Tonight I come to you a beaten man. My eyes are not bright nor my tail bushy. For most of the past week I've been battling the consequences of my Internet service provider's latest "upgrade."
As a consequence of the "upgrade," I am now able to sign on to the Net only intermittently usually late at night. I was unable to sign on at all Sunday and Monday. I've managed to sign on while writing this column, and I hope I can get it off into the aether before I lose my connection.
Being barred from signing on is an unadvertised feature of the "upgrade" but not an unexpected one. It's not new, either; it's sort of like that special burger on a rye bun that McDonald's used to offer for a limited time every year or so. My ISP offers its own version of that every time it perpetrates one of its unholy "upgrades." Of course with this particular feature you get neither burger nor bun, you're prevented from ordering anything else, and you're still expected to pay.
Every time, I must go through the tedious, protracted process of complaint. First, I dispatch via CompuServe an inquiry or two that go unanswered. I have such inquiries hanging fire right now. The next step is to send a more strongly worded demand that the service I'm paying for be restored. That may or may not elicit an answer. Sometimes it takes a dread foray into phone hell. Sometimes like last time it took repeated dread forays.
Eventually, after tedious, complicated explanations of exactly what I'm experiencing, accompanied by the ritual denials that I've changed my own procedure in any way, some extremely odd problem is detected, and I hear that familiar old chant, "We've never seen anything like this before." Three or four days later, my service slowly begins returning to normal.
Then, three or four months after that, my ISP proudly announces that its next "upgrade" is imminent. It's as if the national storm center were to proudly announce that a Cat 5 hurricane is about to make landfall. It's almost enough to drive a high-tech libertarian to Luddism.
When I say that the claim, "We've never seen anything like this before" is familiar, I don't just mean I've heard it from tech-support geeks in cyberspace before. I was hearing it twenty years before the word cyberspace was ever invented from car-repair trolls. In those days, I sometimes joked to non-leftist friends who wouldn't take it wrong that the almost universal incompetence of car mechanics shook my faith in capitalism. I finally bought a Toyota, ending my difficulties in that area, so these days it's the almost universal incompetence of computer tech-support geeks that I joke about, whenever I feel up to joking.
But it's not just tech-support incompetence I see in cyberspace. For example, take the commercial Websites that are so laden with graphics and complicated bells and whistles that a visitor has to be equipped with a beta-tested browser released this morning in order to avoid being locked up or knocked out. Think of it! The owners of those sites would rather let their site-designer geeks run wild than sell their products and services to as many people as possible!
There are some pretty big sites that operate that way, including Radio Shack and gulp MacWarehouse. The incompetence isn't universal, though. One big site everyone's heard of proves it doesn't have to be that way. That site manages to introduce real upgrades without locking the door to any visitor: Amazon.com.
That constitutes some evidence that the widespread incompetence I do see is really not a defect in capitalism. And all joking aside, my faith or rational confidence, as we Randians and post-Randians prefer is intact and always has been. What is the problem, then?
The free market, while the next thing to magic in its efficient transmission of information and coordination of goal-directed activity, is not actually magic. It, too, has limits. One of those limits is that it must operate within a given cultural environment.
Computer geeks don't seem to know the first thing about customer relations. That's because of the subculture they grew up in; and never has a stereotype turned out to be truer than the one about that subculture.
Now, one would think that the ineluctable forces of the market would differentially reward the statistical "sports" within the computer culture who understand common English a little better, who have at least a pinkie-finger grasp of basic business standards, and who have a shimmering memory of once hearing, sometime in the distant past, something about how the customer is king. And you'd expect that market forces would proceed, then, to differentially reward the best within that select cohort, widen the cohort by encouraging new people to rise above the moronic level, and so on. Eventually it may happen, but if it's happening now, I think you'd be better entertained if you went out and eyeballed the progress of the nearest glacier.
In the old days, I thought of market forces as a sort of universal solvent that, when liberally applied, could "correct" any cultural behavior that was irrational or economically inefficient, and do it toot sweet. Nowadays I'm starting to believe that culture is a tougher and stickier tangle than I'd imagined. Not white Western culture, of course; that's disappearing like cotton candy dunked into a vat of sulfuric acid. That's because almost no one is interested in saving it; most white Westerners have even been taught to despise it.
The cultures that survive despite the solvent of the market are the ones that find sufficient support elsewhere. That's a truism, but speaking for myself only, I sometimes need to be reminded of truisms. The anti-social behavior of computer geeks finds artificial support in the state schools, which sometimes succeed in teaching them narrow technical skills but do little or nothing to help them become normal people who can understand the Golden Rule or the principles of trade. The insane level of cartoons, including animated cartoons, on ultramodern Websites burdens those without this morning's new browser but helps subliterates for whom image is everything. And so on.
Market forces can produce efficient services and good products only when those forces are incarnated in a critical mass of demanding customers. If both sellers and customers are composed predominantly of morons and anti-social thugs, there will be competition, certainly but only involving the level of service and the quality of goods that morons and thugs desire and are capable of delivering. Improvement, as we would understand improvement, will be mighty slow in coming.
That isn't exactly new. One writer on industrial culture has pointed out that the American economy has a history of settling on mediocre or just-good-enough technical standards: the QWERTY keyboard, RCA's VHS format instead of Sony's Beta, Wintel instead of Mac, and so on. As I recall, the writer was warning that another lowbrow, mediocre standard was about to be adopted for HDTV.
No doubt American automakers would still be pumping out those technically stagnant cars that lacked independent suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, disk brakes, front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and steel-belted radials, had foreign competitors not been permitted to start educating car customers beyond the kindergarten stage in the early 1970s.
It's especially difficult to investigate the natural limits of market forces, vis-a-vis culture, because the market isn't free. In fact, the power of government including its control over most of the education industry and its influence over the media is itself the great support for incompetence, illiteracy, and anti-social behavior in the culture that we usually think of first. But government isn't the only limiting factor that's possible. One major formative influence on a culture is the genetic inheritance of the people who populate it.
A market economy, even a completely free one, that is populated by the feeble-minded or the genetically violence-prone may still "work," after a fashion, but we wouldn't necessarily feel very comfortable dealing or living in it. As the historic core of the American population undergoes its great replacement, that's something to think about. It's something we ought to try and communicate to our left-libertarian friends who insist that "the market will save us," if only we can somehow get it unleashed.
The market can, indeed, "save us" but only if we are still there to be saved.
August 22, 2000
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