Freedom’s just another word for people not knowing where you are

Approximate Reading Time: 14 minutes

Freedom, of course, is restricted to no sovereignty or boundary. I might say, if I were in a particularly lofty mood, that freedom itself has dominion. In itself and of itself. We can look for it, somewhat paradoxically, in any location.

No doubt, one of the greatest instances I personally witnessed of a sense of freedom occurred in France. It was on the deuxiême étage, the third floor under the eaves, of my house in a village in Provence. It was my late wife Linda who marveled at, and reveled in, actually, that freedom. It was late at night for us, and we were up, and up there in that aerie, because that meant it was only the late afternoon or evening in the United States.

Linda worked for IBM, that giant of information technology. We were quick to learn after they acquired, for the then staggering amount of 3.5 billion dollars, the more cuddly modest software giant called Lotus, for whom she was a global program manager. She oversaw the efforts the company made to find ways to turn a profit on having third parties teach programmers and information specialists of all sorts how to exploit the deep functionality of a product called “Notes.” Notes did what we all take for granted these days, even the lowliest and most technologically challenged of us, at least if we have spent any time at all on that latter-day phenomenon called Facebook. It, as does Facebook, defined and facilitated the means of collaboration and sharing of information in a self-defined community. Whatever the cause of connection—including the somehow too broadly inclusive, if somehow sweet (cloying, anyone?), “like” of Facebook land—affinities, shared objectives, ideologies, loves, hates, pleasures, or agonies, sharing leads to productive ends, in the most expansive interpretation—Notes was the means of managing the substance of the connection. And,as a result, Notes was better than anything else at the time at enabling the enterprise to achieve goals that required continual improvement in productivity from all workers, based on the collaborative model. At that time, as it does now still, IBM had over 300 thousand employees all over the globe, including its most remote or sequestered corners and niches.

If it had wanted to do nothing else, IBM could have done worse than to acquire Notes and its developer for its own uses internally. However, knowing a bargain when it saw one, IBM was also buying the significant market for the product that Lotus had established, with plans of expanding that market to a size the begetter of Notes could only dream about. To do so required that companies licensing the product learn how to customize it to their particular needs and applications. Like so many proprietary technologies at the time, Notes required knowledge and mastery of what I’ll call its own language. Only specialists in “speaking” Notes had the capability, ultimately, of creating the form of the product that, put in the hands of every worker within an organization, improved their efforts. To ensure that Notes specialists, usually people trained as software engineers, or at least conversant with the skills of programming any sort of computer code beyond a rudimentary level, had the requisite capability to make a Notes license a justified corporate expense, for it was not a cheap product, and it did not come in a shrink-wrapped box from Staples, the office supplier, Lotus would “certify” that a person who studied the particular and singular methods and terminologies of the product had mastered it.

And so, in short, Linda was manager of the department that certified users to various levels of mastery. IBM learned it was more profitable to allow third party companies, specializing in teaching a variety of computer skills, from the most elementary to the most advanced, to do the teaching, and to do the testing, using certification materials that only IBM developed and owned. This meant that Linda had to ride herd not only over the highly driven technocrats who shaped, sold, and managed the certification program in the field, and dealt with the day-to-day relations with the third party training companies, but she had to manage relations with those third parties, who were a bridge to the corporations that licensed Notes directly from IBM. What may sound stressful enough was always kicked into higher quanta of anxiety, because it was a world-wide program, split into markets more or less defined by the classic list of the populated continents of the earth, and Linda’s “little” sub-division had to show a profit doing what it did. The profit was usually set at goals that were percentages in double-digits of tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees, plus the net costs of testing materials, scoring and certifying the subjects. She was a people manager: overseeing a diverse group that included software product managers and sales people, to experts in test metrics, PhD holders who wrote the actual instruments that measured one’s expertise in Notes mastery. She was also a business manager: with bottom-line responsibility for producing money that had to be generated in every-increasing amounts, and all in a competitive setting. Notes defined and established a viable market. This is America. No one is going to allow a monopoly where there’s money to be made by simply putting up a fight. And so there was competition (not to mention keeping an eye on the sales and marketing efforts of the third-party training companies, a restive bunch that paid for the privilege of being certified by IBM to certify others in the use and mastery of IBM products—this meant keeping yet a fourth constituency happy). Finally, and most naturally, if this weren’t enough, all of this herding and managing (which included much hand-holding, cajolery, flattery, compromise, and an iron will masked in a soft and, if I may say, endearing if not motherly demeanor), but it had to be done in a myriad of languages. Not literally. Linda was quite adept in English, for sure, and knew a smattering of Spanish, and understood more than she could speak in French. But that was it. Rather, I mean that Linda was responsible for the toeing the line of all streams of revenue, that is, all sub-groups based in all other places on the planet, and nominally, outside the U.S., under the aegis of the heads of IBM-Europe, IBM-Pacific Rim, IBM-Asia, etc. So there was a fifth constituency, if you include her necessary and ongoing ties to the upper management of these subsidiary organizations. Talk about the need for productive collaboration.

Because of its size and history, IBM is a company marked by a remarkable seeming contradiction in management philosophy. It is, structurally, highly traditional, adhering to essentially conservative forms for the organization: hierarchical, intensive perpetual assessment via regular and frequent measurement, reporting and meetings—in groups, sub-groups, and sub-sub-groups. To effect efficacious management company-wide, every means of communications was adapted and exploited (including not a small list of innovations created by IBM itself—a longtime first-place holder in number of corporate global patents issued annually and, as they were a company specializing in making things to make companies operate more efficiently and profitably, disposed to eating their own dog food, which, odious as it sounds, is not a bad thing: if it doesn’t work for you, why even try to sell it to someone else?).

This propensity to stay not only connected, but in touch, includes, as modalities, telephones of course, teleconferencing technologies, visualization for mass audiences (IBM had flat screen plasma monitors in the very early 80s), etc., and naturally, the full exploitation of every species of computing, from the mainframe, which ran the largest enterprises in the world, to mini-computers, which ran just about every other kind of business, to personal computers, which the world seems continually to forget IBM made viable for business. That was after small companies, like Apple, for one, made them merely enviable toys for geeks and technical thrill seekers. It’s a testament to the pervasiveness, and incredible rapidity, with which IBM could create (or invade) a market and make it its own, that the famous “1984” commercial for the Macintosh positioned what everyone knew to be IBM as an unassailable, irresistible totalitarian dominator. It was shown on television, the one time the commercial was paid for by Apple, in January 1984. The IBM PC had been introduced barely 29 months before.

The other dimension of that contradiction in IBM I averted to, that strange, and, if you ask me, marvelous duality, was its willingness always to be flexible, wherever you looked in the corporate structure. You don’t otherwise get to be as big as IBM has been for years and years. They were so big the government targeted them, as they had, successfully, targeted, and broken apart, AT&T, at one time the only technology company that IBM rivaled for size and domination of the business environment. The difference is, even the government could not break IBM. It’s taken IBM to do that. It has slowly and steadily divested itself of multi-billion dollar divisions of itself, while it remains one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. It is certainly the world’s largest transformer, because its divestitures were driven by the realization and placid acceptance that better opportunities lay in newer ways of doing business in newer technologies. In more mundane ways, IBM has demonstrated its flexibility, demonstrably to its employees, if however quietly (if not in utter silence) with regard to the world at large.

They were one of the first companies (and one must always include the qualification, while at the same time, always, one of the biggest) to adopt the principle of flex-time, putting in your hours as you saw fit. As well, at IBM, we learned, workers above a certain pay grade were accorded the confidence and the privilege to take what time the company owed them for themselves, even while they paid them for that time, also when the worker saw fit. I am talking about what less forward-thinking, less mindful companies refer to as vacations, holidays, ‘personal’ time, “leaves,” etc., except within the scope of what state and federal laws might have demanded of them. In the case of IBM, the company always far exceeded the statutory times allotted for such time away. There simply are not, in practical terms, such things as holidays, or vacations in IBM land. Meet or exceed your objectives, and make yourself available as needed, through those means and media and channels provided and sanctioned, and you could do your job in the middle of the night, if you preferred, or from the back porch of your camp on a lake in Maine.

Something else illustrative of what I am calling this liberal degree of flexibility lies in what IBM has done over the course of the past 15 or 20 years. It has more or less steadily employed over three hundred thousand people for decades. Indeed, it is now estimated to employ well over 400,000, in 200 countries. At the same time, IBM has whittled away its commitment to maintaining corporate infrastructure to accommodate all those employees with a place to work. In the fullness of time, at least since the 90s, IBM has slowly devolved in physical capacity such that there are offices specifically dedicated to the exclusive use of somewhere, I am guessing, between only two-thirds to three-quarters of those people. And those without a desk to call their own not only may expect, at best, to be able to say they share a “floating” workstation with anonymous others, and more often than you’d expect, to say they have no set place to work in corporate quarters at all. IBM has thus been a pioneer in “telecommuting.”

All of this advancement in employee relations was in full play when Linda became, de facto, an IBM employee. Her business card still said Lotus for a year or two, until the employees of all such acquisitions—IBM did not necessarily want to bring all of the entities it acquired into the corporate hive; some were kept at arm’s length, with the preservation of their original identities for some years—had acquired some familiarity and comfort with the differences in corporate “culture.” Eventually, however, she was a full-fledged crew member of the mothership. By the time of our own acquisition, rustic, domestic, and minuscule as it was, in rural France, flex-time and telecommuting were fully operative policies of her employer. Coincidentally—a rare happy coincidence—a digital connection to our remote, medieval (literally; the core of the house being built in the early 15th century) maison de village was not only possible, but was readily available and so, starting in early 2002, we could “jack in” to the internet, using that venerable telephonic technology called ISDN (unknown to Americans, unless they worked for a business that required connectivity in the earliest days of adopting computers for regular use). It was snail-like in speed, compared to what we are used to now, but it saved us from thinking we had made an investment in foreign real estate that we might make productive use of at best for perhaps two or three weeks a year (the time Linda felt comfortable allotting herself in one lump).

As a consequence, she could stay in touch, and in sync (one of the foremost features of Notes was the ability to “replicate” the vast database of mail messages, files, and whatever else was shared within a work group, or distributed even to the entirety of the organization; every night, your computer would sync its files and folders with the master database located god knew where on the earth) even as we otherwise vacated and temporized in our retreat in La France Profonde. Further, the French, being long since adept at unceremoniously rigging out even the most remote hamlet with modern accoutrements and conveniences, burying water and sewer mains, electrical lines, television cable and telephone wires underground, leaving an undisturbed vista more or less as it had been, though with your usual complement of internally combusted vehiclesadded, for hundreds of years since. Hence we were offered modern telephone service, of course (indeed, as a necessary requirement to getting that precious ISDN line).

So, in a quite literal way, even in quaint, bucolic, placid Fox-Amphoux, Linda was in business. And we could plan multiple visits in the course of a year, each of somewhat more open-ended duration. Further, as manager of a global program, Linda was not subject to the vagaries of what otherwise was a U.S. hegemony in terms of priority of schedules to determine when “business hours” would occur on a world-wide basis. The rest of the IBM organization, in this case, did not dance to U.S. standard time. Rather meetings were scheduled to accommodate the local host, in the case of in-person visits. Linda traveled a great deal, as a global manager, and this meant a lot of jet lag. However, increasingly, her presence in other far-flung markets were reduced in number (as a cost savings for one; as a mode of increased productivity for two) even as the number increased of plenary teleconferences, which tied in representatives of all the major markets to a single “meeting” in the ether.

The newest technology to be deployed in what was, by 2002, a mature set of Notes product features, was the ability to “text” (or “IM”, i.e., instant-message, in real time over computer lines, even as participants spoke to one another through an audio-only connection by phone. College students take for granted now the ability to continuously engage in the mischief of telling one another in remote corners of a lecture hall what each is really thinking of the lecturer droning away in the pit. So, conference participants could share untraceable confidences about someone sitting in a room thousands of miles away from each of the texting mischief-makers. All this only by way of demonstrating the ease and comfort workers felt increasingly even as they did more and more business with one another for longer and longer business “days” in a wholly disembodied way.

The old wisdom, no longer true in these days of privacy invasion by way of cookies and tracking cookies and data trails, that “on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog” was already, just ten years ago, becoming, “on the Internet, nobody knows where you really are.” Freedom, of a sort. But freedom. In 2002, Linda worked as hard for her pay, but no longer tethered to a desk in a corner office on First Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She tasted that freedom for the first time, as I indicated at the start of this essay, on that evening some time ago up on the top floor of our small stone house in the south of France. During a teleconference, which had gone unusually well, one of Linda’s colleagues, in an office in the Midwest, and planning a trip to the east coast for a real time live meeting in person in the “home” office, was also wrapping up for the day (though it was 11 o’clock at night for us, and only five in the afternoon for her), and making her goodbyes by phone to the others now ringing off. She enthusiastically sent a text note to Linda, asking if they couldn’t schedule lunch for a day or two hence, and Linda informed her this was not possible as she would continue to be away. “Why, where are you going?” she was asked. And she admitted she was not going anywhere for at least another week and a half, but that she would not be there. “But, where are you then?” “In France.” The response was an exclamation of stunned surprise, as the reality in which they were all already well-immersed sunk in. More real for us perhaps, but real.

The occasion for this rumination of mine about some now quite old, and not very engaging, if thrilling at the time, benefits of the uses of technology is a revelation—yet another one, equally unsurprising—from Facebook. Facebook, that new behemoth that sprang up and grew even more quickly than the lumbering technology elders of IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, et al., has admitted, just a day or two ago [see here:] that not only are they tracking you as you zip here and there from your Wall to those of friends, to photo albums, to apps, to Pages, from “likes” to “shares” to endless posts, and notes, and notifications. They also have built-in to every site you visit away from Facebook the ability to track those movements of yours… even if you have logged out of Facebook. Combine this with the ready knowledge, of which you should be ashamed of yourself if you are ignorant, that this same data can be localized insofar as the machine you are browsing on is concerned. So they know where you are, assuming it is you who logged in to Facebook, to pick up the bit of software that gets implanted on the computer you are using, which allows them to keep tracking you while on that same computer, and they know what you look at on the Internet, as long as any page of any website you visit has that familiar “friendly” Facebook “like” or “share” or “recommend” widget visible on the page. France, Kalamazoo, Tuscaloosa, or Tuscarora, they’ll know where you are, and that you were taking a look at Lady Gaga’s latest video, or where to buy Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeño Nacho Slices.

As the invisible world in which we conduct ourselves, even as we think, unconsciously and unknowingly, that we are simply carrying on the same quotidian tasks in the same haunts that we have made part of our usual neighborhood circuits and circumambulations, grows smaller, down to the size of the keyboard under your fingers, in so exquisitely and precisely engineered a manner. The consequence is that you can be located as to time and place, without any extra effort on your part. There are those of you, including many among people of my acquaintance, who, unequal to the task of letting others do the work, are dedicated to the proposition that others: loved ones, friends, acquaintances, nodding buddies, vaguely familiar faces, strangers… should know where you just headed out to stock up on pizza, or have already landed, waiting expectantly for your next round of kava, and so announce it deliberately, using special apps and widgets and gizmos to pinpoint your every move.

Well, shapers of the zeitgeist, count me out. I unrepentantly deny the proposition and the opportunity to infringe on my freedom in this way. Long a believer in that old British value of wanting simply to be let alone, I believe as well that the best way to ensure that others cannot impose on me in any way, is if they can’t find me in the first place, they can’t help but let me alone. So, I’ll decide when I want to be located. I’ll decide who I’ll tell where I am.

I made my living in part for a long time at the exertions required to market and advertise clients’ products successfully. Part of whatever art there was, and obviously still is, though it is now clearly less art than mere science and technology (which I guess is part of the point of all these words), to doing so was making astute, usually semi-informed judgments (when they weren’t outright guesses) as to where to find the people to whom we wanted to deliver the message.

For the clients of Facebook (because, face it, the clients of Facebook are not the ones, the 900 million and soon to be the big B of us, who are online everyday to the tune of 500 million Facebook engagements a day; we are the product Facebook is selling to their clients) it’s a lot easier, and a great deal more precise. Facebook can tell them where you are, and who you are, and what you look at, and can make a very well-informed inference as to what you want to buy and what you’re willing to spend to do so. And much as I love to do so, I am not singling out Facebook, because there is nothing singular about these efforts. Google is at the same game. Amazon… You name them.

And that game has gotten that much more complicated, because key to it is the technology for locating you, and the ultimate advantage is in owning the means of using that technology. And the new gorilla in this ever overcrowded living room is the beloved Apple. Why? Because guess what? As you can see here: Apple, the immaculate, has bought the keys and the lock to the gateway between you and the freedom of knowing no one can find you.

Apples, pork bellies, coffee beans, crude oil, cocoa, and now you—commodities. Ever wonder if a pig feels free? You may begin to become aware of what if feels like. If you’ve a mind to know. Me? If anyone asks, I’m in France. Maybe.

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2 thoughts on “
Freedom’s just another word for people not knowing where you are

  1. This too is a paradox, or “kind a freak”, as you put it. I see you use an alias. Is it possible you are hiding from something? I visited your domain and there is nothing to associate it and the business with an actual person, and your email seems to have come from the Philippines. You are very far away to be commenting on what happens in the U.S. Or is it possible you’re not really in the Philippines?

  2. Ohh.. This is kind a freak. Even if facebook or whoever would know where you are by tracing your IP, I don’t think that this is something relevant unless you are hiding from something. Would facebook, google or whatever would waster their time tracing you up? Unless they need to find out who you are for some significant reasons. Nevertheless, I like the way you express yourself so I posted this to my social bookmarking websites. Thank you, this is interesting. 🙂 [web site link redacted for privacy and security reasons]

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