Coffee! Free Land!

The web logging ferment is lighting up a few corners of the Internet, invisible to most but a harbinger of real change. This ferment reminds me of what I’ve read of 17-18th century coffeehouses and the discovery of the New World. Do you suppose we’re collectively fashioning a second Age of Enlightenment?

My take is that the cultural shift of the 18th century (the decline of monarchy, the rise of Federalism, and the inevitability of one person/one vote) had 2 major precursors. The first was the coffeehouse conversations conducted among educated non-aristocrats (a recent book on coffee credited caffeine with waking Europe from a centuries-long alcohol-induced slumber. To be fair, boiled water drinks were the only safe beverages in pre-Evian Europe.)

The second factor was the availability of free land for the offspring of serfs in the new world. The cultural landscape would never have shifted without surplus real estate and intellectual capital – there certainly was no abundance of investment capital. And the affluent would have never allowed anything to slip out of their own holdings. The new landowners were called freeholders. It’s the dream the US was built on, and it still strikes a chord in the heart of anyone who imagines personal freedom:

160 acres, good water, timber and meadowland. No taxes.

Coffee! Cheap Broadband!

Fast-forward a couple of centuries. Coffeehouses are back in fashion and the conversation is blogging its way around the globe, but the land is all locked up and so is control of most of the capital. (Surprisingly, the capital is actually owned by households, they just haven’t learned to control its allocation.)

A lot of that capital is used not for concentrating land, steam power, factories and ex-serfs, but rather for placing CPUs, T1 lines and Aeron Chairs next to small teams of smart people who come up with ideas they email to Asian contract manufacturers. This investment strategy is taking place in an office even as those engineers’ homes are equipped with later-model CPUs, broadband, OfficeMax chairs and a burning desire to stop working for the Man. Often the engineers’ kid is a better programmer than the dad and is even more appalled at the prospect of working for the man. At some deep level, both of them believe that information wants to be free.

Instead of free land, we have almost free connectivity and web sites that anyone can use to offer their 21st century produce to the public. The digital farm-to-market roads are under construction just as customers are discovering that the big brand companies can’t produce what they want: software that’s pliable, hardware that’s durable and support that sustains them. They already have all the materials needed to collaborate without the overseer, they just lack the CollaboWare. I can’t imagine better raw materials for a socioeconomic revolution.

Doc and I have been discussing one form of CollaboWare, called Xpertweb. Xpertweb has a simple strategy – enriching the data footprint that a transaction leaves behind. It’s free CollaboWare and there’s no startup trying to cook the idea into a stock valuation.

Today’s companies report just one kind of data – price, but they sometimes call it cost. (price paid, price of all the costs & expenses, and the difference between those prices, called Earnings). That’s all the sellers in our economy care about, and they’re the only ones keeping the data. It’s also the only fact keeping your portfolio above zero.

What most of the people in the market (customers) care most about is quality, not price. That’s why they’re called customers – people for whom something must be customized. They’re unwelcome, demanding critters in our consumer economy.

If you’re in the customization business, you care about two things, quality – the customer’s satisfaction with her customization and the quantity of her appreciation – usually money, but often also a product review she shares with others.

Wall Street has built the most involved and expensive circle jerk in history as it lures our best and brightest into the degrading job of rating companies’ net profit this period vs. their net profit next period and last, and reading the entrails of those unwieldy organizations & supply chains to determine which one will better improve their revenues and, just as important, how the other high priests will report their own divinations to the eager congregation of equity worshippers.

Xpertweb’s core idea: the simple act of adding qualitative data points to the sole quantitative datum will allow us to reclaim our right as customers – those cranky people for whom things must be customized – rather than the consumers we’ve become, meekly ingesting whatever we’re fed so the suppliers can scoop up the cash we shit out the other end.

With all this computing power lying around, Xpertweb proposes to add 2 customer-satisfaction data points to price: amount of satisfaction and a description of satisfaction. The amount of satisfaction is a simple grade: 1-99%. The description is simply a few words saying how happy (or not) you are or aren’t with the service you got.

Quality is Brand One

Quality ratings do directly what corporate “branding” tries to do, but can only do indirectly: associate a company with your personal sense of quality. Given a choice, most of us will rely on proof of quality over a series of branding messages. The best proof of quality is the opinion of our peers who’ve gone this way before.

The result? A way to for any of us new freeholders to build a reputation out of a series of satisfying transactions. This is a way for the producer to prove the quality of his produce when the marketplace is virtual. In a small way, it could take a little business away from the big guys. But if it delivers just one great transaction into our day, maybe it’ll take our mind off all the consumerism we’ve been trained to master.
10:36:29 PM    

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