TOC Mania, schizophrenia, paranoia: what a utopia! Your Turn

October 11, 2011

In a Getty photograph, students light candles in "a makeshift memorial at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, to mark the death of Steve Jobs" (*). A moving tribute to a singular leader who followed Mercedes Erra's formula on what attracts consumers: "[have] more quality, [be] more spectacular and more interesting". She was talking about ads. His greatness was to deliver products which were as good as the best ads.

But the best tribute had already been delivered ahead of the sad news. Did Steve Jobs see himself reflected in the Bloomberg photograph of "Jeff Bezos in New York [brandishing] the Kindle Fire" (**)? Did he recognize an heir in his business competitor, with the same will to cast a spell on consumers, focus their attention on some object of desire and hide the walls of the garden built to secure their data and their purchases?

There is no denying such gardens are delightful to the senses. "Part of the Kindle Fire is of course the hardware, but really, it's the software, the content, it's the seamless integration of those things", Jenna Wortham and David Streitfeld report Jeff Bezos to have declared (***). This modest engineer is well placed to know how difficult it is to make tasks integrate many steps so as to be useful, yet feel so simple they soon seem natural.

It does help if one's business model is vertically integrated. "Amazon custom-built the Fire's mobile Web browser, called Amazon Silk", able to shift "some of the work onto Amazon's cloud computing engine". It also helps if one vets all third parties who want to contribute. "Owners will have access only to Android apps approved by Amazon and distributed through its Amazon Android Store". It cannot hurt to offer "more than 18 million e-books, songs, movies and television shows" online, as the recognition of user friendliness is heavily influenced by the pull of our perceived needs.

But for Apple or Amazon, vertical integration is not simply a matter of technical convenience, it is the strategic goal. Object of desire, a tethered device soon collars its owner to its maker's leash. Jeff Bezos seems poised to exploit the dark potential I always said he had with the Kindle. "The Silk browser, by virtue of being situated in the cloud, will record every Web page that users visit". Your fans are fair game if you inspire a mania.

The metaphor of the walled garden can be carried too far, though. In this virtual world of ours, we have the gift of ubiquity. Far from feeling confined to Jeff Bezos' garden, users will be sure to explore the Eden at Apple, the Labyrinth at Facebook, the Hesperides' garden at Google (1) and many more digital places besides. What's the harm then? Psychiatrists call it schizophrenia.

In other words, the more these walled gardens are integrated, the less integrated our personality becomes. How so? Because each garden holds tight on the profiles it has aggregated on us, whether by observation or inference or else "volunteered" by us in order to gain access. The latter is less crucial that we think. Sure Apple and Amazon want our credit card and Facebook our full identity, but is it so difficult for Google to figure out who I am when it can, for starters, observe every search I make online and read the messages I exchange with my numerous gmail correspondents?

Indeed the more the walled gardens learn about us, the less we know about what they know about us. After reading Chris Nuttall's candid account of the new Facebook friction free feature list (****), you come to realize that if you share your memories with Mark Zuckerberg, you may still forget some of them but he won't. Worse, do not expect wall gardens to share with you what you have not "volunteered" in the first place. "A bunch of ones and zeroes [which] to a consumer would mean nothing" is how a lawyer once showed how transparent consumer profiles are meant to be.

A walled garden holds on to your profile for one reason mainly. It understands by long practice that anything they share with you, you are likely to tell its competitors if it is to your own benefit, no matter what you say. To avoid becoming prisoners, users must pay the price of a split personality.

If schizophrenia were not enough, paranoia too seems on the rise. Witness the hysteria reported by Richard Waters about "the possibility that Yahoo will fall under Chinese ownership" (*****). I am shocked, shocked to read about the shrill, jingoistic reactions to "a comment by Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese internet group Alibaba, that he is interested in acquiring the troubled US online media and communications concern".

Didn't Yahoo proclaim two years ago it was under the management of its users? How could they suddenly decide to hurt themselves because of a simple change of ownership? All right, maybe the new owner would feel entitled to boot the managers. It's a risk.

But never mind owners and managers, how could companies like Yahoo possibly be a threat to its users when the respect for our eprivacy is paramount to their operations, their business model, their very philosophy?

I may have written some fillips to the contrary but I have already acknowledged my doubts are self-interested. Look rather to "Mark Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center". Free from any conflict of interest, he is bound to leave no stone unturned in defense of eprivacy. Since he never tried to test the validity of my claims according to which there is no need to trade-off confidentiality for e-commerce, it must be because the danger of such trade-offs is completely overblown. But then why speak up now?

When "Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy" states "lawmakers should oppose a deal where the data of Americans comes under the control of a foreign company", he conveniently forgets that American companies routinely take control of the personal data of European nationals. From Amazon to Google to Apple, the list is long. I also missed his warnings about the stake taken by a Russian in Facebook. Rational concerns about privacy are less important than the deep rooted anxiety with which the United States watch the relative rise of China.

It's a pity though for Alibaba is not the only threat American citizens should be worried about. Read Michael J. de la Merced and Evelyn M. Rusli (******). "The News Corporation [is] among the potential bidders". As far as I know, Jack Ma has never spied on anyone. Rupert Murdoch however has shown for all to see how ruthless a rogue corporation can be in its quest for power and profitability and how far it will go to violate any standard of privacy. Yahoo is not Amazon, but knows too much about too many of us to fall under the owner of the late News of the World

Better meditate on Chris Nuttal's "tips for maintaining privacy on Facebook". "Don't be paralyzed by privacy fears. If you are careful about what you say, no harm can be done if your thoughts are widely shared". Whether East or West, this is indeed today the only way to greater harmony.

But who will tell Americans they could escape the grasp of their self-inflicted mental issues without the need to embrace any foreign utopia?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Millions pay tribute to Jobs, a Getty photograph (Financial Times) - Oct 7, 2011
  • (**) ......... iPad faces Fire as Amazon launches challenge to Apple's tablet dominance, a Bloomberg photograph (Financial Times) - Sept 29, 2011
  • (***) ....... Amazon's Tablet Leads To Its Store, by Jenna Wortham and David Streitfeld (New York Times) - Sept 29, 2011
  • (****) ..... Take care how you share, by Chris Nuttall (Financial Times) - Oct 7, 2011
  • (*****) ... Chinese group's eye on Yahoo fuels privacy worries, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - Oct 3, 2011
  • (******) . Questions Arise Over Yahoo's Value as Buyers Weigh Bids, by Michael J. de la Merced and Evelyn M. Rusli (New York Times) - Oct 4, 2011
  • (1) This is a game. Find what links each company to the place I picked. Hint, think of Google maps.
October 2011
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