For the Week of August 30, 2004
The word civilization comes from the Latin civilis. It means "of or proper to a citizen," in the sense of politeness. The word distinguished the courteous manners of citizens from the gross abuses of soldiers.
There has been a reversal in our time.
American soldiers are, on the whole, very civilized people. They respect authority, they respect the enemy and they try to respect the people they hope to protect. An extensive code of law has evolved around soldiering, both domestic military law and international law. It's aimed at pushing soldiers toward courtesy, based on the knowledge that courtesy to the enemy will be repaid, while if you act like an animal that's all your buddies can expect in return. The horrors of Abu Ghairab lay mainly in how those same horrors might be visited on our own men and women, should they come under the control of an enemy.
Civilian behavior, meanwhile, seems unconstrained. We see it in the streets and in our politics. What works seems the only norm. The most aggressive side seems to win, in religion, in business, in sports. "Being a man" no longer means following a code of honor, as the soldier does, but going into the fight with unrestrained ruthlessness.
Civilization, a word that also derives from civilis, cannot survive that unconstrained, dishonorable attitude. The Internet you're using is a pure product of civilization. It's civilization on a wire. And the ruthlessness with which it's being abused now threatens its very existance.
Two weeks ago an issue of A-Clue.com arrived in your mailbox very late because Whitehat.com, the double opt-in e-mail service we use, temporarily lost its fiber connection. The reason hasn't been confirmed, but I strongly suspect it's due to complaints by users who are so paranoid about spam that they can no longer distinguish between e-mail they asked for and e-mail that they didn't ask for. As a result, people call even double opt-in messages spam. E-mail marketing as we've known it is impossible.
Many people assume spam can't be fought, that it all comes from overseas. A recent study by Ciphertrust indicates it can be fought, that in fact those foreign addresses are being spoofed by U.S. spam "kingpins." . As spam becomes more seasonal, its dirtiest secret is also being revealed, which is that honest brand names are paying the bills, refusing to police their channels . This suggests that a strategy of suing the brands advertised by spam, starting with the drug companies, and forcing them to police their channels could have a real impact.
What those drug companies, and others, have done is to substitute the Law of Necessity for the common law. They have thrown ethics to the winds. They obey the law only in its letter, and then only when the cost of defying the law is certain to exceed the benefit.
Politicians today do the same. Conservatives started it, but liberals have joined in, so voters are left thinking there's no good in anyone. Sports stars take steroids until their heads grow bigger than watermelons and the injuries of giantism destroy their swings, all the while denying they did anything wrong.
Everyone has a non-denial denial, for everything. Test my urine, go ahead (I know how to beat the test, or I took something you can't test for). Don't believe what I said, I was lying then but I'm telling the truth now. All's fair in love and war.
Of course, that's not true. All's not fair in love, because the loss of honest love is a risk in all you do. All's not fair in war, as soldiers know, because their lack of restraint can mean defeat for their cause and torture for their buddies.
The Internet was the product of a rather severe code of ethics, the kind practiced by scientists and engineers who know that without such a code the search for truth leads only to dead ends. It is our failure to enforce such a code on ourselves - a code of ethics rather than just of law - that is causing us so many problems today.
It should not matter to you whether you can get away with it. For civilization to survive there must be a voice in your head saying, no, even if no one else knows I would know, and I don't want to live with that knowledge.
Every Internet user needs a conscience. A conscience, however, isn't formed by what we tell other people about how to behave. I can't convince you to have a conscience, or a stronger sense of ethics, than you already have.
Conscience, instead, is only taught by action. Your kids follow in what you do, not in what you say. So do your employees. So do your politicians. So do your sports stars.
Every weapon we have to impose conscience on anyone is subject to abuse. This is especially true of boycotts.
Boycotts, in all their forms, have become a prime weapon for enforcing conformity, for stopping whistleblowers, rather than for enforcing ethics. Those who tell the sins of their churches are shunned. Those who blow the whistle on their employers are fired. Those who blow the whistle on dirty political deals are sued, by the very same criminals doing those dirty deals. Those who follow their political consciences are attacked, and conformists are told to boycott their work, to "teach them a lesson" for trying to engage in the civilas.
But nearly every dollar you spend, every action you countenance, sends a message. When you buy goods at stores whose employees are on welfare you send the message that your price break means more than their livelihood. When you look the other way as your kids' sports team brings in a ringer, you're telling all those kids that cheating is fine if you don't get caught. When you refuse to stand up to bullies, you're saying you're willing to be bullied.
We know who the big-time spammers are. We know who's creating the "script kiddy" software that makes viruses easy to make, and we know who's distributing it. We know who's abusing our rights. We know who's bullying us.
If you want a civilization, online or offline, then you have a responsibility to stand for civilized behavior in a civilized way. Ethics are a wall built brick-by-brick, and we're each just a brick in the wall.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
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Takes on the News
The ClickZ Model
Wired did a story recently about how TidBits, a Mac-oriented newsletter, had "stumbled" on a way to profit from the Web by creating fast-turnaround e-books.
The e-books, dubbed "Take Control," are PDF files priced at $5-10 each and they come with free updates. They're laid out to print out on home printers, and have lots of links. Most important, they're very timely. Engst told Wired he had total sales of $20,000, and paid out a hefty percentage of that to his authors. His transactions were handled by eSellerate. Advertising was free - the TidBits mailing list is about 50,000 names long.
This is all great stuff. There's just one problem with the story. It's not new at all. ClickZ did this, back in the 1990s, and I know others who did the same thing.
But it's good to be reminded how publishing can be profitable, if you have a relatively small, but very avid list of fans. If you're, say, selling Thai ingredients to home cooks on your Web site, you could quickly create a cookbook to sell on your site. You could even exchange ad space with other, similar sites in order to reach more potential customers.
Just remember this is but one arrow in a quiver of opportunities. You can run conferences off a site. You can become a speaker from your site. You can sell all sorts of merchandise from your site. Anything you can do in e-commerce can be done off a blog site. And that's why every e-commerce site should start as a blog.
What Hath Google Wrought?
Despite everything -- despite the Playboy interview, despite the lowered valuation, despite the stupid allocations, despite the Yahoo deal -- despite everything, Google's IPO has changed the world.
By going public through a Dutch auction, and stiffing the investment banking community out of much of its usual fees, Google has changed the face of the stock marketplace forever.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and now a manager at Clarium, a hedge fund firm tried to explain this to those slaves of Wall Street at CNBC. They looked at him like he had lost his mind, but his point was dead-on.
The rules of the IPO game have changed.
The first attempt to break any mold is going to be messy. And those who protect the old order -- the folks at CNBC among them -- are going to call it a failure. Their questions of Thiel reflected a complete, willful misunderstanding of what had happened. Questions like, what's going to happen to the stock today? If it doesn't pop, they indicated, then it proves Google's IPO was a failure.
Thiel's answer was correct. Nothing should have happened. Google tried to hold an auction that delivered a market-clearing price for the stock it had to sell, and once that stock was sold then, in theory, its price in the public market should be determined by future events, not by speculative fervor.
Now in the end Google did surrender a bit to the demand that it stock pop. it dropped the number of shares, dropped the expected price, and (voila) the stock popped nearly 20% on the opening. But this time, at least, the beneficiaries were those public investors who stepped up to the plate and took a risk, not just friends of the brokers given a sure thing.
Whether I invest in Google will be determined by its price and earnings relative to the market, its earnings performance, and my evaluation of its management, which I will make after the dust settles on the present frenzy. But the key numbers are these. How much of the proceeds of the sale did the investment bankers receive (about 2%) and how much of the speculation in the issue did Google itself capture (about 80%).
When the dust does settle, and its stock is traded like any other, then Google's victory over Wall Street will be complete. The way will be clear for other private companies to go public, through auctions, to stiff the bankers, and to capture for themselves the "speculative pop" that has traditionally gone to the bankers' friends.
Dana's Law of Creativity Software
Sseyo recently announced miniMIXA, which is (believe it or not) an audio mixer for Windows smartphones. That's right, gang, a mixer for your phone.
As part of the roll-out a Reading, England arts festival used it to mix what what was played "on-the-fly."
This could do to the cell phone market what programs like Musicmatch did to PCs.
The impact could be massive. Ringtones could be created at concerts, and sold at the show. On the other hand, concert-goers could potentially bootleg the same concert and offer better mixes, free, within hours after the show.
This leads to Dana's Law of Creativity Software.
The cheaper it is, the more people can use it, and the lower the premium paid for poor creativity.
If you want to see what this thing is capable of, check out these sample mixes for yourself. Or, if you don't have a Windows cell phone, get a taste for the technology by downloading Sseyo's PC plug-in.
Clued-in is Bristol, England , whose Mobile Bristol (www.mobilebristol.com) 802.11 network has been greatly expanded and now covers nearly the whole city.
Clueless was the Online Journalism Review's nattering "online ethics" panel that blamed amateur journalists, and not the professional publishers, for the industry's troubles.
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