Oct 162013

Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

Oct 062013

I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.


Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


Jul 312013

Perhaps it’s us who are in the wrong here. Perhaps our expectations of a century of universally-educated civilisations were simply too high.  Perhaps it’s us who’ve got it back to front.  Perhaps the bastards are right to grind us down.

I don’t believe I believe so.  But there’s always a tiny space for a shadow of a doubt.

The issue, essentially, is that Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other social networks don’t only tell us how it is – they also tell us how it always was.  From a right-wing prejudice-based bias at the heart of a supposedly venerable BBC journalism and journalist to long-held Tory attitudes about Northerners and Northern spaces to abusive relationships between men and women, between the powerful and the disadvantaged and between the rich in general over everyone else, all that the last few years of online connectivity seem to have offered us is a consistent falling away of any veils of innocence.

Twitter, Facebook and that small number of other social networks I mention aren’t making a new world: they’re simply, flatly and painfully reflecting a very old one.  When heavy-handed police actions bubble to the surface of our perceptions on such a huge scale, most of us who were taught as children to respect the state’s good faith will question whether something is radically different; will question whether something is radically changing.

Sadly, I don’t think it is.  Sadly, I believe that such networks and media are only informing us more clearly of what we already got up to and did offline; of what we already got up to and did before social came along.

Our politicians a ragbag of corrupt self-serving auto-publicists?  Yes?  And?  So what’s new?

Our business leaders a cabal of establishment-infiltrating fascists?  So?  And?  Need me to explain any more?

Our men and women (mainly men though, it would seem), predisposed to insults and slagging the disadvantaged violently off, given half a virtual chance?  Wow!  And?  Who’d have thought it?

This is the underbelly of life turned over and exposed to the light of online examination.

The underbelly was always there though.

Women were always abused by their partners; by their nearest and dearest.

Politicians always trampled on electorates.

Business leaders always took ruthless advantage of their customers; always hid their dirty boardroom linen.

Nothing’s changed.  Nothing’s changing.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that all of us can see and share more of the shit which they (that is to say, we) used to hide.

Perhaps, then, what we need to propose is something different from this simple reporting, spreading and retweeting of shit.  Perhaps we need to reconceptualise the purpose of social: where the Tories condemn socialism as a tool for the desperately poor – even as they reconfigure and reuse it as a pig-trough mechanism for the scrounging rich – maybe a better use of social would be to reproduce environments of support for the disadvantaged.  Don’t people our timelines with stories of disheartening state and corporate violence – or, at least, don’t people all our timelines with such depressing news as this – but, rather, instead, move to use our connectivity to enthuse and organise parallel environments of a kindly and supportive society of the benevolent.

Yesterday I exchanged a tweet or two on the subject of building a new Berlin Wall around London, with the aim of encircling and enclosing all the prejudiced Tories within.  An underground movement could at the same time be established to help those not of a Tory persuasion to escape their fate.

This was, of course, a joke.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very funny.  Unfortunately, it seemed all too attractive to those of us exchanging our evermore bitter comments.

Maybe connectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Knowing too much about the underbelly of life doesn’t necessarily make one more powerful any more.  Knowledge isn’t power these days.  The willingness to brazenly lie, on the other hand, is.

And I realise, as I reread the above before publishing, that I was a naive little citizen for a very long time.

I’m not sure I don’t want to continue being so.

The problem with veils that fall away, however, is that once on the ground the evil do proceed with their trampling.

The real corporate purpose of social, if you ask me?  To remove all choice of naivete; to remove all chance of childlikeness.

To remove, ultimately, all possibility that our (once shared) humanenesses may return from the caves in which they currently, frightened, hide out.

But we still have an opportunity.  We still may cast a tiny shadow of a doubt.  We still, even so, may be able to turn the tables on the moneymen.  If only we can make of social a proactive tool for the parallel, perhaps one day we can re-emerge blinking from our caves.  Perhaps one day we can recover our humaneness.  Perhaps one day social won’t just tell us how it always was but, instead, help us define exactly how it really should be.

Apr 262013

Three posts to contextualise the title of this post.  First, from the Drum, reporting the background to some hot-off-the-press alleged censorship cases, where it seems either Facebook itself or the procedures it has created are leading to the abuse of free speech.

Second, we have the Scriptonite Daily saying these kinds of things:

Yesterday I wrote and published the article The Man Who Pushed a Toy Pig to Downing Street to Save our NHS.  It was intended to raise awareness and support for The Artist Taxi Driver’s art based protest of the privatisation of the NHS.

On publishing the article on my Facebook page I was asked (unusually) to fill in a captcha (the little box that asks you to type the letters you see so they know you aren’t a computer).  Shortly after, people were reporting that they were being asked to complete captchas to share it.  People who tried to open the article were warned by Facebook it was spam and the content unsafe, to dissuade people from reading and sharing the piece.  Despite all this, the article spread and had totalled over a thousand shares direct from the blog.  Then something weird happened.  It disappeared.

The article was removed from Facebook, from everywhere it had been shared. It was removed from every personal wall, group and page where it had appeared.  It disappeared from the wall of any user that had posted it.  The comments and conversations underway on people’s pages were erased.  It was like it had never happened.

Then we have Tom saying this:

Yesterday Facebook suddenly decided to flag this blog as spam – effectively censoring it by scaring away anyone who might want to link to it or share it on Facebook.

That was obviously a surprise but I was even more surprised when a member of staff from JobCentre Plus openly boasted to me that it was she who had reported the blog to Facebook as spam after she got annoyed by this particular satirical blogpost critical of ATOS and the DWP:

Fraudster ATOS fined for supplying fake crip detectors for use in fitness for work tests

It’s obvious even from the headline that the article is pure satire – not spam – but it seems Facebook automatically took the word of a member of staff from JobCentre Plus and dutifully flagged it – and indeed this whole site – as one that should be avoided.

Now, understandably in the circumstances, most people are concluding this is a case of Facebook censoring politics.  I’ve noticed myself, when I use particularly charged titles to my posts, that the layout Facebook allows tends not to have a massive headline or clarity around where the link will go to.  I’ve also noticed that in the afternoon and evenings, very few of my tweets ever get through.  I, even, often don’t see my own posts on Facebook on my own blessed timeline.

All of which goes to show, I think, that Facebook operates in truly mysterious ways: it’s become God for a society so secular and scientific in its belief systems that – maybe, just maybe – we need it to introduce such randomising influences into our lives.  As it says at the end of the Drum article linked to above, Facebook’s attitude to transparency doesn’t half smack of the black boxes that are traditional religion (the bold is mine):

A Facebook blog post from Caroline Ghiossi in 2010, an associate on Facebook’s user operations team, about Facebook’s spam prevention systems said that users sometimes “misunderstand” the systems and incorrectly believe Facebook is restricting speech. It said Facebook was trying to be more transparent but could not divulge details on how its systems work.

I do, therefore, understand the challenges of setting up and administering a Web 2.0 site of this nature, but I also suspect with its billions of active users that it could quite easily follow the ways of the late 20th century Catholic Church.  Attempting to run an empire which expands so hurriedly and hierarchically can only lead in one direction: that of obfuscation (whether accidental or deliberate), confusion (whether pointed or diffuse) and a final collapsing from within as its believers and followers really begin to get the savage drift.

If the integrity of this beast – and others like Twitter – becomes absolutely so randomising as to make it impossible to know whether your speech will communicate or not, many of us I fear will disconnect from the tenets of faith that made a broader Web 2.0 so jolly exciting in its first generous phase.

What’s the point of spending so much of your precious time on these systems if whenever you do it becomes clear you can never change anything at all?  I mean that definitely is an example of pissing in the wind.

Talk about Facebook turning into God as a result of its obscure algorithms.  More pointedly, it’s turning the rest of us into irrelevantly medieval jesters of its court.

It will rot from inside out.  Mark my words.

The writing’s on the wall, dearly beloved Facebook.

Except, of course, when you proceed to stupidly remove it.

Mar 282013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and writing a lot about the squeezed middle, the absolute poor and the stratospheric rich.  For those of us who are living in the United Kingdom – more precisely in my case, the North West of England – you won’t have failed to notice how the government and the governed simply do not see things eye-to-eye.  In fact, lately at least, it’s often more a case of a tooth for a tooth.


The thing is, my natural instinct is to see life from tens of different points of view.  This doesn’t make me popular – or widely read.  Yesterday, I realised the true and abiding power of ranting when itiddly, a Twitter friend of mine, asked me to edit a post of his before he posted it.  He’s a tribal fellow; a traditional political activist.  He insults and damns and blasts the Tories at every opportunity.

I resisted the temptation to help him out with his post – rather patronisingly (in retrospect) arguing that he needed to have confidence in his writing, as well as some exposure, much more than the help of a struggling editor friend.

You can read his post here.  It’s a rant and it isn’t.  There’s a barely contained fury, of course, but all the time it’s an evidence-based fury.  And whilst I rarely get above five or six tweets for my posts, in a very short time his had hit thirty-five (at the time of writing this post, it now reads a hundred).  Exposure wasn’t what was needed on his part here; instead, it was humility on mine.

Yet it is not in my nature to rant one-sidedly, even where ranting of a kind is sometimes something I do.  I would not be able, in all honesty, to write something as single-minded as the post we’re talking about.  And I wish, in some way, I were able to convey the reasons why.  I wish you could all see the ten or twenty different points of view I always see when I see the world.

People have, on occasions, even accused me of dancing around a subject.  Perhaps, in truth, they were closer to the mark than even they realised.  You dance out of engagement and concentration; a dance is a marvellous combination of emotion, precision and attitude.

That is how I see the process of writing.

Which is why I wish, perhaps by using Twitter and other social-network outputs, we could all appreciate better how each of us is perceiving the world: the pain, the glory, the happiness and joy; the misery, the fear, the certainties and hopes.  From high-and-mighty governors to humble barely-surviving governed, the world would surely become a better place if only we could see it properly through each other’s eyes.

So my question must be: is anyone out there at all interested in creating a Point-Of-View Machine?

Or are you all far more interested in setting up monolithic positions of revulsion and non-cooperation?


Further reading: I wonder, quite sincerely, whether the Google Glass project (more here) – rather than inspire our fear of a final assault on all our privacies – should make us more hopeful in the ways I describe above.  If the POV streams resulting from all those users were made available and accessible in a structured way, we would understand much more easily how each of us experienced life.  And from that understanding, perhaps a kinder governance would emerge.

A kinder world.

A kinder species, even.

We can only hope, of course.

And, maybe, pray.

Feb 222013

After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.


So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.

Dec 272012

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please think again, those of you who can.

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


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

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

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


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

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

Do you understand what’s happening?

For I certainly don’t.

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

Dec 122012

James summarised it thus (more than fully) on November 30th, in a piece clearly titled “#Leveson is excellent on internet free speech. He didn’t brush over it, he robustly defended it”:

Leveson [...] draws a clear distinction between a news outlet which claims to provide trusted reporting and the internet in general, where there is no implied trust (although Leveson uses the term ethical rather than trusted, which in this particular case I believe are interchangeable as trust in news output flows from ethical journalism).

Chapter 7, section 3.2:

“… the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

Leveson doesn’t say this but there is also a jurisdiction issue online. It’s not strictly true that bloggers may act with impunity if based in the UK, as there’s always the possibility they will be traced using existing legal instruments and prosecuted or face civil proceedings for libel or privacy breach.


“The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.”

James also goes on to point out the difference between social media making content available and the very same content being “emblazoned” on the front page of a highly visible online newspaper.

So.  We have an ethically-driven industry versus an ethical vacuum such as the Internet.  And we have the industry of extreme visibility versus the amateur placing of content at a much lower level.  As I pointed out a couple of posts ago (the bold is mine today):

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

Leveson, then, as per the slant James places on him at the end of last month, seems clear that there is a substantial difference between, on the one hand, the Internet as it has grown up and is manifesting itself through blogging, tweeting and Facebooking and, on the other, the industry of highly visible newspapermen and women.

But today the Guardian publishes a report on a conference Leveson has just given.  An immediate observation: I thought at the time of the report’s launch, Leveson had assured us he would take no questions and make no further comments.  The second “public outing” in as many weeks would seem to give lie to such assurances.

Or maybe I misunderstood.

Or maybe I simply invented the moment.

Talk about picking and choosing your stage …


Anyhow.  At least according to the Guardian, Leveson is now in two minds about the Internet.  Whilst he still accepts that social media is the “electronic version of pub gossip”, and does seem to accept that this might actual inscribe a virtue for human thought (that is to say, the thinking of the unthinkable – the freedom to go anywhere with a train of thought), he doesn’t seem quite convinced any more that the implications in relation to law, and what and how we should apply it, should be followed through.

What’s more, he seems to recognise the ethical side of the newspaper industry isn’t quite as ethical or convincing as it might be, especially when he says:

[...] if journalists saw the law going unenforced against bloggers, it might “undermine media standards through encouraging them to adopt a casual approach to the law”.

“If we are to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained, we must meet these challenges, and ensure that the media … is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned,” Leveson said.

I think, to be honest, and I’m happy to be corrected if you feel I’m being too cynical, that those who’d really be placed at a disadvantage would not be the media but, rather, the rich, powerful and/or well-connected who strive to manage the news which journalists are allowed to print.  If such things as described by Greenslade are happening already – and they have happened for a long time I am sure – just think what they could get away with under a regime where lawyerless and amateur communicators could be silenced and punished to the same degree as an industry.

Leveson is right to say:

[...] that it was a “pernicious and false belief” that bloggers were not subject to the same laws as print and broadcast journalists.

But he is wrong to argue that, in exactly the same way, both individual free speech and the industrial free press should be marshalled, controlled and punished by our justice system.

It’s just not fair, proportional or democratic.  If my yearly income is a minuscule percentage of what a media behemoth turns over globally, I can hardly be held equally responsible for errors of judgement.

Now can I?

So I come to my last question: what does Leveson really think about blogging?  Is it a force for good which often takes us to the wilder parts of human thought in a productive and constructive manner?  Or is it something which for the good of the status quo must now be progressively chilled into holding back its occurrences?

A sensibly policed state – or the anteroom of a police state?

Where is Leveson now?

Dec 102012

Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned.  When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop.  This, for example:

From the start, the Isreaeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas shared clips on YouTube, and posted messages and images on Facebook and Twitter (also here), which initiated heated debates on the platforms. Many reporters followed these and actively participated in the discussions, which made social media an important element of both reporting and criticism of the conflict.

This should hardly surprise us.  That manipulation of social-media news and its transmission takes place must be self-evident to anyone with any experience of how stories in such contexts surge.  Recent cases of sex-abuse allegations have generated claims and counter-claims which can hardly depend only on the dynamics of sheeply flocks.  But in the argument that Ariel develops, we get a further strand of behaviours that add a far more complex interest to the mix.  For he also describes and defines the following processes:

[...] Unlike any other war in the past, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has been characterised by the mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media. [...]

And this has led to the more mainstream media feeling obliged to take onboard, and within their own frames, websites and even offline print, such popular – and, maybe, populist – content.  In a post-blogging Facebook generation, where the very fact you’re an amateur communicator adds weight, veracity and conviction to what you tell, it must be the case that, in order to be able to properly convince, latterday industrial media has had to acquire a journalistic equivalent of what film-makers learned to call cinéma vérité.  A kind of post-modern approach to communication, perhaps.  A veneer of “realistic” edginess to their product where once smooth and house-ridden styles were sub-editorially imposed as unquestioned – and unquestionable – good practice.

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in relation to these words from Ariel (the bold is mine):

Just as cyber-war and cyber-terrorism have become prevalent, social media warfare is here to stay. It seems that the fight for public opinion will keep growing in importance, and play a more central role in future conflicts. The fact that opposing parties can communicate directly with the public will increase the pressure on journalists to stay relevant.

To these words I would be inclined to add that the above-mentioned three battles will shortly form part of a new Holy Trinity of communication.  Just as industrial media was kept in the shadow and practice of the security services throughout the whole Cold War and its aftermath, leading to the corruption that recent phone-hacking scandals have uncovered here in Britain, so now social media will be in the eye of and form a target for such institutions.  It could hardly be any other way.  If amateur communicators are making more of the news their peers are wanting to read than the news outlets themselves, no veneer, however thick, will fool any member of the post-Leveson generation.  There is no way back.  And the security services probably know this well before the newspaper industry is able and prepared to take it on the chin.

Second, these are all matters which have interested a lot of us recently – both readers and writers, both amateurs and professionals.  Such a post-Leveson moment as this will surely serve to define at least the next fifty years of communication in Britain – and people really don’t realise what’s happening.

We’re sleepwalking into the future of so many unfreedoms.

Social media warfare being just one more sorry battleground they’ll fashion in order to restrict our ability not only, not primarily, to freely exchange our thoughts but also – far more importantly – to be able to evaluate their narratives.

Because if the future is going to work as I think Ariel believes, the ability to sift and determine where truth really lies will become far greater and relevant than it currently might be.

A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?

Almost fit for a new generation of Johann Haris … and I mean that in as complimentary a fashion as you care to allow me.

Nov 292012

Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:


He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.


Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).

Nov 262012

Today, the Guardian publishes a fascinating story – a story that may have the most far-reaching of implications for democracy, free speech, online behaviours and the wider publishing industry.  Essentially it describes how an Australian jury has come to the conclusion that Google’s search engine is actually a full-blown publisher – not simply an automated disseminator of access to interesting, timely and relevant content.

Now if Google’s search, a “simple” aggregator of content, can be accused and sentenced as a publisher – or, presumably, re-publisher of sorts – by a legal system I assume is pretty similar to our own (for it’s hardly going to be more restrictive in matters of freedom of expression I would, at the very least, have thought), just think what kind of intellectual precedent the case could set for our more thoughtful judges over here in England.

Just think, in fact, what they might say about Sally Bercow and that tweet which referred “innocently” to a trending topic generated by Twitter’s very own corporate mathematics.

Just think what they might now have to consider in relation to Twitter’s responsibility for that topic and trend in the first place.

As I just tweeted on Twitter itself:

So algorithms and the companies which create them *can* be held responsible for the content they enable. Twitter (the corp) – watch out!

Meanwhile, a few days ago I was already arguing the following:

What I’m really saying with all of this is that Twitter’s Terms of Service attempt to argue that its software simply distributes and does not publish.  It takes no responsibility for the bringing together of such content – and it consequently allows form to come under one legislation and content, thus defined, to belong entirely to the user.  (Though we know that even this is not true: a user cannot normally access more than a limited number of tweets back in time, whilst companies pay Twitter good money to access on a massive scale such ancient thoughts and occurrences.)

My argument, however, would run as follows: deliberately dumbing down individual ideas into 140-character gobbets and then bringing them together automatically to create interesting streams of thought involves not just the process of distribution but also the process of transformation.  We are not just talking about giving someone else the tool to publish off their own bat: microblogging (ie Twitter) is essentially different from its much more discursive and single-authored precursor – which is to say, the blogging you see in front of you right now.  Microblogging, essentially, is collaborative writing which involves many many others – and in order for it to work someone, or something, needs to sort and filter the information.

That is to say, give it shape.  Edit and give sense and sensibility to what would otherwise be a morass of idiocies.

So who are the authors who write in a microblogging site like Twitter?  Obviously the individuals who post.  But also, surely, if we’re being realistic, the software which joins as a seamless whole the activities of so many busy worker bees; which is programmed and designed from ground up to prioritise speed of transmission over reflection; and which aims above all to indicate the latest over the lasting.

Which is why we finally come to the question I pose at the top of this post: why is a company like Twitter’s social-media software not also legally responsible for what it – basically – creates? Or at the very least enables?

But if this Australian case now proceeds to open the floodgates for “simple” search engines to be taken to court on any and every matter libellous matter arising (the truth being, of course, that they’re not all that simple – levering as they do billions of dollars of advertising revenues), just imagine how this might all impact – as the implications bed down – on the usage and abusage of social-media networks such as the above-mentioned Twitter and the inevitable Facebook.

That it spreads the burden of responsibility for statements made in a bespoke software constitution is to my mind only reasonable.  That it may mean we lose all the virtues of Web 2.0, as well as online communication more generally, should however serve to stop us in our tracks – and make us seriously wonder if this is now going to be all for the best.

Do we really want the law to become even more wound up in our daily discourse?  Is this really the right way for the interactive web?  Do we really not know of any other way of exercising order which does not remove more and more our ability to communicate freely, spontaneously and democratically with other citizens?

As the Guardian concludes in its excellently measured piece:

If the Australian decision is followed by courts elsewhere search engines and platform providers will have to be a lot quicker in dealing with requests to take down material when they are contacted by a potential claimant and they will have to be more responsive to requests to sever links to defamatory content if their “not our responsibility, contact the webmaster” response opens them up to liability.

For those of us who put material online it might mean a more hostile legal landscape. The lesson will be that not only do you have to watch what you say online, search engines will have to do so as well.

And so is it that I fear a massive return to the deep web and its darknesses, if something is not done very quickly.  Just as I also wonder whether the battles are already well on their way to being quite unpredictably – quite hazardously – lost.

I do still choose to believe that there must, surely, be another way to guarantee a future world of intelligent sharing.

It’s just that I’ve become evermore totally ignorant of the proper means to engineer and implement such a goal.

Nov 192012

I finished a recent post on the subject of social media with the following realisation:

Given that the above-mentioned corporations are all nominally American in approach, mentality and ways of thinking, if nothing else this all goes to show us how difficult and challenging it can be to transplant at a global and online level behaviours which other legal jurisdictions take for granted.

I always thought when we spoke of oppressing freedom of speech that we were talking about developing countries in the Third World.

I now realise that there is a reason people call the United States the “Land of the Free”.  In many freedoms, they do clearly fall down on what their people deserve.  But in speaking their minds, they clearly do not.

We here in England have a lot to learn.

Too much for us to properly learn it in my lifetime, I fear.

Now in that piece I chart my sudden awareness that the figure of free speech in my homeland is highly limited by English law on defamation, where the onus in any case is on the defendant not the plaintiff to prove the truth or otherwise of any statement.  The most recent example whereby free speech is clearly not contemplated in such an environment is obviously in relation to the Lord McAlpine case, where it would appear his lawyers are operating entirely within legal structures many of us simply did not realise existed.  An overview of one aspect of what is being pursued here can be found at this interesting post, which examines the technicalities of – in this case – Twitter retweets: the forwarding on, and implied (or otherwise) intentionality behind such a forwarding, of other people’s remarks to your followers.  It would appear that Lord McAlpine’s legal team are looking to argue that retweeting implies acceptance of and agreement with the content so communicated.  The frame which is presumably being used is that of newspaper publishing – with all that such a frame implies from a legal point of view – but I am inclined to believe this is wrong for several reasons:

  1. Twitter is in many cases the online version of that gossipy office or neighbourhood grapevine – only globalised somewhat.  That the offline world generally tolerates without recourse to due legal process such gossip should make us think twice about making the virtual equivalent tougher than its progenitor.
  2. Twitter is – more and more – also a vast debating chamber of hugely beneficial democratic input.  That ministers and governments various across the world are finding it resistible should make us think twice about limiting its freedoms.
  3. Twitter does not earn, for its users and generators of content, very much – if any – tangible income.  Yes, it’s great for networking, which – arguably – leads onto tangential money-making opportunities.  But unlike the newspaper model so many online lawyers will at the moment be eager to allude to, the vast majority of tweeters who might amateurly fall foul of English defamation legislation will not be making a living out of doing so – nor will they earn anything directly from their continued stream of tweets.

But more important to a wider constituency than the McAlpine case mentioned above is surely the fact that these recent events – as well as those to come – show us that speech in England is anything but free.  And I wonder, as a result, whether we shouldn’t ask the following question: is it time to get serious about free speech here in England?

Will future libel and defamation cases on Twitter, Facebook and other social media need a two-pronged defence of erstwhile and clearly ignored freedoms here in England?

Firstly, that the onus and burden of proof about the incorrectness of a statement should fall on the plaintiff and not remain the responsibility of the defendant.  That is to say, we should be innocent until proven guilty – not guilty until proven innocent.

Here we need, then, to change the law.

Secondly, that those companies which have turned the erstwhile client (that’s you and me, I mean!) into product – product which generates income for the former on the back of the latter’s freely created tweets and input, produced in those environments such companies deliberately enable – should also face a certain kind of music when it comes to legal action, given that their business models rely on interesting and even scandalous information being continually generated by their product.

Without such software, nothing – of course – could be republished.  Without such algorithms or ways of connecting people, directly engineered by such corporations, nothing would become visible.

Here we need, then, to change the focus of our legal action.

And with a degree of substantial urgency, I think.


Alternatively, of course, we could simply decide to follow the US tradition of almost incontinently free speech.  The downsides are clearly manifest, of course, but in the light of recent revelations in England, and our creeping understanding of how many rights we don’t actually have, I think I’d rather follow the Americans down their route of incontinence than continue with this very English constipation of public discourse.

What say you?  A wholesale re-examination of what free speech should mean – rather than what it has, wearily, come to mean?

Nov 182012

Paul’s recent piece on defamation in social media – in particular Twitter – has brought home to me the reality of free speech in England: it doesn’t exist.  What’s more, if you’re trying to keep on the right side of the law – however much of an ass it may appear (to unpractised eyes) to be – simply aiming to tell the truth isn’t enough to work out what you can and what you shouldn’t be saying and/or writing.  As Paul points out, quite terrifyingly to my way of thinking:

The basic principle is that a statement is defamatory if it substantially affects, in an adverse manner, the attitude of other people to the complainant or has it has a tendency to do so. This definition is very broad ranging so many ‘nasty’ statements about another person come into the range of potentially defamatory statements. Note there is no need to show that the statement does actually affect what other people think of the complainant: it is enough that the words have a tendency to do that.

The terrifying bit then comes next:

Many true statements about a person are defamatory. So to say of a convicted murderer that he is a murderer is defamatory but true. If you, and you have the burden of proving this, can prove what you said was true then you MAY have a defence available of ‘justification’. Can you prove it? See defences below!

It’s that MAY that really terrifies me.  What kind of a rule of thumb does that prove to be?  How, with such an uncertain yardstick to hand, could one ever be sure one wasn’t potentially breaking the law?  And what implications might this have for democratic discourse in our politics?

Read the rest of his post, if you want to find out more.  I’ve already linked to it on two previous occasions – it’s obviously something that, at least in my case, is proving worthy of cogitation.

And to boot, this is clearly one case where the virtual world is toughening up on the real world.  Throwaway language in a pub over a pint will have generated far worse things than the last month has thrown up on Twitter here in Britain.  Yet I don’t see too many such drinking chums finding themselves the object of the beady gaze of legal eagles looking to extract their pound of flesh – or wad of compensatory cash.

As I said some months ago, part of the problem may be Twitter’s own business model (the bold is mine, today):

[...] It seems to me that the big issue with Twitter and the law lies precisely in a question of framing.  And the framing has been done by agencies quite outside the common populace.  So whilst we suffer the consequences of the confusion thus engendered, we really are not to blame for overstepping the multitude of marks.

Twitter, Facebook and all the rest set up their stalls with the idea that the casual throwaway over-the-garden-fence kind of conversation could be replicated online with virtual tools.  Most of us thought, when we ventured onto such terrain, that we would have the freedom to extend our local village globally.  The rules would remain the same – the right to irreverent, racist, sexist and beyond-the-pale remarks would continue to be a par for the course.

What we didn’t realise at all was that our ephemeral occurrences were actually part of Twitter and Facebook’s business models.  There was absolutely no intention for the ephemeral to be treated as such.

We were indeed, long-term, the product not the customer.

These were not – as we had been led to believe – tools the common man and woman would use to exchange peer-to-peer information in the comfort of their privacy settings but, instead, tools the advertisers would use to communicate their latest sales pitches: tools which allowed such advertisers to get to know us so precisely that even our deepest prejudices would be laid bare for them to press the appropriate buttons.

So no wonder we’re getting it all so very wrong – and feeling unhappy as a result.  Twitter and Facebook are actually as resilient and permanent as an interrogation and signed interview sheet at your local police station.

As a result of this fundamental and conceptual confusion, then, deliberately perpetuated by the creators of the software constitutions in question, more and more ordinary people are going to find themselves at the very business end of double-barrelled legalese.  In truth, if we examine a little more closely the subject of defamation under English law, we suddenly realise that the democratic state we thought we lived in is heavily weighted in favour of those who have mighty reputations to protect (the bold is mine):

English law allows actions for libel to be brought in the High Court for any published statements which are alleged to defame a named or identifiable individual (or individuals) in a manner which causes them loss in their trade or profession, or causes a reasonable person to think worse of him, her or them. Allowable defences are justification (i.e. the truth of the statement), fair comment (i.e. whether the statement was a view that a reasonable person could have held), and privilege (i.e. whether the statements were made in Parliament or in court, or whether they were fair reports of allegations in the public interest). An offer of amends is a barrier to litigation. A defamatory statement is presumed to be false, unless the defendant can prove its truth. Furthermore, to collect compensatory damages, a public official or public figure must prove actual malice (knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth). A private individual must only prove negligence (not exercising due care) to collect compensatory damages. In order to collect punitive damages, all individuals must prove actual malice.

English defamation law puts the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff, and is considered an impediment to free speech in much of the developed world. In many cases of libel tourism, plaintiffs sue in England to censor critical works when their home countries would reject the case outright. In the United States, the 2010 SPEECH Act makes foreign libel judgements unenforceable in US courts if they don’t comply with US free speech law, largely in response to the English laws.[1]

To be honest, I never realised my homeland was quite so unfree.  I never realised that any defendant could be considered guilty until proven innocent.  I never realised that in what is the essence of a healthy democracy, the figure of fair comment could have such a stony ground of burdensome proof for those who are accused and considered automatically culpable until proven otherwise.

Little is left us, it would seem, as the veils of self-delusion fall from our eyes.  I thought I lived in a country where everyone was nominally equal.

I do not get that feeling any more.

The only freedom, perhaps, that we now share altogether is the freedom to self-censor our public thoughts as we begin to remake our own shaky reputations.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of social media tools have encouraged us quite aggressively over the past decade, with their most specific and intentioned software constitutions, to reveal and bare our innermost thoughts as they occur to us, reveal themselves to us and struggle to emerge.

English law, it would seem, will now begin to roll all that back.

What an awfully confusing world this has become for anyone trying to engage with their democracy.

Especially for those who try and do it with any kind of integrity.

In the light of encroaching libel actions various, and as a final thought tonight – that is to say, in a Columbo-esque parting shot kind of way! – maybe we should begin to conceptualise the idea of a huge class action against those social media corporations I’ve mentioned: corporations which sold us their social media tools as ephemeral expressions of our least careful thoughts – and yet did so with the ever-present intention to use them quite permanently.  That people can now arguably be accused of libel and defamation is in part – just as arguably – due to these two-faced software environments.  After all, if you deliberately encourage and make it attractive for people to republish or “like” the wildest assertions at the click of button, you are – are you not? – in some way to blame for the consequent behaviours.

You chose what to allow or not to allow when you defined your software objectives.

Shouldn’t those who create a virtual environment from scratch also take some degree of ownership for the activities that take place as a result?  It would, after all, be so easy to program in a pop-up screen which warned any tweeter of the potential legal dangers of a particular text in a particular legal jurisdiction.  For as we have all been rather aggressively reminded over the past fortnight or so, content is being automatically monitored on behalf of plaintiffs-in-waiting.  Which begs the question: if that can be done by content-scraping organisations on behalf of their own clients, why can’t Twitter, Facebook, Google and the like engineer into their systems similar support – but at a preventative level which would serve to avoid any problems in the first place?

That they’ve chosen not to, for very clear business rationales (my opinion there, asserted out of very good faith!), surely makes them a degree more responsible for this mess we’ve beginning to find ourselves in.

At least, to the extent that they haven’t done quite as much as they easily could have done to ameliorate a predictably complex set of social circumstances.

Given that the above-mentioned corporations are all nominally American in approach, mentality and ways of thinking, if nothing else this all goes to show us how difficult and challenging it can be to transplant at a global and online level behaviours which other legal jurisdictions take for granted.

I always thought when we spoke of oppressing freedom of speech that we were talking about developing countries in the Third World.

I now realise that there is a reason people call the United States the “Land of the Free”.  In many freedoms, they do clearly fall down on what their people deserve.  But in speaking their minds, they clearly do not.

We here in England have a lot to learn.

Too much for us to properly learn it in my lifetime, I fear.

Jun 292012

This tweet makes me wonder:

So. Focus on Ireland. Here in Dublin I can open thepiratebay.se. Brings it home what’s happened in the UK.

Meanwhile, a piece I did recently on a parody of British media coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee – as well as another on NHS reporting and possible super-injunctions – did rather make me think whether unflagged and unofficial online censorship wasn’t already becoming pretty widespread.  Perhaps it is indeed time to invent an error code which tells us when something has been removed from online access through government edict.  Alternatively, you might want to:

  1. Sign this change.org petition from Jimmy Wales.  It’s a deserving example of worldwide activism.  Click to find out more.
  2. Be amazed at this story of online incompetence from a government which claims to want to protect us from our wilder selves.
  3. Consider whether it’s time to give up on defending this Internet – and invent a new one instead.

Number 3?  Think about it.  Our rights to hassle-free communication appear little by little to be disappearing and degrading through the – perhaps – legitimate instincts of copyright owners everywhere.  They produce content; they deserve a living; we cannot, I accept, survive on bread and water alone.

Even bread and water has its price.

I am a little puzzled, of course, by some of the things that are happening: for example, whilst image sharing on the open web seems to have its own copyright Gestapo operating at full tilt, no one seems to care that a fundamental element of Facebook – maybe what most occupies us these days – is the sharing of copyrighted images.  That it happens within a walled garden where advertiser activities and rights are heavily controlled and foregrounded may possibly, of course, be playing a part in the collusion we seem to be getting from owners and sellers of such content.  But, at the very least, it doesn’t seem intellectually coherent to allow copyright infringement within Zuckerberg’s four blue walls – and pursue it so obsessively without.

Not that anyone could ever accuse the more extreme edge of the copyright lobby of intellectual coherence.

But I do begin to think that perhaps it’s time we regrouped our forces.  Louise Mensch’s Menshn.com website – whose lamentable hierarchy I lambasted here – does, on reflection, have one thing going for it: the desire to create a new space with new rules.  Her rules are typical Tory top-down agenda-setting control-freakism – but she is right in one sense: the worldwide web which we are now getting is becoming rather unfit for purpose.

In much the same way as our political parties, elected representatives, banking fraternity – and corporate makers and shakers in general …

Perhaps it’s not only time to give up on this Internet; perhaps it’s also time we gave up on our whole civilisation.  Time, with the best tools we have to hand, to invent a new one.  A new one not based on the philosophies of a Magna Carta world – a world which millionaire leaders are corrupting and dismantling faster than anyone would’ve predicted.

No.  A new one based on the philosophies of a rational, thoughtful, cooperating, collegiate and conversational network of equals.

Of sophisticated individuals who are far cleverer than society – with its strict hierarchies – currently allows for.

A revolution of the virtual.

A brand new Internet for a brand new and uncorrupted age.

Jun 162012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two debilitating curses for our times.


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

Jun 072012

There’s a funny sketch going the rounds by that delightful American TV jester, Jon Stewart.  It’s called “The Queen Who Stares At Boats” – the reference is clear.  It’s about how CNN and others covered the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Royal Pageant on Sunday – and the stupidities that their journalists were required to mutter in public.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend of a friend of mine posted a link to it on Facebook, only for the link to go down.  I then saw a tweet flash past on Twitter, saying no UK servers were serving up the video in question any more.  My friend posted a link on her own Facebook stream to Gawker instead, a link which at the time of writing is still working – at least for me.  You can currently find it here.

From across the other side of the Atlantic, it pokes more fun at the media than the Queen herself.  If, as the tweet I mention above suggested, it has been removed from all UK servers, I do wonder whether this isn’t an example of extra-judicial social-media censorship.  As far as I know, there have been no reports of injunctions on such material – it has simply disappeared from where it originally was.

Even a search on YouTube as served up in the UK doesn’t reveal the slightest trace of this clever piece of humour.

Is this then yet another abuse of super-injunctions (more here) – or, perhaps, an example of government giving a quiet nod to acquiescent ISPs and other private companies which begin, as many have feared over the past couple of years might turn out to be the case, to do the bidding of such government without the need for legal intervention or indeed publicly transparent protection?

And if it is, what other information – maybe of a far more transcendental kind – is being silently kept from the voters?

What mechanisms are suddenly being used without due parliamentary debate – and, exactly, why?