Thursday, September 12, 2019

A few (more) things wrong with how Business Ethics is usually taught (the rant goes on)

A couple weeks ago I started enumerating the things I most disliked about the literature I had to review to update my Business Ethics classes, coming up with the following list:

·         Acritical (many times unacknowledged) acceptance of the current social arrangement (post-industrial, globalized, short-term oriented capitalism)

·         Exclusive focus on a slice of human life (salaried employment) that, when taken in isolation, can only be very problematic from an ethical standpoint

·         Disregard for the tradition (let’s call it “non-business ethics”) of the preexisting field it should have arisen from

·         Underlying assumption (sadly, not borne enough by the facts) that being ethically good helps the business earn more money

·         Lack of commitment to any kind of “substantive” values (so old-fashioned!) other, that is, than a facile hyper-individualism of the utilitarian stripe

·         Excessive emphasis on recent articles, normally very shallow and of little originality, at the price of ignorance of deeper and more difficult primary sources (books)

But, due to other commitments, back then I was able to expand only up to the fourth point. I would like in this post to finish with my criticism, so I can move to more pressing matters (like what my British friends are likely to do with their country in the following weeks). So let’s get back to debunking the incredibly naïve (and, most likely, incredibly false) assumption that helping companies make more money is in some way or form a legitimate justification for them behaving “ethically”…

4.     Assumption that being good = earning more money

In my previous post I pointed to the flimsiness of the studies purporting to show a correlation between ethical behavior and shareholder value creation, starting with the fact that the real “goodness” of the prevalent behavior of any given company is, for all practical purposes, impossible to measure. That’s why “researchers” normally look for some proxy like existence of a code of conduct, a “creed” (mission, vision and set of professed values), issuance of an annual “Corporate Social Responsibility Report” in which they announce to the world how many good deeds they have performed, and how much they foster diversity internally, and how respectful towards the environment they are. All such nice declamations are, of course, perfectly compatible with a toxic business culture that forces everybody to work 60 hours a week with no overpay (hey! If they are so zealous as to do that “entirely voluntarily” it is surely because they are so committed with the company’s goals, they find their own objectives so coincident with those of the company, that they are willing to entirely renounce to have any kind of life outside of it!), to fire as many employees as needed to protect the bottom line (as long as they are the ones contributing less to the results, all is well! A meritocracy is a meritocracy, and keeping those able to produce more at the margins, remember, is the only way to maximize everybody’s utility) and, in general, to champion a consumerist lifestyle that impoverishes all of us and brainwashes its employees in an endless race of sumptuary consumption (a.k.a. “keeping up with the Joneses”, a.k.a. “the rat race” where even if you win… you are still a rat!).

Which means that a) none of the studies I’ve seen really tell me anything meaningful about the really ethical behavior of the companies considered, just showed how much they were willing to spend on window dressing; and b) the correlation they show between that window dressing and the results are flimsy at best, and most fleeting (it’s funny but disheartening to see how prominently tech companies that end up being a flash in the pan figure in those studies… looks like the advantage given by appearing to act virtuously is not long-lasting). But of course, using a specious argument can only take you so far.

The premise most Business Ethics texts start with reminds me strongly of the one used by “evolutionary-psychologists-turned-ethicists”. In that case, we heard how so-and-so-behavior is “good”, or is justified (and thus can be endorsed, prescribed, rooted for or whatnot) because it is “natural” for us, it has been “selected” (by Darwinian evolution). That was, indeed, frequently sold in the nineties of last century (and in the aughts of this one) as the “only” possible rational explanation for all of morality, able at last to free itself from the shameful shackles of tradition and superstition and obscurantism. At last we had a good, solid, scientific argument grounding resolutely “how we should behave” in Nature and Nature’s laws, instead of in fuzzy metaphysics! Until, of course, you unpacked (not much subtlety was needed) the lofty rhetoric and found there was not much “there” in there: so the real justification for me choosing behavior A over behavior B nowadays is because behavior A helped my ancestors in EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, which psychologists of this persuasion assume was inhabited by hunter-gatherer tribes in something vaguely similar to the present African Savannah, only a tad wetter) have more babies? Whoa, that’s some argument! And a pretty lousy one, at that! Because, as moral reasoning goes, that gives me exactly ZERO reasons to act one way or another… And, as is only to be expected, the kind of behaviors such argument would condone are not that morally enticing to begin with (from killing the offspring your current couple may have had with a previous partner to cheating your current one in favor of someone with a better genetic endowment).

It is not surprising that the kind of behaviors a Business Ethics that thinks the only justification to behave ethically in the first place is because it helps the company make more money are not that enticing either: treat your employees as badly as you can get away with! extract from them every last ounce of effort, ‘til they drop dead! (or, almost as bad, ‘til they denounce your greed in Facebook… at that point you may start considering giving them a break); extract every ounce of added value from your suppliers, every penny they lose will be your gain! (but hey! Tell them you are a win-win partner and you are only after a “fair” negotiating outcome, so they may not sully your pristine reputation); skimp on quality as much as needed! barely comply with safety regulations! as “quality” is just a matter of marketing and product placement and market positioning, and it is subjective anyways, so better spend a few more bucks on advertising and increasing awareness in social media than actually pay to make the product (you mean the “physical” thing? Who cares about such things nowadays!) a iota better or more solid or more durable in the first place (durability? That sounds too much like “liability”! Planned obsolescence is all the rage! Who wants customers to hold on to their thingies for more than a few months? Better entice them to throw them away ASAP so we can sell new replacements to them!)… But sure, publish a CSR report every year (in glossy pages! And send copies to everybody with a pair of eyes out there! What, you say? Those pages come at the expense of a few thousand trees that had to be felled to produce the paper pulp? Pay, then, to some NGO for the plantation of a thousand more!) and you have a get-ot-of-jail-free card that earns you the plaudits and admiration of every self-respecting Business Ethics scholar this side of the Mississippi.

I can hear my horrified readers objecting: “no, no, no, that’s just corrosive cynicism, and suicidal, populist and arrogant-to-boot nihilism! The corporate leaders that commit to behave ethically, and invest in writing those codes of conduct, and in putting their wallet where their mouth is, and thus guide their corporations towards acting as responsible corporate citizens are not, by any measure, the scoundrels and hypocrites you are depicting! I’m sure they really believe in a better, fairer, more sustainable world, and strive their utmost to achieve it”. At which point I can only remind said readers of the beautiful, beautiful bridge connecting Manhattan with New Jersey that I am willing to sell for a pittance. A real bargain any which way you look at it. Note that I do not deny some corporate leaders maybe moved by selfless, generous, high-spirited impulses and truly want to make the world a better place. What I bluntly say is that as long as they aspire to construct that better world because it will happen to (what a lucky coincidence!) make them even richer, we should all be extremely suspicious and extremely weary of the sincerity of their declared intentions and of the likely results of their initiatives. Because with that justification such initiatives will amount to little more than window dressing, and the real-world effect of them is likely to be more deleterious than beneficial.

Thus, if we really want to research, and some distant day agree, on a set of rules to make corporations behave more ethically, in a more beneficial way (beneficial, that is, to the whole of society, and not only to its shareholders and executives) we necessarily have to start by ditching the poisonous canard that “they have to behave well because that will make them earn more benefits”. They have to behave well, in the first place, because we as a society have put in place an effective compliance mechanism (laws and courts to ensure they are applied) that will land them in jail if they don’t. And in the second place, because the kind of life they will lead if they don’t comply, even if they are never caught, is a second-rate life, a life that nobody finds admirable, or enticing, or worthy of emulation. But for that second argument to have bite we need to restore a minimum of social agreement about what constitutes a “life well lived” that we are far now from achieving… Which takes me to my next point

5.     Lack of commitment to any kind of “substantive” values

Look, I get that we don’t live in good times for value appreciation. Samuel Biagetti said it before myself (The IKEA humans), although he lacks a bigger framework to explain how the Enlightenment, freeing and emancipating as it was, could not but corrode the tradition and shared narratives of the citizens under its sway, and that the logical conclusion of such corrosion could only be the anomic hikikomoris that now populate the West (and the East, and the North and the South), valueless, having in common only a reverential respect for “everyone doing his or her own thing” and universally unable to judge if such thing is good or bad (so old-fashioned! Good or bad for whom, or according to what shared norms?) But who are we to blame the Enlightenment? I for one considered myself a loyal foot soldier of the Enlightenment until not long ago… the Enlightenment, in turn, was but the necessary consequence of the collapse of Christianity (maybe Judeo-Christianity) in the XVI century under the weight of its own contradictions, expressed in genocidal wars of unimaginable cruelty immediately after the Reformation’s schism. All we can do at this point is certify the depth of the crisis, and live with the consequences.

But that doesn’t mean we have to take a page from the sceptics’ catechism and accept that all values are arbitrary constructions, built to hide and justify the equally arbitrary domination of the few over the many. Call me an absolutist (I’ve been called worse things), but I still believe there are such thing as the ultimate, indisputable good, the ultimate, indisputable true and the ultimate, indisputable beautiful, and that such concepts have objective reality, even if there is nobody who believes in them or who can appreciate their existence. For complex and convoluted reasons (spelled out in these wordy and contorted posts, long even for my stretched standards: What to believe I, What to believe II and What to believe III) I think there are valuable things, and ideas, and states of affairs. That it makes sense to find out what those things and ideas and states of affairs are, and that when we value something, we have real, undefeatable reasons to bring that something about (or to sustain and maintain that something already in existence, whatever the case may be).

However, I recognize that this is a very minority position nowadays. If you accept, as the majority of public opinion seems to do, that we live in an exclusively material universe, with no real consciousness, with no free will, where things simply happen in succession following unyielding laws, regardless of who thinks what of them, where history (biological evolution included) is just “one damn thing after another” with no real rhyme or reason, I can understand you don’t feel much inclined to appeal to any purported “value” as justification of your behavior (or of anybody else’s). What does such appeal add, as an explanation, to the enumeration of the natural laws that caused such behavior in the first place? In a deterministic universe things like will, or voluntary action, or agency, do not really have much purchase. And nothing, really, can be called valuable. We may enjoy a bit more or a bit less. We may suffer ourselves, or make others suffer, a bit more or a bit less. It really is all the same, as we will all die and the universe will go on unfolding exactly like if we had never been here in the first place. Even if we were to “cause” some cataclysmic event, it would be but an illusion to think we played a “role” in any meaningful sense, as we were just the puppets of a blind fate that had determined how we would act and react long before we came to the scene.

So Ethics textbooks, written by well-intentioned authors that have been mostly raised in such an intellectual milieu, are understandably wary of appealing to values, or mentioning them at all. Is it good or bad that some powerful executive berates his underlings and makes everybody around him feel bad? I have not found many cases discussing that all-too-frequent situation (maybe the authors I surveyed didn’t consider it a Business Ethics question to begin with, assuming it had more to do with “leadership” or “human resources management”), but from a valueless perspective the only claim that could be levied against the bullying boss behavior is that it somehow fails to extract the last drop of productivity from his employees, as treating them more kindly would surely make them produce more, through enhanced “motivation” and “engagement” and “commitment” and similar bullshit and claptrap… I hope I make it evident enough that such line of reasoning really enrages me and makes me almost want to shout “No! the reason to treat people decently is empathically NOT because you can exploit them better being nice! It is because people have something beyond their salary (their price) to be balanced against the value they add to the production process! They have DIGNITY, dammit!!!!” and, as Kant famously said, dignity is non-negotiable. You cannot exchange dignity for anything, and it demands absolutely and in any situation a modicum of respect and recognition. Respect and recognition that I have failed to find in all the Business Ethics texts I’ve perused, no matter how hard I’ve looked for them.

That’s also why, only in Business Ethics textbooks, you find so peculiar a concept as “normative ethics”, something supposedly in opposition to “descriptive ethics”. The former is typically glossed over, and few pages are devoted to it (in the most cursory manner, along the lines of “some people at some points in history have maintained that really some behaviors were better than others, maybe because of their consequences, maybe because of the intention with which they were approached, maybe because of the type of character they fostered), but those people never really reached any kind of agreement, and the language they used is really confusing and obscure and dense, so we don’t need to concern us much with ‘em”. The second is given more consideration, dealing with how “ethical” decisions are made, and how “ethical” choices are arrived at. But of course, a “descriptive ethics” has as much to do with practical philosophy (or with plain ol’ reason) as a “normative physics” would have. How would you feel reading in a physics book something along the lines of: “it’s a pity the electrons are negatively charged, because negative really has the connotation that it is bad they are so, and indeed, the universe would be a better place if electrons were as positively charged as protons, as we would get rid of all that suspicious attractions (and what is it with that heteronormative tyrannical imposition of particles of opposite charge attracting one another, whilst those of the same charge repel each other? It would certainly be much better if each individual particle could choose who to feel attracted to and who to feel repelled by!)”? You may be amused by the implausible nonsense, but certainly your understanding of physics wouldn’t be much enhanced.

Similarly, your understanding of Ethics, Business or otherwise, won’t be much enhanced by reading 99% of the books of the subject, precisely because they avoid any substantive discussion of normativity (what is it that we have reasons to do, what states of the world should we actively promote, and which ones should we actively oppose, and what is the nature of that “should” and those reasons) focusing instead in an accumulation of “cases” or “practical applications” that, as I said in other place, are as “ready to be applied as sure to be forgotten or circumvented”. Which in turn explains why they have to focus on what I mentioned as my final gripe…

6.     Excessive emphasis on recent articles

The vast majority of the “traditional” ethical treatises presuppose some values, and a shared understanding of what constitutes a reason. So they grate any modern economist’s sensibility, nurtured in a valueless world where people are just a particular kind of “resource” (and, like any other resource, has a marginal cost and a marginal contribution to benefits, and that is all there is about it). So, as we mentioned in point number 3, all the pre-existing ethical tradition can be glibly disregarded. Which suits the authors fine, because they have not been trained (not noticeably, to be sure, and looking at their CVs it is clear why) in the humanities, or in philosophy, and they probably find the texts that expound that tradition wholly alien, obscure, uninteresting, abstruse, ambiguous, abstract and impractical. Not a single equation or graph, not a single statement that can be empirically validated or falsated (although you look at what trained economist consider an “experiment”, normally involving a couple dozen highly unrepresentative students, and what they consider “empirical validation” of a model and you cannot avoid smiling condescendingly)…

Furthermore, again as I have stated in another forum, Business Ethics was born as a distinct and promising new academic discipline in the tumultuous years of the 70’s of the last century. They probably attempted to enroll some moral philosophy professor or other, but they were to wooly-headed, too accustomed to the rarefied air of the ivory towers of academia (and too ignorant of the humbler realities of corporate life) to say anything that was of much use for the hard-nosed world of the capitalist, competitive, dynamic firm in which the hapless students would have to develop their professional lives. So the discipline was assigned to teachers with backgrounds in psychology, sociology, economics and BA, that had no patience at all for Aristotle and the like. And so it has remained, paying lip service to “ethics” by quoting some Cliffs Notes version of some tradition or other (digested so a fourth grader could understand it) and then inundating their texts with more recent papers, in the traditional dynamic of “I scratch your back so you will in turn scratch mine” that has become ubiquitous and a fixed part of the landscape of an academic career. Papers that may enhance their intellectual bona fides in the eyes of their colleagues but that are, I’m sorry to say, of absolutely no value whatsoever either to students or to society in general.

But the sorry state of university professors’ writing, and how it has contributed to the current state of technological stagnation, would merit certainly a post of its own…

Friday, August 30, 2019

A few things wrong with how Business Ethics is usually taught

Next week I start again my Business Ethics classes at the university, and I’ve used the summer recess to get up to date in the literature on the subject, surveying the materials other teachers use to impart the key contents of the discipline in the impressionable heads of their entrusted students, and boy, am I disappointed! Not necessarily with the books and articles I’ve read (although many of them were just a collection of bromides and thinly-veiled magical thinking, more on that in a moment, in fairness I have to say that in some -sadly rare- cases they achieved through sheer effort a status of “almost-readability”), but with the discipline of business ethics itself, which I cannot avoid but seeing as teetering on the brink of moral bankruptcy (but hasn’t it been in such state since its very inception?). And the problems of the discipline are highly illustrative of the problems of the whole system of highest learning (universities and associated institutions), which in turn are but another manifestation of the malaise that affects our whole society, trapped by what I have in many other occasions called a “toxic” dominant reason. To put it in a simplified way that my readers can easily grasp, the causal chain would flow as follows (causes to the left of the arrows, consequences to the right):

Dominant reason (desiderative) -> sick social system -> corrupted forms of transmitting most advanced knowledge (university) -> incoherent, inequality-perpetuating discipline (Economics and Business Administration) -> despicable self-serving, injustice-legitimating subdiscipline (business ethics).

So yep, given the world we live in, what else could we expect? The poor, sad subject that I happen to teach is but another exponent of a social system gone awry, as it couldn’t help doing given the contradictions and false premises on which it is predicated. And, if that were the case, there is not much to do but either fold and leave the table or play by the rules and step up the ante. And I’m not a quitter, and I still see the opportunity to positively influence the lives of the bunch of young persons I teach each year as an invaluable gift, so of course I’ll keep at it as long as I can, trying to raise the bar within my limited possibilities, and not falling in what I see as the deadening complacency of the field (‘cuz, man, is the field complacent to the bone!)
And such raising the bar requires a clear-eyed criticism of the things I don’t like in the current books that are used to teach the poor kids, so that’s what I intend to do in this post. Now a word of caution is convenient, as I wouldn’t want to convey the impression that everything that has been written until now is utter crap (which having one book authored by me in its final pre-printing stage, could be construed as the crassest & crappiest product-placement ever!). What I will be criticizing is frequent enough and widely accepted enough, but not all the books containing “Business Ethics” in their titles commit all the sins, and some of them are more considered and better thought out, better executed and probably better intentioned also, than others. I will not be naming names (no need to create enemies and no use in singling out the most egregious malfeasants…) but I hope to offer my readership enough criteria to judge by themselves, if they ever come across such texts, to what extent they partake of the denounced defects. Defects that we can group under the following headings:

·         Acritical (many times unacknowledged) acceptance of the current social arrangement (post-industrial, globalized, short-term oriented capitalism)

·         Exclusive focus on a slice of human life (salaried employment) that, when taken in isolation, can only be very problematic from an ethical standpoint

·         Disregard for the tradition (let’s call it “non-business ethics”) of the preexisting field it should have arisen from

·         Underlying assumption (sadly, not borne enough by the facts) that being ethically good helps the business earn more money

·         Excessive emphasis on recent articles, normally very shallow and of little originality, at the price of ignorance of deeper and more difficult primary sources (books)

·         Lack of commitment to any kind of “substantive” values (so old-fashioned!) other, that is, than a facile hyper-individualism of the utilitarian stripe (everybody should be maximally free to do his or her own thing, as long as he doesn’t harm others… of course not helping and not caring cannot be strictly considered harms, so all is good if we each pursue our own egoistic interests) shorn of every commitment to previous traditions or social bonds

Hmmmm… I wonder if I will be able to cover all of them in a single post, let’s proceed and decide based on how long each mini-rant turns out to be, as you are about to find that the tone is, indeed, quite “ranty”.

1.     Acritical acceptance of current capitalism

 Well, a book needs to share some essential tenets with its readers in order to be of some use to them, shouldn’t it? Let’s not forget the discipline of Business Ethics was born in the nineteen seventies in American universities (but not in philosophy, or cultural studies departments, which were a hotbed of radicalism, apparently) catering to students of Economics and BA, not marked back then by their enthusiastic endorsement of alternative lifestyles or countercultural sympathies. Also, in those seminal days, the world was split between two warring doctrines, capitalism and communism, and a good fraction of the intelligentsia (more in Europe than in the USA), many of them leading voices in moral philosophy, was unashamedly aligned with the latter against the former. So it may have made sense then to make the moral case for free markets and the private enterprise as the most efficient way to produce and distribute goods, and by such production and distribution, to distinctly contribute to the well-being of the human beings that constitute society. But nowadays, to repeat how wonderful unfettered capitalism is, to (mostly) ignore or, at most, pay lip service to the existence of market failures (treating them as an odd and infrequent exception, and not the almost universal rule they are), to leave aside whole areas of the economy that may be best served by non-market arrangements, sounds at best disingenuous, at worst manipulative.

And redundant to the bone, as the line about “the free play of supply and demand in perfectly competitive markets guarantees (almost a tautology, as I’ve incessantly repeated in this blog) that the maximum of individual needs are met with the minimum of inputs, and thus with maximum efficiency” has been drilled in the minds of the gullible students a gazillion times when they arrive to their business ethics class, so they are convinced enough of it. It is not bad (but not something I see done frequently enough, or ever, really) to remind them that such lofty statement has the extraordinary merit of being, in addition to a tautology, profoundly false (counterintuitive as it may sound) and profoundly irrelevant, as there are almost no perfectly competitive markets to begin with, and trying to make the actually existing ones more so has historically caused as much harm as good (if not more).

2.     Unhealthy focus on productive activities

I know it makes prima facie sense that something called “Business Ethics” busies itself, mainly (even exclusively) with what businesses do, and thus analyzes and considers the myriad ethical conundrums that may be experienced in the course of professional activity. But there is both something defensible and something fishy about such delineation of interests. First with the defensible: it is fully justified to single out areas of ethical reflection, as the field of ethics has become so vast, so sprawling (although, as in so many other areas, covering a vast area normally comes at the expense of doing it in a very shallow and superficial way) as to demand more than a normal human’s lifespan to survey in tis entirety. Such singling out has been successfully done in the field of life sciences (“bioethics”, which is kind of the ur-precursor of any applied ethics, requiring the mastery of a lot of knowledge from the object field: a bioethicist must previously know a lot about of complex biological systems and medical procedures in order to be able to give an informed opinion about their ethical implications) and even of religious studies (from moral theology to dogmatic ethics, although their relationship with secular ethics is at best “problematic”), so why couldn’t it be done for business? Isn’t business, after all, a separate area of human activity, with its own and distinct dilemmas and rules to be scrutinized?

Well, not really. And because it is so integral a part of everybody’s life, traditional ethics has dealt with business activity intensively: Plato, in his Republic forbade the Philosopher Kings and the Guardians of the ideal city to own gold or to get involved in commerce. Aristotle railed against lending money with interest (a professional activity; well, he actually railed against any professional activity, as the ideal life was for him that devoted to abstract contemplation and reflection, bios theoretikos), Kant used extensively the example of the shopkeeper that charged the right price for the wrong reason… all of them would have been baffled by the suggestion that they were trespassing on the realm of a distinct discipline, which was in charge of defining “how things should be” in the conduct of professional activities.

Which takes us, naturally, into the fishy part of such separation. Karl Polanyi chronicled in his The Great Transformation (and I have incorporated much of that chronicle in my own account of how current dominant reason came to be: Short summary of dissertation: how western dominant reason came to be) how modernity has separated a distinct realm of thought and activity, called “the market”, from the rest of social life, providing it with special rules and procedures that, in the end, benefitted a few and damaged many. The successful societies that out-produced their competitors (and thus out-gunned them in the battlefield, and imposed their set of values on them) have elevated precisely the production of material goods, and its subsequent exchange and eventual enjoyment, to the ultimate goal of life, never mind such enjoyment necessarily had to be concentrated between fewer and fewer of them. That means that the lot of the majority of humankind under our current social arrangement is to produce for a diminishing number of ultra-rich plutocrats that already own more than could be properly enjoyed in a hundred of lifetimes. Not a very enticing prospect. And traditional ethics, that intends to put all of human life under its magnifying glass, could not fail to notice the abhorrence of such a state of affairs. A state of affairs legitimized by a dominant reason I have called “toxic”, and that certainly is incompatible with a life well lived, as the lives both of the plutocrats, of the toiling masses and of the swelling non-toiling ones are sadly stunted and robbed of much of their potential by such arrangement.

So, the logical response (without any supremely evil intelligence having to formulate and implement it) is not to try to improve the damaging social arrangement (too complicated!) but to do away with such annoying, Jiminy-cricket-like discipline entirely, and convince people that just a fraction of it is enough. Not to live well, of course (any discipline that taught how to live well would be ultra-dangerous to today’s hypercompetitive capitalism), but at least to produce well. A sad, “short-winged” (the unforgettable words of the recently departed Javier Muguerza) justification for a sad, short-winged subset of activities that would have no place in any reasonable life plan.

3.     Disregard for non-business ethics

Of course, we may start by asking ourselves “does it really make sense to define a “Business Ethics” in the first place, as separate from old, unadulterated, no-qualification-needed, Ethics?” Come to think about it, businessmen need more than a smattering of mathematics, and nobody ever came up with the idea of carving a separate “business mathematics” to teach Econ and BA students how to add, multiply, subtract and divide (which is typically more than enough for 99.9% of what they actually do in their professional lives). With the ability to gather and process greater amounts of data than ever before, statistics (a branch of maths, I know, but bear with me) has become a very useful tool in the conduct of businesses. But again, nobody (yet) has come out proclaiming the need to create a separate discipline, “Business Statistics”, to sort out the specificities of applying the knowledge of the field to the business world, without minding with all the annoying theoretical baggage statisticians have developed during centuries. We do teach statistics to students, to the level we consider may be beneficial and useful for them, even if that means repeating a lot of what students of mathematics will find in their first year of statistical training.

But not so in business ethics, where, with some honorable exceptions, twenty five centuries of ethical discussion are entirely and conspicuously absent. If they are mentioned at all, they are dispatched in a few pages, in a highly bastardized form (something along the lines of “there are three traditions: virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology; all are similarly impractical and unintelligible, and they were never able to agree on anything, so let’s not lose more time considering them and go back to discuss how bad Enron was and how lying and cheating will make you earn less money on the long term”). And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. The first one is that, under that apparent equanimity, business ethics is already profoundly identified with only one of the traditions it purports to evaluate so dispassionately: namely, with utilitarianism, as that is what permeates all of the theoretical framework of economics, since its modern inception (from Adam Smith to the Austrian school, including marginalists, welfarists, Keynesians -starting, of course, with Keynes himself, neokeynesians, Fisherians, neofisherians, monetarists, supply-siders and whatnot, all avowedly utilitarian to the bone), so they just can’t see the point in discussing, or taking seriously anything else.

The other reason, of course, is that such consideration of what is good for the human being is profoundly anti-humanistic, and profoundly inimical to human flourishing. But, coming from the intellectual milieu of economics, they have already been taught that the world (both the natural and the social) is just a set of finite resources that admit of different uses (taken almost verbatim of Lionel Robbins’ definition of the field), and their distinctive know-how is to find rules to determine the “best” use of those resources, the one that “maximizes satisfaction” (which is but a synonym for “utility”… see how an economist cannot but be utilitarian through and through?), or the kind of satisfaction for which consumers express their preferences. Doesn’t matter if those “resources” are barrels of oil, tons of iron ore, square meters of land, pieces of machinery (lathes, presses, blast furnaces), meters of optic fiber, lines of code of computer programs or… hours of human beings! At its core, the economic outlook sees people’s time as one interchangeable resource more, which admits of alternative uses all the same, and which can be entered in an equation with all the previously stated numerical quantities to define a “best possible outcome” to be maximized. But let us remember what that old fart, Kant, had to say about lumping together human mind and other “resources” (page 48-49 of my edition of the Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals):

 In the realm of ends everything has either a price or dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by an equivalent, while whatever is above price has dignity. […] there is something that comprises the precondition whereby something can have its purpose in itself alone. This does not have a relative value – a price – but rather an intrinsic value – dignity

Powerful stuff. Which kind of throws a wrench into the whole of economic thinking, because if there is something (uses of human minds, with all their ingenuity, but also variance and unpredictability and quirky behavior) that cannot be measured and compared with all the other resources, and requires some “spooky stuff” type of consideration (what’s that “dignity” thing about, anyhow?) all the maximization and legitimation of our current business practices (from outsourcing to countries with laxer labor standards to slashing social benefits of employees and pushing environmental standards to the bare minimum) becomes automatically suspect, when not outright indefensible.

So yep, in that sense it becomes fully understandable that business ethics texts don’t busy themselves too much with old mushy ethical traditions. Nobody likes being told that their whole world outlook maybe, regardless from how they style to call them themselves, entirely incompatible with the good life and how a fully human being should live…

4.     Assumption that being good = earning more money

I have to confess this is the one that most annoys me. Although, given the previously exposed paucity of their intellectual underpinning, it is also wholly understandable. If you cannot ground your appeals to moral behavior in any respectable tradition (that, in the end, presupposes certain metaphysical commitments that may not be everybody’s cup of tea), what do you have left? You try to take advantage of the naivete and lack of life experience of your students, and shove down their throats the lie that, in the long run, “acting good” is the best course of action for the bottom line. That being moral is the most astute and savvy business decisions they can make, as the press, full of shenanigans and malfeasance being punished, amply attest. Aaaaaaagh! Where to start debunking this?

Let’s start with the flimsy empirical base. When you see lots of cockroaches in a house, and you smash them, you don’t conclude that the house is probably clean, because all the cockroaches you saw in the last couple of hours are dead. You conclude (correctly) that the house is still full of cockroaches because for every one you have seen, there are probably thirty (or forty, or one hundred) that you are not seeing. So the fact of Enron, and Siemens, and McKinsey in South Africa, and Cambridge Analytica being brought to light and prosecuted doesn’t mean there is a strong enough incentive for companies in general to behave ethically, it only means there is a strong incentive for companies not to be caught! Some authors realize that the amount of bad press of certain corporate actors is a poor index of the ethical compliance (or lack thereof), so they have attempted to “scientifically” measure the (purported) correlation between ethical excellence and shareholder value, conveniently forgetting that the first one is nigh impossible to accurately measure, and producing an interesting subset of the literature devoted to “demonstrate” (the conclusion being preordained there are few surprises in the results achieved) how the most ethical companies see their stock raise more than their less scrupled competitors, and even suggesting a causal mechanism for such discrepancy (companies that behave more ethically and spend more on signaling their virtue are more reliable, more trustworthy, and thus can reduce their transaction costs with suppliers and exact a higher price for their products or services from customers)…

As I’m running out of time (have to run back home to my second son’s birthday!), and there are so many elements of awful reasoning in this line of thinking, I will leave the completion of its debunking for a following post, along with the remaining two areas of discrepancy

Friday, August 23, 2019

So, how long can we count on having the Internet?

Back from very refreshing holidays, which I badly needed this year, as I may have taken a few more commitments of late than what wisdom would dictate (probably my very occasional readers have noticed, as from a blogging perspective it has been a year of truly abysmal productivity). And things are only going to get more hectic for the following couple of months. But there are a number of things I’ve been thinking about that I wanted to share with my devoted readership, and this is a moment as good as any other to get at it.

First and foremost in my mind has been how the likely collapse of our civilization may play out. There are a couple of lines of thought that I had been harboring for some time now, and for which I have found a lot of additional supporting evidence in these past months:

·         Technological advance has really and completely petered out. I visited in July a factory in the Basque Country that builds superconducting magnets. I still can remember the buzz about superconductance almost forty years ago. Back then, it seemed that developing materials that would superconduct at ambient temperature (or at least, at a temperature that allowed them to be cooled w liquid nitrogen, which is comparatively unexpensive) was just a matter of time, and a short one at that (think years, not decades). Just hasn’t happened. This particular factory supplies the sextupoles for one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the Large Hadron Collider, in CERN near Geneva. Amazing little pieces of equipment of almost magical qualities… exactly like the ones that my mother tested in her old laboratory when I was but a sparkle of possibility in God’s eyes. It tells you something that the most advanced equipment, for the most advanced scientific installation on planet Earth, relies on a technology that essentially has experienced no improvement at all in the last half century. Add it to the long list of fields (energy production, space exploration, air transportation, land transit, building materials, etc.)  that have experienced almost no evolution since the 70s of last century.

·         About the other great technological undertaking at planetary level, seeing the latest news from ITER, I’ve lost faith that it will ever be completed. They still have not started the truly difficult part (actually building the cryostat), and the societal know-how to achieve it at the budgeted cost and time has simply evaporated. There is not in the whole Europe enough people with the required skill to design in detail, weld, erect and connect the myriad parts, with the demanded quality and precision  (and I doubt they can find enough, even in Asia, where thanks to China and Korea still building conventional NPPs  there are more engineers and tradesmen with the requisite skills). It is just a matter of how many more years (or decades) it will take them to realize that there is not enough collective willpower to see it through, and quietly dump the whole thing (and with it, the dream of endless, cheap, clean energy that fusion embodied)

·         Climate change is already baked in, taking place, and there is absolutely no way to stop it as, taken globally, people just don’t want it to stop (or, more precisely, to make the sacrifices that would be needed). First piece of data, I travelled to Saudi Arabia, and talked to some people in the energy sector. They smile benevolently when asked if they are not nervous by the prospect of the advanced economies “weaning off oil” and substantially reducing their dependence on their main export, which provides them with 99% of their revenue. They have heard that tune since… you guessed it, since the first oil crisis (coincidentally, at the beginning of the 70s of last century, when technological progress almost stopped) and said advanced economies have “only” increased the total amount of oil they use fourfold. Plus China, and India, and Latin America, and even parts of Africa are building sizeable middle classes which want to celebrate their arrival to wealth and prosperity with what has been sold to them as the ultimate symbol of affluence: a car! (and, 99% of the time, the first one they can afford, which renders them the mobility and convenience of a self-propelling vehicle, is still one with an internal combustion engine). Second piece of data, we have lived through one of the hottest summers on record (I experienced it firsthand in the typically balmy North of Spain, sweltering under temperatures of 40º C, and by having the ancestral home of my parents almost burned down by one of the fiercest wildfires on record in the Canary Islands, an inevitable byproduct of high temperatures and very low humidity). 

·         Just how longer can entire ecosystems survive a repetition of such thermal stress (slightly augmented each passing year) is anybody’s guess. And people are content blaming it all on politicians that don’t take the whole thing seriously (which they don’t), but at the same time they still keep buying themselves ever larger and less efficient vehicles (I keep on seeing more and more SUVs all over Europe), demanding ever more air conditioning in the Summer, and buying bigger and bigger homes, even if it means living further from their works (and the schools of their children) and forcing them to longer commutes, in which, apart from making themselves unhappier, consume tons more of hydrocarbons. Why shouldn’t they? They have been falsely promised (between so many other things) that the whole energy production network can be revamped, that old, polluting, ways of producing energy (coal and nuclear) can be scrapped and replaced by cleaner ones (wind and solar) without anybody paying any price. So they just go along, waiting the inevitable (clean energy for everybody everywhere) to materialize without them making any sacrifice. Only this time the inevitable happens to be also impossible (in the current state of actual technology, as opposed to the one dreamed by most journalists, pundits that should know better and of course politicians)…

In summary, our civilization is agonizing, incapable of providing technical solutions to its most pressing problems, and condemned to adapt to the deteriorating conditions of a warming planet. At this point I think +2ºC in 2050 is unavoidable (as it should be clear by now that none of the signatories of the Paris treaty, except maybe the smallest ones, who contribute the less to greenhouse gasses emissions, are going to meet their lofty commitments, and thinking otherwise is just delusional), and +3ºC, even +4ºC are not entirely off the table. The train for avoiding such outcome simply left the station long ago, and it is better to recognize it than to stick to the pied piper’s dream of everybody suddenly realizing how serious the threat is, and coordinately engaging in the biggest reengineering the world has ever seen of how we produce energy, heat our homes, produce our food and transport merchandises (and ourselves) around.

A number of books have been published painting in (sometimes excruciating) detail how such warming planet may look like, normally in apocalyptic tones: billions displaced as their cities and villages are submerged by the rising sea levels, millions starving due to the inability to grow enough foodstuffs amidst catastrophic droughts, most of Earth’s wildlife (both animals and plants) perishing due to inability to adapt to the changes in their habitats… From the human perspective, it all would sound quite scary except for one reason: we have heard (most of) it all before, and it never came to pass. The displacements, famines, wars, societal upheaval, civilizational collapse and (probable) final extinction of the human species was already forecasted as an unavoidable fate by the “Club of Rome” in… the 70s of the last century! (a most fateful decade, as you may have realized), when there were about 3 billion of us on the planet. And today we are 7 billion (and counting), mostly enjoying a much higher standard of living than we were back then, without any of the authors, as far as I know, ever recognizing there was anything wrong in their predictions (Paul Ehrlich, another famous doomsayer of the era, only admits that he may have been wrong in “a few decades”, as according to him all his gloomy predictions of collapse will surely come to pass more or less as he foretold, sooner rather than later). Like in the tale of the boy who cried wolf, we have been admonished to change our wasteful ways or else, without nothing bad happening (rather the opposite, with untold numbers getting out of poverty and joining the global middle classes, mostly thanks to the fast rise of China, that more than compensates the inability of the Western world to improve a iota the lot of 80-90% of its population in the last half century) and the result is that society is jaded and unresponsive to the latest warnings. “This time is different (as now the wolf is really coming!)” becomes less convincing in each iteration.

So we are essentially cooked, right? Well, maybe not so much. Although in some sense we are in a much worse position than in the 70s (back then we could still innovate and push technology forward, which we now seem unable to do), in another we have one (sad, tragic) ace up our sleeve we didn’t have back then: our dominant reason has become so toxic, the kind of lives it pushes even its supposed winners to live is so sad (The pitiful and miserable (but rich!) meritocrats) that, as I’ve said a number of times, it pushes most of the people under its sway to reproduce less, or not to reproduce at all. And having less kids (a lot less than any previous generation in recorded history) happens to be a surefire way to reduce our environmental impact. So, in a kind of perverse fashion, the generation currently in their prime reproductive age is atoning for the sins of unbridled consumerism and utter inability to coordinate and translate into social action their vague desire to reduce their hydrocarbon footprint by leaving many less people behind to continue with the despoiling of the planet. Those additional tons of CO2 their bigger SUVs and bigger homes are pumping in the atmosphere are somehow compensated by them just having one baby (or no baby at all) instead of the 3-5 that their parents had.

Which doesn’t mean we have a lot of room for complacency. Voluntary demographic collapse (starting w Western societies, Korea and Japan, soon to be followed by China and the rest of Asia) is not happening “on time” to compensate for developing economies consuming ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels (and, let’s face it, advanced economies “saying” they will dramatically decarbonize, and feeling righteous and virtuous, but then doing nothing of the sort). Not on time, for sure, to avert catastrophic climate change. For all practical purposes it is better to think of climate change as already having happened. Yup, the rise of the sea level will play out during decades to come, but play out it will. Sorry, polar bears, you were magnificent beasts, we just utterly messed up with your habitat until there was none left to speak of. Hope you can make do in zoos and tiny reserves (with air conditioning in summer). AND, not all the world is voluntarily reducing their fertility.

Although it is very politically incorrect to point it out, certain continent is projected to go from about a billion inhabitants today to roughly three billion in the second half of the current century. Two billion additional human beings with legitimate aspirations to a life of dignity and (at least moderate) consumption. With approximately zero available land for cattle or agricultural production to feed them unless they use the little remaining rainforest they have, which would accelerate greatly both the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and the loss of biodiversity, a real double whammy! Nothing intractable, however, or nothing that would require any enlightened ruler to go on and force mass sterilizations on them (or any similar feat of autocratic social engineering, like the one accomplished by China’s derided one child policy, that their leaders are now discovering may have been quite unnecessary, as unbridled capitalism happens to be a much more efficient deterrent to total fertility than any central planner’s decree). Just give them enough free market and enough television and in less than a generation they will swiftly transition from 5-7 children per fertile woman to 1-2 (a feat already achieved in similar timeframes in such different places as rural Mexico and urban Iran).

So, although climate change will doubtlessly impoverish us, and exact an atrocious price on nature, accelerating the extinction of countless valuable species, I don’t think that’s what will do us in. Remember we annually throw away between 20 and 40% of the food we produce (estimates vary), so keeping us all fed with 20-40% less land is eminently feasible (and yes, I know not all land is equally productive… but we can quickly develop varieties of food crops adapted to different soils and -within reasonable boundaries- climates, and we have more than enough manure to enrich even the poorest soil just with our very own shit…). And there is wont to be less of us to feed in a few decades, even without any catastrophic war. What really worries me is that at some point, when technology stops progressing, it regresses. It has happened countless times before (although it doesn’t leave many traces in recorded history, that’s why the phenomenon is not widely known), and loss of key technologies may have an impact even more disruptive, more profound (and more detrimental to human flourishing) than climate change. A few examples of previous instances should suffice:

·         The Greeks knew how to build intricate gears, and apply them to predict the movement of the moon and stars, by 100 BC, as evidenced by the famous Antikhythera mechanism retrieved from a shipwreck of that era in 1901. Europeans wouldn’t regain the ability of creating machines with precise gears (clocks) until around 1500 AD, sixteen centuries later

·         The Chinese developed the ability to navigate the high seas and deploy enormous fleets under the Ming (commanded by the eunuch admiral Zeng He), fleets that would have put to shame and easily smashed the puny European ships the Iberians could tentatively send Eastwards in those days, in the early XV century. They would cancel them due to dynastic dissensions and not recover the ability to project power beyond their coast until our present times

·         The Europeans had a handwritten script in late roman times (uncial) that, after the collapse of the Roman empire, evolved towards forms (first Visigoth, and later Merovingian), apt to be reproduced quickly and smoothly in the newly available surfaces (parchment) in the 7th and 8th centuries. Under the directions of a new dynasty (founded by Charlemagne and centered in its capital of Aachen) it degenerated in a more homogeneous script (Carolingian), somewhat easier to read but much slower to write, as befits a society where illiteracy was widespread and only a tiny minority had any use at all for written language. Carolingian would be followed by an even more elaborate and laborious script, blackface (which is arguably even less legible than Carolingian), that would in turn make its way to printed texts and would stay in use in some countries (Germany) almost up to the XXth century (my own copy of the Prussian Academy edition of Kant’s complete works, the Akademie Textausgabe, is printed in blackface, so I know what I’m talking about when I mention its relative illegibility).It would take the continent almost eight hundred years to get back to a “technology” or a “know-how” for handwriting that would allow for “easy” learning and be accessible to the masses

Indeed, something similar is happening under our own very eyes. In our supposedly technologically very advanced times we have already forgotten the technology for sending human beings to the moon: remember how the media recently greeted with great fanfare the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket? That was the 25 of June of this year (2019), and it was hailed as a significant milestone, as it was the most powerful rocket ever launched… by SpaceX. As it is approximately half as powerful as the Apollo X rocket that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michel Collins to our satellite… forty years ago (see? Another thing we could do in the 70s which we have not improved much since, if at all). Elon Musk is (as he doesn’t tire to repeat to every journalist wanting to spend 5’ with him) developing a much bigger rocket, sure (the famously called BFR) that would indeed improve over the Apollo, and would have the capability to launch a manned vessel to Mars… and that, I confidently assert, will never be fully developed or launched, as SpaceX will go bankrupt much sooner than that.

Want another example? In Europe and America we have lost the technology to build a Nuclear Power Plant, something we did routinely… in the 70s of last century (when else?). The ones “being built” in North America are a sad joke, with no activity whatsoever in the sites due to bankruptcies of the building companies, or the owners (utilities), or lack of permission from the regulator, or a combination of all three. The two (“third generation”) ones where ground has actually been broken in Europe (Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France) announce an additional year of delay every year (and a 20% increase in the projected costs), so they are not much closer to completion than they were a decade ago. For the rest (Hanhikivi, Hinkley Point C, Wylfa, Pax, Accuyu…) I doubt, given the political climate and the experience of the ones being built, they will ever be actually started, even lest completed. A whole field of technology slowly being lost and forgotten in front of our eyes.

And in the latter case, not one to be mourned and grieved by many, as most “ecologists” or “environmentalists” decided long ago it was an inherently evil technology, whose risks and drawbacks far outweighed its benefits, and humanity as a whole would be in a much better place if we had never learned how to split the atom. Maybe, maybe not. Unfortunately, designing and building nuclear power plants was a necessary school for keeping alive and improving a number of associated technologies (metallurgy, piping construction and erection, welding, precision mounting of complex equipment, high pressure pumps and valves manufacturing) that are now wilting, and jeopardizing our ability to build similarly advanced, or complex, pieces of equipment (like the vacuum vessel of ITER, mentioned above, that I fear will never be completed because of the sheer impossibility of finding enough welders, or building welding robots advanced enough, to ensure the required airtightness).

Note that in both cases I’ve mentioned (rockets to propel heavy loads into space and nuclear power plants) we have not necessarily lost the theoretical knowledge required to build them. There is no new physics to be rediscovered in order to achieve them, no technical problem to be solved to make ‘em work that hasn’t been already solved. What we have lost is the “institutional” framework that made them possible in a past time. From the money to invest in them (which, in the grand scheme of things, simply means we deem other things to be of higher priority, be them Taylor Swift LPs or Olympic Games, as money is just a signal of how much society as a whole values each good and service it produces) to the rules that bound them (safety measure, technical codes to calculate the thickness of the piping or the safety coefficients of the beams, etc.) and the people that find it worthy to design, build and operate them: we just not possess any more the organizational acumen to see those kind of projects through.

Be it as it may, I also do not think that humanity is doomed because we are losing (or have already lost) our collective ability to build nuclear power plants, or to build rockets that may take us some day beyond Earth’s atmosphere. We could make do without those things, as we indeed have done for most of our history (the ultimate environmentalist argument). I do think we will lead more impoverished lives, with less energy (and dirtiest, as the nuclear power plants not being built, or being shut down, are not being replaced by shiny, clean, renewable wind and solar plants, but by more fossil-fuel-powered ones: Why we are not reducing carbon emissions, Evolution of energy production by source but also number 8 on 10 things to do to reduce carbon emissions (sorry, not gonna happen)), less wealth, less enriching experiences, and less opportunities for human flourishing overall. And the accompanying consequences of those unsavory prospects are more unequal societies (as when there is less to distribute, and less growth, elites tend to compete between themselves more fiercely for the spoils, leaving less for the non-elite majority, as we see already happening in the starkest terms in the Anglo-Saxon countries), with less social mobility, less inter and intra-group harmony, less unity of purpose (in Toynbee’s term, declining societies where elites have lost the creative power to solve new challenges produce a disenfranchised, disenchanted proletariat that is ripe for a new universalistic faith as an alternative to the old, exhausted, civilizational values) and more strife, more anomy, more conflict and more despair.

Which takes me to the happy title of this post (at last!). It seems reasonable that the most complex, most challenging technological constructions are the first ones to stop working in decaying societies (in societies with no unity of purpose, which have by definition lost the ability to coordinate the efforts of many of its members to do things that require great sacrifice and great dedication). So it has been with nuclear energy and manned space exploration (I wonder how longer can unmanned space exploration keep going on once it becomes clear that after a certain point, nobody else is going up there, “boldly beyond” where anybody else has been… what would then be the point to keep on sending probes to what is mostly empty vacuum?), which both demanded a lot of difficult things to “go right”, to be set within very precise parameters, in order to be completed successfully. We can (and should!) wonder, then, what may be the next piece of technological wonder that we are in risk of losing. And I can think of three candidates: the internet, the power grid and the ability to cure infectious diseases. The third one, due to the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, is the one I’m less familiar with, so I won’t deal with it here (and it’s scary enough without needing to delve further in it).

Regarding the second, I see it as the unavoidable consequence of our (somewhat pig-headed and irreflexive) drive towards an entirely distributed network, lacking what we call today “baseload plants”, based on non-programmable energy sources when storage technologies are not ready (and probably, given my current techno-pessimism, will never be) to ensure the right synchronization with the network of the heaviest consumers (think in blast furnaces not being able to work, except in island mode, providing for their own energy needs, as they would bring down they entire outside network every time they attempted to connect… not fun? You may not care much about blast furnace, but what if connecting the third EV of the block had the same effect?) Which doesn’t mean we would devolve in a Mad Max style of life, where switches and electric plugs stop working forever and the only energy source left is the little oil we can still put our hands on (ensuring a mad scramble to take possession of the last remaining spigots). Just a time of frequent and unpredictable blackouts, some of them lasting for days. Again, not enough to end human life, but to make civilizational continuity almost impossible. Between other things, because such discontinuous, unpredictable power supply would bring in its wake the demise of the IT based economy we are living under.

Which takes me to my first candidate for demise: the internet itself. Which I think will disappear even before the current continuous, reliable power grid (although it doesn’t need to: the operators of big data centers, like AWS, could build their own power plants, fully dedicated to feeding the needed Megawatts to their servers, with whatever dirty fuel they can put their hands on). And I think it is the next big chunk of technology (or the next big humanity achievement, if you prefer) to go for the following reasons:

·         Governments don’t want it: the idea of the citizenry having access to every type of information anytime, anywhere, with no filters is just too dangerous. In China they seem to have already achieved what five years ago in the West we thought impossible: full censorship over what almost a billion citizens see and discuss, in an almost frictionless way. It is just a matter of time since Europe, American (and the rest of Asian societies) replicate such feat, in a more decentralized manner, and subcontracting most of the censorship to private enterprises that will both make a mess out of it and use it to increase their leverage over the state remaining authority. Facebook and Twitter are well along the way of policing what is deemed acceptable discourse, and given the social pressure against “hate speech” (anything deemed deviant of the social consensus, which sounds very good until you take a more dispassionate view of what such consensus has achieved) that tendency will only accelerate

·         People don’t want it: I know, I know, this seems truly shocking, when you just have to go out in the street of any city (within a developed economy or otherwise) and everybody out there seems to be glued to their phone screens, fully immersed in a virtual world of social networks, web browsing, instant messaging, casual gaming and mail reading (that’s “the internet” in a nutshell). To which I usually answer: “follow the money”. The true measure of how much people value each good or service (even more so in this most materialistic of eras) is how much they are willing to pay for them. How much are those enthralled masses paying for their so absorbing net surfing? Zilch, a few tens of dollars a month for their mobile phone subscription. Much, much less than what costs to lay the wires, erect the towers, manufacture and configure the routers and put in place the satellites that move all the unimaginably vast amounts of zeros and ones that have to circulate to provide them with their experience. So far, almost all the big telcos that actually build the required infrastructure lose money with it, and investors keep on lending it to them in the expectation that somday, somehow, they will be able to monetize it (something that they thought a decade ago they could do by selling subscriptions to digital TV, a space that is becoming more crowded and more uncertain almost by the hour). Mobile telephony is an interesting case in point, as it has become one of the preferred modes of accessing the web. Companies have deployed now four “generations” of mobile networks, and in the end they have lost tons of money in every one of them (as they had to upgrade to the next before having fully recovered their initial investment), never being able to make the users pay in full. Now they are running to be the first to deploy the fifth one, and the specialized press is chock full of the usual (mostly baloney-ish) stories about what a gold mine it is going to be, and how it is going to fundamentally change the way people work and live. All while lining in gold the pockets of the telco companies, of course. Well, the manufacturers of the underlying equipment (one of which, Huawei, is going through a rough patch because of its kerfuffle with the Trump administration, which would merit a post of its own) are wont to make a killing, but the poor saps buying and using them will not, doesn’t matter how many new “killer apps”, and “new revenue streams” they are promised by astute consultants hungry to make a dime. In the end, investors will keep footing the bill of telephone users as long as there is no other, better, shinier opportunity for their hard-earned dollars, but woe the moment such opportunity arises (or, in a serious downturn, money dries up)…

Again, I don’t think any of it will happen suddenly, one day the governments of the world “closing the internet down”, or all the telcos going bust at the same time. I see a gradual degradation of service, with more and more sites being barred, or impossible to access, more and more discontinuities of service and less and less reliability. In that situation (similar to what you experience daily on rural villages in the north of Spain like where I’ve been for a week this summer), you just give up and learn to live again off the net, without feeling you are losing much, to be honest (I thought maybe I was from another generation, but my elder son seemed to also adapt just fine). I have to admit that it was a superbly engineered network (well, it was designed so the US high command could keep communications with their field stations was kept open in case of nuclear war, no matter how many nodes had been disabled, wasn’t it?) and that makes it extra resilient, but in the end the people will find it just too cumbersome, too full of holes and interruptions, and absurd rules about what can be discussed and why, and will resort to alternative ways of passing their time or find alternative modes of investing their attention, one that doesn’t require gazillions of wires and optic fiber and antennas and mega constellations and routers and multiplexors to be laid all over the Earth (hundreds of kilometers above in some cases) that nobody is really willing to pay for.

And when that happens… those will be interesting times indeed!