Jul 252014

Here’s a batshit insane story, to quote from one of my Twitter acquaintances, Adrian Short:

Batshit insane Tory MP David Tredinnick wants more astrology in healthcare: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28464009 …

And here’s the story he links to:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

The MP in question goes on to describe astrology as something with a “proven track record”.  Proven, I suppose, as much as Tory economics has shown itself able to serve the nation equitably.

But Short makes a follow-up comment which really does interest me:

Which makes me wonder how we regulate negligence and misconduct in medical astrology.

Considering that so much of what the public-sector NHS is now carrying out is under the immediate control and management of private-sector companies, and considering that clinical negligence has been taken out of scope of Legal Aid provision, you might very well ask the same question of traditional non-batshit-insane medicine: without emanation of the state, without Legal Aid, effectively you have a system built not only to enable wide-ranging freedoms for medical corporations to do as they wish but also for MPs like David Tredinnick – and the similarly curious – to bring to our GP surgeries such prejudice-based treatments.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that it was all part of a whole.  Instead, I’ll simply remind us that battles must be fought by those most affected.  And we are now clearly those most affected by all this prejudice.

Jul 232014

I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel.  As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by.  This was the tweet in question:

Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …

And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.

And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.[1] It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago.  I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold.  Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.

And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.

However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:

@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited).  And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see).  In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be.  Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.

Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing.  Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward.  The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated.  As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told.  The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.

It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.

The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to.  Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.

For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:

By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.

Jul 192014

This evening I tweeted two connected posts.  I’ve been finding it impossible to comment on three significant news items recently: Gaza, Ukraine and Syria.  So I tweeted these two connected posts as some – perhaps insubstantial – attempt on my part to say, at a distance, some of what I was feeling.

The first post described an exhibition on the subject of a small percentage of children rescued from Nazi concentration camps and whisked off to the Lake District to recover.  It concluded with the following observation:

The healing quality of the surroundings the children found themselves in on arriving in the Lake District itself was heavily, and quite rightly, underlined.

The second described the importance of managing environment, using the example of bumblebees as an analogy for our own frailties – especially at the hands of this dreadful Coalition government:

Bumblebees need holes in walls to find a habitat.  I learnt that whilst in the Lake District yesterday at the Peter Rabbit garden outside the Beatrix Potter Attraction, Windermere.  It seems, for me right now, to describe perfectly what the Coalition’s economics is doing to us.

The people who do the things they are doing to us work in the urban landscape that is the metropolis of London.  When they escape to their country retreats, it is out of privilege they escape: for them, the countryside is just as much a good to be bought and sold as a future on the futures market.  When they plan to detonate, dismantle and destroy the complex ecosystem that is English society, they do not care to worry about those of us who are like bumblebees: those of us who need, in amongst the impervious concrete constructs, habitat-generating holes in Lakeland stone-style walls.

The shock and awe of Osborneconomics is an urban construct: the constructors and developers who remake the faces of our cities every twenty years do not care about complexities, preservation or the conservation of the existing.

Yesterday, visiting Windermere and Bowness showed me – reminded me – that change needs to be managed not imposed; but managed in the sense of appreciating and dealing with its impact on real environments and not in the sense of that managerialist approach which involves brainwashing workforces, voters and affected populations into meek and materialist submission.

Meanwhile, a BBC feature on how extreme isolation warps the mind usefully came my way this evening.  If you’re in the UK I’m not sure that the link I’m going to give you will be accessible – if they know what they’re doing, a redirect will kick in; if not, do try and search it – it’s worth your time.  Anyhow.  Here’s the link I’ve got and a flavour of what it says:

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

What, then, am I saying with these three pieces I quote from above?  Or what am I trying to say?  Conflict, especially violent conflict, especially violent conflict in the absence of the dynamics of consensus, is not primarily because of the money merchants who distribute the machines of death; is not primarily because of the flags and religions which shear people away from each other; is not even because of land which should belong to one or another.  Conflict, especially violent conflict, is a matter – ultimately – of language.  And in this sense, it is due to a traumatic failure of language.

Language doesn’t really work very well at the best of times.  Our vocabulary is highly individual, carrying a baggage of memories and experiences no one else shares.  It’s a miracle that any overlap of meaning exists at all – at least to the extent that we may communicate enough not to be permanently at each other’s throats.  So it’s hardly surprising that in the more extreme environments we see this month – Gaza, Ukraine and Syria – it should be possible to read phrases tossed out on social networks along the lines of “Today I saw a man putting pieces of his son into a shopping-bag”; hardly surprising, I would argue, even as it is clearly distressingly disturbing.

No.  I’m not looking to relativise very different situations.  I’m not looking to avoid taking ownership for my opinions either.  Although it is true that I feel I don’t have the knowledge to decide which side is right – even that I don’t think I have the right to make that judgement.  And, in fact, I think that maybe this is the wider nub of the problem: geopolitical behaviours of a cruelly managerialist bent have taken over long ago from local knowledge and understanding.  Brains and ideas bods swoop in at the drop of an emergency hat (or not as the case may be – Syria perhaps a terrible case in point).  We’re forever assuming greater forces will pull out their bloodied rabbits and solve, by some multi-polar magic, the creaking faults of latterday international relations.  And when I say we, I mean all of us who have ever – all of us who will ever – find ourselves in the midst of some violent conflict or another.  Not just the onlookers who balefully observe via the web, social networks, mainstream TV and so forth.

In truth, few people in such environments are entirely in charge of their destinies, of what they do or say, of how they react to events – or, indeed, how they can manage history’s march.  If we still find it so difficult to work out who messed us up in a sequence of banking crises in 2008 for goodness sake, how can we decide right now who to usefully blame when a democratic state and a half-baked national solution start firing rockets at each other; when a government and “rebel” opposition of geopolitically sustained violence lead to the destruction of a passenger plane, the spiriting away of bloating human remains and the vanishing into thin air of surface-to-air missile batteries and black boxes various; or when a war-torn society destroys streets, town centres, cities and communities where people once used to live their lives in peace if not in our prized liberal freedoms?

“Usefully blame?” you ask.  “And what do you mean by that?”  Well, again, there’s the nub of the issue.  “Stop the War!” perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Maybe, far better, “Stop War!”

There’s a difference.

At least for me.

I wonder if it exists for you too.

Jul 162014

I just tweeted in rather ironic tone the following:

Plaything of cybercriminal, paedophile, govt – even social-network users for goodness sake! – the web’s breaking up like a rusting old car.

I’d just read this, where under current legislation (significantly, no need for #DRIP here), but with new process and procedure, forty-five police forces have managed to coordinate their efforts and capture 660 suspected paedophiles.  I presume mainly online paedophiles (ie paedophiles who use online tools to commit crimes), and do wonder if in the future this won’t lead to another digital divide opening up: that where law enforcement concentrates on arresting a far larger proportion of those who operate online than it will do with respect to those who operate more carefully behind closed doors – and in that far more difficult-to-profile real (or, indeed, historical) world.

I am also minded to wonder how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of damaged adults are now hiding within their very private selves the consequences of historical child abuse.  Some would argue that the web augments the activity: I would suggest (with no professional background or figures to boast of, mind) that child abuse is probably a pretty steady statement of intent in most societies, and if less than a year’s concerted effort yields 660 arrestees in the UK, how many more criminals in how many other years have, at all levels in society, avoided the same fate?

I don’t, of course, suggest they’ve historically avoided detection.  I do suggest they’ve historically avoided prosecution.

Meanwhile, this story popped up a little late in my timeline this afternoon:

 Former Labour shadow minster Diane Abbott said her party’s leadership had been hoodwinked into supporting the legislation.

“I believe – I hate to say this because they are all nice people – that those on the opposition front bench have been rolled,” she said.

“All ministers had to do was to raise in front of them the spectre of being an irresponsible opposition, and that children will die if they do not vote for the bill on this timetable, and they succumbed.”

And yet, I would remind you, we have the news already mentioned that, under current legislation, 660 suspected paedophiles can be tracked down and captured.  So why the urgency for making the extra-legal behaviours of the past decades entirely legal law right now?

The problem for me with the surveillance state we’re getting is that it mimics very closely long-running debates of a very technical nature between closed source and open source software licence regimes.  In the former, we trust that one company knows what it needs to know, and will be able to protect us in a timely fashion from any and every cyberattack.  In the latter, when it works at its best, we make the knowledge available to everyone, so that any clever corruption of good intentions can be anticipated, resolved and removed from the system as quickly as possible.

The million eyes which – when they work as they should – work to a common cause.

The dynamics are very similar in the case of child abuse and the passing of #DRIP: allow the relatively few eyes of the security services total access to information, trust they will do with it what they should (we never get paedophile police officers, after all!) and assume that the only criminals acting out there belong to the levels of society who won’t get the right to see the intelligence about each other – or perhaps, more worryingly, won’t get to doublecheck the intelligence about their “betters”.

What we’re getting, then, is the undue exertion of power.  What we need is something different.  If the worldwide web and the Internet it runs on was a real-world chain of, say, toddlers’ playgroups or young children’s schools, and we suddenly and analogously proposed changing the ground rules as savagely as has been demanded (for example, installing CCTV in all children’s environments; recording every word spoken; registering for years the acts of every carer and parent), all of us would find outrage within our reach.  We would see it as abuse (even as it claimed to look to prevent its taking place); we would perceive it, at the very least, as a supremely uncoordinated act of change management; and we would realise how anti-democratic it was all shaping up to be.

Instead, to paraphrase Diane Abbott, we’re all on the point of allowing ourselves to be rolled.

The web and the wider Internet are, indeed, oxidising into uselessness.  There’s still time to rescue them, I’m sure.  But it’ll require a mighty change of mentality and mindsets from us all: from the voters; from the parents; from our MPs who still claim to represent us; from our leaders and from the led together – from anyone, in fact, who cares about democracy.

For that’s what the #DRIP process really stands for.  Unintentionally, perhaps.  In reality, all the same.

democracy | rest in peace

Jul 102014

I thought I’d be as formal in my post’s title as possible today.  As of yesterday, I have an official complaint lodged with NHS England about procedure and process at our local pharmacy.  This comes on the back of an error committed last year by the pharmacy I used to use.

I’ve had epilepsy for most of my life, though with a gap of about ten years in my thirties where I didn’t require medication.  Last year, a Chester pharmacy dispensed a number of 300 mg Epilim tablets instead of the normal 500 mg I take.  The size was very similar; the colour identical; the blister pack had only a slight difference in hue on one side.  For a couple of days, I took them without realising – though fortunately no side-effects were felt.  I complained to the pharmacy’s head office, received the corresponding apology and on my following visit for my next prescription it was explained to me how procedures were being changed to avoid a repeat of the issue.

Actually, that next prescription also included a pair of 300 mg tablets.  I was on holiday by then but on my return, I notified both the pharmacy (they didn’t believe me, I’m afraid) and the manufacturer, with the suggestion that, in the future, the two sizes of tablets be differentiated better physically.  The manufacturer took down all kinds of personal details over the phone (all the medication I took; all my conditions; name, address, telephone etc.), and I’ve heard absolutely nothing from them since then.

Meanwhile, as a result of what had happened – and after a long prescription issued by the surgery due to computer problems last summer – I decided to change the pharmacy I went to.

Surprise, surprise – for the first time in my life, I was given a generic sodium valproate, stomach-resistant I think it was called (or maybe gastro-resistant – I can’t remember exactly); clearly, however, not the controlled-release branded Epilim I was accustomed to.  I thought nothing more of this as I assumed it was part of a drive to reduce costs by using generic equivalents.

Last week, a member of my family was issued with a double prescription to cover the summer holidays they were shortly going away on.  Only three of the four bottles were available; the young woman at the pharmacy said she’d order a fourth and it’d be ready at the beginning of this week.  We both went in on Tuesday to pick up our prescriptions, in my case me having phoned first to doublecheck that everything was ready.

Sadly, it wasn’t – and so this is my anecdotal evidence accumulating that not all is right in English pharmacies.  From one big national chain to another, problems with procedures and process have arisen again: this time, only half my prescription was ready, and when I got home, I realised only about ninety percent of that half.  In my relative’s case, the fourth bottle hadn’t been ordered; there was no record of anyone having requested such an order; and neither was there any record of any prescription having being issued since April.

We agreed to return yesterday, which we did – only to find, after phoning once more in the morning to doublecheck everything would be ready (they said it would be), that whilst the second half of my prescription had been readied, the first half’s missing component hadn’t arrived (or hadn’t been ordered) (or had been lost) (and we’re talking only twelve tablets here – twelve damn tablets!).  The manager wasn’t there that day, so in the end to calm the justifiably rising hackles of my relative, I asked for a contact number to complain and then phoned NHS England and registered my dissatisfaction.  (Amongst other things in this complaint, I mentioned the fact that on no occasion had either myself or my relative been given an IOU receipt for part-prescriptions not dispensed.  In our experience, this is what other pharmacies do everywhere.  On reflection, we found it most surprising.  One more procedural issue to add to the weary mix.)

Let it be clear, and just to reiterate: my NHS England complaint was all couched in terms of procedures and process, of course; all the time saying I understood the pressures the people in question were currently working under – especially with the backdrop of a savage cutting behind the scenes by this Coalition government of frontline NHS services.

Anyhow.  Today, Thursday, we went back to the same pharmacy.  I entered alone, and spoke to the congenial young manager.  He was honest, took ownership and explained a dire financial background.  I said I appreciated the situation – and accepted his apologies.  I did query one thing: the previous day, to a person who said he was filling in, I had seen the generic sodium valproate I had been given for my previous prescription, and I’d asked him why I couldn’t just have twelve tablets of generic equivalent to complete what was missing.  He went and had a look, came back shortly and said abruptly: “There are no generic equivalents.”

I mentioned this incident today to the manager, who took the information onboard but was unable to explain anything further at the time.  When we got back home, there was a voicemail waiting for me on the landline.  It asked me to phone him about the “generic sodium valproate”, and so I did immediately.

It then transpired that I’d actually been on the wrong epilepsy medication for two months.  The doses had been correct but the delivery technology was different: ie the generic wasn’t given in a controlled-release way.  The manager was most apologetic and didn’t minimise how serious the consequences could’ve been.  I began to feel sorry for him.  I didn’t want to pile further misery onto the original circumstances – especially as I knew an official complaint was already being processed with NHS England.  But I did suggest that perhaps it wasn’t now just a question of procedures and process: that the person who made the mistake needed urgent feedback and coaching at the very minimum.

I have to say, however, I shall have no compunctions about being more assertive about my medication in the future.  If anything changes, I shall question it most firmly.  And I shall check every blister pack I used to blithely take – but, blithely anyway, will do so no more.

A couple of final thoughts: firstly, to err is human, and errors happen.  But the reason we have national corporate chains is so they can learn from mistakes and transmit organically-acquired knowhow – in a timely, accurate and lifesaving fashion – to all their staff and employees, through appropriate induction training, as well as on-the-job and continuous learning programmes.  (That’s the value they’re supposed to add.  That’s the reason we tolerate such huge profit margins.)

I’m not sure that this has been the case here, though – nor on the previous occasion I experienced either.

Secondly, in times of radical change – and whether you agree with the motives behind a particular change or not – everyone can surely agree to accept that managing such flux is a paramount responsibility, especially when we’re dealing with the lives of people who depend on medication to keep chronic illness at bay and ensure that they remain safe, happy, independent and productive.

And again, the anecdotal evidence I lay before you today doesn’t really convince me that this has necessarily happened.

Finally, my relative didn’t get the fourth bottle they were looking for.  Not the make in question.  They had, instead, to settle for something else.  The reason for the preference?  Once more, a method of delivery: a translucent bottle makes controlling how much is left much easier, as does a dropper which allows for better control of the medication.

So.  Unnecessarily unhappy patients, staff, companies and institutions.  A sad – and potentially dangerous – set of situations all around.

At least in these anecdotal cases I put before you this evening.  At least in my own personal experience.

Anyone else – maybe who works on the coalface – who knows whether this is either par for an increasingly depressing course or, alternatively, exceptions which unfairly disprove a rule?

Jul 082014

I got it mostly wrong in my previous post when I said that people may be sending missives to Google, in order to get links removed from its listings when my name – miljenko williams – is searched.  Usefully, the always kindly Paul Bernal tweeted me a number of clarifications, which – as is my wont – simply make me think of more questions.

To summarise what Paul has said to me this evening (please correct me if I am wrong) in two easy-to-understand points:

  1. Google slaps the phrase “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more” at the bottom not only of my search results but Paul’s and almost everyone else’s because – according to its algorithms, listings or other opaque critera – we are not public figures.
  2. If, for example, you search a famous singer – paul mccartney, say – no such message appears at the bottom of the screen.  This is precisely because he is a public figure.  Only ordinary people have a right to be forgotten; the paul mccartneys of this world do not (though I did read yesterday that he and other famous people were, as we speak and write, getting Google to rub out Street View images of their mansions various).

So if this is as clear to me as it is to you, why do I find myself asking more questions?  Well, judge for yourself – here are those questions I’m asking as a result:

  1. When is a person not a public figure?  I can understand, for the reasons I gave yesterday about my own professional trajectory, why Google would judge me not to be a public figure – but what about someone like Paul Bernal, so involved in and committed to modern digital rights at both a personal and institutional level?  I mean, how is it possible Google judges that under the recent EU legislation he still has a right to be forgotten?  He has written, spoken, published and debated in so many public spaces that it really begs the question: what do you have to do to become a public figure?  What does being a public figure mean?  What, in fact, are its criteria actually aiming to define?
  2. Is there not something quite pernicious in this defining of what a public versus a private figure is?  And doesn’t it seem to indicate that for a long time now Google’s been using certain assumptions to define whom people more generally would prefer to find on the web and whom they wouldn’t?  Assumptions, I assume, which could be quite questionable for many of us.  So what am I saying?  That a real downside of Google’s application of EU principles on the right for private figures to be forgotten is that it can be used to reinforce the power the eagerly public have over the rest of us.  Sure, it’s important we can regain our privacy if we should want to – but what if the already powerful and politically galvanised, implicated and cleverly controlling look to use, in the future, the related right not to be forgotten (for alongside the right to be forgotten must exist its opposite) to push ordinary people out of public spaces all over again – returning, as a result, the body politic, public discourse and ordinary participation in political communication and activity back to the 19th century of hierarchical elites?

Yes.  Essentially what I’m suggesting – to develop the argument a little more – is that whilst Europe has been looking to recover a sensible take on online identity and ordinary people’s control over the same, the consequence of its cack-handed absence of a due consultation process on the matter is that public figures who wish to remove unpleasant truths from the worldwide web’s historical account can return themselves unreasonably to the domain of private figures – especially where their legal resources permit this to happen.  But this isn’t the only – and rather obvious – consequence.  The other dangerous possibility – particularly for democracy and its future health – is that those figures Google already judges to be public will become more public, more powerful and more able to influence our societies as time goes by.

And all because Google refuses, in cahoots with well-meaning legislation, to hide their activities – even as the rest of us scurry, understandably, to recover our rabbit-in-the-headlights anonymity.

The already famous will become proportionately more so.

The already relatively private (people like you and me), looking to recover a semblance of 20th century intimacy, will become increasingly – and simultaneously – irrelevant.

As the old adage goes: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!”  In the world where Google exerts an absolute control over whether one is visible or not, this could well become even truer than it was in the past.

So.  Tonight I have some questions for those who know about these things, to take away and mull over and contemplate their implications:

  1. In order to become visible on the web, as a figure defined by Google as public, what degree, level or quality of achievement or notoriety will be required in order to remain resultingly visible?
  2. Who will define such criteria, what ideology or ideologies will be used to define them and how transparent and democratic will the process of definition be?
  3. How will Google measure the right to visibility (even as Europe tries to measure the right to be invisible) when comparing, for example, “notorious” celebrities with “deserving” scientific researchers, authors or philosophers of tryingly challenging discourse?
  4. Who or what will ultimately decide who has the right to be read, listened to, watched and observed on this supposedly even-handed worldwide web?

The answers to these and other questions will define the future in two ways:

  1. It may lead to a reassertion of traditional modes of hierarchical representation in our civilisation and societies – in plain language, posh elites telling the plebs what they can do, think and say!
  2. It may lead to a continuing development of a more decentralised and distributed democracy – in plain language, ordinary people telling the elites to bugger off!

For if we get the next year or so as wrong as we’ve got the past month, I do fear it’ll be the ineffective, inefficient and finally lazy former at the terrible expense of what would surely be a far more constructive latter.

Jul 072014

Liberal society has always faced us with that partnership that is rights and obligations.  That is to say, no right can imply an absence of a corresponding obligation.  Recently, we’ve been hearing a lot about “the right to be forgotten” – today bringing us this story from the Guardian for example, with stuff like this:

Following the ruling, Google has implemented a system where individuals can make a legally binding statement, requesting particular links be removed from searches on their name. The web pages with the information remain.

The newspaper goes on to report:

But the Guardian has now established from sources familiar with Google’s process that “queries that involve the name and other terms will also have the same effect” of hiding the pages complained about. “It wouldn’t make sense if you could simply add an extra term and negate the restriction,” the source said. [...]

Getting to be a bit of a weird and trying situation, isn’t it?

It gets weirder and more trying in my case.  If you search my name – miljenko williams – you’ll get a message from Google at the bottom of the search which says: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more”.  Meanwhile, if you separately search the name of this blog – 21stcenturyfix.org.uk – no sign of this message is to be found.  It’s clearly not a standard message which gets pasted at the end of any and every search request.

So what’s going on here then?  Why may certain references to my name have been removed – especially as I (promise!) haven’t asked Google to do so myself?  Who might have done?  And for what reason might they have done it?  (And if references to my name, why not references to my blog?  Surely blogs are more likely to encounter censorship than people’s individual lives and happenings.)

Back to our liberal partnership of rights and obligations: if we truly want to maintain such a society (there is of course, in latterday political behaviours, the growing feeling that we’re losing the desire to do so), we can’t sustain that there should be a “right to be forgotten” without a corresponding “obligation to be remembered”.  And as child abuse stories overwhelm the establishment, political life and mainstream media, this “obligation to be remembered” becomes evermore important.

But before I finish today, I would like to add one more concept to the mix: not just the obligation to be remembered – also the right!  Yes.  I’d like to assert the possibility that someone may prefer not to have their online identity munched away at the edges.

Listen: if someone has been firing off missives to Google, asking them to remove links which my name throws up from their listings, I would really like to know on what authority.  What’s more, I’d really like to know why they’re bothered in the first place.  I’m a smalltime blogger, rarely getting more than forty hits a day; a smalltime language trainer, getting by as best he can; an excellent proofreader, but again hardly bigtime; and a wannabe editor (for longer than I can remember), who once could’ve had a great future ahead of him.  Something bigger I may achieve some day – but hardly at the expense of anyone I’ve ever had dealings with, surely.

Oh yes.  There’s a process whereby notifying Google of one’s desire to be forgotten leads to links being removed.  But what if a data subject doesn’t want to be forgotten?  What if they would like to recover an even-handed online profile?  What if they don’t want to have their history digitally – and what’s more, opaquely – mashed up and minced as would seem is beginning to happen?

What, dear Googlers and the European Union both, is the procedure going to be when someone like me actually wants to exert the right to be remembered?

Jul 052014

I wrote this some time ago:

Snowden isn’t the first person governments have refused to value sufficiently, because those who do the valuing are less brainy.

Nor will he be the last.

And so this is why it’s time we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in the strongest terms.

Not because war is immoral.  Not because invading privacy is wrong.  Not because punishing the poor for the evidence-free consequences of the rich is an unnatural and unacceptable turning over of justice and law.

No.  Why we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in those strongest terms I mention is because these second-rate behaviours are bloody inefficient!  Bloody inefficient – and, ultimately, dangerous for the very survival of our species.

As an empire on the planet, all of a sudden we are in retreat.

Is that really what we wanted; really what we needed; really what we expected of the century?

Meanwhile, an ultra-rich businessperson with considerable self-awareness writes this:

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

It’s well put; there’s a lot more behind the link above; and I strongly suggest that for the benefit and understanding of the rest of us, who live outside these “gated bubble worlds”, that you go ahead and read it all.

When you have, I’ll conclude my post for today.


Thinking on the analogies the ultra-rich businessperson in question uses, we feel – almost smell – the furious physicality of what’s being suggested: the French revolution; the inequality; feudal times; in particular, of course, the pitchforks themselves.

And when he says “You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising [...]“, we maybe can see with a clearer perspective what’s been happening in the first case my post today mentions: that of Snowden.  When we think about revolution, we think about swords, muskets, those blessed pitchforks and puddles of scrappy bloody battle.  But what if the aforementioned miscreant of secret information – a thought leader for many, I shouldn’t be surprised – is the template for future human pitchforking activity?

Such individuals wouldn’t form a revolution out of the traditional tools of Bolshevik uprising.  After all, we already have one of the most efficient police states in history – and all this under what is really a rather shady cloak of democracy (a cloak only ever hides).  Yet, even so, even now, it still obeys certain legal minimums as we attempt – despite ourselves – to maintain a semblance of free speech.

So a third option exists, quite apart from full-blown police state or bloody uprising: being as the battleground of tyranny in Western society is not so much one of physical imposition but of intellectual and constitutional code (requiring intelligence far more than brute force or revolutionary brawn to function correctly), what if we propose instead to understand the encroaching future of “not if, but when” in terms of the potential for a broad expansion of virtual pitchforks – pitchforks which may one day serve to destroy those at the top of the hierarchies encouraging all this grossly unsustainable inequality?

Virtual pitchforks?  How so?  Snowden is arguably one of the first to show the dangers for current hierarchies.  And when I say “current hierarchies”, I include all of us who benefit as well as all of us who suffer.  Just imagine such a future: a veritable coordinated swarm of puncturing points of action on a body politic, unable to sustain itself in the light of both present misdeeds and unravelling past practice.

Thus the surveillance state we now live in.  The terrorism from without exists, that is true.  And we shouldn’t underestimate its malevolence.  But the surveillance state which aims to protect the massive majority from the minute minority is a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s a double-edged provoker of pitchforks, the like of which we’ve never seen before.

Jul 042014

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.

Jul 032014

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.

Jul 022014

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.

Jun 292014

This story has been at the edge of my radar for the past few days:

Police Commissioners have urged the Met Police to add ultraviolet dye to their three water cannon to help them track down any one responsible for violent protests.

The dye in question – SmartWater I believe it’s called – has a number of different manifestations as described at its manufacturer’s website.  Presumably the version some of the police appear to be eager to use is this one:

Forensic Spray System:

This system is typically used in business premises to deter robberies and out-of-hours burglaries. Upon activation the SmartWater Forensic Spray System sprays intruders with an invisible liquid, marking their skin and clothing. The liquid can only be seen under UV light, remaining on skin for weeks and indefinitely on clothing. It can be used to link a criminal to a particular crime scene, remaining detectable long after the crime has been committed.

One of the manufacturer’s customers (there are many, of course – Britain is anything but a law-abiding country these days, after all) is a company called Ecclesiastical.  Their testimonial runs as follows:

“Theft of metal is a serious crime and has had a devastating effect on a large number of our customers since 2007. From the beginning of the metal theft epidemic, we have been working in close partnership with SmartWater and continue to promote it to our customers. We believe that the SmartWater brand is a very powerful tool in our fight against metal theft, as it is well known amongst potential thieves and acts as a significant deterrent.”

I remember once being on a train to Manchester, which had to stop for about half an hour close to its destination because some evil type had apparently nicked the cabling which connected the signal box to the rail network.  So I appreciate the importance that such products can have in deterring the unlawful acquisition of someone else’s property.

Property, mind.  Objects.  Stuff.  You know what I’m getting at.

Meanwhile, Mr Boris Johnson – whilst removing useful fire engines from our capital’s streets – happily makes jokes about second-hand German water cannons he’s buying to forcefully impose the peace over the next few years or so:

I don’t mind. I am certainly prepared to do anything to show that they’re safe within reason.

If it will really make you happy, I will investigate the whys and wherefores of whether I can stand in front of a water cannon without infringing some code of health and safety.

That is to say, some code of health and safety which serves to protect the Mayor of London but not lawful demonstrators.

Because the problem with adding ultraviolet dye to your water-cannon water is that really, unsurprisingly, it’ll get on just about everyone and get just about everywhere.  Who knows what such substances could do to those kettled for simply believing they were going to be in the right place at the right time?  The lawful ones I mean, that is.  The ones who engage democratically with society.  Not the metal-theft-epidemic miscreants.  The men, women and children who don’t like being treated with disrespect by their governments – and simply, politely, calmly and kindly want to express their dissatisfaction as per our still existing and current democratic rights.

This is how the property market in London just grew by eight million objects.  By proposing this clever SmartWater be added to water cannons that may gaily spray the streets of the city and its multifarious inhabitants with indelible inks that remain for weeks on the skins of those who lawfully participate in democratic demonstrations, we choose as a wider society to make objects of such human beings: to be marked, tagged and ultimately criminalised with tools that till now have served a highly constructive purpose.

SmartWater was great for protecting property.

It was even probably justifiable when it turned undeniable thugs into traceable criminals.

But as a tool to turn straightforward voters and citizens into objects themselves, to be pursued, chased down and identified as any common electronic device, TV or piece of jewellery out there … well, I really do not know whether this was quite what we wanted – or even anticipated.

Nor, indeed, whether Ecclesiastical, the aforementioned customer of SmartWater, might have anticipated it either.  As they say on their website, “[the organisation was] established in 1887 to protect the Anglican Church and we’re still committed to doing this today. Over the years we’ve grown to provide tailored insurance solutions for organisations and people who care – such as charities and heritage property owners [...]“.

People who care, eh?  So how many charities would really care to be advertising products for water cannons which indiscriminately sprayed everyone and anyone with ultraviolet dyes?

A final thought, before I sign off tonight.  The term SMART was always, for me, associated with relatively sensible processes of workforce objectivisation:

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

  1. Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
  2. Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  3. Assignable – specify who will do it.
  4. Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  5. Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we applied such an acronym to the ultraviolet dye certain police commissioners wish to add to their arsenal.  For example:

  1. Specific – will it serve to improve police-community dynamics as well as a wider societal balance?
  2. Measurable – will it make democracy more efficient and lead to a better environment for London?
  3. Assignable – will anyone in hindsight want to take ownership and be identified as responsible for implementing the policy?
  4. Realistic – will the cost, both human and financial, of implementing the policy justify its introduction?
  5. Time-related – will all of London be better for this policy twelve months down the line, or will only a certain sector benefit?

That would really be smart, now wouldn’t it?  Too smart by far, perhaps?

Jun 232014

If I were a 21st century Charles Dickens, I’d write a big novelised critique of our society and civilisation called “Cynical Times”.  Instead, people as competent as him – though in entirely different ways – write blogposts like this.

If, on the other hand, I was a doctor of certain reputation, I might combine my doctoring with socially-networked analogies along the following lines:

It’s my assertion – hardly only mine, mind – that the European Union was mainly created to keep European civil war and internecine conflict at bay.  To a very great extent, in its deliberate fusing of Germany and France – as well as other countries such as Britain and Italy – in that common economic and geopolitical interest it looked to forge, it achieved this for quite a long time.  In a way, all those layers of bureaucratic ponderousness guaranteed that technocracy would give the kiss of death to the traditionally nationalistic breast-beating of earlier centuries.

But as my profession would lead me to suggest, the protective membrane which being within supposedly democratic environments guaranteed, and which membership of the EU helped to surround us with for half a century, has recently became a rather more complex two-way dialogue of contagion.  Yes.  As long as those who are inside sustain a democratic approach to organising society, that membrane, whilst selfish in a wider worldly sense, provides a certain societal warranty against the kind of racist, nationalistic and anti-democratic rubbish currently assailing so many of our Western societies.  But what happens when those who have been allowed to enter (and here I mean the founding countries just as much as the more recent members) actually promote, from that within, the behaviours we’re finding so resistible of late?

If we see the EU as a living organism of sorts, and the countries that populate it as the cells which make it up – maybe (as befits a 21st century biology) even genetically modified in some way to vigorously add, grow and expand its size, impact and reach – what happens if some of these cells I mention are converted into vectors for the nasty that is plaguing us all everywhere?

Indeed, it’s not even as if the protective membrane is osmotic.  It doesn’t need to be for everything that’s happening to happen.  What was supposed to defend our democracies from stupid self-imposed instincts to warfare now restricts within a grey plastic area of containment the growth that was once shared in all the best senses of the word – a growth that is now becoming cancerous.

I’d add the following to all the above (though, of course, all the above I’ve added also!!!).  What’s broken now, what’s bankrupt now, what’s utterly dismantled and dismantling is a model of government where, more or less, we trusted our grey technocrats to keep a distantly and sometimes disrespectfully representative democracy on the professional tracks that we amateur voters could not be entrusted to safely pilot.  But now we discover that our grey technocrats were feathering their nests and protecting their own interests all along.  In their broader economic policies as well as their personal expenses and lives.  In everything of importance, that is.


And the fracture that is splitting so many societies apart comes from these cynical times where amateur voters have every right to be cynical.  We trusted for a while, for many post-war decades, perhaps a little lazily too, these professionals of politics.

Sadly, we now know where this kind of lazy trust may take us.  To being exposed to the vectors of hatred that destroy our once-treasured institutions from inside.

Even as to assert, feel and project such feelings as these may – in itself – be a sign of latent prejudices we should all be ashamed of manifesting.

Not just others out there.

Myself, the first.

Jun 202014

Yesterday, I received a letter from Virgin Mobile.  It announced a 10 percent rise in my VIP 15 tariff (not sure what exactly they’ll call it now – after all, the VIP 16.50 sounds more like a high-speed bullet train for the City of London …).  I include the relevant section of the letter below, in order to evidence the fact for reasons I shall soon lay out.

Virgin Mobile's 10 percent tariff increase

As it’s an unlimited tariff on minutes, texts and Internet, and so gives good value anyhow, and as other providers have already battered my instincts to indignation into resigned submission as far as modifications of contract-phone relationships are concerned, I thought little more of it … until, that is, today.

Compare and contrast the above with the letter my wife received this morning.

Virgin Mobile's 2.5 percent tariff increase

As you can see, the offer and increase is quite different to mine.  And so – where T-Mobile and EE had gone before – Virgin Mobile followed.

I phoned them up of course, and was told the reason for the increase was that investment in new technologies was required.  When I suggested my wife would also be taking advantage of such technologies – at a cost to her of only 2.5 percent – I was informed I could have the same offer as my wife if I wanted.  This, of course, I jumped at.  I’m pretty sure the word used was “offer” too.  (Virgin Mobile could easily confirm this as the call was being recorded.)  It’s important here, because my wife pays just over five quid a month for 200 minutes, unlimited texts and 1 GB Internet.  However, the tariff she has is actually fifteen quid – the difference being a customer loyalty discount.  So when it came down to it, the hapless customer service person retracted (I think she did anyway – if someone wants to check the recording and correct my assertion, I’m happy to stand corrected) and said instead that I could have the same tariff – which is to say an undiscounted fifteen quid; just a little under what my new VIP 16.50 would be costing me but without the unlimited minutes or Internet.

Now I’m sure there are very good reasons for me being charged a 10 percent increase and my wife just 2.5 percent.  Each company, after all, has the right to set the prices they bloody well want, especially when the small print is on their side, and they choose to inform you that you can change away from the current contract or even leave them altogether.  But whatever the reasons, and however good they might be, is a man of the entrepreneurial calibre of Mr Branson really happy a company of his is sending out two completely different price increases to what are surely difficult to distinguish products and services to the very same household in a matter of a couple of days?

I dunno.  The response of the customer service person was to essentially suggest if I didn’t like it, I could lump it (though she was much politer than that).  However, if this is the attitude and behaviour of Virgin in mobile services, it’s hardly likely to infuse our confidence in its desire to expand its delivery of, say, health in the UK.  For in the latter circumstance, if for example I find myself dying from a nasty cancer and Virgin decides to up my charges mid-process by a small-printed 10, 20 or 50 percent, am I really going to be able to choose to walk away?

Jun 192014

In UK politics, from the dawn of the 2010 Coalition onwards (but probably in Blair’s time too – nothing ever comes from nothing, now does it?), welfare has become a very bad fare.  Now we get stories such as these, where people who describe themselves as progressives couch the debate in the following terms (the bold is mine):

Yes, the left should always push back against the demonisation of people on benefits , but equally important is to remember that a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential. There is absolutely nothing left-wing about that.

The reason why I disagree so fiercely today with James, generally coherent and quite matter-of-fact as he is on such stuff, is that someone of his journalistic calibre should want to take issue with the words we’re obviously choosing to use to define the debate.

Something he doesn’t really do.

Of course a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential; so is a life on the meek living wage that some organisations are proposing – or even lukewarmly implementing.  Until small power – ie the power held by small people (and here I don’t for example mean powerless toddlers – except in that figurative sense modern liberal democracy makes of us all!) – is allowed to knit itself cogently and productively into much bigger power (bigger in the sense of getting important things done), the alternatives people like Rick propose – large corporate organisation, transnationally structured – will never bring any benefit to the fore which doesn’t have its collateral antidemocratic instincts integrated into the DNA of its very being.

So when Rick argues …

The thing about big power is that it gets stuff done. The organisation and concentration of resources is what made rich countries rich (which is why places with lots of very small companies are poor). The countervailing power of unions and other social movements made the owners of these concentrated resources agree to share the fruits with everyone else.

… he’s using arguments which are clearly easily evidenced but lead to the very situations of dependence James decries in the context of the welfare state.  Are we therefore saying big is great for private industry (and here I mean industry in both its fundamental meanings: structure and outputs) but not in any way for the counterbalancing of nation-state government?  And where we accept government should be big, are we arguing that it should only serve in its immensity to service its counterparts in the business sectors?

I suppose what I’m really suggesting is that we haven’t moved – in politics or business – from any of the primal medieval hierarchies.  We are as old-fashioned as they come; and this couldn’t be a sadder reality in a century which claims to be the most technological in history.

Advanced in our physical tools; meanwhile, as backward and primitive in social and organisational tools as ever.  I don’t know about you, but this is not what I expected of the post-millennial age.

Three final links; three final sadnesses.  This involves the British Coalition government, supposed bastion of intellectual and cultural freedom, dismantling the last vestiges of our sense of physical and personal privacies and integrities.  Whilst this describes a parallel destruction of nation-state rights by secretive treaty-making.  And in the middle of these two fronts, even our Internet communications continue to be retained against overarching legal judgment.

As already – and frequently – expressed, then, my overriding responses are ones of sadness.  I can see the point of view of people like Rick, and I am sure many others who read and appreciate his finely-wrought blogposts, that big problems need big organisations.  And I can accept the opinion of James on the waste that it is a life on benefits, even when I sincerely disagree with the justice and fairness and intellectual accuracy of using the language and focus he employs.  (Just as much a waste it is to spend a life under the yoke of wage slavery, after all.)  And, in fact, I can even see the need to track Internet usage, and trawl what bad people do – although our privacies may suffer at the hands of such behaviours.

But, at least in my eyes, it would seem that as leaders have got used to collateral damage in a residual kind of warfare (residual in the sense that whilst drones in some places consistently bomb the hell out of people, the consumer markets and environments which freely occupy the planet elsewhere continue to easily generate their useful activity), so they have become accustomed to the idea of collateral damage very much at home.  That people on benefits should be punished with even more wasted and terrified lives – instead of someone intelligently managing the change they really need – has become such a given that even people like James and Rick give the impression of generally accepting it.

And this is where we must surely part ways.  That UK politics is destroying our homeland instincts to kindliness, generosity and consultation, and that global biz is performing the same role all over, is really not difficult to take onboard – at least conceptually, at least from the point of view of perceiving the processes taking place.

What is difficult to take onboard, however, is that progressives like James and Rick are consistently failing to see the things they advocate as part of the problems we have; and part of the reasons we’re all now desperately flailing not only to find but, more importantly, impose radical solutions.

For this is where I really am sad: those who believe they already have such solutions – in UK politics and global biz both – are demanding of everyone who occupies any square metres on this earth a total submission seen rarely in previous times of democratic engagement.  Tying up loose ends frantically as they are – via international treaties, door-to-door inspections and extralegal where not illegal data retention practices – they’re covering all their bases in a quite fearful way: fearful because it indicates they’re as afraid of the future as we should now also be.

And fear of the future always brings out the worst in this wonderful, frustrating and complex species we call the human being.

Jun 152014

I haven’t read Tony Blair’s intervention on the subject of going back to blowing up pieces of Iraq.  I should do but I haven’t.  The very idea is painfully tortuous: a medieval rack for the eyes one might argue.  An “eye rack” in fact.

It’s not a joke either – even as it makes out it’s a pun.  In a world where so much information is now being distributed visually, our poor old windows on the soul are being mercilessly pummelled.

I’ve always considered myself a reader of certain understanding; always felt I was generally good at detecting a hollow thought or an empty lie.  But latterly I’ve begun to lose faith in what I considered my former ability to discern the wheat from the chaff.  Now, whilst doing so, I feel I’ve begun to keep the chaff closer to hand.  The wheat is becoming for others to value; maybe, in the end, for none of us to care about.

Where Blair has been right all along is to draw our attention to the dangers of a post-modernist relativism.  Where he’s been utterly wrong, meanwhile, is in his solutions to this issue.  Solutions which range from faith schools to US presidential colonialist adventures to an anti-democratically stratospheric body politic.  Yet, in a parallel universe, a man of his talents and intelligence and abilities to synthesise complex informations could so easily have – maybe would so easily have – decanted for an evidence-based approach to life, society and the future.

But perhaps in our universe this is just one simple step too far.  How much easier it is to stand on the ceremony of prejudice; how much easier it is to act out of historical tablets of received opinion – an opinion as tidily written by one’s compatriots and supporters as any self-serving professional could hope for; how much easier it is to side with an opinion that never gets down amongst the dirty dirty of death, pools of violent blood, maimed limbs, war rape – and endlessly long queues of detachedly, hardly walking, eye-racked human beings.

It’s daft to repeat the obvious any more.  But here I go, right ahead, doing it anyway.  Politicians have a job; they see this clearly as their job; their job is to do and act out and perform what no one would ever do if they themselves had to get down amongst that dirty dirty.  The job of politicians (as seen by the politicians, as seen by those who act as their hangers-on, by those who live by what politicians do, by those who make a living from the actions that emerge from political discourse) is to take decisions that – always, everywhere and every time – are directly designed to damage a huge minority of the people (where not more successfully an actual majority) in the interests of an idea of some idiotic sort or other.

Ideas are such powerful diamond-like things to be turned around in the light.  They glitter and shine like daggers to the heart-like parts of humanity.  In a sense, then, politics involves the simply enabling of pain: dressing up pain, that is, in calm and collected speechifying in order that those who may suffer the consequences – generally that huge minority I mention above (where not the actual majority I also refer to) – understand, appreciate and more importantly resignedly accept the inevitability of the processes put into place.

Democracy isn’t just an “eye rack” any more; democracy isn’t just a standing on the ceremony of prejudice either.  Democracy is a cruel stamping on the everyday bunions of all those low-waged, unwaged, poorly-employed and under-employed people who no longer – even where it was ever the case (which I doubt) – find themselves in possession of the time to properly participate in society.

“Eye rack” is no longer just a dagger to the heart of international relations.  “Eye rack” is also what the brutalising effect of sanctioning the legal killing of so many men, women and children in far away places has had on our wider political class and the politicians who form a part of it.  When it finally becomes easy – and if not easy then certainly commonplace – to order from thousands of miles away the killing of collaterally innocent people, in the future (though highly unpredictable) interests of supposedly “better” societies, who wouldn’t find it far less of a tiresome chore to commit his or her own people to the simply corrosive violence of austerity?

Attacking the disabled is but one example of this: an example of where a generation of foreign violence has impacted the moral compass of a whole class of political operators to the extent that – as people are forced to take to food banks in their millions – these professional makers and shakers bat not an eyelid when they find themselves in government and with the power to affect circumstance; meanwhile, in opposition – as the counterparts of the first coldly allow such suffering citizens to be used as long-term strategic cannon fodder in two-, three- or even (now) four-way battles – the parties across the floor find themselves similarly unwilling to question the fundamental assumptions that led us here.

Life, humanity and societies are closed systems.  It’s mathematical, Mr Blair & Co.  And by Mr Blair & Co I mean all politicians, whatever their hue or cry.  You push and hurt those at this end; you’ll end up being equally pushed and hurt at the other.

In the end, violence begets violence.  Though sometimes the violent at the top of the pyramid get away with it long enough for the history books to end up truly loving them, cementing their positions in such a way that we are reminded more of the splayed hands of Hollywood stars than the concrete boots they’d formerly deserve.

That’s been the lesson of “eye rack” all along.  But in what they’ve called an information revolution, nothing has really changed at all.

Well, one thing has.

Violence has now become acceptable for the sophisticated.

Violence has now become a tool for the cosmopolitan.

Violence doesn’t make you bad any more.

Violence just makes you expediently efficient.

And what’s more, violence of all kinds and types and classes has ended up part and parcel of good governance in a way that was never the case before.

Certainly, never the case before this Coalition came along.

This Coalition, you understand, of the Willing Gagging.