Feb 082012

Today, a couple of events coincide in horrible harmony.  For me, it all starts off with this tweet from Carl:

@Markfergusonuk God is dead. Marx is dead. Satire is dead. I’m not feeling too good myself…

Referring, of course, to today’s ongoing proceedings in the Twitter Joke Trial.

Meanwhile, I read that the always excellent Open Rights Group has decided it is time we need to institutionalise the urge to be funny (pertinent links available at the original post):

Open Rights Group and a coalition of campaigning organisations (Greenpeace, Action Aid, Global Poverty Project, Church Action on Poverty, and Campaign Against the Arms Trade) have today written to Baroness Wilcox at the Department for Business, Industry and Skills to highlight how, in the absence of a parody ‘exception’, copyright affects our ability to campaign as effectively as possible.

In the absence of a parody exception, copyright effectively gives copyright holders a veto over activity society should be encouraging – legitimate creative or critical engagement with the cultural works around us. The problems were laid clear last year by the treatment of Greenpeace’s campaign using Volkwagen’s ‘Star Wars’ adverts.

We’ve been running a website about the need for a new exception, with support from the likes of comedian Graham Linehan, B3ta.com and the film maker Alex Cox, because we think a new exception is necessary. You can help by signing our petition or, if you make parodies and are affected by copyright, you can tell the consultation team. 

And it was only yesterday that Dave Winer retweeted a baleful plea from someone for us to raise a petition to return to Web 1.0.

Which is why I’m really not sure if it’s actually Web 1.0 we need.  A simple standing-still right now in the Web 2.0 we’ve come to love would probably do me fine.  I’m not the most demanding of souls. 

In reality, I’d rather be inclined to wonder if what was approaching our virtual societies at the speed of a runaway train wasn’t in fact the Web 3.0 everyone once so eagerly predicted but must surely now be fearing.

A world where every kind of comment is open to copyright and trademark battles is not a world I would wish this to become.  Nevertheless, it may – one day – serve to define the essence of that Web 3.0.

The very fact that an organisation as dedicated to free speech and digital liberties as ORG sees the need to regulate our right to be funny does seem terribly symptomatic of the lack of real freedoms that we are rapidly accumulating.  We are, indeed, I would argue, in danger of returning to the time of the court-jester figure of yore, the political significance of which was as follows:

The Royal Shakespeare Company provides historical context for the role of the fool:
In ancient times courts employed fools and by the Middle Ages the jester was a familiar figure. In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass’s (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. Excessive behaviour, however, could lead to a fool being whipped, as Lear threatens to whip his fool.[1]

Wikipedia goes on to divide jesters up into two clear types:

One may conceptualize fools in two camps: those of the natural fool type and those of the licensed fool type. Whereas the natural fool was seen as innately nit-witted, moronic, or mad, the licensed fool was given leeway by permission of the court. In other words, both were excused, to some extent, for their behavior, the first because he “couldn’t help it,” and the second by decree.

Distinction was made between fools and clowns, or country bumpkins. The fool’s status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household. His folly could be regarded as the raving of a madman but was often deemed to be divinely inspired. The ‘natural’ fool was touched by God. Much to Gonerill’s annoyance, Lear’s ‘all-licensed’ Fool enjoys a privileged status. His characteristic idiom suggests he is a ‘natural’ fool, not an artificial one, though his perceptiveness and wit show that he is far from being an idiot, however ‘touched’ he might be.[1]

So is this the final destination of humorous electronic communications?  To be sanctioned, registered, regulated and allowed by some all-powerful institution of legal remit?

Where is this all leading us?  Where will it all end?

And just in case you were wondering, this is no joke.

Jul 092011

The Telegraph reports tonight on an ongoing detective story which has nothing to do with the News of the World but does relate to journalism.

If it’s true, I’m really sad because of its implications (my position in June and early July can fairly be reflected in these two pieces here and here).  On the other hand, it vindicates – to a certain degree – the techniques of intertextual journalism which Johann Hari himself has been accused of using.  The detective work involved combines remotely accessed data and judicious conclusion to triangulate a reality which is becoming evermore self-evident – even to the emotional and, dare I say, romantic sorts like myself.

But the purpose of this post isn’t really self-flagellation.  Rather more, I am interested in a reaction from the original poster, the lawyer David Allen Green, whose blog post was picked up by the Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson (@holysmoke on Twitter) and thus duly reported on in the paper itself.  The tweet that caught my eye went as follows:

@holysmoke I should be grateful if you only reproduce a smaller portion of my post, or confirm that the Telegraph will pay a licence fee.

It’s my firm belief that all of us have a right to define the copyright terms we wish to apply to our work.  I do myself, using the Creative Commons copyright you can find at the bottom of this blog – even as under the terms of that copyright I reserve the right to except anyone from its legalese if I so choose.  (Interestingly, if I remember rightly, there are some countries like Spain and France where copyright is seen to be intrinsic to an author – that is to say, it cannot be shrugged off nor needs to be asserted; though, of course, it’s always wise to be able to provide evidence of first use – if, that is, this is the kind of game you prefer to play).

I do however think that where a blog is concerned, full quotation, where duly attributed, can serve useful and constructive purposes – and deserves to be freely allowed.  And there are notable blogs, for example John Naughton’s always excellent Memex 1.1, where the original function of blogging – that is to say, logging the web in some easy-to-find and follow place to ensure that relatively impermanent content finds a safe and searchable home – clearly continues to be their prime reason for existing.

We come back, therefore, to the power of cumulative content and the meaning that intertextuality and juxtaposition can add.  Some of us write columns – closer to more traditional journalism – where the hierarchy between writer and reader is pretty clear.  David Allen Green seems to do and believe in this – and will naturally conceive the ownership of his content in such terms.  Others post a sequence of shorter links couched in explanatory cocoons – Twitter has picked up the gauntlet on this one and made it a particular strength of its ideology and functioning – and here we have blogs like Naughton’s, already mentioned above. 

My own particular view is that a train of thought belongs to no one – and anything we write or create can only exist because of its ancestors.  The Internet was well named when it was called a worldwide web.  And what none of as can deny any longer is that meaning as accumulated, generated and established by the promiscuous content-hopping a modern browser allows is as intertextual and juxtapositional as it’s ever going to get.  Indeed, it is going to be very difficult in such an environment to avoid ever “plagiarising” someone else’s thoughts.  The quantity of information, sources and websites any evening of surfing gets through simply makes it impossible to track the audit trail of every “original” thought one has. 

And then, of course, there’s the reality and power of convergent evolution in human progress – of which I am a fervent believer.

So to summarise.  Copying is hard-wired into the human brain.  Children learn by copying their peers and parents.  Until human beings reach exam-age, our education systems mightily approve of the strategy.  It’s only when we get to the point where money becomes more important than principle – when the daily dollar becomes more important than the recognition of truth – that a glory of human thought processes suddenly becomes a disagreeable technique which the law must prohibit.

And if not prohibit, then at the very least limit its consensual sharing by charging an entry fee for everyone who wishes to participate in the adventure of imagination. 

Myself, I would be proud for someone to fully quote something I had written.  Partly because I would know I didn’t invent it all by my lonesome.


A final thought to be going away with.  There are of course occasions when value can truly be added to content through its processing and framing – a case in point sadly being this piece of investigative intertextuality. 

But I stand by the general principle that no thought – that is to say, no thesis – belongs to anyone at all.  And as far as I can see, this principle is not widely accepted anywhere that money defines first and foremost how we care to think about thought and its development.

Dec 122010

I know there are a number of political commentators who have begun to ask us not to jump to conclusions too readily (Jack of Kent’s take on the Nicky Wishart story – amongst others – can be found here, whilst I reacted rather more forcefully here).  But today we have a story which indicates that sides are very quickly being taken – perhaps on all sides.  The police are undergoing savage cuts of up to twenty percent in areas such as Greater Manchester and yet some of them (I hope the exception) proceed to act with a manifest lack of solidarity:

Police have been accused of attempting to prevent seriously injured protesters being treated at the same hospital as officers hurt during last week’s tuition fees demonstration, igniting claims that one student’s life could have been put at risk.

The mother of 20-year-old Alfie Meadows, who required brain surgery after allegedly being hit by a police truncheon, claimed that when her son was taken to Chelsea and Westminster hospital officers objected to him being treated there.

Susan Matthews, 55, said that only the intervention of an ambulance worker allowed her son to receive urgent medical treatment for the stroke he suffered after receiving his injury. “If he hadn’t, Alfie would have been transferred and he could have died,” she said.

After allegedly being hit by police, the philosophy student fell unconscious and later sustained bleeding on the brain.

What is becoming clearer as the opposing groups solidify around the sloganising and urban myths that each start to sustain, in justification of extreme behaviours on all sides, is that the powerful fear – perhaps quite justly – the dissemination of words and ideas far more than the pickets of the dispossessed.  As politicsworld tweeted a moment ago:

Was a single tear gas canister or plastic bullet fired during the Miners’ Strike? Amazing Tories now want to shoot & gas philosophy students

Amazing, no.

What’s amazing is that it’s taken this long for people to realise where the strength of opposition to the establishment truly lies.  Pickets get on the news.  Demonstrations which end in violence too.  But what changes societies in the medium-term – and here I am thinking of the next general election – is a body politic which smugly believes that he or she who rules the TV news rules the hearts and minds of the public.

For the kinds of things that our Coalition is beginning to get away with do not get forgotten by those they have chosen to hurt.

So it is a coincidence but not a surprise that both philosophy students and very latterday publishing entities should make the powerful tremble in their boots – and, by so doing, drive this body politic to a coercive view of how best to run societies.

In a wider context, this is not really part of the start of the first cyberwar either – as many have been claiming.  It is, rather, the continuation of a struggle that capitalism – in its recent boom years – managed quite ingeniously to make irrelevant, as it flooded our minds and preoccupations with gadgets, devices, software and amateur communication and made us think that tomorrow need never know.

But tomorrow always knows.  It’s just that the tomorrows which count are not necessarily the soonest to arrive on the horizon.

Sometimes the horizons which change worlds have to be awaited upon.  Not every new landscape is different.

For beating up philosophy students and persecuting publishing organisations in the name of maintaining order is, in fact, as old as the hills.  It’s just we thought we’d left those hills behind us.

When we clearly haven’t.

Dec 102010

Who’s really afraid of whom?  And more importantly, why?

This story from the Guardian today came to my attention in an email I read from a member of my family as I walked home from work this evening.  The salient bit, for the purposes of this post, as follows:

Speaking to the Guardian, Nicky Wishart said: “In my lesson, [a school secretary] came and said my head of year wanted to talk to me. She was in her office with a police officer who wanted to talk to me about the protest. He said, ‘if a riot breaks out we will arrest people and if anything happens you will get arrested because you are the organiser’.

“He said even if I didn’t turn up I would be arrested and he also said that if David Cameron was in, his armed officers will be there ‘so if anything out of line happens …’ and then he stopped.”

Wishart, who describes himself as a “maths geek” said he was frightened by the encounter. “I was really scared. Normally I’m a confident speaker but I lost all my confidence. My mum was worried, and I was worried and I didn’t know what to do.”

Wishart’s mother, Virginia Phelps, 41, said: “On Monday I got a phone call in the afternoon at the school from one of the senior staff members, saying, ‘we’ve had the police here, it’s to do with the anti-terrorist group, they’ve taken an interest in something Nicky’s posted on FB’.

“I was under the impression that the police would come to the house and speak with us in the evening but I am absolutely fuming that they spoke to him when I wasn’t present, especially when I live just 10 minutes from the school.”

Nicky is twelve years old.

I am now reminded of four tweets I read yesterday from the libel lawyer David Allen Green.  The first one went as follows:

Victoria station full of police officers hulking their shoulders, just wanting to use their coercive powers. But their eyes say: Losers.

The second continued:

You look at all these sad police officers. You strip them of their yellow jackets and arrest powers. They’d just panic…

The third said:

More worried by someone wanting to use coercive power of police than a terrorist. Former wants to hide behind lawful excuse, as bullies do.

Whilst the fourth concluded:

Abuse of police coercive power now far greater risk than any terrorist threat.

Which is why, at the top of this post, I ask the question: “Who’s really scared of whom?”

For it’s not really the Nicky Wisharts of this world who are most afraid of the future.  They do what they do in their blind and beautiful ignorance of the malice of all those who most firmly inhabit the underbellies of our societies.  They still believe in that just pairing up of obligations and rights.  They have not learnt the lessons their elders learnt so many years ago when they knuckled under the yoke of the minimum wage and resigned themselves to the destiny of wage slave.

They still believe in yearning for freedom – even as we, their elders, tend to foolishly believe there is no longer any point.

Meanwhile, and quite curiously, the persons who will inevitably become the truly frightened individuals in this society of cowards will be all those men and women in power who have finally decided – and even embraced through a bemusingly expressed vigour – the need to burn all their political bridges with a finality that truly shocks.  No going back for you lot now.  These are scars that will never heal.  Running political sores, in fact, is what they will become.

And these people whose intention it is to lord over us, in that bullying manner described in the sequence of tweets I quote above, are all so damned afraid precisely because this is what bullies feel.  They impose fear because they feel it – and the only way for them to assuage it is to make others even more fearful.

They are afraid not because we are as powerful as we think but rather because they know precisely how much damage they about to effect.

And deep down, somewhere still, they know we will be right to react as unhappily as both students and the political class did yesterday as a result of the hasty and ill-considered tuition fees vote.

So it’s not because of our recent past that they know we are right to cry out.  Rather, it is precisely because they know – better than any of us – exactly how much damage in the future the already dispossessed in Britain will suffer as a result of their long-cherished plans.

They know – better than any of us – what is in store.

That is why they will end up being really far more scared of the public that voted them in than the Nicky Wisharts – or, indeed, the rest of that public – will ever find it in themselves to be scared of them.

For when a bully senses the pain he or she is about to impose, even a bully may shed a tear.