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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!

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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Aug 032014
 
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This was the tweet which I finally put together this evening, after a long time of not knowing how to put my finger on what I felt.  A tweet which finally clarified things for me: on a whole host of conflicted feelings about colonial pasts, victimhood, racism and cultural confusion:

At heart, we’re racist. We expect non-Westerners to bomb the hell out of each other; we don’t expect liberal democracies to do the same. :-(

Now as I’ve already suggested on these pages, the supreme dangers of a very real – that is to say, of a latent but all the same rapidly manifesting and evermore visible – anti-Semitism cannot be underestimated in the current context.  And so I’ve been writing to understand my own responses; almost certainly disappointing, to date, many of those who still read this little blog – especially from the context of the left of the British political spectrum.

Many terrible things have been written and posted over the past couple of weeks.  The pictures and words which impose a continuing sense of violence on those of us who are utterly impotent and yet terrifyingly, permanently, engaged with all the horrors that first troop, then stumble and ultimately totter, break and collapse before us … well, such a sequence of photographic and verbal imagery can be quite unbearable.

Today, I have even read – written in the register of a bitter lifestyle choice – a piece on whether genocide is right for you.

And so it is – after much cogitation – I finally understand my reticence; I finally taste in all its glory the bitter pill I’m having to swallow.  I am part Spanish Jew; a very little part it is true, but a part I wish to recognise and be proud of.  How then – after the terrible times of the Holocaust, of the legacy my European side must never, nor should ever, forget nor obviate – can I continue to feel a sense of severe unhappiness with the part that Israel is playing in this conflict?  How can I be … well … so disloyal – after all the suffering that Jews have undergone?

I suppose, if truth be told, the tweet is right: I, like many of my compatriots, many of my fellow Europeans, am racist: we ignore the vast empty toothless neighbourhoods of destruction where Arabs have committed evil against Arabs, and only concentrate on what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.  Or, indeed (far more occasionally I guess the Israeli government would say), on what the Palestinians are doing to Israel.

Only I also wonder if this is really, or solely, racism on my part.  For sure we do guard a strong sense of anti-Semitism, and things like the past month do serve to add a frisson of  “There, I told you so!” to our daily interactions.  But I’m not absolutely sure, as I dare to explore this train of thought further, whether the real battle is one of racism or ideologies.

The current Israeli government’s position doesn’t half seem to mimic our own government’s behaviour around the time of Iraq when Tony Blair led Labour.  The “Arab/Muslim/terrorist threat in general” meme – which has served to coalesce so many positions and postures into singular monocultural points of view – is clearly being used, with evidence from the battlefield I agree, to justify all manner of war crimes in Gaza.  But I’m beginning to suspect that, in truth, what certain ideologues are doing – on our side of the walls being built, mind – is to use that meme to hide from the public a more complex reality: that in Arab societies it would be as easy to find people who from our liberal perspectives we could get along with, who we could build bridges towards, who we could engage with at social and cultural levels in order to create shared future, as it would be to find them in countries like Israel.  And similarly (perhaps far more importantly, this), that people as ideologically fanatical – as fundamentalist in their world views, I mean – as Hamas or ISIS clearly are can be encountered in positions of power in our European and North American contexts, as well as in Israel itself.

Bombing people and places to smithereens is nothing like allowing the disabled to slowly die as support systems are suddenly removed – but in the black-and-white nature of the worldviews in question, certain conceptual elements are shared.  The “I am right, you are wrong” mentality; the “No gain without pain” attitudes (as long as we understand the pain will be yours, not mine); the “If I’m at the top and you’re at the bottom, there’s got to be a God-given reason” assumptions … these are shared by so many of those currently running austerity the world over.

And there’s little difference for these distanced stratospheric makers and shakers – makers and shakers who’ve neither suffered a shrapnel wound in their lives nor had to witness a baby’s blood spatter the concrete before them – between the poverty of action that allows them to gaily crunch spun statistics whilst people starve at the doors of hundreds of food banks, and the poverty of thought that allows governments who say their enemies mix military and hospitals packed to the defibrillators with utterly defenceless human beings, to go ahead and destroy the lives of hundreds of terrified persons.

In truth, we do expect Israel, as a Western democracy, to do better.  And in truth, we do expect Arab countries, as non-Western regimes, to do their worst.  And in truth, this is highly racist.  And in truth, we shouldn’t think like this.

But it’s also – kind of – just as racist to believe that Western democracy means just one thing.  And what’s more, one inevitably good thing.  At the end of this lovely review in the Financial Times two days ago, on the subject of the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ new book about the wider pursuit of the recent phone-hacking stories, Davies is criticised for ranting on about neoliberalism.  I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment if it’s a rant or not.  But I imagine if he does rant, it’s because it’s all too easy for him to fall into the trap of doing so.  So much of what we understand to be a latterday Western democracy seems to have been handed over, lock, stock and pork barrel, to those who have professional time on their hands to take over completely the “representative” in “representative democracy”.

I am sure, in the end, that so many of us have more in common with good people of a liberal inclination in many Arab countries, wherever they may find themselves, than we do with some of the right-wing austerity fanatics in the UK – in particular, that bit of the UK we call Westminster!  This is not to say that fundamentalism in the Middle East isn’t a threat to be taken seriously.  But it does mean that a liberal view of democracy must begin to fight more vigorously to be heard – if for no other reason than to let it be known that good people are to be found everywhere in the world.

And more importantly, as I’ve already indicated, that real poverty of thought may also be found on many of our own doorsteps.

For we are not one in anything – but, rather, multitudes.

As someone far better than me once pointed out …

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Aug 022014
 
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I’ve been struggling (as I imagine all of us not trained in the history in question have been struggling) to understand the dynamics of the current conflict in Gaza.  It’s not just from my failure to comprehend how people can be party to so much cruelty, but also from the point of view of how particularly the British and US governments can simultaneously condemn in public and – apparently – support in private such violence.

And so I stumble across a piece of data which, if true, explains at least half of that equation: the US currently tolerates an annual mortality rate by gunshot wounds – suicide and murder both – of 30,000 of its citizens.

That’s almost a hundred a day.

In fact, at least according to this .pdf, the figure can be occasionally even more alarming:

“That is the thing I just can’t understand.  On September 11, 2001, three thousand people died.  And ten times that amount of people die every year in the United States from firearms.  That question comes into my head a lot. Believe me. ”

Hardly surprising, then (perhaps, more accurately, I should say “sadly unsurprising”), that statistics such as these (from the previous Gaza War) and opinions such as these (from only yesterday) can emerge from such an icy cauldron of experience and perceptions:

An Israeli newspaper appeared to attempt to avert a backlash on Friday evening, when it removed a post entitled ‘When Genocide is Permissible’ from its website less than a minute after it was uploaded.

The article in question apparently having been written by a blogger based in the US.

To its credit, the Times of Israel later reacted in the following way:

A spokeswoman from The Times of Israel  has since condemned the blog as “damnable and ignorant”.

She told The Independent: “The blog post, which was both damnable and ignorant, was uploaded by a blogger. It was removed by the Times of Israel for breaching our editorial guidelines. The blog has been discontinued.”

Never mind the Gaza Strip.  This is clearly (even if differently in certain fundamental detail) a case of the #NewWorldStrip: a zone of violence where poverty of thought outstrips the humanity we are all capable of.

The cost, in fact, of violent freedoms.  And the cancer continues to spread.

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Aug 012014
 
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We live in horrible online public spaces – even as our private lives may contain in equal and respectful parts the beauty, sadness, love and fear, natural and appropriate to the curiosity that is this planetary existence of ours.

So whilst I’m having a wonderful time at home with family and friends, with good food and drink, with affection and humanity and everything that relates to being a good human, every time I sign on to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, speckling (inevitably it would seem) the thoughtful and even inspiring in a way that reminds one all too soon of a flock of malevolent birds – or maybe even a Petri dish of bacterial growth – I see the awful things that are happening out there, and – then – wonder, at a loss for better or more useful words, simply “Bloody bloody hell!”.

Meanwhile, Israel proceeds to bomb Gaza furiously, and Hamas proceeds to fire rockets just as hatefully … and I read reports of Israeli snipers repeating the terror of the Balkans in the 1990s … and children die and women bleed and men are corralled in that part of humanity that only deserves partial dismay when their deaths are duly reported because, as men, they are (perhaps) somehow more to blame for this tragedy (even as they are entirely innocent too – even those who belong to duly constituted armies) … and so we realise to what extent our natural shorthand in the face of complex situations has disintegrated into a moral idiocy of revolting proportions: an idiocy which assigns no virtue to any position held by anyone still able to effect anything, never mind those of us who look on from afar.

Yes.  We move very quickly from cautiously prejudging the world around us – in order to be able to understand it better and in time – to forming layers of prejudice around those other occasional, and ultimately immensely damaging, prejudgements which emerge from a dark and painfully reactive emotion.  Like cancerous oysters surrounded by and embedded in a blandly clever rhetoric, we erect upon foundations of cack-handed and half-baked thinking entire strategies of self-justification – a self-justification which allows us to acquire any number of permanent badges of courage, and continue to wear them whatever the implications or circumstances.

Prejudging the world is a necessary summary of what happens around us.  We do it all the time.  We look at a person’s face and then draw conclusions and, if the conclusions are fortunate, we continue the conversation, adapt our initial impression and come to a fairer, more accurate, understanding of what we are engaging with.

But in extreme conditions – conditions such as the Balkans, now Gaza, a fairly unreported Syria, a confusingly reported Ukraine, a whole host of depressing moments and conflicts – there is no time to do anything more than rapidly, and often cruelly, form a prejudice out of a prejudgement.  That person’s face is behind a rifle crosshair; that uniform signals “enemy”; and so the dynamics of civil conflict kick in like the destruction of a RORO vessel: the seeping of water into one side of a craft suddenly becomes a gush of slippery liquid knocking sideways and upside down all opportunity for stability – or, even, in the case of all-out war, all embarrassed chance of a gingerly outstretched seeking of dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Without dialogue, we are not human.  This is why our political class now is inhumane.  The most it ever achieves these days is a pasty-faced process of heavily circumscribed “listening”: no obligation to take any notice; no requirement to register the results publicly; no inclination to do more than spin the opinions of the many into the poverty of thought of the very powerful few.  But true dialogue, a true exchange of positions, a true equality of hierarchy, a peer-to-peer set of relationships if you like … of this we have none; of this no government – nor, indeed, authority of any note – cares to believe in and sustain.

And now I read in the Guardian that (the bold is mine):

Antisemitic hate crime rose by more than a third in the first six months of the year and spiked to a five-year high in July, figures show.

The Community Security Trust, which records attacks on the Jewish community in the UK, found there had been a 36% rise in antisemitic incidents, including violent crime and vandalism, to 304 between January and June. This was followed by 130 incidents in July alone, which coincided with the Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The story goes on to describe the fear the community, also innocent, is experiencing as the ghosts of European anti-Semitism begin to rise from the graves of the millions who died at its hands.  Florid language, yes … OK.  Maybe it is.  But the situation is both fearful and ever-present.  For anti-Semitism is an oyster of permanence, buried but not crushed, hidden but not bowed.

As I said in my previous post:

But if I were the [Israelis], and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

And if you think this is beyond all bounds of realistic possibility, just contemplate the following scenario: an underground of neo-Nazis, for decades unable to convince a wider population that its prejudices relating to the Jews in Europe were anything but prejudices, suddenly, and in a highly social-networked way, grabs hold of a complex and miserably visceral situation which most Europeans can only protest about.  Imagine what could be done with such an emotionally explosive situation – a situation which lends itself so easily to the prejudgement I was talking about above.

(A gentle by-the-by on the way too, if you will: compare and contrast, if you do remember anything, what happened in the Balkans – much closer to our European homes.  Compare the urgency with which people took to the streets to defend and protect the innocent.  Compare what was done to Sarajevo’s plural community.  Compare how level killing-fields were not to be permitted.  Compare how everything was kept isolated for so very long, whilst Europe failed to decide how to deal – once more – with a home-made genocide; a genocide on its doorstep.)

I used to argue the following: “It doesn’t matter where the opinion comes from – judge instead the intrinsic value of the words in question.”  I’m not so sanguine now.  Words have a history; phrases form out of the prejudgements in question; and prejudice comes from borrowed points of view, often violently bolted together.  We cannot isolate from the mouths of those who speak, or the fingers of those who write or type, the words that issue forth.

Words can be bullets – fired by snipers of clever and accurate intent – just as easily as any piece of deadly lead.

And whilst the Israelis are committing serious offences against humanity, there is a trail of complicity and criminality on many sides which makes the acts of war being carried out in the world today little more or less than a cultural DNA we all share.

The damaged genes we all carry – and sometimes exhibit in our families and personal environments, as well as on world stages – have also made the body politic and social what it is in these terrible moments.

So as we try to unravel where it went wrong, the only easy prejudgement that doesn’t fall into the prejudice we should always try and resist is to say the innocent bear no single nationality at all – as do neither the culpable.

For what I fear most, of course, is if this democratically-elected Israeli government – in the confusion of easy latterday socially-networked prejudice – succeeded in convincing a significant number of Europeans that an excuse to “hate the Israelis” (the codification process going on would be clear, I think) was actually a reason.

The pain, for me, with Spanish Jewish blood in my family, would be overwhelming.  That a determined 21st century government, through its actions one unhappy summer (whether imposed from without or initiated forcefully from within), managed to unravel everything good Europeans – both Jewish and otherwise – had worked for decades to remove from our sociopolitical and cultural agendas … and what’s more, this government was Israeli … and what’s more, its direct supporter was US … well, the irony with respect to those who truly saved the 20th century from oppressive European dictatorship would never be stronger.

I no longer know what to think.

And even so, this doesn’t stop me from thinking.  As yet, does it you?

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Jul 292014
 
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I love Us vs Th3m.  Consistently focussed on what’s web-interesting; occasionally rude in the nicest possible way; of late, perfectly innovative as anything on the Internet needs to be to have the right to demand our attention.

This piece, for example, on sinister-font usage is fabulous.  (And if you want a better gander at Portmeirion itself, I’ve got a few photos I took one glorious day we spent there.)  But whilst stories about evil typescripts may feed our playful paranoias, the fronts of the battles for other hearts and minds are being fought vigorously – maybe violently too – on the very same web.  And the battles being carried out are anything but playful – or benign.

Bob has a piece which – at least in my perception – carefully follows up an idea I saw tweeted the other day.  I think it went something along the lines of: “Criticism of Israel might not be a result of anti-Semitism, but it could quite easily lead to more anti-Semitism.”  Who bears the responsibility is complex, for me that is, but the reality is clear: in the scurry to condemn and criticise, the even-handedness of traditional mainstream journalism, of any journalism in the event, gets lost in the horror that reaches our screens.  The genocides of other decades have quietly been swept under the carpets of non-attention – meanwhile, that which is visible has us reaching for ancient prejudice.  The terrible outbreak of Ebola in Africa at the moment is one such example: whilst those who were dying were Africans themselves, the story has lain suppurating with little attention for months.  Now important aid workers of other nationalities are dying, suddenly the media empires decide it is time to let on, and so stories are getting published asking whether the disease could reach our shores.

Nothing like self-interest to provoke a wider interest.  (Now keep a pin in that idea – we’ll come back to it.)

I’ve also seen posted on various mainstream media the details of a public-relations document of US origin which the Israeli government spokespeople are apparently following “slickly” to the letter.  One of the issues raised is the “apartheid” the Israelis are pursuing: the assumption that Jews and Palestinians can never live together, nor must be allowed to.  As the term “apartheid” is anathema to the US body politic (quite rightly so, too – especially with the history of their own Civil Rights’ Movement to the fore), it would appear Israeli spokespeople are trained to sidestep the issue with methods of clever distraction.

As if no other government practised such reprehensible procedures.

In truth, the real apartheid going on here is that which separates history from the present.  And as history is such an interpreted medium of communication, the possibility – even when given the space it deserves – of confusion, disagreement and violent riposte was never higher than a latterday world of educated voters, operating equally sharply – and rhetorically (myself included) – in a socially-networked set of environments where the smart turn of phrase beats the sorry reality just about hands down every time.  As Bob’s piece shows us, “even” the mainstream media is manifestly not a Jewish conspiracy – but don’t let that get in the way of a rapidly retweeted gobbet of prejudice.

*

There is one more story, though, I’d like to focus on – before I finish this post: the new King of Spain has decided that members of the Spanish royal family must no longer have anything to do with the private sector.  In a sense, this is a curious move: after all, over the past few decades, the overriding political meme has been “public sector bad, private sector good”.  Why, then, all of a sudden, do the Spanish decide to swim (sunfully!) in the opposite direction?  They have, of course, had their own fair share of political, financial and social scandals, as the El País piece clearly shows us.  And in a sense, this is just another example of a kind of apartheid – a separating of two allegedly incompatible ways of being.

Is it good?  Should we criticise it?  Is it time for a sorry pendulum to swing back?  What exactly is going on here?  What part precisely has this suddenly resistible – yet once all-conquering – private sector got to be ashamed of?

*

One final concept to toss into the marmite, as a continuation of  the previous.  Maybe we could argue that at the root of all our conflicts right now, there is excessive blame being placed on people and cultures and a weak appreciation of the political, economic and social inefficiencies that the private-sector profit motive is delivering over a whole raft of human endeavours.  From the fronts of war to the apparently necessary financial apartheid of certain royal houses to the forgetfulness that so many of us exhibit with respect to history, it seems jolly obvious that compassion is being forgotten in the race to the lowest common bottom line.

And in all the conflicts I mention, compassion – alongside its kindly companions, forgiveness and redemption – shines through via its utter political and commercial absence.

So, where I would suggest that the Israelis may be going terribly wrong – these Israelis who manifestly fear a renewal of anti-Semitic dynamics, evidenced specifically in their asserting of an absolute control over their post-World War II homeland – is in assuming (I assume they assume, from their actions) that they have little to fear from the historical prejudices of Europe.  As I said the other day, anti-Semitism in Europe is in our cultural DNA.  And if they’re not careful with history – or with people and places from what we continue to hope were other times – then the fronts which begin to open up will become far more osmotic, widespread and difficult to understand (or, indeed, “tame”) than is currently the case.

Perhaps this is what the Israelis are looking to achieve.  It would certainly explain a lot.  Living in a permanent state of violent conflict is not good for the mindsets of anyone.  To bring this forcefully home to the rest of us would clearly be a plan: a good plan … well, I really don’t know – but a plan all the same, it could be.

But if I were them, and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

In the light of 20th century history, anyway.

Wouldn’t you?

:-(

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Jul 282014
 
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Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.

Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:

Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists.  It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK.  However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.

For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies.  But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:

An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on.  As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.

Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.

Yes.  Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen.  That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity. 

And this proof I describe?  Where does it lie?

In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.

No?

Well.

This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post.  And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:

Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now.  There are levels of activity and levels of activity.  What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation.  If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.

No.  What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to.  And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.

Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain.  It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.

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