Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stross on ebooks

Disclaimer: Since 2006 I have been employed by Google, which sells ebooks and related technology, and therefore competes with several of the companies involved in the subject matter. My opinions are my own and not those of my employer.

Charlie Stross has a compelling analysis of the book publishers' position, in light of the recently opened Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple for alleged price fixing. (Incidentally Stross's comments are usually decent and he engages with his readers as well, so they're worth a skim.)

Stross's post reminds me a lot of something I wrote about 2 years ago. Rereading that post today, I find that I have very little to add to it.

There is one additional thing from Stross's post, though, that I find particularly galling:

. . . if your boss is a 70 year old billionaire who also owns a movie studio and listens to the MPAA, you don't get a vote. Speaking out against DRM was, as more than one editor told me over the past decade, potentially a career-limiting move.

Publishing companies like to portray themselves as scrappy underdogs locked in heroic battle on the side of knowledge against the forces of ignorance. In fact, they are merely subordinate tentacles of large, stupid media conglomerates; they aid the forces of knowledge when it is convenient for business, and do whatever they can to muzzle open discourse when that is convenient. (Fortunately their power to silence critics is fairly limited in a free society.) Critics have been repeating for years that ebooks should be convenient and DRM-free. Publishers never listened; instead they threatened the careers of people like Stross's editors for even bringing it up.

Anyway, I can't comment on the substance of the DoJ lawsuit (and anyway, I know nothing about the facts of the case, so my comments would be pointless), but I find it hard to muster much sympathy for these people. The solution to their problems has been staring them in the face for as long as ebooks have existed. Unfortunately, I'm somewhat less sanguine than Stross that publishers are going to learn the lesson. They seem pretty impervious to persuasion.

p.s. See also Tim O'Reilly's Plus post.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The ideology of Dilbert

So apparently people are still leaving comments on that post about Dilbert from half a decade ago. The latest calls me a pointy-haired boss (this is a little funny because I've never been a manager; on the other hand you could make the case that PHB-ness is a state of mind rather than a job title). I've been arguing with people on the Internet for so long, and am consequently so thick-skinned, that insults as mild as that one barely even register; but anyway the ping prompted me to think even more about how Dilbert sucks.

Aside from failures in basic craftsmanship, which I discussed in my previous post, Dilbert cultivates a poisonous worldview. Here are a few lessons that you will learn by reading Dilbert strips:

  • Your boss, co-workers, and clients are not human beings, but objects to be ridiculed.
  • You are never at fault for anything; it is always your stupid boss, stupid co-workers, and stupid clients.
  • There is no possibility of change. Every attempt at change will be thwarted by the system.
  • There is no possibility of escape. Everywhere else you go will be equally bad.

Would you want to be friends with someone who believes these things? Do you want to become a person who believes these things? Then why would you read Dilbert?

As a corollary of the above lessons, here are a couple of plots that you will never see on Dilbert, even though I think they make sense in the context of a dysfunctional workplace, and could be funny.

Plot: Dilbert runs a job interview with a smart, capable young college graduate, who passes all his questions with flying colors. Dilbert takes him aside and whispers in his ear, "Run. Run now, while you still can."

Reasons you will never see this: (1) Dilbert never shows any compassion for another human being. (2) Nobody on Dilbert is ever competent at anything except Dilbert himself. (3) It would raise the uncomfortable question of why Dilbert himself does not leave.

Plot: In a long-running arc, Dilbert leaves his office to found his own startup, small business, or consultancy. He makes all kinds of hilarious mistakes, of the type which founders inevitably make, thus bringing his business to the brink of failure. He finds that he can only be rescued by dogged persistence and the help of mentors and allies.

Reasons you will never see this: (1) Dilbert can never be shown to be at fault for anything. (2) Other people can never be seen as a force for good. (3) The root causes of problems in the workplace can never be shown to arise from the inherent difficulty of making anything work well; it must always be rank stupidity, arrogance, or some other venial human flaw. (4) Scott Adams has no idea how to draw any setting besides a cube farm.

The latter of these is particularly telling, because Adams obviously left his job to found his own business as a cartoonist (and as a result became quite wealthy). But the fantasy he sells to his audience is not one of struggling to change the objectively terrible conditions of their lives, just like he did; it is one of complacently remaining in place while cultivating a smug sense of superiority and alienation. The relationship between Adams and his audience is therefore one of condescension and contempt.

Long ago, Paul Graham ran an ad for his seed capital fund titled Larry and Sergey Won't Respect You In The Morning; Graham was articulating a disdain for large corporate workplaces that is a distant cousin of Adams's, and yet there is a crucial difference. Graham is (admittedly for self-serving reasons) trying to channel his audience's discontent into an urge to follow their dreams and change the world. What would a similar ad for Adams's work look like? Oddly enough, it would be something like this: "I, Scott Adams, won't respect you in the morning. I left my job to build something of my own. Now sit there and read my comics like the powerless peon you are, and were always meant to be. Ha ha!"