Yesterday marked the launch of the third year of the #1Lib1Ref campaign!* The campaign is simple: we invite librarians to give Wikipedia a birthday gift of a citation, helping make sure that information on the encyclopedia is verifiable and grounded in reliable sources.
The campaign is an opportunity to talk about why libraries and Wikimedians are allies in their mission to share knowledge.
Why Wikipedia and libraries?
Wikipedia is founded on the idea that everyone should have access to the sum of all human knowledge in their own language. To make this possible, Wikipedians have adopted approaches long used by academic and other fields: the citation, requiring facts and information to come from editorially controlled sources, highlighting the disagreement amongst different researchers, and striving for an inclusive representation of the world. These practices overlap very closely with the work that librarians do every day.
Librarians enter librarianship with a group of values: a desire to provide knowledge and access to that knowledge, alongside a desire to ensure that a diversity of kinds of knowledge can be accessed and heard. In 2017, the Wikimedia community went through a movement strategy process and described its direction in much those same terms: Knowledge Service and Knowledge Equity.
Especially in a digital environment that spreads #fakenews, and allows major languages and cultural voices to dominate, building a more diverse, more dynamic knowledge commons for the future requires the collaboration of librarians, Wikimedians and knowledge seekers around the world.
A strong 2017 for libraries and Wikipedia
2017 was an exciting year for Wikipedia collaborating with libraries. Alongside dozens of local initiatives, outreach activities and programs, a number of movement-wide opportunities helped grow the conversation between Wikipedia and libraries:
In January 2017, we ran the second #1lib1ref campaign: following on the year before, it doubled in both size and language reach, engaging hundreds of librarians in nearly thousands of citations added! Read the report here.
As part of the #1lib1ref campaign, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the Wikimedia Foundation published opportunity papers highlighting the potential opportunities for collaboration with the Wikimedia community: see the papers here.
The WikiCite Initiative met in May 2017 to discuss the use of Wikidata for structured bibliographic information. A significant portion of the attendees represented several dozen libraries. Read the report here .
In May 2017, OCLC and the Wikimedia Foundation announced that the citation generation engine on Wikipedia supports using both WorldCat IDs and ISBNs. Now Wikimedia projects can use the cataloguing records from librarians around the world, to create citations that lead back to libraries.
In August, the National Library of Wales created a “National Wikimedian” role for long-time Wikipedian in Residence Jason Evans. Read an interview about the change.
In October, the Association of Research Libraries in the United States announced an initiative to use Wikidata to support enrichment of indigenous knowledge in collections.
Following a tradition of teaching Wikipedia workshops to librarians around the world (for example, in Catalonia, Spain, Serbia, Argentina, Italy, and many other countries), OCLC’s WebJunction created a MOOC full of educational content focused on public librarians. The project, which included nearly 300 librarians in a 9-week course, is the biggest librarian training to date in the movement. Read an interview about the training.
These activities only highlight the largest scale collaborations between the library community and Wikipedia through the work of local Wikimedia organizations: from Spain to India, Côte d’Ivoire to Canada and Hungary.
Photo by Stanford White via the Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress, restored by Durova, public domain.
Where will Wikipedia and libraries collaborate in 2018?
There are some clear trends in the Wikimedia community towards supporting a greater variety of education and outreach opportunities, increased use of Wikidata to enrich collections and catalogues, and towards building a more diverse and representative collection of knowledge on Wikimedia projects. The future of Wikipedia and Libraries starts with #1Lib1Ref citations, but ends with you: go forth and share your vision of Wikipedia and Libraries through #1lib1ref!
To learn more about the #1lib1ref campaign, check out 1lib1ref.org
Alex Stinson, Strategist, Community Programs Wikimedia Foundation
*Editor’s note: The #1lib1ref campaign started yesterday, which was a holiday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) in the United States. We apologize for the delay in posting.
Jimi Hendrix's previously unreleased cover of Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" was released via BBC Radio 6. The late guitarist recorded the famous blues cut at the Record Plant in New York on April 22, 1969. He was accompanied by bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, who soon adopted the name the Band of
With just a handful of weeks until the premiere of Altered Carbon, Netflix has released a full trailer for its adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novel. In the trailer, soldier-turned-revolutionary Takeshi Kovacs is resurrected against his will, to solve the murder of a rich man, in a future where humans can transfer their consciousness between bodies, or “sleeves,” in order to attain immortality.
While the first teaser focused on fictional sleeve company Psychasec (who also shared some fun viral marketing at the Consumer Technology Association’s CES 2018), this trailer delves more into the unfamiliar world into which Kovacs has been reborn: lots of Blade Runner 2049-esque holograms, wealth and immortality going hand-in-hand, the interstellar warriors the Envoys… oh, and the threat from Kovacs’ employer: “If you don’t solve this quickly enough, I will erase you.” Welp.
The series’ official synopsis, from Netflix:
In the distant future, human consciousness can be digitized and downloaded into different bodies. Brought back to life after 250 years by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) the richest man on Earth, ex-Envoy soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman/Will Yun Lee) must solve Bancroft’s attempted murder for the chance to live again in a world he doesn’t recognize.
Altered Carbon season 1 drops February 2 on Netflix.
Eight hours of jet-lag will do strange and spectral things to you – it’s not enough to wipe you out, but it haunts you just the same. You’ll find yourself, for example, wandering amidst late afternoon crowds but feeling like a man adrift in a city full of ghosts. Or perhaps, judging by the general sense of disconnect in your head, you’re the ghost around here and everyone else is just getting on with their lives. In either case, you don’t quite trust this bright winter sky overhead or the busy streets around you. They feel too much like a facade, hiding the night-time gloom and stillness your body clock insists is real. Big, unlooked-for waves of tiredness come racing up out of nowhere to find you, smack you in the head, leave you swaying, barely on your feet.
Where was I again? What time is it?
You find yourself, like some zombie apocalypse survivor, diving into the utterly still waters of a deserted hotel swimming pool at some insane pre-dawn hour because you just can’t fucking sleep, and the noise you make as you shatter the surface seems to violate the quiet like a ram-raid.
Then, in roughly this state of mind, you get taken on a week-long tour of your wildest dreams come true.
Altered Carbon was optioned for feature film development in 2002, more or less at the same moment it was published. In my then-state of innocence, I blithely assumed said feature film would hit the screens in, well, – y’know, the next year and a half, say. The next two to three years at the very outside – right?
I’ve been waiting ever since.
My blithe confidence evaporated long ago, became at first a more gritted kind of waiting, then the slow, resigned seep of disappointment. Then, as the option for Altered Carbon changed hands, a sudden fresh hope lit up inside me – followed by another five years of that same gritted waiting renewed. Over periods of time like that, you get used to the idea that it’s never going to happen. So when I finally took the confirmation call from Laeta Kalogridis and she told me Hell, Yes, it’s going to happen, the fact of that happening still felt, at some fundamental level, unreal.
At the end of February last year, a single week in Vancouver blew that feeling out of the water with Bikini Atoll force. Because that week I stood on cracked grey asphalt between big white movie production trailers, and I met Takeshi Kovacs in the flesh.
He looked pretty good, all things considered.
Younger than I’d imagined he’d be, and not as scarred. But he had the same blunt bulk in chest and shoulders, the same height and casual physicality, the same damaged stare. We had a chat about that, the damage, and both seemed to agree that it was axiomatic to who he was. Later on that week, I watched him kick the shit out of various hardened types, face down a roomful of weirdo Meths, and fall into the arms of a femme fatale. I watched him inhabit the sleeve of one Joel Kinnaman and make himself completely at home. Or wait – was that the other way around?
Jet-lag nothing – this, this was fucking unreal.
I met Kristin Ortega, I met Miriam Bancroft, both within about thirty seconds of each other. I met Quellcrist Falconer, albeit only for a snack lunch under canvas, eaten out of polystyrene containers with plastic forks. We talked about resistance, and how the slightest failure to comply on the part of the oppressed will always be read as aggression by the oppressor. We talked about some of the things she might wear in her hair. Later on, I watched Kristin Ortega wake up, check a tracking device and get herself a coffee – about seven or eight times, not including rehearsals, and her waking weariness was a spot-on pitch perfect performance of the real thing every single time. (A couple of days on, Martha Higareda doubled down on this laser-precise intensity and put genuine tears in my eyes with one particular scene that’s a quiet meditation on family and passing time and loss – you’ll know it when you see it). Later still, I watched and heard Miriam Bancroft speaking words to camera that I had written down for her some time back before the end of the twentieth century. Afterwards, she gave me a hug.
Dreaming, I found myself thinking repeatedly. I’m fucking dreaming.
Your jet lag recedes in fits and starts – you think you’re over it, then you’re not. Your energy hits peaks and troughs, still at inconvenient times, but with decreasing impact each time around. A more standard model of reality pulls up at the lights beside you, invites you into the passenger seat. You pull away smoothly on green; you start to wake up properly.
But this dream hasn’t gone anywhere on waking. It’s still right there, riding along beside you.
PsychaSec and the Bancroft family vault. The Fell Street station. A stately deserted AI hotel lobby. A lurid, multi-level city street, complete with shops and barrows. A seedy motel hideout, blown apart by automatic gunfire…..
Once, all these places existed only in my imagination – now they are actual physical spaces. I know because I’ve stood inside them and pivoted about, head tilted back like a tourist, lost in the jagged wonder of it all. A crew of intensely talented human beings have been in my head. They’ve ransacked it, carried out the best of the cool bits, added a whole mess of other cool stuff they thought of along the way. The results are literally dizzying, not least because the sets are stacked, jigsaw-like, inside other buildings they bear no relation to, and adjacent to each other in curious, counter-intuitive ways. Marched through them all by patient, ever hospitable members of the production team, I struggle to keep up and map it all out. Later, I get lost just trying to find the toilet, and then again, searching out sandwiches and a doughnut (there’s a lot of free food lying around in the interstitial corridors and gaps between these chunks of imagined world). Fortunately, there are a lot of other people around in those spaces, and either they’ve been warned to look out for a sketchy-seeming fifty-something author wandering in a state of hallucinatory shock, or they’re just nice. I get re-directed, shepherded about, introduced to crew.
Something becomes apparent very early on. Altered Carbon has attracted a slew of very high spec film-making talent. They haunt these spaces between the walls of the worlds they’re working to create, and they have the casual, self-deprecating vibe of people long at ease in their professional skins. They spill out into the sets between takes, hurry back and forth fixing things and changing things and checking things and then setting everything back up all over again. They check monitors and meters and tone and contrast and actor opinion and exactly how much dry ice is spewing from that muttering grilled thing out back. They confer, and then they re-deploy.
For most of my adult life, I’ve had a rough sense of what behind the scenes must look like on a movie set – turns out I was wrong by several orders of intensity. There’s just way more of everything than I’d imagined; more people, more stuff, more fine-tuning, more takes and angles, more bustle. And yet, there’s a grace under pressure to it all. I meet not one but two of the show’s directors in the course of the week – Nick Hurran whose myriad credits include Sherlock and Doctor Who, and Alex Graves of West Wing and Game of Thrones fame. Both are seasoned, highly sought-after award winners in the field; both are charming, incisive, and generous with their time. I meet DP (and fellow long-term Glaswegian) Neville Kidd, whose job it is to do things to the visual field that I wasn’t even aware were possible, and in-between doing those things, he still finds time to talk UK politics and Scottish independence with me. Up at the Skydance studio in Surrey, I’m shown into Costume, which occupies roughly the same amount of space as an entire floor of John Lewis or Nordstrom, and whose crowned queen is the much-feted Ann Foley, recently poached as costume designer from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and brought aboard trailing a comet tail of fans that is thousands long – and she wants my autograph? I spend some quality time with Gladys Tong, who makes things out of light that rightly belong in an art gallery – I watch her go through the lightning-strike moment of inspiration right there in the midst of pulling apart and re-dressing a set, and it’s a privilege to watch it happen; we still manage to make the space for talk about children and growing up and going to college. I hang out with writer and story editor Nevin Densham, some of whose story fixes I’ve had occasion to admire over the week, but mostly we just wax lyrical about other people’s movies. I meet an AD called Brandon Ng who on top of all his other duties kindly takes it upon himself to make sure I’m in the right place on set, and to chat easily with me about movie-making and culture while we wait. I run into a succession of other people’s PAs – Benjamin Schaan, Claire Walden, Kat Gillespie – who find the time to do me various small kindnesses, fixing me up with water and coffee and transportation when I’m at a loss for these things. I sit at a fold-out table on raw concrete in the loading dock level of a decommissioned central post office building, discussing line edits for an upcoming scene with Nick Hurran and a couple of others. That easy pro vibe again, coffee in styrofoam cups, and I don’t think anybody there ever realised quite how insanely stoked I was to be included in that conversation.
Like I tweeted sometime during this bright hallucinatory week – I’ve known for some time that Altered Carbon was in very good hands; I just never realised quite how many pairs.
The last night of my stay, I’m out to dinner with Nevin Densham and the woman who made all this happen – Laeta Kalogridis herself, writer, producer, show runner and long-term champion of Altered Carbon for going on seven years. It’s a rare opportunity to talk. For most of this week, I’ve had to content myself with watching Kalogridis rush from one place to another trailing a long list of things to get done and people to talk to. I’ve seen her take on everything from on-shoot scene feedback to budget meetings to physically clearing tables and moving furniture on a set she wanted to re-envisage – talk about your heavy lifting! Now she’s concerned that I may not like some of the changes the show has made to the original story and characters.
I try, not very soberly, to explain:
“Look, you’ve given me the keys to a Maserati here. And you’re worrying that the shade of leather the upholstery comes in may not be my favourite. But Laeta – it’s a fucking Maserati!!”
Laughter. More drinks, a lot more drinks. We end up talking about Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves and the sly influence it had on me when I was writing The Steel Remains. And why you really can’t call a movie Civil War when no-one on either side dies in it.
But late next day, as the plane tilts high over Vancouver and flings itself up over the Rockies to the east, as I head out into the marching gloom of an evening still on its way, I try to review the week I’ve just had and the impression it’s made. I try to put all I’ve seen into some kind of context, and my own words come right back at me.
It’s a fucking Maserati!!
Yes, it is. And I can’t wait to see it hit the track and snarl.
I grew up with bombs in the house. Two, actually. They were part of my father’s collection of antique war implements: a motley assortment of swords, masks, rifles, and these two shells — tall as a two-year-old child, standing upright on the long brick hearth in our basement. It wasn’t until my dad died and my mother moved out — after eight children had grown up wrestling near those bombs — that we discovered one shell was live. It could have gone off any time.
These days I collect tamer antiques than my dad: old magazines, cobalt blue Fiestaware. Mostly I collect antique ideas. I’m fascinated by the way an idea becomes antique, intrigued that a concept once considered ordinary can later seem absurd. I find it useful to keep antique ideas around, as a reminder that how we see things today is not how the world will always see them. And conversely, ideas we think of as dead may turn out — like old bombs — to have an unexpected, lingering power.
The Great Chain of Being
In my antique idea collection, a prized artifact is my 1914 Whitaker’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage — a fat little volume of royal blue, with a dozen gold crowns stamped on its cover (showing the king’s crown as distinct from a duke’s as distinct from an earl’s, and so forth). It’s a kind of phone book without phone numbers: a way for the British nobility to locate one another — in space (Winston Churchill residence: Admiralty House, Whitehall), and in order of noble precedence (grandson of Seventh Duke of Marlborough). I think of it as a souvenir from a lost world, not unlike a spent shell. Or a pot shard from Pompeii, dated the year of the eruption. For 1914 was the year World War I would break out, and it would leave five ancient imperial dynasties in its rubble.
The imperial descent began in 1908, when the Ottoman dynasty fell to revolutionary Young Turks. Within three years a revolution would topple the Ch’ing Dynasty in China. By the end of the war in 1918, three European dynasties lay in the dust: the hapless Romanovs in Russia, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary, and the Hohenzollerns in Germany. At war’s end, as a member of the Reichstag put it, crowns were simply “rolling about the floor.” The British throne would stand, but its imperial possessions would soon break away to independence. Its aristocracy, as historian David Cannadine wrote, would continue its descent into “decline and decay, disintegration, and disarray.”
To the nobility in my 1914 Whitaker’s, the coming devastation lay yet behind a veil. They were still “the lords of the earth,” still “conscious of themselves as God’s elect.” And they had Whitaker’s to help them keep score among themselves — showing who had the greater nobility. When Americans think of the aristocracy — if we think of it at all — it is as a vague lump of important personages, in which we differentiate a viscount from an earl no more easily than we might tell a paper birch from a shagbark hickory. But Whitaker’s Roll of the House of Lords was numbered in order of precedence: from 1. The Prince of Wales; 2.–8. Princes and Archbishops; 9.–29. the Dukes; 30.–54. the Marquesses; down through Viscounts, Bishops, and the long list of Barons, ending with 654. Baron Sumner of Ibstone.
The list was more than preening: it was the visible symbol of one’s place in the cosmic diagram, a way of knowing who was above whom, and who below, for that was how they pictured all of life. It was a world based on a primary antique idea: the great chain of being. All life had its place in this chain, which stretched vertically from the lowliest peasants up through the gentry and nobility to the king, who was highest of all (His Royal Highness) because he was just below God.
This picture of reality held pride of place for centuries, wrote Johns Hopkins University philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being. Like any idea that serves as a base for a society’s worldview, it was less a formally expressed concept than an “unconscious mental habit.” These beliefs, Lovejoy wrote, “which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized,” are most decisive of the character of an age. They are so deep as to be inaccessible, so pervasive as to be invisible. For centuries, society accepted the great chain of being, not as an idea but as a description of reality itself.
Today, we prefer the Forbes 400, ranking individuals from one to four hundred by relative worth. We may read in it the character of the corporate age.
Like aristocratic society, corporate society bases membership on property ownership. In Baron Sumner’s era, land was the property that mattered. Today property takes varied forms and is called wealth, or financial assets. So that’s the lens through which the corporation views the world: the lens of financial numbers, where it sees the numbers that belong to stockholders as the end point of the whole game. The financial statements are a lens focused on wealth holders, and that lens distorts what it sees — as did the lens of the great chain of being. Whitaker’s lords did not see others as gentlemen like themselves. They saw commoners destined to be ruled. As CEO of Scott Paper, “Chainsaw Al ” Dunlap did not see employees as members of the corporate society. He saw expenses to be cut.
Corporations believe their world of numbers is rational. They fail to see the irrational bias in the way the numbers are drawn — much as the lords failed to see (or chose not to see) the bias in the great chain of being. A primary bias built into financial statements is the notion that stockholders are to be paid as much as possible, whereas employees are to be paid as little as possible. Income for one group is declared good, and income for another group is declared bad.
Unpacking Biases in Financial Statements
This decree is held in place by the structure of the financial statements, which we might think of as the conceptual foundation of the corporate worldview. These statements reveal, to a remarkable degree, the unconscious mental habits of the corporation. They merit a closer look.
The stripped-down structure of the income statement is this:
Profit = Revenue − Costs
We might begin by making a few things visible that are invisible here. In simple terms, there are two kinds of costs: labor costs and materials. People and objects. There are also two kinds of people: employee people and capital people. Instead of designating gains to one as costs and gains to the other as income — which contains an invisible bias — we might designate them both as income. So we may restate the equation:
Capital income = Revenue − (Employee income + Cost of materials)
There’s also something invisible on the capital side: retained earnings — profits not given out as dividends but retained for the corporation’s use. Thus we have:
Capital income + Retained earnings =
Revenue − (Employee income + Cost of materials)
Common algebra teaches us that we can draw an equation in different ways while retaining its essential meaning. We might, for example, draw it this way:
Employee income + Retained earnings =
Revenue − (Capital income + Cost of materials)
Using this income statement, a corporation would define its purpose — its bottom line — as maximizing returns to employees. It would do so in part by driving capital income down as low as possible. That’s the nature of the equation, to reduce costs, and to increase profit. Note that in this equation, capital income is relatively secure: it’s a cost of doing business
that must be paid. But it’s also fixed, so if the corporation does well, capital doesn’t share the gain. Employee income has been put at risk: if there aren’t profits, employees don’t get paid. But if the company does well, employees do well.
It might make more sense to draw income statements this way. If employees were given incentives to cut costs and increase revenues — knowing they’d pocket the gains — the company might become enlivened. Capital providers are in no position to increase revenues or cut costs, so giving them incentives to do so makes little sense. It’s also simply more logical to lump capital providers with materials providers. Both are suppliers, people outside the daily workings of the company, providing resources for its use.
We might observe here the unconscious power of the equation, for by its structure it defines insiders and outsiders. Whoever gets lumped with materials becomes a commodity — an object conceptually outside the corporation, to be purchased at the lowest possible price, to be used to enrich the bottom line of the insiders. In our redrawn income statement, capital becomes the outsider. Employees become the insiders.
An equation is simply an equation. We can draw it any way we like. But the way we draw it says a great deal about our worldview — and it unconsciously locks us into that view. Drawing it as we do today represents a choice: to view capital providers as those who are the corporation — and to view labor as a commodity.
The balance sheet reveals a similar capital-centric bias. Its structure is this:
Assets = Liabilities + Equity
The balance sheet is a funny beast in that it must balance. The two sides must be exactly equal. But in a way it makes sense: every asset a company has is either owned outright (thus is represented by equity) or has debt against it (and is represented by liabilities). Thus liabilities and equity added together equal assets.
Stockholders are represented on the balance sheet by equity, which is supposedly a reflection of what they own (in truth they own far more — the value of the corporation as a whole). But employees don’t appear on the balance sheet at all. They simply don’t exist — much as commoners did not exist in the Roll of the House of Lords. When a corporation looks around and records everything it has of value (its assets), it doesn’t see employees. It’s commonly said,“Our employees are our greatest assets,” but this isn’t true in accounting terms. If it were true, layoffs would be portrayed as a wholesale destruction of assets, rather than as an elimination of pesky expenses.
In accounting terms, employees have no value. Money has value, objects have value, ideas (intellectual property) have value, even some airy thing called goodwill has value. Employees, by contrast, have a negative value: They appear on the income statement as an expense — and expenses are aimed always at a singular goal: to be reduced.
If it’s the balance sheet that renders employees invisible, it’s the income statement that turns them into an enemy of the corporation. The reason is simple: every dollar paid out to employees is a dollar that doesn’t go to profits for stockholders. And common law (judge-made law) says public companies must maximize returns to shareholders. Every time an employee asks for overtime pay, or a raise, or benefits, he or she is acting as an enemy of the company’s fundamental mandate.
Changing the Narrative
It doesn’t have to be this way. For a moment, let’s reimagine the income statement in a different design:
Capital income + Employee income =
Revenue − Cost of materials
Instead of viewing either labor or capital as a commodity, we’ve made them both the bottom line. They’re both insiders now — both considered full-fledged members of the corporate society, with a claim on profits. Now we have something that resembles a competitive internal market. We also have a natural partnership between stockholders and employees. Profit flows naturally to both — and the two parties must find a way to distribute it, presumably negotiating for it. The new design means employee income is put at risk. It also means employee gains are limitless. And it means employees are likely to start asking tough, market-based questions: Who contributed to the company’s success recently? When was the last time stockholders put any real capital in? How much have they already made off their contribution?
Employees are not asking these questions today. The financial statements do not encourage them to do so. Nor does corporate governance allow them a voice in income allocation, because they are defined as outsiders.
This business of insiders and outsiders is key. As cultural historian Edward Said notes, the fundamental tool of an imperialist order is turning the natives into outsiders in their own land. “For the native,” he wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by loss of the locality to the outsider.” And because of that outsider’s presence, “the land is recoverable at first only through the imagination.”
Stories are at the heart of how we view the world, Said wrote, for “the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming,” is what defines culture. The great chain of being was the narrative of the old world, and implicit in it was the notion that all must accept their place, no matter how low. The financial statements are the narrative of the corporation, and implicit in them is the notion that employee income must be kept in its place, that is, as low as possible. The concept of divine right once kept other social narratives from forming. Our own version of divine right — the mandate to maximize profits for shareholders — blocks other corporate narratives from forming.
Financial statements are nothing more than a mental construct, a picture of reality that makes companies add and subtract in certain ways. But they exact a toll in flesh and blood. And that toll is rising. In the last decade and a half, the proportion of employees making poverty-level wages has climbed substantially, and in the mid-1990s it stood at an alarming
30 percent. That’s almost one in three working people, making wages that can’t adequately feed and clothe their families.
The problem isn’t limited to low-wage employees. For most Americans, wages have been falling for decades. Between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, income declined for a depressing three out of five Americans.
Ideas do have consequences.
Why Environmental Damage is Invisible
Those consequences affect the community and the environment as well. That’s a result of a second major bias built into the financial statements: The corporation aims to internalize all possible gains from the community, and to externalize all possible costs onto the community. Costs placed on the corporation show up on the income statement, and diminish the bottom line. That’s bad. But costs placed on the community are invisible: the financial lens doesn’t see them, so they are of no consequence in the corporate worldview.
Let’s say Texaco drills in Ecuador — which it did for two decades. If Texaco had to pay to clean up the environmental mess, that would be bad. Environmental remediation is expensive. Thus the logic of the income statement dictated that contaminated “produced water” wastes (water brought up in the process of drilling) were dumped untreated into the Amazon’s rivers and streams — in the astonishing amount of four million gallons each day. The same logic dictated that toxic drilling muds were buried untreated — though this virtually assured the destruction of groundwater aquifers. Aquifers, rivers, and streams are not assets of Texaco. They do not appear on the balance sheet, so their destruction need not be written off. That destruction is invisible in the corporate lens.
That lens also fails to see the consequences for human and animal life: cattle dead with their stomachs rotted out, crops destroyed, streams devoid of fish, children with anemia because sources of protein have been destroyed. “All during the dry season,” a clinic doctor in the region told The Village Voice in 1991, “[children] come in here with pus streaming from their eyes and rashes covering their bodies from bathing in the water.”
Damage to the fabric of life happens offscreen, as it were. This allows the corporate worldview to maintain the myth that social issues are soft (not businesslike, not important), while financial issues alone are hard. If something shows up on the financial statements, it matters. If it doesn’t show up, it doesn’t matter. Translated into human terms, this means that what affects stockholders is important; what affects everyone else is not important.
Saying this is the corporate worldview is not the same as saying everyone in business personally thinks this way. Individual managers might be very caring, and indeed many are. But the lens of the financial statements forces them to see, and to behave, in certain ways, regardless of their personal beliefs. The lens forces them to put aside their humanity and see in business terms — disregarding social costs if there are financial (that is, shareholder) gains at stake. It leads them to believe that it’s natural and correct to discriminate in favor of shareholders, and against employees and the community.
What is lost is at first recoverable only in the imagination, as Said noted. If we’ve never questioned the ideas implicit in the financial statements — never imagined we could (horrors!) add and subtract in different ways — it’s because we don’t think of these concepts as ideas. We think of them as reality.
The great chain of being, in its day, seemed like reality. It was a picture of reality that seemed so natural and inevitable that it was not scrutinized. Its bias was so pervasive as to be invisible — as the bias toward stockholders remains today. We see it not only in the corporation, but in treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which puts financial concerns at the core and puts labor and environmental concerns into side accords. We see it in a business press that has trumpeted an era of great prosperity, while one in three workers made a poverty-level wage.
Our mental habits take many bizarre (indeed, dangerous) forms, once we think to notice them: that company assets matter, while community assets do not. That the people who work at the company every day are outsiders, while those who never set foot in the place are insiders. Most of all, that this is the only way corporations can see the world. That the corporation’s current worldview is rational, natural, inevitable.
One hopes these notions turn out, some day, to be our own antique ideas. Today they retain their invisible, almost mythological power. We live with them like bombs on the hearth.