Copyright (c) 2004 Toomas Karmo. Revision history: 20041002T231010Z/version_0001.0010 (tiny improvements); 20041002T065431Z/version_0001.0000 (finished the base version). Permission is granted to copy, distribute, and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2, or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. In the terminology of the License, this document has no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. The definitive machine-readable copy of this document is in the "Literary" section of A copy of the License is included in a hyperlinked section, entitled GNU Free Documentation License, of the machine-readable copy.

Cyber-Elites and Body Lotions:
Some Business Values

A Tricky Assignment:
Get Scoop on Cyberbucks - and Skincream!

One normally thinks twice before writing rude remarks about high-profile personalities. But one of my clients has invited me to write business journalism for his business associates. Could I please, he has asked, profile the likes of Mark Cuban, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos - not to mention the lady with the elegant skincreams, Dame Anita Roddick?

It's surprising how much bad stuff one can uncover on public figures in just a few hours of surfing. Since I know what our team needs, I know I should scribble out sketches of these particular figures, warts and all. Not to keep you in suspense: I find lots of unhappy stuff on Mr Cuban, who serves as a good lesson on what not to do; I find a smaller mass of unhappy stuff on the remaining cyber-guys, with various things worthy of imitation; and I find enough good to require from my sweaty fingers an upbeat, in fact a joyously raving, review of the feisty Dame Anita.

The Ugly, The Bad, The Kinda Good

The worst guy may as well come first.

There's a little bit of happy news on Mark Cuban. Starting with almost-zero capital and no academic training in computers, he founded MicroSolutions in 1983. He sold his firm for an undisclosed sum, in the millions, to CompuServe in the 1990s. Still bigger success followed with his creation of, the Internet sportscasting venture that he sold to Yahoo! in 1999 for more than US$2 billion. Mr Cuban put US$285 million of the proceeds into his purchase of the Dallas Mavericks. This NBA team he raised from obscurity to first-echelon status, making some wise acquisitions of key players.

The athletic triumphs came at the price of US$1 million or so in NBA fines, mosly for outspoken statements against the referees and the league. Perhaps those fines - not to mention journeys from game to game in a plane purchased for something like US$41 million on eBay - are reasonable in their context. I don't know enough about American sport to be able to judge what is sporting.

But what is bad to the point of creepiness is Mr Cuban's approach to commerce.

Mark Cuban is now a mover and shaker in the world of high-definition television. We find him explaining his ambitions for the medium in an interview (at,aid,117430,00.asp) with Liane Cassavoy of PC World on 2 September 2004. Cassavoy has asked the question 'What do you think is the best thing to see in HD?' Here's Mark Cuban's answer:

Sports and movies and news. I think news is the best, because news right now is all about talking heads. It's 'I'm in Iraq and the bombs are blowing up behind me.' Whereas with our news, we have a show called HDNet World Report where we put cameras in all kinds of hot spots - -Iraq, wherever. And when we show a firefight or some sort of bombing, we don't have the reporter say anything. They just say, 'We're in Iraq, we're in Baghdad, and there's a firefight going on, I'll shut up and let you watch it.' And being able to see it in wide-screen high resolution with 5.1 sound, if you have a tank firing, you hear it coming out of one ear and see it leaving out of the other ear. It's just incredible. Just to be able to see it like you're actually sitting there is amazing.

Although it is belabouring the obvious to explain what is going wrong, let me belabour. We have here a highly visible, much envied and imitated, highly influential enterpreneur envisaging the turning of human suffering (of bullets, blood, death) into a revenue stream still greater than the obscene stream the networks enjoy now. If Mark Cuban were proposing to use high-defintion television as a vehicle for specially enhanced porn, his case would be bad, but not this bad.

Some of Mr Cuban's underlying values emerge from an entry in his own personal blog at, in which he explains the guiding concept for his autumn-of-2004 television contest programme, The Benefactor. Note the Hollywood tone at the end, the implied organ music, the echo of 'Be afraid; be very afraid', in short the voice of a person wielding Power:

My first business was selling garbage bags door to door at age 12.

I started my first real business with less than 1k dollars and sold it for millions.

My next business was started with less than 5k, and was sold for billions!

My name is Mark Cuban, and Im a self-made billionaire.

I know what it takes to be successful.

I have lived the American Dream and loved every minute of it.

Now its my turn to share the wealth.

I have taken the secrets to my success and turned them into a game.

I've invited 16 people to compete in my game.

The game is a series of tests to reveal the qualities that all successful people have.

The game, like the road to success, has challenges, twists, turns and roadblocks.

How you deal with each, can make or break you.

The winner will be creative, competitive, have an entrepreneurial spirit and be able to rise above the competition and prove to me, they have what it takes to become successful.

The winner walks away with a million dollars!

I AM going to change someones life FOREVER.

My name is Mark Cuban.

I am the Benefactor.

Mr Cuban is here making a god of success. Contray to what he implies, however, we do not derive our human worth from what we achieve in competition against others. If we did, most humans would be worthless, since in any competition the losers must significantly outnumber the winners. That's how the NBA works: just one team gets to be champion.

More could be added. On 1 October 2004, and perhaps still now, when you yourself read these words, you could check the Web for opinion from two individuals with direct experience of Mr Coban, by googling on the one hand with the search term slashdot "steal funding from venture funds", on the other hand with slashdot "keep his hands out of your pockets". (Note the use of quotation marks in both cases.)

Instead, however, we turn the spotlight to a cleaner patch of ground. Michael Dell started a computer business in his dormitory room on the Austin campus of the University of Texas, but soon dropped out of school to pursue the business full time. Today that enterprise, trading under the name Dell Inc., is the world's most profitable PC manufacturer, with US$2 billion in profits in 2002. Mr Dell's own worth in 2004 was US$14.2 billion, making him the world's ninth-richest man. (These net wealth figures! Net worth is physically meaningless after you have your first ten million, since you can only eat so much food or wear so many suits. But net-worth figures are useful to the very rich, in other words to the very powerful, because they make for easy-to-grasp league tables. There's nothing like a clear set of rankings.)

The secret of the success? The company cut costs aggressively, keeping minimal inventories and procuring components from poor countries.

We may consequently be tempted to call Mr Dell a promoter of sweatshop labour. On the other hand, CAFOD, the British arm of the international Catholic charity Caritas, has found in a long report on the procurement policies of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM that Dell is making some real efforts to avoid the worst of the sweatshop abuses. The single most damning point in CAFOD's computer-industry report is that Dell is doing little or nothing to get the sweatshop workers unionized.

Then, again, we may be tempted to call Mr Dell, like essentially everyone in the computer-hardware sector these days, a purveyor of pointless innovation. I've argued at length in my , in my essay 'No-Frills GNU/Linux: Philosophical Foundations', that the computer industry, hardware and software alike, keeps itself fat by forcing consumers to buy more computer power than they need.

And finally, we have a hefty military and political connection. On the military side, gives us this:

In October 2003, Dell was chosen by the Boeing Corporation to serve a five-year contract that will provide Boeing Integrated Defense Systems (one of the world's largest space and defense corporations) with all of its desktop and notebook computers. Dell also holds contracts with West Point Military Academy, the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

Michael Dell was the keynote speaker at the US Air Force's annual information technology conference in 2002. The event was open only to active duty military and federal government employees, and featured 150 vendors showing off their latest technologies.

Michael creates training and simulation programs for the Army, and has pointed out that upwards of 85 percent of military personnel training today is done through computers. His business has done well to supply the military with training programs and the hardware needed to run them.

And here's a part of what we get from the same source on the related issue of improper political access and influence:

George W. Bush's laptop is a Dell PC. He has been known to call Michael on a regular basis with technical questions about his computer.

Next, Bill Gates.

That fortune, and its ranking? The bucks do fluctuate somewhat. The 11 October 2004 Forbes list of America's 400 wealthiest puts Bill at the top, for the eleventh year in a row, with a net worth of US$48 billion.

But oh, the quivering, wobbling fragility of those bloated operating systems! Viruses are almost unknown to the ordinary Linux or Macintosh user. In part, this is due to the near-monopoly Microsoft has in the operating-system market. But in part it is due to bad design at Microsoft (as, for instance, in a reluctance to enforce the classic Unix-and-Linux distinction between user and superuser powers over executable binaries). Here's what I had to say about viruses in 'No-Frills GNU/Linux':

…in the week I prepared the first draft of this essay (the final week of January in 2004) the Mydoom worm was making its rounds via Microsoft-executable e-mail attachments. The epidemic had perhaps subsided by the end of the week. At its peak, though, said the BBC, messages either containing the malicious binary or dealing with it were making up about 30 percent of world-wide e-mail traffic. British security house mi2g was around that point putting out a total remediation-cost estimate for Mydoom not of one thousand million American dollars, but of about twenty thousand million. An inflated estimate? It's in the long-term self-interest of such security analysts to make their figures accurate. Yet if in a perversely skeptical spirit we insist on slashing the twenty thousand million in half, we still have fully a tenth, or more, of what newspapers were presenting as the cost of cleanup in Lower Manhattan after the physical-infrastructure attack of 2001 September 11.

There is a major positive side to the Microsoft story. Bill Gates has remarked that he intends to give all his fortune away in his own lifetime. As of March 2004, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had an endowment of more than US$27 billion. (That dwarfs even the handsome Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which in the autumn of 2004 was asserting in its Web publicity that its endowment exceeded US$1 billion.) We often think of Bill Gates as a computer philanthropist. That image is created when we walk, for instance, into the basement of the humble Colchester Regional Library in Truro, Nova Scotia, or into many similar libraries around North America, and find a Gates-donated centre for information technology. That image is powerfully reinforced when we note Mr Gates's financial contribution to computer-science research at Cambridge University. More interesting, however, in fact downright inspiring, is the news that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is at work in Africa, promoting the distribution of vaccines and medicines, with a special focus on malaria.

The cyber-tycoons we have examined so far have not been bold innovators. Even Microsoft, with its big warchest of patents and other "intellectual property", is not an innovator in the same league as IBM or the old Bell Labs. (The Windows point-and-click interface is an imitation of 1980s Apple, which itself drew on a research-and-development effort at Xerox. The Internet Explorer browser, which led Microsoft into so much trouble with the United States Department of Justice, was an imitation of Netscape, which itself was simply an upgrade of long-forgotten Mosaic. The old Bell Labs, on the other hand, essentially founded 1970s and 1980s mainframe computing, by developing the C programming language and the Unix operating system. And 1970s IBM developed GML, the "Generalized Markukp Language", from which sprang 1980s SGML, from which in due course sprang the early 1990s HTML-powered World Wide Web.) Now we turn the spotlight onto an arguably bolder innovator, Jeff Bezos.

The Forbes wealth list of 11 October 2004 pegs Mr Bezos's wealth at US$5.1 billion, for a ranking of 82 in the list. (He was in position 19 in 1999, and in position 293 in 2002.)

Although Bezos is not quite a household name, his company,, is. That's the company that pioneered a new model of retailing, with e-commerce bringing shoppers together into a kind of community unknown in the era of physical shopfronts.

Driving the e-commerce initiative at Amazon are values that go beyond the narrowly commercial, as we gather from Mr Bezos's Wired magazine interview at

Bezos reserves an evangelical passion for the changes he expects in the most manipulative aspects of today's consumer culture.

'What consumerism really is, at its worst,' he adds, 'is getting people to buy things that don't actually improve their lives. The one thing that offends me the most is when I walk by a bank and see ads trying to convince people to take out second mortgages on their home so they can go on vacation. That's approaching evil.'

And again, in that same interview:

The new merchant, he suggests, volubly and unstoppably, is a community builder, a facilitator, a networker. He cites's willingness to post negative book reviews as an example of harnessing the antimanipulative truths the Internet allows consumers to root out. The Net's famously decentralized, open flow of information, he goes on, inevitably deflates the most extravagant hype of traditional retailing. And that shifts the balance of power - which since the origins of department stores and mass merchandising has favored the merchant - back into the hands of consumers.'s scheme is, in effect, to form a strategic alliance with all that newly unleashed power.

Still, even here, where things look pretty happy, there is a problem. has, at least up to this point, earned its living through an acceptance of the old Victorian and twentieth-century notion of the publisher as middleman. If we work intelligently, the World Wide Web of 2050 or thereabouts will contain a World Wide Library, in which authors and readers deal with one another directly, bypassing today's clumsy apparatus of big publishing houses and big booksellers. In the world of 2050, physical books, when needed at all, will be printed out in one's own physical neighbourhood from digital files obtainable on the Web, whether for free or through direct purchase from author cooperatives. The cheap-and-nasty printing we will do in our own homes, on our own printers. Fancier printing, with more or less exquisite binding, we'll order from little service bureaux, rather like today's Kinko's outlets, around the corner. So proves, alas, to be an interesting and virtuous voice from an era in bookselling that we are destined to outgrow.

Body Lotions:
Great News from Dame Anita Roddick

For the rave review, we turn to the improbable world of cosmetics.

Anita Roddick - as of 2003, thanks to the Queen's Birthday Honours list, Dame Anita - started her first shop in 1976, in Brighton. Today her enterprise is international, selling (so we are told at in 25 languages in over 1980 shops.

The business success is not in itself, in this era of cyber-elites, remarkable. What is remarkable is, rather, the concern Dame Anita has for real people, that is to say, for people who could not be expected to come anywhere near winning in cyber-tycoon Mark Cuban's Benefactor programme. Here's Dame Anita's account, at, of her work with developing countries:

One key area where my business and personal interests naturally combine is through The Body Shop Community Trade initiatives. It all started in 1989 when I attended the gathering at Altamira of Amazonian Indian tribes protesting against a hydro-electric project which would have flooded thousands of acres of rainforest, submerging native lands. There had to be something practical I could do to help these people preserve their environment and culture. Nuts? Specifically Brazil nuts, which the Indians gathered sustainably from the forest and which when crushed produce a brilliant oil for moisturizing and conditioning. This first trading relationship with forest people, unused to any real commercial activity, was fraught with pitfalls and dangers. But … we're still trading with them and have even set up a Green Pharmacy project producing remedies based on traditional knowledge of forest plants reducing dependency on inappropriate and expensive modern pharmaceuticals.

Remarkable also is Dame Anita's Britain-wide petition against animal testing in the cosmetics industry. She pulled in four million signatures, thereby helping prod authorities in her country into changing the law.

And useful for all of us, as we try to figure out how we ourselves can follow in at least a few of Dame Anita's footsteps, is the 'Issues' link in her Here she makes almost dailing postings of despatches from the great moral battlegrounds of our time. On 1 September 2004, for instance, we find her citing specific instances of worker maltreatment in China, Bangladesh, and Central America to a Wal-Mart public-relations officer. The way for Wal-Mart to start cutting out the abuses, she insists, is to disclose the names of the factories from which it makes its procurements. Skilled businesswoman that she is, she is ready with a rebuttal of the anticipated debating point that such a disclosure would undercut Wal-Mart's competitive position. Also on 1 September 2004 (it was evidently a busy day at her desk) she reports positive aspects of the current political situation in Nicaragua. Now, she tells us, the police have shown themselves unwilling to obey official instructions to use force against student activists.

We do not have to point an accusing finger at the Union Carbides, the Boeings, and the Exxon-Mobils of this world to prove that businesses can do harm. The potential for nastiness, both intentional and unintentional, is already obvious from much of what I've been obliged to say about today's cyber-elites. But Dame Anita shows us a less obvious truth. 'Businesses,' she writes at, 'have the power to do good.'