mil

I'm a Labour Party member, love the Internet, have worked as a volunteer on OpenOffice.org, am a trained editor, speak Spanish fluently and wish I could speak Croatian. I also find myself thinking, reading, writing, publishing and teaching for a living - and this blog serves to tie together these activities as I try and make sense of the world. I do hope you like some of what you read here - and may even consider leaving a comment or two!

Mar 142014
 
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For just over seven years, I wrote this blog quite blindly.  I was reactive, puzzled, thrashing about where many (most) had already thrashed.  I sometimes wondered if it was infirmity which drove me on.  But in just over seven years, I was incapable of ever writing down – in a minute or two – the common denominators that drove me in so many of my posts.

Today, on the occasion of Tony Benn’s sad death, Brian Moylan sent my way this video.  In less than two minutes, it encapsulates everything (I now realise) that made me write for seven quite helter-skelter years.  Watch it – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.


http://youtu.be/Xfk0rfbDnXo

No.  I’m not unmothballing this blog quite yet.  I’m writing over at http://error451.me/blog and blinkingti.me quite happily right now – the former with relative interest from my readers, the latter with very little interest for anyone except me.

:-)

But hey-ho, that’s the life on the open seas.

And with that celebration of a life sincerely lived, I burrow my way back into the anonymity from which I have temporarily emerged.

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Nov 032013
 
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I’m not absolutely sure if this will be my final blogpost here.  It should be, of course – I promised you as much.

But promises – especially when one finds oneself in a state of unrequited love – are clearly made to be broken.

A retrospective of sorts, then; an overview of what this blog has done for me.  I started it on November 3rd 2006, over at Google’s Blogger servers (was it already Google’s when I started?).  I was a massive fan of Blogger as an easy tool for simple writers.  Looking through those early posts, I clearly took my inspiration from the original meaning of the word: logging the Net.  Short posts, maybe a brief commentary if that, which aimed to create a tapestry of meaning from successive forays onto the web.

At the same time, or maybe a couple of years later, I began to blog in a parallel fashion for a project I believed in incredibly at the time: Labour’s Members Net (more here).  I wrote under the heading of the Cogwriter – a typewriter of engineered ideas, and means of production, I think was where I was kind of coming from.  This blog may still exist for all I know, behind the virtual four walls of the Labour Party’s IT infrastructure.  It looked to encourage partisan participation and community, even as it ultimately failed through its own unavoidable intellectual contradictions.  Meanwhile, via the support (not always appreciated by others or – indeed – myself!) of Dave Semple, who progressed from digging in his heels (as only he knows how) to then publicly spreading his wings as the founding thinker behind the far more public – and ultimately combative – Though Cowards Flinch, I was encouraged myself to spend more time on the open web in the finally firmly accepted understanding that we had to shape the battle in full view of the public we wanted to vote for us.

I assume Dave now sees Labour as a lost cause of some considerable tradition.  Myself, if I am to stop doing what – over the years – I have been doing here, it is primarily because I need a new frame where sitting on the fence isn’t my modus operandi.  And if anyone has impressed on me the importance of taking such a step, it will have been Dave in all his irascibility who has ultimately won the arguments.

The Galludor, too, was a big influence on how my thought developed, both within Members Net and, later, on the open web via his gentle, perceptive and often striking Equals.  A gentleman in everything one might care to be, in fact – including his careful expositions of complex subjects which, nevertheless, never intended to browbeat.

All the time my posts got longer and longer.  I remember Paul Evans once advising me, in the kindliest way possible, that my stuff wasn’t really suited to the web: not to the web of one scroll and TLTR dynamics, anyhow.  I took it as the compliment I’m pretty sure he intended.  In the end, I’ve always been a wannabe Renaissance man of instincts which date from centuries ago, in desperate – and finally unredeemed – pursuit of a Renaissance mind which might have served to provide such redemption.

Never mind.  My memory of what I have written is shockingly poor.  I only remember some posts – and even then, not enough to properly search them.  How I fell in love with the Kindle and the Guardian‘s version for it, only to fall as quickly out of love.  How I loved so very much Amazon’s beautifully constructing corporate machine, only to find myself disgusted with its tax shenanigans to the point where, for a while, I even stopped using it.  How I realised, very early on, that the Big Society was designed for semi-retired white Conservative men, who would deliberately find it in themselves to squeeze out the truly deserving through their state-sanctioned privilege and prejudice.  How my long-held admiration for the Dutch understanding of consensus in politics was brutally destroyed by the experiences we have had with our alleged Coalition government.  How the Blair I had admired during 9/11 – and even the beginnings of Iraq – lost all my sympathy, even all my empathy, for anything and everything he had achieved.  How I cruelly realised, ended up quite unable to deny, that Hunt, Lansley, Gove, May, Osborne and chummy Cameron himself were nothing but a logical extension of the groundwork New Labour had carried out.

A groundwork at the time I had been happy to sign up to and believe in; to promote and divulge; to learn about and study; to spread and evangelise.

I loved America – the USA I mean – just as much.  The two seemed to go hand in hand.  My love of the US, the good vibes which Newsweek and Time and Life from my Yugoslav holidaying brought home to me, were finally my downfall in 2003, as a mixture of mental ill health and unhappy circumstance combined to create a dangerous cocktail only nervous breakdown managed to put on hold.

And that, for me, if we have to look for something this blog has ultimately managed to fix, is the biggest reason why I should now let go.  If anything at all has been mended, if anything has been repaired, if anything was once quite stuck and is now – as a result – finding itself gratefully soaring, then it is my own mental wellbeing which these last seven years and one day of assiduous blogging have returned to the hearth of my soul.

You can indeed write yourself out of illness, and if I did anything properly on these pages over the years, it was to share a definitive progress from terrible sadness to what I have often described as a manifest comprehension of a world with many underbellies, it is true – but also of a world with just as many joys.

If any of what I’ve put down on these pages has ever made you think, ever touched you – ever stopped you even a little in your tracks of daily routine or weekly boredom – as it made you wonder how beautiful it is to wonder, to try and repair a broken set of minds, then I suppose I can be reasonably satisfied.

Perhaps, in the end, it has been a strangely selfish project too.  I’m still too close to it to be able to properly gauge.  But if this is the case, if I have been self-indulgent (Dave S would be the very first to say I have!), then let at least the following be known: by allowing me to respond to the world around me, you’ve allowed me, in a way, to save my life.

My new project, blinkingti.me, is already up and running.  I hope to use it to participate much more actively in the offline world, with a fair smattering of reports – in amongst the inevitable introspection that will continue – on real stuff where truly socialising people find themselves able to socialise each other: in essence, to cry, laugh, love and work to a wider good.

And why not?  We may, after all, be under the brutish boot of the oppressors – but that doesn’t mean we should stop doing what human beings at their very best do their very best: fix their surroundings, whenever they can, for the broadest wellbeing of the grandest majority.

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Oct 292013
 
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I’ve been having a few problems recently.  Mainly as a result of my off-and-on relationship with technology.  I’ve documented them here and here, so if you want to bring yourself up to speed you might want to read these posts before we continue.

You can understand that I felt aggrieved enough with Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry for not repairing something still supposedly under guarantee.  This was the bit of their reply which most upset my sensitive soul, when I queried CPW’s initial refusal to do anything at all (the bold is mine):

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

As it seemed pretty clear that no other option was available to me, I didn’t reply to the email in question.  Then yesterday I got a follow-up which went as follows:

Dear Mr Williams

We have not received a response from our recent email.

If there is anything else that we can assist you with, please let me know.

If we haven’t heard from you in the next 7 days, we will close your case file down.

So that was when I found it in myself to reply.  This is what I said:

Hi

Many thanks for your follow-up.

I think your email made it very clear I have no other options in this matter.  I hardly felt a response was even expected.  However, as you have asked for one, I’d like to make it clear I will no longer be purchasing nor recommending products or services sold by CPW – either online or in its shops, either in Britain or in Spain – nor shall I be investing in any Blackberry products in the future (if, that is, the company manages to remain at all viable).  Any phone contracts I have which I suspect may benefit your group will, when they come up for renewal, be moved to other providers.

That’s about all I can do.

Your bottom lines are safe.

Kind regards,

Miljenko Williams

Meanwhile, my second major techie issue seems to rumble inconclusively on.  Last week I contacted Tesco about the failure of my two-year-old 3G Kindle’s screen.  Whilst contacting their helpline connected me directly with Amazon, I felt my contractual relationship should be with the shop I bought the product from.  Amazon offered me an upgrade I would obviously have to pay for.  My initial reaction was that I would rather it be replaced for the exact same keyboarded model.  It had been a birthday present from my eldest son and I valued the object as such.  The gentleman on the customer helpline said no similar models were made any more by Amazon, and an upgrade was the only option.

I then phoned Tesco’s helpline again, this time choosing non-Kindle options from the menu in order to speak to a Tesco person him- or herself.  And this time I pursued – as per the advice from our local store – the “electrical products out of warranty” path, where you can put in a request for a pro-rata compensation payment to be made, if the product you’re complaining about is judged to have a life expectancy beyond that which it has shown.  I was given a timeframe of 48 hours for a response, I think it was.  Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week.

Now I’m obviously going to have to negotiate Tesco’s complex menu system all over again in order to chase the case up.  But before I do, I thought I’d put down my preferred outcome in black and white, along with a few wider observations on what corporate capitalism is doing to us all.

Kindle is a great system for binding you into Amazon’s infrastructures, that is true.  It also offers significant benefits – if, that is, you’re prepared to accept the limitations the system leads to with respect to ownership, portability of content and so forth.  But where it wins out – its ability to be accessed from a multitude of devices and allow you to pick up from where you left off absolutely anywhere – is precisely where it is damaging our previous and singularly healthy attachments to artefacts.

In the past, when we gave someone an object of certain value, this object maintained both its operational ability, its physical integrity and its sentimental value for many many years.  Out of love, out of respect and out of a generosity which characterises him, my eldest son wanted to make what he felt would be a present I would always treasure and remember him by.  And he got it right – an electronic book: something I have been fighting for and arguing in favour of for over a decade now.  What more could a loving son want to gift an aspiring editor-father than something in the very vanguard of 21st century publishing?

But now I realise, at least as per Amazon’s intentions (and possibly Tesco’s too – I have yet to find out), my treasured birthday present has become – two short years and a few months later – a mere accountant’s calculation in an upgrade path to tablet-ownership.  Yes.  Corporate capitalism, and here I mean both Amazon and Tesco, both Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry, both Apple and Samsung, as well as practically everyone and their mother, is in the process of making us about as promiscuous with our artefacts as any grasping capitalist could hope for; about as promiscuous with our objects as any Sixties’ hedonist ever was with their bodies; about as promiscuous and uncaring about the intrinsic value of what we give to another as any shallow consumer manages to be with their trashed-upon and popcorned entertainment.

To be honest, I don’t want a brand new super-duper all-colour upgrade.  That wasn’t what my dearest son gave me just over two years ago.  What I want is for the object he gave me, the very object he gave me, the very same serial-numbered present, to return to the state it was in during the summer when I was still able to finger its well-designed curves.

Yes.  It’s the object he gave me which I want to recover.  It’s his present, not your largesse, which I want to be able to remember him by.

So does no one out there, no one at all, understand in any way what I am getting at here?

Does no one else see what we are losing?

Does no one else care to care?

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Oct 282013
 
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This, from Notes from a Broken Society, came my way via Facebook today.  Without having read Russell Brand’s piece, I can see what NBS’s Neil is getting at.  Which then led me on to actually consider reading Brand’s piece, quite despite myself.  So I did.

In a way, I realise now what my own readers have to deal with.  I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite as long as Brand’s piece – but the style is instantly recognisable.  As per Neil’s succinct description:

To anyone who has studied the history of Fascism, the rhetoric is familiar (so, incidentally, is the style: the lengthy, rambling incoherence, the frequent recourse to personal experience, the use of long words to disguise the emptiness as profundity).  [...]

And adding insult to serious injury, we get this as a helluva sucker punch:

[...] It’s been fascinating to see this nonsense portrayed as being a phenomenon of the left, until we remember that Hitler and Mussolini described themselves as socialists.  [...]

Guilty as charged, milord?  I’m beginning to wonder if this is the case.  Even as by contemplating the matter, and thus reverting to personal experience, I am simply perpetuating the initial crime.

Neil does, however, go on to say some things which are simply not true.  This, on “Metropolis” for example, conflating director, artwork and Nazism in one unexplaining link:

[...] Reading Brand’s torrent of words brought together a number of thoughts; most notably the ideology behind that extraordinary document of early Fascism, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis –  a film that today retains its visceral power, its artistic persuasiveness, while remaining utterly repellent in its ideology. [...]

Compare and contrast with these words from Lang himself, where both art and ideology are criticised:

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film’s message of social justice. In a 1928 speech he declared that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor, to begin their historical mission”.[20]

Fritz Lang later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (in Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, published in 1998), he expressed his reservations:

The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou’s, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn’t like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid – then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It’s very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?

In his profile for Lang featured in the same book, which prefaces the interview, Bogdanovich suggested that Lang’s distaste for his own film also stemmed from the Nazi Party’s fascination with the film. Von Harbou became a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933. They divorced the following year.

Fritz Lang was hardly an unthinking purveyor of fascism.

The reality of political and artistic endeavour is very rarely as simple as a single YouTube video can paint it.

If Neil is able to conflate, for the purposes of latterday political argument, the complex essence of an artistic path like Lang’s – in times as difficult as the 20th century too – what may be left of the alleged proto-fascism of people such as Brand, apparently portrayed so manifestly in the New Statesman piece?

Or, indeed, for that matter, on the pages of my own blog?

Maybe we are all proto-fascists by now.  One of my most consistently read pieces continues to be this one on the possibly fascist nature of the current British state and Coalition government.  It would hardly be surprising, were my thesis in this latter piece to be true, that the vast majority of the nation’s voters might be transmuting – under the influence – into little fascist clones themselves.  Figures which Neil sadly describes may not be getting it in the following way:

[...] The “don’t vote it only encourages them” line that Brand espouses mainly shows that he just doesn’t get – and indeed has contempt for – democracy; yes, voting is at the heart of democracy but it’s not the whole story by any means. [...]

However, when Neil says this, when he argues that Brand “simply doesn’t address the concept of power; and his rantings are all about individualism, nothing to do with the collective.  But at heart democratic politics is about the collective; it’s about debate, and compromise [...]“, I’m afraid precisely what Brand chooses to address, and what I have addressed so many times on these pages to little purpose, is the ability the collective left have shown to not engage with our individual experiences.

If the right have been able to burrow their way so surreptitiously into our political mindsets and voting patterns, if they have managed to “persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power”, surely it is because the left have forgotten what it is like to live one single life, one bloody step at a time.  And if talking about one’s own experiences to illustrate why one feels as one does is the rankest example of proto-fascism, rather than the clearest example of amateur and individual ethics and responsibility, then I am indeed also the fascist Brand is – in some quarters – accused of being.

Even as it also demonstrates why the left is so fundamentally losing the democratic battle, so beloved of the standard bearers (you and me both) of a demonstrable moral superiority.

Curious, that.  Curiouser and curiouser.

As a final reflection, I do mainly agree with Neil on what he warns against.  But I understand Brand far more sympathetically than many on the left might.

The time has come not for a destructive repeat of the 20th century’s revolutions but for a very 21st century process of disruption.  And far more people than Russell Brand are beginning – not only out of a little desperation but also out of a lot of considered opinion – to believe it’s a story we need to tell.  Even if it is a personal one.  Even if it does run the risk of cloying sentimentality.

And even if those who sincerely believe in the collective think the purpose of the collective should – in some weird way – involve the subtle shutting down of the individual.

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Oct 272013
 
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Chris, who I have occasion to read more often than I read mainstream content, says this today on a blogger’s favourite subject (the bold is mine):

[...] Stephen says that “if you want your blog to get noticed now, best to develop a niche.” But the thing is that the MSM has left a lot of big niches. Sunny’s right that “there is just too much opinion out there”. But a lot of voices doesn’t mean we get a diversity of ideas.

There’s an awful lot which the mainstream ignores. Perhaps the main question I ask before blogging is: “what needs saying that isn’t said elsewhere?” And I’m rarely stumped for an answer. The mainstream tends to ignore things such as anti-managerialism, the ubiquity of ideology/cognitive biases and the vast quantity of new and interesting economic research. Yes, there’s too much opinion, too much manufactured outrage, too much narcissism and too much obsessing about the Westminster village. But there’s a shortage of different perspectives.

Compare and contrast with the new owner of the Boston Globe, our dearly beloved John W Henry (dearly beloved for Liverpool-loving households anyway) (again, the bold is mine):

We as a society used to spend countless hours watching and sharing a limited amount of media mainly through television programs. Ironically, we now have increasingly significant social isolation and alienation as a byproduct of the rise of social media tools that overwhelm young people. These tools need to be designed to provide for more maturity, restraint, and responsibility.

Ironically, we also seem to no longer have any time because of time-saving devices. As a parent, I see kids completely immersed in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and messaging. One of the attractions of summers at Fenway Park is seeing families actually sitting together and conversing for three hours rather than sitting in different worlds at home.

We live with what the writer and thinker Clay Shirky has identified as a “cognitive surplus.” We need ways to move from consumption to activation. The Globe can be a catalyst for activism across a broad range of interests. The same technologies that breed loneliness in some contexts can provide opportunities for people to connect with one another meaningfully and make differences in each other’s lives. These differences don’t have to be earth-shattering to be of great significance. We live in a time in this region with terrific opportunities to lead.

In their different ways and in their different contexts, both Chris Dillow, the proudly amateur blogger (though in no way amateur writer, much less amateur thinker), and John W Henry, the very American – very global – businessperson, whose interests straddle nation-states, sectors and very different communities, have come to similar conclusions about what’s wrong with respectively cherished fields of communication.  Their solutions are different, of course, as befit their causes: Dillow needs enough resource to live his life as he pleases, in order that such resource may then give him the relatively little time each day he needs to usefully inform and produce his blogging.  Meanwhile, Henry is looking, on a much more physically grand and industrial scale, to develop a business strategy – almost an ideology, in fact – which will serve to turn currently capacious readers into expansively active doers.

As many have already observed, in particular a kind of unwilling mentor of mine, blogging by itself achieves nothing; cannot even be valued when in such a vacuum.  It must connect with the world (ie must be read by someone) for anything of worth to happen.  This time of reading may of course not accompany the time of writing: if this is the case, the blogger is indeed a lonely soul whose writings will only please an audience when he or she is long gone.  But most of us understand/have understood traditional blogging to be in possession of a very firm location and connection with time and place.  And in such a perception of what blogging should be (or maybe should have been), a thing of direct and common engagement with a community and people of particular sort, we realise that Henry’s goal to encourage his readers – ie his relatively passive, more significantly freeloading, absorbers of often sadly shallow content – to become souls who begin to make differences in others’ lives purely as a result of a newly conceived journalistic practice and industry … well, from the point of view of a long-time blogger like myself, it does make for truly fascinating reading.

If what is good about the Chris Dillow kind of blogging is now being perceived by someone like John W Henry as the kind of thing the mainstream newspapering he wants to rescue is often found to be wanting in – not for people or editorial reasons so much as overbearing industrial pressures where, even in the so-called quality press, the quality content continually fails to beat back the self-replicating “celebrititty” Internet-baiting dross – then perhaps there is a future for the former instincts of blogging at its halcyon best (Norman Geras and Paul Cotterill also come to mind), especially as partial saviour of the mainstream at its most lovably popularising.

If Henry can do for the likes of Manchester’s long-lost Guardian what he is currently doing for Liverpool’s football – if he can rescue the campaigning newspapers of the past from the sad obscurities and conceptual abysses into which so many have fallen (in their admittedly desperate bids to remain solvent in the latterday journalistic free-for-all that is the 21st century web) – perhaps one day we will end up agreeing that there must be no fundamental difference between the mainstream and the traditionally-conceptualised blogosphere after all.

And if this is the case, if that blogosphere I describe finally maintains its integrity long enough for the mainstream to realise exactly where it all went wrong, then it will – at the very least – have served to keep the flame of good journalism alive.

As it will finally have served its purpose.

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Oct 252013
 
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I suppose, in the end, we have to recognise Blair was right about one thing: we have to win enough votes to win an election before we aim to do anything else.  And in a world such as ours, to draft our appeal in terms of socialism, whilst guaranteeing a certain weight and moral validity, will hardly win any prizes for attracting the sensibilities of those whose votes make the difference between a lying halfway house of a Coalition government (as per the current one) on the one hand, and a proudly declamatory and transparent offering of tone and style (as per a future Labour one, perhaps) on the other.

Maybe we do need to accept that manifestos are vague pitches which most usefully encapsulate broad intentions – intentions which should be judged and perceived from such generous perspectives.  If we look to such a proclamation of promises with the beady eye of “will you, won’t you” conditionality, deception and disillusionment will inevitably be our lot.

We have to be more realistic to our political class.  We have, ourselves, to be far more generous to what they can deliver.

I know saying this will not make me popular.  Even so, I feel it now needs to be said.

We need to give our politicos space to preach a better world – even as we know they will deliver a less good.

Instead, I think it is elsewhere we need to focus our attention – our attention, not our ire.  This wave of history lapping at our feet – in particular with respect to its technological aspect – is driving our society towards a self-taught self-help socialism of determined communities, where both large and small companies and organisations various make their livings off the backs of a renewed focus on such a contextualised individualism (perhaps with every craftsperson’s right and precedent – “Artisans of the world, unite!” – to back up the way they conduct their commercial activities).  In my own case, I find myself teaching people across the globe the ins and outs of my mother tongue.  I feel myself to be, in a way, a victim of the zero-hour generation – and yet, at the same time, I think that I number amongst the very same generation’s most blessed of all.  Whilst I am still healthy, whilst I can still live my life in a reasonably independent way, this life is perfect for me: variety of timetable, customers and content make my work and life balance quite adequate.  And in my case, I have to admit, even as I accept I am suffering the curse of labour instability, that I have never been happier in this life.

I also have to recognise that without the infrastructures of the corporations, mainly American, which I have occasion to lambast most of my days, I would not be able to teach in that global context which makes my working-life so satisfactory.

So it is, then, I would like to suggest the following: if we are to continue, in our very British body politic, to have the kind of rather spurious game that pitching competing political manifestos against each other involves, maybe we should look mainly to the goal of refashioning the aforementioned tone and style through the selfsame hoary old sequence of political “promises”, this time understood by us voters in as kindly a way as we can still manage.

If Ed Miliband could just see his way to seeing our job, as a political party wishing to govern, in the light of an environmental concern (environmental, that is, in the sense of space – not in the sense of ecology), and even to seeing it as a trip, an excursion, a journey rather than a destination in itself, we could maybe, just maybe, aim to develop our electoral process to the point where instead of concentrating on the aforementioned spurious manifestos of what we should and won’t do, we could spend our time using them to honestly develop, promote and sell an appropriate tone and style for the future.

After all, leadership is so often a question of enabling others: not micromanaging their integrities, their actions and their personal contributions out of existence but giving them the freedom to lead themselves.

Precisely for the spurious political reasons and expectations I mention, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is now being expected to provide swathes of detailed solutions to a flurry of truly serious problems afflicting the country.

In reality, the political debate we choose to hold should be quite a different one: Ed Miliband’s Labour Party should be saying that in a self-learning and self-empowering generation of virtual connectednesses – even where this generation has been, and is being, persistently confused by all kinds of commercial and state-sponsored activities (both disgracefully illegitimate as well as clearly rather more sincere) – a new kind of socialism, a socialism which already exemplifies itself although we choose not to name it thus, a socialism which looks to connect evermore intelligent participants, a socialism which curiously – quite individualistically – self-engenders … this socialism I poorly describe must be the self-taught self-help philosophy on which we decide to build a better Britain.

We should not be expecting of Labour the answers to our problems.  We should be expecting of Labour the recognition that we are the answers.

And in and through such a profound recognition, our political parties – all of them – could show us they have the courage to ultimately accept the implications of such a humongous shift in the dynamics of British political process.

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Oct 202013
 
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A Twitter friend of mine suggests I read an article about how the evil of big government be abolished.  I am sympathetic to elements of this thesis, as long as we define “government” as either public- or private-sector concentrations of power – concentrations which will inevitably impact on our day-to-day existences in a significant way.

So then we can agree.

It’s not just the statism of the left we must pillory here; it’s also the corporatism of the right’s sponsors in the (big) business community too.  Both are examples of managerialism on a grand scale run riot.  They lead to situations such as the ones I’ve been describing recently, where cutting-edge technologies slide into bleeding-edge: where the race to get the latest smartphones and tablets into our grasping consumerist hands leaves behind the minimum levels of reliability which technological progress once saw as a fundamental part of its claim to cultural prowess and priority.

They say – universally I would suspect – that you should never come to us with a complaint but a solution.  The problem – the “challenge” if you prefer! – is that there’s no single solution to anything (nor, in fact, has there ever been), and anyone who says otherwise is lying.  What ties together our dissatisfaction with almost everything these days – whether of a political, educational, health-related, technological or more general sociocultural bent – is that the (virtually orgasmic) instinct to reach a destination rather than enjoy a journey, to exhibit the result rather than perpetuate the process, has overcome to a dreadful extent our society’s ability to set reasonable goals.  I was struck this afternoon by the shape of my timeline on Twitter, as an example of this: on the one hand, so many writers, promoters and marketers using the technology to puff up – I don’t necessarily say incorrectly or without every right to do so – their chosen causes; and on the other, an online acquaintance of mine retweeting a simple request for union recognition and the right to transport concessions (I think it was) in a small workplace no one has heard of – no one, that is, except the workforce in question itself.  Whilst the latter is no less noble than the former, yet, even so, it – and parallel actions of a similar nature – are afforded far less visibility and acceptance in this civilisation we judge to be the one most progressing ever in what is, essentially, a relatively short and, lately, manifestly all too frail history.

I suppose I have reached a crossroads in my life: I don’t believe everything I’d hoped might be true.  I don’t believe, any more, in the inevitable capacity of technology to solve more problems than it causes.

So where did it all go wrong?  Perhaps, exactly, where it went wrong for our financial institutions: when marketing, promotion, the managerialist instincts of “puffing up” reality if you like, overtook careful analysis, hard work, conscientious mindsets and sensitive professionalism.

With all the latter whisked out of the core of corporate capitalism in most parts of the world we look horrified over and onto, it is hardly surprising that the “solution vendors” have managed to pollute our better impulses with the short-termism of novelty.  So it is we learn to throw about 150 hard-won quid every eighteen months or so on a gadget we now expect to break down as part of the unspoken contract we have with such “progress”.

Not the progress I was brought up to believe in, that.

And you?

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Oct 192013
 
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There’s a great article out there all about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  Or perhaps we should really say: Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.

In it we learn how the creator of the web’s most iconic tech-driven shop has supposedly prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in the company.  Instead, six-page articles must be written by disconcerted employees to ensure that thought is clearly developed and expounded.

The technology of PowerPoint, so the position goes, being an impediment to usefully coherent narrative.

You can read this article here.  You’ll find it quite an eye-opener.  You’ll find out in a minute why I’ve mentioned it.

Well, hell no.  Let me tell you right now.  If this ever gets to Mr Bezos’ eyes, this is my customer equivalent of that six-page presentation.

For in the meantime, I’ve been fighting off the temptation to get really cross.  With the gentleman’s company in question and with others of a similar bent.  My story ranges from rants against housing trusts, local councils and the aforementioned tech corps to mobile-phone providers, vendors and manufacturers.  I’m not a happy bunny at the moment – and, of course, my anger is my responsibility. So I know that my surviving and coming out the other side of these first world pains is not your job to engineer.  But as a small and insignificant customer of many tech firms in the past and present, one day one or two of you might want to learn.

My latest unhappy troubles relate to an erstwhile rather reliable holiday companion of virtual e-content, my 3G keyboarded Kindle.  Bought for me from Tesco by my eldest son as a birthday present in June 2011, it cost him 152 quid.  It stopped being quite so reliable a couple of days ago.  After a few weeks ignored in the bustle of ending summer hols, I turned it back on.  First, it wouldn’t connect to 3G any longer (I’ve had it explained to me that this – in the presence of an available wifi connection – is now a feature and not the bug I thought it was); nevertheless, I religiously recharged it and everything seemed OK.  Then yesterday it began to suffer from what Microsoft users of ancient Windows product will surely empathise with: in this case the WSOD, or White Screen Of Death, for those Kindlers still uninitiated in such matters.

As Which? usefully points out, my contractual relationship is not with Amazon the manufacturer but Tesco the vendor.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I phoned Tesco’s customer services helpline to be automatically transferred directly to Amazon.  The Amazon customer services lady went on to hand me over to a member of the specialised Kindle team when she realised my issue was not of simple resolution.  He attempted to carry out some procedures to reawaken my Kindle, sadly to no avail.  He then offered me an upgrade: a new Kindle in exchange, which I would have to pay for.  I said I would be quite happy with a replacement rather than an upgrade – for one thing, I liked the physical keyboard (something he agreed he did too) – but was told no examples were available any more.

I also suggested that although the guarantee was no longer valid, UK legislation had something to say on the reasonable and therefore merchantable quality of any product of certain value.  He referred me to EU legislation which he said gave me only two years.  I suggested, perhaps inexactly, that in the UK we had up to six years, certainly to complain.  We then agreed my query on Amazon’s position should be communicated higher up, and also agreed it should be received via email.  I now have in my possession an email address I can email – pretty much the same one, in fact, I emailed a while ago in relation to an Apple iPod Amazon refused point-blank to take responsibility for.

I’ve decided, in the end, to wait anon.  In the first instance, I’ll be going to Tesco tomorrow.  I still have the original receipt; they are the vendor; and I already know Amazon’s posture.  Time to find out, instead, what Tesco thinks.  After all, Amazon – alongside many others – truly believe it’s a good business model to make expensive objects which we are to be convinced must last only two years before we replace them.

I mean even my father – my World-War-II-scarred father, who is incapable of throwing away a piece of wood, a random cable or a nail on the off-chance they might one day be of use – was heard to say on being told our freezer seemed to have given up the ghost: “Oh well, it’s nine years old now.  Only to be expected.”

To cut what is surely becoming a boring long story short, what’s clear here is whilst human life expectancies are lengthening from decade to decade, their gadgets are becoming evermore short-lived.  So why might this be so?  And what might the broader implications be?

I’m sure all of us, all of my generation at least, can remember stories of washing-machines that lasted fifteen years; fridges that lasted thirty; cars that were made and remade out of this and that for far longer than anyone expects these days.  Yet even washing-machines these days don’t seem to get to the age of five.  Whilst iPods and Kindles and mobile phones and tablets various barely get beyond the magic two.  Not to speak of all those tales of cars whose engines disintegrate at seven.

It’s a problem – a serious problem; a paradox too.

As already pointed out, whilst human beings expect to live longer, their societies’ artefacts fall apart earlier.  Now I’m sure you’ll have read many articles which talk about how society is specialising itself out of sustainability.  As you can see, I’ve written some of them myself.  But this thing I speak of today … well, it’s slightly different.  Here, it’s not the evil corporations maximising their profits.  Here, it’s a different thesis altogether: faster washing-machines, quicker cars, smaller gadgets, brighter screens … all these aspects and more, coupled with the fearful violences of corporate capitalisms, simply make it more difficult to produce stuff which lasts.  Who, after all, would expect an under-the-counter freezer – which cost the same as my Kindle did my son – to function for barely two years?  And yet when it comes to the Kindle, or the iPod or the Blackberry, we gaily accept an upgrade we must pay for as compensation for a product which – be honest and frank about it! – has failed any test of time you’d prefer to sanction.

There will come a time – I can see it even if you cannot – when our objects will have such short lifetimes that the consumer laws will have to be changed to accommodate the inability of the manufacturers to develop products which survive even a full year.  Mark my words.  Bookmark this post.  And come back to it, three or four years down this miserable line.

Bezos is right of course: writing six pages of thoughtful observations has the potential to add far more value than any number of fancy bullet points.  But in the world his ilk and he tend to find themselves moving around, they’re as bound by its constrictions and competitivenesses as much as we consumers are befuddled by their very same massaged marketing messages.  Whilst he may indeed preach no PowerPoint in the thoughtful sides and moments of his companies, in their artefacts and their routinely mundane activities these PowerPoint mindsets have clearly become the order of the day.

Otherwise his customer services wouldn’t offer an upgrade after a bit more than two years of careful usage of a product which costs what many freezers do.  Instead, they would be trained to say: “Let’s repair or replace or refurbish this in a sustainable way.  Let’s look after a customer – and let’s also recognise that the future of our shared living-space, the planet we live on, is just as much a customer we choose to value as that irritating well-meaning thoughtful Miljenko Williams, who always feels obliged to complain so very very much.”

Oh.  And just as a by-the-by.  That freezer even my father now believes is expected to give up the ghost after nine years … well, after a week left to its own devices, it’s begun to happily work once again.

There’s a lesson in that.

We should learn it before it’s too late.

____________________

Update to this post: last night I described over at Amazon’s help-forum pages my recent experience with gadgets.  Part of what I commented went as follows:

[...] In the last year, I’ve had a 16-month Sony Ericsson 150 GBP phone stop working, changed for a new one under guarantee by T-Mobile; I’ve had an 8-month Sony 110 GBP phone stop working, repaired under guarantee by Phones4U; and I’ve had a Blackberry 100 GBP phone, still under 2-year guarantee, not repaired by Carphone Warehouse or Blackberry. I’ve also been batted to and fro between Apple and Amazon with respect to an iPod Amazon sold me via an Audible offer, and whose home button stopped working reliably. Then there were the two Acer netbooks which developed parallel faults at the same time just outside their 1-year guarantee periods. Now I may have been particularly unlucky with respect to gadgets, but I suspect I haven’t been especially. I do have a Gateway laptop which has lasted four solid years without pain. And a Dell desktop soldiers on with Linux. And an Asus netbook is particularly well-made. Not all misery up here in Chester …

:-)

Really, all I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is that a 1- or even 2-year guarantee period is a pretty poor promise when you’re forking out 150 GBP. At least when we talk of products which have less bleeding-edge technologies. No one in their right mind would accept buying a new fridge every 18 months. So why do similarly-costing techie-type products enjoy the freedom to break down and be disposed of after the same period of time? It’s not a question you or I or, indeed, Amazon will be able to answer – but it *is* a question I strongly feel needs to be addressed. Especially when I have yet another faulty gadget to add to my recent and not so recent list.

I suppose that all which is left for me to ask is: am I particularly unlucky – or is the above litany of failure something each of us is rapidly having to become both seamlessly familiar with and resignedly used to?  Any of yous out there reading this post had as bad a series of experiences as ourselves?

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Oct 182013
 
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I was living in the halls of residence depicted below when John Lennon died a violent death, though it was a couple of months after the taking of the picture that it happened.

Me and my family at uni, 1980-style

I can, of course, remember what I was doing: I was ironing clothes.  It must’ve been towards the very end of my first term at uni, for it was a Monday and I don’t think I had yet got into the habit of skipping class too often.

When you start thinking about bits of your past like these, all sorts of things start unspooling.  Two articles I’ve been using in my Skype classes recently are connected to the above photo: as you may have seen, there is a VW camper van in the background, and such a van played a hugely important part in my childhood.  Not only mine – the BBC would seem to have found a doppelgänger of my parents and their behaviours, in everything except perhaps the evil weed of tobacco.

Anyhow.  On the holidays we took every summer or so to the then-Yugoslavia we would be sung to sleep in the evenings by my father’s ITT cassette-recorder.  As my sister accurately recalls in her piece, the Beatles figured highly on the playlist – even before playlists existed!  John Lennon became a part of the furniture of my infancy.  To have him wrenched from me so destructively just as I made my transition to adulthood at Warwick was truly quite a shock.

Quite a shock indeed.

That, in fact, is the destiny of all that is furniture.  Eventually it is wrenched from our precarious grip.  Whether through our own demise or through the demise of another, it is inevitably violently wrenched.  And as much of our cultural output these days, in such plentiful – perhaps even promiscuous – times, the cheap and cheerful Ikeas of the world don’t always get dumped before the Chippendales.

At uni I used to sing Beatles, Wings and Simon & Garfunkel songs on my scrappy acoustic guitar when I felt a bit miserable, and by so doing I would then feel less miserable.  But in the end, it was for me – and it was primarily me it made feel better.

Thus I have continued, once I curiously lost my singing voice in my mid-40s, to act in a similar way with the written word.  Perhaps, in a way, trying to find again that voice I no longer was able to exhibit.  But again trying to find it for myself, not others.

Lennon, McCartney, Dillow, Bell, Geras … curious influences, eh?  Complex connections.  Strange connections.  But all committed, in the positive sense of the word I mean.  Committed – unlike myself – to forging correctly singular paths in those wayward worlds of otherwise terrible and mind-numbing disablingnesses.

So let’s think and wonder a little on behalf of the future.  Be kinder to our furniture I say, before we end up foolishly trashing it.  Use it if we must – but not abuse it.

Even furniture, sometimes, cries out in the pain of that deadening hand of gravity.

That gravity which eventually overcomes us all.

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Oct 172013
 
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I’m conscious that the nuclear option – pressing the red social-networked shit-everywhere button – is not the kindest, nor perhaps the most productive, way of proceeding in these matters.  So I’ll try to be even-handed.

Less than two years ago (well within the standard warranty period I was later to discover), we bought our daughter a Blackberry 8520 PAYG phone on the T-Mobile network from Carphone Warehouse online.  It cost around a hundred pounds.  Ever since, she’s been as happy as anyone might be with her aforementioned present – in a first-world-joy sort of way it goes without saying. Halfway through this year some buttons dropped off, but they were volume buttons and didn’t affect the functionality of the phone.  Then, this September, after a summer of intermittent software freezes, the beast decided to give up the ghost.

Stumbling haphazardly across the original receipt whilst doing some pre-autumn cleaning, I decided to phone up CPW to find out if it was still under guarantee.  To my surprise I was informed that it was.  I went into our local Ellesmere Port store, where they looked a bit dubious and refused to promise anything.  The main complaint we registered was the software freezing; as a by-the-by we also mentioned the buttons had fallen off, adding we felt this was through no fault of the user.  Remember: a hundred-quid object (say a cheap under-the-counter freezer) whose buttons dropped off after less than two years’ use would almost certainly find its way through to some kind of compensation from its vendor, were the consumer to decide to complain.

So the phone went off to CPW’s repair team – no longer to Blackberry itself we were informed by the store – and we waited for about a week.  Unfortunately, the reply was not the one we were looking for: a chargeable repair for the buttons, not the software we had complained about, which would cost around £170.  When I objected to this, and asked that the repair centre be contacted in the store, and whilst the phonecall in question was being made, I was told if I wished to complain I would have to contact CPW via their website.  The store couldn’t do this on my behalf, even though – at the time I asked them to do so, and in front of my dear old self – they were speaking to someone from the very same repair centre.

I duly contacted CPW via Twitter, who directed me to the website contact form I had been referred to instore.

Shortly afterwards, I received an email saying the matter would be looked into.

Today, after a couple of days naively living in hope of better things, times and outcomes, I received the following email (the bold is mine, and I have anonymised the sender’s name to avoid any embarrassment):

Dear Mr Williams

Thank you for your patience in this matter.

I have now concluded our investigations into your complaint. I reviewed the original decision that your handset couldn’t be repaired without a charge being applied. I must confirm that we cannot alter this outcome.

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

Our repair department operate under licence from the manufacturers, and under our licence any invalidated warranty repairs are not able to be completed without a cost.

I understand that this will not be the outcome you were looking for, however I must advise that this is the final response we could offer on this complaint.

If you have any further questions, please let me know.

Kind regards

R_____ B___

CEO Team
Carphone Warehouse

To summarise then: this model of Blackberry has a two-year warranty and a software fault which the vendor – Carphone Warehouse – is unable to repair because buttons have fallen off, presumably due to a weakness in the manufacturer’s original design.  (They are, if I remember rightly, electromechanical buttons covered in rubber – hardly the toughest sort of construction you can imagine out there.)  I do wonder, idly by now I have to say, how many other vendors – and manufacturers, whilst we’re at it – cover their backsides with these techie products by restricting their warranties through exempt electromechanical failure.  And though I am an utter non-expert in these matters, I still fail to see why frozen smartphone software cannot be repaired because totally unrelated buttons have fallen off.

I’ve been a reasonably assiduous purchaser at CPW over the years, and I love my Blackberry Playbook as a forgotten beast of fearsomely strong beauty too.  But I’m afraid when I do upgrade either a phone or a tablet, I shall resort neither to CPW nor to Blackberry.

The nuclear option is it?  I don’t think so.  Acer and Apple and Amazon have messed us around just as much.

Just a disappointed, saddened and disillusioned end-user, then, who was once fascinated by this very 21st-century world; and who’s slowly learned to distrust anything these both foreign and homegrown – both distant and supposedly close – technological corporations so love to promise you, your loved ones and the world they claim to want to serve … when, that is, we unguardedly choose to part with some of our dosh.

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Oct 162013
 
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Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

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Oct 132013
 
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I tweeted this idly yesterday:

So what’s the punishment for corporate blackmail? Or is it simply not illegal, like so much out there? #EnergyPriceFreeze #BlackoutThreat

Essentially it would seem that, as a first horrible step, some of the energy companies themselves, and now their political nominees the Tories, are doing for the energy industry what the bankers have achieved for financial services: make latterday greed and laziness overtake a former efficiency and ingenuity.  By threatening the nation with energy blackouts down the line, they are committing serious and life-threatening blackmail on an industrial scale.  “If you don’t agree to higher prices as per our demands, we will guarantee that blackouts take place.”  No spirit of striving to do better against the odds; just promises to scrounge even more out of rapidly emptying pockets.  This luxury is not allowed for the sick, disabled and generally struggling: whilst the energy corporations can continue to run their cash cows, the rest of us have to use our natural nous – nous they would claim not to have – to battle our individual ways out of very individual miseries.

As Peter Tatchell reminded us a few hours ago:

UK national minimum wage up by 75% since 1998 but gas cost up 175%, bread up 146%. Poor being squeezed @UKuncut

And that is the cost of living crisis Ed Miliband’s Labour is now foregrounding.  That is the reason this energy blackmail is so disgraceful.  For, in truth, these cash-rich suppliers – even if right about possible blackouts – care zero, zilch, in no way at all about those individual families already forced to black out their homes due to the horrendous increases in the cost of basic needs such as food, housing and energy in particular.

Just like the Tories, this.  Just like the Tories of old.  Just as a spiralling private debt makes the levels of public debt less unacceptable, so permitting an ever-increasing private suffering through the food versus fuel dilemma makes public acknowledgement – ie mainstream-visible recognition - less necessary, less likely and less possible.

To summarise, then: those energy companies of a mind to be this cruel, and those Tories in political cahoots with such unkindnesses, terrify the defenceless with the thought of blacked-out freezing winters, where all of us must share – in the unavoidably public domain! – seasons of national discontent.  They demand, in exchange for secure supplies, exorbitant prices which, by the by, maintain their equally cash-rich shareholders happy.  They deliberately forget, ignore and brush under so many living-room carpets the fact that hundreds of thousands of families – maybe millions! – are already being forced to turn off the heating.

You idiots!  There’s little point in guaranteeing energy supplies to a wider public if too many of them simply cannot pay what you prefer to charge.  What kind of service is that?  What kind of economy does this?  Managing demand through pricing policies instead of strategically meeting supply?  Is that what we’re now at – even here?  Even in basic sectors such as fuel?  Even when people’s lives are at stake?

Let’s change the frame.  Let’s change the focus.  If the disabled have to make do with far less than is humanely reasonable, and even then must still battle fiercely not to tip over into poverty, despair and suicide, let us make it clear to the energy corporations that they must now equally use their ingenuity to protect our futures.

You’re not telling me, surely, that what a disabled person must strive to achieve in Cameron’s Britain is beyond the capability of a mighty British corporate organisation …  Oh.  But I forgot.  Not all of the energy companies are actually British.  Nor would they behave in exactly the same way in their own countries of origin.

Funny that, eh?  Bloody ROFL time.

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Oct 122013
 
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Evgeny Morozov wrote this recently:

To say that “the Internet” is our “sharknado” is to accept that the current configuration of practices, services, and conversations – the Internet discourse – already structures how we talk,  what we say and what we do after all the talking is done.

It’s not that the current crop of Internet intellectuals are factually wrong or blinded by some false ideology. It’s that, in seeking to explain “the Internet,” they keep reinforcing a discourse that itself is in great need of disruption. Simply put, the Internet discourse has outlived its usefulness. [...]

Meanwhile, Chris suggests:

[...] Many professionals of around my age and younger downsize, step off partnership-path careers, leave to work for charities, become part-time consultants or singing teachers and so on. In a more abundant economy, many more would do so.

And then there’s the desperation many people feel with respect to latterday – certainly latterday British – politics, as it bumbles its way brutally from racist nods at awful Berlin Walls of immigration to “free” (presumably not as in beer) schools of a manifestly limited utility to ideologically driven privatisations in health, postal services and even – in this day and age of pained experience – profitably public East Coast rail services.

If Morozov is right about Internet discourse having outlived its usefulness, and if everything we do right now is gravitating more and more to being dependent on all those infrastructures sustained by such unwisely received opinion, it’s hardly surprising that intelligent and thinking people might wonder more and more – as Chris’s professionals are clearly doing – of the value of this constant collaboration we call liberal democracy, in this 21st century now bemusing us.

Those few people now still reading this blog will understand where I am heading.  Over the past ten days or so, as I share less of what I am, and more importantly peer less into the vicariously shared lives of others I may barely know (at least face to face, at least person to person), I am slowly recovering a sense of peace.  I may not deserve this sense of peace.  There are others suffering dearly right now: the poor, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed; the employed, too, who fear for their jobs; the employed who do not know from week to week where they will next earn a crumb of consolation; the employed who work in undignified conditions; the employed, even, in living hell.

So what right do I have to retire from a politics which inevitably affects you and me – whether I participate or not?  Perhaps because that politics, like our Internet discourse, like economies which serve themselves of people instead of – far more rightly – serving us, is at an end of times.  And we resist the temptation to acknowledge it.

For it’s not just the Internet which has been deconstructed by the surveillance state.  It’s all our liberal and free-market tendencies in our businesses; all our liberal and free-market impulses in our politics; all our liberal and free-market instincts in our writings.

And neither has this surveillance state consisted only of government spies.  In parallel, in tandem, sometimes in cahoots it would now appear, large companies have destroyed the conditions for healthy innovation: have destroyed the conditions which allow healthy economies to both evolve and – where necessary – commit timely revolution.

An end of times ain’t necessarily a time to end.  But it is a time to be honest and sincere: to be honest and sincere with not only each other but also, on a singular man-in-the-mirror basis, with ourselves.

Our Internet, our economies, our politics too … on the one hand, they’ve all become inefficient through systemic and individual greed and laziness; and on the other, through a despairing disconnect by the majorities the rest of us make up.

Inefficiency is obviously the mother of an end of times.  The question is whether we can recover our previous vigour, our previous sincerity, our previous honesty, our previous truths.

Yep.  I guess it is so.  A revolution of a cultural bent is needed.  Not that revolution, but one of a certain kind for sure.


http://youtu.be/PivWY9wn5ps

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Oct 092013
 
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Compare and contrast.  Read this first (I’ve linked to it before) from Open Democracy on how the BBC – the British public service broadcasting organisation paid for by every TV owner in the country through a licence fee – has consistently ignored the ramifications and reality of a stealthy privatisation of the National Health Service in the two years following the Coalition government’s power grab in 2010.

Now study the BBC‘s six public purposes as currently outlined here:

Sustaining citizenship and civil society
The BBC provides high-quality news, current affairs and factual programming to engage its viewers, listeners and users in important current and political issues.

Promoting education and learning
The support of formal education in schools and colleges and informal knowledge and skills building.

Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
Encouraging interest, engagement and participation in cultural, creative and sporting activities across the UK.

Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
BBC viewers, listeners and users can rely on the BBC to reflect the many communities that exist in the UK.

Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
The BBC will build a global understanding of international issues and broaden UK audiences’ experience of different cultures.

Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services
Assisting UK residents to get the best out of emerging media technologies now and in the future.

Now we could, of course, as per each of our very personal and political prejudices, fisk the above till the cows come home.  But it’s not the purpose of this post to do that.  I have my own view – fairly jaundiced by now – of what the BBC has become.  There is evidence to support my view too – Open Democracy’s piece being only perhaps the most impactful and carefully argued of a raft of recent critiques on what was once a binder of nations and peoples.

To be honest, the BBC‘s decline and fall in the eyes of many was perhaps inevitable: it reigned unopposed in years and decades when the ruling classes had a pretty unique hold on the airwaves.  The virtual ethers didn’t even exist at the time; the ever-suppurating pollution of such singular discourses simply didn’t take place.  At least not publicly.  What counted, in those days, as rebellion involved sexy young people singing their way into our consciences as, simultaneously, they preached revolution by perpetuating – at a personal level at least – the capitalist dream.

Hardly a revolution likely to bring down anyone, or indeed anything, of a traditional bent.

Public service broadcasting today, then.  How does it stand?  How should we conceptualise it?  A broadcasting which serves the public via Parliament’s – ie the Coalition and the wider establishment’s – view of what we as a represented and mediated public need, deserve and can be allowed?  Or a broadcasting which serves the public through a software constitution created behind closed doors by a private company’s software engineers to generate long-term content that can be duly monetised for the benefit of eager shareholders?

You may suggest that for all its faults, the BBC‘s Charter and relationship with Parliament guarantees a closer fit with the needs of the British people than an American corporation of broadly libertarian philosophies, where anything and everything very publicly goes.

Well.  Maybe so.  And maybe not quite so.  Lately, I think, I’m beginning to conclude that if you’re looking for a truly 21st century equivalent of the very 20th century public service ethos the BBC once seemed to enshrine, you’d be better off looking to Twitter et al – even as their very American façades do make us pale on occasions in the face of their terribly gung-ho enthusiasms.  All of the six purposes the BBC supposedly espouses – in its very 20th century “let me do it for you” way – I have seen generated on Twitter over the past couple of years, by the careful drawing up and development of an online constitution which permits people to communicate and fashion their environment directly and through their own voices.

Downsides?  Many, of course.  The biggest being the monetisation process.  We are, it is true, the product and not the client.  Our data, our thought patterns, our attitudes and reactions, are being number-crunched and made money of time and time again.  But is this any different – or, at least, any worse – than a public service broadcasting corporation like the BBC which has not only permitted in its notably halcyon days a paedophilia of dreadful proportions but has also – in what we might term its moment of greatest decline and fall – exhibited a rank partiality to a government of barely democratic means which has shown itself emotionally incapable of leading a country as one?

Never mind via evidence-based mindsets.

It’s not that the BBC no longer serves the public.

It’s rather that, through its political taskmasters, it serves itself of the public.  No difference, in truth, between the shareholding monetisers of American social networks and the allegedly cuddlier nationalities of our islands.

If that is to be our destiny, if that is to be our end, surely better that it should be perpetrated with even a scanty veneer of direct empowerment than this Coalition-sponsored daily thrashing and bashing of stats which BBC journalism and a wider current affairs have now become.

Me?  Even right now?  Even as I withdraw myself slowly from the web?  I’d still far rather mutely follow the occurrences of the crowd on Twitter than turn on the tele and engage in rubber-brick-throwing at the privileged elites.

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Oct 082013
 
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This is how John Lennon saw it.


http://youtu.be/L832Jj7C0DA

This is how I’m seeing it:

Hello #Twitter. Was in virtual world, training people to communicate this morn; in outside world, helping wife to disconnect esta tarde.

Good to take a break and re-evaluate. And stepping back is fine (as long as you don’t step back into an abyss, of course!!!).

So I wonder why it’s so untraumatic slowly retiring from blogging and social media. And I honestly think it has to do with this #NSA stuff.

Sharing one’s thoughts has become the biggest Hobson’s choice there ever was.  You can do it with the virtual swathes of people out there and – at the same time – give your heart, soul and everything up to Big Government and its minions; or you can begin to stop dropping pebbles into the wishing-well that is the worldwide web and start keeping them to yourself – on occasions, perhaps, your nearest friends and family too.

But the problem here – and it’s a serious one I assure you – is that spying Big Government hates it when its people’s behaviours get into grinding gear – when its people’s behaviours begin to unpredictably change.  There’s nothing less frightening than a mass of easily satisfied consumers who sit gaily clutching their gadgets galore; nothing more scary than a horde of unsatisfied voters who want to think things properly through.

So even as I wonder at myself – after seven years of more or less continuous blogging and after two or three years of 35,000-odd tweets (or maybe that’s 35,000 odd tweets!) and even as I find this cold turkey I am hardly suffering from leads me to a week without Facebook, a few days here and there without blogging, as well as a highly cursory tweeting and the like – I cannot really believe, even now, how unpainful it is all being.

What’s the reason?  I suppose it’s very simple: I don’t believe the worldwide web is the best place to share any more.  I don’t think, now, it was any place to share.  Perhaps, at the very beginning, there was an ickle chance it could have been.  But this ickle chance was soon swallowed up by far greater interests who understood the historical sweep with far greater clarity.

I’m beginning to realise it was a place where people in power sold a donkey to those who would finally keep them there: consumers; end-users; the creative sorts who loved to show off their wisdoms (me included in this last lot; perhaps me included in all three) … all of these people and so many more out there were assigned the role of sustaining a modulated form of the status quo.

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

Breadcrumbs is all we could perceive.  The trail was ours, I don’t deny that – but the trail led only to the legs of the highest tables at which the powerful today, especially today, swaggeringly continue to sit.

Cold turkey is now easy for me because I see the lie on which this whole Internet was built.  And perhaps that’s exactly the conclusion the NSA, GCHQ and its multifarious hangers-on want us to come to: there’s no point in continuing with such a fundamentally corrupted beast.

Which is why I have to say they’re probably right.  In this, I mean.  Not in doing what they’ve done.

Lord, no.  Not that.  Not in a thousand years.

To undermine so fundamentally our fabric of free speech, to make us feel we have a Hobson’s choice of an empty web of hole-ridden cloth on the one hand or a shutting up shop and a silently reserving our democracy for family and friends on the other, is truly a golpe de estado of terrible proportions.  I mean really, what’s the point of such a democracy if voters are tracked so utterly?  Where is free will?  Where is secular liberty?  Where have all the liberal concepts we once treasured so much gone and ended up?

Freedom of choice?  It won’t exist.  We will find ourselves “pre-imprisoned”, in one way or another, for our own “safety” and for the “security” of our communities.  Algorithms and maths will decide our destinies in an absolutist way, much as omens and heathen religions did in other supposedly darker ages.  DNA, genetic analysis … all this science and so much more will be put to an end which rational thought would in other centuries hardly ever have countenanced: the removal of all fraternity and liberty from the sphere that is human thought and act.

Yet maybe in all of this rather sad landscape I paint a solution could exist.  Maybe the Hobson’s choice I describe is even grander than I describe.  Maybe, just maybe, we might decide that the NSA & Co have actually done us all a favour: in their obvious, perverse and deliberate destruction of the idealism of a perfectly communicating web, they have really brought it down to earth.  And we, as human beings, need the down-to-earth to function well.  We, as human beings, need such challenges as these in order to keep up the fight.

In the frame of a perfectly – and easily – communicating web, we were becoming lazy gadget-consuming materialistic beings.  So perhaps, now, in the snapshot that is an NSA-perforated Internet we can become, once again, the sincere altruistic thinkers and doers of those beautiful decades ago.

Those thinkers and doers who – all those decades ago – brought about the original Internet, and thus raised our joyous hopes.

____________________

Update to this post: via Adam Fish, this warning tale for all of us who would like to sound clever when nattering about Internet discourse.  Evgeny Morozov on the fallacy of, amongst other things, cuddling up far too happily to the enemy.

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Oct 062013
 
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I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.

____________________

Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


http://youtu.be/h0d_QDgl3gI

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