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rethoric, semantics, and Microsoft

I got quite a lot of feedback on my Microsoft press release parody. Even Scoble had fun :). Anyway, I wanted to add something a bit more serious to it, particularly after I read Scoble's entry on the reactions to his "How to hate Microsoft" post.

I've written about my own feelings towards MS before (a good starting point is here), so I won't go into that. But I wanted to address the issue of the rethoric involved.

About the only thing that I found to be truly a problem for me is the way Scoble talks about people. His definition of "there are two kinds of people: people that hate Microsoft, and people that hate Microsoft but want to see it improve" is probably a good reflection of how Microsofties in general see the world. Now, I know that Scoble was in part making fun of the situation, I certainly hope that is the case, but as usual when we say something, even jokingly, there's always a kernel of truth to it, at least from our subjective perspective.

I have written before about an excellent book on Microsoft called Breaking Windows which shows not just how Microsoft works in a Darwinian fashion within itself but also how it views the world: everything is a threat, and Microsoft is always the underdog about to be wiped out by whatever New New Thing comes along. This view has obviously served them well to stay competitive, but there comes a point when you should (simply from the point of view of being a good citizen) really consider if what you think is actually the truth of the situation. So, news flash, Microsoft: you are not the underdog. You are not even the proverbial 800-pound Gorilla. You are the only Gorilla left because all the other Gorillas are dead and you have the steaming machine gun in your hands.

You liked that metaphor? It depends on your view. But precisely the fact that the metaphor is seen as funny and maybe true by some people (I know some part of me does) shows how far we've gone in terms of applying extreme rethoric to this whole situation. Which brings me to my point.

(Gasp! Yay! He has a point!)

Yeah. Heh. Anyway. My point is that Language (yes, capital L) has been steadily distorted to the point in which the only way to get attention is to scream at the top of your lungs and be "controversial." This is not just Microsoft, or just the technology industry. It's a trend in all societies in general, and particularly in the US where phrases that involve the words "culture wars" are currently bandied about with apparent disdain. We could argue forever about the roots of this: the desensitazion of the general public to harsh news, extremism (not just of the religious kind), an appetite for voyeurism (witness the meteoric rise of all sorts of reality crap shows) that implicitly says that our simple lives are not interesting enough, and so on. The roots and solutions might be interesting but I don't think he have really pinpointed the problem yet, so this is my take.

The problem, in my opinion, is that we have gotten used to extreme rethoric and we take it as a fact of life ("You're either with us, or against us") but at the same time, we have forgotten that 99% of the time extreme rethoric is just that. Words. A facade. In western societies in particular, we seem to have huge problems in differentiating between our public and private personas (something I've also written about in the past).

In the vast majority of cases, when we use extreme rethoric we don't really, really, really mean it. We are just trying to make a point, and we know it's not a matter of "life and death".

But we forget that.

Let me try to say this again more concisely and in a slightly different way: we forget that what a person says is not who the person is. The mapping between what's in our heads and what comes out of our mouth (or fingers!) is imperfect. It takes a while to get it right. And some things can't be expressed at all without totally missing the point (It's not a coincidence I like Taoism so much is it?).

Case in point, while we're at it: Blogging.

There are a number of great bloggers that have the ability or the psychological endurance or the need or all of the above to be a lot more open than others about their personal life (put me in the "others" pile there, at least that's how I see myself). Examples don't really abound, but some immediately come to mind: Halley, Dave, Mark, Russ.

If your reaction when seeing any of the names linked above is "why the hell is he putting so-and-so as an example of anything? they're [insert expletive here]!", then, I'd say: thanks, you've made my point.

You see, as open as people can be on their weblogs, there is really no substitute for knowing the person. A weblog is a slice of life. It is not life. Sure, this is obvious. We tend to forget it anyway. It's the double-edged sword of expression: you can never make it truly objective because interpretation is a step in the process. But we treat them as if they're objective anyway, which is probably one of the single greatest flaw of the decontructionist approach of the western way of looking at things.

Some lines from from Eminem's Sing for the moment come to mind:

See what these kids do/hear about us toting pistols/they wanna get one/they think this shit's cool/not knowing we're really just protecting ourselves/we're entertainers/of course this shit's affecting our sales/you ignoramus/but music is reflection of self/we just explain it/and then we get our checks in the mail

It's not a coincidence that Eminem's lyrics are often misunderstood: they are often personal. And it's easy to lose sight of the context, the personal context in which something is said by someone. Maybe they didn't fully explain themselves. Fine. But did they have to? Why do we have this need to rush to judgement before we've heard it all? Or why do we have to pass judgement at all? What if someone is just expressing something, as completely as they can?

So, in this context, :) back to Microsoft and Scoble and all of those ridiculous generalizations. If I say, "Windows sucks". Does it mean I hate Microsoft? Of course not. But it's much, much easier to jump from A to B and so we do it all the time. It's easy because we don't really have to look at the problem. It's easy because if I hate Microsoft then, there you go, that's the explanation right? Nothing's wrong with Windows itself, in a single act of simplification we have just shifted the discussion from the real point (which is that Windows might have er... a few tiny problems) to something that is completely unrelated, and even worse, not real which is that a person somehow "hates" a corporation. I tried to make this point in the fake press release: give me a break, do we really have the time or the inclination to hate a software company? When you get home and start to cook dinner, are you thinking "God, how I hate Microsoft" while you stir the ravioli? And let's not even go to the hundreds of millions of people that don't even have food to begin with. Yes, I'm sure that there are people that are truly filled with hate. But I'd contend that they are very, very few, and that it's ludicrous to lump large sections of the population in that corner simply because we find it easier to deal with our problems, or ignore them.

Just check out Scoble's own entries for a single day from about two years ago. Does it mean that he "hated" Microsoft back then? No. Does it mean that he "loves" Microsoft now? (The false choice we are presenting when we put hate in the other basket) No. So why oversimplify? It's not as if we have 15 seconds to express ourselves. We have the luxury of a medium that allows for more complete expression.

And even if expression is at fault, if someone is not fully clear, even if they think they are, rushing to judgement (and worse, extreme judgement) doesn't sound like a good idea to me either.

Hate is a very strong word, one of the strongest we can ever use to express what we feel. Do we really want to trivialize it that much? Because if we do, then other words lose their meaning too. Words like love, trust, friendship, honesty, heroism, and yes, hate, despise, disgust. These words should not be used often, or otherwise they lose all meaning. They simply stop working, their semantics vanish and we are left with empty shells that don't communicate anything at all (and don't get me started on the misuse of the word "heroism" these days. It seems to me that if the Media is right, if I make it safely across to the convenience store to get some bananas then I'm a hero too).

The other problem with extreme rethoric is that it forces people to choose between two choices that are not even real. If I say flatly "you either hate Microsoft or you hate Microsoft but want to see it improve" then, what's someone that's in between to do? You suddenly have forced me to put myself in a category. By saying something like that I have instantly forced everyone to become extremists, even though they are not. The nuances are completely lost. And with them, the truth is lost too. Suddnly, we are just flinging dung at each other.

My wish is that we could, for once, go past the rethoric. Or use it but use it well. Separate. This works comparatively well in literature (but for some reason not in music, or even weblogs--probably because it's easy to go down that route when things get more "personal" as both of those things are). That is, if someone says "I hate that book," it's understood that you don't like the book, not that you "hate" the author". So If I'm pissed off about something, maybe, just maybe, it's not that I hate you or your group of your organization. Maybe I'm just pissed off about that one thing. Stop putting the general population into some bag that allows us to easily categorize them and forget about whatever they say. Stop shifting the discussion and talk about the real issues. Or not. But don't pretend you are. It is not real, it is not useful. At all.

Sure, all sides engage in this game. But someone should start by setting the bar just a little bit higher. And someone who has a bigger stake in the process than others, like Microsoft, should have more reasons than most to do it. Or maybe the blogsphere could lead by example by showing that it is possible. As a community we have shown that we tend to fall into the same extreme/destructive patterns as we do in the "real world" quite often, but sometimes the light shines through. Here's hoping that the latter will triumph over the former.

"Just a thought". :-)

Posted by diego on October 28 2003 at 2:36 PM

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