A few years ago I got to wondering about the differences among people – why some live in the Big House on the Hill and some sleep next to a dumpster. I know of no more important issue to examine.
Whatever the reasons for people’s different circumstances, it’s obvious that some people have done things that led them to “better” circumstances. and some have done – or failed to do – certain things, so they find themselves in “worse” circumstances.
What is behind those actions or failings? Are these different people better or worse human beings? What are the habits of thought or action that sculpted their different lives? Several years ago a college president tried an experiment. Fascinated with this question, he went out in old clothes with no wealth tokens in his wallet and lived on the economy for a few months.
We’re describing the Disadvantaged, those whom middle class Americans are likely to describe as unable or unfit to take advantage of everything our country has to offer. We see them all around us, but we don’t, I think, study the specific nature of their disadvantages.
Are they lazy? Perhaps, but the article about the posing college president reported that he had never worked harder in his life. Are they dumb? Arguably so, but researchers who have followed them around report that they juggle a daunting set of variables – weather, affecting them more than most of us, so reckoned with in a serious way; the various offerings of shelters, and how shelters’ availability varies with demand. Danger on the streets is as real for these people as it is imaginary for most Americans, who melt into terminal dysfunction at the thought of spending a night out here. Could most of us actually do what these people do every day? I think not.
So what, exactly, is the nature of their disadvantage? All I could come up with is that these people are procedurally disadvantaged. For whatever reason, they are unwilling or unable to take the actions which would put them into a halfway house or apartment or starter home. They don’t have a checking account, so obviously they have been unable or unwilling to take whatever actions lead to having a checking account.
That’s a superficial tautology, but it feels like it leads somewhere. As I go through my day, I always feel procedurally deficient – disadvantaged, in a real sense. What is the best way to structure a section 179 deduction on a 1040 Schedule C? Should I lower the price on the home we’re trying to sell? Is it better for my client to expose his entire training syllabus to his web site or keep it close to his vest? I’m not prepared to answer any of these questions, and they sound trivial compared to the life-threatening issues that the homeless deal with.
Facing those confusions, I cannot honestly say that I am more competent than someone who is dealing with being homeless. Can you?
The secret to this riddle must be complexity. The issues many of us deal with seem to be more convoluted and abstract than those faced by the homeless. That’s not to say they require more intelligence, just a kind of fractal symbolic manipulation, like comparing the exhausting subtleties of etiquette faced by a diplomat at the U.N. compared to the demanding real-life tasks managed by an F-18 pilot over Afghanistan (or a C-130 pilot in Vietnam, with which I have some experience).
The Aristocracy of Complexity
So are we ready to say that we have a privileged part of our society dealing with numbingly complex issues that don’t matter, but for which we’re rewarded disproportionately? And that there’s a dark underbelly of society comprising flexible, resourceful, emotional people dealing with danger and deprivation and alienation who have to be extraordinarly aware of the real dangers of their marginal existence?
In short, are we describing how we live today compared with how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived?
If the difference is simply complexity, how authentic is that complexity? Is it in some sense a contrivance to discriminate among our people to determine who gets the goodies?
That’s the conclusion I can no longer avoid. If you are willing and able to manipulate increasingly complex symbols of decreasing real-world significance, then you get promoted to the next rung on the academic/socioeconomic ladder. If you drop out of that silliness at an early age, probably abandoning whatever native symbolic-manipulation skills you might have, then you are destined for a tackier, scrappier, nastier future.
Before there was a Bazaar, there was a cave. Socrates, via Plato, said that what we call reality is only flickering shadows on the wall of a cave, cast by the true reality which is forever hidden from our gross senses. The only way to divine the truth is to understand more about how the shadows are cast rather than getting absorbed in the flickers.
We are not what we think we are, nor is anything else as it appears. Dave Winer says things are even worse than they appear.
Plato made a compelling point, lost in the mists of philosophy, and in our day popular media has made a business of literally casting shadows. The fact that most of our knowledge is now based on flickering patterns on screens is an irony beyond comprehension. We may know that the flicker rate is 75 Hz or 30 fps, but we don’t see what the shadows mean. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was executed for describing his version of the truth to anyone who would listen. Today,David Touretsky finds himself hounded by elders as vengeful as the Greek Olgopoly.
Certainly nothing works the way it seems to – the more we know about anything, the more absurd are the news stories or gossip we hear about it.
So we’re wondering if our real lives have been eclipsed by our ‘productive lives’ – making a business of our lives as the media has made a business of casting shadows. This is an optimistic journal, even when it frets about the wrongs of our current system. Ours is the first system with enough insight to realize how hostile our economic surroundings always have been. Ours is the first economy that has evolved to the point that it’s worth criticizing (tip o’ the hat, Alan Kay).
So we’re all struggling with an economic Operating System (eOS) – one which we are obligated to use, but one which responds better to some than others – as C code does. The good news is that, like computer operating systems, the eOS is getting more user-friendly all the time, opening up possibilities to people who were put off last year by its complexity, but are now able to log on and do something useful, with even more to be empowered next year. Its metaphor is this weblog phenomenon[~]people empowered to build and manage complex websites that were impossible for them a year earlier.
The optimism is based on the inescapable fact that the economy[~]our productive lives[~]is impossible for most people to succeed at this year, but may be trivial to master and manage in a couple of more years. Most people’s economic angst is from feeling trapped by intractable structures requiring permission from harsh masters. Call it the Old Testament economic model. In truth, the economy is just technology mediating the needs of all of us. It’s ours to fix.
Or, we can just sit here gaping at the flickering shadows cast on the glass pane or silver screen in front of us.
Now that many of us are accustomed to using a computer, we have a sense of how a computer operating system (the “OS”) can get between us and the application programs which are the real reason we use the machine. The OS is promoted as the bright landscape of promise and possibility, but we know that it’s the OS which often lets us down, encumbered as it is with the baggage of thousands of functions and millions of lines of programming. It’s all conceived and executed by bright kids who love computers, unlike the rest of us who may share neither of those traits.
So it is with our economy. The world seems to be filled with honest, hard-working people who want to be paid fairly by doing work for people just like them who really want the work done. But so much seems to get in the way. The current situation in U.S. medical care is one example of this frustration: most of us respect our doctors and their staffs, yet find ourselves estranged from them by the companies we or our employers have selected to protect us from ailments only the doctors can help with.
Tom Robbins, 1990:
What we have here is nothing more than a failure to communicate. Since the fields have corn and children need carbohydrates, why can’t something simple be worked out? In a small village, it often is.
The ever-insightful Cory Doctorow reinforces the observation that our economy could stand an upgrade. He cites an abstract of Yale philosophy professor Nick Bostrom’s obscure notion that the odds are 1 in 3 that each of us is living in a computer simulation designed by our future, post-human self. Cory is skeptical:
Why not, indeed?, most people ask. If the economy were designed like a computer’s operating environment, it would surely be more even-handed. Sure, it takes some specialized skill to run a computer, but there’s no one locked in or locked out of some or all of a computer’s features, based on their type of business, education or connections – political or corporate.
The PFR is the inevitable conclusion of digital convergence. Imagine the product evolution of phone cameras.
Each of us will certainly be equipped to capture a video/audio stream of everything we see and hear. The capability can be provided by an eyeglass frame similar to those used for “candid camera” sequences on the Tonight Show. The technology and connectivity is inevitable and, by 2005 or so, trivial.
Whether for convenience or entertainment, we will want to share our lives with others or review our video history. At first, the video record will be stored on our person. With abundant wireless bandwidth, our video stream is likely to be archived to the Internet ‘cloud’.
This means that public life will become truly public. Whether you smooch, shoplift or mug in public, your actions will be recorded. This is the Rodney King incident gone global.
Initially an upscale consumer electronics product, the cost of the PFR’s video stream and storage will quickly become as acceptable as the cell phone and may be served by your cell phone. The more interesting question is how the end of anonymity will affect our behavior and our culture.
Life may be pretty much like the small, tight-knit villages our great-grandparents were born into. Anonymity, an artifact of the great Industrial Age cities, may be a casualty of the Information Age. One post-9/11 notion is that we have a right to privacy, but not anonymity That would be a cultural imperative, while ubiquitous PFRs will be a technical imperative, sure to close the book on anonymity. What transgressions will people commit when they know their actions are visible to the world? Probably not many.
Like seatbelts, PFRs may evolve from prudent to mandatory. As a large minority of us adopt them, pressure increases for the rest of us to be similarly equipped. Who wouldn’t want to maintain their own record, since any PFR-generated video may have been edited by its owner?
Perhaps the most dramatic effect will be on the justice system. After a shake-out process deciding the admissibility of PFR video, evidentiary proceedings will change forever. Just as George Bush I refused to ignore the video evidence of the Rodney King incident, the courts will not be able to keep the PFR genie in the bottle. Authenticity of video will be the issue. Perhaps the record can only be deduced by examining multiple PFR records from several witnesses, like the Space Shuttle’s 3 computers comparing notes. One’s personal PFR archives will surely be subject to subpoena. This trend would reinforce a doctrine that each of us must support the shared video record by streaming our lives into the Internet cloud. For our own protection, we will probably rush to do so. The LA cops who took on Rodney King might have wanted their own records. As Lou Cannon suggests, a more thorough video record might have shown that King was a really dangerous dude and, though the cops’ brutality was beyond contempt, multiple points of view might have showna more complex encounter. It certainly would have made the case more clear and probably have averted the riots.
So, for amusement, protection and maybe for blogging, we’ll each be streaming our life into the cloud. Perhaps, in a PFR-equipped society, the ultimate act of trust and intimacy will be the moment when a couple or more people get together and turn off their PFRs.
Just writing every day is enough of a challenge, but starting a blog is also a technical adventure. The fact that it’s possible to set up a blog at one setting is itself a technical miracle. I know – I tried to set up 3 blogs and they each took one evening. The following’s from memory, not notes, so I’ll get some details wrong…
I knew I wanted to host the blog at blaserco.com, but wasn’t sure which tool to use. If you’re thinking about setting up a blog, especially if you intend to serve it from your own web site, it may not be the 15 minute click-and-type that’s advertised.
On a friend’s recommendation, I took a look at MoveableType but it’s a pretty techie tool – setting up CGI settings and privileges and all the rest. I did all that but finally gave up when I found that my ISP, XO, doesn’t have a required Perl function installed, and not likely to put it up just ’cause I asked nicely. One long evening gone.
Then I got started with Blogger, and got it upstreaming to my server. But I was seduced by Blogger Pro’s features and bought the $40 upgrade. Then when I tried to update my post, it wiped out all traces of the work, on my server and, of course, I had no record on my own machine. There I was at 1:30 am staring at an empty text entry area. These are omens I flee from, even though it was surely something I did in my zombie state. Second evening gone.
So I turned to Radio, as I kind of knew I would all along. I looked into Salon Blogging, a Manila-based service, but it felt a little like an AOL kind of pre-packaged deal, and, more importantly, I wanted to distance myself from the liberal aura of the place. Don’t get me wrong, I default to progressive-liberal causes, as long as they’re not served up by big government. If I’m going to show a conservative knee-Jerk the error of his ways, I want to come in under his radar. Blogging from Salon is like telegraphing your punches.
I went to Radio UserLand and got my third user name, worked through the ftp settings for the blaserco.com upstreaming, and it worked pretty much as advertised. The reason I have 3 Radio user numbers is that I’ve downloaded the demo 3 times. I’m sure I paid my $40 once, but can’t find the password from that registration. Apparently that’s not uncommon. A friend tells me he just gets a new demo every month, even though he too paid his fee. To be fair, I haven’t emailed Userland to check it out or posted it on a discussion board, since it’s probably a hassle for them.
Glutton for Punishment
As soon as you get one level of tech under your belt, you sign up for another challenge. The Blogger experience taught me I didn’t want to edit in a browser text box, as Dave Winer repeatedly points out. Beyond fear of loss though, is the annoyance of not having an Explorer-based WYSIWYG text environment, because I use Mac OS X – the preferred OS for people willing to be ghetto-ized in exchange for bringing grace, dignity and beauty into their lives. I use DreamWeaver a lot, so I could compose there and just copy the source HTML into my Radio posting box. But I hate to fire up such a huge environment just to make links and heading & blockquote tags more convenient. I looked at Clarisworks and Entourage for editing, but their code was too busy to my taste. BBEdit is world’s best text editor, but it’s just not wizzy enough for me.
Then I remembered the Mozilla Composer tool. It’s an elegant, big-font text entry environment. The links take seconds and posting the source is 3 clicks and a copy-paste. It also gives me a third level of archiving – the Composer docs get saved to my own blogs/year/month folder path, just as Radio saves them in its own directory. Composer feels elegant and forgiving to me, so it’s a mystery that it’s not even mentioned on the What-Is-Mozilla product page. Presumably the author lovingly crafts HTML by hand.
The Missing Theme
Naturally I then wanted to switch from the default theme. Going to Bryan Bell’s amazing themes collection, I found what I wanted: slabblue10.fttb. and saved to my Radio/Themes folder (by Explorer 5.1 (OS X) , I expect to see it as an option the next time I fire up Radio and go to Preferences/Themes. But the theme is absent from the Radio choices and the file’s contents look different than Radio’s included file themes. Mozilla is able to download it, but it still won’t show up in the theme selection page. Maybe tomorrow night.
The web logging ferment is lighting up a few corners of the Internet, invisible to most but a harbinger of real change. This ferment reminds me of what I’ve read of 17-18th century coffeehouses and the discovery of the New World. Do you suppose we’re collectively fashioning a second Age of Enlightenment?
My take is that the cultural shift of the 18th century (the decline of monarchy, the rise of Federalism, and the inevitability of one person/one vote) had 2 major precursors. The first was the coffeehouse conversations conducted among educated non-aristocrats (a recent book on coffee credited caffeine with waking Europe from a centuries-long alcohol-induced slumber. To be fair, boiled water drinks were the only safe beverages in pre-Evian Europe.)
The second factor was the availability of free land for the offspring of serfs in the new world. The cultural landscape would never have shifted without surplus real estate and intellectual capital – there certainly was no abundance of investment capital. And the affluent would have never allowed anything to slip out of their own holdings. The new landowners were called freeholders. It’s the dream the US was built on, and it still strikes a chord in the heart of anyone who imagines personal freedom:
160 acres, good water, timber and meadowland. No taxes.
Coffee! Cheap Broadband!
Fast-forward a couple of centuries. Coffeehouses are back in fashion and the conversation is blogging its way around the globe, but the land is all locked up and so is control of most of the capital. (Surprisingly, the capital is actually owned by households, they just haven’t learned to control its allocation.)
A lot of that capital is used not for concentrating land, steam power, factories and ex-serfs, but rather for placing CPUs, T1 lines and Aeron Chairs next to small teams of smart people who come up with ideas they email to Asian contract manufacturers. This investment strategy is taking place in an office even as those engineers’ homes are equipped with later-model CPUs, broadband, OfficeMax chairs and a burning desire to stop working for the Man. Often the engineers’ kid is a better programmer than the dad and is even more appalled at the prospect of working for the man. At some deep level, both of them believe that information wants to be free.
Instead of free land, we have almost free connectivity and web sites that anyone can use to offer their 21st century produce to the public. The digital farm-to-market roads are under construction just as customers are discovering that the big brand companies can’t produce what they want: software that’s pliable, hardware that’s durable and support that sustains them. They already have all the materials needed to collaborate without the overseer, they just lack the CollaboWare. I can’t imagine better raw materials for a socioeconomic revolution.
Doc and I have been discussing one form of CollaboWare, called Xpertweb. Xpertweb has a simple strategy – enriching the data footprint that a transaction leaves behind. It’s free CollaboWare and there’s no startup trying to cook the idea into a stock valuation.
Today’s companies report just one kind of data – price, but they sometimes call it cost. (price paid, price of all the costs & expenses, and the difference between those prices, called Earnings). That’s all the sellers in our economy care about, and they’re the only ones keeping the data. It’s also the only fact keeping your portfolio above zero.
What most of the people in the market (customers) care most about is quality, not price. That’s why they’re called customers – people for whom something must be customized. They’re unwelcome, demanding critters in our consumer economy.
If you’re in the customization business, you care about two things, quality – the customer’s satisfaction with her customization and the quantity of her appreciation – usually money, but often also a product review she shares with others.
Wall Street has built the most involved and expensive circle jerk in history as it lures our best and brightest into the degrading job of rating companies’ net profit this period vs. their net profit next period and last, and reading the entrails of those unwieldy organizations & supply chains to determine which one will better improve their revenues and, just as important, how the other high priests will report their own divinations to the eager congregation of equity worshippers.
Xpertweb’s core idea: the simple act of adding qualitative data points to the sole quantitative datum will allow us to reclaim our right as customers – those cranky people for whom things must be customized – rather than the consumers we’ve become, meekly ingesting whatever we’re fed so the suppliers can scoop up the cash we shit out the other end.
With all this computing power lying around, Xpertweb proposes to add 2 customer-satisfaction data points to price: amount of satisfaction and a description of satisfaction. The amount of satisfaction is a simple grade: 1-99%. The description is simply a few words saying how happy (or not) you are or aren’t with the service you got.
Quality is Brand One
Quality ratings do directly what corporate “branding” tries to do, but can only do indirectly: associate a company with your personal sense of quality. Given a choice, most of us will rely on proof of quality over a series of branding messages. The best proof of quality is the opinion of our peers who’ve gone this way before.
The result? A way to for any of us new freeholders to build a reputation out of a series of satisfying transactions. This is a way for the producer to prove the quality of his produce when the marketplace is virtual. In a small way, it could take a little business away from the big guys. But if it delivers just one great transaction into our day, maybe it’ll take our mind off all the consumerism we’ve been trained to master.
Doc challenged me to go public with the stuff he and I have been discussing, so now I face the obligation to write daily once started. I mean, you’ve got to be reluctant to blog unless there’s something worth saying and, if there is, there’s probably something there every day. Failing to post something is the blogging equivalent of link rot.
My problem lies in having the persistence to dredge it out every day and, once exposed, face how shallow it is compared to the natural writers I enjoy, like Doc and Dave and David and all the rest. But it seems, well, lazy to sit on the sidelines. Lurking is shirking.
What do you call content companies – big media – when their content escapes their control? The discontented?
On Monday Doc and I were discussing copyright. Since then I’ve been wondering if the current fight is a smoke screen. Maybe it’s a ploy by the Discontented to keep their price fixing in place while calling it a copyright issue. Did you ever wonder why a 25 cent plastic disc costs $15-$25? Must be because the discontented are a cartel, like OPEC. Unlike OPEC, they’re subject to US laws, which never seems to come up.
The current copyright fight is crucial to our cultural viability, but if there’s another agenda, it’s worth recognizing.
No matter, the digital revolution will finally expose the illusion that they’re selling atoms and not bits. They’re going down like every other cartel that couldn’t embrace change.
In 1877 Alexander Graham Bell offered his patent to Western Union for $100,000. They deliberated for a few seconds and concluded there was no future in voice over wires (pdf). Western Union thought they were in the Morse Code business, but they were really in the communications business. At that time, Western Union offices were monuments to the power of wired communications. Notice how impressive they are now.
When airplanes started carrying a few passengers, the dominant railroads could easily have taken over all air travel but passed on the opportunity. I guess they thought they were in the business of filling railcars, not in the rapid delivery business. At that time, railroad stations were monuments to the power of connecting people with each other and the goods they cherish. Notice how impressive they are now.
Now the music labels are reluctant to deliver digital content. They think they’re in the plastic disc business but they’re really in the music delivery business.
(When music was on records, there was a vibrant industry producing and etching the vinyl to make records – companies that produced and delivered little black beads to the record factory; lawyers and managers and workers and jobbers who made sure the product was good and improving; R&D to produce better material for better hi-fi, and better record cutting machines and recycling of all the vinyl scraped out of the grooves, etc., etc. The CD put all those people out of business in a couple of years and the labels never looked back. George Lucas wants to do the same thing to photographic film. Where’s the uproar?)
Maybe it’s time to stop fearing these whiners and start ridiculing them as the luddite dodos they are. Just because our medium-of-choice has evolved from the written word to music and video doesn’t mean we’re actually dependent on what they produce. They’re dependent on our continuing perceived appetite for their stuff. Maybe we’re just growing out of it, and that’s what they’re afraid of – and having to compete with each other.
So much has changed so drastically since 911 that we’re properly concerned everything will be changed, presumably in favor of powerful political contributors. But the natural enemies of the dozen or so discontented media companies are arousing themselves. Verizon has rejoined the fight they thought was settled by the DMCA, and the tech companies echo Andy Grove’s resentment. Collectively, they’re many times larger than the content pushers, which are pretty small potatoes compared to the traditional tech and industrial companies they propose to manipulate.
No surprise: like many grownups, the people running big non-content companies (often sixty-somethings) don’t have time to inundate themselves in the fruits of the Discontented. They think movies and CDs are peripheral to the “real world”, and maybe they’re right. If most of the content stopped overnight, would Andy Grove or Lou Gerstner or Gates or Jobs give a shit? Probably not.
Is that why they really don’t want to offer comprehensive libraries for download on demand? The smart people in the business must know there’s no future for entertainment intermediaries unless they can use copyright laws to fix prices online the way they have in meatspace. Even that’s a long shot.
Here’s how it’s likely to play out:
The only force that could prevent that price pressure would be OPEC-style price fixing. And that’s where we the illusion of, cost-related non-fixed pricing breaks down.
More bad news for Jack and Hilary: when we decide it’s time to stream legal digital entertainment, we’re not as brand-aware as the labels and studios would like. We don’t have a clue what label or studio produces what. If Paramount or Columbia has a lousy download site or higher pricing, we’ll be just as happy with something over at Sony or Virgin. And God forbid we re-discover classical or jazz! We’d get in the habit of comparing new content to stuff that’s stood the test time.
As we learn how to rate tracks and films, nothing keeps an artist from self-producing and self-serving. For the first time in history, artists could be as self-serving as their producer!