Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Classification: Euphemism, moral rationalization
Definition: Adjective used to describe items over which the exclusive right to use and dispose are legally vested in a self-selected individual or group of individuals.
The principle of private ownership is one of the concepts most central to the ideology of info speak. In its abstract, theoretical sense, it is also one of the least controversial ideas. But from a very narrow construction of that principle flow the flawed but powerful dynamic of patronage and the dubious conflation of wealth with moral virtue.
For at least thirty years it has not been possible to hold a serious discussion about the nature and extent of private ownership as a promoter of the public good. Experiments with various Marx-inspired philosophies in the 20th century have led to a stable consensus that a state's generalized opposition to the private holding of property, even when promoted sincerely and not merely used as a ruse to dupe a gullible populace, always heralds the advent of an incompetent kleptocracy. The strength of this consensus has given the principle of private ownership a kind of priviledged status that effectively short circuits any serious discussions to better define its extent and limits as a promoter of the public good.
Until March 29th, that is, when Justice Sweet of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a ruling denying several patents to Myriad Genetics, Inc. over naturally occurring genes involved in the development of certain types of breast and ovarian cancers.
The Association for Molecular Pathology (a non-profit promoting genetic medicine) initiated the suit as plaintiff to deny these patents and was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation.
The defendant, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, had earlier granted the disputed patents to Myriad Genetics, Inc., a privately owned biotechnology company which had developed several products based on the patents to obtain a practical monopoly over the market for certain types of cancer screening.
The primary judicial grounds for invalidating these patents was their inherent unconstitutionality, holding that under the First Amendment (i.e., "Free Speech") and the Fourteenth Amendment (i.e., guarantee to "Life, Liberty,Pursuit of Happiness"), it is not possible to grant patents over " . . . products of nature, laws of nature and/or natural processes, and abstract ideas or basic human knowledge or thought."
Numerous supporting briefs were submitted by third parties elaborating their consideration of the consequences of granting or denying patents over such naturally occurring genes. Not surprisingly, those filed in support of Myriad's patents tended to emphasize the advantage of exclusive rights over the genes when attracting investment for biotechnology firms. Briefs against the patents asserted that the monopoly resulting from such patents actually stifles innovation by making competitors' research too expensive and places the cost of life-saving treatments out of reach of many women, effectively denying them their basic human rights.
Groups submitting briefs included the American Medical Association and March of Dimes in opposition to the patents and the Boston Patent Law Association in support.
Though there will almost certainly be a lengthy series of further appeals, it nonetheless marks a turning point in the debate of private property in this country. The Myriad case is the most serious challenge to private ownership over the genetic code of living organisms since the controversial 1980 case Diamond v Chakrabarty.
The subject of Diamond v Chakrabarty, however, was the genetic code of a bacterium which had been significantly altered by the party claiming the patent, whereas Myriad seeks to hold exclusive rights over an unaltered human gene.
As referenced within the court's opinion, a Dr. Fiona Murray has estimated that to date approximately 20% of the genome in every human being--you and me--is currently held under exclusive patent. And I'm fairly certain that none of those patents are held in my name.
So while the final disposition of this controversy may be far off, many important ideas have received a new lease on life; and the idea that private ownership is an absolute moral good, that it always and necessarily guarantees economic progress now seems to be open for serious debate. Maybe others will be encouraged to articulate more complete notions of the public good or better distinguish between wealth and virtue or even work on some non-sectarian notion of a sacred space, out of the reach of the venal or profane.
Etymology: French proriétaire < Latin proprietarius
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Category: State of population affect
Definition: Not a stock phrase used by info speak as such. Rather, an assessment of the conduciveness of psychological forces within a given audience to the techniques and strategies of info speak. In a model I call the Receiptivity Continuum, it is the point at which continued use of info speak tactics begins to yield diminishing results.
The primary general strategy underlying info speak's numerous specific tactics is the appeal to audience fear. From the point of view of sparking prompt action, it is a very effective strategy. Fear may be the single strongest human emotion, the one provoking the most immediate and least ambirguous reaction -- fight or flight. Secondary strategies such as fragmentation, ambiguity and incoherence serve to intensify the effect and enhance the audience's identification with the speaker.
However, there are serious drawbacks related to the exploitation of fear. Firstly, since fear prompts immediate action, persons acting under its influence are not likely to make considered calculations of long-term implications. Each hastily undertaken action is therefore likely to result in both unforeseen negative consequences and reduce his or her capacity for the prolonged rational thought required to address the situation.
Secondly, in the context of public discourse, an audience's inducement to fear by a speaker is predicated on that speaker's ability to provide relief. A programme of prolonged provocation will, over time, gradually reduce the audience's faith in the speaker's ability to do so, if not cast doubt on his or good intention itself.
The eventual result will be a kind of flame out, a point in time at which a critical mass of individuals are simply no longer willing or able to sustain continued fear. This I term the point of "Fear Fatigue".
It is usually not possible to definitively identify the specific point in time of Fear Fatigue's inception or completion, since it is a group phenomenum. It normally takes place over a protracted period. While the specific trajectory of the flame out will vary among individuals, the overall result is certainly a reduced or even extinguished support for the speaker, his or her specific programme and its underlying ideology and conceptual framework.
Inquiries into the nature and history of Fear Fatigue have led some to posit a theoretical alternative state called the "Joy Inflection"--a point at which discourse is driven by more positive emotions like love or mutual respect.
Etymology: Name of a 1980's pop band from Manchester, England.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Categories: Paradigm descriptor
Definition: An analytical account of the institutional dynamic underlying information age culture rather than an example of info speak itself. A system of perversive incentives is an arrangement where the actual incentives of participants are designed to undermine the aims which they obstensibly serve.
Individual examples are numerous, but the most striking in current headlines at time of this writing may be those related to recent developments in Lehman Brothers bankruptcy proceedings.
In brief, the primary alleged accounting irregularities were a series of transactions intended to mislead financial statement users into believing that certain Lehman assets had been sold at favorable market conditions. In substance, however, the assets had not been so disposed. Lehman appears to have previously agreed to repurchase the assets in question after the date of the financial statements. Therefore such assets should have been included in that company's financial statements--along with the corresponding changes in market value. In this case, serious losses.
A regrettable series of events, no doubt about it. But the particular implication which I wish to explore under the heading "System of Perverse Incentives" lies deep within the subtext of the reply of Lehman's original hired auditors. The following is a response from a spokesman of the auditing firm, as quoted by the marketwatch story link above.
". . . . Our last audit of the Company was for the fiscal year ending November 30, 2007. Our opinion indicated that Lehman's financial statements for that year were fairly presented in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), and we remain of that view."
On the surface this appears to be an entirely unremarkable statement, as I suspect the spokesman intended. It ostensibly makes no claim other than that the auditor's work product attested to Lehman's fulfillment of the technical letter of the law.
Let us not scorn to ask, "How would an auditor's work product come to make such an attestation?" A host of simple and technically correct but superficial answers spring immediately to mind: "As a standard part of their audit work product"; "In accordance with regulatory and professional association standards (S.E.C., G.A.A.S., et alia)"; so on and so forth. True though these answers may be , as far as they go, they ultimately serve the standard info speak strategems of partial truth and fragmentation. They prevent an appropriate comprehension of the system's gestalt.
The more complete truth, I suspect is a "System of Perverse Incentives", the framework of which begins to come into view when we consider the following elementary, unspoken mundane facts:
1.) The ostensible goal of audits of publicly traded entities is protect the nation against counterfeiting. The securities of such entities form a significant component of the money supply, as defined by M3. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_Supply. www.investorswords.com/2910/M3.html. No nation will indulge the sustained infringement of its national sovereignty by individuals for their private gain.
2.) Auditors, however, are hired by the Company's board of directors, and not by any governmental authority.
3.) It is in the shared interest of both management and the board of directors to present positive financial results to capital markets.
4.) The business model of auditing firms makes them dependant upon the patronage of the companies whom they audit.
5.) As currently structured, satisfaction of regulatory requirements by auditors does no more than allow them entry into the auditing market. True competitive advantage lies in the auditing firm's management of public perception according to the info speak paradigm. There is no real advantage for one firm to be "more compliant" than its competitors. Under the strictures of a resource optimization theory, "minimum compliance" is the most rational choice.
While the urgent short-term interests of completing the legal proceedings related to Lehman's bankruptcy cannot be reasonably expected to address this systemic perversity, it is definitely in society's long-term interest to take this sober look at what it has made of itself. Can we imagine a more virtuous set of incentives?
* Readers, please feel free to submit synonyms from your own experience to expand the discussion!
Friday, March 19, 2010
Categories: Ideological identifier
Definition: Constellation of normative judgments supported by an ideological faction. Used to subtextually indicate a level of moral commitment and superiority supposedly absent from others outside the reference group.
Similar to other info speak catch phrases, this one employs a combination of imprecision, which renders it almost meaningless when interpreted at face value, with a mendacious dishonesty. What does it mean to have values? How are those values acted upon in difficult, real-world situations? Isn't it rather dangerously naive to rely entirely on a fixed 'point of view' in a three dimensional world? Perhaps it is this inflexibility which sometimes gives the discourse of 'values' speakers a flat, two-dimensional quality.
The real purpose of 'point of view' or 'values' speakers is most often to short-circuit debate and quickly build a critical mass of popular support. The contest for logical integrity of the argument is abandoned altother in exchange for political advantage. In a very ironic manner, by using such terms, the speaker indicates that he or she does not believe his audience intelligent or sophisticated enough to be able to evaluate his propositions on their merit. Often very effective.
Etymology: Twenty-first century revision of "Si Deus pro nobis quis Contra nos?" ("If God is for us, who can be against?")--Romans 8:31.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Categories: Euphemism, obscuritanism
Definition: Vague term ostensibly referring to a programme of activities promoting some good. Not inherently incorrect, just imprecise. Use of such terms are frequent examples of the ironic manner in which info speak misleads. Presented as plain, straightforward terms for uncontroversial practises to which there could be no reasonable objection, they are, however, many times couched within pleas for an audience to act against its own interest. For example, the unspoken subtext accompanying 'risk management' is usually the words 'for me'. Any consequences beyond the speaker's immediate circle--more than likely including the audience-- are deemed irrelevant.
What users of such terms require is the audience's uncritical identification with the speaker. Availing him or herself of the normal presumption that a speaker intends to promote some common interest held with the audience, the speaker employs positive-sounding but ambiguous terms to elicit approval to his or her proposals. Over time and a series of similarly vague proposals and implied approvals, a relationship dynamic is established in which it becomes increasingly difficult to raise effective objections.
Even in scenarios in which there is a clear and objective difference between the interest group represented by a speaker (e.g., insurance company executive) and that of the audience (e.g., policy holders), there is often a wider, more profound ideological identification that prevents effective objection. Although it seems obvious that an insurance company makes more profit on a policy where no claims are paid, a situation that would hardly satisfy a policy holder, such conflicts are rarely acknowledged.
Two a priori assumptions of the current culture aid and abet these strategies of misidentification. Firstly, the idea that the optimization of outcomes by each individual will always lead to the optimal outcome for the whole, which legitimizes aggressive behaviour. Worse than merely ignoring the waste of resources that could be more efficiently pooled together, it attempts to convert selfishness from a private vice into a public virtue. Secondly, the conflation of wealth and power with moral virtue, which has progressed to such an extent that to posit any distinction will almost certainly result in a barrage of charges ranging from naivete to stupidity to insanity to gross immorality.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Categories: In-group status identifier
Definition: Palpable aura of depravity thought to announce the presence of an unbeliever to members of a belief community, as in, "I'd stay clear of that fellow--he has something of the Kavorka about him". To have Kavorka about onesself means essentially to be excluded, outlawed, a free target for all manner of abuse.
"Kavorka" as such is rarely uttered aloud, as it is the strongest possible moral condemnation that can be conceived. A person using this word prematurely assumes for him or herself the role of ultimate arbiter of belonging within the group, thereby subjecting him or her own self to heightened scrutiny--a bitter irony indeed. Rather, the presence of Kavorka is communicated subtlely through avoidant behaviour by high-status members toward the target, eventually filtering down through the ranks as the signals become unmistakeable. It is only after the lowest tier of an organization's members become confidant of their superiors' signals that the dread term may be uttered aloud--and then only in whispers.
While the extreme consequence of the Kavorka sanction is clear to even the most casual observer, the infraction giving rise to the sanction may not always appear to be correspondingly severe. It could be as blatant as expressing public doubt of a superior's assertion, or it could be the mere perceived failure to concur with sufficient enthusiasm.
This strange variation seems to do primarily with the highly fragile nature of the information-based economy. In an environment where outcomes are measured in short-term increments like hours and days rather than months and years, and the only thing one has to offer is one's credibility, control of the audience's immediate field of perception is paramount, and little deviation from message can be tolerated.
Etymology. Ironically adapted from "Kavorka" as used in the "Conversion" episode of the popular 1990's sitcom "Seinfeld". Literal definition in that episode was "animal lure"--an aura of highly charged sexual attractiveness.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Categories: Evasion, veiled threat.
Definition: "Do you know who I am?" is a phrase often uttered by a defensive underling of a tyrannical boss when trying to deflect away from his/her boss or ogranization the unwelcome scrutiny of an outsider. Implicit in the appeal to the power or prestige of his/her identity is a veiled threat to the interlocutor as well as the recognition that there may not be a legitimate objective reason to avoid the scrutiny. Which is precisely why this phrase is much more often uttered by relatively low-status individuals; truely high-status individuals will usually have a strong enough command of the domain of inquiry to derail scrutiny by 'helpfully' pointing out alternate avenues of inquiry that may be 'more productive' or 'more efficient'.
Etymology: Derived from "You can't talk to your parent that way!". Informs the interlocutor that he or she has violated a fundamental norm of the relationship and that, relative to the utterer, the interlocutor is a mere child with neither the position or understanding to question the utterer or evaluate any response.
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Due to the need to make each entry as broadly applicable to a general audience as possible, most entries represent the distillation of the observations of numerous, unrelated individuals. Given the sometimes sensitive nature of the communications involved, efforts have been made to strip all entries of information which may specifically identify individuals. No reference to specific individuals, living or dead, should therefore be inferred.
Although I am more than pleased to receive and acknowledge feedback and submissions from interested blog readers and colleagues, and efforts will be made to accomodate reasonable differences of opinion within the scope of this project, all final editorial decisions will be made by myself, without right of appeal.
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