What if Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook went out of business?

Hard to imagine, but what if these behemoths of data went belly up? Sure, a few banks might fail, a few cities go bankrupt, perhaps even a few countries; a whole bunch of employees would be made redundant, and that vast treasure trove of data would be on the auction block.

It’s the data that I am concerned about. Between these three entities, all the information on me has been stored, mined, and exploited. They ran a fairly good privacy model while in business, but what if the new buyers at the auction are from Russia or China or North Korea or some Middle Eastern kingdom anxious to acquire western assets at bargain basement prices? I remember the time Yahoo was hacked and e-mails went from “me” to the whole world selling them Viagra, Costume Jewellery and asking them to click on links to spurious spyware. Luckily Yahoo, under its new management, decided to take sterner measures to protect its members’ privacy, two years later.

Data is the new gold, like oil once was. Knowledge is power. And we plebes gave up our power willingly in order to have free publicity and extend our reach to places we could never reach on our own for free, which in the past would have required lots of money for publicists and traditional media advertizing. If these guys go bust,
Armageddon will be nigh.

So what can we do? Here are a few options:
(a) Pray! That always works.
(b) Hope that western governments will declare these companies NATO assets in case of a stock meltdown, or declare them “Banks” (after all, they bank data) and add them to the “too big to fail” category of the economy.
(c) Buy shares in these companies, especially if and when their stock price tanks, in the hope of a rebound and the making of millionaires of all of us.
(d) Delete our data and go back to those days when no-one knew who or where the heck we were, and no-one really cared (we wonder if anyone really cares today, despite us keeping them posted of our every life event, meal, and bowel movement).
(e) Shrug and carry on as before, comforted by the premise that whoever gets their hands on our data will continue to make us famous or infamous, and both of these states will attract attention in these attention-deficit times.
(f) Build tighter spam filters for the barrage of nuisance e-mail that is bound to head our way.
(g) Get ready to lose all your friends and followers in social media when they have been inundated by spurious email from YOU.

Ah, well – it’s a good problem to ponder, or a scary nightmare to wake up from.

Presidents for Life

Presidents for Life (PFL) are in the news these days, and last week it was Hosni Mubarak’s turn. Let’s see, we have had out share of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega and others, all lifers, until destiny caught up with them.

What makes these creatures? Western powers have to take some (dis)credit here. According to our rational thinking, it is better to have one’s interests protected overseas by one guy in power for a long time rather than by many people in power for short periods. Just drown the lone guy in money and power and he will guard the house better than those fledgling multi•party democracies that are constantly subject to the winds of change. For how inconvenient would it be if a democratically elected “people’s power” does not want to be subject to foreign exploitation or if it does not wish to export oil and minerals, or buy our goods to keep the western industrial machine chugging along? No, let’s keep that old PFL for as long as we can until local and global opinion swings so badly against him that he has to be eased into retirement in some desert palace (if he has been a good toady) or hung from the end of a noose (if he has been bad) Then let’s shrug and hope that the next guy in the seat can slowly amass power around him quickly and declare himself the new president for life. And while he’s at it, let’s give him some incentives to get there. I get the formula and the logic now.

And what of these guys’ track records? Their claim to fame is for being the best at providing the stability needed to foster a long period of sustained growth for their young nations. History has proved the opposite. Other than for a few examples to the contrary, the majority of PFLs have taken their countries to the dogs while amassing unimaginable personal wealth. And they often leave power vacuums in their wake for there are no good people left to take over—the good ones have either fled, immigrated, or been killed.

Can we enhance our reputations by helping these guys? On the one hand we say that we are trying to democratize “backward” nations, on the other hand we like keeping these despots in power just in case things get out of control. You can’t play both sides, guys. If you go for universal democracy then you’ve got to take what comes: let people in other lands choose to support you based on your values and track record for fair dealing, or boot you out for your duplicity.

I feel for the people in these nations. They bear unnecessary scars and they have to struggle for a basic right that we in the west take for granted. Only the top percentile of their citizenry have the ability, both financial and academic, to make it to the developed west on their own terms as immigrants, expatriates or investors. The rest have to search for freedom on home turf—they have no other choice. The evidence in the Middle East over the last few weeks has shown that the people are indeed keen, although not all may be ready.

I wonder if the UN could monitor the progress of the remaining PFL’s in the world and sound an alarm bell when each reaches his pinnacle effectiveness? When the bell tolls (and there might be quite a bit of overdue tolling to catch up on initially), Mr. PFL should hand over power to a groomed successor, or to the people if they are ready, erect a statue or name an airport in his name, then ride off into the sunset to a stable desert oasis and live happily ever after for having served western interests well. And if he does not comply or gets restless in retirement, well there are always alligators to be fed in places like Florida, if his own people do not ingloriously devour him, that is.

As for democracy, we could start with education in these evolving nations; teach them, open their eyes to the world and to the responsibilities of belonging to a democracy (for there are responsibilities, lest we forget) and let them decide. Democracy cannot be force•fed, it’s a journey. Let’s just give them the tools and then get out of the way, and eventually, “President for Life” may become an anachronism.