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July 17, 2004

Amazon Push Blogs

Amazon is currently beta-testing Plogs:

Your Plog is a diary of events that will enhance your shopping experience, helping you discover products that have just been released, track changes to your orders, and many other things. Just like a blog, your Plog is sorted in reverse chronological order. When we think we have something interesting or important to tell you, we'll post it to your Plog.

In practice, if you're signed in to your Amazon account, the "plog" will turn your Amazon index page into a blog written by Amazon and featuring things they think you're likely to buy, based on your past purchases.

I'm sure this isn't the first time a major corporate presence has tried to co-opt the blog form for profit, but it's the most insidious for me. At best, this will be just one more way Amazon lets interested customers know about items they "want" to buy—especially if they start giving you the option to subscribe to your "plog" via RSS. At worst, this could be the death of the blog as a form of communication on the web; if average surfers (who aren't yet really aware of blogs) begin to associate "blog" with "just another marketing ploy," they'll lose interest fast.

The reaction from Defective Yeti—one of the blogs listed on Amazon's plog page—is right on the money:

A Plog, as near as I can tell, is a "personalized log," and is like a "blog" except you can't personalize it. Also, instead of you writing it and other people reading it, robots write it and you read it. Also, instead of being open to the world, only you can see it. But aside from that, it's pretty much nothing like a blog.

As far as I'm concerned, Amazon can take its plog and shove it. If I don't already know I "want" or "need" something w/out Amazon telling me about it, then I probably don't really want or need it, do I? That's what I thought.

Editor's Note: Funny. I'm unable to post this entry right now because, guess what, the MT-Amazon and MT-Bookqueue extensions that power the sidebar books feature of this site are getting an XML error from Amazon. Again I'm reminded that I seriously need to redesign this page to eliminate those two plugins!

Posted 01:08 PM | meta-blogging

Pathological Pursuit of Profit

After reading the book a couple of weeks ago, we saw the documentary film version of The Corporation last night. Of the two, I recommend the book. It's a quick read, very accessible, and it's packed with terrific nuggets of information. By comparison the movie seemed overly long, depressing, and at times downright boring. To be fair, I'm probably being harsh on the movie both because I've read the book and because I had such high hopes. After reading the book, I hoped the movie would be a pithy, riveting, incisive distillation of the book, a highly accessible and even entertaining vehicle that would carry the book's main message—corporations are, by definition, anti-democratic and antisocial—to a wide popular audience. And while the movie is great and I highly recommend it, I fear it's a little too much on the spinach side of cinema to really reach or convince large numbers of people.

The filmmakers have provided an excellent summary of the movie so you can get the gist of what it's about if it's not coming to your area. (It's only in very limited release right now.) The movie is long almost by necessity; the negative effects of the modern corporation reach so many aspects of the world and of society that even at over two hours long the movie could only skim the surface of a few of them. Because it was so packed with information, it's hard to pick out highlights. Still, one scene stands out in my memory as a compelling reason to pay attention to the issue of the pathological pursuit of profit that is the sole reason for the corporation's existence. That reason comes from Ray Anderson, the Chairman of Interface, Inc. (a carpet company). He compares our current situation to the early stages of human flight where people would stand on the edge of a cliff with some wings strapped to their backs and jump off, hoping they could fly. If the cliff was high enough, the jumper might initially think he was flying, but really he was just in freefall, rushing to his death. According to Anderson, the world is in just such a position today, except we're all the jumper, and when we gave corporations the rights of a person we jumped off a huge cliff. Our wings are the corporate/capitalist system that we think is flying, but really we're in freefall. It's easy to think we're still flying because the cliff was so high, but some people can see farther ahead and they see the ground rushing up to meet us and they know we're plummeting to our destruction. Those are the people (like the makers of this film) who are shouting warnings and working to wake people up to the fact that the corporate takeover of life on earth is not sustainable. In fact, the pathological pursuit of profit is rushing us headlong to the end of life as we know it.

I guess I'm a sucker for extended metaphors.

But like I said, the book is better than the movie. It covers much the same ground, but adds more depth, such as describing how the dominant position of the corporation in society has created an entirely new kind of person:

"The corporation has essentially replaced the church in terms of who you are," says Edison Schools financier Michael Moe. It wants the same thing as the church, he says: "obedient constituents that . . . pay [their] dues and follow the rules." Human nature is neither static nor universal. It tends to reflect the social orders people inhabit. Throughout history, dominant institutions have established roles and identities for their subjects that meshed with their own institutional natures, needs and interests: God-fearing subjects for the church, lords and serfs for feudal orders, citizens for democratic governments (134).

And what kind of subjects does the corporation want? Subjects like itself: "purely self-interested, incapable of concern for others, amoral, and without conscience" (134). Sounds a lot like those Enron traders caught on tape (also here), doesn't it?

The book also contains a great indictment of one of the darling little ploys of business— "deregulation":

Deregulation . . . rests on the suspect premise that corporations will respect social and environmental interests without being compelled by government to do so. No one would seriously suggest that individuals should regulate themselves, that laws against murder, assault, and theft are unnecessary because people are socially responsible. Yet oddly, we are asked to believe that corporate persons—institutional psychopaths who lack any sense of moral conviction and who have the power and motivation to cause harm and devastation in the world—should be left free to govern themselves (110-111).

Corporations further argue that they should be free to govern themselves because they're already just helpless pawns in the hands of the all-powerful control of "the market." They say, "don't regulate us; the market will tell us what we can and can't do because if we behave badly then people won't buy our stuff." And while this sounds very nice and many people are taken in by it, it's really an argument for selling democracy to the highest bidder.

One premise of democracy is that, as citizens, all people are equal, at least within the political sphere. Everyone has one vote, regardless of his or her wealth or social position, and that means, in relation to corporations, that every citizen has an equal say about how these powerful entities must behave. Moving regulation of corporations from government to the market immunizes them to the effects of citizens' participation in the political process and leaves their control to an institution where one dollar—not one person—equals one vote. "At least in democracy each person is formally equally," says political economist Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Trade Union Program at Harvard University. "The humblest citizen, the most prestigious citizen still only has one vote. But when we move that power over to the marketplace, the humblest and the wealthiest are totally asymmetrical. And one has such immense power that they can literally crush the other completely and utterly and fully. So that's one of the reasons historically we've always felt the need to regulate markets." (145-6).

Something to think about the next time the FCC tries to decrease regulations on media ownership, for example.

Both the book and the movie end with gestures of hope that active citizens who care and are paying attention have some ability to take their society and the world back from corporation control, and return it to citizen control. And that's really the bottom line of these pieces: Corporations are, by definition and by law, antisocial. They have become frighteningly powerful. However, they are not unstoppable, and we are not helpless against them. I hope that last part is true, because if we're rushing headlong to disaster, the ground seems to be getting closer everyday.

Posted 12:10 PM | Comments (5) | ai books ai movies

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