I caught up with the late blight story (Reuters) a bit late -- all the more embarrassing because I'd been shooting the breeze at the Community Garden with somebody from the University of Maine Co-Operative Extension Service (MPBN) a week ago, and they'd warned me that big box stores in the area had managed to infect tomato plants in their garden centers with late blight spores -- and the rain and the cold had made conditions ideal for the spores to spread. (That's A Bad Thing, since the Irish Potato Famine was caused by late blight.) Anyhow, I started googling, and after an hour or so came up with some good images (so I knew what to look for), solutions (like not just ripping the plants out, since that spreads the spores), and measures for prevention (copper dust).
Since late blight can kill a garden in 3 days, immediate action was needed. So I went down to my local hardware store to buy some powerful and nasty copper spray (and not some weak tea dust, either, but the right stuff). They were out. I then spent the rest of the afternoon trundling about the area on our woefully inadequate public transportation system looking for it: Lowes, Wal-Mart, and even Aubochon (a small Maine chain) were all out. So I returned to the local hardware store, and picked up some Rotenone with 7% copper, and promptly dusted my tomato patch with it -- staving off, hopefully, the spores.
Leaving aside the role of big box garden centers in creating the growers' equivalent of in-hospital infection, there were a couple of market failures here:
1. You'd think that the big box stores, having recalled the infectious tomato plants, would have at least stocked the means to remedy the infection! But no -- nothing on the shelves. Aubuchon at least was able to figure out what to special order, but the order would have taken at least a week to arrive, and late blight can do its work in 3-5 days. So, the big box stores lost a sale.
2. You'd think that my local hardware store, which has MPBN on the radio next to the cash register, would have ordered copper, anticipating a demand for it. The late blight problem was known to be in the area at least a week ago, at the Community Garden, but the copper solution wasn't in the area when and where I needed it. Now, that store didn't lose a sale, but making customers buy a product known to be inferior is not a recipe for sustained growth.
In addition, there's a larger failure to invest in what has been termed social capital:
I was able to broadcast my search results to a wider audience through blog posting and mail, but just as in a broadcast, I couldn't be sure who got the message. Moreover, anybody who did get the message would have found it difficult to re-broadcast enhancements back to "my" audience. The model is wrong: I don't really want to broadcast to an audience. I want to have a conversation with a community, so we can all refine our understanding and take action together. Not only that, I want a community that answers the question "Who then is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) not through mere physical proximity, or even digital proximity on this or that stovepiped site, but because (at least) we have subjects of mutual interest in common. What I want, in fact, is a socially networked topic map. What does that mean and how would it work?