Go with a smile!

Thursday, June 03, 2010


As we mourn the passing of Dr Goh Keng Swee some of our thoughts turn to the guy who comes closest to being this generation’s GKS, namely Phillip Yeo. And when you think about him you can’t help but notice how his foot has a great affinity for his mouth.

Phillip Yeo has done it again. This time, he has called the people who have downloaded stuff from Apple “dummies”. Is this right? Well I have no love for him in how he clamps down on people who are his slaves, or how he doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt for people he considers to be his intellectual inferior (basically about 100% of the human race). However there is a point hidden in there somewhere if you want to dig far enough. I agree with him that human beings are dummies. This is why we had the world wars, why we have extremely unequal distribution of wealth, why the recent financial crisis happened, why we destroy our natural environment and why we will eventually fail to reverse the effects of climate change, with the end result being that we will wipe ourselves off the face of the earth in a matter of merely 300 years.

Yes, these applications are for suckers. Well, I’m not so sure. We know that the evolution of computers has been a steady trend of moving from big clunky machines which were the exclusive domain of obscenely profitable companies, to nerdy hobbyists programming new operating systems in some basement in Finland, to super user-friendly applications that less tech savvy users can pull out of their pocket and impress members of the opposite sex with. (See vaguely related article on “curated computing”). But well then – what’s the bloody point of the last part? These guys are the dummies, right? What’s the point of getting hard earned money from dummies?

That’s the part I don’t understand about this capitalistic attitude. The central tenet is this: you maximise shareholder value. OK, so that’s the game plan. So what do you sell? And is it for the betterment of humanity? Who cares? Sell them fast food to clog up their arteries with. Sell them sugared water that will give them diabetes in old age. Sell them tobacco to give them lung cancer. Sell them heroin. And when they’ve done enough to fuck up their health, sell them health care.

And what’s this? I see that he sorda approves of this. Why? Because it maximises shareholder value. You see, when you are a great capitalist, you see people all around you. And you see that they own a lot of dollar bills. And you know, deep down inside that all those dollar bills actually belong to you – it’s just that those poor suckers don’t really know it yet. So selling iPhone apps to suckers is, if not something right and just, is at least “the way of the world”.

What else do we see? He exonerates the 1% of people who don’t get suckered like the rest, the 1% of people who probably are involved in programming the apps and selling them for cash. We know that Phillip Yeo is a cold and unfeeling robot, and we know that he feels that the world will be a better place if everybody were to be cold and unfeeling robots just like him. Well, how is the world going to turn if those 1% of people suddenly made up 100% of the population?

Part of me wants to congratulate him for at least being honest – but I think he’s just blurting out what he really thinks. And I am not entirely unsympathetic for his contempt for people who just spend a lot of money and consume a lot of stuff. But sometimes, people are just people, they are human beings who are attracted to aesthetics, beautiful things. And iPhone has delivered something that they want. Yes, it’s still digital code, but with more beauty than most other competitors. What’s wrong about consuming beautiful stuff? Well the problem with that is that it makes you less of a cold and unfeeling robot.

All this spiel is the result of me having read a book by Daniel Pink. “A Whole New Mind”, in which he makes a few claims. Right brainers will become more prominent as we go along. They design products and services which take more holistically into account the entire user experience. (This is true. Creative may have had the more technically superior MP3 player, but Apple won, and won big, because they actually thought about the user experience, which Creative were completely clueless about.) And there was another statistic that interested me a lot: it’s more difficult to get into an MFA program at UCLA than it is to get into most MBA programs!

I suppose, when we understand that a good knowledge of aesthetics is crucial for differentiating between a high profit margin / high class product that “dummies” fork it out to buy and the mass produced shit that everybody else has to deal with, then it becomes understandable why our government is starting to pump in money for more arts education. But only because the art education contributes to our economy, of course. No point having theatre groups like Wild Rice putting up subversive plays and having their budgets cut. No point art schools being a nurturing grounds for people like John Lennon or Adolf Hitler. People need to know what it’s all about.



Blogger Nat said...

I was watching a TED lecture recently where the speaker says that ordinary people / companies tend to know 'What / How' they do things but the Great ones know 'Why' they do it. I suppose art is no exception either. Knowing 'Why' makes one sustain in their endeavor.

Philip Yeo's comments (though might have been tongue in cheek or foot in mouth) does not inspire... As has many policy decisions made in Singapore in the recent times I guess. I should say I do not know what Philip Yeo's history is, I am sure he is smart but when someone considers a any chunk of the population 'Dummies' I don't think I would bother to find out more either.

His point of view seems is like the one held by the un-enlightened Scientist in Carl Sagan's 'Contact'. There are millions of them around, heck, I am one myself. Why would I bother looking up to another one as a leader. Ho hum.

The sad part is that if people do take his advice, then noose just gets a bit more tighter on innovation in this island. Creative died because they made cheap products and the only 'why' they knew was that there was a market. That is not good enough reason to survive.

9:58 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Yeh I think Singapore does not excel in the "Why", but mainly in the "what" and "how".

I thought about the innovative things that Goh Keng Swee did for this country, and a lot of it was "how" and "what" - no doubt it was innovative, but when you're starting out, you don't have the "why". A lot of success in that. Setting things up, building infrastructure, we're great at that.

The "why" - or more formally the teleological stuff, we're not so good. In fact, maybe Chinese people are not so good, because religion has never been a big part of Chinese life.

I think the government has an inkling that innovation is important, but they're not really good at figuring out how to foster it. And the noose that you mentioned is not merely a mental shackle - if you open a shop in Singapore, rent is so high that you have 2-3 months to prove yourself before you run out of money. We literally have no room to be creative. It's rare that you get businesses in regional malls that aren't "same shit done differently".

But I sometimes wonder if this isn't merely an Asian thing. I wonder how many countries (incl S Korea, Japan) have made the transition from being a sweatshop for westerner-designed products to being true cultural innovators in their own right.

3:25 PM

Blogger Nat said...

One does not need to be religious to have a belief in something. India is highly religious but they are also a sweat shop of a different kind.

I wonder about the Asian stereotype too. But ironically, Asians do become innovators when put in the west. So I tend to think there is some thing social / environmental about the issue of asking the 'Why'. May be it the leadership that is at fault.

Singapore asked a lot of 'Why' in its early days. The concept of quality public housing is one of the best public policies in (probably in the world) history. Risky for a young nation but paid off pretty well in the long term.

There is risk of catastrophic failure (Apple faced that in 90's) but they stuck to their guns of making beautiful consumer electronics and it paid off now.

If one gets into a business and will do anything to turn a profit, they wont generate much respect and they wont survive imitators either...

5:16 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I always felt that religion was a lot about asking the "why"

Asians do become innovators when they go to the west, but does that merely underscore how the system is entrenched. Those are the innovative ones, the ones that can't stand the fact that they can't achieve what they're capable of because the system does not recognise their talents. People everywhere are the same, but societies are different because of the way they're put together.

Singapore's public housing policies were good. I don't know about innovative. They were risky. But it was still about answering the "how" question rather than the "why". When I see what public housing is like in the West, I think the miracle of Singapore is that our HDB estates don't turn into ganglands.

I concede that Goh Keng Swee answered some very fundamental and philosophical questions. First, to make Singapore's economy export oriented. Second, to use MNCs to drive the economy. But for me these are "how" questions. They were about getting halfway up the mountain, which Asians are very good at. But how do you get to the top, I don't know how well all of us have answered this.

To be sure, Singapore has developed at least one unique product by thinking out of the box: the SIA girl. But I'd be more proud of products that appeal to the upper half of the human body.

Another thing you mentioned: surviving imitators. China (and a lot of Asian countries) are bad at intellectual property protection. In part this is cultural because we just don't like giving credit to individuals. Makes it hard for one person to design something great and make it stand out. Make something half great, and before you know it, you're out of business.

8:55 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

PS: motherfucking buyer stood me up.

9:00 PM

Blogger Nat said...

The upper body of the Singapore girl appeals to me. What, oh yeah, I guess I read it wrong ;)

On Housing, My view is that the process started with the why, but seems like now it turns into a what issue. Whatever, I am not particularly qualified as My knowledge of local history is primarily hearsay.

IP protection is a problem yes, but I think these are getting into the details. I guess I am with you on the point of how the society's rewarding scheme defines ones innovative / creative abilities... But there are always exceptions, Gandhi was Indian, he made a conscious choice and dose above mediocrity. Of course, not every one is a Gandhi, nor one should be, that's missing the point again.

People at the bottom have an urgent need, survival. They cannot afford to ask the philosophical 'why'. They can but at least I excuse them if they don't. People on top, especially of a reasonably stable society / company can afford to ask 'why' and I cannot accept if they choose mediocre path.

At least I wouldn't sympathize when they go extinct...

11:08 PM


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