Friday, October 16, 2009

Sidekick Meets the Service Economy?

The title of John Webster's post to his Data-driven blog, maintained by the CNET Blog Network, promised a valuable follow-up to the unfolding story of the Sidekick data-loss incident: "What the T-Mobile outage means for consumers." However, by the time I got to the end of the article, I was wondering if this was more a document of what the outage meant to Webster himself, in his capacity as an enterprise IT storage professional (using the wording of his own biographical synopsis). It may also have been a document about what the outage meant to all businesses in the supply chain leading to the consumer (where both goods and services may be supplied); but to what extent was the consumer supposed to be the primary beneficiary of any lessons learned?

The answer to that question resides in the follow paragraphs that Webster wrote, presumably directed at consumers:

Take an inventory. You have data on your desktop, laptop, Palm device, smartphone, entertainment center, home network...Then ask yourself: how much of this data could you lose without caring whether you ever used it again? Certainly some, perhaps a lot of it, will fall into the data dumpster category. But the T-Mobile scare is yet another reminder that each of us owns data that has become critical to our daily activities. Could you function if someone grabbed your smartphone and ran away? For an increasing number of us, the answer is yes, but with ever greater difficulty. Some other data about us, our medical records for example, are life-critical.

Next, try to figure out how much of that critical data you actually have control over and then back it up. Immediately. Don't trust others to do it for you. Take control and make copies locally and/or using one of the many online backup services.

As one of my Twitter compatriots SEPATONjay observed over breakfast this week, if the service level agreement between T-Mobile and Microsoft couldn't prevent this failure, how good are the SLAs between any of the rest of us consumers and our services providers. Take an inventory of the services providers that hold your data, then read their contracts, (assuming you can find them). I'll bet all of them indemnify the vendor against the loss of your data. If you can't protect that data, don't assume they will. Use a service that offers you a way to protect the data you deem critical.

My initial reaction was that this was a guy who did not "get" the underlying principles and motivations behind a service economy. However, when I got to that last paragraph about SLAs, I realized that he was far from the only one who did not "get it." I thus offer that modest proposal that the very concept of a service economy has been distorted by those who practice it to such a great extent that it no longer resembles in the slightest the concept as it was first proposed by "post-industrial society theorists," such as Daniel Bell. This should not be any big surprise. Many of the ideals of theory have to give way to intransigent realities of practice. The problem, however, is that, while those who now have a business stake in the service economy know exactly how those ideals have been compromised, most customers probably do not.

Even this is no surprise. Most of us understand the ideals of our system of government through a few sentences from the Declaration of Independence that we had to memorize when we were in elementary school, along with the Pledge of Allegiance. Many of us may even go far enough to appreciate the extent to which Constitutional Law required that those ideals be compromised. Few of us enjoy (if that is the right verb) much comprehension of the width of the gulf that separates the Constitution from day-to-day practices of the Federal Government. It is thus understandable that we can easily be sold a bill of goods by a "service provider" that delivers precious little of what we would take to be service (which is not that different from being sold a "health care reform" package that "reforms" little more than prevailing attitudes towards a status quo that got us into trouble in the first place).

Much of the problem may come down to the fact that the very concept of "service" is contingent on a supporting concept that has pretty much lost all of its currency. That is the concept of "trust," which was already on life-support when Francis Fukuyama tried to revive it in 1995 and is now (for all practical purposes, at least) six feet under a rather skimpy headstone with room for only a one-word epitaph: "whatever." Fukuyama's book discussed at great length the bond of trust without which a service provider could not do his/her job. Today such a bond is inconceivable, which is why SLAs have to be written scrupulously enough to cover for its absence.

What, then, are we to do in the face of the linguistic distortions of concepts such as service, government, and health care? One answer may come from Slavoj Žižek, who I happened to hear on Democracy Now! yesterday morning. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of his interview in the form of a narrative and the lesson it teaches:

You know Niels Bohr, Copenhagen, quantum physics guy. You know, once he was visited in his country house by a friend who saw above the entrance a horseshoe, you know, in Europe, the superstitious item allegedly preventing evil spirits to enter the house. And the friend, also a scientist, asked him, “But listen, do you really believe in this?” Niels Bohr said, “Of course not. I’m not an idiot. I’m a scientist.” Then the friend asked him, “But why do you have it there?” You know what Niels Borh [sic] answered? He said, “I don’t believe in it, but I have it there, horseshoe, because I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

That’s ideology today. We don’t believe in democracy—nobody. You make fun of it and so on, but somehow we act as if it works. It’s a very strange situation, because there are—some of us old enough still remember them, old days when the public face of power was dignity, belief. And privately you mocked it, you made fun, and so on, no? Now we are, I think, approaching a very strange state, where the public face of power is becoming more and more openly indecent, obscene. Look at Sarkozy in France. Look at Berlusconi in Italy, who is systematically undermining, for over five years now, the minimum of dignity of the state power. I mean, you are again and again surprised how is this possible. You know, after those sex scandals, two weeks ago, his lawyer, Berlusconi’s lawyer, made a public official statement, where he said that the claims that Berlusconi is impotent are lies and that Mr. Berlusconi is ready to prove this in court. Now, how? How—what did he mean? You know, there is a level of obscenity, but this shouldn’t deceive us. We really live in cynical times, not just in this cheap sense they don’t take themselves seriously, but in the sense that—how should I put it?—the ironic self-undermining, making fun of yourself, is in a strange way part of the game. It’s as if the system can function even if it makes fun of itself.

As with government, we make fun of service providers but continue to act as if they were actually providing services. That aspect of ridicule probably lies at the heart of the title of Žižek's latest book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, which, as regular readers know, was Karl Marx' conception of how history repeats itself. Having lived through the tragedy of loss through trust in "defective" services, we now fall back on making fun of the whole situation as if it were nothing more than farce. While this may be a sign that we have lost our sense of reality, it may also be the only tactic with survival value, which raises one final question: Is the condition in which we depend on farce for survival one of tragedy or farce?

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