Linux vs. Bullshit

by Doc Searls

Linux doesn't lie, any more than gravity lies, or geology lies, or atmosphere lies. Like those other natural things, Linux has no guile, no agenda beyond supporting the entirety of use-space. In rough words, there's no bullshit about it, and that's one reason it gets used. Let me explain.

Prior to discovering Linux (or having it discover me) I was peripherally involved in high-level UNIX debates, while helping Sun Microsystems promote its SPARC microprocessor architecture. At that time (late '80s, early '90s), UNIX was a horse race, and Sun's steed was Sun OS, which was then at V4, as I recall. I attended many meetings at Sun, where representatives of various commercial factions worked toward reconciling Sun OS with AT&T's System V R4 (called SVR4 then). Somehow this led to Solaris, but that was after I had moved on.

What stuck with me from those meetings was that every company involved had a self-interested stake in how UNIX evolved. I suppose that's one reason Linux fascinated me from the moment I first learned about it. As Andrew Morton explained to me in 2005 "On the kernel team we are concerned about the long-term viability and integrity of the code base. We're reluctant to put stuff in for specific reasons where a commercial company might do that."

In other words, no bullshit.

I mean bullshit seriously, as does the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his landmark book On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). Back when I first read the book, I page-flagged this passage:

Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

That's the same point as "Linus's Law" (coined by Eric S. Raymond and named for Linus): "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". Frankfurt goes on to observe:

Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact, it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.

It should then be no surprise that Linux folk have a heightened tendency to resist advertising, at least in their browsers. Confirmation of this comes via "Ad Blocking, Measured", a May 2012 research report by ClarityRay, a company in the business of thwarting ad blocking. In it they find an "overall rate of ad-blocked impressions in the US and Europe" of 9.26%. Among six content domains, the ad-blocking rate was lowest in Business & Finance at 6.11% and highest in Tech at 17.79%. Among browsers, the lowest ad-blocking rate was earned by Explorer at 3.86% and the highest by Firefox at 17.81%. Among operating systems, the ad-blocking rate was lowest with iOS at 1.33% and highest with Linux and Ubuntu at 29.04%.

So it also should be no surprise that Microsoft is now turning on Do Not Track by default in Explorer, and Mozilla (parent of Firefox) is battling the DAA (Digital Advertising Alliance) and the IAB Interactuve Advertising Bureau) over proposed blocking of third-party cookies. (Apple's Safari already does that.) On the whole, browser makers are on the users' side. (One exception is Google's Chrome, which has no plans at this time for blocking third-party cookies. Google is the biggest player in the on-line advertising business.)

To be fair, both the DAA and the IAB would like advertising to be as wrought as possible, and for consumers to appreciate the good intentions and effects of their business. I know that because I've talked to them about it. Those organizations see themselves, correctly, as advocates for good behavior in a business rife with the opposite. They also know consumer appetite for advertising, such as it is, tends to be highest for that which is most wrought—for example, Super Bowl ads. Among less expensively wrought forms of advertising, there are breeds that also enjoy a degree of demand by consumers. You'll find these in Linux Journal and Vogue. Subscribers and advertisers both pay for those magazines, and there is a kind of symbiosis in the middle. In specialized publications like these, ads tend to enhance rather than to diminish editorial content.

So this topic is close to home for us here at Linux Journal. It's also close to home for me personally, since I labored in the advertising business for much of my adult life. The "inner strain" of which Frankfurt speaks is one I experienced in that business, and still feel today as I try to make sense of what it has become in the on-line world.

Advertising in the pre-digital days was an obvious business. You knew how an ad got to be where it was, and what it was doing there. Because of that, advertising also carried what economists call a signal. That is, a message of sufficiency. In "The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works" (Journal of Advertising Research, December 2004), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say advertising's base-level purpose—aside from its specific message—is akin to a male peacock's fanned-out tail. It speaks of the company's substance, and the fact that it can afford to advertise.

With today's "adtech" business, the provenance of many ads is unknown. If you see an ad for badger-hide gloves when you're reading the Daily Feh, and then again when you whimsically look for vacations on Pluto, it's not clear why that ad is there, or why it's following you around. That's because the ad might be targeted by way of some combination of the following, only the first two of which existed in the old pre-Internet advertising world:

  • Advertisers
  • Agencies
  • Agency Trading Desks
  • SSPs (Supply Side Platforms)
  • DSPs (Demand Side Platforms)
  • RTB (Real Time Bidding)
  • Exchanges
  • Creative Optimization
  • Retargeting
  • Verification/Privacy
  • Media Planning and Attribution
  • Tag Management
  • Measurement and Analytics
  • Data Suppliers
  • DMPs (Data Management Platforms) and Data Aggregators
  • Ad Networks—
    • Horizontal
    • Vertical/Custom
    • Targeted Networks/AMPs
    • Performance
    • Mobile
  • Media Management Systems
  • Ad Operations
  • Ad Servers
  • Publisher Tools
  • Web Analytics
  • Gamification
  • Real Time Message/Offers
  • Sharing Data/Social Tools

Most of that list comes from Luma Partners' "Lumascapes": amazing graphical representations of marketing businesses, each sandwiching dozens of companies and categories between first source (such as marketer or advertiser) and the consumer. Many arrows run between collections of companies in one specialty or another. In some cases, the arrows point recursively back toward the source. Randall Rothenberg, IAB's CEO, tells me this whole collection is a "black box" to the consumer and a problem he and others at the IAB want to fix.

Another view of that box comes to us by way of IBM and the research firm Aberdeen, which together diagram "The Big Datastillery". Copy at the top describes it as "Best-in-Class Strategies to Accelerate the Return on Digital Data" and "a revolutionary new appliance to condense terabyte scale torrents of customer, transactional, campaign, clickstream and social media data down to meaningful and actionable insights that boost response rates, conversions and customer value".

Below that is a maze of pipes pouring stuff into a hopper of "Best-in-Class companies" that are "2.8 times more likely than Laggards to incorporate unstructured data into analytical models". The pipes are called:

  • Customer Sentiment
  • E-mail Metrics
  • CRM
  • Clickstream Data
  • PPC (Pay Per Click)
  • SEO Data
  • Social Media
  • Marketing History
  • Ad Impressions
  • Transactional Data

Coming out of the hopper are boxes and tanks, connected to more piping. These are accompanied by blocks of text explaining what's going on in that part of the "datastillery". One says "Ability to generate customer behavioral profile based on real-time analytics". Another says "Ability to optimize marketing offers/Web experience based on buyer's social profile". Another says BIC (Best in Class) outfits "merge customer data from CRM with inline behavioral data to optimize digital experience".

Customers are represented (I'm not kidding) as empty beakers moving down a conveyor belt at the bottom of this whole thing. Into the beakers pipes called "customer interaction optimization" and "marketing optimization" excrete orange and green flows of ones and zeroes. Gas farted upward by customers metabolizing goop fed by the first two pipes is collected by a third pipe called "campaign metrics" and carried to the top of the datastillery, where in liquid form it gets poured back into the hopper. Text over a departing beaker says "137% higher average marketing response rate for Best-in-Class (6.2%) vs. All Others (2.6%)". (The 137% is expressed in type many times larger than the actual response rates.) The reciprocal numbers for those rates are 93.8% and 97.4%—meaning that nearly all the beakers are not responsive, even to Best-in-Class marketing.

In fact, advertising and marketing have always been good at bullshitting themselves. Consider, for example, the old saying (often attributed to John Wanamaker, who is not known to have actually said it) "I know half my advertising is wasted, I just don't know which half." The correct answer is that most of it is wasted, and the industry has known that for the duration. They just don't want to talk about it. And, on the whole, neither do we. Frankfurt explains:

In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.

Lately, however, people are feeling somewhat more violated, especially by tracking, thanks to Edward Snowden's revelations of how the NSA is spying on everybody. We now know that the Feds and marketing mills are both harvesting massive amounts of personal data without revealing to us what they know, and that the two are actually in cahoots, at least some of the time. This is especially vexing, because the feds should be the ones protecting us from bad actors, rather than bad actors themselves.

But let's set that stuff aside and just look at the bullshit aspects of the whole thing. How much good is all this data collection and manipulation actually doing for its perpetrators? And how much are they also bullshitting themselves?

When I was doing research for The Intention Economy, the most important input I got came from Doug Rauch, the retired president of Trader Joe's. One big reason for Trader Joe's success, he told me, is (translating to the vernacular) that it minimizes marketing bullshit. It has no loyalty program, no coupons, no discounts and none of the expenses any of those involve, including the cost of running a big data mill. Doug's job as president of the company, he said, was to shop along with customers. Talking in person, in stores, with customers, was his main form of research. One result, he told me, is that there is hardly a product on the shelves at Trader Joe's that isn't influenced directly by customers talking to workers in the store. Trader Joe's also doesn't go to retailing tradeshows, Doug told me, because too much of what goes on at those things is all about manipulating the customer. These manipulations are highly complex and therefore come at high costs to the stores as well. By avoiding this kind of thing, Trader Joe's spares itself the cognitive overhead required to rationalize complicating the living shit out of everything, which is what marketing tends to do—and does now, more than ever, with Big Data. Thanks to Big Data and the perceived need to run big complex marketing mills, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)—a title that didn't exist twenty years ago—runs an overhead-fattening operation that can dwarf the old IT budget.

Meanwhile, only a tiny percentage of the output of these mills is actually useful to us. The rest is cognitive overhead, and we don't like it, even if we appreciate all the free-as-in-beer stuff it pays for.

What we need are fixes on the Linux model: stuff that's useful.

This issue of Linux Journal will hit the streets on the seventh anniversary of the month I made it my my mission in life to encourage developers to create tools that make individuals both independent of companies yet better equipped to engage with them. That work is happening, and I continue to have faith that it will succeed, and improve the way business works for everybody. That faith comes from watching how Linux and other free and open-source developments, by simply being useful, defeat bullshit.

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