THINK: Then and Now

Yesterday at my parents’ house I stumbled across a small black 3″ x 4″ leather-covered notepad with the word “THINK” on it in gold, and my grandfather’s initials (V. G. TROY) embossed in gold in the lower right corner.

This was an original IBM Think Pad.

Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, famously instructed his employees to “THINK” and had emblazoned the word all over the company’s offices; each employee carried a “THINK” notepad. And it seems they gave out various similarly-themed promotional material: my grandfather was a prospective customer to IBM, as he managed the automation of the New York State Insurance Fund in the early 1960’s. My wife recalls that her great-grandfather, an accountant, had a large “THINK” sign over his desk, presumably encouraging his supplicants to refine their queries.

I got to considering what it says about a company (arguably a society’s largest and most successful company) that is so fanatical about a single word like THINK. And what does it say about a company (and a society) that abandons that slogan?

THINK, in all caps and repeated like a mantra, says a lot. It implies that as individuals we are capable of logical contemplation that will result in conclusions that are universally true; that there is in fact one truth that all of us can visualize if we simply utilize our intellect and the tools of logic. What a view of the world (and of business) this is: there is only truth, there is only competitive advantage, there is only logic. If you want to succeed, all you have to do is find the truth.

Somewhere in the last 40 years, American business became unglued from truth.

Success in business became a kind of alternate-reality game, with a billion realities competing against one another, and perception trumping reality. No wonder a word like THINK seems obsolete and quaint now: it ignores the reality of Wall Street and all the complexity that comes when you’re painting a different picture for customers, employees, and shareholders.

If we were to choose a word that sums up the current business ethos, it might be something like “POSTURE” or “PROFIT”. But it’s surely not THINK; thinking has been out of fashion for some time, and it may just be that as we dismantle this fake, Bernie Madoff economy, we discover that if we want to achieve real economic success again we could do worse than to adopt Mr. Watson’s old mantra.


How to Save the Chesapeake Bay

As many of you know, I live along the shores of the Severn River, a river along the Chesapeake Bay, near Annapolis, Maryland.

This infuriating (but unsurprising) article in the Washington Post suggests that the metrics of its supposed cleanup that have been taking place the last 25 years have been inflated to reflect more progress than has in fact been made.

Just as the advice to an alcoholic on how to lose weight and get back to a normal lifestyle can be nothing other than “stop drinking,” the remedy for the bay is equally stark, though more complex. And the brainless consumer squads inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay watershed want to try every imaginable remedy other than the ones that will work.

If you want to fix the Chesapeake Bay, here’s how:

  1. Offer massive tax credits for allowing industrial farmland to revert to forestland
  2. Tax fertilizer sales
  3. Offer tax credits for replacing industrial farms with grass farms
  4. Discontinue commercial Blue Crab and fish harvest in the bay; yes, screw the watermen and end the industry
  5. Tax all impermeable surfaces; tax large impermeable parking lots at a 4x rate
  6. Use the impermeable surface tax to fund a tax credit for those installing permeable surfaces
  7. Invest funds in stormwater and sewage handling plants
  8. Price water at 5x its current price
  9. Offer tax credits for commuting via bike and public transportation
  10. Tax credits for people who place land under conservation easement

Got the theme here? It’s all about taxes. While I am not in favor of taxing people, I’m also not especially in favor of large scale programs to modify human behavior. This, however, is exactly what the people say¬†they want, and there’s no surer way to change human behavior than with incentives and disincentives. Taxes and tax credits are arguably the only direct tool that government has to create such incentives for behavior change.

If at least a good portion of these measures are not undertaken (or ones which very much resemble them), I can only assume that — like the drunk who will try every other remedy other than to stop drinking — we are not serious about saving the Bay at all.

Which makes me wish people would shut up and get about their hurried destruction of it; it is the only intent we can infer from the behavior we see. Pave the Bay never sounded so realistic. It really seems as though no one — no one with the will to make a difference — really cares to solve the problem. And I blame us citizenry first and foremost, because we won’t give our elected officials the political cover to do any of the things that it would take to actually solve the problem.