Nov 272014
 
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Here we have the BBC defending its licence fee.  It argues – effectively – that its ability to hit extremely high levels of value-for-money marks it out from its competition:

BBC revenues comparison with competitors

I’m not posting today because I take issue with this argument.  It’s true, of course – and you can’t argue with the truth: whilst I hate the BBC‘s news and current affairs output, its drama, comedy and less newsy documentaries continue to be imaginative and often surprising.

What I do disagree with and dislike is the assumption that the BBC‘s natural competition should include Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Sky et al.  When I last looked, none of them except Sky was mainly dedicated to broadcasting; and none of them including Sky could be fairly considered a public-service broadcaster.

But then as Alex Salmond recently argued – perhaps in a fit of pique, perhaps with greater accuracy than one might have expected:

[…] “There is a difference between being a public service broadcaster and a state broadcaster, and I don’t think the people at the top of the BBC understand the difference. That is a tragedy,” he said.

Yes.

Indeed it is.  Especially when the institution itself decides and declaims – as a virtue to be sustained, with the objective of reclaiming its idiosyncratic homegrown system of licence fees – that its natural competition and business blueprints to follow are transnational technology companies which aggressively stride taxation frontiers, and show little respect for the decaying infrastructures of the communities they earn their incomes from.

Remembering how easy it is to become like your competition of choice, so it is the BBC declares it’s given up on public-service broadcasting.


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Nov 272014
 
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This came my way just now:

Income statistics and beliefs

It’s interesting to analyse, in the light of such data, how politicians might choose to react.  It’s clear, from these stats (and Montgomerie’s own tweet), that benefits are considered too high and pay considered too low.

Clear, also, that consensus is growing around the need to replace ameliorative measures such as tax credits with dignified measures such as living wages – though there’d still be a battle about what kind of living that might/should mean for the majority of currently poverty-stricken citizens.

What I’m really minded to consider, however, is how politicians are going to take onboard such prejudices.  Is it the job, these days, of politics to proselytise any more?  Are we supposed to thump our fists and soapbox the voters into submission?  Is our human history of madly impassioned political projects something we should embrace or shy away from?

In the current political landscape, I can only see UKIP doing any of the aforementioned.  And even here, I think the pedagogical side of proselytisation is entirely lost on their leaders.  For even here, in a sense, they’re simply coattailing the established parties.

In reality, the Tories and Labour have long histories of coattailing each other.  Where I have had to admire Ed Miliband is when he gets hold of an idea which is counter-received opinion, and pushes it persistently to the fore of the agenda.  Where I have had to lose my admiration for him is when he’s seems unable to maintain his ownership of such perspicacity – at least with respect to the media and the commentariat.  The living wage being yet another of these matters.  (But perhaps that’s ultimately not going to be a problem: perhaps the next general election will not be fought on the basis of what an evermore bubble-contained and self-congratulating press tells itself; perhaps, instead, it’ll be won or lost as a result of a hardy, short-term, five-year folk memory of Coalition incompetence, duplicity and barefaced porkie-telling.)

In a sense, Miliband’s been fighting an internecine battle where his instincts are to lead from the front, even as Party grandees insist on the old ways.

UKIP, meanwhile, pursues such old ways, as it looks to the stats above – and similar data on issues I’m sure are even closer to its heart – and says to us, with no desire to teach or train, that the casual evil we already think is fair enough, mate.  And let’s have another pint.

Despite the evidence-based implications and their downsides.

So if it’s no longer the business of politics to teach us about the world (as already alluded to, this may – in the light of multiple abuses, dictators and oppressors – be a good thing or not), and if the most politicians can do is coattail on voters and on each other’s prejudices, where is the necessary directed learning going to be taking place in our modern societies?  Who will teach as politics once aimed to do?  Who can illuminate our worldviews of our environments?  Will we have to witness a generation of entirely self-learning youngsters?

If only.

It seems to me, quite curiously, that the job of proselytisation – no longer that of elected representatives (no longer, in fact, that of flesh-and-blood teachers and trainers either) – has reverted to the big businesses that provide us with the consumer economies we so love.  It is through their grand, clever, funny and engaging marketing departments – but also through their impervious, aggressive, unremitting and unceasing legal departments – that we finally get the message.

We no longer learn from our politicians.  We no longer look for inspiration in our thought.  Rather, from such representatives, we simply look for a levered button-pressed reflection of all our prejudices which serves to re-establish our sense of comfort and commodity – which refuses in any challenging way to make us want to think.

And meanwhile, the corps take on the role of dependency nannies: nudging us here; nudging us there; nudging us everywhere.  Through every “like”, “poke” and “retweet” – until we all act as one.

No.  I’m not looking for another Cultural Revolution.  But I might be looking for a little bit more gumption than what we have.

Something which said to you: “I know what you know right now; I know a little bit more; and, what’s more, I’m interested in sharing with you the little bit more I know so that – together – we can progress our civilisation.”

But no.

That seems beyond us.

Instead, at least in the UK, our destiny is racist parties with hidden agendas (I don’t just mean UKIP either), riding coattails so easy to hang onto – as politics falls into mighty disrepair.


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Nov 262014
 
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I discover, this evening, that I’m a so-called “hidden” migrant:

Nigel Farage’s Ukip has called for the children of immigrants to themselves be classed as migrants – despite the fact that the party leader’s own two children would be included in that number.

The party highlighted a report issued today by the right-wing thinktank MigrationWatch UK, which said immigration’s impact on population growth had been underestimated by more than 1.3 million because babies of those coming to this country were not taken into account.

Meanwhile, for the moment:

Neither MigrationWatch nor Ukip suggested that the citizenship of those born in Britain was in question.

The rationale for inventing such a darkly-laden concept?  According to our dear Mr Farage’s political grouping (“whose wife,” the Independent story usefully reminds us, “is German”):

[…] the issue of “hiding” those born to migrants from statistics had “ramifications for healthcare and other public services”.

“We have to accept that this is happening because otherwise you can’t make the decisions to make sure everyone is OK,” the spokesperson said.

“If the figures for migration don’t include children, you’re not taking the correct facts into account for public policy.”

Frankly, this is bollocks.  Sorry.  But it truly has nothing to do with healthcare or public policy.  Nor, indeed, with making sure everyone is OK.

But let’s be charitable, for a moment at least.

Even if it did have something to do, say, with healthcare, take the case of my good self to see how ludicrous this latter idea really is: my father is British, my mother Croatian (though she now has dual nationality); I me mine am British by birth (Oxford if you didn’t know – rather too foreign and beyond the pale, I accept).  But now I’m to be considered a migrant – and a hidden one at that (ooooohhh!  Maybe I’m even red and hidden under your bed …) – I pose the following conundrum to Mr Farage and his ilk: of the fifty percent of me which is “hidden” migrant, we have to add the fifty percent of what I now assume to be “hidden” native, because fifty percent of me by parentage is homegrown (even by these idiots’ own home-made definition).  So if this “hidden” migrant concept has been devised to help out with the correct and proper governance of our nation, which bit of my body parts will be judged as migrant and which will be judged as native?

Imagine the conversation if you can …

GP: No, I’m afraid that free-at-point-of-delivery for “hidden” migrants like yourself is no longer the case.

Me: OK.  But although my mum’s as foreign as they come (she speaks English perfectly, mind, so it’s just as well I told you – make sure you bill her the next time she visits), my dad’s about as British as you’d care for.  So whilst my [choose your body part] is distending itself painfully as we speak, which bit of its treatment do I need to pay for ‘cos it’s Croatian – and which bit of its treatment is free ‘cos it’s British?

GP: Hmm.  Good point.  Let me see.  Well.  The expensive operation will obviously be Croatian; the bandages and TLC, on the other hand, can be British if you prefer.

Once upon a time, there was this other idea, dearly held, which argued that bullying was in the eye of the beholder; that any case of bullying needed investigating if someone – anyone – felt that that bullying had taken place.

This was to get round those nasty people out there who claim that any horribleness was never the intention of the exchange in question.

We might remember this issue right now.

There is, after all, little difference between the self-belief of outright bullies and the craven certainties of “hidden” racists – especially when such racists deny ownership for “hidden” agendas (even as they continue to actively propagandise them):

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?


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Nov 252014
 
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OK.

Fair enough.

The Guardian reports that (the bold is mine):

Internet companies face intense demands to monitor messages on behalf of the state for signs of terrorist intent after an official report into the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby said one of his killers wrote on a website – later named as Facebook – of his desire to slaughter a soldier, without the security services knowing.

Meanwhile, we get stories like this, describing the situation five years ago – that is to say, in 2009:

Millions per month

The leaked Snowden documents also contain numerous references to payments from GCHQ to Cable & Wireless in return for access to cables and infrastructure, some of is which listed as active well after Vodafone’s takeover.

[…]

In February 2009 some £6 million was paid to Cable & Wireless, now Vodafone, and a 2010 budget references a £20.3 million expense.

[…]

A July 2009 document shows that Cable & Wireless either owned or leased 29 out of 63 cables to which GCHQ had access to via partnerships, providing almost 70% of the total data accessible to GCHQ from the cables.

So not really fair enough, after all.

We’re being told, over and over again this week it would seem, in a concerted campaign bordering on an irresponsible panic-generation strategy of public fear, that more access to our online data is needed by various bodies.  Which bodies these are, I’m really not sure.  GCHQ?  MI5?  The police?  The government itself?  Paedophile politicians?  Posh parliamentary committees?  Craven police commissioners?  Newspaper journalists with the right ideologies?

What’s more, if we’re to believe even just a small part of what Snowden has let out of the bag, I’m really not clear how those who already – perhaps rightly – have relatively legal access to our data could have any more access than they clearly already do.  And if they currently don’t, and if they actually should have more, and if it’s possible at the moment for them not to be in possession of enough, why on earth are so many of those involved in the apparent business of planting and propagating all kinds of stories – in particular about the alleged omnisciences of our governments – doing anything of the sort in the first place?

It seems their bind runs as follows.  They either:

  1. Don’t know everything that’s happening on the web, but can’t admit to this because a) it would let the baddies know there are places to hide; b) more importantly, let the rest of us know that all those unaccountable billions spent on surveillance aren’t quite the value-adding bolt-ons to democracy we’d been led to believe; and c) give us the impression that our leaders are not only spinning the truth but are doing so mightily unprofessionally.
  2. Do know everything that’s happening on the web, but can’t quite admit to this since when a Lee Rigby-style atrocity hits the fan, in theory they’re directly responsible – what’s more, surely ripe to be (perhaps) class-action sued  – for not having done more to stop such crimes.

In the latter case, of course, the easiest thing out there is to distract the public’s attention by piling the pain on a Facebook for not having done what the security services were supposed, from the start, to have done themselves.

But that’s really really not fair.

For it doesn’t fit together at all, does it?  If in 2009, GCHQ was paying millions a month to a fibre-optic cable company to globally access Internet-carried traffic, just imagine what it was doing in 2014!  (With or without, I might add, the relevant legislative protection – which I suppose in such gun-slinging days as ours have obviously become is neither here nor there any more.)

Consequently, how can it be acceptable that government should now cast the first stone at Facebook for not having seen what GCHQ et al are bound to have “seen” first – even if they failed, in their googlingly overwhelming stream of daily zettabytes, to properly “observe”, “understand” and “act on” the right information?

If we were being charitable, we might say: “We understand the problem.  It’s like looking for an undetected euthanasia victim in a million sad cemeteries.  How do you know where to start?  How do you know where to end?”  But the problem here is, despite their current inability to process everything as we need them to, they’re apparently asking for even more data to not be able to usefully process.  It’s clearly not enough to access all Internet traffic, past, present and (algorithmically predicted) future; it’s clearly not enough to tie IP addresses to all our devices; it’s even not enough to automatically track and comprehend our social-network profiles, instincts and behaviours – and then stop us in our tracks when our tracks are typed as leading us toward violence.  No.  They must have more, far more than that: they must have the biggest sword of all to batter every one of us over our vulnerable heads with – in the full knowledge that the real baddies will always know how to construct, at the ordinary citizen’s expense, adequate shields to defend themselves from such overkill.

I dunno.  Just seems to me that surveillance law and process, as it stands, is mainly there to be able to point the finger fairly accurately – a posteriori – at the miscreants various of evil acts multiple.

But, sadly, wearily, not before.

Not in time to reliably prevent anyhow.

Something’s manifestly broken.  I don’t know if the lack of fit is our fault as demanding consumer-society subjects – or the spooks for not going down the route of getting and keeping us onside; for, instead, perpetually playing us out of the match and any constructively wider understanding.

And in the meantime, we as a civilisation blame our corporations for not doing the state’s job properly; our states for not doing the people’s job properly; our peoples for not doing a society’s job properly; and this society for not doing anything at all.

The blame game is a merry-go-round of truly adult pleasures.

And that euthanasia victim I alluded to perhaps all our Western democracies.


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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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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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