Sep 172011

This is how it used to be.  As recently as 2007, in fact – at least according to the Guardian newspaper:

The post-war Labour government established the four pillars of our welfare state: the NHS, free education, social security and public housing. Sixty years on, these institutions are rightly cherished and any major attempt to reform them can expect to provoke much public and media controversy.

The same government established the legal aid scheme (sometimes described as the fifth pillar of the welfare state) having recognised that equality of access to justice and the right to representation before the law were as fundamental to the creation of a just society as free healthcare and education. The scheme ensured that everyone who needed a lawyer should have one, regardless of ability to pay.

Now the Tory-led Coalition is in the process of dismantling the Welfare State – and, whilst as with the lead-up to Iraq almost a decade ago, there have been many murmurings, puzzlements, ideological disagreements and political accusations, the real reason would appear to be becoming evermore clearer.

Iraq, in the end, wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction.  It was, so clearly, a combination of assuring necessary supplies of oil to Western consumers whilst at the same time guaranteeing – in a wider sense – that mainly American economic interests could take financial advantage of the situation.

All that stuff about the end of history, the clash of civilisations and that neo-conservative century of newly politicised democratic endeavour was, in the end, I am sadly afraid, just a pile of incomprehensible burblings.

Remember this, at least for the rest of the post: it was all about – and nothing more than a question of – making pots of money.

And so we have, from the Telegraph as long ago as last year, an unhappy thesis in relation to the person now most responsible for engineering the dismantling of the first pillar of the Welfare State – that is to say, the NHS:

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, is being bankrolled by the head of one of the biggest private health providers to the NHS, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Meanwhile, yesterday I posted on a story which came yet again from the Guardian.  In this case, the article seemed to indicate in a fairly convincing manner that the person most responsible for dismantling the fifth pillar of the Welfare State as mentioned above – the Legal Aid system – will be in a position to benefit personally from some of the changes he is looking to push through.

As I said at the top of today’s post: this is all you need to know about the dismantling of the Welfare State – in one easy lesson.

A transfer of masses and masses of pots of money.

To those who already have plenty …

Sep 172011

I have only just stumbled across Paul Clarke’s brilliant blog. Over the next few weeks, I’m aiming to rectify that omission.  It’s like when, as a kid, you came across a new writer in your local library with a whole shelf of offerings – and whose first book you then read and ended up loving to bits.  Do you remember how that was?  Well, I certainly do.

Paul has a beautifully fashioned thesis on what we might term Twitter’s automated unfollow “feature”.  In his own words:

You find out one day that you’re not following someone you know you used to follow. And you’re dead sure you didn’t do it yourself. Either you or they have spotted the omission on a list, or they’ve tried to send a DM and failed. They might let you know about it. They might not. The relationship gets reinstated. Or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So is this cock-up or conspiracy? A bug in the system that lets people slip through the cracks like this?

I don’t think it’s a bug at all, but a feature. A piece of very clever social design. Here’s why.

And thus it is that he goes on to explain.  And if you want to find out, then I urge you to read the piece in full.

Now I don’t know Paul – in fact, we’ve only just befriended each other via Twitter itself.  But it seems to me that the explanation he gives for exactly why Twitter has this allegedly intentional and “buggy” implementation indicates the presence of a far kindlier soul than you might – for instance – find in myself.  My immediate thought – and it’s located in a nexus of thoughts which in different ways I’ve had before in relation to Facebook’s own “deficiencies” – is that “buggy” implementations of both social media software as well as search engine algorithms allow for a perfect excuse to break down growing nodes of interaction you might prefer to impede – a kind of virtual censorship, in fact, with no ownership required.  No one need know if three or four users, or a dozen or a hundred, who together might do big, useful but traditionally deconstructing things together, never actually get to know of each other’s presence.  Or if they do, never get to consummate their relationship because the software breaks the relationship down – and the disconnection is interpreted on both sides to be mutually deliberate.

Paul’s thesis is certainly seductive – and even convincing; and I suppose the fact that, in start-ups, we still have an environment hidden away from the prying eyes of state-run security organisations would suggest that software engineers in such a context still might have the liberty to play the kind of games he describes.  What’s more, the reality of such engineering might mean his idea, whilst seductive, is actually unnecessary to explain the circumstance under discussion.  As a commenter to his piece pointed out:

As interesting as this is as a theory. The developer in me just can’t buy the idea that Twitter are doing this deliberately. I’ve followed the Twitter API for as long as it’s been around – they’ve got their hands full just keeping it stable and adding important features without introducing something as discreetly clever as this

Meanwhile, even as I continue to love his idea, I’m still inclined to run with my alternative explanation: the ease with which my thesis could be implemented, the reliance people have on the first ten searches which appear on Google and the self-evident probability that these large American companies will do constructive things for large American governments are all things which make me believe my interpretation, whilst clearly compatible with his, in the long run will tend to take over in any network of communication on the scale we are talking about – and eventually become the dominant structure behind what is allowed to happen amongst its users.

Unless, of course, that network were to be technically visible and transparent – that is to say, open-sourced – to anyone who cared to look.

But then that is a matter for a quite separate post.

Sep 172011

The Guardian has a post on its Money blog today, with shocking implications:

I was almost arrested in Tesco this week. My crime? Comparing prices. Evidently, this is such a security issue for Tesco that it wants you booted out of the store. The deputy manager rushed up to me within minutes of my arriving at one of its London supermarkets. The security cameras had spotted me with a pen and paper in hand, noting the prices of goods on the shelves. “Excuse me, what are you doing?” he said. I told him I was, well, writing down prices.

“You’re not allowed to do that. It’s illegal. Where are you from? Are you from the media?” I don’t feel Tesco has any right to demand my employment status, so I just said: “I’m a private individual, I’m buying some stuff here, and I’m comparing prices.”

It obviously didn’t satisfy him. “It’s illegal to write things down and you can’t take any photographs, either. If you want to check the prices, take the item to the till and pay for it there. The price will be on the receipt,” he said, pointing me to the exit.

We should hardly be surprised, though.  I’ve written on this subject before – most recently here:

[…] We used to live and purchase in municipal spaces where each person as a subject of the land had every right to be – and where, indeed, the overriding discourse was democracy above all. Nowadays, massive shopping-malls and “experiences” of all kinds have created “private spaces of public use”, where private security guards can throw undesirables out – and people only have the right to park their cars for two or three hours at a stretch whilst the supermarket in question proceeds to empty their pockets.

Forget, if you will, any attempt or intention on the citizen’s part to walk idly and uncommercially down a shaded grove of freely available trees, after passing through the purgatory that is the weekly shop.

And what’s happening at Tesco – when it says “Writing down prices is illegal” – is a logical extension of everything that’s come before.  Having supplanted and substituted the publicly owned spaces with the private of public use, they now proceed with their corporate hubris to invent their own laws and impose them on us.  Just imagine, for example, how we might react if Amazon tried to prevent us using search engines to compare and contrast their online prices (though I suppose, in a sense, by buying up sponsored real estate on such search pages, the tendency is also exhibiting itself here).

In the real world, this is what Tesco is attempting.  Soon, if it’s not already doing so, it will even try and confuse us to the point where we don’t care too much to worry about what’s going on.  In the meantime, check out the strategies IKEA already uses – and ask yourself if this isn’t happening in other supermarkets out there.


As a footnote to this piece, and on the wider subject of the relationship between supermarkets, customers and suppliers, I’m beginning to wonder if we don’t need a campaign to generate a Charter of Good Behaviour for our shopping-malls and their occupants.  The tools bricks-and-mortar shops use to batter down their costs in detriment to their suppliers and up their profits in relation to their customers are getting to the point where something like CCTV is being used just as much to rehearse and test sales techniques and their impact as it is to protect our safety and their security.

The first thing on this Charter then?  That we be allowed to act on these private spaces of public use just as we might in our municipal high streets of yore.  That is to say, that the law of the land should operate everywhere – above and beyond the desires of these corporations.