Aug 062011

A lovely idea which has come my way via Emily Bell’s Twitter feed today – institutional vigilantes, if you like; or, alternatively, “watchdog by wiki”:

Imagine, then, a how-to guide setting forth the basic steps that any interested watchdog should take to scrutinize a municipality, a school district, or a redevelopment agency. It could be posted on a website that included pages for every government entity in a state. Did someone just upload the campaign-finance disclosure forms for every member of the Santa Barbara City Council? Check that box. Is there a city in South Los Angeles where public officials’ salaries have gone uninvestigated for three years? Send a roving volunteer there. Whenever nonprofit investigators or auditors uncovered corruption, eager journalists would still be just a phone call away. Call it watchdog by wiki.

On the back of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and the part the Guardian newspaper played in pursuing it, I’d more or less committed an about-face with respect to the relationship between mainstream and social media, arguing that social media could never be more than a powerful echo chamber of properly funded journalism.  But the piece linked to above – in relation to examples from the US and well worth reading in its entirety – seems to provide us with other examples which show that the situation is not so clear-cut.  In the cases described, it was bloggers who pointed to the corruption taking place, whilst mainstream media took its corporate time (years on occasions) to pick up on the stories in question and deliver the appropriate coup de grace.  This may in part be that in the US individual freedom of speech is much more sacredly understood.  British libel laws, meanwhile, are so fierce that bloggers in the UK have to be brave souls indeed to go beyond what a well-funded newspaper with a roomful of lawyers is prepared to do on its lonesome.

If watchdog by wiki of British institutions and corporations is to work at all in the future, we are going to need some far-reaching changes to our legislation and institutional and corporate cultures.  My own experience of the latter would seem to indicate that the immediate and current instinct when presented with misdemeanour and wrongdoing is to bury institutional heads in institutional sands.  Whistleblowing, whilst clearly within the remit of HR policies worldwide, isn’t the first impulse of those who run pyramidal organisations.

Watchdog by wiki is an excellent idea – for democratic oversight of both government and private industry alike.  But transplanting it from a country with freedom of speech in its constitutional DNA to a country ruled by precedent, old-boy networks, media barons and corrupt makers and shakers is not going to be an easy task.

On the other hand, whoever said true democracy would be easy?

Aug 062011

Gaseosa is a mystery to me.  It (or at least the one we drink) contains the following ingredients:

  • agua carbonatada
  • acidulante (acido citrico)
  • edulcorante (ciclamato sodico, sacarina y aspartame)
  • aroma
  • contiene una fuente de fenilalanina
(Apologies to the lovers of Spanish amongst you.  I only have a UK keyboard with me at the moment, so accents and suchlike are mostly beyond me …)
This list of ingredients, as you probably appreciate, is enough to put off anyone from imbibing the beverage in question.  And yet, here in Spain, gaseosa is as traditional as bull-fighting.  So I would never do without the former (even as sixty percent of the Spanish begin to express a dislike of the latter).
What does it taste like then?  Well, with the ingredients to hand, you’d think it was little more than a jumped-up lemonade.  But they also sell lemonade here – and it doesn’t taste like gaseosa.  There is little more I can suggest to give you an idea than say: “When you come out here, try it – and then you’ll see what I mean.”
In a sense, gaseosa is Spain writ large.  It shouldn’t work, it often doesn’t – but when it does, it’s gloriously, and quite inexplicably, brilliant.  The Spanish claim not to be interested in planning ahead, but I think the truth of the matter is that they prefer to procrastinate intelligently.
And the reason procrastination is such a treasured activity and habit is precisely because of the wonders of ordinary life which gaseosa so clearly represents.
It shouldn’t work but it does.  A mark of true civilisation.