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!

Jul 222014
 
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A couple of articles I’ve read this morning.  The first, from Labour List, documents how Labour has achieved magnificent unity at the weekend – coinciding, coincidentally, with my decision to leave the Party after ten years’ membership as a result of the cack-handed and antidemocratic #DRIP process (more here).  (At least I can draw the conclusion that I’ve finally done something right in my political trajectory – the Party must be well-pleased with my disappearance!)  The Labour List post says things like this:

It is completely without precedent in the history of the party. You can write a history of Labour that is all about its internal squabbles. Morrison vs Bevin. Bevan vs Gaitskell. Castle vs Callaghan. Benn vs Healey. Kinnock vs Militant. Blair vs Brown. There is no Ed Miliband vs anyone narrative. The only people he is vs are the Tories.

Credit also needs to go to the people who could have started a fight. Whether trade unions angry about party reform, Blairites hankering for the lost leader over the water, or party lefties nostalgic for a rerun of the 1980s, they all deserve praise for resisting the urge to have a scrap.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Labour in 2010 was in a very weakened, fragile condition. A bout of infighting and recrimination such as we saw every previous time we lost office, in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 might have killed us off as a potential government for a generation, or for ever.

To conclude as follows:

Ed Miliband has shown incredible political skill in leading a united party into an election year at the same time as assembling a battery of appealing and radical policies. If he shows this degree of skill in uniting the country he will make a very great Prime Minister.

(The sort of stuff, incidentally, I was saying myself quite a while ago.)

Then we get quite another sort of post which defines Tony Blair’s achievements in the context of moon-landing deniers:

That’s not, of course, to say that Blair did not wrong and that is every decision was faultless. Certainly there were problems, at home as well as abroad, although different people from different political traditions will disagree as to what those were. But it seems to me that to focus on Mr Blair’s mistakes is to be like those cranks from Nowhere, Alabama, desperately pointing at Neil Armstrong and looking for signs of studio lights.

And, of course.  Yes.  Blair did indeed pick up Thatcher’s spilt milk – putting roofs back on schools etc – and of that, there is no doubt; but by so doing also stored up disasters for our present.  And I don’t just mean via his mistakes.  I also mean via his outright successes: for in order to counter the cruel neoliberalism of Thatcher – read more of the above for an excellently measured summary of the latter – Blair committed the foolish expediency of PFI and other short cuts to future prosperity.  The short cuts were necessary, desperate measures; the country, after Thatcher, was falling apart physically (and now, it seems, morally too).  But whilst Thatcher’s achievements were, in retrospect, clearly minimal – and Blair’s achievements were clearly, in retrospect, a counterweight the whole country needed – the aforementioned good also contained the seeds of the bad.

It wasn’t just the decisions on Iraq that brought conflict to our country.  It was also the decisions on matters such as tuition fees – seen by some as rank social engineering and by others as a necessary financial tool to lever access to higher education – which now, even on their own neoliberal terms, have clearly begun to fall apart at the seams.

And so I would suspect that here history is repeating itself, as it so often must.  Unity forged of the tribal – characteristic of Blair whilst he held the reins charismatically over the Party – and manifested quite differently with the Ed Miliband of the Labour List commentary; manifested differently but manifested all the same.

It may lead to a competent election result (though without wishing to be an aguafiestas, I’m not sure – even now – that this will happen as much as one might hope) but what is clear, at least to me, is that the very tribalism that political parties – of any political denomination – need to generate in order to have half a chance of getting into power is precisely that moment, time and place where the seeds of their our downfall are created.

If only our body politic were able to function on the basis of healthy disagreement, debate and well-fleshed consensus.  It’s not even as if it operates on agreement either.  Instead, when it happens, it’s a question of people like myself leaving the party in question – at the same time as people like those depicted in the two articles I’ve linked to today end up demonstrating a greater faith, fewer compunctions or negligible principles with respect to our no-longer-terribly-prized democratic process.

People who ultimately find themselves learning how to shut up for the short-term benefit of the tribe.

That the political left can only be acting as cheerleaders for internal Labour Party unity, less than a week after Parliament behaved disgracefully with the agreement, collusion and collaboration (in the World War II sense of the word, that is) of the man they are now saying will become an excellent Prime Minister … well, it bodes little positive, when his time comes, for his command of and fidelity to parliamentary process.

The elite is in charge, unity is the calling-card – and it’s time for the faithful, who often happily criticise the otherwise religious, to blindly believe in their broad church once again.

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Jul 192014
 
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This evening I tweeted two connected posts.  I’ve been finding it impossible to comment on three significant news items recently: Gaza, Ukraine and Syria.  So I tweeted these two connected posts as some – perhaps insubstantial – attempt on my part to say, at a distance, some of what I was feeling.

The first post described an exhibition on the subject of a small percentage of children rescued from Nazi concentration camps and whisked off to the Lake District to recover.  It concluded with the following observation:

The healing quality of the surroundings the children found themselves in on arriving in the Lake District itself was heavily, and quite rightly, underlined.

The second described the importance of managing environment, using the example of bumblebees as an analogy for our own frailties – especially at the hands of this dreadful Coalition government:

Bumblebees need holes in walls to find a habitat.  I learnt that whilst in the Lake District yesterday at the Peter Rabbit garden outside the Beatrix Potter Attraction, Windermere.  It seems, for me right now, to describe perfectly what the Coalition’s economics is doing to us.

The people who do the things they are doing to us work in the urban landscape that is the metropolis of London.  When they escape to their country retreats, it is out of privilege they escape: for them, the countryside is just as much a good to be bought and sold as a future on the futures market.  When they plan to detonate, dismantle and destroy the complex ecosystem that is English society, they do not care to worry about those of us who are like bumblebees: those of us who need, in amongst the impervious concrete constructs, habitat-generating holes in Lakeland stone-style walls.

The shock and awe of Osborneconomics is an urban construct: the constructors and developers who remake the faces of our cities every twenty years do not care about complexities, preservation or the conservation of the existing.

Yesterday, visiting Windermere and Bowness showed me – reminded me – that change needs to be managed not imposed; but managed in the sense of appreciating and dealing with its impact on real environments and not in the sense of that managerialist approach which involves brainwashing workforces, voters and affected populations into meek and materialist submission.

Meanwhile, a BBC feature on how extreme isolation warps the mind usefully came my way this evening.  If you’re in the UK I’m not sure that the link I’m going to give you will be accessible – if they know what they’re doing, a redirect will kick in; if not, do try and search it – it’s worth your time.  Anyhow.  Here’s the link I’ve got and a flavour of what it says:

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

What, then, am I saying with these three pieces I quote from above?  Or what am I trying to say?  Conflict, especially violent conflict, especially violent conflict in the absence of the dynamics of consensus, is not primarily because of the money merchants who distribute the machines of death; is not primarily because of the flags and religions which shear people away from each other; is not even because of land which should belong to one or another.  Conflict, especially violent conflict, is a matter – ultimately – of language.  And in this sense, it is due to a traumatic failure of language.

Language doesn’t really work very well at the best of times.  Our vocabulary is highly individual, carrying a baggage of memories and experiences no one else shares.  It’s a miracle that any overlap of meaning exists at all – at least to the extent that we may communicate enough not to be permanently at each other’s throats.  So it’s hardly surprising that in the more extreme environments we see this month – Gaza, Ukraine and Syria – it should be possible to read phrases tossed out on social networks along the lines of “Today I saw a man putting pieces of his son into a shopping-bag”; hardly surprising, I would argue, even as it is clearly distressingly disturbing.

No.  I’m not looking to relativise very different situations.  I’m not looking to avoid taking ownership for my opinions either.  Although it is true that I feel I don’t have the knowledge to decide which side is right – even that I don’t think I have the right to make that judgement.  And, in fact, I think that maybe this is the wider nub of the problem: geopolitical behaviours of a cruelly managerialist bent have taken over long ago from local knowledge and understanding.  Brains and ideas bods swoop in at the drop of an emergency hat (or not as the case may be – Syria perhaps a terrible case in point).  We’re forever assuming greater forces will pull out their bloodied rabbits and solve, by some multi-polar magic, the creaking faults of latterday international relations.  And when I say we, I mean all of us who have ever – all of us who will ever – find ourselves in the midst of some violent conflict or another.  Not just the onlookers who balefully observe via the web, social networks, mainstream TV and so forth.

In truth, few people in such environments are entirely in charge of their destinies, of what they do or say, of how they react to events – or, indeed, how they can manage history’s march.  If we still find it so difficult to work out who messed us up in a sequence of banking crises in 2008 for goodness sake, how can we decide right now who to usefully blame when a democratic state and a half-baked national solution start firing rockets at each other; when a government and “rebel” opposition of geopolitically sustained violence lead to the destruction of a passenger plane, the spiriting away of bloating human remains and the vanishing into thin air of surface-to-air missile batteries and black boxes various; or when a war-torn society destroys streets, town centres, cities and communities where people once used to live their lives in peace if not in our prized liberal freedoms?

“Usefully blame?” you ask.  “And what do you mean by that?”  Well, again, there’s the nub of the issue.  “Stop the War!” perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Maybe, far better, “Stop War!”

There’s a difference.

At least for me.

I wonder if it exists for you too.

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Jul 182014
 
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Imagine the script, if you will.

“Diktat 2015″

Part II – 2014

Scene I – February – #caredata

The British government claims to have had a very bright idea: release all NHS patient medical records in England for use by the life-science industry to improve patient outcomes and research opportunities.  The system will involve an automatic opt-in – only if a patient wishes to opt out will any paperwork need filling in.

Unfortunately, it then transpires that data has already been wildly made available – and what’s more, tons of other interested parties have had/are having/will have access to such juicy datasets.

The reaction, ultimately, from the confused population is so strong that the plans are put on hold for a few months – which isn’t to say, of course, that institutions and companies various won’t continue to dig around your medical records.

Scene II – July – #DRIP

It takes the British body politic only three days to pass wide-ranging legislation which allows the state to keep a record (no one knows if rolling or not) of up to twelve months of voters’ private communications, web interactions and other assorted digital records.

That people may be unhappy to have this legislation passed without even a vote in the House of Lords really doesn’t seem to worry the legislators an iota.  The state (and the aforementioned wider body politic, of course) has clearly learnt from the #caredata imbroglio – when in doubt about your ability to persuade the voters and bring them round to accepting a ridiculous undermining of their human rights, just ignore them.

Part III – 2015

Scene I – May – #GE2015

Unable to see the difference between any of the main political parties, insignificant and unimportant voters like myself began some months before to shear off from their traditional allegiances.

This only benefits the Tories, who proceed to win the 2015 general election outright.  Recriminations are multiple on the left of the political spectrum – in truth, the fact is that in what used to be the humane, open-minded and liberal part of our previously shared civilisation we now have general agreement amongst the political parties that process is secondary to expediency.

What’s more, there is also broad acceptance in the political classes that an elitist perception of what people need hits the issues far more accurately on the head than consultation, dialogue and representation ever can.  As we begin to realise that this is what our representatives think, we the voters realise and conclude that there really is no bloody point any more.

Scene II – October – #NewEnglandOldTories

Events not entirely under Cameron’s control lead England to end up giving in to the Scottish Declaration of Independence.  This looks like a defeat, but defeats are unpredictable beasts.  In truth, the Tories now have total freedom to remake England in their image.  The #caredata project is resurrected – perhaps resuscitated would be more accurate – and so it is that no NHS England patient will be given the right to opt out of the scheme unless, that is, they choose to opt out of public sector medicine altogether.  The plan to fully monetise patient data is extended to allow access by any company or organisation which can demonstrate it is a duly registered data controller and user with a financial interest in any of our (ie the voters’) behaviours which might be affected by any medical conditions we have.  These parties include insurance companies, potential employers and local councils.

The #DRIP project will also be revised: the data collected will not now be limited to the last twelve months, but, far more importantly, will be similarly monetised to improve the voter experience.  The details around who will be able to purchase the information are unclear in the month the legislation will become law, but in the totally unexpected and entirely unrelated announcement of a merger between Google and Facebook (dependent, of course, on the relevant tax breaks and other bespoke emollients) there is a footnote to the documentation which indicates they have been in talks with Number 10 for quite some months now.  (It’s even been suggested that the two companies are preparing to install massive server farms on prime greenbelt land around Chipping Norton, fuelled via the fracking of land under a number of local homesteads – land which, incidentally, is currently used to hide potentially embarrassing copies of hundreds of thousands of ministerial SMS texts and unofficial emails of many fascinatingly compromising kinds.)

Scene III – November – #EOP #sofaengland

As government now operates without due consultation or scrutiny, five years of Parliament are finished off in a month.  The #EOP (or, more laboriously, #EndOfParliament) hashtag does the rounds, as it must – but this safety valve was only to be expected.

So it is that the Prime Minister, MPs, support staff and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition suddenly run out of things to even apparently do.  In order to justify their salaries for the next four years and seven months – and out of a residual sense of twisted responsibility, I suppose – they collectively decide to retire to the countryside and spend their days hunting foxes, shooting pigeons, evicting the disabled, cleaning moats, building duck islands, flipping mortgages, gassing badgers and closing down any food banks which have the temerity to set up stall in their constituencies.

In the meantime, the state runs itself very nicely, thank you.  Some weird people protest; get blackmailed into silence, probably via carelessly administered #caredata and #DRIP intel; ultimately accept their lot; and, quite understandably, find themselves dying in front of their goggle boxes Google boxes when their time ineludibly comes.

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Jul 182014
 
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I’m a member of Open Rights Group, the Fabians and Labour.  I also remain an associate member of the small trades union Accord.  The latter is more out of sentiment than practicality.  I no longer work in the sector where it operates, but the people who run it treated me well.  The add-on legal and travel services are also good value-for-money factors in my membership.

When I return to Britain after my working holiday here in Spain, I have decided – today – to curtail my membership of both Labour and the Fabians.  I shall continue to pay my dues to ORG.  This open letter to the current UK Home Secretary is the reason why:

Dear Theresa, see you in court

Parliament has a done a terrible thing. They’ve ignored a court judgment and shoved complex law through a legislative mincer in just three days.

But in doing so they won’t have had the final word. You’re already shown them the growing public opposition to mass surveillance. There was incredible action from supporters: 4458 of you wrote to your MPs with even more phoning up on the day of the vote.  Together we helped 49 MPs rebel against the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. It may have passed, but thanks to you they know that we do not agree.

Help us challenge DRIP: Join now

Meanwhile, my own political party was rolled in ways I never expected possible.  And the process that was #DRIP, as described above in ORG’s letter, showed that:

When they’re of a mind, the political class is just that: a class, quite separate from the voters who vote for it. Able to decide anything.

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

Tom Watson MP described the process as “democratic banditry, resonant of a rogue state. The people who put this shady deal together should be ashamed.”

The fact is that they are neither ashamed of what they are doing nor dislike the idea of giving other rogue states a lead.  And I know exactly what I am talking about.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was hospitalised for believing the state was tracking me for my political beliefs.  I was hospitalised for a month, informed in their clinical judgement that I would be unable to work for more than two hours unpaid work a week on being released – only to then start, after a month’s poking and prodding, a full twenty-hour shift in a fast-food restaurant in Chester.

What did I believe was happening to me?

  1. My Windows computer was being intervened.
  2. My mobile phone was being hacked.
  3. My landline was being interfered with.
  4. My email was being intercepted.

I was – as a result – terrified, of course; my illness was manifest and real.  But the causes were not so clear, especially in retrospect.

The killer question I was asked at the time (in particular by the psychiatrist who insisted on interviewing me at 5 am in the morning, in the presence of an abusive family member and their doctor friend, but never in consultation with my wife – either before or after) ran as follows:

If all these things are happening to you, what have you done for them to happen?  Why are you important enough for anyone to want to do any of the above?

I now fast-forward to today, to #DRIP’s passing and what it really means.  #DRIP sanctions and makes real for us all what happened to me eleven years ago.  For it’s not just, as Paul Bernal has suggested, the normalising of surveillance worldwide that is so terrible (clearly the case here, it is true; clearly a reality which would have made that killer question, which destroyed my moral resistance at the time, entirely unreasonable).  It’s also the normalising of their absence of shame.  The fact that they don’t care we see them all as so undemocratic; the fact that they don’t care other truly rogue states now fully enjoy the cloak of precedence that #DRIP’s process provides; the fact that the trampling of democracy doesn’t make them bewildered in any way … all of this and so much more is the real and quite terrifying normalisation which is taking place.

Yes.  The example will be repeated.  But I can promise you, for many unimportant people like myself, at a personal level only satisfaction emerges from the shenanigans that is the current British body politic.  What happened to me, what I suffered for and had to make my family suffer too, was happening to you as well I am sure.  It’s just that you didn’t perceive or understand it.

And so now I enjoin you to become an associate member of the paranoid.  Don’t worry.  It won’t mean you’re ill.  It’ll just mean you understand what’s happening.  Whatever we are, do or think in our lives will now be important enough to be tracked, exchanged and intercepted by the state.

For as paranoia, it is manifestly no longer the case.  That is exactly how personal it gets.

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Jul 162014
 
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I just tweeted in rather ironic tone the following:

Plaything of cybercriminal, paedophile, govt – even social-network users for goodness sake! – the web’s breaking up like a rusting old car.

I’d just read this, where under current legislation (significantly, no need for #DRIP here), but with new process and procedure, forty-five police forces have managed to coordinate their efforts and capture 660 suspected paedophiles.  I presume mainly online paedophiles (ie paedophiles who use online tools to commit crimes), and do wonder if in the future this won’t lead to another digital divide opening up: that where law enforcement concentrates on arresting a far larger proportion of those who operate online than it will do with respect to those who operate more carefully behind closed doors – and in that far more difficult-to-profile real (or, indeed, historical) world.

I am also minded to wonder how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of damaged adults are now hiding within their very private selves the consequences of historical child abuse.  Some would argue that the web augments the activity: I would suggest (with no professional background or figures to boast of, mind) that child abuse is probably a pretty steady statement of intent in most societies, and if less than a year’s concerted effort yields 660 arrestees in the UK, how many more criminals in how many other years have, at all levels in society, avoided the same fate?

I don’t, of course, suggest they’ve historically avoided detection.  I do suggest they’ve historically avoided prosecution.

Meanwhile, this story popped up a little late in my timeline this afternoon:

 Former Labour shadow minster Diane Abbott said her party’s leadership had been hoodwinked into supporting the legislation.

“I believe – I hate to say this because they are all nice people – that those on the opposition front bench have been rolled,” she said.

“All ministers had to do was to raise in front of them the spectre of being an irresponsible opposition, and that children will die if they do not vote for the bill on this timetable, and they succumbed.”

And yet, I would remind you, we have the news already mentioned that, under current legislation, 660 suspected paedophiles can be tracked down and captured.  So why the urgency for making the extra-legal behaviours of the past decades entirely legal law right now?

The problem for me with the surveillance state we’re getting is that it mimics very closely long-running debates of a very technical nature between closed source and open source software licence regimes.  In the former, we trust that one company knows what it needs to know, and will be able to protect us in a timely fashion from any and every cyberattack.  In the latter, when it works at its best, we make the knowledge available to everyone, so that any clever corruption of good intentions can be anticipated, resolved and removed from the system as quickly as possible.

The million eyes which – when they work as they should – work to a common cause.

The dynamics are very similar in the case of child abuse and the passing of #DRIP: allow the relatively few eyes of the security services total access to information, trust they will do with it what they should (we never get paedophile police officers, after all!) and assume that the only criminals acting out there belong to the levels of society who won’t get the right to see the intelligence about each other – or perhaps, more worryingly, won’t get to doublecheck the intelligence about their “betters”.

What we’re getting, then, is the undue exertion of power.  What we need is something different.  If the worldwide web and the Internet it runs on was a real-world chain of, say, toddlers’ playgroups or young children’s schools, and we suddenly and analogously proposed changing the ground rules as savagely as has been demanded (for example, installing CCTV in all children’s environments; recording every word spoken; registering for years the acts of every carer and parent), all of us would find outrage within our reach.  We would see it as abuse (even as it claimed to look to prevent its taking place); we would perceive it, at the very least, as a supremely uncoordinated act of change management; and we would realise how anti-democratic it was all shaping up to be.

Instead, to paraphrase Diane Abbott, we’re all on the point of allowing ourselves to be rolled.

The web and the wider Internet are, indeed, oxidising into uselessness.  There’s still time to rescue them, I’m sure.  But it’ll require a mighty change of mentality and mindsets from us all: from the voters; from the parents; from our MPs who still claim to represent us; from our leaders and from the led together – from anyone, in fact, who cares about democracy.

For that’s what the #DRIP process really stands for.  Unintentionally, perhaps.  In reality, all the same.

democracy | rest in peace

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Jul 162014
 
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Sunny has an excellent summary of all the issues surrounding #DRIP, especially in relation to the mess on civil liberties which my own political party, Labour, now finds itself irremediably in.  You can find this summary here (whilst I have previously posted here and here).  One of the most important points he makes is this one (the bold is mine):

Civil liberties are a social justice issue too – a point some Labour MPs and activists don’t seem to have quite yet grasped. When the police or security services abuse their ever-growing powers, the victims are invariably ethnic minorities and/or the most marginalised in society. From stop-and-search to 90 days detention and even the Malicious Communications Act – it has always people from minority backgrounds or those with unpopular opinions who get harassed, spied on or arrested.

And so on the back of this thoughtful article, I had the following thought: Parliament is often no more than a reflection of many tendencies in a wider society.  The one I would focus on this morning is that which is inscribed by corporate capitalism: as the free market is now controlled and progressively marshalled by interventionist wealth, a wealth which in the ultimate analysis is anything but a creature of libertarian mindsets, so what we might describe as a once “free” democracy – understood as that liberal beast where the opportunity to express oneself without too much fear, alongside the economic liberty to create business without too much heavy-handed interference from above, was far more important than almost any other marker in the sand – in the end has quite similarly been taken over by the monopolistic tendencies of commercial representation.

The #DRIP process is nothing more than the logical result of representative democracy in general.  It started out as a fairly scattered and individualistic kind of thing – but over the years it has become imperceptibly more concentrated: not more unrepresentative, you understand – it continues to represent like hell, and represent both directly and indirectly the interests of billions of people.  It’s just that the individual voters who used to be called to the urns to rubber stamp rising political stars and movements no longer have a place in the hierarchy of representation which such a democracy now manifests.

Where capitalism and the free market are owned by the giants of business (go no further than the international trade treaties being negotiated behind our backs), so representative democracy no longer belongs to individual people.

This is why #DRIP really should come as no surprise at all.  It’s not a question of the security services doing a big evil to our freedoms and democratic processes.  They were overly ripe for picking – bordering on the rotting – as they stood, as they hung, anyway.

For if truth be told, at least the truth I see, the next step will be to widen the #DRIP process to other areas of policymaking.  Especially in the interests of a spurious “democratic efficiency”.  Especially in the interests of future “ease of management”.

The logical result of free-market economics?  Corporate capitalism – and all the inefficiencies it implies.

The logical result of representative democracy?  Government by diktat – and a return to the violence of previous political agendas.

A violence we thought well vanquished.

How wrong we were.

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Jul 152014
 
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In my previous post today I outlined why I’m unhappy with the data retention legislation, commonly called #DRIP, which is being careered through Parliament at a rate of knots never before seen.

I pointed out one of the reservations many people may begin to have in the near future about the legislation itself: who can practically remove from state servers the information ISPs pass to them when the twelve-month best-by date falls?

You might want to visit that post before we continue this one.

*

My disgust with #DRIP’s process leads me to want to simply disengage.  Cameron has recently stated it is his clear intention to prevent, by law and coercion, workers from withdrawing their labour (ie striking).  Up to now, however, I don’t think he has considered the need to act in a similarly coercive way with respect to those of us who use the Internet to interact with the government, public institutions and so forth.  I suggest he might want to.

In the very near future too.

What can we do when laws are passed in such unseemly ways?  If we are talking about strike legislation itself, all we can do is not go to work – and take the sucker punch as best we can.  It will cost us too: with respect to our standards of living; our families’ sense of equilibrium and balance; our own sense of security and wellbeing.

But what if we are talking about the desire to communicate privately?  Not secretively.  Just privately.  Perhaps it is time to flood government with paper documentation, local councils with postal complaints and observations – and friends and families with blue-enveloped real-world letters that take a little bit of time to write, a while to reach their destinations – and a deliciously savoured half hour or so of reflective reading and rereading.

But if in exchange we regain our sense of privacy, why not?

My observation is the following: imagine millions of us started using snailmail for government communication; imagine billions of us, all worried about state and corporate snooping, began to wean ourselves off – in obviously painful cold turkey sorts of ways – the habit of communicating instantaneously with each other; imagine we were able to make a date to meet someone a week ahead and stick to it; imagine we began to value being over reacting and participating over spectating; imagine we really decided to pursue that privacy we’ve lost … would governments like Cameron’s – and body politics like the ones Clegg and Miliband manifestly form a firm and irresistible part of – eventually end up passing laws which required us, on pain of state-sanctioned fines and imprisonment, to use the Internet to communicate with their servants and – indeed – between ourselves?

That is to say, if we began to boycott #DRIP’s wide-ranging reach and powers by simply not using the Internet wherever we could avoid it, would they come together one fine July afternoon in, say, 2015, and pass the kind of coercive measures which made it impossible for any private person to go about going offline in a focussed, organised and structured manner – even when this manner was engineered with a demonstrably benign intention?

Or would “demonstrably benign intention” not be an option in such circumstances?  Would anything which involved attempting to disengage with tools of surveillance – simply out of a desire not to be, say, watched inside one’s home and in conversation with one’s beloved ones – be interpreted as an attack on the integrity and security of the state?

‘Cos it’s one small step, in my suspicion-filled world, from preventing a worker who wishes to withdraw their labour from doing so on the one hand to preventing a once habitual Internet user who wishes to retire their footprint and profiles from easy access from doing so on the other.

And I don’t half get the feeling, today of all days, that this one small step is about to be taken.

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Jul 152014
 
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I posted recently, unwisely I suppose, on the Facebooking of the political party I belong to – the Labour Party.  Today, I realise this has extended to the whole British body politic, state, security services and every citizen who lives on our islands.

The Guardian reports the so-called #DRIP lawmaking process thus:

Forty-nine MPs have voted against rushing the government’s emergency surveillance legislation through all its Commons stages in just one day.

A deal between the three major parties, however, secured the fast-track timetable by 436 votes to 49, despite accusations from one Labour MP that the move amounted to “democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state”.

It concludes with the following summary of the powers being rushed through:

The bill requires internet and phone companies to store the communications data generated by phone calls, email, texts and internet use for 12 months and make it accessible to police and security services.

So why do I call this a “state-run Facebook imposed on every UK Internet user”?  Mainly because once you’re a part of Facebook, the most you can do is delete your osmotic public persona – if you’re looking to remove your data from their servers, however, think twice, three times, as many times as you want: it won’t ever be clear whether it’s happened or not.

A similar issue with this #DRIP bill.  (Bill?  How naive of me.  Probably law by now … they’ve had two days, after all, bless ‘em, to get through the complexities of the process.)

In the same way as I’ve never been very clear about what happens to your Facebook data – even on deletion of your account – so I’m not clear about the implications of the conclusion of the Guardian‘s report; and it’s a fact I’m sure is not due to the reporters themselves.

How can I ensure Facebook has removed my data, likes, posts, comments and photos from every single server it owns, when I ask for us to go our separate ways?  I can’t be.

Equally, after the last twelve months of my Internet activity’s been released to the police et al, what happens next month to the first of that last twelve months’ block?  Do the police et al conscientiously remove the first half of a telling email thread from their files because it started thirteen months ago and is now out of my best-by date?  Or do they realise – for the security of the nation, its peoples and paedophile political classes (or not as the case may unjustly be alleged) – that they actually need to hang onto not only thirteen months of my Internet history but, now, as I slowly progress down the evil road they believe I am taking, fourteen, fifteen or even twenty-four long months – whilst they wait for me to make my surely criminal moves?

Really, what I’m asking, much as I’d ask in the case of a data subject’s desire to be permanently removed from Facebook’s servers, is who is possibly going to be able to oversee the correct removal of tens of millions of British citizens’ datasets on a 24/7 rolling basis, week after week, month after month, year in and year out – until the end of civilisation as we know it?  (This latter date being probably July 16th, when #DRIP will clearly be law.)

I suppose if we really cared to do it right, we could solve unemployment overnight.

In the 20th century, they talked about digging holes, burying bags of money – and then proceeding to dig them up again.

In the 21st century, they now may talk about invading privacies, hollowing out voters’ lives – and then proceeding to pay other people bags of futile dosh to ogle the multiple intimacies of the obviously guilty multifarious.

The principle’s the same, of course.  The utility, creativity and imagination required too.

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Jul 102014
 
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I thought I’d be as formal in my post’s title as possible today.  As of yesterday, I have an official complaint lodged with NHS England about procedure and process at our local pharmacy.  This comes on the back of an error committed last year by the pharmacy I used to use.

I’ve had epilepsy for most of my life, though with a gap of about ten years in my thirties where I didn’t require medication.  Last year, a Chester pharmacy dispensed a number of 300 mg Epilim tablets instead of the normal 500 mg I take.  The size was very similar; the colour identical; the blister pack had only a slight difference in hue on one side.  For a couple of days, I took them without realising – though fortunately no side-effects were felt.  I complained to the pharmacy’s head office, received the corresponding apology and on my following visit for my next prescription it was explained to me how procedures were being changed to avoid a repeat of the issue.

Actually, that next prescription also included a pair of 300 mg tablets.  I was on holiday by then but on my return, I notified both the pharmacy (they didn’t believe me, I’m afraid) and the manufacturer, with the suggestion that, in the future, the two sizes of tablets be differentiated better physically.  The manufacturer took down all kinds of personal details over the phone (all the medication I took; all my conditions; name, address, telephone etc.), and I’ve heard absolutely nothing from them since then.

Meanwhile, as a result of what had happened – and after a long prescription issued by the surgery due to computer problems last summer – I decided to change the pharmacy I went to.

Surprise, surprise – for the first time in my life, I was given a generic sodium valproate, stomach-resistant I think it was called (or maybe gastro-resistant – I can’t remember exactly); clearly, however, not the controlled-release branded Epilim I was accustomed to.  I thought nothing more of this as I assumed it was part of a drive to reduce costs by using generic equivalents.

Last week, a member of my family was issued with a double prescription to cover the summer holidays they were shortly going away on.  Only three of the four bottles were available; the young woman at the pharmacy said she’d order a fourth and it’d be ready at the beginning of this week.  We both went in on Tuesday to pick up our prescriptions, in my case me having phoned first to doublecheck that everything was ready.

Sadly, it wasn’t – and so this is my anecdotal evidence accumulating that not all is right in English pharmacies.  From one big national chain to another, problems with procedures and process have arisen again: this time, only half my prescription was ready, and when I got home, I realised only about ninety percent of that half.  In my relative’s case, the fourth bottle hadn’t been ordered; there was no record of anyone having requested such an order; and neither was there any record of any prescription having being issued since April.

We agreed to return yesterday, which we did – only to find, after phoning once more in the morning to doublecheck everything would be ready (they said it would be), that whilst the second half of my prescription had been readied, the first half’s missing component hadn’t arrived (or hadn’t been ordered) (or had been lost) (and we’re talking only twelve tablets here – twelve damn tablets!).  The manager wasn’t there that day, so in the end to calm the justifiably rising hackles of my relative, I asked for a contact number to complain and then phoned NHS England and registered my dissatisfaction.  (Amongst other things in this complaint, I mentioned the fact that on no occasion had either myself or my relative been given an IOU receipt for part-prescriptions not dispensed.  In our experience, this is what other pharmacies do everywhere.  On reflection, we found it most surprising.  One more procedural issue to add to the weary mix.)

Let it be clear, and just to reiterate: my NHS England complaint was all couched in terms of procedures and process, of course; all the time saying I understood the pressures the people in question were currently working under – especially with the backdrop of a savage cutting behind the scenes by this Coalition government of frontline NHS services.

Anyhow.  Today, Thursday, we went back to the same pharmacy.  I entered alone, and spoke to the congenial young manager.  He was honest, took ownership and explained a dire financial background.  I said I appreciated the situation – and accepted his apologies.  I did query one thing: the previous day, to a person who said he was filling in, I had seen the generic sodium valproate I had been given for my previous prescription, and I’d asked him why I couldn’t just have twelve tablets of generic equivalent to complete what was missing.  He went and had a look, came back shortly and said abruptly: “There are no generic equivalents.”

I mentioned this incident today to the manager, who took the information onboard but was unable to explain anything further at the time.  When we got back home, there was a voicemail waiting for me on the landline.  It asked me to phone him about the “generic sodium valproate”, and so I did immediately.

It then transpired that I’d actually been on the wrong epilepsy medication for two months.  The doses had been correct but the delivery technology was different: ie the generic wasn’t given in a controlled-release way.  The manager was most apologetic and didn’t minimise how serious the consequences could’ve been.  I began to feel sorry for him.  I didn’t want to pile further misery onto the original circumstances – especially as I knew an official complaint was already being processed with NHS England.  But I did suggest that perhaps it wasn’t now just a question of procedures and process: that the person who made the mistake needed urgent feedback and coaching at the very minimum.

I have to say, however, I shall have no compunctions about being more assertive about my medication in the future.  If anything changes, I shall question it most firmly.  And I shall check every blister pack I used to blithely take – but, blithely anyway, will do so no more.

A couple of final thoughts: firstly, to err is human, and errors happen.  But the reason we have national corporate chains is so they can learn from mistakes and transmit organically-acquired knowhow – in a timely, accurate and lifesaving fashion – to all their staff and employees, through appropriate induction training, as well as on-the-job and continuous learning programmes.  (That’s the value they’re supposed to add.  That’s the reason we tolerate such huge profit margins.)

I’m not sure that this has been the case here, though – nor on the previous occasion I experienced either.

Secondly, in times of radical change – and whether you agree with the motives behind a particular change or not – everyone can surely agree to accept that managing such flux is a paramount responsibility, especially when we’re dealing with the lives of people who depend on medication to keep chronic illness at bay and ensure that they remain safe, happy, independent and productive.

And again, the anecdotal evidence I lay before you today doesn’t really convince me that this has necessarily happened.

Finally, my relative didn’t get the fourth bottle they were looking for.  Not the make in question.  They had, instead, to settle for something else.  The reason for the preference?  Once more, a method of delivery: a translucent bottle makes controlling how much is left much easier, as does a dropper which allows for better control of the medication.

So.  Unnecessarily unhappy patients, staff, companies and institutions.  A sad – and potentially dangerous – set of situations all around.

At least in these anecdotal cases I put before you this evening.  At least in my own personal experience.

Anyone else – maybe who works on the coalface – who knows whether this is either par for an increasingly depressing course or, alternatively, exceptions which unfairly disprove a rule?

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Jul 092014
 
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First, we had #FacebookExperiment, where Facebook took it upon itself, for a week or so in January 2012, to make people happy or sad by deliberately manipulating the kind of content they saw.  Now we have #DarpaExperiment:

Several of the DoD-funded projects went further than simple observation, instead engaging directly with social media users and analysing their responses.

One of multiple studies looking into how to spread messages on the networks, titled “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information” did just this.

The researchers explained: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”

Of course, this is no creepier in its essence than Facebook showing me a picture of a hearse and a tagline which runs along the following lines: “Are you 53 next birthday?  Want to leave something to your nearest and dearest?”  (This, by the way, happened to me a couple of days ago.  I wonder, now,  whether it was actually part of the #DarpaExperiment – a warning of some sort or other!)  (Well.  I don’t really … but the thought is engaging.)

What really cheeses me off about all these stories circulating around how institutions, corporations and governments are treating end-users as laboratory garbage to be summarily dealt with and experimented on is that people like myself, brought up to believe in good science, in the scientific method and in progress through robust and rigorous experimentation, are allowing ourselves to become 21st century Luddites: through a natural preoccupation about privacy abuse, we’re reacting with closed minds, knee-jerk responses and an impulsive resistance to anything which involves going out on a limb.

What I’m really worried about, what I really hate, is that Facebook, Darpa and God knows who else are destroying our belief in any science at all – as they promote their activities and interests through examples of very bad practice.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by new ideas, by stuff which wasn’t quite right but seemed worthy of exploration.  At one point in my childhood, I devoured Isaac Asimov sci-fi; read things like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Lord of the Flies”; was exposed to the injustices of “Julius Caesar”; discussed and debated all manner of moral and political quandaries.

And now all the terrible things they’re doing with our personal lives have turned me into one of those people whose very first – and very last – instincts are to declaim self-righteously: “NO!  NO!  NO, NO, NO!”

So where did my open-minded, generously boyish nature go to?  How did my excited, excitable, wide-rangingly young mind vanish from the amplifying experiences of new thought?  What have these behemoths of permanent analysis, control and manipulation done to the environments which once nurtured me in the direction of new ideas so positively and constructively?

And does anyone else feel the same has also happened to them?

Really, I don’t dislike Facebook, Darpa or any of the rest for trying to make me change my mind on stuff – nor for wanting to influence my society’s future direction and development.  Really, it matters not a jot to me.  Mostly, I think our ideas remain pretty steady – oh yes, elections may be won or lost on the cusp of a stupid public statement or policy slip-of-the-tongue, but then do elections actually ever change anything anyhow?

What does upset me, however, is how they’ve buggered up our practice in weaving thoughtful trains of thought, and basing civilisation’s growth on proper and valid argument, debate and discussion.

I don’t want to be a 21st century Luddite.  And you’re making me more so, every hour that goes by.

So for that, I really do object in the strongest terms.

Can you understand why?

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Jul 082014
 
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I got it mostly wrong in my previous post when I said that people may be sending missives to Google, in order to get links removed from its listings when my name – miljenko williams – is searched.  Usefully, the always kindly Paul Bernal tweeted me a number of clarifications, which – as is my wont – simply make me think of more questions.

To summarise what Paul has said to me this evening (please correct me if I am wrong) in two easy-to-understand points:

  1. Google slaps the phrase “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more” at the bottom not only of my search results but Paul’s and almost everyone else’s because – according to its algorithms, listings or other opaque critera – we are not public figures.
  2. If, for example, you search a famous singer – paul mccartney, say – no such message appears at the bottom of the screen.  This is precisely because he is a public figure.  Only ordinary people have a right to be forgotten; the paul mccartneys of this world do not (though I did read yesterday that he and other famous people were, as we speak and write, getting Google to rub out Street View images of their mansions various).

So if this is as clear to me as it is to you, why do I find myself asking more questions?  Well, judge for yourself – here are those questions I’m asking as a result:

  1. When is a person not a public figure?  I can understand, for the reasons I gave yesterday about my own professional trajectory, why Google would judge me not to be a public figure – but what about someone like Paul Bernal, so involved in and committed to modern digital rights at both a personal and institutional level?  I mean, how is it possible Google judges that under the recent EU legislation he still has a right to be forgotten?  He has written, spoken, published and debated in so many public spaces that it really begs the question: what do you have to do to become a public figure?  What does being a public figure mean?  What, in fact, are its criteria actually aiming to define?
  2. Is there not something quite pernicious in this defining of what a public versus a private figure is?  And doesn’t it seem to indicate that for a long time now Google’s been using certain assumptions to define whom people more generally would prefer to find on the web and whom they wouldn’t?  Assumptions, I assume, which could be quite questionable for many of us.  So what am I saying?  That a real downside of Google’s application of EU principles on the right for private figures to be forgotten is that it can be used to reinforce the power the eagerly public have over the rest of us.  Sure, it’s important we can regain our privacy if we should want to – but what if the already powerful and politically galvanised, implicated and cleverly controlling look to use, in the future, the related right not to be forgotten (for alongside the right to be forgotten must exist its opposite) to push ordinary people out of public spaces all over again – returning, as a result, the body politic, public discourse and ordinary participation in political communication and activity back to the 19th century of hierarchical elites?

Yes.  Essentially what I’m suggesting – to develop the argument a little more – is that whilst Europe has been looking to recover a sensible take on online identity and ordinary people’s control over the same, the consequence of its cack-handed absence of a due consultation process on the matter is that public figures who wish to remove unpleasant truths from the worldwide web’s historical account can return themselves unreasonably to the domain of private figures – especially where their legal resources permit this to happen.  But this isn’t the only – and rather obvious – consequence.  The other dangerous possibility – particularly for democracy and its future health – is that those figures Google already judges to be public will become more public, more powerful and more able to influence our societies as time goes by.

And all because Google refuses, in cahoots with well-meaning legislation, to hide their activities – even as the rest of us scurry, understandably, to recover our rabbit-in-the-headlights anonymity.

The already famous will become proportionately more so.

The already relatively private (people like you and me), looking to recover a semblance of 20th century intimacy, will become increasingly – and simultaneously – irrelevant.

As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!”  In the world where Google exerts an absolute control over whether one is visible or not, this could well become even truer than it was in the past.

So.  Tonight I have some questions for those who know about these things, to take away and mull over and contemplate their implications:

  1. In order to become visible on the web, as a figure defined by Google as public, what degree, level or quality of achievement or notoriety will be required in order to remain resultingly visible?
  2. Who will define such criteria, what ideology or ideologies will be used to define them and how transparent and democratic will the process of definition be?
  3. How will Google measure the right to visibility (even as Europe tries to measure the right to be invisible) when comparing, for example, “notorious” celebrities with “deserving” scientific researchers, authors or philosophers of tryingly challenging discourse?
  4. Who or what will ultimately decide who has the right to be read, listened to, watched and observed on this supposedly even-handed worldwide web?

The answers to these and other questions will define the future in two ways:

  1. It may lead to a reassertion of traditional modes of hierarchical representation in our civilisation and societies – in plain language, posh elites telling the plebs what they can do, think and say!
  2. It may lead to a continuing development of a more decentralised and distributed democracy – in plain language, ordinary people telling the elites to bugger off!

For if we get the next year or so as wrong as we’ve got the past month, I do fear it’ll be the ineffective, inefficient and finally lazy former at the terrible expense of what would surely be a far more constructive latter.

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Jul 072014
 
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Liberal society has always faced us with that partnership that is rights and obligations.  That is to say, no right can imply an absence of a corresponding obligation.  Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about “the right to be forgotten” – today bringing us this story from the Guardian for example, with stuff like this:

Following the ruling, Google has implemented a system where individuals can make a legally binding statement, requesting particular links be removed from searches on their name. The web pages with the information remain.

The newspaper goes on to report:

But the Guardian has now established from sources familiar with Google’s process that “queries that involve the name and other terms will also have the same effect” of hiding the pages complained about. “It wouldn’t make sense if you could simply add an extra term and negate the restriction,” the source said. [...]

Getting to be a bit of a weird and trying situation, isn’t it?

It gets weirder and more trying in my case.  If you search my name – miljenko williams – you’ll get a message from Google at the bottom of the search which says: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more”.  Meanwhile, if you separately search the name of this blog – 21stcenturyfix.org.uk – no sign of this message is to be found.  It’s clearly not a standard message which gets pasted at the end of any and every search request.

So what’s going on here then?  Why may certain references to my name have been removed – especially as I (promise!) haven’t asked Google to do so myself?  Who might have done?  And for what reason might they have done it?  (And if references to my name, why not references to my blog?  Surely blogs are more likely to encounter censorship than people’s individual lives and happenings.)

Back to our liberal partnership of rights and obligations: if we truly want to maintain such a society (there is of course, in latterday political behaviours, the growing feeling that we’re losing the desire to do so), we can’t sustain that there should be a “right to be forgotten” without a corresponding “obligation to be remembered”.  And as child abuse stories overwhelm the establishment, political life and mainstream media, this “obligation to be remembered” becomes evermore important.

But before I finish today, I would like to add one more concept to the mix: not just the obligation to be remembered – also the right!  Yes.  I’d like to assert the possibility that someone may prefer not to have their online identity munched away at the edges.

Listen: if someone has been firing off missives to Google, asking them to remove links which my name throws up from their listings, I would really like to know on what authority.  What’s more, I’d really like to know why they’re bothered in the first place.  I’m a smalltime blogger, rarely getting more than forty hits a day; a smalltime language trainer, getting by as best he can; an excellent proofreader, but again hardly bigtime; and a wannabe editor (for longer than I can remember), who once could’ve had a great future ahead of him.  Something bigger I may achieve some day – but hardly at the expense of anyone I’ve ever had dealings with, surely.

Oh yes.  There’s a process whereby notifying Google of one’s desire to be forgotten leads to links being removed.  But what if a data subject doesn’t want to be forgotten?  What if they would like to recover an even-handed online profile?  What if they don’t want to have their history digitally – and what’s more, opaquely – mashed up and minced as would seem is beginning to happen?

What, dear Googlers and the European Union both, is the procedure going to be when someone like me actually wants to exert the right to be remembered?

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Jul 062014
 
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This story – an old one, mind – came my way via Dan Gillmor on Twitter just now:

“As noted previously, Max Schrems of Europe Versus Facebook has filed numerous complaints about Facebook’s data collection practices. One complaint that has failed to draw much scrutiny regards Facebook’s creation of Shadow Profiles. ‘This is done by different functions that encourage users to hand personal data of other users and non-users to Facebook… (e.g. synchronizing mobile phones, importing personal data from e-mail providers, importing personal information from instant messaging services, sending invitations to friends or saving search queries when users search for other people on facebook.com). This means that even if you don’t use it, you may already have a profile on Facebook.’”

There’s a short .pdf you really should take a look at on the matter, which can be found here.  They’re called “shadow profiles” in the legal submission and above, but if truth be told they could also be described – in a way which whisks me back to beloved Star Trek days – as the anti-matter on which Facebook’s expansion is built.  Dark pools of knowledge about those people you don’t yet know too much about, but which will allow you to sustain the indefinite growth you need in order to keep a business model based on the pyramid of advertising from collapsing in on itself.

Or something like that, anyhow.

To kind of paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous assertion, it’s just as important to know as much as possible about what you don’t know as it is to know exactly what you do.

And the problem for the rest of us, as Facebook marches on, is that its manifest lack of either thick or thin legitimacy means potential competitors of a more scrupulous nature end up having to throw in the towel of better behaviours.  Where Facebook treads, everyone else finds themselves having to do so too.

In 1914, a very physical trench warfare became the norm.

A hundred years later, it’s moved online.  In 2014, the nearest thing to trench warfare we have is now raging between Facebook on the one hand and those companies who might respect our data a little more than is currently the case on the other.  Instead of bullets and shells and mustard gas and barbed wire, we have servers and IP addresses and the antisocial-matter that these “shadow profiles” from 2011 constitute.  But just as in 1914, ordinary people continue to be the cannon fodder of such warfare; and their lives, their privacies, their friends, relatives and acquaintances … well, as always, the bread and butter of those who benefit from such conflict.

It’s amazing that people can find out such stuff in 2011, and yet – fast-forwarding to today – for nothing to have changed.  And it’s not necessarily a step backwards in everything it might be either.  To replace the warfare of blood and guts with the warfare of bits and bytes may, in many ways, truly equal progress – even as it still involves the flesh-and-blood aspirations of people around their futures.

What worries me, all the same, is the lack of ambition it demonstrates: with all its massed resources and virtual tools, is this really the best model of civilisation Facebook can deliver?

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Jul 052014
 
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I wrote this some time ago:

Snowden isn’t the first person governments have refused to value sufficiently, because those who do the valuing are less brainy.

Nor will he be the last.

And so this is why it’s time we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in the strongest terms.

Not because war is immoral.  Not because invading privacy is wrong.  Not because punishing the poor for the evidence-free consequences of the rich is an unnatural and unacceptable turning over of justice and law.

No.  Why we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in those strongest terms I mention is because these second-rate behaviours are bloody inefficient!  Bloody inefficient – and, ultimately, dangerous for the very survival of our species.

As an empire on the planet, all of a sudden we are in retreat.

Is that really what we wanted; really what we needed; really what we expected of the century?

Meanwhile, an ultra-rich businessperson with considerable self-awareness writes this:

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

It’s well put; there’s a lot more behind the link above; and I strongly suggest that for the benefit and understanding of the rest of us, who live outside these “gated bubble worlds”, that you go ahead and read it all.

When you have, I’ll conclude my post for today.

*

Thinking on the analogies the ultra-rich businessperson in question uses, we feel – almost smell – the furious physicality of what’s being suggested: the French revolution; the inequality; feudal times; in particular, of course, the pitchforks themselves.

And when he says “You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising [...]“, we maybe can see with a clearer perspective what’s been happening in the first case my post today mentions: that of Snowden.  When we think about revolution, we think about swords, muskets, those blessed pitchforks and puddles of scrappy bloody battle.  But what if the aforementioned miscreant of secret information – a thought leader for many, I shouldn’t be surprised – is the template for future human pitchforking activity?

Such individuals wouldn’t form a revolution out of the traditional tools of Bolshevik uprising.  After all, we already have one of the most efficient police states in history – and all this under what is really a rather shady cloak of democracy (a cloak only ever hides).  Yet, even so, even now, it still obeys certain legal minimums as we attempt – despite ourselves – to maintain a semblance of free speech.

So a third option exists, quite apart from full-blown police state or bloody uprising: being as the battleground of tyranny in Western society is not so much one of physical imposition but of intellectual and constitutional code (requiring intelligence far more than brute force or revolutionary brawn to function correctly), what if we propose instead to understand the encroaching future of “not if, but when” in terms of the potential for a broad expansion of virtual pitchforks – pitchforks which may one day serve to destroy those at the top of the hierarchies encouraging all this grossly unsustainable inequality?

Virtual pitchforks?  How so?  Snowden is arguably one of the first to show the dangers for current hierarchies.  And when I say “current hierarchies”, I include all of us who benefit as well as all of us who suffer.  Just imagine such a future: a veritable coordinated swarm of puncturing points of action on a body politic, unable to sustain itself in the light of both present misdeeds and unravelling past practice.

Thus the surveillance state we now live in.  The terrorism from without exists, that is true.  And we shouldn’t underestimate its malevolence.  But the surveillance state which aims to protect the massive majority from the minute minority is a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s a double-edged provoker of pitchforks, the like of which we’ve never seen before.

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Jul 052014
 
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If, that is, we don’t do something first.

But first, a photo.  A badge of courage.  A statement of principles.  A declaration even, in times such as these, of battlecry proportions.

The principles of Bevan's NHS

(This photo and its text are, I believe, taken from a Bernadette Horton posting on a Unite the Union Facebook page – if other copyright owners also exist, please contact me for attribution or any other relevant action.)

So what different kind of illness am I talking about?  I’ve already posted recently on these pages about how – in a world of Snowden-like revelations – paranoia is becoming the default setting.  I left Spain in 2003, after a year of growing and ultimately debilitating paranoia, as I thought Microsoft was intervening my computer due to my work on OpenOffice.org – especially with respect to my desire to expand the software’s reach to Croatia.  And although these thoughts were clearly an illness at work, in the light of Snowden and everything we’ve discovered recently, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I was being tracked, manipulated and objectivised as well.

Who by?  Who knows!

The illness was real enough, but the causes may not have been as random as my diagnosis – carried out under the NHS of the day – ultimately chose to conclude.

(The problem with paranoia, at the best of times, is that you never know if the people who walk behind you are following you – or “following” you …)

So fast-forward to now.  And we see, all of a sudden, a new challenge to our mental wellbeing: the EU/Google “right to be forgotten” story – pounding, as it is, on our virtual doors and castle gates.  Whilst the NSA/GCHQ/Microsoft nexus was bringing us – indeed, has finally brought to a whole society – a virtual paranoia about as real as earlier centuries’ individual manifestations of sadly dodgy mental health, so the EU – alongside, in this case, Google (all on its lonesome, as befits behemoths everywhere) – has brought us a virtual memory loss about as real as any an Alzheimer’s could physiologically impose on us.  As search engines have taken away our ability to remember stuff without their help, once in such a position they – and others, presumably – have conspired to kick away the stools we’re been so happy to sit tall on.

This is why the real challenges ahead don’t only lie in what they wish to do to the principles of a society caring societally for its most infirm members.  They also lie in what hugely untransparent and opaque structures like our security services and our largest corporations do to normalise such consequentially infirm behaviours: from the paranoia Snowden’s world generates and validates in us to the inability to remember history – and therefore our progress and its stumblings – accurately, it’s quite possible that both attitudes will, in the future, become embedded in our psyches without our even realising it; without our even having the distance to acknowledge what’s happening.

To summarise then, in a tweet I didn’t send but which did serve to spark this post:

Time to forget “right to be forgotten”: whilst NSA/GCHQ bring us virtual paranoia, EU/Google hasten virtual memory loss.
Freedom to confuse.

As the man says: the freedom to confuse.  What a gloriously democratic right that is indeed.  And how magnificently they are taking the opportunity to do so.

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Jul 042014
 
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One of the great things about being a member of a political party is that it teaches you patience, tolerance, understanding and charity.  One of the bad things is when you strongly disagree with the implementation of a fantastic idea, you can’t hold your tongue even as you know someone’ll want to give you a tremendous bollocking.

So what’s on my mind tonight?  Well.  This you see below is.  And it’s a classic example of a brilliant concept – unfortunately and miserably (and, what’s more, without an ounce of self-awareness) implemented about as idiotically as it could have been.

The Facebooking of Labour

Let’s look at the data that’s being asked for, and see how relevant, proportionate, focussed and appropriate it might be:

  1. DOB – not just year, mind, but day and month too
  2. Your first name – though some will surely enter both first and last names
  3. Your email – clearly a key piece of data in order to discover your NHS baby number (not)
  4. Your postcode – hmm, yep, that’s manifestly of incredible utility here

Then in small print (admittedly smaller in my screengrab than on the webpage itself, but small on the webpage too) we get the following statement: “Please note: your baby number is only our best estimate, using census data. We’re also assuming you’re one of the 97% of babies born on the NHS.”

Then in very small print: “The Labour Party and its elected representatives may contact you about issues we think you may be interested in or with campaign updates. You may unsubscribe at any point. You can see our privacy policy here.”  (By the by, the phrase “You can see our privacy policy here” is in standard blue hyperlink colour, but on a grey background and thus virtually impossible to read.  It does nevertheless go to a very complete and I’m sure decently compliant overview of Party procedures and IT policies.)

Anyhow.  Imagine this wasn’t a Labour Party page.  Imagine, instead, this was an angel-funded, heavily-breathing, start-up competitor to, for example, Facebook.  (Just to imagine the possibility is quite difficult, don’t you think?  Just imagining that Facebook could actually have a competitor is challenging.  A terrible sign of the times in itself.)  Or if not a competitor to Facebook, something more prosaically English: say, for example, a revitalised replacement to the NHS patient record #caredata project.  Something where you had to give your opinion on huge changes – but in order to do so, you had to go to a website which asked you to give up your age, name, email and postcode, in exchange for telling you when you were going to – oh, I dunno – run out of money to pay for your healthcare.

We’d be rightly horrified; terribly shocked.  But the Facebooking of Labour, of politics in general, is complete.  Yes.  I appreciate the driver behind the whole shenanigans is the need to generate desperately needed funds for the Party’s relatively depleted war chest.  And I understand the importance of creating a shared love of pragmatic English socialist projects like the NHS and Legal Aid, both of which have been deliberately hollowed out by the Tory Party’s ideologues over the past four years.  But it would have been far better to separate the two objectives: first, allow people with just a single piece of data – year of birth, maybe – to find out an approximate NHS baby number (it is, in any case, very approximate) – and create that buzz of historical sharing in such a proportionate way; second, move on to the next page where – less eagerly, less breathlessly – further contact information could be reasonably and honestly obtained.

Anything else to say?  Not really.  I’ll get a bollocking for this now – or, even worse, will just get ignored.  Meanwhile, people like this are getting stuff like this done to them.

And so this Facebooking – not just of Labour, of course, but of society too – continues enthusiastically apace.

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