On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

Showing Initiative

Excellent rant at Grist on how sustainability conferences are ubiquitous and incredibly boring. More grave than the ennui, however, is the other ‘how green saves you green’ schmack that is really the dumbing of the smarter part of such klaches, and reveals, again, how doing anything for money gets you to a place where you’ll only do anything if its for money. Pathetic and sad.

Seems like every single conference just HAMMERS on the idea that sustainability is a good idea but it’s also green both ways, and affordable. But it’s not. It’s friggin’ difficult, more like trench warfare than surgery, and sometimes ROI doesn’t exist. We still need to do it, but let’s not delude people about the on the ground reality. (One of the reasons lots of consultants think it’s cheap and easy and fun is that … they haven’t actually ever done the work!) This has been my consistent message, but this green is green thing is so much the sterotype that someone recently blurbed one of my talks as “Schendler talks about how sustainability is easy, simple, and cost effective,” even though my message is actually the exact opposite!

And the conferences’ issues with conflicts of interest from presenters is actually just as problematic. But this cheap and easy thing, that’s the major issue that obfuscates some of the real possibilities with the subject, especially if the connection to saving money could otherwise be an intro to or expansion on the triple bottom line concept.

Granted, watering down the profit stream is not a welcome idea; but neither is the fact that sustainability is not just about saving money. In fact – it’s not about saving money, right now, at all. It’s about saving your ass and that of your grand kids, which is usually cost prohibitive. The cba will tell you it’s not worth it – and in these terms, it’s not! But this is exactly the thinking that landed us in the place of having to discuss the dread prospect of sustainability in the first place! Onward! No. Just stay right here! Yay? That’s sustainability. And it’s… really not the word or theory we should be attempting to enshrine.

Relatedly, it reminds me of the general phenomenon of sustainability initiatives – which largely amount to discovering innovative methods for saving money at the corporate or institutional level within the guise of saving energy. There’s nothing wrong with saving money, and the case for energy efficiency can be made in exactly these terms. But many such measures could be much more effective as diktats to turn off half the lights in your office or work four ten-hour days, e.g., they don’t require in-depth conceptualizing. Retro-fitting buildings to be more energy efficient would be a lot less problematic if innovative elements of original, late-model designs (skylighting, cisterns) were not allowed to be stripped from the buildings plans, usually by outside consultants, to cut expenses. This happens everywhere as much as you probably imagine. And then, said institution concocts an initiative to find ways to do what the initial, supposedly more expensive design would have done (which, ex post facto, usually turn out to be way more expensive and in need of conceptualizing).

But it’s our nibbling-at-the-edges way of doing things. And now something’s nibbling at our edges. Ah, prophetic capitalism.