Archive for December, 2010

The Post-Google World

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

Google. If we live in the “Age of Information,” then the world is centered around Google, the gatekeeper to all of man’s digitalized knowledge available on the Internet.

But that was a long time ago.

Today, the perception of Google as the God of the information age is fading into so much thin air. Yes, it is true that no search engine comes close to Google in terms of the total number of users worldwide.

Yet much to the surprise of many Google-advocates, the company has recently been toppled on two fronts.

A decisive “loss” for Google was the company’s loss in market share in China to Baidu. The Chinese search engine company is owned by an often impeccably dressed Robin Yanhong Li. A native of a town in Shanxi province, Li was born fourth in line and both of his parents were factory workers. His intelligence and insatiable curiosity to learn about “searching,” which—surprise!—is what search engines do, led him to found Baidu in 2000.

Yes, Li’s story imparts the typical “rags to riches story,” and yes, it does tell us that smart people with perseverance can do some darn amazing things (like beating Google). But what’s particularly frightening to Google is that even one smart man can topple the thousands of whizzes working on behalf of Google.

Google may have the power in numbers, but merely having wicked smart employees doesn’t mean that Google is invulnerable to new market entrants on its own turf.

Speaking of new entrants, there are some newcomers who refuse to play by Google’s rules. Would Google ever have guessed that its biggest headache would be conceived in a Harvard undergrad’s room?

Mark Zuckerberg has changed the Internet landscape forever. Facebook—Zuckerberg’s creation that was launched while he was still studying at Harvard—is easily the biggest, most infectious, well-thought social networking site to date.

And Facebook isn’t playing by Google’s rules.

Google’s goal was always to disseminate information to the world. If the information exists, then it’s Google’s job to make it available to everyone. In a sense, it’s a democratic movement, and it also empowers people as well.

Yet for all if its philanthropic ideals, Google’s goal has one crucial fault: the more information it collects, the less Google will reflect an accurate representation of the real world since people reveal information to their peers according to varying levels of intimacy.

In this sense, Zuckerberg has got the winning formula—Facebook users can choose to reveal their information according to a carefully tiered system of friendship.

But what does this have to do with Google?

Simple. If Google is trying to map “all” of the world, then Facebook is trying to recreate the “real” world. Imagine what would happen if Facebook users’ pictures appeared in Google image searches—an untold number of people would be laid off for misconduct outside of working hours and an even larger number of people would be fuming at Google, provided that they weren’t storming its headquarters.

By making user contents not appear on Google search results, Facebook has made Google’s quest for mapping the world unachievable. This made the crux of influence over the Internet shift decisively in Facebook’s favor.

Yes, Google is still important when it comes to looking up the nearest pet store, but nothing beats Facebook when it comes to networking and staying in touch with real people.

Li showed that Google’s being challenged at its own game. Zuckerberg showed that Google will have to rethink its corporate ideals from scratch if it plans to stay around.

So what do Li and Zuckerberg show combined?

It shows that a Post-Google World isn’t just a fantasy, but an ever-increasing probability. We seem to forget that Google is just another company. If it falls out of favor with consumers, then it will be the one that will disappear from the map.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

Japan’s One-shot Deal: Permanent Employee or Precariat

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

In its special report on Japan issued on November 20th, The Economist prudently prescribed Japan’s condition as going “Into the unknown.”

Japan is growing old. It is also getting weaker, both in relative and absolute terms. Japan’s population, which peaked in 2005, currently stands at 127 million. This number is expected to dwindle to around 90 million in 2050, one-fourth of which will be above 65 years of age. This precipitous population freefall will be so remarkable, so fast, and so devastating that The Economist called it a “demographic vortex.”

So much for bright times ahead.

More worryingly, Japan’s youth will not only shoulder a burgeoning financial deficit, but will also find themselves increasingly unable to find a decent job with which to pay off Japan’s swelling government debt. According to University of California Professor Robert Reich—who coined the term “New Economy”—only about 10-20% of today’s youth will manage to land high-paying white-collar jobs. The rest of the younger demographic will be underemployed, most likely as members of the service industry who are taught from manuals.

A less convoluted description that’s easier to picture would be “someone who’s flipping burgers when he could potentially be helping people file tax bills.”

Of course, people who work at fast food joints are satisfying societal demand for on-the-go food, and in this regard their work is by all means a socially noble cause (as textbooks economics is quick to point out). But let’s admit it, it’s not the most creative job in the world, and it’s definitely not something you should do for 40 years—and certainly not something you want your kids to be doing all their life, either.

Although over 40% of Japanese youth today will come out of the nation’s schooling system with a newly-minted B.A., as has been stated earlier, decent “permanent employee” positions in white-collar jobs will only be comprised of roughly 10-20% of the labor force. Simple math reveals the rude awakening—less than half of college grads will garner such sought-after jobs.

Doom literally awaits the rest, at least in today’s Japanese employment system. As The Economist’s special report points out, Japan is “a ‘one-shot society:’ those who fail to get a good job upon graduation can be frozen out for life.” The increasing number of well-educated youth who aren’t one of the lucky ones are usually “stuck”—they wander from one part-time to another as “irregular workers,” who are “easy to hire and easy to fire.” Without the OJT (On the Job Training) that their “permanent employee” counterparts enjoy, those who couldn’t find a full-time job upon graduation will be unable to polish their skill-sets for the rest of their lives (unless, by some stroke of luck, they do manage to land a “permanent position”—which is, needless to say, an increasing rarity).

Masahiro Yamada, the pop-sociologist (perhaps comparable to Malcolm Gladwell in terms of readability, minus the literary flair of Gladwell’s New Yorker prose) who coined the term kakusa-shakai (an unequal society), calls such youth unable to secure a full-time job Japan’s new “precariats.” The term is a play on the word “proletarian” and “precarious,” signifying both the low expected lifetime earnings and high amount of social risk that such people are exposed to.

The window of opportunity to become a “permanent employee” is closing fast, and Japan’s “precariats” will become a huge problem a half-century from now when they age—since most of them defer the 15,000yen monthly pension insurance, they will not be benefactors of the state-sponsored pension system.

Today, Japan’s baby-boomers are aging and retiring, causing the tired, jaded, and overworked labor force of 66 million to live with less benefits for themselves when they age. In 50 years not only will the benefits be less, but many of today’s youth will be ineligible to receive them.

Turbulent times lie ahead, as Japan plunges deeper and deeper into the unknown.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI