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Another Perspective


Last week, speaking at Chatham House in London, IBM's chairman Sam Palmisano urged his audience to build what he calls a "smarter planet" right now.

This will be quite a job, so big that when IBM published its official version of the Chatham House transcript of Palmisano's presentation, the corporation called its document Welcome to the Decade of Smart.  In his talk, Palmisano welcomed the wired up Internet of Things, but noted that a wired world has its risks, too.

George Orwell
George Orwell
Worried that Big Brother was watching
and, it turns out, he was right

He bravely mentioned George Orwell's flat.

The apartment where Orwell lived while writing 1984 in the Islington section of London was famously used, a few years ago, by the Evening Standard newspaper to illustrate just how much surveillance goes on in a quiet bourgeois neighborhood.  In 2007, the article asserts, there were 32 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras within 200 years of Orwell's former flat.  All told, the piece adds, the U.K.  had 4.2 million CCTV cameras at the time, with the result that on an average day in 2007 an average Briton was caught on camera an average of 300 times.

This newspaper story, now possibly outdated and very likely an underestimate of the current camera complement in Canonbury Square, came to the attention of Palmisano or, more likely, one of his speechwriters, when the IBM executive wanted to add a note of caution to his Chatham House presentation.

People who are unfamiliar with Chatham House presentations, which means the vast majority of us, may quickly suss out the style of the place:  It brings to the attention of an elite audience and, indirectly, to the world at large, stimulating speeches and reports on emerging global issues, and it is famous for presenting portraits of human endeavor — warts and all.  A recent example that is distinct from Palmisano's hot topic is Chatham's big report on nanotechnology.  (It is a dozen times longer than the Palmisano speech.) Nanostuff promises wonderful things including many that we may ingest even though nanocrap may easily traverse protective barriers in the human body, including those in the brain.  It's all there, along with the sought-after benefits of the nano universe, in classical and stunningly intelligent Chatham format.

So, while it is hardly a surprise the IBM's top executive is out and about promoting his company's vision of a world in which computer technology will yield great benefits to humankind and, along the way, nice numbers for the purveyor of "smarter planet" goods and services, Big Blue is to be commended for showing its depth of corporate thought by standing up at the place that is so famous for the Chatham House Rule.  It is enough to make one hope that there is an opportunity for people within IBM to exercise the extraordinary freedom that members of Chatham House, which include many of the world's leaders and great thinkers, experience within the walls of the St.  James Square building.

Here is the rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Sam Palmisano
Sam Palmisano
BM's chairman and chief executive
has begun to show the depth of his thinking

The power of this rule emerges when the speaker is a former (or sometimes still active) government minister, corporate leader, part of a tight-knit academic group or member of a special club or society.  At Chatham House, if a speaker invokes the rule, he is on is own and his audience is on its honor to respect the speaker's discretion.

Against this background, Palmisano's citation of emerging benefits that owe their impact to the applications of information technology that IBM likes to call smarter planet stuff gain considerable strength.  IBM is pleased that advanced electric metering systems can help people save on their power bills and that the aggregate impact of this technology is a notable reduction in peak power consumption in the communities that have moved to the talking meter generation.  It doesn't seem likely that smart electric meters are going to destroy anyone's privacy, but there might be an obtuse angle to this technology that has eluded us.

Palmisano is also big on traffic control systems, which he asserts can reduce street congestion, help cut air pollution and, perhaps because drivers find smart traffic lights so annoying, boost the use of public transportation.  The IBM executive and his researchers did not include any information about the impact of computer-based traffic signals on the effectiveness of emergency vehicles.  One hopes that this was an omission of some positive news rather than a way to avoid some unwanted side effect of smart traffic lights that streetlight science has yet to eliminate.  (I expect a positive sentence or two on this matter to eventually appear in a redacted IBM version of Palmisano's presentation.)

One other apparent omission, which might not have occurred if the presentation occurred a while after Google blustered about an attack by hacker tongs.  Today Gmail, tomorrow the green and red light district or maybe a city's whole power grid.  Basically, as IBM obviously knows, big computer systems need suitable security systems.  A little more on this aspect of Palmisano's vision would have been very Chatham House.

In a bit of a stretch of the "smarter planet" idea, Palmisano talked about the way computer systems help a microfinancier group called Grameen Kooota build its customer base from 70,000 to 250,000.  Based on Palmisano's talk, there ought to be some mention of IBM on the GK Web site, but in the section dubbed "knowledge management" three other firms are cited.  These companies may have turned to IBM for systems, software, and services, but the proclamation a relationship with IBM that a visitor to the Web site expected to see was nowhere to be found.

(Confession:  We liked the possibility that IBM's top executive moves faster than his press relations corps and we really enjoyed the thought that he probably doesn't much care if they are in catch-up mode, either.)

When Sam Palmisano began making speeches about this smarter planet idea to people who shape society, such as his 2008 talk before the Council on Foreign Relations, his venues were very safe.  Now, a year and change later, Palmisano seems to be willing to field his ideas in a forum known for critical thinking more than politesse.  This is daring and noteworthy; it is something Palmisano's distinguished predecessor, Lou Gerstner, did not attempt.

Palmisano appears to be evolving and if he stays this new course IBM may change, too.  It's not the smarter planet slogan that's so important, it's the addition of depth to a company that, now seen in fresh light, may have become somewhat shallow.

— Hesh Wiener January 2010

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