Tao of the Zentropist

June 26, 2013

Welcome to Surveillance Society

Governments and private industry have a vested interest in knowing what we are all about – should this come as a surprise to anyone in this age? The fact that Edward Snowden has publicly leaked information about the scope and substance of at least some (and perhaps not all) of the U.S. government’s ongoing programs will perhaps spur some much needed debate on the subject, but for those who find this revelatory, I would point to the public disclosure of ECHELON more than a decade ago as indicative of what direction the world is heading. Quite frankly, my own personal operating assumption has been that digital channels as well as voice communications have been subject to intercept and monitoring for a long time now; the only question was, how often was this capability actually used? It’s pretty disturbing that the default setting appears to be to capture and archive everything, in effect establishing the boundaries of the “haystack” before searching for “the needle.” And with questionable oversight and accountability, the potential for abuse is staggering, even as we are told that sprawling data collection is necessary to “keep us safe.”

BIG DATA AND ALL ITS IMPLICATIONS

These days, it seems that if you don’t have a substantial digital footprint, you don’t exist, and while privacy advocates might relish this, given the convenience as well as outright necessity in some instances of maintaining an online presence it’s increasingly hard to do. For example, business networking and simple prudence tend to enforce the notion that a professional profile on LinkedIn is a necessity to find or maintain employment. If you don’t have a profile, you risk being seen as hopelessly outdated or “out of touch,” and even if happily employed (and this includes owning your own business), many customers and more importantly, prospective customers expect to be able to find relevant information about you without expending too much effort. Public profiles are in part seen as a means of validation and possible future recruitment (and prospecting for those selling goods and services), as well as a tool for networking and business intelligence gathering.

As consumers, we tend to enjoy the benefits of data analysis and relevancy; the recommendation engines of leading commerce sites are based not only on our past purchase history but our browsing activity, comments, and even the profiles of other people suspected of harboring similar interests and habits online.  While this is arguably a convenience when we are in shopping and a way to introduce us to products that we might otherwise miss mode (as well as a great way for companies to encourage spur-of-the-moment consumption to boost their bottom line), this data trail follows us and can quickly start to define us.

ONCE YOU’RE IN THE SYSTEM, YOU’RE IN FOR LIFE

Another issue to consider is that once we have deliberately or inadvertently established certain patterns and behavioral attributes online, deviation from these norms could very well trigger algorithms which flag us for closer investigation. For example, if an individual goes from very active and robust use of email, social media and other online activity, and then abruptly trails off, who is to say that this doesn’t trigger certain surveillance tripwires? While an abrupt curtailing or termination of such activity might have very innocent explanations, it could also signal more serious concerns from the perspective of a government or corporation. From the corporate point of view, has this consumer lost interest in their offerings? Maybe it’s time to send coupons or other promotional material to re-spark interest. From the government point of view, is this individual now incapacitated, deceased or going to ground for perhaps more nefarious purposes? Would it be prudent to inquire into the individual’s health records, financial institutions or credit card providers to see what recent activity (or lack thereof) is revealed?

It has been observed that as surveillance grows and becomes more acceptable (or even palatable) to the populace, it has a corrosive effect on liberty. Robust access to behavioral data is a sure path to predictive profiling, and the potential for misuse or worse, misinterpretation of the data must give one pause, not to mention the ramifications of theft of such data by hackers or unscrupulous parties acting from not only outside the system, but possibly within it.

HOW DOES THIS BODE FOR AUTHENTICITY?

In social media and marketing, “authenticity” has become a buzzword du jour, used to convey the sense of “keeping it real” in one’s interactions with the outside world. I’ve historically felt that for those who feel the need to constantly harp on this subject, it raises into question how much of their authenticity is genuine and how much is manufactured, sort of like the illusion that is “reality TV.” Perhaps more insidiously, the more that one reveals to the world at large, the more this data can be mined, aggregated and analyzed not only in an effort to manipulate the individual’s consumer choices, but even to influence and to some degree control behavior and attitudes as well. While some might see this as paranoid or alarmist, social media accounts are a treasure trove of information which people voluntarily populate, requiring data collection and analysis, and perhaps occasional phishing attacks and social engineering to further exploit.

Ultimately, technology has enabled the Pandora’s Box of mythology to become reality, and like all things, has brought both welcome progress as well as arguably less beneficial developments to our world. We are fast learning, even in countries with democratically elected governments, that whether or not the political elite truly represent the “will of the people” is open to debate, and furthermore, that the vast bureaucracies and sprawling public and private apparatus established to enable modern societies is subject to exploitation from both within and without. Any thinking person who is not at least a little bit unsettled by the state of things deserves to realize that the new boss is exactly the same as the old boss…

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October 20, 2010

On (Office) Politics

“War is a continuation of politics by other means…”

Carl von Clausewitz

A few days ago, while performing research on another unrelated matter, I stumbled across an interesting article written by Don Tennant on IT Business Edge entitled, “10 Reasons to Avoid Office Politics.” While I admire the spirit in which the article was written, and actually agree with Don’s reasoning (which was written in response to information on Salary.com encouraging the practice of office politicking in order to get ahead), as a pragmatist I believe that holding oneself aloof from office politics, as well-intentioned as it may be, can seriously backfire and like it or not, acquiring the skills to outmaneuver those that resort to this practice is part of one’s job (and even life) survival toolkit.

POLITICS IN THE WORKPLACE – IS PARTICIPATION REALLY OPTIONAL?

One reality that must be acknowledged is that by definition, interaction among two or more individuals in any social setting (and make no mistake, the workplace is a social setting, more so for some than others) immediately establishes a power baseline, in which the two individuals, consciously or not, establish a relationship which may be more complex and dynamic than either are aware. At the risk of being misinterpreted, all relationships, whether professional, personal (e.g. based on notions of friendship), romantic or casual acquaintances, have either a formally acknowledged balance of power and/or some expectations of reciprocity. Humans, like most animal species, inherently establish a social order and dominance, and while this admission may be offensive to some, wishing it weren’t so or pretending it doesn’t exist can be highly detrimental to one’s career.

While office politics may take many forms, more often than not the most insidious and subversive expression of this “great game” is the back-biting and hard feelings engendered by playing different people, if not entire departments, off of each other in order to realize some personal agenda or gain.  Sometimes this is done to mark one’s territory or to curry favor with others (typically of higher rank and authority) within the organization, but sometimes it’s done for the perverse pleasure of sowing chaos to underscore one’s “importance” or to position oneself as a “broker” of favors, with the full expectation that payback (with interest) will be expected in the future.

While it’s not necessarily true in all instances, some of the most adept and accomplished office politicos tend to be those who are most inept, incompetent and eager to shirk responsibilities by assigning these tasks to others in order to cover for their shortcomings. Typically, these people have well-developed office survival skills and have learned how to manipulate corporate bureaucracies or enjoy favored status with higher-level management, which is why they manage to flourish even if harder-working and more accomplished employees could outperform them if given the opportunity.  While we typically like to believe that workplace promotions are based on merit, even in environments where hard metrics and incisive performance evaluations are utilized, allowing one’s “soft skills” to atrophy can blemish and otherwise distinguished history of accomplishments.

COUNTERMEASURES WHEN DEALING WITH WOULD-BE MACHIAVELLIS

One of the most challenging situations to deal with in a workplace environment is when a co-worker, especially one with longer tenure or more prestige and power in the organization, is working behind the scenes to discredit you or actively sabotage your efforts.  While perhaps many are familiar with “The Prince” by Machiavelli, which is arguably one of the earliest literary works to address realpolitik, a more recent book which contains a great deal of wisdom (and admittedly, perhaps a healthy dose of cynicism about the human condition) regarding relationships is Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power.” Among the laws that Greene advances are the following:

  • Never Outshine The Master
  • Never Put Too Much Trust In Friends, Learn How To Use Enemies
  • Conceal Your Intentions
  • Always Say Less Than Necessary

And if you’re seeing a certain pattern beginning to emerge, bear in mind these are merely the first four of his laws! With that being said, I do believe there is a context which must govern the application of these “laws,” and in relationships where true openness and honesty are expected and desired (if such a thing is indeed possible), those who abide by these rules are really “stacking the deck” and not living up to such lofty ideals.

While many of us would tend to be inclined to take the moral high ground and condemn Greene’s observations on how to wield power, there is an argument to be made that when dealing with people that act without scruples, or seek to deceive others through outright fabrications or lies of omission (which they may believe to be harmless, but seldom are), it is morally acceptable and even defensible to deflect their energies and stratagems back at them. For example, if dealing with someone in a position of authority that has raging insecurities, the worst thing one can do is threaten their authority or position, even if unintentionally, by outshining them or failing to call attention to the correctness and efficacy of their actions.

THE POWER TO DICTATE ONE’S FUTURE

There is little doubt in my mind that among the keys to satisfaction with one’s career and working life is to continuously build upon one’s skills in both breadth and depth, while hopefully aligning these with one’s interests and fundamental passions, but we must also accept the fact that in challenging economic times, many people must resort to not necessarily, “Following their bliss” but simply working to survive.

In an “employer’s market,” workers that lack sufficient interpersonal skills, which include the ability to be cunning and perhaps quite circumspect when necessary, may find themselves outmaneuvered by those more willing to engage directly in subterfuge or outright deception. While it’s relatively easy to condemn politics in the workplace, escaping it is probably a chimera, and staking one’s future on illusory beliefs is a poor strategy indeed…

February 23, 2010

The Coming American (R)Evolution

Part One of a Planned Multi-Part Series…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


-William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The time has come to tackle a subject which many pundits, opinion-makers, and ideologues across the political spectrum have been speaking of with increasing vitriol and divisiveness, which is the fracturing of the veil of prosperity and upward mobility which has been the hallmark of the American Dream for generations, forged in the fires of our Founding Revolution gaining independence from Great Britain.

We’re in trouble, folks, and pretending otherwise is foolish and will only postpone the inevitable. The United States has become a massive debtor nation, and an increasingly large percentage of the population in what is the “richest, most powerful nation on earth” are living lives of increasing desperation, at least so far as our traditional American standards and expectations have defined. While politicians dither and in many cases, cynically manipulate the system out of personal interest and beholden to those that control their purse strings, the physical and educational infrastructure of this country crumbles, executives with little concern beyond the next quarter’s bottom line make decisions with implications that impact the lives of millions, our population grows even more anaesthetized and disengaged as it gorges on a diet of 24/7 “info-tainment” and mindless lowest common denominator “reality” fare, and meanwhile, we engage in conflicts which on many levels may be necessary, but with a tiny fraction of the population bearing the actual burden of the fighting.

Like all civilizations before us, we have reached a crossroads and the choices (difficult as they may be) which we make now will define us for eternity. Even if we do nothing, which is what many in positions of power seem compelled or resigned to do, we have made a choice, and the repercussions of our inaction will echo throughout time as we slide into the chasm which has engulfed other once great peoples. If recorded history teaches us one thing, it is that human nature does not change, and throughout the world lie hints that contrary to the widely accepted view that mankind has technologically evolved over time, save for periods of “back-sliding,” we operate under no assurance that this is a constant or that we are somehow immune to the pressures and choices which have destroyed empires and nations that had cohesively endured far longer than our 234 year run thus far.

REVOLUTION OR EVOLUTION? WHICH WILL IT BE?

As I see it, we face very stark choices right now, which will likely become more restricted as time goes on and we slip deeper into the quagmire we’ve created for ourselves. The United States as a whole can seek to evolve, to apply the enormous potential of our creative and business minds to adjust our course, to make certain sacrifices which may be unpleasant in the short-term, but which are far more preferable to what we could face in the mid or long-term if we do not take such action. Or we can continue to allow the fear, hopelessness and steadily building anger which is permeating many sectors of our population to build, until it finds release in revolution, which even in its non-violent expression leads to fractures and rifts in which the rights of dissenters to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as well as the rule of law – may be compromised as passions inflame action and desperation yields to extreme agitation.

Before I get too much farther, I should clearly state for the record that the thought of our present circumstances leading to violence, organized or not, is deeply troubling and not a course that I wish to see inflicted upon this nation. Yet I cannot help but observe that circumstances are staging themselves nicely for the emergence of demagogues on either extreme of the political spectrum, and I do not deceive myself into believing that right-wing or left-wing extremism cannot take hold in the United States. I believe it is the duty of the vast majority of us who occupy positions somewhere in the amorphous and not easily defined “middle,” that understand that we can find solutions if we bravely face and acknowledge reality, to try to prevent a schism which would destroy the very promise and noble ideals that America was founded upon.

OUTLINING THE STAKES – THREATS FACING THE STABILITY OF THESE UNITED STATES

In order to present solutions to any problem, it is first necessary to acknowledge that the problem exists, to understand what the repercussions are if the problem is not addressed, and to seek to find solutions that will eliminate the problem as an ongoing concern or at the very least, minimize the impact that the problem will have on the future.

Unlike many op-ed writers in many “papers of record,” at the very least I feel compelled to try to offer possible solutions to these problems in upcoming postings. Rather than be yet another “doom and gloom” naysayer crying that the sky is falling, I believe it is incumbent to try to motivate others to seek solutions while we still have palatable options, or before we are backed into a corner individually and collectively and the only choices remaining are poor or unthinkable.  I can’t promise that my answers are the best ones available, but I hope that they are better than silence or the monumental and borderline criminal obfuscation and collusion with special interests engaged in by the majority of our current crop of politicians.

As I see it, there are seven vital issues facing us right now, some of which are interlinked, which must be addressed in a coherent and forward-looking manner:

  • Unemployment and Underemployment – Why the U6 Number Matters
  • Crumbling Physical and Technological Infrastructure Heading Towards Obsolescence
  • Energy Dependence on Foreign Oil
  • Geo-Politics and Global Security – Why Radical Interpretations of Islam are a Threat
  • Spiraling Healthcare Costs and Government Entitlements – There is No Free Lunch
  • Underfunded Pension Liabilities – The Nasty Surprise Awaiting Many Future Retirees
  • Education and Lifelong Learning – Ignorance is a Choice with Serious Consequences

Each of these issues is of significant scope and pressing need to present formidable challenges on their own; the fact that we are facing these in a confluence of bad timing due to years of inaction, recklessness and lack of political will to deal with these before they escalated to pending or current crisis status is most unfortunate.

WHY FREEDOM IS PREFERABLE TO SLAVERY IN ANY FORM

Many Americans would do well to remember Gerald Ford’s admonition that, “The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” I do not believe that more government is the answer to the problems facing us – our government is bloated and inefficient as it is, and while government can work in partnership with the private sector to help facilitate solutions, with rare exception has government ever proven to operate more efficiently or productively than profit-motivated private industry. It’s not that Capitalism as a concept is fatally flawed or outdated; however, unbridled and unregulated capitalism does concentrate wealth, and correspondingly, power, in the hands of a few and if we rely on a sense of benevolence or noblesse oblige from some of today’s oligarchs (little better than the 19th Century’s Robber Barons) raised with little sense of a moral compass or civic responsibility greater than themselves, we are really in trouble.

While it may be true that it’s hard in modern society to be completely self-reliant and to one degree or another, as individuals and nations we are all inter-connected, this does not mean that we cannot strive to do better. For all the pessimism and bad news that the 24/7 news cycle seems to feed upon, every day witnesses all too often unheralded acts of kindness, compassion and heroism from ordinary people that are willing to put their money, principles and sometimes even their lives on the line to help others.

Freedom is a scary proposition, because freedom entails risk, but ultimately, we can only trade our freedom for the illusion of security while voluntarily and cowardly slipping on the shackles and fetters that enable us to become little more than serfs to the minority in power at any given time or place in history.

In my next posting I’ll delve deeper into the employment situation in America, taxation and our faltering primary and secondary educational system…

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder of Black Rock Consulting and the blog “Tao of the Zentropist.” In the interest of full disclosure, he is a political independent that deeply admires President Teddy Roosevelt and believes in the principles of limited government by, of, and for the people; increased personal responsibility and accountability to society;, and enlightened regulation of free market economies to safeguard the financial interests and livelihood of the majority. He believes that the Bill of Rights enumerates individual rights and that it’s specious and self-serving to selectively claim that any (e.g. The Second Amendment) are meant collectively only. He feels that people’s personal lives ought to remain personal and that what goes on between consenting adults, so long as no one else is getting hurt, is neither the business of the state nor of anyone else. While he believes in international cooperation and free and fair trade, he also believes that nation-states and their populations have the right to sovereign and secure borders and the right to self-defense, which extends to the individual level as well. And finally, he believes that as flawed as it may be at times, representative democracy is the best means of governance yet devised by Man and those that threaten it are a clear and present danger to peace, freedom and any hope of global stability now or in the future.

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