Apr 222012

Paul Clarke has an excellent piece on the subject of yardsticks for political clarity.  His conclusion is particularly wise:

Most shades of political thought have been tried. Human ingenuity and systemic inertia generally mean that things mooch on pretty much as they always have been, despite the rocks that various “leaders” might try to lob in from time to time. So if you’re wavering between left and right, and seeing points of recognition in both camps (and you should – to do otherwise would be a worrying sign of lazy thinking), how about putting your shoulder behind the one that doesn’t, every time and very rapidly, lead to policies which are about being vile to people?

Is that simple enough?

Well, yes.  But – also – perhaps not.

My initial response went thus:

It’s a good yardstick, Paul. And I don’t exactly waver from a visceral point of view. But I *am* minded to remember that there are different kinds of vile.

I don’t need to remind you that not everything New Labour did to us was particularly pleasant or, indeed, generally welcome.

Meanwhile, and to continue the theme, over at Labour List on the subject of a Guardian interview with Ed Miliband, Mark has a very nice summary of yesterday’s key statements from Labour’s leader.  The one I like the most – and which, if to be taken seriously, will have profound implications for the Party, what it does and how it’s run – is this one (the bold is mine):

“We have got to help change people’s lives directly. We have got to take our members seriously, so they are no longer there just to deliver leaflets. We have to find ways to grow an activist base from just 15 people. Every local party member that joins needs to get a visit from someone asking why have they joined what are you interested in. We often don’t do that.”

An interesting set of ideas for a party leader in our generally prosaic politics to associate himself with, don’t you think?  And, potentially, a way forward for political parties which want to differentiate themselves.  Not necessarily through discrete policies which may be difficult to communicate, capture and understand but – rather – through acts of practical solidarity which do much much more than simply provide a friendly, articulate but largely ignored rhetoric.

This, for example.  Recently, Ed announced he was exploring the idea of implementing extra-parliamentary activities by Labour on behalf of the voters with an initial proposal of a bulk-energy-purchase scheme.  This is a good start but should be extended much more widely as a philosophy and as a process.  In a body politic where the corporations and moneymen and women have taken control of parliamentary government (essentially, a kind of legalised coup d’etat), extra-parliamentary action – that process whereby the people regain command of the civic and municipal spaces currently under attack from without – is absolutely necessary and unavoidable if we are to protect the people we should identify with and support.

Many on the left of the political spectrum would argue that marches, strikes and direct action of other kinds are what this country now needs – immersed as it is in a lately self-inflicted economic crisis without precedent.  But I’m not sure that’s going to be productive.  In a world where we must accept that the powerful have tied up the vast majority of the loose ends (perhaps in cahoots with a certain part of the political class), as political organisations looking to defend the disenfranchised we need to work out ways of acquiring and exerting a power which the electoral system and the people in economic power have removed from the labour (as well as the Labour) of opposition.

Ed’s idea of engaging in real-life actions at the margin of parliamentary debate would have two important advantages over the traditional and reactive extra-parliamentary action of yore:

  1. it would serve to re-educate us all about what politics could really mean in a 21st century – even as it would remind us of the long and honourable history of direct action which might, in such a way, be brought up to date;
  2. it could be proactive and fleet-of-foot as it picked off in real-time real-life improvements in people’s living standards and daily lives – we, as a political party, would as a result not have to wait for the currently gamed grinding cogs of constitutional control, which in any case have recently failed the people’s will, before attempting to act out that complicating role of defending the squeezed middle from powerful attack;

Essentially, the idea described above would involve a small strategic retreat from dedicating all the resources of the Party to parliamentary engagement and a regrouping around making the Party a direct actor in ordinary people’s lives.

No better way to convince people you’re on their side than to physically show rather than tell it.

As I concluded in my response to Paul’s post:

As a Labour Party member, I *want* to believe in Labour – but don’t want to give up on my right to disagree even in the midst of terrible politics. And British politics, being so *very* tribal, doesn’t really allow for freedom of thought. The massed ranks of “good” vs “bad” policies take over and make us forget our own ability to think our way out of the bag we’ve been dropped in.

Ed’s promotion of this idea of cunning extra-parliamentary action is definitely an example of how we might think our way out of that bag.

More of this please, then.

Much much more.

Jan 112012

This, at first glance, is very good news:

In his speech later, Mr Gove will say: “Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum.

“Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch.

“By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.”

Those of us who are able to imagine anything like the above – in relation to the potential of ICT as a driver for future economic worth, intellectual engagement and general societal progress – can only say “Hallelujah!” at this apparent proclamation of educational virtue. My children, all IT-proficient and intelligent users in their own lives, have without exception (and that’s now all three of them who’ve expressed the same opinion) hated ICT with a virulence other subjects have simply not engendered.

My own thoughts, as a moderately tech-savvy parent, are clear: Britain’s education system has been in the thrall of an exclusively proprietorial model of software, hardware and curricular objectives which has meant it is impossible to install – never mind teach – the kind of software that automatically encourages you to get involved with IT in the way Mr Gove appears to wish.  I posted this link to a video in 2009 on a European alternative to Microsoft – and it still best inscribes what I believe in this matter.

I do wonder how full an understanding of the matter the man really has, though, when Channel 4 continues its report by underlining what the Department of Education sees as the example to follow:

As examples it cited the British Computing Society and Computing at School which have created a curriculum for secondary schools with support from Microsoft, Google and Cambridge University.

So we’ve arrived at where we’ve arrived by installing expensive hardware and unnecessarily costly software licences – and then whose help do we go and enlist?  The very same software publisher which encouraged schools to invest in “boring” Word and Excel in the first place.  As Paul Clarke points out on Twitter this morning:

I for one am glad to see Microsoft at the heart of revamped schools ICT. So important to build skills in bloated, inferior, doomed software.

An example of how Mr Gove – out of ignorance – gives with one hand but then takes with the other?

Dec 302011

I read somewhere yesterday that more 18-year-olds use Facebook than are registered to vote.

If I were an 18-year-old I would probably find myself in the same position.

In my generation, we outgrew theatre and film and fell in love with TV and then the web.  In my children’s generation, they’ve outgrown TV and even the web – and fallen in love with Facebook and other social networks.

But in all these cases, little by little, and with notable exceptions such as Blair’s 1997 general election victory, we have begun to outgrow quite clearly what was once a fundamental glue of our society: that is to say, politics.

Today, Chris explains how politics fails.  On the back of a piece by Sean McHale, he suggests politics is in possession of the worst of all possible worlds:

[…] It has neither the body of experience, evidence base and precedent that sportsmen, engineers, bureaucrats, lawyers or some artists can draw upon. Nor does it permit the ruthless natural selection that well-functioning markets do. It is, then, small wonder that, as Enoch Powell said, “all political lives end in failure.”

Sean, meanwhile, suggests that Ed Miliband should learn from the experiences of Barcelona and its football team.  I think Sean, whilst perceptive in his comparison, doesn’t however go far enough.  Barcelona has made an impact on football for one reason – and it’s the oldest challenge in footballing lore: how to provide spaces for individual genius within a system which sustains a team’s challenge through the length and breadth of successive bruising seasons and competitions.  What Guardiola has done, though, is not only simply this – an achievement which in itself would have been enough to generate considerable success.   Winning thirteen out of a possible sixteen trophies in barely four years requires much more than this: it requires true innovation in the systems employed.

Guardiola not only set himself the goal of combining ego and philosophy – he aimed also to create new systems no one had ever before contemplated.  Making the goalkeeper an eleventh man; forcing the opposition to run ragged in triangular circles; even, of late, if I have understood correctly, playing odd numbers at the back and upfront … everything that Guardiola has attempted smacks more of innovatory ingenuity than what I understood to be a more traditional managerialist approach.

Yes.  Perhaps Ed does need to learn from Guardiola after all.  But not in the question of sticking to his guns – it’s, rather, far more important for him to acquire the ability to do for the beautiful game of politics what our Barcelona champion has done for football: perceive accurately the landscape before one; understand usefully the egos in play; and create a system which doesn’t only borrow from the past but actually serves to create a brand new future …

Valdes the eleventh man, for example: so how about forging with Labour Party members a grassroots alliance which actually employs them as frontline leaders instead of hiding them away in the background in mundane and uninspiring envelope-stuffing and door-knocking roles?

Or giving local political communities their head of steam to create local manifestos made to fit the needs of the people around them?

If more of our 18-year-olds care to communicate socially and intellectually via Facebook than intend to register to participate in a five-yearly political exercise of increasing irrelevance, any political party which is looking to have a life beyond the four walnut-lined boardrooms of the corporate megaliths that currently fund their activities is going to have to contemplate fundamentally changing the system of organisation they use.  And if they don’t, someone else will.  And that someone else will one day take off with a virulent violence of astonishing power.

And if we are lucky, we will live to embrace it.  And if we are unlucky, we will live to regret it.

For right now, all I can see is that it is much worse than Chris paints it: it’s not so much that politics fails but – rather – that we are all outgrowing politics as an institution and tool.

The consumerism Carl talks about is – before our very eyes – displacing the centre of gravity that politics once represented.

Those of us who love politics have very little time to act.

Perhaps it is already too late.

But we need to do our very best – even so; and even without too much real hope.

The beautiful game that is football shows us that massive renovation is possible.  The question, I suppose, really is whether there are any managerialist folk as imaginative, creative and pulsatingly clever as Pep.

And that is a question I fear has only one answer.

Nor is it the answer we might be looking to hear.

Further reading: Paul has just posted a beautiful article on thinking intelligently, honestly and sincerely.  The article and its comments are well worth your time.  Please read it.

Sep 242011

Paul has – for those of us who are Labour Party members – a cheering story over at honestlyreal this evening.  He’s just joined the Party and will be going to his first Conference tomorrow.  A rapid conversion if there ever was one, eh?  This I liked in particular:

I may not accept, or even understand, a party line on everything. That’s a reality. The easy crutch that party membership presents–of having someone else’s opinion available, on a matter I haven’t properly researched for myself–is problematic.

However, I propose to put my energies into the things I really do know a bit about. The relationship between technology and society. What liberty will come to mean in a networked world. Access to democracy. Fairness. And a few more. There’s enough there to chew on without me feeling I have to take on the whole lot all at once.

Meanwhile, I responded thus:

I’d been a member of Greenpeace and CND at uni, without ever entirely agreeing with everything they stood for. Then I went to live in Spain and generally supported the PSOE without putting my money where my mouth was. Later, in 2003, I returned to Britain. Shortly after, a local Labour member called Nick Dixon turned up on my doorstep and asked me if I wanted to join. Since that time, I’ve always been critical of both orthodox Labour thought and actions. I don’t agree with many policies the hierarchy believe in. I don’t get on with important people in my local party. But I do believe the Labour Party – in its totality (history, trajectory, actual membership and political profile) – is the nearest thing to a virtuous cauldron of ideas that England offers up to the voting public. Since I live and work in England, and as far as I can see, and since that’s what I usually look for in organisations I pay to join, my only choice in a political context *is* Labour.

I’m glad to see you’ve made a choice too – not because it’s Labour but, simply, because you’ve taken that step. It doesn’t mean dogma and imposition must follow. Rather, it’s a question of flavouring free thought with pragmatism – and also never allowing that pragmatism to dilute or diminish the free thought!

My son once had a humongous argument with my wife about her Catholicism – which is very mix-and-match in its approach to what she lives with and what she doesn’t. He thought she had no right to give and take as she does: it was very black and white for him; either all or nothing. He couldn’t see how you could profess a religion and still choose in some way what to believe in. A political party is very like my son’s idea of Catholicism, I think, for people who aren’t members of political parties.

You can only reserve yourself the right to pick and choose when you start to believe. And now you’ll find out you have every right to do so!

Sep 182011

This, from Paul Clarke’s blog honestlyreally, summarising Barry Schwartz on society’s loss of wisdom, is intriguing:

Basically, he says we’ve dispensed with our humanity in our quest for efficiency and profit. The wrong things are being measured. What really counts in any public-facing service is an appreciation of the softer aspects of, well, human interaction. We’ve lost the wisdom that gives us sensible decision-making, discretion and the ability to “get” all this. Perhaps not “lost”, as much as “designed-out”, in order to please all sorts of other gods.

What’s not to like? How could he possibly be wrong?

There he is, pointing to the job description of the janitor who has a whole load of specified tasks to perform. Mop the floor. Straighten the curtains. Swab the sink. But nowhere, nowhere, does it say: “Be nice to people. Be human. Be flexible.” […]

I have to say, whilst knocking large corporations on the head quite often on these pages, I have had positive experiences too.  The company I worked for over the past seven years or so did have an HR department which tried – under two of the three regimes I experienced – to inculcate the importance of valuing how we do things and not only measuring what we do.  Unfortunately, measuring what is easier to compare and contrast objectively – valuing how depends a lot on the perceptions of your boss.  In any case, you get to the point where someone higher up, who trusts the whats more than the hows, will go ahead and invent an empirical method of defining the hows along the lines of: “How many times did you mention the customer’s name?”

I remember, quite a while ago now, before I went to uni and whilst I still read on traditional paper the prior-to-being-a-part-of-the-Guardian-group Observer, a short piece by Katherine Whitehorn on the subject of Work A and Work B.  I wrote about it here in 2008:

Katherine Whitehorn once wrote a brilliant article in the Observer whose thesis has stuck with me ever since. Work A and Work B are what it was all about. Work A was what was advertised in job descriptions whilst Work B was what made everything actually function; the stuff they couldn’t teach you on training courses.

I then went on to quote one of my favourite thinkers, Vannevar Bush, who said:

If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.

Only to find myself concluding that:

Reducing everything to numbers is a game politicians have played for decades. The best politicians, the best political parties, the best nations, have always added something else.

For want of a better word, it’s the glue that makes everything else work.

More than ever, we need that glue today.

We need what intuition, ambiguity and those liquid perceptions of life bring to our experience of this world.

The world of certainties – of job descriptions, of Work A – has failed us. The world of driven salespeople has brought us to the brink. The promises of those who calculated to the edge of society’s financial envelopes in their mad desire to risk the wealth of others will increase the hardship of many over the next five quarters of recession.

This, if you will remember, having been written in 2008.

As I say at the top of this post – and as two of the three regimes I struggled to work under attempted to implement in the large corporation which has both helped and hindered my development as a worker – knowing how to value hows is just as important as measuring whats.

The problem is that the people with their hands on the levers of power only really care to deal in whats.

And meanwhile any hows which do attract their attention end up getting distorted and bent out of shape as they measure them quantitatively out of all useful recognition.

Something which, as I concluded in the 2008 piece I mention above, has relevance in any attempt to renew the Labour Party as a political and social force.  Far more than the whats which are the policy delights of any politician, and which anyone with an ability to synthesise moods can cobble together half-decently, we need the hows, the glue I allude to, the Work B Whitehorn so usefully identified, the wisdom Schwartz talks about – the soft stuff Clarke describes.

That’s what we’re getting wrong at the moment.

And it shows.

Further information: you can see Barry Schwartz’s original TED talk on the subject of society’s lost wisdom here. Well worth your time.

Sep 172011

I have only just stumbled across Paul Clarke’s brilliant blog. Over the next few weeks, I’m aiming to rectify that omission.  It’s like when, as a kid, you came across a new writer in your local library with a whole shelf of offerings – and whose first book you then read and ended up loving to bits.  Do you remember how that was?  Well, I certainly do.

Paul has a beautifully fashioned thesis on what we might term Twitter’s automated unfollow “feature”.  In his own words:

You find out one day that you’re not following someone you know you used to follow. And you’re dead sure you didn’t do it yourself. Either you or they have spotted the omission on a list, or they’ve tried to send a DM and failed. They might let you know about it. They might not. The relationship gets reinstated. Or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

So is this cock-up or conspiracy? A bug in the system that lets people slip through the cracks like this?

I don’t think it’s a bug at all, but a feature. A piece of very clever social design. Here’s why.

And thus it is that he goes on to explain.  And if you want to find out, then I urge you to read the piece in full.

Now I don’t know Paul – in fact, we’ve only just befriended each other via Twitter itself.  But it seems to me that the explanation he gives for exactly why Twitter has this allegedly intentional and “buggy” implementation indicates the presence of a far kindlier soul than you might – for instance – find in myself.  My immediate thought – and it’s located in a nexus of thoughts which in different ways I’ve had before in relation to Facebook’s own “deficiencies” – is that “buggy” implementations of both social media software as well as search engine algorithms allow for a perfect excuse to break down growing nodes of interaction you might prefer to impede – a kind of virtual censorship, in fact, with no ownership required.  No one need know if three or four users, or a dozen or a hundred, who together might do big, useful but traditionally deconstructing things together, never actually get to know of each other’s presence.  Or if they do, never get to consummate their relationship because the software breaks the relationship down – and the disconnection is interpreted on both sides to be mutually deliberate.

Paul’s thesis is certainly seductive – and even convincing; and I suppose the fact that, in start-ups, we still have an environment hidden away from the prying eyes of state-run security organisations would suggest that software engineers in such a context still might have the liberty to play the kind of games he describes.  What’s more, the reality of such engineering might mean his idea, whilst seductive, is actually unnecessary to explain the circumstance under discussion.  As a commenter to his piece pointed out:

As interesting as this is as a theory. The developer in me just can’t buy the idea that Twitter are doing this deliberately. I’ve followed the Twitter API for as long as it’s been around – they’ve got their hands full just keeping it stable and adding important features without introducing something as discreetly clever as this

Meanwhile, even as I continue to love his idea, I’m still inclined to run with my alternative explanation: the ease with which my thesis could be implemented, the reliance people have on the first ten searches which appear on Google and the self-evident probability that these large American companies will do constructive things for large American governments are all things which make me believe my interpretation, whilst clearly compatible with his, in the long run will tend to take over in any network of communication on the scale we are talking about – and eventually become the dominant structure behind what is allowed to happen amongst its users.

Unless, of course, that network were to be technically visible and transparent – that is to say, open-sourced – to anyone who cared to look.

But then that is a matter for a quite separate post.