Apr 042013

I already wrote, a while ago now, on the subject of singular ways of doing things and planned economies in general.  First this, on the Google self-driving car project:

In the face of a wider defeat of Communism, Soviet socialism initially decided to turn in on itself.  Is this now happening at the hands of Google and wider movements towards automation in the US?

I then go on to develop the idea, concluding in the following way:

This is the End of History coming back to bite us in the backside.  As Communism/one-country socialism collapsed in its grandly political structures, and for a while there was little else we could do but argue the battle was dusted and done, even so it would appear that its instincts were continuing to work away at its evermore grand and commercial manifestations.

The monolithic state which hopes to re-engineer everyone in a one-best-way mindset, whilst disparaged and in the process of being dismantled by capitalist evangelicals almost everywhere, is suddenly reappearing in Google’s corporately admirable attempts: attempts where it looks to automate dangerous processes such as the freedom to kill people with cars out of the frame of everyday living.

The American Dream without the freedom to choose between life and death?  Whatever next my friend?

Prior to this piece, and as linked to within the quote above, I also suggested we could see the iPhone as a perfect argument in favour of planned economies:

Yesterday, late at night (excuse the incongruences if they exist!), I suggested the following:

[…] I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

A Facebook friend responded this morning by arguing in favour of planned economies.

I then went on to argue the following:

The iPhone an argument in favour of beginning to plan our economies all over again?  I think so.  And as I also pointed out in my Facebook response this morning:

[…] where before perhaps our analytical tools were not up to the job, I don’t think this is going to be the case today. […]

If we are capable of sophisticating our manufacturing processes and consumer durables to such an extent as Apple’s iPhone, we can – where there’s a political and social will, of course – do the same with our societies and economies.

Is this a case of convergent evolution?  A case where the clearest example of 21st century corporate capitalism shows the way forward for a different kind of 21st century socialism?

A return to a sadly failed 20th century model of planned economies – only now, in the light of Apple’s experience, with the potential for a huge new lease of life.

Then more recently, in a series of posts which started with this one, I suggested we might create a parallel series of institutions, by most importantly recovering the positive values we might associate with the concept of “revolution”:

[…] Revolution is a dangerous and difficult word.  It connotes all kinds of disruption, violence and bloodshed.  From the French to the Bolsheviks to the coarsely violent recriminatory ends of the Spanish Civil War, the Balkan Conflict and even our experience with Iraq, revolution has no happy memories for history.  At least, for the history they teach us.

Yet I wonder if revolution must always be like that.  We could define revolution in a different way.  Disruptive, yes – it would have to remain so.  But not necessarily unseamless in its implementation. […]

I go on to expand the idea thus:

Of course, any revolution of the old-style Bolshevik kind would, in a modern world, be almost certainly doomed to failure.  Modern society requires complex specialisms to function, and such complex specialisms would almost certainly not happily function under the kind of coercion a traditional revolution would require.  Too many tenuous threads of communication would break down under the brute force of full-throated change.

And yet, even so, I find myself coming back to 1950s Japan.  Within twenty years of losing a war at the final hands of two nuclear bombs, the Japanese car industry had effected a revolution of its own.  Non-violent, intellectual, process-driven and intelligent – all these things and more as per Deming’s philosophies and mindsets.

A revolution of a disruptive nature which, nevertheless, was not bloody.

And so we come to the present.  Over at El País today (in Spanish here; robot English translation here), we get a fascinating report on a Bill and Melinda Gates gathering in Seattle, where the headline idea is “‘Positive disruption’ as a driver for global change”.  This fits very nicely, at least from a conceptual – even if not institutional – point of view, with some of the ideas I’ve been mulling over above.  Though, to be honest, I think I’m looking for even more disruption when I say, as I did in my first Revolution ’13 piece, that:

[…] We could design, from the ground upwards, a parallel set of institutions which would, like the design of a Japanese car’s dashboard unit, only ever be included in a new model when entirely ready.  In so doing, and through accessible and inclusive techniques such as crowdsourcing – even where this might necessarily involve only the crowdsourced input of a hierarchy of predisposed specialists – we could avoid the biggest danger of disruptive revolution: the non-collaboration of key workers.

In such a way, key workers and process-owners who had crossed the line – and had effectively become criminals too big to jail (the money-laundering cases which have come to light in important banking communities come to mind here) – would no longer be able to hold a wider society to ransom.  The gradually more expert revolution-engendering structures would one day not only reach but outdo the efficacy of their corrupted compatriots.

At which point substitution could take place.

Either way, it’s clear that social-democratic and neoliberal evolutions have really rather had their day.  And to be honest, it’s the planned and statist Communism of the 20th century – though with a Deming-like participative twist – which has won the battles thus far.  The only difference from the 1950s is that the secrecy, fear and closed nature of its environments now find their location in transnational corporations – sometimes, psychotically fearful of each other; at other times, in consumer-prejudicing cahoots.  So it is that Orwell’s “1984” did finally come true in one important respect – that is to say, in the sense of shifting international alliances, where histories and relationships are continually written and rewritten.  Where he went wrong was in conceptualising its happening between nation-states of a dictatorial cut.  In truth, right now, for most people out there, what corporations do with each other has far more impact on their daily existences than what simple little and relatively powerless countries ever manage to effect.

Which, if you’ve cared to follow me to here, brings me to my final point.  I would like to suggest that democracy, right now, is set up to fail.  Whilst business has successfully moved on from democracy’s ideological rejection of 20th century Communism and all its tenets – examples as already mentioned range from Google’s anti-American self-driving instincts to Apple’s anti-American centrally planned economy – democracy itself is mortally hidebound by its utter inability to contemplate a retread of a Soviet-style revolution.

All this time we’ve been saying that it’s business which should be more like democracy when, in reality, what we may have had is a democracy which business has fashioned to divide, conquer and keep meek.

Set up to fail, then?  Is that a fair assertion?  Have now-Communist-like businesspeople – now-Communist-like at least in their tools of choice – deliberately made democratic practitioners everywhere so terrified of committing the same revolutionary and disruptive acts that out of this conceptual cul-de-sac no Western democracy anywhere will ever manage to emerge?

Maybe not.  Maybe so.  Maybe, on reflection, we should park the possible reasons for why we’ve arrived at this place for just a few gentle moments.

For there may be a much bigger goal on the horizon.  If we can convince the businesspeople who have already embraced this revised version of 20th century Communism I describe above to contemplate facilitating a similar move in our democratic institutions and environments, perhaps the “positive disruption” that I find myself voicing and calling for – in the same curious company today as Bill and Melinda Gates – can find a broader range of adepts and enthusiasts out there, and much sooner than we think.

As well as end up helping to save from global disintegration not only our species but also the democratic instincts which have so ennobled its political practice.

Dec 272012

Paul has a nice piece today on why the New Year should bring about a massive disconnection from Facebook and all its works.  Conclusion and the how-to as follows:

Here is a link to instructions as to how to delete your Facebook account. If you have the strength, go for the real ‘deletion’ rather than the ‘deactivation’ method. If you just deactivate, you’re leaving your data there for Facebook and their partners to exploit…..

Meanwhile, from the Telegraph and also this morning, how Facebook’s own family sometimes gets the privacy settings wrong:

Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook chief executive Mark, has complained after a “private” photo she posted on the social network was spread on Twitter by someone she had not intended to see it.

No connection between one and t’other, of course.


What really caught my bleary eye though – being just after breakfast whilst I supped the last of my torrefacto coffee – was this report from the always ahead-of-the-pack Reuters: this time, on the subject of how rising profits by transnational corporations in the UK equal falling tax revenues for the state:

Big companies in Britain now pay less tax than they did 12 years ago despite a big jump in profitability, a Reuters analysis of official data shows. Tax campaigners say the trend is the clearest signal yet that tax avoidance has blossomed under a more business-friendly strategy at the UK tax authority Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The article, at least for me, makes sickening reading – especially when companies like Google find themselves in the following position:

Google, for example, channels $4 billion of UK sales through Ireland each year, most of which ends up in Bermuda. Google said it complies with tax law in every country in which it operates but that it also has an obligation to its shareholders “to run our business efficiently”.

The problem is that even when we are shareholders, and even when companies have a responsibility to us as such, we are never only shareholders.  We are also frail human beings who will one day fall desperately ill and will be in need of the support of our fellow men and women; we are also parents, sons and daughters with responsibilities to children and progenitors; we are also democratic citizens with an obligation to participate in democratic discourse.

All of the above-mentioned does, therefore, have a cost – and a price.  A cost – and price – the powerful prefer to ignore.

The limited focus that corporate executives choose to bring to their responsibilities is easy – and simultaneously facile.  Facebook decides that advertisers’ wants must operate above and beyond even its owner’s family privacy; Google decides that its shareholders’ finances (even where these shareholders are also parents, pensioners or the disabled) must weigh more heavily than the schoolchildren, patients and infirm of the communities they make their humongous profits from; and, in the meantime, our very own governments – both Labour and Tory it would seem – decide that they must court corporate investors more carefully than the people who made the mistake of voting those selfsame governments into power in the first place.

It’s a fallacy, I’m afraid.  Even those people who are made of money – and who make it their business to make more of  it – aren’t ever only moneymakers.

One day they will also be helpless citizens – just like the rest of us.  No amount of money can ever change that.

No amount of money can ever do more than postpone that event.

No.  It’s not enough to say that we have a responsibility to shareholders.  When we say that, we mean we only care to see one facet of terribly complex beings.  It’s a lie to argue that we must make more money regardless of the hows – simply because these shareholders allegedly have their foot on the accelerator pedal of a massive multiplication of amoral income at the expense of other more thoughtful behaviours.

Please think again, those of you who can.

Please thing again, before this all blows up in our faces.


I was kind of involved, a couple of days ago, in a Twitter exchange between two diametrically opposed positions.  One person argued fiercely in favour of an intervening state; the other argued, just as strongly, against the inefficiencies – and even the corrupting influences – of such structures.  I bowed out of the debate, and let it rest there and then.  But I didn’t forget the points made.  And I was reminded of them today with the absolute absence of moral judgement which the Reuters’ investigation so sadly threw up.  The behaviours thus described were the choice of men and women working in large institutions as big as many nation-states.  Yet they were all, without exception, working in the very private sector.  So when we talk about inefficiency and corruption in such nation-states, we tend to forget that private industry can be as inefficient and corrupt as any poorly-run state.

The only difference being, perhaps, that the public sector is eventually that: public.

Whilst the private sector prefers to remain generally t’other: private.


A final story tonight, again from Reuters, on that icon of 21st century corporate amorality which, in a very biblical sense, finds itself quite appropriately named Apple.  In this case, we discover the obscenity that involves an annual salary of $4 million equalling a 99 percent cut – in relation, I do admit, to temporarily inaccessible paper values – on the previous year’s earnings.

It’s really too difficult for me to fully comprehend how casually upside-down our world has become.

Do you understand what’s happening?

For I certainly don’t.

Any explanation you can think of which doesn’t involve  further biblical references?

Nov 052012

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.


[ _____ _____ ]
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?

Sep 162012

Yesterday, late at night (excuse the incongruences if they exist!), I suggested the following:

[…] I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

A Facebook friend responded this morning by arguing in favour of planned economies.

Which got me thinking.

The iPhone, perhaps the apex of all latterday manufacturing and publishing industries, is just about as planned and structured to the last detail as anything in this life could possibly be.  It’s an astonishing paradox that Apple is held up to be the paradigm of effective free-market capitalism (even when we know it isn’t free market at all) – whilst being the most control-freaking company in history.

When you think about it, Apple and traditional capitalism should form an oxymoron.  There is nothing less like a light-touch free-market approach to life than the fruit of Steve Jobs’ legacy.

But instead of indulging in yet another easy bit of Apple-bashing, why don’t we choose to take our lead from it instead?  This is what I posted this morning in our favourite walled garden:

[…] We’ve spent the last fifty years refining our manufacturing ability – and have neglected (probably deliberately) to apply the same principles to our organisational structures. […]

In essence, what’s happened is that those in charge have truly managed to deliver radical improvements in thought, manufacturing and ideas development processes but – out of unhappy self-interest or perhaps an inability to see beyond the day-to-day – have refused to apply the same ingenuities to the running of our economies and wider societies.  Why?  As I allude, I suspect a combination of self-interest and lack of foresight – the almost feudal and pyramidal system of organising almost everything in politics and society currently benefits those who could otherwise truly effect big changes if they were only prepared to use other structures.

What iPhone really shows us, then, is the massively impact planning our whys and wherefores can have on how they turn out.  If we want to use Apple – and its huge cash mountain and its immense ability to deliver products and services people want – as an example to follow, we have to argue it has far more to do with planned economies than the supposedly libertarian, slapdash and light-touch approaches conventional neoliberalism would have us ascribing to.

The iPhone an argument in favour of beginning to plan our economies all over again?  I think so.  And as I also pointed out in my Facebook response this morning:

[…] where before perhaps our analytical tools were not up to the job, I don’t think this is going to be the case today. […]

If we are capable of sophisticating our manufacturing processes and consumer durables to such an extent as Apple’s iPhone, we can – where there’s a political and social will, of course – do the same with our societies and economies.

Is this a case of convergent evolution?  A case where the clearest example of 21st century corporate capitalism shows the way forward for a different kind of 21st century socialism?

A return to a sadly failed 20th century model of planned economies – only now, in the light of Apple’s experience, with the potential for a huge new lease of life.

I wonder.

Aug 252012

As someone just observed, the most notable government worker in the most expensive government project has just died – and will now most certainly be mourned, without exception, the length and breadth of the US political spectrum.

As I myself just tweeted:

1st man on moon falls back to earth – but I’ll never forget amazing early morning images piped into our sitting-room. I was 7. #differentUSA

Neil Armstrong is dead – let his being rest in peace.  As indeed it should for anyone when anyone dies.

You’ll notice I tagged my tweet with the phrase #differentUSA.  I guess that those of you of a rather more critical bent will probably already be fuming that Armstrong’s journey to the moon was actually the result of the machinations of an industrial-military complex, whose race into space conducted between the US and the USSR – at the expense of rather more practical and urgent challenges down here on the planet itself – produced non-stick pans and very little else.

No matter.  I will always remember it.  Always remember those moments.  Always dream.

Perhaps, in reality, I should have tagged that tweet #differentMiljenko.  At the tender age of seven, and with the teachings of British socialism and Croatian Catholic anti-Communism only serving to confuse my youthful mindscape, I did in fact believe in the Land of the Free.

And I’d still like to.

It’s just I see precious little evidence of it any more.  Chris wrote a fascinating piece on obesity and imitation the other day.  I think it is relevant to today’s post.  No one is really evil or fat or thin or clever by choice.  But we can become all of these things – and more – out of a powerful and very human instinct to mimesis.

An example.  Lately, we have Apple and Samsung slugging it out over patent infringements galore.  The most recent judicial sentence, announced in the past twenty-four hours, requires Samsung to pay Apple around a billion dollars in compensation.  Apple has already announced it’s out to drop the shutters on more recent Samsung products.  I’m not going to enter into the rights and wrongs of the matter – there are perfectly valid arguments on both sides to justify their differing postures.  What I am really trying to get at here, however, is that just as Apple’s attitudes seem evermore restrictive and anti-American – in the sense of America equalling the Land of the Free – so the American government seems to be exhibiting parallel behaviours in its threatened or manifest treatment of alleged hackers, content pirates, whistleblowing individuals and organisations.

The list, in fact, is probably getting longer even as we realise how much we missed that other America.

So what worries me here is not that Apple or the US are breaking the laws of their lands.  For, clearly, they’re not.  No.  What worries me here is that the laws they have lobbied successfully in favour of break the essential spirit of what a #differentMiljenko once believed was a #differentUSA.

A USA which didn’t do something because it was legal and could get away with it – but, rather, did something because it was right.

Just as clearly, there’s a difference.

Who’s to blame, then?  The corporate cultures of recognisably successful and creative companies such as Apple – or the corporate cultures of recognisably successful and yet evermore impositional institutions such as the United States government?

Do structures such as the former reflect, guide and channel the latter – or are the latter becoming more and more tragic mirror images of the former, as the revolving doors of common interest create an atmosphere of suffocatingly awful legal righteousness?

And how can we ever, now, recover our belief in that country which managed so utterly to charm me in my naive and distant childhood – a childhood of grey, black and white video images beamed magically down to us from that satellite of a thousand and one romances?

The first step, I suppose, is to say and accept that we would like to.

The real questions however, perhaps sadly, lie elsewhere: firstly, do we still want to?  And secondly, is there any point?

Time – maybe – for one man’s small superpowered step to become a much more widely constructed and shared leap of faith?

Jun 162012

It is an oft-commented truism that the virtual world reflects the real world at every opportunity.  In, for example, the real world’s well-honed ability to obfuscate and confuse.

I was Skyping with a family member this afternoon on the occasion of my fiftieth birthday and we briefly touched on the subject of music piracy and its economic implications.  It seems that some of the arguments being bandied about by copyright supporters would suggest that if illegal music downloads hadn’t taken place, the US music industry would now be larger than the entire US economy.  Hardly realistic, I’m sure you would agree.  Certainly, the figures which have been used in the recent past – which even continue to be peddled – are suspect to say the least.

This wouldn’t be the first time lobbyists tried to blind us with the farmyard science of pulling the wool over our eyes.

But the virtual world reflects our own in more ways than one.  Even as our populations grow towards a veritable plague of physical obesity and eating disorders, so our online corporations do the same.  This is what I think is happening – quoting, and slightly adapted, from something I’ve just posted on a Facebook conversation*:

The thesis? Via the example of the bridge of open source, which offered payment in kind for its freely offered labour, owners of proprietorial social networking software have continued to dumb down the contributions of its data-inputters (its unpaid worker bees) to the point that no one can reasonably demand payment for authorship of such discretely trivial activities as a like or a photo post or a comment on one’s drunken state.

The software, however, becomes the author of a far more complex stream of product, so replacing any claim to human authorship – and therefore remuneration – with that of algorithms and maths. The knowledge society, instead of consisting of educated people doing clever things and getting just rewards, involves educated people doing primitive things – whilst even giving up DOBs and post codes in exchange for the right to be the drones in question! – and all the time receiving absolutely no reward at all; except perhaps the dubious one of an all-too-public notoriety.

Question is – and here I am currently stuck – is how to recover the promise of the knowledge society as once posited in those wonderfully forward-looking – and radically mistaken – 90s. Ideas? You’ll tell me, I guess, the living is to be made in other areas. But just think of this: 1 billion active users who spend hours every day on this beast. Imagine what a truly productive society we could have if 1 billion active users were actually producing stuff of real value and reach. Solving external problems, real world issues, practical challenges. We need social networking software which achieves the latter, surely; not the former. The former is there simply to concentrate the wealth in the pockets of the few. Dead wealth. Inactive wealth. A wealth of the societally disconnected. And, precisely, in a society where connections of these kinds could serve to resolve so many pressing problems.

And so you see it: the obesities of Facebook, Google, Apple and Samsung – and how they exactly mirror our own.  Sedentary citizens versus sedentary wealth.

Two debilitating curses for our times.


* Some of the content of this post is, incidentally, part of something I’m preparing for a PhD submission; comments and advice from interested parties – either online or offline – would be very welcome and would, of course, be duly referenced if I achieved funding for the proposal.

Jun 112012

Personal computing used to be just that: personal.  Just as one’s private life used to be just that: private.

For some reason, however, everything seems to be panning out entirely differently.  In a world where the needs of advertising and advertisers will rule over us all, it’s a logical development too: the objective being to construct a bubble of an existence for consumers and users – even as the corporates which take advantage of this information lock terribly secretive horns with their competing compatriots.

So it is that we’ve moved from a black (kind of IBM grey, actually) box of tricks – where everything we inputted was sealed from prying eyes – to a situation whereby we are being encouraged by Apple, the world’s biggest manufacturer of computing hardware and software, to speak out loud to our gadgets in full view of any and every assembled public.

Yes.  It’s not just that all our private content should now be whizzed back and forth over a liquid – and technically visible – Internet; it’s not just that all our emails, photos and everyday occurrences should be hosted on servers in the cloud; it’s not even just that governments reserve the right to spread viruses where before this was the preserve of criminals.  The bubble I mention – the virtual goldfish bowl we have become – has become so ridiculously public that I would really like to know how anyone might now expect, or even want, or even remember what it was like, to conduct anything behind the closed doors that once circumscribed the adventures of intimacy.

No.  The expansion of Apple’s Siri isn’t the silliest development in personal computing – but it is the development which takes us furthest away from all the virtues that computing once preserved and exemplified.

In its declamatory noise-generating environment-contaminating discourse, it demonstrates how far advertisers and their sponsors are able to remove from society the value we once placed on discretion and privacy.

It also tracks, in its direction, an unhappy tendency in our society to praise and support the interests of the materialistically extroverted over the nature and reality of the introverts.  It forces us and channels our youth into ways of seeing and doing that benefit certain societal attitudes and norms – as well as, dare I say, business models.  My own opinion is that this is a hugely negative move: the broad range of human behaviours has to date acted almost like a prophylactic DNA which has served to protect us – over the wide sweep of history – from the excesses of any extremes.

To reduce our freedom of action and behavioural expectations to simply those which advertisers respond best to will surely lead us to rue the day – sooner or later.

I can even see a time when to desire the privacy we once used to treasure will be interpreted by governments and state apparatuses as a sign of abnormal thoughts and behaviours.

Bad sad times when and if those times ever come.

In the meantime, we continue to pay through the nose in order to increasingly publicise our foolishnesses.

As well as eagerly don and prance around in those ever so life-reducing emperor’s clothes!

Apr 162012

Sergey Brin, of Google fame, argues the following:

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

There are other things in this interview which I do agree wholeheartedly with.  This for example:

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet […].

To that list, in fact, we might care one day to add the UK.

Especially in the light of other news from yesterday which indicates that the Russians may be planning to embrace similar controls on their Internet in the future.

But when Brin talks about the carve-up of the free and open Internet, I am inclined to want to take the position that Google itself is not entirely without blame.  Brin is clear that some of the forces ranged against his – and our – baby include the following:

[…] the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Whilst I agree that the entertainment industry wishes to have its cake and eat it – for I might argue that if an existing structure isn’t appropriate for your distribution needs, why take the decision to distribute on it in the first place? – the walled gardens of Facebook in particular are surely a reaction to Google’s monopolistic dominance of the aforementioned freedoms it avows it is in favour of.  As I wrote some time ago on the subject of pernicious paywalls, the worldwide web in its native form is a truly beautiful thing:

To date, the Internet can be characterised and defined by two things: firstly, it has been more a space of discourse, more a flat hierarchy of multiple communication impulses, than a controlled business channel of traditional producer-consumer relationships.  Anatomically speaking, more like a global brain with its extensive network of redundant neurones sparking off each other than an intestinal system which helps process a beginning, a middle and an end.

Secondly, its fundamental tool – the hyperlink – has changed how we read information quite profoundly: the promiscuity of search has taken over from the power of a previously framed narrative.  Through that promiscuity, we look for answers to questions which tumble out of thoughts we must – over and over again – addictively pursue.  Neither is that beginning, middle and end predestined any longer – nor, often, repeatable.  The uniqueness of the narrative experience that each user of hyperlinks brings to the often very private storytelling they engage in as they surf the Web keeps millions of people obsessively tied to their PCs at the end of a multitude of long working days.

These two defining concepts – space and linkage – are what have made the Internet the force that it is today.  And for the vast majority of publishers who currently connect to the Web, this Internet is exactly the Internet they need.  They’re not looking for a mass-market reach to publish their content; instead, they have friends, colleagues and interest groups who actually choose to read what they are publishing, and do so night after night without prompting – quite without the seduction of competitions, bingo, free CDs or tickets to the cinema.

Google, however, has built an advertising empire on a set of hidden search algorithms which it allows to be massaged quite blatantly.  From sponsored ads which sit at the very top of its search results to websites and their URLs which creep up the rankings via carefully lodged supporting links from key sites across the web, the industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) is to Google what, in its heyday, the concept of third-party ecosystem was to Microsoft.  It sells the basic idea and principle to eager paying customers; it supports the legitimacy of the search model in question; and, finally, it helps keep other players firmly out of the market – essentially in order that Google, quite paradoxically, might convince a whole planet that when it monopolises the open Internet it is actually making all of us as free as could be.

No mention, for example, of all the data it has collected on us in order that its model of a “free” Internet might be better monetised on behalf of its shareholders.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I like Apple’s business model either.  Nor is Facebook quite what I thought it might be even a couple of years ago.  But I do get the impression that whilst Google’s landgrab did take place on a relatively open Internet, its ways and methods since then have only served to create a simulacrum of openness – a simulacrum where in reality those in power can move their favourite souls up and down the popularity stakes almost at will.

That original dream of Google’s, to make useful information available to anyone, has been gamed, distorted and messed around with – even, I might suggest, and quite arguably, by the company itself.

On such an open Internet, who wouldn’t want to create parallel universes?

Facebook and Apple aren’t the reason we’ve lost that dream.

Facebook and Apple are simply the symptom of Google’s greed.

Apr 072012

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.

Mar 312012

Here’s a fascinating article, which came my way via Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed, on the subject of whether the sciences of code and networks shouldn’t be considered biological.  Some choice phrases which caught my attention – and which I hope will encourage you to read the piece in full, even if at first glance you may feel it isn’t something which should necessarily interest you:

[…] we now live in a world […] increasingly run by self-replicating strings of code. Everything we love and use today is, in a lot of ways, self-reproducing exactly as Turing, von Neumann, and Barricelli prescribed. It’s a very symbiotic relationship: the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there’s no reason life won’t use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that’s what’s happening.


What’s, in a way, missing in today’s world is more biology of the Internet. […]


[…] In 1945 we actuallydidcreate a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. Can they record this interview? Can they play our music? Can they order our books on Amazon? If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.


[…] money is a very good example, because money really is a sort of a gentlemen’s agreement to agree on where the money is at a given time. Banks decide, well, this money is here today and it’s there tomorrow. And when it’s being moved around in microseconds, you can have a collapse, where suddenly you hit the bell and you don’t know where the money is. And then everybody’s saying, “Where’s the money? What happened to it?” And I think that’s what happened.


What’s the driver today? You want one word? It’s advertising. And, you may think advertising is very trivial, and of no real importance, but I think it’s the driver. If you look at what most of these codes are doing, they’re trying to get the audience, trying to deliver the audience. The money is flowing as advertising.

This is one of those articles you come across every so often which opens up to a non-expert like myself a whole wonderful new world of ideas in brilliant clarity.  I am not a computer scientist nor particularly adept at so many of the specialities mentioned quite by-the-by in this beautiful text, but in so very few lines I am immediately able to appreciate that we will shortly become some of the least important entities on the planet.

There will come a moment when the self-replicating code thus described will become very much more complicated than even our own precious DNA.  What then, say you and I?  What will happen then?  Should we fear this moment or simply hope – a little ant-like – that we may be so very insignificant that we will not pose a threat worth bothering about?

Software as neo-nature; money and receptor audiences; how to see advertising as a virtuous tool to a different dimension here on Planet Earth.  Who would have thought it?  What’s really driving our futures is no longer the porn-focussed technologies of the Nineties and Noughties but the ability of commerce to gather together consumer-motivated individuals in $100 billion Facebook-ed packages of stock market worth.

In reality, we need not fear these new lifeforms at all – as long as we are prepared to maintain our firm attachment to the advantages of conspicuous consumption they all now seem to be offering us.  As the piece concludes about Apple’s progressive encroachment:

Why is Apple one of the world’s most valuable companies? It’s not only because their machines are so beautifully designed, which is great and wonderful, but because those machines represent a closed numerical system. And they’re making great strides in expanding that system. It’s no longer at all odd to have a Mac laptop. It’s almost the normal thing.

And there will come a time, just mark my words, when any Luddite-like attempt to resist the charms of these “creatures” (and here I refer to the self-replicating code of the article more than its containing black boxes and physical manifestations) will result in automatic isolation, digital excommunication and – possibly – literal extermination by a evermore tentacled virtual and commercial enclosure.

How smart might that smart meter become?  Now have you ever thought about that?

And pushing the thought a little bit further, will this digital biology signal the final triumph of consumerist corporate capitalism over humanity – even as if we believe we are in the midst of its final days?  Because it jolly well could you know.  It jolly well could.

In such a way, then, from 18th century sole traders where individuals were all important and all inscribing on both sides of the transactions to those eternal anonymous 20th century corporate bodies where individuals were important insofar as they formed part of masses whose behaviours could be predicted to commercial ends, we move into an ambush of technological proportions where – perhaps – we will end up witnessing our total downgrade as entities: no longer anything but servile generators of content which the self-replicating numbers take over, feed off, mould, channel, distribute and shift.

We may, in fact, arrive at a situation whereby the humans finally become the machines and the machines finally become the humans.

Maybe it’s already happened.  The capitalism that’s failed us is the human-run one – that’s the one we’ve seen come crashing down around us over the past couple of years.  It’s through the emotion-ridden intervention of humans that we have arrived at the current misery we’re suffering from.

The machine-run one, however, the one run entirely by and for machines that is, may only just now be on its starting-blocks …

Feb 252012

On the subject of presumably a number of popular movements fighting Coalition policies at the moment, and in particular the campaign against workfare, Chris Grayling is reported in the Daily Mail yesterday as arguing the following:

‘This is part of a broader anti-capitalist trend in our society. Campaign groups are waging war very deliberately against big business.

‘If we don’t have big employers who are hiring, we won’t have any jobs for our young people. The idea that we should allow a bunch of extremists to get in the way of providing genuine, voluntary help for unemployed young people is just crazy.

Well, I’m sorry Mr Grayling – but you’ve just revealed a massive hole at the centre of government ideology.  A truth you’d have probably been best off not uncovering.

There is no way that big business can be equated with the purer tenets of capitalism – unless of course your idea of capitalism involves sanctioning effective monopolies and cartels; the right to destroy small- and medium-sized businesses through unfair practices such as cross-subsidisation and loss leaders; creating cash cows on the backs of low-wage policies in emerging economies (more even-handedly reported here); and making so overbearing perfectly valid legal figures such as copyright and patent law that all reasonable attempts at innovation by new companies are effectively locked out of the market.

No, Mr Grayling – you and your government have got it wrong.  Being anti-big business does not mean one is necessarily anti-capitalist – just as being pro-big business does not a freedom-loving government make. 

And whilst our government understands and identifies capitalism exclusively with big business, we will continue to commit these huge errors of judgement.  As well as fail to take advantage of so much that could be good about our nations.

So my suggestion?  Sort out your deeply ingrained prejudices first, Chris – and then come back and start governing for us all.

Feb 132012

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.

Feb 062012

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.

Jan 302012

This idea started out as a request from Louis for a script which might lock down a computer until essential online and online-related activity had been carried out.  Thus it is I just tweeted:

Distracted lives mean we forever put off work. How about a #Siri which tells what we don’t want to hear (=boss) instead of what we do (=PA)?

And it’s true.  Working from home, working with all the social media tools to hand, working out of a computer … all these things are wonders to behold.  But the self-discipline required to ensure a judicious balance is maintained between doing the stuff we enjoy and the stuff we must is not all that easy to come by.  Even when bills beckon at the end of the month, as they always eventually have to.

So how would it be if we had a friendly neighbourhood app – that is to say, PC, phone or tablet-based – which, once it were given full access to all our most imperious deadlines, was able to generate a Monday-to-Friday narrative which simulated the structure that any team leader worth his or her salt has always been good at maintaining?

From that jokey comment in the early-morning huddle to that friendly and morale-lifting late-afternoon pat on the back, surely we could recreate all the triggers and buttons which often make working with other people just that little bit more productive.  Especially the ones which, in the nicest possible way, told us – exactly when we most needed it – to put our virtual noses to the virtual grindstones.

So what do ye think, ye developers out there?

Are you up to the challenge or not?

Oct 012011

Paul has some really good overviews of tons of stuff.  When we meet up, which is far too occasionally, for me anyhow, I find his ability to synthesise big ideas and break them down into gobbets I can understand one of the most exhilarating things about his conversation – and, by extension, though less frequently these days than might be the case, via the words he lets slip in his blog Never Trust a Hippy.

This evening, for example, I am struck by this paragraph:

As far as I can see, the Tories are moving ever-closer to a subscription model of the state – one where a higher-rate taxpayer expects a higher level of service, and where a freemium model of public service is advanced. You can almost see all politics as a tug-of-war in which active citizens game the tax and benefits system (I fleshed this out more here a few weeks ago).

And he goes on to conclude (the bold is mine):

To my poor mind, this isn’t an argument or fight that can be ducked. Nor is it one on which we can’t land heavy blows. Watching the way both the US and the EU are floundering at the moment, tracing the lack of historical vitality – governments that don’t believe that they have the legitimacy to act – this isn’t a trivial issue either.

I think Paul is absolutely spot-on in what he says, when he argues we can’t duck the fight.  And I think the reason we can’t goes much further than simply politics.  It may be the case, very shortly, that the most important development of the last ten years – and here I refer to the Internet – will end up looking like a futile and unhappy blip in our sociocultural history: really what I’m saying here is that I suspect the encroaching monetisation of the Internet – via Facebook, Apple, Amazon and its Kindle and a multitude of other splintering impulses – is acting as an undeniable customisation of our shared and common mindscapes which will lead inevitably to the monetisation of many other parallel worlds; worlds which to date have remained analogously free.

That is to say, the importance of this battle to maintain through the Internet a certain liberty of movement of ideas and content is much much bigger than simply guaranteeing a means of communication.  If we lose the marvellous commons which to date this Internet has more or less brought us, we may almost certainly run the risk of losing a whole raft of other realities. 

Is it really too wild, then, to suggest that the progressive monetisation of the Internet might make the Coalition’s plans to – similarly – monetise the Welfare State far more likely?

For just as the Internet has radically changed the way we think nowadays, and online behaviours have influenced what we accept offline, so the monetisation of the Internet may change what – in a much wider context – we feel we have a right to expect.

Thus it is that, in reality, I fear for the Welfare State not because of the Andrew Lansleys and Jonathan Djanoglys of this world.

Rather, I fear for the Welfare State because of the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs.

Jun 212011

I love the Kindle, as you might have gathered.  Stan’s not so sure.  First, he points out how people are carving up bits of Internet real estate – and making it all their very own.  Then, in response to my light-hearted accusation of technophobe, he carries out the following most salient thought experiment:

I’m a technophobe? I don’t think so. If I’m a ‘phobe’ of some sort then ‘commercephobe’ would be a better term. People confuse a phobia of restricted commercial practices with luddite-ism.

Ads everywhere, mobile devices tethered to the company that sold them to consume products sold by the same company.

That, is essentially what I am against.

After all, you wouldn’t think of buying a car from Shell, locked into a contract with Shell for fuel, locked into buying your car accessories from the ‘ShellStoreTM‘, with ads, sponsored by Shell, flashing across your speedometer as you drove, would you now?

If you next car was a BP car, you’d discover that none of the cool Shell accessories you’d installed on your Shell car would work on your BP car.

Yet people accept such things when it comes to mobile devices, like phones, e-book readers and tablets. Car manufacturers must look in envy at Apple, Google et al and wonder how they get away with it.

We could, of course, equally say the same not only of the above-mentioned companies but also of government, public services and a raft of other support systems European welfare has cared to provide over the years.

So if it’s OK for big business to integrate vertically, why should it be so wrong for institutions such as the NHS in its current manifestation to do similarly?

Unless, of course, it’s one rule for the rich and another for the rest.

For it’s either bad for competition and market transparency the world over – or it’s not.  But it can’t be bad only for the public sector.