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

Dear KDP Author,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

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

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

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

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

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

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

:-)


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Oct 292013
 
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I’ve been having a few problems recently.  Mainly as a result of my off-and-on relationship with technology.  I’ve documented them here and here, so if you want to bring yourself up to speed you might want to read these posts before we continue.

You can understand that I felt aggrieved enough with Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry for not repairing something still supposedly under guarantee.  This was the bit of their reply which most upset my sensitive soul, when I queried CPW’s initial refusal to do anything at all (the bold is mine):

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

As it seemed pretty clear that no other option was available to me, I didn’t reply to the email in question.  Then yesterday I got a follow-up which went as follows:

Dear Mr Williams

We have not received a response from our recent email.

If there is anything else that we can assist you with, please let me know.

If we haven’t heard from you in the next 7 days, we will close your case file down.

So that was when I found it in myself to reply.  This is what I said:

Hi

Many thanks for your follow-up.

I think your email made it very clear I have no other options in this matter.  I hardly felt a response was even expected.  However, as you have asked for one, I’d like to make it clear I will no longer be purchasing nor recommending products or services sold by CPW – either online or in its shops, either in Britain or in Spain – nor shall I be investing in any Blackberry products in the future (if, that is, the company manages to remain at all viable).  Any phone contracts I have which I suspect may benefit your group will, when they come up for renewal, be moved to other providers.

That’s about all I can do.

Your bottom lines are safe.

Kind regards,

Miljenko Williams

Meanwhile, my second major techie issue seems to rumble inconclusively on.  Last week I contacted Tesco about the failure of my two-year-old 3G Kindle’s screen.  Whilst contacting their helpline connected me directly with Amazon, I felt my contractual relationship should be with the shop I bought the product from.  Amazon offered me an upgrade I would obviously have to pay for.  My initial reaction was that I would rather it be replaced for the exact same keyboarded model.  It had been a birthday present from my eldest son and I valued the object as such.  The gentleman on the customer helpline said no similar models were made any more by Amazon, and an upgrade was the only option.

I then phoned Tesco’s helpline again, this time choosing non-Kindle options from the menu in order to speak to a Tesco person him- or herself.  And this time I pursued – as per the advice from our local store – the “electrical products out of warranty” path, where you can put in a request for a pro-rata compensation payment to be made, if the product you’re complaining about is judged to have a life expectancy beyond that which it has shown.  I was given a timeframe of 48 hours for a response, I think it was.  Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week.

Now I’m obviously going to have to negotiate Tesco’s complex menu system all over again in order to chase the case up.  But before I do, I thought I’d put down my preferred outcome in black and white, along with a few wider observations on what corporate capitalism is doing to us all.

Kindle is a great system for binding you into Amazon’s infrastructures, that is true.  It also offers significant benefits – if, that is, you’re prepared to accept the limitations the system leads to with respect to ownership, portability of content and so forth.  But where it wins out – its ability to be accessed from a multitude of devices and allow you to pick up from where you left off absolutely anywhere – is precisely where it is damaging our previous and singularly healthy attachments to artefacts.

In the past, when we gave someone an object of certain value, this object maintained both its operational ability, its physical integrity and its sentimental value for many many years.  Out of love, out of respect and out of a generosity which characterises him, my eldest son wanted to make what he felt would be a present I would always treasure and remember him by.  And he got it right – an electronic book: something I have been fighting for and arguing in favour of for over a decade now.  What more could a loving son want to gift an aspiring editor-father than something in the very vanguard of 21st century publishing?

But now I realise, at least as per Amazon’s intentions (and possibly Tesco’s too – I have yet to find out), my treasured birthday present has become – two short years and a few months later – a mere accountant’s calculation in an upgrade path to tablet-ownership.  Yes.  Corporate capitalism, and here I mean both Amazon and Tesco, both Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry, both Apple and Samsung, as well as practically everyone and their mother, is in the process of making us about as promiscuous with our artefacts as any grasping capitalist could hope for; about as promiscuous with our objects as any Sixties’ hedonist ever was with their bodies; about as promiscuous and uncaring about the intrinsic value of what we give to another as any shallow consumer manages to be with their trashed-upon and popcorned entertainment.

To be honest, I don’t want a brand new super-duper all-colour upgrade.  That wasn’t what my dearest son gave me just over two years ago.  What I want is for the object he gave me, the very object he gave me, the very same serial-numbered present, to return to the state it was in during the summer when I was still able to finger its well-designed curves.

Yes.  It’s the object he gave me which I want to recover.  It’s his present, not your largesse, which I want to be able to remember him by.

So does no one out there, no one at all, understand in any way what I am getting at here?

Does no one else see what we are losing?

Does no one else care to care?


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Aug 072013
 
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This takes me back to my university film studies days.


http://youtu.be/tzhb3U2cONs

This bit, in particular, catches my attention:

KANE
Mr. Thatcher, the trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to
two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand
three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit prefer, you
see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with
you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run
out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You
may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a
contribution of one thousand dollars.

THATCHER
My time is too valuable for me…

KANE
On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such,
it is my duty, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my
pleasure — to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this
community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just
because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests! I’ll
let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m
the man to do it. You see I have money and property. If I don’t
look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody
else will, maybe somebody without any money or property and that
would be too bad.

THATCHER
Yes, yes, yes! Money and property. Well, I happened to see your
financial statement today, Charles.

KANE
Did you?

THATCHER
Tell me honestly, my boy. Don’t you think it’s rather unwise to
continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer, that’s
costing you a million dollars a year?

KANE
You are right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last
year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to
lose a million dollars next year! You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the
rate of a million dollars a year I’ll have to close this place in
sixty years.

Now compare and contrast with Jeff Bezos’  statement (he being the founder of the Public Transit Company Amazon) on his impending purchase of the US newspaper, the Washington Post.  I’m particularly interested in the following two paragraphs:

So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

[...]

There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports this observation about the man now literally making news:

“Years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post,” said Post chief executive, Donald Graham.

“Jeff Bezos’ proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.”

I don’t know Jeff Bezos – I assume I never will – but if they say he’s personally decent, I’m not going to question the assessment at all.  I would, however, lay before you these three stories about his other business behemoth, Amazon.  First:

Germany is demanding explanations from the online retail giant Amazon after a TV documentary showed seasonal workers being harassed by security guards.

A TV documentary by state broadcaster ARD said employees’ rooms were searched, they were frisked at breakfast and constantly watched.

I’d add the company responsible was a sub-contracted agency outfit – but from the drive to reduce costs at all costs, corporations do tend to provide the conditions that lead to such behaviours.

Second:

The UK arm of internet shopping giant Amazon paid corporation tax of just £2.4 million last year despite earning sales of £4.2 billion.

What’s more:

Amazon received UK Government grants of £2.5 million last year, beating its corporation tax payments.

Amazon reduced tax payments by routing its sales through Luxembourg where its European headquarters are.

Third (from 2010):

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after Amazon.com pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.

WikiLeaks expressed disappointment with Amazon, and insisted it was a breach of freedom of speech as enshrined in the US constitution’s first amendment. The organisation, in a message sent via Twitter, said if Amazon was “so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

That last phrase may come back to haunt Mr Bezos.  Out of the business of selling books and into the business of selling newspapers is surely a case of jumping from the proverbial frying-pan into the fire.  And if everyone seems so cheerful with Bezos’ purchase of the Post, maybe Citizen Kane’s final lines quoted above have more than a little to do with the matter.  He could lose money hand over fist for the next sixty years and still keep the Post afloat.

The real question, of course, runs as follows: given that the people at the top of the paper have known, liked and admired Amazon’s founder for quite some time, it doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility that Bezos was already weighing up the options to buy into America’s newspaper-land when Amazon cut off all hosting services to WikiLeaks back in 2010.  It kind of paints the view we may have of that operation in a quite different way from anything we may have thought to date.  Not just a case of yet another US tech company giving in to the American security services but, rather, an example of a latterday Citizen Kane playing a very long plutocratic game.

And the problem won’t be what Bezos does at a newspaper.  The problem will be, as both a privately and publicly powerful and super-connected newspaperman who is also owner of the Public Transit Company Amazon, how his soon-to-be-extremely-close relationship with government and its many tentacles might affect the ability of his distributor, publisher and hosting-provider side to do what’s right in the ever-thorny matter of freedom of speech in a globalising world.

Especially in a globalising world which – post-Snowden – we now know to be under considerable US and British surveillance.

They already stumbled with WikiLeaks – even before Mr B decided to become embroiled in the ball-game of news diffusion.

The room for dark forces to expose him to political blackmail – as owner of a mainstream news outlet and as CEO/whatever of a portfolio of major communications-associated companies – only increases with this gently curate’s egg of a purchase.

I do, of course, wish Mr Bezos and the Post well.  He has far too much money for me to contemplate reacting otherwise.  But my internal alarm bells do begin to make tiny noises when hyper-powerful men start talking about defending the ordinary, decent and hard-working seven-dollar-an-hour subjects and citizens from the corruptions of (other) plutocrats.

Just look at what happened to Citizen Kane.

Sometimes even the powerful hit heights outside their natural envelopes.


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Apr 232013
 
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Amazon Cloud services used by 38 Degrees

I saw a BBC Panorama documentary recently on the subject of North Korea.  Towards the end, after showing those of us who know nothing the veritable horrors of the place, it compared the advertising-free misery of the North Korean underground with the magnificent and joyful hoarding-invaded South Korea.  If I remember rightly, on more than one occasion our attention was drawn to this defining advantage of living in the free world – as if the quantity of advertising which serves to puncture our eyes is somehow a litmus test of how free we really are.

Well, I’m sorry but I don’t agree.  And today I read a story from the Spanish El País newspaper which simply confirms me in my resistance.  In it, we discover (robot English translation here) that the Madrid Metro Línea 2 - along with its iconic stop Sol – will become the sponsorship property of the Vodafone phone company, to such an extent that the aforementioned station will be renamed vodafone Sol.  In exchange for a three-year deal, it appears that a paltry €3 million will exchange hands.  But, of course, the story won’t end with the “awarding” of these “naming rights”.  As the article goes on to report:

[...] El acuerdo previsto con la empresa tiene una duración de tres años, lo que supone unos tres millones de euros. Para González es una “posibilidad enorme de ingresos” para Metro. “Tenemos 11 líneas más y muchas estaciones” que ofertar, ha recordado el presidente.

Loosely translating as:

[...] The agreement in question with the company will last three years, which means some three million euros.  For González, this presupposes an “enormous opportunity of income” for Metro.  “We have 11 lines and many stations” to offer, the president has reminded everyone.

So let’s just analyse exactly what’s going on here.  A public entity which has been offering state-funded services to a taxpaying city (I assume the Metro service is still all of these things, though – after so much economic despair – I may of course be wrong by now) has decided, in its wisdom, that it has the right to sell off to a foreign corporation the rights to name public spaces as if they were private spaces of public use.  Given the experience we’ve supposedly had with the Vodafones of the world here in Britain, as perfectly legal tax avoidance has begun to drill holes in the future financial planning of the state and our public services, this really does seem to be adding considerable insult to hurtful injury.  Especially when the people responsible for the deal appear to be saying that the cost of using the service will continue to rise for end-users, despite the corporate dosh changing hands.

That is to say, in an ongoing and awful political and socioeconomic crisis, where Spanish youth unemployment has hit over fifty percent and politicians of parties various have both enriched themselves and their business mates in a long-drawn-out process of terrible fecklessness (clearly at the expense of all the nations that make up the country), the Madrid Metro finds itself obliged to go with its begging bowl to precisely those guarantors of the free world which have brought us all to our knees in the first place.

To such an extent we finally discover that these people don’t only destroy our economies and welfare states so as to own us materially but also, now, look to own our public spaces – so as to own us emotionally too.

Can you imagine it?

The Starbucks Northern Line.

The Google Circle Line.

The Amazon Jubilee Line.

Hurts, doesn’t it?  Hurts so much it burns.  Burns like brands originally did.  And I bet it’ll come sooner than you think to England’s green and evermore unpleasant land.

Happy St Google’s Day!

Wonder what Shakespeare would’ve had to say about it all.

To brand or not to brand, perhaps?  Would that be the question?

St Google's Day


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Apr 192013
 
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I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Amazon over the recent past.  I won’t be so tedious as to link to any specific posts of mine, but if you’re interested in finding out more from my side of a fence I sometimes straddle rather painfully, I suggest you click here and read the page thus generated.

Whether I’m currently in favour of or against the behemoth, I’ve always always been aware that entrusting one’s reading habits to an online agency is tantamount to giving up gold dust to professional profilers.  How much can they know about you in order to one day thus condemn you for the content you silently, maybe unknowingly, perused and absorbed – whilst flitting, promiscuously one might even say, from one digitalised byte to another.

Which brings me to this sad story from the Independent just now, on the subject of the Boston bombings.  It would seem that one of the suspects, now dead, had left a digital trail behind him.  A YouTube account being one; and get this, an Amazon wish list being the other.  As the paper reports, with the caveat of “unconfirmed”:

An Amazon “wish list” activated in 2006 under the name Tamerlan (also unconfirmed) show the suspect had looked at books including How To Make Driver’s Licenses and Other ID on Your Home Computer, Voice Power: Using Your Voice to Captivate, Persuade and Command Attention, Document Fraud and Other Crimes of Deception and How To Win Friends And Influence People.

Pretty convincing, eh?  Pretty damning evidence for anyone capable of carrying out such evil.

Now I’m not questioning anything relating to the investigation itself, which under highly trying circumstances must be a nightmare to live through, both from the point of view of citizens suffering the lockdown of Boston as well as from the point of view of all the security forces doing their level best to sort out the tragedy.  What I am questioning, however, is the casual way that online information of this sort is becoming part and parcel of serious media reporting.  Can anyone reasonably justify the tendentious use of such information in the middle of a mass-murder hunt, for example?  Isn’t this just about the online equivalent of putting salacious phrases in anonymous quotation marks?  By simply placing such “unconfirmed” data in front of the public gaze, we can lead anyone down any garden path we care to.  Never mind all those users out there who thought their wish lists were part of a private relationship with a corporate provider of goods and services.  Never mind all those users out there who’d simply prefer to maintain their sense of privacy, even as privacy seems the very last thing on our rapaciously data-hungry minds.

So just to give you an idea of what I mean, here’s my pretty dormant Amazon wish list (ranging from 2006 at the top to 2003 at the bottom, and – not that it matters now – currently with a privacy setting I assume won’t ever be changed unless I choose to do so myself).  This, then, as it stands today:

1.
The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger (Author)
£6.89
1
0
2.
About Looking​ (Vintag​e Interna​tional)​ by Berger (Author)
1
0
3.
Weekend​ [1967] [DVD] DVD ~ Mireille Darc
£11.00
1
0
4.
Breathl​ess [DVD] [1961] DVD ~ Jean-Paul Belmondo
1
0
5.
Battles​hip Potemki​n [1925] [DVD] Offered by bestmediagroup DVD ~ Aleksandr Antonov
£6.99
1
0
6.
Culture​s and Organiz​ations:​ Softwar​e of the Mind (Succes​sful Strateg​ist) by Geert Hofstede (Author)
1
0
7.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeche​s in History​ by William Safire (Author)
1
0
8.
Culture​ Jam: How to Reverse​ America​’s Suicida​l Consume​r Binge – and Why We Must by Kalle Lasn (Author)
£11.70
1
0
9.
No Logo: No Space. No Choice.​ No Jobs by Naomi Klein (Author)
1
0
10.
The New Rulers of the World by John Pilger (Author)
1
0
11.
Captive​ State: The Corpora​te Takeove​r of Britain​ by George Monbiot (Author)
£8.99
1
0
12.
The World We’re in by Will Hutton (Author)
£12.74
1
0
13.
Media Control​: The Spectac​ular Achieve​ments of Propaga​nda by Noam Chomsky (Author)
£5.24
1
0
14.
Hidden Agendas​ by John Pilger (Author)
£8.27
1
0
15.
Rogue States:​ The Rule of Force in World Affairs​ by Noam Chomsky (Author)
£14.24
1
0
16.
Beyond Culture​ by Edward T. Hall (Author)
£10.99
1
0
17.
Downsiz​e This (Pan paperba​ck) by Michael Moore (Author)
1
0
18.
When Culture​s Collide​: Managin​g Success​fully Across Culture​s by Richard D. Lewis (Author)
1
0
19.
Cross Cultura​l Communi​cation:​ A Visual Approac​h by Richard D. Lewis (Author)
1
0
20.
Explori​ng Culture​: Exercis​es, Stories​ and Synthet​ic Culture​s by Geert Hofstede (Author)
£22.00
1
0
21.
Regardi​ng the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (Author)
1
0
22.
The End of the America​n Era: U.S. Foreign​ Policy and the Geopoli​tics of the Twenty-​First Century​ by Charles Kupchan (Author)
1
0
23.
Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed​ the World by Richard Holbrooke (Foreword), Margaret MacMillan (Author)
1
0
24.
The Tragedy​ of Great Power Politic​s by John J. Mearsheimer (Author)
1
0
25.
Paradis​e and Power: America​ and Europe in the New World Order by Robert Kagan (Author)
1
0
26.
Adolf Hitler:​ My Part in his Downfal​l by Spike Milligan (Author)
1
0
27.
Third Culture​ Kids: The Experie​nce of Growing​ Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock (Author), Ruth E. Van Reken (Author)
1
0
28.
The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti (Author)
1
0
29.
Breakin​g Through​ Culture​ Shock: What You Need to Succeed​ in Interna​tional Busines​s by Elisabeth Marx (Author)
£14.24
1
0
30.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman (Author)
£6.89
1
0
31.
From Beirut to Jerusal​em: One Man’s Middle Eastern​ Odyssey​ by Thomas Friedman (Author)
£8.96
1
0
32.
Longitu​des and Attitud​es: Explori​ng the World After Septemb​er 11 by Thomas L. Friedman (Author)
1
0
33.
The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons​ in a Connect​ed World by Lawrence Lessig (Author)
1
0

 

What about that, eh?  All that stuff about world politics and 9/11 I mean?  What does that say about me now?

Draw your own conclusions … only do have the decency to wait until I’ve committed some stupid crime or another.  Or not, as the case may be.  For remember, a wish list tends to be a list of stuff we haven’t read!  Can we really be fairly criticised for simply listing what might be of interest?

This is serious stuff, isn’t it?  Really serious stuff.  We are getting to the point where we cannot follow our intellectual whims without fear of judgement: where what we read – or simply want to read – defines what we are in the eyes of the state; where content – whether desired or experienced – becomes the linchpin and conduit of our obsessions; and where assumptions are sickeningly drawn about we think, believe and would like to do from what we are inclined to favourite, click and examine.

And it’s a small step from analysing it idly and mediatically after the event, as in the case I describe today of the alleged Boston bomber, to forensically studying and coming to conclusions before the event – before, that is, a crime is actually committed.

Is this all that different from the miasma of control and suspicion that a 20th century Soviet Union exemplified?

Aren’t we returning to awfully Cold War roots?

And mustn’t we really begin to question now the true nature of the liberties that a 21st century of corporate largesse has managed to bestow on us to date?

A society of the free?  When a simple literary checklist is held up in a newspaperly light as an unarguable sign of unacceptable thought patterns?

Whatever next, dear friends?  Whatever next?

Well, how about this thought to be going away with?  On a separate matter, and quite outside the frame of awful bombings, an example of a clear barometer – if there ever was one – of how the freedoms of a society might generally be defined: if art and culture, however shocking they behave, escape the clutches of state disapprobation, we live in a free society.  On the other hand, where even the mildest artistic shockwave brings the establishment to a halt, we must accept that we find ourselves in blindly oppressive regimes.

On such a scale, then, on such a barometer of liberty, and in the light of the blessed wish list in question, how actually free may we see our society at the minute?

Or how blindly oppressive must we recognise its future to be?


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Feb 152013
 
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We live in a world of gadgets galore.  But when those liberal sorts advise us, in full economic misery, that the market must be left to its own devices, it’s really time to call a halt to our obsessing with these objects – whether literally or figuratively.

A few days ago I made a link between the horsemeat and banking scandals.  I also suggested that criminal and business behaviours had become so indistinguishable that anyone on the outside looking in would have serious problems perceiving a morality in either.

Meanwhile, published in the Independent this Wednesday, we get these choice words from the headliner of an Andreas Whittam Smith article – an article you really should read in full:

Trusting businesses to do the right thing is naive. From banking to the meat industry, without strong regulation, it’s inevitably the consumer who loses out

Not the customer, you understand.  The customer is always king.  Only don’t go thinking that you and I will automatically occupy such a treasurable role.  Most of the current malaise affecting our latterday societies can be placed at the leaden feet of this idol.  We, of course, truly do believe we are that personage: we believe that these massive corporate entities will be kept in check by the daily vote and pitter-patter of feet through this (virtual) door or that.  We believe this because they tell us so.  We believe it, perhaps, because they choose to obfuscate the wider picture.

And it happens in all sorts of fields too.  Not only horsemeat or sub-prime loans – social networking too.  If you’re not the paying customer (for example, if you’re not an advertiser), you’re most definitely the product.  Any attempt to impose your will on these behemoths will almost certainly lead to utter despair.  The product is to be pushed, not caressed.  Don’t imagine they even imagine your needs.

And as the product which you are, they’ll inject you with any necessary painkillers to contaminate and make as addictive as possible the processes you have become involved with.  “Bute” for Twitter and Facebook is probably far more prevalent than we imagined.

The managerialism that pollutes our economies – that takes us on this merry dance where the real customers are top-flight nest-feathering executives, who occasionally “do good” for all-too-passive shareholders but more often are seen to ignore the pressing needs of powerless external customers – is what has brought us to this very dark place.  And I say “dark place” because of another Independent report – one which as a frequent Amazon “customer” I cannot let pass without comment.  According to an investigation by German media, neo-Nazi-connected security guards have been “monitoring” immigrant workers in Germany who work for the online giant.  This process of “monitoring” involves rifling through their rooms and possessions on a regular basis.  There is currently no suggestion that Amazon contracted the security guards themselves, or indeed knew anything about the process itself beforehand, but – in this very pattern of behaviours – it does suggest that left to its own devices, the market continues to contaminate and prejudice such generally hidden B2B transactions – transactions which deeply affect the unknowing consumers, and serve to hide what is apparently a multitude of real and considerable sins.

And if the market truly worked when left to its own devices, it would be the Amazons and Apples of this world which would proactively announce, without the requirement of constant media prodding, the abuses in their supply lines they would systematically discover through the capable checks and balances of their own processes and procedures.

As it is, such stories about fascist abuse in factories, accommodation and other work-related places the world over just lead me to feel dirty and complicit in my enjoyment of gadgets and content.

I’m beginning to feel I can’t even read a book without participating in oppressive activities.

When the terms “consumer” and “customer” get as divided and differentiated as the above would now seem to indicate is the case is, really, when we find ourselves moving into totally uncharted waters of a globalised trade.  A globalised trade where the only daily vote truly deposited is that which determines how to screw the end-user and workforces in better and more ingenious ways.

If only they spent as much time, energy and brain capacity on trying to do things right.

One thing is absolutely clear: unleashed, unregulated, uncontrolled and unacceptable – the adjectives which describe our experiences with these organisations are beginning to take on an unreasonably unhappy life all of their own.


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Jan 152013
 
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Change.  We hear so much about it.  A change for the better.  It’s a common enough sentiment.  And if you’ve ever worked for a large company with communication issues (they’re always “issues” or “challenges” – never, God forbid, “problems”!), they’ll also tell you that change is a given: that not only can you not avoid it, you shouldn’t.

The key to getting on in life, therefore, is knowing how to frame the change which’ll benefit you.  Some thoughts on the subject of HMV, for example:

Funny how memories of #HMV parallel memories of #Borders: places where tactile & unconditional browsing were allowed. #HumanNeeds perhaps?

And then this:

Today’s 2-speed economy: jobs at risk as HMV teeters on brink while Goldman explores ways to minimise tax on its traders’ 6-figure bonuses

Meanwhile, John Naughton has this to say (the bold is mine):

So today’s news that the High Street music store HMV is going into Administration has been a long time coming, but really it’s been on the cards for a long time. There are reports that the music/movie industry will try to rescue it. If true, then that merely confirms how poorly managed those industries are.

Whilst I understand what John is arguing – that digital music in the recording studio should find its way to the consumer just as digitally – I’m not sure I agree any longer that the change he and many others have framed for us here, both with respect to music and video as well as books, is entirely a list of unsullied positives.

My views are beginning to coalesce around another set of opinions, quite different from my previous attachment to the digital way of doing things.  This other tweet from yours truly yesterday encapsulates exactly what I mean:

@ZM_01 Net taught us to search for & buy what we want; led us away from buying stuff we stumble across. @mikejulietbravo @lisabriercliffe

So what Amazon and other online retailers (are there any others of any significance?) achieved in this puzzling last decade wasn’t only giving the customer what they wanted.  Far far more importantly – and, arguably, even destructively – they managed to change and re-engineer our expectations.  The felicitous synchronicity of stumbling across the intellectual stock your local IP shop actually had in store, of coming across something quite unexpected, of taking a risk, of finding a new direction, of allowing your flesh and blood shopkeeper to intuitively recommend the wildest of things, of buying something you hadn’t intended to buy which might, nevertheless, prove to enrich your life in unpredictable ways … well, all of the above has been lost to something much more levered, messaged and structured: by using advertising to match market reaction to availability, the big and smaller companies which now attempt to organise our purchases have ripped away from the vast majority of consumers the habit and custom of chancing.

There will be many, like John, even myself only some years ago, who would argue that Amazon is to blame.  To blame to the extent that its business model – its warehouse infrastructures, its wondrous-to-behold website, its ability to use tax schemes to screw down its costs – has destroyed the competition.

But, to be honest, whilst I would blame Amazon for what’s happening to HMV, I wouldn’t say the former’s business model – not even its unhappy tax history – was primarily the cause of the latter’s woes.  Instead, it’s how Amazon has re-engineered our expectations: as citizens and human beings, we’ve become professional and hidebound consumers.  We prefer the repetition of an experience already consolidated to risking the danger of not fully maximising our product and service outputs.  Even when we do shop in bricks-and-mortar environments, we are never very far from our smartphone app: the one with the barcode scanner which allows you to doublecheck prices almost everywhere.  No longer do we enter our IP shop, thinking of the content we might happily come across.  Instead, we enter wondering if we’ll find what we already expect to encounter: and if it’s more expensive, then we whip out the smartphone and proceed to order with one-day delivery.

All the time that this is happening, we are only thinking of maximising those outputs.  Rather than allow ourselves to be amazed primarily by the words, the notes or the images someone has so carefully put together, we are incessantly looking and pursuing those dirty goals of buying whatever it may be at the lowest possible cost.

When the corporates framed this change as aimed at improving customer service, we really did not understand the huge disservice they were in the process of doing us.  For the real and only customer service such a frame has improved is that which attends to and services the top-flight managers and executives – as well as occasionally the shareholders – of the companies I am referring to in this post.

Meanwhile, as we learn to buy only what we are expensively told to and informed about, we lose all possibility – ever again – of casually and unexpectedly finding what fate might have otherwise so excitingly thrown up.

Yes!  This is the end of fate, my dear friends.

The end of the very workings and mechanisms of destiny itself.


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Dec 112012
 
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Amazon has come under quite fierce scrutiny recently for its perfectly legitimate, even where arguably less than moral, tax arrangements – in particular, this report from Reuters a couple of days back.

I’ve argued, myself, how difficult it is to disentangle ourselves from such organisations.  Over the years, their beautiful ways of doing things – what I have called their “whats” – have blinded us to their less than attractive underbellies of “hows”.

And Amazon is not, by any means, the only company to directly undermine the ability of countries to provide a decent welfare state for all their citizens.

I wonder, however, if there isn’t a choice we can make here – something we can do to turn Amazon against itself.  Until, perhaps, it begins to play a different kind of tax game.

How did it use to work?  Well.  In my case, whilst living in Spain and looking for English language content, there was little alternative.  But when I moved back to England, my behaviours went as follows: I would alight on something I wanted to buy, would check prices – and even products – out in local shops and then would end up buying in Amazon.co.uk.  It was almost unerringly cheaper, you see.  Now I know why.  I thought it was down to brilliant logistics and behind-the-scenes organisation.   It was actually down to something quite different.

When Amazon brought out its smartphone app with barcode scanner, the competition got even tougher – perhaps even unfairer.  People would pop over to Waterstones or WHSmith, or, in its much-lamented time, Borders, and would not only manhandle their product but would also order via Amazon Prime for next-day delivery, whilst in the same bricks-and-mortar shop, the book they were leafing through but desisted from buying from the aforementioned high-street and out-of-town stalwarts.

In the light of all the above, I now feel terribly ashamed and am slowly disengaging where I can from the behemoth that is my once-beloved Amazon.  How am I doing so?

In this way.

I have started using Amazon as an online reference library of product – and as an online payment facility above all.  If there is an offline alternative to what I am looking for which is not very much more expensive than Amazon’s own prices, I buy it.  If there is a third-party offer on Amazon, especially for books and DVDs, which is from a reputable seller, I buy it.  If it’s electronics or anything which might require post-guarantee after-sales service, I head down to my local Currys or Argos after using Amazon to suss out the territory and get an idea for what I ought to be paying.  I assume any mark-up in the bricks-and-mortar equivalents will go to supporting, in some way, at some time in the future when we get back the government a due sense of humanity demands, the renewed welfare state we’re all hoping for.

Is this an example of turning Amazon against itself, then?  Or, maybe, re-educating it?  Of using all that beautifully-designed online infrastructure – a magnificent machine of customer intrigue if there ever was one – to generate sales for its real-world competition?

Just as we once used its app to freeload off the backs of so many worthy, yet often inefficient, booksellers and music shops which found it simply impossible to keep up with the broad range of product Amazon’s industrial warehouses could stock, so now we may use the very same tool to return the favour to those companies which choose to demonstrate a firmer commitment to the communities they make money out of.

The choice we make not so much to do with the content we gift or buy for ourselves but, rather, more pertinently in times of crisis, to do with the companies that most care to involve themselves with their immediate environment.

It’s a thought anyway.

A thought to take away with you.


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Dec 052012
 
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More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that we need to engage with modern corporations – not aim to destroy them by boycotting their wares.  How difficult the latter is to achieve has just become amazingly clear to me today.

An example, if you wish.  At least, when I visited the 38 Degrees page in question.  A noble attempt, via a festive and timely poster, to highlight corporations which whilst acting entirely legally may also – in the eyes of many – be behaving quite immorally (.pdf).

Only just look at the address bar of the page the poster is served up from:

Yup.  It would appear, quite unconsciously (or maybe otherwise), that 38 Degrees uses Amazon’s web services to publish material critical of the very same company.

Now I’m not posting this to criticise 38 Degrees.  I’m not trying to make anyone look hypocritical.  What I am trying to suggest, for the good of the planet, is that there must come a time when we recognise the brilliant “whats” that these corporations have created on their parallel paths to world domination – at the very same time as we begin to engage constructively with their “hows”.

No.  It’s not right for companies as significant as Amazon or Caffè Nero or Boots to legally tax-avoid their relationships with the communities they make money out of.  It’s not right to do stuff which directly impacts the quality of life of our citizens – especially as governments cut back on social spending the world over.  It’s not right to believe that only the shareholders rule business.  It’s not right to build feathered nests for the few – the few who are lucky enough to find themselves at the top.

Capitalism is a most curious thing.  Amoral to an extreme.  That Amazon should find itself making money out of distribution and delivery services which allow others to criticise its own tax arrangements is just one example of how amoral it is.  And that 38 Degrees, an admirable organisation of our very virtual times, should find it so difficult not to use such a service is, surely, just one more indication of how true my assertions over these past few months have been: there will come a time when the planet needs us all.  Corporations and people both.  The real question is: will we understand this in time?


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Nov 122012
 
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The most harrowing corporate-related video of the day doesn’t involve children dying in Africa as they are forceably weaned off mother’s milk through massive advertising campaigns.  No.  It’s much more prosaic and – yet – just as pointed.  Amazon’s Director of Public Policy – I think that was his post though I’m not sure he’s going to remain in it for much longer – provides us with this excruciating performance today as he was interrogated and even laughed at by MPs investigating the tax affairs of the big corporates.

Amazon wasn’t, however, the only one to suffer.  As politics.co.uk also reports:

[...] Starbucks global chief financial officer Troy Alstead was told his company’s claims to make a loss in the UK “just doesn’t ring true”.

The coffee chain pays no corporation tax in the UK and has filed losses with Companies House for most of the years it has been in the country.

“You have run the business for 15 years and are losing money and you are carrying on investing here. It just doesn’t ring true,” Hodge said.

“You are losing money. You have tried for 15 years and failed and you have promoted the guy who failed. It doesn’t ring true Mr Alstead, that’s what frustrates taxpayers in the UK.”

She added: “Are you lying to your shareholders?”

Meanwhile, if you are of a masochistic bent, more background to this story – again from the BBC – can be found here.  It’ll make you weep, if only out of evil joy.

It makes me feel ashamed, mind.

Ashamed of all the schools and hospitals which will close because these behemoths have got so good at avoiding their moral responsibilities.  Ashamed of all the good public servants – and private employees too – whose jobs have been lost because of the unfair advantage such companies have over their tax-paying competition.  Ashamed of the purchasing choices I now strive to make less and less: choices which have filled the pockets of delightfully clever “whats” – websites, delivery schedules, search engines and seductive flavours – but all at the expense of considerably unpleasant “hows”.

For this has real consequences – and they’re not only in the public sector.  Recently, the British electrical appliances and electronics chain Comet announced it was going into administration.  There are very particular issues I believe in relation to how the company was run, but Amazon’s own very forceful presence in the market was surely a contributory factor.  And overheads are bound to vary tremendously.  That bricks-and-mortar establishments provide a face-to-face after-sales service is, for example, a cost which many online retailers refuse to provide.

I recounted, in the meantime, the story of our iPod – purchased at a heavy discount from Amazon itself and now six months out of guarantee with a failing home button as built-in and permanent feature.  We felt that as retailer it was up to Amazon to take ownership of the issue – Amazon, however, argued it was Apple’s responsibility.  After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I received this email from my erstwhile favourite corporation:

Dear Mr Williams,

My name is [ _____ _____ ] and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk and in this capacity, your correspondence has been brought to my attention.

I am sorry to hear of the difficulty experienced with the       New Apple iPod touch 8GB (4th Generation) received in May 2011 from your order #202-_______-_______.

The European Directive 1999/44/EC allows for a claim to be taken (under certain circumstances) for a period up to two years in accordance with European Law, and up to six years under UK law.

This does not imply that an item has a warranty of two years or six years respectively. It merely permits an individual to make a claim under certain circumstances within that time period, e.g. should a fault be proved to have been inherent in the first six months.

Amazon do not provide the warranty for this item. We do, however, cover our obligations under the relevant legislation such as the Sales of Goods Act 1979 in the UK. Under the Sale of Goods Act, a consumer is granted recourse against a seller of goods if those goods were defective at the time of purchase. This may include, in certain circumstances, repair, refund or replacement but only to the extent that doing so is not disproportionate to the value of the goods, having regard to the use the customer has already had of the goods and the nature of the goods.

You purchased your product approximately 18 months ago and, until recently, have used it successfully and reported no fault with the product. Given your satisfactory use of the product for a period of time which exceeded the manufacturer’s warranty period, it is not established that the product did not conform to the contract (i.e. was defective) at the time of purchase.

Amazon.co.uk is therefore not under an obligation to offer any additional assistance in repairing or replacing your product.

Please note that the manufacturer is often in a better position than the retailer to deal with technical problems affecting their products. Therefore, should you wish to pursue this matter, we would encourage you to contact the manufacturer to see if they are able to provide you with any further assistance. They may be in a position to offer a repair service or could provide you with information on relevant charges for an out of warranty repair:

–    Manufacturer: http://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/
–    Phone: 844_______
–    Email: http://www.apple.com/uk/support/

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

[ _____ _____ ]
Executive Customer Relations

To cut a long story short, after a period of a year defined by the guarantee Amazon cares to comply with, Amazon as retailer understands it has no obligation to liaise with manufacturers at all.  Even as your Currys or Comet or Argos presumably continue to provide such a service.  At, of course, a slightly higher – but even so market-sensitive – purchase price.

If truth be told, it’s absolutely clear that a British search engine company doesn’t exist because of things like Google’s tax arrangements (#avoidance); a British coffee chain doesn’t exist because even Starbucks has demonstrated that on two quid a cup the business can’t operate profitably (#irony); and Comet, Argos, Currys and all the rest are busily defending evermore difficult trading circumstances as the Amazons of this world (well, let’s just say #Amazon) make all kinds of entirely legal decisions to avoid paying corporation tax to the communities from which they extract so many billions of pounds of profit.

What we really need is the free market to take these corporates by the scruff of the neck.  I’ve already suggested how here, here and here.  It’s now up to you to determine whether we go forward with these ideas.  I’m convinced they’d create a constructive level playing-field which would benefit everyone – but then I am a naive soul who still believes that people show general good faith when properly given the opportunity.

I do have to say one thing before I finish tonight: I suddenly feel so very awfully ashamed of ever having loved those American corporations.

Don’t you?


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Nov 052012
 
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It’s been a #FirstWorldPains kind of day today.  Waiting on people to phone me; me phoning people to no avail.

A day, essentially, of three acts.

And what ties them together?  Companies, institutions, organisations and individuals who refuse to take ownership for complaints expressed by supposed and alleged customers.

Perhaps, also, cases where the customers do exist, but are internal more than external.  The shareholders, in the end.  The curse of managerialism.  Those KPIs which dominate every terrified waking moment of those who quiver on the edge of an abyss of failure every single moment of their working lives.

*

It started out with two phonecalls.  One to our local council to doublecheck if we had actually been given a parking fine or not – it would appear in the event that some silly bugger had placed someone else’s discarded fine on our car: the paper inside the plastic envelope was muddied, soaked and illegible even though it hadn’t been raining.  The council had no record of our licence plate on their system but told us to phone back midweek.  I felt the lady in question could have been a bit more proactive – or, alternatively, forthcoming.  But no.  Another call I’ll have to make tomorrow.

The second call was to our local housing trust.  We’ve been in consistently mould-ridden and substandard accommodation since 2004; officially overcrowded since 2007.  We have tried moving out to other accommodation in the area, but private housing is twice the price of social – and our financial position simply doesn’t allow us to take that step.  The last time we attempted to exchange our first-floor three-bedroom maisonette for a three-bedroom house, we were simply told we would not be allowed to proceed with our application: the housing trust has a policy which says if three bedrooms leaves you overcrowded, you can only move into a four-bedroom property.  There are it would seem barely a hundred of such properties in Chester.

What they do not allow you to do is apply for a less overcrowded property than the one you are living in.  That is to say, you cannot move from a tiny flat to a big house, if the big house has the same number of bedrooms as the tiny flat.

So they are allowed to tolerate existing overcrowding but do not permit a family to try and ameliorate it.

I attempted to do just that yesterday on the housing trust’s website as I applied for a three-bedroom new build in our area: our application was immediately knocked back by the system.  The second phonecall this morning was to find out why and the explanation, as already given, was immovable.  I said I wanted to make an official complaint and was told I would get a response within 48 hours, and a decision within ten days.  The new build would however be given to a family by the end of the week.  There was no chance that the decision could be postponed whilst our complaint was heard.

The second lady I spoke to, the person in charge of the complaints department, did suggest we should look for non-social housing as a helpful solution to our problem.  I did reply that self-evidently we would have already done so, had reasonably-priced alternatives been available in the area where our children go to school.  There were a number of other things we said and exchanged, the detail of which I shan’t go into here but which, if I was of a mind, would have led me to want to issue further official complaints about the lack of customer focus the trust was demonstrating in our case, both lately and – more generally – since 2004.

*

The second act involved a pair of phonecalls and a number of emails with an excellent senior advisor from Apple.  Now, as those of you who read these pages will recall, I’m not generally a fan of the company or its business model – but I do have to say as far as committing resources to communicating with customers is concerned, you get what you pay for.  And at least in my case, over the past few days, that is exactly what I have been getting.

The reason for my communications with the aforementioned company?  I bought a discounted iPod Touch 8GB from Amazon.co.uk in May 2011.  At the weekend, the home button – an electro-mechanical element of the device – stopped working properly.  It is designed to operate when you depress it.  What now happens is that it won’t reliably pop back up.

I contacted Amazon.co.uk via their excellent telephone contact service.  This is, I think, a relatively recent innovation: certainly the last time I tried to contact them in relation to two Acer Aspire netbooks which developed exactly the same faults within a month of each other, communication was only via email and not a happy experience.  That time, they pointed me in the direction of the manufacturer, saying it was their policy to encourage customers to contact the latter in the first instance.  I thought this was an inexact interpretation of English consumer law, contacted a consumer website, was told all the letters I had to send, found myself falling at the first fence and – essentially – ended up giving in on the matter relatively easily.

This time, however, and whilst the initial contact was much better via an instant callback, I decided to act differently.  The pattern did repeat itself, of course: I was told that the ball lay in the manufacturer’s court – in this case, Apple’s – and that Amazon.co.uk’s procedures encouraged customers to go directly to such companies rather than deal in the first instance with the retailer of the goods thus purchased.

As I felt that if this were a bricks-and-mortar retailer – such as, for example, Comet (recently, and probably coincidentally, having gone into administration) – the liaison, paperwork and interface between customer and manufacturer would have been carried out by the retailer, eliminating all need for direct contact between customer and manufacturer, I did feel it would be only right to insist that Amazon.co.uk handled the matter themselves.  This they continued to seem unhappy to take ownership for, but the customer services agent did in the end put me on hold and quite seamlessly passed my call over to an Apple technical services agent.  I assumed at the time that Amazon.co.uk and Apple had a direct line – though I later discovered this probably wasn’t the case.

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was finally put in touch with an Apple senior advisor, the person I spoke so positively about earlier on, who agreed to phone me back today to see where the legality of the matter lay: that is to say, whether Apple or Amazon.co.uk were the first point of contact for a person like myself whose iPod purchase had stopped working properly six months after the guarantee had run out.  Apple’s legal department concluded as I felt was the case: any after-sales responsibility lay with the retailer – in this case Amazon.co.uk – and not Apple.  What’s more, Apple led me to believe that Amazon.co.uk is not an Apple-approved reseller; does not have access to its systems or databases on cases; and could not have transferred my call by any other means apart from searching out an Apple telephone number on the web and dialling on my behalf.

The implications of the reseller bit, if I understood it correctly (and please do correct me if I am wrong), are significant here: Apple cannot even properly raise an incident on its systems if the product has not been sold by such a partner.  For Apple, then, from both a procedural and legal point of view, Amazon.co.uk needed to take ownership of the matter.

I phoned Amazon.co.uk back almost immediately, was immediately given a callback by a softly-spoken Scottish lady and asked to explain, once again, the situation.  I outlined my argument – and Apple’s – that Amazon.co.uk was a retailer; that the Sale of Goods Act 1979 gave consumers up to six years’ margin to complain about a product which stopped working in some way and that English law contemplated the figure of a “reasonable period of time” for a product to be required to function, even where this went beyond the manufacturer’s guarantee period.

I simply argued that although the product was now out of guarantee, it would be reasonable to expect it to continue to function properly beyond a mere six months after the aforementioned period expired.

I also underlined the importance of the bricks-and-mortar comparison: if this were a Currys or (once upon a time) a Comet, we would expect them to dedicate customer service resource to resolving our after-sales issues, however after-sales they were.  We wouldn’t expect such shops to palm us off with the manufacturer – or attempt to ignore what I saw as certain moral (if not legal) responsibilities.

The Amazon.co.uk lady listened carefully and gently whilst I ran – a little breathlessly – through my arguments and position.  She then asked if she could pass the query on to a different department, who would proceed to get in touch with me at some time shortly.  I said of course, asked the timeframe and was told between three and five days.

I thanked her for taking my call and prepared myself for a wait.

About two minutes after the call, we got the third act.

*

This email dropped into my inbox.  I’ve removed the name to avoid embarrassment:

Dear Mr Williams,

My name is [ _____ _____ ] and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk and in this capacity, your correspondence has been brought to my attention.

I am sorry to hear of the difficulty experienced with the       New Apple iPod touch 8GB (4th Generation) received in May 2011 from your order #202-_______-_______.

The European Directive 1999/44/EC allows for a claim to be taken (under certain circumstances) for a period up to two years in accordance with European Law, and up to six years under UK law.

This does not imply that an item has a warranty of two years or six years respectively. It merely permits an individual to make a claim under certain circumstances within that time period, e.g. should a fault be proved to have been inherent in the first six months.

Amazon do not provide the warranty for this item. We do, however, cover our obligations under the relevant legislation such as the Sales of Goods Act 1979 in the UK. Under the Sale of Goods Act, a consumer is granted recourse against a seller of goods if those goods were defective at the time of purchase. This may include, in certain circumstances, repair, refund or replacement but only to the extent that doing so is not disproportionate to the value of the goods, having regard to the use the customer has already had of the goods and the nature of the goods.

You purchased your product approximately 18 months ago and, until recently, have used it successfully and reported no fault with the product. Given your satisfactory use of the product for a period of time which exceeded the manufacturer’s warranty period, it is not established that the product did not conform to the contract (i.e. was defective) at the time of purchase.

Amazon.co.uk is therefore not under an obligation to offer any additional assistance in repairing or replacing your product.

Please note that the manufacturer is often in a better position than the retailer to deal with technical problems affecting their products. Therefore, should you wish to pursue this matter, we would encourage you to contact the manufacturer to see if they are able to provide you with any further assistance. They may be in a position to offer a repair service or could provide you with information on relevant charges for an out of warranty repair:

–    Manufacturer: http://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/
–    Phone: 844_______
–    Email: http://www.apple.com/uk/support/

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

[ _____ _____ ]
Executive Customer Relations

I was quite shocked by the tone of this document.  I have  – apart from the Aspire netbook issues – always received excellent customer service from Amazon.co.uk.  I remember one case a couple of years ago where we purchased a family tent, went on holiday without trying it out prior to the journey, discovered it had a severe design flaw and went on to use it for the rest of the holiday in the absence of any other solution.  When we got back home, six weeks later, I contacted Amazon.co.uk, explained what had happened, explained the tent had been used and why – and received a reply offering a total refund forty-five minutes later via email.

Broken videos?  Replaced without a quibble.  Damaged DVDs?  No problem.  But something like this iPod thingy we’ve had (or, indeed, the netbooks) … and it’s this awful and weasel-like tone we get in exchange.

I contacted the Citizens’ Advice Bureau after putting out a call on Twitter for help.  They’ve told me how to proceed: inevitably, this involves recorded-delivery letters and suchlike.  But they have confirmed it is to Amazon.co.uk I should go.  So it does lead me to wonder how such an apparently customer-focussed company can begin to focus so vigorously on the internal customer to the exclusion of the external.

For what seems to be happening here – at least to my unpractised and unprofessional eye – is that a business model which suited books down to the ground is bound to struggle with after-sales on electronic devices.  You’re missing a page or two?  Send the book back, we’ll get the publisher to pulp it and that’s a replacement sorted with little cost to the distributor.  But you get into the complexity of computer screens which acquire green stripes two years after purchase – and how many delicate decisions need then to be taken?  How many variables and laws and consumer rights and business relationships need to be evaluated?  How difficult does it become to assess the rights and wrongs of the matter?

And how very much easier is it to say that outwith a standard year-long guarantee period we decide – in a blanket fashion – to point the customer in the direction of the manufacturer?

That’s how it seems to me, anyhow.  That’s how it most respectfully – and sadly too – seems to me.

*

No.  Books ain’t iPods – and “[ _____ ], we do have a problem!”.

The only question now being how we deal with it.

The drive to ignore the real needs of a real customer in a real and variable set of circumstances, the fear that corporate behemoths have of each other when liability can make or break empires and the massive growth from small beginnings of noble and fabulous projects all have their impact on what we perceive.  But far more important to the integrity of an economy, society and civilisation are the almost always far more invisible hows out there: those things we are rarely made conscious of and which only occasionally slip out from their unhappy underbellies.

In my case, today, my local council told me brusquely to go away; my local housing-trust told me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing they could do; Apple told me most graciously but definitively all the same that it wasn’t their responsibility; and Amazon.co.uk told me – in a way that almost made the sensitive soul that I am feel abused for asking a perfectly legitimate question – that they were operating within the law.

This latter point, of course, I am happy to admit.  Even as it may be judges who finally get to decide.

But when pure observance of the law, procedures and processes makes a customer feel they are the last in a long queue of other far more relevant customers … well, surely such observance is – in some way – a broken process.

Is this really all that corporate Britain and America can offer their voters and citizens, tenants, consumers – and once absolutely enamoured web-users?


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May 152012
 
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Here’s the tweet which sparked this post off:

YOU IDIOTS. I DON’T WANT TO PICK AND CHOOSE HEALTHCARE PROVIDERS TO FIND THE BEST SERVICE. ITS A HEALTH SERVICE NOT F***ING AMAZON. #NHS

The truth of the matter is, however, as the monopoly on health services by the NHS is slowly but surely picked away at by the business equivalents of flesh-eating bacteria of the most voracious kind, companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Samsung affirm and strengthen their monopolistic holds over the supposedly free-market capitalism we are regularly informed guarantees us transparency and a maximisation of outcomes.

To return to the above tweet, then, whilst the NHS is splintered into many unhappy shards of allegedly beneficial competition, Amazon destroys all those who would plan an alternative to their evermore singular offer.

So why do we allow Amazon to proceed on its merry monopolistic way and yet choose, with respect to something that manifestly delivers true value for money, to destroy a model of economic worth?

We’re almost back at Iraq now, aren’t we?

WHY, WHY, WHY?


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Apr 072012
 
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Amazon’s been in the news the past couple of days.  First, this story from the Guardian brought to our attention the fact that it allegedly paid no corporation tax on UK sales even though such sales generated billions of pounds.  It would appear, however, and this is something I shall focus on in this post, that the profit margins on the income generated are generally around 3.5 percent.

Compare that with Apple’s massive cash mountain of more than $80 billion and it does take the edge off some of the allegations.

But then, on the other hand, Amazon has always been known for aiming for market share above early profits: destroy the competition first has always been the promise; the benefits will surely come later.

Today, then, we have Tim Waterstone, of the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, saying this kind of thing of his main competitor:

[...] No trader has ever been so successful in its concentration on consumer pricing – all this impervious, of course, to the broader considerations of the overall welfare of the industries in which it is operating. It’s all so simple. Make and build your brand on a reputation for absolutely rock-bottom pricing. Do this single-mindedly and ruthlessly. Even say it upfront, insultingly and aggressively, in your advertising – go, Mr Consumer, go to Harrods or wherever it is, inspect and admire the goods, then come home and buy them from us. Online. At a deep, deep discount. And fuck Harrods or whoever it is for their trouble. More fool them. And more fool Waterstones. Go and browse through all the books there, in Waterstones, or Daunt’s, or your lovely Topping stores, then put them back on the tables (fingered and soiled) and order those you want from us. Why pay more? Why worry about the consequences?

And I can sincerely feel for what Mr Waterstone expresses with such clarity.  Even as I am a pretty gung-ho Amazon consumer.  I began to use it when I lived in Spain and couldn’t get English-speaking books locally.  When I came back to Britain, continuing to use it was a natural progression – a progression someone who loved the Internet really couldn’t resist.

But, even so, I can see from the bitterness of the above passage what Amazon has done to a whole industry of honourable individuals.

There was no industry in the world more dependent on its different elements for its good functioning than the publishing industry.  And now people like Amazon, and Apple too, are integrating massively so that all potential for making a living lies entirely in the hands of single companies.

We no longer need editors; we no longer need typesetters; in an age of e-books we no longer need bookbinders; we no longer need printers; we no longer need designers; all we need are the individual creators prepared – probably unbeknownst to them – to sign away the future of all traditional diversity.  In the name of empowering the authors, we destroy the ways and wherefores of a profoundly rich and complex sector.

*

What I am more worried about, however, is that 3.5 percent profit margin.  Even if Amazon did pay corporation tax in Britain on the sales its Luxembourg arm is responsible for, on such a margin how much of what Amazon moves would actually  end up in the pockets of the interventionary state so beloved of democratic socialists?

So what’s happening here then?  What are the wider implications?  Essentially, in our latterday capitalism consumers have taken over from schoolchildren, teachers, parents, patients, doctors, nurses, police officers, social workers, council workers, councillors pensioners, MPs and a whole host of other interested parties.

Our economies no longer function for the benefit of wider societal needs and justifications.  Large companies like Amazon have realised, whether consciously or unconsciously, that, by dropping their prices to the lowest rock-bottom levels which Mr Waterstone talks about, they can not only guarantee their futures on the killing-fields of corporate engagement but also remove all need to hand over any cash to the state.  In fact, it will soon become unnecessary to avoid paying tax.  Corporations will generate enough profit to keep going but not too much to have to contribute to the public sector.

Perhaps, in their terrible wisdom, this is what the neoliberals have seen – and what the rest of us are refusing to recognise.  In such a way, the state will, indeed, run out of cash – not because capitalism finally fails but because, rather, human beings in the guise of any other role but that of consumer will die a long-drawn-out death akin to the dinosaurs of old.

The only transaction which will work in this brave new world will be that of business to consumer.  As long as your needs refer to consumer needs, you will benefit mightily from such a dynamic.

The problem is if you will ever be a worker for one of these businesses; or a person in need of medical support you can’t afford; or a child in need of a soup kitchen which doesn’t exist.  Then, of course, you will miss the Welfare State – a state which no longer exists because our economy only cares any more about consumers.

This may be part of how and why the Welfare State is all of a sudden being disembowelled.  Those who are organising it, whilst certainly looking to fill their own already deep pockets, may also see the dangers of the Amazon dynamic to their ability to control the heaving masses: if we don’t sort out some way of engineering support services in a world where 3.5 percent profit margins become the norm, the recent demonstrations across Europe and the US against the injustices of the current crisis in capitalism will be but a harbinger of much worse times to come for these ruling elites.

We on the left, for example, may see the destruction of the NHS as the worst betrayal of all that we have held most dear in a society where common interests used to structure how we distributed resources.  On the other hand, those on the right might actually be looking to salvage from what they see as the unstoppable juggernaut of their own unfortunate economic history a modicum of society-protecting humanity.  Even if this is simply to protect their interests as that ruling elite.

Do try and be charitable about this, folks – at least for a moment.  The situation is becoming so grave we really do need to think a little laterally.

There is, of course, an alternative – there always will be.  In this case, to understand the Amazon dynamic for what it is – and change society so that our economy doesn’t only serve and contemplate the interests of the customer.

“But the customer is king,” I hear you say.  Well, perhaps we have lived this cliché for far too long.  A society where the customer is king and the king reigns above and beyond the interests of everyone else is a society ripe for considerable upheaval.  And the consumer society – the society where the customer is the most important driver of almost everyone’s interests everywhere – is surely approaching such a moment.

It is time we rethought society profoundly.

The question is whether anyone’s capable of understanding that it’s actually there to be rethought.  Before it becomes too late to rethink it.


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Feb 142012
 
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Yesterday, I put some half-formed thoughts down on the subject of Facebook and a monetisable socialism.  I also linked to this post from Bev which, whilst long (like many of my posts, mind), is well worth your while.  I quote from the latter part of this second post as follows (the bold is mine):

We might start with philosophy – though as someone who makes a living from philosophy, I would say that! According to Aristotle, writing many centuries ago, humans are best understood as ‘social animals’. We are not units existing in isolation from others. And if we are to flourish, we need good, strong relationships and strong communities.

If we don’t like philosophy, we might look to social science. Recent research by the New Economics Foundation found that feeling good about your life doesn’t only come about through achieving your personal goals. Feeling good also comes from knowing yourself to be a part of a wider community. Over emphasising ‘the individual’ while ignoring the social dimension of human beings ignores the fact that we need each other to live well.
The clue to socialism’s relevance is, then, in its name – social-ism.

As Bev evidences, we are clearly social animals.   And as the Facebooks of this world indicate, we are now monetisable social animals.  Something which many of us might decry.

But in the success of such social networks at their carving up of what was initially a free worldwide web – as well as making it make serious money for mainly US corporate behemoths – there is surely a broader lesson: the social instincts of human beings, whilst always at the mercy of a selfish individualism across the world, can never be entirely expunged.  If politics can no longer create worthy spaces for it to exist, it will surely reappear and flower just as significantly somewhere else.

It’s curious, it really is: whilst companies like Facebook want to engender captive marketplaces of social-ism (to use Bev’s terminology) in their customers and clients everywhere, for themselves and their corporate figures they are looking to have the rights a fierce individual-ism apports:

Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like natural persons (“people”). Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state,[2] and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.[3] Corporations are conceptually immortal but they can “die” when they are “dissolved” either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate ‘death’, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order,[4] but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter. However corporations are not living entities in the way that humans are. [5]

Do as I say, then, not as I do.

Though we should hardly be surprised – money drives many of us to many incoherences.

*

But what is the wider political lesson we can learn from all of the above?  That the winds of Bev and Facebook’s social-ism can be channelled and used to our advantage, if only we are able to see our way beyond the logistical and organisational structures of old.

For it isn’t entirely inconceivable, if we know how to grasp the opportunity, that – five years down the line – a political party of Labour’s intellectual weight could communicate, engage, dialogue, function, fund, advertise and – most importantly – look exactly like the Facebooks and Amazons of today’s splintering Internet.

Not a political party which uses new technologies to structure its interface with the public.  Rather, a political party which – much like Amazon and Facebook – couldn’t have come into existence without such new technologies.

Not a real-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual tools but, rather, far more significantly, a virtual-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual-world tools.

The ravings of an Internet wonk?

Just think about it.  The barriers to setting up a new political party – in this virtual world of cheap communications technologies – are much smaller than they were even ten years ago; so just imagine what the next five will bring. 

And whilst real-world parties claim to be investing in tools to communicate more effectively with their constituencies and their potential voters, in reality what they’re doing is analogous to the content industries’ attempt to avoid having to deal with their out-of-date business models: that is to say, creating the very technologies which make it easier for any political Johnny-come-lately to suddenly come in and frighteningly raise the bar. 

I really wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if – at some unhappy time in the future – the existing political parties came together to try and pass an ACTA of the Westminster political bubble to make it practically impossible for any new party to come into existence.

For that is what is really at risk of happening: the political parties are doing everything they can at the moment not to fundamentally change their ways of seeing, whilst at the same time unintentionally making it easier for other political visionaries to set up – even, perhaps, across the globe – a multi-million-member base of supporters and followers: everyone participating from home, in hundreds of thousands of communities worldwide, to the degree and capability each possessed and chose to dedicate to the cause.

Volunteering heaven, in fact.

Indeed, it does occur to me that Facebook itself might one day choose to transmute into the kind of political force which – in terrible or benevolent hindsight we still cannot know – history will describe as the grand and considerable 21st century re-interpretation of what political groupings once had to be.

So before it does, or before someone else makes such a move, surely we should consider and value the chances of doing so ourselves for what we might term – after the experiment that was New Labour – a Labour Party, Part III. 

Not monetising old-fashioned socialism, then, exactly – more a question of politicising, in their different ways, both Bev and Facebook’s new-style social-ism.


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Feb 132012
 
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Do we want a social web or an individual web?  You may think the question irrelevant.  But it isn’t.  John Naughton quotes from his own Observer column on his always excellent Memex 1.1 blog:

This morning’s Observer column.
In Morozov’s view, something similar has happened to the internet. It’s no longer a place for strolling – it’s a place for getting things done. “Hardly anyone ‘surfs’ the web any more.” Mobile apps, which bypass most of the internet, make cyberflânerie less likely. And much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping. “Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.”

So Amazon is the equivalent of La Samaritaine – a place you go to buy stuff. And Facebook? Ah well, says Morozov, Zuckerberg wants to wipe out the individualism that was at the heart of flânerie. He wants everything to be “social”. “Do you want to go to the movies by yourself,” he asked recently, “or do you want to go to the movies with your friends?” His answer: “You want to go with your friends.” My answer: I’ll go by myself, thank you. But then I’m so 19th century.

He starts off the column itself by pointing out how the crowd as an entity is taking over from the primacy of the individual as was once conceived:

David Weinberger has a new book out entitled Too Big to Know in which he argues that one of the implications of a comprehensively networked society is that the nature of knowledge itself is changing. “As knowledge becomes networked,” he writes, “the smartest person in the room isn’t the person standing at the front lecturing us, and isn’t the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it… Knowledge is becoming inextricable from – literally unthinkable without – the network that enables it.”

And it certainly seems that the world as conceptualised by these virtual forces understands far better the importance of locating individuals in a social context than our politics currently allows itself.

In fact, I’ve always wondered how it’s possible for all these massive corporations to understand so clearly the importance of defining society in terms of its socialising aspects – from multi-player video games to ready-made party food, from family visits to the cinema to home DVD hangouts in front of that brand-new flat-screen 3D TV – and yet, when they choose where to direct their lobbying dollars, so often they choose to support the libertarian and individualist side of the argument.

Whilst we see in the attacks on the National Health Service – and other institutions of statist generosity – our very pragmatic British socialism disappearing from our eyes, in the relationship we have with the Internet – and all its works (that is to say, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google) – that very same pragmatism seems to be returning in leaps and bounds.  And this time, not at the hands of the political benefactors and thinkers of old but – rather – through the actions of our erstwhile enemies, those “evil” industrialists.

Does this then mean that “Big Money” has discovered socialism as the most monetisable matter of the early 21st century?

Strange stuff which I still haven’t been able to think through.  But, in a way, it does cheer me somewhat in these desperate times: at least some form of socialism, in a virtual context if no other, will manage to maintain its honourable head above water.

Even if this does mean that in order to sustain it, we must give up its reins to foreign powers …
____________________

Further reading: this coming weekend I’m attending the Netroots event in Manchester.  You can find out more about what’s going to happen over at Liberal Conspiracy this morning.  An opportunity to sustain real world socialism from the virtual ranks?  I do hope this might be the case – and will definitely be reporting back next week on my perceptions.


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Feb 062012
 
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Tomorrow is Safer Internet Day.  The object of the people behind the campaign is thus:

The mission of the Insafe cooperation network is to empower citizens to use the internet, as well as other online technologies, positively, safely and effectively. The network calls for shared responsibility for the protection of the rights and needs of citizens, in particular children and youths, by government, educators, parents, media, industry and all other relevant actors. Insafe partners work closely together to share best practice, information and resources. The network interacts with industry, schools and families in the aim of empowering people to bridge the digital divide between home and school and between generations.

Insafe partners monitor and address emerging trends, while seeking to reinforce the image of the web as a place to learn. They endeavour to raise awareness about reporting harmful or illegal content and services. Through close cooperation between partners and other actors, Insafe aims to raise Internet safety-awareness standards and support the development of information literacy for all.

It’s all beginning to sound a little like Microsoft’s Windows did a couple of generations back.

Some would argue even now.

I’ve often thought the initials “www” should’ve stood for “worldwide west” rather than “worldwide web”.  And I do wonder whether in the freedoms the current web provides – the very fact, for example, that you are just a potential click away from losing all your most precious data – we can find the seeds of its own ongoing destruction.  As it splinters into so many shards of password-protected accesses, we are perhaps right to bemoan its collapse as an all-encompassing commons.

But I do also begin to wonder if, after all, it’s got very little to do with the Facebooks, Androids, Amazons and Apples of this world.  If the web were supplying us with all the comfort and usability we needed – if it were unimaginably and eminently safe, portable and practical – surely the above-mentioned apocalyptic horsemen wouldn’t have a chance in hell; not even the hell they aim to bring about.

If, indeed, it is going to be a hell.

The web is splintering – and perhaps it has brought it upon itself.  If we do want to save it as it currently stands – and there are good and valid democratic reasons to do just that – we will need not only to bemoan its competitors but also learn how to learn from their lessons.

Only then will we be able to properly assure the future of the most beautiful invention the last quarter-century has come up with.


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