Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Buy Jupiter! (And Beyond the Infinite)

This week has been one of those rare periods in time when many frames of reference overlap. I don’t often comment here on issues concerning economics, global markets or financial management.

Today is an exception.

Unless you’ve been clinically dead for tax purposes, the imminent meltdown of the global financial system has been in your face, on your mind, and very close to bringing your way of life to a sudden and irrevocable stop. (Think your profitable small company could make payroll if all bank transactions were suddenly halted for 90 days?) I doubt there are many people around (let alone who might be reading this) who were alive as adults during the 1929 crash and the events leading up to and after it, and could put this week’s crisis in perspective. For the rest of us, go read Manias, Panics and Crashes. (Ideally, you should have read this two years ago.)

On this day when AIG has been suspended on the precipice of bankruptcy by a tenuous Federal bailout, and we’re just beginning to understand how close the world has come to a global financial seizure, questions on how we got here (and where we have yet to go) are only now being considered by the general population. I find myself looking at Jupiter.

As an innovation practitioner, I see futures – all futures that my clients consider as they move to achieve their goals in new product and business development. This week is particularly apropos as I am working with one of the premier rocket design companies in the world, who support engine systems ranging from the Space Shuttle, to a return to the Moon, to interplanetary transports. This was the stuff of hard and pulpy science-fiction back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The kings of that era were authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (both of whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with when they were alive). They didn’t limit their writings to rockets and ray-guns – they often looked at the complex (and often darker) sides of human nature.

Buy Jupiter! is an Asimov short story about future humans channeling creative greed by outsmarting natives in overseas emerging markets through option derivatives trading. (The story really involves selling Jupiter’s atmosphere to aliens for energy who then try to use the atmosphere for advertising, only to find the humans outsmarted them by selling options to other atmospheres to competing aliens.) Over half a century ago, Asimov pretty much called the future we are living today – people in their own greed are willing to come up with more and more creative (and poorly understood) financial vehicles to try and capitalize on other people’s greed – and all is well until the system falls apart. Arthur C. Clarke is of course most known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and since I’m willing to bet more of you know Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of it (i.e. the film) and possibly haven’t read the book in a while, I’ll stick to what you probably know as the last act of the film, 'Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite'. Astronaut David Bowman is seen leaving Discovery in an EVA pod, heading towards the mysterious monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and crosses what can only be thought of as a transitional and transformational gateway. We see glimpses of Bowman as he is hurtled through the dizzying gateway, pained with expressions of absolute, stark terror.

This same expression has been spotted on many faces at the NYSE, NASDAQ and other trading floors around the world every day this week. You (and as of next week, the American taxpayer) may soon be seeing this face in the mirror.

We are rapidly and irrevocably going through a period of great change that is completely out of control. We haven’t yet emerged on the other side of the gateway, and the trip ahead will be dark, dizzying and absolutely terrifying. The next few days and weeks will dramatically affect how we re-define wealth, money, and qualities of life for decades to come.

Somewhere in my library should be a story from not so long ago that tells me how this will all work out. Very likely, it was written by Philip K. Dick.

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