TOC Reader, writer, recommender, spy Your Turn

February 16, 2013

Saint Augustine saw the barbarians at the door, literally. In practical terms, his was not a situation to envy and yet his lot was not without benefits. For such a towering intellect, the late IVth century offered the type of resources Western Europe would not muster again for more than 800 years.

I am no Augustine. Still I too enjoy the literacy of our waning Age of Energy. Disruptive as they may be today, the new barbarians have not yet succeeded in closing down all news printing plants. I can savor the essay in which Robert Cottrel writes he can "earn [his] living by reading" (*).

"This is a great time to be a reader", he contends, quickly adding "4 per cent of the Internet counts as entertaining rubbish [and] 95 per cent has no redeeming features". Would François Hollande be as happy to find 1 per cent of beef in the meat proposed under this name in local supermarkets?

Robert Cottrel may be both a voracious reader and an expert writer, but he earns a living in a totally different role, "recommend[ing] the five or six best pieces each day on my website". I too recommend his essay as long as you remember to take his vocabulary with a grain of salt.

Witness his statement for instance that, between writers and readers, "the publisher [...] is nothing". He really means that traditional publishing companies must share their role as recommenders with their own readers, each a potential "friend [who] will share the link". He could add that part of Google's success comes from having become the first recommender in what has become a long, efficient chain of recommendations.

My regular readers know to read till the end. Indeed I am not piling faint praise on Robert Cottrel here, I am setting the stage for his major insight.

Predicting "a new business model for reading and writing online " in which "readers reward[...] directly the writers they admire", he adds "contrary to received wisdom, internet users are willing to pay for content but [...] loyalty and affection towards the particular writer or brand probably have to be a big part of the transaction". In other words, Robert Cottrel considers readers and writers are bound by what I call incompletable transactions.

The author makes many other memorable remarks, pointing to the frictionless weirs Internet opens between the flow of daily news and the store of knowledge. But our civilization has no future unless it reassesses the value of money. Neither the seal of soulless exchanges, the Energy Age norm, nor the stain of mercenary minds, under Yochai Benkler's curses, money should enable but not make final most Information Age transactions.

Evolution takes time and this transition will not happen overnight. Unfortunately if unwittingly, Robert Cottrel puts a major obstacle in its path by rolling into one the roles of reader and recommender. Engine of economic growth as well as major source of truth, personal recommendations are transactions which should not be hidden but promoted as such. Instead today's world treats them in wasteful ways recalling the feudal Age of Food.

On one side are consumers, the serfs whose word of mouth is stolen wholesale by Facebook or invisibly reconstructed by Google, two prominent barbarians but far from being the only ones. On the other side are the new lords of our Dark Ages, whose words are worth their weight in gold.

Analyzing the benefits of lawyers as company directors, Gillian Tett notes that "[they] are not always eager to serve" since, according to the report she quotes, it is tough "to get anybody who is competent, independent and expert to sit on public boards, given the rising legal and reputational risks" (**). Noble recommenders are not paid for their recommendations, but for putting their reputation at risk. The difference is a technicality.

If a reputation enables one to make valuable recommendations, a recommendation can establish a reputation. Alice Schroeder shrewdly surmises that Warren Buffet got better financial terms on Heinz than "his Brazilian partner, Jorge Lemann" in exchange for "canonizing [him] as a hugely admirable businessman and "human being" [...], [a] reputational currency [to use] in other deals to extract actual money" (***).

Whether directly or indirectly monetized, conflict-free recommendations are of course typical incompletable transactions. They can never complete because they can fall apart at any time, like scientific theories whose truth cannot be proven, only disproved.

Look at "Annette Schavan, the German education minister, [who] resigned over a plagiarism scandal involving her doctoral thesis" (****). How, Anna Sauerbrey laments, such "minor mistakes" can lead to what she presents as a mistreatment? But can we trust people proven to cut corners when convenient to them, be they CEO of Yahoo (1) or German Defense Minister? Rather this sad story highlights the value of recommendations by the "Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf", which granted and has now rescinded its diploma, and the care it takes of its brand.

For brands are justified by reputation alone. Annette Schavan and zu Guttenberg would not disagree. No wonder some would rather not disclose awkward details like the country of origin of their goods. "Many companies [...] are currently making their footwear, shirts and many other products in China", according to James Fontanella-Khan's anonymous source, "the chief executive of a large German sportswear group" (*****).

What is cunning in some is naivety in others. I advise Robert Cottrel to think hard about the real business model behind (2), his web site. He offers his recommendations for free with the possibility to pay a "$14.99" yearly fee for "supporting membership". Laudable so far. He also sells some advertising space. Being parsimonious about it, he should be commended. Alas he subcontracts it to Google and there's the rub.

According to David E. Sanger, David Barboza and Nicole Perlroth, President Obama recently declared "we know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets" (******). A reporter based in China, shouldn't David Barboza be unhappy his email account has been hacked into? But if I were a spy, I would also want to track who reads David Barboza's investigative reports. Thanks to their online editions and their illusory embrace of user privacy, this is what leading newspapers offer any hacker smart enough to access their viewer tracking system.

Indeed in the Information Age, to know what your competition search for and read is to have a window open on their mind. Read John Le Carré (3). What online newspapers in their disingenuous want and Google in its arrogant greed have in common is this irresistible compilation about any one of us. President Obama may thinks only of corporate secrets, I deem my personal reading to be as sensitive and, in proportion, as valuable.

Tuning out Arian barbarians, Augustine laid down the foundations on which the next phase of his civilization would rest. His is ours still, his task too.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Net wisdom, by Robert Cottrel (Financial Times) - February 16, 2013
  • (**) ......... Get a lawyer in the boardroom to boost corporate value, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - February 22, 2013
  • (***) ....... Buffett proves his brand is stronger than Heinz's, by Alice Schroeder (Financial Times) - February 19, 2013
  • (****) ..... Germany Political Masochism, by Anna Sauerbrey (New York Times) - February 13, 2013
  • (*****) ... EU seeks to enforce 'Made in' labelling reforms, by James Fontanella-Khan (Financial Times) - February 13, 2013
  • (******) . China's Army Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S., by David E. Sanger, David Barboza and Nicole Perlroth (New York Times) - February 19, 2013
  • (1) for more information, see Scott Thompson in the wikipedia
  • (2) see site
  • (3) in a mirror version of this principle, "The Honorable Schoolboy" plot turns on what mundane information your enemy hides from you tells you about him
February 2013
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