Fund is an attempt to look for projects that try give people back dignity and allow them to create lives for themselves. All the other stories, whether on foot or by pedal, are a side show to create and share stories that energise. The real story is getting everyone to the point where we sustainably have enough. Then we can all become storytellers and wear as much gold on our watches or as little invisible robes covering our wobbly bits as we want.

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