Sunday, November 17, 2019

Hubris

In No Country for Old Men, retired Lt. Col. Carson Wells was hired to hunt down a homicidal maniac, Anton Chigurh. Incidentally, both men were Vietnam War veterans, and Wells knew how utterly depraved Chigurh was. Nevertheless, he took the job because he needed the money, and misguidedly believed that he was smarter than Chigurh. He was not.


Sure enough, the hunted outmanoeuvred the hunter. In their final scene together, Chigurh held a full-bore shotgun while sitting across from his hot and cornered prey. In his cryptic rhetoric that dripped with contempt, Chigurh asked Wells, “All right. Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Wells retorted, “Do you have any idea how crazy you are? Crazy Chigurh might have been, but Wells' so-called rule presupposed that he always overstepped to see how far he could push the envelope. Right until the moment his luck ran out, Wells had lived a charmed life but, in the end, his trademark swagger could not save him from his nemesis.

Switching gears, before he could be removed from office by the US Congress, Richard Nixon in 1974 became the first and only incumbent to resign as US President. In a revealing interview three years later with the British journalist David Frost, Nixon's mask slipped when he made this stunning remark, "Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Regardless of context, this was quite an extraordinary statement by a lawyer-turned-politician who was accused of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and contempt of Congress. In a political career spanning decades, Nixon was nicknamed “Tricky Dick” during an earlier senate race, and might have operated under the illusion that he was above the law and could therefore breach conventional rules. Too late, Nixon discovered that, in a constitutional republic based on the separation of powers, no elected officeholder possessed unlimited power.

There is a direct line connecting these narratives to the ancient Greek mythology of Icarus and his father, Daedalus. As a renowned craftsman, Daedalus had designed wings from feathers and wax that would help his son escape to Crete. Before take-off, his father had warned Icarus not to fly too low to avoid the sea’s dampness, or too high. Perhaps Icarus should have listened to his father and split the difference; rather, he ignored Daedalus’ counsel and flew too close to the Sun. Tragically, the wax melted, Icarus plunged into the sea and drowned. Like Carson Wells, Icarus could not resist the adrenaline rush of testing the boundaries, to his eternal regret.

Of course, time never stands still. Who knows how many people have since failed to learn from Icarus’ fate. But, truly, hubris can be an intoxicating drug that some find difficult to resist, no less so in this age of rapid transformation.

In January 2000, America Online (AOL) was a popular web portal at the forefront of the 1990s’ Internet boom with about 25 million online subscribers. Riding the wave of dot-com optimism, AOL’s market capitalisation rose to $164 billion, which was an insane valuation for a 15-year old company with few tangible assets. By contrast, Time Warner was a media conglomerate with cable and publishing assets, including huge libraries of movie and television content. Incongruously, Time Warner’s market value was about 60% of AOL’s. A proposed merger of the two companies would gain Time Warner access to AOL’s subscriber base. Subsequently, the bubble burst, even as AOL’s dial-up service was losing out to faster broadband networks.

By the time the dust settled, the merged company declared an eye-popping $99 billion loss in 2002, while AOL’s relative value nosedived by 87% from its peak. Just as badly mauled was Time Warner and, at the time, the AOL Time Warner combination was adjudged as the most awful in corporate history. Possibly the most high-profile victim of this saga was Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, who had sold his company to Time Warner and became the largest individual shareholder of AOL Time Warner. Perhaps Turner and his board of directors overreached. They should have heeded their old-school instincts rather than succumb to the market frenzy that wiped out trillions of dollars in stock market wealth.

Today, there is a growing belief that social media is a double-edged bet. Naively, at first people welcomed the promise of universal connectivity, and it was free to boot. Despite the early surge in innovation, the most dominant player, Facebook, soon gobbled up its nearest rivals. With about 2.4 billion users, or 37.5% of the world’s population outside China, a scary pattern emerged. Without much thought or reflection, people broke a rule, a private rule that defied common sense. Ignoring all possible consequences, subscribers compromised their privacy and allowed Facebook to harvest intimate personal data at the core of their being. Now, social media platforms have made facts and false information indistinguishable, thereby weaponising and propagating digital poison.

Recapping, Carson Wells and Icarus met untimely ends, which must have been a shock to their associates. In Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, he couched his fall from grace thus, “… only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain. &%*!? Sometime in 2009, Time Warner finally spun off AOL, and returned to its roots. With respect to Facebook and other social media companies, their anomalous impact on our future is still up in the air.

Overshadowing these calamities is a full-bore threat hanging over us like the sword of Damocles. Since the invention of the atomic bomb in the 1940s, efforts were undertaken to curb nuclear proliferation but the paranoia, and hubris, of nuclear states is palpable. Sadly, the likelihood of a nuclear weapons-free world is as remote as ever. In which case, to paraphrase Chigurh, Let me ask you a direct question. If the logic we followed set us on the road to nuclear Armageddon, of what ultimate value is human logic?”   

Later!

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