Nov 062014

This is an interesting story, headlined by the Standard in the following way just now:

Met chief Hogan-Howe: Internet is a haven for murderers, jihadis and paedophiles

Meanwhile, just four years ago, we had Francis Maude selling us the apparently cuddly benefits of entering this haven – only, we did so from nice libraries and in front of friendly fellow citizens:

Perhaps they were all actually secret murderers, jihadis and paedophiles.  Just no one told us.

Or maybe it wasn’t such a haven four years ago – and has only become so recently?

Or maybe it isn’t actually the haven it’s painted – and there’s some other agenda being propagated?

Either/any way, somebody’s being irresponsible.

Either somebody’s currently exaggerating the risks the Interwebs pose to us – or somebody, four years ago, criminally misinformed Francis Maude.

I mean really, in such a suave way, would you happily recommend to your elderly mother or father that they enter a playground of the worst kinds of criminals?

Myself, if government (or someone) can’t make the blessed creature safe enough so that we can dip our toes into it without GCHQ or the Met having to breathe down our necks, I think we’d all better give it up as a bad job – and, presumably, proceed to sensibly flee.

Don’t you think so?

(Alternatively, the thought does come to me – perhaps a little in bad faith – that the government’s actually quite comfortable with the idea of being able to breathe down not only paedophiles’ necks but also the quite law-abiding necks of the rest of us.

Whatever.  Just in case.  You know?)

Oct 102014

A while ago I had this to say about the hollow empire that once was Rupert Murdoch’s – and how I felt that the Guardian, in its page-impression-chasing “Comment is Free” section had reproduced such hollowness, perhaps quite despite itself.

The corrosive relativism – that platform for anyone, even one’s enemies (which, as you can see, I am suggesting has very curiously grown up in Murdoch’s imperial shadow and early example) – must have seemed a good idea at the time: that is to say, not corrosive.  But I would argue that in particular the last General Election – the commentariats’ recommendations and all that has rained on us since – has shown the consequences and ramifications of such an approach: ideologies, after all, are not important in order that they may allow the non-thinking to impose the inflexible on good people but, rather, precisely this, to make it possible for the thinking to measure the pitfalls of the relativism they rightly explore.  By always measuring such pitfalls at the same time as investigating new ideas, ideology helps – like a compass in the wild – the explorers amongst us keep on the right, intelligent and humane side of mix-and-match instincts to thought.  And equally, in ideology’s absence, there is nothing left to define how far we are travelling away from the goals we started out with.

So if exploring ideas in a relativistic way is good, how do we guard against its long-term corrosive downsides (if, indeed, I am right to term and argue it thus)?  That our newspapers are a reflection of our ways of thinking, doing and seeing is undoubted; that they fashion and impact on such ways is also clear; and that, above all, in the economically aggressive times for the industry all media are currently experiencing, that they will tend to strive any which way they can to overcome their own destruction, via online tricks (and tics!) of all kinds … well, it’s obvious that much of what has happened in the press over the past thirty years has had more to do with the overarching need to get to the end of the month than alleged empire-building and king- and queen-making antics.

In truth, democracy has been corrupting itself since the 70s; and the evidence is out there if you just care to look.  Which hasn’t meant there haven’t been parallel movements designed overtly or covertly to satisfy – as a social species – our democratic urges.  Open source software communities are one example of this.  Where cogent and useful and supporting real purposes and needs, they can be examples of alternative democracy worthy of significant study.  But we don’t even need to go so technical: the web, whilst mining the data and lives of so many of us, does also allow like-minded souls to aggregate around like-minded goals in so many online environments.

What’s now approaching is, however, something quite challenging.  The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will blur the lines between offline and online: our fridges will tell us that we need to buy milk on the way home; our cars will end up deciding where we need to drive; our watches will inform us of our health and any remedial urgencies to be contemplated.  As I concluded in another post on the same subject (whilst observing, sadly, the following lost opportunity: if only we’d called the Internet of Things a much happier Internet of People!):

As John Naughton reminds us, and Larry Elliott before him, the dominant mode of business is a business not of people but of things.  It’s hardly surprising that someone should have defined the next wave of connectedness thus.  What’s most worrying about it, however, is not the way such organisations repeat their behaviours.  What’s most worrying about it is that democracy itself – currently beholden only to ballot boxes, paper-based procedures and other remnants of quite ancient times – will shortly migrate to this still undefined Internet of Things; will shortly be defined from top-to-tail by corporate capitalism.

And then where will people be able to find even a niche?  Then where will people even exist?

This, for me, is the key issue to hand: how to make of an approaching (maybe we would more accurately say “encroaching”) Internet of Things a place designed for the grassroots input of all kinds of people.  Not to connect the offline and online worlds only through technologies which track us, measure us and – ultimately – define us quite despite ourselves but, rather, use tech to bring the real world back into the centre of all our endeavour – whether that endeavour be cultural, social, political or economic.

From a corrosive relativism to truly recovering the soul of one of our greatest newspapers?  And, consequently, in part, our much wider civic engagement?  I don’t think it’s beyond the ken of intelligent people to be as ambitious as this.  Look at this initiative, for example:

We believe that the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better

Guardian Membership brings together diverse, progressive minds, journalistic skills and the best of what others create to give you a richer understanding of the world and the opportunity to shape it.

And this:

In 2016, the Guardian will reopen the Midland Goods Shed at London’s King’s Cross to create a new kind of civic space.

The building will be a hub for big ideas and stimulating conversations. It will host events, activities and courses from Guardian Live and institutions we admire, as well as being the home of Guardian Membership.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the following article from September 2014 gives more background to how the Guardian sees itself in terms of this project.

So why do I suddenly find this so stimulating?  We can harp on about London-centric initiatives (I myself often do; I don’t have the resource, on occasions neither the emotional desire, to trog on down to a place which is often quite negatively foreign to my ways of thinking); we can even argue that it may become a white elephant of grand corporate self-aggrandisement, if those who are developing it aren’t careful.

But right now, with the data I get the feeling that I have to hand, I don’t think the above will happen.  And I certainly wish for it not to take over a beautiful idea we should all prefer to support, whatever our politics or ideological inclinations.

If we are to rescue the Internet of Things from those who would worship things instead of prioritise people, then public civic spaces like these where people of all ways of thinking, doing and seeing are physically able to meet other people, combined with video-conferencing tech for those who cannot be there in person, will inevitably become progressively more practical as the Internet we name the Internet of Things is – perhaps most hopefully – recovered for that Internet … of Our Mutual Civic Soul.

Aug 092014

Some thoughts I just brainstormed via Twitter:

#Globalisation promised progress from the well-off to the poor. TBH, it increasingly delivers pockets of poverty to the formerly well-off.

#Globalisation’s making us poorer: s’times literally, as water loses its status as human right; s’times, just a simple poverty of spirit.

The more our leaders (we too) get used to remote-controlled fixes, the less #globalisation leads to a coming-together of minds/their ideas.

Maybe the Interwebs have driven this tendency: being able to access it all from one’s own workstation leads to stationary attitudes to work.

For a particular tech-based mindset, the web is simply the beginning. But what if eventually it turns out to be distortion? A blip? A fork?

What if our future doesn’t equal remote-controlled fixing? What if a different disruption – instant travel, say – makes this web irrelevant?

Instant travel would make face-to-face skills & expectations as important as they ever were; but more importantly, democratically available.

The best of the web – instant access – without the worst: that distancing of physical everyone from everyone, which makes us so suspicious.

Those thoughts cheer me up, in an Asimov way. Imagine a world, where anyone could visit anywhere – in a second. #disruptiveinnovationforsure

Mind you, thinking less airily, more grounded in reality, the following issues do arise.  As per 3D printing, the ability to digitally whisk stuff across currently sovereign frontiers does kind of explain the rush and haste governments across the world, whatever their political colours, are all exhibiting: the borders of the future will not be sealed at all, if not sealed virtually.  Now whilst it’s true that instantaneous travel from anywhere to anywhere, and (more importantly) from anyone to anyone, could serve to liberate democratic citizens – and societies like our own, clearly struggling at the moment to be democratic – in a way no human being would ever have experienced before, as well as lead us back to the good old times when people thrashed out their problems through dialogue and at round tables of equal communication (or at least, when in Arthurian mode, so we’d allow ourselves to believe), in all probability the “dangers” of a humanity getting to know a humanity would not be underestimated by those running the serious risk of losing their privilege.  The darndest thing about democracy, of course, being that people don’t always vote the way you would like them to.  Just imagine, then, the problem of a society totally unmediated by content industries; totally informed by real, cheap, instantaneous opportunities to witness situations on the ground in first person.

Whenever anyone wanted.

Wherever anyone cared.

They’d have to invent a whole host of new reasons to make instantaneous travel a danger worthy of a surveillance state.

Ah well.  I’m sure they could, and would.

Until then, and whilst the new “computer companies” still had time to do their disruptive worst best, we could perhaps recover some semblance of the freedoms we once enjoyed on the Internet – and, more specifically, the worldwide web.

If, I suppose, those freedoms ever really existed.

Anyhow.  As I suggested in my final tweet above, I do feel kind of cheerful at the moment – thinking as I am of the Internet and what may lie beyond.  The wonder and excitement, for me, of that adolescent time when I read huge amounts of sci-fi books and short stories – admittedly a time when I was most impressionable about what I perceived, and when I was quite the least critical of the life unfolding around me – does right now make me smile as I believe that maybe the future can be rescued through technology after all.

The right sort of technology, of course.

The kind that makes democracy, not breaks it.

Aug 092014

Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch:

Copy us at:

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?


Jul 152014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 162013

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

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

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

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

These five primary principles are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 122013

Evgeny Morozov wrote this recently:

To say that “the Internet” is our “sharknado” is to accept that the current configuration of practices, services, and conversations – the Internet discourse – already structures how we talk,  what we say and what we do after all the talking is done.

It’s not that the current crop of Internet intellectuals are factually wrong or blinded by some false ideology. It’s that, in seeking to explain “the Internet,” they keep reinforcing a discourse that itself is in great need of disruption. Simply put, the Internet discourse has outlived its usefulness. […]

Meanwhile, Chris suggests:

[…] Many professionals of around my age and younger downsize, step off partnership-path careers, leave to work for charities, become part-time consultants or singing teachers and so on. In a more abundant economy, many more would do so.

And then there’s the desperation many people feel with respect to latterday – certainly latterday British – politics, as it bumbles its way brutally from racist nods at awful Berlin Walls of immigration to “free” (presumably not as in beer) schools of a manifestly limited utility to ideologically driven privatisations in health, postal services and even – in this day and age of pained experience – profitably public East Coast rail services.

If Morozov is right about Internet discourse having outlived its usefulness, and if everything we do right now is gravitating more and more to being dependent on all those infrastructures sustained by such unwisely received opinion, it’s hardly surprising that intelligent and thinking people might wonder more and more – as Chris’s professionals are clearly doing – of the value of this constant collaboration we call liberal democracy, in this 21st century now bemusing us.

Those few people now still reading this blog will understand where I am heading.  Over the past ten days or so, as I share less of what I am, and more importantly peer less into the vicariously shared lives of others I may barely know (at least face to face, at least person to person), I am slowly recovering a sense of peace.  I may not deserve this sense of peace.  There are others suffering dearly right now: the poor, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed; the employed, too, who fear for their jobs; the employed who do not know from week to week where they will next earn a crumb of consolation; the employed who work in undignified conditions; the employed, even, in living hell.

So what right do I have to retire from a politics which inevitably affects you and me – whether I participate or not?  Perhaps because that politics, like our Internet discourse, like economies which serve themselves of people instead of – far more rightly – serving us, is at an end of times.  And we resist the temptation to acknowledge it.

For it’s not just the Internet which has been deconstructed by the surveillance state.  It’s all our liberal and free-market tendencies in our businesses; all our liberal and free-market impulses in our politics; all our liberal and free-market instincts in our writings.

And neither has this surveillance state consisted only of government spies.  In parallel, in tandem, sometimes in cahoots it would now appear, large companies have destroyed the conditions for healthy innovation: have destroyed the conditions which allow healthy economies to both evolve and – where necessary – commit timely revolution.

An end of times ain’t necessarily a time to end.  But it is a time to be honest and sincere: to be honest and sincere with not only each other but also, on a singular man-in-the-mirror basis, with ourselves.

Our Internet, our economies, our politics too … on the one hand, they’ve all become inefficient through systemic and individual greed and laziness; and on the other, through a despairing disconnect by the majorities the rest of us make up.

Inefficiency is obviously the mother of an end of times.  The question is whether we can recover our previous vigour, our previous sincerity, our previous honesty, our previous truths.

Yep.  I guess it is so.  A revolution of a cultural bent is needed.  Not that revolution, but one of a certain kind for sure.

Oct 082013

This is how John Lennon saw it.

This is how I’m seeing it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oct 062013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which they will.

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

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

Not mine, I can tell you.

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

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

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

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

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

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

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

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

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.


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

Sep 082013

Here we have a Coalition which is anything but a partner with its people.  And do you wanna know exactly how easy it is to know what the Coalition’s playing at?  This easy!  Just listen carefully to what it accuses others of doing – and then you’ll find an example of government doing the same.

When it looks to smash the indignant feelings of an oppressed poor by accusing it of scrounging off the state, it quite happily services the needs of its political sponsors in large financial corporations to scrounge their way to profitability again.

And when it looks, brazenly, to eliminate extra-parliamentary protest, it acts, brazenly, to conduct the biggest campaign of government-sponsored extra-parliamentary governance in Britain’s history.

Well, I haven’t doublechecked all of Britain’s history – but, at least, the history I’ve lived in my lifetime.

From the latter link, this is what I said just over a year ago:

It seems to me that, more and more, supposedly democratically-elected governments are getting the dirty work of less than transparent policy-making carried out on their behalf by private industry.  This is, in a sense, a strategy of de facto governance where democracy is absented from the process.  It works in the following way: in exchange for negative publicity which, in any case, legions of legal departments can generally vanish into relative thin air, private industries of transnational sizes are awarded humongous public-sector contracts.  And as this is a business-to-business relationship – thick-skinned government to hard-sold corporate – public opinion is pretty irrelevant to either party.  A perfect way of removing the need for approval from irritatingly well-informed and tech-savvy end-consumers, who were in any case beginning to make the business of corporate capitalism so very complicated and unpredictable.

Instead of selling to end-users who pick and choose, the most foresighted corporations are now choosing to focus their attentions on governments which – for various untransparent reasons – prefer to pick and stick.

The corporates get stability in long-term contracts despite the voter flak.  The governments get to blame the corporates if anything too unpleasant comes to light.

A perfect exchange of complementary interests.

Which brings me to what I ended up saying then – sadly predicting the conditions for this ugly story, which rears its ugly head via Boing Boing just this Friday.  First, Boing Boing’s report (the bold is mine):

The only way to stop Internet users from accessing “bad” websites is to spy on all their Internet traffic (you have to look at all their traffic in order to interdict the forbidden sites). So it follows that any censorship system must also ban any privacy/security tools. The UK is raising a generation of Internet users who are told that “security” requires them to make their sensitive, personal information available to anyone who is listening in on the network, because otherwise they might see sexually explicit material. Instead of teaching kids how to stay safe online, the official UK Internet safety policy requires them to be totally naked in all their online communications.

In order to achieve this goal, the following is happening:

UK mobile providers, including O2 and its reseller GiffGaff, are blocking commercial VPN providers that help to secure sensitive communications from criminals, hackers and government spies. […]

You may ask what this really has to do with government.  After all, surely O2 and GiffGaff are sovereign bodies.  Well.  In the light of my post already quoted above, I’m not absolutely sure that this is the case.  As I concluded in August 2012 (the bold is mine today):

[…] We have a recent story on how mobile phone access to the Internet is controlled extra-judicially by the private sector here (from the Open Rights Group of which I am a member) as well as a story from my own archive on how copyright owners can quite literally – and quite easily – make websites invisible to all sensible intents and purposes.

In conclusion, the case of ATOS – and the issues its behaviours and processes apparently raise – are not really attributable to the company itself.  It is, rather, the government – deliberately employing it as a shield to hide public services from a proper democratic oversight – which is mostly to blame and which should be brought to book.

And by focussing our attention on crucifying a supplier – a supplier which, admittedly, appears to have substituted the disabled as direct customer of this sorry cohort of political actors we call the Coalition – we may be ignoring the much wider reality: that in disabled services, in welfare and health, in Internet freedoms, in law and order, communications and social media more generally, allegedly democratic governments across the world are working out how to circumvent democratic controls by using private-sector firewalls.

This is a new kind of anti-democratic governance.

A de facto governance.

A governance which our cowardly leaders have cleverly put together outside the democratic process – in order that trusting voters and citizens ignore the real reasons for their despair.

I wrote that just over a year ago – I think it, and much much more, still stands.

To catch a thief, no one better than a thief of course.  In that sense, there’s an argument that an immoral government knows best how to channel an immoral populace.

Not that there aren’t other problems this raises.

Who’s to argue the populace is essentially immoral, for starters?

But far better for modern governments is simply refuse to sign on the dotted line.  If parliamentary democracy – and representative democracy elsewhere – is becoming such an impossible task for governments to work efficiently with, why not place the responsibility for policy- and law-making on the shoulders of unelected bodies such as corporations?  For the government of the day, no legal flak; no media persecution; no irritating sessions examining the fine print of so much legal to-and-fro.

Just issue a populist edict via friendly media (anti-terrorism, anti-paedophilia, anti-porn in general) – and get rid of a whole raft of measures and consequent inspection regimes from the framework that should be Parliament.

The only problem with respect to the Internet in particular, of course, is that Cameron has recently been going on about Britain being the sixth-largest economy.

And I’m really not sure how long that’s going to last when companies and their customers realise all their communications must be naked.


Further reading: this .pdf file from Open Rights Group and the LSE makes for unhappily prescient reading.  Please read it and inform yourself.  Before it’s too late.

Even as it may already be.

Sep 072013

I tweeted a couple of days ago an observation on how from WWII (the Second World War) to the WWW (the worldwide web), important stuff had changed dramatically in terms of government and people.  Whilst in the former case, cryptographers and brainy bods in general spent their time pursuing the evil Nazis, these days, it would seem, their job is to pursue us all (here and here).  And whilst some souls would – even now – look to reconstruct an Internet of laws (more here), it would appear that most of what the West does these days involves the “meth-head” approach to international relations.

What does this involve?  Essentially, a playing of mind-games with the general public.  This works in the following way:

  1. Knowing full well that one day all this rubbish would unspool, the game-plan says that when it does, distrust must be seeded in everything we trusted prior to any startling revelations.
  2. A sense of broader public distrust benefits only those intelligence communities whose day-to-day is suspecting everything and everyone anyway.  It allows the security people – and, let’s not forget, the criminals sooner or later too – to use tech-based backdoors and trapdoors to undermine our belief in our systems, so that any breaking of the law later discovered can be attributed to the weakness of the maths.  In reality, of course, it is always due to the weakness of our moralities.
  3. By rebooting time back to the beginnings of the Wild West, government agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ are using the law (for in general, it’s true, in a shady way they may be complying with it) to break down our rights instead of building them up.  For this is what I mean by the term “rebooting”: a return to where the rule of law was the law of rulers.  A return to the law of the mighty.
  4. The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of “meth-head” international relations is that which encourages us to believe that the US and its allies are capable of “nuking the moon”.  By playing these mind-games, by aiming to destroy our trust in anything, we will fear far more the unpredictable self-made outcasts than we ever feared the monolithic self-made rule-players.

The problem we have, then, with this World Wild West which Western civilisation is in the process of constructing is that we have very few means to hand to halt the trends.

From the Lobbying Bill currently rushing through Parliament to attempts to censor online thought through corporate filters instead of parliamentary debate, legislation and oversight, we are living in times of extreme prejudice.

And there ain’t even a Gary Cooper on the horizon.

Or is there?

Maybe one chink in the armour of regressive behaviours is to be found in two tweets I wrote yesterday:

@Spritecut Hmm. I find it too easy to believe anything for sure. & increasing levels of distrust benefit those who live that world anyway.

@Spritecut Only thing which can beat distrustful community is community where trust is valued. That, I feel, is what they’d like to avoid.

To beat paranoid behaviours which wish to extend their belief systems to everyone – to beat the “meth-head” approach to national and international relations – surely the best way, then (perhaps the only way in fact), is to create massively – even where peacefully – opposing communities of high levels of trust.

We need to trust the maths; we need to believe in each other; we need to avoid being sucked up by the paranoias of security agencies.  And in order to do so, we need to create the systems that help us re-engineer what must yet again become a broadly-held understanding: that the law must be there to build up our rights, not there to break them down.

As Falkvinge says:

The news that the NSA has “broken crypto” is simply not true. What they have done is weaken the human factor creating cryptosystems.

And it’s that human factor – the weakness we all contain – which needs to be addressed here and supported.

As we have mentioned on innumerable occasions, we need to roll back the neoliberal removal of humans from their social sides if we to have any chance of recovering trust – the trust that otherwise blesses us, both as a species and a civilisation.

The Wild West was a fantastic frontier of opportunities.  But it’s also an “imagined construct” whose imaginings have done great harm to many.  It should not surprise us that the World Wild West is following a similar path.  We can, however, in the full knowledge of history, perhaps work out a way to recover our sensibilities – and, even, recover our rights.

If the NSA and GCHQ have seen fit to reboot the law of rulers, maybe it is time we equally saw fit to reboot the battles which sought to impose the rule of law.

The rule of law not only as sanctioned by Parliament.

The rule of law as sanctioned by software coders everywhere.

Repairing the Internet something which might attract?  Sure does seem that way from this laptop today.

Aug 222013

Yes.  That’s how I feel:

Funny, being product not client. This how cattle feels? Feed from one source, growth hormone from another – who knows who to trust? #twitter

I wonder if you feel the same.

Before the Internet, we couldn’t really trust what they told us.  After the Internet, we can’t really trust what we tell each other.

That’s a massive shift in realities; a massive shift in expectations; a massive shift in the integrity (or otherwise) of our respective societies and civilisations.

Before, they sowed the seeds of our distrust of a certain kind of authority.  But we still had each other.  Now they sow the seeds of our distrust of all those – all of uswho would attempt to assert anything.

I think they’re aiming to isolate us from like-minded souls.

It’s sad too.  In an age where we hoped the spread of knowledge would lead to the sharing of power, it’s pretty clear what’s actually happening: those with no interest in the sharing of power are polluting – are obfuscating – the ability we have to judge the true value of that knowledge we try to exchange.  In such a way, knowledge no longer equals power.  What equals power is the virtual visibility to question knowledge’s veracity.

I haven’t really got much more to say on the subject.  I don’t know, have absolutely no idea, where a constructive way out may lie.

That’s how I feel now – exactly how I feel.  As a web user, as a thinking person, as a citizen and a voter – fully a product, hardly a client at all.

Something to be prodded, confused, befuddled and monetised.

And, as a result, cowpats do come verily to mind.

Aug 072013

This takes me back to my university film studies days.

This bit, in particular, catches my attention:

Mr. Thatcher, the trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to
two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand
three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit prefer, you
see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with
you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run
out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You
may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a
contribution of one thousand dollars.

My time is too valuable for me…

On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such,
it is my duty, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my
pleasure — to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this
community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just
because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests! I’ll
let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m
the man to do it. You see I have money and property. If I don’t
look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody
else will, maybe somebody without any money or property and that
would be too bad.

Yes, yes, yes! Money and property. Well, I happened to see your
financial statement today, Charles.

Did you?

Tell me honestly, my boy. Don’t you think it’s rather unwise to
continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer, that’s
costing you a million dollars a year?

You are right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last
year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to
lose a million dollars next year! You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the
rate of a million dollars a year I’ll have to close this place in
sixty years.

Now compare and contrast with Jeff Bezos’  statement (he being the founder of the Public Transit Company Amazon) on his impending purchase of the US newspaper, the Washington Post.  I’m particularly interested in the following two paragraphs:

So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.


There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports this observation about the man now literally making news:

“Years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post,” said Post chief executive, Donald Graham.

“Jeff Bezos’ proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.”

I don’t know Jeff Bezos – I assume I never will – but if they say he’s personally decent, I’m not going to question the assessment at all.  I would, however, lay before you these three stories about his other business behemoth, Amazon.  First:

Germany is demanding explanations from the online retail giant Amazon after a TV documentary showed seasonal workers being harassed by security guards.

A TV documentary by state broadcaster ARD said employees’ rooms were searched, they were frisked at breakfast and constantly watched.

I’d add the company responsible was a sub-contracted agency outfit – but from the drive to reduce costs at all costs, corporations do tend to provide the conditions that lead to such behaviours.


The UK arm of internet shopping giant Amazon paid corporation tax of just £2.4 million last year despite earning sales of £4.2 billion.

What’s more:

Amazon received UK Government grants of £2.5 million last year, beating its corporation tax payments.

Amazon reduced tax payments by routing its sales through Luxembourg where its European headquarters are.

Third (from 2010):

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.

WikiLeaks expressed disappointment with Amazon, and insisted it was a breach of freedom of speech as enshrined in the US constitution’s first amendment. The organisation, in a message sent via Twitter, said if Amazon was “so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

That last phrase may come back to haunt Mr Bezos.  Out of the business of selling books and into the business of selling newspapers is surely a case of jumping from the proverbial frying-pan into the fire.  And if everyone seems so cheerful with Bezos’ purchase of the Post, maybe Citizen Kane’s final lines quoted above have more than a little to do with the matter.  He could lose money hand over fist for the next sixty years and still keep the Post afloat.

The real question, of course, runs as follows: given that the people at the top of the paper have known, liked and admired Amazon’s founder for quite some time, it doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility that Bezos was already weighing up the options to buy into America’s newspaper-land when Amazon cut off all hosting services to WikiLeaks back in 2010.  It kind of paints the view we may have of that operation in a quite different way from anything we may have thought to date.  Not just a case of yet another US tech company giving in to the American security services but, rather, an example of a latterday Citizen Kane playing a very long plutocratic game.

And the problem won’t be what Bezos does at a newspaper.  The problem will be, as both a privately and publicly powerful and super-connected newspaperman who is also owner of the Public Transit Company Amazon, how his soon-to-be-extremely-close relationship with government and its many tentacles might affect the ability of his distributor, publisher and hosting-provider side to do what’s right in the ever-thorny matter of freedom of speech in a globalising world.

Especially in a globalising world which – post-Snowden – we now know to be under considerable US and British surveillance.

They already stumbled with WikiLeaks – even before Mr B decided to become embroiled in the ball-game of news diffusion.

The room for dark forces to expose him to political blackmail – as owner of a mainstream news outlet and as CEO/whatever of a portfolio of major communications-associated companies – only increases with this gently curate’s egg of a purchase.

I do, of course, wish Mr Bezos and the Post well.  He has far too much money for me to contemplate reacting otherwise.  But my internal alarm bells do begin to make tiny noises when hyper-powerful men start talking about defending the ordinary, decent and hard-working seven-dollar-an-hour subjects and citizens from the corruptions of (other) plutocrats.

Just look at what happened to Citizen Kane.

Sometimes even the powerful hit heights outside their natural envelopes.

Jul 172013

This evening I ranted a bit on Twitter – something I rarely do.  Last November we had a problem.  The local housing trust had just put in a new downstairs door and – in the event – had foolishly put two sets of house numbers on a letterbox they included.  This was when Royal Mail started delivering both our and our neighbours’ letters to the foot of the stairs that led up to our respective flats.

When I complained, Royal Mail claimed they were delivering to the letterbox of the flats in question.  That this one letterbox was shared and when used simply dropped the letters onto the floor on the other side of the door – an always unlocked door anyone could open at any time of day or night – and that two separate letterboxes were to be found at the top of the aforementioned stairs (one for each neighbour) didn’t seem to make any difference at all.  It took two official complaints and two letters at least, as well as a posterior escalation process over a period of six weeks, to get the local sorting-office manager to instruct his/her posties that the post should continue to be delivered (as had been the case for years) to each house using the separate letterboxes at the top of the stairs.

Well.  Now back to my rant.  After a six month hiatus, it happened again today.  On previous occasions, they’d said the problem was the Christmas rush and new staff.  So I don’t suppose Christmas is going to be the problem this time round.  Maybe summer holidays instead?  And replacement staff incapable of reading a manager’s instructions?  Maybe so.  In either case, I was also informed this evening that not delivering a letter to its destination can lead to a criminal offence being committed.  A quick look round the web leads me to believe this might be the case, although – believe me – actually uncovering the legislation in question appears to be a damn tricky task.  The question here, of course, is whether we can count a shared letterbox in a shared outside door as the final destination of the mail of two different neighbours.

Personally, I think not.

But that’s not really the point of this article.  What I’m actually trying to describe this evening is something quite different: if arcane and complex legislation really does guarantee the integrity and destination of postal mail in the real world, and if tweeting has so recently been judged to be as libellous (more here and here) as the real-world publishing we’ve always lived with, why then can a committee of MPs decide that the NSA’s Prism and GCHQ’s Mastering the Internet should not exist in a space directly analogous to our very strict postal mail legislation?

Yes.  It’s possible that Royal Mail are not delivering my post as they should.  On the other hand, they might be.  But if I was of a mind to complain again, at least the legislation (even where arcane) would seem to have a generally accepted and pretty apparent value: in layman’s terms, post shouldn’t be interfered with from its sender to its destination, and must be delivered to its destination without general exception.

To return to the electronic equivalent, and the above-mentioned MPs, this doesn’t quite seem to be the case with Prism and GCHQ though (more here and here).

Now you will want to observe, I’m sure, that the Internet – and its visible face, the web – are not the same as the paper-based communication systems which our Royal Mail administers.  And in that, I would actually be inclined to agree.  There may, indeed, be fundamental differences which technological advances add to the pot that is human existence.  Not everything may necessarily be analogous; not everything may lend itself to building on the foundations of the past.

So that is why I ask: why does the establishment feel that emails should not be treated like real-world post and yet – at the same time – like to argue that tweeting potentially libellous thoughts is as profoundly permanent an act as the publication of real-world books?

Why can we argue that an electronic transmission of one kind (what’s more, the generally private communication between private citizens that email represents) is utterly separate from all the rights we have acquired offline – and yet, at the same time, find ourselves debating whether we shouldn’t fine or jail (for admittedly gratuitous but nevertheless throwaway actions on a social network) such hapless users of the virtual – just as if, in fact, they were pushing two hundred permanently-bound pages of intentionally tendentious analysis?

You know what I think?  All at our expense, I think these ingenious Internet-obsessed bods and political masters of ours are brazenly having their ever-so-clever pie charts and eating them.

Bollocks squared, in fact.

Jun 212013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professionals aren’t only possessors of dark arts.

They have also served to illuminate constructively modern civilisation.

Jun 012013

I’ve had a bit of a sharp learning curve this weekend.  The term “intersectionality” appeared on my inefficient radar.  I first read a piece by Ben Mitchell, where he said this on the game of “checking your privilege”:

By the end of yesterday, we were all at it. I even wondered whether there was some sort of league table with its own points system. From the very oppressed heading the pack, to the too privileged by half, facing the threat of relegation. One point for being a ‘PoC’ (person of colour. Keep up), two for being a ‘WoC’ (yep, you guessed it. Woman of colour.) With bonus points up for grabs depending on sexuality and disability. You’d probably be on minus points if you fall into the male, white, middle class category.

Tragically, that’s me. Until it dawned on me that I’m also Jewish. A proud member of one of the most oppressed groups in history. Privilege checkmate.  But, then I realised that lefties don’t regard Jews as oppressed minorities. Pesky Israel always gets in the way, and some of the stereotypes about Jews must have some grain of truth, surely? Look at Hollywood and the world’s media. I was back on minus points again.

The thing that’s most struck me about all this is how much it bears the hallmarks of the very people who brought you moral and cultural relativism: the post-modernist lobby. There is no one set, accepted, view of the world. No right or wrong, but a collection of opinions, each as valid as the other. Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.

This is what Wikipedia currently has to say on the matter:

Intersectionality (or Intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems ofoppression or discrimination.[1] This feminist sociological theory was first highlighted by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989). Intersectionality is a methodology of studying “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relationships and subject formations” (McCall 2005). The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, classabilitysexual orientation, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion- or belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.[2]

I then went to a short post on language by Helen Lewis (which Ben in his piece had quoted from).  In it, and amongst other things, she says:

There’s a simple test I think any of us who have a “cause” should do. Imagine walking out of your front door, stopping the first person you meet and explaining your beliefs to them. Can you imagine them understanding? Can you imagine them caring?

Of course, I’ve already done something wrong in that opening paragraph. I’ve asked you to imagine walking out of your front door. But I can guarantee you that if I wrote that in a piece, I would get at least one comment “gently reminding” me that some people can’t walk, and some people can’t leave their houses. I’ve been ableist.

In essence, she’s arguing that in our everyday – generally understandable – language it is impossible to aim to include absolutely everyone.  A process of conflict and slighting of others will be inevitable; someone’s toes are bound to be stepped on.  If always using the word “he” in a conversation where both men and women might be implicated is wrong, using any word or phrase which excludes those other groupings who might also be involved is – the argument must go – equally wrong.  And this, Lewis suggests, is quite clearly an unsustainable situation.

In the first instance, I’m not sure I disagree with her on this one; but this might be out of “professional deformation” more than anything else.

Most of my life I’ve carried out the role of teacher: both to earn a living and as a father to three children.  Being a teacher teaches one patience; to be a teacher is not to be an evangelist for example.  I’m not looking in my life to force change but, rather, to bring it about through rational persuasion.  Coercion is not my weapon of choice.  Education – more often that not – is.  The experiences described here and here, therefore, where online bullying from supposedly progressive quarters leads equally progressive individuals to a certain – even profound – despair, is quite outside my ken.  I was, as a result, quite unsure how to react to the whole issue until I read this piece by Laurie Penny in the Guardian.  The concluding paragraph is what really hit home for me:

New words and phrases tend to make powerful people angry not because they are new, but because what they describe is modern and threatening. Repeatedly claiming that you cannot understand simple ideas like “privilege checking” and “intersectionality”, as people like Mensch, Hodges and many others have done, often means that you don’t want to understand. Some find it easier to argue “we don’t need this word” when what they actually want to say is “we don’t want this thing.” The conservative commentariat does not want to be asked to check its privilege – but it’s time to take a lesson from the internet and listen for a change. You never know, you might learn something.

And so it is that this paragraph from Penny is about the most perceptive thing you will read this weekend.  When Ben says of cultural relativism that …

[…] Passing judgement must be done whilst recognising disparate voices, but one must not be too loud so as to drown out the rest. In the end, what you’re left with is noise.

… in truth he is also passing judgement on the analogous (though not analogue) noise which people who would preserve their privilege like to perceive is the worldwide web and its multifarious interactions.

In the end, it’s neither a question of giving in to a cultural relativism nor an abandoning of the right to have an opinion: rather, it’s a natural consequence of an inevitable intersectionality the worldwide web drives us towards.

For people like Ben, it’s cultural relativism; for people like me, it’s a case of a democratisation of the whole process of opinion-forming.  Many people who were simply ignored by the overarching discourses of society, who believed they were to blame for their conditions and place in the scheme of things, now have an opportunity to express themselves on their own terms.

In my experience, where this works – and rightly so – it is a question not of imposition but of education: of people at the bottom finally – and ineludibly – teaching those at the top.  In fact, this is exactly what the best of the worldwide web is all about: a massive Everyman’s (where not Everywoman’s!) library for the 21st century.  And if some are imposing instead of teaching, this shouldn’t allow nor encourage us to bring into disgrace or disrepute the democratisation itself.

But something else strikes to the heart of all of the above: if Helen Lewis finds it so difficult to include all the people she is asked to include in her language, maybe it is because the democratisation of the whole process of opinion-forming hasn’t yet reached the levels it needs to.  Let me explain mansplain: I see nothing wrong in reading a piece by a woman where the pronouns used are “she”, “her” and “hers” when the (to date) more traditional “he” and “his” has been (a patriarchal) par for the course; neither do I see any reason to use “they”, “their” and “theirs” instead (even when I often do it myself in what is a clearly inclusive – or maybe cowardly – instinct on my part).

No.  If the democratising process of opinion-forming were truly consummated by now, each of us could use the language we were most comfortable with without this meaning we were using our privilege to maintain our networks of received opinion.  That we still feel maybe we can’t quite do so, that I – as a male using male language – am excluding people from my discourse rather than expressing my being with as much freedom as I deserve, is simply a litmus test and proof of the fact that the process I am describing is still not as complete as it could be.

What’s clashing here, the real and much wider clash of civilisations, is not the idea of single truths versus the relativism that says everything and everyone goes but, rather, the last-ditched attempt of those who grew up in broadcast media, politics and life in general to maintain life’s certainties as they were defined by the very few: individuals who now miss the very BBC-times of one-nation discourse; who would like to return to some (false) golden age where emotional gurus of national viewpoints reaffirmed our sense of permanence and unity.

Reaffirmed, that is, the sense of permanence and unity of those of us who benefited from the national viewpoints such emotional gurus expressed.

We can, after all, subscribe to the idea of certain universal truths and still believe everyone has an equal right to interpret them.

In no way is that noise; in every way, that is just democracy.

There was a time when our cleverness was individual and handed down; today, however, our cleverness more and more is the result of the crowd, mediated ingeniously by software constitutions which connect us outside the immediate reach of our traditional laws and ways of thinking things.

This is why intersectionality must remain, precisely because it is the cultural cauldron which our evermore virtual lives are leading us to.  And the implications and power of intersectionality must not be lost in what some would prefer to interpret as little more than the noise – the mish-mash even – of such democratisation.

If we truly believe in a world where everyone has – and is – a voice, we must not allow the impatient evangelists who might bully to drown out the absolute rightness of those who would carefully – and rationally – persuade.

The Internet and all its works are intersectionality squared.

And that is something none of us will be able to fight.