Bill Clinton fights the zero sum game with Open Source

Posted by Rob Enderle

I’m at Dell World 2012, Bill Clinton is speaking and the former president is still amazing. 

His key point? The problem with a Zero Sum game, or the notion that someone has to lose for someone else to gain.

He pointed out that while this may be a fine approach for sports, it kind of sucks if you are trying to do something like cure cancer.  And he used Open Source, as applied to medical research and cancer, as the leading example  of a diferent strategy and St. Jude Hospital as a case.  

Personally, I think this message should be heard by others so  I’m going to do my best to provide relate what Clinton said. The net, I think, is that if the US loses it will likely be because too many politicians play the zero sum game and are more interested is personally winning or losing than they are in improving the country, or even their own lives.  

Zero Sum

At the core of zero sum is that the belief that for one person to win, another must lose. In the US that means for the Democrats or Republicans to win, the other side must lose. There is really no concept of win/win realizing that a win/win can easily be translated as lose/lose if you can’t point to the other person as losing. The harsh reality of a Zero Sum game is that when it comes to big issues like cancer, energy, space exploration or even the survival of the species - the value of the perceived individual wins over the value of the larger problem.

Bill Clinton used as an example two things he did as president, one successfully, one not. He was successfully able to fund the mapping of the human genome and St. Jude who believed in Open Source research used this and the collective minds of the world to not only come up with a strong cancer cure for a type of cancer that was prevalent in children, they were also able to fix the cure when it was discovered that it actually killed a minority of the children. What’s the value of a child’s life? Invaluable right? But the implication was, left to its own resources, the medical industry and government would not have been as successful.

The unsuccessful example was the Hadron Collider, here Clinton believed (correctly I think) that much of the future of technology would likely come from what was discovered with this effort - and he pushed to have it built in Texas. But, clearly taking the short term view, Congress didn’t want to see that much money flowing into Texas so the Collider wasn’t built in the US at all. So, in order to assure Texas didn’t have an advantage over a state like New York, America as a country was placed at a definite disadvantage. Essentially, to Congress, it was better that Texas lose than the US win. This just seems insane to me - yet that’s how things apparently work on The Hill.

Energy and Global Warming

Clinton also discussed a recent study out of US Berkeley which had been funded and designed to debunk global warming. Unfortunately, for us, after billions of measurements the researcher concluded that global warming was real and preceding at an unsustainable rate. The researcher’s conclusion is that the debate should now shift to what to do with the issue, rather than debate the very existence of the issue, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

He then shared the very successful practice that a European Country had implemented years ago. They taxed every company based on their carbon footprint, basically their cost to the environment, and gave the money back to the firms at the end of the year.  These firms were then free to spend the money as they wanted and, interestingly, the majority of firms (likely because they figured at some point they might not get the money back) on energy conservation projects. That country worked to address the global warming problem years before this one even agreed there was a problem.  The sad thing is that one country can’t do this alone and if the human race is wiped out I’m pretty sure the US loses too.

Wrapping Up:  Focusing on the Problem

It is easy to look at many of these examples and think the Republicans are idiots (it did cross my mind a few times) but the point isn’t one party or the other. The problem is this idea that to win, someone else has to lose, and when working on problems like he economy, cancer, global warming, or any other major health or race ending disaster that there is a high probability that if anyone loses we all lose.  

If we can’t change this zero sum thinking we are done as a race and maybe the world will be better off with ants or cockroaches as the dominant species. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be remembered as dumber than a cockroach but that’s our virtual headstone if we don’t get our collective heads out of our collective butts.   

Clinton closed with an example of a development in California where they built houses for Liberals and Conservatives in separate areas and marketed them that way. The contractor sold out, but the sad part of this is, that we can’t live like this. Because if we can’t find ways to do it together we are finished as a species.  If we can, there is little we can’t do. Clinton ended his speech by highlighting Halt Network as an example of excellence in trying to end the futile zero sum game. 

I doubt I’ll ever forget this keynote and I hope that more of us learn from Bill’s example, as our survival depends on it.