Oh, Joybubbles, how could you?

You ain't callin me a phreak, are ye?

If you invented a mechanical defecating duck, you’d expect to make a fortune, wouldn’t you? But not if somebody stole your idea and sent a raft of imitations waddling and thingmying all over market stalls the length and breadth of the country.

So then you’d sue the copyducks for violating your intellectual property, only for some snooty judge to decide that the work of mere craftsmen didn’t merit patent protection.

This edifying anecdote from 18th century Britain is one of many in Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns.

Johns’ argument that “piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary” is discussed in this post, but here ‘d like to mention another of Johns’ characters, Joe Engressia.

I’ve never seen Joe mentioned on those lists of people with disabilities who have achieved great things, but this blind boy of Virginia discovered at the age of seven how to make free phone calls and wreak havoc in the telecoms network by whistling into the mouthpiece at exactly the right frequency (2600 Hz if you want to try it at home).

He later changed his name to Joybubbles, but before that he created a group of phreaks like himself, and hacking was born. Joybubbles’ brand of phreaking has now disappeared, in part because phreakable exchanges were replaced and also because the FBI and phone companies were threatening to send the phreakers to jail.

There used to be lots of other ways of getting cheap phone calls. Here in Paris for instance, I can remember seeing long lines of people queuing to use certain public phones that were known to have defective timers, and some people were skilful at hitting the coin drop with a five-franc coin on a string.

The OECD played a role in putting an end to all this, arguing over the years that by breaking up the big telecoms monopolies and allowing different service providers to compete, prices would fall and technological progress would be encouraged.    

The snappily-named OECD Statement of the Benefits of Telecommunication Infrastructure Competition of 1994 represented a milestone, in that for the first time OECD governments agreed on the benefits of opening the business up to competition, even though the majority still had monopolies.

In the coming years the sector was rapidly transformed, with rapid growth in mobile telephony, the Internet, and broadband, in large part due to the lower prices for consumers predicted by the OECD.

You can read more about it in a special chapter celebrating the OECD’s 50th anniversary in this year’s Science, Technology and Industry Outlook, one of several we’ll be including in our flagship publications this year, including a more complete account in the forthcoming Communications Outlook.

(Of course we could have got cheaper calls by substituting capital for labour, like John T. Draper who  discovered that the free whistle in Cap’n Crunch cereals produced the magic 2600 Hz frequency too.)

Useful links

OECD work on information and communications policy

OECD study on Piracy of Digital Content

OECD study on the Economic Impact of Counterfeiting and Piracy

A social media revolution?


Click to see the book

Today’s post comes from Professor Annabelle Sreberny, of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her latest book, “Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran” (with Gholam Khiabany) warns against stereotyping bloggers as dissidents, and argues that the Internet is changing things in ways which neither the government nor the democracy movement could have anticipated.

So the joke goes that Mubarak dies and meets Nasser and Sadat in the afterlife. They ask him, “were you poisoned or shot?” Mubarak shrugs and answers “Facebook!”  Actually, an Egyptian family did recently name their newborn daughter Facebook.

There is no doubt that we’re witnessing a world-historical moment.  The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December and is still unfolding across the Maghreb and Middle East has raised important questions about the role of new media technologies and platforms in contemporary political mobilizations. There has quite possibly never been such a dramatic set of political changes in contiguous or close state formations ever in history.  The revolutions of 1848 in Europe were supposed to be inspired by each other; how much more is that the case in a 24-hour transnational news environment and world-encircling Internet. As Lenin said,  “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”

It is evident that both new and old media have played significant and fascinating roles in the recent insurrections to topple autocratic regimes from Tunis to Cairo and beyond. New media can no longer be considered the epiphenomena of political movements but are rather significant tools of political mobilization. This is NOT to repeat the fatuous claim that Tunisia was a ‘twitter revolution’, as had been claimed for the Green Movement in Iran after the June 2009 election, nor that such tools are indispensible for political change. Clearly people have made revolution without such tools. But in repressive regimes where face-to-face public politics is extremely curtailed, a platform such as Facebook provides a space where silence and fear are broken and trust can be built, where social networks can turn political, and where home and diaspora can come together. Whatever the intentions of their developers, social media are being used to provide news and information hard to come by from regime channels; to plan and coordinate action; and to tell the world what is going on.

But the conditions and mix of platforms differs from country to country. Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. The Kefaya movement had been blogging for many years in Egypt and numerous YouTube videos circulated about police torture and bread riots. Libyans have limited internet access but mobile telephony is widespread. The Egyptian Facebook pages We are All Khaled Said, set up by Wael Ghonim,  and 6th of April Youth Movement became important nodes in a growing movement; at the end of March 2011,  they each have over 100,000 ‘followers’.

Even the Egyptian military interim government announced the resignation of Shafiq and his replacement on their Facebook page. Twitter was another way to keep in touch and share useful suggestions across national borders, as the Tunisian who tweeted “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas” or like the Egyptian feminist, Mona Eltahawy, telling the world what is going on across the region. These platforms provide the power of instantaneity, immediate diffusion of and access to information, and extensiveness, crossing national borders and addressing diasporic and foreign populations.

But perhaps as significant as the new social media platforms has been the role of broadcasting, especially Al Jazeera Arabic and English. The Arabic channel and BBC Arabic played a multiplier role in articulating the diverse events across the region.  Al Jazeera English kept the rest of the world enthralled, with strong on-the ground coverage and moments of brilliant television direction. These included the use of split-screen to broadcast Mubarak’s last speech live whilst showing the response in Tahrir Square, the scores of shoes being thrown in the air an unmistakable sign that his end was fast approaching. A sympathetic global public opinion may have played a role in the unanimous UN resolution to instigate the no-fly zone over Libya.  In the US, Hillary Clinton has berated the US media for poor coverage which was delivering audiences to Al Jazeera.

We know that the demographic across the region is youthful and, as everywhere else, where possible they have embraced new technologies to download music and film and keep abreast of events around the world. These movements are about the rising expectations and rising frustrations of unemployed young men and the social obstacles encountered by increasingly better educated young women, and ring with an optimistic universalism for human rights and economic opportunities.

There is evidently more to come, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Syria where the Facebook page The Syrian Revolution has 87,000 followers.  And new policies to support a free press and internet access have to be written in to the new constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  Small, alternative media (neither controlled by states nor by big business) are not a simple answer to political repression as Clay Shirky style cultural optimists and Jared Cohen would have the Washington beltway believe. But neither are they so controlled and monitored by strong states that nothing can be achieved, as the pessimists like Evgeny Morozov would argue.

When used creatively within a rich mix of local face-to-face politics, configured in the languages and symbols of national traditions, and in contexts where the older generation simply doesn’t want to give up power, it is evident that small media can punch way above their weight.

Useful links

OECD work on the Middle East and North Africa

OECD work on the Internet economy

OECD video competition: Your chance to vote!

Progress is... not making this kind of movie anymore



Piranha II : The Spawning. Amblin. Dementia 13.

It wasn’t always your Avatars, ETs and Apocalypses now for famous film directors. Everybody has to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe in years to come some of the entries in our “Progress is…” video competition will achieve the same cult status as those early offerings from Cameron, Spielberg and Coppola (whose first film was actually a porno, but this is a family blog).

Anyway, if you know talent when you see it, click on the OECD 50th Anniversary Video Competition and vote for the one you think deserves to win a trip to Paris in May.

There’s a selection from all over the world, OECD and non-OECD countries, with all kinds of styles – animation, interview, mini-documentary – and an even wider range of arguments.

So, is progress something to do with education? An aspiration like sharing burdens and all of us working together? Something more abstract like balance or awareness? Or very concrete like using taxes to fund development?

Remember, you saw it first here.



When I’m 64.6 …

“Don’t Stop Working!” Not our advice, but the headline on a Slate article about one of the world’s longest-running sociological studies. Back in the 1920s, the American psychologist Lewis Terman gathered together 1500 exceptionally bright boys and girls and began a study of their lives that would continue for eight decades. Today, only a few of Terman’s “Termites” are still alive, and final conclusions from the study are being published.

One aim of the research was to find out what makes some people live longer than others. The findings are interesting: For instance, the death of a parent in childhood had relatively little impact on longevity, but parental divorce did. Adults who were gloomy and neurotic as children also tended to die relatively young. But so did those who had been extra cheerful, perhaps because of a devil-may-care attitude towards smoking and drinking in later life. The real winners in the longevity stakes were the conscientious kids, those who as adults maintained “a fairly high level of physical activity, a habit of giving back to the community, a thriving and long-running career, and a healthy marriage and family life”,  as The Wall Street Journal puts it. Hence Slate’s advice to keep on working. 

That may also be music to the ears of governments, which increasingly want to see people working later in life. As the latest edition of OECD Pensions at a Glance reports, around half of OECD countries have already started, or are planning to start, raising “pensionable ages” – the age at which people qualify for a full pension. By 2050, the average in OECD countries will reach just under 65 for both sexes – that’s nearly 2½ years above the current age for men and 4 years for women.  

A key reason for this move lies in the fact that we’re living longer. As a result, most of us will be living off pensions for much longer than our grandparents did. In 1958, a man who reached pensionable age could look forward to living for around another 13 years; by 2050, that number is forecast to rise to just over 20 years. The figures for women are perhaps even more striking: 17 years in 1958, but 24½ years – almost a quarter of a century – in 2050.

Paying for all this risks being a major strain on the taxpayers of the future, especially as there will be relatively fewer of them than today: In most OECD countries, declining birth rates mean that non-working over-65s will account for an ever larger slice of the population. In 2000, about a third (33%) of people in OECD countries were aged over 65; by 2050, that number is forecast to exceed 41%.  

So, in all probability we’ll all have to go on working a bit longer. Not everyone’s happy with that: In France, unions argue the burden will fall unfairly on blue-collar workers. But it’s interesting to note that the higher retirement ages of the future will in some ways take us back to where we were: Over the second half of the 20th century, the average pensionable age in OECD countries fell by two years, before beginning to rise again in the 1990s. If the forecasts are accurate, by the time we reach 2050 it will be only about 3 months above what it was in 1948, or 64.6 years.

 Useful links

 OECD work on pensions

Japan: Hard questions and no easy solutions

Japan: Large-scale Floods and Earthquakes

“If I took a different way, would it have changed our fates a little?”

Asking the “what if” questions is just something we do when, looking back after a tragedy, we try to collectively understand what went wrong, what might have been prevented and what we might have done differently.  In the case of Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, the crisis hasn’t yet passed.

For now the world waits and watches the Fukushimi Daichii reactors, their cooling mechanisms and the small crew of workers still on site struggling to stave off the worst forms of disaster.

But while we wait we ponder – how far can we trust ourselves, and the systems we devise, to resist both predictable and unpredictable catastrophes?  The particular combination of earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident and bad weather was unpredictable, but all of these items are studied in Japan’s disaster response planning.

Indeed, at the request of the Japanese government, in 2009 the OECD carried out review of Japan’s risk management policies concerning large-scale floods and earthquakes. Among other recommendations, the report states that: “Industries that can trigger special harm in case of flood accidents, such as chemical and nuclear industries, should be required by law to move to safer areas”.

In fact, often after a disaster strikes, it turns out that warning went unheeded, or terrible mistakes were made. At Bhopal, security systems were disabled to save money.

At Three Mile Island, an indicator on a valve gave ambiguous information.

In the world’s worst plane crash at Tenerife airport in 1977, a pilot took off without clearance. It can be the case, as for Deepwater Horizon, that neither machines nor people behave as expected.

And in the Fukushima plant, emergency generators were in place, but not on high enough ground.  So the backup system itself was vulnerable, making catastrophic failure possible. The spent fuel is stored next to the reactor, so damage to the reactor can damage the stored rods too. The “comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure” makes the reactor more vulnerable than other designs.

What are we missing about the interaction of complex systems (the human mind/will/choice patterns being one of these) that allow these huge catastrophic events to occur in spite of multiple redundant systems, failsafes and billions of dollars directed at preventing them?

What would allow us to improve risk assessment? A better understanding of human perception of risk for a start. Why we tend to minimise it, why we are overly optimistic about our ability to manage it and deal with events when they arise, why our love for the elegance of technology and engineering leaves us blind to its weaknesses.

We have to pay attention to the combination of human factors, economic opportunism and political influences that characterise decision making in a practical context. Rather than deploring these exogenous influences, they could be integrated into the process – by assuming that operators will always look for ways to save time/money/effort or that industry will resist backtracking on a technology that has been adopted.  We have to learn to factor the costs of catastrophe – environmental economic and social – into the decisions around prevention and maintenance.

Otherwise, we end up with grim advice such as that given by Yuli Andreyev, former head of the agency tasked with cleaning up after Chernobyl. Yesterday, he told the Guardian that the Japanese authorities “had to be willing to sacrifice nuclear response workers for the good of the greater public”.

Useful links

OECD work on risk management

Nuclear safety and regulation Nuclear Energy Agency

The Security of Energy Supply and the Contribution of Nuclear Energy Nuclear Energy Agency

High times for the jet-set

It's the rich what gets the pleasure...

You can’t avoid inequality these days. Lately, it’s made the covers of The Atlantic and The Economist, and rarely a week seems to go by without some new report examining its impact. Even those on the sunny side of the rich-poor gap seem concerned: The “Davos Crowd” recently cited “economic disparity” as one of the two biggest risks facing the global economy.

There isn’t much debate over whether or not income inequality is rising within countries. Almost everyone accepts it is. As these numbers show, it’s grown in all but a handful of OECD countries since the 1980s, although – as the OECD’s Growing Unequal? report points out – probably by not as much as most people think.

But inequality hasn’t just risen in the developed OECD area. While emerging economies like India and China are enjoying huge reductions in absolute poverty they are also seeing a widening gap between rich and poor. Even China’s media uses words like “unreasonable” to describe these disparities. Rising inequality is also being linked to the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. Mario Pezzini, director of OECD’s Development Centre, noted recently that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia “are some of the manifestations that inequality matters in economic and political terms.”

There also isn’t much debate over the factors fuelling inequality. One is globalisation, which “expands the market for ultra-talented individuals but competes away the income of ordinary employees”, says economist Ken Rogoff. Another is the shift to the so-called knowledge economy – “people who know how to exploit the internet gain,” says Growing Unequal?, “and those who don’t, lose.”

The workers who “lose” are often perceived as being fairly far down the corporate chain – the receptionist who’s replaced by an automatic answering machine, for example. But that’s no longer the case, says Paul Krugman:  These days, he says, even well-educated white-collar workers are being replaced by technology. Example? Lawyers: Specialised software can now perform pre-trial document searches that until recently were carried out by “a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates”. Krugman argues that what we’re seeing is not just a widening gap between rich and poor, but a hollowing out of the middle class: “Both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs – the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class – have lagged behind.” 

If that characterisation is accurate, the identity of the “winners” seems clear: Chrystia Freeland refers to them as “a new super-elite … hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition”.

What about everyone else? Is this winner-takes-(almost)-all society benefiting the non-jet-setters? There’s increasing interest in investigating that question. For example, one of the most-discussed books of recent years was The Spirit Level, which described unequal societies as “dysfunctional”; critics, however, said the book’s analysis was “heavily flawed”.  

The rise is inequality is being examined by others, too. A recent paper from economists at the IMF  states that rising inequality helped  cause the financial crisis of 2008, mainly because it weakened the “bargaining power” of those at the bottom of the economic pile. Other economists have examined the impact of the “trickle down” effect – the extent to which rising wealth at the top supposedly filters down to the less well off. A paper co-written by OECD colleague Dan Andrews (who carried out the research in a private capacity) concludes that the trickle-down benefits for lower earners have been fairly weak, and that any benefits have taken a long time to materialise.  

Still, love it or loathe it, inequality will never vanish entirely, and many believe we would all suffer if it did: The prospect of getting a bit richer is an incentive for entrepreneurs and risk-takers and – as Gary Becker argues  – for people to invest in education and skills (their human capital).

So, the question for societies is more likely to be this: How much inequality are we prepared to live with? Of course, if we decide we’d like a bit less, that raises a second question. As The Economist recently framed it, do we achieve it by pushing up people at the bottom and the middle of the income distribution or by pulling down those at the top? 

Useful links

 OECD Development Centre – Social Cohesion Seminars  

Growing Unequal?  – Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries

OECD Insights: Human Capital

May the best (wo)man win

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Rudolf van der Berg of the OECD’s Science, Technology and Industry Directorate discusses sex discrimination in management.

As we celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day, in OECD countries still only 5%-30% of senior management is female. This is often discussed in the context of right and wrong. But let’s look at it from the perspective of competences and economic performance.

The argument for there being so few women in management positions is that they just aren’t available and that the best person for the job needs to be promoted. However, with educational equality being the norm and girls and women actually performing better than boys and men in education, this argument seems to hold less than it did a hundred years ago on the first International Women’s Day. (more…)