Oct 192013
 
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There’s a great article out there all about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  Or perhaps we should really say: Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.

In it we learn how the creator of the web’s most iconic tech-driven shop has supposedly prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in the company.  Instead, six-page articles must be written by disconcerted employees to ensure that thought is clearly developed and expounded.

The technology of PowerPoint, so the position goes, being an impediment to usefully coherent narrative.

You can read this article here.  You’ll find it quite an eye-opener.  You’ll find out in a minute why I’ve mentioned it.

Well, hell no.  Let me tell you right now.  If this ever gets to Mr Bezos’ eyes, this is my customer equivalent of that six-page presentation.

For in the meantime, I’ve been fighting off the temptation to get really cross.  With the gentleman’s company in question and with others of a similar bent.  My story ranges from rants against housing trusts, local councils and the aforementioned tech corps to mobile-phone providers, vendors and manufacturers.  I’m not a happy bunny at the moment – and, of course, my anger is my responsibility. So I know that my surviving and coming out the other side of these first world pains is not your job to engineer.  But as a small and insignificant customer of many tech firms in the past and present, one day one or two of you might want to learn.

My latest unhappy troubles relate to an erstwhile rather reliable holiday companion of virtual e-content, my 3G keyboarded Kindle.  Bought for me from Tesco by my eldest son as a birthday present in June 2011, it cost him 152 quid.  It stopped being quite so reliable a couple of days ago.  After a few weeks ignored in the bustle of ending summer hols, I turned it back on.  First, it wouldn’t connect to 3G any longer (I’ve had it explained to me that this – in the presence of an available wifi connection – is now a feature and not the bug I thought it was); nevertheless, I religiously recharged it and everything seemed OK.  Then yesterday it began to suffer from what Microsoft users of ancient Windows product will surely empathise with: in this case the WSOD, or White Screen Of Death, for those Kindlers still uninitiated in such matters.

As Which? usefully points out, my contractual relationship is not with Amazon the manufacturer but Tesco the vendor.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I phoned Tesco’s customer services helpline to be automatically transferred directly to Amazon.  The Amazon customer services lady went on to hand me over to a member of the specialised Kindle team when she realised my issue was not of simple resolution.  He attempted to carry out some procedures to reawaken my Kindle, sadly to no avail.  He then offered me an upgrade: a new Kindle in exchange, which I would have to pay for.  I said I would be quite happy with a replacement rather than an upgrade – for one thing, I liked the physical keyboard (something he agreed he did too) – but was told no examples were available any more.

I also suggested that although the guarantee was no longer valid, UK legislation had something to say on the reasonable and therefore merchantable quality of any product of certain value.  He referred me to EU legislation which he said gave me only two years.  I suggested, perhaps inexactly, that in the UK we had up to six years, certainly to complain.  We then agreed my query on Amazon’s position should be communicated higher up, and also agreed it should be received via email.  I now have in my possession an email address I can email – pretty much the same one, in fact, I emailed a while ago in relation to an Apple iPod Amazon refused point-blank to take responsibility for.

I’ve decided, in the end, to wait anon.  In the first instance, I’ll be going to Tesco tomorrow.  I still have the original receipt; they are the vendor; and I already know Amazon’s posture.  Time to find out, instead, what Tesco thinks.  After all, Amazon – alongside many others – truly believe it’s a good business model to make expensive objects which we are to be convinced must last only two years before we replace them.

I mean even my father – my World-War-II-scarred father, who is incapable of throwing away a piece of wood, a random cable or a nail on the off-chance they might one day be of use – was heard to say on being told our freezer seemed to have given up the ghost: “Oh well, it’s nine years old now.  Only to be expected.”

To cut what is surely becoming a boring long story short, what’s clear here is whilst human life expectancies are lengthening from decade to decade, their gadgets are becoming evermore short-lived.  So why might this be so?  And what might the broader implications be?

I’m sure all of us, all of my generation at least, can remember stories of washing-machines that lasted fifteen years; fridges that lasted thirty; cars that were made and remade out of this and that for far longer than anyone expects these days.  Yet even washing-machines these days don’t seem to get to the age of five.  Whilst iPods and Kindles and mobile phones and tablets various barely get beyond the magic two.  Not to speak of all those tales of cars whose engines disintegrate at seven.

It’s a problem – a serious problem; a paradox too.

As already pointed out, whilst human beings expect to live longer, their societies’ artefacts fall apart earlier.  Now I’m sure you’ll have read many articles which talk about how society is specialising itself out of sustainability.  As you can see, I’ve written some of them myself.  But this thing I speak of today … well, it’s slightly different.  Here, it’s not the evil corporations maximising their profits.  Here, it’s a different thesis altogether: faster washing-machines, quicker cars, smaller gadgets, brighter screens … all these aspects and more, coupled with the fearful violences of corporate capitalisms, simply make it more difficult to produce stuff which lasts.  Who, after all, would expect an under-the-counter freezer – which cost the same as my Kindle did my son – to function for barely two years?  And yet when it comes to the Kindle, or the iPod or the Blackberry, we gaily accept an upgrade we must pay for as compensation for a product which – be honest and frank about it! – has failed any test of time you’d prefer to sanction.

There will come a time – I can see it even if you cannot – when our objects will have such short lifetimes that the consumer laws will have to be changed to accommodate the inability of the manufacturers to develop products which survive even a full year.  Mark my words.  Bookmark this post.  And come back to it, three or four years down this miserable line.

Bezos is right of course: writing six pages of thoughtful observations has the potential to add far more value than any number of fancy bullet points.  But in the world his ilk and he tend to find themselves moving around, they’re as bound by its constrictions and competitivenesses as much as we consumers are befuddled by their very same massaged marketing messages.  Whilst he may indeed preach no PowerPoint in the thoughtful sides and moments of his companies, in their artefacts and their routinely mundane activities these PowerPoint mindsets have clearly become the order of the day.

Otherwise his customer services wouldn’t offer an upgrade after a bit more than two years of careful usage of a product which costs what many freezers do.  Instead, they would be trained to say: “Let’s repair or replace or refurbish this in a sustainable way.  Let’s look after a customer – and let’s also recognise that the future of our shared living-space, the planet we live on, is just as much a customer we choose to value as that irritating well-meaning thoughtful Miljenko Williams, who always feels obliged to complain so very very much.”

Oh.  And just as a by-the-by.  That freezer even my father now believes is expected to give up the ghost after nine years … well, after a week left to its own devices, it’s begun to happily work once again.

There’s a lesson in that.

We should learn it before it’s too late.

____________________

Update to this post: last night I described over at Amazon’s help-forum pages my recent experience with gadgets.  Part of what I commented went as follows:

[...] In the last year, I’ve had a 16-month Sony Ericsson 150 GBP phone stop working, changed for a new one under guarantee by T-Mobile; I’ve had an 8-month Sony 110 GBP phone stop working, repaired under guarantee by Phones4U; and I’ve had a Blackberry 100 GBP phone, still under 2-year guarantee, not repaired by Carphone Warehouse or Blackberry. I’ve also been batted to and fro between Apple and Amazon with respect to an iPod Amazon sold me via an Audible offer, and whose home button stopped working reliably. Then there were the two Acer netbooks which developed parallel faults at the same time just outside their 1-year guarantee periods. Now I may have been particularly unlucky with respect to gadgets, but I suspect I haven’t been especially. I do have a Gateway laptop which has lasted four solid years without pain. And a Dell desktop soldiers on with Linux. And an Asus netbook is particularly well-made. Not all misery up here in Chester …

:-)

Really, all I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is that a 1- or even 2-year guarantee period is a pretty poor promise when you’re forking out 150 GBP. At least when we talk of products which have less bleeding-edge technologies. No one in their right mind would accept buying a new fridge every 18 months. So why do similarly-costing techie-type products enjoy the freedom to break down and be disposed of after the same period of time? It’s not a question you or I or, indeed, Amazon will be able to answer – but it *is* a question I strongly feel needs to be addressed. Especially when I have yet another faulty gadget to add to my recent and not so recent list.

I suppose that all which is left for me to ask is: am I particularly unlucky – or is the above litany of failure something each of us is rapidly having to become both seamlessly familiar with and resignedly used to?  Any of yous out there reading this post had as bad a series of experiences as ourselves?


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Dec 192012
 
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An astonishing tweet flashed by me just now which suggested that Iain Duncan Smith is telling his activists the government plans to control how benefit recipients spend their money.  If this is true, and I have heard other stories recently of smartcards various which might be introduced to achieve exactly that, it certainly begs a sequence of very serious questions: first, and most importantly, how on earth a political party such as the Conservatives have become a group of morality-peddling nannies, capable of far outdoing anything New Labour was ever accused of having got up to.

And here I am, trying to understand these behaviours.  And you know what, I think I’ve worked out why it’s all happening.  The businesspeople-cum-politicians who have been ruling us for years, who see politics as an extension of effective business practice rather than – this being my understanding – a proactive mediation between the interests of free-market-loving consumers on the one hand and the monopolistic tendencies of corporate capitalism on the other, have – in some surreptitious, unconscious and/or subliminal way – decided it’s time not only to make it easier to be a corporation but also to make it more difficult to be a person.

It’s almost as if the psychology is working in the following way: after decades of constrictions, restrictions and legal governance imposed from up on high, of the power of the consumer as protected by the social-democratic states of yore, these businesspeople-cum-politicians are beginning to realise it’s now going to be possible to make people in the image of their blessedly oppressed companies of the past.

It’s almost as if they’re saying it’s your turn as a citizen, as an ordinary person, as a voter and end-user, as a consumer and worker, to feel as regulated, tracked, persecuted and chased as we, your grand providers, have experienced for so many years.

Whatever the reason, it’s true that the sliders are now being pushed in opposite directions: deregulation of corporate agencies, their lobbyists and their sponsored accompanies a simultaneous pattern of increasing regulation around flesh-and-blood figures.

We may wonder if under Coalition Britain it is now easier to be a corporation than a person.

But the question which surely should occupy us is why this is going to be the case.

And in my meandering, disbelieving and indirectly confused way, I finally think this is simply a matter of cruel and casual vengeance.

They do it because they can.

They do it because it’s time.

They do it because the history books have shown that people who have so very much to lose are going to wait until it’s too late in the foolish belief they might not lose it all.

These businesspeople-cum-politicians are right in one thing they say, mind: we are soft, too comfortable and dependent on a centralised authority.

But they are wrong when they argue this authority is the government.

In reality, we are soft, too comfortable and dependent on the companies these businesspeople-cum-politicians have made in their ever-so-autocratic images.

If we are indeed living in a state of sofa-sitting layabouts, it is only because our corporations have made us so: have made us evermore dependent on the logos, messages, narratives and products that make up their cocooning and loyalty-generating 21st century environments.  It is in our roles as consumers, end-users, readers and viewers that we have become hollowed out and empty.

As citizens, as voters, as democrats, however … well, I still believe there is a thirst for real engagement.  But that opportunity is slowly and severely being excised from our futures – even as we speak.  In this vengeance that is our leaders’, time for the rest of us is practically up.

Not the End of the World exactly – but the end of the world as we knew and genuinely loved it.

That’s what the Mayans were really predicting, you know.

The retaking and destruction of complex and thoughtful societies by idiots such as Cameron & Co.

Now that’s what should really terrify us, in my opinion.  That’s the really terrifying prospect now facing us.


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Dec 052012
 
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We’ve been discussing quite a bit the subject of consumer boycotts these past few weeks.  First, there was the matter of tax avoidance on a massive and unheard-of scale.  More recently, we’ve finally got to the end of the long road which is the Leveson inquiry, where most of us seem to argue that a free press requires as little legislation from government as possible.

It has also been argued that the best way to regulate a wayward media is to just not purchase its products any more.  But both in the latter case as well as those related to tax avoidance, surely consumer boycotts would simply not be enough.

In a B2B world, where business confidentiality and poise and manners are absolutely everything in maintaining a relationship which leads to another contract, who on earth is going to make a fuss when, for example, a company which manufactures Internet cables – or drills for oil or mines diamonds from the ground or carries out any of the more basic and hidden activities of modern civilisation – contributes its carefully tax-havened dollars to a presidential candidate in favour of making the poor even poorer?

We’re even seeing it now, in fact, where we’re dealing with companies that do have consumer-facing relationships.  There are, it would seem, coffee-shop chains which dutifully pay their taxes to the British state, without entirely legal but nevertheless immoral avoidance.  Are they taking advantage of Starbucks’ current and self-inflicted predicament?  It would seem not.

Then there are high-street and out-of-town stores which sell the very same products that, for example, Amazon also sells – yet, it would seem, without the same complex tax arrangements.  Do they say anything to highlight the difference?  Right now, at this moment, not a peep.  That they must follow the marketplace and sell Amazon hardware such as the Kindle tablet and e-book reader is probably a simple coincidence.

So.

It’s clear, then, isn’t it?

This is really not a moment for leaving it all to the free market.

You must accept that in order to guarantee certain freedoms for our citizens, government just has to intervene on occasions with legislation to redress the imbalances.  Not legislation to corrupt and enclose but – rather – legislation to open up and create the right kind of environment for a properly free-market economics to take hold once again.

For a properly free-market economics to do its wonders.

This is why Leveson needs to be listened to more carefully.  At least in its desire for statutory underpinnings of our freedoms.  And if, to date, such underpinnings have been based on a case law which only the rich can ever find the resource to lever, what kind of freedoms – in reality – are these?  What kind of rights – in truth – exist for us ordinary people to exert?

In a B2B world, where so much business is done away from the full gaze of the public, we need government to intervene more – that is to say, in a representative fashion and on our behalf – rather than less.

And we need to recover our belief in a legal system which can empower us all in the context of free business, communications and speech.

Government as oppressor or government as liberator?  I know which I would like to believe in.  And I know if the only alternative is transnational corporations, that we’ve already quite lost our battle to maintain democracy.

*

One final thought: if both the free press and freedom of speech are important but discrete concepts we must support, in a virtual world let us conceptualise them thus.  Let the free press exist as an industrial figure – anywhere, in fact, as someone suggested on Facebook yesterday, where money is involved and supports and results from a communication infrastructure.

And let freedom of speech, as a citizen-sourced idea, be what we do more and more via social networks of all kinds.  If money does not exchange hands before, whilst or after the communication takes place, let the criteria for libel and so forth be quite different.  Let that “ethical vacuum” Leveson so rightly identifies continue to facilitate a commons of thought.

Let us be intelligent about how we advance into the future.

Let us be fair.

And let us ensure the rights we enshrine in our societies are realistic, shared and egalitarian.


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Aug 072012
 
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A while ago I posted this piece on the virtues of pursuing excellence compared to the downsides of competition:

Everywhere that commerce gets involved in what used to be public spaces, there is the same tendency to make exclusive of each other different products and services supplied by different providers.  From software such as Microsoft Office which locks you into proprietary data formats to supermarkets with private malls and parking places which can only be used for a certain time and only for a certain purpose, the desire by powerful companies to own our physical and intellectual spaces only seems, as time goes by, to march unstoppably onwards and upwards.

And yet commerce wouldn’t have to be like that if excellence rather than competition were the name of the game.  A massive evolutionary step forwards it – indeed – would be, in fact.  And perhaps, in a way, we are in the anteroom of such a step forwards: whilst the web is still in its relative infancy, we – even so – are able to perceive on the social horizon many tendencies and tools which might allow for a perfect perception of true excellence – above and beyond the tricks of marketing and persuasion which currently tend to cloud realities.

I then went on to conclude that:

In the name of competition, specialisation arose.  Through this process of specialisation, disconnection began to spread.  Now we only know how to keep a community together by creating as big a sense of distance and difference as possible from those beings we are forced unerringly to compete against.  By creating a worldwide web of interconnectedness on the back of such specialisation, we have created an impossibly gigantic circle the squaring of which can surely only break us.

My conclusion?  We either stop using, at least as we have done to date, that specialisation I mention to advance our society – or we work out some pretty convincing alternative way of overcoming the Chinese walls that are breaking up our ability to share our evermore uncommon experiences.

Either way, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the cooperative instincts at the heart of humanity.

And an example, perhaps, of where a progress measured only empirically distorts a wider understanding of what excellence – and, as a result, our society itself – should really look like.

In the above piece, I set out the arguments in favour of moving on from the age-old competitive instincts of Darwinian capitalism to a more objective, more reality-grounded, more cooperative-focussed, goal of achieving excellence in all fields.

Yesterday, however, I was minded to recapitulate: I finally saw the film “El Caballero Oscuro: La Leyenda Renace” (the Spanish dubbed version of “The Dark Knight Rises”, the final film in the Christopher Nolan take on the Batman mythology).  Amongst many other wonderful things (Blake is almost like a Luke Skywalker reprise; Catwoman a Hans Solo delightfully playing off the moral centre thus constructed), the film talks of the dangers of a just revolution – even when you are right, by acting on such righteousness you may further contribute to the destruction of civilisation.

And part of this righteousness lies in our competitive pursuit of excellence above all.  If we teach, through our consumerism, our children and youth to believe in absolute notions of value for money, of best is first, of maximising outcomes in everything we do and everyone we get to know, we can only conclude that excellence must be applied to every field of human endeavour.

The nominal baddie in the film goes by the name of Bane.  (The bane of Batman, in fact – even as Robin John Blake alludes to stealing the latter’s right to an autumnal morality, as the Batcave substitutes his beloved attachment to good policing.)  At one point in the narrative, Bane and his gang invade Wall Street’s Stock Exchange.  The following exchange sets up their moral justification for their violent occupation of those who have used other tools to commit injustices:

“Esto es la bolsa, aquí no hay dinero para robar.”

“¿De verdad? Y vosotros, ¿qué hacéis aquí?”

Which loosely translates as:

“This is the Stock Exchange, there’s no money here you can steal.”

“Really? And you lot, what are you doing here then?”

In this film, we see how the absolutism of corporate competitiveness has led all kinds of human beings – both good and manifestly evil – to acquire the same mindsets of excellence in what they do.  Bane’s plan is as coherent and thought-through as any marketing of a global brand has ever managed to be: even, perhaps, as ingenious and effective as that plan which has sold us the narrative that contains his story.

“The Dark Knight Rises” explains history quite magnificently.  From the dangers of a new French Revolution to the unhappy reality that, sometimes, evil individuals operating on the backs of masses do change the direction of humanity, Nolan’s images underline how fragile the order which contains our worst instincts really is.

In the light of the above, then, do I still believe in cooperative excellence over competitive Darwinism?

I think I do.

But after watching Nolan’s film, a single caveat: sometimes, civilisation needs uncivilised means to put evil genies back in their bottles.  The problem we have, when we decide this is the case, is that the process we use to choose who and when is still fraught with the unempowering hierarchies of old.

We cannot solve our crises of morality if the genie-containing procedures are not in themselves shared moral acts.

That a Tony Blair or a George W Bush take it upon themselves to lie to us (as, in the film, Commissioner Gordon did to his people for eight long years about the true nature of their alleged saviour Harvey Dent) in order, that is, to save us from our enemies … well, this is not only immoral but also – as we have seen in both the cinema and our own realities – rankly inefficient.  If for no other reason, then, than that of saving pecuniary pain, we should change not only when we go to war (whether figurative or literal) but also how we make that decision.

Perhaps, in truth, we need a little less excellence than we have always assumed.  Perhaps it is time to stop stretching the envelope so competitively.  Perhaps the mirror image of the Apples of this world truly is the Banes of cinematic existence.

Perhaps it is time to be less human – and more humane.


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May 272012
 
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Part of a recent tweet of mine contained this phrase:

When material goods are removed from us, nature remains in all its splendour.

I wonder if the reason why people like Christine Lagarde attempt to bully us so vigorously back into the model of top-down governance, heavy taxes and stratospheric and undemocratic chains of command is that the people at the beginning of such chains are starting to contemplate there may be an alternative to the world which has served to feather their nests for so long.

Isn’t it conceivable that the consumer society – that web of interaction and wants they have spun over the past century – is only now being seen by its subjects for what it really was?  An example of pyramid selling by large corporations and organisations which failed to properly connect with and enrich local communities.

And thus we come to the exhortations to lowly citizens that they must play ball with the now bankrupting system these stratospheric elites have milked to their great benefit for such a long time.  In reality, they don’t believe in its functioning any more than we do: they just want to postpone the inevitable breakdown as long as possible.

But what if the moment comes when we refuse to play ball?  And what if that moment is sooner rather than later?  I don’t mean from the point of view of not paying our taxes – though that time may also come.  I mean what if we begin to lose our psychological bind to the colonial consumerism that has filled our vacuum- and bubble-packed lives for far too long now?  What if we use this economic crisis to escape from consumerism on evermore massing levels?

Not a dropping-out of society as per 1960s hippy love – rather, a truly big society; a true devolution of power to the grassroots.  A remaking of an entire society by peoples with really nothing to lose.

Except their chains of command.

Except their expensive and bank-account-emptying attachments to the drugs of modern life.


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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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Jan 262012
 
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I have to say I speak out of ignorance – or, at least, an absence of firm data and inside knowledge – on the topic that I raise today in this post.  On the other hand, we may fairly retort, this hasn’t stopped me from writing in the past.

Which is true.

Recent events, however, even so, have brought me to consider that as always politicians will prefer to deal with the most easily measurable matters before they deal with the most useful ones.  Whilst there was a big hoo-hah last year – and quite rightly so – on the tuition fee disgrace that was the transfer from students to both the banking industry and universities of yet more profit and business, little attention was placed on the matter of what all that money was supposed to be purchasing.

I mean, of course, the university teaching itself.

And whilst the government has recently announced plans to fire underperforming teachers, I’m not sure this is aimed at affecting precisely the sector (that is to say, the universities) where the direct customer (that is to say, the student) not only pays upfront but also pays the most.

My experience of university education was relatively benign.  I wasn’t a particularly applied student but did thoroughly enjoy my three years at Warwick where I studied Film & Literature.  I managed to get a 2(i), probably due mainly to the results of my third year Creative Writing module under the inspiring Andrew Davies.  And the different elements of the course – film on the one hand and literary studies on the other – were well coordinated and structured.

The course influenced the rest of my life.  For better or worse, it changed me most profoundly.

Not long ago, however, I had the opportunity to talk to a student currently at a university in the North West of England.  This student seemed unhappy for a number of reasons.  Two appeared to be at the top of the list: first, the university teachers had been utterly unresponsive to the feedback the student had given about the level in which he had been situated at the beginning of the first year, an error of judgement on the part of the professionals the implications of which became compounded in the first semester of the second year – and apparently led to a reactive depression on the part of the student.

Second, and perhaps much more revealingly, in what is now clearly a consumer-driven and consumer-structured society, he felt – and, indeed, feels – that he wasn’t getting his money’s worth, his value for money, from the style, substance and take-it-or-leave-it attitude of the vast majority of his teachers.

Over the past decade or so, an enormous amount of work has gone into improving the quality of compulsory education: from inspection regimes to teacher-training; from school infrastructures to cross-curricular subjects … all these items and far far more out there have helped to radically re-engineer the compulsory education system in the UK.  Yet, from my unpractised and looking-in-from-the-outside eye, it would seem very little has been done to track the behaviours, efficacy, pedagogical worth and consumer focus of university teaching – precisely the teaching, in fact, where the link between payer and payee would be easiest to establish, forge, develop and take advantage of.

So I do wonder as the government continues to fill the pockets of its sponsors in universities and the financial services sector, and at the expense I might say of the students, why it doesn’t place as much emphasis on improving the teaching standards in higher education as it clearly wants to do for the rest.

I’m not saying we should go as far as to be able to fire a university lecturer in a term – for the relationship between lecturer, teaching and research is far more complex than compulsory education has to date been able to contemplate; but I do wonder if it isn’t time for university lecturers and their teaching behaviours to come under the microscope of an institution with absolutely similar criteria to those a rejuvenated Ofsted might wish to contemplate.

And at the very least begin to create a shared university mindset which sees the student as a customer with the right to the very best pedagogical systems in the world – especially where in some cases they are being obliged to pay a very 21st century £30,000 for the often dubious honour of a 19th century kind of tuition.


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Jan 222012
 
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I honestly think this is all a conspiracy of sorts.  The population is ageing dramatically; the consumers are getting grey- (or no-) haired; and potential markets in developed worlds are beginning to seize up.  Who wouldn’t, then, want to release onto the open market the massive host of products and services that is health, social care and legal support?  In this sense, everything our British government is doing right now can be seen as a way of sustaining future profits for companies which are surely worried about the end of rabid (and youthful) consumerism.  In the light of such a thesis, we could even argue that socialism in the UK was spreading not because New Labour made it stealthily so but – rather – simply because as you get older you are going to be more inclined – out of understandable self-interest – towards a society which cares.

And so we come to the subject of this post: the complex and astonishing choreography behind the calls – in the midst of economic crisis – for a new yacht for our dearly beloved Queen.  Or, as I have cared to title it, “Gold Diggers of 2012″.  Here’s the historical reference:

And the background from Wikipedia. And the definition of “gold digger” from Wiktionary:

gold digger (plural gold diggers)
  1. Someone who digs or mines for gold.
  2. A person (usually female and considerably younger) who cultivates a personal relationship in order to attain money.

But since this is the 21st century, the female bit has reverse-liberalised itself considerably.  Nowadays, I suggest, we could safely assume that instead of “considerably younger females”, we might (though it still has yet to be entirely proven) be talking about “considerably older males”:

[...] it seems the support is part of a well-choreographed campaign to make the yacht a reality. The project has had the backing of the royal family, a national newspaper, and the tacit support of at least two major organisations, for more than two years, suggesting last week’s enthusiastic headlines have been a long time in the planning.

The campaign can be traced back to the mid-1990s when a powerful group of industrialists and monarchists, anticipating the scrapping of the royal yacht, devised a replacement that would not require funding from the taxpayer.

Thus far, no surprises.  This is par for the course in a democracy where the wealthy reserve the important levers for themselves.  The next bit is rather more disconcerting, mind:

The accounts note: “Particular interest in the project has been expressed by British Antarctic Survey and Edexcel, who are the project’s science and education partners respectively.”

Edexcel is owned by the FTSE 100 company Pearson, and describes itself as “the UK’s largest awarding body offering academic and vocational qualifications and testing to schools”. It has major contracts with the Department for Education, whose secretary of state, Michael Gove, has been a vocal cheerleader for the project.

Though Edexcel then go on to rather hurriedly distance themselves from any significant association:

An Edexcel spokesman said: “In 2009, we had some initial conversations with the group about the educational aspects of their plans, and said we would be happy to offer our expertise in support, if and when the project came to fruition. We have not been closely involved with the project since then.”

Which does seem a little unseemly.  After all, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is either a jolly good thing or it isn’t; it’s hardly something one needs to be so equivocal about.

Does it?

And if so, why might that be?

Anyhow, the Guardian report clearly indicates that a considerable level of media management has been taking place.  And I do wonder if this is the case in something as surely iconic and uncontroversial as our Queen, how much more choreography is going on behind the scenes in other areas to ensure that our grey-haired futures end up firmly in the pockets of our large consumer-loving corporates?

Gold Diggers of 2012?  You bet your bottom dollar on it!


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Aug 282011
 
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Anthony Painter reviews a new edition of a book with the brilliant title “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.  This paragraph of his review in particular caught my attention (the bold is mine):

Cultural dynamics, a social research company, has used its British values survey to analyse the value-sets that would have influenced the behaviour of the rioters. They have asked specific questions about whether someone would like to be involved in a riot, look to exploit another’s weakness, be excited by social disorder, and if slighted whether they don’t get mad, they get even. Some of the hottest values sets for those who would engage in riot and social disorder are defined as “material wealth”, “power”, “control others” and “asocial”. You find a lot of bankers in these categories too.

As the Cultural Dynamics webpage (well worth a read) points out in its introduction to its short and concise analysis of the recent English riots:

This short paper examines the riots in England on August 7th to 10th 2011. Journalist Zoe Williams of the Guardian was the first to dub these disturbances “shopping riots”, a nomenclature with which we concur. They were the first ‘consumer’ riots.

Despite all the prejudices to the contrary, some of which I suspect I have also been guilty of expressing on these pages, the evidence provided by Cultural Dynamics would seem to support Painter’s view that (again the bold is mine):

There is a reverberating melancholy to Paul Gilroy’s updated work. We live in a nation where the slogan “ain’t no black in the Union Jack” is neither a threatening racist chant nor an embracing anti-racist retort. It is, instead, a nation where nifty design replaces political expression as in the artist who decided to add a little black to the Union Jack. This work is still powerful, almost a quarter of century on. It is a reminder of a more political time. It challenges us with the reality that racism is far from gone in our society. Instead it’s brushed over, re-designed and commercialised.

Morality is clearly not the issue here.  Amorality is the guiding light and star of our modern times.  Thatcher and Blair’s legacy isn’t the battlefield which results from a tussle over the social – but, rather, a cementing which both participated in of the manifestly asocial.

We are neither localists nor nationalists; neither racists nor multiculturalists; neither socialists nor capitalists; neither living in the past nor living in the future: instead, we choose a kind of anti-life where the dark matter which could illuminate our light, much as El Greco achieved in his art, now serves only to provide a chamber of secrets which we only occasionally break out of in violent reprisal.

We are, in a way, in a sub-textual way, at war with our own society and wants.  And yet we still have not managed to obtain the self-knowledge which would release us from anger.

Until we do that, the Union Jack will indeed not count on black – but, as Painter’s brush strokes also clearly indicate, this won’t mean the reality is being fairly described.

These recent riots are only “consumer riots” inasmuch as we as a society – as a broader society, I mean – seem to know very little more than how to relate to each other as consumers.  I don’t mean us bloggers – or pseudo-thinkers you might prefer to term us – who worry away, like yapping little dogs, at the ankles of clarification and pedantry: I don’t mean those sorts of people, no.  Rather, I mean the vast majority who love the hashtag #cbb – and look to fully enjoy an evening sat down with hubby or wife over a bottle of wine and some reality TV.  And they are clever people too, these others who do not yap and irritate with their thoughts.  I have witnessed conversations about the content of such shows, and the ordinary people who discuss and exchange views on their progress are as sharp about the implications and sociocultural consequences of all these complex interactions as any blogger with an allegedly greater sense of wisdom might demonstrate.

But we have substituted the complexity of real reality with the complexity of consumer reality; thus it is that the riots can be termed “consumer riots” because – essentially – the vast majority of people who occupy a place in our civilisation have forgotten how to be anything but a consumer.  They cannot be – nor ever could have been (nor, perhaps in the future, ever will be again) – political riots … precisely because we are no longer political beings.

And it’s not just that the Union Jack don’t do black throughout its history – right now, I’m afraid dear reader, it don’t do red, white nor blue either.  In our desire to neutralise the negative forces of identity politics, we’ve ended up neutering our ability to think politically.

So we can’t even riot for the right reasons these days.  Just as the bankers can’t stick to providing the simple glue which – in its boring reliability – used to keep our economies on track.

And we’re both probably unable to do what we should for just the same reasons.


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Aug 112011
 
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I misread a Twitter conversation this morning and assumed someone was saying that moral relativism and focussing on self went together:

@LNJStokes @Phillip_Blond Not sure principle of focussing on self & moral relativism necessarily go together. Thatcher focussed on self …

But the idea got me thinking, anyhow.  Whilst moral relativism, especially the allegedly liberal kind, often leaves us without any anchors, focussing on self directs us to the greed and exclusivity – the inevitable abandonment of community – which both political players (MPs’ expenses) and financial actors (the credit crunch and successive crises) have chosen to exhibit.

And now, in amongst all this rioting, it’s the turn of the underclasses.

Nothing new there, then.  This meme is, in fact, widely going the rounds now.

However, reverting back to Thatcher and New Labour, they were, even if in their very different ways, essentially moral articulations of how societies should be run.  Their shared emphasis (at least in their discourse) on self and personal aspiration – as drivers of a wider good (in Thatcher’s case, the trickle-down effect the economic growth of the very rich supposedly delivers; in Blair’s, the primacy of economic growth to provide a broader socialism by stealth) – to the exclusion of a more overt and altruistically embedded conceptualisation of community constituted, both, leaps of faith which only true believers, those with a messianic fervour I mean, would find themselves able to deliver.  At, I might add, a terrible cost.  As I pointed out in a comment at Chris’s place:

@jameshigham – I’ve been thinking about this idea of lies vs truth in politics, and have even written about it in relation to this very post. To be honest, Chris isn’t saying lies are good: he’s just saying he’d prefer to have a politician who didn’t believe – perhaps in messianic fervour mode (and who does that now remind us of?) – everything they said.

Perhaps a more constructive axis of argument might be to posit our discussion around eloquence vs brevity of discourse. I’ve seen plenty of examples of eloquent politicians who start out with excellent goals, but as time goes by realise that their very ability to charm others allows them to do things they’d never have dreamed of doing at the start.

Meanwhile, someone who can explain their objectives and politics competently but is not up to the job of enchanting the socks off us is more likely to spend their time focussing on the job and results to hand.

An over-dependence on charisma brings out the worst in all of us – politicians and voters both. And it is from this quality that most of the lies probably begin to issue forth.

Thus it is that the messianic fervour I mention is verily a sad and destructive element to have to deal with, in a 24-hour politics where the “gotcha” moment tends to override all other instincts.

*

And so to conclude: moral relativism on the one hand and focussing on self on the other may seem – to some observers – to be poles apart.  But isn’t it curious how both seem to be leading us in directions of similar distress?  For whilst the morality geeks in society will be bemoaning the command that rank consumerism has over the public, their solutions – ranging from more family and more discipline to more religion and more belief – negate philosophies at either end of the political spectrum.  From the highly charged right-wingers whose underlining faith inscribes the right of the individual to act out his or her political fantasies to the “woolly-minded” left-wingers (I myself have been thus accused) who excuse all acts of personal transgression as part of a wider tapestry of societal misdemeanour, no one – it would seem – is entirely free of culpability.

You know what?  I’m beginning to think that this is Broken Britain after all.  And what the Coalition has managed to turn itself into over the past year or so of misgovernment is precisely that final straw which broke poor Breaking Britain’s back.


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Aug 252010
 
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A dear member of my family opened my eyes to a felicitous truth today.  The first statement went as follows:

“If you walk on a flat road, your feet use exactly the same movements every step and you will ache.”

Meanwhile, the second statement brought home to me a reality I had, till then, been unable to properly conceptualise:

“Walk on uneven ground and it’s much easier to walk all day.”

Now is when the cogs in my brain begin to whirr.  Put this simple truth, this incontrovertible and physiological truth, in the hands of those evil politicians who choose to piss on the poor, and they will say: “Listen, the pain of uncertainty is part of life.  But the best way of dealing with life is accepting – sooner rather than later – that you’ll have to deal with this pain.

“Actually,” such politicians will say, or if not say then will be inclined to think very noisily, “we’re really doing you a favour by ensuring you see and experience the world as – in its natural state – you will find it in most of the unhappy pockets of this planet, especially where the desire to ameliorate such distress still hasn’t made everyone soft.”

And, perhaps, in a weak moment, a moment of doubt I hasten to add, I might find myself nodding sadly and gently in resigned agreement.

But, equally, the power of such ideas lends itself – as always – to an opposing interpretation.  If walking on flat ground is bad for the human body and it’s the uneven path of contentious battle that keeps us both alive as well as healthy, what finer argument can we fashion against the tendency of modern Western civilisation to make us and force us to be excellent at what is a habit – and reduce our circle of experience to a repetition of distressing routine – than this beautiful couplet of ideas which encircle a poetry of perspicacity?

If beauty is in the uneven, then the politics of marketing, advertising, sales and image-making are the ugliest underbellies of a consumer society that dreadfully forces us all to involve ourselves to a maximum in the mechanical routine of damage limitation.

And so what is it we are limiting?  Why, the permanent and irreversible degradation of our very own souls.

(Substitute, if you must, the word “souls” for any other which makes you feel comfortable – in the terms of your own belief system – with the overarching thesis which I have today, unhappily, stumbled across.)


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Aug 222010
 
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It’s a sunny morning.  A beautiful sunny morning in Chester.  The delights of snailband have been left behind and I’m currently accessing the Internet via broadband.  But other things, too, true delights at that, have also been left behind.

By birth, I am half Croatian, half English.  But I spent more than sixteen years of my life, formative years from a business perspective, living in Spain.  I don’t know if business in Britain is like business in Spain.  Most of my business in Britain has been on the receiving end of what people do to you as an employee of various large corporations.  I’ve been grateful for their sticking by me through thick and thin, but part of the thin was caused by how thick they quite often are.

So if I’m Croatian and English, I’m also Spanish.  Sixteen years – from the age of 26 to the age of a little over 42 – provided me with a language, a register and a set of ways of dealing with people that have not exactly prepared me for my return to old Blighty.

Every year I come back from our summer holidays it gets worse and worse.  Out there, it’s like I’m drunk all the time.  No.  I assure you it’s not because I am.  A glass here and there of sangría means little.  Most of the time it’s gaseosa and tónica I drink.

Rather, it’s the light, the sense of wellbeing, the city I walk through and know so well, the sense of liberty that comes from being on holiday.  As I discovered whilst online one day this summer, the word “vacation” apparently comes from the Italian and means “freedom”.  This is a particularly apposite truth, if – indeed – it is so.

That’s what makes me feel so light-headed, so easily happy and at peace with my surroundings.

Creative work, that kind of work which mirrors the sense of liberty snatched at so shortly in periods such as these, is our natural state as human beings.  Repetitive work, that kind of work which turns us into yet another part of this production line or that, is most certainly not.

On holiday, that is when we realise this.

Everything else – from the consumer society in general to the damned devices which occupy so much of our free time – is just there to distract us from such thoughts.

And such realisations.

Back to Blighty.

Now you may understand why being in Blighty, my country of birth, means what it means to me.  And perhaps, in that understanding, you can begin to excuse and pardon me for feeling as I do.

Welcome back.


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Aug 032010
 
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Every summer is the same.  I am awarded the time to retire to a previous life with people I love – and thus remember what is important.

It seems, therefore, that the intention and purpose of modern consumer societies is to create a hurly-burly of whirring distractions that serve only to make us forget that importance.

This is not a particularly new observation.  It is simply one I am obliged to re-encounter every year.  Summer holidays are where humankind can ease itself, if it so chooses those sorts of holidays which allow such a movement, towards a clearer understanding of itself and of its surroundings.

If the holidays in question do not involve a furious replication of the other eleven months of the year, then some self-knowledge will result.

If we choose to replicate, we can only gain in anxious pursuit of those distractions I mentioned earlier.

I read today in the Telegraph that digital Britain is falling vertiginously behind many of its competitors.  I can vouch for the appalling quality of my broadband connection – but, on the other hand, it is free.  Meanwhile, in my summer playground of truth, snailband is all that technology can offer me.  A snailband which costs €24 a month to contract.  A snailband which takes a week to get sorted, as call-centre operators show their ignorance of the difference between narrow- and broadband.  But then why should they know any better?  They’ve been trained to sell ADSL, not sort out customer problems.

But what am I doing, thinking of such subjects?  You might well fairly ask.  Am I not recovering a sense of sincerity and belief in the true things this existence offers us?  Is this not what I should focus my wayward attention on?

Well, indeed.

I am I suppose a prisoner of my time.

Although I like to think that summer gives me the opportunity to break free, in reality I am tied to my other work-plagued experiences by a rubber band that only ever threatens to break.

In the end, it does not break but, rather, instead, in a nasty namesake sort of way, cruelly brakes my desire to proceed.  In reality, it is not snailband I am suffering from but that rubber band I mention above; that rubber band which makes me believe for a short time that I can touch and feel what is real – only to shrewishly whisk away from me at the very last moment, in a sudden dervish-like rushing of impotence-forming omniscience, all continuing opportunity to do something truly different.

The real sadness of life is to be found in that suddenly unbound self-knowledge which – at the very same time and for so many reasons – cannot be applied.

If I were ever to believe in any political tract, it would be that which promised fulsomely to empower the ordinary man and woman in their ordinary revelations.

At my age, I realise I now want the common sense of political genteelness to rule my country.

Can you blame me?


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