The Perils and Potential of Real-Time Information

Today’s White Horse blog topic invited us to contemplate the trend toward “real-time information,” as exemplified by Twitter (which, by law, must be mentioned in all blog posts composed in 2009), but encompassing literally any method by which instant data can be displayed and disseminated online.

Stubbornly consistent with my long-held view of most information-processing innovations as Potential Blessing Verging on Massive Curse (see my previous post on Maxwell’s Demon), I’m cautiously optimistic about this trend. The brands with coveted “household name” status that have found themselves temporarily tossed into the consumer doghouse as the result of a Twitter-storm (Motrin and Amazon are two recent examples) might be feeling a bit cursed. But the broader impact is the democratization of information that used to be closely and/or privately held, which creates a more level playing field both for consumers and for smaller brands trying to break into the big time.

I’m heavily influenced in this opinion by a terrific article on the subject of How David Beat Goliath, by Malcom Gladwell of The New Yorker. In warfare, business, and basketball (Gladwell examines all three), access to real-time information has been a critical component of the success of the world’s Davids. Since our agency is something of a David (40 persons strong) often taking on Goliath-sized competitors in the battle for new business, this topic holds special interest for me. Gladwell points out how the traditional withholding and batching of information favors hegemony, i.e., those who already hold power, while access to real-time information allows insurgents to engage in quick-strike operations that challenge that power structure.

We can see this everywhere. Last year the Obama campaign made superb use of real-time information to identify insurgent voting blocs, organize quickly, and mobilize the base. Previously little-known brands like Blendtec (www.willitblend.com) have seized the real-time power of viral pass-along to surpass big-budget branding efforts. Upstart brands who provide their customers with real-time information – JetBlue, for example, responds instantly to traveler complaints via Twitter and tries to address the problem on the spot – are making huge inroads against their big, clunky competitors.

So what’s the Massive Curse side of the equation? Getting faster information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. As I am overly fond of saying in presentations on social media, a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. History is replete with examples of herd poisoning, the tendency of a crowd to get carried away by a bad idea. Thus far the brands that have been most famously hoisted by their own petard in the social arena kinda had it coming. But as the trend gains speed, some very wrongheaded notions will surely gain false credence in the social media echo chamber before the truth catches up. Pity the Goliaths who fall victim to this fate.

My Chile Diary

Day One

I came to Chile for an unmediated travel experience, in the true sense of the word: nothing in between. Nothing between the stranger and the strange land – no guides, no tours, no shuttles, no AAA-rated hotels.

A well-traveled colleague sent me an email the day I left for Chile, listing some ways to unmediate while traveling. One of the suggestions was, “Pet every dog that you find.” On my first day in Chile, I saw many, many dogs.

I didn’t manage to pet any of them; instead I killed one. More on that later.

Despite my desire to dig deep into the places I visit, I’m not all that adventurous by nature. I’m actually a bit soft. Combine that softness with a couple of mule-headed traits, namely, 1. I tend to believe I can do anything just by reading up on it, and 2. I don’t like to ask for help, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

The trouble started with turning 40. I was determined not to be a cliché, but what can I say, the big round number got to me. I figured if I actually referred to this as my Mid-Life Crisis Trip (MLCT), then I was being ironic about the cliché, and therefore, not being a cliché.

The fact is, I did feel the need to take stock, and to go somewhere that would help me do that. I wanted to observe 40 and not just turn 40. I considered a lot of options for the MLCT. Probably too many options. It came down to undertaking the current adventure or going on a Zen retreat.

Arguably a Zen retreat is ready-made for the Person Taking Stock, but in truth I thought I would be bored and annoyed by my fellow seekers, and I self-justified this choice with the old Zen chestnut, “It’s easy to be a holy man on a mountain.” This is really meant to convey that Zen should be a day-to-day lived experience, not a retreat from the world, but I have long used it to justify my laziness about adopting any kind of formal practice (see character flaws above). And I’m adopting it now to mean that if I can be Zen while hurling myself unmediated into Chile, I can be Zen anywhere. So far, not so good.

The core of the MLCT plan was to wrest control of my itinerary by driving. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. If you want to see any amount of the Chilean backcountry – like, say, the Andes – you must drive. (Unless you are one of those notoriously fit, apple-cheeked European backpackers on a 3-month “holiday,” which even then involves hitchhiking, which is cheating ). But Chileans have opted not to democratize the wilderness the way America has, where every slack-jawed yokel with a plug-in cooler can back their boat trailer up to within Skoal-spitting distance of any natural attraction. Much of Chile’s up-close natural beauty lies many molar-rattling miles up unmarked dirt roads, and they like it that way.

And so the beating, rattling heart of my Chilean adventure is a blood-red vintage Nissan pick-up truck, 111,141 miles and counting, which I rented from an authentic Chilean rent-a-car company, no mediation there, in order to save a few bucks (actually about 500 bucks) over Hertz et al. I don’t know the exact vintage of this truck, but the only feature that carbon-dates it to within the last 30 years is that it’s a Nissan and not a Datsun.

The A/C doesn’t work, it has a pronounced shudder over 80 kpm, and the clutch is fading fast, but after 36 hours of driving in Chile, I am profoundly grateful I have this truck and not some sleek little 3-cylinder bubble from Hertz, for one very simple reason: I have beat the hell out of this truck. At the airport, it takes the rental company guy 20 minutes to solemnly record all the scrapes and dings on its battered body in the manner of a crime scene investigator, and so I am confident that my own scrapes and dings are merely embossing the ones already there. In my quest for the Chilean backcountry experience, I have driven over roads that were little more than arroyos, bounced over half-buried boulders, ground the clutch down steep inclines, and been scraped by much exotic flora.

It started with the enchantingly named Siete Tazas, or the “Seven Teacups.” Any rational person would, after nearly 24 sleepless hours of airports and airplanes, faced with driving an unreliable vehicle in an unfamiliar country and with poor language skills even in the most lucid state, opt to drive the 200km straight to the first hostel and, you know, chill. But no. Siete Tazas is reputed to be one of Chile’s great natural wonders, a series of seven cascading pools carved by wind and water from the basalt, resembling one of those enormous champagne fountains popular at weddings. Plus unlike other Chilean natural attractions, it was a clearly marked exit from the Pan-American Highway. Too easy to pass up.

Not so easy. Siete Tazas lies 65km up a winding dirt road rutted by washouts and populated by a lush variety of free-range livestock. It takes nearly two hours to get there. Amazingly at the end of this end-of-the-earth road sits a lonely guard in a shack, patiently carving road signs by hand. I have my first multi-subject broken Spanish exchange with him, and I feel all native: Is the park open? Yes. Is fishing allowed? No (damn). Am I OK where I parked? Yes.

Siete Tazas is impressive. Is it worth it? I got some good pictures, and they say that pictures don’t do it justice. In a more poetic state I might say that a challenging journey to a place that may or may not be worth it is the point of the whole trip. The journey is the point, that is. But I’m not ready to embrace that notion yet.

I spent more time than I planned in Chilean towns and villages today, and so the culture shock has come on a little faster than expected. But that’s OK. I really believe you can learn a lot about a people from their rules of the road. For instance, I hate Boston. No explanation needed. I knew someone who selected Portland as a place to live over two other cities by examining how people reacted to her lingering too long at stop signs. (It’s true that in Portland, courtesy is the municipal past-time, but we don’t have a professional baseball team.)

Chileans would lay on the horn in the stop sign test, not because they’re impatient, but because they have a reputation for being officious. They expect everyone to follow the rules, and you’re going to hear about it if you don’t. On a rural highway I am flashed to turn down my high beams at least 8 times. My high beams are not on. The Chileans are just making sure.

It’s easy to miss this law-and-order mentality because the cities feel like stereotypical Latin chaos. I wind up in the provincial capital of Talca as the sun is setting and I search desperately for the seemingly unmarked rural highway that will take me the remaining 65km to my hostel. It feels like everyone is on the street and in the street, pedestrians holding sway over traffic and reason.

I am desperate to find my bearings before dark, with inadequate maps, no signage, and insufficient language skills to comprehend the answer to “Donde esta la autopista de San Clemente?” I finally have the sense to find a main thoroughfare and put the last scuds of daylight at my back, thereby aiming east, and by the apparent intercession of St. Clement himself, find the damn highway.

In the Chilean towns and villages there are many dogs of quasi-pet, semi-stray status, free-ranging but territorial, and they are fearless in traffic. One of these crosses in front of an SUV coming toward me up the road. The SUV strikes the dog full force, no brakes, sending it flying into the path of my car. I run over it with a sickening crunch. I keep driving.

So when I said at the beginning that I killed a dog in Chile, that might have been hyperbole, a shameless, desecration-of-the-dead attempt at dramatic contrast between the advice I have been given and what has occurred. I’d like to think the dog died instantly, before I even hit it. Probably. I might have stopped, I don’t even know how to stop, hemmed in by chaos. I guess my point is that when you go looking for culture shock you don’t get to adjust the shock level.

I find my rural retreat – up a dirt road, of course – and I haven’t felt that good to arrive somewhere since the night I hiked through a dark woods in a thunderstorm after losing my way while fishing.

Day Two

My first Chilean retreat is such a retreat that Chileans don’t seem to know about it. My bemused hosts inform me that I’m the first norteamericano to find the place on the Internet, as opposed to being guided there by the hobo lingo that passes between transcontinental backpackers. It is a remarkable place, 3 cabins carved into a remote wilderness area near the Argentine border called “Refugio Tricaheu.” It sits on several hundred hectares of private land set aside by a wealthy Chilean as a wildlife preserve.

The owners are a young Belgian couple, the sort of insanely capable and hardy Europeans who always seem to be carving something out of the wilderness. (Probably the result of pent-up energy from no longer being able to colonize things.) Standard amazing story: They biked here from Belgium, crossing from Sierre Leone to Brazil (no word on whether they crossed by ship, thereby allowing them to do laps), then across the Andes, stumbling upon this place one rainy night and deciding to settle here and build a hostel.

They’ve built the place with typical Flemish efficiency, no corners cut: Tightly constructed fir cabins, neatly lined gravel paths, solar showers, and of course, a Finnish sauna (which has a no-bathing-suit rule; way too European for me.) My room has a fiberglass panel above my bunk so I can watch the stars: first night, all clouds, but second night around 3am, wow.

They are almost painfully helpful, plotting out my day of fishing and hiking with detailed, hand-drawn maps. On my hike their dog accompanies me with an enthusiasm that suggests this is the greatest fucking thing he’s ever been invited to do, rather than the same thing he’s done for the last 900 days. So far I don’t seem to have brought on any Instant Dog Karma based on last night’s events.

In the evening I screw up my courage for my first official Chilean eating out experience. This is not your standard lonely-guy-reading-the-newspaper-at-the-table experience, which I was prepared for. In rural Chile, there aren’t so much “restaurants” as there are “places that will feed you,” as indicated by handpainted signs outside ramshackle houses offering “COMIDA.”

I show up at one of these houses and, surrounded by three generations of shyly curious Chileans, manage to convey in broken Spanish that I wish to eat, whereby an argument in Spanish ensues, settled by the abuela, who tells me to come back in an hour.

I do, and they seat me in a corrugated tin shed, where I and two little boys watch a dubbed movie about a racing zebra while the abuela brings food. It’s a four course meal with the densest bread known to man, a salad, and some kind of hominy beef stew. Fantastic. I sit there longer than I should, forgetting that the rules of courtesy in Latin cultures dictate that no one will settle up with you until you ask. When I finally do ask, the bill is three dollars and forty cents.

Day Three

Today is a travel day, which is to say, a long-ass drive. No longer able to avoid the three German backpacking women that have taken over the common area of the cabin, I sit and have breakfast with them. In fact they are completely charming and informative, with perfect English, and once again my deliberate effort to Make Myself Completely Uncomfortable by Eating with Strangers is rewarded. They have just come from Pucon, my next destination, and they are full of advice, drawing maps for me on the backs of tea bag wrappers. (Tea is a staple of the Chilean diet, owing to their extreme admiration of the English, and the three cups of coffee I’ve had since arriving have all been Nescafe instant.)

Most of my day is spent driving, which I had much romanticized in my MLCT planning, mostly to justify not splurging for a plane ticket to southern Chile. The driving experience on the Pan-American Highway is not culturally exotic. Much like U.S. highways, it traverses the least interesting parts of the landscape, and the culture built up beside it – gas stations, gift shops, and roadside restaurants – is an artificial one created for drivers. But after seven hours in the truck I can offer a few observations:

The Pan-American Highway in Chile is a very good stretch of road, rivaling the best in North America, but it is also extremely well-financed: I paid way more in tolls than I did for a night’s lodging at Refugio Tricahue. The social divide is maintained by this system, with most Chileans opting for the omni-present buses.

The speed limit is 120 kph, which my ancient truck has a very tough time maintaining, but it’s in good company: no one drives over the speed limit, and easily half of the drivers on the road are clocking in somewhere closer to 70-80 kph. In some cases, this can be explained by the condition of the vehicle, but in more cases than not, drivers appear to be simply choosing to go slow. This is incomprehensible to a norteamericano; I once lived with an Irish woman in Philadelphia who was pulled over and berated by a Jersey cop for driving 55 in a 65 zone.

The heartbreaking optimism of the stray dog, who believes that every car bearing down on him is coming to rescue and not to kill him, continues with alarming frequency. A beautiful black setter crosses the highway in front of me and ignores my frantic telepathy, “Please don’t double back, please don’t double back,” and doubles back, at which point I screech to a halt on thin tires in the middle of the fucking Pan-American Highway, but I don’t care, because I’ll be damned if I’ll let lightning strike twice. Probably the next car will kill him.

About 200 km outside of Pucon I come over a ridge to the jaw-dropping sight of a volcano in full eruption, a massive column of smoke billowing into the stratosphere. I later learn that this is Volcan Llaima in Parque Trinquilquo, the second eruption in this range in as many months. I opt not to stop for a picture, figuring the view will be better further on, and end up missing the shot altogether. There’s a lesson in that somewhere.

I arrive after dark at the Landhaus San Sebastian, a Hansel/Gretel-level picturesque farmhouse/guesthouse run by, yes, more uber-ambitious Europeans: a young German couple and their Austrian receptionist. It’s all carved wood, warm stoves, and baked strudel – cozy enough to make a weary traveler weep. Determined to push my Dining in the Company of Strangers regimen to the limit, I spend dinner chatting across the room with a pair of retired wine importers – he of British and she of German origin, now settled in Portugal.

Lest this seem a little too ex-pat to be an authentic Chilean experience, let me explain that the Germans have a long history in northern Patagonia. They came here in the 19th century at the invitation of the Chilean president, who hoped that sweet land deals and a Germanic climate would entice the Germans to, uh, inject an Aryan genetic strain into the Mapuche Indians in the area. The Germans stayed but mostly didn’t intermarry, so now there are Chileans, Germans, and Mapuche here.


Day Four

By day four I feel like I’ve got this fish-out-of-water thing down, language-wise, with my pidgin Spanish carrying me through so many awkward conversations that they’re no longer awkward. I breeze through gas stations, stores, and restaurants without understanding 80% of what’s said to me but somehow making the other 20% suffice. To complicate matters, I’m consistently mistaken for a Chilean for the first 5 seconds of every encounter, with my dark hair, beat-up truck, and, well, enthusiastic pronunciation of what few Spanish words I do know. Also I am apparently 1 of about 10 tourists left in Patagonia for the season, and the only one traveling solo.

Today it is seriously raining, and while I’ve been telling everyone that I can handle a little rain, cuz I’m from Oregon, this is the rain the locals call “La Lluvia Que El Oregonian Hace Deprimido ,” which translates as “The Rain that Makes Even the Oregonian Despair.”

But because flyfishing involves the kind of idiotic fanaticism that ignores bad weather, I head out for a local attraction, the “Ojos de Aburgua” or “Eyes of Aburgua,” a pair of waterfalls, figuring to eyeball the Eyeballs for awhile then fish above them. I do so, and I get my first (and second) Chilean trout, making me officially an international fly fisherman. I can report that the trout of Chile are every bit as taken with the trusty size 18 olive pheasant tail, friend to fly fishermen the world over, as are Oregon trout. But I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t go for something more exotic.

Back at the Landhaus I learn my guided fishing trip has been rained out, owing to the rising river levels which admittedly do make for bad fishing. Much like Portland with its brewpubs, there is one and only one thing to do here that is actually enhanced by bad weather: the termas or volcanic thermal baths. There are something like a dozen of these bath complexes studded along the volcanic valleys here, all offering a chance to forget your troubles with a good hot mineral soak that may also cure your nervous disorder, arthritis, gout, skin disease (yech), kidney disease, or ulcer.

I am normally not a fan of the whole spa thing – probably the lingering negative effects of a Catholic childhood. Something about the combination of luxury, relaxation, and partial nudity feels like trouble. But I figure this trip is all about doing things I wouldn’t normally do – which presents a much healthier set of choices in southern Chile than, say, Bangkok – so I pick the fanciest-sounding termas from the guidebook and head out.

I’m still amazed by how much of what there is to see and do in Chile – not just the natural attractions, but really fancy lodges, spas, and restaurants – lies at the end of many miles of rutted, flooded, and mudded roads of the kind that in Oregon usually lead to a meth lab or an abandoned logging camp or a meth lab in an abandoned logging camp. It doesn’t seem to hurt their business one bit, so I’m convinced it’s just a difference in semiotics: in the U.S., the quality of the road signifies that a place is worth visiting. If the road is bad, it means no one goes there, and it’s not worth your time. In Chile, a bad road makes a place more exclusive, and therefore of higher quality.

Which is to say that the Termas de Menetue, a spectacular structure of fir, granite, and feng shui, is a long way from nowhere down a very bad road. It has two indoor pools of greenish, steaming water in a massive pavilion with piped-in Pan flute music. I join a dozen or so dozing Chileans, all of us wearing the mandatory bright blue Menetue bath cap, so we look like a pool full of very festive Orthodox Jews.

And despite myself, I find that I’m getting into it. I’m kicked back with my Chilean hermanos, with life-giving steam wafting into my sinuses, listening to the patter of the rain, feeling my gout disappearing, and for extra effect, reading Luis Borges’ mind-bending Latin American classic Ficciones. If someone brought me a pisco sour right now, I’d probably have an out-of-body experience.

I swear if I could do this kind of thing in Oregon for 8 bucks, I’d be there every day.

Day Five

I now have the guesthouse entirely to myself, which is nice in a way but also has an eerie Wuthering Heights vibe about it. When I went downstairs to the main room to read last evening, the Austrian receptionist, the young fraulein, poked her head out of her door like a cuckoo clock and asked if she could help me. She didn’t seem to buy my explanation.

Thankfully the rain has stopped, and it’s nothin’ but blue skies from now on. I hit one of my main targets, Parque Herquehue, home of the ancient, endangered, exotic Aruacania tree. It’s hard to understand until you get here how a tree could be such a big attraction. But when you finally see one – for which you have to climb about 900 slippery switchbacks on a so-called “moderate” trail that kicked my un-acclimated ass but definitely added to the drama of the Big Tree Reveal – well, it’s really something.

In the afternoon, my fishing guide picks me up at the hotel. And lest my use of a fishing guide seems un-unmediated of me, let me point out that Mario (who has the biggest, blackest, bushiest mustache outside of central Bagdad) speaks no English whatsoever, so we are going to be getting primal, using the ancient language of fishing. On the ride to the river I teach him the norteamericano names for the flies he’s carrying, the “Wooly Bugger” and the “Egg-Sucking Leech.” He informs me that there will be no trout for us, oh no, because the coho salmon are in the river, so we’re going after the big boys.

I’m carrying my 5-weight as my main rod and my beloved feather-light 1-weight as a back-up, and Mario and his assistant are ogling my 1-weight as if it is a two-headed calf. Mario explains that in Chile, no one has ever seen a 1-weight, because the fish are mas grande, and I try unsuccessfully to convey that virtually no one in Oregon has seen one either, that I own it for the rios pequenos that I favor, but that listen, we have big fish too, which the 1-weight can handle no problemo. They are also amused by my small catch-and-release net and proudly display the big honkin one we’ll use to net the salmon, now that I’m about to become a man.

I definitely sense a machismo thing going on here.

We are drifting the eerily beautiful, mist-covered Liucura River, and I am flogging the water in the ancient futile rhythm of the salmon fisherman. Part of the reason I’m a trout guy and not a salmon guy, besides not being all hung up on size, is that you don’t so much fish for salmon as you do flail around for them. Migrating salmon don’t eat, so you’re not trying to match their food source as you do for trout. You’re basically trying to annoy the salmon with something big and flashy that triggers their strike instinct. It’s not unlike advertising.

Which is all a long way of saying we don’t catch any salmon. Well, neither does anyone else on the other drift boats (I think; anyway, I heard nada a lot). I do manage to snag two trout with the double-duty Wooly Bugger, which Mario refuses to haul in with the sacred salmon net. I’m eating my heart out about missing so many trout, which are partaking of the evening mayfly hatch with gusto – big splashy takes echoing down the river like a string of firecrackers. But when in Chile…

Day Six

Unmediated experiences keep falling in my lap. I wish I could take credit for seeking them out, but I can’t. I bow to the young fraulein’s truly relentless efforts to schedule activities for me (she’s either naturally helpful or she’s getting a cut of the action) and agree to a guided horseback ride up in the mountains. After yesterday’s hike, I’m ready to let a horse do the work.
Horses are a big deal here; the native Mapuche are serious equestrians, and the gaucho culture is alive and well in the mountain cattle ranches. (Also many rural Chileans don’t have cars and rely on horses to get around.) At this particular ranch, the owner Rodolpho is a local legend, a formal Olympic medalist in equestrian events and an authority on the high country. But Rodolpho has to go into town to pay taxes, so he proposes this instead: I should ride along with his two gauchos as they round up stray cattle in the mountains.

Neither the gauchos nor my horse speak any English, and my riding experience is, uh, limited. “Para no es primavera!” (not my first time) I insist to the gaucho who gently asks after seeing my terrified grin after one intense gallop.

But I’m game, and this turns out to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. We wind up and up the mountains through scrubby bamboo thickets near the tree line. The only thing more surreal than bamboo at this elevation (which my horse chows on at every opportunity) is the occasional steer poking his head out of it, looking as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to have wandered up a couple thousand feet for a snack.

Cattle-wrangling is a very efficient system, and I could probably understand it better if my Spanish was better (I’d still like to know how the gauchos knew where to look for the cattle out of a couple thousand square miles of wilderness). But I can tell you this much: everybody – the gauchos, the cattle, the dogs, and the horses – understands their place in the system very well. When the gauchos find a steer, its reaction is something like, “Damn, busted,” and it moseys on down and joins the others. But occasionally a steer will bolt for the high ground, at which time the Jack Russell terriers spring into action and block its path of escape, barking furiously.

I’m telling you, the sight of a 15-pound terrier standing down an 800-pound steer with nothing but its bark is worth the price of a plane ticket to Chile.

We (by which I mean “they”) rounded up nine cattle and drove them down the mountain to the ranch.
I also fished today, and it was very good, almost confirming the stereotype of Chile as a place where you wet a line and catch a trout, but what’s fishing compared with gaucho-for-a-day. Chile has met me more than halfway, but I feel like I got it almost-exactly right.

Day Seven

Today was all about the fishing – I can’t lug all this gear the length of a hemisphere and not have one dedicated day of it. Problem is that the area’s prime fishing rivers – the Liucura and Trancura – are mainly a drift boat kind of deal, because shore access is mostly on private land. I lament this to the inn’s owner, who tells about a campground, closed for the season, just 1k up the road at the spot where the Caburgua and Triacura rivers converge.

Is there a prettier fishing spot on Earth? Probably, but I have not been there. About two miles of gin-clear trout water in a deep forest setting – this right here is the norteamericano fantasy of the Chile flyfishing experience.

I won’t make this into a fishing story, but suffice it to say this may have been the single best day of fishing of my life. And as so often happens in life, the high point and the low point come along right next to each other. Around noon I’m casting a streamer I’ve never tried before but which has been recommended for Chilean trout, a “Bitch Creek,” undoubtedly named for its usage after all other likely flies have been tried and found wanting, and I have no faith in this thing, just really reconnoitering with it, when suddenly a brown trout hammers it, and I know it’s a brown for its big strike and the fact that it’s staying low and thrashing, not taking to the air like a rainbow, and I somehow haul this thing in and it is one beautiful brown, and it’s at this point that I manage to royally screw things up.
I have a strict, self-imposed prohibition against photographing my catches, partly because it’s bad for the fish to have them out of the water for any length of time, and partly because I am so congenitally clumsy that it’s bad for me too, and partly because who really wants to look at fish pictures? But I figure I need a picture that says (to anyone that cares) that this is a Chilean trout, yessir, they grow them fat and pretty down here. So I snap the picture and the fish thrashes and I drop the camera right into the net, where it is exposed for several seconds to river water and a large thrashing trout. And so the camera is toast, and I hope and pray that six days of pictures are not likewise toast, but damn, that was a really nice fish.

I caught others; they were nice too.

Today’s other Major Cultural Experience was being pulled over by the carabineros, the national police, thereby bringing to fruition my longstanding dread of such an encounter. Unlike in many other Latin American countries, where the traveler is encouraged to settle the matter swiftly by offering a propina, a tip, the Chilean police pride themselves on going by the book, which will be vigorously thrown at you if you try to bribe them.

This turns out to be less stressful than cop-stops back home, which at least carry the threat of points against my license. The carabinero barks something in Spanish, which, if cops are more or less the same everywhere, is probably along the lines of, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” For once my limited Spanish is an asset; my “No entiendo” leaves him nonplussed, looking to his partner for help, and I helpfully extend my International Driving Permit by way of saying, Look how hard I’m trying to follow the rules here, and he barks “Luces!” (lights; I keep forgetting they’re required at all times here), and waves me on my way.

Day Eight

Last full day in Chile. After my fine showing of equestrianism in the cattle wrangling operation two days ago, I opt for a second dose, taking up an invitation from the young fraulein to go riding with her on the “dry” side (i.e., the leeward side) of Villarrica, the active volcano that dominates the local skyline. Our destination is a 300-hectare ranch bordering the national park and owned by a Chilean-German family for four generations. I’m angling to get a little more of the flora/fauna 411 on this outing, and the young fraulein is working that angle: I supply the ride, and she supplies the translation.

But it soon become clear that the fraulein has other angles as well – she’s obviously sweet on the ranch owner’s son, who’s taking us on this ride. She brings him a box of chocolates. They exchange lingering glances. She is uncharacteristically giddy for an Austrian. I am feeling a little like the third testicle on a mare.

So a lot of my hoped-for translation is lost in the flurry of throaty Germanic syllables passing between these young riders in the throes of mutual admiration. But that’s OK, because this is all pretty spectacular. We stop on the edge of a deep ravine containing an ashen river flowing from the volcano’s twin cinder cone. Things are panoramic. The 90 degrees left out of this billion-pesos view is occupied by a little refugio cabin so quaint I expect Heidi of the Hills and her grandfather to emerge at any moment. This belongs to the Chilean-German fellow’s family, and he proceeds to make things homey. He starts a fire and grills up a couple brats, and here I am chomping on a brat and ogling this postcard landscape while my horse grazes, and the only thing that would make this more perfect is… and what do you know, here comes the Chilean-German with a beer. I can die happy now.

On our way back to the ranch, our host points out what looks like a pile of logs nestled into the saplings. This is an old bunker, he explains, occupied by Chilean troops during a near-war with Argentina in the 70’s. (1978, I find out later; a minor dust-up over ownership of a couple of arctic islands). It’s my first visual marker, I realize, of the Chile I had known before coming here, the one from my college Latin American politics courses.

That Chile had its slender throat under the boot of a brutal military dictator, Auguste Pinochet, for 17 years. That Chile had its own 9/11, and there is no gentle way to say this: my country sponsored the terrorist act. On September 11, 1973, military forces under Pinochet’s command bombed the national palace and murdered Chile’s president, Salvador Allende. The coup was bought and paid for by American taxpayers, the money funneled through the CIA. Pinochet tortured and murdered tens of thousands of Chileans, then died of old age in 2006 without ever standing trial for his crimes.

When you see Chile you wonder how this untrammeled landscape and its implacable people could ever have been shackled by a dictator; it seems like it would just shrug it off. I am lucky for the Chileans’ ability to shrug things off; I am lucky to be here.

In the end, it’s foolish to think you can unmediate, that you can pull back all the layers and see a place for what it is, in ten days spent in the company of people looking out for your comfort. I might need to know a lot of Chileans for a very long time to even begin to trace the scars that they’d rather cover, to find the hidden meaning in a pile of rotting timbers in the forest. I might need to flog a lot of waters to catch their coho. I might need to drink more than one pisco in more than one green-tea terma. I might need to learn the names of things. I might need to come back.

Why Maxwell’s Demon will decide the Web’s fate

Today’s White Horse blog topic is “Best Simile for the Web in its Current State.” We’re going to see if we can improve on 900-year-old former Senator Ted Stevens’ infamous “series of tubes” simile. I have to admit a perverse fondness for Stevens’ inept analogy, because it calls to mind the endless tangles of pneumatic tubes in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, which offers a dystopian vision of the soul-deadening effects of information overload.

Not that I’m cynical or anything. But I do think that dealing with information overload is the critical issue facing the Web today, especially with the proliferation of content types and contributors brought about by emerging media. For this reason, I offer a metaphor that (for me) reflects the razor’s edge we currently walk between a utopian and dystopian future for the Web: Maxwell’s Demon.

Maxwell’s Demon is a theoretical concept invented by the Scottish physicist James Maxwell in 1871. Bear with me for a minute here while I scramble to make the metaphor stick. Maxwell was offering a challenge to Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes entropy, i.e. the tendency of things to fall apart. He envisioned a box of hot and cold molecules bouncing around; under the Second Law, these highs and lows will eventually even out to a lukewarm vanilla state, much like network television.

But Maxwell envisioned a creature, a “demon” in the box, whose sole job is to sort the hot molecules from the cold. If the energy the demon uses to sort molecules is less than the amount of energy retained by keeping hot molecules together, the demon can defy entropy and even create perpetual motion. The big question that physicists continue to debate is this: how much energy is used in the act of sorting?

So, back to the Web. For consumers and marketers alike, success or failure in their online experience entirely hinges on their ability to sort and isolate relevant information: finding your target audience among billions, joining with like-minded communities, locating relevant search results, finding your ex-classmates, and on and on.

In fact the single biggest company in the space – Google – is nothing more than a giant Maxwell’s Demon. Google doesn’t create content; it sorts it, and it enlists millions of lesser demons – you and me – to help it do that. And most of the work we do as an agency – pinpointing users in digital advertising, increasing the prominence of relevant information in Web site design, or creating Web communities – involves acting as a Maxwell’s Demon on behalf of our clients and their customers.

Our own Steve Heikkila’s excellent evaluation of the social media meta-tool Flock describes a Maxwell’s Demon of a browser that constantly tracks our own box of molecules – the social communities in which we participate.

And we at White Horse created a highly effective Maxwell’s Demon to help us overcome the entropy of our laziness about blog posting. Left to our own devices, we only occasionally mustered the energy to post. Now our esteemed administrator-demon, Jamie Beckland, tosses out a blog topic each day for us bloggers to tear at like a pack of crazed hyenas. Is the net energy used to maintain a blog reduced by the sorting action of this demon? Yes. Now our blog is its own perpetual-motion machine. Almost.

So here’s the utopian/dystopian dilemma: if we can create ways to sort information that keep pace with the growth of information, we create a utopia of relevance and connectedness. If we fail to do so, then social media will eat itself: the demands of keeping up with the social stream will outweigh its relevance to users, and they will retreat to fragmented communities of deeper relevance but less connectedness. Which way will it go? Not even the Demon knows.

Web sites we can’t live without

On our White Horse blog, for which I shamelessly syndicate my posts onto my personal blog, today’s topic is “The Web site that you can’t live without.” I’m going to risk provoking the scorn of my hyper-connected colleagues and stay firmly off of the limb, clinging to the trunk, and nominate Amazon.com, or more specifically, Amazon Prime. I do so because it gives me an opportunity to flog one of my cherished Grand Unifying Theories (GUT) of Web phenomena, the Rise of Self-Command.

The concept of self-command comes from the economist and game theory guru Thomas Schelling, and it refers to the way people enter into contracts against themselves – sometimes literal, sometimes virtual – in order to change their own behavior for the better. My argument is that part of the social glue of the Web is self-command: people exposing their diet habits, spending habits, reading lists, friendships, daily activities, and on and on in order to better themselves through the social pressure that the Web creates. How many times have you paused before tapping out a Facebook update or renting a Rob Schneider movie on Netflix, and wondered how this was going to shape the social self you’re putting on display? That’s self-command.

Amazon Prime is the more traditional variety of self-command – one with an actual contract – but it works in similar ways to make me a better person. Or at least a better consumer. For $79 a year, Amazon opens its bounty to me, allowing me to obtain any item in a single click with free two-day or dirt-cheap overnight shipping. Two years in, I still marvel at the elegant simplicity of this scheme. Until I purchase up to that $79 equivalent in shipping costs, Amazon is making gravy off me. And once my spending surpasses that threshold, then my purchasing habits have irrevocably shifted toward Amazon, and they’re really making gravy off me.

So what’s in it for me? Everything. I get to feel special when I come to the site and smug when I buy some honkin’ huge item that should have cost a bundle to ship (Just bought a reel mower; thirty bucks less than at Home Depot, and it’s coming right to my house for free. Sweeet. ) Amazon has unlocked the psychology of gratification behind both impulse purchasing and the wonky, research-driven purchase of a carefully selected item.

Since this is a pet theory, naturally I believe that there’s huge potential for marketers to build consumer loyalty with self-command. And of course, a huge part of the draw of social sites is the ability to self-command your way into greater connectedness. When you ignore those friend requests, you’re violating the contract you made with yourself to stay in touch with people. So you probably won’t ignore them for long.

Want to learn more about self-command? Schelling’s Strategies of Commitment is available and eligible for free shipping on Amazon Prime.

Marketers, can we stand down from swine-flu fear-mongering?

When I write and present on social media, one of my main themes is the potential for marketers to rebuild long-lost trust with consumers in new media that encourage dialogue and sharing. My message is, in essence, “This is working. Let’s not blow it.”

But as JFK is reported to have said about a bomber pilot who violated the stand-down order after the Cuban Missile Crisis and nearly started World War III, “There’s always some a**hole who doesn’t get the word.”

Today’s stray bomber pilot: WebEx. A colleague of mine received an email from a WebEx sales rep entitled, “With the Flu Pandemic, now may be the time.” The email’s sales angle was, you guessed it, that there’s never been a better time to avoid face-to-face meetings. It even contained the gem, “For the first time in recent history we face the possibility of having travel eliminated for safety.” Yes. Other than that long-forgotten 9/11 thing, I suppose…

Can we all collectively agree not to stoke swine flu fears in our marketing? Would that be such a big miss? At this stage, the economy stands to take a much harder hit from panicked responses to the flu than from any direct loss of productivity. WebEx’s ghoulish tactic both exaggerates the present risk and denigrates the dead.

Marketers who defect from the greater good of public restraint drag us all down with them. We can do better.