It’s better when you talk

Apologies to all British readers for reminding them of a truly dire series of BT adverts. Over at GeekaChicas A Nonny Mouse has been talking about the city travails of Bozeman, Montana. In brief; a major local employer who also happen to be the city administration and therefore publicly funded, decided that all job applicants must submit username/password data for their internet community sites, including Facebook, Livejournal and email sites. The purpose of this remarkable “background check” was to verify that servants of Bozeman should be “of the highest moral fiber”.

Let us leave aside for the moment the disgustingly smug and arrogant implications of an employer seizing the role of divine moral arbiter. Let us instead focus on what they could possibly find out about prospective employees from such access. It should be noted that they weren’t interested in people’s public expressions online: they wanted username and password details. That’s called identity fraud in any other context. That not only gives them the ability to see what you have said in private, and kept private, it gives them the ability to create apparent statements from you which you are no longer able to disclaim. They were asking people to compromise their own integrity just to get an interview for a job.

It’s a hard economy, and government jobs are usually a safe bet. Bozeman bullied people into giving them info they had no business knowing or having and that isn’t the work of someone with the highest moral fiber. It’s none of their business what you say on the Internet. It’s no different than bitching to your girlfriends or boyfriends about your job. — GeekaChicas

While this is true, the phrasing triggered a line of thought in my mind which I feel goes some way toward explaining the gung-ho idiocy of the people who planned this initiative. Yes, I think they wanted to know who was having sex before marriage: yes, I think they wanted to know who was gay, who blew a joint at the weekend. Who was coveting their neighbour’s ass, who was not respecting their father. “High moral fibre”, from the political classes in Montana, means WASP. Ambrose Bierce defined puritanism as the terrible fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun: there is no human demesne more prone to gossip, prurience and hypocrisy than a town run by the Religious Reich.

But I don’t think that’s all they wanted to know. I’d be very surprised if they weren’t concerned to know people’s “private” opinions about their fair city and its governors, as well.

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Way back in 2003, the movie industry of America (the MPAA) admitted in public that for the past couple of decades it’s movies have sucked and that they’ve made huge returns by deliberately defrauding the public. Nothing was done about this, as you would expect in Bush’s America. The original Indy article seems to have disappeared but /. also reported:

The movie industry is blaming poor sales of such movies as Gigli, The Hulk and Charlies Angels not on the fact that they were poor quality, but because people text message other people telling them that the movie stinks. Industry executives say that this undermines a carefully crafted marketing image. Expect texting to be banned by the MPAA in the near future.

I laughed for a week. They openly admitted that, 1, they made bad movies knowing they were bad, and 2, that they then sold them to the public off saturation marketing campaigns knowing that they’d make a huge profit from opening weekend, before word spread that the movies sucked. They then, 3, had the heroic audacity to claim that modern communications technologies which allowed fans to avoid steaming piles of guano like Gigli were in some way intrinsically wrong for circumventing their multi-decade, government-sanctioned fraud.

Compare and contrast with the history of Joss Whedon’s Firefly project. The show was canned by Fox for political reasons (can’t show the nice, independent, self-reliant, er, freedom fighters against an oppressive, meddling central government in a good light now the Republicans are in the White House). Fans talked about it, and talked about it, and eventually Whedon got the cash for a movie. The movie got made, and it beat box-office forecasts because every geek who liked the show took three friends to see the movie. Make a good movie, people come back and bring their friends. Make Meet Dave and people will come out of the movie and text “that sucked” to all their friends before they’ve even wiped the hot dog relish from their lips.

The MPAA’s problem was with the speed of modern grass-roots communications. They used to rely on a communications lag to make money: we took the lag away and they have a tendency to see the money as theirs by right, so they whinge and complain and buy more senators. The Bozeman City problem, I suspect, was with the combination of breadth and longevity of data.

Let’s say you piss off an employee by being an over-bearing asshat and getting all “high moral fibre” on her during her lunch break. She goes home in a steaming rage, pops a beer and calls a girlfriend to get it out of her system. Damage done to Bozeman City: two annoyed people. Let’s say, instead, that she emails her rant to the Pointy-Haired Bosses mailing list, which she joined six months ago after the last time this happened. Not only have three thousand people now become aware that Bozeman City are poor employers, but the information will be archived. The rage will pass, the evidence will not.

I recently discussed the impact of distributed communications systems on society and economics. The better able real people are to communicate laterally, the harder it is for the gatekeepers to pull information frauds on the public. What do you know, how well do you learn, how fast can you get the word out, these things are the determinant factors of power in the western world. The fear for such organisations as thrive on the marketing of an image is that we can think our way round their cardboard cutouts, and then we can expose the emptiness behind. This is broadly speaking what happened to the McCain/Palin ticket, though Palin ably assisted in her own demise by being too easy a target. Being proud of your character flaws and lack of ethics is not a survival trait in a politician. Even in America.

We can break down their gates faster than they can build walls to keep us contained. The impact of Twitter on the organisation of the Iranian protests is a particularly apposite instance of this power in action. This is how we win: this is how we move autonomy to the edge of the social network, and break down the Great Machine for spare parts. We talk to each other; we keep making ways to spread the word faster and more efficiently. Organise the edge and the centre cannot hold.


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