Nov 232014
 
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I’ve been variously bemused, perplexed, uncertain and – ultimately – horrified by the revelations which started to come out drip-feed journalism style – and have now become highly publicly-domained information of a strugglingly disorientating nature.

At the last general election, in 2010, the MPs’ expenses scandal cast a long shadow over our already weary relationship with British politics.

Now you’d think that with all the hagiography around the 1980s and Thatcher, and the number of Tories/UKIP supporters who’ve professed to loving the idea of retreading her legacy, there’d be some growing reservations to expressing such self-absorption – particularly in the light of this “paedophile Britain” series of stories.

At the moment I don’t see it happening.  Perhaps discretion is the better part of sincerity.

Anyhow.  I guess I see a pattern emerging.  What I’m not entirely sure about is who benefits.

This is how I see it progressing.  In the period leading up to 2010, expenses trashed our little remaining trust of politicians.  Cameron became visible on his many promises to clean the muck-ridden political stable-yard up.  Conservatives furiously re-branded with lovely logos of strong sustainable English oaks.  We didn’t quite believe him enough to give him a majority, but we did believe him just about enough to allow him to get his hands on a coalition process.

As the Coalition built up steam, it reverted to a Thatcherism of awful resilience; awful porkie-telling; further, deeper and more deadly implementation; and profounder violence against the subjects it was supposed to govern on behalf of.

As this process continued, it reverted even proudly to the 1980s (after all, remember all those – I’m sure sincere – tears shed at Thatcher’s funeral) – and I assume in the light of the recent news mentioned above, without any knowledge whatsoever of what’s now apparently seeping out at the seams.

But someone, some organisation, some people not in the limelight surely did know, all this time, what the legacy of the 1980s was really like.  This hidden scandal of monumental proportions is threatening to overtake the whole agenda of the 2015 general election – in much the same way as Cameron & Co came to power (I shan’t say “won”) an election on the back of the disgraceful after-effects of the expenses shenanigans.

What should’ve been an election run on the basis of the Coalition’s reputation and political behaviours is looking now to become a judgement – maybe ultimately a judgment! – on a political leadership and time which even New Labour seemed to demonstrate a certain respect for.

Who can now respect the 1980s?  Who can now respect Margaret Thatcher’s way of doing things?  Who can now respect her disciples – of which our latterday body politic contains so many?  Who now can respect the British Establishment?

And who, exactly, will all this growing mistrust most serve – perfectly timed, as it is, in the run-up to 2015 and the political change which conceivably will be ours, to redirect our attention away from what should’ve been a referendum on the last four years of tremendous political cruelty?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I’m scratching my head.  It may be no one benefits – not even the UKIPs of this world.  The vacuum may be complete; the dangers multiplied a thousandfold.  If it took post-First World War Germany to hit Nazism in a decade, perhaps in a 24/7 news-cycle world, four years will be plenty enough.

If you’re wondering whether I’m over-analysing the events (you probably are), just ask yourself the following: why didn’t we find out about all this rubbish in 2009, during the lead-up to Cameron’s arrival at the top and the regime change this implied?

Why was the Coalition given four clear years to lead with a reconverted – more importantly, unbesmirched – Thatcherism?  How differently might life have been – over that period of time – for the working-poor, disabled and unemployed, if this hadn’t turned out as it ultimately did?  And what will happen now 1980s Thatcherism is to be trashed with broad and hugely unpleasant brushstrokes – where will the right-wing Tories and UKIP go; what may end up replacing them; who will ever dare to carry her standard again?

“Paedophile Britain” – it’s a scary, horror-inducing concept.

What’s worse, however, is once revealed, how will an already fragile body politic and culture react before what is clearly a story of foundations-shaking magnitude?

I don’t know about you; personally, I’m very frightened.


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Nov 222014
 
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I used to get pocket money as a kid.  It used to be (the old) sixpence.  It went up to (the new) 5p for a while.  And on my birthday I’d get a number of whatevers which corresponded to my age.

Different times.

Paternal times, obviously.  But not a bad measure in hindsight.

Today we live in other times: a society where we learn to be independent of government.  Not, however, of government’s business sponsors.  On them we become evermore dependent, at the behest of the very same government.

Three examples:

Walmart paternalistically prides itself in the following way on the contributions it makes to assuage hunger:

“In 2013, we donated more than 571 million pounds of food – the equivalent of 369 million meals – to local food banks and hunger relief organizations like Feeding America and its 200 food banks across the nation,” reads Walmart’s website. “We know we can make an impact nationwide by inspiring associates to fight hunger in their local communities. In fact, 4,100 associates volunteered more than 13,000 hours toward hunger relief efforts in 2013.”

Workers, however, respond differently:

“We don’t want your food bins or your bake sales. We work hard and we are not looking for charity. What we want is for you to pay us fair wage … so that we can pay for our own groceries,” said Cantare Davunt, who works part time at Walmart in Apple Valley, Minnesota, earning $10.10 an hour. She walks 20 minutes to work to save money on transportation and lives on ramen.

“I am working as many hours as I can get,” Davunt said. “I had $6 to buy groceries after I paid my bills [last month] – not credit card bills, just bills like electric and heat.” She added, “But even a month of ramen costs more than $6.”

It doesn’t require a soothsayer to see where this is all heading for: what with pre-paid government-sponsored benefit cards dropping money exclusively into the chosen pockets of large companies, it won’t be long before the dependency culture that IDS so vigorously claimed he was looking to remove will simply be shifted sideways:

  1. Paternalistic feelgood actions by transnational corporations with far more dosh than sensitivity will allow them to continue to live off government largesse, in the form of revised processes for welfare systems across the globe which ensure substantial percentages of the money paid out enters their deep pockets in a very 21st century way.
  2. Meanwhile, the working-poor, those who deserve to have the opportunity to work their way out of poverty, much (I would add) in the way IDS originally claimed he was aiming for, will find themselves equally dependent on large private-sector institutions which – quite parasitically – end up continuing to feed off the hierarchy of downtreading and downtrodden thus established.

And in a quite similar end, it’s quite possible that supermarket workers will have to go monthly, cap very much in hand, with their state-administered pre-paid benefit cards – in order to redeem their continued poverty-stricken dependences at the crumb-distributing tables of their very own auto-enriching employers.

Pocket money redefined for the 21st century.

An awful sleight-of-hand indeed.


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Nov 212014
 
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I read this evening that UKIP plans to choose the next government.  Meanwhile, also this evening, President Obama tells us:

Part of the reason why America is exceptional is that we welcome exceptional people.

Two of my three children are looking to go and make their lives in the US.  I don’t know if they will be successful, but what I do know is that they don’t want to continue living in the UK.  They are Spanish by both birth and nationality, and have done good by the English education system – but the culture they find here is tired and, of late, even offensive.

My third child isn’t keen on the US for several sensible and statistically undeniable reasons; equally, however, neither do they want to spend the rest of their life in the country I was born in and used to treasure dearly.

When I was living a mid-life crisis in Spain during 2002-2003, all I dreamed of was going to New York or Massachusetts or somewhere cool like that to forge a different future for my family.  It was furthest from my unhappy mind to return to Britain at all.  Maybe those times have influenced my children.  Or maybe other things have really affected their judgement.

Either way, with Farage & Co’s fingers on this sleazy disuniting country’s buttons of despair, I can’t help seeing plenty of damn good reasons which justify my kids’ perceptions, whether objectively fair or not.

After all, who’d want to live in a country where a minority of prejudiced wealthy white males were in a position to impose their worldviews by hook or, indeed, crook on two ancient political parties with supposedly long, durable, coherent and honourable traditions?  Who’d want to stay in a country where a person’s origin was used as a tool to lever power on the backs of equally fearful – equally cowardly – conservative and progressive politicians?  Who’d want to live in the presence of a suppurating cauldron of dishonest politicking, as the most working-class of our citizens were ultimately used by all the political elites as the kind of figurative cannon fodder their blessed First World Wars would’ve welcomed with open bayonets?

Who, now, ever, never, would want to migrate to #UKIPingdom?

Only one thing.  To my grand surprise, I feel great sadness that my children don’t love half their legacy as I used to; that they have never had the clear opportunity to do so, for one reason or another; and that now they have all too many opportunities to point out with careful, reasoned arguments Farage & Co’s petty – and casually cruel – fascisms.

Even as those who in my youth – on both ends of the political spectrum – defended and sustained the values that forged a common repulsion of Nazism and all its works, Communism and all its cruelties, and socialism and all its finally foolish expectations.

So where are these statesmen and women I mention to be found any more?  Where are these ordinary folk, these community leaders, these political activists, these public figures … these individuals who fought in different ways – but to a common end – to permanently vanquish the casual petty cruelties which Farage & Co’s fascisms now aim to resuscitate?

Damn it.

Damn it.

Damn it again.

If you lot – you professional politicos, you supposed enablers of democratic discourse – care more about a tweet of flags and white vans than this “going down a societal plughole” of the #UKIPingdom I mention, then I may indeed find myself eventually obliged to give up on ever convincing you otherwise – but what I shall never give up on attempting is this proving to my children that England is a place of historical grandeur, particular wisdom and beautiful inhabitants worth their sympathy, defence and – yes – pride.

The England I remember, the England I loved, is not the #UKIPingdom my kids have every right to despair of.  If the First World War was the battle of my great-grandparents’ generation, and the Second World War the battle of my grandparents’ generation, and the Cold War the battle of my parents’ generation, today, right now, this minute I write, the sleazy disuniting #UKIPingdom is the battle of all our current generations.

Our democracy has never represented us more poorly than these past four years.  And though they claim to be a silent majority, in a free, democratic and liberal society only the suspiciously motivated prefer to be so silent in their majority.

Whilst liberal democracy … well let that, once again, be all the motivation we ever need.


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Nov 212014
 
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They’ve been saying that social media would win the next general election.  What they really meant was that social media would lose the next general election.

As I pointed out in my previous post, we now have a society where the first thing which occurs to us is to focus (generally in an unkindly way) on individuals – not just in the feminist contexts already recently described but in politics, current affairs and celebocracy more widely too.

In truth, at least for me, with memories of the Militant faction still surprisingly fresh in my political brain, whilst Militant itself was constrained by the two-party system, and probably felt – at least at the beginning and as a result – that entryism into Labour was its only practical alternative, UKIP has quite a different panorama to deal with.

In a world where coalition instincts, political flux and backroom deals which welch on election promises become quite normalised, UKIP has realised that entryism’s dynamics lend themselves to reversal.  Perhaps a little like the SDP in its time – a dynamic which none of us misses any more, and which in much of what it tried to do looked to peel off waverers from Labour by promoting and lionising impulses to rank disloyalty.


“Centre party chooses new name”

And even as Tory complacency seems to be the order of the day, the Militant of 2014 is doing its job.  Whether UKIP ends up as 2015 Coalition partner to the Tories or not, the Tories short-lived rebranding of its nastiness will be long forgotten where not deliberately vanquished.  And whether Farage ends up in person ruling the roost of British politics or not, his legacy, what the Tories and Labour both are becoming, will surely reign over the dreadful landscape the UK is reverting to.

Where Militant infected Labour’s organism like an awfully debilitating political virus, UKIP acts more like an apple in the politicised Gardens of Eden we’re inhabiting these days.  Its attraction is bright and shiny, even red, green and dissonantly blue on occasions – but, at the same time, its centre is rotting to the core our once shared senses and sensibilities.

That Emily Thornberry should casually tweet unhappy petty prejudice is part of the problem, but not all of it.  More unhappy is the fact that under New Labour, a militant tendency (where not the Militant Tendency) remained throughout the nation.  The pressure cooker of the politically correct only served for many to ape attitudes they didn’t actually believe in.

The problem isn’t only that our politicians – as representatives and enablers of democratic process – refuse to shoot from the hip.

The problem is that we – as voters and participants in democratic process – have got used to not shooting from the hip ourselves.

No one, neither professional nor professed, is in the game of truth any more.  If, indeed, they ever were.

And that, precisely that, is why social media’s going to change nothing; why it’s going to continue perpetuating this long-time destructive instinct of British politics: that is to say, the instinct to decide elections not on the basis of what people believe in and proclaim but on the basis of what they are ashamed of and only ever let slip.

And in this way, UKIP – the Tory Militant of 2014 – have discovered the future before the rest of us: you win elections by telling people exactly what they believe the silent majority around them are already thinking.  It’s not that most of us really do believe such rubbish – the dynamic is something quite different to that.  What UKIP – the Tory Militant of 2014 – are doing is playing on our fears that a political avalanche will overtake us and leave us stranded.

This is not the dynamic of coalition democracy.

This is, rather, the anteroom of serious civil conflict.  Perhaps a curiously low-level and particularly 21st century war of a civil nature.

UKIP don’t say: “Believe and follow!”

UKIP, instead, ask: “Are you with us or are you against us?”

And where have we heard that before?


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Nov 182014
 
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Paying taxes is essential for forging a solidarity society.  It goes without saying – though I shall repeat it anyhow: in times such as these it would seem many deliberately neglect to remember the issue – that without taxes, we would have even more homeless; even more working-poor; even more people choosing between fuel and food; even more slowly bankrupting sick; even more uneducated and illiterate fellow citizens.

But what happens when the government in power is using our hard-won taxes to deliberately shift and transfer from the public sphere the public wealth that taxes create?  What happens when the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition that we currently suffer intentionally looks to reward its business sponsors for their continued support by stealthily privatising the NHS, schools, Legal Aid (where they care to leave it standing – if standing and not stumbling is the word), policing and prison services – and Lord only knows what else?  What do you do – how should you respond – when you discover large companies negotiate special tax breaks and deals various with government agencies – all at the cost of the taxpayer?

What happens – and how should politically sensitive, sensible and coherent voters like ourselves react – when we feel our taxes should be used to support our less-well-off partners in society (the aforementioned poor, unemployed, sick and disabled) … taxes we’d be only too happy to pay if the circumstances were such … and yet in truth we discover such taxes are being used to do little more than swell the greedy coffers of corporate capitalism?

What options do we have?  Do we have any?  In a society like this, how exactly must thinking, thoughtful, considerate, law-abiding subjects decide to act?

For by paying our taxes dutifully as we have to, with governments like the ones we labour under, we are simply feeding the share prices of the world.  And with so much human poverty swilling about, this surely can’t be right.

Can it?


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Nov 152014
 
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In 2012, I concluded:

Capitalism is seen as light-of-touch because it’s an inevitable process towards an injustice it has no need to question.  It doesn’t really acquire a baggage of ideas because ideas aren’t its purpose.

Meanwhile, socialism is dogma-ridden because it’s a discipline of thought which both cares and dares to question not only that injustice but many others out there.

We may eventually need both, of course – I’m not suggesting that might not be the case.  But I do wonder if it is right to position them as mirror images of the other.  It’s both inaccurate in the case of capitalism as well as manifestly unfair in the case of socialism.

Yesterday, however, I was of a different mood altogether:

Know it’s conspiratorial, & infirm, to suggest #austerity is a globally coordinated plan. But if it isn’t, humanity’s discovered telepathy!

Or demonstrated the existence of synchronicity. Or Gaia. Or something.
#austerity

Anyhow. If 20th century Communism had managed to engineer an #austerity on the scale we have it, we’d say it was deliberate and systemic.

But since its 21st century capitalism that’s doing the #austerity, we see it as random consequences of cyclical inevitability. Weird really.

& anyone who says that #austerity is coordinated is immediately typed as paranoid.
At least in the Cold War, paranoia was a virtue.
<sighs>

And so I suggested, earlier in the day, that:

In the end, the three steps as described above reposition our leaders, both political and business, in roles of great power and immense hierarchy over the ordinary folk: the paradox being that whilst independence is being savagely preached in public discourse, in truth the reality has reimposed a grand and terrible dependence of almost everybody on pyramidal structures we thought once well-vanquished long ago.

Instead of the broadly accepted randomness and essential unpredictability of capitalism-infused structures, we get me imposing agency in that almost paranoid way I describe.

Maybe I am paranoid; maybe that’s what unrelenting years of relative poverty do to one.  But again, I would point you in the direction of who benefits (even at the risk of being accused of ever-increasing levels of paranoia!): if someone, some group, some coordinated interests were globalising austerity as I suggest, wouldn’t it also be in their interests to suggest all normal-thinking people consider it random?

Alternatively, we could posit the possibility that 21st century corporate capitalism is so like 20th century Communism in its highly centralised economic structures (just run far far more efficiently, and with tools that lend themselves to such efficiencies) that perhaps we’re not describing a world where free-market capitalism won the day – and consequently it’s fair, now (that is to say, not at all paranoid), to believe those economic structures mostly act as one.

Furthermore, we have the West’s view of oppressive regimes such as North Korea, where agency, intentionality and malice in the drive to a wider societal austerity are – quite rightly, quite accurately – attributed on a daily basis.  But where all three of the latter exist (ie that agency, intentionality and malice I describe), it would be disingenuous to argue they could be satisfactorily combated by Western alliances without one – oneself – exhibiting and acquiring at least aspects of the same characteristics.

No?


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Nov 072014
 
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The BBC reports the pulling of #SamaritansRadar in the following way:

An app made by the Samaritans that was supposed to detect when people on Twitter appeared to be suicidal has been pulled due to “serious” concerns.

The charity’s app was meant to use an algorithm to identify key words and phrases which indicated distress.

But in practice, some said the app made those with mental health issues feel more vulnerable.

It ends by saying, quite incorrectly (the bold is mine):

“We will also be testing a number of potential changes and adaptations to the app to make it as safe and effective as possible for both subscribers and their followers.”

Samaritans' declarations to the BBC

Incorrectly, because this should read “for both subscribers [ie the users of the app – those who choose to track vulnerable people’s tweets] and the people they follow [ie those whom the tech judges – inaccurately it would seem – to have suicidal impulses]”.

Now we could argue this was an example of lazy journalism – lazy because one of the biggest issues here is that the people tracked are the ones being followed, whilst the subscribers of the app remain entirely unknown in this hierarchy (more here).  However, it’s also just as likely – especially with the history of this saga to the fore – that the journalist in question has dutifully reported what they’ve been told.

And why likely?  Because the person quoted is the person who’s communicated (if that’s the word) the official position of Samaritans throughout the whole sorry fortnight or so: Joe Ferns.  And it’s really quite possible that he still hasn’t understood how idiotically unSamaritan-like is this baby of theirs: that is to say, he still hasn’t comprehended how wrong it is for a Western suicide-prevention charity to put in the hands of anonymous, possibly faceless, clearly unvetted, online strangers the care and protection of the most vulnerable in society.

Much more seriously than that, however, at least in the light of the attributed statement (a statement which only serves to confuse the real nature of the relationship between the two parties in the app), it may be the case that Joe Ferns still doesn’t realise that Samaritans’ traditional client-base gets followed and anonymously tracked by total online strangers.

So.  One of four: either the BBC misreported his words, he made a mistake, he told a hugely damaging and significantly revealing porkie or he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

*

Meanwhile, Samaritans have put out on the web a survey for interested parties to carry out.  These are the questions, interspersed with some observations on my part.

The first two questions are pretty generic, though one option does stand out to me for some weird reason: “To read other peoples’ tweets”.  In the context of an anti-suicide app, it almost looks like they want to draw our attention to the voyeuristic aspect of all social networks to justify, a posteriori, through the collation of the relevant answers, the app’s philosophy of encouraging anonymous watchers to chase after known watched.

Thank you for taking the time to complete this survey. Your feedback is really important to us.

This survey should take around 10-15 minutes to complete.

 1. How do you use Twitter? (answers ranging from “All the time” to “Never”)

To debate issues I am interested in with people I don’t know
To share information and news with like-minded people
To read other peoples’ tweets
To stay in touch with friends

Other (please specify)

2. Which of the following statements best describes you?

I am an expert Twitter user
I know my way around Twitter pretty well
I am still learning a lot about Twitter
I don’t know much about Twitter

The next questions address us as followed/tracked objects of the Radar app:

3. Has anyone reached out to you as a result of a Samaritans Radar alert?

Yes
No
I don’t know

4. Please tell us how you felt when this happened. (answers ranging from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree”)

I felt glad someone had reached out to me
I felt annoyed that someone had been alerted to my tweet
It didn’t really make a difference to how I was feeling
I felt better because someone had got in touch

Other (please specify)

Then, stuck in the middle like some conceptual sore thumb, we are suddenly addressed as “subscribers” (a Samaritans’ term) – that is to say, the real users of the app … the people with all that power over the vulnerable:

5. Have you activated Samaritans Radar?

Yes
No

6. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? (ranging from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree”)

I don’t agree with Radar because I question the ethics
I don’t want to be alerted to people on twitter who are feeling bad
I don’t agree with Radar because the risk that it’s used by people intending harm outweighs any benefits
Even though tweets are public doesn’t mean they should be monitored in this way
It’s not something that interests me
I hadn’t heard of Radar before now
I don’t agree with Radar because I question its legality
I wouldn’t like Radar to monitor my tweets
The people I follow on twitter are not my friends so I wouldn’t reach out to them
I wouldn’t know what to do about an alert
I don’t think it will help people
I wasn’t interested enough to activate Radar

Other (please specify)

Yet again, we swerve back to being addressed once more as potential subscribers/users:

7. Would you consider activating Radar in the future?

Yes
Yes, if some changes were made
No
Not sure
Are there any specific changes you would like to see?

Here it’s very unclear if we are subscribers/users or those who should be followed:

8. Please tell us what you think is the best thing about Radar:

9. Please tell us what you think is the worst thing about Radar:

Whilst this next question makes it entirely unclear from what point of view we are supposed to perceive the wretched beast:

10. Which of the following best describes how you feel about potential improvement or future development of Radar?

I think Radar is great as it is, don’t change anything
I think Radar could be improved with some redevelopment based on feedback
I would prefer it if Radar was shut down
Other (please specify)

The next questions do all the proper, basic and fundamentally correct stuff the app simply neglected ever to contemplate:

The following questions will help us understand your answers better. They are optional.

11. What is your age?

12. What is your gender?

Male
Female
Prefer not to say

Just to underline, questions 13, 14 and 15 are about as reasonably sensitive in their exploration of what we could call wider peer-to-peer rights to define identity as they could be – rights the app simply decided to trample under its heavy virtual foot:

13. Do you consider yourself to be disabled?

Yes
No
Prefer not to say

14. Do you consider yourself to have a mental health problem?

Yes
No
Prefer not to say

15. What is your sexual orientation?

Heterosexual/straight
Gay woman/lesbian
Gay man
Bisexual
Other
Prefer not to say

Thank you for taking the time to complete this survey, your feedback is really important to us. 

If you have any questions about this survey or Samaritans Radar please email radar@samaritans.org.

16. If you are happy for us to contact you to discuss your feedback further please provide us your email address. You do not need to give us your name.

As you can probably see, all I can see is a continuation of the confusion of concept which has reigned from the very beginning.  Now I’m normally quite a reasonable soul, and tend to give most people for quite a long time the benefit of the doubt most of us deserve – but the doubt, here, is growing so grand that I really do feel there’s no benefit left to offer up.

The question needs to be answered: does the Samaritans’ leadership actually know it’s created an app where totally unvetted strangers can anonymously track vulnerable people?  If it does:

  1. why did the BBC report it so differently;
  2. why did Joe Ferns appear to muddy already murky waters so radically;
  3. and why did Samaritans decide to create an online survey which – far from clarifying functionality, positions and relationships – only manages to make things even more darkly uncertain?

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Nov 052014
 
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I once wrote a piece on the back of an article written by a writer I admire very much for writerly reasons.  His name is Fraser Nelson.  (His politics is quite a different matter, but then I suppose he wouldn’t like mine either.)  Anyhow.  You can find my piece here.  It quotes extensively from his.  Apologies in advance if he stumbles across it again today (on the other hand, he writes so well, it’s also quoted out of literary admiration).

In it he suggests the following:

We saw this yesterday, when Iain Duncan Smith trailed a speech about welfare and poverty. A now familiar welcoming committee rose up early to greet him. The Child Poverty Action Group declared that there are no jobs to be had, so why punish those on welfare? A revered charity, Save the Children, has identified government cuts as a major threat to British children. Even the National Society for the Protection of Children warns that the “most vulnerable” children are “bearing the brunt” of Cameron’s cuts. And hearing them all, who would your average listener believe: a politician, or charity worker?

But these charities are not the kindly tin-rattlers they were. In 2008, Brown changed the rules so charities could join political campaigns. In theory, they could support any party – but as Brown knew, not many would use these powers to demand smaller taxes. It was a masterstroke. The charities sharpened their claws by hiring former Labour apparatchiks. Save the Children is now run by Justin Forsyth, Brown’s ex-strategy chief. The NSPCC has hired Peter Watt, a former Labour general secretary. Damian McBride is working for Cafod. Britain’s charities are nurturing a colourful, talented and efficient anti-Tory alliance.

That is to say, the Yesterday Man everyone on the Right argues Gordon Brown soon became had actually stuffed charitable organisations with the aforementioned “Labour apparatchiks”, so creating a kind of rearguard action – Brown’s Secret Army, a Fifth Column of the supposedly vanquished – capable, even after 2010, after political ignominy and virtual banishment, of sabotaging the good democratic works of Cameron & Co.

Indeed, what did all the above represent if not the Machiavellian masterstrokes various of a political subterfuge … quite politically beyond the pale?  How dare he, for goodness sake!  How dare he even dare!

I bring this up today for one very good reason.

I followed a train of thought on Twitter this evening which led me to wonder the following (in the light of course of #SamaritansRadar):

You know when they said charities were the Left’s Fifth Column? It doesn’t half seem that some are now pure disciples of Coalition spin.

I say this with respect to the intensity Samaritans are showing in their defence of the indefensible: that is to say, their remaking of an online community such as Twitter so that self-identity is trashed/at the very least ignored, whilst at the same time they pursue process which assigns an algorithmically defined externally sanctioned/maybe even institutionally permissible identity to those their invention tracks; their creation of a more equal/less equal hierarchy of such identities (for example, as app “subscriber”, I am allowed to keep private the fact I track the vulnerable; the vulnerable, however, aren’t even allowed to know my Twitter handle, never mind my face); their use, “going forward”, of a persistently dreadful management-speak (re the latter concept, a terrifying example of a generic nature here); their promise to dialogue, without a visible dialogue to be seen absolutely anywhere; and, most significantly, whilst claiming to want to help people to help themselves, putting all those the app tracks in a position of awful dependency on the good faith and will of anonymous third parties they may never meet.

Again, as I tweeted earlier in the day:

@Jane_Samuels It feels almost as if someone somewhere took the view that empowering those with mental health issues was societally risky. >>

@Jane_Samuels << That such empowerment had to be reassertingly reduced by mediating key support mechanisms thru’ third parties.

So how is it that one of the most empowering and supportive charities in the world has fallen to forcing onto its client-base a dependency on anonymous online strangers to such an extent?  Where is the empowering philosophy and sensation of prior times that the first step to avoiding suicide is in making that important step to ask for help yourself?

Doesn’t all of this remind you of Cameron & Co’s own blessed political discourse?  You know the one.  The one that blames the poor for being too dependent on the state; the one that claims all the poor need is a brisk few years of healthy austerity; the one that through such austerity creates perfect conditions for a dependent society – but only at the top of what we might term the pyramid of wealth.  And the one which, finally, makes the poor evermore dependent on holding down miserably paid jobs – in order not to make those proverbial ends meet in impossibly vicious circle.

Yes.  Samaritans now argue, through this app, that its traditional client-base must capitulate to a very different type of society from before.  Where before we acted proactively to use all the interventionist tools we could in order to achieve the singular goal of making vulnerable people independent, we now do all we can – without, what’s more, taking bloody ownership at all – to make these vulnerable objects of our voyeuristic tendencies captive to mystical, non-human, entirely blameless algorithms.  No one’s the data controller; no one’s the initiator of identity-definition processes; automatically, machines determine how best to turn human beings into simulacrums of themselves; and in all of this the hands of those who commissioned, designed, implemented and launched become entirely invisible – irrelevant – to the debate.

If you look at it like this, then, the Coalition discourse has been swallowed whole by Samaritans, by what’s now clearly its rebranding process and by the future it sees for itself.

#SamaritansRadar?  Not necessarily.  Stuffed now with the walking, talking, shushing, ignoring mindsets of almost five years of Coalition theory and practice, this is Cameron’s Radar; Cameron’s Secret Army; Cameron’s Fifth Column we see.

A subterfuge to landgrab terrain and perpetuate ideologies, whether eventually in power or not, way beyond the the next general election.

And in very much the same way as Fraser Nelson accused Gordon Brown of doing before 2010.

Is it not inconceivable that Cameron & Co, having interpreted the reality thus, mightn’t try and do exactly the same with their own glorious set of charitable namesakes?

A couple of days ago, the Guardian published a piece saying there’d be plenty more #SamaritanRadar apps, as charities moved to refine their actions on the basis of “big data” philosophies.  I think the writer presumed this was from a technical point of view.

This evening, I’m not sure it won’t more importantly be from an ideologically technical one.

____________________

Update to this post, 6th November 2014: some further reading.  Firstly, the link to the Guardian story mentioned above on future charity apps as they become the norm rather than the dreadful exception.  Secondly, a beautifully restorative, measured and inspiring story from someone who works as a Samaritans’ volunteer, is perplexed as to how Radar got off the ground in the first place and continues to believe firmly in the founding principles of the organisation they work on behalf of.


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Nov 052014
 
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Can’t get my head round it.  Still.  And I’m breaking the promise I made in my last post.  But it’s the breathtaking PR-ridden complacency I read here which makes me so cross with the society we’ve clearly forged together.  At the time of my writing this post, the latest update is 4th November 2014.  It’s all so wrong in so many ways that I don’t – really don’t – know how to separate out all the threads.  But here goes anyway.

This is so even my mother and father – BBC viewers and listeners of the mainstream – might understand what’s assailing our Twitterverse at the moment.

A charity called Samaritans – specialising in supporting people with suicidal impulses, in particular when the people in question courageously choose to take that difficult step of  reaching out and asking for help – has commissioned, designed, implemented and launched a Twitter application called #SamaritansRadar which, amongst other interested parties, allows perfect and often completely anonymous strangers to sign up for emails distributed by a US-located email service and generated by the app itself as it trawls a vulnerable person’s Twitter content – emails which serve to supposedly notify the so-called “subscribers” of the program (Samaritans’ term not mine) whenever one of the aforementioned vulnerable people is feeling at their most vulnerable.

The complacent PR churning out of Samaritans right now just adds a bizarre insult to grave injury.

For example, misplaced triumphalism:

  • The App has had a positive response so far, with over 3,000 people signed up as subscribers to date. Since launch, almost 20,000 people have mentioned the App, helping #samaritansradar trend on Twitter for two days. We will take on board any feedback we receive as we develop the App further and are taking very seriously the concerns raised by some Twitter users regarding possible data protection and privacy issues relating to the Application.

For example, careful legalese (love the “going forward” at the end):

  • Samaritans Radar has been in development for over a year and has been tested with several different user groups who have contributed to its creation, as have academic experts on suicide through their research. In developing the App we have rigorously checked the functionality and approach taken, including an impact assessment against data protection and data processing principles.
  • We are looking into the details of the issues raised, including working with the relevant regulatory authorities and will continue to take action as needed to address these concerns appropriately going forward.

And here more of the same, with weasel words such as “believe” and “likely”:

  • We have taken the time to seek further legal advice on the issues raised. Our continuing view is that Samaritans Radar is compliant with the relevant data protection legislation for the following reasons:

    o We believe that Samaritans are neither the data controller or data processor of the information passing through the app

    o All information identified by the app is available on Twitter, in accordance with Twitter’s Ts&Cs (link here). The app does not process private tweets.

    o If Samaritans were deemed to be a data controller, given that vital interests are at stake, exemptions from data protection law are likely to apply

Finally, a frankly astonishing misunderstanding of its own history and mission:

  • […] We would like to reassure subscribers [ie the potentially random anonymous people who sign up to follow the Twitter folk who are supposed to be the real reason for Samaritans’ existence] that we will, of course, continue to apply this approach and are in discussions with the Information Commissioner’s Office, and will take on board any direction they give us.

No mention of the interests, then, of the people whom subscribers follow, via that American third-party email distributor – and Lord only knows which org might be considered the real data controllers of all that juicy, compromising and quite possibly inaccurate data, regularly spat out of Twitter.

No desire, either, to reassure the traditional client-base of Samaritans: you know, the ones who expect to decide when to make that first contact; how to make that first contact; and how to do so anonymously if necessary.  That client-base who believed they were taking a first key step to taking control of their lives once again.

Nope.  Samaritans is far more worried about its new client-base: government in general, the Department of Health in particular, other possibly murky interests floating around there; more or less, a confused combination of otherwise quite possibly coherent objectives – objectives which if they had not been mixed together might have all been able to see the light of a much more positive day.

But far more importantly than all the above is the managerialist client-base now consummating its takeover of the charity.  When a listening org’s leadership forgets how to listen – even to the doubts its own internal whisperers must have – then something very wrong has taken place.

Have any of you heard a single public pronouncement from a Samaritans’ volunteer on this matter?  You know, the people who help the people with the courage to reach out and say: “Yes, I need help.”

I certainly haven’t – and I haven’t exactly been ignoring the flood of info.  This charity is more impervious to a breaking of the ranks than a financial services company.  What rod of PR-iron have they imposed on the work- and volunteer-force for the only visible responses to be from dear old Joe Ferns?  What atmosphere of polite and genteel fear must they all be labouring under?

Only out of complacent, smug, yes-people environments do you get complacent, smug, yes-people tech like this.

Only out of too much time long spent with other like-minded people do you get smoothly inappropriate and confident PR like the PR we’ve seen.

The problem isn’t the app at all: the problem is the environment which engendered it.  And I’d even be inclined to wonder: is this app’s process – its commissioning, design, implementation and launching – symptomatic itself of an organisation-wide cry for help in the making?

You know, I’d hazard a guess that the sickest element of Samaritans lies nowhere near its client-base at all.

A thought we must leave for another day of miserable misunderstanding.


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Nov 032014
 
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Let’s have a look at this interesting word:

discriminate (third-person singular simple present discriminates, present participle discriminating, simple past and past participle discriminated)

  1. (intransitive) To make distinctions.
    Since he was colorblind he was unable to discriminate between the blue and green bottles.
  2. (intransitive, construed with against) To make decisions based on prejudice.
    The law prohibits discriminating against people based on their skin color.
  3. (transitive) To set apart as being different; to mark as different; to separate from another by discerning differences; to distinguish.

So.  With reference to the question in the title of today’s post, the #SamaritansRadar app does probably discriminate, at least between relatively broad brush-strokes of people.  That is to say, it distinguishes.  However, another question sits up there in the stratosphere of techie progress.  Raised by Asher Wolf on Twitter just now, we were asked to ponder whether the app in question contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In particular, Article 12:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

In the meantime, I had a bit of dig around and came up with the information in this tweet:

Does harassment:

and:

tie #SamaritansRadar into the UN Disability Convention (eg Art. 3b)?

In the first link, we are told:

2. How you can be discriminated against

One method being:

  • harassment – unwanted behaviour linked to a protected characteristic that violates someone’s dignity or creates an offensive environment for them

In the second link, we are told:

United Nations (UN) Convention on disability rights

The UN Convention on disability rights has been agreed by the UK to protect and promote the rights of disabled people.

And the aforementioned Article 3b of this Convention says, in its General principles (the bold below is mine):

The principles of the present Convention shall be:

a) Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
b) Non-discrimination;
c) Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
d) Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
e) Equality of opportunity;
f) Accessibility;
g) Equality between men and women;
h) Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

This, then, is the the trail of breadcrumbs:

  1. an app which nominally aims to save people from suicidal instincts allows third parties to easily track the people in question, assigning an automatically generated label to the tweets thus tracked
  2. uproar ensues, for various terribly confusing reasons, but what’s absolutely clear is that Samaritans’ professionally employed management finds itself incapable of conversing with and listening to its client-base, even as its volunteer-force has made a point of doing so for decades
  3. people (at least on Twitter) begin to realise this app is about as sophisticated as a punch in the solar plexus, and so begin to question not only the competence of the organisation but also its good faith
  4. there is now the suggestion on the table that the app contravenes not only the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – in particular Article 3b, an article and broader convention to which the British government explicitly subscribes
  5. what’s more, those with far more technical and coalface nous than myself suggest that they’ll shortly be seeing Samaritans in court.

Mainly, that is, on the basis that Samaritans’ professionally employed management looked to commission a software app which would allegedly discriminate (in the sense of distinguish), on the one hand, between tweets which were throwaway lines of banter and, on the other, tweets which indicated someone was aiming to throw away their lives.  Automatically; algorithmically; without the kind of sensibly sensitive, supportively human, agency that Samaritans has always been famous for.

Except that it doesn’t look very likely it’s going to be able to comply with this remit.

Just to get a handle on how people with mental health support needs may feel right now, let’s carry out the following thought experiment.

Let’s imagine, if you will, that someone invented an evil app not altogether dissimilar to Radar.  Like Radar, it tracked what people said.  Like a (maybe) future update to Radar, it included location data in its flagging-up to its users.  Like a (maybe) up-and-coming roll-out for Radar (let’s say, oh, five years five months down the line), it enabled the feature of listening in to the voice conversations of the cellphone of the object of its tracking, with the justification that no one has a right to privacy when safety and security must trump all.  And like Radar, it put the power in the hands not of the object of its beady virtual eye but in the subject of its activation.

Except here, the evil app that I describe above … well, it was designed specifically to allow parents to keep tabs on their children.

Creepy, hey?  You bet.  Even more so when you think how it could easily be used by potential paedophiles to follow the very same sons and daughters all us responsible parents were looking to protect.

So you find the idea repulsive, do you?  As you should.  Of course.  So do I.

Just think, then, from the point of view of all those online people with mental health issues and support needs various out there, how they currently feel about Samaritans’ “targeting” of them.

If you wouldn’t want a paedophile to be able to turn a tracking app designed for conscientious parents against the very vulnerable young people it was naively designed to defend, why should any citizen in the UK distinguish/discriminate between types of vulnerability as they reject the mentally wealthy’s opinions on a matter which so clearly and directly affects them?

For if it’s wrong to unleash an app which could be turned against our treasured children, it’s equally criminal to do so against any co-citizens of this nation.

And if you don’t find it easy to agree with me on this, you discriminate … without distinguishing yourself in the least.


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Nov 022014
 
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I’ve suggested most recently that the #SamaritansRadar saga has been a perfect storm of conspiracy, balls-up and marketing madness.

I do wonder, however, if the truth is somewhere else – maybe, just maybe, this was a deliberate change in the charity’s working methods: developed at the highest level; delivered via the launch of a Twitter app to impose top-down change in its agency on the entire work- and volunteer-force – a change which would move interactions from being end-user controlled, always constructively empowering and reactive, support relationships to a highly proactive, and increasingly interventionist, set of monitoring processes – processes manifestly under the control of the charity itself.

From support staff to monitors of end-users – perhaps this is what the managerialists at Samaritans intended to unleash on their brand, their charitable space and, most of all, their widely treasured volunteers.

It would explain the kind of responses we get here.

And it would explain why no one in Samaritans’ hierarchy is caring to properly – or even minimally – address totally reasonable requests for greater clarity, engagement and understanding of the needs of their potential end-users.

Yes.  To me, having once worked in a large corporation of 70,000 people, I am reminded of many impulses and instincts I experienced there:

  • a helicopter view from up on hierarchical high of a figurative terrain of conflict makes everything seem so unconcerning;
  • a decision to radically change “company” culture, ignoring the grassroots at the moment not only of implementation but design, leads to confused messages – and corporate knee-jerk PR when confusion reigns;
  • and a foolish capitulation to the wiles of information technology and key performance indicators various, as they promise further elimination of the need to expensively train people through traditional person-management environments, doesn’t half seem to clarify – where Samaritans themselves still refuse to, point blank – what the real long-term aims and objectives are which Radar is supposed to kickstart.

Conspiracy?  Maybe not, after all.

Balls-up?  For sure.

Marketing madness?  Clearly.

But also a deliberate decision to change corporate culture at the single – and stupidly inorganic – managerialist brandishing of a software application.

Seen in this light, we primarily have a disastrous example of change management: that “company” I mention looking to update to social-media and millenium mindsets at one cleverly dramatic fell swoop – one fell swoop which, in the event, serves only to fell its user-base’s implicit trust in the institution and brand.

From a marketing point of view, this may be comparable to the Coca-Cola New Coke/Classic debacle.

Except we’re not talking about soft drinks.

We’re talking about suicide.


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Nov 012014
 
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Some further thoughts on this matter, as the day has developed.

Firstly, I clearly (as is my wont) inclined to potential conspiracy.

Then sensible posts like this and this, asking pertinent questions I wasn’t equipped to make, more kindly suggested/allowed one to infer we were dealing with a well-meaning balls-up.

Further to the latter, this information proceeded to percolate out – Samaritans as an advertiser’s client, the Radar app a vehicle to deliver what seems to have been (wearily, by now) conceptualised in the land of very viral messages:

Samaritans, the charity that supports anyone in distress, is launching a Twitter app to help people spot the signs that a friend is struggling to cope. Jam created the app, which uses Twitter’s application programme interface to pick out key words and phrases from Tweets that indicate a person is contemplating suicide. Samaritans then offers the user advice on how to help. Twitter is supporting the Radar app as part of its Twitter Ads For Good, which offers charities free Promoted Tweets. The campaign was created by James Greening, Joel Lim and Liam Chapman.

The marketing video the page showed this morning must have looked so good at the time the pitch was made, to what I assume unkindly to have been Samaritans’ managerialists – managerialists who, in the event, found themselves delighted to pay for the clever little thingamajig.  Here’s the selfsame video embedded from YouTube:


http://youtu.be/NdKa2FRMJSE

I can’t help feeling, myself, that the silent soul at the end of the video is actually silently screaming to be left alone with his beautiful park – minus the technological claptrap.

Ultimately, of course, it could be any of the above explanations – but, equally, a combination of all three.  And as I just tweeted, the fails are so monumental now – the inability of a supposedly listening org to listen to the only clients who should matter, so manifestly askew – that it does beg the question whether Samaritans’ staff may currently find themselves in need of sympathetic support from some independent place.  For this is where we have got to:

Imagine, for a moment, #SamaritansRadar was a psychological meta-experiment (a la Facebook) to see how different profiles of people’d react!

Complete with viral ad “campaign”, academic “websites” and insalubrious partners various.

I’d much prefer that were the case, to be honest, than the reality that seems to be emerging.

It still doesn’t answer a whole raft of issues, mind.  If the real purpose of the tech is to identify suicidal people capable of considerable societal harm – a laudable driver if there ever was one – why hide behind a charity by trashing its branding, mission, historical trajectory and agency in such a dramatic way?  It surely wouldn’t be difficult for them to get us onboard with this one.  You didn’t need to insert it into our consciousnesses via a charitable organisation’s marketing budget, for goodness sake.

Alternatively, if the underlying purpose of the whole idiocy was simply to raise Samaritans’ public profile, surely certain people at the top and in the middle of the org must now be asking themselves if there shouldn’t be large cardboard boxes waiting to be filled with their offices’ contents.

The damage done to Samaritans is important.

Someone needs to be replaced.


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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 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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