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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Internet Tuesday!

* Parsippany, NJ, is looking to put up red light cameras that know you only came to a rolling stop before turning right on red. Dystopia is now.

* Are we already nostalgic for the Bush era? Salon investigates using the leaked trailer for Oliver Stone's W as its source text.

* Via Boing Boing, Crooked Timber has a pretty good piece up about the vacuity of the commonplace rhetoric that "managers of corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits." It turns out, of course, that this duty actually refers to nothing in particular and can be used to justify any action.

So we’re left with “maximise the present value of future profits”, or maximise the intrinsic value of the company, which is already a bit of a problem because our maximand is now an intrinsically unobservable quantity, which reasonable people can differ wildly in their subjective assessment of. But even if we grant a massive epistemological free lunch and pretend that managers have a set of reliable conditional forecasts of the consequences of different courses of action, we’re still surprisingly far from a workable decision rule.

The reason is that all the paradoxes of choice theory which arise at the individual level are still there when you try to impose a maximisation rule for corporate decisions. For example, it can’t possibly be the case that we want an interpretation of “maximise the value of the shareholders’ equity” to mean that corporate managers have a fiduciary duty to play the (Defect) strategy in a business situation analogous to a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Or for that matter to be two-boxers in a business situation analogous to Newcomb’s Problem (such situations are incredibly common, as the kind of deals you are offered are very definitely related to people’s assessment of whether you’re the kind of guy who grabs every nickel he sees). Economists can ignore these problems and paradoxes in choice theory with a shrug of the shoulders, a mutter of “oh ordinary people, will you never learn” and a few quid for the Experimental Economics lab. But fiduciary duties are important things, so if we’re going to make our maximisation criterion into a fiduciary duty, then we have to interpret it in a way which allows for strategic behaviour.
* And the Pinocchio Theory has a similarly good post on capitalism, consumerism, and waste.
We are forced, as Karatani says, to buy back as consumers the very goods that we initially created as producers, and that were taken away from us. This “alienation” is the reason why my subjective jouissance as a consumer has nothing to do with my objectified toil as a producer. I do not consume in the same way that I produce. Even the money that I spend wastefully and gleefully, as a consumer, on (as Deleuze and Guattari say) “an imposed range of products (’which I have a right to, which are my due, so they’re mine’)” seems utterly disconnected from the money that I earn painfully in wages or salary — despite the fact that it is, of course, exactly the “same” money. It is only, and precisely, in such a climate of disconnection that “acts of consumption” can be exalted as our only possible “expressions of freedom.” Or, as Graeber puts it, “rather than one class of people being able to imagine themselves as absolutely `free’ because others are absolutely unfree,” as was the case under slavery, in consumer capitalism “we have the same individuals moving back and forth between these two positions over the course of the week and working day.”
* Corrections to Last Month's Letters to Penthouse Forum.

* List of fictional films from Seinfeld.

* And, via Neilalien, an in-depth investigation of why Star Trek: The Next Generation should actually be understood as a creative failure, in two parts. This sums it up pretty much exactly—like all huge nerds of a particular age I remember the show rather fondly, but it's no accident that it's been fifteen years since I watched an episode. And the point about "alternate universe" episodes is especially well-taken:
"Best of Both Worlds" has only one real rival for the title of "best TNG episode": "All Good Things". It's one of the best -- if not, hell, the best series finale I've ever seen. It summed up, in two hours, everything that was good about the show, as well as putting much of the preceding seven years to shame in terms of showcasing interesting, well-written, dynamic and downright awesome sci-fi writing. It deals with alternate realities -- TNG was always good when it dealt with alternate realities, probably because they could get away with the illusion of consequence in alternate realities where things could actually "happen", at least sort-of. Most importantly, watching "All Good Things", the viewer can fool themselves into thinking that there really was an alternate-universe TNG where all that cool character development and sharp writing came together every week, and not just a handful of times over the course of 178 freakin' episodes. But of course, since it was the last episode, they probably thought they could get away with actually changing things up a bit. A shame, that.

I liked "Parallels" and "The Inner Light", two more alternate-reality episodes that actually seemed to cut to the heart of the respective spotlight characters -- Worf, in a rare non-Klingon-centric starring role, and Picard himself. Again, though, in order to find something interesting to say about the characters, the writers had to go out of their way to concoct Rube Goldberg plot machines that would allow for emotional arcs without messing with the precious status quo. If you start looking, you can find a lot of episodes that go to the same well: there's always something to trigger or mitigate unusual behavior, something to excuse the characters from acting like real people as soon as they put on those damn Starfleet unitards.
Even now you see Heroes doing the same sort of thing with their repetitive "Bad Future" arcs, which give the illusion of plot rather than plot itself.