Tag Archives: book review

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ ”

– Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

How the Mighty Fall vs. The Black Swan

blackswanI’ve almost finished listening to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a book about how large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. At the same time, Tim O’Reilly caused me to stumble upon this article previewing Jim Collins‘ (author of Good to Great and Built to Last) new book “How the Mighty Fall.”

In some way the two authors’ could not be more different. Taleb writes in a harsh, sarcastic, cutting tone that heaps scorn on many of the worlds finest minds as well as, one senses, the books readers. His harshest barbs are reserved for academics, who if often sees as being to interested in theory to help with real world problems. I’ve never seen Taleb in person or on video, but after listening to The Black Swan I can’t help but see him as an lethal and angry intellectual street fighter, mad at a world that didn’t notice his brilliance earlier.

How the Might FallCollins, in contrast, reads like a classic business academic writer who has gone mainstream. He never offends, and his tone is never harsh – he seems like the archtype westcoast Business school Professor – smart, driven and direct, but slightly geeky in that friendly way and not overly intense (hence westcoast).

But while their styles (and I hypothesize, personalities) are dramatically different, they overlap in some curious and interesting ways. Both are concerned with business issues and both are writing about outliers. Taleb is concerned with the outlying events that can completely alter one’s world. Collins in concerned with outlier companies – those that experience impressive and continuous success. And while I’m sure there are lots of areas where the two will disagree, it is interesting to focus on where the two almost completely overlap.

The first appears where Collins talks about the first symptom of a company going into decline: Hubris Born of Success:

“The best leaders we’ve studied never presume they’ve reached ultimate understanding of all the factors that brought them success. For one thing, they retain a somewhat irrational fear that perhaps their success stems in large part from fortuitous circumstance. Suppose you discount your own success (“We might have been just really lucky/were in the right place at the right time/have been living off momentum/have been operating without serious competition”) and thereby worry incessantly about how to make yourself stronger and better-positioned for the day your good luck runs out. What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Minimal: If you’re wrong, you’ll just be that much stronger by virtue of your disciplined approach. But suppose instead you succumb to hubris and attribute success to your own superior qualities (“We deserve success because we’re so good/so smart/so innovative/so amazing”). What’s the downside if you’re wrong? Significant. You just might find yourself surprised and unprepared when you wake up to discover your vulnerabilities too late.”

This whole paragraph sounds like a friendly version of Taleb. Praising leaders who don’t claim to understand the full complexity of their world, their business or even their own success? Classic Taleb.

More interesting however, is the emphasis on luck. Taleb regularly argues that luck is (at a minimum) underestimated and more often ignored outright, as a factor in a businesses success. No CEO wants to stand up and say, yes, we become $10B dollar company not just because we were good, but because we were lucky – it doesn’t exactly send a positive message to share holders (or does it justify their enormous bonus). But Collins not only agrees that luck is a factor, he argues that good companies admit to themselves that luck was a factor.

In hockey you hear people say you’ve got to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good. The point is, if you work hard, bounces will eventually come your way and you’ve got to be good enough to pounce on them and make those opportunities count. Begin to think you don’t need luck, you stop seeing the opportunities and also begin to believe you are inherently better than anyone. Fact is, you’re not. You’ve got to work. Hard. And hope for some luck. Even then, you probably never become Google.

The second interesting place of overlap is in Collins discussion about how companies begin to deny that they are at risk or in peril.

“Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore & Associates, articulated a helpful concept for decision-making and risk-taking, what he called the “waterline” principle. Think of being on a ship, and imagine that any decision gone bad will blow a hole in the side of the ship. If you blow a hole above the waterline (where the ship won’t take on water and possibly sink), you can patch the hole, learn from the experience, and sail on. But if you blow a hole below the waterline, you can find yourself facing gushers of water pouring in, pulling you toward the ocean floor. And if it’s a big enough hole, you might go down really fast, just like some of the financial firm catastrophes of 2008. To be clear, great enterprises do make big bets, but they avoid big bets that could blow holes below the waterline.”

In The Black Swan, Taleb has an entire piece on assessing risk which parallels this quote. He notes that too often business people and – in particular – financial types, focus on predicting the likelihood of an event – even when a prediction model is deeply flawed or essentially meaningless. Since often assessing the likelihood of an event is often impossible Taleb argues it becomes much more important to ascertain the likely magnitude of it’s impact. So avoid doing things or exposing yourself to risks that, if they go wrong, will blow out your hull. Indeed, the Black Swan is essentially a 250 page book on this paragraph.

Why Canada’s public services need faith

As I mentioned the otherday, I recently finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the text, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term, “paradigm shift.”

Here, in this book about how progress is made in the sciences I was completely floored by this paragraph in penultimate chapter: The Resolution of Revolutions.

…the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the old paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith. (pages 157-158/3rd edition)

This describes precisely how I feel about Public Service Sector Renewal (reforming the public service). When I talk and write about an open and networked government I understand it raises questions around accountability, ministerial responsibility and human resource management. I’m aware that these are “large problems” for which our present structure has some – albeit highly imperfect and I’d argue, quickly eroding – answers.

Moreover it is true, that if we decided on how and if to reform government based solely on the performance of past models then we would always choose the status quo. The corporate hierarchy has served us well. Any new model will appear, relatively speaking, untested. But a growing number of us know that the status quo is unsustainable.

I know that any new system, however slight the change, will bring with it new challenges and questions, but the paralyzing and untenable problems with the current system will ultimately outweigh these unknowns – even in an organization as conservative as the public service. Ultimately, I am saying that a new system can succeed with many large problems confronting it even as the old system has failed only with a few.

So, as odd as it is to admit, I am, in part, acting on faith. Not only that, I believe the public service is going to learn to have faith as well. Why? Because in the end we won’t have a choice – the old problems this system cannot solve will demand it. We will have to change, and that will mean, someone, somewhere in the public service have put their foot forward into the unknown.

Indeed, many already have.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

Structure of Scientific Revolutions CoverI’ve just finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the title, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term: “paradigm shift.”

I won’t pretend it was an easy to read. Written in a classic academic style, what is a fascinating topic and set of ideas struggles to shine. However, don’t hear me blaming the author for this… it is both that the book comes from another era, and that it springs from a cannon of academic writing that simply doesn’t seek to be as penetrable outside a certain community.

That said, I did enjoy it immensely. One reason is that I once again lucked out and ended up reading it at the same time as another book – Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan – that despite being on a different topics and written 45 years later, dovetails nicely.

blackswan-199x300Paradigm shifts are black swan events. They can be hard, if not impossible to predict. They can arise because of the appearance of a single unforeseen data point (a black swan in a world where all swans were previously believed to be white) and they overthrow systems that we have become overly, comfortably, complacent and reliant on. Finally, although paradigms shifts are rare, because they force us to see the world in an entirely new way they have a disproportional and possibly even unparalleled, impact.

I often like to refer to Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both Taleb and Kuhn’s books play on this theme. For Taleb, our problem is that we can’t see or predict the changes in our world. We expect that we can predict them and that they’ll arrive in a nice orderly – or bell curve distributed – manner.

They don’t.

Despite the mental image we have of history (and our lives), history doesn’t crawl. It moves it fits and starts. Oscillating between long steady states and sudden change. We often believe the steady states will last forever, and when change comes we trivialize it and then fight it, until it becomes the new steady state, at which point, we come to believe it was always that way.

This is also Kuhn point. Look at how he sees paradigm shifts as being important for both the science and politics changes:

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environmental that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by growing sense, again restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution…

…The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix with which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. (Kuhn, Pages 92-93 of the 3rd edition)

If you don’t think the world operates this way, just look as far as the news industry.

When Shirky says revolutions are times when “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” he is paraphrasing Kuhn. Journalism is already dividing into camps, those defending the old, and those seeking to figure out what the “new” will be.

But despite all the discussion, we are still very early on in the debate. How do I know? Because we haven’t even begun to shed the old paradigm? The entire debate about journalism, what it is, how it should be practiced and what makes it good or bad is still being largely being evaluated and adjudicated by the old matrix. When journalism finally gets saved I suspect it will be because it will be, in part, radically redefined – a redefinition affirmed and made possible by the establishment of some new institutions, organizations and/or processes. (That’s what my post on the death of journalist was seeking to do).

So yes, we’ve left the ridiculed phase (that lasted 20 years), but we are still early on in the violently oppose phase. All thos unhappy journalists are angry because they may be the midst of a paradigm shift, and that means much like Newtonian physicists confronting Einstein’s theory of relatively everything, absolutely everything they believed in, fought for, taught and lived. is probably going to get redefined and altered beyond recognition. It will still be there, but it will forever be understood differently.

That’s a scary thought. But it is fun one as well, filled with possibility. Which is why Kuhn and Taleb are fun to read together.

Reforming Government on the Globe & Mail's Wiki

A few months ago John Ibbitson – the Globe and Mail columnist who used to cover Ottawa and now covers Washington, DC – asked me if I’d help edit the 3rd chapter of his new book, Open & Shut.

The chapter, entitled Yes, Mr. President; No, Prime Minister asks why is it that after 8 years of President Bush, President Obama is able to quickly change the direction of government whereas in Canada, newly elected parties often struggle to implement their agenda.

Last week the book was released. As part of the launch process the Globe and Mail created a wiki dedicated to the book’s themes where readers can critic or expand on its ideas and analysis. More interestingly, as readers post to the wiki John will respond to their  ideas, critics and thoughts on a blog hosted by the Globe.

To kick off the wiki on Open Government, John asked me if I would write a short essay answering the following the question:

Federal politicians, and federal public servants, seem increasingly remote and disconnected from the lives of Canadians. Open and Shut maintains that this is because the public service remains closed to outsiders, and because Ottawa has ceded so much power to the provinces. Do we want our federal government to matter more in our lives, and if so, what should we do to give it meaning?

You can see my response, and what I hope will eventually become a growing number of comments on the future of the public service, here.

As an aside, two other sections have been created. One is on Open Politics, which is teed up by John Duffy (political strategist). The other is on Canada/US integration, which is kicked off by Scotty Greenwood (executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council).

Why Policy Matters in Politics

There are a shocking number of people involved in the political process who firmly believe that policy doesn’t matter. That, at best, it distracts from, and at worst it impedes, successful political campaigns. Obviously, readers of my blog (not to mention those who know me) know that I am a big believer in the power and importance of public policy specifically and ideas in general. So I’ve been feeling nicely bombarded with confirming evidence that substantive policy – as opposed to simply style or spin – really is at the heart of political success.

The first is short and simply: Frank Rich’s excellent, and brutally entitled, column “A President Forgotten but Not Gone” in the Saturday New Times, where he uses Bush as example of the limits both of propaganda, and of power without purpose.

The second is much more in depth. It comes from reading of Tom Kent’s “A Public Purpose.” In it, while talking about the remaking of the Liberal Party after the defeat of the St. Laurent Government in 1957, he notes:

The main lines of policy of the rebuilt Liberal party – conspicuously, the emphasis on employment, medicare, a national pension plan, but many others too – were adopted at the party convention of January 1958, and by as democratic a procedure within the convention as the processes of political parties ever produce…

The policies did not, in other words, originate from the remaking of the party. In essence, they were already written when the organizational rebuilding took place. To a large extent, indeed, the new people who did the organizing came forward because they were coming to a body of ideas, for the better government of Canada, that they felt to be at once progressive and practical.

This is the central fact about the remaking of the Liberal party from 1957-1963. The process was not to regroup, reorganize, and, some time later, determine policies. The main lines of policy came first. They were the presence behind all the detailed work of opposing, reorganizing, finding candidates, building support. all that came second, not first. (Emphasis mine)

Kent’s comments reaffirmed for me three reasons why policy matters in politics:

a) First, while we can debate the degree to which the public reacts to a policy platform, a sound policy platform is an important step to gaining the public confidence. Thus, I can agree with Kinsella that governments are generally turfed out, not elected, while maintaining that an electorates willingness to turn to an alternative is dramatically improved if said alternative has a coherent set of (well thought out) policies.

b) Second, a sound policy platform is necessary to making a party electable because it has always been ideas, not the remote promise of power, that has attracted the new blood and energy to the party. As Kent points out, in 1957 the new policy platform of the Liberal party preceded its reorganizations and rejuvenation because new innovative and progressive policies attracted a new generation of leaders, activists and organizers into the party. Without this new energy a party will wither and die, no matter how inept or incompetent is competitors.

c) Finally, and possibly most importantly, policy is critical to governing successfully. Kissinger, for all his faults, articulated this challenge succinctly:

High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.

In short, once elected you are too busy to build your intellectual capital and to formulate a plan. You must have a vision and platform in place beforehand, otherwise you’ll end up looking like Diefenbaker or Martin, operating without an obvious direction or purpose. Policy matters because without it, time in government will be unproductive, painful and short.

WiiNomics… Nintendo’s scarcity strategy keeps paying dividends

I finally, finished Co-opetition by Brandenburger and Nalebuff (some of you may have noticed it was up on the library list for quite some time). It wasn’t for lack of interest – I’ve just been reading so many great books of late.

nesOne item in the book that stuck me was the example of Nintendo and the launch of it’s Nintendo Entertains System (NES) back in the mid-80s. This wasn’t because, as a kid, I was denied an NES by my parents, but because it lent credence to the accusations that Nintendo has purposefully created scarcity in the supply of its current machine – the Nintendo Wii – as well as some of its games – like the Wii Fit.

Certainly the following paragraphs out of Brandenburger and Nalebuff suggest there is a strong precedent in Nintendo’s actions. My friend Andrew M. has long argued that Nintendo has being artificially creating scarcity, but I’ve also thought it was just that the company hadn’t anticipated its success and so production had lagged demand. Now I’m inclined to think Andrew has been correct. If Brandenburger and Nalebuff are correct, then it looks like scarcity has been a Nintendo strategy for over 30 years. Check out these tidbits:

Even as demand took off, Nintendo remained cautious about flooding the market. It strictly controlled how many copies of games were produced, and pulled its own games off the market as soon as interest declined. Over half of Nintendo’s game library was inactive. Sometimes, severe shortages resulted…

…Somewhat paradoxically, the shortages may have helped create even more consumer demand. There were at least three different effects going on. First, shortages made the game cartridges even more desirable in the eyes of consumers, actually boosting demand. Trendy restaurants play the same game. For example, the long lines outside K-Paul’s in New Orleans made it even more fashionable, further increasing the lines…

…Second, shortages made headlines; filling demand would not have. “Tonight’s top story: Nintendo sold game cartridges to all those who wanted them. Details at Eleven” We don’t think so. The shortages generated tremendous free publicity for Nintendo, a company known to be rather stingy on advertising (spending only 2 percent of sales).

Third, shortages helped retailers move slower-selling Nintendo games, because parents would buy a lower-selling title if the the kid wanted was sold out. Of course, this was only a temporary solution, what we call the “Band-Aid” effect. The substitution might tie the kid over from Christmas to New Year’s, but kids tend to remember these sorts of things. So parents would have to return for the sold out title once fresh supplies come in. Nintendo made two sales instead of one.

(Page 113-114 of the paperback edition)

This time around, rather than making the game cartridges scarce – something hard to do since Wii games or printed on CDs, which are abundant – Nintendo made the games console itself scarce. I’m not sure about the last effect, but there is ample evidence of the first and second effecit. Nintendo has earned endless free media as a result of the Wii’s scarcity. Plus the scarcity has peaked interest – especially among non-traditional gamers.

I’m not sure if Nintendo is control the flow of video games in general – but certainly it is near impossible to buy a Wii Fit in Vancouver. So it would be interesting to know if this strategy is being used on its games as well.

Also interesting is to read how other parts of Nintendo’s strategy have also remained intact. When the Wii was first released I remember Sony and Microsoft deriding it for being little more than a generic graphics card attached to a hard drive. Well – the accusation was actually pretty accurage. But then, this was true of the NES as well:

In truth, the Famicom (renamed Nintendo Entertainment System in the North America) was hardly a computer at all-everything was dedictated to a single purpose, game playing. In order to keep the costs down, Nintendo deliberately used a commodity chip, an 8-bit microprocessor dating back to the 1970s. Personal computers at that time-such as the IBM AT or the original Apple Macintosh-were selling for between $2500-$4000. Nintendo’s machine was priced at $100. The Famicom’s price radically undercut the competition, its price so low that many people believed it to be below cost.

Back then it was Nintendo’s creative games that drove demand – not cutting edge graphics. This time, it was again creativity – the motion sensitive wiimote – that has driven demand.