I used to see a sig-line on a Plastic profile, and debated over it a few times: "The only thing a free man can be forced to do is die." That ends up being the slogan writ in fire that keeps me going -- striving to find new and better ways to articulate how painfully, insultingly wrong it is.
It's trivially true, at best, and yet to most people with enough imaginagation to get out of bed in the morning, it's so plainly irrelevant to actual human lives in the world. In that, it serves as another illustration of the fact that the trivially true is more or less meaningless without some actual understanding of what it would feel like to have it be true for you.
Of course, to the mind that would think up such a slogan, there's no trumping the trivial truth. Such minds think that they actually operate on the rational principles that they espouse. Which makes hard-core libertarian rationalists a ripe target for many types of confidence game....
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.
Here's a fascinating new resource: NameBase.org, a site that seems to map connections between individuals and "corporate persons" via references in indexed public documents. Not quite sure how they do it, but the maps are fun to look at.
But the results are peculiar. Note, for instance, that the relational diagram for U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte doesn't show a link to his brother, ur-pundit Nicholas Negroponte. (And it's not as though they're out of touch; the last interview I read with Nicholas made reference to the fact that he stayed in John's penthouse suite when he was passing through NYC.) Nor does it show a connection to his boss, George W. Bush (though it does show a connection to his former boss, George H. W. Bush).
Point being, I suppose, that there's more to personal connections than what can be shown from the literature. (More tacit knowlege.)
By now Google enjoys a 75 percent monopoly for all external referrals to most websites. Webmasters cannot avoid seeking Google's approval these days, assuming they want to increase traffic to their site. If they try to take advantage of some of the known weaknesses in Google's semi-secret algorithms, they may find themselves penalized by Google, and their traffic disappears. There are no detailed, published standards issued by Google, and there is no appeal process for penalized sites. Google is completely unaccountable. Most of the time Google doesn't even answer email from webmasters. [GoogleWatch, "Google as Big Brother"]
When Google speaks, it is much like Wittgenstein's Lion: They have their own agenda, and it is not our agenda, no matter how much we long to think so nor how easy it is to misread.
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.
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".
So, right now, it's looking like they never would....
But is it true, as my correspondent apparently thinks, that there is only one way to make money, to viciously sell people air? Is a corporation's highest goal to maximize shareholder value? Do I "gotta love it" and join their hard-hearted party? I don't think so, and I offer as my Exhibit A: Google. [Groklaw]
It's the very nature of IPO's that they destroy any pretense to what most people would call 'conscience.'
Once the chief metric is "shareholder value", the leaders can be deposed at any time in favor of ones who are willing to dare all to maximize that value. That's a truism (and they call them "truisms" for a reason).
It may well be that Sergey and Larry held out as long as they did because they understood this fact. But given that they'd taken other people's money, they could only hold out for just so long....
The point? You can't eat good intentions. And you can't take them to the bank, either. But you can build a myth around them.
This document will become the stuff of myth -- that much is sure. Google will, most assuredly, compromise on all of these values. But a core constintuency will continue to hold forth this document as some kind of naive "proof" that they were better than the rest, when the truth is that they never could have been.
By the way: $100M earnings on $1B in revenues is only about 1%. Not too hot. And now they'll have to "grow" it...
ZDNet is brethlessly shilling -- er, informing us -- that "Big Blue is getting into social sciences."
It's really nothing new at all. IBM has been doing this kind of research for years. Decades, actually. Few other companies (perhaps none) have invested as much time and money in research on ergonomics, usability, and software development process. Whether and how they used the information were another matter, altogether.
All this represents is a new way to package it and make it attractive to customers. And frankly, I might feel a little better if they stayed out. Because if they're in the space, it means they've figured out a way to make money off of it, which isn't likely to be good for us.
But to the point of the article: The hard part of computing development and implementation is almost never the technology per se, but how to use it effectively -- how to integrate it with business process. And that is not inherently a technology problem, regardless of the desperate desire of geeks to take control of their lives and do stuff better. Many of the worst excesses of the dotbomb were fine testimony to how well they'd do when put in charge...but I digress.
True, it is often possible to apply technology to the human problems. But:
The fact that the computing industries can't get past their own technofetishism is what opens them up to charges of "irrelevance". Which is wrong, of course; IT does "matter", and the fact that they're so bad at understanding the human dimension only makes it matter more.
Lycos generated $98 million in revenue during 2003.
Terra acquired Lycos in 2000 for $12.5 billion in a deal that touted the marriage of Internet access and Web content. But soon after the merger, the company [Lycos] was crippled along with its peers during the dot-com collapse. That hardship was further exacerbated when German media giant Bertelsmann renegotiated the remaining $675 million of a $1 billion advertising commitment it made as part of the Terra-Lycos merger.
This makes it sound as though the dot-com collapse was some kind of natural disaster, where Lycos's many retail and manufacturing facilities were destroyed or damaged. Or where their many paying customers were rendered penniless.
Instead of a bunch of people realizing that all these guys couldn't be Napoleon...and that, by god, they were all naked, too...
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.
I'm still not touching it. It's more than subverting the trust relationship: It's commodifying it.
At base, that's what Friendster and its ilk are facilitating: The commodification of trust relationships. Once those relationships are commodified, trust itself becomes undermined. At least, any trust that digs deeper than the layer of humanity where all experience can be understood in terms of economic transactions.
That is, until some new basis for common trust.
One place to find that is in "faith" -- i.e., in communities of religious practice.
Another is in these "high-tech tribes" that folks like Cory Doctorow talk about without end. But since the tokens for entry to those tribes are relatively facile (blogrolling consistently over a period of time should do it), the "tribal" connections don't go very deep.
And at another level, it's more than a little insulting to even refer to them as "tribes". That's a term we've previously used to refer to very special communities of shared allegiance or experience or -- most often -- blood.
There is a tendency among people, to minimize the complexity of a thing once it has been described. So Sterling or Stephenson can describe new tribes, or Howard Rheingold can write books about them, and they suddenly enter the vocabulary and the consciosness. But the form is grossly simplified, in the kind of way that lets us see the Amish as lovable relics. Anyone giving Rumspringa more than a moment's casual thought should be prepared to make a simple leap: These are not simpletons; they have not recoiled from the world, but rather made a conscious choice to live in their own world, and we have about as much chance of understanding why as we do of chatting with Wittgenstein's lion.
As "social networking" merely now approaches over-hyped status, already we're warned of spam -- or rather, SNAM ("Social Network Spam"): Members of your networks, once, twice, or more removed, use the connection to market to you.
It's like CutCo or Tupperware, but somehow worse in the way that spam is somehow worse than unwanted phone calls. You can screen the phone, and you just don't get as many of them -- it costs too much.
But worse yet, it subverts something that could be of terrific value -- that, indeed, we're going to desperately need in a virtual future. Which doesn't mean we're going to slow our progress toward that future, of course: It will merely look quite different from the way it could.
A reaction is coming. As the barriers between people come down, and in absence of social controls on action, we are bound to become more closed than before.
I don't know exactly what form this reaction will take, but I have a dark and abiding fear that religion will be involved.
Over the last two years, I've given a fair piece of my idle-cycle time to thinking about how we go about making people aware of what's in their true economic and personal interest -- and how to organize people to further those interests.
I've been thinking, in other words, about class consciousness.
I toyed with the idea of trying to start a "professionals guild", that people could join to support one another, bargain for health care, provide reference or job-skills services, etc. Each downturn the economy takes brings us closer to the (to me, nightmare) vision of 'jobs and email without borders'; if we were going to end up there, I reasoned, we'd better have a posse behind us when we did.
I thought the August Group might be a start down that path. But what I learned from that was that to get something going, you've got to fight to make it work every day, and what's more, you've got to have an idea of what you want to accomplish. If both of those things aren't true, you've got nothing.
The key for all of this is trust: Do you trust the people you are committed to helping? Do you trust them to be professional (whatever that means)? Do you trust them to validate your endorsement?
Certification doesn't solve that problem. Professionalism is something that's known by reputation, not certified by test or process.
Technology goes stale, and that's especially true for Microsoft technology. (Not a slam, just a fact -- it's designed that way.) Today's MCSE is tomorrow's trivial wall-decoration. Much more of value are the projects you've worked on, and the opinions of their stakeholders.
But of course, getting that information would take time, and can't be automated.
And what's more, when you get it, the impressions are colored by the fact that almost no project is properly defined to begin with, so no one can honestly tell why it succeeded or failed, or who was responsible.
And while that's a truism across modern industry, no groups of professionals in business know more about that than IT and Development.
Apple has really "invented" very little. The original insight of locking the menu bar to the top of the screen was pretty clever (for a 9-inch screen, that is). Beyond that, their insights are mostly matters of culture and marketing. The concept of a toolbox wasn't new, nor were most aspects of their GUI. The user-interaction models they deployed (badly, some have argued) were based on years of academic research.
Often, they simply borrowed, though it's hard to know where ideas came from in a millieu where memes were traded freely across the Mac-Unix barrier. But their best, most successful ideas were successful because they were deployed in just the right way and in just the right place.
Steve Jobs is not an innovator. Much like Bill Gates, he is a close follower. He is better than Gates at looking cool, and better at moving quickly (probably a result of actually having worked for more than one company in his life). And through Pixar and his "rescue" of Apple from the demon Scully, he has gained financial credibility. Now his ideas are taken seriously; had Rob Glaser tried to launch the iPod, with exactly the same price points and functionality, it would have failed.
Apple is driven by the cult of personality. It exists, at a certain level, to make Steve Jobs feel good about himself. That's why he resisted releasing a Windows version of iTunes. That's why he's resisted moves that could take Apple "mainstream", such as releasing an Intel version of OS X. As long as the pond stays small, he can look bigger in it.
For whatever reason, The Jobs-cult never intoxicated the herd of cats at Pixar; but the minions of Apple, already indoctrinated to the twin virtues of denial, were open to the effects of his reality distortion field. I think this is illustrative: Pixar is driven by creative vision, and like most true creatives, its own visionaries have a healthy distrust for "suits".
And ultimately, Jobs is a suit. A well-dressed suit with cool toys, yes; but a suit nonetheless.
Look for him to sabotage Apple's new-found dominance. Look especially for him to sabotage his latest foster-child, the iPod. (Sure, the world doesn't know he didn't invent it. But he does.) My quess is that it will be sacrified to smaller, cooler devices whose capabilities are expanded only with great reluctance, and behind the curve of other devices. Let someone else break the ground.
Forrest Gump's fruit company has gained a soaring reputation for creativity and innovation in design -- despite gripes over the years from usability experts and a series of industrial-design failures. Their reputation has always seemed to me to be driven by two maxims:
As examples of the latter, Apple clings stubbornly to the "top-menu" UI design that they originally deployed to accommodate the 9-inch screen on the original Lisa, despite the fact that it's demonstrably awful for large screens and rich multi-tasking environments. Similarly, they insist on the elegance and simplicity of the single-button mouse, ignoring the clumsy workarounds (delayed-reaction onClick, keyboard combinations to emulate scroll-wheels) required for a Mac user to accomplish what two-button and scroll-wheel mouse users on Windows/*nix have been able to accomplish for years.
But it's the former that really interests me today, as I run across a Wired "Cult of Mac blog" article unmasking the long lost father of the iPod. Fadell is said to have come to Apple with the core idea -- a ground-up, risk-managed, high-design hard-drive based MP3 player that could integrate with an online music service. But then, maybe not: "One source who talked but asked not to be named, cautioned that Fadell's story should be treated with skepticism. The source noted that the hard part of the iPod -- the device's interface and integration with iTunes -- was done by Apple's engineers."
But then, the slap-down could be an Apple source, sticking steadfastly to the vision of the Dark Steve: "Since Mr. Jobs returned to Apple, he has increasingly insisted that the company speak with just the voices of top executives, so Mr. Fadell was not permitted to comment for this article." Of course, that's another story...
Or it could be that old developers inferiority complex rearing its ugly head. Saturated as most skilled developers are in the mistique of the "hacker ethos", they respond to the fact that they depend on the grace of inferiors for their paychecks with subversive ideations: They do all the really hard work; marketing and business wonks are leeches, sucking their life essence in pursuit of outrageous personal profit and corporate mediocrity; if the developers had their way, the products would all make sense and work better. (Which is just about never true, despite superficially contradictory examples.)
Apropos of nothing...
One of the things that continually and genuinely amazes me is that those who bring the most heat are often those least equipped to take it in return.
I've been online for... a while. Been in my share -- some would say, more than my share -- of flame wars.
But I haven't been online as long or as much as most. I am not of the digerati, and most likely never will be. (Too much of Groucho in me?) But even in my relatively lowly position in the online pecking order (my great claim to fame is probably that I once spent several weeks in the top-5 karma list at Plastic -- both a fleeting and a dubious honor...but I digress, as usual...) I've learned that if you bring the heat, you need to be prepared to take the heat.
I used to say this to Bill G when he started giving money to charities to help make the world a better place, presumably. I said that he had so much more leverage in the computer business, if he would just do a few things differently we could solve some of the biggest problems in the world by working together. He either didn't get it, or ignored it, or is insincere in his desire to make the world a better place, or something else I don't understand.
Working together in the users' interest, is by far the most important thing we can do, far more important than any one brand of software.
This couplet illustrates my ambivalence about a lot of things -- foremost in my mind at the moment being the cult of [anti-]personality, the "idea of progress", and noblesse oblige recast as 'I fight for the users'.
I'm among the first to assert that Bill G doesn't "get it" (whatever the hell "it" is, and whatever the hell it would mean to "get" it). But even I tend to think it's a little disingenuous to say that if Bill G doesn't buy into my personal agenda, he "doesn't get it" and is "insincere in his desire to make the world a better place."
I'm not defending Bill G, and I'm not even asking for the benefit of the doubt. I am saying that I find it ironic when one person claims the mantle of Fighting For The Users while living the gospel of Doing What He Wants. Winer always touted Radio Userland as a great triumph in usability, and at a certain level that was true; but he and his cronies were always spectacularly unintersted in hearing about the weaknesses of client-side blogging or any of Radio's myriad other problems.
At base, his personality makes him a non-credible witness. Call it ad hominem if you will, but in a "battle" fought with the ammunition of mindshare, people don't sign up unless the (self-identified) leader is perceived as credible.
...which is to say, it's all about controlling the quality to make sure it never gets high enough that folks are getting something free that they could be conned into paying for.
Online personals are big business. It used to work like this:
In any case, anyone you responded to could respond back to you.
Now it's different: Generally, you can only contact someone if they're a paid member, too. OK, well, I suppose that makes some kind of sense: Self selection of the "serious", and all that rubbish.
Except, if that were the real goal, you'd provide some kind of an indicator that said "this person can't respond to your messages". Except, you can't do that, because then the potential subscriber would realize that they were looking at a pool of potential mates that was actually quite a bit smaller than they thought.
In other words, it's a swindle -- a bait and switch. You can join for free, and post a profile, but all you're doing is providing the company with more bait. No one who sees your profile can talk to you, even if they paid for the service.
Now, this is clearly bad usability design, and bad customer service. After all, people think they're buying one thing (access to all these attractive people), and what they're actually buying is another, lesser thing (access to some unspecified subset of these attractive people).
Of course, it's all legal, because they don't lie to you: Somewhere on their site, you can bet, there's a FAQ or a short paragraph that says this is how it works. But they don't go out of their way to tell you the truth, either; with a relatively simple change to the UI, like a green-dot or a red-dot next to a profile, you'd be able to tell whether your messages to this Other of your Dreams was going into their inbox or into a black hole.
The bottom line is that businesses like Yahoo and Match and AOL do their calculations and make their bets -- and by now, those formulae have gotten pretty good. They pretty much know how many people are going to get fooled, and take the bait, and how many people are going to see through it and get pissed off enough to quit. And, more important, how many people are going to see through, get pissed -- and take the bait, anyway.
The 'net was supposed to empower everybody to participate in a global conversation about what was being bought and sold -- what "they" (really, their companies) were buying and selling. In the process of all that irrational exhuberance, a few things got forgotten: Money can still buy power; somebody else always owns the physical plant, or can get to; all else being equal (or inferior), big is still better.
And you can still fool all of the people some of the time. And that's good enough. Or bad enough, as the case may be.
Did Jesus, in saying, "Here is my body and blood; eat and drink of this," provide Customer Service? [The Happy Tutor, Wealth Bondage]
Of course not. But then again, neither does He have a conversation about just who should end up on the right hand or on the left.
Gets me feelin' all warm and fuzzy, like when I learned I wasn't 'personnel' anymore -- I was now a 'human resource'. (And we all know how Americans treat their resources...)
Some things are a better idea than they sound like, at first. That doesn't mean they're a good thing.
A plan approved by Bush earlier this month calls for the United States to commit about $660 million over the next five years to train, equip and provide logistical support to forces in nations willing to participate in peace operations.
The campaign, known as the Global Peace Operations Initiative, will be aimed largely at Africa by expanding the peacekeeping skills of African forces and encouraging international military exercises in the region, where U.S. officials said much of the need exists.
But African forces developed under the program could be used in peace operations anywhere in the world, officials said. And the program also sets aside some assistance for armies in Asia, Latin America and Europe to enlarge their peacekeeping roles as well.
The potential up-side, here, is that if these peacekeepers were to actually go to different parts of the world, it could foster international connections among the emerging nations of the world, and lead to the development of an educated (albeit militarily) class that could help to draw up the standard of living in their countries.
But of course, I didn't spot the siginificance of the fact that this initiative is centered on West Africa:
...Africa is the growth center for the future for the oil industry. The Arabian sources are all in decline, having been pumped for decades now. West coast of Africa (not sure if they prefer offshore sites since that keeps them away from "unstable" land sites or if that's just the only place they've looked so far) is the new boom zone.
A lot of dots are sitting there waiting to be connected. That troop transport plane (US owned) that was full of mercenaries on their way to stage a coup in one of the equatorial countries ....don't have my sources at hand for links but I've been seeing this stuff for months now. This is the new US Colored Troops (Civil War reference there) to lock up our hegemony over resources again. Disguised of course as a benevolent attempt to stop the admittedly awful conflicts in the region.
I said to a friend yesterday that the U.S. is engaged in an enterprise that makes us look much more like 18th/19th C. Britain than it does like Rome. That's nothing new; people have been saying that since the turn of the last century, and more loudly still since the end of WW-II. What's new is that now it happens outside of the Cold War framework. We can now move unopposed by a great state ideology; Capitalism is now regarded as the only moral system that matters.
Unless, of course, you count wahhabism....