You are here

Free-Market Capitalism

Today's Magic Trick: Spreading the Blame Without Thinning It Out

What's clear by now -- or ought to be -- is that the "Abu Ghraib Scandal" doesn't really reduce to who ordered whom to do what. Ultimately, what happened was that several groups of people, operating from the lowest to the highest levels of our military-political-industrial complex, all came to accept variations on an ethos that valorized the degradation of human beings.

What must not be lost in all of this is that the depravity at the bottom would not have been enabled without blessing from the top, cascading down through the "ranks" (and through the shadowy, extra-rank, quasi-civilian hierarchies of "military intelligence").

The rationalizations certainly varied with political ideology and position in the food chain -- and certainly with the individual as well. Rumsfeld rationalized his decisions with the rationale of preventing attacks on American forces (and contractors). Cambone rationalized his decisions as loyalty to Rumsfeld (and maybe a desire to prevent further attacks).

"Military Intelligence" (we now know, largely civilian contractors working under the SAP brief) probably just rationalized that they were 'doing their jobs'.

As did, probably, the guards. But at the lower levels, only a doctrinist would fail to understand that there was frank depravity going on, that was enabled by the individual cruelty, the street-gang mentality, of people like Spc Grainer.

We should be angry that this was allowed to happen. I've said before that we see this all the time, and we do, but (much as it pains me to admit), G. W. Bush is right about one thing: This does not represent "American Values" as we understand them in our daily lives. We get through each day by believing that we're better than this, and we ought to be angry that someone is taking away our ability to believe that.

And folks, this is a just the foreshadowing of a cascade of self-loathing waiting to happen, and we would not be in this situation if we had not been set up for it by a cadre of self-serving ideological zealots who had to have their blessed war, regardless of the consequences for America and for the chances of civil society in the world. Which, incidentally, ought to be pretty good by now, except that it's in the interest of war profiteers that they not be:

The Cheney Gang embraces an unfortunate but fundamental truth: there are billions to be made and power to be grabbed through war, pestilence, and chaos; not so much to be made through peace, equality, and stability. You have admit that enslaving the richest and most powerful country on the planet to forward the business plans of, at most, three or four hundred people is a ballsy move. But make no mistake: true, effective homeland security is antithetical to their aims. This country, and control of its government, is their tool. Period. [ddjangoWIrE, "Being prepared ...or being set up?"]

Our military are far from blameless. At the highest level, their defense still amounts to "I was following orders": Orders to plan an invasion in a way they knew would fail; orders to cede their authority and responsibility to others who didn't know what they were doing.

[Imperial] Clothing and the Digerati

Gerrit at SmartMobs agrees with Blue Arnaud: Privacy is a lost cause.

We should forget about trying to keep "our data" private; we should make it public, and take care that it is under our control. "This profile can be the basis for the social networking services," Gerritt summarizes.

But he doesn't do it justice. In truth, for Blue Arnaud, it seems to be as much about commerce as about the humans we're profiling:

This user profile has value for companies. Companies can access this profile under a Personal Commons license in a standardised and legal way. Then they can adapt their interaction with a user accordingly. They might even give discount if an user profile is available, as it makes their live cheaper (less marketing cost). This profile can also be the basis of the various Social Networking Services, which can then focus on their business: networking. A userâ??s wishlist and transaction trail is no longer available to just Amazon, but all book shops.

"So be in control again," Blue Arnaud admonishes, like a good libertarian-tinged digeratum:

A user should make this profile explicit, as some users are already doing in their weblog. Make sure that this profile represents yourself (or one of your personae) or otherwise the world might invent your profile and they might guess wrong. And publish this profile on your own website, weblog, whatever. The user becomes a writer and a publisher. This profile information could be published under some Personal Commons arrangement, i.e. personal information that is available to the world.

Beyond the detail, this is no new idea among the digerati; it's really just another variation on that ripe old technophilic anthropomorphism, "information wants to be free", which seems to get tossed around so glibly by people who utterly fail to understand its consequences. The barriers of the personal are eroding every day; that's a good thing, these folks seem to be saying.

They haven't thought it through.

They seem to believe that there will be some kind of real and fundamental trasnformation in the nature of the human animal -- forgetting, as always, that the human is animal, and thus evolved in the real and not metaphorical sense of the term. And that barring truly godlike capacity to restructure our very genome, biology, ultimately, will win out.

We forget the timescales of evolution at greater peril than threatens us for forgetting the lessons of history. Since, after all, Evolution is the most fundamental history lesson of all.

They haven't really used their imaginations. It's a pity; their far flung imaginings prove it's possible. Much like simplistic advocates of total sexual freedom, they have failed to really look inside themselves to ascertain what it would feel like for this world to be true.

Or perhaps they're just technofetishists.

Outsourcing the Dirty Work

From American Samizdat:

The Iraq torture scandal just keeps getting worse. Much worse.

Contractors and the CIA are coming under close scrutiny for their role in all this, which should not be a surprise. The hallmark of this war has been the heavy dependence on private companies to provide just about everything.

And as for the CIA, torture is in their blood. Vikram Dodd points out in today's Guardian that we have every reason to believe that the operators of US detention centers are just following the same script that's been in place for over 40 years, the advice from two historic CIA manuals for "interrogation" -- one from 1963, the other from 1983.

The nature of these tortures (harnessing old women up to ride them like horses, glow-stick sodomy -- all that's wanting is rum and the lash to make the Brits feel at home) certainly fits the Tutor's characterization: This starts to look a lot like bondage, after all.

But of course, it's not really torture; the SecDef himself says so: "I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."

Consider, too, Rummy's response when first facing the press corps: 'We had reports before; we expected them. We've always known that terrorists alledge abuse when they're imprisoned, that's just something they do.'

Something interesting is happening to American power, and not just on the Other-World Street: "The Pentagon" is now despised by its generals (who were of course first despised by It), and the CIA has leapt eagerly back into the role of Creepy Spook (and Bondage Domme?); meanwhile, all the things that US soldiers and bureaucrats aren't legally allowed to do are now just done by contractors.

Memo to Libertarians: If you can afford to hire goons, you can do whatever you want. And there's a big and eager pool of folks just itching to get paid for rough trade.

Aye, Cringely

Microsoft is about money, not innovation. They aren't opposed to innovation and like to be seen as innovators, but what really matters to them as a company is the money. Think of it that way and a lot of what they do starts to make sense. When I give speeches (and why haven't I been asked to speak lately in Oz?) I like to pull out a $US20 note and point out that there is something about that note that bothers Bill Gates - that it is in my pocket. Microsoft really does want all the money and I'm not sure they won't get it.
['Robert X. Cringely', interviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald]

What's Virtual, Next?

It's not all good, at least not for everybody. The virtualization abstraction breaks the link between "a server"--in fact, the operating system--and the hardware on which it runs. This is counter to the way that some companies, notably Microsoft, see computers. Load a new Microsoft operating system on a machine and the first thing it does is lock itself down harder than a limpet on a rock. It scans the computer and uses all the details of the hardware it finds to generate a security code to make darn sure it can't be moved onto another machine. But when the hardware it scans is virtual, what good is that? If your license states that you can only ever run your OS on the computer on which it was first installed, do you give up on virtualization or do you find an OS with less draconian conditions? [Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet, "Virtual computing: real benefits, real changes"]

The F/OSS answer is "obviously, the latter." But as Rupert points out: "[Y]ou never get something for nothing, especially not from a company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff." [Corrollary: A company whose sole purpose is to sell you stuff will expect to get a return on it's OSS investments.]

So the next great battle starts. IBM will play on the side of commodification (because they know that's what they do well), and Microsoft will play on the side of lock-in (because they think that's what they do well).

What we will fail to understand until too late -- if we ever do understand it -- is that "total freedom" (i.e., IBM's commoditized-service world) may well end up being "less free" (as in freedom or free beer) than a highly (but not totally) proprietized world, a la Microsoft.

Choosing [Real] Life

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....

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.

"Google is not your friend"

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.

Just give them time....

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.

Not ever.

By the way: $100M earnings on $1B in revenues is only about 1%. Not too hot. And now they'll have to "grow" it...

Today's Installment of "Tales of Ziff Davis"

Not that I'm shocked to find ZDNet shilling anything. It's their business; they used to be the best at it, until C|Net ate their lunch on efficiency and irrational exhuberance made them seem weak and pale. And IBM have been masters of the "deferred payola" game for many years (i.e., you do for us, you expect us to [continue to] buy ads from you).

I have no small ambivalence about ZD. They once owned the technical publishing space; they even "got" the web, at least from the marketing and sales angle. It was always on the operations side that they fell down: When C|Net was being run by 30 techs, ZDNet employed something in the neighborhood of 300. Mind, that's not 300 FTEs, but when you have that many bodies involved the project management overhead is a bear.

And truthfully, Ziff was a great company to work for. They paid pretty well -- right at industry average for a position, at least in the tech fields -- their benefits were good, and at a corporate level, they tried to foster employee development. ZD sales reps were fiercely loyal, and could martial great-looking ad performance numbers.

I'd say it all went wrong with the SoftBank buyout, but nothing seemed to change very much. Yes, there was a little more money floating around, which might have contributed to the wastefulness of their web environment. But mostly, everything was pretty good until the IPO.

That's when people started to panic. Going IPO in the boom years, everyone expected this publishing company to peak like a dotcom. When it didn't (for no reason anyone could tell -- for all our inefficiencies, we were better-run and had far superior prospects to all but a tiny few of the ventures that outshined us), the effect on morale was significant.

So ZD was a victim of irrational exhuberance. I actually predicted it. It didn't make me feel good to see my prediction come true, though, not least because it was far worse than I predicted.

For the magazines, the beginning of the end was much earlier than all that, though. I used to count ads in the ZD publications (weird habit, I know -- another story). Sometime in '97, I started to notice the number of ads in PC/Computing tailing off. Eventually, it became a fair shadow of its former self. Which, of course, was the basis for my prediction of its failure; maybe I got a little taste of the koolaid, though, because my expectations were not that grim.

What's wrong with this paragraph?

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.

ZD Net, "Terra considers 'alternatives' for Lycos"

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...

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.

Is It Time For Post-Neo-Marxism?

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.

Tell me again how greed is good?

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.

Business woman on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?

Narrator: You wouldn't believe.

Business woman on plane: Which car company do you work for?

Narrator: A major one.

--Fight Club

Of course, as we all know, it's all a matter of free choice -- and the only thing a "free" man can be forced to do is die...

It's all about quality control; ...

...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:

  1. You sign up for free, and get to see all these attractive people you could be dating.
  2. Some of them are members. You can hope that one of the members contacts you. But you can't contact them, because only members can reach out.
  3. Eventually you've stewed on it enough; you join, contact the boy/girl of your dreams, and live happily ever after (or not).

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.

The American Foreign Legion

Some things are a better idea than they sound like, at first. That doesn't mean they're a good thing.

Take the Bushie plan to "outsource" peacekeeping to African armies [original story @ WP - reg req'd]. From the WP:

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....


Subscribe to RSS - Free-Market Capitalism