Occupy Cyberspace

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First there was Occupy Wall Street, but now the noisiest protest seems to be coming from those who wish to occupy the Internet. The irony of it all is that this time, it’s the powerful corporations who are staging the sit-in (or ‘blackout’ or ‘shutdown’, as the case may be), ostensibly on behalf of grassroots consumers. The power brokers of cyberspace, led by Google and Wikipedia, have mounted a substantial protest against the anti-piracy bills being debated in Congress. The bills known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Prevent Internet Piracy Act) have been attacked as threats to our freedom of speech and free market economics.

“Imagine a world without free knowledge…” begins Wikipedia’s protest page, “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” [BBC News, NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]. This must be some powerful bad medicine, if it threatens to kill the patient. At least, that seems to be the position taken by Wikipedia’s publicists.

Whether or not these pieces of legislation have been well-crafted is certainly open to debate. I’m not concerned here with the legalities, but rather with the moral stance of the corporate protesters. The invective being thrown at these bills calls into question the integrity of the internet companies’ response. What moral weight do their tweets and texts bear? Consider the source: these proclamations and accusations are voiced by the companies who make their living by building and driving traffic in cyberspace.

The protesters are careful, of course, to avoid any appearance that they are in favor of piracy. They don’t question the motivations or intentions of the legislation aimed at reining in the pirates out there far from our shores (China, Russia and the Middle East are frequently listed as pirate-friendly safe harbors).

Rather than offer constructive suggestions however for how to combat piracy, the corporate protests seemed designed to upset and rally people to the cry that this legislation may be bad for business. For their business, that is. Let’s be clear about that, because it was designed specifically to protect the business of other companies who produce the valuable content being peddled in cyberspace.  One protester in San Francisco, representing an online travel company, put it plainly, “this legislation is bad, it would directly impact our company.” [NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]

It’s the self-serving tone of such protests that raises the question of integrity. There is precious little moral content in the argument that what’s bad for my business is bad, regardless of how it affects others.

Of course the protesters do not mean to suggest that their moral footing is grounded in self-interest; rather, they imply that their moral authority stems from their concern for freedom as a general principle, as well as concern for the individual information consumers in particular. Of course, this argument is also suspect because their altruism seems to flow from concern for their own customers—the consumers of information services.

These moral arguments are weak. In the first instance, the argument for freedom could just as well be claimed by their opponents who argue for the freedom to earn a living and not to have their products stolen by pirates. Freedom of information is not an issue being questioned by the legislation; piracy is. In the second instance, concern for their own customers once again begs the question of whether the protests are self-serving.

A sincere moral argument rooted in altruism would take a different course. It would demonstrate motive and desire to help solve the piracy problem. It would demonstrate resolve and commitment on the part of the Board of Directors and management to help address a problem that is significantly undermining other significant businesses in our economy.

To protect one’s self-interest with defensive arguments lacks integrity to any source of morality higher than hunger or survival. True integrity recognizes a higher calling, namely, to act out of sincere concern for others’ welfare. That is why biblical notions of morality, based in kenotic self-emptying of self-importance, are just as critical to corporate moral authority as they are to personal integrity.

Perhaps the protesters had valid reason to question the structure of these bills. In that case they might have addressed those issues head-on in a manner which carried much greater moral strength. They might have shown integrity by demonstrating their sincere concern to solve the problem. They might have offered ways to strengthen their current anti-piracy policies. And yes, because “business is business”, this would most likely cost them something in the short run. But in the long run they would have demonstrated a concern for our entire economic system and not just for their own slice of it. They would also be living into the higher calling of integrity which flows from an understanding of the biblical call to be witnesses to a greater reality than pecuniary self-interest.

[this post has also been published at the Center for Integrity in Business: http://blog.spu.edu/cib/2012/01/ ]

The Hole in our Gospel of Work

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(A Portrait of the Artist as a young John Galt)

   Who is John Galt? That’s the question which pulses through the heart of Atlas Shrugged, the massive novel by Ayn Rand that became my personal manifesto during college as I wrestled with the meaning of life, and sought to discover who I was as an adult. John Galt became my heroic alter ego—a rugged individualist who created new technology and built entrepreneurial companies to bring products to market, all for the sake of human achievement and progress.

In a sense, I became John Galt, claiming his ideals as my own. I patterned my life and goals on his. Atlas Shrugged gave me a ringing endorsement for my ambitions. Work became for me an avenue to achievement and success; I began to define myself by what I produced, as a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and businessman. I developed new products and co-founded a company, earned patents, raised venture capital, managed teams of people, and got my picture in the newspaper. It was a wild, fun ride.

But through it all, there lingered in the back of my mind a worry that something was missing in the world of John Galt. To place absolute value on productivity reduced life to a balance sheet which held no place for intangibles like compassion and sympathy. Love seemed not to enter into the equation. I worried about how to place a value upon a life, or upon the experiences, and even suffering, of people whose worth couldn’t be measured by the standards of economic efficiency. Yet, I remained convinced by the example of John Galt that selfishness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that selfishness (or if you prefer, self-concern, or love of self) can produce all kinds of good things for humankind. That’s how profit serves the common good. But to treat selfishness as an absolute good is an entirely different matter. The absolutism of John Galt seems to have a hole in it. Love and mercy don’t seem to be accounted for in the “gospel” according to John Galt (read, Ayn Rand).

This is precisely the dilemma confronted by the biblical author of Ecclesiastes. The expectation that we might find out the meaning of life through personal achievement and the things produced by working is a “vanity of vanities”; it’s like “chasing after the wind” [Eccl. 1:2, 14…]. The problem is that the meaning of life and the purpose of work are not to be found in the act of work itself, but rather in the relational context of our work.  “What do you do for a living?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “What (or Who) makes your work life-giving?”

I can identify with the writer of Ecclesiastes. I was in mid-life before I finally discovered the only hope to enjoy meaningful work without “chasing after the wind”. The only answer I’ve ever found to that dilemma is to live in relationship with the creator God who loves you and me, and who designed us for work—the God who is, the God who is Love, the God we know in and through Christ Jesus.

When our work is celebrated as an expression of who God made us to be, it has meaning. When work serves God’s love for ourselves, for our neighbors and for all creation, it is life-giving, and takes on eternal value. The meaning lies in the relationships which make work valuable. Work has meaning when we see it as part of the story God is telling through us. Living by faith is the source of joy in our work. We don’t find our meaning by going to work, but rather, we bring the meaning of work with us when we enter into it in faith. In faith we discover that work is joyful, because its ultimate value exists in relationship. Here is the impact of the Gospel upon our work—our true, life-giving identity is found not in our job, but in Christ who makes our job meaningful. This is our secret identity as workers—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col. 1:27; 3:3,4]—which we bring to work and which redeems our work to the glory of God. The only way to lead a life which integrates purposeful work, ambition and love, is to live by faith. To discover our secret identity in Christ is to find the path to integrate our faith and work; this is where  we will find the Gospel at work.

Liberté, Egalité, Économie

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SPU Response: economy on life support  The French have come up with some dangerously good ideas. 

There’s a revolutionary spirit at work in the newest policy recommendations to come out of the report commissioned by President Sarkozy.  As the G-20 convened last week, Sarkozy arrived with the report of the French Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was headed up by the Nobel-prize laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

The report is based on the kind of common sense that led Stiglitz to his Nobel-winning insights: “What you measure affects what you do…If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.”[1]  Given the disastrous proportions of the Great Recession, you might wonder, along with Stiglitz, whether we are measuring the right things when it comes to economic policy.  The US and the whole G-20 seem to be focused on one measurement in particular– GDP.

 The problem with GDP, as the Commission asserts boldly, is that GDP doesn’t actually measure what people care most about–  “quality of life”.  GDP is a one-dimensional scale of financial activity that contains no direct measures of health, wholeness, happiness, or the well-being of families and communities.  Not only does GDP fail to address these issues of life quality and happiness, but it also fails to account for the “externalities” of economic activity: for example, pollution, stress and waste.  When someone gets sick in the US, for example, GDP typically goes up, due to the cost of treating illness, even though the event of illness is a clear negative for that person and their community.  In light of all these short-comings, Stiglitz sums up the report as a call to abandon “GDP fetishism.”[2]

 It’s not easy to measure the subjective, intangible aspects of personal and communal health and life quality, of course, and the Commission hasn’t made much progress in solving that problem.  Still, that’s no excuse to give up on the task.  The business schools where I’ve studied and taught, Stanford and Seattle Pacific University, both make the same claim in their branding statements: “Change the World”. Changing our focus on economic measurement, from pure unadulterated economic power, to an enhanced metric of power and life quality, might help lead to a better tool for changing the world.

 


[1] Stiglitz quoted in the NY Times article by Peter S. Goodman, 23 September 2009.

[2] Economist, 19 September 2009, p. 88.