Report from the heart of darkness
Date: Tue, 13 Jun 95 13:42:09 PDT
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Report from the heart of darkness
[It's "longish" but worth it... -psl]
Forwarded-by: George Osner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: FringeWare Daily <email@example.com>
Subject: COMMUN - Report from the heart of darkness (longish)
Sent from: firstname.lastname@example.org (Derek Winkler)
I'm a spy in the house of business.
I've got this job, okay?. Because of this job, I recently got to sit in
on a big-time, full-blown business-elite seminar called "The Information
Age: Transforming Technology to Strategy", keynote speaker, Nicholas
Negroponte. Lunch with Negroponte, at $500 a plate. "Register today,"
said the faxed invitation, "You'll be in good company." My boss, a
wanna-be technocrat, had finagled some kind of contra deal with the
Speakers Forum to get us in for free, so I went. As Bill Burroughs once
said, wouldn't you?
My friends on the fringe, the report which I must now submit may disturb
you, but it is better that you should know the facts now. You must have
time to prepare. The forces of darkness which I saw gathering there will
be on the march soon. You need to know.
Put bluntly, it's a cult. Someone is brainwashing the business minds of
this continent to think a certain way about digital technologies. The
mind control techniques are classical in nature: isolation from opposing
points of view, exploitation of fears and insecurities for negative
re-enforcement, groupthink, mandatory deference to authority, and above
all, repetition of the message track. These business(mostly)men,
unaccustomed as they are to original and creative thought, are being
indoctrinated into a religion so all-encompassing, and so demanding of
loyalty and personal commitment, that they are coming to resemble a
private army of immense wealth and power. Nothing like them has been seen
since the Knights Templar.
They have a figurehead leader (Negroponte), who provides them with the
Holy Words, mantras, and rituals. I believe he is not the true leader of
the cult. That person or persons remains out of the limelight. The actual
indoctrination is carried out by a small cadre of second-tier pundits
and consultants who do not report directly to Negroponte, which is why I
have concluded that he is a figurehead only.
But to whom do they report, then? Where is the real tip of this pyramid?
Somewhere in the shadows lurks the true benefactor of these machinations.
It is not the biz knobs themselves, I feel sure, for they know nothing
beyond what they are told and display classic symptoms of programmed
I will tell you what I observed. You must draw your own conclusions.
The Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto is pretty upscale, for Toronto.
We're in a large conference room, tucked discreetly at the end of a long
kinked hallway. About 120 people in all. Serious men in dark grey
conservative suits, here to watch other serious men in similar suits.
There are seven women here and fewer than a dozen people under the age of
40, to make a rough guess. We're sitting in comfortable leather chairs
behind long tables in neat rows, draped in heavy salmon-coloured linen
cloth. The decor consists of pale grey-blue walls, wood panelling, and
tasteful green carpeting. It's all very elegant, but there is tension in
the air. The initiates, the chosen few, speak together in hushed tones.
Latecomers slip quietly in the back and creep across the room like they
were sneaking into church. All eyes are turned reverentially toward the
The man at the podium is delivering a sermon. The Man himself, Nicholas
Negroponte, is graciously favouring us with a brief unscheduled address,
as a reward for showing up at eight in the morning for the full seminar
instead of just dropping in for the luncheon speech. The gathered biz
knobs squirm with delight.
The Man spends about 15 minutes explaining Moore's Law and the reason we
can't buy a computer for $199 (the reason being that Intel can't maintain
a 50% profit margin doing that). He takes a few eager questions from the
audience about how to make money: What's the killer app going to be? Can
anyone beat Microsoft? He answers. He departs. Negroponte is a charming
and witty man, a most practised speaker, and I suspect his handlers keep
him in a box when not in use.
After that brief flurry of unanticipated adulatory activity, the
conference returns to its agenda. The moderator is another man in a dark
grey suit, but he is neither charming nor witty nor practised. He is the
chairman of the Canadian branch of an international management consulting
firm, which is hosting this little get together. He makes a few
introductory remarks about electronic media and digital information
networks being the cornerstones of business enterprise in the near
future. You probably know the spiel; Information Superhighway, Brave New
World, Real Soon Now, Make.Money.Fast, etcetera etcetera etcetera. 120
heads nod in unison. The first speaker is introduced.
He also wears a dark grey suit, but as accessories he sports a big Sony
Bono moustache and an engineering background. He is the only speaker who
is not an employee of the host Firm. He kicks off his address with an
Albert Einstein joke and promises not to use the words "convergence",
"paradigm", or "superhighway" in his talk. I start to think this might
not be so bad. The biz audience shuffles nervously. New territory.
"Convergence is a cruel joke," says the speaker, "because it implies
things are getting easier to understand. As someone said, if you're not
confused, you haven't been paying attention." He compares predicting what
technology will do in the future to predicting what an electron will do
under the rules of quantum physics, the point being that you can't do it
so don't even try. Then, to my everlasting delight, he fires up the slide
projector and explains about Schrodinger's cat to an audience of 120
corporate drones. I like this guy.
"There is always uncertainty at a certain level," he concludes. "The
growth of the Internet was totally unpredicted. The most important
technological advances of the future will also be totally unpredicted."
This is not what this audience wants to hear. They want to hear about
how to make money with this stuff. That's the hook to bring the new
members into the fold. Most cults play on loneliness with promises of
friendship. This cult plays on greed with promises of market share.
Cheated, the initiates reward the killjoy with stony silence and cold
stares. A bit shaken by this reception, the engineer sits down abruptly
and glances nervously from side to side.
Next up is a goofy little promo video with all the visceral appeal of an
English-as-a-second-language instruction tape. It features vignettes of
various high-tech biz knobs using ever-so-cool pen-based
PDA-cum-cell-phones to outmanoeuvre the competition on the corporate
battlefield. Cheesy. Very cheesy. But the audience likes it because it
has product in it. The biz knobs start to relax a little bit.
The next speaker is the associate director of telecommunications and
electronic services with the Firm. He is introduced as an expert on the
new paradigm; convergence and the Information Superhighway. The audience
sighs with relief and vindication. The presentation is a multimedia
extravaganza entitled "Potholes and Washouts on the Information
Superhighway." The speaker, a middle-aged bald guy in a grey suit with a
Madonna microphone hanging from one ear, trades jokes with his
computer-generated co-presenter on a huge video screen. The computer has
a snappier delivery.
Schrodinger's cat notwithstanding, this dynamic duo spends the next
half-hour predicting exactly where the new technology will go in the
future. It seems the Firm conducted a survey of 120 American executives
(half of whom were chairpersons, presidents, or CEOs) in the
information, communication, and entertainment industries. The Firm asked
them what they thought the common folk would want in the way of nice new
digital toys. Why they didn't simply ask the common folk is not
explained, but it seems obvious from a brainwashing point of view: it
must become conventional wisdom that only the opinions of executives
matter. The belief that its members possess special status in the
universe is a vital one for a cult to instil.
The executives, in their wisdom, feel that what we really want is movies
on demand (94% approval), home shopping (89% approval), and on-line video
games (89% approval). What we don't want is access to government
information and educational services, both of which got little or no
executive approval, neither of which (coincidentally) would likely make
anybody much money.
The guy sitting next to me has decided I'm taking too many notes. He
doesn't think this is so all-fired interesting. Maybe I know something he
doesn't. Grimly he flips open his executive notebook and begins to
transcribe meaningless statistics. What he doesn't know is that I'm
actually jotting down these bon mots. Nevertheless, he occasionally
glances over to see how many lines I've written, then looks back at his
own pad and writes some more, like a frat brother at a house party,
holding up his beer bottle to the next guy's to compare levels of
drunkenness. It would not be safe to appear uninterested.
The survey also asked executives what they thought the key factors for
success would be for high-tech companies in the near future. Number one
in importance: management vision and marketing skill. A close second:
ample financing and business savvy. Distant also-rans: the actual
technology itself, and customer support.
This is what the audience wants to hear. To hell with the technology,
we've got vision. The speaker gets a hearty round of applause as he
descends the podium.
Time for a break. The cell phones come out like samurai swords. Laptops
and electronic organizers flip open like desert flowers in a sudden rain.
Everyone knows they have only 15 minutes to flaunt their high status
toys. Being a modest sort, I keep mine hidden. My aged but faithful
laptop stays resolutely in my bag. My bud microphone is clipped
discreetly behind my executive nametag, feeding the tape recorder in my
breast pocket. I wander to the foyer to mingle.
Out by the coffee machine, two guys are reminiscing about other demo
videos they've seen.
"You remember that HP video in '89?"
"The one about the earthquake?"
"No, the one before that."
"Oh yeah! That one was way ahead of its time."
The use of visual devices such as flashing lights and suggestive videos
is of course well established in the brainwashing trade. Repeated
exposure helps sink the message track into the subconscious mind. My
personal feeling is that the presence of subliminal messages is not
I look for the first speaker with the Sony Bono moustache, hoping to tell
him how much I admire a man willing to use metaphors from quantum physics
on an audience of MBAs, but he, probably fearing for his safety in such a
large crowd of true-believers, has evidently declined to mingle. The
The third speaker is a founder and senior partner of the strategy
consulting division of this Firm. He begins by firing up a good old
fashioned overhead projector and slapping down a few blurry, upside-down
graphs of Internet growth. He asks how many people in the audience
actually use the Net regularly. Fewer than half of the hands in the room
creep up. How many have experience designing Web pages or other on-line
services? Maybe ten.
I would like to point at this time that this is supposed to be the
advanced keener group, the people willing to haul their butts downtown
for an 8:00 a.m. seminar. These are the most technologically aware people
their companies could muster. They don't use the technology, but they
are true believers in its revenue-generating potential. The schmucks who
are just showing up for lunch must be absolutely clueless, and therefore
even more vulnerable. This intensive indoctrination is reserved for those
who might otherwise have picked up enough first-hand experience to see
through the plot. Confession of sin and self- and group-criticism are
common methods used by cults to foster recruit insecurities and
re-enforce deference to authority.
This last speaker gets off to a good start with this forced confession of
ignorance, but he quickly vanishes into a fog of incomprehensible graphs
and even more incomprehensible statistics. The gathered faithful fight
their MEGO and wonder what's on for lunch. Finally he steps down to
polite applause. The moderator gives one last pitch, condensing the
wisdom of the morning into one easily digested homily to slap on that
report to the boss: Move into the future now, or die.
Time for Q and A. I give you now the universal exchange between the
techno-pundit and the seeker-after-corporate-advice. All the questions
and answers went exactly like this:
Seeker: I want my company to move into the future now. What should I do?
Pundit: Just look at the technology and decide what it can do for you.
The seeker nods solemnly and sits down again to ponder this wisdom. Never
mind that it says nothing. The seeker is satisfied. You can ask questions
of these authorities, but you can't question the authorities themselves.
Of the lunch itself I will say little, except to note that the ballroom
was huge, the salmon was excellent, and it was a truly enlightening
experience to see 1500 of Toronto's business elite all nod in unison at
each piece of Negroponte wisdom. If you want to know what the Man
actually said, read chapter one of his book (autographed copies of which
were on sale in the hotel lobby). During a lull in the proceedings I
tried to explain to the business analyst sitting next to me that the book
was basically the Man's collected columns from Wired magazine. "What
magazine?" the analyst asked.
Meet the people who are deciding for you what you want out of the digital
future. They are rubes. They take their instructions from a higher
authority. They operate on a strictly need-to-know basis. They do not
question their orders. They have been thoroughly indoctrinated. They are
fanatically loyal to a set of concepts they really know nothing about.
They are puppets.
What I want to know is who pulls the strings. The management consultants
of the Firm who hosted this session are themselves merely hired guns.
Their profession is convincing executives to think in certain ways, but
at who's request?
I have no answers. I have only warnings. Someone with deep pockets is
making definite moves to bring the executive lemmings of this continent
together into one unified force under the banner of "The Information
Superhighway." Conferences such as this take place every month in every
major city on the continent. I don't know what this someone plans to do
with this force once it has been mustered, but given the soul-killing
nature of the products being promoted, I cannot believe it will have a
positive impact on society.
They are moving fast, and in this direction. Watch for them. They mean
Yours in vigilance,
© 1995 Peter Langston