For the Week of August 29, 2005
The more control you exert the less power you are given.
It's a perverse relationship that is exhibited in all areas of life, one that takes everyone down just as it builds them up.
We see it in politics. Today we see it in the Bush Administration. The more control these people get, over the media, over the market, and over the government, the louder their opponents become and the less power they are given.
This is not something unique to our time. Nearly every two-term President has lost ground at this point in their Administration. The exception that proves the rule is Bill Clinton, who gained ground only because he had lost control to the Congress, through its impeachment of him over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But every other President has lost ground as they gained more control of the government, the agenda, and the environment. It was true for Reagan, for Eisenhower, for Truman, and for Roosevelt. Combine Kennedy and Johnson and it was true for them. (Carter and the first Bush never reached this point. Nixon resigned at this point.)
You see this also in sports and entertainment, where fame rules unbridled. A star in mid-career, at the peak of their powers, will always draw more detractors than that same star at their career start or near its finish. Tiger Woods is now facing the same press that faced Jack Nicklaus in the early 1970s. It was true for Michael Jordan in the mid-1990s, for Babe Ruth in the late 1920s. They're wonders when they're young, they're legends when they're old, but when they should be most-admired they're villified, often unfairly.
The game is constantly played-out in entertainment magazines, which build people up only to tear them down. Actors, writers, directors - it's always the same. They're accused of over-reaching, of believing their press clippings, of going into areas they shouldn't (often politics). They call fame the "bitch goddess." Fame doesn't really care about you.
Bringing the Clue to our beat here is that the rule also exists in business. I remember the mid-1990s, when many of the old Sam Walton stories were recycled as Bill Gates stories. Walton was lionized for his frugality, for his devotion to employees and customers, and so was Gates. A favorite was of Gates, already a billionaire, stuffing a suitcase into an overhead compartment as he prepared to fly cross-country in coach class.
Today both Wal-Mart and Microsoft are seen as Evil Empires, as their market power and economic control have only grown since then. Yahoo was once loved, then hated. America Online was once loved (hard to believe but true), then hated. Google has been loved, and is now being hated.
The perversity of control is one factor that forces all businesses to grow a thick hide of bureaucracy over time. They hire lawyers and lobbyists and PR professionals. This isolates management from the people who matter, from employees and customers, so over time it makes most Clueless. It's an aging process. It kills companies and results in turnover of leadership.
The history of American industry is filled with names that shone, became institutions, then lost their way. Think of RCA, Control Data, Xerox and Polaroid. Uneasy hangs the crown.
Very few companies survive for more than a generation or two, not just because of succession issues, but because of this sclerotic bureaucratizing. Those which have survived, like General Electric, have reinvented themselves regularly, clearing out deadwood, and bringing in entrepreneurial leaders with new visions, changing less with the time than with the leader. GE was a consumer electronics outfit under Reginald Jones, a financial services outfit under Jack Welch, and it's becoming an industrial supplier under Jeff Immelt.
The businesses who have the most experience in dealing with this perversity of control are the regulated utilities. They were built for control. As deregulation proceeded since the 1980s, they have found themselves better able to manuever in a highly politicized business environment than smaller rivals. This is not better for the economy, and it's not better for technology. Verizon, SBC and BellSouth are like Dorian Gray, always modern on the surface but, underneath, corrupt and technologically dead.
I found a great example this week in Verizon's "iobi" plan . Customers are told that technology is complex, and given a device which they're told makes it easy. The device in fact is a set of shackles on the customers, because if they become dependent on the device they also become dependent for one supplier, for mobile, voice, and Internet service. They'll pay what the provider wants, get only what the provider deigns to give them. They'll go right into a cul de sac with the phone company, while their technology closets become ugly and corrupted.
The only way to avoid aging is to fight it as long as you can. This is true in business, in consuming, in politics, and in life. Constant renewal, and constant change, are hard work, and we'll all fail one fine day.
Fighting entropy is what has made the American system work for 200 years. Our politics demands change, capitalism demands change, and freedom demands change. But there is a natural resistance to change, within all people, and all institutions.
When we're brightest, strongest, youngest, and most vital, right then we begin to die. Think of it as evolution in action.
I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source for ZDNet.
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout, a new kind of mediator for mobile phone users.
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
You are encouraged to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...
Best of the Week
When people are throwing money at you, then you're really foolish not to take some of it.
Verizon has begun selling one of the dumbest machines I've ever seen, a "DSL modem," (their term), wireless router and cordless phone combination dubbed Verizon One.
Mark Glaser has an OJR piece up about Cook's Illustrated, which has drawn 80,000 paid subscribers.
Cindy Sheehan has been able to demonstrate just how naked the Emperor is, and thus demonstrate the lie of Empire.
The Computer Science and Telecommunication Board has released a fairly Clueful report on the Domain Name System that manages the Internet. Unfortunately the Bush Administration has, on the very day the report came out, moved to undercut its key recommendation.
People often ask me what's wrong with journalism. The answer comes down to one word -- arrogance.
The recent contretemps over Google's Digital Library plan proves that the essential conflict between copyright and connectivity has not been resolved.
Mo Mowlam is dying. Americans who have never heard of her should remember her name. Hers is one of the great peace-making stories of our time.
The American Diaspora
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is Novell, pushing openSUSE for Linux Desktops.
Clueless is Novell, thinking that wishing hard for that is going to make it work.
A-Clue.Com is a free email publication, registered with the U.S. Copyright
Office as number TXu 888-819. We're on the Web at http://www.a-clue.com.