Sep 072014
 
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As promised, I’ve been working hard on my biz – as befits this time of year.  Although, when working in an online environment, academic years and timeframes seem to mean less and less.

Here’s what I’ve been doing.  First, this blogpost where I announce for the price of six hours of personalised classes that you can get a maximum of an additional four hours of classes in group free.  It works something like this:

From October 2014 onwards, you will have the opportunity to buy blocks of six hours of personalised one-to-one training and combine them with up to four hours of group classes per month.

How can you take advantage of this offer? Just ensure you finish your block of six hours in one calendar month, with the same flexible timetables as always, and then choose up to four hours of themed group classes during the following month. There will always be two classes in the morning per week, as well as two classes in the evenings. You will also have the opportunity – by yourself! – to catch up on classes if you miss them.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook – where I now understand how well it is orientated to potential advertisers (despite two ads being knocked back for not complying with guidelines, the process to date seems quite transparent and simple – much easier for sure than my last experience with Google AdWords) – I’ve created this page.  If you like Facebook, and you like the page, why not go ahead and “like” the page too?!

:-)

And perhaps, even, start your English skills learning this autumn with me.


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Aug 272014
 
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It’s been a weird summer.  Horrible things happening in the world out there; the grist of mainstream and – now – social media too.  Just because you love cat gifs doesn’t mean you don’t see execution gifs …

Beautiful things happening within our family, as vacation time works its magic and makes us speak to each other so wondrously.

But then outwith our nuclear family, other things happening.  Childhood has a long reach; what hurt us as kids … well … it continues to work its invisible sadnesses.

Weave them almost, in painfully mysterious ways.

I’m glad it’s all over, mind; glad my wife and children will shortly have a better base to operate from.

That’s all most of us need; even yearn for.  Somewhere, anywhere, in which to be proud of oneself; to be proud of oneself and one’s forebears.


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Aug 092014
 
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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.


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Aug 092014
 
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I posted earlier today an email which reached me as the nominal Amazon author I am (I’ve never received any payment as such, but this blog is still up there on their site as a product).  I was quite positive about the thrust of the argument this presented.  An apparently virtually identical letter was posted by Amazon at this website at about the same time.  A blogpost then argued that Amazon is getting nervous (presumably about tons of stuff – not just e-books I mean), and a tweet which flitted past me even sardonically commented how the company was being true to its $9.99 maximum e-book price tag policy by paying a similarly restricted amount of dosh to the firm it “obviously” used for its PR.

We then have a lovely summary of Almost Everything Amazon vs The Rest Of The World here.  That post came my way via Dave Winer, who suggested as he prefaced his tweet that Amazon will always be a computer company.

And so to my final quote before I get started.  Evgeny Morozov went and said this about an hour and a half ago:

Writers, embrace disruptive innovation! Stay hungry, stay foolish! Someone has to pay for Jeff Bezos’s plans to mine asteroids in space!

Yep.  Disruptive innovation … it just had to rear its ugly head.

Why ugly?

Recent history informs us so.

Amazon is a great “external customer” company.  There have, however, been plenty of tales about how it doesn’t treat some of its workforces quite so well; how it doesn’t engage with some of its tax communities quite so constructively; how, even, that its fierce McDonald-like focus on undercutting prices and achieving market share at the expense of almost everything else (not customer service any longer – I’ve been there and seen the ugly, bad and now good) is destroying independent booksellers and the craft of face-to-face relationships in ways we could term brutal.

But it was that comment of Dave Winer’s about Amazon always being a computer company that caught my attention.  Morozov’s reminding us of disruptive innovation is apposite in this context: a concept I’ve generally understood to mean providing intellectual justification and coverage to thinking the only customer worth paying attention to is the external one – everyone else, consequently, being allowed to go to hell.

And computer companies – tech companies to be more inclusive – have razed the more old-fashioned sectors of many countries to the ground, even as end-user external-customer-types have, medium-term, benefited everywhere.  In this, as distributor (I’d argue distributors generally ultimately win these battles for new technological turf), Amazon has productively disrupted accepted models for ages.  But not only Amazon: we also have Apple, to a lesser extent Microsoft.  Whilst Microsoft continued to focus on publishing software, Apple got a leg-up via music.  And so two of the oldest types of content joined one of the newest and least tangible to form a triumvirate of content distributors.

So far, so good.  But the philosophy of disruptive innovation makes for rapacious souls when it comes to living alongside the rest of the world.  The fact that these “external customer” companies paid far more attention to the needs of only one potential client meant that this was no democratic universe of relationships: this was the re-establishment of ancient pyramidal monarchies.  No P2P hierarchy or mentality; instead, a hierarchy where only one objective counted: shareholder value, levered by the continuing satisfaction and capturing of these end-user external-customer-types.

If we’re to make better large companies in the future, this monarchy of customers must become far more democratic.  I remember two examples from personal experience.  In Spain, a car components group promulgated the idea of the customer being king (still monarchical, I accept – only wait …) – but the customers in question were entirely circular: you could be your boss’s customer; your boss could be yours; you had to see all personal and business interactions as moving – in both directions – between the nexus of customer and supplier.  In the UK, meanwhile, cack-handedly implemented, I experienced the half-baked taking onboard of a concept which divided customers up into the already alluded to “external vs internal”.  Of course, this automatically led – by the clearly uninitiated – to a prioritising of the “external” and a pretty savage ignoring of the “internal”, to the extent where historically damn good industrial relations were destroyed within a year.

No longer a monarchy of customers, then; quite a different hierarchy of customers is what we need to fight to achieve.  But whilst computer companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft continue to dominate and manage our economic expectations, and continue only to focus on our manifestations as end-user external-customer-types, we won’t be able to make corporations good for everything we really do need them to deliver.

Maybe the disruptive innovation we’re actually looking for is to be found somewhere else: make of the world a huge business simulation – isn’t that, anyway, what the stock markets are? – where the bottom line grows through a far more complex combination of actions than simply destroying the carefully woven threads of competition: cashable points for this, cashable points for that, cashable points for everything that makes good our human obligations.

A democracy of customers indeed.

All of us.


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Aug 092014
 
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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: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

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 www.readersunited.com

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?

:-)


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Aug 082014
 
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Dan Hodges suggests the following:

There’s only one thing worse then the US being the world’s policeman. And that’s the US not being the world’s policeman.

I’d take issue with the use of the monolithic singular (no state, however useful, is ever that monolithic – nor should be in a modern liberal democracy) and the exclusive gender – policeman (though my linguistic side understands why he’s felt obliged to use the idiomatic phrase this way).  But more importantly, I’d take issue with stuff he’s written previously on quite separate subjects.  This, for example:

Unfortunately, that’s just about all they came up with. Ed Miliband will say: “Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges, including having to cut spending.” But that’s just one of those tick-box phrases he likes to sneak into his tick-box speeches. He has this little throwaway line about cuts, but if anyone actually asks him what cuts he’s contemplating he refuses to answer. That’s because he doesn’t really mean it, and he secretly wants everyone to know he doesn’t really mean it.

Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the ideas Hodges sardonically communicates – apart from anything else, he does sardonic very well.  But when coupled with today’s tweet, I do object to the underlying assumption that 40,000 Iraqis on the point of being butchered can be policed and rescued – should be policed and rescued – by Big Government and the Big State when the very same Big State and Government must not – is unable to – continue its historically ameliorating business at home in the UK and US.

Especially when the plans of some of Hodges’ fellow travellers seem to include brutal cuts to the aforementioned public sector which will lead to a drop in headcount of forty percent:

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

Piling misery upon misery for the most unprotected in our societies.

So let’s try and be a little bit more coherent, shall we?  If Big Government and the Big State are still cool enough ideas to save the developing world from encroaching dictatorship and the cruelty of the backward (though I suspect the motives behind such strategies have more to do with a Western self-interest of wanting to keep political contamination well at bay in distant dirty countries, quite a la Ebola, than a truly pure perception of right and wrong), let us also accept that we in the West – ordinary people who live in Europe, North America, the Antipodes etc – have the very same right to be treated, by our own Big States and Governments, in the humanitarian way those currently suffering in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Israel also merit and clearly deserve.


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Aug 072014
 
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I finished the Asimov story, “The Bicentennial Man”, recently.  If you haven’t read it, do try and find time to do so.  As with most of Asimov’s shorter works, the narrative creeps up on you quite slowly – though the read itself is never boring.  In a sense, they’re like Ibsen plays: so much happening in the clockwork of the story, it sometimes feels like a vice is tightening.

The payoff is always interesting, mind.  I grew up with Asimov’s ideas; their absolute playfulness a wonderful reward for the exploring adolescent I was at the time.

The plot runs as follows: a robot, called Andrew, wishes to be taken to be a human being.  Over his “life” he spends time blurring the lines between the flesh-and-blood citizens who have all the rights in the world and the positronic-brained servants (slaves, perhaps, would be more accurate) which he is an example of.  He achieves many things in this period, though not without considerable difficulty: the right to wear clothes; the right to have money; the right to be made free of his owners.  In fact, the right, as a result, to own stuff like any human does.

It seems to me that although Asimov leaves us with the ultimately necessary “suicide” of this Bicentennial Man as the essence of what it is to be flesh-and-blood, the element of ownership also touched on in the story – and already described above – defines our humanity much more than the former.  Certainly today:

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.[2]

For in the face of terrible violence, if Western society is inscribed by anything right now, it is the total antipathy to anything bordering self-sacrifice.  From cruise missiles to drones, everything we seem to do these days appears to be aimed at limiting our exposure to the risk of death.  Quite the opposite of the instincts of our positronic friend.

All well and good, I’m sure we could all agree.

But, even so, I’d push the idea further.  Emily has a lovely overview of a curious question of “selfie” copyright, where a monkey took some pictures of itself, and apparently by so doing limited the right of the owner of the camera in question to exert their own copyright over the product:

[...] It is difficult to say whether the arguments would go in favour of the photographer being the author; this is certainly the verdict in a blog post by our US friends across the pond, who argue that as there was no official creator of the photograph other than the monkey, and the monkey does not qualify as an author, there is therefore no copyright in the photograph. It does however seem a bit unfair to the photographer, who should probably be recognised as a contributor at the very least. Perhaps we should ask the monkey? ;-)

That we should even be going round in circles with this situation leads me to come to two conclusions:

  1. Animals are not only de-sexed as a rule by humans (notice that sneaky “itself” I slipped in earlier) (and even as they demonstrate all the right biological impulses), they are also de-ownershipped too.  Whilst the argument here is couched in legal terms of animals not being able to be authors and thus not own, in truth what we are actually saying is since authorship is determined by the ability to own, denying the right to own to animals thankfully denies the right to authorship.  (The circle can just as easily be gone around in the opposite direction.)
  2. The separation between the state of being an animal and the state of being a human, an analogous separation which is the subject of Asimov’s robot tale too, was never more clearly an imperative for our species.  By establishing ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as something quite distinct, we assign to ourselves considerable freedoms that allow us to do and undo with the rest of the planet just as we bloody well wish.  (And you thought copyright was a distant, dry and academic subject!)

It’s possible, then, that whilst we condemn all manner of neoliberalisms for our current miseries, our concept of freedom was always defined thus: not the freedom to write; not the freedom to express; not the freedom to be free of penury.  No.  Simply the freedom to own ideas, stuff and creatures.  And those societies which allow more of such ownership are those we now perceive as being the freest of all.


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Aug 032014
 
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This was the tweet which I finally put together this evening, after a long time of not knowing how to put my finger on what I felt.  A tweet which finally clarified things for me: on a whole host of conflicted feelings about colonial pasts, victimhood, racism and cultural confusion:

At heart, we’re racist. We expect non-Westerners to bomb the hell out of each other; we don’t expect liberal democracies to do the same. :-(

Now as I’ve already suggested on these pages, the supreme dangers of a very real – that is to say, of a latent but all the same rapidly manifesting and evermore visible – anti-Semitism cannot be underestimated in the current context.  And so I’ve been writing to understand my own responses; almost certainly disappointing, to date, many of those who still read this little blog – especially from the context of the left of the British political spectrum.

Many terrible things have been written and posted over the past couple of weeks.  The pictures and words which impose a continuing sense of violence on those of us who are utterly impotent and yet terrifyingly, permanently, engaged with all the horrors that first troop, then stumble and ultimately totter, break and collapse before us … well, such a sequence of photographic and verbal imagery can be quite unbearable.

Today, I have even read – written in the register of a bitter lifestyle choice – a piece on whether genocide is right for you.

And so it is – after much cogitation – I finally understand my reticence; I finally taste in all its glory the bitter pill I’m having to swallow.  I am part Spanish Jew; a very little part it is true, but a part I wish to recognise and be proud of.  How then – after the terrible times of the Holocaust, of the legacy my European side must never, nor should ever, forget nor obviate – can I continue to feel a sense of severe unhappiness with the part that Israel is playing in this conflict?  How can I be … well … so disloyal – after all the suffering that Jews have undergone?

I suppose, if truth be told, the tweet is right: I, like many of my compatriots, many of my fellow Europeans, am racist: we ignore the vast empty toothless neighbourhoods of destruction where Arabs have committed evil against Arabs, and only concentrate on what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.  Or, indeed (far more occasionally I guess the Israeli government would say), on what the Palestinians are doing to Israel.

Only I also wonder if this is really, or solely, racism on my part.  For sure we do guard a strong sense of anti-Semitism, and things like the past month do serve to add a frisson of  “There, I told you so!” to our daily interactions.  But I’m not absolutely sure, as I dare to explore this train of thought further, whether the real battle is one of racism or ideologies.

The current Israeli government’s position doesn’t half seem to mimic our own government’s behaviour around the time of Iraq when Tony Blair led Labour.  The “Arab/Muslim/terrorist threat in general” meme – which has served to coalesce so many positions and postures into singular monocultural points of view – is clearly being used, with evidence from the battlefield I agree, to justify all manner of war crimes in Gaza.  But I’m beginning to suspect that, in truth, what certain ideologues are doing – on our side of the walls being built, mind – is to use that meme to hide from the public a more complex reality: that in Arab societies it would be as easy to find people who from our liberal perspectives we could get along with, who we could build bridges towards, who we could engage with at social and cultural levels in order to create shared future, as it would be to find them in countries like Israel.  And similarly (perhaps far more importantly, this), that people as ideologically fanatical – as fundamentalist in their world views, I mean – as Hamas or ISIS clearly are can be encountered in positions of power in our European and North American contexts, as well as in Israel itself.

Bombing people and places to smithereens is nothing like allowing the disabled to slowly die as support systems are suddenly removed – but in the black-and-white nature of the worldviews in question, certain conceptual elements are shared.  The “I am right, you are wrong” mentality; the “No gain without pain” attitudes (as long as we understand the pain will be yours, not mine); the “If I’m at the top and you’re at the bottom, there’s got to be a God-given reason” assumptions … these are shared by so many of those currently running austerity the world over.

And there’s little difference for these distanced stratospheric makers and shakers – makers and shakers who’ve neither suffered a shrapnel wound in their lives nor had to witness a baby’s blood spatter the concrete before them – between the poverty of action that allows them to gaily crunch spun statistics whilst people starve at the doors of hundreds of food banks, and the poverty of thought that allows governments who say their enemies mix military and hospitals packed to the defibrillators with utterly defenceless human beings, to go ahead and destroy the lives of hundreds of terrified persons.

In truth, we do expect Israel, as a Western democracy, to do better.  And in truth, we do expect Arab countries, as non-Western regimes, to do their worst.  And in truth, this is highly racist.  And in truth, we shouldn’t think like this.

But it’s also – kind of – just as racist to believe that Western democracy means just one thing.  And what’s more, one inevitably good thing.  At the end of this lovely review in the Financial Times two days ago, on the subject of the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ new book about the wider pursuit of the recent phone-hacking stories, Davies is criticised for ranting on about neoliberalism.  I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment if it’s a rant or not.  But I imagine if he does rant, it’s because it’s all too easy for him to fall into the trap of doing so.  So much of what we understand to be a latterday Western democracy seems to have been handed over, lock, stock and pork barrel, to those who have professional time on their hands to take over completely the “representative” in “representative democracy”.

I am sure, in the end, that so many of us have more in common with good people of a liberal inclination in many Arab countries, wherever they may find themselves, than we do with some of the right-wing austerity fanatics in the UK – in particular, that bit of the UK we call Westminster!  This is not to say that fundamentalism in the Middle East isn’t a threat to be taken seriously.  But it does mean that a liberal view of democracy must begin to fight more vigorously to be heard – if for no other reason than to let it be known that good people are to be found everywhere in the world.

And more importantly, as I’ve already indicated, that real poverty of thought may also be found on many of our own doorsteps.

For we are not one in anything – but, rather, multitudes.

As someone far better than me once pointed out …


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Jul 282014
 
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Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.

Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:

Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists.  It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK.  However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.

For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies.  But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:

An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on.  As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.

Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.

Yes.  Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen.  That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity. 

And this proof I describe?  Where does it lie?

In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.

No?

Well.

This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post.  And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:

Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now.  There are levels of activity and levels of activity.  What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation.  If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.

No.  What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to.  And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.

Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain.  It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.


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Jul 242014
 
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Yesterday, I read this phrase quoted from Tim O’Reilly (the bold is mine):

We couldn’t agree more: “Technology should be about values with people at the centre” @timoreilly #OSCON2014 #OSCON

This afternoon, meanwhile, I read three amazing articles – all of which, in some way, may lead to a final fixing of our broken political process.

The first article is from Wired UK, and describes how the tech industry is leading to increasing inequality.  A lack of morality – manifested by the industry everywhere, as well as large corporations in all sectors since the beginning of capitalism – leads to “ordinary people” being forced out of their suburbs.  The wealth generated by workers, who with their interconnected technologies can set up business anywhere, soon distorts and deforms the social patterns and financial dynamics of every community they set their eyes on:

[...] The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

The second article comes from the Guardian back in June (again, worth reading in its entirety), linked to from the Wired UK report above.  And it asserts things like this – things I have failed to hear for a long time but which were music to my ears a naive decade ago:

So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

A perfect riposte to Google & Co’s Melian dialogues, I think.

The final article which – at least in my opinion – serves to build on the first two is this one from today, also published in the Guardian.  In it, Cory Doctorow suggests that the very tech which has corrupted further our politics can be turned round and used for and by the people to recover integrity.  As he concludes most powerfully (again, the bold is mine):

This threshold-style action system is at the heart of Kickstarter (pledge whatever you like, but no one has to spend anything unless enough money is raised to see the project to completion) and it’s utterly adaptable to elections.

In democracies all over the world, voting is in decline. A permanent political class has emerged, and what it has to offer benefits a small elite at the public’s wider expense.

We hear a lot from tech circles about “disruption” of complacent, arrogant and entrenched industries. Politics is the foremost example of such an industry and it’s overdue for disruption.

Incidentally, this afternoon a short Slideshare came my way.  I’ll embed it below so you can see that others are having similar thoughts:

And as an adjunct to all the above, back in 2012 I suggested this alternative to our first-past-the-post electoral system, where I said things like this:

This would clearly be a brand new electoral system – a system which depended heavily for its functionality on virtual-community technologies and multifarious software tools.  But it would also be a brand new electoral system entirely fit for a consensual and collaborative – that is to say, a coalition – age.  No longer would politicians have to triangulate their positions.  No longer would the electorate have to compromise when they voted.  In everything we began to do in such a body politic, honesty, sincerity and directness would become the definers of a completely new era in representative democracy.

*

To my final observation today.  We all know how “Citizen Kane” turned out, of course.  But maybe a “Citizen Kane 2.0″ could be worth pursuing.  Imagine that a campaigning paper of the history of an organisation like the British Guardian, say, decided that – with all its present online and virtual experience and activity – it might be able to do much more than freely comment the world’s events.  Initiate, proactively participate, manage, channel and forge a new politics as per some of the ideas contained in this post today … in particular with respect to what Doctorow proposes.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine and life-changing experience for not only the journalists and readers already involved – but also for the wider population of despairing citizens?

Reshape parliamentary process through the very technology that has so fiercely pwned – in the nakedly Melian terms I mentioned earlier – every step of 21st century governance as we have experienced it to date; reform the process of exchange and blur the lines of hierarchy intelligently between leaders and led, between the thinkers and the thought; and remake, finally, the balance of power amongst those who promise so much and those who are lied to so frequently.

A temptation too far?  Come on, you clever bods of the written word.  Remind yourselves truly: the pen is mightier than the sword.

(But in order to be so, it needs occasionally to be unsheathed …)


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

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

I then went on to conclude:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Jun 282014
 
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A tweet that just flitted past me reminds me of something else that came my way this morning.  First, the tweet:

Burnham also says we need to throw off “nineties managerialism” #FabSummer

Burnham being Andy Burnham, one of everyone’s (deservedly) favourite Labour highfliers.

And I’m sure no one would disagree with the idea of throwing off “nineties managerialism”.  The question, of course, not being who agrees or not but, rather, what the forces ranged against are busily planning to achieve.

So what do I mean?  Take a look at this fascinating graphic which the Philips Twitter account tweeted this morning (I’ve reproduced it below for ease of reading, but if Philips is unhappy, just drop me an email and I’ll remove the copy from this blogsite).

Digital Healthcare by Philips

As you can see, a lot of what Burnham has been proposing for the NHS, linking medical and social care in a far more connected way, fits in with Philips’ own big data and digital view of how healthcare’s often disparate parts could fit together more seamlessly and usefully in the future.  However, at least for me, a massive caveat jumps out of this graphic.  There’s a bit in the middle, through which everything seems to be required to flow, called “Patient relationship management”.  You’d have thought that, if anything, “Professional care” would be the hub of what should essentially be a caring sector: a sector focussed on delivering patient needs, not structurally managed process.  And the potential is there for doing just that, of course.  From the little I know about big data these days, the opportunities for automating what used to be people-occupied roles – processing automatically data of all kinds and from all sources – is clearly significant.  And such processing can benefit a lot of people – both patients and professionals.

But what happens if this automation I speak of either doesn’t deliver as expected, delivers a world we fear already – or simply allows those with knowledge of these new Dark Arts to regain a managerialist mystique and control over our precious caring and public-service institutions?  There are always options to make such huge change work for the wider populace, I don’t disagree.  But similarly, there are chances for those who see the future quite before the rest of us to feather their virtual and physical nests in time for any encroaching disruption.

It’s an interesting future, that’s for sure.  And that people like Burnham should be equally interested in making it work is a happy circumstance.  But it’s not only people who need to give us comfort during times of upheaval: it’s also the built-in guarantees we should wish to legislate in order to defend the central importance of people over systems.

Big data in healthcare is a grand set of tools.  The question here is: who will end up using them?  The managers or the cared for?


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Jun 252014
 
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There has been a lot of rubbish written about the subject of British Values recently.  This post of mine will probably serve to make the already high pile even higher.  But hey-ho, here we go.

Although my mother came to Britain as an immigrant, in a sort of way fleeing her experience of Communist oppression in the ex-Yugoslavia (her parents were anti-Communists during World War Two, and so lost a lot by way of opposing Communist privilege in the post-war period of Tito’s regime), I myself was born in Oxford.  About as quintessentially English as anyone could get, in fact.  I’ve always wanted to return there to live – but one of the undeniable British Values of recent times involves finding it prohibitively expensive to get decently-priced accommodation in places where jobs simultaneously exist.

So here I am, making my living via Internet and web tools and environments, in a property no one would care to call their own.

Stoicism, then?  Another British Value?  That’s two already, and I’ve hardly got started.

Actually, the thesis of this post was to be rather different.  For me, born and bred British but having grown up in between quite different cultural vectors (atheist English/Welsh/Yorkshire/British/European versus dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist Catholic Croatian), it has always seemed that the greatest achievement of our cultural cauldron has – really not surprising, this – mimicked very closely the outlines and structures of our linguistic heritage.  Yes.  We always look to the United States in these matters – and, admittedly, their achievement is considerable: melding (or maybe that’s welding) a multitude of different – still growing, still effervescing – cultures together in a primal soup of patriotic belief in order to create one country out of an astonishing federal association.  But what we’ve achieved in Britain over the years – what lately we’re looking to ditch, too, as we take onboard everything and anything American – is typically contrary to our cousins across the Atlantic, even as in our diffident way we assume we’ve done really nothing at all to differentiate ourselves.

And, actually, maybe we have really done nothing: our secret being this nothing we’ve really not done.  One of my skills, and one way I make my living, is as a language trainer: www.speak-ok.com is where I ply my trade.  Over the years, I have noticed – as many of us who train will concur – that learners of English almost invariably find it difficult to learn because there is a hole at the centre of its grammatical structures.  The beauty of English is that the formation of its tenses is relatively straightforward; that the subjunctive is mostly invisible where not completely unnecessary (and becoming more so); and that you can make yourself easily understood, especially to other foreign speakers of the language, even where you commit mistakes in what we are normally supposed to say.

I would argue, therefore, that – given a chance – English, and the British, are generally forgiving when it comes to meaning.  We’re not pedants; we don’t pursue arguments to the death; we generally look to comprehend what you meant to say rather than, exactly, what you did.

And this huge vacuum at the centre of the language itself finds an analogous vacuum at the centre of what we feel we can agree upon is the essence of British Values.  But in reality, it’s no vacuum at all: in reality, like foreigners attempting – and failing – to find one-to-one grammatical correspondences with their own finely-wrought languages, what’s to blame is our perception of what we believe – perhaps from a US-style perspective we’re absorbing (or that’s absorbing us) – that we should now be encountering in our cultural heritage, even though it has never been there in the first place.

If the greatness of English, as a linguistic construct, is to be found in its forgiving nature as far as comprehending broken forms and attempts at communication, and therefore making them work for the benefit of everyone, then the greatness of British Values is surely located along the same lines: the same lines as one of its key linguistic heritages; the same lines as the people formed by such a set of linguistic patterns and ways of thinking and seeing.

We are what we speak.  And what we speak, for people from other languages, works in the absence of a certain complication they have learnt to need, to value and to use to control their own national characteristics and ways of doing.

So after all of this, what’s my conclusion?  Let’s, once and for all, stop trying to fill the “vacuum” at the centre of British Values.  An absence doesn’t mean a lack.  It can mean a freedom.  It can mean a liberty to do what we choose – when we are taught rightly not to hurt others.  It can mean a space to move as we would wish.  It can mean an efficiency to finish a job without irrelevant and unhelpful fuss.

That, for me, is where British Values are to be found.

In particular, in English’s inclusive ability not only to acquire new vocabulary and ways of communicating from other cultures but also to live alongside other proud and honourable traditions; to collaborate with them; to learn from them; and to synthesise new ideas from them.

English the language, and Values the British, don’t so much simplify stuff; rather, instead, they simply make it easier to get along.  And that, right here, is the real virtue we should perceive.

That, right here, is what we should all be attempting to perpetuate.

British Values: the essence of an existence, well experienced.


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Jun 192014
 
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On Labour’s new policy today for “everyone to have his own owl”, our favourite Mirror site describes it thus this afternoon:

Actually, the whole thing was a mistake. Labour’s REAL badly costed policy announcement for today was deciding to cut Jobseeker’s Allowance for young people, saving a pitiful £65 million. Nice.

(Interestingly, whilst the short link says “cutt.us/xdjrc6h3″ and whilst the “cutt.us” is clear, I do think – conspiratorially – someone should tell us what the manifestly secretive rest of it is actually supposed to mean.)

Meanwhile, there is surely a lesson to be learnt from the whole affair.  If a short hacked tweet along these lines can in an instant capture the imagination and attention of the mainstream media, their social counterparts and even those ordinary people who still pace real-world streets, maybe there is a new tactic of politicking waiting (literally! Yes, literally I say …) in the wings of such imaginations.  Politics and the Owl Factor?  That may be our brand new wonky litmus test.

Is a policy worth pursuing from now on in till the general election in 2015?  Then let it be judged against the Owl Factor!  And only if it is judged that the social commotion of today’s owl is likely to repeat with any degree of certainty will we let any future policymaking go ahead.

Simon Cowell is that?  Or Simon Owl?!  An utterly new landscape of democratically-engaged social networking opens up before us.

Hurrah the Owl; hurrah the Owl; hurrah the Owl …


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Oct 272013
 
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Chris, who I have occasion to read more often than I read mainstream content, says this today on a blogger’s favourite subject (the bold is mine):

[...] Stephen says that “if you want your blog to get noticed now, best to develop a niche.” But the thing is that the MSM has left a lot of big niches. Sunny’s right that “there is just too much opinion out there”. But a lot of voices doesn’t mean we get a diversity of ideas.

There’s an awful lot which the mainstream ignores. Perhaps the main question I ask before blogging is: “what needs saying that isn’t said elsewhere?” And I’m rarely stumped for an answer. The mainstream tends to ignore things such as anti-managerialism, the ubiquity of ideology/cognitive biases and the vast quantity of new and interesting economic research. Yes, there’s too much opinion, too much manufactured outrage, too much narcissism and too much obsessing about the Westminster village. But there’s a shortage of different perspectives.

Compare and contrast with the new owner of the Boston Globe, our dearly beloved John W Henry (dearly beloved for Liverpool-loving households anyway) (again, the bold is mine):

We as a society used to spend countless hours watching and sharing a limited amount of media mainly through television programs. Ironically, we now have increasingly significant social isolation and alienation as a byproduct of the rise of social media tools that overwhelm young people. These tools need to be designed to provide for more maturity, restraint, and responsibility.

Ironically, we also seem to no longer have any time because of time-saving devices. As a parent, I see kids completely immersed in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and messaging. One of the attractions of summers at Fenway Park is seeing families actually sitting together and conversing for three hours rather than sitting in different worlds at home.

We live with what the writer and thinker Clay Shirky has identified as a “cognitive surplus.” We need ways to move from consumption to activation. The Globe can be a catalyst for activism across a broad range of interests. The same technologies that breed loneliness in some contexts can provide opportunities for people to connect with one another meaningfully and make differences in each other’s lives. These differences don’t have to be earth-shattering to be of great significance. We live in a time in this region with terrific opportunities to lead.

In their different ways and in their different contexts, both Chris Dillow, the proudly amateur blogger (though in no way amateur writer, much less amateur thinker), and John W Henry, the very American – very global – businessperson, whose interests straddle nation-states, sectors and very different communities, have come to similar conclusions about what’s wrong with respectively cherished fields of communication.  Their solutions are different, of course, as befit their causes: Dillow needs enough resource to live his life as he pleases, in order that such resource may then give him the relatively little time each day he needs to usefully inform and produce his blogging.  Meanwhile, Henry is looking, on a much more physically grand and industrial scale, to develop a business strategy – almost an ideology, in fact – which will serve to turn currently capacious readers into expansively active doers.

As many have already observed, in particular a kind of unwilling mentor of mine, blogging by itself achieves nothing; cannot even be valued when in such a vacuum.  It must connect with the world (ie must be read by someone) for anything of worth to happen.  This time of reading may of course not accompany the time of writing: if this is the case, the blogger is indeed a lonely soul whose writings will only please an audience when he or she is long gone.  But most of us understand/have understood traditional blogging to be in possession of a very firm location and connection with time and place.  And in such a perception of what blogging should be (or maybe should have been), a thing of direct and common engagement with a community and people of particular sort, we realise that Henry’s goal to encourage his readers – ie his relatively passive, more significantly freeloading, absorbers of often sadly shallow content – to become souls who begin to make differences in others’ lives purely as a result of a newly conceived journalistic practice and industry … well, from the point of view of a long-time blogger like myself, it does make for truly fascinating reading.

If what is good about the Chris Dillow kind of blogging is now being perceived by someone like John W Henry as the kind of thing the mainstream newspapering he wants to rescue is often found to be wanting in – not for people or editorial reasons so much as overbearing industrial pressures where, even in the so-called quality press, the quality content continually fails to beat back the self-replicating “celebrititty” Internet-baiting dross – then perhaps there is a future for the former instincts of blogging at its halcyon best (Norman Geras and Paul Cotterill also come to mind), especially as partial saviour of the mainstream at its most lovably popularising.

If Henry can do for the likes of Manchester’s long-lost Guardian what he is currently doing for Liverpool’s football – if he can rescue the campaigning newspapers of the past from the sad obscurities and conceptual abysses into which so many have fallen (in their admittedly desperate bids to remain solvent in the latterday journalistic free-for-all that is the 21st century web) – perhaps one day we will end up agreeing that there must be no fundamental difference between the mainstream and the traditionally-conceptualised blogosphere after all.

And if this is the case, if that blogosphere I describe finally maintains its integrity long enough for the mainstream to realise exactly where it all went wrong, then it will – at the very least – have served to keep the flame of good journalism alive.

As it will finally have served its purpose.


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Oct 082013
 
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This is how John Lennon saw it.


http://youtu.be/L832Jj7C0DA

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.

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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.


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