“Compensation” is the American business way of saying “pay”. If you look at that word, it would seem to mean that because you don’t like work (whatever it is), you have to be compensated for those bad feelings, and for the amount that you don’t like it. The flip side of this premise is that any kind of work is OK as long as you are compensated. Everyone, it is said, has his or her price. But what is more true, I found, is that we each decide how to live, based on the times and conditions before us.
My American Heart Association CPR simulator, which used video discs and a manikin controlled by computer, gained enough notoriety in 1985 at various US trade shows to also be known to China. The General Electric Personal Computer Division asked me to spend a week there showing the technology to the Chinese. Not just any Chinese, as it turned out. The 5th Party Congress of the People’s Republic of China brought all of the key representatives from all over China to a few weeks of planning their future. Little did I know how key they would be, or how I much would figure into their future.
Luckily I had a passport, but the critical item I did not have was a business card in Chinese. I had just started my own business in Interactive Media and the Heart Association allowed me to represent the system I had built for them a year earlier. I had about 3 days to get such a card. I took the phrase “Interactive Media” to the Chinese Language department at the University of Washington. I had no time to double check with other translators. It was supposed to say “Interactive Media” but It could have said “This person is an idiot from the West,” as far as I knew.
There were three days left before I boarded the plane to China, and I had no cards which was, in Asia, like having no existence at all. So I looked around Seattle phonebooks for someone who could print up 100 cards with whatever it said about me. The front desk person said yes they did things in Chinese for clients, and I should stop by and talk with them. I did, and they were slick young businessmen who told me of the high speed presses they had. When I said I wanted 100 cards to go to China with, it looked like not such big business to them. They said they could have this small order in a couple of weeks. I was crushed.
Fortunately there was a stooped little man in a black printers apron who had been listening at the periphery of our meeting. I thought he was some shop guy. I was wrong. He was the father. Without upstaging his sons attempts to make big business, he came in his short strides over to me. He could see I was crestfallen. “How soon?” he said.
“Two days, so it looks impossible.” I said, from my fallen crest.
“Maybe not…impossible. You have cards?” He said. I said I did.
“I can make you Chinese woodblock print for the back of your cards.”
No kidding. A printing method that far proceeded Gutenburg, smack in the middle of the new computer age. “Could you…Please?”
And that is how I walked into China with head held high, with my own wooden block print saying “Interactive Media.”
Apparently the invitation sent was signed by cabinet level ministers, because in Shanghai I was rushed through a customs that looked like an upscale refugee camps. People must have been there for weeks as officialdom stamped things and check them again and then closed down for yet another day of waiting. But as I say, the people escorting me shouted something in Chinese and waved whatever official visa they had given me, and waters parted.
It seems there was a reason behind all this. They did take me to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, but they also worked me about 10 hours a day making demonstrations in the grand Beijing Hotel of my computer driven video and the CPR system, which fascinated them. In the evening we would go out with people from everywhere in China who were representatives in Beijing for this 5th Party Congress, and each section of the country would order their specialties, like thousand day old fermented eggs from the South, and a horses spinal cord butter-basted and fried from the North. It was all good. Finally, on the next to the last night I was there, we had private showings for the top ministers. One of them, the minister for Technology, said he really liked what I had shown, and wanted to do that sort of thing for China. However, he said, he was a little short of cash. I joke – a little – that I could probably trade for oil. He said he would try to think of a way.
The next after all the ordinary demos for the day, they had me stay later to do private demos for even higher ranking ministers. The translator had it down by now, but at one point a pudgy little minister, the Minister for Finance, leaned back in his chair and said “Hey, I don’t need the translator. I was a record executive in L.A.” I learned later that many young American Chinese had given up successful careers to join the revolution, and become part of the new China.
Also among the ministers on this last evening in the Beijing Hotel was the minister for Security. After the majority of high ranking officials at the evening session had gone, the ministers for Technology, Finance, and Security gathered in a little cluster at some distance from me, deciding what they would say. Finally the minister for Technology came over alone. “We would like to know if something could be done,” he said, carefully. I said I would try to give him an answer.
“We want to put every Chinese on one frame of the videodisc. Then we make relational data bases to store like a ‘juke box. Can this be done?’”
I almost giggled when I heard him say “juke box,” but then I began to put it together. This was a big project. It would have every Chinese in a system which could be drawn up immediately.
“Yes, I think so.” I said, calculating like crazy in my mind.
“How much can it cost?”
“Well,” still stalling and calculating because I knew he would need an answer very soon. “It would take an almost unlimited commitment by China of workers to compile this mass of data, and you would pay for all the equipment and incidentals involved.”
He nodded. “ OK, and how much does it cost?”
1 billion people, each on a disc frame of data, 54,000 frames per disc. 200 videodisc players linked together. I figured about $50 million for the job, and $20 million profit. This was for everyone in China. “It could be done for about $70 million, “ I said, somehow without gulping as I said it.
The minister of Technology went back to the huddle, and the minister of Security was looking pleased and the minister of Finance was looking dour indeed, But he finally must have said OK. The minister of Technology started back to me, but I had also been working some things out in my head. I had never made much in my life, and my little startup was struggling on every thousand dollars that came in the door. I had remortgaged my house to make payroll, and yet the wolf that eats small companies was braying out in the street once more.
As the minister of Technology came closer, I knew he was pleased to come back with positive answers from the other ministers. And yet I already had started another calculation, a very different calculation.
“Yes,” said the minister of Technology, firm in my eyes, “we want you to do it.”
At that point some different calculations flashed past my mind, like some videodisc frames going 30 frames a second, each with an individual life, and each individual life in the palm of my hand. I wondered if someone had had that opportunity to catalogue Jews in Nazi Germany, so they could be categorized and located and indexed and filed away dead. I saw something in the future I did not like.
“I did say that it could be done for that amount, but I didn’t say I would do it. “
The minister of Technology looked severely non-plussed. Who was this in front of him? What was this person saying? “You would not do it? For $70 million dollars?”
“Actually,” I said, “This is not the sort of thing my company does. You can see from my demonstration that we are mainly into lifesaving and other training.”
“But you maybe could do it.”
“Probably, if that was the kind of thing we do. But it is not. I am very sorry.”
He carried the message to the back of the room and the meeting closed very quickly. They were looking at me like this was no businessman that they had ever seen.
Of course, they were right. I ended up as a mediocre businessman at best. My kids had to work through college and as it turned out, my company did well enough for several more years…until it didn’t.
That China opportunity was in 1985. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre a few years later, the ministers of Security wanted to round up every dissident and the families of every dissident, quickly, before all the enemies of the state could disperse. However, when they really needed it, they didn’t have enough data in hand, or in a cohesive relational data base that could be drawn up quickly by computer. Something like what I didn’t do.
So it remains clear that I did not make a large success of things, and the few who’ve heard my story said well clearly something could have been done, some compromise could have been made. I guess they were right. In this case I probably just lacked the imagination and the ability to compromise when I saw what lives would clearly be compromised. I wish I could say that I slept supremely well, as I saw those solutions and compromises — and money — go by the board, but even at that point I knew that soon, very soon, someone else would do it for them.