On the Nature of the Cyberselfish

In reading a law review last week, I saw a footnote to a booked called Cyberselfish, A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. Intrigued, I purchased it immediately and have been reading it the law few nights. The author, Paulina Borsook, wrote for Wired and yet was shocked by some of the socioretardation in the Silicon Valley tech community. She published this book in 2000; it’s a significant expansion of her 1996 Mother Jones article on the same topic, which concludes:

…Just as 19th-century timber and cattle and mining robber barons made their fortunes from public resources, so are technolibertarians creaming the profits from public resources — from the orderly society that has resulted from the wise use of regulation and public spending. And they have neither the wisdom nor the manners nor the mindset to give anything that’s not electronic back.

Her point is the technolibertarians are some of the biggest benefactors of government largess (Arpanet, aerospace/defense spending, UC Berkeley, etc), they are a generation that was never really mistreated by the government (no draft, major wars, etc), and yet they are bizarrely anti-government. Switching back to the book, she describes this philosophy as:

…the most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human…As many political schools of thought do, these technolibertarians make a philosophy out of a personality defect.

Ouch! And right on! MarkH and I encountered many such things at a party several years ago in DC. MarkH, being MarkH, spent the night engaging with these creeps, to find the core of their objection to humanity. I just wanted to take a shower. I’ve had enough.

If you’re interested in the technolibertarian form of denialism, pick up Borsook’s book. Sciblings would probably be most interested in her description of the social darwinist attitudes among the technolibertarians (these people would be the first to die under rugged individualism), and their pseudosciency belief in the market functioning as a biological system (something called Bionomics, the 1990s, Silicon Valley version of The Secret).

Selling to the Poors

Libertarians hold dear the idea of the uberman consumer, the hyperrational, fully formed autonomous being that springs from the womb to take good decisions in the marketplace. But when one reads marketing literature, a different consumer is encountered. Often this consumer is an object to be manipulated; one who holds totally irrational ideas that must be shaped or corrected; one that has to be acclimated to changes, and managed to prevent revolt.

One also encounters shockingly frank discussions of consumers’ lack of sophistication in the literature. This brings me to an article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal Report on marketing. It was written by Madhubalan Viswanathan, Jose Rosa, and Julie Ruth, marketing professors at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wyoming, and Rutgers (respectively).

This article discusses the problem of selling to indigent, low-literacy consumers in third world countries. The authors explain that 14% of the American public is functionally illiterate, thus, a major segment of US consumers is also described. How can retailers put this vulnerable group of consumers at ease, help them process product prices and discounts, and help them understand value? This group faces challenges unimaginable in our lives. I would love to paste the entire article. Here are some highlights:


One of the key observations we made is that low-literacy consumers have difficulty with abstract thinking. These individuals tend to group objects by visualizing concrete and practical situations they have experienced. They exhibited what science would call a low grasp of abstract categories — tools, cooking utensils or protein-rich foods, for example — which suggests low-literacy consumers may have difficulty understanding advertising and store signs that position products that way…

Scientists, what is a low grasp of abstract categories? Aren’t these categories socially constructed? (The authors do hint at this.)

It continues!

One of the most potentially detrimental results of concrete thinking, however, is the difficulty that low-literacy consumers have with performing price/volume calculations. They tend to choose products based solely on the lowest posted price or smallest package size, even when they have sufficient resources for a larger purchase, because they have difficulty estimating the longevity and savings that come from buying in larger volumes. Some base purchase decisions on physical package size, instead of reported volume content, or on the quantity of a particular ingredient — such as fat, sodium or sugar — but without allowing for the fact that acceptable levels of an ingredient can vary across product categories or package size.

This observation presents major public policy implications. If a large segment of consumers are challenged by basic price/volume calculations, evaluating secondary characteristics of products would be next to impossible for them. How can one obtain informed consent with these populations on any number of transactions–from computer licenses to privacy policies and credit card agreements?


We found that low-literacy consumers spend so much time and mental energy on what many of us can do quickly and with little thought that they have little time to base purchase decisions on anything other than surface attributes such as size, color or weight.


When shopping in unfamiliar stores, some low-literacy consumers will choose products at random, buying the first brand they see once they locate a desired product category or aisle. Others simply walk through the store, choosing items that look attractive based on factors such as packaging colors or label illustrations, without regard to whether they even need the product.

The article concludes with a series of recommendations on how to reduce unease among this population, and help them better understand discounts and what they are purchasing. If you have a subscription to the Journal, it’s worth a read. I’m fascinated by it, both as someone trying to understand consumer challenges, but also because of its description of the unuberman consumer.

Marketing, Autonomy, and Dignity

In years as working as a privacy advocate, I developed the theme that the private sector, particularly marketing companies, was an equal threat to information privacy as the government. After all, the largest providers of personal information to the government now are big marketing companies, like Acxiom and Choicepoint.

At a more base level, I thought privacy may be instrumental in fostering autonomy and shielding individuals from (what I believe to be) the indignities that marketing perpetuates on our culture (think billboards, for instance). This is a very difficult argument to make. Many see it as cultural elitism, an attempt to engage in censorship or the like. But sometimes, marketers themselves make the argument for me.

Consider this article written by two professors of marketing at UNC’s business school published in the Journal Report yesterday. It discusses how to get through to consumers who increasingly try to tune out advertising messages. I think that some of these practices are gross; some of them are right out of Gotcha Capitalism. Dr. Balasubramanian and Dr. Bhardwaj suggest:

Consider a series of billboards along a busy interstate proclaiming the approach of a business, but not really saying what the business does. To find out what the business is all about, travelers have to take an exit off the highway. While some may be disappointed with what they find and may not plan a second visit, there are always millions more of the uninitiated coming down the highway. This technique has been used to good effect by South of the Border, a Mexican-themed shopping and food cluster on I-95 near the border of the Carolinas.

So, if your business sucks really bad, you can use vague brand advertising to trick people into visiting it. Congratulations. What’s next, professors?

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for example, has teamed with Adidas AG on a range of motorsport-inspired driving and sports shoes. The soles of these shoes are made of rubber with tread patterns designed by Goodyear. If customers viewed the shoe purely as an Adidas product, Goodyear’s contribution would remain unnoticed. However, the Goodyear brand is prominently displayed on the outsoles of the shoes. The result is that every person wearing the shoes is now a messenger for the Goodyear brand.

Because we really care about “Goodyear’s contribution,” we should wear advertisements for the company?

Does this not suggest that these people think the public are just morons? People to be painted upon with logos?

Professors, share some more strategy with us.

Successful marketing messages excite customers not only when they first encounter them — they ingrain themselves into the customers’ permanent memory. Once a message is embedded, customer resistance to processing it drops when it is encountered in the future.

This goes directly to my point out autonomy. “Embedding” messages? Reducing “consumer resistance?” This reads like a scientology manual.

Finally, professors, why not commodify some cultural objects, to make life less meaningful?

Cough-drop maker Ricola AG, which uses herbs cultivated in the Swiss Alpine regions for its products, invokes the image of the Alpine mountains and meadows in its advertising, which often features herders who harmoniously sing out the word “Ricola” into open, echoing meadows. The singing is accompanied by the blowing of an alpenhorn — a long, curved wooden wind instrument with a distinctive, booming sound that was used by Swiss herders to call their cows from the pastures. The company has employed the sound and the imagery with such remarkable consistency that today, for many people, the sound of the horn alone is sufficient to invoke the rich imagery and heritage associated with the brand.

If economics is the dismal science, what kind of science is marketing?

The Problems of Political Spam

There are many problems with political spam email. Perhaps the most well known one is that Congress, in passing the CAN-SPAM Act, decided to exempt political messages from any forms of legal accountability. And so the only practical limit on political spam is the public’s willingness to shame candidates. Here’s an example worth shaming, sent on to me by a colleague.

If you get political spam from McCain, and want to opt out, here are your options.


Notice that all of them imply that you support or have supported McCain! They are:

-I am a McCain Supporter but don’t wish to be contacted until closer to the election.
-I am a McCain Supporter but I am receiving too many emails. Please only send me newsletters and urgent alerts.
-I am a McCain Supporter but do not wish to receive email any longer.
-I am no longer a McCain Supporter and want to be taken off the email list.

They should add an option for me that reads:

-I never signed up for your stupid email list. I never supported you, except when you passed McCain-Feingold, and I’d vote for Tina Fey before Sarah Palin. Please take me off your list.

The ethics of blog anonymity

I took on the ScienceOnline09 anonymity panel because I thought it might be interesting, but the conversation that has developed has turned this into a much deeper issue than I had anticipated. I’m stepping into a big, brown pile of ethics here, and hopefully Janet won’t make too much fun of me.

Abel over at TerraSig has a number of posts up already, and today DrugMonkey brought up a very interesting question.

The science blogosphere, being a new medium, is slowly developing a set of practical normative ethics (geez, I hope that’s the right term), and that this is a critical time to start to explicitly discussing these ethics.

You see, it turns out that anonymity in blogging brings up a host of other issues related to online culture and its intersection with real life. What moral meaning does anonymity have? What responsibilities may attach themselves to it?
Continue reading “The ethics of blog anonymity”

My irony meter just exploded

How stupid do you have to be for Jenny McCarthy to legitimately toss the epithet back at you?

This question may seem unanswerable, but in this case, McCarthy may have gotten it half right regarding Dennis Leary. The headline at MSNBC delcares: McCarthy calls Leary ‘obviously stupid’

I don’t know much about Leary, but like many comedians he has said something that he will probably regret and move on. In attempting to be funny, Leary scored an epic fail (you can tell it’s an epic fail because Jenny did get it half right):

“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a [bleep] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

OK, in or out of context, not very funny. Autism is a serious neuro-developmental disorder, and his unfunny pseudo-Scientological riff doesn’t help advance the cause of autism diagnosis and treatment. So Jenny is right (if somewhat non-specific and unsophisticated) in calling him “stupid”. But Leary is up against some serious competition, and when it comes to bringing the stupid, no one does it quite like Jenny McCarthy.

“My fight isn’t with Denis Leary, my fight is with the government — a bigger fish to fry. So I’m still gonna work on the vaccines and I’m still working on pediatricians and Denis Leary can go hopefully be more educated by every mother that stops him from this day forward to give him a piece of their mind,” she said.

I’d argue that Leary’s comments are an opportunity for public education. To minimize a public figure’s idiotic comments about autism in favor of a fight against “the government and vaccines”, is a level of stupid unique to Jenny. The only conspiracy in Jenny’s world is her own conspiracy of ignorance. He’s is a conspiracy that prepares fertile soil for other real conspiracies—those by quacks and charlatans who give parents false hope, steal their money, harm their children, and distract from real autism research.

Brava, maestra!

Open letter to the American people

My Fellow Americans,

In a very short time, you will be given the chance to exercise one of the greatest and gravest responsibilities for citizens of the world’s most successful democracy. On that day, you will be choosing between two candidates, both tireless public servants whose personal stories show our nation’s ability to nurture the success of people who have had diverse and remarkable personal journeys.

As often happens during a heated campaign, there has been some divisive rhetoric and appeals to some of our baser natures. I wish to make it perfectly clear that at a time when our nation engages in its 44th peaceful transition of executive power, in a time of economic uncertainty and international instability, our nation cannot afford to appeal to our lowest common denominator. In a few months, one of us will sit in the Oval Office and be the chief executive of all Americans. If my journey to this seat of power requires me to appeal to our deepest fears, to mine our deepest prejudices, I do not want your vote.

If you vote for me to show your hate of someone else, I do not want your vote.

If you vote for me to show your hate of another group, another religion, another race, I do not want your vote.

I want your vote because you think that my ideas are better. I want your vote because you agree with my vision for our nation. I want your vote because of your confidence in me to lead us through these difficult times.

I want your vote if you are a Christian. I want your vote if you are a Jew. I want your vote if you are a Muslim. I want your vote if you are not religious. But I don’t want your vote if you are voting against a particular religion or culture.

As the personal histories of both of us show, there are many ways to serve. You can organize your neighborhoods to reduce violence and poverty and home. You can defend your country as a member of the military. You can even, from humble beginnings, become a Senator and help make the laws that keep our country great.

My fellow Americans, in a very few days you will engage in a very simple, yet vital act. You will elevate one of us to a position of great power and great responsibility. I encourage you all to look at our words, our deeds, and those of our surrogates. If you believe in what I stand for, vote for me. If you do not, vote for my opponent. But vote you must, as it is your sacred duty as an American. Do not vote for the man you fear least, but the one who can lead you best. I hope and believe that that man is me, but I respect your choice, as an American, to disagree.


Your candidate

Don’t Let Him Defecate!

This will be Orac’s new favorite show, perhaps the best reality show ever made.

Meet Shirley Ghostman. The UK’s premier psychic who is mounting a search for the UK’s next psychic superstar.

Watch his students cry as he channels Lady Di!

Watch as he brings forth a evil serial killer in the presence of his students:

Shirley even takes on the skeptics!

This guy is a genius, I just about plotzed, and the narration by Patrick Stewart is awesome. I also love it in terms of what denialism blog has always talked about. The problem with the people who believe this stuff is that they simply have no gauge of reality, no ability to judge what evidence makes sense or not. Shirley beats them over the head with this fact for hours at a time and they just can’t figure it out. True, it’s sad, but damn is it funny.

So what’s the good news?

This thread needed to be moved up for obvious reasons. Have at it. –PalMD

I’ve been writing quite a bit about “questionable” illnesses, shameless quacks and the like, but there are reasons that people seek out odd diagnoses and cult doctors. They feel crappy, and they haven’t yet found someone who can make them feel less crappy.

Of course, some people will never feel OK. That’s just human nature. But almost everyone can be helped to feel better in one way or another. What are some of the ways physicians approach difficult-to-treat patients?

First of all, there are many syndromes that involve unexplainable pain. These include fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis, and others. These diseases are painful, but have no clear pathologic correlate, meaning all the tests in the world don’t clearly explain why the person is in pain. This doesn’t mean the patient is “faking it”—they really do feel miserable. We just don’t understand the cause. The other thing about these syndromes is that they are not life or limb threatening. Unlike, say, heart disease, they can hurt without causing physical damage to the body.

Some patients have clear “somatization” or “psychosomatic” disorders…
Continue reading “So what’s the good news?”

Berkeley’s New Monument to Itself [Updated]

So, here it is. Titled “Berkeley’s Big People,” it is installed along I-80, so those of you driving north of San Francisco will probably see it, as it is 30 feet tall and visible from a mile away.

Given the landscape of “free speech,” it would have been much more appropriate to have erected a large Don Quixote, fending off autism-causing vaccines, and tilting at a windmill atop a stolen shopping basket full of junk but missing it because he was high. And then declaring victory.

Updates: my Berkeley friends respond! All of these responses are incredibly valuable, so you are to be subjected to them now!

AC asks: “‘lower sproul plaza drumming circle’ is listed as a cultural contribution?”

and then remarks: “mmm … i think you should round up some little people and protest the name. it’s offensive.”

BG remarks that after victory is declared, the statute should depict: “…pooping on the street!”