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When a national cult-watcher has to beg San Francisco's mayor to stop luring young people into a dangerous mind-control sect, we have a problem.
"He's using his imprimatur of San Francisco, the mayor of San Francisco, to lend credibility to this cult. This means people may join Dahnhak when they otherwise wouldn't have," said Rick Ross, director of the Arizona based anti-cult group the Rick A. Ross Institute. "Mayor Newsom has admitted his personal peccadilloes in the past. But actually this is much more serious."
Dahnhak is a yoga and holistic health organization that promotes a technique called "brain respiration." Newsom recently honored the group's Korean leader with a proclamation declaring Sept. 7 "Ilchi Lee Day."
SF Weekly inquired about this bizarre apparent gaffe and scolded the mayor on the newspaper's blog. But I haven't heard back from the Newsom staffer in charge of proclamations, and there's no indication Newsom plans on correcting the error.
This hope-the-problem-just-goes-away attitude angers Ross, who spoke with us when we published the Web site item on the award. Ross says Newsom's error may become a dangerous act of will if the mayor refuses to rescind Lee's honor. San Francisco shouldn't be in the business of propping up dangerous mind-control cults, Ross says.
Lee is the Korean leader of Dahnhak, an organization that sells workshops through a chain that includes five Bay Area locations. Ross cites news stories and lawsuits from around the country that say Lee's organization lures victims into spending their savings on pricey classes and retreats a la Scientology, while sometimes shutting victims off from their families.
Last year SF Weekly's sister paper, the Village Voice, published a 3,600-word story describing how the family of one Lee follower filed a lawsuit complaining that their loved one was drugged prior to a grueling desert hike, then died after group members deprived her of medical care. Lee's representatives denied the allegations in the suit, which is in federal court. In keeping with a theme repeated in newspaper and television stories around the country, the Voice article cited various former Dahnhak members and cult experts saying Lee's group practices the sort of mind control and isolation typical of cultish groups. A group spokesman denied those allegations.
"People have suffered under Ilchi Lee," Ross said. "He's facing a wrongful death suit because a young woman died. She had her whole life ahead of her. I just don't see anything in Ilchi Lee's history that is worth declaring a day in his honor. I don't see anything in Newsom's recent history that suggest he'd suffer political damage from admitting he'd made a serious mistake."
With cult crises thus implanted in my brain, I made my way last Thursday night to the Room of the Dons in the Mark Hopkins Hotel to dine with followers of Mark Anderson, a Seattle-based technology futurist of the sort that once was as common as flies during the late-1990s tech boom. Fittingly, the room was packed with employees and leaders of companies one might define as cults of personality and dogma — Google and Microsoft, in other words.
Just as America and the U.S.S.R once stalked each other in a sectarian battle between allegedly good and bad ideology, All-Being-All-Knowing Microsoft now informs us we're under threat from a neo-Stalinist-Leninist cult bent on world domination.
"You've got to remember that Google is run by Russians, and that affects the viewpoints and values of the company," said Ty Carlson, director of technical strategy for Microsoft (and my dining partner for the evening) in reference to Sergey Brin's status as a Russian immigrant. "They've made conscious references to Google co-founder Sergey Brin's status as a Russian immigrant."
Carlson was referring to Google's recent troubles, in which U.S. and European regulators, privacy groups, and Microsoft, are questioning a $3.1 billion Google acquisition of DoubleClick, an online advertising company.
For Microsoft, the deal represents a possible tipping point from the Redmond, Wash., giant's old creepy business model of selling us products by crushing and/or co-opting every competitor in its path, thus stifling technology and eliminating competition. Carlson, tellingly, during two hours of dinner conversation never used the word "competitors," as if such a thing didn't exist for his employer. Instead, he referred to "partners" and "soon-to-be partners."
The new, perhaps-even-creepier model for world industrial domination is one where Google will amass a vast and detailed up-to-the-moment chronicle of customers' innermost thoughts. Producers won't need to profit by force-feeding narrowed product choices onto customers via industrial might a la Microsoft. That's because sellers will know consumers psychology so intimately that they will be able to efficiently trick them into buying the worthless junk.
In cold war terms, Microsoft is 1970s Soviet bread lines. Google is the KGB propaganda and spying machine.
Hysterics have been predicting a terrifying age of Internet-based corporate prying for a decade. Google-DoubleClick just might turn them into modern versions of Nostradamus.
The U.S. government has made clear its wishes to monitor telephone calls without search warrants in an ongoing Texas privacy lawsuit involving AT&T. Don't think for a minute that the government wouldn't like to peruse Google's e-mail files under the rationale of homeland security.
Google pries beyond its corporate homeland. The company misleadingly invites users into an invasive tracking program called "Web History" that allows the company to follow consumers' non-Google-related Web browsing.
Acquiring DoubleClick would give Google access to even more personal information, which could be cross-referenced into a personal-profiling system rivaling the 1980s KGB, privacy advocates fear. Microsoft, fearing a brave, new, Microsoft-moot age, has emphasized these privacy fears.
"Google seeks to record nearly everything you see and do on the Internet and use it to serve ads," Wired.com's ace privacy journalist Ryan Singel (with whom I attended the dinner) quoted Microsoft attorney Brad King as saying. "This country doesn't let the phone company listen to our phone calls and then serve ads."
Based upon the takes-one-to-know-one theory of evaluating critics of corporate wrongdoing, I think it's worth contemplating Microsoft's claim, self-interested as it may be.
Seven years ago, privacy was also on the lips of the technology obsessed, who predicted Orwellian horrors that never came to pass. At that time business, planners imagined cellular telephones fitted with GPS units, bank information, Web browsers, and various keys. They would be used to open car doors and houses, and to pay at tollbooths and vending machines. And they would do much of their business over the World Wide Web. Artificial intelligence was becoming so tiny and cheap, it was predicted, that most of the physical environment would, in one way or another, be engaged in digital contemplation. Tiny brains everywhere would whisper into all-knowing cellular telephones. Phones would whisper back. And the conversation would be sucked into consumer profiles so sharp that marketers would see into our souls.
Much of this failed to materialize; cell phone companies whose business plans included pestering customers every time they drove by a pizzeria or dry-cleaner went bust. People continued using metal, nondigital key rings.
But it turned out that the commercial souljackers didn't need to follow people outdoors. We've come to them by conducting incrementally greater portions of our lives on the Internet.
Google has demonstrated in myriad ways that it is not interested in the concept of personal privacy. The company tracks what its users do across all of its services and draws users into a program that records their travels throughout the Web, not to mention the mining of letters sent to and from Gmail. DoubleClick is the new Johnny Appleseed of Internet "cookies," providing advertising to thousands of Web sites, planting these little personal monitoring devices as it goes, thus creating ever more detailed personal profiles, which could create crystal-ball omniscience when combined with Google's personal data trove.
Google is a young company that hasn't yet learned social values, is how Carlson, the Microsoft technical strategy director, explained the company's John Poindexteresque penchant for personal profiling. I'm no Microsoft fan; the company may own as much personal information as Google does. But it hasn't yet begun to mine it and sort it and analyze it in ways quite as creepy as Google.
Google's informal corporate slogan, "Don't Be Evil," is widely interpreted to mean "Don't Be Microsoft," Wired's Singel reminded me.
Perhaps the company's new slogan should be, "New Boss, Same as the Old Boss."