Thursday, October 20, 2011

Between Kansas and Oz

The annual PopTech thought-fest got underway today in Camden, Maine, bringing together nearly 300 journalists, scientists, inventors, technologists, and others working at the forefront of social change for a three-day conversation about these volatile times and how the world is "rebalancing" into a new equilibrium. "We are," Curator Andrew Zolli told conferees, "in the midst of a great realignment - a series of connected and converging revolutions in technology, economics, ecology, energy, geopolitics and culture that mark the end of one global era and the beginning of another."

The status quo on all levels is being challenged at high speeds "from far away, from below and from within," Zolli told conferees, while new powers are rising in the form of new kinds of networks, leaders and influencers. "The very nature of power, itself, is evolving," Zolli added, and the changes are re-making relationships between individuals; re-framing society's notions of governance, and re-drawing the geography of innovation. This massive rebalancing also is driving "entirely new kinds of business opportunities, introducing new voices into global culture, and unleashing a wave of reactionary counter-forces -- simultaneously."

"We are not in Kansas, nor are we in Oz," Zolli said. "We are in the whirlwind."

Among first-morning conference highlights were talks by a trio of people working on initiatives intended to rebalance not just economic and political power, but also to negotiate new spaces for broader cultural and artistic expression -- "changing who gets to speak," Zolli said, "and who gets to shape the narratives of this new global conversation."

* Shahidul Alam -- a Bangladeshi photographer, activist and social entrepreneur -- kicked off the conference by introducing his work as founder of both Drik, an agency for photographers working in the East, and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography, one of the largest in the world. "A problem that comes up in the world today is a perception we often have of 'the other' and it makes it difficult for us to recognize equality in a wider sense," Alam told conferees. "Pictures have a power. Through them, we are working to change how 'the other' is seen and how, in this new space, we all present ourselves." In this way, Alam says, he is working to both fight media censorship and correct the West's distorted view of what he calls "majority world" countries like his own. "The rural poor only exist as numbers. By taking pictures, they are removed from anonymity." Added Alam: "I don't like the term, Third World, because I don't want to be third in anything. When you talk of democracy and freedom, by and large the G-8 countries which represent 13 percent of the world's population do not represent me or the majority world in which I live." Alam has created a Website called to showcase and represent the unseen imagery of local, non-Western photographers. "The whole (Western) publishing process needs to be subverted," he told PopTech, so as to be able to convey the news more accurately, from local sources. "We can't simply let the West keep telling our stories," he said. "We need to be telling our own stories for global consumption."

* Anand Giridharadas, an American-born journalist for the International Herald Tribune, wrote his first book, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking, to update the picture of India he learned through the prism of his emigre family history and his childhood memories of India. "There is, in fact, some great news," says Giridharadas, who grew up in Cleveland. "And the great news is that contary to all you hear in the media, and contrary to all of this anxiety in this country right now, the American Dream is alive and well. It is, in fact, possibly doing better than it ever has before -- just not here," he added. In India, he says, a new version of that dream is taking hold. Indians are reinventing relationships, bending the meaning of what it means to be Indian and enduring the pangs of the old birthing the new. This rebalancing should not be seen as a threat of low-wage competition for the West, Giridharadas says, but rather as "a cultural and spiritual release." The "world is flat" idea, he said, "is a flat idea. It's not so much that the relationship between the West and India is flattening but that the world inside India is flattening, too -- becoming more fair" as old caste and class divisions are eroding. "Now, two powerful new ideas are taking hold," Giridharadas said. "The first is that destiny is something one makes rather than inherits. And the second is that ... the individual is sovereign" -- with an opportunity to excel according to individual ability and achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Giridharadas warned conferees that political and class bickering among Americans "is making it harder and harder for people here in America to access the upward American spiral that brought my parents to this country from half a world away." This bickering is "not just eroding the America Dream" for Americans, he said. It is "wearing it down at the precise moment in history when the rest of the world has gotten wind of our once-secret formula, and I think that is something we need to think more about."

* Arvind Subramanian, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and at the Center for Global Development, argues in his new book, Eclipse, that China has already overtaken the United States as a global economic power, with consequences both positive and negative for Americans. "China's economic dominance will be much broader in scope and much greater in magnitude than anyone yet imagines," he told PopTech attendees. And he predicts that by 2020, the Chinese Renminbi will eclipse the dollar as the world's dominant currency. "We think of the United States now as going through an economic downturn," he says, "but the other dimension of weakness in the U.S. is that the middle class is getting squeezed and their mobility is declining -- the complete opposite of what is happening in India." Subramanian says "the U.S. is like an apartment block that used to be the envy of the neighborhood. Today, the penthouses are getting bigger and bigger, the middle floors are getting squeezed, the basement is flooded and above all, the elevator from the basement is broken down." He added that America needs to change the way it cooperates internationally and do more to integrate the Chinese into American culture and institutions. By 2030, he says, the Chinese economy will be 50 percent larger than the U.S. economy. Already, the U.S. and Europe no longer have "the carrots and the sticks to cajole China into anything," Subramanian says. "It's no longer about what America wants. That world is gone. The world now will need to be much more symmetrical and balanced."

* Paul Needham and his Bangalore-based company, Simpa Networks, are designing new products and services aimed at "doing capitalism differently" -- making things radically more affordable to the poor. In this case, it's electricity. There are now some 48 million people worldwide who have a mobile phone but no connection to the grid. Simpa is setting out to change that by offering the world's poorest people access to solar energy on a "pay-as-you-go" basis. It's a model that is similar to pay-as-you-go mobile phones in that there's a low initial cost for the hardware required -- but once the cost of the hardware is repaid, the device becomes the consumer's to use, and the electricity generated going forward is free. "Consider the power this model gives to underserved people to create new possibilities for themselves and their worlds, and in some cases for the very first time," says Needham.

Cause Global will be posting more highlights throughout the conference. Watch this space for updates. PopTech ends Saturday night.

Here's the livestream:

Watch live streaming video from poptech at

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Illustration, top, by Cinoby/Germany for

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