by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XXXVI

This Week's Clue: Philosophy and Ideology

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This Week's Clue: Philosophy and Ideology
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
Control At The Center
802.11 Deserves A Better Definition of Better
Why Blogs Are Believed
Clued-in, Clueless

Dana Recommends The Blankenhorn Effect offers a powerful, positive message for our time. Once you understand how Moore's Law impacts every part of your life, how powerful it is, and how irresistible a force it truly is, you will have the power to predict the future and know how to change it. Buy it today, and make 2004 a better year for yourself, your business, and your family.


For the Week of September 6, 2004

There is a difference between a philosophy and an ideology.

The former is a guide, a general construct meant to help you think. Mine is practical liberalism. I believe that the strongest society is the one that is the most flexible, that maximizes democracy, liberty, and transparent markets. I believe these advantages become more-pronounced as societies become more complex, even while the temptation to reduce all three increases.

An ideology is something else. It's rigid, dogmatic. It doesn't respond to facts or circumstance. It brooks no dissent. Even practical liberalism, if treated in this way, can do great damage.

Religions can be philosophical or ideological. Taoism is a philosophy, Mormonism an ideology. The difference is between informing how you'll react and determining what you will do. Many Catholics treat their faith as a philosophy, even while their pastors teach it as an ideology. Some Baptist churches (like the one my family attends) are philosophical, while others (even in the same denomination) are ideological.

The word that separates these two kinds of faith is fundamentalism. The shame of our time, perhaps the shame of all time, is that fundamentalist, ideological faiths always have an advantage in expanding their reach, because they deliberately reach further than any philosopher. The truth of God is unknowable, yet every fundamentalist seems to know it in infinite detail. For a believer, that's power. The same power that raises cathedrals creates inquisitions.

In my youth I was a conservative. I found it a practical philosophy for maximizing freedom. Gradually, conservatism ran away from me. It condemned friends, it put buts in the way of freedom, it supported even rigged markets. It has become, in our time, an ideology.

Companies also have philosophies, and some have a tickle of ideology to them. Back in the day IBM salesmen didn't have jobs, they had lifestyles. When that became an end in itself the company became vulnerable. Sears also had a philosophy, a "way we do things," which over time became ideologically rigid and, thus, prone to takeover by Wal-Mart. Right now, in my own town, the switch from having a philosophy to an ideology is damaging the Coca-Cola Co., and destroying Delta Airlines.

The world of business is much better at punishing ideologues than the world of politics, and the technology business is the best of all at this. Once a company's values become ingrained, complacency quickly leads to disaster. It can happen to even the best companies in a matter of years, even months.

Philosophies which work in the business we know quickly become useless in other businesses, even closely related ones. Intel is horrible at making consumer products. Microsoft is horrible at making hardware. My guess is Dell will in time find huge problems in printers and PDAs, any product where mass customization is not the winning strategy.

This came to mind recently when Phil Agre, an information sciences professor at UCLA , decided he would take on the ideology of modern conservatism .

He first gave this ideology a long history, calling conservatism a system of inequality and prejudice based on deference, the attitude of common people that the rich are better than they are. Trying to "preserve institutions" is rubbish, he said -- let them preserve themselves. Inheritance of wealth and power is destructive, he wrote -- social mobility is essential. The will of a rich man should count for little more than the will of a poor one.

My own view is that American conservativism changed by taking on the trappings of ideology. As with all such transitions there were good reasons. There were the excesses of the 1960s, the threat of Communism. The transition in this case, moreover, was gradual, proceeding from the fringe of a few foundations to the center of power.

What distinguishes conservatism, as an ideology, from conservative philosophy? Agre cites these examples:

  • Rational argument is replaced with arbitrary dogma.
  • Projection pins conservatives' own tactics onto their opponents.
  • Words are twisted to mean their opposite. Heart means heartless, racist means anti-racism, the will of the many is called that of a few "elites."
  • Those who are "squishy" must lie to prove fealty. Those who won't follow are shunned, called enemies.

Public relations is the canary in the coal mine of ideology. Every business understands the usefulness of this tool in helping it meet its goals. It's when you come to believe your own PR that the enterprise gets into trouble.

In his paper Agre recommends that liberals take on some ideological trappings. Here is what he says liberals should do in order to regain the initiative in political debate:

  • Re-take the language. Gameplan against Wall Street Journal editorials.
  • Build a better pundit. Say something new.
  • Teach logic to the mass audience so they will know the opposite when they hear it.
  • Get in their face. Call fascism what it is. Criticize conservatives' assumptions, the root of their arguments.
  • Ditch Marx and Snoop Dawg. Don't fight the culture war.
  • Show what people, especially small businesspeople, get from government, and the positive results of the 1960s.
  • Clone George Soros . Build institutions that can stand against conservatives.
  • Clone Howard Dean . Build a party with the manpower and discipline to stand against conservatives.
  • Most of all don't pretend this is going to be easy or quick. John Kerry's election will mean nothing if liberals spend the next eight years playing defense as in Clinton's time.

When I took this summary to some liberal friends of mine most recoiled in real horror. They felt they were being told to become their own enemies. I felt like I was herding cats.

I'm not supposed to be preaching politics or religion to you. This is a business newsletter. And there is a business lesson, a Clue, here at the end of this road.

Know what you're about. Know what your company is good at, and stay within that philosophy. Don't let success lead you to think you have the only formula, or the day-to-day grind make you forget that change is inevitable, and flexibility a boon.

Most important, don't take yourself too seriously.

Better a laughing Buddha than a Pope on the business throne.


Shameless Self-Promotion

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 .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Takes on the News

Control At The Center

Cisco's purchase of p-Cube could prove to be very big news indeed.

p-Cube makes boxes that control Internet content and messaging at the center of the network (as opposed to the edge). Until now it has been unable to sell its boxes to U.S. ISPs who fear being charged with being "censors" by both users and rivals.

But what happens when that box says Cisco, instead of p-Cube?

As p-Cube this company has been very successful in the Far East, where even PTTs not under government compulsion are quite ready to decide what their users will or will not receive, and how they will behave online.

Australia's Labor Party, for instance, has proposed making strict content control a requirement for ISPs there. Labor thinks that it can win power by moving to the right of the governing Liberals on the pornography issue.

With current technology that's nearly impossible. With a p-Cube box it's relatively easy.

That's because a p-Cube box acts as a gateway to every user's Internet experience. If a site is blacklisted on the box it's blacklisted for everyone. If an ISP wants to prevent peer-to-peer they can do it once, and if the network changes its tactics a single change maintains the control.

Yes, this means you're no longer selling "Internet" service, but a private network defined by the ISP (or the government). But I guarantee you that the copyright industries will demand Cisco's p-Cubes to control their "intellectual property" -- the great lie of our age -- from "pirates." And Cisco will only be too happy to profit from that.

The Internet, as we knew it, is about to be closed down.


802.11 Deserves A Better Definition of Better

The 802.11 standards are moving far ahead of Moore's Law.

The first 802.11 standard, approved in 1997, was designed to run at 2 Mbps, and usually ran at 1 Mbps. A year later a second standard, 802.11b, was proposed which ran at 11 Mbps. The third standard, 802.11g, came out a few years later and ran at 54 Mbps on the same spectrum. Now we have the 802.11n proposal, which promises service at up to 100 Mbps.

While all these standards are backward-compatible, your speed will be that of the slowest component. Thus, the current moves to embed 802.11 into PC motherboards may be premature.

What we need, I think, is a better definition of "better."

Right now when people think of "better" in terms of 802.11 service they think only of speed. And, when the technology is embedded in consumer equipment they wind up disappointed. This is only partly because their gateway is probably a 54 Mbps 802.11g box, while the PCs on the network only have 11 Mbps 802.11b cards. It's also because of "dead spots," thick walls that prevent signals from pushing through, and security issues, which let your neighbor grab not just your bandwidth but your data.

If we're to trust our really personal data on this network, our blood pressure and identity, we're going to have to do better. We're going to have to shape our networks to our environment, making certain they cover our entire property but go no further.

There are ways to do this. Encryption is the crudest method. Cognitive radios which can adapt their power output to conditions are better. Virtual walls that can stop signals from running will allow our neighbors to get the same great service we do, without letting them see our porn caches. I call this "network molding," fitting the network to the space.

A network that's molded to my space is better than a network that runs everywhere, no matter how fast it is. Usability should trump speeds and feeds. And when we build networks in this way we make it easier to share spectrum, which benefits everyone.

Like I said, we need to redefine the word "better" because speed alone won't cut it anymore.

Why Blogs Are Believed

My Mooreslore blog doesn't have that many readers, but it does have fans. Among those fans I'm highly credible. I work hard with every piece to justify that faith, and when I fall down they let me have it.

This transparent relationship is at the heart of blogging credibility. J.D. Lasica tried to explain this to the "media industry" in a recent OJR piece .

Transparency of motives, transparency of process, transparency of expertise, and transparency on mistakes are all keys to success, he writes.

Compare this to what you find in most newspapers, even The New York Times. Have they yet really apologized for Judith Miller, who bought into Ahmad Chalabi's lies and helped send the U.S. to war? No, they have not. They remain stubbornly defensive, angry that we're asking the question. They are bunkered down, and hoping that PR will save them.

That won't work anymore. Readers are on to Miller, as they are on to any writer who doesn't come clean about what they're up to. For proof look at the continuing fall of Instapundit and Matt Drudge , or look at Dave Winer's Scripting News on the left.

Community sites are slowly reining in the individual bloggers on the Top 100 lists. Technorati's "attention index" has almost as many blog sites as big media sites. (Of course, just because we're linking to someone doesn't mean we approve of them. I frequently link to stories in order to criticize them.)

All this without a real viable business model. Imagine if we could make a living at this.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Daniel Gross of Slate , who compared Disney CEO Michael Eisner to North Korea's Kim Jong Il. (Don't push that too far, though - I don't want to see Mickey Mouse with the bomb.)

Clueless was PR Week's interview with Dan Gillmor about his new book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People . To get the truth you'll have to buy the book .


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