still in beta

I mentioned Bruce Schneier's article on the psychology of security in Open Innovation. On the face of it, our general inability to make sense of the modern world shouldn't have much to do with Project Red Stripe. But it does.

Schneier identifies the different financial accounts that we keep in mind when performing different trade-off calculations. For example, cinema-goers who had previously bought a $10 ticket were asked whether they would buy a replacement ticket if they found they had lost the first. 46% would. A comparable group who were on the way to the cinema but had not yet bought a ticket, were asked if they would still buy a ticket if they opened their wallets to find that they had lost a $10 note. 88% would.
DIVERSION: On flossing, gay sex and the rapture

[Schneier's wonderful
Crypto-Gram Newsletter also drew my attention to those fine people at You've Been Left Behind. As Bruce says, it's easy to laugh at the You've Been Left Behind site, which purports to send automatic e-mails to your friends after the Rapture. And, as Reader's Digest used to say, laughter is the best medicine. But there's a business opportunity there, surely. What about people's freezers? After the Rapture they'll need emptying. Other people could take rapturees' clothes to jumble sales or arrange for Palestinian refugees to live in their unneeded homes.]

Talking to the Red Stripe team over lunch one day (about the selection of a 'good cause' for the eventual project), we compared the press coverage given to one death in a train crash with that given to any of the 140 or so children killed in road accidents in the UK each year. Our view of good causes - AIDS orphans, famine victims, maltreated pets, etc. - is also notoriously subject to perceptual bias.

Returning to Schneier's article, he quotes the following words from Daniel Gilbert's exquisitely headlined article,
If only gay sex caused global warming. Gilbert nicely explains why the human brain is so poorly equipped to make reliable decisions when assessing different risks:

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.
That's what brains did for several hundred million years-and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain's most stunning innovations, and we wouldn't have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

All of this by way of a preamble to Red Stripe's deliberations over a target group or 'market' for their business. Where relatively simple 'interest' equations were involved in deciding what kind of Internet business would be most worth pursuing, far more complex equations became necessary when debating the relative worth of plans to offer better education to children in the third world (the most needy), to children in the first world (the most influential decision-makers of the future), to women (mothers of the poorly educated children), etc.

While the team actively solicited ideas about what they should do, they did not solicit ideas about the group(s) for whom they should implement those ideas. Should they have invited an archbishop, an aid worker, a genetic researcher and others to pitch for a particular target market? I doubt it. But, for me, there was a noticeable change of temperature when I first heard Joanna insisting to the group that they should stop discussing their ideas in a vacuum and consider whom they would benefit and how.

I had felt the same myself when she said to me early in March that she was determined to ensure that whatever idea was pursued was grounded in a real need felt by The Economist community which, she said, would make it sustainable. She said that the others would have to justify the idea to her and, in so doing, sounded clear and sure of herself. Though, afterwards, she observed that saying that sounded a bit grandiose or arrogant, because the others were all clever people.

In any case, it's possible to end up with a market that you cannot hope to serve, or an idea that nobody wants. Or, as Mike reports David Laird saying to the team at one stage, 'although there may be a gap in the market, the key is whether there's a market in the gap.'


A deserving market may be motivational, even inspirational. But it doesn't necessarily make for good business - as we can deduce from observing the investment priorities of big pharma. How do you value a commercial priority against an ethical one in business?

Rapture poster: Electrorash
Dental floss: Annie Oakley
Big Farmer:

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