Sep 072013
 
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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.


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Mar 142013
 
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Peter Watt has a useful overview of the impact the interconnected world is having on politics.  You can find this post here today over at Labour Uncut.  It’s worth reading in full.

Essentially, Mr Watt argues that the political classes attribute the current fractures in society to economic crisis.  I think I made the same point recently, so am unlikely to find myself disagreeing.  Where I do think I diverge from the aforementioned classes – and in this so does Watt – is in assuming that if only we can sort out the economic crises currently assailing us, everyone and everything will revert to its former stasis and equilibrium.  In Watt’s own words:

[...] Following this logic through and when the economy upturns, then political business as usual will resume.  Labour and the Tories will battle it out for supremacy with Lib Dems battling for scraps or possibly further coalition.

But as he goes on to say (the bold is mine):

The result of this assumption is essentially conservative; it is the politics of no change in how we do our politics.  The countdown has begun to May 7 2015 and the only question is which of the big two will be the largest party the day after.   Whilst others may be suffering from the economic situation or the rapidly changing world, the world of politics appears unaffected.

To be honest, I would be inclined to argue that of the two, suffering from a rapidly changing world has to be the most significant challenge.  And by a massive margin.  A while ago I wrote a rather involved piece on the need to create a parallel parliament of coders to the one we already have: that is to say, the one of lawyers we have become so accustomed to.  In this I argue, as per Lawrence Lessig, that 21st century software code is a set of laws in much the same way that 19th century law was a set of societal codes.  Both required, and require, interpreters; authors too; and champions, of course.  But the difference between the two for our democracies is that the software coders do their law-writing behind closed corporate doors, as they fashion our online constitutions in terms of their companies’ diktats, and in accordance with shareholder requirements.

In a democracy it was never thus.  At the very least, Parliament was held to be sovereign – even if sometimes its ability to deliver was compromised.  As I point out in the post in question:

But if what Lessig has sustained for quite a while now is in any way true, the kind of profession which dominates our democracy is entirely the wrong one for our times.  If more law is being made in the online constitutions we now all operate under for our communication, peer-to-peer exchanges, commerce and gaming than is being made in our parliaments, surely we need a parliament stuffed with those who understand the new tools.

Otherwise, we depend on the good faith of people working behind closed corporate doors to create online and connected offline worlds with a sensibility and sensitivity to the needs of a wider democracy.

Hardly the essence of representative democracy, now is it?

Which brings us to my last point.  Watt argues thus:

But more and more people care less and less about the world of politics.  If they notice what is going on at all they don’t very often see anything that has much relevance to them.   In a world that is increasingly interconnected the communications from the parties are still essentially in broadcast mode.

And whilst he’s right as far as he goes, I think he could have gone further.  People care less and less about the world of party politics.  But not less and less about politics.  In fact, human beings are innately political – as well as in the thrall, sometimes despite themselves, of intrinsically democratic impulses.

And so it is that even Watt, from his position as professional politician, appears to attribute distaste for the political processes in question simply to a lack of bidirectional communication: that is to say, dialogue.

The famous listening mode of so many unhappy political experiments, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I would argue, especially in the light of my coder post, that in fact the fracture goes much further than that: people love democracy, love politics, love the cut and thrust of open and honest debate – and none of what Watt describes has changed that love one iota.  What has substituted the whole idea of 19th century lawmaking is the very worldwide web itself.  Via open source communities, via forums and social networks, people express and embrace their instincts for democracy – and slowly but all too surely move away from expressing their democracy within the space of party politics.

In a sense, party politics is now to democracy what HMV was to music and video sales.  And as Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of other social communication tools have been created in corporate skyscrapers without the oversight of our duly elected representatives, so our democracy has slowly but all too surely become a plaything of sub-democratic means.

Not just the traditional politicians and businesspeople, and those infamous revolving doors – but also the voters and citizens themselves in peer-to-peer ways and without apparent mediation, communicating with each other via the freemium software tools of highly intelligent individuals who are way ahead of the rest of us.

And yet … and yet … these democratic instincts – which all of us humans continue to exhibit – do seem to be marching on.

The real question, I suppose, is whether the majority of politicians care to pay attention to any of this.

Whether they notice that whilst they demonstrate how irrelevant they are to improving our sorry lot, their erstwhile dependants may be choosing to rebuild their own lives quite without them.

It won’t even be a question of having to regain someone’s lost trust.

It’ll be far more a question of ultimate redundancy.


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Dec 042012
 
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This is one for the lawyerly folk amongst you.  I’m surprised, and a little disheartened, to conclude that, apparently, laws can only be oppressive; that, apparently, they can never liberate.  Why do I come to this conclusion?  Partly because of cogently argued posts from people such as David and Rodney (more from the latter here), as well as James who wrote his particularly thoughtful piece before the last month was even out.

I guess I’m coming from a completely different direction.  Whilst the above all fear the dangers of legislation creep once governments have got their dirty hands on the press, I fear even more – at least right now, at least in Britain – the dangers of behaviour creep once media empires realise they’ll be able to get away with it – whatever it will turn out to be.

The thing is, I still haven’t received a clear answer from anyone as to why we should put our trust in transnational corporations to sustain our press freedoms over any trust we might expect to deposit in our governments.  If you’re really telling me that this is the case – if you’re really telling me a corporation with its nominal headquarters located in a large US city, its tax exposure located in a neatly clever tax haven and its profits located in a foreign country via all kinds of ingenious internal royalty “agreements” … well, that after all of the aforementioned, it is still going to be a more reliable guarantor of our most fundamental rights than our own democratically-elected government – then surely we must agree that we have a serious issue with our government.

And if you’re telling me that the laws which such a government might make will inevitably be oppressive, what is this thing we call Western democracy?  Are you really assuring me that in this democracy we are now labouring under there are no examples of laws out there which serve to liberate and empower a people?  Are you really arguing that laws only serve to control, impose and homogenise?  Are the ideas of free speech, diversity of thought and imagination – of creativity and generosity of spirit – so contrary to the legal mindset and all its outputs?

At the foot of one of Rodney’s pieces, on the 2020UK website, an attempt in itself to re-engineer society through measured legislative change, I responded thus (the bold is mine today):

I can appreciate a lot of what is being said here, but I think the free press stopped in large part being free when it started breaking the law not to preserve our wider freedoms but, rather, simply to up its readership.

We need to correct what’s been going on: the distortions in our media ownership, the limited number of sources used to generate most copy, the churnalism that comes out of lack of revenues, the predominance of pulpits of power as opinion-makers impose their agendas undemocratically. If you can show me this can be done without legislation, I’ll be happy to go along with it. If not, then we’ve reached a point where legislation will be needed.

Perhaps one idea – which I mentioned on Facebook yesterday – would be to have an irrevocably time-limited set of new laws to re-establish a real free market in communication and media here in our nations. Once that time had passed, and it’s job was done, the laws would automatically lapse and the freedom of the press would be properly recreated. As I suggested in a post I published this week on my own site, without a free market you cannot have a free press. And you’re surely not suggesting that it is better to leave the future of the free press, and our wider rights to free speech, in the hands of transnational limited liability companies instead of democratically elected and supposedly representative governments.

Finally, we don’t *have* to see legislation as only limiting and controlling. We can surely contemplate some kinds of legislation as being liberating and in favour of diversity. This 2020UK project, for example, aims to devolve many responsibilities to localities. Such a step would be liberating – but would also be an example of an objective which required the tool of legislation. No?

So it is that I knock the ball back into the court of the lawyers.

Is law only a tool of oppression – or can it liberate too?  What do you think?  Do you feel your profession is exclusively impositional – or is there a lighter and more positive side to all you do?  And can we legislate for freer speech – or does any such kind of legislation only guarantee more restrictions?

I’d be interested in your observations.

A lot might ride on the conclusions you come to.


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Nov 292012
 
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Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

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

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


http://youtu.be/8iuxaVkfHOA?t=3m

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

As Peter on Twitter said today:

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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


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Nov 252012
 
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Last year, for some reason I never properly understood, I was invited to a number of briefings by the Law Society on the encroaching cuts in Legal Aid which this government quite unnecessarily proposed.  The Law Society produced its own suggestions which quite reasonably proposed greater savings than the Coalition thought necessary whilst simultaneously protecting citizen access to Legal Aid in many of the highly sensitive areas the government was aiming to take out of scope.  The government, running as it did – and still does – on petrol tanks of prejudice far more than the evidence-based approach which tends to guarantee equanimity, ignored those suggestions and the campaign failed.

More recently, I have heard that an American tendency to number-crunch crime statistics is under consideration here in Britain.  Predictive policing, if I understand correctly, involves analysing data in relation to what crimes and where have already been committed in a community to ensure that a police presence is maximised, refined and optimised in terms of where such crimes might take place in the future.

The crimes that generally get mentioned tend to be similar to burglary – I am unaware whether this is to soften up and ensure blind public acceptance of the technique’s potential implications or whether it lends itself especially to such activities (just as I ask myself why we couldn’t initiate our investigations with these new technologies in the fields of potential banking fraud, for example, before we deal with the petty lowlife) – but it does occur to me that perhaps such a concept could be introduced elsewhere with equally constructive results.  What if those who might commit crime – but unknowingly, through some complexity of the law and a wider general inaccessibility to the same – could access similar predictive systems which might inform them of their transgression before it actually managed to unknowingly consummate itself?

A kind of predictive Legal Aid, in fact, where the law would be democratised and made more understandable using the very same algorithms that the police are currently applying to catch criminals before they actually get to act on a “decision cycle” – but which in this case could be of very significant use to a wider population which wishes to remain law-abiding wherever they can properly understand how to.

A bemused population, in fact, which is already massively confused by the increasing number and penetration of laws into what is essentially an evermore domestic environment.

Now I do understand that in the ideal world we should still aim for, such a system of Legal Aid would never fully replace a face-to-face and sympathetic consultation.  We do not, however, live in an ideal world – and resources, they tell us, are short.  Just imagine, then, if we could harness the concept of predictive policing to help lawful citizens remain so: a preventative justice system, that is, which didn’t just help the police stop the baddies but helped the goodies proactively stop themselves from falling into the abyss of unconscious misdemeanourship.

I wondered the other day whether Twitter mightn’t do this for its own software constitution.  It’s a simple example: an automated system such as that which legal eagles, scraping the web for intellectual property infringement, might already use – but adapted to the needs of certain updateable keywords and phrases.  The tweet in question, before it was sent, would be parsed by the system and flagged up to the user if potentially libellous for a particular jurisdiction.

So just imagine a similar principle applied far more widely and comprehensively to the law: like a competent National Health Service, don’t only put the patients back together again when they fall ill but also provide them with the tools to avoid falling ill in the first place.

Too difficult to achieve?  Right.  OK.  Like putting a man on the moon was too difficult to achieve half a century ago.

The right political will can still move mountains of achievement.

*

To this moment in my essay, all well and good.  The question I now ask, with a modicum of bad faith, runs as follows: do the police and their evermore privatising colleagues – as well as lawyerly folk more generally – really want to reduce the number of crimes and misdemeanours committed or not?

Is it, in fact, in their interests to promote the prevention of crime?

Would they really like to make us all law-abiding?

Or do they actually need us to continue providing them with work – the kind of work which fills their profitable timesheets, their profit-driven prisons and their profiteering contracts for managing the underbelly of our societies?

And if you think I am being harsh, answer me this question: why start with those criminals who would wish to cause crime – and not with those who do not wish to fall foul of its consequences in the first place?

Why not start with prevention when it’s so manifestly better than the cure?


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Sep 102012
 
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In many ways, the virtual reflects the real world.  Identity online, who you are really communicating with and even with what degree of privacy, is an issue electronically just as much as it can be offline.  In the early days of the printing press, meanwhile, uncontrolled copying of content meant authors and publishers were left with little compensation for their efforts.  And so we could argue that the Internet – or more exactly the worldwide web – is at such a stage in its development.

The law, however, is in many respects another case altogether.  Traditional ways of making constitutions which rule and structure how people behave have either been conscious and overt – as exemplified by written constitutions the world over – or unwritten but just as binding through sentences handed down by courts.  In both cases, however, to a certain degree anyhow, representative democracy has acted over the process.

Latterday 21st century constitutions are utterly different from the above.  Here, software code itself defines how we behave and interact.  Code, in fact, is the law of our times.  But democracy has not been involved in the game.

Which is why I would argue that people who become specialists in their technical fields need to acquire and learn how to follow strict moral codes.  For the following reasons.

Firstly, let me explain that I don’t mean the already regulated areas of teaching, the legal profession and doctoring here.  Instead, such areas of knowledge which help to define, without an appropriate democratic oversight, our current and ever-growing extra-democratic rights and responsibilities: software engineering, entrepreneurial activity, risk-taking of all kinds … the stuff, that is, that we’ve allowed to slip out of democratic control and essentially subvert any chances of an a priori debate.

We could, of course, decide we needed to democratise our specialists far more than they are.  Or, alternatively, we could decide to dispense with them altogether.  But the former would hardly work in an environment where representative democracy is manifestly failing us – whilst the latter, if we care to continue with technology as our civilisation’s driver and saviour, is really no option at all.

No.  Democracy can’t mean we all take part.  Not because democracy doesn’t call for it.  Rather, because our technological prowesses mean it is impossible to contemplate without radically changing how we look as a society.

So we will continue to need specialists as before – to interface between the complex and the ordinary.  But a different kind of specialist: a specialist who doesn’t greedily make huge wealth out of their ability to know something someone else can’t; a specialist who knows how to communicate peer-to-peer.  Peer-to-peer in the sense of human-to-human and not in the sense of competencies.

For there is an alternative: we may choose as I am implying above to introduce a sense of professional vocation into all acts of business, politicking and cultural activity.  If we educate our societies – in a perhaps predistributive way, and as applied to a wider culture – to want different things from the things they currently aspire to, maybe then we can change the results we are currently getting.

It’s no accident that you and I should hanker after new versions of gadgets we already have.  It’s no accident that we should want to eat more than our bodies naturally call for.  It’s no accident that life involves substituting the desire for wealth over the desire for health.  All these instincts are not natural to the human being.  They require nurturing on a grand scale: a grand scale which amoral advertising campaigns have spent the last century delivering.

The only thing we have to do is decide, then, at a grand societal level, that we want our people to want other things which don’t break them – and our societies – down.

We need specialists as we’ve never needed them before, that is true.  But we don’t need specialists who believe in using their knowledge to pull the wool over our eyes over and over again.

The lesson?  Don’t hoard as William Gibson is alleged to have said.

Share.

And share before our necessity leads us to take.


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Jun 182012
 
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Yesterday, I suggested that politicians – as opposed to evidence-based professionals like lawyers, doctors, scientists and educators – really were anchored in medieval times:

[...] those times when lords did their lording over serfs who did their kneeling; where people occupied castes which knew their place; and where every attempt at social mobility involved a threat against the integrity of the status quo.

I also concluded that:

Even as doctors, lawyers, scientists and educators have left behind them the dark and dreary miseries of medieval imposition and woodentop thought, politicians continue to believe in top-down hierarchies, in pyramidal politics, in tribal loyalties, in conditional relationships of all kinds … essentially, in the pursuit of a grand largesse where you get ahead only as far as birth allows you to; where you get ahead only as far as money defines is permissible.

Now I realise, in retrospect, that I was perhaps using a rather broad brush when I painted all politicians as medieval throwbacks.  So here’s a gentle – and I hope reasonable – qualification of my original thesis: the higher up the greasy pole of power a politician gets, the more medieval his or her behaviours become.

Medieval in the sense I describe above.  Or, alternatively, just as constructively, medieval in the sense of a persistent and resilient plague.

So not all by any means.  Just those who exert power and count.

Does that sit more nicely?

Of course it doesn’t.  And those of you who are practising politicians will resent my casting aspersions on a whole profession – especially in times of terrible crisis.  “It doesn’t help one bit!” you will exclaim.  “It’s unfair, unjust and totally unhelpful to be describing the vast majority of good professionals in terms of the awful ones at the top.”

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  When we talk of professional classes such as doctors or educators, we’re talking about roles where training periods can be between one and seven or more years.  And whilst this training is taking place, performance, attitude and behaviours are all measured and tested so that the individuals under the microscope of improvement understand exactly what is expected of them – before they go out and practise.

Where is the training-ground of politicians?  Local government politics perhaps?  On the job, most certainly.  My experience at parish-councillor level is depressing.  Most significant decisions were taken (or not, as the case may be) on firmly partisan lines.  No real thought going on there; no careful analysis of what was really needed.  Just small people acting out of personal prejudice – and things they’d picked up from the papers.

Multiply this experience up a thousandfold and what happens?  The more you get these politicians moving out of their comfort zones, the less they are likely to use data to guide them.  Instinct, impulse and hunch rear their ugly heads.  Which is when we get the plague of the greasy-pole theorem I mentioned above.

If politicians truly want to be treated on the same level as other professional classes, they must want to show the rest of us they are prepared to be trained, channelled, instructed and measured in the same evidence-based ways as those they would aspire to rule.  And they must also show, as lawyers, scientists, educators and the medical profession do most days of the week, that their vocation and goal in life is to be what they train to become.

For far too many voters, there is a perception that political activity is a simple springboard – on the backs of ordinary people’s interests – to better and materially more satisfying things.

What do I suggest, then, we require of our political class before they can begin to enable our societies?  A very short list made up of the following two items:

  1. proper and professionally couched training and study as a minimum requirement before any formal political activity which involved representing others can be countenanced; and
  2. a firm and indissoluble promise to never exercise any other profession or activity on the back of one’s political history

Would that do us?

Does that seem reasonable?

What, as a chastened voter, would you think of such changes?

And would you have any other items you’d like to add to the list?


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Apr 182012
 
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This story today makes me wonder what sort of government – and perhaps by extension, what sort of law – we want:

A Libyan military commander is taking legal action against Jack Straw, to find out if the ex-foreign secretary signed papers allowing his rendition.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj claims CIA agents took him from Thailand to Gaddafi-led Libya, via UK-controlled Diego Garcia.

His lawyers have served papers on Mr Straw after the Sunday Times reported claims that he allowed this to happen.

It’s interesting that whilst the users of Twitter and other social networks (my take here) are battling to keep the law out of encroaching on their casually couched freedoms of speech, that selfsame tool for supposedly exacting the truth of a matter is reaching up to the stratospheric levels of ex-government ministers and the like.

And my question really is: do we know what we are doing?

Once the law begins to get involved with the minutiae of relatively trivial intercourse, it can hardly resist the temptation to go after the mightiest in the land.  That’s what seems to me to be happening here.  A game whereby everything must come under its apparently objectivising gaze.  Maybe bearing more than a passing resemblance to that bewildering profession of economics which currently rules so many of our roosts.

Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong: it’s not the purpose of this post to decide.  It may be fair to send racist and foul-mouthed social-network users to prison; it may be right to serve civil papers on ex-ministers of previous governments.  I do hold my own opinion – but as a simple voter, what does that count?  In a society evermore circumscribed by the supposedly “good” and “wise”, what can be the point of me expressing it in relation to concrete cases which clearly have their complex and incommunicable ins and outs?

It does seem to me, however, in a more general sense, that there must be an alternative to an eternal legalisation of society.  In a way, it surely parallels the terrible medicalisation of what other ages judged to be the glory of human eccentricity: two professions – the medical and legal both – marching side by side in their awful attempts to type, control and ultimately homogenise our every instinct and movement as multifarious and ever-so-gentle beings.

Is this a battle, then, between the professions on the one hand and a wider and far more educatedly intelligent civic society, now far more aware of its intrinsic and moral rights, on the other?

Is what we are witnessing actually a turf war where economists, lawyers and doctors are all – maybe subconsciously, maybe with massive intention – fighting in some sad way to recover the respect and deference of yore?

And is it time the rest of us understood this war for what it was – and, by so doing, tried to renegotiate and reshape the compact which previously existed and defined our society?

In much the same way as some have argued in favour of an uneconomics, maybe it’s now high time we began to extend the principle to the other professions in the mix: unlaw, unmedicine and – even – uneducation.

Who knows?  Perhaps that’s exactly what this Coalition government is really all about.

It’d certainly help to explain very many of the dynamics currently on show.

And, as a result, whilst implementing foolishly and destroying quite unnecessarily, they may have a point in some of what they think.  If only our ministers knew how to properly verbalise their instincts, perhaps we could get somewhere through tried and tested methods of debate.

That greatest unprofession of all: the politico with nothing to do but retread old empires and resell them as something new.


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Mar 292012
 
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Recently, a young man was sent to prison for racist remarks about a footballer who collapsed on the field of play.  The famous, or perhaps infamous, Twitter Joke Trial before it provided plenty of grist to the legal and constitutional mills.

These days, any of you who occupy the field of play that is Twitter or Facebook will surely be aware there are specific risks in posting “controversial” comments – not only about certain subjects in particular but also, especially lately it would seem, almost any subject in general the lawyers can get their clever hands on.  Whilst the mainstream press and media have legions of lawyers to doublecheck their every move, we who tweet, update our Facebook statuses or blog on this and that are less able to fully understand the implications of everything we say.

In part, this is because the mode of discourse of such social networks is throwaway conversation.  And yet whilst throwaway conversation would appear to have been how it all started out, it’s clear from recent events that this was never contemplated in the business models of these corporate behemoths of communication.  From Twitter’s US Library of Congress archiving agreement and exclusively monetised fire-hose access to Facebook’s impositional timeline, all these marvellous Web 2.0 tools have clearly been developed in order to provide very permanent content – quite the opposite of how they originally sold it to us.  All this time storing away every single foolishness, whilst, all the time, giving us the impression we had been involved in virtual chats with our private neighbours over shared garden fences.

So what is the result of all of these diversionary tactics?  Well, the best of all possible worlds for the enablers of such tools and the worst of all possible worlds for ourselves.  Whilst court case after court case limits the liability of the framers, we as individual users – as real people – become totally, entirely, legally and seriously responsible for everything we were tossing lightly into the ether.  The long-term implications are, then, quite terrifying: we are now pointedly and precisely liable for our Facebook groups, our conceptual explorations, our brainstorming of ideas, our insults and our irony, our parody and our barefaced cheek – indeed, anything and everything that in an offline space of municipal integrity occupied the much safer area of analogue privacy.

The growing objective to contain social networks and media within very public and corporate law is nothing but one massive anti-democratic trap we’ve all fallen into.   And I really do not see any way out of it – except, perhaps, to decidedly go back, Luddite-like, to the analogue unconnected world of yore.

Unless, of course, those who promote open source ways of doing and seeing can conceive of a different way of allowing society to talk to itself that does not include the notion of private spaces for public use.

It is that freedom of municipal space we need to recover for ourselves and for the benefit of our democracy.  Only then can we shrug off the fear that our every move is being tracked and checked in order to see how an error of judgement might be monetised by the already powerful.  For that, precisely that, is what I suspect is going to be happening very shortly to a significant minority of us.

And this fear, this very real fear, is something we need to rapidly disabuse ourselves of – especially if, over the next few years, our democracy is to stand a fighting chance of sticking around in anything like the healthy shape we may, in hindsight, realise it once reasonably had.


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Mar 032012
 
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I was in an NHS hospital yesterday.  I went with a relative.  It was a yearly review at one of the outpatient departments.  People were very nice.  Everyone got on with their job.  Nurses, doctors and receptionists were all calm and friendly.  I saw little evidence of an institution in crisis.  But, of course, my vision is limited and anecdotal.  One of the nurses had a mug which she took with her to wash.  It said on the outside: “Keep calm and carry on”.  I think that’s what they were all doing, for the benefit of their patients.  They deserve all our admiration; they deserve all our praise; they deserve all our support as they battle with the ideologues.

Something I did feel as I waited for my relative to be seen.  In such an environment, so very highly structured, so very highly proceduralised, so dependent on past experience, one does begin again to believe in science and objectivity.

This, of course, is where our government is getting away with it all.  We only come to our rational senses when we need the product of rational thought.  Doctors or lawyers are, in the main, evidence-based professionals but our politicians – on the other hand – work far more with prejudice to hand.  They are salespeople, as a rule – looking to sell a big idea.  Let evidence never get in the way of an idea big enough to get someone into political power.

The other day on Chris’s blog I found myself wondering the following, in relation to an original and pleasing idea which would mean banning politicians from the BBC:

I’ve just thought that perhaps we should go much further than simply banning politicians. I’m sure we’d all love more democracy – what we may not want is more politics. Is the one possible without the other?

More democracy then – but without politics?

I’d certainly like to see if it were possible in those massive and gear-shifted virtual communities – communities which are not only growing up rapidly around our 21st century world but outside the reach of our traditional politicking.

If three hours in an NHS waiting-room can reconvert me to the virtues of science over emotion, just imagine what a democracy stuffed with truly evidence-based professionals would do for a nation of voters?


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Dec 302011
 
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Jack of Kent has a revealing piece about why it’s socially acceptable to hate lawyers.  This, in particular, lays bare the whys and wherefores of this prejudice:

The reason why lawyers are generally disliked may not be down to their actual conduct or their personal qualities.

It is instead because law is both powerful and – in the main – invisible.

Law leaves traces in certain documents and speech acts, and it can manifest itself in the coercive actions of hard-faced individuals; but generally law is equally threatening and elusive.

It is perhaps not so much that lawyers are hated, but that law itself is feared and mysterious.

I think, in the main, from my limited contact with the profession, an essential element of our shared inability to like lawyers lies in the fact that lawyers tend to be right.

Even when they are found wrong, in some court case or another, everything is apparently a question of debate – and might easily have turned out quite differently.

When we pay lawyers, we pay them to interpret law – and in that interpretation they have a get-out clause which covers all eventualities.

Thus it is that we hate lawyers because – inevitably – they are always right.

Even when, from the client’s emotional standpoint, they end up being incomprehensibly wrong.

*

And so it is I then ask myself the question at the top of this post: who should we hate the most – lawyers, bankers or economists?

For I do wonder whether the current salvoes broadly directed towards the banking fraternity are – at the same time – misdirected out of ignorance.  In reality, who is to blame for the economic misery ordinary people are being exposed to?  Bankers were – and are – almost certainly simple pawns in a wider systemic set of failings they chose to discretely operate within: so yes, to an extent they were to blame; but no, to a degree they were hardly capable of seeing beyond the careful Chinese walls that all corporate agents are inevitably surrounded by.

Surely we should really blame the artifices themselves of the systems that failed – and not the perhaps relatively helpless and rather more visible frontline protagonists.  That is to say, instead of looking to fault the bankers simply out to make a quick buck, our ire should really have focussed on the economists who devised the technical and ideological infrastructures which stumbled and trembled us to essential long-term oblivion – as all the time they encouraged the economic players to employ their very basest and most disagreeable instincts.

To recapitulate, then: if we hate lawyers because their professional structures mean they are always going to be right, even when they are wrong; and if we currently despise bankers because – in truth – it is easy to understand the idea of modern money-grabbing Scrooges who act out of a cold-hearted self-interest … shouldn’t we also contemplate lining up against the revolutionary wall the economists who have so heavy-handedly failed us?  For in their light-touch regulatory instincts, in their inability to agree productively in public, in their tendency to distort a social science with the tainting instincts of ideological coat-hangers, in their massive desire to test out their theories on real human beings and use the poverty of the 99 percent as a laboratory for personal glory … in all of the above – and much much more I am sure – there is plenty to find at the very least resistible in the profession of the economist.

And yet, curiously, it would seem, they have escaped relatively unscathed the storms and travails of recent times.

Perhaps they are, in fact, for most of us on the planet, quite the opposite of lawyers as described above: where we hate lawyers for always being right, even when we feel they are all very very wrong, the very fact that no economist can ever agree with another surely leads us to conclude that it would be quite unjust to find fault with such an uneven profession.

Perhaps, in truth, as we pity ourselves – and our own medium-term futures under a system which has so manifestly failed to deliver – we can only find it in ourselves to summon up a sadness that a science so central to so much of what we do these days has proved itself so selfish in how it has cared to practise its wisdoms.

What is there to hate in something so imprecise?  Much easier to see the Devil and all His works in the pawns which do the dirty work that such systems allow.

Though there is, of course, an alternative to making diabolic the entire financial services sector: hate the lawyer as suggested; envy the banker just in case; and commiserate with the poor economist for the impossible task he or she has always faced.


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Sep 142011
 
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Here’s a weird combination of interests.  The Association of British Insurers published a press release in early September which had a go at “have a go” compensation cultures.  This is what they said (the bold is mine):

Leading retailers and business groups join forces with the ABI in calling for an end to the ‘have a go’ compensation culture

Some of the leading high street retailers, including Argos, ASDA, Ford, and Whitbread PLC, Lloyd’s, business organisations, and risk management bodies have joined forces with the ABI in calling for reform to Britain’s ‘have a go’ compensation culture to ensure that genuine claimants get a better and faster deal. The initiative comes on the day that the ABI publishes a report highlighting how the compensation system is failing too many genuine claimants, and the high price being paid by consumers, taxpayers and businesses.

The growth in spurious and exaggerated personal injury claims and excessive legal costs has resulted in higher costs for consumers, local authorities and the NHS, as well as making it harder for genuine claimants to get compensation. The number of personal injury claims received by insurers leapt 72% between 2002 and 2010. Figures show that people get more compensation, typically an extra £289, quicker if they deal with an insurer and not a lawyer.

So let me see.  What we’re arguing here is that if lawyers were no longer to be involved, insurers and their clients would continue to happily fork out an extra £289 per case compared to the amount they would otherwise have paid under the so-called “have a go” culture.  That is to say, without the threat of lawyerly intervention, insurers would blithely – nay, joyfully – pay out sums of money to injured parties precisely and only because the purpose of insurers is to give people lots of money!

Let’s break down the assertions here, then.  The ABI mention a raft of retailers and business groups which – allegedly and uniquely for the benefit of customers, clients and workforces – has joined their campaign to excise the evil lawyers from the compensation landscape.  Here you can find what some of them say – note that this is in public, on the ABI’s own website, and without an iota of self-awareness or shame. First, Argos:

Matthew Davis, Head of Group Insurance, Home Retail Group (whose brands include Argos), said:

“Managing our business costs is crucial to ensuring that we remain the UK’s leading home and general merchandise retailer. With over 33,000 employees and around 195 million customer transactions a year we take our health and safety responsibilities very seriously. But at the same time our compensation culture must be tackled. This is why we support the ABI’s call for reforms to help genuine claimants, deter fraud and reduce unnecessary costs.”

Second, Asda:

Rob Chester, Head of Risk & Trading Law, ASDA, said:

“We’re serious about providing a safe environment for our customers and colleagues – but as a retailer with one of the lowest costs to operate in the industry we also need to keep an eye our business costs.

“Keeping costs under control helps us to continue to reinvest in lowering prices for our customers- something that’s in our DNA.”

And – if you go to the website – there’s plenty more of this mantra.  Far more important, it would seem, than assuring people’s rights is the imperious business need to save business costs.

So does anyone really believe that insurers by themselves will continue, as happily, to hand over money to customers, clients and other injured parties when, precisely, the threat of lawyerly intervention is entirely and finally removed? 

In every other area of current government policy – benefit fraud, the NHS, public disorder, union law, education and even, praise the Lord, our dear old banking system – it would seem the desire for outside intervention is increasing rather than falling.  Why then do the ABI – along with Ken Clarke’s Legal Aid proposals themselves – believe that insurers can be relied on to police themselves? 

And not only police themselves – but also actually succeed in giving out more money to injured parties than they would have done if lawyers had been involved.

Are the ABI saying we don’t need lawyers any more?  Is that what Asda, Argos, Ford and others are really signing up to?  Can we assume that in brief whole legal departments in these large companies will close down in the sudden realisation that the law can operate without its corresponding professionals?  

Is this, in fact, part of a wider plan by the government to re-engineer all manner of professional types – from soldiers who can replace teachers to teachers who might wish to be soldiers; from GPs who can become health managers to health managers who might fancy brushing up on their bedside manner; from MPs who prefer to defraud the state to fraudsters who prefer to run it?

I’m pretty sure that neither the ABI, Asda, Argos nor anyone else in business these days will give up on employing their vast armies of legal advisers.  So why should the customer – in essence the entire object and purpose of all this entrepreneurial endeavour – be required to do anything different?


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Jul 192011
 
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I’ve just seen the Murdochs give their account of what has happened during the past decade in News Corp.  Essentially, top-level executives got paid immense amounts of money to receive oral advice from highly expensive lawyers, either directly or via intermediaries – and then somewhere along the line, some individuals or other apparently hid, misplaced or confused key evidence which would otherwise have made it impossible for the executives in question not to commit to root and branch removal of criminal activity.

I may of course be wrong about all of this – but that’s my reading of it right now.

I do have two things to say on this matter: one, I actually prefer Rupert to James.  James has this most irritating habit of personalising all objects, so he says “I can’t speak to” something instead of “I can’t speak about” something.  Also, whilst Rupert took his time over most of his responses, James filled the silences with banal soliloquies of corporate speak.  I much prefer watching someone think before they open their mouth, even if it is to express their inability to remember, than suffer the awfulness of hearing a language I love so very much mangled by the tongues of those whose principle aim seems to be to avoid all sense of responsibility.

And the second thing?  Well, as I tweeted during the show itself:

Am I glad News Corp only does TV, news & films – just imagine if it did nuclear power with that lack of corporate control. #NOTW

If they thought this was going to be the moment they regained the initiative on being fit and proper as far as owning the totality of BSkyB was concerned, surely ordinary laws of corporate governance wherever would indicate they really weren’t fit and proper to run anything.  Not necessarily because of outright and overt criminality but, rather, simply because of an utter incompetence in relation to a correct and judicious understanding of corporate responsibility more generally.

An utter incompetence which absolutely beggars belief.


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Jun 082011
 
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Yesterday, I compared the shape of the Internet to history.  Today, I read that the United Nations recently proclaimed access to the Internet a human right.  So although the Internet may not be as absolutely robust for individuals as we like to make out, some foresighted organisations – in this case the UN, in other cases governments such as Finland – are ensuring that the legal frameworks for the rights of individuals as individuals to access the Internet when it counts do exist and are in place.

In this way, we can thank the Lord – or perhaps those secular thinkers who care more for human rights than personal enrichment – that, very occasionally, the offline world can impinge and impact virtuously on the virtual, before the virtual has time to decide for itself.

This is one example, one of the very few, when I am happy for the lawyers to get involved.


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