Aug 062014
 
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There have been stories this morning on how over a billion unique user name/password combinations for over 400,000 websites have been stolen by cybercriminals.  Everyone’s being rather cagey – to date – about the issue as far as I can see: no lists of the websites (a lot of info to process, admittedly), though perhaps these would in any case be counterproductive if published.  What we can surely conclude is that the user name/password system more generally is just about broken.

Which brings me to another couple of thoughts: thoughts I shall proceed to leave you with.

Why does Facebook use https?  It’s a colander of data – there’s just about no one of importance it won’t reveal content to: from security services to advertisers to social scientists … well, it doesn’t half make you wonder if the https strategy is little more than a marketing ploy.  Make us feel we’re in safe techie-hands, even as our data is splurged and spread around to increase shareholder satisfaction.

And as Google becomes the de facto scourer of emailed child porn (no problem with the idea itself, but tremendous issues with the privacy and constitutional implications of this implementation in particular), I do wonder whether we shouldn’t forget about security altogether.  What’s next to be rolled out?  A pop-up notification which warns you when you express adulterous thoughts – or perhaps a knock at the front door if you suggest in desperation, not literally of course, you’d like to kill someone for everything they’ve done to you?

In truth, all of this can only lead to two places: firstly, the death of irony, sarcasm and – more widely – the homely habit of telling jokes, as fear of being misunderstood replaces the freedom to speak one’s mind; secondly, a progressive rewriting of the Ten Commandments of ancient times, where the crimes pursued are those which most justify a dragnet surveillance approach, and the God who oversees their application are the Google & Co (but, hey, let’s be honest here: it’s Google we mean) already mentioned.

After all, it’s faintly conceivable for those in the know that – all along – Google has been a contraction of “God + ogle” …


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Jul 152014
 
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I posted recently, unwisely I suppose, on the Facebooking of the political party I belong to – the Labour Party.  Today, I realise this has extended to the whole British body politic, state, security services and every citizen who lives on our islands.

The Guardian reports the so-called #DRIP lawmaking process thus:

Forty-nine MPs have voted against rushing the government’s emergency surveillance legislation through all its Commons stages in just one day.

A deal between the three major parties, however, secured the fast-track timetable by 436 votes to 49, despite accusations from one Labour MP that the move amounted to “democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state”.

It concludes with the following summary of the powers being rushed through:

The bill requires internet and phone companies to store the communications data generated by phone calls, email, texts and internet use for 12 months and make it accessible to police and security services.

So why do I call this a “state-run Facebook imposed on every UK Internet user”?  Mainly because once you’re a part of Facebook, the most you can do is delete your osmotic public persona – if you’re looking to remove your data from their servers, however, think twice, three times, as many times as you want: it won’t ever be clear whether it’s happened or not.

A similar issue with this #DRIP bill.  (Bill?  How naive of me.  Probably law by now … they’ve had two days, after all, bless ‘em, to get through the complexities of the process.)

In the same way as I’ve never been very clear about what happens to your Facebook data – even on deletion of your account – so I’m not clear about the implications of the conclusion of the Guardian‘s report; and it’s a fact I’m sure is not due to the reporters themselves.

How can I ensure Facebook has removed my data, likes, posts, comments and photos from every single server it owns, when I ask for us to go our separate ways?  I can’t be.

Equally, after the last twelve months of my Internet activity’s been released to the police et al, what happens next month to the first of that last twelve months’ block?  Do the police et al conscientiously remove the first half of a telling email thread from their files because it started thirteen months ago and is now out of my best-by date?  Or do they realise – for the security of the nation, its peoples and paedophile political classes (or not as the case may unjustly be alleged) – that they actually need to hang onto not only thirteen months of my Internet history but, now, as I slowly progress down the evil road they believe I am taking, fourteen, fifteen or even twenty-four long months – whilst they wait for me to make my surely criminal moves?

Really, what I’m asking, much as I’d ask in the case of a data subject’s desire to be permanently removed from Facebook’s servers, is who is possibly going to be able to oversee the correct removal of tens of millions of British citizens’ datasets on a 24/7 rolling basis, week after week, month after month, year in and year out – until the end of civilisation as we know it?  (This latter date being probably July 16th, when #DRIP will clearly be law.)

I suppose if we really cared to do it right, we could solve unemployment overnight.

In the 20th century, they talked about digging holes, burying bags of money – and then proceeding to dig them up again.

In the 21st century, they now may talk about invading privacies, hollowing out voters’ lives – and then proceeding to pay other people bags of futile dosh to ogle the multiple intimacies of the obviously guilty multifarious.

The principle’s the same, of course.  The utility, creativity and imagination required too.


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Jul 092014
 
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First, we had #FacebookExperiment, where Facebook took it upon itself, for a week or so in January 2012, to make people happy or sad by deliberately manipulating the kind of content they saw.  Now we have #DarpaExperiment:

Several of the DoD-funded projects went further than simple observation, instead engaging directly with social media users and analysing their responses.

One of multiple studies looking into how to spread messages on the networks, titled “Who Will Retweet This? Automatically Identifying and Engaging Strangers on Twitter to Spread Information” did just this.

The researchers explained: “Since everyone is potentially an influencer on social media and is capable of spreading information, our work aims to identify and engage the right people at the right time on social media to help propagate information when needed.”

Of course, this is no creepier in its essence than Facebook showing me a picture of a hearse and a tagline which runs along the following lines: “Are you 53 next birthday?  Want to leave something to your nearest and dearest?”  (This, by the way, happened to me a couple of days ago.  I wonder, now,  whether it was actually part of the #DarpaExperiment – a warning of some sort or other!)  (Well.  I don’t really … but the thought is engaging.)

What really cheeses me off about all these stories circulating around how institutions, corporations and governments are treating end-users as laboratory garbage to be summarily dealt with and experimented on is that people like myself, brought up to believe in good science, in the scientific method and in progress through robust and rigorous experimentation, are allowing ourselves to become 21st century Luddites: through a natural preoccupation about privacy abuse, we’re reacting with closed minds, knee-jerk responses and an impulsive resistance to anything which involves going out on a limb.

What I’m really worried about, what I really hate, is that Facebook, Darpa and God knows who else are destroying our belief in any science at all – as they promote their activities and interests through examples of very bad practice.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by new ideas, by stuff which wasn’t quite right but seemed worthy of exploration.  At one point in my childhood, I devoured Isaac Asimov sci-fi; read things like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Lord of the Flies”; was exposed to the injustices of “Julius Caesar”; discussed and debated all manner of moral and political quandaries.

And now all the terrible things they’re doing with our personal lives have turned me into one of those people whose very first – and very last – instincts are to declaim self-righteously: “NO!  NO!  NO, NO, NO!”

So where did my open-minded, generously boyish nature go to?  How did my excited, excitable, wide-rangingly young mind vanish from the amplifying experiences of new thought?  What have these behemoths of permanent analysis, control and manipulation done to the environments which once nurtured me in the direction of new ideas so positively and constructively?

And does anyone else feel the same has also happened to them?

Really, I don’t dislike Facebook, Darpa or any of the rest for trying to make me change my mind on stuff – nor for wanting to influence my society’s future direction and development.  Really, it matters not a jot to me.  Mostly, I think our ideas remain pretty steady – oh yes, elections may be won or lost on the cusp of a stupid public statement or policy slip-of-the-tongue, but then do elections actually ever change anything anyhow?

What does upset me, however, is how they’ve buggered up our practice in weaving thoughtful trains of thought, and basing civilisation’s growth on proper and valid argument, debate and discussion.

I don’t want to be a 21st century Luddite.  And you’re making me more so, every hour that goes by.

So for that, I really do object in the strongest terms.

Can you understand why?


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Jul 062014
 
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This story – an old one, mind – came my way via Dan Gillmor on Twitter just now:

“As noted previously, Max Schrems of Europe Versus Facebook has filed numerous complaints about Facebook’s data collection practices. One complaint that has failed to draw much scrutiny regards Facebook’s creation of Shadow Profiles. ‘This is done by different functions that encourage users to hand personal data of other users and non-users to Facebook… (e.g. synchronizing mobile phones, importing personal data from e-mail providers, importing personal information from instant messaging services, sending invitations to friends or saving search queries when users search for other people on facebook.com). This means that even if you don’t use it, you may already have a profile on Facebook.'”

There’s a short .pdf you really should take a look at on the matter, which can be found here.  They’re called “shadow profiles” in the legal submission and above, but if truth be told they could also be described – in a way which whisks me back to beloved Star Trek days – as the anti-matter on which Facebook’s expansion is built.  Dark pools of knowledge about those people you don’t yet know too much about, but which will allow you to sustain the indefinite growth you need in order to keep a business model based on the pyramid of advertising from collapsing in on itself.

Or something like that, anyhow.

To kind of paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous assertion, it’s just as important to know as much as possible about what you don’t know as it is to know exactly what you do.

And the problem for the rest of us, as Facebook marches on, is that its manifest lack of either thick or thin legitimacy means potential competitors of a more scrupulous nature end up having to throw in the towel of better behaviours.  Where Facebook treads, everyone else finds themselves having to do so too.

In 1914, a very physical trench warfare became the norm.

A hundred years later, it’s moved online.  In 2014, the nearest thing to trench warfare we have is now raging between Facebook on the one hand and those companies who might respect our data a little more than is currently the case on the other.  Instead of bullets and shells and mustard gas and barbed wire, we have servers and IP addresses and the antisocial-matter that these “shadow profiles” from 2011 constitute.  But just as in 1914, ordinary people continue to be the cannon fodder of such warfare; and their lives, their privacies, their friends, relatives and acquaintances … well, as always, the bread and butter of those who benefit from such conflict.

It’s amazing that people can find out such stuff in 2011, and yet – fast-forwarding to today – for nothing to have changed.  And it’s not necessarily a step backwards in everything it might be either.  To replace the warfare of blood and guts with the warfare of bits and bytes may, in many ways, truly equal progress – even as it still involves the flesh-and-blood aspirations of people around their futures.

What worries me, all the same, is the lack of ambition it demonstrates: with all its massed resources and virtual tools, is this really the best model of civilisation Facebook can deliver?


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Jul 042014
 
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One of the great things about being a member of a political party is that it teaches you patience, tolerance, understanding and charity.  One of the bad things is when you strongly disagree with the implementation of a fantastic idea, you can’t hold your tongue even as you know someone’ll want to give you a tremendous bollocking.

So what’s on my mind tonight?  Well.  This you see below is.  And it’s a classic example of a brilliant concept – unfortunately and miserably (and, what’s more, without an ounce of self-awareness) implemented about as idiotically as it could have been.

The Facebooking of Labour

Let’s look at the data that’s being asked for, and see how relevant, proportionate, focussed and appropriate it might be:

  1. DOB – not just year, mind, but day and month too
  2. Your first name – though some will surely enter both first and last names
  3. Your email – clearly a key piece of data in order to discover your NHS baby number (not)
  4. Your postcode – hmm, yep, that’s manifestly of incredible utility here

Then in small print (admittedly smaller in my screengrab than on the webpage itself, but small on the webpage too) we get the following statement: “Please note: your baby number is only our best estimate, using census data. We’re also assuming you’re one of the 97% of babies born on the NHS.”

Then in very small print: “The Labour Party and its elected representatives may contact you about issues we think you may be interested in or with campaign updates. You may unsubscribe at any point. You can see our privacy policy here.”  (By the by, the phrase “You can see our privacy policy here” is in standard blue hyperlink colour, but on a grey background and thus virtually impossible to read.  It does nevertheless go to a very complete and I’m sure decently compliant overview of Party procedures and IT policies.)

Anyhow.  Imagine this wasn’t a Labour Party page.  Imagine, instead, this was an angel-funded, heavily-breathing, start-up competitor to, for example, Facebook.  (Just to imagine the possibility is quite difficult, don’t you think?  Just imagining that Facebook could actually have a competitor is challenging.  A terrible sign of the times in itself.)  Or if not a competitor to Facebook, something more prosaically English: say, for example, a revitalised replacement to the NHS patient record #caredata project.  Something where you had to give your opinion on huge changes – but in order to do so, you had to go to a website which asked you to give up your age, name, email and postcode, in exchange for telling you when you were going to – oh, I dunno – run out of money to pay for your healthcare.

We’d be rightly horrified; terribly shocked.  But the Facebooking of Labour, of politics in general, is complete.  Yes.  I appreciate the driver behind the whole shenanigans is the need to generate desperately needed funds for the Party’s relatively depleted war chest.  And I understand the importance of creating a shared love of pragmatic English socialist projects like the NHS and Legal Aid, both of which have been deliberately hollowed out by the Tory Party’s ideologues over the past four years.  But it would have been far better to separate the two objectives: first, allow people with just a single piece of data – year of birth, maybe – to find out an approximate NHS baby number (it is, in any case, very approximate) – and create that buzz of historical sharing in such a proportionate way; second, move on to the next page where – less eagerly, less breathlessly – further contact information could be reasonably and honestly obtained.

Anything else to say?  Not really.  I’ll get a bollocking for this now – or, even worse, will just get ignored.  Meanwhile, people like this are getting stuff like this done to them.

And so this Facebooking – not just of Labour, of course, but of society too – continues enthusiastically apace.


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Jul 032014
 
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I posted this yesterday on the subject of the #FacebookExperiment scandal, quoting from a Cornell press release:

Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

I then went on to conclude:

So, then, it’s OK to use research that has been obtained without permission from any source whatsoever, as long as one cannot identify the victims unwilling participants social network users in question – creatures, incidentally, who occupy the lowest of all low strata in the 21st century litany of unobserved rights and excessive obligations.

The thesis of my post was that Facebook was not just doing what other tech corps out there are doing – which is true – but that their behaviours in testing out “emotional contagion” in their users was very similar to what our Coalition government here in the UK has been doing since 2010:

And if the ICO feels that data protection laws may have been broken when Facebook experimented on the way that people reacted to negative and positive stories, without asking their permission first and even though they’d signed up to a wide-ranging set of T&Cs, who is to say this Coalition government didn’t similarly break human rights laws when they decided to experiment on how a nation might react to a barrage of false stories about immigrants “nicking” jobs, the “scrounging” poor, the “feckless” disabled and a well-packaged myriad of other lies, distortions and half-truths?

Today, Jay Rosen, writing in the Washington Post, adds a further twist to the resistance a whole host of people should feel with respect to this entire adventure, when he argues that the most culpable participants have been the universities themselves, for not observing the difference between “thin” and “thick” legitimacy:

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

After having spoken to people who work in pharmaceuticals, I’m inclined more and more to believe that tech corps have shrugged off both thick and thin legitimacy in a way that, for example, the former sector usually finds very difficult to manage.  Perhaps the problem is the degree to which we’ve wanted to legislate data outwith the very specific field of medicine, as well as the wider issue of consent (whether spoken or unspoken) in general.

Ethical committees in a medical context are there to ensure two things: firstly, that people are protected in an informed way, and as much as is possible, from the potentially toxic side-effects of otherwise useful experiments; and secondly, that the experiments carried out are robustly designed and take full advantage of the opportunities to learn and develop understanding.  There’s no point in exposing people to the downsides of science if the options are not properly explored to ensure the upsides; if maximum advantage isn’t part of the gameplan.  And whilst we all understand why medical data should be collected, collated and handled with care (or at least we did before #caredata hit the screens), other kinds of data have seemed to slip through the net of our awareness and coherence.

So.  Perhaps we should forget the nature of the data and focus our attention, instead, on the simple quantity.  Given that, for example, a sufficiently clever and substantial collecting of metadata can say far more about what someone intends than a close line-by-line reading of the content it inscribes, I would suggest we stop defining when something requires thick legitimacy with respect to the degree of intimacy or fragility or sensitivity of the material in question, and started defining it in terms of how much we hold.  Big data means we can find out practically everything – assuming we have enough of it – from the virtual equivalent of rubbish bins strewn across the web.  It doesn’t need to be intimate or fragile or sensitive in itself to allow intimate or fragile or sensitive conclusions to be reached.

Thick legitimacy for everyone and everything above a certain size, then?  I think so.  A thick legitimacy which should imply the oversight of independent ethical committees – just as with pharmaceutical corps, just as with the medical sector – and which, as committees of the ethical and the proper, should know far more about the subject than a cack-handed PR awareness of the potential for reputational damage permits.


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Jul 022014
 
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The Guardian reports this morning that:

Facebook is being investigated to assess whether an experiment in which it manipulated users’ news feeds to study the effect it had on moods might have broken data protection laws, it has been reported.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is said to be looking into the experiment carried out by the social network and two US universities in which almost 700,000 users had their news feeds secretly altered to study the impact of “emotional contagion”.

Meanwhile, the original Cornell press release which let on to the experiment has also been altered.  Where it originally asserted the Army had co-funded the adventure, it now says (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. In fact, the study received no external funding.

Perhaps, in the event, it would be churlish of us to complain.  As Paul has ironically pointed out, the T&Cs we signed up to on becoming Facebook users (more and more the 21st century equivalent of passing over to the dark side of a club membership you can never leave once entered) are pretty broad-ranging and may allow for such abuse.

Even so, the situation is sufficiently serious for institutions like Cornell to follow up with these kind of assertions (the bold is mine):

ITHACA, N.Y. – Cornell University Professor of Communication and Information Science Jeffrey Hancock and Jamie Guillory, a Cornell doctoral student at the time (now at University of California San Francisco) analyzed results from previously conducted research by Facebook into emotional contagion among its users. Professor Hancock and Dr. Guillory did not participate in data collection and did not have access to user data. Their work was limited to initial discussions, analyzing the research results and working with colleagues from Facebook to prepare the peer-reviewed paper “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” published online June 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science-Social Science.

Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

So, then, it’s OK to use research that has been obtained without permission from any source whatsoever, as long as one cannot identify the victims unwilling participants social network users in question – creatures, incidentally, who occupy the lowest of all low strata in the 21st century litany of unobserved rights and excessive obligations.

Which doesn’t half me remind me of another constituency out there.  Indeed, it would probably be rather unfair to criticise Facebook for following on from where certain British political representatives have gone before.

Before #FacebookExperiment, surely we have had #CoalitionExperiment – a deliberate process of emotional manipulation of both the most defenceless in society as well as, in the event, the most determined not to see their rights trampled on.

And if the ICO feels that data protection laws may have been broken when Facebook experimented on the way that people reacted to negative and positive stories, without asking their permission first and even though they’d signed up to a wide-ranging set of T&Cs, who is to say this Coalition government didn’t similarly break human rights laws when they decided to experiment on how a nation might react to a barrage of false stories about immigrants “nicking” jobs, the “scrounging” poor, the “feckless” disabled and a well-packaged myriad of other lies, distortions and half-truths?

If Facebook is to be investigated by the ICO, or perhaps even a select committee which feels particularly (and rightly) aggrieved about the situation, who will have the guts to investigate entire governments such as ours?  And given the close ties between the aforementioned social network and the security arms of the latter everywhere, doesn’t it make you wonder whether in fact this story is little more than a softening-up of public opinion as we await ultimate revelations from the Snowden cache of documents?

Is the #FacebookExperiment an isolated example of an always-slightly-maverick social network going out on a limb – or, more likely, does Facebook simply reflect what others, less visible, are now doing all the time?  And does Facebook do what it needs to sustain a business model – or is it more a question of doing the bidding of those who most need to structure people’s feelings in times of unrelenting crisis?

That is to say, our unrepresentative, undemocratic, inefficient and incompetent political leaders various … excellent reasons all, in the light of the above, to investigate much more profoundly how our body politic is doing a Facebook.


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Oct 162013
 
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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.


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Oct 062013
 
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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.)


http://youtu.be/h0d_QDgl3gI


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Jul 312013
 
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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.


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Apr 262013
 
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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.


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Mar 282013
 
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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.


http://youtu.be/Exh8t6lUpAI

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.


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Feb 222013
 
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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.


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Dec 272012
 
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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?


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Dec 122012
 
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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.

7.3.3:

“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?


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Dec 102012
 
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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.


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