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!

Sep 112014
 
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Ben said this yesterday (the bold is mine):

To me, the Scots Independence debate seems to have shown a yearning not so much for separation, but rather for a state and a country that means something – for a better democracy.

I think we can (and definitely should) all share that aspiration, but the idea that Scotland by cutting loose will be free from the denationalising forces of global wealth and power that bear down on us and our governments is fanciful – if anything it will be more vulnerable to them, as will the rest of us. [...]

This I agree with, though with a number of caveats I shall outline in a minute.  He goes on to assert:

[...] There will be positive aspects in coming to terms with the reduced status that separation will bring, but they are nothing that could not be achieved within the union.

First, the caveats I mention.  Yes.  The smaller you are, the more likely you are to find yourself vulnerable to globalising forces you may not be able to resist.  However, having said that, it’s clear that the United Kingdom, as it stands, is in thrall to – has been in thrall to for decades now – those globalising forces which look to play off one nation’s workforces against another nation’s standards of living.  And instead of encouraging the payment of living wages, successive governments have subsidised large companies by an infrastructure of tax credits and other dependency-creating measures – all designed to weakly and ineffectually serve the hopes and working pride of generations of working people.  Just because you’re as big as the UK (as it has been to date) doesn’t mean you can necessarily make a different sociopolitical landscape out of what the globalisers want the world to toil under.

Nor that our politicians are going to be big-hearted or courageous enough – or even have that persistence and cognisance of a broader vision – to want to make that important difference Ben is clearly looking for.

Equally, just because you are smaller doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take firm stances against the kind of destruction of living standards taking place at the moment.  Iceland is an example of how small can sometimes mean humongous; and although I’m not saying we should necessarily follow their lead in the substance of such matters, I am saying we should be prepared to accept that size doesn’t have to be a question of numbers – it can also be a question of how assertively we exhibit our principles.

The second quote I took from Ben’s piece, where he argues that the positives we surely all desire can exist without but also within the Union, hits the nail, perhaps unconsciously, on the head: if I were in the unenviable position of voting in this election, I would still be wavering I can tell you.  For me, nothing at all that the “No” camp has said has convinced me that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.  Whilst Tories and Lib Dems have laid waste over the past four years to what once was a gloriously eccentric, fudging and generally socially responsible body politic, there is little left in public discourse – as mediated by our politicians, anyhow – which I find myself currently treasuring or wishing to rescue.

If the “Yes” camp wins in just a few days’ time, it will be because too many people have not been convinced by a “more of the same” argument.  An argument, in fact, which could have been couched in quite other terms: “Take this opportunity by the scruff of the constitutional neck to implement a total overhaul of everything we do – and are!”

But no.  The “No” camp simply believes in “more of the same”, precisely because the “No” camp has spent the last four years destroying all the evidence and practice of what truly made the United Kingdom united.

They have lost all contact with “what we used to be”, precisely because they have turned that “what we were” into that “what we used to be”.  With awful intentionality and deliberation, and with a clear ideology designed to disembowel everything which did clearly, naturally and beautifully bind us together in a constructive cultural dissonance.

We once were “better together”, of that I am sure – but not any more, I’m pretty clear.  Not in the light of historic child abuse; not in the light of historic police corruption; not in the light of media-led manipulation of democracy and its institutions; not in the light of a socialism by stealth which actually – in the end –  turned out to be the anteroom of a neoliberalism by shock and awe.

My advice for what it’s worth, then, to those with a right to vote in this referendum?

Vested interests will always use fear to defend their positions.  Voters’ sacred task is to filter their own from vested, & vote accordingly.

And that’s really the society we should be yearning for.

And that’s really the legacy we should be wishing to rescue with this damnably conflicted vote.

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Sep 072014
 
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As promised, I’ve been working hard on my biz – as befits this time of year.  Although, when working in an online environment, academic years and timeframes seem to mean less and less.

Here’s what I’ve been doing.  First, this blogpost where I announce for the price of six hours of personalised classes that you can get a maximum of an additional four hours of classes in group free.  It works something like this:

From October 2014 onwards, you will have the opportunity to buy blocks of six hours of personalised one-to-one training and combine them with up to four hours of group classes per month.

How can you take advantage of this offer? Just ensure you finish your block of six hours in one calendar month, with the same flexible timetables as always, and then choose up to four hours of themed group classes during the following month. There will always be two classes in the morning per week, as well as two classes in the evenings. You will also have the opportunity – by yourself! – to catch up on classes if you miss them.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook – where I now understand how well it is orientated to potential advertisers (despite two ads being knocked back for not complying with guidelines, the process to date seems quite transparent and simple – much easier for sure than my last experience with Google AdWords) – I’ve created this page.  If you like Facebook, and you like the page, why not go ahead and “like” the page too?!

:-)

And perhaps, even, start your English skills learning this autumn with me.

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Sep 012014
 
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The following is something I wrote this weekend in moments of doubt.  I don’t know if it bears sharing with a wider audience, or whether such sharing is, in truth, an unworthy baring instead.

You must be the judge of this; I can only continue to question what the world delivers in its curious and sometimes clearly cackhanded wisdoms.

Anyhow.  Here it is:

I received a beautiful email from a dear dear Spanish friend today.  It has gone a considerable way to restoring my faith in the country and its people.  There is good and bad everywhere – it’s a cliché I know, but we need to be reminded every so often.  In this way at least we don’t end up casually neglecting the idea.

A wondrous idea neglected is like a cottage garden drying in an unaccustomed sun.  Of which, it looks like we’ll all be getting quite a bit more in the near future, as polar ice caps disappear – like kindness and affection from the society we must, more and more, abide by and live amongst.

So the idea I mention is that all of us have some good and bad, and everywhere we go there is a bit of all of us to be found.

Life can give you lovely stuff and it can do horrible things to you too, and it can hurt your own soul and – awfully bitterly, and even more painfully – it can hurt those you most love.  But most importantly it teaches you that the home you were born in is probably the best you can find – or, at least, just as much as those places in the world where it’s said they claim to love you.

Which reminds me of my dear dear Spanish friend.  A good person; a grand person; a wonderful person to be around.

I guess there isn’t much more to say, actually.

The next couple of weeks and months I shall be concentrating on business stuff.  If it’s of interest here, I’ll let you know more.

In the meantime, continue to love each other and treasure your good fortune – whether you made it yourself or it came from elsewhere.  For a life lived without the kindness and affection I mention above is – for sure – hardly worth treasuring at all.  Especially when one finds it impossible to show kindness and affection to oneself.  Another cliché I know, but it’s true enough all the same: no love can infuse a life whose actor and protagonist is unable to love themselves first.

Remember that, and remember that aspiring to and doing it as well – if you can – is much the best thing to focus on.

I hope we all can.  In my case, I’ll certainly be striving to encourage those closest to me to think and act thus.

And though the future may not always be orange, neither is breakfast always continental!

Gotta mean something, don’t you think?

;-)

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Aug 312014
 
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I’ve not had the best of summers; though, even so, it’s been a summer I enjoyed.  A curate’s egg of a summer, perhaps I ought to say.

Good in parts; dreadful in others.

I’ve realised something, mind.  When I fell ill in 2003, I blamed the Americans and Iraq, and unspecified others, for what befell me at the time.

I completely withdraw this accusation today.

I realise the situation was far more complex than that – I was, more than likely, under the spell of other matters much closer to home, matters which I shall now never go into the detail of in public.  (If you do ever want to know the full story, you’ll have to get in touch one day and have a beer – or a coffee or two – in some discreet environment that a much repentant Mil will need to feel comfortable with.)

This summer a close member of my family suffered the consequences of underlying pain.  In observing their reactions, I saw myself in 2003 – and the common thread which ties together the two events becomes clear.

When trust does not exist, actions can always be perceived as double-edged swords.  Whether something is done out of good will or not, it can always be interpreted as having been done out of bad will or good.  The redundancy of information our world and perceptions are plagued – or blessed – with means almost anything can be believed of anyone, on any side of a disagreement or negotiation.

And so through the fingers of uncertainty does also slip one’s own confidence.

One thing I do know, however, is that if you truly love someone, you never want to force them to do something they do not wish to do.  If you truly love someone, you look to allow them to treasure, build and implement their dreams – in any which respectful way they yearn after.

Myself, this summer?  I wasn’t at my best, by a long chalk.  I’ve often thought logic is all you need, to analyse the world and understand its dynamics.  But now I realise, especially in cases of complex process like the one I’ve engaged in ineffectively over the past month or so, that logic is most certainly not enough; logic is just a starting point; logic, in itself, can even work against those who believe fiercely in its validity.

Meanwhile, those who understand process, who use knowledge as well as logic to time, structure, design and channel what happens from day to day, week to week and month to month … well, essentially they will always be able to beat those who believe only in logic.

I was greatly influenced by a smattering of semiotics I imbibed at uni, whilst studying Film & Literature at Warwick.  It turned my head madly, much as a beautiful person to a figure in mid-life crisis can do much the same.  I was fascinated by the idea that any system could be sufficiently analysed and interpreted simply from its component parts, and in order that the machine’s workings might thus become plain.

I believed this for decades.

This summer I understand I’ve been wrong for just as long a time as that.  Both in 2003 and 2014.  Both in the public and the private sphere.

The only thing I would like to add and underline, then, at least at this difficult moment in time for our wellbeing, is that whilst logic is essential, it is worse than useless without the corresponding knowledge I speak of above.  What’s more, incomplete knowledge may be far worse than no knowledge at all.

Of course, bad faith plays its part in undermining trust.

Of that, there has been plenty on view in August – not only in the private but also the very very public sphere.

But most important is to remember that whatever happens, life and love engage and interact in the most unexpected ways.  Around the corner of sheer desperation may lie a moment of reflection and comprehension.  Comprehension in the sense of understanding what’s happened; comprehension in the sense of being understood.

And out of such comprehension, future lives and their tracks can begin to be laid.

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Aug 272014
 
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It’s been a weird summer.  Horrible things happening in the world out there; the grist of mainstream and – now – social media too.  Just because you love cat gifs doesn’t mean you don’t see execution gifs …

Beautiful things happening within our family, as vacation time works its magic and makes us speak to each other so wondrously.

But then outwith our nuclear family, other things happening.  Childhood has a long reach; what hurt us as kids … well … it continues to work its invisible sadnesses.

Weave them almost, in painfully mysterious ways.

I’m glad it’s all over, mind; glad my wife and children will shortly have a better base to operate from.

That’s all most of us need; even yearn for.  Somewhere, anywhere, in which to be proud of oneself; to be proud of oneself and one’s forebears.

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Aug 162014
 
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This tweet led me to this Labour Party YouTube video:


http://youtu.be/2CyHZh10nro

Before I continue, let it be clear from the start that whilst I’m still currently a Labour Party member, its behaviour during the recent #DRIP process has meant I will be deciding in September whether to continue to pay my dues.  I am as a result less predisposed to be friendly to videos such as these than I might have been several months ago.

With that declaration of interests upfront, I’d like to examine what the theme of the video really means.  As the tweet points out (the bold is mine):

You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators. Find out why Labour means business – http://labour.tw/1ydlXK8

There is plenty in the video which looks to cover all the bases: from global investment (and presumably very big business) to a local focus (and presumably very small business).  Of course, covering such bases may be little more than good intentions; maybe disingenuous good intentions at that.  None of the Labour team is stupid: all of them must realise that to get elected, big business rules the roost; anything you say which may favour small boys and girls over big boys and girls must be couched in such lukewarm terms so as not to disconcert the latter’s sadly rapacious instincts.

The problem is that whilst defining One Nation Labour as an economic construct where everyone benefits from the functioning of such an economy could win elections, were the appeal to be made effectively over the heads of the media interests of big business, in reality this kind of appeal cannot be made without the mediating instincts of these selfsame interests.  And so we face the dilemma Tony Blair faced: the need for a socialism by stealth, a piebald socialism implemented in New Labour times, which unfortunately (later on) opened the door to – and put in place the legislative tools of – the violent but vigorously denied privatisation of Coalition austerity.

In truth, when Labour says “You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators”, it plays a two-handed game: to the small boys and girls, this sounds like they mean us; to the big boys and girls, this sounds like they mean them.  And right up to election day, right up to that day and beyond, we shall never be sure whether we were diddled or we simply misunderstood.

How so?  Are we so uncouched in the words of political double-speakery?  I don’t think so.  It’s just that hope runs eternal – even in times of austerity and social injustice.

A long time ago, I wrote a piece on the Coalition’s war against the professions, describing how it was dismantling the latter’s power and former right to infuse debate with evidence-based arguments.  I suggested that, at the same time, politicians – members of the only unmanaged profession around, the only one with no clear career path, training process or evidence-based evaluation system – were deliberating ring-fencing their rights not to be properly organised by an increasingly educated society.

In the light of such an assessment, when Labour speaks of being “pro-job creators”, I am minded to wonder if a similar process of saying one thing and doing another isn’t taking place – even, we might like to suggest, for very similar reasons.

Substitute that word “job” with the word “capital”: “You can’t be pro-capital without being pro-capital creators.”  Doesn’t that sit so much more accurately with what we all know is going to happen?  For sooner or later, capital will realise its interests lie in moulding Labour, given that sooner or later it will begin to realise the Party may have chances of gaining some kind of power next year.  And whilst Labour knows this and will eventually have to kowtow to a painful reality (a reality for the leaders less painful already through a currently invisible train of capitulation), it still has to carry its working vote to the polls.  Only then can it deceive and disillusion.

To be honest, hung parliaments clearly benefit those who control – at the very least, form part of – the status quo: business leaders, politicians, everyone who’d like to take “difficult” decisions but doesn’t always like the responsibility and flak these bring, can use coalition dynamics to give the impression it’s not their fault.  Very easy; very nice; very dishonest; evermore common.

So what would make me trust this video-pitch a little more than I do?  Perhaps an approach which put the job of being a job-creator on the curriculums of all schools, all further education colleges, all foundation years in universities.  An approach which would couple commercial wisdoms with social responsibilities.  An approach which didn’t use double-speakery – nor left open the door to the suspicion that it was being used.

To summarise, an approach where politicians were professionalised in much the same way as doctors, nurses, teachers and others; where the currency of communication was evidence-based in all contexts; and where money became a tool to create a sharing economy.

Instead of, as now, as is unhappily the case, perpetuating itself as a financial device to capture and ensnare the cleverly astute from the rest of us – thus removing all social conscience from the planet’s powerful.

However well-intentioned some of them may start out.

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Aug 122014
 
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I just posted this on Facebook.  It explains how I feel today.  No word describes it better than sad.

Feeling rather sad today.  Don’t think the news about Robin Williams helped.  Shouldn’t affect me so much I know; never met him; only knew him thru’ cinema.  One person in peacetime, not hundreds in wartime.  But I can’t help feeling it’s always the deep thinkers who go like this.  The thinkers who make jokes also understand life as it is: there is no way they can avoid seeing it all in both its full glory and its full tragedy.  And sometimes that knowledge is not power but a heavy weight. So, ‪#‎RIP‬ ‪#‎RobinWilliams‬.  Bicentennial Man indeed …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bicentennial_Man

And this is the conclusion of that tale linked to above – where Andrew, the robot who is to become the Bicentennial Man, effectively forges a strategy to commit a slow but irrevocable suicide, in order that human beings may accept him into their humanity:

Andrew decides that he wants to be a man. He obtains the backing of Feingold and Martin (the law firm of George and Paul) and seeks out Li-Hsing, a legislator and chairman of the Science and Technology committee, hoping that the World Legislature will declare him a human being. Li-Hsing advises him that it will be a long legal battle, but he says he is willing to fight for it. Feingold and Martin begins to slowly bring cases to court that generalize what it means to be human, hoping that despite his prosthetics Andrew can be regarded as essentially human. Most legislators, however, are still hesitant due to his immortality.

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.

It’s sad that our humanity often needs such moments as these to be felt at its keenest and sharpest.

So many people I wish I could meet.

So little time to do so.

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Aug 112014
 
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A few months ago I was happy to sit with a short clever summary of the essence of privacy by Cory Doctorow (this is not to say he was happy to sit with it too – just to say I found it shiny enough not to need to pursue the matter further):

This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

Today, however, this tweet came my way:

How do we define #privacy? Is privacy the ability to control with whom information gets shared? -@JulieBrillFTC #FOCAS14

This also seems a good approach, certainly at first sight anyhow.

But yesterday, Evgeny Morozov had already worried us thus:

The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows. This treats users as if they exist in a world free of data-hungry insurance companies, banks, advertisers or government nudgers. Can we continue feigning such innocence?

He goes on to suggest:

A robust privacy debate should ask who needs our data and why, while proposing institutional arrangements for resisting the path offered by Silicon Valley. [...]

And:

[...] The intellectual ping pong over privacy between corporate counsels and legal academics moonlighting as radicals always avoids the most basic question: why build the “private spaces” celebrated by Mr Zuckerberg if our freedom to behave there as we wish – and not as companies or states nudge us to – is so limited?

This, of course, widens the issue immensely: it can even lead us to question the fundamentals of the corporate manifestation of capitalism which dominates 21st century life.  This morning I asked the following question:

The question we should be asking ourselves of 21st century revolution (oh,all right – “disruption”, if you prefer) runs as follows: >>

<< Is there enough spare resource in the world for people to create parallel spaces – or must the dispossessed dispossess the rich? >>

<< Answering this question will determine whether the revolution (oh, all right – “disruption”) is going to be humanely manageable or not.

Whilst the Zuckerbergs of the world (oh, all right – Facebook itself …) recommend (that is to say, like!!!) us to squabble over the crumbs and dregs that fall from their privacy tables, Morozov seems to be asserting that we should be much more ambitious.

Which brings me to the point of this post, after four hundred introductory words!

When we think about privacy, why not think as we do when we think about bullying?  Why not have a multi-polar definition in much the same way?  An example.  I wrote this paragraph quite a bit ago now on the subject under discussion, and related matters:

The problem with being accused of racism is surely one of point of view.  Let us take what I would argue is an analogous act of aggression.  As far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong), bullying is defined in labour legislation as depending on the perception of the victim not the oppressor.  If someone simply feels they have been bullied, this is enough justification in itself for an investigation of some kind to need to be carried out – whether the alleged oppressor intended to bully or not, this does not affect the significance of the event.

I then go on to apply the concept and approach to racism – an application you can read more about by reading the post in question, if you wish.  But for the purposes of today’s post, I would apply it further to the subject of privacy.  And it leads me to propose: let not there be one definition of something which invades a privacy or someone who feels invaded.  Let, instead, that definition be a matter of point of view of those who feel the invasion.

To go back to Doctorow’s shiny conceptualisation: some of us don’t care if the door of the toilet is open; others greatly treasure their intimacy; and to others, the carelessness about such privacy is quite objectionable.  As I point out towards the end of the post on bullying:

So it is that the racist, as well as the bully I’m sure we have all experienced, manages with an incredible precision to occupy simultaneously two miserable and quite contradictory positions in society: that of victim and oppressor both.

Yet we should not allow the horrible things such people succeed in doing to provoke a similar hatred or reaction in ourselves – for just as surely as the cruelty they exhibit to others is a sign of a brutalising upbringing, so our response to their resulting brutality can only serve to define how uncivilising was ours.

There are two ways of dealing with racism and bullying: a) outright rejection and a terrible shunning or b) a generous engagement and a never-ending instinct to education.

I know which process I would prefer to be a part of.  Have you considered which one most closely resembles your own?

If the envelope of what we should be allowed to consider privacy must include the right to define how far in our own particular cases – and, what’s more, at any particular and variable time – it must be able to place and extend its boundaries, the state will have to be far more fleet-of-foot if it is not to fall into the trap of behaving like the racists and bullies who throughout our shared histories have dominated accepted opinion with bald prejudice.

For in a sense, not asking someone where they see the limits of their own privacy reaching (or only asking them once but not repeatedly) (or not asking them with the education, politeness and cautious kindness a desire to both civilise and be civilised has to encompass) is to do what racists and bullies do constantly: take a personal point of view – that of the bully or racist – and impose it unquestioningly on the emotions and intellect of another.  No permission requested; all assumptions of every right to do so placed upfront; the complete and assumed disregarding of the need for dialogue and communication with the other party.

If it’s not racist for me, it’s not racist for you either; if it’s not bullying for me, it’s not bullying for you either; and if reading your emails and your text messages, listening to your phonecalls and Skype conversations and forming an opinion of your attitudes and being from your metadata (not to mention watching and sharing your sexual activity laughingly alongside others I work with) isn’t something I’d consider an invasion of privacy for me, it’s not something you should consider an invasion of privacy for you either.

But that’s because just like racists and bullies before me, I’m now doing exactly the same with privacy.  Perhaps we need to coin a new term: how does “privacist” suit the moment?

*

I tell you what: if the same people who in Britain have just sanctioned the long-term retention of citizens’ Internet data used the same process, behaviours and attitudes to define bullying and racism, to defining the envelopes of what governments with such a freer hand could now do to the governed, there’d be a hue and cry like no other heard in history.

Except that

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Aug 102014
 
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A story from the Guardian/Observer website today got me thinking.  It’s headlined:

Rising Ukip star on Roma in the UK, vaccines and racist gardeners

and it’s introduced:

Rotherham is a Ukip target in next year’s general election. Jane Collins tells how she hopes to unseat Labour by being ‘different’

Notice the adjectives “rising” and “different”.  A prominent article in a notable newspaper of liberal leanings for a party with no MPs, no policies – and one narrative which, whether we like it or not, would surely lead to a business cataclysm and upheaval of unpredictable proportions.  A similar thing, though on a separate part of the political spectrum, is taking place in Spain with the movement (I respectfully resist calling it a party for the moment) Podemos.  Plenty of free media attention for something creating interest, it is true – but not with the credentials a careful democracy should perhaps require.

However, let’s try and focus on these dynamics from an apolitical stance.  I’m fascinated by the fact – it’s undeniable – that practically all our media, whatever its political opinion, is drawn magnetically to change: in such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that an up-and-down approach to communication should be the rule.  Whilst the peaks and troughs of idiotic statements capture the headlines day after day (no longer simple soundbites – more often unruly video exchanges designed to move us, almost assign us, emotionally from one monolithic bloc to the other), alongside the oft-quoted “he said, she said” journalism defining what they think we should think, it’s no wonder the careful, timely and intelligent chugging away of good practice ends up in the sewers of our perceptions.

Change, its aforementioned magnetic effect and practically all our media … yes!  This is what captures the agendas of daily politicking.  But it’s not only bad for the human race that constancy gets no publicity; it’s bad for those who enter the public sphere with the idea of working via evidence and humane values.  In the end, their initial desire to “make a difference by focussing on the universal” gets consumed by all these up-and-down appeals to “listen to me and what I’ve got brand new to say” – which, in any case, is rarely ever even moderately new in an objective and historical sense.

They say that change is inevitable – so get used to it.  What they don’t like to admit is change is not monolithic – nor, indeed, as inevitable as they suggest.  Our instinct to popularise, promulgate and propagandise around change is extremely common, that is true (as is our habit of arguing that it’s always an opportunity) – but the universal needs of a society of social beings like those of us who form this humanity I describe don’t change half as much as the change merchants would have us believe.  And if this we are to change at all in the near future, we need our media – that is to say, at least a substantial minority – to recognise that the chugging away of good practice I mention above is far more useful for that future than unceasingly spurious calls to perceive as positive, and to go ahead and opportunise, all dynamics of so-called change.

Just because it moves doesn’t necessarily mean it’s progress.  And just because it’s stable (that is to say, doing its stuff silently behind the media veneers) doesn’t necessarily mean we should proceed to ignore its true worth.

And I don’t just mean within the fields of established politics, where plenty of examples tumble out on a daily basis.  I mean also the new guys who claim – this time! – to be making a “real” difference.

Right UKIP, Podemos et al?

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Aug 092014
 
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Some thoughts I just brainstormed via Twitter:

#Globalisation promised progress from the well-off to the poor. TBH, it increasingly delivers pockets of poverty to the formerly well-off.

#Globalisation’s making us poorer: s’times literally, as water loses its status as human right; s’times, just a simple poverty of spirit.

The more our leaders (we too) get used to remote-controlled fixes, the less #globalisation leads to a coming-together of minds/their ideas.

Maybe the Interwebs have driven this tendency: being able to access it all from one’s own workstation leads to stationary attitudes to work.

For a particular tech-based mindset, the web is simply the beginning. But what if eventually it turns out to be distortion? A blip? A fork?

What if our future doesn’t equal remote-controlled fixing? What if a different disruption – instant travel, say – makes this web irrelevant?

Instant travel would make face-to-face skills & expectations as important as they ever were; but more importantly, democratically available.

The best of the web – instant access – without the worst: that distancing of physical everyone from everyone, which makes us so suspicious.

Those thoughts cheer me up, in an Asimov way. Imagine a world, where anyone could visit anywhere – in a second. #disruptiveinnovationforsure

Mind you, thinking less airily, more grounded in reality, the following issues do arise.  As per 3D printing, the ability to digitally whisk stuff across currently sovereign frontiers does kind of explain the rush and haste governments across the world, whatever their political colours, are all exhibiting: the borders of the future will not be sealed at all, if not sealed virtually.  Now whilst it’s true that instantaneous travel from anywhere to anywhere, and (more importantly) from anyone to anyone, could serve to liberate democratic citizens – and societies like our own, clearly struggling at the moment to be democratic – in a way no human being would ever have experienced before, as well as lead us back to the good old times when people thrashed out their problems through dialogue and at round tables of equal communication (or at least, when in Arthurian mode, so we’d allow ourselves to believe), in all probability the “dangers” of a humanity getting to know a humanity would not be underestimated by those running the serious risk of losing their privilege.  The darndest thing about democracy, of course, being that people don’t always vote the way you would like them to.  Just imagine, then, the problem of a society totally unmediated by content industries; totally informed by real, cheap, instantaneous opportunities to witness situations on the ground in first person.

Whenever anyone wanted.

Wherever anyone cared.

They’d have to invent a whole host of new reasons to make instantaneous travel a danger worthy of a surveillance state.

Ah well.  I’m sure they could, and would.

Until then, and whilst the new “computer companies” still had time to do their disruptive worst best, we could perhaps recover some semblance of the freedoms we once enjoyed on the Internet – and, more specifically, the worldwide web.

If, I suppose, those freedoms ever really existed.

Anyhow.  As I suggested in my final tweet above, I do feel kind of cheerful at the moment – thinking as I am of the Internet and what may lie beyond.  The wonder and excitement, for me, of that adolescent time when I read huge amounts of sci-fi books and short stories – admittedly a time when I was most impressionable about what I perceived, and when I was quite the least critical of the life unfolding around me – does right now make me smile as I believe that maybe the future can be rescued through technology after all.

The right sort of technology, of course.

The kind that makes democracy, not breaks it.

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Aug 092014
 
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I posted earlier today an email which reached me as the nominal Amazon author I am (I’ve never received any payment as such, but this blog is still up there on their site as a product).  I was quite positive about the thrust of the argument this presented.  An apparently virtually identical letter was posted by Amazon at this website at about the same time.  A blogpost then argued that Amazon is getting nervous (presumably about tons of stuff – not just e-books I mean), and a tweet which flitted past me even sardonically commented how the company was being true to its $9.99 maximum e-book price tag policy by paying a similarly restricted amount of dosh to the firm it “obviously” used for its PR.

We then have a lovely summary of Almost Everything Amazon vs The Rest Of The World here.  That post came my way via Dave Winer, who suggested as he prefaced his tweet that Amazon will always be a computer company.

And so to my final quote before I get started.  Evgeny Morozov went and said this about an hour and a half ago:

Writers, embrace disruptive innovation! Stay hungry, stay foolish! Someone has to pay for Jeff Bezos’s plans to mine asteroids in space!

Yep.  Disruptive innovation … it just had to rear its ugly head.

Why ugly?

Recent history informs us so.

Amazon is a great “external customer” company.  There have, however, been plenty of tales about how it doesn’t treat some of its workforces quite so well; how it doesn’t engage with some of its tax communities quite so constructively; how, even, that its fierce McDonald-like focus on undercutting prices and achieving market share at the expense of almost everything else (not customer service any longer – I’ve been there and seen the ugly, bad and now good) is destroying independent booksellers and the craft of face-to-face relationships in ways we could term brutal.

But it was that comment of Dave Winer’s about Amazon always being a computer company that caught my attention.  Morozov’s reminding us of disruptive innovation is apposite in this context: a concept I’ve generally understood to mean providing intellectual justification and coverage to thinking the only customer worth paying attention to is the external one – everyone else, consequently, being allowed to go to hell.

And computer companies – tech companies to be more inclusive – have razed the more old-fashioned sectors of many countries to the ground, even as end-user external-customer-types have, medium-term, benefited everywhere.  In this, as distributor (I’d argue distributors generally ultimately win these battles for new technological turf), Amazon has productively disrupted accepted models for ages.  But not only Amazon: we also have Apple, to a lesser extent Microsoft.  Whilst Microsoft continued to focus on publishing software, Apple got a leg-up via music.  And so two of the oldest types of content joined one of the newest and least tangible to form a triumvirate of content distributors.

So far, so good.  But the philosophy of disruptive innovation makes for rapacious souls when it comes to living alongside the rest of the world.  The fact that these “external customer” companies paid far more attention to the needs of only one potential client meant that this was no democratic universe of relationships: this was the re-establishment of ancient pyramidal monarchies.  No P2P hierarchy or mentality; instead, a hierarchy where only one objective counted: shareholder value, levered by the continuing satisfaction and capturing of these end-user external-customer-types.

If we’re to make better large companies in the future, this monarchy of customers must become far more democratic.  I remember two examples from personal experience.  In Spain, a car components group promulgated the idea of the customer being king (still monarchical, I accept – only wait …) – but the customers in question were entirely circular: you could be your boss’s customer; your boss could be yours; you had to see all personal and business interactions as moving – in both directions – between the nexus of customer and supplier.  In the UK, meanwhile, cack-handedly implemented, I experienced the half-baked taking onboard of a concept which divided customers up into the already alluded to “external vs internal”.  Of course, this automatically led – by the clearly uninitiated – to a prioritising of the “external” and a pretty savage ignoring of the “internal”, to the extent where historically damn good industrial relations were destroyed within a year.

No longer a monarchy of customers, then; quite a different hierarchy of customers is what we need to fight to achieve.  But whilst computer companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft continue to dominate and manage our economic expectations, and continue only to focus on our manifestations as end-user external-customer-types, we won’t be able to make corporations good for everything we really do need them to deliver.

Maybe the disruptive innovation we’re actually looking for is to be found somewhere else: make of the world a huge business simulation – isn’t that, anyway, what the stock markets are? – where the bottom line grows through a far more complex combination of actions than simply destroying the carefully woven threads of competition: cashable points for this, cashable points for that, cashable points for everything that makes good our human obligations.

A democracy of customers indeed.

All of us.

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Aug 092014
 
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Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?

:-)

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Aug 082014
 
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Dan Hodges suggests the following:

There’s only one thing worse then the US being the world’s policeman. And that’s the US not being the world’s policeman.

I’d take issue with the use of the monolithic singular (no state, however useful, is ever that monolithic – nor should be in a modern liberal democracy) and the exclusive gender – policeman (though my linguistic side understands why he’s felt obliged to use the idiomatic phrase this way).  But more importantly, I’d take issue with stuff he’s written previously on quite separate subjects.  This, for example:

Unfortunately, that’s just about all they came up with. Ed Miliband will say: “Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges, including having to cut spending.” But that’s just one of those tick-box phrases he likes to sneak into his tick-box speeches. He has this little throwaway line about cuts, but if anyone actually asks him what cuts he’s contemplating he refuses to answer. That’s because he doesn’t really mean it, and he secretly wants everyone to know he doesn’t really mean it.

Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the ideas Hodges sardonically communicates – apart from anything else, he does sardonic very well.  But when coupled with today’s tweet, I do object to the underlying assumption that 40,000 Iraqis on the point of being butchered can be policed and rescued – should be policed and rescued – by Big Government and the Big State when the very same Big State and Government must not – is unable to – continue its historically ameliorating business at home in the UK and US.

Especially when the plans of some of Hodges’ fellow travellers seem to include brutal cuts to the aforementioned public sector which will lead to a drop in headcount of forty percent:

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

Piling misery upon misery for the most unprotected in our societies.

So let’s try and be a little bit more coherent, shall we?  If Big Government and the Big State are still cool enough ideas to save the developing world from encroaching dictatorship and the cruelty of the backward (though I suspect the motives behind such strategies have more to do with a Western self-interest of wanting to keep political contamination well at bay in distant dirty countries, quite a la Ebola, than a truly pure perception of right and wrong), let us also accept that we in the West – ordinary people who live in Europe, North America, the Antipodes etc – have the very same right to be treated, by our own Big States and Governments, in the humanitarian way those currently suffering in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Israel also merit and clearly deserve.

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Aug 072014
 
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I finished the Asimov story, “The Bicentennial Man”, recently.  If you haven’t read it, do try and find time to do so.  As with most of Asimov’s shorter works, the narrative creeps up on you quite slowly – though the read itself is never boring.  In a sense, they’re like Ibsen plays: so much happening in the clockwork of the story, it sometimes feels like a vice is tightening.

The payoff is always interesting, mind.  I grew up with Asimov’s ideas; their absolute playfulness a wonderful reward for the exploring adolescent I was at the time.

The plot runs as follows: a robot, called Andrew, wishes to be taken to be a human being.  Over his “life” he spends time blurring the lines between the flesh-and-blood citizens who have all the rights in the world and the positronic-brained servants (slaves, perhaps, would be more accurate) which he is an example of.  He achieves many things in this period, though not without considerable difficulty: the right to wear clothes; the right to have money; the right to be made free of his owners.  In fact, the right, as a result, to own stuff like any human does.

It seems to me that although Asimov leaves us with the ultimately necessary “suicide” of this Bicentennial Man as the essence of what it is to be flesh-and-blood, the element of ownership also touched on in the story – and already described above – defines our humanity much more than the former.  Certainly today:

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.[2]

For in the face of terrible violence, if Western society is inscribed by anything right now, it is the total antipathy to anything bordering self-sacrifice.  From cruise missiles to drones, everything we seem to do these days appears to be aimed at limiting our exposure to the risk of death.  Quite the opposite of the instincts of our positronic friend.

All well and good, I’m sure we could all agree.

But, even so, I’d push the idea further.  Emily has a lovely overview of a curious question of “selfie” copyright, where a monkey took some pictures of itself, and apparently by so doing limited the right of the owner of the camera in question to exert their own copyright over the product:

[...] It is difficult to say whether the arguments would go in favour of the photographer being the author; this is certainly the verdict in a blog post by our US friends across the pond, who argue that as there was no official creator of the photograph other than the monkey, and the monkey does not qualify as an author, there is therefore no copyright in the photograph. It does however seem a bit unfair to the photographer, who should probably be recognised as a contributor at the very least. Perhaps we should ask the monkey? ;-)

That we should even be going round in circles with this situation leads me to come to two conclusions:

  1. Animals are not only de-sexed as a rule by humans (notice that sneaky “itself” I slipped in earlier) (and even as they demonstrate all the right biological impulses), they are also de-ownershipped too.  Whilst the argument here is couched in legal terms of animals not being able to be authors and thus not own, in truth what we are actually saying is since authorship is determined by the ability to own, denying the right to own to animals thankfully denies the right to authorship.  (The circle can just as easily be gone around in the opposite direction.)
  2. The separation between the state of being an animal and the state of being a human, an analogous separation which is the subject of Asimov’s robot tale too, was never more clearly an imperative for our species.  By establishing ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as something quite distinct, we assign to ourselves considerable freedoms that allow us to do and undo with the rest of the planet just as we bloody well wish.  (And you thought copyright was a distant, dry and academic subject!)

It’s possible, then, that whilst we condemn all manner of neoliberalisms for our current miseries, our concept of freedom was always defined thus: not the freedom to write; not the freedom to express; not the freedom to be free of penury.  No.  Simply the freedom to own ideas, stuff and creatures.  And those societies which allow more of such ownership are those we now perceive as being the freest of all.

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Aug 062014
 
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I read that the first Wikipedia page has been lost to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” rulings – and like #DRIP (more here, here and here) after it, I’m afraid that very little has been thought through at the moment of its conceptualisation.

Many have written well and hard about how incompatible this “right” has to be with a modern representative democracy.  But then many have observed – just as equally – how incompatible with true democracy our current manifestation happens to be.  And as Paul Bernal pointed our a while ago, little in this life is ever a complete disaster or a triumph:

On a slightly different tack, criminals and scammers have always been able to cover their tracks – and will still be able to. The old cat-and-mouse game between people wanting to hide their identity and people wanting to uncover those hiding them will still go on. The ‘right to be forgotten’ won’t do anything to change that.

But as is my wont, I’m sometimes inclined to a rather curious impulse to run with an idea – and instead of looking to rebut its founding principles, I aim – rather – to take full advantage of it.

So what exactly am I getting at?  If the “right to be forgotten” becomes firmly established as a principle of modern democracy, and I’m pretty sure this will eventually be the case, why not use it as a precedent to establish further protections?  For example, whilst people with sordid private pasts – who, nevertheless, have the moral right of us all to keep these private lives private – may use such rulings to rub out from easy public view historically negative images of their selves, and so make the rest of society, democratic citizen and all, “forget” what the mainstream media once sold millions of copies on the back of, if we are to continue to build societies of the just and equal, surely we must contemplate that modest private citizens – alongside those scandalously public figures – should have a similar opportunity to choose what may be remembered or not about themselves too.

And if this is the case, perhaps they should also have an opportunity to choose who may remember or forget.  “Who?” you blurt out.  “Yes, who!” I respond (I have to admit curiously with an exclamation mark …).

Anyhow.  If all citizens are equal, and the smallest unsliceable atom of existence of the state is a citizen too, in the figure of a civil servant of some kind or another, and the “right to be forgotten” gives to all citizens the right to be forgotten by all citizens, why cannot one day we contemplate using such a precedent to demand that the state – in its many surveilling instincts (#DRIP not the least of them, as already observed on these pages) – also learns how to forget us in some analogous way?

Don’t battle to remove the “right to be forgotten” from the list of cack-handed 21st century assumptions but use it, instead, to widen the application of such principles to other areas of endeavour.  If, for example, it should exist amongst the citizens of a country, it should also exist amongst the relationships which the aforesaid citizens  of that country have with large companies and government bodies various (especially as those who support corporate organisation are always arguing they are mostly equal to their flesh-and-blood equivalents anyway).

And so a circle of balance could be re-established: we wouldn’t only choose to be forgotten to reset our unhappy private mistakes but also to recover our privacy from an ever-encroaching dragnet of behaviours.

*

An afterthought: remember when Google dismantled Reader (more here)?  In the light of the European ruling on the “right to be forgotten”, it hasn’t half played into the hands of those who wish to better control the flow of the information.  That people should be accustomed by virtual force to use Facebook, Twitter or Google+ in the absence of the far less subjective RSS is, of course, a coincidence I am sure.  But a coincidence, in any case, worth contemplating – especially in relation to its impact on how easy it may now become to make such information invisible.

For a wider usage of RSS would have guaranteed better the permanence of controversial content.  That companies as big as Google have done their best to woo people away from it – or, minimally, have refused to promote its technologies – is therefore if not suspicious, a tad unhappy at the very least.

Don’t you think?

____________________

Update to this post: this, from the Independent, has just come my way.  Fascinating, and relevant, stuff.

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Aug 062014
 
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There have been stories this morning on how over a billion unique user name/password combinations for over 400,000 websites have been stolen by cybercriminals.  Everyone’s being rather cagey – to date – about the issue as far as I can see: no lists of the websites (a lot of info to process, admittedly), though perhaps these would in any case be counterproductive if published.  What we can surely conclude is that the user name/password system more generally is just about broken.

Which brings me to another couple of thoughts: thoughts I shall proceed to leave you with.

Why does Facebook use https?  It’s a colander of data – there’s just about no one of importance it won’t reveal content to: from security services to advertisers to social scientists … well, it doesn’t half make you wonder if the https strategy is little more than a marketing ploy.  Make us feel we’re in safe techie-hands, even as our data is splurged and spread around to increase shareholder satisfaction.

And as Google becomes the de facto scourer of emailed child porn (no problem with the idea itself, but tremendous issues with the privacy and constitutional implications of this implementation in particular), I do wonder whether we shouldn’t forget about security altogether.  What’s next to be rolled out?  A pop-up notification which warns you when you express adulterous thoughts – or perhaps a knock at the front door if you suggest in desperation, not literally of course, you’d like to kill someone for everything they’ve done to you?

In truth, all of this can only lead to two places: firstly, the death of irony, sarcasm and – more widely – the homely habit of telling jokes, as fear of being misunderstood replaces the freedom to speak one’s mind; secondly, a progressive rewriting of the Ten Commandments of ancient times, where the crimes pursued are those which most justify a dragnet surveillance approach, and the God who oversees their application are the Google & Co (but, hey, let’s be honest here: it’s Google we mean) already mentioned.

After all, it’s faintly conceivable for those in the know that – all along – Google has been a contraction of “God + ogle” …

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