Jul 232014

The Guardian reported around a day ago that:

Two leading Westminster civil liberties campaigners, David Davis and Tom Watson, are to mount a high court legal challenge to the government’s new “emergency” surveillance law, which was rushed through parliament last week.

The application for a judicial review of the new legislation, which was passed with support from the three main parties, is to be mounted by the human rights organisation Liberty on behalf of the two backbench MPs.

However, David Allen Green notes on Twitter that:

I understand the @libertyhq challenge to #DRIP is actually only to section 1 – and *not* the entire Act: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/press-releases/liberty-represents-mps-david-davis-and-tom-watson-legal-challenge-government%E2%80%99s- …

Going on to explain that:

In other words, despite the news coverage, the Tom Watson/David Davis legal challenge is not to entire #DRIP Act but to one section of it,

It appears not one of the news reports on Davis/Watson legal challenge have noted that the challenge is not actually to entire #DRIP Act.

Meanwhile, yesterday I suggested that:

It’s a mistake to start by protesting about the content of #DRIP – far more important, and firstly, the really shocking part was process.

I’d love to have the money to take political leaders to court for undermining democracy, process and procedure. #DRIP

Truth is, whilst Gaza, Ukraine and other awful parts of the news have occupied the front pages over the past two weeks or so, and whilst Labour cheerleaders are happy to leave their human rights credentials to the dustbin of history, passing quickly onto other far more important issues such as internal Party unity, a serious matter is clearly not being fully aired here.  As I said in a previous post (the bold is mine today):

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

And when even committed libertarians (libertarians in their own ways, that is true – but libertarians all the same) such as Watson and Davis limit themselves to challenging only a part of the result of dictatorship – obviating a rigorous analysis of the process they participated in (even if unwillingly, I am sure) – then the bald dictatorship I talk of is not just beginning to kick in: clearly, in an ultimate analysis, it is simply proceeding to re-establish itself.

Make no mistake about it, dear readers: this is a full-throated attack on the integrity of democratic communication, dialogue and consensus.  We need to see it as such; we need to deal with it as such; we need to understand that from the so-called #gaggingbill onwards, the final intentions of the political elite – not just the Coalition I insist; not just the Tories or the Lib Dems – is to revert all political activity into the ever-developing injustice that is parliamentary procedure.

From the immorality of Thatcher’s times to the hand-holding hand-in-glove behaviours of our latterday political elite, it’s time we started shouting from the rooftops of all our democracies: “STOP NAYSAYING OUR HUMAN RIGHTS!”

For that, exactly that, is what they are doing.  And that, exactly that, is what they now need to step back from.

Jul 222014

A couple of articles I’ve read this morning.  The first, from Labour List, documents how Labour has achieved magnificent unity at the weekend – coinciding, coincidentally, with my decision to leave the Party after ten years’ membership as a result of the cack-handed and antidemocratic #DRIP process (more here).  (At least I can draw the conclusion that I’ve finally done something right in my political trajectory – the Party must be well-pleased with my disappearance!)  The Labour List post says things like this:

It is completely without precedent in the history of the party. You can write a history of Labour that is all about its internal squabbles. Morrison vs Bevin. Bevan vs Gaitskell. Castle vs Callaghan. Benn vs Healey. Kinnock vs Militant. Blair vs Brown. There is no Ed Miliband vs anyone narrative. The only people he is vs are the Tories.

Credit also needs to go to the people who could have started a fight. Whether trade unions angry about party reform, Blairites hankering for the lost leader over the water, or party lefties nostalgic for a rerun of the 1980s, they all deserve praise for resisting the urge to have a scrap.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Labour in 2010 was in a very weakened, fragile condition. A bout of infighting and recrimination such as we saw every previous time we lost office, in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 might have killed us off as a potential government for a generation, or for ever.

To conclude as follows:

Ed Miliband has shown incredible political skill in leading a united party into an election year at the same time as assembling a battery of appealing and radical policies. If he shows this degree of skill in uniting the country he will make a very great Prime Minister.

(The sort of stuff, incidentally, I was saying myself quite a while ago.)

Then we get quite another sort of post which defines Tony Blair’s achievements in the context of moon-landing deniers:

That’s not, of course, to say that Blair did not wrong and that is every decision was faultless. Certainly there were problems, at home as well as abroad, although different people from different political traditions will disagree as to what those were. But it seems to me that to focus on Mr Blair’s mistakes is to be like those cranks from Nowhere, Alabama, desperately pointing at Neil Armstrong and looking for signs of studio lights.

And, of course.  Yes.  Blair did indeed pick up Thatcher’s spilt milk – putting roofs back on schools etc – and of that, there is no doubt; but by so doing also stored up disasters for our present.  And I don’t just mean via his mistakes.  I also mean via his outright successes: for in order to counter the cruel neoliberalism of Thatcher – read more of the above for an excellently measured summary of the latter – Blair committed the foolish expediency of PFI and other short cuts to future prosperity.  The short cuts were necessary, desperate measures; the country, after Thatcher, was falling apart physically (and now, it seems, morally too).  But whilst Thatcher’s achievements were, in retrospect, clearly minimal – and Blair’s achievements were clearly, in retrospect, a counterweight the whole country needed – the aforementioned good also contained the seeds of the bad.

It wasn’t just the decisions on Iraq that brought conflict to our country.  It was also the decisions on matters such as tuition fees – seen by some as rank social engineering and by others as a necessary financial tool to lever access to higher education – which now, even on their own neoliberal terms, have clearly begun to fall apart at the seams.

And so I would suspect that here history is repeating itself, as it so often must.  Unity forged of the tribal – characteristic of Blair whilst he held the reins charismatically over the Party – and manifested quite differently with the Ed Miliband of the Labour List commentary; manifested differently but manifested all the same.

It may lead to a competent election result (though without wishing to be an aguafiestas, I’m not sure – even now – that this will happen as much as one might hope) but what is clear, at least to me, is that the very tribalism that political parties – of any political denomination – need to generate in order to have half a chance of getting into power is precisely that moment, time and place where the seeds of their our downfall are created.

If only our body politic were able to function on the basis of healthy disagreement, debate and well-fleshed consensus.  It’s not even as if it operates on agreement either.  Instead, when it happens, it’s a question of people like myself leaving the party in question – at the same time as people like those depicted in the two articles I’ve linked to today end up demonstrating a greater faith, fewer compunctions or negligible principles with respect to our no-longer-terribly-prized democratic process.

People who ultimately find themselves learning how to shut up for the short-term benefit of the tribe.

That the political left can only be acting as cheerleaders for internal Labour Party unity, less than a week after Parliament behaved disgracefully with the agreement, collusion and collaboration (in the World War II sense of the word, that is) of the man they are now saying will become an excellent Prime Minister … well, it bodes little positive, when his time comes, for his command of and fidelity to parliamentary process.

The elite is in charge, unity is the calling-card – and it’s time for the faithful, who often happily criticise the otherwise religious, to blindly believe in their broad church once again.

Jul 182014

I’m a member of Open Rights Group, the Fabians and Labour.  I also remain an associate member of the small trades union Accord.  The latter is more out of sentiment than practicality.  I no longer work in the sector where it operates, but the people who run it treated me well.  The add-on legal and travel services are also good value-for-money factors in my membership.

When I return to Britain after my working holiday here in Spain, I have decided – today – to curtail my membership of both Labour and the Fabians.  I shall continue to pay my dues to ORG.  This open letter to the current UK Home Secretary is the reason why:

Dear Theresa, see you in court

Parliament has a done a terrible thing. They’ve ignored a court judgment and shoved complex law through a legislative mincer in just three days.

But in doing so they won’t have had the final word. You’re already shown them the growing public opposition to mass surveillance. There was incredible action from supporters: 4458 of you wrote to your MPs with even more phoning up on the day of the vote.  Together we helped 49 MPs rebel against the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. It may have passed, but thanks to you they know that we do not agree.

Help us challenge DRIP: Join now

Meanwhile, my own political party was rolled in ways I never expected possible.  And the process that was #DRIP, as described above in ORG’s letter, showed that:

When they’re of a mind, the political class is just that: a class, quite separate from the voters who vote for it. Able to decide anything.

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

Tom Watson MP described the process as “democratic banditry, resonant of a rogue state. The people who put this shady deal together should be ashamed.”

The fact is that they are neither ashamed of what they are doing nor dislike the idea of giving other rogue states a lead.  And I know exactly what I am talking about.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was hospitalised for believing the state was tracking me for my political beliefs.  I was hospitalised for a month, informed in their clinical judgement that I would be unable to work for more than two hours unpaid work a week on being released – only to then start, after a month’s poking and prodding, a full twenty-hour shift in a fast-food restaurant in Chester.

What did I believe was happening to me?

  1. My Windows computer was being intervened.
  2. My mobile phone was being hacked.
  3. My landline was being interfered with.
  4. My email was being intercepted.

I was – as a result – terrified, of course; my illness was manifest and real.  But the causes were not so clear, especially in retrospect.

The killer question I was asked at the time (in particular by the psychiatrist who insisted on interviewing me at 5 am in the morning, in the presence of an abusive family member and their doctor friend, but never in consultation with my wife – either before or after) ran as follows:

If all these things are happening to you, what have you done for them to happen?  Why are you important enough for anyone to want to do any of the above?

I now fast-forward to today, to #DRIP’s passing and what it really means.  #DRIP sanctions and makes real for us all what happened to me eleven years ago.  For it’s not just, as Paul Bernal has suggested, the normalising of surveillance worldwide that is so terrible (clearly the case here, it is true; clearly a reality which would have made that killer question, which destroyed my moral resistance at the time, entirely unreasonable).  It’s also the normalising of their absence of shame.  The fact that they don’t care we see them all as so undemocratic; the fact that they don’t care other truly rogue states now fully enjoy the cloak of precedence that #DRIP’s process provides; the fact that the trampling of democracy doesn’t make them bewildered in any way … all of this and so much more is the real and quite terrifying normalisation which is taking place.

Yes.  The example will be repeated.  But I can promise you, for many unimportant people like myself, at a personal level only satisfaction emerges from the shenanigans that is the current British body politic.  What happened to me, what I suffered for and had to make my family suffer too, was happening to you as well I am sure.  It’s just that you didn’t perceive or understand it.

And so now I enjoin you to become an associate member of the paranoid.  Don’t worry.  It won’t mean you’re ill.  It’ll just mean you understand what’s happening.  Whatever we are, do or think in our lives will now be important enough to be tracked, exchanged and intercepted by the state.

For as paranoia, it is manifestly no longer the case.  That is exactly how personal it gets.

Oct 092013

Compare and contrast.  Read this first (I’ve linked to it before) from Open Democracy on how the BBC – the British public service broadcasting organisation paid for by every TV owner in the country through a licence fee – has consistently ignored the ramifications and reality of a stealthy privatisation of the National Health Service in the two years following the Coalition government’s power grab in 2010.

Now study the BBC‘s six public purposes as currently outlined here:

Sustaining citizenship and civil society
The BBC provides high-quality news, current affairs and factual programming to engage its viewers, listeners and users in important current and political issues.

Promoting education and learning
The support of formal education in schools and colleges and informal knowledge and skills building.

Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
Encouraging interest, engagement and participation in cultural, creative and sporting activities across the UK.

Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
BBC viewers, listeners and users can rely on the BBC to reflect the many communities that exist in the UK.

Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
The BBC will build a global understanding of international issues and broaden UK audiences’ experience of different cultures.

Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services
Assisting UK residents to get the best out of emerging media technologies now and in the future.

Now we could, of course, as per each of our very personal and political prejudices, fisk the above till the cows come home.  But it’s not the purpose of this post to do that.  I have my own view – fairly jaundiced by now – of what the BBC has become.  There is evidence to support my view too – Open Democracy’s piece being only perhaps the most impactful and carefully argued of a raft of recent critiques on what was once a binder of nations and peoples.

To be honest, the BBC‘s decline and fall in the eyes of many was perhaps inevitable: it reigned unopposed in years and decades when the ruling classes had a pretty unique hold on the airwaves.  The virtual ethers didn’t even exist at the time; the ever-suppurating pollution of such singular discourses simply didn’t take place.  At least not publicly.  What counted, in those days, as rebellion involved sexy young people singing their way into our consciences as, simultaneously, they preached revolution by perpetuating – at a personal level at least – the capitalist dream.

Hardly a revolution likely to bring down anyone, or indeed anything, of a traditional bent.

Public service broadcasting today, then.  How does it stand?  How should we conceptualise it?  A broadcasting which serves the public via Parliament’s – ie the Coalition and the wider establishment’s – view of what we as a represented and mediated public need, deserve and can be allowed?  Or a broadcasting which serves the public through a software constitution created behind closed doors by a private company’s software engineers to generate long-term content that can be duly monetised for the benefit of eager shareholders?

You may suggest that for all its faults, the BBC‘s Charter and relationship with Parliament guarantees a closer fit with the needs of the British people than an American corporation of broadly libertarian philosophies, where anything and everything very publicly goes.

Well.  Maybe so.  And maybe not quite so.  Lately, I think, I’m beginning to conclude that if you’re looking for a truly 21st century equivalent of the very 20th century public service ethos the BBC once seemed to enshrine, you’d be better off looking to Twitter et al – even as their very American façades do make us pale on occasions in the face of their terribly gung-ho enthusiasms.  All of the six purposes the BBC supposedly espouses – in its very 20th century “let me do it for you” way – I have seen generated on Twitter over the past couple of years, by the careful drawing up and development of an online constitution which permits people to communicate and fashion their environment directly and through their own voices.

Downsides?  Many, of course.  The biggest being the monetisation process.  We are, it is true, the product and not the client.  Our data, our thought patterns, our attitudes and reactions, are being number-crunched and made money of time and time again.  But is this any different – or, at least, any worse – than a public service broadcasting corporation like the BBC which has not only permitted in its notably halcyon days a paedophilia of dreadful proportions but has also – in what we might term its moment of greatest decline and fall – exhibited a rank partiality to a government of barely democratic means which has shown itself emotionally incapable of leading a country as one?

Never mind via evidence-based mindsets.

It’s not that the BBC no longer serves the public.

It’s rather that, through its political taskmasters, it serves itself of the public.  No difference, in truth, between the shareholding monetisers of American social networks and the allegedly cuddlier nationalities of our islands.

If that is to be our destiny, if that is to be our end, surely better that it should be perpetrated with even a scanty veneer of direct empowerment than this Coalition-sponsored daily thrashing and bashing of stats which BBC journalism and a wider current affairs have now become.

Me?  Even right now?  Even as I withdraw myself slowly from the web?  I’d still far rather mutely follow the occurrences of the crowd on Twitter than turn on the tele and engage in rubber-brick-throwing at the privileged elites.

Oct 082013

This is how John Lennon saw it.


This is how I’m seeing it:

Hello #Twitter. Was in virtual world, training people to communicate this morn; in outside world, helping wife to disconnect esta tarde.

Good to take a break and re-evaluate. And stepping back is fine (as long as you don’t step back into an abyss, of course!!!).

So I wonder why it’s so untraumatic slowly retiring from blogging and social media. And I honestly think it has to do with this #NSA stuff.

Sharing one’s thoughts has become the biggest Hobson’s choice there ever was.  You can do it with the virtual swathes of people out there and – at the same time – give your heart, soul and everything up to Big Government and its minions; or you can begin to stop dropping pebbles into the wishing-well that is the worldwide web and start keeping them to yourself – on occasions, perhaps, your nearest friends and family too.

But the problem here – and it’s a serious one I assure you – is that spying Big Government hates it when its people’s behaviours get into grinding gear – when its people’s behaviours begin to unpredictably change.  There’s nothing less frightening than a mass of easily satisfied consumers who sit gaily clutching their gadgets galore; nothing more scary than a horde of unsatisfied voters who want to think things properly through.

So even as I wonder at myself – after seven years of more or less continuous blogging and after two or three years of 35,000-odd tweets (or maybe that’s 35,000 odd tweets!) and even as I find this cold turkey I am hardly suffering from leads me to a week without Facebook, a few days here and there without blogging, as well as a highly cursory tweeting and the like – I cannot really believe, even now, how unpainful it is all being.

What’s the reason?  I suppose it’s very simple: I don’t believe the worldwide web is the best place to share any more.  I don’t think, now, it was any place to share.  Perhaps, at the very beginning, there was an ickle chance it could have been.  But this ickle chance was soon swallowed up by far greater interests who understood the historical sweep with far greater clarity.

I’m beginning to realise it was a place where people in power sold a donkey to those who would finally keep them there: consumers; end-users; the creative sorts who loved to show off their wisdoms (me included in this last lot; perhaps me included in all three) … all of these people and so many more out there were assigned the role of sustaining a modulated form of the status quo.

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

Breadcrumbs is all we could perceive.  The trail was ours, I don’t deny that – but the trail led only to the legs of the highest tables at which the powerful today, especially today, swaggeringly continue to sit.

Cold turkey is now easy for me because I see the lie on which this whole Internet was built.  And perhaps that’s exactly the conclusion the NSA, GCHQ and its multifarious hangers-on want us to come to: there’s no point in continuing with such a fundamentally corrupted beast.

Which is why I have to say they’re probably right.  In this, I mean.  Not in doing what they’ve done.

Lord, no.  Not that.  Not in a thousand years.

To undermine so fundamentally our fabric of free speech, to make us feel we have a Hobson’s choice of an empty web of hole-ridden cloth on the one hand or a shutting up shop and a silently reserving our democracy for family and friends on the other, is truly a golpe de estado of terrible proportions.  I mean really, what’s the point of such a democracy if voters are tracked so utterly?  Where is free will?  Where is secular liberty?  Where have all the liberal concepts we once treasured so much gone and ended up?

Freedom of choice?  It won’t exist.  We will find ourselves “pre-imprisoned”, in one way or another, for our own “safety” and for the “security” of our communities.  Algorithms and maths will decide our destinies in an absolutist way, much as omens and heathen religions did in other supposedly darker ages.  DNA, genetic analysis … all this science and so much more will be put to an end which rational thought would in other centuries hardly ever have countenanced: the removal of all fraternity and liberty from the sphere that is human thought and act.

Yet maybe in all of this rather sad landscape I paint a solution could exist.  Maybe the Hobson’s choice I describe is even grander than I describe.  Maybe, just maybe, we might decide that the NSA & Co have actually done us all a favour: in their obvious, perverse and deliberate destruction of the idealism of a perfectly communicating web, they have really brought it down to earth.  And we, as human beings, need the down-to-earth to function well.  We, as human beings, need such challenges as these in order to keep up the fight.

In the frame of a perfectly – and easily – communicating web, we were becoming lazy gadget-consuming materialistic beings.  So perhaps, now, in the snapshot that is an NSA-perforated Internet we can become, once again, the sincere altruistic thinkers and doers of those beautiful decades ago.

Those thinkers and doers who – all those decades ago – brought about the original Internet, and thus raised our joyous hopes.


Update to this post: via Adam Fish, this warning tale for all of us who would like to sound clever when nattering about Internet discourse.  Evgeny Morozov on the fallacy of, amongst other things, cuddling up far too happily to the enemy.

Aug 252013

I’ve been wondering the same.  We’re criticising and slamming and dunking with clever words this state we believe is a police state already.

Or not quite yet, as the case may be.

Yet this tweet encapsulates something I’ve also been pondering:

If you can publish an article in a national newspaper comparing your country to a police state, it probably isn’t anywhere near one.

The question, however, I think is quite different.  What – if like so many post-modern moments – this is now a post-modern police state, where the rules of the game have been utterly reconverted?

A new kind of state which has learned from previous manifestations.  Yes.  I’ve seen a tweet describe how Ceaușescu’s regime registered all the typewriters in the country in order to be able to doublecheck the origins of any communication – with the inference that such behaviours were a precursor to what we have on the table now; I’ve seen other comments appear to compare the American NSA with the East German Stasi – comments which let it be understood the Stasi were small beer compared with today.

But I’m beginning to think that the new contract drawn up – even as it has been drawn up without our cognisance – is not exactly, not quite, the police state we’re assuming it must be.

A police state it is – don’t get me wrong.  A police state where everyone is under suspicion.  But a police state which has learnt to allow social networks an important role in keeping the lid on dreadful circumstance.  In any other time, a government which allowed thousands of disabled people to die as a direct result of its policy adjustments would be massacred at the polls; in the media that cared to report it; in the parishes and grapevines that used to populate our country.

Now it would seem that people can become homeless as a result of the “bedroom tax”; the homeless can end up crushed in wheelie bins as a result of their poverty; and the poor who have nothing to eat can get sentenced to prison for stealing a sausage roll.  And nothing happens.  That is to say, nobody at government level cares to reconsider anything they are.

Anything they are, think or do.

This, then, is the new kind of state I describe above.  A state where democracy no longer pretends its main objective is to represent the will of the people through the ballot box: the function of the ballot box, instead, is to legitimise the actions of a minority.  As John Prescott describes today in a gently analogous process:

As Deputy Prime Minister I was asked by GCHQ to sign phone tap orders in order to trace the terrorists behind Omagh. I later discovered GCHQ had been tracking these individuals for weeks and my ­signature simply legitimised this State-backed phone hacking.

Writ larger, this is what has happened to representative democracy.  What politicians are going to do, like corporations and their blessed succession-planning procedures, is already well laid-out way before an election takes place.  We simply serve to rubber-stamp wealth’s instincts, justifications and objectives.  And if we don’t always act according to the unwritten script, something else happens to impulse other actions; something else happens to cloak the reality in the inevitability of a sadly-tough political medicine – a medicine which aims to make us believe our political leaders, and their sponsors, have their hands just as sadly tied.

What’s really new about this police state is it’s actually morphed into a policed state: everything we are, do or think is getting to the point where it’s liable to be recorded and copied by someone.  From CCTV in train toilets to Internet logs which register every website we go to … you know, it’s actually quite astonishing in a world where copyright law imprisons people for decades for the accessible crime of copying content in its digital form that, at least in security and marketing contexts, the very stuff of our own flesh-and-blood lives is quite easily the most broadly-copied and widely-shared sequence of events on the planet.

And I really do not hear anyone shouting out loud that our intellectual property rights over our existences are being deliberately and summarily violated.

Do you?

I didn’t think you did.

Anyhow.  Notwithstanding my intellectual bleating, this new kind of state has clearly shifted the onus of democratic representation onto the social networks.  As it has become easier to complain virtually, so representative democracy has moved away from giving space to such complaints.  Where we social-network users thought our acts made democracy better, it’s quite possible that our lords, masters and mistresses have actually invented/taken advantage of a way of venting off further requirements to respond – in any politically meaningful way – to any kind of societal dissatisfaction at all.

This is a police state which doesn’t – as a general rule – put people in prison, so much as construct virtual prisons within which we all are now living our lives.

It’s almost as if we’ve moved from being battery chickens to being their free-range cousins; from inhabiting caged zoos to inhabiting safari-parked enclosures.  The frame looks so big and beautiful now – yet frame it continues to be.

And so they’ve imprisoned all of us, and so it is true – just as wild animals and pets become domesticated in what were once very English castles.  And in this new kind of post-modern police state of ours theirs, we they no longer need to incarcerate anyone.

We’re already, most of us, more or less cheerfully behind bars.

The only possible upside being maybe one day – just maybe – we’ll be on the outside looking in.

Aug 212013

The German magazine Spiegel Online truly held up a mirror to Cameron-land yesterday, when it titled its main news item thus:

Cameron und der Geheimdienst-Skandal: Im Land der schwarzen Helikopter

This is a reference to something I’m sure you’ve already read, contained in this report on recent events by the Guardian‘s editor, Alan Rusbridger:

[...] And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

But whilst we could assume this is simply banter, even if of a rather macabre kind, in the light of David Miranda’s recent detention I’m inclined to think we’re actually witnessing the moment the British intelligence services really took social networks and media by the scruff of the neck.

You do stuff like this with journalists; you know it’ll eventually come out.  Some thoughts from this evening’s tweets to remind us all where we might now be ending up:

#QforGCHQ: why ask for #Miranda’s passwords if #MasteringTheInternet already masters the web? Or did you just need us to know you had them?

Funny, this turning public all previously private behaviour. Even stages, content & acts of interrogation become public. So, no act neutral.

Those conducting interrogations, these days, know they will become public. Manner conducted deliberately shaped to achieve maximum effect.

Our civil servants have learned from theatre of hate. They know private acts will seep into public consciousness, & acquire greater reality.

A game with reality: like films feel more real for being poorly shot, so acts against freedom of speech gain power when emerge bit by bit.

It’s not even “We don’t care if you find out”. Rather, it’s “We’re doing this in the full knowledge you’ll find out in *our* time”.

Curious how “web” was always historically associated with entrapment. And yet in the last decade we’ve launched ourselves onto it merrily.

@latentexistence I’m more interested in psychology of interrogation theatre: doing such stuff in private, knowing it’ll hit public domain.

@latentexistence The nature of the detention, its details, its phases, was effected in full knowledge we would all find out about it.

@latentexistence Greenwald & Miranda kinda got it wrong. They weren’t the people authorities were trying to frighten. It’s the rest of us.

Black-helicopter land?  You think I’m exaggerating?  Well, maybe I am.  Maybe I’m a little sensitive to such stuff.  As another sequence of tweets serves to explain:

Not looking forward to crossing the border into my own country. How did we ever reach a situation where the UK does that to its subjects?

@MILivesey Well quite. Used to go every summer to Communist Yugoslavia. Crossing the border was a nightmare. Country infused with paranoia.

@MILivesey Thinking about it *very* carefully, what Britain has become today is beginning to be cut from the same emotional cloth.

In essence, what I suggest is really happening here is that our authorities are learning hand over fist.  Whilst tying up Parliament and the offline world is pretty much par for the course – plenty of previous cases of similar instincts I’m sure we could find – the web is a far more slippery beast.  But controlling a beast doesn’t necessarily involve putting your dirty paws on it: sometimes, mind games, fear and shadow-boxing from afar achieve much much more.

This latter approach, then, I think is manifesting itself in the following ways:

  1. “Black-helicopter” humour – so beautifully quotable – is bound to seep out and frame the social networks: in this case, it’s even framed the mainstream.
  2. Stories about passwords being demanded with menaces – when it’s perfectly obvious GCHQ doesn’t need them to access the data it needs to save lives – simply serve to objectify and make closer to our own daily experiences the dangers of stepping out of line.
  3. Publicising for free in this way the wide-ranging powers of the police to hold individuals without explanation, and without rapid access to a lawyer, has done for the power of the instincts of the repressive state what would otherwise have cost the taxpayers in government advertising campaigns millions to get across.
  4. William Hague’s declarations a couple of months ago form part of this strategy: if you’re “law-abiding” (ie you follow the law, made by an evermore unrepresentative government, on behalf of its evermore tightly-defined interests), “you have nothing to fear”.  If, on the other hand, you don’t think like the government, you’re already a suspicious being – and, more likely than not, going to find yourself figuring on its active list.  And even if you’re not, the seeds of doubt are properly sown: the wariness, the hesitations of self-censorship, the having to live a normal life which requires you to keep your head down … all this means the government takes control again of public spaces and discourse.

One final tweet as a thought to be going away with:

Why do clever people act like bullies? ‘Cos their intelligence tells them they’re:
a) weak & wrong
b) running out of time
Voters take note.

Are you gonna take note then?

Shall we decide, battle and – ultimately – vote to reclaim our sovereign right, as subjects of a liberal democracy, to see each other treated with the respect we deserve?

To reclaim the public?

To not see borders as barricades put up by ministers and civil servants, incapable any longer of correctly serving?

To not be made to fear coming home any more?

Aug 182013

Most of my readers probably consider me an excessively rhetorical soul, given to dancing verbally around subjects instead of providing hard evidence.  Today, I’ll provide hard evidence for the following assertion: our democracy has been gamed from within – and needs to be ungamed about as sharpish as we can.

The evidence first.  A couple of years ago I already reported on ministerial bed-hopping:

It was bad enough in New Labour times.  Something I picked up via False Economy in August (background here) made that pretty patent and clear enough for all of us to see.  Amongst the many unhappy truths, conflicted interests and abuses of power in such times, this one is perhaps one of the most vigorously anti-democratic:

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector. Of these, thirteen were still MPs. Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’ This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months. A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Now – it would appear, however – that as in everything in this world, Cameron & Co are looking to outdo even more of the less salubrious “achievements” of our previous governors.  As the Telegraph reports today:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost the economy.

To be honest, here I’d be inclined to want to argue the toss – and make one very small but important amendment to that sentence:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost their economy.

Yesterday, meanwhile, the Guardian provided us with some important data in relation to who is really represented at party political conferences:

Lobbyists and executives from companies and charities make up a third of the people at the Conservative autumn conference, it has emerged.

The Tory party’s commercial brochure shows just 38% of delegates at the party’s annual meeting are members, while 36% are from companies, charities and other “exhibitors”. Around 20% of attendees were from the media.

If you asked me to compare that figure of 36 percent with how general elections are won and lost, how decisions are taken after election day and who, essentially, our representative democracies truly represent these days, I’d find it difficult to take issue with that figure.  If anything, I’d be inclined to argue it underestimates the influence of moneyed constructors of public opinion and discourse.

Clearly, then, our democracy has been gamed from within.  Political parties which can no longer depend on individual members to sustain their narratives resort to big donors whose interests lie quite elsewhere.  The big push that a general election campaign used to presuppose – where once interpreted as a massively positive referendum on past actions as well as on the potential integrity of future promises – has been positioned as a perfect objective for the Dark Arts of political marketing and spin to focus their actions and massage our opinions.

And so most of us understand a democracy gamed just as clearly needs ungaming.  Which brings me to this fascinating suggestion by Tim, worth reading in full for its measured portrayal of a beautiful alternative to the mess we currently find ourselves in – democracy without general elections:

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

He goes on to explain how a rolling process of weekly elections – not without its possible downsides but nevertheless worth considering in the light of its democracy-infusing and grassroots-empowering advantages – might help wrest power from the centralisers and return it to the people without requiring any profound reorganisation of Parliament itself:

[...] Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

The biggest upsides I can see are twofold: firstly, since it would appear the traditional party political structure is now about as corrupted by Big Money as could possibly be the case (remember that 36 percent of lobbyist representation mentioned in the Guardian article), taking away the right of parties to structure their political persuasion and marketing around big events held every five years would, in fact, take it away from the lobbyists too.  Secondly, no party, however well-funded, could possibly run weekly elections without the true enthusiasm and collaboration of grassroots volunteers everywhere.  Suggestions made to democratise internal democracy in relation to policy generation and planning in particular would rapidly gain traction as a result.

And not just for Labour.

This idea deserves further and wider consideration than simply by my humble blogsite.  If you do stumble across this post, please consider retweeting on Twitter, liking on Facebook or linking to and writing about its thesis.

I do think we need it more than many professionals in the field are prepared to acknowledge for the moment.  But as simple voters who know what it’s like to be on the crappy end of a process, it may be up to us to make them understand their tardiness – before we all lose faith entirely in the glories of what we once called a liberal democracy.


Aug 172013

At the very end of this BBC report on youth unemployment, we get this astonishing quote (the bold is mine):

Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said David Cameron’s government had “comprehensively failed young people”.

“The Work Programme has missed every single one of its performance targets. The Youth Contract is on course to miss its targets by 92%.

“Ministers need to act now to introduce a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to get any young person out of work for more than a year into a paying job – one they would be required to take.”

So let me get this straight.  In a “free-market” capitalism, in a supposedly “liberal” democracy, people who’ve had no blame for their condition as long-term unemployed should be obliged to take on a job – with the only condition that it might be paid.  And paid, minimally one assumes, by that very layer of society which has brought us close to the financial ruin currently afflicting us.

First, what a notable colleague of yours, Tom Watson, has just said in separately distinctive declarations:

The more important part is what Watson says about the economy:

“There was huge market failure in the finance and banking sector – everyone knows that – and we’ve not robustly said so. The truth is that in government we didn’t sufficiently map out the contours of the mixed economy and put stakes in the ground about where the market can’t go. We were frightened of dealing with some of those so-called great Thatcherite legacies, like liberalisation of the City, so we let the City grow out of control. And I don’t know why we don’t just say that. Why don’t we just say that?” Might it be to do with protecting Ed Balls’ reputation? “I don’t know,” he says, but doesn’t sound entirely convincing. “I didn’t do the economy, I was the coordinator.”

Watson fears Labour’s unwillingness to admit they let the financial markets get out of control has cost them their economic credibility. “If we don’t explain that properly, how can we argue that it’s the reason the crisis took place in 2008? Our problem is that, in the absence of that explanation, people blame the 2008 crash on our profligate spending.”

Once Labour has admitted the reason for the crash, it could then offer a “distinctive economic programme” of investment to create jobs. “It’s all about jobs. Not taking risks is not an option.” Does Labour’s current economic policy takes too few risks? “Yes, definitely. The country is in a crisis. If Labour’s not going to give the bold solution, then who is?”

So basically what we’re talking about here is a Labour Party which, at least according to Watson’s assessment, is still unable to see itself re-regulating anything at least a shade close to the real reasons for our socioeconomic misery.

Oh.  But look who’s here (more here).  I’d almost forgotten this detail from Labour’s complex and as yet undefined present.

Rewind time, I think.  A Labour Party, then, unable to see itself re-regulating anything significant – except the labour market our dear Liam Byrne is responsible for shadowing; that labour market where jobs must be accepted by the youth of our nation on pain of state excommunication.

By a youth which has played absolutely no part in the economic trials and tribulations our financial-services whizz-kids have been allowed to impose on us.

Whatever happened to liberal democracy, Liam?  Whatever happened to justifying capitalism’s imperfections through the imperfect but honourable effort of reasonably free men and women?  Whatever happened to those reasonably free men and women being reasonably equal before the law of the land?

As I tweeted just now:

Why must voters submit themselves to Compulsory Jobs Guarantees, whilst politicos & biz leaders can move their money & influence whenever?

And as I concluded minutes later:

We’re no longer equals before the law because the law is twisted by those who would prefer to be more equal. Now, the law brays cruelly.

The law does indeed bray cruelly.  And those in power, or those who look to have it shortly, see no problem any longer with its becoming an ass in the eyes of a wider populace.

I would like to know, though, what happened to this grand idea of liberal democracy.  You know, the free market of capital and labour, where people – at the very least – were able to aspire to ideals of choice and liberty.

If Labour wants to sort itself out in the real world, it has to learn how to be even-handed with everyone.  To remind us how it was fashioned in an environment of justice for all.  To make us recall its nicer side; its kinder side; its more efficient and simultaneously humane side.

Alternatively, if it wants to continue down Byrne’s nasty road of compulsion, it’s got a helluva lot of explaining to do in order to convince the rest of us why compulsion can only be used on the young.  Why compulsion is fine on the poor, disadvantaged and sick – but not on the wealthy who’ve brought us to the edge of this incoherent abyss.  Why compulsion is correct and sensible for those who suffer – but not for those who continue to privilege themselves infamously.

Because I tell you one thing: if capitalism no longer offers even minimally even-handed freedoms of liberal democracy as an upside, and not even our Labour Party is there to even-handedly defend them, there’s bloody little else convincing me to stay on the path of the figurative straight and narrow.

Bloody little else convincing me the rule of law is anything, any more, but the rule of loreReptiles being the creatures to hand here.  Reptiles of the coldest-blooded kind.

Aug 062013

Democracy only makes any sense if we believe that human beings, in their natural state and left to their own only slightly moderated devices, operate generally in good faith.  The concept of progress soppy democrat-types have always associated with Western civilisation can only work properly if we assume we are fundamentally of a progressive bent.  If we see the bad and the violent which takes place in all societies as aberrations of an otherwise sensible species, then democracy as a goal, tool and strategy makes inevitable and continuing sense.

But what if we assume human beings are not essentially sensible?  Or what if we discover that once we may have been – and now we are not?

What if we begin to perceive a different profile emerging?

What if neoliberalism’s last few decades have actually changed the essence of what it is to be of our species?

Can a certain economics, deliberation and environment wreak primal alterations to how we behave; to our instincts and impulses; to our way of relating not only to other people but also to other beings, existences and ecosystems?

Has neoliberalism’s worldwide laboratory actually affected the result?

Chris suggested as much the other day:

[...] herein lies a danger. The neoliberal priority of individuals over community networks can be performative; it doesn’t just describe the world, but shapes it too.  Having given us a society of isolated individuals, neoliberalism also gives Wonga more chance of out-competing credit unions.

So back to my initial train of thought: if democracy as we understand it involves the idea of Western progress, and requires the presence of a generally progressive weight of behaviours, assumptions and mindsets from its participants in order that it might not betray its very substance, what happens to its future integrity when the weight of such behaviours is deliberately rebalanced so that it becomes impossible to coincide with traditional perceptions of advancement?

Under such circumstances, doesn’t democracy become irrelevant?  I don’t mean, as I’ve said quite incessantly (quite irritatingly) on these pages, that it finds itself peppered with corrupting acts of revolving doors, the self-interested privileges of top-down hierarchies and corporate and political grafts various.  No.  I mean something much more fundamental and game-changing than that.

What if neoliberalism’s thirty- or forty-year march – coupled with the corporate infiltration and shaping of everything we are, do and hanker after (I am reminded of a tweet I read this morning which said something along the lines of: “We’ve become a society of Shakespeares, all writing like monkeys”) – has actually made the vast majority of us basically unsuited to the concepts of traditional democracy I’ve outlined above?

If this is the case, it’s not just that democracy has turned into a farce where the powerful rubber-stamp their power with the laughably occasional will of the people.  If this was all it was, there would still be space for a degree of hope.  No.  The game-changing nature of what’s happened over the past half a century is that we, as human beings, have evolved in mere generations into something quite different from our grandparents.  A consumer society where money demands to be heard; a gadget-driven world where we love tools and use people; an impatient relationship with input and outcome; an absolute inability to step back from thinking and reacting fast.  All of this, and far more, now separates us dramatically from only a couple of generations ago.

The people of a couple of generations ago – as well as the democratic expectations of a couple of generations ago.

Just think about it.

We haven’t destroyed democracy from within.

We’ve simply moved on from its principles.

We’ve evolved astonishingly quickly, to the point where we are probably becoming fairly unrecognisable.  Though to ourselves, wrapped up in ourselves, as always, we will perceive little of this.

Evolved, yes.  Progressed, not necessarily.

For there’s always the chance that this isn’t just the end of the line for democracy.

There’s always the chance – sooner rather than later – it’s the end of the line for the species.

Neoliberalism, the map.

And we, foolish and lazy beings that we are, have taken the wrong fork in the road.

Jul 052013

Paul says these interesting things in his latest post:

I’ve often been asked about what happens when a new electoral process results in an illiberal government. I’ve been told that “if you promote liberal democracy, for example, in many countries in the Middle East, you create a situation whereby a totalitarian-ish Islamist party can take power”.

Surely this presents us with a paradox?

Well… no it doesn’t. If you hold an election, and the resulting constitutional settlement allows the winner to abolish, or rig, subsequent elections, then the election was not part of a process that could be described as ‘liberal democratic’ in the first place.

With these thoughts to hand, he goes on to conclude that it’s not particularly anti-democratic to overthrow regimes which attempt to undermine the spirit and letter of the democracy which brought them to power.  Legitimacy, it would seem, seen through such a prism (I’m trying to recover the word “prism” as something we might want to use constructively), is not just the naked following of trains of procedures – each step taken in itself legal and correct – but also an adherence to a bigger definition of what we treasure in politics, culture and society.

And this is what is missing today.  The big moneymen and women (I include their political wings, the political parties, in such a description) are skilled at using lawyers and the wider tapestry of snagging laws to control how society operates and civilisation civilises (or otherwise).  We get trapped by people and organisations highly skilled in the letter of life; highly skilled in avoiding complying with the spirit of the same.

These itsy-bitsy legal concepts play into their hands: in reality, what was there to defend Western democracy has, of late, been cleverly turned against it.  Laws in the hands of the rich and already powerful have become tools to sustain a dead weight on that “liberal democracy” Paul mentions.

Which brings me to my final thought.  If he doesn’t exactly suggest we should begin to break laws, he does come pretty darn close.  And I wonder if it wouldn’t now be the time and place to implement a democratic equivalent of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  These run, simply enough, as follows:

[...] The Three Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Let’s rewrite them, then, but this time specifically in order to define how liberal democracy must defend human beings:

  1. Liberal democracy may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. Liberal democracy must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. Liberal democracy must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Or, alternatively, and perhaps equally revealingly, to define how human beings should defend liberal democracy:

  1. A human being may not injure liberal democracy or, through inaction, allow liberal democracy to come to harm.
  2. A human being must obey the orders given to them by liberal democracy, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A human being must protect their own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Right now, I can think of quite a few governments rather close to home, both local and national, we might want to apply either of the rewritten set of laws to.

If only they could be enshrined in our legal system, as I suspect Paul would like.

A case of allowing a beautiful science-fiction to become a powerful political and sociocultural fact, perhaps?

Jun 252013

There’s plenty of evidence that we’re moving towards a “court-jester” democracy: a democracy where whilst we will be able to tweet to our heart’s content, the practical capacity to vote, spend and consume in an environment of consistent health and wellbeing will no longer be ours by virtue of inalienable right.

Here’s a post which seems to be pointing us in this unhappy direction, on the subject of what we might call the McCarthy-isation of Obama’s US:

Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group. It also followed the 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an attack that federal authorities failed to prevent even though they were monitoring his emails to an al Qaida-linked Islamic cleric.

But such a policy could easily:

[...] discourage creative thinking and fuel conformist “group think” of the kind that was blamed for the CIA’s erroneous assessment that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a judgment that underpinned the 2003 U.S. invasion.

“The real danger is that you get a bland common denominator working in the government,” warned Ilana Greenstein, a former CIA case officer who says she quit the agency after being falsely accused of being a security risk. “You don’t get people speaking up when there’s wrongdoing. You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”

This story is worth reading in full, detailing as it does, with horrifying clarity, how people are being encouraged to watch, examine and permanently spy on each other at all sorts of levels of US government and administration.

It’s curious that this should be happening in big governments like Obama’s, at the very same time that their voting populations – composed of people like you and me – get so used to letting off a very public steam on social networks and media.  It’s almost as if our democracy is being sheered off from the machinery of government: whilst such machinery has been forming its intrusive private ways since at least the mid-1990s, and has lately become evermore suspicious of its own shadow, the rest of us – those of us who choose to act, perform and communicate in front of everyone else – have learnt the real value of electronic sincerity; of an open and honest transfer of ideas and content.

We don’t have the power which the private, paranoid and perpetually anxious administrations have reserved for themselves.  But we do have the freedom – will continue to maintain such freedoms – to write, tweet, blog and speak the truths which are bound to keep occurring to us.  Yes.  Truly a “court-jester” democracy.  But not exactly what even Orwell – in his prescience – predicted might happen.

In that, we can draw real comfort in moments of serious fracture.

We may be living Orwellian times, times of awful obfuscation, but I do believe they are – in proper and hopeful measure – times we can also rightly call our own.

Jun 232013

This is the fourth part of my Citizen Media series, the first, second and third parts of which have provided an overview of the University of Manchester colloquium which sparked it off in the first place; have described the deprofessionalisation of photo-journalism and the post-human status of technology-ridden imagery; and have compared and contrasted the clearly good and truly bad of online “citizenship” and behaviours.

In this fourth part, I aim to link another two of the talks I was privileged to experience at the colloquium: the first, given by Adam Fish on what he described as “technoliberalism”; the second, given by Kenzie Burchell on what he described as “citizen voices in everyday networked practices”.  In both cases, and as before in this series, I’d like to make clear that I’m not aiming to faithfully transmit the content of the arguments given but, rather, bear witness to how they made me think during and after.

Starting with the subject of “technoliberalism”, I have the following notes:

  • The term includes and covers these concepts: networked technology; economic freedom; free speech; political participation; citizen responsibility.
  • A manifestation of such “technoliberalism” would be Al Gore’s Current TV project.  A convergence of Silicon Valley mindsets and Hollywood bombast – in the end, YouTube for the moderately cultured with a clear undertow of monetisation?
  • The programming structure kicked off with and included the “shuffle” format – an attempt to break down silos of audience expectations perhaps, mixing all kinds of content within similar timeframes.
  • Noticeable there was a strict, maybe even overbearing, intellectual property framework.  The industrial model was very traditional, very lawyerly influenced.  Much more Hollywood than Silicon Valley in this respect.
  • Feels as if the public sphere was an afterthought.  The bottom line (monetary expectations, that is) being the real objective.
  • As already observed, the company suffered from the two cultures: Internet versus entertainment; San Francisco versus Los Angeles.
  • Even had Murdoch and Berlusconi as partners – how traditional in its “political economy” could an online project ever get?  (One remembers Murdoch’s adventures in MySpace-land …)
  • Some people made money out of it: recently, it has been suggested, Gore himself – $100 million out of the sale of platform to Al Jazeera.
  • Could’ve been an open-source type place: full of imagineers and developers/makers.  Ended up poisoned (in a way) by the conflicting cultures of those who would control its development and direction, instead of putting them both in the hands of the viewer/creators.
  • One observation I made to Adam: if Current TV’s objective truly was democratisation via citizen-media discourse and process, maybe it would’ve been better to spend $100 million on citizen-media schools rather than on clone-like (even where online) TV stations.
  • Such media schools could teach democratic engagement: teach young people to become independent distributors themselves rather than tie them down with traditional industrial models.
  • In the end, Current TV was just another mediating process of bottom-line professionals: standard televisual practice defining how perceived, how accessed, how accepted or rejected.  Lesson to be learned?  Spend money directly on consumer/producers, not on the mediating systems and professionals themselves.

We were shown the following satirical video of Current TV’s Emmy award.  There may be political undertones I’m not aware of (Fox appears in the corner of the screen – I’m sure Rupert Murdoch’s organisation would take any and every opportunity to undermine anything Al Gore was involved in), but the video – even so – makes a fairly apposite point.


It’s clear that monetising the banal, the everyday, the normal, isn’t easy for big corporations.

Simply observing it, especially whenever and wherever it happens, can be just as challenging for the student of the same.  Kenzie Burchell had a fascinating approach to understanding and defining a kind of public domain which – nevertheless – exists and functions in a mainly hidden place of exchange.  Burchell describes email interaction, the break down of the dividing line between work and non-work, social-network communication and other technologies as a specific space of its own:

  • Recursive spaces: open source coders for example.  They operate through action: “a moral and technical order”; “making, maintaining and modifying”; “constraining their everyday commitments”.
  • Anti-social behaviours versus pro-social initiatives.
  • Standard open-source practice relevant here: I suggest the case of open-source mailing-lists.  These are examples of fairly private communications which are also publicly available but not necessarily easily findable (either because you don’t know they exist or because even when you do, they’re often difficult to stumble across).  A sense, then, that certain areas of modern communication lend themselves to the creation of a public domain which can remain public but at the same time discreet too.
  • So much of what we do, we do via this fairly private set of not so easily monetisable communications: as already mentioned, email, Facebook liking, tweeting and other kinds of instant messenging.
  • No wonder they’re all trying to change our webmail into something less private, less discreet: examples being the failed Google Wave system and the new composition panes for Gmail which look far more like chat windows than traditional email.  Also, the online status which webmail access activates by default.
  • The attempt to forceably merge social with email and private messaging clearly demonstrates that a discreet (and discrete!) public is a threat to the bottom lines of these corporations.
  • Yet as with Current TV, and so many other projects, a public truly in the hands of the public seems beyond the ken of most of those who would administer it.

In a sense, it would seem that Hollywood – and even Silicon Valley itself – is incapable of fully understanding that there are sections and domains in fairly public life which will do their damned best to resist any attempt to put a price on them.  Presumably, the attempts to make money out of straightforward webmail via contextual ads has failed miserably; otherwise, there’d be no drive to change the nature of email and turn it into something far more visible.

But the models that really work on that fine connection between consumers who produce and producers who consume – YouTube being a classic and continuing example – demonstrate that the public which works in latterday communication is the public that remains in the hands of the same.

The banal which Burchell defines is rich with meaning, pregnant with action, full of content – and mostly what we want.  This doesn’t, of course, mean the monetisers will let it be, but if we can recognise its true value before it’s too late, maybe we can rescue some of its most valuable aspects before they succeed – out of the obstinacy which defines their behaviours – in finally destroying them in the process.

Jun 222013

We’re currently living a paranoid democracy; or perhaps that’s better described as a democratic paranoia.  In fact, it would appear that democracy has been entirely redefined.  As per a quote Nick Cohen’s excellent article in the Spectator today uncovers, no longer can we understand it in terms of inevitable rights we should attach ourselves fiercely to but, rather, an obligatory signing-up to a permanent state of paranoid morality which imposes its insistent presence upon us:

In the United States, the politically sophisticated are enjoying themselves immensely as they tear into leftish claims that America is now George Orwell’s all-seeing totalitarian state. To their way of thinking Edward Snowden’s revelations the American government is engaged in mass surveillance are less interesting than the hysterical reaction his whistle blowing has provoked.

“The rule here is simple,” said Michael C. Moynihan, one of America’s best right-wing journalists, as he dismissed the notion that the United States was Oceania. “If you are invoking Nineteen Eighty-Four in a country in which Nineteen Eighty-Four is available for purchase and can be freely deployed as a rhetorical device, you likely don’t understand the point of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Couple the above with a) the disconcerting news that the police omitted to tell MPs about information fairly secretly submitted to the Leveson inquiry – information which would have made public the fact that 80 percent of illegal computer- and phone-hacking was taking place in non-media industries – and b) that the NSA and GCHQ were tapping into fibre-optic cables as long ago as the mid-1990s, and it doesn’t half beg the following question: when did we agree to such a substantial revision of democracy’s substance?

When, actually, did we agree to the indelible rights of men and women being substituted with the paranoid morality I mention above?

So what do I mean by “paranoid morality”?  Well.  I think what I mean is that the people who have been implementing these things don’t believe humanity is essentially “good”.  We can, of course, argue the toss about what we mean by “good” if so inclined – let’s accept for the moment that it’s everything reasonably nice people would consider acceptable.  Not murdering partners; not assassinating important figures; not culling badgers; not abusing animals.

In general, not taking advantage of the power one holds to detrimentally affect the quality of life of another being; to negatively interrupt the sustainability of another environment.

“Paranoid morality” is a kind of liberal managerialist instinct which argues “we know what’s best for the planet”.  It finds a justification in the power it exerts to see and not be seen; to register and not be registered; to follow and not be followed.  It is an essentially cowardly instinct.  It is the instinct of those who quickly become bullies.

For honour and for love of one’s country – especially the kind of honour and love of country money is good at engendering.

A “paranoid morality”, a “paranoid democracy”, a “democratic paranoia” … these are all terms which speak of fear, which are motivated by fear, which lead us to do stuff – or, alternatively, not do it – only because we are frightened.  As James tweeted yesterday:

@eiohel Plenty of reminders what we’re running from from the securocrats, not enough reminders of where we want to get to…

And as I responded:

@JamesFirth Yes. That’s an excellent way of couching it. We’re thinking of what we fear rather than what we would like to embrace.

Securocrats indeed.  And securodemocracy is what they’re giving us.  A democracy of liberal managerialist instincts which declaims to us all the return of a peculiarly secular Original Sin: “Guilty until proven innocent!”

The upsides?  Those of us who spent the last decade suffering from Cohen’s “paranoid hysteria” are now cured.

The downsides?  For the rest of you out there, welcome to the party.

Nevertheless, even as the panorama does seem pretty dim, there is still something I think we can do about it – something we can all do together to make a more fertile soil of all this shit.  The securocrats have made of our representative democracy a democracy which represents only their mindsets.  Yet, even so, that we can no longer make purchases or read books or say stuff to friends without someone, somewhere, following our tail doesn’t mean we can’t come to some kind of understanding.

OK.  So our democracy is both a shame as it is, possibly, a sham.  This doesn’t mean in our own interactions that we can’t attempt to re-establish what has been so thoroughly whisked away from us.  It’s clear that fronts have been opened on all sides.  It would hardly surprise me, for example, if all these revelations, timed so utterly to coincide with important international IP, copyright, patent and digital rights conversations the world over, weren’t in part out there to weaken our democratic resolve to protect the offline world – even as the online world seems the only focus worth having.

And if the online world is well and truly lost, why care about the offline any more?

Why care indeed?  Except that, when all is said and done, it’s still the world we flesh-and-blood human beings – important units of monetisable and economic benefit for governments and corporations – continue to occupy.  Of course all the evermore network-mediated makers and shakers would so love to be able to “web-ify” the real world in its entirety: then it would be so easy to measure, manufacture, control and define us.  But however much they attempt to put the offline world onto a totally under-control online, in a massively expanding population of savvy creatures the attempt is bound to fail.

The history of the sword and shield has never been broken yet.  Never was a shield devised which a new sword couldn’t pierce; never was a sword devised which a new shield couldn’t reject.  Why should life be any different now?

There is, after all, an element about Prism and Mastering the Internet which leads one to wonder if they really can do all they claim – or if, on the other hand, they’d simply like to make us believe we should throw in the delinquency towel.

Not only the delinquency towel; from the corporate point of view, also the privacy towel, the copyright towel, the freedom-not-to-monetise towel.

What really is the point of fighting on if everything is already a done deal?

That, I guess, may be the real objective of securocrats.  One more reason to let them know we understand what they wish.

But also one more reason to let them know, all the same, we maintain our desire to wish something quite different.

As I said at the top, forget what they want us to fear – choose, instead, to define what we want to embrace.

And, then, go ahead and embrace it.

Jun 212013

This is the third part in my Citizen Media series, which comes out of a colloquium hosted by the University of Manchester that I attended recently.  The two previous posts, plus a novel suggestion for a related crowdfunding project, can be found here and here.

As befits the subject of citizen witnessing, and its corresponding figure of citizen journalism, the posts I’m writing are not comprehensive narratives of the papers and presentations given.  Instead, they mix in a mosaic of ideas original thoughts and my scribbled responses.  In no way are they intended to form a reliable process of story-telling.  Accuracy of authorship is not the objective here; rather, in the mode of a verbal scrapbook, I’m looking to provoke points of future discussion.

I started in the first two posts picking out the increasing deprofessionalisation of society.  Latterly, it seems that the beauty and truth of content comes primarily from posterior analysis and accumulation of data instead of discrete and clearly attributed concepts and ideas themselves.  Little place, it would seem, for the genius reporter or the profoundly heart-wrenching author.  I kind of suggested that a way out of this impasse might be to see citizen journalism as the raw data which, even so, professionals can find a responsibility to verify and assess.  Citizen journalism not as a substitute for the professionals then; instead, as an enriching and context-adding layer.

I also discussed the relationship between drone imagery and long-distance descriptions of important events.  One case of such analysis I neglected to describe, and which was mentioned during the colloquium (though I forget by whom), was that of a “foreign” correspondent who, rather than work abroad, supposedly acted out of a UK city – and proceeded to provide “local colour” to their reports via foreign blogs, tweets and other citizen-generated content.  These kinds of instincts and habits – where intelligent people sit behind computers in a mediated way instead of directly witnessing the situations they get paid to inform on – don’t half remind me of apparent parallels in spy agencies and military organisations various.  The tendency to forget the professional journalist’s assertion that witnessing in situ is key to properly understanding the dynamics of conflict seems to be spreading to all levels and sectors of communication and information industries.

So dispensing with the spooky, we are left with the good and the bad.  First, from the BBC‘s Stephen Ennis, we got examples of constructive online activity in Russia.  Here are some jottings I made which may give you a flavour of what was said:

  • It seems in a sense that civic society is not so developed in Russia.  The web can help this to happen.
  • During recent forest fires in the country, spontaneous citizen-engendered virtual communities and nodes of contact were set up.
  • The need to coordinate these spontaneous outpourings of citizen support suddenly becomes apparent.  Powerful enough individually, coordination would multiply their impact a thousandfold.
  • The need to create structures which nevertheless allow for enthusiastic spontaneity – a contradiction in terms?  (Mirrors the possibility of coordinating professionally the raw data of citizen witnessing.)
  • During the forest fires, information was disseminated by citizens via the Internet, SMS and phonecalls.  Flexibility of interface with the real world is important.
  • So in “bad news” societies – in societies where citizen cynicism is a primary response – how do you enthuse people to act?
  • Online activism is OK and politically permissible if it prioritises good causes.
  • Possible to try and change society by creating parallel virtuous environments first, instead of aiming to face down the existing negative societal power structures.  A way forward perhaps for societies everywhere – but in particular for societies nervous about the web.
  • A number of examples were given of practical “shovel” communities.  Instead of the “megaphony” of traditional online protest, “shovel” impulses aim to bring generally local administrations and communities to book: by gentle but firm organisation, authorities are forced to comply with existing responsibilities (painting stairwells was one example).  In this way, ordinary people are brought to the table of online activism by virtue of small improvements that make a big difference to their lives.
  • Virtuous virtual environments which change offline life through good examples – maybe they can then lead on to more proactive and politically vibrant acts?
  • Finally, the Russian government is – at least in some cases – actively supporting both types of online activism through its Internet policy: one of its notable commitments is to open data, including 33 million judicial rulings and information on one million lawyers and their activities.

So virtuous behaviours – and therefore, we assume, progressive democratic developments – can go hand-in-hand with increased online activism.  In contrast, however, we also get the truly bad.  Here are my notes from my responses to Adi Kuntsman’s paper on the subject of how awfully violent online “citizenship” can become:

  • The horror to be found on the Internet isn’t a problem of the web but, rather, a demonstration of how traditional democracy’s real purpose isn’t to give voice to people’s thoughts but, instead, to vigorously suppress them.  The web, on the other hand, does give a voice to people which offline democracy has deliberately (and possibly quite properly) disempowered.
  • I would assume what really needs doing – long-term at least – is to deal not primarily with the terrible outpourings of the violent web but re-energise and make more truly democratic our wider body politic.
  • Online “citizenship” can be anti-humanitarian – there is no guarantee that universal education in itself will bring about universal peace, brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • We need to teach “proactive web-user behaviours”, just as we are used to teaching “active listening”.  The web needs to be read correctly; we need to allow people to acquire a savvy relationship with its discourses and its frequent half-truths, scams and lies.
  • Online “citizenship” can be considered primarily democratic if we choose to ignore its militaristic manifestations as described in the paper (these manifestations include soldiers using Facebook to post humiliating photos of those they judge to be occupying the opposing side).  But given the huge number of militaristic and abusive content on the web, perhaps the question we should really pose is quite different: is offline democracy primarily peaceful and benevolent?  Is the problem the web – or, maybe, the democracy it has arisen out of?

Just to summarise then, on the subject of “online democracy” – both the good and the bad: perhaps citizen media doesn’t automatically democratise because our understanding of what democracy’s function really must be is actually incorrect/inaccurate.  To date, non-virtual democracy’s purpose is to aggressively limit the voice given to certain sectors of society.  (This may have been positive in the past.)  If we pursue this train of thought, maybe online media and networks represent more directly what a broader representation of people think.  We may look to create a progressive politics out of what citizen media generates.  But we must remember: “Art [and by extension, all media] is politically promiscuous.”

A direct citizen-involvement in communication and information, unmediated by evermore deprofessionalised professionals, doesn’t necessarily lead to a nicer society.

This is something we would do well to recall when we argue in favour of unfettered citizen-empowerment.

Professionals aren’t only possessors of dark arts.

They have also served to illuminate constructively modern civilisation.

Jun 152013

I once had a next-door neighbour who was clever enough to know how, and stupid enough to go ahead.  This individual split the cable that came out of another neighbour’s Sky dish and hogged half of the service for free for probably a year.  They caught him in the end.

Nothing came of it though.

I’d like you to watch a podcast before we continue, which eventually – in its studied and careful way – takes us back to basic physics.  Remember what that beautiful object we called a prism actually did?  Split a pure white light into a rainbow of illuminating colours.  And that is just about what this video from last Wednesday invokes both figuratively and literally.  If you’ve not too much time on your hands, start from a little after twenty minutes in.  You might also want to read this EFF document (.pdf format) which describes a highly relevant legal deposition from way back in 2006.  It gets mentioned in the podcast; it’s a crucial part of the audit trail.


Worth every damn minute, right?  As I said, that next-door neighbour of mine.

So really, if they’re right in their analysis, what’s happening here is permanent wire-tapping, possibly legal (the Internet after all is a public space), on a hugely infrastructured scale.  Maybe a bit like (then again, who am I to say?) those episodes of CSI where they gain DNA by getting someone to drink a cup of coffee and then throw away the cup.

You discard something into that public domain and we’ll hoover it up by splitting the signal as close to its node as we can, without even telling the companies which harvest it in the first place what we’ve decided to do.

So where do people congregate?  What do people use?  The services of – and routers closest to – Google & Co’s massively centralising communication facilities.  All that careful language in their denials of any possible server back-doors, when the issue – semantically – wasn’t the servers.  Direct access to the data the servers contained, yes; but not direct access to the servers themselves.

So it is our society has trodden a long path from once being “economical with the truth” to saying “the least untruthful thing” a politicised figure could think of.

But I’d like to take the issue one step further.  What if Prism doesn’t only allow the light to be split off?  What if it also allows the data to be manipulated?

Last week, just a day before the podcast linked to above, the Greek broadcaster ERT – described to me by Greek citizens recently as the Greek equivalent of the British BBC – was suddenly taken off-air.  News, current affairs, history, culture – all gone at the drop of a hat.  The shock, if replicated here in Britain with our own organisation, would be powerful and lasting for sure.  Yet I argued, for only a moment it is true, that perhaps the Greek way was better: at least someone was taking ownership for obfuscation by clearly closing down its outlet.

The BBC, in the meantime, has been accused of multiple acts of perfidious journalism – an institutionally implemented censorship, in fact, of considerable consequences; a censorship never admitted nor answered by anyone in charge; a censorship, for the majority of its viewers, never even perceived.

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t a manifest – even where shockingly sudden – absence be a cleaner and more hygienic way forward than this grubby messing-about with the parameters of our perceptions and realities?

Except that, of course, for those who use it as a tool to transmit on-message content, keeping it all going is going to be far more productive and in keeping with their overarching objectives than any honest admitting of the truth.

The aforementioned opportunities for manipulation being far more useful than simple tracking and observance.

Don’t just be a spectator is what I’m suggesting here; far more proactively, actually become an actor.

This brings me back, then, to Prism.  If the NSA is accessing everyone’s data, and has allowed in some indirect way for our knowledge of this information to finally hit the public domain, it will surely – now – have the parallel capacity to intervene, interrupt, modify and falsify almost anything which flows around the Internet.

I’m not saying it would, mind you; just suggesting that it’s impossible that the facility wouldn’t have been included.

That is to say, it would include not only the ability to split out of the Internet a perfect copy of everything that hit Google & Co’s servers just before it actually did but also the ability to replace a digitally manipulated alternative of what was originally on the point of being there, just before it actually ended up being so.

There could be many desperate reasons why someone might wish to reserve the right to do this: not least, in times of awful war or some other ongoing conflict, the desire to short-cut legal niceties and thus allow the summary removal from circulation of people who otherwise might be far too clever by half.

And I’m not saying even in this case I’d agree with such a position; all I’m saying is that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone thought engineering such a feature into the infrastructure might be a natty thing to do.

Whatever the substantive reality of the situation, I’m pretty sure one of the drivers of all these repressive instincts is that maybe, just maybe, the Internet as constructed has, at least in the eyes of those who would continue governing, given us far too many freedoms: far too many freedoms for governments to treat their peoples with justice; far too many freedoms for the establishments across the world to feel safe; perhaps, I wonder, even far too many freedoms for even the most sensible and stable of the planet’s citizens to know how to choose consistently reasonable ways of using them.

I’m not saying they’re right; I’m just trying to understand their fears and behaviours – as well as their downright illegalities.

I’m trying to understand how rational human beings can justify using “the least untruthful” way of answering questions from political representatives speaking in permanently-recorded public forums.


Let’s finish on a pertinent piece of legalese.  Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says the following:

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Now that’s pretty sweeping – correspondence for example, at least these days, may cover everything from the more analogous emails to tweets and Facebook “likes”.

And remembering Doctorow’s intelligent separation of the words “privacy” and “secrecy” this morning, I do wonder if anyone who’s fighting the good fight still recalls why they went into the business in the first place.

Stop Watching Us?  Well, quite.  It’s an important thought.

Though when 60 percent of Americans say they just don’t care any more, perhaps the good fight has already been lost.