Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Stealth Phenomenon

The stealth technology—its most “visible” form is military hardware—is also known as LO technology; LO stands for “low observable.” But observable by what? Well, radar and other mechanical sensors such as those that pick up differences in sound or thermal effects. The modern form of stealth technology was undoubtedly born right alongside the invention of radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging)—but the art was present long before that time as camouflage—blending into the terrain and thus remaining invisible: animals and plants practiced it long before humanity learned to hide itself in war—or peace.

For my purposes today, however, military stealth technology merely serves as an illustration. Why is it that we see virtually no Good News in the media—aside from a few “heart-warming” features served up sparsely in Sunday papers or, with slightly patronizing smiles, by the TV media? The reason I’d propose today is that significant ranges of social reality prefer to operate behind a kind of stealth technology for practical reasons as well as on principle. To remain invisible to the media, an institution must pass three tests: it must behave correctly at all times, it should produce genuine value for the public, and it must avoid drawing attention to itself. The naturally accruing attention from its constituency will be enough to help it operate effectively. The same goes for individuals.

One of the very first German sayings I learned as a boy, after World War II had carried us to Germany, was “Selbstlob stinkt”: “Self praise stinks.” Children would yell that when someone was trying to make himself/herself too big. That sort of thing, coming from your peers, had an educational effect. Attention was a by-product, and nothing more than that, of action—doing things right, not doing things to gain visibility.

All this came to mind recently when news came that Dell Computer was going private—and whenever that subject arises, the privately-held company—I always remember Cargill, Inc., the largest of these. Its headquarters were (still are) in suburban Minneapolis, where we once lived. I got to know Cargill rather well and hence developed an admiration for the privately-held company—in an age when “coming of age,” for a corporation, means “going public.”

The publicly held corporation, what with the commercial culture that has developed around it, is something of a corruption. The trading of its stock becomes the focus of attention—and works backwards to skew all decision making. It leads to all kinds of evils, like acquisitions and divestitures, short-term planning, mass lay-offs that cause the stock to jump, and the absurd notion that the corporation exists only to make stockholders rich rather than fulfilling missions stated at the time of its incorporation. Such entities avidly desire visibility—and also suffer from it. Selling stock to the public is an easy way to get large capital infusions—but I wonder if the benefit actually covers the eventual functional losses the public suffers from the process. If it’s easy—it is suspect.

Good institutions do not attract media attention. The good is taken for granted—the disturbing produces headlines, draws attention, and therefore sells ads. The glow of Good is local. I suspect that the Good or at least the Neutral is overwhelmingly more common than the sleazy—but the lenses of the world bring nothing but news of corruption, decay, and of collapse. What percentage of the total is it? We can only guess.

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