Intrusion

There are times when I get myself in trouble because I minimize the details, and see only the Big Picture. One of those days was when one of our clients complained that his customers were complaining that his site didn’t work. He couldn’t figure out why and asked for help. Turned out that an advertisement originating from the third-party ad server was injecting HTML that caused his page to not render. It could have been worse. It could have been pr0n.

He bought service from us, we hosted the ad server, the ad agency sold inventory, and no one in the supply chain knew where the advertisements came from or who what they contained, or could predict what advertisements would show on which site. Now why would anyone let some anonymous fourth-party alter their work? Why would we make that possible?

Oh, we have to do that. We need the money from the advertisers.

::facepalm::

the creation of the modern web

XKCD may be talking about the current brouhaha in social media, but it’s always been exactly the way advertising works.

The Water the Frog Boils In

The last few days I’ve been watching presentations from LISA and Velocity on the difficulties and rewards of the cultural transformation needed by a lean, agile DevOps practice. It’s pleasant to be reminded of the range of interests of those in this field; I dislike falling into caricature. So while I generally enjoy John Naughton‘s writing in The Guardian, I’ve been bothered by a piece of his from last November on how the technorati don’t fully consider the ethics of what they do – and so implement things like Facebook – but might have if they’d had a more humanist college education.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

While I agree with a humanist, liberal education, and believe that our secondary and collegiate educational systems are too oriented toward the perceived needs of the workplace, the computer industry in practice attracts a lot of people who did not study computer science: people who were, for example, history majors. Peter Thiel, mentioned above and formerly of PayPal, holds both a B. A. in philosophy and a J. D. from Stanford, with nary a science degree in sight.

Nevertheless, it’s often the case that it is the makers of tools who think deeply about how they used, and those who use them who do not. This is not, of course, to say that everything is rational, or that there aren’t people who act unthinkingly, but engineers do spend a fair amount of time considering the consequences of the latest novelty. Some of them happen to read science fiction — and if there’s been a class of people who has thought long and hard about their tools and their effects on society, it has been the authors and readers of science fiction (and the Amish). So do the fine folks in Marketing, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.

It’s not that there’s no thinking going on, though that’s true in some cases, but that the answers are disagreeable. A more apt politically relevant example, Mencius Moldbug, a computer programmer by trade, has spilled much ink thinking about his place in the world. His work is seminal fluid for the “alt-right.” Perhaps if he were calmly discussing the joy of monarchy on an academic quadrangle surrounded by ivy-clad brick it might be more respectable. Perhaps not; he doesn’t seem interested in the fuzziness of dealing with people. And that is, after all, what the humanities require.

Looking for an explanation for Facebook other than “asshole“?

Try Wall Street or Madison Avenue.

This is a cultural fault. And, as I’ve heard a couple of times the past few days, the real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go. Facebook, et al., have been rewarded, handsomely, for doing exactly what it is they are doing. Why should they stop? We have consistently affirmed for some time now that earning a profit by any means necessary is the best and highest purpose of mankind: “Greed is good.”

A culture is defined by what it preserves and what it casts aside. Education talks mostly about HOW to do something, not WHAT to do or WHY. We leave those questions to the wider culture, which, at least at the moment, rewards the pursuit of wealth and power.

Business Ethics

One of the products I worked on at Prodigy was ProdigyBiz, since expired. ProdigyBiz basically sold brochure-ware. You too can have a presence on the Internet! Some of the businesses which bought the product used it. By “use” I mean updated the website with their telephone number and a blurb about their business. But the vast majority didn’t. All they did was pay the monthly charges. I don’t remember exactly when I found this, probably during planning for the termination of the service, but I do remember being shocked and speaking about it to one of the employees from the BizOnThe.Net acquisition. The low usage rate was expected: they sold the product to people they knew wouldn’t use it (which makes this cautionary article somewhat ironic).

But why? Why would you intentionally sell someone something they are never going to use in the first place, at rates that are higher than everywhere else?

Because they could.

They took advantage of ignorance to make the sale, much like Rachel from Card Services, The National Enquirer, or pretty much any nondescript direct mail marketing piece targeted at the elderly. The ProdigyBiz telemarketing effort was not unlike a boiler room, except they did deliver what was promised. So what was wrong with that? It wasn’t Nigerian princes bilking the little old lady from Pasadena out of her life’s savings.

Can I? May I? Must I?

Should I?

Some people are only interested in what they can do, and never ask if they should. Caveat emptorBuyer beware.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

Practice What You Preach

A wonderful pitter-patter of rain this morning. A frustrated pitter-patter of No. 2 Son practicing his drumming before school. He’s fighting frustration; the practice is hard for him. He does not yet understand that the practice is what makes it easier — with everything. Sometimes I think that’s a novel idea, but it’s more likely a common, misunderstood, and often forgotten one, especially when our art glamorizes the finished product and ignores the struggle it takes to get there. It takes a lot of work to look this good.

I’m an uncomfortable actor. I’ve not been on stage much: in fact, I can count the plays on one hand: God, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! But I’m not uncomfortable because of the lines, or the singing, though I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things. I just don’t feel like the other person. I’m me, reciting lines. That’s not acting.

Back when personal websites became blogs, a number of blogging how-to articles sprouted up. How to optimize search traffic. How to construct your personal brand. How to have an authentic voice. I read the same pieces now about one’s social media presence: “cultivate your personal brand on your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will love you and the job offers will come pouring in.” Seems to me that an “authentic voice” would get in the way of any personal branding or profile marketing I might do, so I intentionally decided not to focus on anything. If I write about technology or politics or work or whatever, it’s because I’m interested in it, not because I’m actively cultivating a particular identity. I suppose that might hurt my prospects.

A long time ago, scandalous behavior ruined careers. Or, if not scandalous behavior, then the wrong opinion, dragged from the recesses of past journal articles, whatever wrong meant at the moment of judgment, not necessarily what was wrong when it was written. Teenage me abandoned hope of a career in public service because standards were too high; it was as if one had to set his slippery sights on high office early in life and never waver from that goal. We call that “ambition.” One had to play a part I could not play: I can be somewhat blunt.

Could not play? Really? Identity is as much a process of becoming as it is of being. We adopt masks throughout our lives: perhaps because we are unhappy with ourselves, perhaps to play a role we imagine the crowd asks us to play, perhaps to play a role in a game, perhaps to experiment with possibilities, perhaps because it is our profession,  perhaps to give us confidence. Fake it until you make it. Practice it. I could have chosen that path, and still could. I could carefully edit this site so that it reflects an image I want to present, and prune out the unsavory, contradictory bits. Keep them to myself. Others do.

Everyone does. “Think before you speak,” I was admonished as a child. Be considerate. Every little thought is not entirely unfiltered, yet. There’s a certain laziness to using expletives with abandon; one’s language becomes imprecise. The sense is often maintained, but exactly do I mean when I call someone a fucking asshole? It takes some discipline to find other words, but gets easier. The same applies for any speech: criticism of any kind springs to mind. It’s initially harder to find words beyond “that sucks,” but even “I don’t particularly care for this” provides more value. Meanwhile, there’s that slight pause, diminishing over time, during editing.

It’s been said that character is what you do when no one is watching, when we are no longer performing — when we relax and lower our shields.Are you a teetotaler in public, but a drunk in private? It’s nice that one can maintain the illusion, but there’s still a problem. Once we excuse character flaws because of tribal membership or policy preferences, then we are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirming that the ends justify the means: that the only thing that truly matters is winning, not how the game is played, as if there are no consequences to collateral damage. Have we lost the sense of how the personal informs the political? Or lost the language to understand it?

You become what you choose to practice. If you choose to practice evil, then what are you?

The Masks, Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 25