The industrious revolutionary

By Karyn Scherer

There can't be too many 77-year-olds whose eyes light up at the mention of the latest smartphone.

Perhaps I'm doing septuagenarians a disservice (Rupert Murdoch, after all, is also 77), but the day I visit Gordon Dryden, he is still buzzing from the previous day's news that consumers will soon be able to use Google's Android platform in a mobile phone.

For non-geeks still struggling with texting, that might sound a little underwhelming. But as techies quite correctly point out, this seemingly minor development is actually quite significant.

Android has been developed using open-source technology, which is freely available for anyone who wishes to use it or improve it. Google's next step is likely to be the gPhone, which could be a fierce rival for Apple's wildly hyped iPhone.

According to this version of the future, Google and other open-source advocates will eventually crush proprietary companies like Apple and Microsoft unless they, too, see the light.

"The only positive result of America invading Iraq was that it persuaded China to go open-source," Dryden enthuses. "Now China has slashed the price of laptop computers by 90 per cent by making them without an operating system, which you can download for free off the net."

For a pipsqueak country like New Zealand, open-source technology is a Godsend, he argues, as it will enable us to capitalise on our innovative spirit at very little cost.

"There is a reason why Google has used open-source technology almost entirely; why IBM has moved into that; and China, Korea and Japan have moved into it ... This is the Third Way."

In fact, Dryden prefers the term "co-operative enterprise" to open-source, believing the time has finally come for a new political and economic model.

It's not an entirely new message, of course. Back in the Muldoon years, he argued in his book Out of the Red that New Zealand was the only country in the world with two conservative socialist parties. The more things change, the more they stay the same, it seems.

Co-operative enterprise, he believes, is the alternative to greedy financial and bureaucratic state control.

"If the recent crisis in the world's finance centres has proved anything, it has proved this: that financial manipulation should not be confused with dynamic new economies."

For those of you still thinking "Gordon who?", shame on you. He might not have his own Wikipedia entry (which is odd, come to think of it, given his enthusiasm for the online encyclopedia), but I can vouch for the fact that he was once a household name in New Zealand.

After lying low in recent years busily preparing his latest book, he is now ready to go public again.

Unlimited: The New Learning Revolution and the Seven Keys to Unlock It is his latest collaboration with American educationalist Jeannette Vos, with whom he wrote his previous best-seller The Learning Revolution.

The new book outlines the pair's vision for the future of education, including what they believe is the vital importance of multimedia learning.

A journalist who became a radio and television star in the 70s, and went on to forge a successful career in public relations, advertising, business, politics and publishing, Dryden always fancied himself as a bit of a futurist.

In fact, he once drafted a book about the future, around the same time as Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. Toffler's book, which used many of the same references, became an international best-seller, so Dryden shelved his version.

But he is not complaining. Few New Zealanders seem to realise it, but The Learning Revolution has sold millions - yes, millions - of copies around the world.

According to his profile on the Celebrity Speakers website, Dryden is in fact the world's best-selling non-fiction writer.

Leaving aside the old adage about Wikipedia (that it has ensured the entire world is now slightly misinformed about absolutely everything), its entry on best-selling books suggests several possible rivals, including Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (60 million copies), Dr Benjamin Spock's The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (50 million copies), and Shere Hite's The Hite Report (48 million copies).

Still, if its sales figures are to be believed (they were once disputed in a court case), then The Learning Revolution is indeed up there with How to Win Friends and Influence People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and A Brief History of Time. Not bad for a Kiwi who left school illegally at 14.

It has to be said that Dryden, even now, comes across as someone who definitely doesn't suffer from low self-esteem. On several occasions, he admits that he might sound egotistical, or even bitter - but insists that's not the case.

He is, of course, aware that it's very un-Kiwi to have pride in your own achievements. Yet you can't help feel his immodesty is partly astonishment at the way his life has turned out.

Brought up on the West Coast, the young Dryden was a curious mixture of a Huck Finn and a boy who loved to read encyclopedias for fun.

By the time he hit secondary school he was reading four books a week. It was no surprise then, that spending three months on The Merchant of Venice bored him.

Determined to become a journalist, he quit school after the teachers refused to let him take typing and shorthand because they weren't considered appropriate skills for a boy.

He got his first journalism job on Truth while still a teenager, after buying some suits and lying about his age.

As Out of the Red documents, Dryden's career since then has had more than its fair share of irony.

He once wrote for the communist newspaper The People's Voice, and also edited The Freezing Worker's Journal. But he was also the first non-farmer on the Meat Board.

He has been a trade union delegate, and a marketing executive in a conglomerate. Leaving school at 14 has in some ways made him even more qualified to become an education expert, it seems.

Naturally, he couldn't resist the lure of politics. Once described by Muldoon as the most dangerous man in New Zealand, he got involved in Sir Bob Jones' New Zealand Party in the 1980s, but was forced to leave when he and Jones fell out.

These days, he remains disillusioned with both major parties, maintaining that neither seems to have a long-term vision, apart from their commitment to broadband.

Only National's Maurice Williamson and Labour's David Cunliffe appear to understand where technology is taking us, he grumps.

And he was so annoyed at Labour snubbing Dubai Aerospace in its bid for Auckland Airport that he wrote a letter to Labour Minister Trevor Mallard pointing out how constructive the relationship might have been. "The narrowness of the debate on that issue was just appalling."

In his view, the two most influential political parties in the past 75 years - apart from Labour in the 30s - have been the New Zealand Party and the Values Party (an early version of the Greens). Although neither got elected to Parliament, thanks to first-past-the-post voting, the NZ Party paved the way for Rogernomics, he argues, and the Values Party prompted people to think about ecology. "Now it's the issue for everybody".

These days, Dryden grumps, politics is all about appeasing pressure groups, with endless arguments about how to carve up the cake, rather than how to bake a bigger one.

He despairs at our obsession with tax cuts and doesn't recall hearing any New Zealand politician talking about the potential of open-source technology, for example. Or how New Zealand will continue to lead the world in some aspects of education.

Not that it is much different in places like the United States right now, he admits.

"The pity is I find America and New Zealand very similar at the moment - all fighting over these very petty issues. The issues are not being fought on the future."

IN HIS lifetime, Dryden has personally witnessed the world order slowly, but visibly, changing. On his first visit to Hong Kong, in 1964, people were dying in the streets. Over the past decade, he has been a regular visitor to China, and admits to being awestruck by its transformation.

The irony of the United States having to turn to Asia to keep its financial system afloat - creating what he describes as a halfway house between the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism - has not been lost on anyone.

Back in the 90s, the Chinese assured Dryden they had no intention of going the same way as those crazy Russians, he chuckles.

"Russia went from the worst of socialism to the worst of capitalism. America is now going from the worst of capitalism to nationalisation, with Comrade George Bush ... A trillion bloody dollars, and it's about to get a blank cheque to nationalise its banks, funded by the Chinese and Japanese."

In fact, China is probably the most capitalist society in the world right now, he argues. "It's no more socialist than America at the moment," he guffaws.

On the other hand, Fonterra's unfortunate foray into China, that has seen it linked to tens of thousands of sick babies, is no laughing matter. And Dryden himself knows only too well the price the Chinese are prepared to pay to make a profit.

He began visiting China regularly in 1988, after the Chinese - obsessed with improving their education, and their knowledge of English in particular - snapped up 260,000 copies of The Learning Revolution.

Around half those sales were through China's leading book club. One of the key members of the club was a 39-year-old physicist, Song Chaodi, who had also set up China's leading educational software company.

Song talked the state-owned publisher of Dryden's book into a deal whereby Song's company would get exclusive distribution rights in return for a payout equivalent to an extra 400,000 sales.

To the publisher, it seemed a no-brainer. Even in China, more than half a million sales was pretty remarkable.

As it turned out, The Learning Revolution ended up selling more than 10 million copies, largely thanks to a clever marketing campaign which included commercials featuring China's most respected movie producer, and 30 huge multimedia exhibitions held simultaneously throughout the country.

Even Dryden, who once had his own bookstore (Gordon Dryden's Book Corner, where Whitcoulls is now in central Auckland), was impressed.

"I was relatively au fait with how to sell books, but the scale of it in China is just incredible."

When he was interviewed on Chinese TV, the producers apologised because the initial interview, in English, would only be seen by 10 million people. The dubbed version was more likely to get an audience of 40 million, they assured him.

On the first day of the campaign, an extra 260,000 copies of the book were sold - 44,000 copies in Beijing alone. After three weeks, Song's company apologised again because it had only been able to sell three million copies.

Song told Dryden he believed the book would be a milestone in Chinese history, and would become almost as popular as Confucius. As it happened, "they reckoned I was the best-known Westerner in China, other than Monica Lewinsky".

Song floated his company on the back of the book's success, with the aim of becoming China's answer to Amazon, and made $350 million in the process. The problem was, Dryden was not aware until it was too late that he and Vos had been cut out of the deal. Later in court, Song's company produced a document that said the authors had agreed to give up their share of any extra profits, but no signatures nor proof of any agreement was ever proffered.

After a protracted legal battle, the courts sided with Song, and to this day, Dryden has a paltry amount of royalties to show for his success. Remarkably, he isn't particularly bitter, although the saga could one day make another book in itself, he suggests.

"Even though I got done out of the deal, I take my hat off to the guy. It was the biggest, fastest-selling non-fiction book in history."

And perhaps some karma was involved. China's Premier at the time later decided it would be a good idea to marry Song's entrepreneurial flair with a moribund state enterprise, so his company got backed into an outdated steel company. It later went bung.

Perhaps the reason Dryden is able to remain so sanguine about the saga is that he has never had much difficulty making money.

His gift of the gab enabled him to slip easily into the world of advertising and public relations after journalism. His move into radio came after he won, then ultimately lost, a long battle to establish a second television channel in competition to state TV, in the late 60s.

Dryden fought for years for a second channel, spending several months touring the world examining broadcast systems in countries such as Iran, Australia and Russia. He finally got a licence, only to have it taken off him by the Labour Government in 1973, and handed back to the state.

What he had originally suggested to the Government was that state TV exploit its educational potential by linking with the school system, while independent TV developed a parenting and early childhood programme. He had been particularly impressed by parenting programmes developed in Japan, and it was through that research that he began to realise the importance of education in the first five years of life.

As his own children began to move through the school system, he started taking an even bigger interest in accelerated learning, and different educational philosophies such as those of Maria Montessori, and Glenn Doman.

It was through one of the many conferences he attended that he met Vos, with whom he discovered he shared very similar views. The pair co-wrote The Learning Revolution.

His transformation into something of a guru in the educational arena has enabled him to earn a very good living indeed over the years.

Dryden maintains, however, that the only thing he has ever done specifically for money is co-founding the Trends publishing empire.

The home and decor title had its origin in the 80s, when he and David Johnson worked together at Radio Pacific. Among other things, the pair launched a Radio Pacific newsletter in an early attempt at multimedia crossover. What began as a colour insert promoting kitchen and bathroom fittings eventually grew into an annual.

Trends was launched at around the same time as the Apple Macintosh, and Dryden quickly twigged that he could reduce the entire Pagemaker manual to nine basic templates. What's more, he and Johnson could further reduce costs by getting the advertisers to supply all the copy - even the photographs.

These days, Trends titles are published across Asia, the United States and Australia, as well as in New Zealand, through a distribution deal with Time Warner. There is a Trends website, videos and television programmes, and plans for a Trends television channel on the web.

Dryden now regrets selling his share to Johnson in 1987. But at the time, he wanted to move on to other things.

"Money has never been an issue for me. I'd go and make some money if I wanted some money. At Trends, that's how we used to finance the thing. If we needed some short-term cashflow, I'd go and do a seminar and pick up $50,000 or something, which was big dough back in the early 80s."

In the early 90s, he spent an entire year in Britain as the main keynote speaker for a corporate training company, earning 3000 a speech. As recently as June, he was invited to speak at a seminar "for a hell of a good fee", and was able to bring his wife along as well.

"It's better than journalism, mate," he grins.

You can say that again - and almost as interesting as well. But as influential? We journalists have egos, too. In Dryden's case, I guess only time will tell. Yes, that phrase is about as pathetic as a journalist can get. But futurists - well, that's their currency, isn't it?

- NZ Herald

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