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Human Theory

"Corporate Person" as Psychopath

The modern concept of the corporation, as it is realized in America and Britain, is of an entity that is permitted to act as a "legal person". But just what kind of a person would a corporation be? The Economist, reviewing the 2003 documentary The Corporation, provides an answer: It would be a psychopath.


Like all psychopaths, the firm is singularly self-interested: its purpose is to create wealth for its shareholders. And, like all psychopaths, the firm is irresponsible, because it puts others at risk to satisfy its profit-maximising goal, harming employees and customers, and damaging the environment. The corporation manipulates everything. It is grandiose, always insisting that it is the best, or number one. It has no empathy, refuses to accept responsibility for its actions and feels no remorse. It relates to others only superficially, via make-believe versions of itself manufactured by public-relations consultants and marketing men. In short, if the metaphor of the firm as person is a valid one, then the corporation is clinically insane.


The main message of the film is that, through their psychopathic pursuit of profit, firms make good people do bad things. Lucy Hughes of Initiative Media, an advertising consultancy, is shown musing about the ethics of designing marketing strategies that exploit the tendency of children to nag parents to buy things, before comforting herself with the thought that she is merely performing her proper role in society. Mark Barry, a â??competitive intelligence professionalâ?, disguises himself as a headhunter to extract information for his corporate clients from rivals, while telling the camera that he would never behave so deceitfully in his private life. Human values and morality survive the onslaught of corporate pathology only via a carefully cultivated schizophrenia: the tobacco boss goes home, hugs his kids and feels a little less bad about spreading cancer....

The film-makers have the Corporate Person as their subject. True to their milieu, The Economist finds that insufficient: Socialist dictatorships are also psychopathic, they point out. Bureacracies are just as bad as corporations. Just ask the North Koreans.

But The Economist fails in its analysis inasmuch as it falsely concludes that states are somehow generically less accountable than corporations. In America -- at least, in theory, and assuming we have paid attention -- we do have some measure of control over the "Corporate Person" as embodied by the state. And as the Corporate Persons of the world proceed to internationalise themselves, they become less subject to the laws of individual countries. And as a state runs up against the petty restrictions forced upon by by its bleeding-heart populace, it turns to "contractors" in the pay of Corporate Persons who are not bound by state regulation.

How About An "Observer Effect" Meme?

"They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically - how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap - well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn't-a stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no 'what happened'? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds... our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the 'Uncertainty Principle'. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's on to something." ['Freddy Riedenscheider', The Man Who Wasn't There]

Sam Arbesman's MemeSpread project aimed to chart the progress of a particular (albeit problematic) meme thoughout the "blogosphere", given known sources. Initially seeded on, BoingBoing and Slashdot, Only Kottke picked it up; it apparently fared poorly until it hit MeFi, from whence it boomed across the web like one of those evanescant thunderclaps that wash across the blogosphere like a summer rain in the desert.

A Wired News article summarizes the story (though it fails to link to Arbesman's own writeup [pdf]). Aside from a passing reference to the "Hawthorne Effect", though, it doesn't really deal with the difficulty of studying phenomena such as this. It reminds me of a similar project I pitched to my undergrad advisor in 1992, with the idea of pushing out memes via Usenet. (He was uncomfortable with the human subjects concerns -- my experimental design was constructed to avoid observer effects.)

"On Social Software Consultancy"

Man, the threads just never stop weaving...

An overview piece on "social software" and its high-level requirements, from the perspective of needing to deliver recommendations to a client: Matt Webb, "On Social Software Consultancy", INTERCONNECTED, courtesy

Worth a detailed read-through; need to come back to this...

Mis-Defined Words

Here's a thought-experiment for those folks who don't think what happened at Abu Ghraib was "torture." Note that this experiment will be particularly fruitful for conservative Christians and people with an intact and functining moral imagination.

Imagine that you're a male, heterosexual, evangelical Christian police officer, assigned to bust mobsters who run a prostitution ring. Let's say you're captured by "the enemy". They proceed to strip you naked, urinate on you, doll you up in bondage gear, and place you into humiliating positions -- e.g., arranged, naked, into a 69 with one of your fellow officers.

Then they take pictures of you.

And maybe they tell you that they're going to send those pictures around to everybody in your church, in brown envelopes marked "Sweepstakes entry inside!"

And then, for good measure, they cram a glow-stick where the sun don't shine.

Now ask yourself -- be honest -- was that "torture"?

"I come here not to bury Pat Tillman, but to modify him"

From San Francisco Chronicle, Gwen Knapp relates impressions from Pat Tillman's funeral:

"Pat isn't with God," he said. "He's f -- ing dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f -- ing dead."

What? This didn't happen for God, as well as country? A professional athlete turned soldier, and we're supposed to believe that he'd have no use for piety? Robbed of a cliche, where does that leave us?

By now, everyone knows Tillman didn't want people to talk about him -- to read any other reasons than his own into why he did what he did. And now his family (his father said similarly irreverent things) have done their bit to subvert the Tillman Myth. But really, as long as we keep talking about him, we can't help but perpetuate it.

So, barring unforeseens, I'll vow to never mention Pat Tillman here again. I'll just say, along with McCain, that he seemed to be an honorable man.

Literal Arthur

5. The next religion will value myth, and not confuse it with history.


And yet, a religion that presents its mythology as history will never make peace with science. Each new archeological discovery or new method of textual criticism will pose a challenge that will demand a new denial, rationalization, or reinterpretation. Eventually this baggage will be too heavy to carry, as it currently is for many Christians. But if a religion truly values its mythology, then there is no need to claim it as history. Fundamentalists cling so desperately to historical accuracy of the Genesis creation story because if it is "just a myth" it has no value for them. But this is an absurd point of view--would we really prefer an accurate history of Troy to The Iliad? Would we choose true Danish history over Hamlet? The next religion will recognize that myth is often more important than history, just as the exploits of King Arthur have as much significance to Western culture as the actions of any historical English king. Whether Arthur is historical or not does not matter, for he is mythic.

[Characteristics of the Next Religion]

So many missed points, and all to the point.

Hamlet is not Danish history, and does not seriously purport to be. And if closely observing religion (as I dare say I've done since the tender age of about eight) has taught me anything, it's that people have surprisingly little problem with the 'heavy baggage' of mere logical inconsistency.

I'll cop to "point missed", of course; this passage is meant to describe how it oughta be, not how it is. But in hopefulness, it's trecherously naive: The idea of Arthur is much more dangerous (as a function of its greater worldly power) as a literal myth than a metaphorical one.

Collateral Humanity

There's a core rationalization that's shared among many libertarians, hedonists, and a lot of neo-cons and dogmatic conservatives: Everyone is ultimately responsible for their own fate; ergo, I'm not responsible for anything that "happens to" anyone else, as long as it's something they could have avoided. It even shows up in new-agey chestnuts like "we are where we are, doing what we are meant to be doing..."

So the pricks at Enron aren't responsible for the folks who lost their pensions (they chose to take the risks), the U.S. as a country aren't responsible for the fact that people around the world hate us (they can choose to be for evil or for us), and employers aren't responsible for the fact that employees get paid less when their wages are cut (they're "free" to go find a better-paying job, if it be the will of The Market [praise be to The Market, may peace be upon It]).

By extension, the con man isn't responsible for the fact that people lose money in a con. I've backed many libertarians into that corner and they've all gone in smiling like good little sophists -- which is to say that yes, they really do believe that, just like they really believe that only stupid people get conned. (Look at a con-man's victims: It's the vic's vanity, their pride in their own intelligence, that fuels the really big cons. I know. I've been part of one.)

Personal Resposibility dogma (like most or all dogma) ends up being associated with a lot of collateral damage. Oh, well: Gotta break a few eggs to make a perfect world.

And with regard to sex, and the rampant hypersexualization of modern society (a case I'd prefer to make elsewhere, 'cuz it gets long), and particularly with a certain type of hedonism that holds that if everyone were "truly honest", there'd be no relationship problems -- that people should be free to sleep with whoever they want.

It's never happened to me. But I can read between the lines well enough to know that the allegedly-contented parties in these alternative relationships are not all on the same page. That's a fiction, a delusion, that they preserve to keep the ship afloat.

"Open" relationships and marriages and their collateral damage end up like "taking one for the team" wherever you are. The self-delusions that participants perpetuate to keep the ship afloat end up looking like sports team unity, end up looking like military unit cohesiveness, end up looking like unity in a congregation, end up looking like corporate unity, end up looking like cosa nostra....

In the end the basic principle that we're left with isn't "people are responsible for themselves", but "people use other people." But it looks a lot less noble when you put it that way.

Tacit Knowledge

It's often easy to characterize things accurately, without being able to provide an accurate idea of what it's like to experience that thing.

Much of the reading I did over the weekend connected knowledge management to stories. I was excited by that connection, but hadn't clearly articulated it. This morning it takes a sharper form in my mind. The only way I can package, codify, communicate and transfer my tacit knowledge is to tell my stories...the experiences through which I developed my tacit knowledge. [Karen McComas]

Put another way: Narrative evolved as a means of rich communication. We tell stories as a means of metaphor, as much as a means of communicating fact.

Prior to the ascension of technology, pure fact was not nearly as important as good-enough fact. Which is to say, things didn't have to be true, as long as they were good enough for the current purposes.

Science and technology up the ante in two ways:

First, they require a degree of precision that makes "good enough" no longer quite good enough. (Why we're willing to pay for that is another matter for another time.)

Second, technology and science provide tools for enhanced precision. The ability to quantify, precisely, provides new degrees of predictability, among other benefits.

But narratives provides a different kind of truth. Largely, that's due to the fact that knowledge conveyed in narratives isn't easily "...packaged, easily codified, communicable, [readily] transferable." [Applying Corporate Knowledge Management Practices in Higher Education] [pdf] But such characterizations ring hollow; after all, the knowledge conveyed in narratives isn't easily packaged, easily codified, communicable, or readily transferable.

Google is the New Apple

It's often said that Google 'took the time to do it right' or that they 'don't abuse the customer'.

The important part is not that Google actually does these things, but rather that Google appears to do them -- that Google appear to not abuse the customer, much as the important part is that they appear to "get it right".

The likelihood that they'd get called to account on either is more or less inversely proportional to the degree to which "Larry and Sergey" are idolized or mythologized.

So, right now, it's looking like they never would....

The Utility of Righteousness

There's absolutely nothing as powerful as knowing absolutely that you're right.

And even some of the president's closest allies say they are not sure when he is speaking from the pulpit and when from the Beltway. "There is no question that the president's faith is calculated, and there is no question that the president's faith is real," Mr. Wead says. "I would say that I don't know and George Bush doesn't know when he's operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith or when it's calculated."
[NY Times [reg req'd], from Frontline's "The Jesus Factor"]

I remember learning in 10th grade Geometry class that anything can follow from a contradiction. Here we have an example of that in the messy world of the real, not the abstract. Like most humans, Bush is able to hold contradictory views concurrently. (People who can't do that tend not to get out the door in the morning.) When those views include the notion that you act on the will of an infallible being, then it's a very simple step to being able to justify everything that you do -- whether it's to make money or glorify God -- oh, hell, to the Christian Crony Capitalist ("CCC"?) they're eventually all the same thing.

I've said all along that I didn't think that George W. Bush was really a very religious man. "He thinks he is, but he's not, really," I'd say. In my eagerness to state a paradox, I wasn't being precise. G. W. Bush believes, sincerely, that he's a religious man, and at a certain level, that means he is one. He could believe that he believes in the Sacred Cat; if he really believed that he believed in the Sacred Cat, he'd be a religious man.

But there's an important thing that I fail to communicate with a superficial paradox like "George Bush believes he's a religious man, but he's not": that such a position gives you incredible power. He believes that he operates from a moral high ground, and in that belief (made more dangerous as it becomes more sincere), he can and does make himself invulnerable to the criticisms of others.

Because if you believe that you're righteous, you can justify anything. And he has.

The sense of righteousness isn't enough, though; it's necessary to feel as though you are persecuted by outrageous fortune:

When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves. [memo to TX Gubernatorial Staff]

Righteousness, combined with the sense of persecution, has ever been a most powerful fuel for the zealot. Whether the zealot is a (nearly) lone sociopath, weighed-down by inferior humans, or the member of something larger and more powerful, determines primarily how much damage they can cause. That's not obvious, of course, because the lone sociopath could cause trememdous localized damage.

Contrast that to the vast scope of the damage that religious absolutism is causing in the world today. If you're still not getting it, consider that when you're driving a tank, you can't see very well what you're running over.


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