OOXML and Nicotine

By Rick Jelliffe
January 23, 2009

A few years ago I had one of those great coincidences. I had been reading online some material discovered in various proceedings against Philip Morris (or perhaps BAT) where they said that in Europe they had to market cigarettes as a matter of exercising freedom, of principle, rather than on the calculus of flavour/buzz or cancer/cost.

No more than minutes after closing the browser, a colleague, a smoker, an openly French Frenchman, was talking to me and he said "In France, we consider this an issue of personal liberty" so I showed him that page, and suggested to him that rather than being a rogue individualist fighting the freedom-hating system, he was in fact repeating a slick marketing line from a nasty corporation. This guy is no fool, and gave up smoking subsequently. (Another mate, who has had considerable difficulty quitting, had success with Champix recently: it also helps with alcohol too it seems.)

The nasty behaviour of the tobacco industry has been well-known and widely reported: many people have seen The Insider for example. My grandfather, a smoker, died of lung cancer early, orphaning his children. My father, when at medical school about 60 years ago, remembers being taught that smoking caused cancer: the 1952 Doll and Hill study that initially showed the link grew into an amazing 50 year study: there is a summary here for people who are interested.

The freedom trope was hilariously turned on its head recently, with Minnosota's anti-smoking-in-public legislation being called the Freedom to Breathe!

But Big Tobacco is not alone. Even chocolate corporations can go bad. As a teenager, I heard of my aunt and uncle's distant efforts in Nestlé's baby killers scandal.

What has struck me recently about the more extreme of the anti-Microsoft rhetoric on the OOXML standardization, is that it seems that people have convinced themselves that Microsoft is evil in the way that Big Tobacco is evil, or in the way that marketing infant formula to villagers who cannot afford it is evil. That dealing with Microsoft necessarily involves a world of backroom deals, conspiracy, bribes, lies, deception and so on. [That software is an intangible rather than a tangible and toxic product does not seem to make a difference...in fact, rather than shortening life, I'd say that use of VISTA makes life seem to drag on and on endlessly waiting for things to happen...]

And, just like the pro- and anti-nicotine lobbies, 'freedom' rears its handy motherhoody head: Microsoft tells us that we need its products so that we have freedom to choose; the Open Source people tell us that the only way to avoid 'proprietary' lock-in is to lock ourselves into their software; the Free Software people say it is a matter of personal liberty. All good.

But to me, a line is crossed when the visceral disgust and righteous violation we may feel about the perpetrators of commerciogenic disease is appropriated and applied to mere software companies. It is one thing to say that MS (or IBM or whoever) has at one time time or another been naughty, or that a particular person in power did something difficult to forgive, or hurt us, or that our business failed to take off because of market domination, or even that there is a pattern of behaviour that commands scepticism in us; but it is another to say that all employees of Microsoft are thereby necessarily our moral inferiors.

But that is exactly the flavour of some of the comments I have been reading recently: X works for Microsoft therefore that is enough to discredit their opinion on moral grounds alone. And the more extreme version is this: Y agrees with Microsoft's position therefore that is enough to discredit their opinion. I had hoped that this silliness was on the wane-that people had gained some sense of proportion. It is possible to go too far. All developers and vendors want you to be hooked onto their product. But software does not give you cancer.


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