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Posts Tagged ‘Film’

Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage

Contributing Author – Monday Morning Business Ethicist

Can Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) find honor and redemption as an industrial infiltrator? In the 11th chapter of a newly published book, Inception and Philosophy, I argue that he can . . . though only in his dreams.

Perhaps Dom has no choice in being a corporate spy and is not responsible for his actions. He may be considered honorable because of his professional expertise, or admirable devotion to family. I root for the “hero” too, but find Dom both unethically and recklessly irresponsible for violating principles of freedom.

Are we not all morally flawed and in need of redemption?

If you enjoy thinking about Inception, you’ll like this collection of 22 edited essays covering the various ethical, metaphysical, and religious themes of the film.  You can find Inception and Philosophy at Barnes and Noble, and sneak a peak at Amazon.com.

A Social ‘Theft’work?

The Winklevoss twins represent two enemies that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in the process of designing The Social Network (2010). Did Zuckerberg steal the inspiration for Facebook from the brothers’ idea for their website? The answer may hinge on the divisive issue of intellectual property.

The debate centers around the intrinsic right to own non-tangible, creative ideas. According to traditional patent, trademark, and copyright laws, intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets. Dissidents like Richard Stallman−a software freedom activist−argue that intellectual property creates a ‘bias’ toward property rights by confusing non-physical monopolies with ownership of physical things.

Regarding the creation of Facebook, courtroom and journalistic evidence shows no formal contract between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses . . . only interesting and entertaining “dorm-room chit-chat.” A mere week after beginning what Zuckerberg referred to as ‘the dating site,’ he started working on a separate ‘Facebook’ project. Zuckerberg appears to have considered the two as competing for the same users’ attention, but also seems to have regarded them as different in key ways. While Zuckerberg does appear to have intentionally strung along the twins with the goal of making his own project the more successful launch, the Winklevosses $65 million lawsuit settlement seems more than fair−especially considering that the entire dispute took place over two months in 2004 and that in the years since, Zuckerberg has built Facebook into a massive global enterprise.

The Winklevoss twins are demanding that the case be reopened not for money but for honor. If there is no such thing as intellectual property rights, then there was nothing to steal and additional demands represent mere ego and greed. If intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets, then the battle between information highway robbery and issues of gentlemanly agreement should return to the top of Facebook’s News Feed.

Update: the Winklevoss suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge in Boston as reported on July 22, 2011.

The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

The Book is Eli

The Book of Eli (2010) details one man’s post-apocalyptic trek to protect a book few people want and most cannot even read. The remarkable twist lies not only in what Eli could not do but also in what he eventually accomplished while meditating on the text. It is why Eli could truthfully tell Lombardi toward the end of the film that he had the book in his possession, having hid its words in his heart.

The often lonely trek through a moral wasteland is a fitting descriptive metaphor for many individuals in the marketplace. For some, the continual need for guidance and direction to navigate ethical quandaries is necessary amid personal failure and triumph. Others use this image as a backdrop for the unique rules of corporate competition (cf. the game of poker). Whether Eli’s quest ought to exist as a universal business paradigm is a question needing constant contextual consideration.

Eli describes what commerce was like . . . before the contemporary economic system of wasteland backpack bartering replaced it:

(We) had more than (we) needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.

While material excess is often associated with free market economies, the Hughes brothers are not targeting capitalism. Abuse, waste, and overage are no strangers to devotees of socialism and command oriented systems. Rather, the directors’ fingers point at our collective reckless relationship toward conserving our resources.

Exploitation in District 9

In District 9 (2009), the stated public objective for the Multi-National United (MNU) Corporation is transferring 1.8 million aliens to District 10−a relocation camp 240 km outside Johannesburg. The unstated private goal for this weapons manufacturer is discovering how to use the aliens’ inaccessible, technologically-advanced firepower.

Although paralleling Avatar (2010) in form by featuring a corporate-backed paramilitary brigade and a human who becomes “one of them,” the protagonist is pitiful and flawed. Unlike James Cameron’s pièce de résistance, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is neither black, white, nor blue. Allusions to apartheid from the South African locale and references toward racism through speciesist language permeate the film.

When MNU discovers that Wikus Van De Merwe’s metamorphosis allows him to wield alien weapons, upper management immediately decides to use this valuable, personal, business artifact against his will. Business exploitation (see Jeremy Snyder’s work on sweatshop labor) is either expressed through a sense of unfairness per economic transactions (as exhibited by the systematic oppression found in the 24 hour eviction notices or market-driven cat food scams) or a lack of respect/dignity as in Van De Merwe’s metamorphosis case. MNU’s anti-Kantian treatment of the project manager as a means only to harvest his organs and replicate his powers repulses the audience. However, If the fate of civilization were dependent on using employee body parts for the greater good instead of an end-profit motive, would a utilitarian argument justifying exploitation be ethical?

In light of corporate exploitation, are employees only inherently valuable by what they can extend or offer an organization? Do they have any personal rights on the clock, or are they completely at the mercy of their employer’s will while paid for their services? It is interesting to note that at the point of Van De Merwe’s highest value to his company, he also found himself most exploitable.

Avatar CSR

Critics who tirelessly pan Avatar’s (2010) message as a recycled, retrospective Dance with Wolves-like’ (1990)analysis of the white man’s treatment of indigenous peoples miss the point. James Cameron is not simply creating a descriptive message of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but prescribes a call toward action to stop repeating the tactics from our collective past. He does not seek to hide the brutal treatment of the Na’vi at the hands of a commercially backed paramilitary brigade devoted ad nauseum to the profit motive. Parker Selfridge, the passive-aggressive head administrator of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) reveals Pandora’s bottom line:

This is why we’re here−unobtainium−because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. This pays for the whole party.

Jake Sully, the self-reflective ex-marine, resigns himself to his role among the Na’vi: a warrior dreaming he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, he has to “wake up.” Jake openly embraces the connection that the Na’vi have with their Pandora home and the contradictions between his own values and actions.

Giant transnational corporations (see Shell Petroleum and the Ogoni) who use the very same tactics portrayed in Avatar to placate their Boards and shareholders continue to threaten and harass indigenous peoples. Usually there is some nuanced benefit derived from the corporation and descriptive ‘diplomatic’ solutions do not wind up solely as public relations window dressing. However, Cameron’s not-so hidden, ought-not prescriptive message in Avatar is straightforward: the treatment of indigenous peoples for sake of the profit motive is unethical and needs to stop.

Does Plato Wear Prada?

In The Devil Wears Prada (2006), a young woman who shuns the latest styles comes to New York and nonchalantly lands a job as an assistant to the ruthless Miranda Priestly, the city’s biggest fashion magazine editor.

People often retreat into an all-too-familiar glazed look when exposed to either the technical details of the garment industry or, in our case, the subtle distinctions of grand ethical theories.

Miranda rebuts this kind of thinking when she ‘dresses down’ Andrea for scoffing when one of the fashion designers holds up two nearly identical belts and asserts that they are so different:

I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select out . . . that lumpy blue sweater . . . But what you don’t know is that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.  You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent who showed cerulean military jackets . . . and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think you made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of ‘stuff.’

Andrea makes the mistake of referring to Miranda’s serious work as “stuff.” The fashion industry sows, the academy deliberates, and the masses reap the long-term consequences. The results remain similar regardless of the industry, profession, or movement. Miranda’s rant illustrates the descent of modern cerulean and, to a larger extent, the implications of ideas that filter their way from the ivory tower down to the city streets.

Men, women, and their grand ideas renowned in their tight-knit circles: Aristotle’s observations on virtue, Thomas Hobbes’ egoism, David Hume’s influence on relativism, Immanuel Kant’s deontological imprint, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and Carol Gilligan’s recent reflections on care all shape modern ethical thought and moral decision making.

Our ethical beliefs may seem as if they are fished out of some moral clearance bin, but they actually represent timeless principles which have outlasted their respective historical principals.

It is a devilish, Platonic, Pradaic (sic) effect that ideas do matter and leave lasting consequences.