Sunday, November 05, 2006

Musing: Sigma Iotia Mexico

Sigmaiotiamexico1One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is entitled “A Piece of the Action” which has a plot that goes something like this: Kirk and the crew beam down to the planet Sigma Iotia II and find themselves in an Earth-like 1920s era gangster culture. The people dress, talk and act like gangsters, but the crew finds that the food tastes wrong, the smells are off and the feel of things is inaccurate. They come to discover that a hundred years earlier a Federation vessel had accidentally left a book about gangsters behind on the planet, and the imaginative and intelligent inhabitants had built their culture around what they read and saw in the book. They got the sound and look right from the words and pictures, but they did not -- could not -- get the right taste, smell and feel from the book. This episode of Star Trek came to mind recently because it is an allegory of how I have come to view Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I mean no disrespect. I have grown quite fond of Mexico, especially the warm, friendly, hard working and good natured people. The way things are, though, has an aspect of “looks right, works wrong.”

Sigmaiotiamexico2A few examples: In most of the hotels I have stayed in, there is a little receptacle by the door into which you put your card key when you enter the room. This activates the electricity, air, etc. The idea, of course, is that one should not waste energy when the room is empty. The problem is that ALL the electricity goes off, including the outlet into which the fancy clock radio is plugged. As a result, you have to reset the clock every time you re-enter the room. In two places so far, the outlet for the clock radio has been on the same circuit as the light switch, rendering it useless either as a clock at night or as an alarm in the morning. Unless, of course, you sleep with the lights on. Another example is that the ATM machines dispense very large bills, generally as large as possible to require the fewest bills to meet the amount of your withdrawal. The problem is that nobody -- including your hotel -- is readily willing or able to change them into smaller bills. As a result, you have to wait on a long line at the bank to change the big bills you just got from their ATM machine. The technology is in place and works as far as it goes, but the system breaks down in the context of the larger reality. My favorite example is in the Mexico City subway system where the hi-tech turnstiles accept little paper tickets with a magnetic stripe on them to speed you through and on your way. The problem is that the turnstiles accept only these paper tickets. You cannot use coins. Where do you get the paper tickets? Perhaps at an automated dispenser that accepts coins? No, because there are none. You have to wait in a line and buy the paper tickets from a person who tears them off a roll that is designed to be used in an automated dispenser!

Now, these kinds of things do not really annoy me. To the contrary, I find them rather endearing and a source of constant amusement. I would, however, offer an opinion and spotlight an opportunity: Mexico has the potential to be a world class country. It has natural resources, hard working people and a wonderful location. What it doesn’t seem to have is “the rest of the picture.” Like Sigma Iotia II from Star Trek, it has “some of it right” but not “all of it right.” The intelligent and imaginative people of Mexico have built aspects of their culture around what they have seen elsewhere in pictures, books and movies, but they have not -- can not -- get the whole thing right without complete, actual experience of how can be. The opportunity is simple: An enterprising individual could, I believe, make a pretty good living out of providing the exchange of experience by spending time in Mexico and pointing out the “disconnects” to those who stand to profit -- especially in the lucrative tourist market -- from improving the “look and feel.” Even better, I think there is a strong market opportunity for a business that would allow Mexicans to experience a “fully functioning environment.” If a “Kidzania” can give the children of Mexico an experience of proper commerce, why couldn’t a “Ritzania” give their working parents -- especially in the lucrative tourist industry -- an experience of proper accommodation. If they actually experience “all of it right” I believe they would “make it all right.” The potential benefits to them and their economy are enormous.

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