TOC How to prevent off-putting behavior Your Turn

December 15, 2009

No matter their differences, Jews, Christians and Arabs reject idols, those works of wood and clay proposed to the adoration of credulous crowds. No matter this agreement, idols are still with us today, if not adored, at least adulated. Their inebriating power magnifies any internal flaw while intense scrutiny attends their popularity, a noxious mix.

Take Vioxx (1) for instance. Invited to comment on Joseph S. Ross' statistical analysis of related clinical trials, Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz stress how Merck turned its pain medication "into a blockbuster" with "over $2 billion in annual sales". The pharmaceutical company "spent $500 million promoting Vioxx in 2003 alone - an amount equal to the FDA's total annual budget for all human drugs" (*).

This miracle drug had side effects so serious though that Merck withdrew it from the market in 2004. Whether it should have acted earlier is not for me to judge. But from Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz I take two lessons. First, the more sales, the more apparent the side effects. Second, for some patients, "at especially high risk for bleeding", the drug might have brought more benefits than risks. Was Vioxx a victim of its idol status?

The Vioxx story can be summed up by plotting its sales over time. An explosive growth leading to a brutal collapse. Compare this to the elongated S curve which plots the introduction of successful but more ordinary products. While at the beginning sales take off exponentially, soon competition and other factors force an inflexion point and sales gradually reach a ceiling which indicates maturity.

Examples of stabilizing influences abound in nature. Where I live, this year had been very good for pine trees. They grew longer limbs, sported needles and cones in lush abundance. Came the first storm of winter. More wet snow could settle on the branches, many broke under the extra weight and, in their fall, carried away past excesses of exuberant growth.

But in our Information Age, digitalization dispenses with most physical limits. Yet this characteristic advantage removes an important source of stability. What should be done then to meet the challenge and restore a measure of natural balance?

The first imperative is to avoid zero pricing. Given "the power of free" (2), my recommendation is not without some irony. Yet hidden costs often lurk behind free offers. Even the oceans of the earth, even its whole atmosphere are too small to receive our waste both for ever and for free.

During "lunch with the FT" (**), "the manager of the world's biggest band", Paul McGuinness, complains "I find I'm often dealing with [technology] (sic) executives who are really quite careless and frequently arrogant about the cultural impact of what they are doing". Echoes Rupert Murdoch, attacking those "who think they have a right to take our news content and use it for their own purposes without contributing a penny to its production", as told by Andrew EdgeCliffe-Johnson and Kenneth Li (***)..

As a way to get things for free, stealing is doubly dangerous. Not only it removes the braking influence of having to pay the price, it accelerates growth as robbers are understandably anxious of getting out with the loot ahead of the law.

No spokesman for this truth though can be worse than Rupert Murdoch, blinded by his business idol status, oblivious to his own hypocrisy. Ross Levinsohn tells Matthew Garrahan why Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace (****). "There was so much data about each Myspace user, which Rupert got immediately. [...] What would you pay to get someone's name, age, geography? With MySpace, you would also know what car they drive, what music they listen to, their favorite movie star". Rupert Murdoch does not contribute a penny to MySpace users for their data, does he?

Can there be stability for a world in the grip of the nobility of the brand, trampling on user privacy and exalting "professionally produced" content?

My second piece of advice is to remember idols are our own creation. While it is human to aspire to being a star, star formation does not have to be encouraged by society. Take patent law. By putting a limit on the time inventors enjoy monopoly power, the law pushes them to rush and cash in before it is too late. Isn't it the behavior we saw earlier in robbers? No wonder the pharmaceutical companies are villified as robbing the public.

I realize my suggested remedy is a hard pill to swallow. Capping the reward stream of intellectual property rather than limiting its duration will seem to most as an attack against capitalism. It is indubitably an attack against the unbounded greed of capitalists, but how does it contradict the essence of capitalism? On the contrary it would work towards decentralizing economic power, an ideal feature of capitalism.

Deprived of blockbusters, movie studios, these model star factories, would have less money to waste on a vast stable of duds. Without duds, stars are unlikely, studio executives will reply. Quite true but decentralization does not eliminate duds. It only makes them less expensive. "Scale is not the same as big. The dinosaurs were big. The internet has scale." Kishore Swahiminathan, a scientist at Accenture, aptly points to Alan Cane (*****).

Separate raw data extraction from its analysis. The third measure builds on the first two. Data producers no longer a target for plunder, dataculture would thrive. Vertical integration forbidden, decentralization would encourage competing analyses. While analysts are not immune to the placebo effect, competition to interpret independent raw data would still lead to better information. May world leaders meeting in Copenhagen have a thought for Tycho Brahe (3). His fame as an astronomer rests not on his outdated theory but on having collected the raw data later used by Kepler.

Another measure which runs against the grain. Researching access by programmers to public records (******), Claire Cain Miller documents two obstacles. People "wonder whether historically reticent governments will release data that exposes problems or only information which makes them look good". Power comes of course from controlling access to data. "There is also the concern that people might misinterpret what the data is telling them". Indeed much information comes from statistical evidence which inspires decisions backed by conflicting authorities rather than science.

Private records are just as sensitive. Listen to "Stuart P. Ingis, a partner at Venable and a lawyer for the [advertising] trade groups". Profiles from web tracking are "a bunch of ones and zeros" and so "to the consumer would mean nothing" (4). As public access to such raw data would expose the scale of stealing from consumers and how ad networks profit by fencing the proceeds to advertisers, the fear of the industry is palpable.

These fillips have promoted the benefits of rules and markets. Neither remedy is perfect, not even decentralization. No instrument should be idolized. But turning persons into idols takes a higher toll still. When Larry Dorman tells of Accenture's decision that "Woods is no longer the right representative" (*******), no doubt Accenture will soon find another attractive mask to wear in public but Mr Woods himself has no such escape.

Let mutual bombing turn into idol debunking. There would be no limit to cooperation among Jews, Christians and Arabs. Peace be upon all!

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Bringing the FDA's Information to Market, by Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz (Archives of Internal Medicine) - November 23, 2009
  • (**) ........... Rock and roll tsar, by Andrew EdgeCliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - December 5, 2009
  • (***) ......... Murdoch calls for relaxation of US rules, by Andrew EdgeCliffe-Johnson and Kenneth Li (Financial Times) - December 2, 2009
  • (****) ....... The rise and fall of MySpace, by Matthew Garrahan (Financial Times) - December 5, 2009
  • (*****) ..... The days of the Next Big Thing could be over, by Alan Cane (Financial Times) - December 10, 2009
  • (******) ... Data Motherlode, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - December 7, 2009
  • (*******) . When Woods Goes Missing, So Does the Audience, by Larry Dorman (New York Times) - December 14, 2009
  • (1) see Vioxx in the Wikepedia
  • (2) for instance, look up Chris Anderson in the Wikepedia and check his latest book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price"
  • (3) see Tycho Brahe in the Wikepedia, together with its "discussion", turning his act of collecting data into new raw data subject to diverging interpretations.
  • (4) Industry Tightens Its Standards For Tracking Web Surfers, by Stephanie Clifford (New York Times) - July 2, 2009
December 2009
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