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!

Nov 012014
 
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This website came my way last night, via Twitter – where else?  The bold and links added are mine:

The Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS) is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) strategic “Big Data” investment that brings together social, computer, political, health, statistical and mathematical scientists to study the methodological, theoretical, empirical and technical dimensions of social media data in social and policy contexts. This empirical data science programme is complemented by a focus on the ethical impact of big social data and the development of new methodological tools and technical/data solutions for the UK academic and public sectors. Our £1.5M research programme has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research Programme (Global Uncertainties Programme), Joint Information Systems Committee, Department of Health, Food Standards Agency, High Performance Computing Wales/Fujitsu, Welsh Government and Airbus Group.

Bit of a mixed bag, as you might see.  The formerly-known-as Global Uncertainties Programme now has this remit:

As a result of these recommendations the Global Uncertainties Programme has become the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme). The partnership consists of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as core members, while BBSRC, MRC and STFC will continue their engagement as affiliated members. The Partnership will build upon fruitful collaboration established to date and will continue to develop links with a range of external partners in government, business and third sector organisations.

The partnership will focus new initiatives in the core areas of:

  • Conflict
  • Cyber-security
  • Transnational organised crime

We all know the Department of Health, of course – how it looks to protect the best of the NHS for the people of Britain profit-scraping entities from across the world.  And then we have the Welsh Government, also seeming to want to play its curious part.

Academic sponsors of COSMOS include Cardiff University, the University of St Andrews and my old – much beloved – Warwick University.

But it’s the next page – in the light of the above, naturally – which I’d really like to focus your attention on this morning:

Research on social media and suicide

Funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme

This goes on to explain:

This research project uses some of the tools of computer science to understand the relationship between social media and suicide.

And (again, the bold and links are mine):

With specialist software to analyse language, it’s possible to look for patterns in large amounts of data from social media. We are only studying stuff which is public and can be viewed by anyone, such as postings to Twitter, Tumblr and open Facebook groups. No accounts which use privacy settings so that postings are protected can be used in the research.

These are the different kinds of social media postings we are collecting in 2014 (ending Jan 2015).
–  Tweets and Tumblr posts which contain language connected to suicide
–  Tweets which mention young people who have died through suicide or road traffic accidents
–  Open Facebook memorial groups for young people who have died through suicide or road traffic accidents

So.

I ask myself.

In completely good faith, mind.

Is this the trail of money, interested parties and hangers-on various that leads from the Department of Health – and maybe other state/public sector organisations – to the #SamaritansRadar project?

If it is, what exactly are all their overarching motivations here?  How do these wildly varying institutions find a common interest?

And what, precisely, is the nature of these common interests?

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Oct 312014
 
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Two days ago I posted on the awful mistake the Samaritans have committed in hanging on to the coattails of (bad) big business (not all by any means is bad, of course), as they launched onto a sensitively unsuspecting public a pretty standard scraper of Twitter’s supposedly public tweets.  As I commented this morning on this very same post:

[...] But the question I’ve asked elsewhere (*not* casually tossing words out into the public domain) is whether the Samaritans are not only using “public” tweets (they’re actually only public in the sense that, for example, a supermarket car-park is a private space of public use – they can throw you off it without due legal process whenever they want) but have also been paying to use Twitter’s firehose. I suggest this because before you launch an app, you normally test it. So are we coming up against issues similar to the Facebook ones a few months ago when we discovered they were seeing how easy it was to make us happy or sad, without advising us of the frame of the experiment?

To then ask that:

Really, I would love the Samaritans to clarify the whole process leading up to launch day – and everything they did to finetune (if that’s the right word) the tech involved by using user-generated content.

As I argued:

This Radar app is actually the equivalent of rummaging threw rubbish bags to collate, process and re-distribute unhappiness thus unturned. And that’s what I really object to the Samaritans doing: not the overhearing, which is fine for me – it’s out there, please do listen in if that’s what turns you on; no, it’s the collation and programmed RT-ing which is the really unpleasant thing here.

What’s more, and far more importantly, as someone neatly summed up in one short tweet the main thrust of the 1000 words this post of mine needed:

“Previously ppl chose whether to seek help from @samaritans & controlled relationship doesnt #SamaritansRadar change who has agency?”

Link below:

https://twitter.com/maxneill/status/527958837756968960

Meanwhile, this afternoon the Samaritans’ Twitter feed tweets a link to an NSPCC story which indicates that suicidal feelings amongst children are at an all-time-high in our society (the link in the tweet is broken for me, but I dug out the story referred to here) (the bold in this quote is mine):

4,517 counselling sessions were held by ChildLine (UK) in 2013/14 with children who talked about suicidal thoughts – a 117% increase since 2010/11. Nearly 6,000 of these children had told a counsellor that they had previously attempted suicide – a 43% increase on the year before. The vast majority of these children had not revealed their feelings to anyone else. ChildLine is urging these young people not to feel fearful or ashamed to tell others of their feelings.

The story then goes on to tell us:

More open and frank conversations are needed

The charities all strongly believe that more open and frank conversations should be encouraged with children to enable them to describe their feelings, and discuss issues such as self-worth, self-harm and suicidal feelings. Suicidal thoughts carry a stigma, which makes it hard for many young people to talk about, but it is important that this issue should be tackled with young people, parents and professionals.

I don’t know about you but I do myself find it very hard to square the circle of an org like the Samaritans on the one hand scraping Twitter to tell third parties that the people they follow are potentially feeling suicidal, so changing dramatically the agency of a once well-tested process, whilst on the other (in practically the same virtual breath) they solemnly tweet broken links to stories  which argue the indisputable: that open and frank conversations between young people, parents and professionals are needed.  Conversations that is – not Twitter algorithms lashing out disturbing retweets left, right and centre.

And if ChildLine is “urging young people not to feel fearful or ashamed to tell others of their feelings”, are we really sure that putting data-collation, processing and redistribution tools in the hands of everyone who’s frightened enough not to speak directly with their suicidal – but not afraid of trusting an algorithm! – is the best way of achieving such goals?

Typing and retweeting people’s language as suicidal is not going to get any productive conversations going.  It’s going to make all people self-censor; it’s going to make young people in particular – who use social media almost universally – find their digital tongues cut off at source through the fear of “discovery”; and, finally, what’s more, these young people who are the object of the NSPCC article today will find it far easier to feel shame, stigma and desperation on a medium they’ve clearly made their own than trust their communicative and sharing instincts – instincts us older lot should strive to admire and encourage.

It’s a generational thing, this: the designers and promoters of #SamaritansRadar are obviously young people too – accustomed, out of their wellbeing and fortunate mental health, to putting up effectively with the inevitable latterday stress of living in the goldfish bowl of the worldwide web.  If they can do it, and even earn a wealthy living on it, why not use the same techniques – techniques they’re so familiar and comfortable with – to allow charitable organisations to enter stridently this young people’s world?

Except that some young people, as we speak, healthy or otherwise, are slowly beginning to question the value of this data landgrab – this assumption that everything is fine and dandy in the interconnectedness we’ve had imposed on us by humongous technological interests.

And if healthy young people are beginning to doubt they want it, why must people with support needs be treated any differently?

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Oct 292014
 
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The Samaritans take their name from the biblical story of the Good Samaritan:

Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

[The lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

— Luke 10:30–37, World English Bible

The Samaritan website in the UK currently headlines itself thus:

I FOUND A WAY TO BE MYSELF

If something’s troubling you, then get in touch.

We’re here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Contact us now

Find out more about how we can help:

* We help you talk things through

* We keep everything confidential

* We’re not a religious organisation

Meanwhile, here we have an overview of the latest Samaritans’ Twitter scraper, unhappily in my mind called Radar – remember, after all, that the term was coined for a system designed in wartime to knock down Nazis from the skies (the bold is mine):

Samaritans, the leading suicide prevention charity, today is launching Samaritans Radar – a free web application that monitors your friends’ Tweets, alerting you if it spots anyone who may be struggling to cope. The app gives users a second chance to see potentially worrying Tweets, which might have otherwise been missed.

Created by digital agency Jam using Twitter’s API, Samaritans Radar uses a specially designed algorithm that looks for specific keywords and phrases within a Tweet. It then sends an email alert to the user with a link to the Tweet it has detected, and offers guidance on the best way of reaching out and providing support.

Latent Existence has written a brill post analysing and deconstructing the implications of this app here.  I strongly encourage you to read it.

In particular, this paragraph caught my attention (again, the bold is mine):

Here’s the thing. We do know that tweeting is broadcasting. But tweeting is also a conversation among friends in a pub that can sometimes be overheard by others. Some of those others may be distant acquaintances, complete strangers, investigators from the DWP, or journalists. We may or may not care if they overhear. Sometimes something said to friends in a public place can be reported in the news worldwide. That doesn’t mean it’s what you expect to happen. Neither do we expect a mental health charity to create a tool that makes it easier to violate people’s boundaries.

To be honest, what really upsets me about this app, as someone who has had mental health issues in the now distant past, is that it’s all part of a wider tendency: most recently, we had the news that GPs will be paid a 55-quid bonus to diagnose people with dementia.  The use of technology, objectivisation, managerialism and other very 21st century processes, procedures and tools to put a distance between those who take decisions and those who have decisions taken about them is extremely worrying.  Instead of going with what some naive years ago we assumed to be the trends of history, and empowering and placing individuals at the centre of issues which relate to and should personally occupy them, we’re moving back to previous centuries as we re-establish old 18th and 19th century hierarchies.  Nanny knows best kind of (wearily) sums it all up.

“May there be more vicarious watchers than watched” would seem to be the ever so precious mantra.  A biblical Big Brother then?  Exactly that, yes.  But with one fascinating twist.

What virtuously characterised the Samaritans as a charity until the release of this saddening piece of tech was their ability to only partially emulate the original parable: in occupying a public space which people who were suffering could choose to go to in moments of deepest need, they updated the story to a more libertarian and proactively respectful age.  However, with the introduction of this app, they return – mysteriously – to the original narrative of the Bible’s Good Samaritan – an example of an avowedly non-religious organisation acquiring, all of a sudden, an essentially evangelical bent: rather than the subject of mental misfortune being the protagonist, mover and shaker of the story, as in the charity’s trajectory until this app was released, we revert to the dynamics of the parable itself – the unfortunate soul in question is now the object of all actions; is helpless, abandoned and inactive; is awaiting the arrival of the Good Samaritan instead of participating in the process of communication on equal terms.

As many have observed already with regard to the bonus proposals for dementia diagnosis, the trust between patient and doctor – between those in need of counselling and those who do the counselling, between those who used to be the subject and who now become the object – will become so muddied by the lack of clarity over motivations thus generated that surely the chilling impact of self-censorship must overcome yet another area of free speech.

It’s not necessarily wrong to scrape Twitter for stuff: it is however wrong to go down the route of mandatory inclusion in cases as sensitive as mental ill-health.  And it could’ve been done so differently: we could’ve had a political decision by the charity to inform its followers and other interested parties via Twitter that they could choose to link their own accounts to an app which assessed only their own tweets – and so allow everyone who proactively wished to do so to measure the temperature of their own mental wellbeing on a voluntary, informing and constructive basis.

But no: as I understand it, the Samaritans have decided to use the conceptual throwback of a wartime terminology to monitor tweets in what is bound to become a compellingly intrusive way.  Just imagine, for example, what a potential employer could do with a similar piece of tech.  (Perhaps it’s happening/has happened already.)

I am usually unwilling to invoke Orwell, as we should all be.

But … Orwell anyone?  What’s more … an Orwellian mental-health charity?  And even more tragically … a biblically Orwellian Good Samaritan?

Don’t forget: just because technology can do it doesn’t mean it’s modernity incarnate.

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Oct 282014
 
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I suggested the following about eighteen months ago:

Is there any chance that Labour – with its “One Nation” mantra – has all along been triangulating not for a David Cameron (II) at all but, instead, for a UKIP – in one potentially unhappy shape or another?

The resulting plan being to convince all us progressive souls to continue voting as we were – on the understanding that Labour will keep slyly hidden from the rest of the electorate until after the next election its true instincts and values.

Ingenious approach, right?  Even – in the light of disagreeable 20th century history – intelligently, usefully and wisely prescient.

So just forget Cameron & Co, and hope this is the case: that One Nation Labour was always designed with a UKIP in mind.

And in the hands of competent political operators (ie the sort of people I don’t ever find it easy to agree with or condone), this is exactly what could have happened.  But, unfortunately, the reality is that uncorking bottles of evil-smelling liquids generally lets off uncontrollable gases – gases which then proceed to do all sorts of horrible things to the environment.  As I concluded in that piece:

Because if this isn’t the plan, if this isn’t the explanation for the outflanking wearily quoted in full above, I really do wonder how anyone in my dearly beloved movement expects us to believe that One Nation Labour won’t itself become that UKIP we all fear – but all on its triangulatory and ingenious lonesome.

Meanwhile, today I’d like to go a bit further.  In suggesting that One Nation Labour was aimed at preventing UKIP, even as it would become UKIP instead, I think there was something I got wrong.  Ed Miliband, early on, rightly won all kinds of plaudits for calling out bravely on the big issues which frightened everyone else into a poverty-stricken silence.  From phone-hacking to energy prices, what he said right at the beginning shortly became received opinion.  And so his populism – for that is the right term – developed a measured and comfortable streak few populists have managed to achieve.

Unfortunately, this also laid the building blocks for a successful UKIP-ism: that is to say, whilst One Nation Labour was designed from the ground up not only to vanquish Cameron (II) but also keep the miserable elements of the United Kingdom’s unconverted prejudiced sides at bay, it was always going to be a highly risky project from start to end: triangulating into the murky waters of Farage’s primeval soup (he’d call it beer – but let me assure you that Farage’s favourite tipple comes more out of a cauldron than a cask) was always going to mean that attention once drawn could not necessarily be safely marshalled.

However, the problem for Miliband isn’t only the uncorked genie.  It’s also that however hard he tries, his once measured populism will become tainted with overtones of UKIP-ism.  Any populism, in fact, of any kind at all, will now only serve to draw us inexorably back, magnetised as we are, to the compass of the next few months that is Our Mate Nigel.  Not only has Miliband failed to use One Nation Labour to do what it was meant to do (ie make of Labour a natural channel of potential UKIP support), he’s allowed the resulting failure to squeeze him out of the only discourse which unequivocally set him apart from all the politicians around him – not only past and present but inevitably, in the light of such failure, the future too.

The discourse in question being?  The measured and comfortable – where not comforting – populism of a decently reconverted social democracy’s tinkering.

A reconverted tinkering aimed at a lot more than just the edges of the once allegedly permissible.

The once allegedly permissible which now, as it stands, in the face of terrible austerity multiplying, is manifestly insufficient.

Miliband’s blown it, I’m sorry to say.  And not because he was the wrong man for the job; rather, because he didn’t carry it through as he initially perceived it.

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Oct 252014
 
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I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions how certain very modern elements of the world we inhabit today are actually anything but.  This piece, for example, compared WikiLeaks to Dutch Calvinism:

In this post you may have noticed that I have linked to a Dutch version of WikiLeaks, which at the time of writing this piece is still operational.  And I choose the Dutch version for one simple reason.  The thesis behind these thoughts – that is to say, what has really encouraged me to post today – is simply that the open chatter and self-revelation that is blogging, Facebook, Twitter and now WikiLeaks (the whole caboodle we call the modern Internet, in fact) can all be traced back to the tradition that is Dutch Calvinism and those practices, attitudes and behaviours that still take place in the Netherlands of modern times (the bold is mine):

Today, the Netherlands is a democratic unitary state whose unity is symbolised by the Queen, a descendant of William of Orange. However, the mentality of the Dutch has remained largely the same. Even though Dutch society has become quite secular, it is still greatly influenced by Calvinist values: a strong protestant work ethic; moderation in all aspects of life; decision-making by consensus; and a curb on individualism. Ostentation and boastfulness are frowned upon, orderliness and cleanliness are highly valued, and showing off one’s wealth is still considered inappropriate. Decisions are not taken without giving all those involved a chance to voice their opinion. In many houses, the curtains are left open after dark, signifying there is nothing to hide. The Dutch regard secretiveness with suspicion.

This doesn’t half remind me of those politicians who famously decry of the surveillance state: “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.”

In a sense, however, whilst the battlecry of such politicos may appear to be a reconverted Dutch Calvinism – and maybe all the more admirable for it – I’d prefer to argue that it was preceded more accurately by the Medieval Inquisition: an unremitting pursuit of heresy; a pursuit of those who do not automatically agree with received opinion’s – in particular, here, the body politic’s – evermore widely and aggressively shared orthodoxies.

That is to say, an example of how we profess a desire less to create a society of the equally open, more to develop a hierarchy of the watchers and the watched.

Of course, if one could choose between the Medieval Inquisition, Dutch Calvinism and an ultimately sobering and proper return to privacy for all, I think many of us would choose the third.  But it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.  As David Davis MP recently pointed out:

Only a “small, but significant minority” of MPs in the House of Commons care about issues of internet privacy and state surveillance raised by the Edward Snowden disclosures, according to David Davis MP.

And “even the ministers in charge of this don’t have the first bloody idea of what they are doing,” he added, in response to a question from Computing.

So in response to the questions I’m posing in today’s post, what is it to be for our children’s generation?  Perhaps the very most we can hope for is that instinct to Dutch Calvinism I’ve already chosen to highlight and implicitly choose.  A total openness throughout all strata of society, embedded with considered fervour – somewhat religiously even – into future generations of young citizens.

The question is: who does the embedding and how?  How on earth can something like this be engineered?

Not an easy job; practically impossible I guess.  A battle few of us could win.  Recovering trust at a cultural and societal level, to the degree I am petitioning, is pretty much an undone deal.

Yet the alternative is a progressive – I’d say terrifying – ramping up of inquisitorial process, procedure and tools; a ramping up of oppression – as heresy, and its elimination, becomes democracy’s objective.

Not something any of us should be much looking forward to.

I don’t think anybody of an educated bent has ever felt so helpless in all of human history.

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Oct 212014
 
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This is probably going to be one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written, especially in the times we now find we’re living.

Via Paul Bernal on Twitter, this story came my way an hour or so ago.  It describes how someone has been convicted of possessing cartoons of figures designed to look like children.  The judge clearly considered they represented and perpetuated abuse:

Judge Tony Briggs said the pictures were manufactured, stylised, and “repulsive” to varying degrees.

And:

He added: “This is material that clearly society and the public can well do without. Its danger is that it obviously portrays sexual activity with children, and the more it’s portrayed, the more the ill-disposed may think it’s acceptable.”

To conclude, on giving the person in question a nine-month prison sentence suspended for two years:

He said anything that encouraged child abuse, including word of mouth, drawings or artistic impressions, was to be “actively discouraged”.

I can’t disagree with the broad brush-strokes used here, having written in a similar vein on a similar subject a while ago, and to obviously similar effect:

As I pointed out recently, sexual abuse is primarily the abuse of power – and any society which criminalises the former should also be prepared to criminalise the latter.  Similarly, the generation of pornography – indeed, the generation of any content which involves the exploitation of people who would not otherwise participate, were their financial, or other, circumstances different – is, above all, an analogous abuse of power.

It does make me wonder the following, however: how far as a society are we prepared to go down the route not of policing such obvious images (I assume they are manifestly repulsive from the judge’s opinion and reaction, not because I have seen them myself – perhaps we should be learning to be a little more trusting of those whose responsibility is to act on our behalf in such challenging circumstances) but, rather, of policing even our thoughts?  For example: thoughts like the ones I had towards the end of my post linked to above:

A suggestion then.  Not just a rant.  Maybe it’s time for a new kind of content.  Given that the instinct for sex is about as old as Adam and Eve’s adult teeth, has anyone considered CGI porn as a wider solution to sexual exploitation – and its corresponding abuse of power – which so many people currently find themselves affected by?

How would this work?  Groups of existing sex workers could form officially-sanctioned cooperatives with the right to apply for government-funded training courses.  These courses would serve to train them up in computer-generated film-making.  There would, of course, be strict control over the content – a kind of Hays Code for our time.  Just because the content was computer-generated wouldn’t give the creators the right to reproduce and duplicate in the virtual world the kind of abusive relationships we were aiming to eliminate in real life.

In such a way, the whole balance of power would be altered.  Sex workers could find a gainful living as unexploited, and unexploiting, generators of porn; porn users would be safely educated away from the violent stuff through a plentiful, cheap and consistently benign exposure to non-violent (perhaps even government-subsidised) narrative; and, most importantly, the Internet could then be properly policed as per the canons of the code in question.

Would our judge be unhappy with thoughts such as these?  Do they – might they – constitute a risk to the safety, mores and behaviours of a wider public?  And am I running the risk of being guilty of incitement to future processes which lead to abuse – simply by publishing these ideas?

Maybe so.  If  so, perhaps a retraction would be in order.

But if not, if the matter of freedom to think is at risk here and overrides other points of view – not in the judicial sentence handed down with respect to the images under discussion but, instead, in the trend it could quite easily kickstart one day to the state ending up believing it has the right to police all our imaginings – then perhaps the following tweets’ implications do need to be evaluated:

@zebrared It’s a ‘direct harm’ vs ‘indirect harm’ argument… the law effectively assumes there’s harm from even viewing fakes.

@PaulbernalUK Yes. I see that. & there is considerable value in the approach. But it does require us to accept a policed view of society. >>

@PaulbernalUK << Prob being who decides what is policed (“fake” images which pervert) vs what is not (real-life abuse by the powerful). :-(

Which reminds me, for some reason, of those equally fake “Spitting Image” puppets – never so missed as they are today, right?


http://youtu.be/R1jY5fYjV-U

For in a way, they also constituted abuse of a considerable nature: for many, these puppets brought into irreparable disrepute an institution which at the time was still repairable.  Even as, on the other hand, some might argue the abuse was merited – observing and critiquing the dreadful self-destruction of a once treasured body politic: a self-destruction which would have happened anyway, however sensitively we’d otherwise behaved.

Which begs my final question: can abuse ever be merited?  What do you think, cartoon lovers?

____________________

Update to this post: some further reading has just come my way via Facebook and the Mirror.  The report describes how CGI porn has indeed been created, although not with the “didactic” or “structural” aims I naively suggested.  Instead, law-enforcement agencies decided a while ago (I do hope before my original blogpost) to use such technologies to detect and capture those involved in online child sex.

The story is worth your time, of course: it raises important issues around morality, possible entrapment and the pressures that policing what can be a pretty unpleasant worldwide web may pile up on those who are obliged to decide how to proceed.  I’m not sure it makes any clearer the debate under discussion in my post today, though: I can’t help feeling the creeping medieval shadow of the Roman Catholic Inquisition is returning to our midst.

I’d far rather find some way of educating people out of an obsession with societally harmful sex than using the very same technologies to, perhaps, encourage them in their activities – at least until they’re ultimately caught.  There really is something – at least for me in my naivete – that doesn’t quite fit with what we presumed was once a liberally supportive society.

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Oct 212014
 
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This came my way via Phil on Twitter just now (the bold is mine):

As the Greens have gained more media attention, Bennett has thought seriously about post-election possibilities, and what role her party might play in supporting a Tory- or Labour-led government. “I can’t imagine circumstances in which we would prop up a Tory government,” she says. “Our first inclination would be a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, rather than a coalition, because it means you provide stable government – you don’t get the ministerial cars but you keep your conscience and you don’t have to vote for tuition fees, for example.”

As I tweeted in response:

@philbc3 To be fair, does seem to express lukewarm preference for Labour. But not good keeping conscience is more important than ownership.

@philbc3 Seems the Greens may be made of the same political instincts as other party groupings. Our body politic refusing to regenerate!

Representative democracy is, in fact, a bit of a bugger.  At the moment there are moves to bring about the legal figure of recall to parliamentary constituencies.  I suppose what this means is that if a sufficient number of voters are unhappy with what an MP is doing, he or she can be forced to stand again mid-term.  Its opponents will argue this will lead to a ridiculous knee-jerk body politic where currently there isn’t one; its proponents will argue knee-jerk instincts couldn’t get worse than they already are.

The bugger that such a democracy becomes, with or without recall as a shiny bolt-on, is that we agree with the idea of moderately autonomous MPs when they stop barbaric – even as possibly popular – impulses to reintroduce the death penalty but we refuse to countenance such structures when their autonomy leads to the horrors the Coalition has committed over the past four years in the name of a negotiated politics.

Or, rather, it’s not so much their autonomy of us we refuse to accept as their often blind and unquestioning attachment to their political groupings.

This leads to the stuff we’ve spoken about at length; it also means no one – or very few, at any rate – cares to question underlying fundamentals.

For example, why is the only alternative to a rapacious corporate capitalism supposed to be a heavy-handed, unresponsive, dead weight of a state?  And why is the former so easily sold to and bought by us as representing a fleet-of-foot operating efficiency when any objective assessment would judge its efficiencies to be – at the very most – limited mainly to the needs and desires of executive classes and shareholders various?

I’m not arguing that corporate capitalism doesn’t have its virtues.  At its best, it collates and shares the living and breathing knowledge of maybe hundreds and thousands of employees.  But that’s at its best.  And we do, surely, have to accept that in its battle with the equally corporate state, it has grown up in a shadow many of its companies have clearly emulated.  That the Tories should go onto the attack from 2010 onwards – having identified the prime weakness of their business sponsors as their inability to stand on their own two commercial feet without the succour of Mother State; instead, putting the spotlight on the poor, disabled and equally state-dependent disempowered – is just one indication of where the truth really lies: that is to say, by telling a small truth about one defenceless portion of society, we tell a damning lie about one hugely powerful – yet potentially vulnerable (ie in need of permanent political protection) – top of the pyramid.

Even so, there is another way: there always has to be.  As democratic socialists – or perhaps wistful social democrats – it could be our task to regenerate this narrative completely: in the face of a relatively efficient – although often ineffective – corporate capitalism, we shouldn’t posit the only alternative as being the aforementioned, inevitably less efficient Mother State.*

For the problem now appears to be that business – corporate capitalism I mean – has been so successful at burrowing its way into our societal mindsets that we are utterly unable to conceptualise a different set of working structures, tools, assumptions or wider ways of seeing.  Just as we struggle to conceive of a business which isn’t corporate, so we struggle to conceive of a state which could be anything else.

In fact, in much the same way as we now assume business has to be corporate capitalism, so we assume the state could only be a less efficient version of the same.

Yet the technology, ideas, mentalities and moods are surely out there for another kind of representative democracy, society and commercial environment.  Isn’t it time we stopped assuming there only existed a singular duopoly in our society – time we started believing there must be far more than just one best way?

____________________

* That corporate capitalism’s “kicking when down” of the state – which it nevertheless receives so much benefit from – mirrors the Tories’ “kicking when down” of, for example, the European Union for purely political reasons – of a, nevertheless, commercially incoherent nature – shouldn’t go unnoticed as a tactic which is spreading too far and fast for any progressive’s liking.

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Oct 192014
 
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In truth, the Tories were right: we are all in this together.  And we are all better together.

The problem is they don’t really believe what they say, but – at the same time – what they say is what we ought to say.

A dependence society is bad for everyone concerned: individuals, whether we are “healthy” or not; companies and businesses, whether we are big- or small-scale.  To scrounge a living on the backs of others is about as un-human as anyone can get: the glory of “being” surely lies in proactivity, not the kind of inactivity that relying unnecessarily on others can lead to.

It doesn’t make any difference whether you defraud pennies or billions of pounds: it’s primarily the mindset which is wrong here.  One thing, then, that is broadly shared, I can tell you, is this mindset of something for nothing I describe.  That’s how we’ve been taught to think over the past thirty years.  That’s what “greed is good” does to you.

Yes.  The Tories were right.  In what they said.

The Tories were, however, wrong.  In what they did.

If Labour is looking to see what its next manifesto should really contain, it could do far worse than to take Tory platitudes; give them to our most dedicated (ie humane) socialists; and turn them into properly burnished policies – policies which impact on everyone, in what we would like to call society.

Always assuming that more radical change to our structures is no longer possible short-term, the kind of government we need runs as follows:

  1. A leader like any half-decent philosopher out there – let’s call them HDPh for ease of use – who is able to identify the essence of what makes us happy human beings, and then enable and facilitate the changes and direction we’re all looking for.
  2. A communications tsar like Cameron himself (though please never like IDS, Gove or Boris), able to form and trot out the platitudes we all want to believe in, but which – for a number of years – we’ve failed (for good reason) to believe he believes in.
  3. A second-in-command policy-adviser type like Ed Miliband himself (though please never like those beloved of the so-called Blue Labour clique), able to identify and stand up to the big issues of the day before anyone else has the guts or nous to do so, and then define a proactive response that lives up to the needs of our peoples.  (Needless to say, communication of the latter would be the responsibility of the communications tsar.)

As you can see, no further justifications are required: we are in it – and better – together.

The only problem I can see is that no political party, nor leading light, cares to do just what they’re best suited to; all of them want to be uniquely responsible for making a mess of our lives.

HDPh-type, where are you?

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Oct 192014
 
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No.  I’m not very good at titles.  You may have realised that already.

This post is not really about obesity at all.  It’s written out of ignorance – as well as a reluctance to make myself seem more learned than I am by spending five minutes Googling statistics held online.

A couple of days ago, Jonathan Freedland connected – as symptomatic of two very current Western conditions – the Islamic State and Ebola crises.  He identified two states of mind as representing our shared responses.  Firstly, fear:

They are dark, unseen enemies, come from far away – and they are scaring us witless. Isis is not a disease, and Ebola is not a terror organisation. But fear is their common currency: intentional for one, inevitable for the other. [...]

Secondly, impotence:

But the greater similarity is the feeling of impotence that both crises prompt. The US, the most armed nation in the history of humankind, the world’s hyperpower, which spends more on weapons than the 10 next highest-spending nations combined, that country – along with five European allies and partners from the Gulf states – is pounding Isis from the air and yet making only marginal progress. No one is talking of victory over Isis; most speak of merely containing it. Meanwhile, the same US, with all its state-of-the-art technology and germproof suits, couldn’t prevent one of its nurses catching Ebola. You can hardly blame those inside and outside America who look at both situations and feel overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, as I read Freedland’s perceptive train of thought – especially as he avoids with his perspicacity what the neocons will prefer to describe as that almost psychotic connecting of ideas (what, indeed, I myself have recently called the corrosive relativism of the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free”) – I may actually be falling into the trap of doing what he so successfully avoided.  “What trap?” I hear you ask.

Well.  I look at the two plagues currently assailing our Western civilisation – obesity and mental ill-health – and wonder why no one (as per Freedland’s methodology) cares to make the connection too often.

As the Guardian reports in the obesity story just linked to, on the initiative by the state to encourage health workers to sort out their own weight problems in order to give the country a good example:

The move by Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, comes amid mounting frustration within the medical profession and NHS over the failure of successive governments to invest sufficiently in public health campaigns.

One in five young people and one in four adults in the UK now suffer from obesity, which each year causes 34,000 deaths and costs the NHS more than £1bn. Last year almost 11,000 people – 8,000 of them women – were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity.

However, I am minded to point out that in both the contexts discussed, the economic drivers soon push aside any primary considerations of a more humane nature, by coming to the fore of most policymakers’ mindsets.  Whilst the first report only mentions the cost to the NHS (others will I am sure go on to upfront the cost to businesses), the second – on mental health, and even as it starts out by talking about the impact on people – communicates the following (the bold is mine):

Dame Sally said the costs were “astounding” and NHS bosses needed to treat mental health “more like physical health”.

“Anyone with mental illness deserves good quality support at the right time,” she said.

“Underinvestment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically.

And this, if anything, if we are to use Jonathan Freedland’s carefully couched methodology, is why in the cases of IS and Ebola we are both fearful and impotent – and why in the cases of obesity and mental health we are getting far more ill than we should be.

A focus on economic drivers is driving our whole Western civilisation – once so liberal, caring, socialising and forward-looking (that little-by-little but positively remorseless progress of social democracy) – into the hands of these four hoarse men fed up of shouting out truths into the night.

The fear and impotence we are manifesting when faced with terrorism and horrific disease, as well as steady-state physical and mental infirmities such as obesity and mental ill-health, are all consequences of our leaders’ inabilities to make connections at the simplest level.  These inabilities to understand what makes us obese, mentally ill, unnaturally fearful of disease and terrified of terrorism … well, it all leads our makers and shakers to assume even more of their same is needed, when – in reality – it’s been more of their same which has failed us.

We are frightened, but not because we the people have done something very wrong in our lifestyles; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised technocracy is not up to the job.

We are impotent, but not because the communication from our lords and masters has been inadequate to the task in the hand; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised that those in charge, the technocrats and their economic sponsors, are now too powerful for us to be able to shift them in their error-making ways.  They refuse to make the connections we’ve struggled to make ourselves and, instead, look to multiply inability a thousandfold.

And when we try and communicate a different idea or approach, they see us as threatening their already fearfully threatened positions.  So instead of verily being part of the solution, we quickly become part of the threat.

We are living the rapid decline of pyramid capitalism.

They don’t know it, but we do – and that’s what’s making us fat.

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Oct 152014
 
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And a Freud of this nature is so bound to be a he, don’t you think?

First this:

Conservative welfare reform minister Lord Freud is facing calls to be sacked from the Government for saying that disabled people are “not worth the full wage”. [...]

Then, as ampp3d suggests, Freud’s own calculations suggest he may believe he is worth the labour of eighteen such disabled people.

Out of the woodwork, of course, come Freud’s defenders:

Lord Freud has been shamefully mistreated by Ed Miliband. His point was that the market value of some people’s wages is below the minimum wage. [...]

That, of course, begs the first question:

  • What exactly does Freud understand by this “market” which circumscribes people’s “value” so unarguably?

And then, from the same defenders, we get:

To point out that someone’s market value is less than minimum wage has nothing to do with their moral value as human beings. [...]

Which begs the second pair of questions:

  • Whenever did anyone justify the minimum wage by saying its purpose was to limit itself to the so-called “market value”?
  • Whenever did anyone wish to introduce into the equation some irrelevant concept of morality?

If the former was its aim, we’d all be working for two quid an hour.  If the latter was the main driver, we’d all – already – be living in happy-happy land.

Surely the purpose of the minimum wage is really about constructively, equitably and fairly counteracting the tendency to rank exploitation which the market we have – in no way free, in every way just about as dogmatic and lopsided as it could be – always tends towards when not assertively intervened in.

The reason this intervention is required is to provide the very dignity and pride for the disadvantaged which Freud claims to be working towards, that is true – but it’s also to rebalance an economy which simply wouldn’t work on its own terms if the concentrations of wealth we’re currently suffering from were left entirely unquestioned.

Then we get the worst argument of the lot:

Freud’s point was that we should help people in this situation by allowing them to find jobs paying below the minimum wage and topping up their pay directly to make up the difference. [...]

Uhh … so isn’t that what tax credits (with slightly different goalposts) – now firmly and irrevocably ridiculed by Freud’s own department – were originally set up to do?  And doesn’t the very concept of tax credits quite reasonably lend itself to such ridicule, as corporates – whilst limiting their tax liabilities – depend on tax credits to allow their workforces to continue just about managing to get to the end of the month, only to proceed in the process (the corporates I mean) to run us to the edge of bankrupting the welfare state?

Neither am I sure what Freud’s aforementioned supporters are saying here with this weasel phrase: “moral value as human beings” is a strange concept indeed, in a society where little is defined qualitatively any more – and where even major international treaties are looking to define sovereign democracy as a direct attack on what is being constructed as the overarching rights of transnational organisations.

Organisations which only deal with Milton Friedman’s amoral corporate responsibilities.

Hmm.  This man and his supporters could easily find themselves in favour of fracking, if they’re not careful.  “The connection?” I hear you ask.  Scientists invariably side with such technologies because they are firmly of the mindset that if the rules and regulations are followed, little can go wrong.  Except that scientists, in this sense, do live in ivory towers.

That is to say, the kind of towers that lead poachers to decimate elephants.

For the distance between the world of evidence-based good faith as exemplified by most scientists, professionals and non-politicians on the one hand, and the world of obfuscation, lies and prejudice which Freud & Co habitually occupy on the other, is just too grand to allow us to believe in the practical implementations and intentions of the latter.

To be honest, Freud is a serial offender – his real political failing is not that he obfuscates as others might but that he doesn’t have the courage of his awful private convictions.

That he backtracks and flip-flops hardly infuses confidence in anything he says, even as his name guarantees the truth will out.

But that’s a by-the-by.

The reality is that through the creation of exceptions to what is supposed to be an absolute baseline in our society, the minimum wage, Freud is showing himself capable of the worst sort of political shenanigans: what he’s really saying is that the business community which so generously funds, sponsors and lobbies the political party he belongs to isn’t expected to value human beings in any other way except the quantitative.

Just as he’s also incoherently arguing it’s the job of the state (once again), that state he and his ilk so disparage of late, to sustain with a rather patronising noblesse oblige the dependence of people with disability – so many of us – on the body politic he himself clearly benefits from.

That many of us who are clearly no longer a political priority for those who make policy in the dismal 21st century Tory Party.

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Oct 132014
 
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We’ve been told a lot over the past couple of years or so about how we’ve already been living a surveillance society.

The implications are considerable: from inhabiting an environment and nation – the United Kingdom, I mean – where volunteering information, time and resources has always been prized highly to a democracy where almost everything is essentially surveilled by those who argue such surveillance is necessary to prevent liberty’s loss (and yet who by so doing contribute to such freedoms becoming rusty and virtually ignored), we are now hitting the blocks of scarifying implications as far as civilisation’s dynamics are concerned.

Yes.  Of course it is challenging to believe the way forward involves being permanently watched: that our children should become accustomed to zero privacy in their formative years is a horrible thought, and if it were a reality committed and engineered by parents themselves, the state would soon intervene to prevent it from happening.

But because it is done in the name of very real security worries, the only security we acquire as a result is that privacy must disappear from the radar of human expectations.

And yet, even as this happens, it provides us with an unhappy cold comfort.

Two thoughts here I’d like to underline:

  1. In times of specific types of crises – such as, for example, that which Ebola is clearly becoming – public health can only be protected if the minimum standards the poorest can access equal the minimum standards necessary to contain an outbreak of such a disease.  This raises the bar considerably from the freemium NHS which the Tories and Lib Dems have been trying to implement over the past four years, and surely should make us stop and think quite carefully as to whether such an approach is feasible – not from an economic point of view any more; simply from a generalised rationale of wider levels of public safety.
  2. More specifically, in relation to the surveillance society issue I’ve already raised: living in a society like this changes the way we behave and collaborate with figures of authority.  We are less likely to do all that we used to do – as already pointed out: volunteering information, time and resources – and more likely to wait passively for Big Brother/Big Sister to do his/her very worst or best.  Being surveilled so constantly in the way we all now know to be the case either makes us proactive in expressing our dissatisfaction against such a state of affairs or leads us to a resigned inactivity which hardly bodes well for the kind of collaborative dynamics public health crises like Ebola demand, require and obviously need.

In a sense, we now have a perfect storm which involves the following elements:

  1. an NHS whose morale has been deliberately battered by government leaders for four years, in order to ensure an economic modulation and outcome which benefits their financial sponsors in a very short-term, but at the same time leaves its people – at least in England – in a desperately unhappy state;
  2. those revelations about the surveillance society, its long reach and how (now) supposedly nothing we do is unpredictable, so removing all sense of a prior free will from the dynamics of active civil and societal participation – reconverting, as it were and as it continues to do, ordinary men and women into receptors of predigested content;
  3. a political class which has been concentrated so dramatically on the job of occupying its policy-making bubbles that the real world – not what people do in the real world but what nature (uncontrollable nature, perhaps, at that) does to people! – simply fails entirely to butter its more daily bread.

The tool to keep our health safe has been messed around with for economic reasons – to the extent that it becomes less effective in moments when public health become far more important.

The tool to keep us secure from violent terror has been messed around with for political reasons – to the extent that it makes us less collaborative.

The people who supposedly should know best how to manage, channel and organise all the above have lost all credibility in their effort to sustain an economics which, whilst cruel and intellectually retrograde, is – even on its own terms – also rankly inefficient.

The biggest danger of the surveillance society is, therefore, not what they are able to watch us do – but how, actually, it changes what is there for them to watch: how it changes what we end up doing; how it changes the ways we act and interact in a societal context.

The challenging future which awaits us all doesn’t need reactive absorbers of social media-formed opinion but proactive leaders at all levels, capable of thinking for themselves.

So do we have that?  I fear not.  Not anywhere, in fact.

And therein the perfect storm I mention.

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Oct 122014
 
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Here’s a real, awfully truthful story* – something which happened to our family this weekend.

I first made reference to it in my previous blogpost.

Probably made 75-100 phonecalls yesterday – a bit traumatic indeed.

Offspring’s motorbike had front brake line cut on Friday by vandals, whilst parked outside a university in a large northern city.

Insurance offered to pay transport of bike back home, but refused to transport rider.

Breakdown recovery companies refused to bring the bike back because it was vandalism, not breakdown.  They even refused to bring the bike back when we offered to pay a one-off payment!

Then, we discover the spare parts – for this brand new bike! – aren’t available anywhere in Europe.  If the criminals in question had wished to commit the most inconveniencing of vandalisms possible, then this was it: the key part in question – the brake line – rarely if ever perishes, so is rarely if ever needed.  Or so we were told.

(We were also told the part/bike/whatever was “under study”, which apparently means the manufacturer is about to take a decision with possibly far-reaching implications for their product – implications no one cared to spell out.  And remember, we are talking about a bike bought only two weeks ago …)

Finally, I phoned the bike’s manufacturers who:

1) Initially offered to escalate the issue within three working days (my offspring had to work today here in Chester!!!).
2) Only then, when I phoned a road assistance number of theirs, did someone finally decide to take ownership and offer to bring bike and rider back home.

Never had such a stressful day, really.  Nope.  I don’t wish 100 phonecalls in one four-hour period on anyone.

In the meantime, two questions for you to think about whilst you contemplate our circumstances:

Firstly, is it normal in the places where you live for people to go around cutting brakes on motorcycles?  This isn’t just vandalism – it’s malicious, evil behaviour.

Secondly, is it normal when you phone your insurance company, in order to report an act of vandalism, for the customer care representative to:
a) agree to phone you back on Saturday, and then not phone you back; and
b) recommend you ride a bike back home yourself which doesn’t have operative front brakes?

Happy (or not so happy) Sunday!

:-(

____________________

* Crossposted and slightly adapted from my Facebook language-learning page today.

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Oct 112014
 
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Four tweets, two situations, one thought.  That’s how I see the world this morning.

The first two tweets are on how our governing coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats has presumably, quite suddenly, recovered its appreciation of the National Health Service, as it frantically casts assurances to the wind and our evermore cynical ears:

In the light of #Ebola, can we now expect the govt to stop trashing the #NHS whilst it needs the voters to feel protected & safe? #TheIrony

I dunno. Bloody awful stuff, this. #PublicHealth needs a healthy public, which means sustainable health for *all* at point of use. #NHS

And then shortly afterwards, I tweeted this other couplet:

Meanwhile, in one of our northern towns, an offspring of mine has front motorbike brakes cut whilst bike was parked outside their uni. >>

<< Is this normal behaviour in large cities these days? Isn’t cutting brakes about as evil as it can get? What’s happened to normalise it?

And the single thought?

It’s probably a cheap thought.  But leadership, of any kind, anywhere you look, can do little more than set the general tone – if it can do anything useful at all.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  Setting the tone is an important matter.  Our relatively free economies still operate on the basis of a generalised confidence.  That soft element to hard thinking will never be without meaning or place.

And maybe this is where I’m thinking not hard but cheaply – as I’ve been already bound to suggest.  But if we spend four long years listening to politicians who use obfuscation particularly profoundly – who claim no top-down reorganisations of health, and then proceed to reorganise top-down; who claim no processes of privatisation, and then privatise inefficiently and to astonishing gain for their financial sponsors; who suggest a society of the inclusive, and then exclude the poorest, the most disabled, the most needy from public respect – who can expect anything more than the evil of cutting my offspring’s front motorcycle brakes?

There is, of course, no connection between the two events.  But the prevalence of the former set of obfuscations sets the tone, defines the leadership and puts the ship of our supposedly shared state on a certain direction that only makes casual brake-cutting idiocy more likely.

So.  Cameron & Co are clearly not to blame for the criminal activity in one of large northern cities.

But they are to blame for the kind of leadership they’ve chosen to exemplify – the kind that makes acting in bad faith clever, acceptable and normal.

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Oct 102014
 
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A while ago I had this to say about the hollow empire that once was Rupert Murdoch’s – and how I felt that the Guardian, in its page-impression-chasing “Comment is Free” section had reproduced such hollowness, perhaps quite despite itself.

The corrosive relativism – that platform for anyone, even one’s enemies (which, as you can see, I am suggesting has very curiously grown up in Murdoch’s imperial shadow and early example) – must have seemed a good idea at the time: that is to say, not corrosive.  But I would argue that in particular the last General Election – the commentariats’ recommendations and all that has rained on us since – has shown the consequences and ramifications of such an approach: ideologies, after all, are not important in order that they may allow the non-thinking to impose the inflexible on good people but, rather, precisely this, to make it possible for the thinking to measure the pitfalls of the relativism they rightly explore.  By always measuring such pitfalls at the same time as investigating new ideas, ideology helps – like a compass in the wild – the explorers amongst us keep on the right, intelligent and humane side of mix-and-match instincts to thought.  And equally, in ideology’s absence, there is nothing left to define how far we are travelling away from the goals we started out with.

So if exploring ideas in a relativistic way is good, how do we guard against its long-term corrosive downsides (if, indeed, I am right to term and argue it thus)?  That our newspapers are a reflection of our ways of thinking, doing and seeing is undoubted; that they fashion and impact on such ways is also clear; and that, above all, in the economically aggressive times for the industry all media are currently experiencing, that they will tend to strive any which way they can to overcome their own destruction, via online tricks (and tics!) of all kinds … well, it’s obvious that much of what has happened in the press over the past thirty years has had more to do with the overarching need to get to the end of the month than alleged empire-building and king- and queen-making antics.

In truth, democracy has been corrupting itself since the 70s; and the evidence is out there if you just care to look.  Which hasn’t meant there haven’t been parallel movements designed overtly or covertly to satisfy – as a social species – our democratic urges.  Open source software communities are one example of this.  Where cogent and useful and supporting real purposes and needs, they can be examples of alternative democracy worthy of significant study.  But we don’t even need to go so technical: the web, whilst mining the data and lives of so many of us, does also allow like-minded souls to aggregate around like-minded goals in so many online environments.

What’s now approaching is, however, something quite challenging.  The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will blur the lines between offline and online: our fridges will tell us that we need to buy milk on the way home; our cars will end up deciding where we need to drive; our watches will inform us of our health and any remedial urgencies to be contemplated.  As I concluded in another post on the same subject (whilst observing, sadly, the following lost opportunity: if only we’d called the Internet of Things a much happier Internet of People!):

As John Naughton reminds us, and Larry Elliott before him, the dominant mode of business is a business not of people but of things.  It’s hardly surprising that someone should have defined the next wave of connectedness thus.  What’s most worrying about it, however, is not the way such organisations repeat their behaviours.  What’s most worrying about it is that democracy itself – currently beholden only to ballot boxes, paper-based procedures and other remnants of quite ancient times – will shortly migrate to this still undefined Internet of Things; will shortly be defined from top-to-tail by corporate capitalism.

And then where will people be able to find even a niche?  Then where will people even exist?

This, for me, is the key issue to hand: how to make of an approaching (maybe we would more accurately say “encroaching”) Internet of Things a place designed for the grassroots input of all kinds of people.  Not to connect the offline and online worlds only through technologies which track us, measure us and – ultimately – define us quite despite ourselves but, rather, use tech to bring the real world back into the centre of all our endeavour – whether that endeavour be cultural, social, political or economic.

From a corrosive relativism to truly recovering the soul of one of our greatest newspapers?  And, consequently, in part, our much wider civic engagement?  I don’t think it’s beyond the ken of intelligent people to be as ambitious as this.  Look at this initiative, for example:

We believe that the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better

Guardian Membership brings together diverse, progressive minds, journalistic skills and the best of what others create to give you a richer understanding of the world and the opportunity to shape it.

And this:

In 2016, the Guardian will reopen the Midland Goods Shed at London’s King’s Cross to create a new kind of civic space.

The building will be a hub for big ideas and stimulating conversations. It will host events, activities and courses from Guardian Live and institutions we admire, as well as being the home of Guardian Membership.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the following article from September 2014 gives more background to how the Guardian sees itself in terms of this project.

So why do I suddenly find this so stimulating?  We can harp on about London-centric initiatives (I myself often do; I don’t have the resource, on occasions neither the emotional desire, to trog on down to a place which is often quite negatively foreign to my ways of thinking); we can even argue that it may become a white elephant of grand corporate self-aggrandisement, if those who are developing it aren’t careful.

But right now, with the data I get the feeling that I have to hand, I don’t think the above will happen.  And I certainly wish for it not to take over a beautiful idea we should all prefer to support, whatever our politics or ideological inclinations.

If we are to rescue the Internet of Things from those who would worship things instead of prioritise people, then public civic spaces like these where people of all ways of thinking, doing and seeing are physically able to meet other people, combined with video-conferencing tech for those who cannot be there in person, will inevitably become progressively more practical as the Internet we name the Internet of Things is – perhaps most hopefully – recovered for that Internet … of Our Mutual Civic Soul.

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Oct 082014
 
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Some good quotes today – and, I would argue, patterns that weave a little worryingly.

This first one came via Tom on Facebook, from a nice overview of New Labour times in Left Foot Forward:

And yet the New Labour preference for equality of opportunity over equality of outcome failed to recognise that it isn’t only wealth that concentrates; opportunity does too. [...]

The paragraph goes on to say, quite accurately but sadly to my mind (the bold is mine):

The more unequal a society is the less mobile it will become, thereby undermining the meritocratic principle. Or to quote the American author Christopher Hayes, whose book Twilight of the Elites touches in more detail on this theme, ‘The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility’.

Meanwhile, Chris suggests that:

[...] Given these structural tendencies for capitalism to degenerate into cronyism, could it be that some form of market socialism (big pdf) would do better? [...]

Then, we get Paul saying this of a proposal I am unfamiliar with:

This is the early 21st century spirit of managerialism, par excellence. The Chief Social Worker* is effectively saying that she recognises that in some/many circumstances the organisation of the whole child protection and family support system militates against effective social work, but that she just doesn’t care; social workers are just going to have to get on with, seeking to do the impossible, sinking or swimming.

Little wonder, when managers abrogate responsibility for the ‘organisational context’ in which workers work in favour of a vague aspiration that somehow, magically, superworkers will allow them to meet their supertargets, that the workers either vote with their feet (as in the 43% social worker vacancy rate in Rotherham), or stick to ticking the boxes. [...]

Finally, a mobile upload from Steve, also via Facebook, of worldviews from what he terms market forces (I presume, currently, English/UK government too) versus those held by professionals (in this case, professional educators).  His contextualisation goes thus:

How believers in market forces see education and how teachers see education. We have to change this mindset that leaves exhausted demoralised teachers teaching your children.

And his photo runs as follows:

Market forces vs professional teachers

Isn’t it curious to see how the patterns repeat?  In the first instance, a probably fair attempt by New Labour to resolve inequality in very challenging circumstances led to the very reassertion they were looking to avoid of inefficient concentrations of what we could simply term “wealth” – but what we might better choose to describe as “access to and leverage of wealth”.

In the second case, we get this florid creature, crony capitalism, rearing its similarly wasteful presence – a capitalism which, like every dependent offspring born, aims to succour itself to health via the support of a dedicated body: in this instance, the bodies politic and socioeconomic which the rest of us belong to.

In the third case, we perceive the mechanism and tool for implementing the above two processes, whereby these concentrations of this “wealth” I am inexactly describing take place.  This managerialism many of us have described has only served to give the burdened manager-classes a utility beyond their natural one: like a piece of word-processing software that long ago reached maturity – but nevertheless hangs on in there despite its collapsing ability to add further value, as it continues to sell licence after licence through bright, breezy and effortlessly useless GUI updates of all kinds – our clearly downtrodden managers have replaced truly added value with number-crunching KPIs and procedures various.  What used to be the paper-shifting bureaucracies of yore have become the button-pressing target-definers of a latterday now.

But it’s Steve’s upload to Facebook which, for me, best summarises the whole situation.  If we believe in what we surely prefer to describe and understand as a realistically free market – a market not only of opportunity grasped healthily but also of outcomes continually renewed and innovated – which of the two lists best mimics its necessary preconditions?

The one on the left or the one on the right?  The tools of that florid capitalism we are currently suffering from or the elements of possible progress which a tentatively defined “free market socialism” might lead us to take on board?

I’m no longer too much of an idealist.  My life has lately, to a degree, taken me away from such sincerity.  The things I have seen – the things I have seen others do, both to me and to beloved family – make me less of a dyed-in-the-wool lover of men and women of good deeds than you might think (perhaps to my disgrace, too …).  I am, as a result, less likely to believe or trust anyone.

Yet even though I no longer see things in the black and white, red and blue, or green and yellow of political armbanding, I can still believe that out of a corrupted system such as the dominant form of capitalism currently is, something else far more beautiful can be fashioned by those who still have time.

Time and, maybe, energy.

What do you think?

Aren’t these the real reasons why we must deal with inequality?  Not out of love or affection or otherworldly instincts.  No.  Simply because any other way is – rankly, quite frankly – an appalling waste of money.

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Oct 052014
 
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As usual, I’m late to the party.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Perhaps the purpose of our body politic is not to embrace us out of a kindly desire to inform but bear-hug us into confusion – and, ultimately, inaction too.

I naively thought all rights have their corresponding responsibilities.  In theory, however, it gets much better than this.  Some of our dearest rights are inalienable.  It’s like copyright laws in France and Spain – as an author, you cannot give them up.

So it is that Wikipedia currently indicates:

Natural and legal rights are two types of rights. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system. Natural rights are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., cannot be sold, transferred, or removed).

Meanwhile, today Nick Cohen says a helluva lot of depressing things, but I’d draw your particular attention to his final two paragraphs.  First, of David Cameron, our supposedly British Prime Minister:

In truth, he is not proposing a British bill of rights but an English bill of rights, and a Tory English bill at that. No one else would be obliged to accept it. Labour might come back into power and produce a leftwing bill of rights that included rights to union representation, shelter, health and education Maxwell Fyfe and Churchill rejected. Greens could propose environmental rights. Everyone could propose their own rights; they could change with every new parliament, all because a decent statement of minimum standards was too much for British Conservatives to bear.

This is terrifying.  This is the legal equivalent of substituting commuter trains and trams run as a public service with (usually) privatised buses run with the aim of making a profit: once achieved and consecrated the changeover, it gets so easy to modify, withdraw and destroy such services – without, in fact, taking ownership for anything at all.

And then, yes, Cohen’s summing-up is thundering:

The case of the Human Rights Act belies the stories Conservatives tell themselves. They call themselves individualists but want more power for the state. They call themselves unionists but threaten the union. They call themselves democrats but land more blows on the enfeebled liberal world. They boast of their common sense and call themselves pragmatists but destroy with reckless insouciance. They are a danger to themselves and everyone who votes for them.

Reading this is when I came to the following realisation (and the reason, too, for writing this unassuming train of thought): the grand battle that has been waged over our heads – as subjects, citizens and voters (as well as those of us with no right to vote but, even so, every responsibility to comply with the decisions of ruling elites) – is one which has attempted by every and any means to remove from the gorgeous Christmas-time sack of inalienable rights as many of them as has been possible, as quickly as possible.

We have been pummelled into believing that what should be a humane and just assigning of minimum standards of existence for everyone must, indeed, be painfully won and battled for – generally through a subsistence living at the mercy of those whose winning and battling for what they are has, actually, been anything but painful.

For the future, then, let us forget this idiotic mantra of rights which only exist in the presence of responsibilities.  These exist unequivocally in law; it is relatively easy to determine their proper observation or not; and we have cohorts of experts and professionals well enough trained to decide when intervention is necessary or not.

No.  Our battleground as liberals surely now has to lie in the fields of what everyone, all of us, whatever our political colours of late, has encouraged society and democracy to wilfully abandon: those evermore alien inalienable rights which define whether we really want to understand life or not.

To return from the evermore alienating sack of simple legal rights what properly – and rightly, wouldn’t you say! – belongs to the glory of inalienability.

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