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the diary thing 
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01.24.00
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 monopoly
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Pp - pigIT'S HARD FOR ME to get too excited about something like the Time/AOL merger, mainly because I've never found AOL to be a particularly interesting aspect of the net. Since I've always regarded Time-Warner as the very model of a bland media conglomerate, exerting its influence rather like a huge planet -- gravitationally -- rather than because of the quality of its products, I actually regarded the news of the merger with a yawn and a shrug -- it seemed a good, if uninspiring, fit.

Now, I know that the fact that a takeover of Time-Warner by AOL is supposed to be revolutionary -- the "Triumph of the Net" or some such hyperbole -- but I still can't see that it's too exciting. A big company gets bigger, and the net gets a step closer to cultural homogenization. No stunning shock, there. Actually, it would be a lot more interesting if it didn't happen.

Which is always possible. Like most mergers of this size, Time and AOL can only consummate their union if the stock price of the latter -- as inflated as any net stock, the experts ominously say -- remains strong for the whole of the next six months, which is how long the engagement is scheduled to last. If, at any point, the share price of AOL takes a serious dive, Time -- and the banks that are brokering this deal -- will wisely pull out and leave AOL much diminished. It's a very insecure relationship. 

In my mind's eye, I imagine a merger like Time/AOL as a kind of dance of elves and fairies, a light-show straight out of Fantasia, with magic dust boiling out of a pot and creating shimmering castles in the air. The actual value of a company like AOL is based on subscriber lists and "perceived value", and while a company like Time-Warner has a lot more actual capital -- physical assets, facilities and real estate -- they're still a media company, and subject to the vicious shifts of public attention and fashion. Down at the bottom of the picture, dancing around the cauldron, are the shadowy figures of bankers and major shareholders, the vested executives and corporate strategists with their stock options chanting magic words like "convergence" and flailing their arms around, desperate that the glittering edifice holds together.

I'm also pretty underwhelmed by the hand-wringing about Time/AOL heralding the death of the net as a venue for personal expression, the beginning of the end, finally climaxing in the media grail of "convergence", where the net, television, radio, telephones, cable, satellite dish and video rentals and record stores all unite in one pipeline right through our walls, through your cell phones, and into every corner of our lives. Let's be honest -- little sites like this, like almost any diary, including the thousands of "personal" projects on the net that rise and fall according to the enthusiasm of their creators, are the street-corner pamphlets of the net, a vanity press and a mail-order record label where you make out your cheque to the artist, or buy a cassette off the stage after the show, while the band packs up their gear and tries to make change from a twenty. Wonderful and marginal and transient, and not even a drop in the bucket compared to, say, dell.com, or amazon.com, or the New York Times on the Web. 

But what about the "death of distance", the way the net brings together people who might never meet each other, to talk and trade and buy and sell and argue with each other and share the banal details of their lives with each other? It's a wonderful thing, of course -- but utterly ephemeral in the end. If, for instance, I should decide to stop writing this journal tomorrow, perhaps a half-dozen of my eighty or so regular readers will send me goodbye e-mails wishing me all the best, and then promptly forget all about me within a day of taking the bookmark down. Celebrity, in the end, can only be created and sustained on the broadest public canvas, and since the only money changing hands here is between me and my ISP, there's no economic impetus demanding that this site perpetuate. We're here because I love doing this, and you like reading it. Which is more than you can say about Time-Warner most of the time.

As for the commercialization of the net, that inexhorable process began when the first GIF or jpeg downloaded onto someone's screen; when the net started to look like a magazine or t.v. I never held much stock in the "purity" of the net; I'd put a banner ad up here in a second.

I'M ACTUALLY MORE CONCERNED about Time-Warner buying EMI, and creating the biggest music conglomerate in the world -- 20% of the world music market concentrated in one corporation. It's a bit of news that seems to have got a lot less play than the disturbing spectacle of Steve Case and Gerald Levin hugging in front of a roomful of reporters. Not that the state of music could get any worse -- rock is a twitching corpse, pop music at its most insipid since the early Sixties, jazz has become the easy listening of the new century, and classical music is a blundering business where venal fossils ride on the backs of the broken dray horses of the opera house and recital hall. Still, there have been moments -- I regard the back catalogue of any record label as its real treasure, and in the case of a company like EMI, this encompasses pretty much the whole history of recorded music. 

Corporations seem to be more concerned about selling to a customer "profile" -- some ideal vision of the perfect consumer, vaguely but constantly dissatisfied with yesterday's purchases, always on the verge of pitching the whole lot and trading up to the newest thing -- and while such a creature only exists in the fashion industry, they've always tried hard to create that ideal customer by making choices limited and alternatives inconvenient. The music industry tactic of making you buy the same music over and over in different packages can only run through its cycle once a generation, but CDs have been on the market for nearly twenty years, the time is ripe for a new medium to make us re-invest all over again. Perhaps that's the motivating logic behind the Time-Warner/EMI merger, in which case I'd say it makes for bigger news, hiding slyly behind the Time/AOL smokescreen. 

In any case, it all just makes the world a much more boring place.


 
"I have the greatest affection for them (blacks), but I know they're not going to make it for 500 years. They aren't. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they're dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don't live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like."
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- Richard Nixon, talking to John D. Erlichman and H. R. Haldeman, from February's Harper's magazine. Excerpted from the 445 hours of tapes recently released by the U.S. National Archives.

Sometimes I really miss Nixon -- can you imagine any other powerful figure committing this kind of racist bile to tape, aware that it could end up on the public record? While we're sure that there are hundreds of similarly powerful men spewing the same hateful rubbish, they're usually careful enough to keep it confidential and off the record. Nixon's great virtue was that he made it plain to every paranoid liberal that crabbed, power-mad old white men really did talk like this. 

 
Money, money, money. I'm not getting out much these days, so I don't have much to write about except, of course, my constant worry.

SPEAKING OF MONOPOLIES, we hosted a Monopoly tournament at our place this weekend, and christened the brand-new deluxe bilingual edition of the game I scored for free a few months ago when I worked on a short piece for a local business magazine. From start to finish, the game lasted five hours, and proved one thing about the marvel that is Parker Brothers' board game -- how closely it can be made to mirror economic reality. 

It took about three hours for half of the players to be eliminated, and the first one to go retired to become the full-time banker. Small property holders were squeezed next -- the middle class shrinking as an economic factor -- until two huge monopolies remained in play. Amazingly enough, one more player stayed in the game, after losing their property, and made almost three circuits of the board before going fatally bankrupt -- we referred to her as the "bag lady" and her exit from the game was referred to as being "found dead in a snow drift". 

The game lasted as long as it did because of "immunities" -- strategic partnerships where players trade real estate or the right to build houses in return for rent-free status on each other's property. The ultimate effect was that of big monopolies giving each other money, and being subsidized by taxpayers -- collecting the wad of money that gathered in the center of the board when they land on "Free Parking". The last hour was a grim end-game where the two monopolies briskly advanced around the board, paying each other money and getting richer, until the central bank ended "immunities" and the smaller, less financed of the two monopolies collapsed. The resemblance to latter-day capitalism was uncanny.

I FINALLY HAVE PROOF -- not that I ever needed it -- that the only way to do business is from a position of bluff, arrogance, and the threat, however illusory, of litigation. Yesterday's mail contained a cheque from a magazine in Britain, a magazine that has owed me money since last summer. The total on the cheque was almost three times what I originally invoiced for the job last August. 

It's a long story.

Last summer, I got a call from a British magazine that wanted to print one of my portraits of a local actress. I should have known I was in trouble when the photo editor gave me the name of a local courier company when I asked how I might get it across the Atlantic to her. "Jo, we probably should have Fed-Ex take care of this," I said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. I duly sent out the picture, and e-mailed my invoice to the photo editor. Two months passed, and no cheque. I called the photo editor, who told me that she never got my invoice. "I sent it by e-mail." I said. The sound of a keyboard clicking came over the phone. "Oh, here it is!" she exclaimed. "I'll get it processed for you this week."

Another month passed. I called several times over the next few weeks, leaving messages which were never returned. Finally, I exercised an option that I only ever regarded as "last ditch". My invoice form contains a small paragraph stating that, if payment isn't received within thirty days, I will re-invoice at 10% interest, compounded weekly. So far, it had only ever been used as a threat. I turned on the computer, calculated several months interest from the date of the first invoice, and e-mailed the new invoice. 

I got on the phone and left a message with the photo editor, but also made a point of calling her assistants and her superior, leaving messages with them, running over the situation in a stern, pissed-off voice, and announcing the new invoice and its total. "I'm sorry I have to do this, but my terms are clearly stated, and I've never had such a hard time getting paid." Not strictly true: I once made a client -- a man, part owner of a graphic design firm --cry on the phone with my belligerent insistence on getting paid after I discovered that they had already received payment from the company that had hired them. Hardly the most charitable behaviour, but then again I've never understood the freelance convention of getting paid weeks, even months, after you've delivered the goods. In any case, I'm not a charity. "Do you ever eat a meal in a restaurant and then offer to pay the waiter in 60 to 90 days?" I ask, not bothering to hide my sarcasm. You'll likely never work for that client again, but then again, do you want to? 

In the end, after more calls to the accounts payable department of the magazine, who seemed fully as unwilling to cut a cheque when promised, it finally arrived in yesterday's mail -- the whole amount, with interest. Wouldn't it have been cheaper for them to have paid on time? Two hundred percent cheaper, as far as I can tell. 

Idiots.

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writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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