Cometh the hour


I’ve been to Japan maybe half a dozen times over the years, so I don’t really know Japan that well; this, despite the fact that I studied Japanese economic history while reading Economics at St Xavier’s College nearly half a century ago. Yet there is much about Japan, its people, its culture, its cuisine, that appeals to me.

More than anything else, Japan represents peace to me. Peace in the way its people behave and present themselves, in their social rituals: always welcoming, never angry. Peace in the way the surroundings look: the understated architecture, minimalist art, subtlety of decor. Peace in the way the country is represented in culture and cuisine: measured, elegant, beautiful to look at, wonderful to taste.

A nation that represents peace. A nation dealing with unimaginable tragedy with dignity and grace. A nation that understands, deep within its culture, the might and power of nature, the vulnerability and mortality of man. In one of Japan’s most famous works of art,  Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, the artist depicts a wave that has been estimated as over 30 ft high, dwarfing Mount Fuji in the distance. In the postscript to his book containing drawings of Mount Fuji, Hokusai has this to say:

From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

A country, and a culture, that has faced enormous tragedy more than once, that has managed to survive and thrive despite tragedy.

My heart goes out to everyone in Japan, or with friends and relatives affected by the earthquake and tsunami: my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Something about the week’s events, the sheer scale and awfulness of what happened, gives many of us pause for thought. Perhaps a deeper understanding of God’s grace. Maybe intimations of our own mortality. Fear and wonder at the awesome and awful power of nature.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about, as a consequence, is the role of the internet and the web.

Most of what I’ve read, heard, seen about the tragedy, has come to me via the web.

  • All the news I’ve read has been via the web; the ability to hear interviews and watch video footage helps me realise what’s happening more deeply, and the choice offered by the web ensures I get objective and comprehensive coverage, unlike the controlled channelled pap of the past
  • My faith in human nature leaps up when I see that #helpjapan and #prayforjapan are leading the Twitter trending charts, this during the time of #sxsw and the launch of #googlecircles.
  • My understanding of the magnitude of what’s happened increases as I see amateur videos like this one:
  • My humility rises as I see the sterling work done by the people at Ushahidi, “a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping”. To see what they’re doing in Japan right now, take a look at this. [My thanks to the people at Boing Boing for the details, which can be found here]. As a result of being at WEF Davos the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Juliana Rotich this year and Ory Okolloh last year: Ushahidi is a wonderful example of the art and power of the possible when it comes to crowdsourcing of information in crisis.
  • My belief in the power of the web grows as I see companies like Google and Facebook and Apple get involved at scale: Google’s homepage has a link to a comprehensive set of resources to help people in Japan. Facebook, along with Causes, has an extensive project to raise funds for Japan; Apple has made it possible for its 200m account holders to donate via iTunes.

Why am I saying all this? Because I think this is a very important time, a time we can learn some very important things.

  • People are what matter. It’s all about people. This crisis will be overcome because the people of Japan will rise to the occasion and act with resolution and with courage. The technology is secondary, a slave, a set of tools. What happened in Egypt was that the people chose change. The domino effect that followed was a domino of humans. Events in Iran happened because courageous people acted courageously. It has never been about the tools, it has always been about the people. It will always be about the people. We must never forget that.
  • Connected people can help. As the human race, we are more connected than we have ever been before. Ubiquitous affordable communications are a step closer now. [In Japan, when the mobile networks went down, people found it easier to communicate via the web, via twitter and facebook]. Mechanisms for raising funds are improving all the time: zero friction (all the money collected gets to the charity) community leverage (you can call upon your network to join in and help) feedback loops (knowing how much has been collected, where, when, by whom). Open data initiatives ensure that the mapping frameworks are improving; open source projects then use these resources to crowdsource “live” data at speeds and accuracies that were impossible to imagine a few years ago. Translation is easier to achieve. Information flows are harder to corrupt and misuse.
  • We must continue to protect, preserve and improve what we have. The internet, and the web, are global resources.They work because in essence they are designed to be inclusive, democratising, organic, adaptive, affordable. So we have to watch for stupidities. Attempts at master switches to retain “control”.  Strategies to subvert “commons” resources into delivery mechanisms to prop up failing business models. Gaming of state subsidies in order to achieve short-term shareholder value, in effect delaying ubiquitous affordable connectivity. State attempts at usurping power by operating above, beyond and outside the law. Justification of all the above using flawed, sometimes fraudulent, arguments to do with terrorism, pornography, intellectual rights and return on investment.

The web, and the internet it uses, are resources we must conserve, even cherish. Because they help us do things we were not able to do in the industrial age.

They represent more than just digital infrastructures for the delivery of entertainment; more than just new and better ways of doing business; more than just radical routes to overhaul health, education, even government itself.

The web is about our renaissance. And the best way we can learn about our renaissance is to stand up and be counted when our colleagues are in trouble.

The people of Japan are resourceful, resilient, a people to be admired. But they don’t have to be alone in their response to crisis. They aren’t alone in responding to crisis.

We can make sure of this.

So go now. Go to Google. Go to Facebook. Go to Causes. Go to iTunes. Give what you can, of your money, of your time, of your resources. The links provided earlier in this post will help you do it quickly and effectively.

And whatever you believe, whoever you believe in, pray. Pray for the people affected, pray for the world we live in. We all need our prayers.

[Update: I’m delighted to see that my employer Salesforce is doing its bit, with the Foundation opening a matching fund of $50,000 for all staff donations to the cause. Values are what distinguish us at times like this.]

16 thoughts on “Cometh the hour”

  1. Maybe I would amend that to “People’s attention is what matters”.

    While we watch Japan, any further democratic surges in the Middle East / North Africa will be snuffed out.

  2. @DE surprisingly, my radar screen still has the Middle East there. Along with Japan. But there’s no Big Brother or Celebrity or American Idol or stuff like that.

  3. @deburca that risk is there. At least one major institution tried to capitalise on fundraising by pushing a marketing message, and they were roundly scolded and made to change.

  4. @oliver I am learning to stop thinking about West and East and Developed and Not and First and Third and Pink and Blue. We are people of earth, as the Cluetrain Manifesto addresses us.

  5. Notice how the tsunami itself is already now an old story, and the fear of unclear is being bigged up. The utterly insulting concept that we are more scared of radiation contamination, then we have compassion for the losses due to the actual disaster.

    As you say, its all about people. Unfortunately the information flow is all about fear.

  6. Great thoughts. I find it amazing that the social structure of Japan, no looting, muggings etc… has stood up to this tragedy. It has made me determined to visit one day just to see what makes it so different for example to what happened in New Orleans

  7. JP –
    I think the challenge of our times will be corporations like Salesforce taking the lead on creating new innovative models of corporate social responsibility in which the business of business is not only business. I am eager to see how this new reality unfolds for the benefit of our global economy and those most in need.

Let me know what you think

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