Vandals Of The Internet

“Art” is what Jack Lang called it. He was referring to graffiti — of the sort you now see all over Paris and other major cities.

As minister of culture, Lang actually used taxpayers’ money to promote graffiti. The idea was planted. Grants were given. Money was spread around. Sure enough, a crop of graffiti “artists” was raised.

Lang held expositions where the graffiti artists were given a chance to show off their work. A subway car was hauled up out of the ground for the artists to work on…and then put on display.

Since then, the “artists” have attacked almost every building in Paris. Even the most ancient buildings have been defaced. Even the most beautiful facades have been vandalized.

And now Jack Lang has moved to the ministry of education, and the taxpayers’ money is used to get rid of graffiti. Squads of public workers, armed with various solvents and grinders, battle the new art form. Graffiti, though, is easier to apply than remove.

“Graffiti” may have a digital cousin.

I have been trying to understand the essence of the Information Age. What’s it all really about? What is information really worth? How can it make us rich? And how come, given that the Information Age has been upon us for many years, companies have been unable to convert this abundance of information into profits?

Is it possible that information has no value? And that it is only given value by the circumstances in which it is used.

In the middle of WWII, a dead man was dressed in a British officer’s uniform and given a set of plans for the invasion of Europe. The plans were, of course, intended to mislead Hitler about Allied intentions. The body was then dumped into the sea, so it would wash ashore where the Germans could find it.

Hitler also believed that he had a network of spies in England who would be able to fill him in on the coming landings. But these spies had almost all been discovered and “turned,” so they were feeding false information to the German high command.

Thus the information that Hitler was receiving was worse than no information at all. It not only lacked quality…it lacked integrity. Of course, there are many examples from military history in which the integrity of information was decisive. Solzhenitsyn tells us how the Russian army in WWI was commanded by German-speaking officers from Prussia. They would transmit their orders and battle plans in German.

Curiously, they were often intercepted and read by the enemy — whereas their own troops found them incomprehensible. In our own War Between the States, Lee’s plans at Gettysburg had been betrayed to the Yankees when a Southern officer used them to wrap a cigar — and left them by mistake to be discovered by Union troops.

Most recently, the nature and value of information has been called into question by the Internet. Information is free on the Internet — as is, I hesitate to remind you, this letter. But free information sometimes turns out to be worth a lot less than you pay for it.

In the last few weeks, quite a few people have been charged with manipulating stocks via Internet. The typical scheme, such as the one perpetrated by a student at Georgetown Law school, involves buying the shares of some marginal company and then going on the Internet to ramp up the price. This is easier to do than misleading the Wehrmacht. You only have to announce some new breakthrough…some new contract…a rumored buyout…new technology…whatever. The whole idea is to create the kind of buzz that gets people talking about it — like the salesmen I overhead on the train to London.

The very same “investors” who are thought to be too sophisticated to allow a bear market seem to jump at the chance to buy a stock they know nothing about, on the basis of a recommendation from someone they do not know…founded on information whose accuracy cannot be affirmed and whose source cannot be traced.

A lawyer defending one of the alleged manipulators has responded, though, that you can’t mislead people on the Internet. He says that Internet postings are nothing more than “graffiti,” with no more informational content than graffiti has artistic content.

The lawyer’s argument is that his client just used the Internet as a graffiti artist uses the wall of a public building…or perhaps a dog uses a tree. He pollutes it, perhaps vandalizes it…but no serious person would mistake it for useful information.

But junk life imitates junk art. Pumping and dumping stocks on the Internet works. In just a few hours, the graffiti artists of the Internet have been able to sell their shares at a profit.

In the military, the units charged with gathering information and separating fact from fiction are called “Intelligence” units. Mr. Cassady, with whom I stayed in Normandy, has spent time in U.S. Army Intelligence. He had even been stationed at Fort Holabird, Maryland.

Separating fact from fiction is tough work. And it gets tougher — the more facts and fictions you have to work with. The Internet is ultimately just a means of communication — delivering an almost infinite number of facts and fictions. The tough part is still sorting them out.

Which, of course, is what I try to do every day….

Bill Bonner

Ouzilly, France April 4, 2000

P.S. I’m back at “home.” Well…down in the country at Ouzilly. It is rainy and miserable weather. My laptop computer and work papers were stolen. But it is early April…the cruelest month…promising better things to come.

*** Wall Street was rockin’ and rollin’ yesterday. The Dow rose 3%. And the Nasdaq fell 7%. The Nasdaq 100 fell about 8%.

*** About $350 billion said goodbye to the New Economy — moving back in with Mom and Dad in the Old Economy — where it felt safer and there was someone to pay the bills.

*** But there must have been a lot of margin calls going out yesterday afternoon. Nasdaq investors will either pony up…or get taken out. “Never meet a margin call,” is the wisdom on Wall Street. The logic behind it is simple. If you get a margin call, it is because you’re wrong about which way the market is going. Meeting a margin call is pouring bad money after good.

*** But this is a new market…with a lot of players in it who have never learned the wisdom of Wall Street. Will they meet the calls? Can they?

*** Most likely, today will open with selling on the Nasdaq as the accounts are liquidated. But then…will they buy the dips? Will the techs and Nets come roaring back?

*** We’ll see. But it’s a whole lot more fun watching this wild, nutty market from the sidelines.

*** The Internet average, the IIX, was down nearly 10% yesterday.

*** “Microsoft maintained its monopoly power by anti- competitive means,” wrote Judge Penfield Jackson. MSFT stock was down about 14% — or about $79 billion in capitalization.

*** The trend towards greater breadth on Wall Street continued yesterday. But weakly, given such a big increase in the Dow. There were 1,568 stocks advancing and 1,488 declining. There were 69 new highs and only 51 new lows.

*** I wondered why the yen was going up. Well, it’s because investors fear a new round of deflation. Joblessness and bankruptcy rates are hitting records in the Land of the Rising Sun. This despite zero interest rates and the largest public deficit in the developed world. This situation should worry those who think that the Fed can just loosen up to avoid a serious recession. The phenomenon is known as “pushing on a string” by economists. You can push…but nothing happens on the other end.

*** Meanwhile, in the United States, the National Association of Purchasing Agents is finding that prices are rising. Seventeen out of 20 industries reported rising prices. Overall, the purchasers said prices increased in March at the fastest rate in five years.

*** But oil is relaxing a little. Prices paid at gas pumps declined last week.

*** Gold went nowhere.

*** Hey, this is interesting. An English Internet service provider has been found responsible for a libelous message posted on one of its boards. A user said something nasty about a physicist, Laurence Godfrey, who sued and won. Uh-oh…More below…

*** “Are you English?” asked the waitress pleasantly, in one of Toncarville’s only two restaurants…and the only one willing to serve food after 2 p.m. Elizabeth explained that we were Americans and that we were here because our ancestors came from Toncarville. I had not expected a marching band to welcome us home, but still, the waitress’s blank look was a little less than I had hoped for. We were probably the first and only descendants of Raoul de Tancarville…vassal to William of Normandy, who left with William to conquer England in 1066…to ever revisit the miserable little burg.

*** Even more disappointing was the excursion to Raoul’s castle after lunch. For 1,000 years, we have dutifully carried the family name, anglicized to “Tankerville,” first in England and then to America. Yesterday we got our first look at the source of it. Perched high on a bluff overlooking the Seine, the castle has a stunning view — of a big suspension bridge, loading docks and what appear to be power plants. Things don’t look so good in the other direction, either. The whole place is a ruin, with bits of carved stone from the Middle Ages ready to fall on your head at any moment. It’s been turned into an antique shop — with a lot of trashy merchandise. What can I say? Sic transit gloria mundi.