(Running notes from LiftAsia08, in Jeju, Korea)
I'm spending the week on the island of Jeju, in Korea, for the LiftAsia08 conference. The volcanic island has spectacular sites -- lava tubes, tuff craters, dark-grey beaches, and a Unesco heritage mountain right in the middle, mount Hallasan -- and the population is inclined to kindness: the first street sign that you see upon leaving Jeju airport says "We love having you here". The slogan is repeated on billboards around the island, but this first one is not a billboard: it's a blue highway sign, suspended above the lanes, in three languages (English, Korean, and I guess Japanese), as if to indicate a direction.
The island is booming. The hotel we're staying at, on a cliff above the ocean, looks like a spaceship (it might be one: the toilet, called LooLoo, has an electronic command keyboard with 14 keys). The congress center is gigantic. The region proclaims itself "autonomous self-governing", and that's what the local authorities are trying to achieve: become to Korea something like what Hong Kong is to China. The food is an adventure -- and in this domain I'm of the non-adventurer, stick-to-Mediterranean-cuisine type, so I haven't got into the mood for live octopus and other similar delicacies yet. Nor I plan to.
The conference's theme is "Beyond the web browser". The room is full, there are about 400 attendees. After a welcome message from Jeju's governor Kim Tae-hwan, and a short introduction by Seo Young Roh, of the Art Center Nabi in Seoul (which has created some spectacular installations here, under the moniker "Lift Experience", Laurent Haug and Jaewoong Lee give the opening speech, offering an introduction to the conference and discussing "what a mature web will mean for our society". Haug is the founder of Lift (which takes place in Geneva every year, and of which I'm an adviser); Lee is a Korean entrepreneur, CEO of Daum communication, one of Asia's largest Internet platforms with over 40 million users -- Daum is one of the main LiftAsia sponsors.
Haug: The web is now mature, we have one billion user. Alot of things are happening; we have experiencing an overload of information and innovation; "relevant" is the new "new"; we're back to forms of hierarchy; we enter "casual everything", casual gaming, casual e-mail, casual news reading; etc. In a way, there is less innovation happening inside the browser.
Lee: The innovation today comes at the intersection of the individual, the computer and physical space. The online-offline frontier is blurred.
Eric Rodenbeck, of Stamen Design in SF, talks (and shows plenty) about the evolution towards "richer" media forms through the use of new types of information visualizations. Running notes: French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, mid-19th century, studied movement, juman and animal, particularly birds (he invented a "photographic gun" and other devices to capture movement). Things are different now, we deal with systems of organisms and not with individual motions, like the 1K Project, 1000 cars racing in 1000 videogame racing sessions and recorded all together. There is a vast amount of data that it's now generated "live" by each one of us. Eric shows DiggLabs' "Swarm", showing what's happening in real time, what stories "grow" when people "digg" them, etc; Cabspotting, which tracks cabs in San Francisco, creating a map of the city (example at right) that's not based on the street grid, but on the actual activity of the taxis (based on the idea that the city is an organism, you can take the data, take the flows, and reveal the patterns that are hidden inside them).
Chang Kim, CEO of Korean blog hosting company TCN, talks about the future of the social web. (Korea btw has a 64% penetration of broadband). Running notes: The future of social media is a better homepage. Today there are too many destination sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc), but none of them are really mine or yours. To make matter worse, there are now apps and widgets. Before I just consumed content; now I'm creating content, and my content is scattered all around, and none of these sites are mine. It's like a hotel vs home experience. Today you check into these different "hotels"/destination sites managed by others; what we need is ownership, "home business", a true home where I can start and end my journey. The second problem is that data aren't really portable, copy/paste is not really efficient. Third problem: relationships online don't really model after real life; online you're either my friend or you're not, there isn't much nuance. The relationship on the web today is represented flatly. The only solution is different levels of trust. The fourth problem is that the places of content consumption and content authoring are different. Most power bloggers don't understand the fact that content authoring can be difficult for many people. I believe there is an emerging social networking fatigue.
The second session (which I'm moderating, so only limited blogging -- that will be the case for several sessions during this conference) features economist David Birch and sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling talking about the digitization of money and the emerging cashless economy.
Birch is a director of Consult Hyperion and a specialist of electronic business and banking (he was once described as "one of the most user-friendly of the UK's uber-techies"). Running notes: Cash doesn't work very well for many people. For example: cash costs too much (from the cost of withdrawing money from an ATM to fees for remittances etc) and these costs disproportionally fall on the poorest. In societies with cash-based economies (for ex Sweden) risks for robberies is higher. So don't take it for granted that cash is the best way of doing things. US: about 2/3 of all the US dollars in circulation, are not in the US. Being the person that issues the cash, it's a very good position to be: people basically give you an interest-free loan. The amount of dollars in circulation is actually falling. Cell phone in some countries has already become an alternative to cash payments, and even to plastic payments. Ex Japan, where operator DoCoMo has invested in Sumitomo bank to develop its payment systems. Other Asian cell-phone payment systems: G-Cash and Smart in the Philippines; E-tong in China; SKT Visa and KTF MasterCard in Korea; ETS and EZ-Link in Singapore. This demonstrates very clearly that consumers have no problems whatsoever with the idea of using their cell phone instead of cash or plastic cards. In Kenya: M-PESA, which has millions of users and signs up thousands of users a day (it's a system that allows to send Kenyan shilling from cell phone to cell phone). In other countries such as Congo, mobile-phone minutes have become an "alternative currency". If you're just talking about putting extra menus into a mobile phone, then you can try experiments, letting people choose among a series of possibilities for payments. In Latin America, branchless banks and shared agent networks in Brazil.
(Here a series of M-PESA screenshots showing how it works)
Let's assume that we replace cash with cell phones. Who whould be the winners? There would be economic growth (0.5%?). We may get reduced crime (no robberies). There would be reduced tax evasion. Banks: no more cash handling, filling ATMs, etc. And poor people would get rid of the weight of transaction charges.
American sci-fi writer and initiator of the cyberpunk genre Bruce Sterling is next. He has already addressed (on different topics) past LIFT conferences in Geneva twice, and is therefore a sort of unofficial LIFT resident big thinker. Running notes: Rather than talking about the hi-tech world of computing, I want to talk about the poor world, without computing. There are two kinds of poverty: the first kind is people that have no money, and the second kind is the people who can't make any money. The latter are going to remain poor, but there are alot of people that are very capable of making money but are shut out of that possibility by their current financial system. The new poverty is urban: peasants all around the world are living their land and moving into cities, places like Lagos, Sao Paulo, Mumbai. These poors have cell phones, there is no cell phone divide. People are really surprised, and even alarmed, at how eager the poor are to have cell phones. In India the cell phone user base in 2008 is expanding by 6 million people a month (and those are just accounts: typically a whole family would use a cell phone). There are people who can't read and buy cell phones. So these are not the "old" poor: these are big-city people, and like most people in big cities they're rather sophisticated. They just don't have money, they don't have banking services. But they do have some of these cell-phone-based payment services that David just described. This is disruptive innovation: it's not an add-on to the banks that rich people already have; this are millions of people being brought into a parallel financial system. These are not banks: I think we're seeing the invention of some kind of anti-bank, or even an anti-money, here. I suspect (BG: here Bruce addresses the Koreans in the audience) that your contribution will be in North Korea. Will the regime in North Korea collapse? Yes. When that happens, who can do something about it? South Korea of course. You will have to lift NK out of their poverty, and I don't think that you can do it with conventional economics and with these nice currency notes (He shows a 10'000-won note). They are poor and they have never had cell phones, but as soon as the regime collapses that's what they are gonna get: cell phones. And they will go to cities. Consider the historic example of Eastern and Western Germany: the West thought they could replace one economic and currency system with the other, but that didn't make them into capitalists. You will have to replace it completely. You will have to come up with some Korean electronic solutions for poverty. NK is not going to collapse tomorrow, but you should start preparing, to start thinking: when my fellow Korean from the North becomes free, what kind of technology should we put into his or her hands so that in ten years they become happy citizens?