Saturday, January 28, 2006

Can Corporations Stop Doing Evil?

My family recently acquired a Tivo digital video recorder. Once we started time shifting, I naturally started to think about the impact on the business models of the broadcasters and advertisers. I realized that advertisers could adjust to the millions of time-shifters by using reasonably static images on a portion of their screen real estate. One could still be brand-imprinted, even while fast forwarding.

That isn't what they did.

It didn't take me long to realize that advertisers, almost certainly with assistance from broadcasters, now randomly interleave frames from a show into a the commercial video stream. This results in a user slowing to normal speed playback, thinking the show is back on. They end up watching a commercial. In other words, advertisers had a opportunity to adjust to a new technological environment simply and effectively, but choose an aggressive (and antagonistic) approach instead. It is no wonder we hear talk of certain corporations "hating their customers".

This is the month that Google decided to facilitate censorship in China. Google's corporate philosophy is still on the Web, and number 6, "You can make money without doing evil", is still there, too. Although much has been made of this by others, it is my opinion that Google executives came across a difficult problem: Make less money by appealing to philosophy or more money by appeasing China. More money won. Everything else is justification.

This is also the month that Northrop Grumman decided to seize control of the Open Source Kowari project, a move which will probably result in the project's death over time. Although this action was not in the league of Enron's massive malfeasance or the lack of acceptable governance which lead to the Exxon Valdez disaster, it came from the same root cause: Corporations, via their most effective employees, choose short-term profits over long-term concerns. That goes for the protection of their customer base, the environment, and even executive jail time.

Is it possible for a modern corporation to compete and still act ethically? In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I believe there is hope. What we need is a meme iteration.

Twentieth Century Europe has managed just such a meme iteration. T. R. Reid's excellent book The United States Of Europe documents the rise of the European Union from the ashes of the First and Second World Wars. Europeans, it seems, finally got so fed up with killing each other that they formed an intertwining economy so that the individual nations simply couldn't gear up for war. In other words, the very idea of continuing the millennia-old practice of warfare became untenable and had to be replaced.

Will the EU succeed? Or will history judge it to be a flash in the pan, a minor interruption in the violence? Perhaps it will end up in a non-creative stasis like Renaissance Switzerland:

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
-- Orson Wells: The Third Man

Japan's attempt to form a more perfect society during the Tokugawa era ended in just such a stasis, albeit an extremely refined one. The thing I find most fascinating about this period in history is that the Tokugawa shoguns did not attempt to eliminate aggressive tendencies in their society, but to channel them.

In which ways do we in the United States of America attempt to deal with the reality of human (especially male) aggression? Spectator sports? An over-active military? More people in prison than any other industrialized country?

I am no stranger to male aggression, but I do not choose to ignore it or pretend that it does not exist. I am a graduate of two military colleges, a certified U.S. Navy "warfare specialist" and a martial artist. I believe that I know something of mankind's inherent aggressive tendencies. My wife and I chose to enroll our son in martial arts at a young age specifically to channel those energies positively.

Aggressive and competitive tendencies assisted our ancestors to survive. That's why they are there. Effective channeling, not avoidance, seems necessary. We can do that with diversion ("Yay! The Steelers won! Woo hoo!") or direction (such as the very existence of the Special Forces and the CIA), but we had better not ignore it.

The same is true of corporate governance. Executives who want to play the game need to be provided diversion or direction to stop them from hurting innocents. There must also be limitations. That is why we have Open Source licenses and environmental regulations. Too bad legislation lags corporate actions so badly.

Can we find memes that enhance our ability to feed the planet, save other species, encourage happy, healthy people and get on with life without corporate evil? I hope so. We'll keep looking. Perhaps that is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote of the "pursuit of happiness" being an "inalienable right".

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