Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why All Tech Companies are Walmart in Sheeps clothing

A Manifesto: We Must Reestablish our Commons
(a new-ish theory of consciousness as a common rather than individual possession)

There is no real mystery about how WalMart is organized, why it owns so much of the retail "real-estate" (I guess I don't actually need the quotes, but I was thinking of shelf space).

There is plenty of disagreement about whether this process toward Big Boxes self-served by parking lot shoppers willing to forage endless and confusingly organized shelves (often deliberate to capture your impulses if not to aid your search) is either inevitable, good for us, or both. But the basic workings are no mystery.

Sure, there is some unsavory stuff in the company's past. It could even be something genetic, some would argue, about undercutting local competition by sheer brute force of negotiating power, until there is nothing left to compete against. But all that's old history, and there are many things to like, one might suppose, about a company which upholds good corporate values, and features ordinary people models, just like that lovable Dove soap company tried once for a while.

In some product categories, the price difference is just too compelling to avoid. I bought a bicycle there, I confess, just simply because there were hundreds of dollars dividing my desire from the local granola eating bike store pricing. I've been a bicycle mechanic, and knew that the differences would be far beneath my notice. Or laundry detergent. It's like the way I feel when I make a purchase knowing that I left a hefty sum of actual cash money in the form of a coupon I was too lazy to keep track of.

I admit that I resent those coupons, and have therefore adopted a blanket policy to pretend they don't exist. Perversely, as I remain unemployed. Hell, my unemployment is also a choice. So you know where I stand right at the outset. I'm pretty cranky about what I won't abide.

WalMart is a technology company, which is well enough understood by many insiders, but not so much by those who prowl its aisles for bargains. Their magic is all in the warehouse and the distribution and the number crunching back home in Arkansas.

They know enough, first off, not to pay any taxes which could be avoided by one small step out into the less-taxed countryside. Their shoppers will drive, and having driven, will fulfill as many categories of shopping as they can once at their unique destination. Make no mistake, WalMart can brook no competition. They must and will be unique, about which more later.

Hell, I live practically in the middle of practically no-where, at least 15 minutes from the nearest gas, but I have no fewer than 4 different WalMart SuperCenters at about the same distance - 35 minutes - in every single direction of my compass. It's almost as if they targeted me! A demographic of not much more than one.

They negotiate ruthlessly - famously - with their suppliers, having that much shelf space to represent, though often, as far as I can tell, also agreeing to off quantities so that the hapless consumer, you and me for instance, has no way actually to compare.

They negotiate as ruthlessly with their employees, apparently all the way up to the top, to be sure that their ultimate god - yep, that's you and me the consumer - will not spend a penny more than we absolutely have to. It is a free market for employment too, and far more than they will dodge taxes will they dodge union spots. So no-one has to work there, but should they choose to, you and I may be assured that they won't be getting a penny more than has to be spent to keep the stores open and clean and bright and stocked. I think that's what we want.

But, well, we didn't really want them to actually own our commons, did we? I confess I feel pretty out of place in WalMart, just as I do out here in the country. I also feel out of place anymore at the Erie County Fair in Buffalo's suburbs, which used to be called the "Country's County Fair" because for a while it could lay legitimate claim to be the largest county fair in the country.

When I was a child, just as in school, there used to be a legitimate mix of all social classes at the Fair, or so I swear I do remember. (Ivy educated Dad was surely not that much of a social renegade, though he might have been that socially clueless.)

Well, of course, there are no social classes in America. At least it would be extremely politically incorrect to say so. But you also do know that folks are more than pleased to pay a class tax to eat at Panera Bread, sleep on hotel matresses where only clean people will have slept, shop in stores where the shoppers don't yell so ugly at their kids. If we want to bottom feed, we'll pay at least the Target premium, we edjumucated types.

I'm frankly scared by these new divisions. I'm scared at what you're not allowed to say in the big Academy (all that political correctness stuff) as much as by what you're not allowed to see so all around us. I'm scared of all the non-thinking which gets refined in Big Box churches, I guess, to be shouted around at health care meetings, to the point, very apparently, of fisticuffs.

I don't want, ever, to feel that out of place in any public space, that I should have to remain politely silent, smiling benignly, inscrutably, pretending neither right nor left.

This is the lesson we were supposed to have learned from our civil rights "movement". That no-one should feel slighted in any of our commons. As I've said out loud now many many times, I will have become a man when I can walk into a WalMart Supercenter unselfconsciously wearing my bold-faced T-shirt which proclaims "Unionize WalMart" in their proprietary font. So sue me, just like that old Apple sound was called, stealing Beatle's records.

Or should I just be a man and learn to yell out my position at those healthcare meetings?

But what if I don't really know my position and actually came to learn rather than to posit? If WalMart will prove their sense of humor by selling my T-shirts in their stores, then I'll promise never to move to unionize them. Fair enough?

So, here's my point:

The world of making money "online" works identically to WalMart. You want to be assured that you are paying the absolute bottom dollar for whatever it is you purchase. You want transparent comparisons, honestly brokered, and so long as you don't get the sense that the transaction will fall through, you're likely to buy the identical widget with the pennies-apart lowest price.

Your only fear, of course, is that you will have inadvertently bought yesterday's product at today's price, since we're all so used to "falling prices" (or amped up 'specs).

More true confessions; I'm not a very good consumer. I don't buy much, online or otherwise, since I'm just not that interested in having "stuff". I resent wondering what my seat-mate might have paid for his airplane ticket, and remain mousily convinced that I am the only guy on the plane who paid as much as I did, since I suck at bargaining, cringe when I hear people crowing about the great deal they got on their cars (I paid something over sticker for mine, but hell, it's given me almost 300,000 trouble-free miles, so I still don't know who's the sucker). I know for a fact that I have the littlest dick on the plane (I've been in locker rooms. I know, trust me). I type this on a ten year old barely working laptop. But I digress. I shouldn't be pounding my chest so much.

WalMart's real secret is the way they run their warehousing. Well, first off, the store is their warehouse, as they are a biggish part of the "just-in-time" information economy. They stock their shelves according to the weather, the local trends, and have pioneered the magic of RFID tags, by which every single pallet can be individually tracked, just like FedEx does (I should have given the brown shirts the plug, I know, but brown shirts have uncomfortable associations for me), to optimize their mileage dollars, their time "sitting" on shelves, their overall penetration of as much of every market as they can.

This is very much like magic. And we should fret and do that there is no more town square left anymore, around which might be local retailers, smiling to help us find what we're looking for, knowing exactly where it is on what shelf, and selling it for whatever price it got marked with when it first arrived.

(Not quite understanding the declining value of an item that sits, soaking into the time-money continuum, as that money could be so much more productive in the financial markets just so famously collapsed, and bailed out by, you guessed it, our common resources.)

And especially that local bookstore, which has no prayer to stock that esoteric volume which will not only readily be available on, but will be offered along with very helpful reader commentary. No embarrassment either, about your choice in reading. Rather like Netflix, where you don't have to look away when the film you're renting is a just a tad too arty. (they won't even allow those titles in WalMart, having far too much family value).

So, we fret about these disappearances, and feel so very helpless against their inevitability. But fretting, just like Mom's compulsive worry about her kids, doesn't help a bit. Still, no-one knows what should be the right direction for our collective movement. No-one knows which way to push that won't excite the shouting classes, up in arms, arguably against their own self-interest. Protecting, at least, their identity, which, I hear, is what politics has become, ridiculously, all about.

Let's just suppose, for a minute, that there's nothing evil in any of this. That the price comparisons on the Internet are as transparent and obvious as they are meant to be. That Travelocity really isn't tracking your searches to pump up the price at the point of purchase. That we really do have some vestige of a regulatory structure to prevent Big Business from standing in for Business, as the Bush administration so famously did mis-take. That "capitalism" hasn't become a euphemism for "corporatism" and that, just for instance, Google doesn't own as much as it does of Internet advertising space, nor Microsoft as much of the desktop space.

I know, that's a lot of supposing. But why, then, must it be inevitable that we squander our commons (except in college towns)? The Internet is famously difficult to regulate. Even Internet gambling which we've briefly tried to regulate, seems a matter of closing the barn door after the cows are out.

Where is the actual power to the people, other than in our ability to chase the bottom dollar? Other than in our ability to shout out, as I am doing here, into the void. A void so stunningly vacant that if I were to be planning some great mass murder, or a planing into the World Trade Center, it very evidently wouldn't even be noticed until after the fact. Precisely the same void, in fact, into which a homeless panhandler must look all the long day long.

A friend of mine, very handily, has created a search engine tool which easily betters what Google can do for you. Or Bing. I'd let you try it, but then I'd have to kill you, since it's all still under wraps in case the big boys try to steal it, as I'm sure they will, or point out how it infringes on something of their intellectual property. They have that much more power.

It might just be that we don't yet want to be held accountable for what we do anonymously, in public. We want to be able to decry WalMart while buying our subversive texts on We want to be able to surf our porn without having to rub shoulders with those trucker types who frequent Pandoras Boxx (as far as I know, and as improbable as it sounds, this is a bricks and mortar chain around these parts and not some online property).

Hell, I don't know. Once you cross the threshold of crossing the threshold, maybe you're part of a new and wonderful community of free thinkers. Maybe you make lots of new friends. Maybe it's just another category of amorphous perversity, wanting to hang with types who want to hang with types who don't want anyone to acknowledge what really gets them off.

Should that be a protected category of cultural choice too now, like GLBT. I always get hung up on the "bi" part, since I can't figure out where there could be any prejudices left. Does free love really need to be a protected category? Do we have to say everything out loud?

I wonder what the Academy would think, does think, about the rights of benignant perverts? People who like to look but never touch. Do we ever want them out of that closet? Do they just need help to understand their sexuality better? Does WalMart secretly fund (relocation of) the nearby porn shops, or do they just naturally frequent the same neighborhoods?

But some industries just shouldn't exist, since the products depend on exploitation in the first place. Some prices really are just artificially low, and you wouldn't pay them if you understood what they depend on. I don't think it's enough to say that people are clamoring for those jobs if you wouldn't want them yourself.

It may be that the Internet, and how it works commercially, has put the lie to rampant free market capitalism. Where the Pareto principle (sorry, you'll have to look it up, or since I seem to be the only one to use this term, I'll try to do it later and link it back) has now been fully unleashed, and there is only ever room for one dominant player in any field. Where small business, by very definition, can only exist in the various closets, reduced, eventually, to a kind of garage sale circuit of regenerated bargain basement items, recirculating forever in a kind of funhouse entertainment of distorted, worn-down, once ideal types.

It can't be stopped. It can't be regulated. This tragedy of the commons now will run its complete circuit, it would seem, until there's nothing left of local life and liberty. We're, all of us, destroying our common heritage helplessly and haplessly just because we think there is no real choice.

Remember, we in these United States are in the metropole compared to all those we exploit around the globe to run our markets. With the right college degree and taste in clothes, you can make a perfectly good enough living to stay away from WalMart, and move to something that approximates a collegial town. But the issue is as big as the globe. As big as life, the universe and everything.

There is, I declare, no necessity for things to be organized this way.

We act as if our information technology can make our decisions for us. We act as if artificial intelligence is something real, and just around the corner. It's not. I don't think this should be any kind of grand disappointment.

Intelligence rides on consciousness which rides on something collective which happened after humanity became civilized. There isn't such a thing as individual consciousness. There is only collective, language mediated, and more lately written language and fine art mediated, conscious intelligence. These are not things we want our machines to do for us.

Machines can always and only be great big long levers to multiply our force. By letting them be run by corporate will, we've abdicated our human responsibility to be stewards of all that we hold in common trust. Corporations are collections of consuming machines, motivated by fear, just like in the wild, the uncivilized beasties are. They render up decisions, no matter how eloquently envisioned by their capos, who are constrained by business logic. Tearful tobacco executives really do have no real choices about how they direct their enterprises.

In the arena of information technology, it has already been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be only one mammoth company in control of any arena. Think Microsoft, WalMart, Nike, Google, Verizon, IBM, GE, Apple, eBay, Amazon. They all have competition, and might even consider each other their competition. They might even all be on the very brink of final collapse. But it's a mass-mediated superstar world out there, and the local artists are being squeezed out all over the place.

It's not all bad. I like watching the ideal faces and bodies, and listening to the excruciatingly beautiful songs of our Michael Jacksons and Beyonces. I really do. I even like our pres, for all his human flaws. We might even be about to master the quirks of our mass mediated cultural landscape, to where real quality does make it to the top.

But what I'm worried about here is what usually gets called the environment. That stuff, that substrate, that ground to our figure, on which we all depend. We have boxed ourselves now into a corner, where we can only imagine new and wonderful inputs to keep it all going. Clean energy. Clean industry.

But how do we stop the lowest common denominator effect? The collective bloating from fast eating, the destruction of farming by agribusiness, the immiseration of so much of the world by its uprooting to serve the global economy, and its inexorable logic?

I surely don't want to give up hospitals and hot showers, warm houses and helpful machines of all sorts. (I might be willing to give up meat.) But I sure would like to know what we can do together to render up something better than WalMart at the top, in the end.

Part of what we can and will do will be to harness information technologies to call in all the externalities to our pricing. We will make parking cost what we collectively spend on it. We will make highway travel cost what it really does to the planet. We will rationally meter our power in ways to compress the distance from generation to consumption, and spread the loads according to clock and geographic distance.

We will do the thinking, and let the machinery multiply its power.

I think at the end of the day, it's all a matter of scale. There should and must be a size limitation for corporations, enforced simply and directly by means of anti-competitive legislation. There must be limits to vertical control of markets. There must, in principle, be a set wholesale price for mass-produced items. There must be anti-sprawl.

But there also must be a shot at using our technology for popular matters. Meaning simply that it shouldn't be so easy for capital to overwhelm the masses. I guess unionizing Microsoft grinds like me wouldn't be a bad start. I know that if I were to wear a "Unionize Tech Workers" T-shirt, I'd be drummed out of any techie meeting I ever might attend, so I guess I'm not liking popularity contests very much.

But see, it's that public space which should always be safe for oddball types. So much safer than it once was. So dangerously mall-like. I can't do this completely without getting down to my basic, paradigm shifting, post standard physics model theory. It's not only about scale, and bringing in the externalities so that we can eat sustainably.

It's also about the fundamental misconstruing we've made about our cosmos. At the very fringiest range, making not enough difference to notice. Making precisely as much difference, I would say, as relativistic calculations make compared with Newtonian ones when you are travelling great distances. At the very fringes, we must admit that there is no objective reality "out there" in which the exercise of mind is not implicated.

That realization means, I have explained elsewhere, and will try and try again to explain here, that there are only emotional connections between much of what is still reality. These connections are, therefore, among and between objects which can't be measured, or if measured, become something other from what they were when held in mind alone. This is non-controversial quantum reality, but the raising of emotion to the level of "out there" reality is something new.

The raising of emotion to the level of reality immediately "solves" the conundrum of all the wild and crazy accidents which have brought us to this place. The chance of our existence, collectively now, is provably vanishingly tiny. But of course, we exist, just as I, individually, exist. I don't care, post-modernistically, to go down any of those essentialist roads toward questioning our basic scientific understanding of reality. Nor do I care to accept Jesus as my personal savior.

But, that all the connections leading to here and now have been caring cared-for connections simply drops right out from the equations, as it were, if you construe the random chance instead as a e-motivated connection.

Of course it was motivated in reverse. It was a felt connection from the future, as it were, and thus impossible of actual discovery. But that's what emotion is for crying out loud Virginia. You see, there is no directionality to time but in our minds. In reality beginnings and endings are one if only one could "see" so far.

So, I am moving lockstep with you, dear reader, toward the future because that is where we all must go if we are not to be utterly alone. I sense a better future than you do, and I want you to believe me when I say it is attainable. In that future, the classes mix again, as was the vision of this great republic. The lowest common denominator is never allowed to trump the highest art, because our trusted elected servants won't allow it.

When elected leaders are caught keeping secrets from us, or exerting privileges, they are immediately dismissed, no questions asked, because they will have broken their sacred trust to you and me.

Ah, this makes me so tired. I need some company here. But I'll keep trying for understandability.

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