Nov 292012

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:

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).

Sep 132012

Start with the most lurid item first, I guess.  This story, about a man who believes in rambling naked, is tragic.  It may be incompatible with polite society, but it’s tragic all the same.  In his own words:

[…] “There’s nothing about me as a human being that is indecent or alarming or offensive. That’s where I’m coming from, which is deep inside,” Gough said.

He continued: “It’s me, standing up for what I am. [Because] all of us are human beings too and we have children and our children are beautiful and we’re beautiful too, because we’re human beings – all the same. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I’m just a bloke standing up for the truth of what I am.”

Before Original Sin, nakedness was unconscionably beautiful.  After Original Sin, it’s just sin.

What a journey.

So as our society condemns a repeat naked-rambler to five months in prison, naked gamblers of our unsustainable economy get away with a figurative murder.  And although in a 24-hour rolling-news kind of world it’s a cliché to repeat such things, the fact that, days after David Cameron smooched his way into the Paralympians’ closing ceremony, a Paralympian should have his application for disabled support rejected because he’s not disabled enough – whilst at the same time the BBC reports disabled hate crime has risen by a third – well … this surely should make us think hard and long again about the society we’re allowing to fall apart.


A final thought – not in my mind unconnected, though in yours it may be so tangential as to be totally out of the ballpark.  Embassies have been getting a really bad press of late.  A few weeks ago, we had Julian Assange entering an Ecuadorian safe haven against the will of the British, US and Swedish governments.  Now, sadly enough, and apparently as a result of a YouTube video being posted online, various US embassies have been the subject of attacks on the sovereign nature of their territory.  (More on the recent attack in Libya can be found here and here via

It does really seem, however, that in a world of growing openness – at least when seen from the point of view of an expanding citizen usage of soul-baring and community-networking online tools – we should begin to question, in this globalising planet, the almost isolating nature of embassies.  There will come a moment when embassies become fairly redundant: and that moment will arrive when we all not only subscribe to general principles of human rights but also manage to apply them.  What then will be the point of sovereign space on another’s soil – especially if such a space is converted into a ghetto which only serves to concentrate the occasional ire of contrary foreign subjects?

On the other hand, and in a century where a British judiciary allows financial-sector whizzkids to survive unpunished for actions which are destroying ordinary people’s lives – even as the powers-that-be simultaneously find they can imprison a man for wanting to ramble in the nude and deny a one-legged person his due support because he’s got one leg too many – perhaps maintaining the highest symbol of secrecy in our society, the embassy of a sovereign state, is actually quite the most coherent and cogent decision the establishment can take.

I don’t know about the civilisation you live in – but it seems to me that something really dirty is about to unspool out of the civilisation I habitually inhabit.

It’s probably a consequence of all that social media honesty.  If you start doing it for fun in your everyday life, how can you avoid not ending up doing it for real in your work?  We’re all, little by little, acquiring whistleblowing instincts, aren’t we?  Even those people in the middle levels of organisations, who generally find their job is to filter away reality from both the public and workforce’s gaze.

Who said Facebook and Twitter couldn’t conquer the world?  Maybe what’s really happening here is that these environments are actually retraining us all in the twin, unassailable and universal virtues of honesty and good faith!

With truth becoming a natural instinct again, perhaps there really is a chance for hope on the horizon.

May 262012

Does search undermine property?  I don’t mean in the sense that some are arguing that Google subverts copyright to its own benefit.  Paul, for example, suggests that:

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world’s default collecting society – collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

I mean, rather, in the sense that search – the physiological process, impulse and reward which makes up and motivates that short-term desire to get an immediate answer – is actually destroying our ability to even care about where these gobbets of information come from.  If I’m right, it’s that not caring any more which is changing the rules – rather than Google’s latterly evil mission.

It’s not copyright infringement itself which is dismantling authors’ abilities to make a living out of their work but – at least in part – this “rising to the top” fallacy which search promotes that everything worth our attention can be found in a page of ten hyperlinks (often not even fully clicked upon) – and nothing worth our attention will be missed.  In the essence of this fallacy we have a massive psychological change in readers’ behaviours.  And it is that change which has prepared the ground and made it possible for the sadness of something for nothing.

There are those who would have us believe that the real enemies out there are those who promote a free and open web above all other considerations.  If it were only so easy to pin down.  If the enemy were as described it would be simple to excise them from the game.  The truth of the matter is that it is ourselves – those of us who consume, publish, write and exchange information – who are entirely to blame for allowing Google to foist the search fallacy on us.  Instead of writing for audiences of proper readers, we are shortening and slicing up our narratives to satisfy those who refuse to read more than three hundred words at a throw.

Or maybe just 140 characters.

We aren’t really pirates gratuitously searching to find something for nothing.  We are, instead, Pavlovian creatures looking for our next slavering short-term fix.  That is what search has turned us into.  Mental drug addicts who care only for what the intermediaries can bring them.

In a world which could’ve been one of liberated producer-consumers, we have fallen in love with our pushers.

In a sense, the 20th century mafias which built empires on the back of drug dependency have been mimicked in the 21st century by companies which give short shrift to content.  Whether search engines like Google, online media like Huffington Post or social websites like Facebook and Twitter, short and multi-authored is good whilst long and individually authored is bad.

Who’d have thought that the epitome of 21st century capitalism would be the very first destroyers of a true, coherent and properly woven individualism?  Who’d have thought that search would destroy authorship?

It’s not capitalism which has won the Cold War but a content Stalinism in its most evil unremunerated form.  And it’s not cocaine which is flooding our dreams any more – but words, stats and images which distract and headline our virtual streets.

Apr 272012

Lawrence Lessig famously stated that “code is law”:

The primary idea, as expressed in the title, is the notion that computer code (or “West Coast Code”, referring to Silicon Valley) may regulate conduct in much the same way that legal code (or “East Coast Code”, referring to Washington, D.C.) does.[2] More generally, Lessig argues that there are actually four major regulators — Law, Norms, Market, Architecture — each of which has a profound impact on society and whose implications must be considered.

In a sense, then, the pincer movement is utterly complete.  Whilst a parliament of lawyers is taken over by a posse of businesspeople, exerting undue influence over our democracy, from the other side – the side of coders and software architects everywhere (and by everywhere I mean Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter; as well as, even, I have to say, open source projects such as Mozilla, LibreOffice and WordPress itself) – our behaviours, our attitudes, what we can do or not do with our possessions, what we can say, how we say it, the kinds of things that strike at the very heart of our economies and define what we are as human beings … all the above is equally structured by people who run transnational behemoths for the benefit of certain ways of seeing or doing.

Now I’m not, for the moment, passing judgement on those mindsets in question.  All I’m saying is that to date our society – our democracy – has been based on the rule of law as defined by lawyers.  Our parliaments are stuffed full of ex- or practising lawyers; our politicos all speaking with the care and general prevision of those who might avoid a future trap cleverly set by an ever-watchful media class.

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.

The current situation is, in fact, as follows: it’s as if we had a civilisation where the more money and wealth you had, the more right you had to tell citizens what to do.

Which surely can’t be the case.

Can it?

The solution then?  As per the title of this post: we need a parliament not of lawyers – or not only of lawyers – but, rather, more importantly, of coders and software engineers.  Only then will we be able to not just track the changes in technology that take place and their impact on our societies but also implement and engage from the very beginning a wider citizenship in democratic debate.

We need a new and parallel parliament – parallel, at least, to start out with – which writes the rules of how we should act and behave through software code itself.  Much as books, as core repositories of information, have developed into films and latterday websites, so the legal code which once ruled our civilisations is giving way to billions of lines of software.

Any legal professional worth his or her virtual salt must understand the implications.

Any political professional who cares about democracy must accept that patching up 19th century code, as SOPA, PIPA and ACTA have tried to do, is simply going about the job to hand in a totally inappropriate way.  We’ve been creating the software tools and their permissions and ways of seeing and doing before typing their rights and responsibilities in the legal parliamentary code of old.  Inevitably, if we choose to act thus we are going to fail miserably.

We are buying the horse blindfold, without examining its mouth before it’s too late.

We need to start at the beginning of the process; not come in way beyond the end of its implementation.

What needs sorting – and opening up to public scrutiny – are the software constitutions themselves.  It’s not open government we need any more but an engagement of end-users – let’s call them virtual voters – before software code is written and implemented; before it impacts on our societies.

It’s not open source code we need to promote (though that, of course, is virtuous) so much as open source process.

Not open government but the kind of open Internet we still have not seen.

A parliament of societally focussed coders, then – able to communicate and liaise with the above-mentioned virtual voters?

Why not?

Apr 182012

Ever wondered how those conflicted confusions of politicos with vested interests might already be affecting our democracy?  Whilst Éoin speaks of “sleeper cells” in Clinical Commissioning Groups throughout the NHS, and expresses his unhappiness with great precision, the US has had a rather longer history of such organised pork-barrel politics.  Which does, in fact, give them an advantage in some matters as the Internet’s myriad of tools allows the people in some way to strike back.

This, then, in my opinion anyhow, really does deserve to be imported from the States.  More about it here and reproduced in full below:


I launched Sopatrack in late December, 2011. At the time, SOPA and PIPA were being rushed through Congress without public debate. There was major, one-sided funding for these issues, and it was alarming how much traction that could get.

Sopatrack had a few goals:

  1. Help voters find their local congresspeople on any connected device
  2. Allow voters to contact their members of Congress by phone or social networking site
  3. Show whether a congressperson supported or opposed this issue
  4. Show how much money the congressperson raised both for and against SOPA/PIPA

The site was immediately popular, with lots of press coverage including The Atlantic, Mashable, Lifehacker, and Hacker News. Twitter, Facebook, and Google drove the majority of the traffic, which peaked at over 40,000 unique daily visitors on key days around the issues.

The wider internet community also rose up, and Congress eventually tabled these bills. Great sites like SOPA Opera were developed, and ultimately Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit staged major actions so that their users would understand the issue. The resources of SunlightLabs, MapLight, and OpenSecrets were hugely helpful to developers and voters.

But there was still more data on other bills, and I wondered what Sopatrack would look like if automatically applied to all bills.

And so it is that we get the new Sopatrack:

How does Fundraising Impact Congress?

The new Sopatrack has the same goals as the original, except that it will work across all bills in the 112th Congress with contribution data from MapLight. Since there’s more data across more issues, the site also tracks how often a congressperson votes on the side of the greater contributions. Individual positions on pre-vote issues will not be tracked.

The votes with the money percentage is also applied to each state for all their congresspeople, and to all Congress.

A brilliant use of public data: follow the people who follow the money, analyse how this affects the way they vote – and make the information available to everyone.  With such a simple and manifestly open system as this, we don’t need to ban lobbyists; we don’t need to pass legislation; we don’t need – a priori – the politicians to change anything they’re already doing right now.  All we need to do is harness a kind of consumer value-for-money instinct and give the voters the data they need to decide on their lonesomes who should deserve our approval and who our disapprobation.

And if shame doesn’t change how politics is conducted, datasets such as these will surely have some sort of beneficial impact in other ways with an evermore tech-savvy public.

As I suggested recently in relation to political funding, approaches which pull together disparate but publicly available information – and then disseminate equally publicly this information about how our politicians and their supporters behave – might have more chances of changing cultures than self-administered and half-hearted patches to the weary body politic; patches which, in any case, the politicians will always find a way of working around and undermining.

If the latest memes and buzzwords in social media involve using the Twitter firehose and similar sets of information to analyse the voting public into submission, why not turn the tables on the politicians and their marketers and use the same tools to analyse the latter into acquiring good and democratic behaviours?

In the light of reports such as Éoin’s tonight, it’s high time we considered doing something similar to Sopatrack here in Britain.

Anyone up for it?

That is to say, anyone up for saving our democracy from the people who follow the money instead of our interests?

Apr 182012

For those of you who live in the UK and are affected by its legislation, the Open Rights Group – of which I am a recent member – has just published this briefing page on what the government most likely is planning for our web.

First, because I think such information generally informs people’s wider prejudices about the Internet, here are some stats pulled from the briefing on what people think the web means for children:

Key facts

  • One quarter of UK 9-16 year olds say that they have seen sexual images in the past 12 months, whether online or offline. 11% encountered sexual images online. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • “…overall, most children have not experienced sexual images online and, even of those who have, most say they were not bothered or upset by them”. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 24% of those who said they had seen sexual images online, or 3% of all the children surveyed, claimed they were upset or bothered by something they had seen. (See Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Görzig, A., and Ólafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the UK report. LSE, London: EU Kids Online. p. 8-9)
  • 23 per cent of parents think it likely that their child will experience something that bothers them online in the next six months. (See The Bailey Review, page 36)
  • Ofcom found that in 2010, 26% of parents were very or fairly concerned about the content of websites their children were visiting. (UK Children’s Media Literacy, Ofcom, 2011, p. 66)

A pretty damning set of stats I might say – if, that is, sexual imagery is a particular issue for you in relation to how our kids are supposedly using the web.  Two things here: first, the real world presents its own challenges on this matter – the sexual imagery which is present in the music industry, for example, can often go beyond a similar pale and make us wonder if everything is as it should be; and second, the suspicion will always exist that the above – whilst covering important and key matters for our younger citizens – will be used and even exploited by governments and big business to make access to the Internet more convenient for their rather more closed interests.

On the wider issues of Internet freedom and innovation, then, here we have a couple of paragraphs on what ORG judges the government’s approach might lead to:

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, noted (page 8) last year that restrictions on access to information can have a ““chilling effect” on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Without adequate safeguards, handing powers over what information people can access, or over the visibility of certain kinds of information, inevitably opens the door to censorship, either through mistakes or abuse.

Overall, we are concerned that powers that DCMS will propose in the forthcoming Green Paper to restrict access to information are being given away too cheaply. The result is a suite of proposals that will likely damage the Internet as a tool for the promotion of freedom of expression and innovation through fair and open markets.

Something I’d be inclined to agree with one hundred percent.

Meanwhile, and as a footnote to what is now an ongoing debate, I’d just like to underline that the reason I think we have the web we have is because, quite simply, we don’t have the democracy we deserve.  Some examples to follow, then, so you can see what I mean:

  1. If it’s too easy to access sex online, if the demand in itself exists, in part it’s because first-time sexual “experiences” offline – the music industry stuff I mention above, for example – is as teasingly bent out of shape as it could be.  Get it right in an offline context, with proper and sensitive education, and you might find the subject came out of the underground the web currently seems to so delight in positioning it.
  2. If it’s too easy to access illegal music online, it’s because right at the beginning of digital music the industry itself failed to move with the needs of the market – they felt that they could continue to run their traditionally massive overheads and generate waste on an industrial scale just as generations already did previously.
  3. If it’s too easy to access news and journalistic endeavour online, and we discover we can’t fund the mainstream media we supposedly deserve, it’s because offline for far too long it’s been a privileged medium where those in the know often tend to protect those who keep them in the know.  We’ve simply lost interest in listening to the clever bods who play with our interests – far better a Web 2.0 experience where we speak to our peers and can at least suss out the fakes before they get too big and important.
  4. If it’s too easy to access general knowledge in the form of digital encyclopaedias, it’s because Microsoft – of all companies – failed to see the virtues of getting users truly involved and crowdsourcing the future generations of content.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the society we should be able to fashion – a modern, democratic and freely discursive 21st century ecosystem of connected voters and legitimate business interests – just simply isn’t getting there at all.

If we have the web we currently have, it’s because the real-world alternative is so damningly corrupt and unfree.

And if they’re now trying to take away from us the web we’ve achieved to date, it’s precisely because they understand that – in truth – for every excess that now takes place on the Internet, a man or woman or corporation has taken the wrong path in offline endeavour.

Why do we have the web we have?  Because those of you who run the real world have made such a mess of what could’ve been a real journey of discovery!  The web we have isn’t in its natural state – it’s reacting violently as a corrective to a sequence of violences committed by those who prefer to impose, on this Planet Earth, their anti-democratic ways of doing.

That, my dear friends, is why we have the web we have.  And in order to properly sort it, we first need to properly sort the real world which has caused it.

Not patch, flailingly and foolishly, the technology that simply reflects our own grubby visages.

For that really would be a churlish – as well as childish – act of uncommon vengeance.

Apr 182012

A tweet which this morning was directed at my innermost open-source leanings led me to wonder if Wikipedia has a symbiotic or parasitical relationship with knowledge.  The tweet went thus:

@eiohel like the wonderful open source voluntarism-driven marvel that is Wikipedia. It’s foundation is well-funded publications 4 citation

I answered with a perhaps too flippant reply that just as many journalists working for paid publications would be taking advantage of Wikipedia’s millions of pages as any of the alleged “free-loaders” out there.  I say flippant because this of course wouldn’t necessarily make the situation any better: quite the reverse in fact, as paid-for organisations could arguably free-load on the back of other paid-fors via the intermediary actions and paraphrasing skills of Wikipedia itself.

It also led me, however, to tweet back the following resulting thought (the bold is mine):

@Paul0Evans1 We could of course equally say the same of blogging since the beginning of time … symbiotic rather than parasitic?

Which leads to me to my final occurrence and the very point of this post: does blogging – has blogging ever – added real value to anything at all?  Dependent as it is on much of paid-for media’s output to spark off its over-the-garden-fence discourses, it would probably not exist if there weren’t a close interface between the blogosphere and MSM.  Yet surely even those most in favour of traditional copyright models could not argue that the blogosphere taken in its entirety had not added anything useful to the sum of human thought.

Or, in their irascible and fanatical mindsets, might they be tempted to assert that it manifestly hadn’t?

My opinion is, of course, quite different.  I believe we need deniable outriders in thought – just as much as we need them in politics.  They are the proving-ground of new and bright ideas – and such ideas need the freedoms of open and unrestricted places if the future is to be dealt with under any kind of intelligence at all.  The shutdowns of traditional copyright models probably do have their place in some form: but blogging, and the kind of open access to general knowledge which Wikipedia and social media in general tend to provide, are a necessary adjunct to the intellectually sustainable – and directly fundable – stuff traditional copyright seems to want to continue inscribing.

In any case, there have been notable calls recently for open access to publicly-funded research: if the debate is now getting as far ahead as the cutting-edge of such research, surely that cutting-edge shouldn’t any longer be causing us to bleed?

Feb 142012

Yesterday, I put some half-formed thoughts down on the subject of Facebook and a monetisable socialism.  I also linked to this post from Bev which, whilst long (like many of my posts, mind), is well worth your while.  I quote from the latter part of this second post as follows (the bold is mine):

We might start with philosophy – though as someone who makes a living from philosophy, I would say that! According to Aristotle, writing many centuries ago, humans are best understood as ‘social animals’. We are not units existing in isolation from others. And if we are to flourish, we need good, strong relationships and strong communities.

If we don’t like philosophy, we might look to social science. Recent research by the New Economics Foundation found that feeling good about your life doesn’t only come about through achieving your personal goals. Feeling good also comes from knowing yourself to be a part of a wider community. Over emphasising ‘the individual’ while ignoring the social dimension of human beings ignores the fact that we need each other to live well.
The clue to socialism’s relevance is, then, in its name – social-ism.

As Bev evidences, we are clearly social animals.   And as the Facebooks of this world indicate, we are now monetisable social animals.  Something which many of us might decry.

But in the success of such social networks at their carving up of what was initially a free worldwide web – as well as making it make serious money for mainly US corporate behemoths – there is surely a broader lesson: the social instincts of human beings, whilst always at the mercy of a selfish individualism across the world, can never be entirely expunged.  If politics can no longer create worthy spaces for it to exist, it will surely reappear and flower just as significantly somewhere else.

It’s curious, it really is: whilst companies like Facebook want to engender captive marketplaces of social-ism (to use Bev’s terminology) in their customers and clients everywhere, for themselves and their corporate figures they are looking to have the rights a fierce individual-ism apports:

Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like natural persons (“people”). Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state,[2] and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.[3] Corporations are conceptually immortal but they can “die” when they are “dissolved” either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate ‘death’, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order,[4] but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter. However corporations are not living entities in the way that humans are. [5]

Do as I say, then, not as I do.

Though we should hardly be surprised – money drives many of us to many incoherences.


But what is the wider political lesson we can learn from all of the above?  That the winds of Bev and Facebook’s social-ism can be channelled and used to our advantage, if only we are able to see our way beyond the logistical and organisational structures of old.

For it isn’t entirely inconceivable, if we know how to grasp the opportunity, that – five years down the line – a political party of Labour’s intellectual weight could communicate, engage, dialogue, function, fund, advertise and – most importantly – look exactly like the Facebooks and Amazons of today’s splintering Internet.

Not a political party which uses new technologies to structure its interface with the public.  Rather, a political party which – much like Amazon and Facebook – couldn’t have come into existence without such new technologies.

Not a real-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual tools but, rather, far more significantly, a virtual-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual-world tools.

The ravings of an Internet wonk?

Just think about it.  The barriers to setting up a new political party – in this virtual world of cheap communications technologies – are much smaller than they were even ten years ago; so just imagine what the next five will bring. 

And whilst real-world parties claim to be investing in tools to communicate more effectively with their constituencies and their potential voters, in reality what they’re doing is analogous to the content industries’ attempt to avoid having to deal with their out-of-date business models: that is to say, creating the very technologies which make it easier for any political Johnny-come-lately to suddenly come in and frighteningly raise the bar. 

I really wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if – at some unhappy time in the future – the existing political parties came together to try and pass an ACTA of the Westminster political bubble to make it practically impossible for any new party to come into existence.

For that is what is really at risk of happening: the political parties are doing everything they can at the moment not to fundamentally change their ways of seeing, whilst at the same time unintentionally making it easier for other political visionaries to set up – even, perhaps, across the globe – a multi-million-member base of supporters and followers: everyone participating from home, in hundreds of thousands of communities worldwide, to the degree and capability each possessed and chose to dedicate to the cause.

Volunteering heaven, in fact.

Indeed, it does occur to me that Facebook itself might one day choose to transmute into the kind of political force which – in terrible or benevolent hindsight we still cannot know – history will describe as the grand and considerable 21st century re-interpretation of what political groupings once had to be.

So before it does, or before someone else makes such a move, surely we should consider and value the chances of doing so ourselves for what we might term – after the experiment that was New Labour – a Labour Party, Part III. 

Not monetising old-fashioned socialism, then, exactly – more a question of politicising, in their different ways, both Bev and Facebook’s new-style social-ism.

Feb 112012

As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.

Jan 142012

This has to be the quote of the week:

[…] The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture.

Everywhere that commerce gets involved in what used to be public spaces, there is the same tendency to make exclusive of each other different products and services supplied by different providers.  From software such as Microsoft Office which locks you into proprietary data formats to supermarkets with private malls and parking places which can only be used for a certain time and only for a certain purpose, the desire by powerful companies to own our physical and intellectual spaces only seems, as time goes by, to march unstoppably onwards and upwards.

And yet commerce wouldn’t have to be like that if excellence rather than competition were the name of the game.  A massive evolutionary step forwards it – indeed – would be, in fact.  And perhaps, in a way, we are in the anteroom of such a step forwards: whilst the web is still in its relative infancy, we – even so – are able to perceive on the social horizon many tendencies and tools which might allow for a perfect perception of true excellence – above and beyond the tricks of marketing and persuasion which currently tend to cloud realities.

In times of a relative lack of consumer information, brands were a guarantee of minimum quality – a commercial pact, if you like (maybe a bet of a kind), between supplier and end-user.  But in an own- and secondary-brand age it seems now that those famous names of yore – and the whole branding mentality which serves as their backdrop – will manage more to deceive than guarantee.

Most corporations tend to prefer to convey the impression they are champions of openness, community and engagement with society.  In their ongoing battle to beat mighty oppositional forces, however, such HR- and comms-driven instincts are in practice destroyed in their day-to-day behaviours.  They too, as perhaps our politicos, are at the mercy of much broader systems and processes.

We are all, it would seem, disintegrating morally and economically in the face of structures far more powerful and persistent than almost any of us.  Each of us is on the evolutionary end of a process whereby civilisation and its peoples once had a clear overview of procedures and chains of command – a process which has now terminated in an overwhelming specialisation of skills and responsibilities.  Yes.  With such specialisation, we can do so very much in societies of such massive complexity – but, on the other hand, we have lost the ability to comprehend the nature of another’s work. 

And thus we have lost the ability to properly work alongside and together with others – except when in the thrall of considerable fears: fears of losing a job or promotion; fears of losing market share or shareholder trust; fears of consumer lawsuits; fears of patent challenges … the list is fearfully endless – and underlies almost everything we don’t do.

From bankers whose complex sums destroy the future economies of whole nation states to politicians unable to channel the vagaries of markets whose only responsibility is to themselves, this is how specialisation is destroying our connective tissue.

And all our company structures are made in this image.

And all our commerce is leading us to finally upend our instincts to cooperation.

In the name of competition, specialisation arose.  Through this process of specialisation, disconnection began to spread.  Now we only know how to keep a community together by creating as big a sense of distance and difference as possible from those beings we are forced unerringly to compete against.  By creating a worldwide web of interconnectedness on the back of such specialisation, we have created an impossibly gigantic circle the squaring of which can surely only break us.

My conclusion?  We either stop using, at least as we have done to date, that specialisation I mention to advance our society – or we work out some pretty convincing alternative way of overcoming the Chinese walls that are breaking up our ability to share our evermore uncommon experiences.

Either way, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the cooperative instincts at the heart of humanity.

And an example, perhaps, of where a progress measured only empirically distorts a wider understanding of what excellence – and, as a result, our society itself – should really look like.

Nov 282011

I logged out of Google+ last night.  Normally, I log out of iGoogle, so I don’t see what a logged-out Google+ looks like.  But here, in the top left-hand corner is what I saw last night – and it got me thinking.

Discreet motto, that: “Google+: real life sharing rethought for the web.”  Hardly perceptible.  But an overarching theme of potential power.  If only Google can recognise it for what it could truly be.

I said the following in a previous piece on the subject:

It does also occur to one that maybe part of the neutering process which Reader has undergone is due to the fact that fanatical sharers are worth far more to Google’s long-term strategy if they can be encouraged to abandon the open web and slip into what I called that virtual rubber johnny those environments which mimic Facebook and others most singularly are – a semi-closed environment which Google+ is attempting to replicate and expand.

But Google is in a bind here.  Having always operated to make all information open and available on what we assumed was that open web, it’s now turning its back on that very openness in its bid to beat Facebook at its own game.

Big companies can’t be that nimble, though.  A pair of split personalities await.

Perhaps, however, in this short and self-effacing phrase we may perceive a different horizon.  The key to the matter lies in “[…] rethought for the web.”  Facebook is anything but the web – to access even its public posts you have to be logged in.  In this sense, Facebook is anti-anonymous; anti-freedom of speech; anti-everything we have valued in the web to date.

If Google could reconcile its desire “to do a Facebook” with its prior mission to make data open and accessible to everyone, then this would indeed be a massive circle squared.

And it wouldn’t only be ourselves that might benefit.  It would also be Google itself.

How to heal virtually splitting personalities in one fell swoop.

Nov 132011
Wikipedia Commons

John Naughton’s always excellent Memex 1.1 pointed us yesterday in the direction of an article by David Runciman in the Guardian on Friday.  The article’s thesis essentially runs as follows: the dynastic proclivities of the printed press have meant that democracy in Britain has been seriously undermined by the comparatively temporary nature of politicians:

[…] As well as having short attention spans, newspapers also have long ones. They are still there long after the politicians have gone, which means they always get the last word. At the beginning of the film The Queen, Tony Blair is ushered into Downing Street and told by his monarch that he is her 10th prime minister. It is not hard to imagine a similar scene being played out in the court of Rupert Murdoch. David Cameron, after all, is his seventh prime minister. Murdoch resembles the Queen in more ways than he might like to admit. As well as being autocratic, press power also tends to be dynastic (the Daily Mail still belongs to the Rothermeres; Murdoch is still desperate to pass some newspapers to his children, as his father passed some newspapers to him). A lot depends on being able to outlast the politicians. The web has undone plenty of things about the newspaper business, but so far it hasn’t undone that. Newspaper owners can keep their power in the family in a way that democratic politicians can’t, however much some of them (the Clintons, the Bushes) might like to try.

However, so the thesis continues, as printed news-gathering and opinion-forming becomes more and more web-based, and web-based ecosystems rise and fall with greater enthusiasm, the fierce hold which such organisations have been able to maintain over our democratic discourse will become less imposing and effective.

This leads us to realise, happily perhaps, especially in the light of youthful campaigns such as the #occupylsx movement, that – in order for democracies to function at all well – we need rolling change in all its pillars rather more than we need the traditional experience of old.  That is to say, we don’t only need to refresh the politicos on a regular basis; we also need to refresh the journos and – in particular – their owners.

The problem, of course, with such a conclusion as this is how – at the same time – we take advantage of the steady hands of wisdom which most societies over time quite rightly engender.

Even as there are some cases of longevity none of us would wish to ever promote.

That, then, is the challenge of democracies across the world.  Empowering the people to choose as they should in an environment of debate which – itself – does not become just as debatable.

Perhaps, again, in its rapacious pursuit of excellence, the web will come riding to our rescue.

This time not via content – nor, indeed, through software code or technological empowerment.  Rather, far more profoundly, as a result of its fleeting and helter-skelter business models.

From 24-hour news to 24-hour politicians to 24-hour news-gathering organisations … it all comes full circle.  Yet, it does occur to me that as we guarantee the freshness of our democratic institutions, we run the risk not only of unnecessarily starting from scratch but also losing our precious sense of history.

On the other hand, perhaps that is all to the good.  Too many violences have been committed in the name of historical coherence.  Maybe we would all be better off without that dead hand of experience I describe.

So does democracy need change more than it needs that experience?

Whether we like the idea or not, I think over the next few years that is exactly what we are going to find out.

Nov 042011

This came to me via Paul just now on the subject of failed experiments and high quality web content:

[…] what better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism? At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.

Slate’s admission that, even with a minuscule staff of 60 and the financial “might” of the Washington Post company, it can’t make money from online content is also perfect. The perfect opportunity, that is, to acknowledge once and for all that the grand experiment in free online content has failed.

I’m sorry – but I simply do not agree.  Let’s take the example of another art.  There was a time when music belonged to the people it was made for – and the singers and songwriters, those who cobbled together and adapted old and new songs for their particular audiences, earned a living from their performances and not from the copyright of their products.

That is to say, in true open source style, they made money from the services not the code.

This would be a perfect model for writing high quality content on the web.  Earn your reputation via what you write – and build a portfolio of ancillary services on the back of it.  It is, of course, easier said than done – as I am currently finding out.  But I would suggest it’s not impossible.

Not entirely, anyhow.

Perhaps we simply have to recognise that if we want to earn a living from the web, we need to downgrade our lifestyles and expect less than we might once have hoped for.  What we don’t need is the doom and gloom merchants from inappropriately-sized industrial models arguing that high quality content is unsustainable.

It is for them – probably because, like the Premier League football teams with more money to burn than common sense to invoke, they serve to distort the visibility and status which the rest of us could achieve by buying up the Internet real estate through their sponsored links and heavy ad budgets.

A pretty big part of the reason, just like the big football clubs on a separate plain, that – long-term – it’s not proving sustainable for them.

They and we need to step firmly back from these assumptions.  There is, I am convinced of it, a sustainable place on the open web for those of us who are prepared to go down the singer-songwriter road.

And it may be true that the old model which the big industries are looking to replicate doesn’t fit.  But that doesn’t mean any other model can’t – nor that we should stop pursuing its possibility.

Oct 072011

I observed in my previous post that we’re losing the joy of the web:

In amongst all this delight in the “machine-readable” world, we’re forgetting and slowly ignoring our ability to do and appreciate the one thing which separates us from the machines we so fiercely love: that surface of beauty which cannot be measured – but is nevertheless still able to provoke an emotion-wrenching response; a response which goes right to our very core as human beings.

A surface which is not superficial – but profound.

It does seem to me, as we access its content through so very many splintering means these days, that the story of network TV’s dominance and fall from grace is repeating itself with the Internet.  Only where network TV ruled for at least half a century, the Internet has barely reached its first astonishing decade – before its ability to knit us together is breaking apart.  Mobile apps, Google Reader-type front-ends, Twitter’s firehose, Facebook’s apparently unstoppable remaking (land-grabbing perhaps we should say) of once common real estate – all these things are serving to destroy a physical sharing of singular places which, once upon a time, most generally looked alike to anyone who visited.

This was inevitable, of course, the day static websites became interactive – but the process has been accelerated by the need to make money.

And perhaps this was inevitable.  We can’t continue to churn out content without a compensation of sorts.  Whilst an economics of some kind must remain in place and functioning, we need to earn something to live.

Thus it is that whilst cable TV, and its ability to reprogramme fixed schedules, made the singular place of network TV far less significant to our need to meet up as one, so online interactivity and an evermore varied choice of delivery has – perhaps – sounded the death knell for that beautiful web I spoke about in my earlier piece.

The timeframes compress, the product lifetimes shorten dramatically – and soon the Internet as a modern equivalent of network TV will have similarly lost its ability to bring together those massive crowds in massive places of reunion.

And yet I’m pretty sure the need to do just that will continue to exist in our societies.  It is an ancient and honourable tradition that the village should congregate as a whole.  Surely now is not the time to shrug off this instinct.

So if this is the case, and the splintering that is happening is intrinsic and applicable only to the space and not the needs of the people, where next will we be able to meet up in singularity and shared environment?

Where next will we be able reassert our old impulses to fight the trends of modern business – evermore focussed on dividing us up into discrete and manageable markets?

Where next will we find that beautiful surface we loved together which I’m already beginning to miss?

A Facebook 2.0 perhaps?

Or something we can still only begin to dream of?

Oct 042011

Right now, I get the feeling that Facebook is more an environment whilst Twitter is more a tool.  Each to his own of course – but I am always going to prefer tools.  Tangible and discrete objects I can pick up and manage as I wish – without necessarily referring to anyone or anything else.

The rapidly encroaching integration of Facebook with other Internet spaces – first we had Skype and now it’s Spotify’s turn – shows the long-term aim of Facebook’s founders is to suck all utility out of the open web and deposit it in the walled garden (more here and here) that is Facebook’s real estate.  It may remain “free” to those of us who play ball – inasmuch as anyone who is the product and not the customer is ever going to be free – but even its current level of osmosis is clearly dropping substantially.

If things carry on as they are, the open web will become that medium of basic text communication it once started out as – and perhaps there will be many developer-types on the block who will be happy with such a result.  And maybe, in the light of such a supposition, we can understand better what is happening out there: what is happening out there to what I might be inclined to be calling tools rather than environments.

Twitter and Quora are just two examples of the former: not environments which distract but tools which empower.

Both are text-based systems which laudably focus – and tightly – on how they communicate.  Not for them – or, at least, not for the moment – an all-encompassing replacement for the whole web.  Utility is probably their byword – and it is something I do appreciate.  They wish to add to the world we currently enjoy – not substitute it.  They are, in that sense, more like art than industrial endeavour.  For theirs is not a subtraction or a plan for global domination – and we should remember and value this difference.


As part of the many streams of income I am currently working on generating for my brand new and still mainly untested life as self-employed, I am looking at a company called CloudCrowd, which operates out of San Francisco – and, coincidentally uses the aforementioned Facebook to marshal its crowdsourced workforce.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been um-ing and ah-ing whether to try it or not: partly, what I find resistible is the fact that a) it uses Facebook; and b) it uses Facebook in insecure http:// mode.  Why my resistance?  I guess for exactly the same reason I’m really not impressed by the latter’s desire to integrate into what I see as a leaky bin of privacy rules the kind of chat services which work perfectly fine all by themselves; the kind of video-conferencing services which work perfectly fine all by themselves; and the kind of music services which work perfectly fine all by themselves …

That is to say, I can’t see how anyone can justify using Facebook – in its current manifestation, anyhow – for enterprise-related missions such as communication or workflow.

If any of you have positive experiences of this what at first sight appears to be – at the very least –  a non-secure integration, I’d be very grateful to receive them, either online or via email.  In the meantime, I find myself bemoaning the ever-widening loss of a useful open web – as this behemoth of social media that we find ourselves dealing with appears to continue its unstoppable march across our computer and mobile-phone screens.