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The Vacation Column

  |  June 5, 2002   |  Comments

We're living in an untrusting environment, and the prevailing mood is creating changes in our industry and throughout our world. But it's time to stop hiding out; we need to get back to the world.

My aunt and uncle own a beach house on the western end of Galveston Island. You probably don't know Galveston. It's about an hour from Houston. As you head into town crossing the causeway and bridge, with its wavy pavement reflecting the water beneath, know that you are entering an odd little world. Here you'll discover phenomena such as carpenters and appliance delivery people who work on "Olympian" time (i.e., there is no mortal clock that can take their measure); old mansions once owned by casino owners; felons who need a place to hide and reinvent themselves (preferably as public servants); wealthy and middle-income retirees who say the salt air is adding years to their lives; local toughs who like their muscle cars and just any old beer; nouveau riche who use the island as a weekend playpen; curmudgeons who read too much; long rows of oleander with its poisonous leaves; things gone to rust and rot; beach houses owned by NBA basketball players; and the kind of poor folks that you always find in Gulf towns: folks sharing porches with blown-out appliances, blown-out ex-spouses, former in-laws who just won't go away, and dogs with bad hips.

The Galveston beaches are nothing special, but any beach is always better than no beach. And, standing on the seawall after dark watching the phosphorescent "red tides," which are actually aquamarine or a shade of turquoise, is something you don't forget.

There's a reason why we're so attracted to the beach. It's very elemental -- a place where you're broken down to your bare essentials. Once the beach breaks you down, it recreates you -- that is, if you're allowed the luxury (read: blessing) of being recreated.

So, although I'm not on vacation, welcome to my vacation column. I'm going to ask you a favor: Push away your business persona for a few moments. It's OK, we're friends.

Some nights, as I sit here in the PC's glow, I just know it's time to go back to the world. You see, the problem is that you and I are knowledge workers. We see everything through a haze of information; our thoughts cover our eyes. When we see a tree, a house, or a person, commentary crawls across our vision like those local weather updates during network television programs. We end up peering through our thought-sentences to try to catch any authentic glimpses of the realities beyond the haze.

Now, going back to the world sounds so sweet and Oprah-like and all. But it's getting harder. Especially over these past eight months or so, we've felt things tapping the root of our unease. You know where some of the taps are coming from: terror alerts, public companies cooking their books, government secrets, the random pat-downs and wand-scans at airports. But there are other, inscrutable sources of the tap-tap-tapping.

The word "trust" is all around us now. There is talk in security technology circles about the need for "trust infrastructures" to ensure things like transaction non-repudiation. There is a new "Trusted Sender" email initiative designed to help curb spam.

(One does not have to be great visionary to see a huge change coming in the very nature of B2B email marketing. We are moving toward a time when only "credentialed" senders or senders who agree to XML-based contracts will be able to get through. And this day can't come soon enough for most of us. As Daniel Akst writes in his New York Times piece "Ubiquitous Ads Devalue All Messages":

As I'm deleting all this junk, I sometimes think of William Forster Lloyd, the English economist who, in the 1830s, described the problem of the commons. "Why are the cattle on the common so puny and stunted?" Lloyd asked. "Why is the common itself so bare-worn and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures?"

His answer was that it was in the interest of everyone using the common pasture to exploit it maximally. Each herdsman could benefit by adding another cow, but when all the herdsmen acted this way, as they inevitably would, the benefit of the commons was lost to everyone.

Modern-day business fails to recognize the level of abuse to which it is subjecting the commons of consumer consciousness.)

Some privacy advocates fear the creation of "trusted client" technologies that could (if applied incorrectly or without safeguards) tie your identity to any number of Web activities you might rather keep anonymous. Early this year, Microsoft, a company singed by antitrust litigation and privacy concerns surrounding its centralized (read: single point of failure) Passport digital identity initiative, announced its commitment to "trustworthy computing," ironically enough.

Whenever a word like "trust" (or "power," a word that was extremely popular in the early years of our technology fetish) appears, you need to look for its shadow. Clearly, recent great breaches of trust are now causing commercial interests (and individuals) to seek shelter within "walled gardens," or VPNs.

These are untrusting times. I suspect a large and growing market exists for surveillance software that can track every click and keystroke of your mate's or employee's Web journeys. I surmise that the market must be large, because almost every morning I get spam from some company selling this stuff.

No, it's not an easy time to go back into the world. It's much easier to stay hidden behind the screen of your thoughts. (You're thinking you never left the world, of course. I'm thinking we both have.)

Here's wishing you a graceful re-entry. We have to re-enter, you know, gracefully or not. For some of you it will take a heart attack: a wrenching event that catapults you (assuming you survive) into your "second life" and, you hope, some kind of cleansing and redemption. Or you will dawdle until someone dies, someone who carries with him all your unmet promises and takes with him your chance to say, "Let's make a clean start, you and I."

None of that for you, though. May you find yourself on a windblown island, sitting with someone you're easy with, say, your 70-year-old aunt, there on the high porch of a beach house. And around you are some rusting wind chimes and a latticework of confederate jasmine. Then, right on the threshold of night, a hummingbird pauses for a moment on a tendril of jasmine. He is framed by a blood-red sky. Even his head is still, though his heart is fast beating. There. There is your door into the world: a tiny being defined by motion, suddenly still.

--Chris--


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Maher

Chris Maher is president of FOSFORUS, an Austin-based company that provides business-to-business advertising, media, marketing and interactive services. For seventeen years, Chris has been a top creative director and agency principal. His campaigns have generated a cumulative total of $200 million in technology sales for companies like Dell, Tivoli, Microsoft, i2 Technologies, ClickCommerce, and FreeMarkets.

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