TOC Speech, acts, truth and time Your Turn

August 30, 2011

Since time immemorial, people have known there is not always a sharp distinction between words and acts. Once spoken, sacred words change the world (1). Ordinary oral contracts create real obligations (2). Yet blame the Information Age for new difficulties in shaping what differences remain between speech and acts.

That differences exist is not in doubt. Witness the past two weeks alone.

To "Google's $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola's mobility unit" and HP's "$11.7bn deal to buy Autonomy, the UK software business", reported by Maija Palmer and Anousha Sakoui (*), add HP's "proposed spin-off of its PC division" into "a $40bn personal technology company", to borrow Richard Waters' words (**), and, from Nelson D. Schwartz (***), Warren E. Buffett's "sinking $5 billion into Bank of America".

Contrast these corporate moves with the empty words which go with them. Larry Page, Google's founder and CEO, made Lucy Kellaway's day, or at a least the "Business Life" column in which she mercilessly exposes his 32 words as having a "cliché content [...] close to 100 percent" (****).

Even meaningful words may be less than they seem. David Streitfeld did some research on the truthfulness of the "tens of millions of reviews on Web sites like, Citysearch, TripAdvisor and Yelp" (*****). Not surprisingly for my readers, he uncovered a whole "industry of fibbers and promoters", claqueurs on call who clap for cash. The resulting recommendations rank everyone above average. "It's Lake Wobegon", only better.

No wonder actions are said to speak louder than words. Still it does not follow they are more truthful by nature.

Take Facebook's recent improvements on privacy controls. "Every time users add a picture, comment or any other content to their profile pages, they can specify who can see it: all of their so-called Facebook friends, a specific group of friends, or everyone who has access to the Internet". To the extent of my knowledge, this is a real improvement, which lifts eprivacy concerns, if not in the foreground, at least out of the dungeon in which it had been relegated so far. Like magic, it is also a way to distract people's attention from the core truth.

Its users are not free to decide whether or not to share with Facebook itself, nor negotiate a compensation. Its technology, its business model, its exalted valuation depend on its being granted access to all personal data, however confidential and restricted. And despite Somini Sengupta's quotation (******), Internet is not enough for one to access so-called public data. Using users as bait, Big Friend first requires one to register.

In a world where neither acts nor words convey the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, justice remains an ideal rather than the reality. See Dominique Strauss-Kahn's ordeal.

"On allegations he attacked Ms Diallo, a chambermaid at the [New York hotel] where he was a guest", [he] was jailed, forced out of his job and mostly robbed of his hopes in the next French presidential election. "All criminal charges against [him] were dropped in a New York court on Tuesday" is the factual conclusion by which Johanna Kassel, Shannon Bond and Jennifer Thompson started their recent dispatch (*******).

I do not claim access to the prosecutor's mental process, but was it not initially influenced by the sudden exposure of Mr Strauss-Kahn's reputation for priapic propensities, confidential so far (3)? Is there place for prudence when one seeming so credibly criminal is accused by "a truthful witness"?

Obliged however to reverse himself quite publicly, "Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney" has shared his final reasons in great detail for all to see. Over the past three months, the accuser's proven unreliability had given her the reputation of being in his eyes a money-seeking likely liar.

Neither on our words nor on our acts, perforce we often come to be judged solely on our reputations.

This is why the British libel laws should not be discarded wholesale. Putting the burden of proof on the accuser, they do protect the powerful from the media. But with its own reputation in total tatter, isn't the British press begging to be protected against its worst instincts?

Consider too how, truthful or not, speech influences the acts of the listeners. The shorter the time, the larger the crowd, the more instinctive reflexes preempt thoughful reflections. Thus the more our Information Age speeds up and spreads social signals, the more it obfuscates the difference between inopportune opinions whose freedom should be protected and mob directions whose responsibility must be recognized.

This is why British officials are doing their duty in meeting "representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry [...] to discuss voluntary ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest", as reported by Ravi Somaiya (********).

The problem of course is that criminals are not the only ones to bend new communication channels to their own nefarious ends. In the name of security or to please well-heeled lobbyists, government themselves have never given much consideration to their citizens' confidentiality.

Instead of "secret negotiations", rightly castigated by "Heather Brooke, a freedom-of-information advocate", better publicly recognize our right to privacy. Universal eavesdropping is for dictators and, if found efficient, profiling should still be banned unless acknowledged and compensated.

Besides, law and order is not short of non invasive tools, from computer models to predict flash points to police officers posing as regular online listeners. User-blind, temporary measures to slow or even shut down electronic communications to prevent mobs also protect privacy.

"Ms Granville, the free-speech advocate" deplores that "instead of [British] great difficulties, we're talking about the medium". Her warning not to lose sight of the social context is timely. But she is the one "out of touch" as she misses how much the medium molds the message.

Idolizing Freedom of Speech at the expense of the Right to ePrivacy is a mistake. With time may a better balance of truth prevail.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... Tech deals return to pre-crisis levels , by Maija Palmer and Anousha Sakoui (Financial Times) - Aug 24, 2011
  • (**) ............. HP's orphan hopes the sun will come out tomorrow, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - Aug 25, 2011
  • (***) ........... Buffett to Invest $5 Billion In Shaky Bank of America, by Nelson D. Schwartz (New York Times) - Aug 26, 2011
  • (****) ......... Chief Googler's 'amazing' clichés are dull and void, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - Aug 22, 2011
  • (*****) ....... In a Race to Out-Rave Rivals, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5, by David Streitfeld (New York Times) - Aug 20, 2011
  • (******) ..... New Control Over Privacy On Facebook, by Somini Sengupta (New York Times) - Aug 24, 2011
  • (*******) ... Case against Strauss-Kahn dismissed, by Johanna Kassel, Shannon Bond and Jennifer Thompson (Financial Times) - Aug 24, 2011
  • (********) . In Britain, A Meeting On Limiting Social Media, by Ravi Somaiya (New York Times) - Aug 26, 2011
  • (1) for example, see the use of names in religious thought in the wikipedia
  • (2) for more details about oral contracts, see the wikipedia
  • (3) A tale of tittle-tattle, taboos and Torquemada, by Jean Quatremer (Financial Times) - May 18, 2011
August 2011
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