Is meaningful or useful to have emotional reactions to business organizations? Right now there’s a lot of that going around; the atmosphere swirling around my employer and That Fruit Company a short commute away in Silicon Valley grows steamy. Which pales compared to the global outpouring of fear and loathing directed at a certain English oil corporation. I’m going to argue (after some personal digressions) that hating on BP is perhaps actively harmful.

Personal Digression · Recently I tweeted (and I apologize for the coarse language): “Unlike apparently everyone, I’m not pissed at BP. You gonna live on fossil fuel, shit gonna happen. BP drew the short straw.” Which didn’t seem to me that radical a thing to say. It’s far from established that BP is significantly worse (or better) in its practices than the rest of the industry. Seems to me that it’s not one oil company that’s befouling our species’ only nest, it’s our systemic addiction to cheap energy and aversion of our eyes from what that does to us.

I can see perfectly well that others might not agree with me, seeing BP as a unique malefactor worthy of unique punishment; for example, a large number gathering on Facebook. So I wasn’t surprised at getting lots of pushback.

Angry at Google · I was a little surprised at this, which opens with “Google mouthpiece Tim Bray...” A couple of clicks reminded me that I was reading someone who hides behind the (albeit stylish) alias Kontra and who has previously hated on me with considerable glee.

While everyone knows that there’s a lot of perfectly-reasonable worry about Google’s pervasiveness and reach, the company itself seems too inchoate and chaotic to hold any particular single feeling about for any length of time. But Kontra genuinely loathes Google right down to the ground. (I can testify with some force that at Google there is a notable lack of conspiratorial intent to Do Bad Things With All That Data, but then you might choose to discount that testimony because of the logo on my paycheck.)

Having said all that, I think Kontra is something of an anomaly. I wish he’d decloak though; anonymous polemics leave a very sour taste.

What About Apple? · Hating (or loving) them seems about as equally unreasonable. I’ve been vocal about my loathing for their app-store regime but they’re my favorite computer manufacturer, and the iPhone is a terrific product; challenging fun to compete against. Apple marketing irritates me but then so does 90%-plus of all marketing. I have emotional reactions to certain of their design values (positive to the general design of the OS X interface, negative to the shiny-black-and-silver color scheme of recent MacBooks) but design values should provoke those. Apple as a whole? I look into my soul and honestly can’t scare up much in the way of feelings, positive or negative.

It Happened To Me · For some number of years I loathed Microsoft, but then on the other hand I’d been the target of a direct attack during which that company sincerely tried to ruin my career, and my wife’s because of her relationship to me. So that was an unusual situation no matter how you look at it. These days Microsoft is irrelevant to anything I care about.

And at the end of the day I can’t see really getting emotional about commercial organizations. That Our Philosophy stuff does lend me some comfort here at Google, but my passions, positive and negative, center on people and projects, not the commercial organizations that house them.

Back to BP · Hating the company has the potential to distract from a larger problem, the immense number of other poorly-regulated oil platforms in the Gulf; is it 4,000 or only 1,500?

And it’s bigger than that; both the current spill and the whole Gulf problem, the more I look at them, seem like symptoms of a deeper disease. You have to treat a disease’s symptoms or they might kill you, but suing BP into oblivion (a good idea if there’s a decent legal case) isn’t going to reduce the big-picture damage contingent on our addiction to unrealistically-priced fossil fuels.

And hating the company, or any company, will just reduce the quality of your life.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: mbotta (May 31 2010, at 02:55)

good on you, tim. i aimed this tweet at john gruber following his remark that he was going to boycott bp:

@daringfireball texaco in ecuador, shell in nigeria, exxon in alaska. the list goes on. this is not about bp. dare to think, fireball.

thanks for keeping the bigger picture in sight.

mbotta

[link]

From: Gil Reich (May 31 2010, at 06:03)

"hating the company, or any company, will just reduce the quality of your life." I agree. We should stick to hating individuals. It's easier, more rewarding, and doesn't restrict your purchase options as much.

[link]

From: Brent Rockwood (May 31 2010, at 07:20)

I've never found hate to be a particularly useful emotion, beyond the first few seconds where it tells you something is wrong. At that point, it's almost always more useful to figure out how to make that wrong thing better.

[link]

From: j pimmel (May 31 2010, at 07:51)

Tim,

I'd like to point out that the oil industry and car companies have been the leading proponents of both enforcing our addiction to gas/oil as well as denying the development of (most notably) alternative car technologies.

Early years of boundless optimism for future with cars cemented our dependence on cars and built out the roadways of the world. What continued from then was an ever more powerful and aggressive industry lobby which exceeded itself in it's ability to serve itself through denial of all kinds of warning signs and scientific studies, fighting emissions standards, fighting alternative types of cars, legislative influence and doing all within their power to preserve and bolster the status quo - and thus our dependence.

Whether you believe that they killed the electric car or not, whether you believe their market economics argument, they collectively (and very effectively) made absolutely sure we had no other viable choice in relation to gas/oil for the past 20 years.

When people say 'we should reflect on our own dependence on oil and gas' well yes; it seems now we have pause to do just that and perhaps - for the first time in our history - actually bring legislation and change the status quo sufficiently to actually bring about improved safety on rigs everywhere and hopefully even first steps towards ending our oil dependence.

However, we've been woefully able to do anything but depend on it until now. For that much I blame them wholly.

[link]

From: Gregor J. Rothfuss (May 31 2010, at 07:55)

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, much bigger things are going on:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell

[link]

From: len (May 31 2010, at 08:05)

First: it is BP/Haliburton/TransOcean. There's plenty of surface area there for j'accuse but let's all try to hold off until the facts are in.

Second: let's sort facts. The BP record of violations is orders of magnitude greater than any competitor. That speaks more to our policies for oil leases than this accident but nonetheless, there are reasons to be disgusted. Anyone who wants details can watch the hearings on CSPAN. Heartbreaking but revelatory. Note however that the safety record of the Deepwater Horizon was exemplary.

Third: Rampant emotionalism is toxic I agree. The combinations of web and mainstream media are amplifying that effect. The sheepdogs among us need to do overtime because multiple events are resonating in those amplifiers we built for them.

Fourth: My current experience is in public safety software. Since 9/11, the public safety industry and regulators have tinkered with the protocols and some are better but they aren't perfect and can't adequately handle unknown unknowns (events for which there is little applicable experience). There are no magic fleets of helicopters, the military isn't equipped and even if it were, the room to operate at 5000 feet is very limited. We can expect what we are seeing to get worse and other nations in the Gulf have to prepare.

Fifth: We can expect the usual hacks to use this politically. At the moment it's a spy vs spy game but there is another industry that is quite adept at stirring our emotions to use us as weapons of mass distraction. Do all you can within your practice to resist them. The coupling of separate but highly emotional events can injure cultural cohesion at the very time we need to work together.

If you want a bit more high level information on how the response systems operate, I'm blogging that at lamammals. It comes down to resources, training and experience. It also should be a ringing bell that we need to get off the oil addiction as you say. Absolutely, quickly and no regrets.

As for comparisons to the comp-sci industry, that's a red herring except insofar as it demonstrates that rampant emotionalism is quite effective and we have to discipline ourselves to resist it. Sure, Micrsoft gigged you but you were a thought leader in a very competitive industry and should have known that was coming. You weren't the only one or the last. As I said a long time ago, it's dangerous to step in front of a truck load of speeding money.

[link]

From: Daniel Haran (May 31 2010, at 09:06)

Hate and suing won't do much.

What's going on isn't an accident though: it's the result of corruption and decades worth of a calloused culture that destroyed lives and ecosystems.

The sane answer is to revoke BP's corporate charter. They've already been sued, and it hasn't worked. We must escalate and deal with a systemic problem at its root.

We must also deal with corruption of regulators, ensure we can clean up accidents before we drill more wells, and most of all: get us on to cleaner renewables.

[link]

From: Parker Morse (May 31 2010, at 10:14)

Well said, Tim. Pointing fingers and throwing blame is a natural reaction but doesn't actually help anything.

W.R.T. your Google testimony, I'm not paranoid enough to disagree with it at the current time; the sort of thing that scares me is more along the lines of "What if someday..." and it doesn't require Google to become bent on Evil. The Soviet Union, for example, had a pretty good handle on it nuclear weapons, but now those weapons are in the hands of several different countries and not all of them are aware of or ready for the great responsibility that comes with the great power.

Sub Google for Soviet Union and massive amounts of personal data for nuclear weapons, and you have a (significantly less Earth-shattering) idea of what might go wrong.

[link]

From: Jamie (May 31 2010, at 10:25)

I think you're a bit sanguine about BP with the whole "things happen" approach.

- Item: BP is known in the industry for having a significantly worse track record than its competitors.

- Item: All oil companies fight for less regulation than is rational.

- Item: to the extent that externalities are going to be socialized so that profits can be privatized, anger at the companies that do this on an ongoing (heh) basis is perfectly rational.

Look at your own past anger at Microsoft. That seems rational. Now look at anyone living in a gulf state who used to have a job, and now doesn't, because BP opened a poison-volcano that it appears unable to close. Is their anger irrational?

More generally, does the (not solely American, but it is the most egregious actor by percentage) hunger for oil sold at a cost below what it would be if all externalities (environmental, the wars, etc.) were on ledger mean we should simply shrug when a corporation poisons a significant portion of the globe?

Doesn't seem rational to me.

[link]

From: Victor Panlilio (May 31 2010, at 10:57)

Tim's position seems reasonable enough, but keep in mind corporations have legal personalities and are accorded many of the rights assigned to actual persons, yet they do not behave ethically unless forced to do so by regulatory fiat. See, for example,

Ten Things You Need (But Don't Want) To Know About the BP Oil Spill

http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=19408

It's a bit of an ideologically slanted screed, perhaps, but the allegations are worth noting.

[link]

From: Kevin Scaldeferri (May 31 2010, at 11:10)

I agree with your tweet, but I'm not so sure about this: "suing BP into oblivion (a good idea if there’s a decent legal case) isn’t going to reduce the big-picture damage contingent on our addiction to unrealistically-priced fossil fuels."

This sort of accident is precisely the sort of externality that we talk about not being priced into the cost of oil. By ensuring BP is held financially responsibly in this case, we hope that other companies (and BP if they survive) are compelled to purchase insurance or otherwise factor this cost into what they charge for a barrel of oil.

It's not a perfect solution: there's still other externalities, and it seems unfortunate that we seem to need at least one massive accident, and the resulting environmental damage, before the pricing structure might change at all; but it seems like a step in the right directly.

[link]

From: Bob Aman (May 31 2010, at 13:02)

"anonymous polemics leave a very sour taste"

Really? I mean, I guess it might be different if it's a personal attack, but I've always just assumed most decent people give them zero value and assign them to the irrelevant bucket. If you haven't staked your reputation on what you're saying, no one else should bother placing any value in your words.

[link]

From: Robert Young (May 31 2010, at 13:40)

You're factually wrong, as others have pointed out, that what happened was in any way "accidental" or necessarily a result of drilling for oil in the Gulf or could have happened with any oil company. The continuing (thanks largely to the NY Times) flow of facts surrounding this rig and BP's actions make the assignment of blame less and less stochastic.

Further, Canada is the USofA's major source of petroleum; said petroleum comes largely from oil/tar sands, and the process of doing so consumes vast amounts of water and produces (somewhat less) vast amounts of toxic wastes. The controversy doesn't make it into the US press with much regularity, but Canadians, on the whole, are divided. Both about the national resource issue (should Canada squander their resources on profligate Southern Cousins), but also the growing foreign exchange bind that is much like China has with the US; who is dependent on whom?

[link]

From: Joe Pallas (May 31 2010, at 15:44)

I think the opening question is misleading. Regardless of whether it is meaningful or useful, it is human to have emotional reactions to business organizations. Hate is not a productive emotion, to be sure, but it can be a spur to action (as mentioned above by Brent Rockwood). There's a distinction between "hating on BP" and recognizing that the behavior of BP and its cohort represents a substantial ongoing threat to our well-being.

Part of the emotional stimulus here may be that we have been sensitized—by the recent financial melt-down—to the way that many corporations treat risk. The BP plan, news reports tell us, treated a blowout as "unlikely." But in this case, that didn't mean "unlikely, but we know how to deal with it if it happens." Instead, it apparently meant, "unlikely, and we don't know what we'll do if it happens." Like the financial industry's bet on the housing market, this sort of eyes-shut view that considers only the likelihood of bad outcomes, without multiplying by their costs, makes for bad decisions. And in our complex, interlocking world, these bad decisions have consequences well beyond the organizations that made them.

So, hating corporations, not particularly useful; getting fired up about changing bad behavior of corporations, maybe worthwhile.

[link]

From: Nate Cavanaugh (May 31 2010, at 20:43)

Re: "addiction to cheap energy",

I find it a tad funny that phrases like this get passed around, as they're almost always uttered as if cheap energy is a bad thing.

Energy is insanely cheap. The universe is made of the stuff.

Extracting it is expensive (for now).

But if anyone would like to disparage the pursuit of cheap energy, I think it's only fair to ask that they show us what its like to be free of the addiction by moving to a location that has no such advantages. Disconnect the laptop, forego the aspirin and penicillin, and live hand to mouth trying to store food longer than a day or two, and please, take care not to trip over the billions of people scrambling to leave such an existence.

Something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. If you feel energy is "too cheap", by all means, feel free to pay more.

But the rest of the world, the ones living on a dollar a day, for them energy needs to get even cheaper.

I know there are environmental costs for the pursuit of energy, but there will be human costs if we stop the pursuit. And if it comes down to being forced to choose between helping people or helping the environment, people should win out.

Otherwise, I totally agree with you about emotions directed towards a corporation.

It's as productive as directing emotions to any abstract concept. We might as well get really pissed off at the number 4 when we don't like the episode of Sesame Street on that day.

[link]

From: Kevin H (May 31 2010, at 21:11)

> Is it 4,000 or only 1,500

According to the May 2010 MMS OCS Region Lease Map, there are over 6,600 active leases in the Gulf ( source: http://www.gomr.mms.gov/homepg/lsesale/mau_gom_pa.pdf )

According to the Platform/Rig Information ASCII files, 2400 platforms in the Gulf qualify as a "Major Complex". About 700 of these are manned 24-hours ( source: http://www.gomr.mms.gov/homepg/pubinfo/freeasci/platform/freeplat.html )

Over the last decade, there have been approximately 71 accidents PER YEAR in the Gulf which have been designated "serious or significant" and have garnered a formal investigation. ( source: http://www.gomr.mms.gov/homepg/offshore/safety/safetylist.html )

There is a published report available for each formal investigation if someone else would like to dig through those to decide if any one company has a worse record than others. My thinking is that regardless of the company, there are an awful lot of opportunities for human error and uncontrollable events out there in the Gulf; This sort of event was bound to happen sooner or later.

[link]

From: dw (Jun 01 2010, at 02:37)

Tim, Kontra didn't 'hate on you' he just called you out on your Apple attitudes. There is a difference. Perhaps try to have a mature debate instead of throwing this ludicrous polemic around

[link]

From: Robert Young (Jun 01 2010, at 05:30)

@Nate:

Just do the arithmetic. The USofA is 4% of the planet's population. It consumes 24% of the world's energy resources. The standard of living this lopsided slurping of resources is not equally shared among the ~350 million Americans. Only about 1% of those Americans live the upper middle class life of TV and movies. So, about 3.5 million humans (out of about 6.8 billion in total) benefit from this orgy.

If that's not preternatural addiction, tell me what is?

[link]

From: Robert Young (Jun 01 2010, at 06:23)

@Nate:

-- The universe is made of the stuff.

And even this isn't true. The universe is getting colder, that is, losing energy density. The energy "out there" isn't recoverable at any cost, since there isn't any physics which supports consolidation and extraction with a net gain in energy (the laws of thermodynamics). To assume that the universe's energy could be consolidated and extracted is akin to assuming that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony could be found in the random static of your hometown AM radio dial.

The sole reason that petroleum based economies work at all is that the energy density of petroleum is sufficiently greater, so far, then the energy expended in consolidation and extraction.

The equation for oil sands/tar sands/shale is a bit tighter to the bone.

[link]

From: Matt McC (Jun 01 2010, at 06:43)

Well-said.

I do think you can generalize the last line beyond corporations to, well, everything. Hate just sucks out energy.

[link]

From: Melinda (Jun 01 2010, at 12:22)

BP really does have a particularly heinous track record. They had a big spill up on the North Slope a couple of years back because of corroded, badly-maintained pipes - the largest spill ever up there.

The Wikipedia article isn't bad.

I'm located in Alaska and Mark Begich was on NPR this morning, talking about the liability situation, and he said that energy companies in Alaska can't do much without getting sued. One consequence of that is that in general things tend to go pretty well. There was a spill at a pump station near Delta Junction last week but it was small, it was contained, and it was cleaned up quickly as an indirect consequence of the tort situation. He made the argument that this hasn't been the case in the Gulf, where the energy companies haven't been receiving anywhere near the same level of scrutiny because the people down there tend to be uniformly pro-drilling.

At any rate, BP's track record in Alaska is worse than that of other companies (and there are a lot of them).

[link]

From: John (Jun 02 2010, at 18:05)

There's a great misconception that fossil fuel (particularly oil) is "cheap". When you factor in the massive defense spending (in the US) that's required to keep Middle East oil flowing, it's likely more expensive than just about any other alternative. Unfortunately, these indirect costs are not typically associated with oil, thereby perpetuating the fallacy that it's "cheap".

[link]

From: techzen (Jun 02 2010, at 20:43)

Your observations regarding finding the real issue - the policies and checks of oil drilling are right on the target. The root cause and the sample effect of the cause need to be differentiated to ensure that this never happens again.

[link]

From: Rob Cottingham (Jun 03 2010, at 16:39)

I think it's useful to separate the questions of hate - which I agree is unproductive - from the issue of whether it's appropriate to target a particular corporation.

In this case, BP has been an especially bad actor, with a dramatically higher rate of safety violations than its competitors.

That said, the industry as a whole has fought tooth and nail against every regulation geared to safeguarding the environment (and, for that matter, their own workers). Their wining-and-dining of regulators is perhaps the most perfect case of client capture in U.S. government history.

And setting aside whether punishing BP (and its Deepwater Horizon partners) into bankruptcy is good public policy on its own merits, there actually is a practical outcome: creating a financial deterrent to irresponsibility.

You're right, though: we all share responsibility for the disaster in the Gulf - not just for collectively failing to move away from fossil fuels, but also for insisting they be as cheap as possible. But that doesn't let anyone off the hook for playing a horrific game of Russian roulette with the health of the planet, and doing their best to conceal what they were doing - as well as the consequences - from scrutiny.

[link]

From: Yuhong Bao (Jun 19 2010, at 19:13)

"Sub Google for Soviet Union and massive amounts of personal data for nuclear weapons, and you have a (significantly less Earth-shattering) idea of what might go wrong."

Except that they are far from the same thing.

[link]

From: Andrei Gonzales (Jun 24 2010, at 10:04)

You're missing the point my friend. The reason why companies must have an emotional push is because, as you so clearly evidenced, people have emotional attachments to everything in their lives, whether it be the coffee they drink or the shoes they wear.

You, dear sir, may be one of the very few that do not (or refuse to?) attach emotions to representational elements such as brands and brand names. There is nothing wrong with that at all. However, from a business perspective, the majority of people you are selling to, do (have emotional attachments), which is why it is important to cultivate and comb a company's public "personality".

Remember, nobody will ever specifically recall Johnny Lee the tech support guy who swore during a conversation with the client. They only remember "AT&T" or "Sprint". They hired Mr.Lee, and being in charge, they take the blame.

And a company that cannot generate an emotional response will quickly become a commodity. Look at all the Telco's, Xerox, and countless others. Google SHOULD have a personality to avoid becoming Xerox.

[link]

author · Dad · software · colophon · rights
picture of the day
May 30, 2010
· Business (105 more)

By .

I am an employee
of Amazon.com, but
the opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.