“A FLY ON THE WALL OF THE PRODUCTIVITY COMMISSION’S BOARDROOM” (SHORT STORY)

“A Fly on the Wall of the Productivity Commission’s Boardroom” is an amusing, thought-provoking take on Franz Kafka’s masterwork.

A quick-witted satire where a writer awakens from a troubled sleep to find himself transformed into a fly in the boardroom of the Australian Productivity Commission.

Just as the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner plot the demise of author’s and artist’s copyright. 

Consider it an allegory of cultural disintegration.

Rated PG / 2,000 words / 8 minutes of judicious reading pleasure

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‘The drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery.’ George Orwell

STEFANO BOSCUTTI

A FLY ON THE WALL OF THE PRODUCTIVITY COMMISSION’S BOARDROOM

Copyright 2017 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

When I wake up one morning from unsettling dreams, I find myself changed into a fly.

Perched high on the feature wall of the Productivity Commission’s boardroom. Looking down through a thousand eyes at Chairman Joanna Treweth and Deputy Chair Liam Plowman hunched over the long, oval table.

I can feel the texture of the dark, dull Wenge veneer underneath the tips of my pitifully thin legs. I twitch, and flutter. And I can hear their voices rising.

‘I’ve never liked authors, you know. Never liked them at all.’

It’s Treweth. There’s no bitterness in her voice, no rancour. Nothing but mild bewilderment.  

‘I find them preposterous. What is that they do all day? What is their comparative advantage?’

Plowman nods softly in agreement. They had both earned their degrees in economics at the same second-tier university, completing within a year of each other. Plowman had considered undertaking a doctorate to further his career, but statistically it made little sense. Obtaining a doctorate involved further debt and little benefit for advancement. 

Both Treweth and Plowman had only ever worked in the public service at various state departments and government agencies. Their careers oddly mirrored each other for decades, and while Plowman was considered more ambitious, Treweth had risen higher after a brief period in the Prime Minister’s Office and secondment to Treasury.

Last year Treweth was made an Officer of the Order of Australia ‘for distinguished service to public administration through leadership and policy reform roles in the areas of infrastructure and transport.’ She had taken to adding the letters AO after her name wherever possible, even for restaurant bookings made by one of her assistants.

Treweth has never been to an art gallery and has no time for reading fiction. Her time is too precious. She doesn’t like art because it makes no sense. Even allowing for scarcity, why would anyone pay millions of dollars for a painting with a material cost of a few hundred dollars, adjusted for inflation? In her mind it was an unproductive use of capital.

‘Author’s are even worse. It’s not my opinion, it’s Plato.’

Plowman has heard the argument before.

‘It’s Plato who said authors are imitators. They add nothing to reality. They cast us in a negative light, never positive. They should be praising us, but instead they imitate and mock us with emotions. They undermine logic and reason, they weaken the very things that can make us happy.’

Treweth gets up and steps to the open doorway.

I glance across the boardroom. There are no windows, flat overhead fluorescents pulse with an odd squeamish light. A glimmer of sunlight from the open office creeps through the doorway. My wings tremble as I move off the wall and hover towards the doorway.

A gust of wind tumbles me back as Treweth closes the tall grey door. I land on the arm of one of the chairs pushed against the long table. Treweth speaks without turning around.

‘The Treasurer is not happy with the last report on reforming IP arrangements.’

“Reforming Australia’s Intellectual Property Arrangements” had been the responsibility of Plowman.

‘Not happy?’

Treweth dials down the thermostat on the wall. Since her heart attack a year ago, she’s found herself increasingly sensitive to changes in temperature. Her cardiologist puts it down to the pacemaker implanted in her chest.

I hear the air conditioning gasp to life. A chill spreads through the air. 

‘Disappointed, actually.’

‘How exactly?’

Treweth turns and moves back to the table.

‘Competition policy.’

Plowman isn’t surprised. Neo-liberal, neo-classical economic theory had been all the vogue for decades. Plowman had once won a debate proclaiming rape as the epitome of economic thought, of rational self-interest. Getting a young girl or young man drunk at a party and then raping them in private provided no unintended effects or consequences because consent could be implied and evidence to the contrary muted by complicity.

Treweth sits down.

‘We’ll need a new study, and a new report.’

Plowman has overseen dozens of studies and reports. Since the breakdown of his marriage, he had dedicated his life to his work at the Productivity Commission. He had become a model commissioner, objective and diffident. His germaphobia had been sated by new medication. Of course he couldn’t touch anyone, but his compulsion to wash his hands over and over with antibacterial soap had been quelled. It amused him that no one in the refurbished head office in Melbourne ever noticed that he never touched a door handle, never opened or closed a door.  

Neither Treweth or Plowman or any of the other Commissioners ever doubted the Productivity Commission’s stance on market competition and profit over people. This is despite decades of evidence that market-oriented reforms of services are at best problematic, and at worst disastrous.

Dishonest vocational education businesses, unreliable private health insurance, inhuman private prisons, failing infrastructure, energy blackouts, misery. What does the Productivity Commission do when the evidence goes against its policy beliefs? Like all partisan policy advocates it turns a blind eye to the evidence, blames the victim and doubles down on beliefs.

Even when those beliefs are arbitrary fictions. Economics is only useful as a form of employment for economists, who claim scientific legitimacy despite the fact they know next to nothing about anything. They know even less about art.

Treweth and Plowman have convinced themselves that the Productivity Commission’s obvious biases are somehow resolutely independent. The Commission operates within the Treasury portfolio and its core function involves responding to references from the Treasurer, who can request a commissioned study or a public inquiry. They do the bidding of the Treasurer under the mistaken belief they are self-determining.

Plowman steeples his fingers.

‘Can we broaden the references to include every author, every artist? Every form of cultural externalities?’

‘Anyone who’s ever written anything?’

‘Yes, so we can muddy the water. Obfuscate the whole copyright issue by including every Australian.’

‘Drown out the dissenting voices?’

‘Yes, once and for all.’

Treweth thinks for a moment.

‘We’ll also need a new strategy, a new title. Rather than reforming Australia’s intellectual property arrangements, we should give consideration to a more palatable approach.’

‘Transforming Australia’s intellectual property arrangements?’

Treweth smiles.

It always amused her that changing a single word could change meaning and understanding, change expectations.

‘Perhaps a stronger focus on distribution over creation?’

For the past decade, three monopoly firms - Facebook, Amazon, and Google - have hijacked culture and now determine the future of music, film, television, publishing and news. These firms promoted the piracy of books, music, and film while hiding behind opaque business practices. $50 billion annually moves from those who create the content to the owners of these monopoly platforms, these omnipresent digital photocopying machines.

Treweth begins to perspire.

Computational algorithms designed to drag our attention from the truth. Interfaces based on studies by B.F Skinner in the 1960s that revealed a fundamental quirk of attention. When laboratory mice hit a lever and are given the same reward, they soon hit the lever far less vigorously than the mice given variable rewards. Such variability is critical in building compulsivity and addictivity into slot machines and new media platforms. Tension and release.

And it all requires new content, new stories, new films, new music, new possibilities to trigger and deepen attention. Without a constant source of new content, the entire economic model collapses.

Facebook owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic, Amazon has a 75 percent share of the e-book market, while Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising. Their combined market capitalisation dwarves Australia’s GDP. Yet they still want more.

Stateless conglomerates that have convinced nations to turn on their own people.

I shudder off the chair and spiral down to slate grey carpet titles. I flicker and lift my head to peer up.

Capitalism at any price. Economic rationalism has produced a system where capital now generates greater returns than production. The myth of productivity increases has been underwritten by stagnant wage growth, by the theft of income from middle and lower classes. Capital has become omnipotent, answerable only to itself.

Facebook, Amazon and Google maximise capital by securing unassailable monopoly positions with the singular purpose of harvesting and reselling attention to the highest bidder. An information slave trade with no rights for anyone except themselves.

I clamber over the carpet towards the Wenge sideboard.

Self-driving cars? Internet access for the poor? Showrooms as civic centres? Mere distractions, misdirections to divert governments as their monopolies gain a stronger and stronger stranglehold. Sideshows while they engineer protected markets, legal havens, industrial subsidies, and tax giveaways.

Treweth coughs.

‘We have to establish zero marginal costs of all content, of all copyright material.’

Treweth fears that without consistent economic growth at any price, economic calamity will ensue. Capital must be protected at all cost.

New growth requires new ideas, new content. All our material from the past has already been digitised for access through monopoly platforms. There’s nothing left to copy. That’s why they need copyrights diminished. So they can use the work of authors and artists without payment, so they can loot culture at will and sell it back.

I zigzag up the edge of the fine-veined Wenge sideboard, hobble over the dark surface and onto the black phone handset.

Ironically if the Productivity Commission was true to its name, it would strengthen and lengthen copyright for authors because that would ensure greater reward. Every economist knows that greater reward leads to greater productivity.

Plowman notices Treweth is sweating, tense. She is having trouble breathing, pain shoots through her spine and into her chest. She buckles over, trying to speak, gasping for air.

Plowman tilts his head, looking into Treweth’s widening eyes.

When ambient temperature drops, blood viscosity increases, blood pressure changes, and the heart has to work harder, increasing the risk of clots and heart attack.

Treweth’s mouth is agape as she tumbles forward from the chair and crashes onto the floor, dead.

I hear the air conditioning hum.

Plowman considers his future for a moment. As Deputy Commissioner, he will immediately become Acting Commissioner. After a search of high calibre candidates, the Treasurer will be pleased to announce the appointment of Plowman as the new Commissioner. The press release will talk of Plowman’s strong collaborative style and a great ability to think strategically, develop policy, and engage with business and government on a range of issues. 

Plowman feels like a new man. He stands and steps over Treweth’s crumpled body and heads for the door.

I shiver, fluttering my wings behind me.

He pauses for a moment, then reaches out to the brushed aluminum handle, slowly pushes it down, opens the door and steps into his destiny.

I fly out towards the sunlight.


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Copyright 2017 Stefano Boscutti

All Rights Reserved


No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing.

Stefano Boscutti acknowledges the trademark owners of various products referenced in this work. The publication or use of these trademarks is not authorised or sponsored by the trademark owner.

This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of various Australian bureaucrats, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s transmutable imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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