Tuesday, December 23, 2014


I think I've mentioned before that the elevators in the Big Gray office building have little computer monitors in them that rotate through weather, traffic reports, sports scores, news headlines, and ads. This morning as I was riding up there was a headline about the internet outage in North Korea being resolved. A woman was riding with me, and when she read that she kind of chuckled and said, "They're back." I chuckled as well (mainly because, despite both my line of work and my love of future-oriented science-fiction, I still find it weirdly unsettling how much the world is coming to resemble a cyberspace potboiler that would have been the stuff of pure fantasy when I was a kid). My fellow rider then said, "Well, we didn't do that." It's always hard to parse the intent of strangers, especially in the limited context of an elevator ride, so I wasn't sure if she was being deadly earnest or archly ironic. I answered her the only way that I could, with the limited amount of truth available to me: "I know I didn't do it."

Which kind of gets right to the crux of the matter, because I have been thinking a lot lately, specifically in the context of this whole Sony hacking debacle, about the different ways in which individual people choose to recognize or identify with groups. I was being facetious, of course, when I interpreted that woman's "we" in "we didn't do that" as "you and I, the two of us in this elevator". But I haven't a clue what she honestly meant by "we". Did she mean "the U.S. government" (which we are both employees of, given the location of our workplace exchange)? Did she mean "AMERICA", the geopolitical country, or "AMERICA" the society (both of which we presumably belong to)? Or did she mean "the normal people who aren't part of the bizarre hypergrid community of hackers"?

It was a fleeting bit of morning smalltalk, and it really doesn't matter. But again, it speaks to some bigger issues that do (or did, things change pretty fast) seem to be getting some traction in the groupthink. I saw a lot of people posting on Facebook about Sony's decision not to release The Interview at all, and there were a lot of variations on the same lamentation, "Oh, what does this say about us, that we would allow this to happen?" And all I could keep thinking was, what do you mean "us"? Which "we"? Some people were positively swooning for the divan over the implications for our national character, for the principles of freedom which the U.S. of A. is supposed to stand for. RIP, blatant political satire, you had a good run. Go gently into that good night, First Amendment. &c.

OK, whoa. It might be a good idea to step back and think for a moment about the fact that we're fretting over Sony's decision as if Sony were a person, and an exemplary representative of other people as well. The former is debatable, and the latter definitely gets a big fat negatory from me. Just for the sake of the current discussion, I will set aside the arguments against the personhood of corporations. Let's grant that Sony is, in the way of corporations, a person, and can make decisions, and be held accountable for them. If corporations are people, they are the worst possible kind of people. They are terrible citizens. They are amoral, utterly and intrinsically devoted to one and only one pursuit: making money. When a corporation makes a decision, the impact on the bottom line is the alpha and omega of considerations. Period! To expect a corporation to make a stand for free speech, or courage in the face of adversity, or anything particularly abstract and lofty, is absurd. It just doesn't work like that.

Of course that's a bit of an oversimplification, and reality is slightly more complicated. Even more complicated is the fact that we (most Americans) don't necessarily think of looking out for the bottom line, or various other tenets of capitalism, as inherently bad. To the extent that I, on some level, want to make as much money as possible, I can also sympathize with a corporation wanting the same thing. But I want other things, as well, and sometimes have to weigh them all out and make compromises or draw lines in the sand or whatever. And that's where a corporation stops behaving like a thinking, feeling human being. I want to make more money, but if someone said "Kill this puppy and I'll give you fifty thousand dollars" I would balk, because I don't want to kill puppies. Whereas a corporation might or might not balk, depending on what the analysts said about how many puppies they could get away with killing and how much business they might lose if word got out about the puppy killings.

So. Sony considered what to do with The Interview, in light of threats being made and public reaction and multiplex chains' responses, and despite the fact that some independent theaters were still willing to screen the film, and VOD was an option that would seem to defuse the potential for reprisals of mass violence, they pulled the plug entirely (for now, though rumors persist that delayed distribution may still happen). If you try to figure out how they justified it philosophically, after everything we've all learned about appeasement and terrorism and so on, you are just barking up the wrong tree. They made the decision based on money. With the standard theatrical release not coming together 100%, they calculated they could make more money by cashing in the insurance on the film rather than cobbling together a non-traditional release. because the insurance only covers total loss, not partial. In that light, it makes perfect sense. The fact that to some it looked like cowardice? Irrelevant. The fact that, if the threats were credible and an attack on a Sony employee's home might have resulted in one or more human deaths, but such a tragedy was arguably averted? Irrelevant.

Why should we conflate this in any way with our national character? (Especially since Sony is a Japanese corporation.) We seem to be stuck with the notion of corporations as people. It means that corporations can donate money to political candidates as protected speech, which makes conservatives happy. It means that individuals can sue corporations for liability and damages, which makes liberals happy. (I'm reasonably sure this is the reason why Mitt Romney sounded so glibly smug in his infamous "Corporations are people, my friend!" soundbite - both sides have their reasons to want this to be the case, and Mitt is savvy enough to know it.) But we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that legal personhood is the same as having a soul, which is a prerequisite for having ideals and beliefs worth standing up for.

And we also shouldn't think that any problems that corporations can't solve are therefore insolvable. Maybe the risk/reward analysis for corporations about incurring the wrath of shadowy foreign hackers has changed, maybe only until the storm blows over, maybe for good. If all corporate accountants determine that from now on it makes no sense to strike a multimillion dollar deal for a provocative film of political satire, because odds are it will lose more money than it makes, then so it goes. But when did we decide that only corporations get to make movies, and if corporations turn against a certain kind of movie then that kind of movie will go extinct? I am well and truly astonished that this sentiment has actually been expressed more than once recently. Whatever Sony (or any corporation) does comments meaningfully on America? That's a stretch. Whatever any corporation does comments meaningfully on the future of art? Are you kidding me?

Because of economies of scale, corporations make certain things easy that would otherwise be very hard. But it's dangerous in the extreme to become so lazy and reliant on this that we can't imagine life without those corporation-profiting conveniences. It really only takes one dedicated individual with a dream to create art, no matter how dangerously provocative that art may be. If it's independently made, it might not be as slick and gleaming as a corporate product, it might not have access to the same distribution channels, and it might not reach or appeal to as many people, but it will still exist. And it will matter, not to box-office receipt bean-counters, but to the person who made it and to anyone it genuinely speaks to. I think that creating things and utilizing all aspects of self-expression are fundamental parts of human nature, and that's never going to change. It's neither here nor there whether the same can be said of corporations.

So, humanity is going to be all right. America is going to be all right. Corporations are going to be all right, for the definition of "all right" that applies to quasi-person legal entities. Sony may or may not be all right, but unless you're a shareholder, don't read too much into that. And don't make the mistake of thinking we are our businesses, or we are our economy, or we are our government. In some specific and limited senses, we are, but in the really important ways, we are ourselves. Know the difference! If we take responsibility for ourselves, and speak for our principles in our own voices, everything is going to be all right.

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