You know that fun question most of us have pondered at some point that asks “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” Or the version my kids preferred when they were young, "If a bear poops in the woods and no one is there, does it still stink?” Well I recently had an experience that created a new question along these lines for me, which is “If you are anchored, but it is in the middle of the ocean and there is nothing but ocean in every direction for as far as your eye can see, are you there?” Here’s the background and then what it led me to think about it.
One day during my current journey sailing from Nuku’alofa, Tonga to Whangarei, New Zealand**, I decided to stop at North Minerva Reef to wait for a better weather window for the crossing down to the north end of New Zealand. I’ve got a very good set of electronic charts (with paper backups), and I was able to display the details of the reef, along with the single small entrance that leads to the inside, which is located on the reef’s northwest corner. Using my chart plotter, I laid out my course. It was a great sail all the way there with the wind coming from behind and my spinnaker fully luffed out in front, pulling us along at great speed.
As I got within visual sighting distance (usually about 15 nautical miles), I started checking out the location with my binoculars, and in spite of the perfect visibility, all I could see was more open ocean. I checked my charts, checked my waypoints and all seemed well, so I continued on to the way point I had created right outside the entrance to the reef. But even when I arrived at that exact spot, it was still all water. There was, however, a ring of surf extending all the way around this entrance point for several miles and I actually knew to expect all this from my reading about Minerva, but it was still a unique experience to motor through the narrow entrance to nowhere and know it was there strictly based on the chart information and the changing color of the sea.
Once inside the reef, I motored over to the far southeast corner of the reef, again based strictly on the chart information and the line of surf and changing sea color that I could see up ahead. The water inside was incredibly clear and I could clearly see the white coral sand bottom, even though it was as much as 100 feet below me. I eased up to the rising bottom as I approached the southeast corner and dropped my anchor in about thirty feet of literally crystal clear blue water and was soon peacefully floating in this strange “land that never was.”
I stayed for 3 magical days until I got a good weather window, and in all that time I never quite got over the surreal nature of this stop as I looked out in every direction and saw nothing but open ocean. And yet, here I was safely anchored inside an imaginary lagoon that was oh so real.
So what I started thinking about is how this experience matches up with a long range prediction of mine, something I have been talking about for the past few years. That prediction is about a future where there will be a decreasing ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is synthetic, man-made, or virtual.
One area where I see this happening is with actual physical objects, just like my reef experience. For example, we now have synthetic diamonds which are literally indistinguishable from the real thing, because technically speaking, they are molecularly identical. As I understand it, these diamonds are made in much the same way that Mother Nature uses to create the diamonds we dig out of the ground.
This ability to make such authentic diamonds poses an interesting question for diamond companies, jewelers, and even sweethearts, which is “Are they of equal value?” Diamonds are an interesting case because their value is almost entirely artificial or perceived. They are not really that rare, especially now that we can make as many as we like, and their price is far beyond the cost of mining, cutting, polishing, and processing them to their finished state.
Over the past few decades Japan has provided a great example of this entirely perceived value of diamonds. Prior to 1967, diamonds had very little value or presence in Japan, and they were not given, for example, as engagement and wedding rings or other jewelry. The DeBeers Company, the single largest diamond company in the world, noticed this and saw a great opportunity, and over the course of several years with one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever, they completely turned this around. Today in Japan, almost 80% of all brides are wearing diamond rings. According to Edward Jay Epstein, author of The Rise and Fall of Diamonds: The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion and The Diamond Invention:
“The campaign was remarkably successful. Until 1959, the importation of diamonds had not even been permitted by the postwar Japanese government. When the campaign began, in 1967, not quite 5 percent of engaged Japanese women received a diamond engagement ring. By 1972, the proportion had risen to 27 percent. By 1978, half of all Japanese women who were married wore a diamond; by 1981, some 60 percent of Japanese brides wore diamonds. In a mere fourteen years, the 1,500-year Japanese tradition had been radically revised. Diamonds became a staple of the Japanese marriage. Japan became the second largest market, after the United States, for the sale of diamond engagement rings. “
Clearly the value of diamonds is a perceived one and therefore the introduction of “perfect” synthetic diamonds poses a very significant threat to the diamond and jewelry industry. Diamonds may be forever, but is their value?
Looking a bit further ahead, let’s look at something like at one of my favorites—wine. Can it be much longer before you will be able to make any wine you want by simply recreating the exact same molecular compound that matches a 1947 Cheval Blanc? Again it is just chemistry and molecules, right? As this happens, the same questions about value and difference of real wine and synthetic wine will emerge. And there would be no reason to limit this ability to synthesize to wine (and diamonds), of course, and so I imagine that in the future we will have a tap in the kitchen from which we can draw any liquid we want at the push of a button.
Other coming examples in the world of physical objects are the advent of 3D printers, which are following the usual technology curves of exponentially increasing capabilities and decreasing costs. These printers enable us to have actual working devices in our hands at the push of a button, and yet these devices are “manufactured” on the fly and on demand.
The Product and the Story
Where I see all of this evolving is that we will have two or more different value chains which I call “the product” and “the story.” The product is just as you’d expect: the actual object of our desire, be it diamonds, wine, or other things. Their value to us is in how well they fit our needs and context. Are they just what we need, just when we need them, at just the right price, size, etc.? In the case of wine for example, is it a great pairing with the meal we about to have? In the case of the story value chain though, the value comes no so much from the actual object, but from the “story” that goes with it. The fact that a diamond came from the ground, from some mine, and was lovingly crafted and polished and mounted by artisans will matter and will be of value. Being able to tell the story of a wine—that it came from just this one vineyard, that these grapes were picked the same year your daughter was born, and has been carefully stored in a cellar for the past 30 years—will be where the value comes from.
On a more mundane and everyday level, consider the lowly folder on your computer desktop. These used to be real, at least in the computer sense, because these were directories and physical places on your hard drive where the individual files in the folder resided. While these still exist, folders are becoming increasingly virtual. For example, you probably have what appears to be a folder in your email program called “Unread mail”. Yet if you were to search your hard drive, you would not find any such folder or files, but rather just a flag or a tag on those emails that you have not yet read.
Virtual Personal Presence
And just to round out this meta-trend, we can see other areas where the same disruptive changes in the definition of “real” are occurring such as with personal presence. Currently we have some still rather crude examples, such as virtual spaces like Second Life. We are also seeing the increased use of and improvements in technologies that enable us to attend meetings virtually with much less sense of distance or difference between actually being in the same room and virtually being there. As this improvement continues along the exponential curve of change, it is inevitable that we will reach the same point where we won’t be able to tell or care who is “really” in the room.
Does it matter? Probably to some extent it always will for we are humans and as it was once put “We still like to smell each other.” However in terms of having effective conversations and meetings, isn’t it more important to have the right people at the right time than to be limited to those who can be in the same place at the same time?
Focus on Value
In addition to the increased possibilities and capabilities of this meta-trend, what I personally like the most is that it will require us to put more and more focus on value. What determines the value, what are the priorities, how can we measure and tell the difference? And I believe this trend will also place more value on the skills of finding such value and the value hunters and services who can deliver such value to us. As I’ve often remarked about wine, anyone can find a good bottle of wine to drink when they have a hundred dollars to spend, but the real find is a great bottle of wine you find for ten!
As always I’m most curious to hear from you about how well or not this matches with your experiences and observations. What examples are you seeing of this trend toward more virtual and synthetic products and services? When have you recently been unable to tell the difference between real and synthetic, and did it matter?
Happy value hunting!
** For those interested, you can cut and paste these Lat/long coordinates into Google Earth to see where these various locations are:
- Nuku’alofa Harbor 21 02.704S 174 55.90W
- North Minerva Reef 23 38.634S 178 53.559W
- Whangarei, NZ 35 44S 174 20E