Aug 282013
 
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Just received, in my spam box, the following email from my local MP, Stephen Mosley.  I’ve communicated on a number of occasions, some less unhappy than others – but, in writing at least, I’ve always received a proper and correct response.  This time, however, for some curious reason, it would appear that the aforementioned public servant is producing copy which Google’s algorithms most certainly do not like.  For those of you with a tribal bent, it may amuse you to know that the technology behemoth advises me in that ever-so-warningly red-bannered way:

Be careful with this message.  Similar messages have been used to steal people’s personal information.  Unless you trust the sender, don’t click on links or reply with personal information. [...]

Google blocks Mosley

So Google blocks my local MP – the question which then occurs to me being, why?

Any ideas, anyone?

How about this one for a humdinger?

Maybe Gmail’s decided to revise its full algorithm-set and, in the process, reject all communications from the West’s representatives  – reject them, that is, as being a possible extension of our surveillance state in action?

That’s a joke, by the way.

We can still joke, right?


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Aug 242013
 
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Eisenhower warned us a while ago of the dangers of the military-industrial complex.  In fact, he even went so far as to request that “security and liberty [...] prosper together”.


http://youtu.be/8y06NSBBRtY

He was warning us of the dangers of a private industry so powerful that representative democracy would end up representing only the very private interests of such industry.

The people would no longer get a look-in under such a panorama of influence.

Today, however, I’ve read something quite different.  It comes from Julian Assange, who I am sure will need no introduction.  Where it’s most interesting is in its extrapolation of his personal experiences on a particular occasion with Google’s Eric Schmidt and “others”.  The composition of these “others” was what allows us to understand how Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex has subtly changed the way it operates.  No longer does it merely affect how the state functions where its interests demand that it does so; it’s now also impacting, through the state itself, on the behaviours, instincts and room for manoeuvre which the rest of private industry – nominally functioning in an environment of free-market capitalism – formerly exhibited.

The “others” who supposedly attended this meeting with Assange were as follows:

That visit from Google while I was under house arrest was, as it turns out, an unofficial visit from the State Department. Just consider the people who accompanied Schmidt on that visit: his girlfriend Lisa Shields, Vice President for Communications at the CFR; Scott Malcolmson, former senior State Department advisor; and Jared Cohen,  advisor to both Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, a kind of Generation Y Kissinger figure — a noisy Quiet American as the author Graham Greene might have put it.

The wider process which Assange extrapolates from such an event – a meeting whose transcript (he informs us) has been published on WikiLeaks itself – describes the broader breaking of free-market capitalism thus:

Google started out as part of Californian graduate student culture around San Francisco’s Bay Area. But as Google grew it encountered the big bad world. It encountered barriers to its expansion in the form of complex political networks and foreign regulations. So it started doing what big bad American companies do, from Coca Cola to Northrop Grumman. It started leaning heavily on the State Department for support, and by doing so it entered into the Washington DC system. A recently released statistic shows that Google now spends even more money than Lockheed Martin on paid lobbyists in Washington.

And concludes:

That Google was taking NSA money in exchange for handing over people’s data comes as no surprise. When Google encountered the big bad world, Google itself got big and bad.

Either way, then, it would seem that security has broken the kind of capitalism many of us would prefer to subscribe to.  Whether it’s Eisenhower’s big bad wolves eating up the liberties – and more importantly the federal budgets – of the people or it’s Assange’s corporate-engulfing state security agencies, the short-term outlook for anything like economic justice is very very poor.

As a Twitter colleague of mine tweeted recently:

I’m not opposed to capitalism, I oppose it being used as an excuse to artificially inflate the basic cost of living for ordinary people.

And that, my dear readers, is exactly what the NSA, GCHQ and the half-truths of latterday politics seem – to me, at least – to represent more and more.

Security has broken, perhaps forever, free-market capitalism for us all.

And when Google promised it wouldn’t do evil, we all must’ve known – ultimately – it wouldn’t do much good at all.


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May 312013
 
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The Guardian offers us the following exclusive (the bold is mine):

The five biggest internet companies in the world, including Google and Facebook, have privately delivered a thinly veiled warning to the home secretary, Theresa May, that they will not voluntarily co-operate with the “snooper’s charter”.

In a leaked letter to the home secretary that is also signed by Twitter, Microsoft and Yahoo!, the web’s “big five” say that May’s rewritten proposals to track everybody’s email, internet and social media use remain “expensive to implement and highly contentious”.

Yeah.  Right.  As if Facebook, Google+, Microsoft et al weren’t already doing their utmost to achieve precisely that.

Don’t believe me?  Google, privacy and the European Union; advertising and online activities; and this from TalkTalk in 2010.  No.  It’s clear that when there is a business imperative to invade our privacy, both the big boys and even the smaller fry will be motivated to go to extraordinary lengths to do precisely what the government allegedly wants to do in the fight against terrorism.

And even as I am against the Snoopers’ Charter, I wonder whether there isn’t a longer-term dynamic at work here.  Take the example of Google search.  When you log in to Google, your search phrases are tied into your login but are not available for webmasters whose sites you visit.  However, when you do not log in to Google, your search phrases – whilst no longer tied into your Google login – became available for all and sundry to examine.  This is a clear example of the mentality at hand: you want a degree of privacy from the outside world, entrust it to Google & Co (for the moment).  You don’t want to entrust your privacy exclusively to us, then lose it altogether with everyone else.

Multiply this mindset up a thousandfold, and we can see that the Big Five’s thinking may go way beyond a disinterested stand on behalf of our privacy: if the government does require, by law, Google & Co to voluntarily give up the data they’re currently harvesting on their users, we’re talking about a massive writedown in the value of what is essentially the intellectual property – certainly the “raw materials” – of these companies.

When Google & Co talk about protecting our privacy, they’re actually talking about protecting their IP.  For if the Snoopers’ Charter – and their like elsewhere – are not eventually passed, government will presumably – at some point in the future – end up being crudely “blackmailed” by these rapacious organisations in exchange for getting access to their treasure troves of information.  After all, he or she who owns the data is always going to have the biggest say in determining its price when at the negotiating table.

One final thought, and just to underline again: I’m neither in favour of the Snoopers’ Charter nor in favour of transnational corporations collecting so much data on our habits, ways of seeing and ways of doing.

If truth be told, I’d much prefer a world where neither existed.

Wouldn’t you?


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May 292013
 
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I’ve suddenly started receiving Google Play emails.  I suppose this is some permission I checked as part of a recent upgrade, without, that is to say, realising I’d checked it.

My email provider is Gmail, one of Google’s best products (about to be wrecked by changes already in hand to its composition interface – but that’s a story for another post).  Its spam filters are excellent – easily taught, though (it has to be said) a tad free and easy with competitors’ emails: Twitter notifications in particular got a recent battering from its systems.

Today, then, I received another Google Play email.  I thought: excellent opportunity to teach a Google product (Gmail) that another Google product (Play) was behaving in a rather underhand manner.  So I clicked on the spam button in the expectation that the offending email would simply disappear from my screen.  To my surprise, instead, the dialogue box below popped up.

Gmail dialogue box for Google Play

Now as far as I know, this service isn’t offered to others.  As I pointed out above, I was never asked if I wanted to unsubscribe to Twitter notifications before I discovered they were ending up in my spambox.  Nor, indeed, as a general rule, do I unsubscribe to unwanted email anyway: I have been led to believe this simply tells unscrupulous senders that the email is valid and can continue to be usefully pursued.

It’s not even the only case of wanted email being filtered out by Gmail’s spam-detection systems.  I wrote a while ago about this unusual case.  Essentially, a small organisation in favour of debt-relief was, according to Google, having its emails marked by Gmail users as spam.  Crowdsourcing such filters is, as I pointed out, clearly open to abuse:

So let me see.  We have a small organisation supporting a medium-sized organisation against the alleged injustices of humungous organisations – and yet Google allows its users to flock together and keep such messages out of our inboxes.

Isn’t it conceivable that a network of evil-minded users (or indeed certain political parties – or maybe even governments) – thus alerted to the way these things now appear to work – might organise their behaviours in such a way as to push our major email providers into automatically blacklisting the communications of certain institutions, simply by marking any such emails as spam?

Didn’t you use to require about thirty separate website links to massage your blog to the top of a particular Google ranking?  I wonder how many email users are now required to remotely send a properly signed-up-for email into the black holes that are our supposedly automated spam filters.

In the case that occupies us today, of course, Google simply prioritises and protects its own services from being reported as spam – even as it automatically (or otherwise) defines other organisations’ stuff as being unwanted content.

If it were an automatic service offered to all and sundry, on a level playing-field we could be confident about, any email with an “unsubscribe” link would generate the same dialogue box.  That this doesn’t happen does really beg the question: why should I choose to behave with Google in one way – and in quite another way with everyone else?

And more importantly: why does Google reserve the right – in what was always an exemplary standalone product such as Gmail – to begin to blur the lines so self-interestedly against the content and advertising actions of others?

For me, just one more sad reason – beginning to stack up on the side of a number of others – to seriously search for alternative ways of receiving and delivering my email.


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May 042013
 
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I’m puzzled.  The news is big, of course – but how it gets to us is truly weird.

Sky scooping Sunday Mirror “exclusives” notwithstanding, this is how I came to the latter story in question.  As a result of a breathless breaking tweet by Sky itself, I first searched Google and got the following two results on page 1 (the ones in the middle I’ve manually removed from the screenshot as I’m unsure of their veracity or editorial quality).

Mirror/Sky Google search results

As you can see, we have the Mirror at the top, supposedly from “1 hour ago”; and then, at the bottom of the image, Sky’s own occurrence, from “11 mins ago” – something I can in fact personally corroborate, as I was only carrying out the search in question as a result of Sky’s already mentioned tweet.

That is to say, a tweet which had indeed come my way that 11 minutes before.

The really curious thing is this next screenshot, however: it shows the Mirror story above, I remind you at the top of the Google rankings for that search item, but with zero tweets and Facebook likes!  So how does that work then?  (And what’s more, a full eighty minutes later – even as I continued to write this post – still apparently without tweets or Facebook likes in any of the browsers I use.)

Mirror report on Nigel Evans

How on earth can a story like this have a publishing time of 19.10 on 4th May 2013, be the first item on the Google results page at 19.11 – and what’s more, according to Google, have actually spent an hour on the web without a single tweet or Facebook like?  How can that happen?

And – what’s just as disturbing – how can the Mirror get an exclusive for something like this?  Has nothing at all changed since the good-old, bad-old pre-Leveson days of journalists working hand-in-glove with the administration of justice?

Of course, this may all mean absolutely nothing.  It may simply be a question of crossed virtual wires.  There may be a malfunctioning pair of tweet and like counters on this story; it may even have been out there in the public domain for an hour without anyone finding it.

Alternatively, we may be facing yet another example of terribly ingenious news management, which – in this case – Sky stumbled into and messed up.  Google being used to place stories in the instant perhaps – in the self-interested reach of grasping social-network hands, and with a false search history behind them to validate their primary positions in the rankings?

Truly out of total ignorance of the technical background involved, I really have absolutely no idea what’s going on here at all.

So do any of you know anything more?  Any of you able to illuminate me further?  Anyone able to put my mind at rest?

____________________

Update to this post: the breathless Sky tweet I mention at the top of this post can be found here.  In my timezone, the one the search results and Mirror screenshots refer to, the datestamp is given as “7.03 PM – 4 May 13″, a full seven minutes before the Mirror article by its own byline was allegedly posted.  Still don’t think something slightly out of kilter is going on?


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Apr 232013
 
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Amazon Cloud services used by 38 Degrees

I saw a BBC Panorama documentary recently on the subject of North Korea.  Towards the end, after showing those of us who know nothing the veritable horrors of the place, it compared the advertising-free misery of the North Korean underground with the magnificent and joyful hoarding-invaded South Korea.  If I remember rightly, on more than one occasion our attention was drawn to this defining advantage of living in the free world – as if the quantity of advertising which serves to puncture our eyes is somehow a litmus test of how free we really are.

Well, I’m sorry but I don’t agree.  And today I read a story from the Spanish El País newspaper which simply confirms me in my resistance.  In it, we discover (robot English translation here) that the Madrid Metro Línea 2 - along with its iconic stop Sol – will become the sponsorship property of the Vodafone phone company, to such an extent that the aforementioned station will be renamed vodafone Sol.  In exchange for a three-year deal, it appears that a paltry €3 million will exchange hands.  But, of course, the story won’t end with the “awarding” of these “naming rights”.  As the article goes on to report:

[...] El acuerdo previsto con la empresa tiene una duración de tres años, lo que supone unos tres millones de euros. Para González es una “posibilidad enorme de ingresos” para Metro. “Tenemos 11 líneas más y muchas estaciones” que ofertar, ha recordado el presidente.

Loosely translating as:

[...] The agreement in question with the company will last three years, which means some three million euros.  For González, this presupposes an “enormous opportunity of income” for Metro.  “We have 11 lines and many stations” to offer, the president has reminded everyone.

So let’s just analyse exactly what’s going on here.  A public entity which has been offering state-funded services to a taxpaying city (I assume the Metro service is still all of these things, though – after so much economic despair – I may of course be wrong by now) has decided, in its wisdom, that it has the right to sell off to a foreign corporation the rights to name public spaces as if they were private spaces of public use.  Given the experience we’ve supposedly had with the Vodafones of the world here in Britain, as perfectly legal tax avoidance has begun to drill holes in the future financial planning of the state and our public services, this really does seem to be adding considerable insult to hurtful injury.  Especially when the people responsible for the deal appear to be saying that the cost of using the service will continue to rise for end-users, despite the corporate dosh changing hands.

That is to say, in an ongoing and awful political and socioeconomic crisis, where Spanish youth unemployment has hit over fifty percent and politicians of parties various have both enriched themselves and their business mates in a long-drawn-out process of terrible fecklessness (clearly at the expense of all the nations that make up the country), the Madrid Metro finds itself obliged to go with its begging bowl to precisely those guarantors of the free world which have brought us all to our knees in the first place.

To such an extent we finally discover that these people don’t only destroy our economies and welfare states so as to own us materially but also, now, look to own our public spaces – so as to own us emotionally too.

Can you imagine it?

The Starbucks Northern Line.

The Google Circle Line.

The Amazon Jubilee Line.

Hurts, doesn’t it?  Hurts so much it burns.  Burns like brands originally did.  And I bet it’ll come sooner than you think to England’s green and evermore unpleasant land.

Happy St Google’s Day!

Wonder what Shakespeare would’ve had to say about it all.

To brand or not to brand, perhaps?  Would that be the question?

St Google's Day


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Apr 042013
 
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I already wrote, a while ago now, on the subject of singular ways of doing things and planned economies in general.  First this, on the Google self-driving car project:

In the face of a wider defeat of Communism, Soviet socialism initially decided to turn in on itself.  Is this now happening at the hands of Google and wider movements towards automation in the US?

I then go on to develop the idea, concluding in the following way:

This is the End of History coming back to bite us in the backside.  As Communism/one-country socialism collapsed in its grandly political structures, and for a while there was little else we could do but argue the battle was dusted and done, even so it would appear that its instincts were continuing to work away at its evermore grand and commercial manifestations.

The monolithic state which hopes to re-engineer everyone in a one-best-way mindset, whilst disparaged and in the process of being dismantled by capitalist evangelicals almost everywhere, is suddenly reappearing in Google’s corporately admirable attempts: attempts where it looks to automate dangerous processes such as the freedom to kill people with cars out of the frame of everyday living.

The American Dream without the freedom to choose between life and death?  Whatever next my friend?

Prior to this piece, and as linked to within the quote above, I also suggested we could see the iPhone as a perfect argument in favour of planned economies:

Yesterday, late at night (excuse the incongruences if they exist!), I suggested the following:

[...] I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

A Facebook friend responded this morning by arguing in favour of planned economies.

I then went on to argue the following:

The iPhone an argument in favour of beginning to plan our economies all over again?  I think so.  And as I also pointed out in my Facebook response this morning:

[...] where before perhaps our analytical tools were not up to the job, I don’t think this is going to be the case today. [...]

If we are capable of sophisticating our manufacturing processes and consumer durables to such an extent as Apple’s iPhone, we can – where there’s a political and social will, of course – do the same with our societies and economies.

Is this a case of convergent evolution?  A case where the clearest example of 21st century corporate capitalism shows the way forward for a different kind of 21st century socialism?

A return to a sadly failed 20th century model of planned economies – only now, in the light of Apple’s experience, with the potential for a huge new lease of life.

Then more recently, in a series of posts which started with this one, I suggested we might create a parallel series of institutions, by most importantly recovering the positive values we might associate with the concept of “revolution”:

[...] Revolution is a dangerous and difficult word.  It connotes all kinds of disruption, violence and bloodshed.  From the French to the Bolsheviks to the coarsely violent recriminatory ends of the Spanish Civil War, the Balkan Conflict and even our experience with Iraq, revolution has no happy memories for history.  At least, for the history they teach us.

Yet I wonder if revolution must always be like that.  We could define revolution in a different way.  Disruptive, yes – it would have to remain so.  But not necessarily unseamless in its implementation. [...]

I go on to expand the idea thus:

Of course, any revolution of the old-style Bolshevik kind would, in a modern world, be almost certainly doomed to failure.  Modern society requires complex specialisms to function, and such complex specialisms would almost certainly not happily function under the kind of coercion a traditional revolution would require.  Too many tenuous threads of communication would break down under the brute force of full-throated change.

And yet, even so, I find myself coming back to 1950s Japan.  Within twenty years of losing a war at the final hands of two nuclear bombs, the Japanese car industry had effected a revolution of its own.  Non-violent, intellectual, process-driven and intelligent – all these things and more as per Deming’s philosophies and mindsets.

A revolution of a disruptive nature which, nevertheless, was not bloody.

And so we come to the present.  Over at El País today (in Spanish here; robot English translation here), we get a fascinating report on a Bill and Melinda Gates gathering in Seattle, where the headline idea is “‘Positive disruption’ as a driver for global change”.  This fits very nicely, at least from a conceptual – even if not institutional – point of view, with some of the ideas I’ve been mulling over above.  Though, to be honest, I think I’m looking for even more disruption when I say, as I did in my first Revolution ’13 piece, that:

[...] We could design, from the ground upwards, a parallel set of institutions which would, like the design of a Japanese car’s dashboard unit, only ever be included in a new model when entirely ready.  In so doing, and through accessible and inclusive techniques such as crowdsourcing – even where this might necessarily involve only the crowdsourced input of a hierarchy of predisposed specialists – we could avoid the biggest danger of disruptive revolution: the non-collaboration of key workers.

In such a way, key workers and process-owners who had crossed the line – and had effectively become criminals too big to jail (the money-laundering cases which have come to light in important banking communities come to mind here) – would no longer be able to hold a wider society to ransom.  The gradually more expert revolution-engendering structures would one day not only reach but outdo the efficacy of their corrupted compatriots.

At which point substitution could take place.

Either way, it’s clear that social-democratic and neoliberal evolutions have really rather had their day.  And to be honest, it’s the planned and statist Communism of the 20th century – though with a Deming-like participative twist – which has won the battles thus far.  The only difference from the 1950s is that the secrecy, fear and closed nature of its environments now find their location in transnational corporations – sometimes, psychotically fearful of each other; at other times, in consumer-prejudicing cahoots.  So it is that Orwell’s “1984″ did finally come true in one important respect – that is to say, in the sense of shifting international alliances, where histories and relationships are continually written and rewritten.  Where he went wrong was in conceptualising its happening between nation-states of a dictatorial cut.  In truth, right now, for most people out there, what corporations do with each other has far more impact on their daily existences than what simple little and relatively powerless countries ever manage to effect.

Which, if you’ve cared to follow me to here, brings me to my final point.  I would like to suggest that democracy, right now, is set up to fail.  Whilst business has successfully moved on from democracy’s ideological rejection of 20th century Communism and all its tenets – examples as already mentioned range from Google’s anti-American self-driving instincts to Apple’s anti-American centrally planned economy – democracy itself is mortally hidebound by its utter inability to contemplate a retread of a Soviet-style revolution.

All this time we’ve been saying that it’s business which should be more like democracy when, in reality, what we may have had is a democracy which business has fashioned to divide, conquer and keep meek.

Set up to fail, then?  Is that a fair assertion?  Have now-Communist-like businesspeople – now-Communist-like at least in their tools of choice – deliberately made democratic practitioners everywhere so terrified of committing the same revolutionary and disruptive acts that out of this conceptual cul-de-sac no Western democracy anywhere will ever manage to emerge?

Maybe not.  Maybe so.  Maybe, on reflection, we should park the possible reasons for why we’ve arrived at this place for just a few gentle moments.

For there may be a much bigger goal on the horizon.  If we can convince the businesspeople who have already embraced this revised version of 20th century Communism I describe above to contemplate facilitating a similar move in our democratic institutions and environments, perhaps the “positive disruption” that I find myself voicing and calling for – in the same curious company today as Bill and Melinda Gates – can find a broader range of adepts and enthusiasts out there, and much sooner than we think.

As well as end up helping to save from global disintegration not only our species but also the democratic instincts which have so ennobled its political practice.


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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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Mar 142013
 
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The quote comes at the end of this El País article last night (original in Spanish, robot English here) on the election of Pope Francis.  I have seen both hopeful and unhappy things written about this election.  Even though I am a lapsed Catholic, I wish the new pope well.  He certainly will have a helluva job to brace the ruins I perceive.

Meanwhile, practically the first thing I see this morning is this cold announcement on Google Reader.

Google Reader - July 2013

Not much more to say on this one, except that Google would appear to be reinforcing its rolling process of centralising all online debate around Google+.  It would seem that long-term the idea of us blogging at our own places and coming together through such aggregating tools is really not where Google is going to.  A Communist Google, in fact, as the model being followed seems far more USSR than USA.  I’ve already complained about other changes made a while ago to their unattended tool – and even suggested that we work out some way of buying up the whole Google Reader tinglado, lock, stock and barrel.

It won’t happen, though.  Voluntary adhesion to common goals was never the corporate way.

So whilst the Church wants to brace the ruins, Google aims to detonate them.  There’s a poetry of sorts contained in the synchronicity of the two events.

*

Two more thoughts to finish.  The next story shows us just how poor latterday journalistic standards – where not prejudices – have become.  An “exodus” of “overtaxed” French bankers becomes around one:

And that’s the sum total of the FT’s evidence of the “exodus,” at least in this article. In a population of 65 million we have one confirmed departure, one effort to leave, and an unspecified number of anonymous departees. (Who, we might ask, are they? Will they confirm that they left for tax reasons?)

Meanwhile, on a piece I posted over at the Speaker’s Chair blogging hub, we get an interesting discussion on Liberal Democrat election chances.  My response to a comment at the foot of the piece runs as follows:

I’m not absolutely sure the LibDems will lose as badly as people think. Yes, for many, they’ve enabled the Coalition – but I bet a huge number of that many would not have voted LibDem anyway. The little experience I have of grassroots LibDem members leads me to believe there is plenty of ideology which would not fit in either Labour or the Tories, and which serves to keep that flock together. I *can* agree with your latter half of your last sentence, mind. The only caveat being that I’m not sure Ed will have too much room for manoeuvre to do very much differently at all. But then tone and discourse are also important – and his would I’m sure be far more kindly and supportive to the most frightened in our society than IDS & Co will ever manage. In fact, a politician who can enthuse through manifest decency and infuse confidence through honesty may just be what our democracy needs right now.

Interesting cases today – in a way all connected.  Whilst the Church and the Lib Dems look to recover from awful moments during which their hierarchies have unfairly damaged their own sense and perception of what they should really stand for, my judgement in both cases is that these “flocks” (flocks of birds more than sheep) will not easily break away from their core beliefs.  Was the last pope, then, the Catholic equivalent of the current leader of the Lib Dems?  Pope Benedict XVI, the prayerful inactivist versus Nick Clegg, the pious teller of half-truths?

Maybe so.

The only certainty I do appreciate this morning is that corporate Google continues to head off in the opposite direction to history.

The Facebook model of walled gardens and ad-infested centralisation is not the way forward, nor was ever going to be.

Google is lost, much as the Lib Dems and the Roman Catholics have recently been feeling.

And, perhaps, in the end, for similar reasons.


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Feb 182013
 
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About eleven years ago I was studying in Spain for a Publishing Master.  There were many great and good craftspeople who taught us the ins and outs of a very particular trade – a very special trade.  At the time, I was looking to set up an online publisher.  I was aiming to cut costs in the industry by using technology to combine the roles of various skillsets in one individual.  This wasn’t the paused, many-handed and time-honoured way of publishing – but in time it has come to pass, and ten years later we live in a quite different world.

What really was focussing minds ten years ago, however, at least in Spain and at least in this course, was what was seen as the evermore pervasive and encroaching danger of an American search-engine upstart called Google (the bold is mine):

Google began in March 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey BrinPh.D. students at Stanford[1] working on the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library” [...].

Google’s aims were clear – as least to the Spanish tradition of editors.  Whether you liked the idea or not, whether you were prepared to collaborate or not, whether you accepted the terms as laid down by the powerful or quixotically attempted to resist their impositions, Google’s ultimate aim was to turn your thoughts, your lives, your very own selves and – finally – even your carefully guarded intellectual property into nothing more nor less than the virtual equivalent of the water that since time immemorial succeeds in seeping everywhere.

In the name of transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS), Google would one day be ripping out the very heart and soul of your entity.

And so that, as well, has come to pass.  Online caches of all kinds mean that however careful a maintainer of your content you are, anything and everything you post is likely to come to someone’s preserving notice and instincts.

But, what’s more, instead of being used to promote the transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS) I mention, it’s become a sorry old tool of a most traditional bent: a tool which, in hindsight, my dear Spanish opponents were right to fear – and perhaps even right to resist.  Google’s asserted desire to make knowledge available to all comes at a massive cost.

The cost is the Googlefying of you, me and the cat’s mother.

*

The Americans have consistently trashed WikiLeaks for opening the door to all kinds of communications they firmly argue are better kept secret.  And yet, from their very own apple-pied backyards, we have Google invading every corner and content we could possibly conceive.  The instinct to bare souls is shared too: you and I, our friends and family … all of us spill our bleeding-edge thoughts into the ether that now embraces everyone.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Googlefying instincts which a decade of brutal exposure has engendered should have now reached the chambers of our democracies.  This story, for example, from 2011:

AN internet blogger has been arrested after she tried to film a Carmarthenshire Council meeting from the public gallery.

Now it would appear that no crime had been committed, nor local law infringed.  The council in question simply took exception to its proceedings being recorded in such a way.  I’m sure that the immediate reaction of most people in the Twitter- and blogosphere would be one of anger and surprise.  And I suppose I’d feel pretty obliged to go along with such reactions – if only it wasn’t for the history of Google I’ve just gone and recounted.

Images and video are such cruelly permanent matters.  Can we honestly argue that our democracy is entirely better for encouraging the kind of politicians who thrive on television appearances and firmly taped and registered political events?  Many would argue, of course, that the transparency they bring is only ever going to improve the transparency of our political processes.  But I’m really not sure this is the case any more.  Images and video seem – of late, anyhow – to promote the worst kind of manipulation our body politic has seen for a very long time.

And if the arguments people have used against WikiLeaks – a dumping mechanism of all kinds of unwary data which makes private truth-telling and negotiation impossible to promote – are to be considered at all sustainable in any way, then equally the Googlefying of our wider world – of which random and unannounced filming of council and other democratic process is simply one of many examples on the horizon – needs to come under a far closer scrutiny.

From a very personal perspective, I would like to see far more politicians who can speak to the public without falling into the temptation of speaking to the gallery.

So ask yourself this, then: which, in the end, will the Googlefying of the world really encourage?


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Jan 302013
 
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We had this headline a couple of weeks back:

Tom Winsor says outsiders will ‘enrich’ the police service

By “outsiders” it seemed, at the time, that he meant those who were not primarily police officers.  In their wide-ranging efforts to de-professionalise our society – and at the same time rid the hold such evidence-based individuals apparently have over the same – it looked like this government was now setting its attack dogs on the police as they looked to apply to allegedly hidebound practice the synergy and synchronicity of other ways of seeing.  Just one more profession in a long line already under fire: lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers … well, the list could be as long as you wanted it to be – as long as it didn’t include politicians themselves.

Today, however, we have a truly pleasing development.  The outsiders Tom Winsor was describing weren’t just other professions: they were – actually – people from abroad.  Yes!  It’s official!!!  The Tory Party comes out in favour of immigration:

Senior officers from overseas will be able to run police forces in England and Wales for the first time, under a government overhaul of recruitment.

Outsiders will be able to join forces as superintendents and recruits can be fast-tracked to inspectors.

Police Minister Damian Green said the service would benefit from a wider talent pool.

In favour indeed, as I say, of an immigration of the most blatant kind.  Right to the heart of the law and order of our state, no less.  Foreigners to be in charge of how we weave the very tapestry of the English and Welsh way of doing things.

Well, sort of anyway.

A couple of caveats, as always with this government.  First, no nasty European-types will be allowed to sully our oppressive instincts, as the Home Office only plans:

  • Opening up chief constable roles to senior officers from countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand

We really wouldn’t want untrustworthy horsemeat-eating individuals anywhere near our command-and-control infrastructures, now would we?  Who, after all, could trust a Frenchie with our tasers, rubber bullets and CS gas?

Second, even now, even after all the above proposals have come to light, not quite all immigration is as welcome as it might be.  This, for example, also published today, on the government’s initially wizard wheeze to selfishly cream off entrepreneurial talent from other – perhaps less advantaged – countries where you might think such characters might be just as usefully needed:

Immigration rules intended to encourage entrepreneurs to settle in the UK are being abused and need to be tightened, a minister has said.

Immigration minister Mark Harper said a “meaningful assessment of the credibility” of immigrants claiming to be entrepreneurs would be introduced.

Fake businesses were being created and funds recycled to provide evidence of entrepreneurial activity, he said.

“Legitimate applicants” would not be deterred, he predicted.

Hmm.  Legitimate applicants I hear you say?

One occasion, in fact, where Cameron got it right.

So why is his government so all over the place on this surely self-evident issue?  Of course crossing frontiers and boundaries is good for the countries where this happens.  Of course the sparks that cultural dissonance generates lead to far more creative soups of productive activity.  Of course the good that globalisation can mean will only come out of exchanges of opinions and viewpoints amongst our evermore sclerotic specialisations.

What I really can’t understand, then, being as the Tories claim to be the party of those who wish to get on, is why they aren’t more consistently in favour of immigration as a grassroots process that benefits practically everyone who could participate in its primarily constructive embrace.

Which kind of football team would you really like?  Cherry-picking believers in obscenely buying in top-class players like our very own Manchester City?  Or youth-academy stalwarts investing in the long-term future of a Barcelona?

The kind of place, in fact, where foreigners are welcomed with open arms – and yet are also generously combined with carefully nurtured homegrown talent.

I know which I’d prefer.

The question is: does Cameron’s Tory Party?


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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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Nov 262012
 
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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.


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Nov 182012
 
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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.


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Nov 122012
 
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The most harrowing corporate-related video of the day doesn’t involve children dying in Africa as they are forceably weaned off mother’s milk through massive advertising campaigns.  No.  It’s much more prosaic and – yet – just as pointed.  Amazon’s Director of Public Policy – I think that was his post though I’m not sure he’s going to remain in it for much longer – provides us with this excruciating performance today as he was interrogated and even laughed at by MPs investigating the tax affairs of the big corporates.

Amazon wasn’t, however, the only one to suffer.  As politics.co.uk also reports:

[...] Starbucks global chief financial officer Troy Alstead was told his company’s claims to make a loss in the UK “just doesn’t ring true”.

The coffee chain pays no corporation tax in the UK and has filed losses with Companies House for most of the years it has been in the country.

“You have run the business for 15 years and are losing money and you are carrying on investing here. It just doesn’t ring true,” Hodge said.

“You are losing money. You have tried for 15 years and failed and you have promoted the guy who failed. It doesn’t ring true Mr Alstead, that’s what frustrates taxpayers in the UK.”

She added: “Are you lying to your shareholders?”

Meanwhile, if you are of a masochistic bent, more background to this story – again from the BBC – can be found here.  It’ll make you weep, if only out of evil joy.

It makes me feel ashamed, mind.

Ashamed of all the schools and hospitals which will close because these behemoths have got so good at avoiding their moral responsibilities.  Ashamed of all the good public servants – and private employees too – whose jobs have been lost because of the unfair advantage such companies have over their tax-paying competition.  Ashamed of the purchasing choices I now strive to make less and less: choices which have filled the pockets of delightfully clever “whats” – websites, delivery schedules, search engines and seductive flavours – but all at the expense of considerably unpleasant “hows”.

For this has real consequences – and they’re not only in the public sector.  Recently, the British electrical appliances and electronics chain Comet announced it was going into administration.  There are very particular issues I believe in relation to how the company was run, but Amazon’s own very forceful presence in the market was surely a contributory factor.  And overheads are bound to vary tremendously.  That bricks-and-mortar establishments provide a face-to-face after-sales service is, for example, a cost which many online retailers refuse to provide.

I recounted, in the meantime, the story of our iPod – purchased at a heavy discount from Amazon itself and now six months out of guarantee with a failing home button as built-in and permanent feature.  We felt that as retailer it was up to Amazon to take ownership of the issue – Amazon, however, argued it was Apple’s responsibility.  After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, I received this email from my erstwhile favourite corporation:

Dear Mr Williams,

My name is [ _____ _____ ] and I represent Executive Customer Relations within Amazon.co.uk and in this capacity, your correspondence has been brought to my attention.

I am sorry to hear of the difficulty experienced with the       New Apple iPod touch 8GB (4th Generation) received in May 2011 from your order #202-_______-_______.

The European Directive 1999/44/EC allows for a claim to be taken (under certain circumstances) for a period up to two years in accordance with European Law, and up to six years under UK law.

This does not imply that an item has a warranty of two years or six years respectively. It merely permits an individual to make a claim under certain circumstances within that time period, e.g. should a fault be proved to have been inherent in the first six months.

Amazon do not provide the warranty for this item. We do, however, cover our obligations under the relevant legislation such as the Sales of Goods Act 1979 in the UK. Under the Sale of Goods Act, a consumer is granted recourse against a seller of goods if those goods were defective at the time of purchase. This may include, in certain circumstances, repair, refund or replacement but only to the extent that doing so is not disproportionate to the value of the goods, having regard to the use the customer has already had of the goods and the nature of the goods.

You purchased your product approximately 18 months ago and, until recently, have used it successfully and reported no fault with the product. Given your satisfactory use of the product for a period of time which exceeded the manufacturer’s warranty period, it is not established that the product did not conform to the contract (i.e. was defective) at the time of purchase.

Amazon.co.uk is therefore not under an obligation to offer any additional assistance in repairing or replacing your product.

Please note that the manufacturer is often in a better position than the retailer to deal with technical problems affecting their products. Therefore, should you wish to pursue this matter, we would encourage you to contact the manufacturer to see if they are able to provide you with any further assistance. They may be in a position to offer a repair service or could provide you with information on relevant charges for an out of warranty repair:

-    Manufacturer: http://depot.info.apple.com/ipod/
-    Phone: 844_______
-    Email: http://www.apple.com/uk/support/

Thank you for your attention to this email.

Regards

[ _____ _____ ]
Executive Customer Relations

To cut a long story short, after a period of a year defined by the guarantee Amazon cares to comply with, Amazon as retailer understands it has no obligation to liaise with manufacturers at all.  Even as your Currys or Comet or Argos presumably continue to provide such a service.  At, of course, a slightly higher – but even so market-sensitive – purchase price.

If truth be told, it’s absolutely clear that a British search engine company doesn’t exist because of things like Google’s tax arrangements (#avoidance); a British coffee chain doesn’t exist because even Starbucks has demonstrated that on two quid a cup the business can’t operate profitably (#irony); and Comet, Argos, Currys and all the rest are busily defending evermore difficult trading circumstances as the Amazons of this world (well, let’s just say #Amazon) make all kinds of entirely legal decisions to avoid paying corporation tax to the communities from which they extract so many billions of pounds of profit.

What we really need is the free market to take these corporates by the scruff of the neck.  I’ve already suggested how here, here and here.  It’s now up to you to determine whether we go forward with these ideas.  I’m convinced they’d create a constructive level playing-field which would benefit everyone – but then I am a naive soul who still believes that people show general good faith when properly given the opportunity.

I do have to say one thing before I finish tonight: I suddenly feel so very awfully ashamed of ever having loved those American corporations.

Don’t you?


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Sep 302012
 
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In the face of a wider defeat of Communism, Soviet socialism initially decided to turn in on itself.  Is this now happening at the hands of Google and wider movements towards automation in the US?

I quote from the always excellent John Naughton, who quotes from himself here (the bold is mine):

At the ceremony in Mountain View, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, announced the company’s intention to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in five years. In a pre-emptive attack on critics, he pointed out that autonomous vehicles would be significantly safer than human-controlled ones. That seems plausible to me: 40,000 people are killed every year in road accidents in the US and many, if not most, of those are caused by human error. “This has the power to change lives,” Brin said. “Too many people are underserved by the current transport system. They are blind, or too young to drive, or too old, or intoxicated.” He also argued that manual operation of cars was inefficient: autonomous vehicles could make better use of the road and reduce the size of car parks by fitting into smaller areas than humans could get them into.

Ignore the evangelism for a moment and think about what Google has achieved. Its engineers have demonstrated that with smart software and an array of sensors, a machine can perform a task of sophistication and complexity most of us assumed would always require the capabilities of humans. And that means our assumptions about what machines can and cannot do are urgently in need of updating.

This isn’t just about cars, by the way…

In the full Observer article which he’s extracted the above paragraphs from, he then goes on to describe how this rolling and encroaching process of automation might help explain how jobs are disappearing from the economies of the Western world, even as recession officially ends in some of those economies and companies start expanding again.

I’m inclined to see Google’s moves, however, in a longer-term and more political light: the American love affair with the car is an icon and driver (literally) of the broader American Dream.  The freedom to move and transport oneself anywhere, whenever one wishes and without recourse to timetables or other organisational restrictions, coupled with the always solidly low price of petrol over there, has fed into an underlying narrative of how all elements of society should be organised – or not, as the case may be.

Personally, I used to love driving.  I remember once driving, with the corresponding breaks of course, for seventeen hours from Gent in Belgium to Burgos in Spain.  In hindsight, though exhilarating it was foolishly so – and therefore became an experience I was never to repeat.  (And nowadays I wonder in all conscience, as I watch how cars work ant-like and in – from a distance – amazingly complex ways, how more people don’t get killed on the roads.)

Many other people have also done such things – and will, I think, continue to do them – precisely because our society, in a way, subconsciously, kind of approves: it’s your choice, it’s your decision, it’s your individual empowerment which figures far more significantly in our irrational mindsets than our civilisation’s saddening and resulting body count of dead road users.

Yet Google is looking for us to go down the route of saving lives first and foremost.  No stupid thrills, running a car too fast round that bend.  No crazy Saturday nights, showing off for the attendant boys and girls.  No real status symbol in being just one other passenger.  Not really your car, either – rather, the corporate Communism of 21st century Google-America!

Yes.  As Google claims, this has the power to change lives.  And as Naughton underlines, this is more than just a question of cars.

This is the End of History coming back to bite us in the backside.  As Communism/one-country socialism collapsed in its grandly political structures, and for a while there was little else we could do but argue the battle was dusted and done, even so it would appear that its instincts were continuing to work away at its evermore grand and commercial manifestations.

The monolithic state which hopes to re-engineer everyone in a one-best-way mindset, whilst disparaged and in the process of being dismantled by capitalist evangelicals almost everywhere, is suddenly reappearing in Google’s corporately admirable attempts: attempts where it looks to automate dangerous processes such as the freedom to kill people with cars out of the frame of everyday living.

The American Dream without the freedom to choose between life and death?  Whatever next my friend?

Which is why one final thought does now occur to me.

Will there ever come a time when – under Google-America’s 21st century one-best-way socialism – guns and their bearing will also become the preserve of automated systems?

And if so, whither the hallowed Constitution of the United States of America then?


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