Aug 172011

So sayeth the measured authors of this report, a short overview of which I’ve just read on the Kindle version of the Guardian.  Let me quote from the Guardian overview – in particular, the following paragraph, which is the one that really catches my eye:

To construct our measure of unrest, we looked at five indicators: riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempted revolutions. In a typical year and country, there are about 1.5 incidents of this type. The more you cut, the more incidents you get. By the time austerity measures hit 3% or more, the number of incidents has doubled. Interestingly, for the UK, the pattern is even stronger: for every percentage point of cut-backs, instability surges by more than it does on average in the rest of the countries. Importantly, these effects are in addition to the well-known relationship between lower growth (associated with more unemployment) and higher instability.

And so, in the full knowledge that these things will happen, it clearly involves the kind of cold-hearted button-pressing you can easily imagine those in charge applying to us robots – as well as those sorry processes where risk is calculated in order to determine where spending cuts are best made (the bold is mine):

[…] The annualized loss expectancy is a calculation of the single loss expectancy multiplied by the annual rate of occurrence, or how much an organization could estimate to lose from an asset based on the risks, threats, and vulnerabilities. It then becomes possible from a financial perspective to justify expenditures to implement countermeasures to protect the asset.

Or not, as the case may be.  In other rather simpler and more straightforward words, if the cuts are going to mean more than 1,700 Londoners will be arrested for violent disorder, as well as allow for the introduction of draconian sentencing policies without the traditional resort to parliamentary approval, that then is a fair assessment of assumable consequence someone somewhere down the line must have decided at least fifteen months ago to make.

The question that comes to mind is: will they be able to get away with it?

Aug 172011

Here’s an interesting document – “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, signed in Davos in 1996 – which came my way this afternoon, on the back of a retweet of one of my posts from the nice anonymous souls at FreeTheInternet.  In my post I argue that whilst censorship is bad enough, self-censorship is worse:

And there is no worse censorship than the self-censorship generated through fear of state intervention – a censorship which refuses to take ownership and is often invisible to the outside world.

And I go on to conclude that:

Censorship of ideas is – above all – inefficient. It may also be immoral – but, above all, it leads to corruption and cover-ups. We don’t need any more of those – instead, we need openness and honesty alongside a shared desire to challenge everything.

Including the established order which – sometimes – terrible events manage to make seem so brittle.

Meanwhile, the declaration of independence which I take is essentially FreeTheInternet’s manifesto starts out by stating the following:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

It makes fascinating reading – describing as it does in its very purest form the essence of the wild west web which defines the Internet as a permanent frontier in flux.  In its declamatory style, it reminds me of other powerful political statements – yet in its philosophy I am minded to recall the ecological “twists and turns” of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Pioneers” (you can jump to an analysis of the book here).  For this is a declaration of dearly held values in that finest American tradition of self-help, independence and backwoods’ men and women.

I do wonder if temperamentally I am up to going as far as this declaration would have us go.  But, on the other hand, freedom of speech and free thought are indivisible ideas – in a sense we can easily argue they either stand in their entirety or they fall in their incomplete implementation.

And few governments, it has to be said, truly feel this in their ideological bones.  The only recent example I can think of is that of Norway in the aftermath of the brutal and politically motivated massacre of so many young and clearly politicised thinkers of the human condition.  That anyone in that small nation should wish to continue to support freedom of expression after such an awful event is a sign of their sincerest dedication to truth and intellectual coherence.

One final point.  One of the paragraphs in the declaration – remember it was signed in 1996 – states that:

In China, Germany, France, Russia, Singapore, Italy and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace. These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.

And I am fascinated to see that – then – those responsible for these words did not see fit to include the United Kingdom in their roll call of those who would interfere with freedom of expression.

This, incidentally, for those of you who might not remember, was the year before New Labour swept to power on the back of an enormous groundswell of public gratitude and hope – after years of enduring Thatcherite miseries.

And yet I wonder if now, fifteen years later, the authors of this declaration would so readily excuse the UK from that list of virtual offenders.

Aug 172011

It’s a thought, isn’t it?  After the sentences yesterday which sent two young men to prison for incitement to violent disorder via Facebook, even though the events themselves didn’t then actually take place, there have been many references to “predictive policing”, the dear democratic principle of “innocent until proven guilty” – and even the film “Minority Report”:

Minority Report is a 2002 American neo-noir[2] science fiction film directed by Steven Spielberg and loosely based on the short story “The Minority Report” by Philip K. Dick. It is set primarily in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia in the year 2054, where “PreCrime”, a specialized police department, apprehends criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “precogs”. […]

Even as I think some of these references have been unhelpfully imprecise, especially in the context of a painful breakdown of law and order as we have just witnessed, there is a sense that we may be at the point of beginning to fear that just to postulate a change in the status quo exposes us to the investigatory instincts of the state.

And if the freedom of speech which constitutions such as the US embody sometimes seem to swing to a sad and difficult kind of an extreme, the tendency which I begin to perceive may be weaving itself into our tapestry of English rights is potentially unfortunate at the opposite extreme.

Whether we see ourselves as radicals because of our progressive or because of our libertarian instincts, either way the right to criticise, question and debate an existing order needs to be as free from the shackles of censorship as is at all possible to fashion.

And there is no worse censorship than the self-censorship generated through fear of state intervention – a censorship which refuses to take ownership and is often invisible to the outside world.

The authorities who rule over us down in that Westminster bubble should think very carefully before they destroy a raft of freedoms and liberties – even where this is to happen through an understandable impulse to prevent future violence on the streets.  I would not like to think Mr Cameron & Co were to become responsible for turning us into the kind of democracy which we used – in other better days – to find ourselves able to criticise and shun.

Yes-people deference – in part – brought the Murdochs to where they stand today.

And a long and painful inculcation of comparable national self-censorship could serve to similarly damage our country in a parallel way tomorrow.

Censorship of ideas is – above all – inefficient.  It may also be immoral – but, above all, it leads to corruption and cover-ups.  We don’t need any more of those – instead, we need openness and honesty alongside a shared desire to challenge everything.

Including the established order which – sometimes – terrible events manage to make seem so brittle.

Aug 172011

As I commented in my previous post, two young men have each been sentenced to four years in jail for apparently inciting disorder via Facebook – even though no riots actually took place as a result of their ill-advised actions.  Coupled with the Coalition government’s suggestion that social networks and messaging systems such as Blackberry Messenger be shut down in times of similar crisis, this would seem to represent a frontal assault on a raft of freedoms and liberties.

And at the very least, on sensible and coherent sentencing policies.

But I wonder if this is really the case.

I wonder if – rather than a sorry assault as described – we should interpret these actions by the established order as a powerful acknowledgement and final recognition of the influence and importance of social networks and social media in 21st century society.

For a while now, as an example, encroaching copyright issues have been lapping away at the edges of the free and easy Internet – a free and easy place of consumer-producers which the last five or ten years have served to bring us.  These copyright issues have been interpreted by many as a step backwards – and I have to say, right now, I am unclear whether I would agree or not with this assessment.  But what I do suspect is undeniable, with such processes and evidence to hand, is that the more the offline world pays attention to this virtual environment some of us still treasure, the more this virtual environment has to begun to count in the eyes of the powerful.  If we accept my thesis, then, what the future thus bodes for all of us involved with online endeavour is not so much a process of creeping oppression by repressive forces located in an offline society but – instead – a growing power and ability to impact on and affect what happens in that other place I mention, a place which to date has foolishly underestimated the importance of the virtual communication revolution.

Thus it is that with that growing power I describe – inevitably – comes greater responsibility.

So does this increasingly close analysis of what we do and say online – by an evermore observant and apparently intrusive state – represent a rite of passage which no one could hope to forever postpone?

I think it does.

And I think the pain and pangs we are witnessing at the moment are the pains and pangs which accompany a true coming-of-age – the like of which, in a connected and digital age, the planet is only beginning to properly perceive.

Which is why in a strange way – medium-term, at least, you know – I’m more hopeful after yesterday’s two Facebook jail sentences than I have been for a long time.