% fortune -ae paul murphy

To form an us

As regular readers know one of the big problems I see IT management facing every single day is the inability to identify and correct the misinformation senior executives pick up from the media and then unconsciously rely on to override our carefully researched and thought through recommendations.

Your boss may, for example, frown on a MySQL deployment on Solaris in part because Forbes has just told him that Sun is new to this business - but even if you know that he's wrong, and you know what he's wrong about, and you know the source of his misinformation, you still won't be able to do anything about it because in his eyes you're a concerned party with an agenda and Forbes isn't. Basically it's a catch 22: he's making a bad decision largely because he's been misled, but trying to correct the mistakes underlying his thinking reinforces the bad decision by reducing your credibility.

The root cause of this is a human drive that's more powerful than sex: it's the urge to submerge, to form an us; the drive to form communities whose membership separates "us" from "them". Technically shallow but pretentious magazines like Forbes cater to this by getting your boss to believe that preferring their judgment to yours makes him a member of the business elite - and your attempts to educate him will rebound against you precisely because his commitment to that us, places anyone who question's anything bound to that grouping into a "them" category.

We do exactly the same thing among ourselves. Ever listen to a couple of junior suits talk to group outsiders during the run up to a serious meeting? Behind the desperate search for commonalities: whether couched in terms of loyalties to sports teams, the horrors of traffic, or problems with laptops, the real message they're exchanging is always the same: "I'm like you, not them" or, more cynically, "Trust me, I won't attack your self-image because I'm an idiot too."

It also spills over in both direct and subtle ways into the stuff we read and trust. Consider, for example, this bit of lusty cheering for data processing's recent successes in taking control of corporate IT back to the nineteen sixties:

MacBook Air could increase risk of laptop loss

By: Briony Smith

ComputerWorld Canada (17 Jan 2008)

While the form factor of Apple's MacBook Air caught the industry's attention this week, experts say Canada's many Windows shops might not want them, and those that do might encounter another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches.

According to Eddie Chan, an analyst with the Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada, of Apple portable computers that were shipped in 2006, fewer than one per cent made it into the large business (500-plus seats) space. First-quarter through third-quarter results from 2007 show the number sinking even lower, with only 0.4 per cent representing enterprise purchases. "The market is pretty much non-existent", said Chan. "It's a PC world."

On the surface the claim being made here is that you can avoid "another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches" simply by not buying Apple's MacBook Air. Having put this nonsense into the reader's mind the author then changes the subject and laces the new material with emotional subliminals whose effect is to coerce belief by inviting the reader to join his us and stand united against "them" and their unholy Mac.

He does this by simultaneously invoking group membership and therefore group credibility. Thus the otherwise irrelevant note that the analyst he quotes is employed by a Toronto firm is intended first to appeal to regional chauvinism and secondly to thereby establish the analyst's credibility. Next he builds the analyst's credibility first by quoting impossibly precise numbers: a "0.4 percent" market share and secondly by tying in another appeal to group membership - only "large business" or "enterprise" purchases count.

This would, I think, have been a perfect example of authorial misdirection if he hadn't gone somewhat over the top in the next bit: repeatedly invoking the power of us to reinforce his anti-mac message: "experts say... It's a PC world" while emphasizing the puniness of the "pretty much non-existent" "them."

To see this in a longer term context look at his key point: that you can avoid "another year full of dangerous data breaches and IT manager headaches" by not buying a Mac Air in the context of what happened with the MacXL back in 1984. At the time the PC-AT outsold the Mac by a factor of about 40 mainly because the data processing people in control of corporate IT budgets bought only from each other despite the fact that the IBM PC cost more, lacked software, and was three to five years behind Apple on both hardware and software.

Back then, for data processing, IBM was part of the us - and Apple was "them". As of January 17th, for Briony Smith, that situation hadn't changed - Apple is "them", the PC is us, and the facts have nothing to do with membership. To misquote the macalope, who said something like this in this same context what you're hearing in this review is the 1984 data processing community vocally tarring and feathering a product for 2009. That's the data processing us at work - it hasn't advanced since the mid 1920s and it's the other voice your boss hears in his head at night.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.