News of the big AT&T/Time Warner deal over the weekend inspired some great big deja vu-infused yawns around here. Didn’t we try this one back in 2000? Isn’t it just a replay of Comcast/NBC Universal? Are we really supposed to care?
The mating dances of large media corporations get outsize coverage partly because large media corporations employ most of the people who write about large media corporations. Mostly, these dinosaur recombination deals are all about restructuring debt and quests for elusive “synergies” that prove mythical.
We keep crossing our fingers and hoping that, one of these years, a mega-deal will arrive with a different plan — promising not vertical integration or market domination but a new ethical orientation. What if AT&T/Time Warner — or the next pair-up of giants — announced that, along with its new financial structure and marketing clout, the combined entity would actually do business differently? What if it told the world that it was going to be straight with its customers, take care of its employees, respect the planet, and regularly tell investors how it was doing on all those fronts? What if it then went and actually did those things?
Think of a company that aimed to combine the employee-friendly policies of Patagonia, the fanatical customer dedication of Amazon, the iconoclastic message of T-Mobile, and the “don’t be evil” motto of the primordial Google. Would it work? Who knows? Sooner or later someone will actually try it — and for once, a mega-merger might actually deserve all the buzz.
Walloons Play Taps for Free Trade
Competition-fearing farmers in Wallonia, the dairy-rich Francophone portion of Belgium, have blocked a long-negotiated trade pact between the European Union and Canada (The New York Times). We already knew that Brexit, Trumpism, and left-right hostility to deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership signaled hard times for global commerce. But if affluent, friendly trading partners like Canada and the EU can’t come to mutual terms, globalization may really be dead.
“If the people in these two regions cannot trust one another to deliver policies that will make the unimpeded exchange of goods and services a desirable deal for both, then the merits of trade are effectively defunct in the political realm,” write The Times’ Peter Goodman and James Kanter.
Mostly, the wave of globalization that held strong from the end of the Second World War till recently actually succeeded in its promise of lifting prosperity worldwide. The trouble is, over time the benefits have accrued to a narrowing slice of the global elite, sparking resentment and resistance. The friction between Canada and the EU suggests that Britain’s divorce from the EU is likely to be messier than expected, and every future trade deal faces an uphill climb.
The Pirate Party Could Win Iceland
You may recall that Iceland’s economy fell apart during the economic collapse of 2008, and since then, the island-nation’s voters have been busy throwing out the bums and embracing new parties. But it’s still a little shocking to learn just how well the Pirate Party is doing as Iceland prepares for elections next weekend (The Washington Post). Partly, of course, that’s because of the anarchist flippancy of the faction’s name; the Pirates started in Sweden as a movement against restrictive online intellectual-property laws. Even more, it’s thanks to the genuinely radical bent of its platform.
The Pirates love Edward Snowden and want to make Iceland a “Switzerland of bits.” But on many controversial issues, their stance emphasizes direct democracy: Use the Internet to let the people decide. If they get the chance to do that, you can bet the world will be watching to see how it goes — and learn from any Pirate mistakes.
Breaking the Cycle of App Addiction
App builders and digital product creators are beginning to realize that their quest for ever-deeper “user engagement” has driven them to promote behavior that’s literally addictive. Some are even coming to question whether they want to be a part of that. Count designer-entrepreneur Tristan Harris, a Google veteran, in this camp (The Atlantic). Harris’s new organization, Time Well Spent, aims to spark “an organic-food movement, but for software” — one that creates products that “help us spend our time well, instead of demanding more of it.”
Part of that could be programs and apps that set boundaries — like an email inbox that asked you how much time you wanted to spend with it and then told you when that time was up. Or you could help users track time spent in different apps, then ask them to evaluate which were worthwhile, and compile a leaderboard of unsatisfying-yet-addictive products. Silicon Valley’s growth-at-all-costs mindset means that such ideas aren’t going to win on their own: They will only succeed if users demand them.
Why Messy Desks (and Inboxes) Rule
Today’s world is divided between people who organize their email into folders and those who gave up long ago. This divide maps neatly to the physical world, where some of us try to clear our desks and file stuff away while the rest of us let things pile up. You might think filers vs. pilers is simply a matter of differing temperaments, but author Tim Harford (The Financial Times) says the bulk of research comes down clearly on the side of mess.
Filers waste time prematurely optimizing organizational systems before they know what will actually be useful, and end up “using filing cabinets as highly structured waste-paper baskets.” Pilers, on the other hand, use a messy desktop as a kind of temporary cache for documents: As with digital memory, the most recently used stuff sits accessibly on top and the least-used items sink to the bottom to be forgotten. In other words, mess is a sign of smart prioritization rather than sloth. If Ben Franklin never figured out how to get himself to keep his desk organized, maybe it’s time everyone else stopped worrying about it.