Tuesday, January 4, 2005

What's Superspeculation?

Cyberage by ND Batra From The Statesman

The American Tongue

I can’t stop wondering how the American tongue wags, twists and turns to create new expressions, reinforcing its dynamic character that reflects the restless innovative temper of the American people. Grammarians and linguists tell us that human language is a stable system, slow and conservative in assimilating foreign influences. But the American tongue is so open that it is never at loss to come up with something fresh to capture the meaning of a new phenomenon created by technological innovations, and in the process extends its own boundaries of expressiveness. Consider this, for example: Can you do superspeculation about the future of a product, corporation or even a country? But what is superspeculation? The dictionary is of no help.

Talking of unauthorised commercial messages, Nat Ives wrote in The New York Times, “There are agencies and creative executives working on what might be superspeculation, like the team in Vaughn Whelan and Partners in Toronto.” The ad agency created a gratuitous commercial for a beer company, Molson, to shock and awe the marketing guys, in a manner of speaking, and “show them five years of advertising, so they could see the future.” The agency wanted the Molson account and thought of doing superspeculation, imagining the future as it could be, better than the company was realising with its present marketing campaign.

Defending the practice of superspeculation, Harry Webber, the founder of Smart Communications was quoted saying: “If Madison Avenue is no longer the evangelist for creative thinking in the USA, then somebody has to take up the cause.” I thought evangelists were those frenzied religious folks who hectored the lost sheep back to the fold. Can Madison Avenue, the American hub for marketplace creativity, evangelise capitalism through superspeculation? Evangelism at the service of capitalism! That’s something new. Superspeculation counters failure of imagination, which creates myopia that leads to dystopia. Columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Redolent of the myopia that has led to the administration’s dystopia.” She was referring to Rumsfeld’s insensitivity and indifference when he sent machine-signed letters of condolence to the families of the Iraqi war dead.

Absence of creativity or inability to do superspeculation leads to coarsening of behaviour as you could have seen in the full-page ad by World Wrestling Entertainment showing its chairman Vincent McMahon addressing the troops in Iraq: “So, if it is alright with you, when I get back home, I am going to look up some of these negative nay-say-types. I am going to tell them you said that they can go to hell.” Telling those who don’t agree with you to go to hell is not a sign of toughness. It is a sign of helplessness.

But at times you feel that being tough isn’t tough enough. So what do you do? Consider the expression “hardcore,” which is normally associated with pornography. The US Supreme Court ruled in the Miller case that “hardcore” porn has no socially redeeming value; therefore, it is not entitled to the First Amendment protection. In other words, it could be regulated by being zoned out of town or shoved to safe harbour (late hours, 12 midnight to 6 a.m., when kids aren’t there). But recently I found an unusual use of “hardcore.”

In an extremely provocative article, “What’s Next for Google?” in Technology Review, Charles H Ferguson says that “if Microsoft got “hardcore” about search (as Bill Gates has promised), then yes, Google would be in for a very rough time.” Getting “hardcore” is being more than single-minded. Microsoft notorious for its single-mindedness and brute force in crushing the competition could become “hardcore” and, as Ferguson says, the giant corporation could do “cashectomy” on Google and dominate the search ecology with its dominant architecture as it has done with its desktop operating system Windows. “Cashectomy” is an etymological despoliation, if I may say so, of vasectomy, a surgical act that induces permanent sterility in a man. But is it more benign than castration? Doing “cashectomy” is evocative of wealth and power.

Microsoft’s masochism evokes sexual images like “hardcore” and “cashectomy” and unless it is stopped, it might bring disaster to the competition and to society as well because absence of competition would give the company control over networked databases on which the search ecology is based. Ferguson’s article is an example of negative superspeculation, a future that must not happen.

But could this be done to prevent the consequences of a future that one could not prevent from happening, say, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean? Well, that would depend upon who lives in the vulnerable future. The multi-billion-dollar Thai tourist industry might do superspeculation and take pre-emptive steps to mitigate the consequences of the future that cannot be prevented, but why would anyone bother about the poor living on the seaboard of eastern India?

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