Saturday, May 25, 2013

odious oligarchs

  1. o·di·ous  

    Extremely unpleasant; repulsive.
    hateful - obnoxious - detestable - loathsome - abominable
  1. ol·i·garch  

    1. A ruler in an oligarchy.
    2. (esp. in Russia) A very rich businessman with a great deal of political influence.
  1. ol·i·gar·chy  

    1. A small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.
    2. A state governed by such a group.
The last few weeks have been bitter-sweet for me. In spite of finding and starting a great new job I've had to deal with the decisions of corporations from which I purchased goods and services, specifically Adobe and Yahoo.

First I had to deal with the fact that the oligarchs who rule Adobe decided the only way to purchase the use of Photoshop going forward is via a monthly fee through their Creative Cloud. I have been a purchaser and user of boxed Photoshop since the mid-1990s starting with Photoshop 4. Over the years I upgraded to Photoshop 7, then to Photoshop CS2, and then to Photoshop CS5 where I'm currently at. I'm trying now to upgrade to CS6 in the (vain?) hope that I can stave off for as long as possible an eventual migration away from Photoshop. To what, I honestly have no idea at this point in time.

I have been an honest, if infrequent, buyer of Adobe Photoshop. They set the pricing, especially the upgrade prices, which I found affordable. I upgraded when I felt it would provide true value to do so. This new change has felt something like a slap in the face; either not spending enough to suite the suits and/or being lumped in with the ne'er-do-wells who pirate Photoshop and thus Must Be Stopped. While I'm certainly no Photoshop expert, I know that when I need Photoshop I really need it, and I've used it enough since 1996 to have (for me) a sizable collection of Photoshop files. I have become, as they say, heavily invested.

As an individual user, I have absolutely no desire to pay constant sums of money to Adobe or anyone else for software that I can loose access to by whatever whim the powers that be decide, and in the process loose control and access to the work I've produced with that tool. I have innumerable PSD files stretching back over the years that I can still open and access precisely because I can install a local legal copy of Photoshop on my computer and open it at any time. I've already paid for the privilege once, and for me once is more than enough.

I know what some of you will say. Think of CC as a utility. And I find that model stinks. I pay for power, water, and cable every month. Depending on the month and the amount I use, the monthly payments fluctuate rather spectacularly, especially during the summer months when it gets hotter than hell down here in Florida. And I know how miserable my life can be when a hurricane hits and I spend weeks at a time without power and any kind of connectivity. I already know what it's like to loose connectivity to on-line services (I'm looking at you, Google), and while I can certainly live without them, having an application make a sudden transition from local computer-based to network (cloud) based is going in the opposite direction that I've been traveling all my life. I used to work for companies that worshiped at the mainframe and then the minicomputer, and then went to the PC server with Netware and Lotus, and every single time there's been instances were I was glad to be able to work locally and continue to be productive. This infatuation with cloud services is the latest iteration on the centralized computing paradigm stretching back to my days dealing with IBM 360 mainframes and the culture it produced. It's all about power and money and where it'll reside, either in my hands or someone elses.

And then there's the changes going on at Yahoo in general and Flickr in particular. For a long time now I've been a Flickr user, having gone 'Pro' for a rather reasonable $25/year. For that small amount of money I got an ad-free experience and plenty of elbow room to upload stuff, not that I've uploaded all that much over the last five years, but still. What's up there is something of an eclectic mess and certainly won't win any awards, but it was convenient for stashing my stuff online, and if the interface wasn't perfect, so what? It all worked just fine for me, flaws and all. Now, in Mayer's New World Order, the ad-free privilege is doubled to $50, and your unlimited uploads are capped at a terabyte. Want two terabytes? That jumps to the ridiculous price of $500. Welcome to Mayer's World.

Then, under Marissa Mayer's current stewardship Flickr has been undergoing some considerable change (some would even say upheavals), one of those changes being a drastic redesign of Flicker itself. A lot of people have complained that Flickr, an independent property purchased by Yahoo in 2005, has been allowed to languish and fall on hard times. They point to Instagram and Hipstamatic as two examples of what on-line photography sites should be. What they're really talking about is money. Remember that Facebook purchased Instagram for a rather tidy $1 Billion Dollars. Nothing gets an oligarch's blood flowing quite like lots of money coupled with lots of power over lots of people. They haven't seen that with Flickr. And so "everybody" has complained about how the "value" of Flickr has fallen over the years. I liked Flickr the way it was precisely because it was out of the limelight and a good place to simply hold my photos.

But now we've got a new interface that looks like a poor mashup between Google and Facebook. And frankly, I hate the way it looks. And then there was the icing on that particular ugly cake, Marissa Mayer's comment that "There’s no such thing as Flickr Pro today because [with so many people taking photographs] there’s really no such thing as professional photographers anymore." This, of course, fits in with a number of other Mayer goofs and gaffs she's made and spoken since taking over at Yahoo (I can see why she was ushered out of Google). And this comment, aimed as someone like me (who is not a pro photographer but does know the difference), has decided that after all these years it's time to look elsewhere. I am a GeoCities refuge, from when Yahoo purchased GeoCities, let it languish, and then just shut it down. I've been a Yahoo member since 2000 (my first email has a date of 27 September 2000). That's an eternity on the web. In all that time I've put up with a lot. But Marissa Mayer is probably the change catalyst that will drive me out of Yahoo and fully over to Google and Google+.

Why the oligarch commentary?

It comes from an article on the Daily Ticker titled "Tech Titans Are the New Masters of the Universe, Be Afraid: Kotkin" by Nicole Goodkind. The article, which I'm going to quote in full here, is pretty significant in summarizing what's been happening to us over the past fifteen or so years, since the great Internet Bubble burst.
When Steve Jobs died, Occupy Wall Street was in full effect. Yet those who were fighting for wealth equality and the end of the banking oligarchy held a moment of silence in honor of the Apple co-founder, who had a net worth of $7 billion.

Jobs "didn’t believe in charity," writes Joel Kotkin in The Daily Beast. Apple was a company that "had more cash in hand than the U.S. Treasury while doing everything in its power to avoid paying taxes...Jobs was being celebrated by those who should have been fighting against him."

Kotkin believes that tech gurus are America’s newest set of oligarchs. They hurt competition and hold great influence with government officials. They don’t create many U.S. jobs, they don’t pay much in taxes, and yet 72% of Americans express positive feelings for their industry.

Auto executives flying in private jets set the American public into a rage in 2008 and yet no one complains about Google’s fleet of private jets in San Jose or the tech giant's proposal to build a private $85 million flight center, Kotkin argues. Tech oligarchs are also taking jobs away from Americans, he says.

"Perversely, the small number of jobs -- mostly clustered in Silicon Valley and created by tech companies -- has helped its moguls avoid public scrutiny." Kotkin compares the domestic workforce of major Silicon Valley companies to other Fortune 500 U.S. corporations: 50,000 Google employees versus 200,000 U.S. workers at General Motors. Facebook's 4,600 workers to Ford's 164,000. Exxon's 100,000+ staff to Twitter's 1,000. Google, with a market cap of $215 billion, is about five times larger than GM yet has just one fourth as many workers.

"This is an equation that defines inequality: more and more wealth concentrated in fewer hands and benefiting fewer workers," Kotkin says. “If you look at the wealthiest people in the country, particularly the wealthiest people under the age of 40, they’re heavily tilted towards the Silicon Valley."

The youngest billionaire in the U.S. is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook whose net worth totals $12.4 billion. He's followed by Sergey Brin of Google, the 21st richest person in America, with $25.5 billion.

"Ten of the world’s 29 billionaires under 40 come from the tech sector, with four from Facebook and two from Google. The rest of the list is mostly inheritors and Russian oligarchs," writes Kotkin.

Facebook paid no taxes last year, despite making a profit of more than $1 billion. Apple’s Tim Cook testified in front of Congress this week about how his company manages to pay so little in taxes.

These companies are also trying to use their influence to sway politics. Facebook’s lobbying budget grew from $351,000 in 2010 to $2.45 million in the first quarter of 2013. Google spent $18 million on lobbying in 2012.

So why do these companies get a free pass when it comes to public opinion? "In our era we have grown up to love our toys," Kotkin tells The Daily Ticker. "I think it has a kind of halo effect. People don’t realize that this is not as clean and carefree as we tend to think." "These are industrialists, these are capitalists and we should celebrate their successes but we should be very careful," he adds.
Apple led the way. What they did (with our complete cooperation) was learn how to link our vanity with out laziness and monetize it so that constant money flows out of our pockets and into theirs. Nobody bats an eye anymore when Apple or Google are sited for the hundreds of billions of dollars they have in the bank, money made from all of us over the last ten or more years.

How do they link vanity with laziness? One prime example is Instagram. Instagram (an iPhone app) allows us to use the convenience of our cell phone camera (the iPhone) to make any photograph anywhere and then push it up to the cloud (via cellular or WiFi) for the whole world to see and comment on. There's no friction whatsoever in producing the photo, absolutely none on posting it, and we all love to get our egos stroked over the vapid comments about these photos that come flowing in from similar users. All we do is pay connectivity charges to the cellular providers and, of course, all that money to Apple (or whomever makes the cell phone in use). And of course, all along the way, we get ads that generate more money for the providers and tracking and the loss of our privacy.

Sometimes, as a solution, I wish I really could take one of those one-way trips to Mars. We've let things go too far for too long on this planet, and I now believe we need to head out and start over building more humane societies, starting with what technologies we use and how we use them. The incredible potential once represented by Apple and Google and even Yahoo have been grossly perverted by the very few, very rich technological oligarchs. It's going to take a powerful revolution to shake these particular ticks off of us. I just don't know quite what that means at this point in time, but I'm certainly willing to find out.


  1. This is an excellent commentary Bill and I could not have possibly put it any better. These are the same thoughts that I have been having lately. There needs to be a grand reset.

  2. Bill, you must understand that you and others do have a choice here. You can work wth Lightroom and various plug-ins. (or Acorn if you have a Mac) or just try to ride as long as you can with the software you have. After that, if none of the alternatives appeal to you, then shoot jpgs. I know that's what I'll do. Also, try Picassa instead of Flickr (until Google acts up). But, really, the consumer has more power in this than most realize. If Yahoo loses 50 percent of its Flickr accounts, what do you think they'll do? The same goes for Adobe. Many will say that's impossible and I guess that's where the laziness you wrote about kicks in. Perhaps most people are too lazy to drop Adobe and Yahoo but the point is that they really can do this if they want and make the corporates pay attention. But they have to want to do so. As for me, I know what my plan is.


All comments are checked. Comment SPAM will be blocked and deleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.