Friday, 21 October 2011

Ah, Sweet Semantics.

My sister-in-law has jumped into the blogging pool with both feet this month; her writing is more of a personal nature than mine, discussing life events rather than complaining about the state of the world.

Today, she has posted some observations about accountability that I think are particularly useful and timely, given what's going on around us.  I won't steal her thunder, of course, but her comments provoked me to consider what "accountability" really means, and how it plays out in the modern world.

Every day, we hear all sorts of people talking about "accountability."  The President talks about accountability for the financial mess we're in.  Executives speak of how they pledge to be "accountable" to their shareholders, workers, and customers for decisions.  Janet Reno, the former AG, spoke to much acclaim from the press about how she accepted "full responsibility" for the disastrous raid on the Waco compound of religious fanatics (of course, "responsibility" and "accountability" are not precisely the same, but close enough to be useful here).  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are demanding that "The One Per Cent" be held to account for the myriad ills they perceive.

One can, of course, flip open a dictionary (or even more conveniently, look it up on-line, which carries far less risk of a paper cut) to see what the word "accountability" means.

It's one man's observation, of course, but I find that none of these people who claim to accept "accountability" actually do so.  Accountability means more than just insincere (or even sincere) mea culpas on "60 Minutes." Part of the deal is that there be parallel consequences.  People are willing to do the former, but precious few are really prepared for the latter.

In the operetta "The Mikado," the eponymous character at the beginning of the second act sings of his goal to make the punishment fit the crime, and then proceeds to list precisely how he plans to carry this out. It's parody of course, but I highly recommend a listen.

The head of a bank that twisted the rules to the limit of breaking so he could fatten his bonus is not really accepting "accountability" by saying "Sorry.  I won't do it again."  Sure; his firm may pay some fines (the source of which is more than likely to be recovered in fees passed on to some of the customers he defrauded).  He's ain't giving up his home in the Hamptons.  He may toss a few low-level employees to the wolves, of course.  SOMEONE has to be accountable, I guess.

Janet Reno said she would take responsibility for incinerating dozens of people, including small children.  She continued on for many years as AG, and even ran for governor of Florida and currently tours the country making lucrative speeches about the criminal justice system.

Is that "responsibility" in any real way?

Has anyone on Wall Street really been held to accounts in any tangible way?  Any CEO or other executive appeared in the dock to answer for what they did?

The Occupy Wall Street people are right to demand that those responsible for facilitating our economic meltdown should be made accountable for what they've done.

But are even they willing to be responsible?  Responsible for borrowing money to buy a house that they could not afford?  For running up massive debts to buy gadgets that they did not need or to spend six years partying in college, ultimately, in many cases, failing to obtain a degree of dubious value to begin with?

When I was child, it was understood that if I broke the rules, my parents would hold me to account - and they largely did.  I don't know if that's still universally true (a few years back, some wealthy parents in Saratoga, California actually threatened to take their school to court if it disciplined their children who had admitted cheating on the AP exams), but most kids do get that if they get caught breaking the rules, they will be punished.

And that punishment will not likely include being allowed to keep millions of dollars in bonuses that were gained as a result of their misdeeds.

Accountability must include real contrition, and also must include consequences that, more often than not, will at least discomfit the person "accepting" accountability.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Day the Music Died, ca. 2011

An era of sorts came to an end today.  More truthfully, it was yesterday - the event itself occurred yesterday, but I read the news today, oh boy.

Of course, I am talking about the passing of Apple co-founder and tech icon Steve Jobs, who died at the age of 56.  A lot has already been written about Mr Jobs, most of it glowing comments on how much he and his ingenuity changed the world.  I've never been a big fan of Steve Jobs, and I have long thought of Apple as a sort of cult for gadget-worshiping acolytes.

There's a centuries old admonition not to speak ill of the deceased, and I am absolutely sure that Mr Jobs's passing, particularly at such a relatively young age (56) will leave a tremendous scar on his family and friends.  I lost my own father when he was 53 a decade and a half ago, and indeed, it leaves a hole that is never really filled or covered-over.

That said, I would tend to point to the observation that Senator Edward Kennedy made of his brother Robert F Kennedy during his famous eulogy in 1968 - one should not make more of (Jobs) in death than he was in life.

Was Steve Jobs a "visionary?"  Did he really make the world a better place, as some would have you believe?

To the former, I would have to say a qualified "yes."  He certainly had a vision - of user-friendly, slickly packaged products.  The fact that Apple is now the most valuable tech company in the world, and the second most valuable company (behind only Exxon Mobil) speaks to the consequence of that.

Did he make the world a better place?  I would say that the latter conjecture is somewhat of a mixed bag.

Mr Jobs did not actually invent any of the technologies or products that had so profound an impact on the world.  The smart phone; the mp3 player.  The GUI.  The mouse interface.  None of these was pioneered by Jobs or even Apple, for that matter.

But what Steve Jobs's real genius was was taking someone else's great ideas and packaging them in such a way that they appealed to more than just a handful of tech geeks in San Jose, California.  He was able not to see a need, but to create one, almost out of whole cloth.  No one, of course, needs to have a $400 telephone with a slick interface and the ability to "tweet" 140-character esoterica 24/7.  But when Mr Jobs, the Prophet in the Black Turtleneck pitched the latest gadget from a stage in the Moscone Centre in San Francisco, that item immediately became a totem.  Either you had the newest geegaw, or you didn't.

And the Macnostic cultists responded.  Queues, days in advance at times, formed outside the Apple Store to hand over money.

Are we better off?  In many ways, yes we are.  We can now stay in touch, get information, and run our lives from virtually anywhere in the world.  An array of music, entertainment, and connection is now at our fingertips, virtually wherever and whenever we want.

THAT has real value.

The cost, of course, is the stoking of desire for expensive toys that not all can afford (perhaps most cannot).  More to the point, as our linkages grow, our ability to disconnect shrinks.  We are now virtually never "free."  And of course, with the proliferation of iPads and iPods, our real, personal connections are replaced by virtual ones.  Music, once a shared experience, is now increasingly a solitary one.  We speak to each other face to face less, and with "twitter" more.

That's not necessarily a good thing.  Technological advance is not without price.

Ultimately, in assessing the impact of Steve Jobs, I return to the idea that he, more than anything, was perhaps the greatest marketeer who has ever lived.  This is perfectly, if indirectly, summed up today reading the encomia about his life.

In one obit circulating, ironically, Mr Jobs is spoken of as a co-founder of Apple with "a friend from high school."  The fact that Steve Wozniak - the actual creator of the Apple computer is not mentioned by name until about 90% of way through, and then as a sort of aside, is perfect testimony to how great Steve Jobs's ability to package the world as he saw it really was.

Steve Jobs in my estimation was the PT Barnum for the 21st century.  He did not really discover "Dumbo," but brought the beast to the masses.  He less fulfilled needs than created desires.

His life represents a triumph of will, really, and the ability to convince the world that his vision of how things could or should be needed to prevail. He's now gone, and it will be interesting to see how Apple carries on in his absence.  I suspect for the Macnostics, this is somewhat akin to the death of Peter in the early days of the Church.  I reckon the search is going on for a new Pope to shepherd  the faithful.