Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Plato, the Ring and Spam

For this one, I'm going to mess with your noodle a bit. Hang on.

I had two calls today from an auto-dial telemarketer needing to speak with me immediately about my credit card accounts. They were offering a lower interest rate (an astonishing 6% and change) and I needed to dial 9 to talk with an operator. My offer was set to expire soon and this would be my only chance.

They called twice.

The second time, I did ring through. A cheerful voice asked me if I was on hold to reduce my credit card interest rate. "No," I replied "I just want to get taken off your list." Her response? A sing-song "That'll never happen!" Then she hung up.

I had no way to contact them again (number was blocked). To let you know what I did, I called the state's Attorney General's office and lodged a consumer fraud complaint and a complaint for violation of the Do Not Call list.

Here's the baking-the-noodle bit: Plato predicted this call.

In book 2 of The Republic, Plato told the story of Gyges of Lydia, a trusted shepherd for King Candaules. One day, there was an earthquake and a cave opened up. Gyges entered it and found a mummified king on a throne wearing a gold ring that rendered Gyges invisible when worn (ever wonder where JRR got the inspiration for a magic Ring that made you invisible while corrupting your soul?). He pocketed the ring and arranged to be one of the people who gave a report to the king on his flocks (kind of a sheep damage report). There, under the cloak of invisibility, he killed the king, took his wife for his own and staged a coup d'etat, crowning himself monarch.

Now fast-forward a couple of thousand years to my call. It's clear that, if I had a way to trace her call (no data on my called id) she wouldn't have behaved that way (OK, I'm assuming here). It's also clear that they're likely to call again.

Plato wondered whether our character was a social fiction caused by the fact that we are seen.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

Huh! Are we righteous in our business and personal dealings because we can get caught? Would we do the right thing even if no one knew? Would we be idiots if we did?

These questions have had me reflect on my business dealings and I've found some troubling things. One of the most troubling was the case of a manager who'd left his desk keys and computer passwords to his most trusted employee and then gone on vacation. I got the call from my husband, who was an IT manager, asking me "what do I do here?" Seems the employees opened the desk drawer and found folders full of child pornography. As an HR rep, I took care of the standard stuff: he needs to be let go, locked out of the system, etc....and when we meet with him, we need to support him in getting help.

He was one of the warmest, friendliest people I'd ever met and one of my favorite people at that company.

And he'd been corrupted by the Ring.

We speed when we think we can't get caught, buying detectors to help us stay invisible (I, too, have found myself surprised by how fast my car will go), we pause at stop signs (my Dad calls them optional stops late at night) and the list goes on. Spammers try to get in "under our radar," scamming us out of our information, at times moving their operations off-shore to countries that are unconcerned with this type of crime....and the cost of doing business (for the consumer and the business operator) continues to climb. Earlier this month, Robert Alan Soloway, 27, was found guilty of sending billions of illegal emails daily. He could face over 60 years in the pokey. And he's only one of many spammers who may, unfortunately, never come to justice. His tsunami of spam costs companies billions in lost productivity as well as lost intellectual property (customer information and other company secrets). Oh, and the impact on workplace relationships is becoming more strained as employers are trying to protect themselves from the actions their staffers may take under cover of darkness.

My thinking is that this culture of invisibility is increasing the operating costs of business. In the example of the suspiciously low credit card interest rate (a 6% interest rate offer is like an offer of dollar gas), I can't see this as anything other than fraud. Get you to cough up your particulars and then use them for nefarious means.

Here's my question: in our business dealings, where are we operating under the cloak of invisibility? Where are we thinking that just because we can't be seen that we're free and clear? Does it matter?

(Side Note: Thanks to my college philosophy professor from so long ago, Martin Curd, for introducing me to this story. Goes to show you how applicable the things we learn can be when we think!)


Yorkali said...

One of the best articles on ethics and morals in business.period.