Friday, January 29, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons and the Sociopath / Technology Cycle

A recent decision from the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit got me thinking about whether it is easier or more difficult to be a sociopath in the modern world.

Last week, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion upholding the right of a prison to bar inmates from playing Dungeons & Dragons. The plaintiff in the case complained, according to the New York Times, that the prison had confiscated his "books and other materials, including a 96-page handwritten manuscript he had created for the game." Oh, and the plaintiff was serving a life sentence for "bludgeoning and stabbing his sister's boyfriend to death." For some reason, this decision struck me as being just very very funny. Maybe it's the image of prison as being just as cliquey as high school. You have the Crips, the Bloods, the weightlifters, the shower rapists, the screaming lunatics and then, sitting over in the far corner of the rec room, some guys (all of whom, like the dungeonmaster himself, had probably bludgeoned and stabbed someone to death) hunched over a 96 page handwritten manuscript, rolling 24-sided dice and role-playing as druids and ogres.

Thinking about D&D led me, of course, to start thinking about sociopaths. I didn't realize that D&D was still around at all. I figured that was one of the pastimes that had been killed by the internet. I guess prisons tend be behind the curve on the technological front. (Is Fios available in your neighborhood? Enter your cell block and number here find out.) In high school, D&D was at the forefront of sociopathic activities. It was a means for zitty, fantasy-obsessed kids to spend days locked away in dank basements, with no contact with the outside world, living in a made up fantasy land. I was never one of the D&D guys. Not because I was any less zitty or sociopathic than they were. It's just that jazz band was my bag.

Sociopaths have been around forever. No human being in history has ever made it through life without, at some point, thinking that people are all horrible and ridiculous and that a life spent alone in the woods eating moss off the sides of trees would be infinitely more pleasant. Throughout most of history, there was very little change (other than trends in beard styles) in the typical lifestyle of a sociopath. The world wasn't very crowded, so finding a spot where you could hang out for a few decades without ever seeing another person wasn't that hard. But things started to change around the time of the industrial revolution. As more of the population moved to cities, and increasingly specialized divisions of labor made it harder for any one person to produce all of the things needed to survive in the world, people had to rely on one another more and more. And more reliance on other human beings made it harder to avoid contact with them.

For a while, it seemed as if living the sociopathic life would become a dying art. First trains and then roads and airplanes started making it possible for people from all over the world to show up right on our doorsteps. Then the telegraph and the phone and radio and TV signals beamed over the airwaves brought them into our homes. Now the internet and email and tweets and BlackBerries force society upon us wherever we are. Technology, it seemed, would make human contact unavoidable.

But no! Sociopaths are now as abundant as ever. Quietly, in the background, technology was evolving on a parallel track. Automation would swoop in and save sociopaths from extinction. While technology was making it possible for humans to spread their humanness faster and wider, the automation of formerly human tasks was making it increasing easy to avoid human contact altogether. The loom eliminated the need for knitting circles. Electric cow milking machines made it possible for dairy farmers to milk hundreds of bovine without having to chat with other farmers. Automated electronics vending machines in airports made it possible to buy replacement cell phone chargers without having to talk to the kid at the Cellular Circus kiosk.

And then computers changed it all. Food and excrement disposal are really the only absolute essentials for survival. But with food, excrement disposal and a computer, the whole human-less word became available right at the fingertips of any sociopath. The combination of Peapod online grocery delivery service (a service now available through most brick and mortar grocery stores) and indoor plumbing have made it possible to conquer the most basic needs without any direct human intervention. The Visa / / eBay / UPS network has make it possible to buy just about any object that has ever existed on this planet, also without ever having to so much as talk to another person. And, finally, the primary purpose of the entire rest of the internet is to provide whatever kind of escapism (99.9998% porn; 0.0001% Runescape and other on-line D&D knock-offs; 0.0001% other, by most accounts) floats any sociopath's particular boat. The idea that, in ancient times, sociopaths had to leave the house, gather in some other person's dank basement and play D&D to avoid contact with normal society would be incomprehensible to any high school age sociopath today.

Endless ink has been spilled, and dissertations written, about the effects of technology on disseminating ideas and information. But the renaissance of the sociopath, a creature that was driven to the very brink of extinction, has gone largely unnoticed. It's understandable. Sociopaths don't get much media attention (except when they bludgeon and stab their sisters' boyfriends to death and are described on local newscast by the neighbors as "the quiet type, kept to himself mostly"). So lets take a moment to appreciate this feat of technology, and tip our hats to our secluded web-surfing friends. Prisoners may no longer have the right to play Dungeons & Dragons, but the rest of unincarcerated society is as free as ever to withdraw gracefully from the squalor of humanity.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Supreme Court Liberates Corporations from Shackles of Oppression

The Supreme Court has just handed down a decision - Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission - that gives corporations almost limitless power to influence elections. My own opinion is that this is a terrible outcome, and is going to shift power even further from the weak to the powerful. But even more disturbing is the basis for the decision - the First Amendment command that "congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech." The drafters of the First Amendment unfortunately moved on to the next amendment (the gun nut one - not exactly a masterful piece of drafting either) before specifying just exactly whose speech it was that was not supposed be abridged. You might think it’s obvious that the speech in question was supposed to be limited to that of human beings. Dolphins can speak, but no-one thinks the Constitution is supposed to give them rights. But apparently it’s complicated. Central to the Citizens United decision was the question of whether corporations have free speech rights.

Here is what the court had to say: "Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people." "Speech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content." "Political speech is indispensable to decisionmaking in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual." "By suppressing the speech of... corporations... the Government prevents their voices and viewpoints from reaching the public." And here is the clincher: "Wealthy individuals... can spend unlimited amounts on independent expenditures... yet certain disfavored associations of citizens - those that have taken on the corporate form - are penalized for engaging in the same political speech."

Got it? We must not discriminate! A corporation can’t help being a corporation. Just because a speaker happens to have been born a corporation (or do corporations choose to be corporations?), why should its opinion be any less valid than yours or mine?

To be perfectly clear, the Citizens United court was not considering the free speech rights of people who work at corporations or live near corporations or are otherwise affected by corporations. It was considering the rights of corporations themselves. I am all about corporate directors and officers and shareholders and employees having strong opinions about who should be president and whether global warming is real, and spending their own money to try to make their voices heard. And don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against corporations. I’m a corporate lawyer. My drawers at work are full of corporations. Some of my best friends are corporations.

But still, at the risk of sounding like a bigot, corporations are just different than you and me.

If you kick a corporation in the shin, it doesn't feel pain. (Corporations don't have shins.) If you break up with a corporation or fail to notice that it got a haircut, it doesn't feel sad. If you chain a corporation to the boiler in the basement for its entire adolescence, feed it nothing but dirty water and stale bread and make it pee in a jar, it won't even mind. Corporations are just webs of permits, contractual agreements and filings with the Delaware secretary of state. They don't have dreams and ambitions. They don't experience disappointment. They can't think. They can't talk. They’re not really anything at all. And so how can it possibly be that they should have free speech rights that cannot be abridged?

My personal list of who or what should be able to claim free speech rights, in descending order of legitimacy, goes something like this: a living adult human being, a child, a gorilla, a house pet, a fish, a shrubbery, a coffee table, a fungus and a fresh pile of dog shit. Note that corporations don't even make the list. That's right, a fresh pile of dog shit has a more justifiable claim to free speech rights than a corporation does. Dog shit has at least passed through the body of a conscious living being that is capable of some level of thought. Dog shit is full of living organisms - bacteria and amoebas and such - that move around in some kind of organized fashion and have a set function in sustaining the earth's natural processes. Corporations have none of this.

In many ways, of course, corporations are better than fresh dog shit. They’re responsible for all kinds of happy things like growing the economy and employing workers and fostering innovation and making funny beer commercials. Reasonable people can stay up all night debating how much corporations help and hinder our society. Talking about the appropriate role of corporations in our society is interesting and important. But to bolster arguments in favor of corporate power by saying that corporations must be allowed to express themselves is nuts. Duct tape and curling irons play important roles in society too, but no-one thinks their opinions should carry the same weight as a human beings’. For the Supreme Court to take this position is disingenuous at best, and a naked power grab at worst.

Any person who would make an argument like this, one that so obviously doesn’t even pass the laugh test, is either: (a) retarded; (b) on crack; or (c) trying to achieve a pre-determined outcome without having a principled reason upon which such outcome can be based. The Supreme Court Justices are not retarded. I've read their stuff and, although most of it is written by legal clerks, they've obviously got at least some minimal capacity to construct rational thoughts. They're probably not on crack. Crack is easy to find in DC, but lighting up a big rock out on the front steps of the court, right in plain view of the Capital, just doesn’t seem like their style. And so I guess that just leaves choice (c), which is scary and sad.

If I ever run into Justice Kennedy at a cocktail party, I’m going to corner him and make him look me in the eye and tell me that he really truly believes the arguments he made in Citizens United (oh, and in Bush v. Gore too, while I’ve got his attention). I’ll bet you he looks away or tries to change the subject. In the meantime, I’ll have to just keep complaining to my friends. Or maybe I’ll just incorporate a bunch of corporations. They have opinions, apparently. And they’re good listeners too.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Soup Wars and Choosing a Cell Phone Plan

The current most raging advertising war seems to involve the Verizon / AT&T cell phone coverage maps. On my daily 15 yard walk from the subway to my office, I see about two dozen of the maps plastered all over the downtown storefronts. The maps are supposed to depict where you can get good Verizon or AT&T cell phone coverage. From the looks of the Verizon maps, Verizon service covers the entire country except for a few little blips in places where most people will never, ever in their entire lives step foot, and AT&T covers virtually nothing. The AT&T maps are about the exact opposite. Lawyers are on the scene. Lawsuits and countersuits are flying. It’s a battle royale. I have AT&T service, though I have no idea why. I think I started at some job at some point that had an AT&T deal or rep, or I had an office mate that used AT&T. Before seeing the maps all over the place, I completely and utterly did not give a shit about my cell phone service. When I try to call someone, I usually can, so that's pretty much that. But now, with all this cutting edge, obviously very scientific information posted all over the city, I have to think about whether I've been making the right decision. What if Verizon would be better for me? What if I've been depriving myself of my full potential all these years?!

Advertising wars have, I assume, been going on since around the time human beings began communicating with language. In my lifetime, the main ones that come to mind are Coke v. Pepsi, Chevy v. Ford and Mac v. PC, with a little sort of sideshow involving Campbell’s and Progresso soups. These past wars were really just battles in the culture war. Mac users, an overall wealthier and more educated crowd than the unwashed PC user masses, like to talk smugly about the design components of their computers and about the fact that they "work without crashing." I can't really characterize the two sides of the Chevy / Ford battle (when I owned a pickup truck, it was a Toyota). But a debate that has produced so many millions of "I'd rather push a [Chevy / Ford] than drive a [Ford / Chevy]" and Calvin pissing on a Ford / Chevy bumper stickers obviously resonates at some pretty deep level of our nation's personal identity. I can't explain the Coke / Pepsi thing either. The amount of collective time our society spent proselytizing about one or the other kind of carbonated sugar water was astonishing. But that was during the '70s. Maybe, other than wife-swapping and trying to find gas, there just wasn't that much to do back then. The brief flare up of the Campbell's / Progresso soup war (rising at one point to the level of a LaDainian Tomlinson Superbowl ad) doesn't merit much discussion. I think people have pretty much given up on eating soup altogether. McDonalds and Burger King are so deeply intertwined with our society that their PR campaigns are almost not really advertising any more. They're more like gravity or CSPAN broadcasts of congressional hearings - things that make up the very essence of how we live our lives, but that have become so ubiquitous as to be almost imperceptible.

OK, so advertising battles are nothing new. But what should I do about my cell phone service? Of all the ad wars, the AT&T / Verizon one seems like it should be the one most based on objective facts. All I need to know is, if ever I find myself walking down the street in Oskaloosa, Nebraska and needing to download a funny new ringtone, will I be able to do so? Cell phone service is based on cold, hard facts, not self-image. I've never heard someone say anything like "I would just never date anyone who's a Verizon subscriber..." or "well I'm not surprised, he is an AT&T subscriber after all..." My wife uses Verizon and I use AT&T. And of all the unbelievably stupid things we've fought about over the years, which cell phone providers we've chosen has never been one of them.

My friend Josh, the most logical decision maker I know, would tell me to make an Excel chart where I plug in percentage estimates of the amount of time I will likely spend in various parts of the country over the course of the year, cross reference that with service availability in each location, multiply by some cost per month factor and come up with an objective determination of which service is best for me. But the problem with this kind of analysis is that it would take some moderate amount of time and effort, which goes against my policy of doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work necessary to make a decision.

So how about letting society as a whole make the decision for me? James Surowiecki has a "wisdom of crowds" theory that says that independent, unaffiliated groups are, in the aggregate, mind-bendingly accurate in their determination of objective facts. When asked to determine the number of jelly beans in a jar, or a person's age, the aggregate determination of such groups is vastly more accurate than most individual guesses. A distinction has to be made between the wisdom of crowds and groupthink. The difference is that while groupthink results when people are isolated and holed up together (usually in a meeting room, with their boss), and no-one dares to derail the seeds of a horrible, ridiculous idea, the wisdom of crowds is supposed to be able to diffuse and correct whatever stupidity any one person comes up with. Groupthink was the process by which General Motors made the decision to produce the Pontiac Aztek. The wisdom of crowds was the reason GM discontinued production of the Aztek after about a month.

I understand that societal decisions are not always great. Decisions made by the masses are responsible for the Holocaust and the fact that Two and a Half Men is the most popular sitcom on TV. But deciding which company I should send my monthly $49.95 payment to? I may be willing to delegate that decision to the country at large. Whatever the breakdown is in market share, Verizon and AT&T each have millions of cell phone customers. And just the fact that both companies are still around must mean something, right? Crowds ferreted out the Pontiac Aztek almost immediately. The Chia pet is a strange anomaly - an idiotic ten dollar piece of shit that has managed to stay on the market for decades - but that can probably be chalked up to manic holiday gift-giving desperation. Yes, I'll just assume that if AT&T is still around after however many years of hawking cell phone service, its service must at least not so abysmally, horrifically terrible that all of its customers have defected and left it for dead. And that's good enough for me.

So maybe now I can put this decision to rest, and spend as little time each day thinking about my cell phone provider as I do about pickup trucks, soft drinks and soup.