Jan 302012

My training in almost everything is fairly limited.  I have a curious and distracted intelligence which works best when I am working with others like myself – that is to say, an intelligence which works quite infuriatingly when this is not a given.

I have never, however, managed to achieve a job status which might have corresponded even to this intelligence – nor, indeed, served to make it productive.  Neither in Spain nor in Britain have I ever, in my life, earned more than the average national wage.

Not even once.

Not even close.

What does this mean?  Have I been wrong all my life in the way I have taken my opportunities?  Do I simply not care enough about how most people prefer to measure success?  Is my intelligence simply useless?  Or is something else operating here which I am unable to fathom?


How can we decide when something is right?  How can I decide – in my life and in my society?

These are the questions I pose this evening.

In the past, religious morals and commandments of all sorts – heavily and widely folded into our cultures and ways of seeing – took these kinds of decisions on our behalf.  Successive belief systems replaced religious dogma with an unthinking politicisation of the decision-making processes – which, again, allowed us a relative freedom from having to choose.  And it’s at that point I believe we currently find ourselves unsurely: in a place where those who command us, despite the prevailing sociocultural currents, continue to use politics not to liberate us but, rather, to subjugate us profoundly – as profoundly as any religious stream of thought ever did.

Something, perhaps, we actually need a little more of.

Let me explain.

I’m not saying we need what subjugation brings.  Subjugation is wrong – quite anti-human.  But subjugation, like the small Mediterranean island with perhaps only one or two corner shops to compete for business and time, doesn’t half simplify the effort of getting out of bed in the morning and deciding what to do next.

It occurred to me this morning that what we needed far more than Apple’s virtual PA Siri is something which, instead of telling us what we want to know, tells us what we need to hear.  A virtual boss, if you like, is how I initially described it.  Something which fashions the limits we need.

Maybe what I really meant, though, was a virtual priest.

For Facebook and its ilk – with all their sociopathic instincts – are about as anti-Christ as you could get.  And I don’t mean this in the religious sense of the Devil and all His works.  After all, Christ had an underlying coherence to everything He said – there was structure and pattern: something we could almost mathematically appreciate.  The sociopathic economy, on the other hand, believes in everything and absolutely nothing.

I certainly don’t know whether even a small proportion of my life has borne witness to a man who knows how to take the right decisions.  But, whilst my life is relatively insignificant to a wider world, the question I ask – how we might know we are right – is not only of value but surely needs to be examined.

Too much of what happens is effected by people who are trading on their pasts as if this were all some guarantee of future efficiency.  Civilisation is becoming so very complex that there is no way even a reasonably educated soul can possibly work out whether the specialist he has before him is telling the truth or propagating porkies.  And yet the need to know, to be able to decide, to feel comfortable the decision is the right one … all of this is becoming evermore imperiously necessary to the extent that if we do not find a way that is not based on some kind of blind faith, we shall drown in our own awful uncertainties.

No.  It’s not that virtual PA which simply serves to offer us even more choices that we need.  It’s the whole bloody shooting-match of an entirely brand new belief system – a system which helps us to accurately limit our options to a realistic and sustainable level on what is clearly an evermore complex planet … that’s what we really miss in our civilisation – and what’s making life so very trying right now.

A virtual Christianity, then, anyone?  Jokes about tablet PCs coming down from Mount Apple notwithstanding, it might not be a bad idea.  Based on clever algorithms which we could trust implicitly, perhaps open sourced and thus easily examinable, serving to give us back our certainties after a century and a half of relativism – surely we could manage in a single generation to do away with so much of this 21st century existentialist pain.

Couldn’t we?

Jan 302012

This is part of Chris’s story (well worth a read in full):

[…] Bosses who argue that the complexity of banks means that management talent is scarce and must be highly rewarded are like the boy who murders his parents and asks for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan. They are confusing cause and effect.

Bank bosses have played a trick which countless ordinary workers do. The IT support guy who introduces lots of “security features” to his firm’s IT systems, or the secretary who has an incomprehensible filing system, make themselves indispensable by inconveniencing others.

And this is mine:

For my sins, I worked in a bank for seven years in a capacity that become more and more lowly as time went by. After a couple of years, I was paid less than the average national wage to check account opening documentation in order to flag up potential money-laundering issues. If such issues were detected, the job was then handed on to other more specialised staff to further process. My department and its team eventually lost the work to elsewhere in the bank as the processes were chopped up and simplified in order to be able to train new people up faster and more cheaply. For a couple of years we were given a series of evermore routine data entry tasks, before finally being allowed to leave.

Big companies are very good at dumbing down processes – it’s what they specialise in:

1) It protects them against the logistic disruption that is high staff turnover
2) It protects them against staff acting on resentment and contemplating taking business to other employers
3) It makes it easier to train up temps, substitutes and replacement workers of all kinds
4) It also possibly means that those who like to earn what they do can continue to do so *even when they are unable to fully control and understand a company’s complexities*.

And as these organisations so demonstrably make a practice of dumbing down at lower levels in the hierarchies, it does beg Chris’s question why they can’t – or won’t – do the same at the higher levels too.  It’s certainly not out of a lack of expertise or experience in the matter.

Or should we be looking to find the explanation to all of this in the plague that is managerialism?

Jan 302012

Whilst Stephen Hester, the man at the helm of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has just decided under enormous media pressure to forego his almost-million-pound bonus for last year, I received today the following RBS cheque for the magnificent sum of 89 pence.

Now the story behind this cheque is a little involved, so first I’ll get you all up to speed by referring you to a previous post of mine from 2008.  And whilst I’m on the subject, I’d like to underline, of course, that neither that story nor today’s follow-up implicates RBS itself in the financial difficulties the cheque both relates to and attempts to compensate for.  Nor, would I also hasten to add, does the company named on the cheque – Zavvi Retail Limited (in Creditors’ Voluntary Liquidation) – have anything to do with the website you can find at the address Zavvi.com, a company which I understand belongs to a completely separate owner.

Anyhow, if my calculations are correct, of the ten quid I was originally owed by the company in question (via a voucher deal it was running with our dear Richard Branson’s Virgin Mobile franchise) – and between the last payout and this – I will have received the grand sum of £2.39.  As you can see, a princely percentage indeed – and, we might also argue, a perfect example of how an unhappy capitalism often takes full advantage of its undeniable legal right to sidestep a moral liability for all it should pay back.

No wrongdoing here, either.  All according to the rules.

Just the faint feeling that the rules are skewed too much in favour of the already mighty – as well as, incidentally, despite everything, those who would still like to be.  Whilst, when push comes to shove, the long-suffering consumer can do no more than literally whistle in the wind.

Jan 302012

This idea started out as a request from Louis for a script which might lock down a computer until essential online and online-related activity had been carried out.  Thus it is I just tweeted:

Distracted lives mean we forever put off work. How about a #Siri which tells what we don’t want to hear (=boss) instead of what we do (=PA)?

And it’s true.  Working from home, working with all the social media tools to hand, working out of a computer … all these things are wonders to behold.  But the self-discipline required to ensure a judicious balance is maintained between doing the stuff we enjoy and the stuff we must is not all that easy to come by.  Even when bills beckon at the end of the month, as they always eventually have to.

So how would it be if we had a friendly neighbourhood app – that is to say, PC, phone or tablet-based – which, once it were given full access to all our most imperious deadlines, was able to generate a Monday-to-Friday narrative which simulated the structure that any team leader worth his or her salt has always been good at maintaining?

From that jokey comment in the early-morning huddle to that friendly and morale-lifting late-afternoon pat on the back, surely we could recreate all the triggers and buttons which often make working with other people just that little bit more productive.  Especially the ones which, in the nicest possible way, told us – exactly when we most needed it – to put our virtual noses to the virtual grindstones.

So what do ye think, ye developers out there?

Are you up to the challenge or not?

Jan 302012

I’ve just received this email from Avaaz.org – it’s well worth a read as it highlights how large corporations and wealthy interests continue to try and game the free markets and our wider economies in their favour:

Dear friends,

A new global treaty could allow corporations to police everything that we do on the Internet. Last week 3 million of us successfully pushed back the US censorship bills — if we act now, we can get the EU Parliament to bury this new threat to all of us: 

Last week, 3 million of us beat back America’s attack on our Internet! — but there is an even bigger threat out there, and our global movement for freedom online is perfectly poised to kill it for good.

ACTA — a global treaty — could allow corporations to censor the Internet. Negotiated in secret by a small number of rich countries and corporate powers, it would set up a shadowy new anti-counterfeiting body to allow private interests to police everything that we do online and impose massive penalties — even prison sentences — against people they say have harmed their business.

Europe is deciding right now whether to ratify ACTA — and without them, this global attack on Internet freedom will collapse. We know they have opposed ACTA before, but some members of Parliament are wavering — let’s give them the push they need to reject the treaty. Sign the petition — we’ll do a spectacular delivery in Brussels when we reach 500,000 signatures:


It’s outrageous — governments of four-fifths of the world’s people were excluded from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations and unelected bureaucrats have worked closely with corporate lobbyists to craft new rules and a dangerously powerful enforcement regime. ACTA would initially cover the US, EU and 9 other countries, then be rolled out across the world. But if we can get the EU to say no now, the treaty will lose momentum and could stall for good.

The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights, ACTA could also ban lifesaving generic drugs and threaten local farmers’ access to the seeds they need. And, amazingly, the ACTA committee will have carte blanche to change its own rules and sanctions with no democratic scrutiny.

Big corporate interests are pushing hard for this, but the EU Parliament stands in the way. Let’s send a loud call to Parliamentarians to face down the lobbies and stand firm for Internet freedom. Sign now and send to everyone you know:


Last week, we saw the strength of our collective power when millions of us joined forces to stop the US from passing an Internet censorship law that would have struck at the heart of the Internet. We also showed the world how powerful our voices can be. Let’s raise them again to tackle this new threat.

With hope and determination,

Dalia, Alice, Pascal, Emma, Ricken, Maria Paz and the rest of the Avaaz team

More information:

European Parliament member resigns in ACTA protest

If You Thought SOPA Was Bad, Just Wait Until You Meet ACTA

ACTA vs. SOPA: Five Reasons ACTA is Scarier Threat to Internet Freedom

What’s Wrong With ACTA

The secret treaty: Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and Its Impact on Access to Medicines

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Jan 302012

On Saturday I argued:

I do wonder if the crisis isn’t rather more profound, mind.  What if the deficit isn’t really financial?  I mean obviously there’s a shortage of political will to spend our way out of encroaching crisis, as perhaps we have preferred to do so on previous occasions – but, in reality, perhaps the problem is actually that we simply no longer have enough jobs to go around.  No mystery here – nor a particularly perceptive remark.  But, nevertheless, maybe – in the circumstances – worth revisiting.  As the past century progressed, automation struck in more and more professions: we now learn by ourselves; medicate ourselves; bank by ourselves; book our holidays by ourselves; even get to the point where we contemplate the possibility of legally representing ourselves.  And maybe – just maybe – all the aforementioned just goes to show that the balance generated by our economic structures between jobs and consumers is suddenly and irrevocably tipping in favour of the latter.

That is to say, our latterday Western economies – as they are set up and structured these days (and for some reason my unpractised eye is totally unable to fathom) – require far more of us to play the role of passive consumers than that of productive workers.

Meanwhile, this terrifying paragraph (from page 31 of this TUC-discussion .pdf) (the bold is mine) only serves to confirm my unhappy and inexpert intuition:

[…] The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast that labour’s share of the output of the economy will have fallen by four percentage points between 2009 and 2016. On present policies and trends, it is unlikely to recover this lost ground beyond that year. As in the past, it will be those in the lower half of the pay distribution that are most likely to be bearing this fall. The gains from recovery, when it comes, are likely to continue to be unevenly divided. This means a continuation of the trend of the last 30 years, with those on middle and low incomes likely to face a continued shrinking in their combined share of the nation’s annual output. Indeed, TUC analysis has shown that the amount paid to employees in wages in 2011 was £60bn less than would have been the case had wages continued to rise at the same rate as in 1978. Our growing wage gap is significant.

All I can see, then, and for various reasons, is that the way we have engineered our economies (whether consciously or otherwise) – both in relation to the forces that operate to drive them as well as in relation to the very human instincts that underlie multiple intra- and inter-company decision-making processes – has meant everything significant in such economic activity is fully taken care of except its ability to generate sustainably plentiful and quality jobs.  The free markets do work after all – we get millions of iPads for half the price a desktop cost five years ago; business waste is eliminated year on year by good businesses using total quality management strategies; and even faraway developing countries out there get to share in some of the progress this all supposedly implies.

But jobs, quality jobs, quality work-life balances, seem to be becoming evermore distant as realistic prospects on the horizon.  In the end, we as workers are nothing more than those suppliers at the very end and bottom of the food chain that is Western civilisation.  What else could we expect now than to be squeezed forever and always?

As well as blamed for losing our jobs – when the blame clearly lies with the system, its parameters and awfully limiting ground rules.

If only we had an ISO quality mark to define the ability of a company to generate those plentiful and quality jobs I mention above.  Something we could take into account when we signed a contract or made a purchasing commitment. 

An idea, don’t you think? 

An idea at the very least.

Whether a good idea … whether sufficiently groundbreaking … well, that’s a separate matter …

Perhaps not for me to say.

What I do know, however, is that our issue most definitely isn’t with the workshy but, rather, with an economic system which designs and makes new machines far more efficiently than it does new tasks, jobs and roles.  And in the light of such a reality, there really should exist no government out there honestly able to declaim the problem lies with workforces not wanting to work. 

For it’s simply not true.  And to say otherwise is to tell monumental porkies.