The Rising Cost of Evil in a Hyperconnected World

My last few columns all concerned the growing potential of the network revolution for performing, far more vigorously, the functions of the regulatory state:  exposing corporations and holding them publicly accountable for negligence, pollution, unsafe products, and maltreatment of workers.

I recently saw a phrase by Umair Hacque of Harvard Business Review that summed up the principle better than anything I’ve seen:  “In a hyperconnected world, the costs of evil explode.”

Given the prevailing industrial models over the past century and a half, the enormous capital outlays needed for production — not only plant and equipment for manufacturing, but the enormous price of a radio station, recording studio or state-of-the-art printing press — required large hierarchical organizations to govern the physical capital and the people working it.  And given the enormous transaction costs of monitoring their activities, it was commonly understood that a giant bureaucratic organization was needed to regulate such business firms.

The desktop computer and the Internet changed all this.  As Hacque argues, the first principle of a hyperconnected world is information:  “information flows much faster and more freely. So it’s less costly to ascertain who’s really evil — and who’s really good.”  The second principle is discipline:  “Cheap information lays the foundations for more collective action. It’s less costly to punish those who are evil.”

The implications of this are just starting to sink in for our corporate overlords.  We’re barely in the beginning stages of a fundamental transformation in which corporate executives live with the reality constantly in the back of their mind that any particular cutting of corners on safety or customer service, any particular downsizing or speedup, any grinding of the boot into the faces of labor, will show up on WikiLeaks.  And then become the focus of a campaign of boycotts, picketing and letter-writing organized by some advocacy group like the Wal-Mart Workers’ Association or EmployerNameSucks.com.

What’s more, they’re only beginning to learn that every attempt to suppress such campaigns with SLAPP lawsuits and punitive firing will come back to bite them in the tuchus in the form of the Streisand Efffect.  This last was named for Barbra Streisand’s attempt to suppress online photos of her house — which itself became a news event that attracted tens of millions more eyeballs to the photos.

The McLibel case in Britain in the ’90s, in the earliest days of the Internet, was a dress rehearsal for the Streisand Effect.  McDonald’s, still used to the comfortable old world in which people like us couldn’t talk back, resorted to the tried-and-true tactic of a SLAPP lawsuit against a couple of obscure left-wing pamphleteers.  But the attempt at suppression itself became news, and caused the pamphleteers’ bill of indictments against McDonald’s to be read by scores of millions of people around the world.

Since then it’s happened over and over.  It happened when Diebold attempted to suppress publication of internal corporate emails about its easily-compromising voting machines, and found out what it was like to play whack-a-mole with a thousand mirror sites.  It happened when the movie industry attempted to prosecute a young hacker for publicizing the DeCSS code he discovered for descrambling DVD encryption — and then confronted not only tens of thousands of bloggers who reproduced DeCSS, but spectators in the courtroom with it printed on their T-shirts.  It happens every time a corporation fires an employee for blogging that “it sucks to work for employer x,” and sees a story previously limited to an insular blog readership of a few hundred transformed instead into a new one picked up by the wire services and blogosphere and read by tens of millions:  “Employer X Fires Blogger for Revealing How Bad it Sucks to Work There.”

The bosses are still surprised every time this happens, like Elmer Fudd when the shotgun blows up in his face.  But even a flatworm eventually responds to negative reinforcement.  The day is coming when they won’t be surprised.  They’ll start anticipating it.  And then they’ll start fearing us.

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