Nov 272012

There are three articles I’d like to draw your attention to today.  First, from Paul Evans on the reality of the “unregulated” British press:

I understand the principled arguments against press regulation. Really. I do. I probably agree with most of them as well, in all of their impoverished fiddling-while-Rome-burns glory.

But can everybody else who opposes this please also acknowledge that British journalism has been a recurring car-crash for decades now? We don’t have regulation already? Apart from the right journalists have to only print the prejudices of their proprietor that their advertisers don’t object to?

And as he painfully concludes:

Democracies and markets rely upon wide access to reliable information and our press is not, currently, an asset to civil or commercial society. If anything, it’s the opposite – and that needs fixing whatever else Leveson comes up with.

Second, from Paul Cotterill on the structures we need to pay more attention to:

Norm and Chris are in disagreement over who can represent effectively.

Chris thinks background doesn’t matter:

[H]istory shows that posh MPs can serve working class interests. Leading members of the 1945-51 government such as Attlee, Dalton and Cripps were public schoolboys.

Norm thinks, statistically speaking, it does:

Because it can happen that a woman makes good decisions for the men she represents, and a rich man likewise for people much worse off than himself; and because it can also happen that a person from the very same group or stratum as those she represents can make very bad decisions for them, even ‘selling them out’; these are not reasons for denying the old truth that one of the things individuals are moved by is their interests. Representatives do not escape this generalization, at least statistically.

I think both are missing the point.   They’re focusing on agency to the exclusion of structure.

Third, from Paul Bernal on the passion we must strive to maintain coolly:

None of us want twitter to turn tepid – if all we get is lukewarm discussions of celebrities and cold-hearted press releases from politicians then what’s the point? And yet sometimes, just sometimes, things can get too hot to handle on twitter. Arguments reach boiling point more often than they should, tempers flare and we all turn into hotheads and firebrands. Does it help? There are times when it does – when we need fire in our hearts and the heat of passion – and I for one would never want to lose that. There are other times, however, when it goes over the top, when the ‘freedom’ of twitter brings out the torches and pitchforks, and we seem to turn into a fiery mob. What is needed is a cool head. Now, for me, is one of those times. If we can stay cool, calm and collected, we can turn this possible chill into something that helps us – but we do need to stay cool.

Whilst at the same time concluding:

[…] Keep cool – but don’t lose the passion in our hearts.

The saintly trio of Pauls have certainly delivered a triplet of useful lessons in these three pieces.  Reality, structure and passion: what a powerful linking of concepts.

We must, of course, continue to ground ourselves in reality – just as we must be aware, in a personality-driven age, of the importance of structure and system when analysing the true whys and wherefores of our outcomes.  But equally important to understanding better how latterday society is operating is that acknowledgement of the power and impulse the flesh-and-blood passion of human beings can engender.

So let us analyse reality coldly; let us engage with structure creatively; and let us do all the above with a passion that never fails to push us towards better ways of thinking, seeing and doing.

I do hope we are up to the challenges thus presented.

Don’t you?

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.

May 152012

Paul C tells us that socialists are daft to suggest Greece is better out than in the euro.  Paul E suggests that copyleft activists don’t get copyright at all.  In the meantime, I am beginning to wonder if the world is getting too complex for anyone to understand.

Before, we had experts.  Specialised folk who could boil down from a vast understanding of the ins and outs of a subject the essence an audience in particular might require.  But as life became more complex, such specialisms began to acquire an encysted relationship to each other: crossover skills are now the exception, not the norm.  Niches are what everyone strives to establish.

For a magpie mind such as mine, there is no place in the modern world of business and social interaction.

So when Paul C, from his undoubted ability to understand the self-fulfilling, tells us that the rest of us are speaking bollocks, and when Paul E, from his undoubted ability to disentangle the self-interested, tells us that the rest of us simply do not get it, there is little left for the rest of us to do but shake our heads in confused shame.

Only the real problem is that the Paul C and Es of this world are few and far between.  And whilst with the latter I would find myself on slightly firmer ground if pursuing my instincts to disagree, and whilst with the former I could not react without emotional bloodshed, with most of those often self-proclaimed experts out there we are now gaining an absolute right to totally distrust their judgements.

As the Sunday Times list of the top UK thousand demonstrates, those who have a lot and get it utterly wrong are rewarded with further power and wealth:

Top 1,000 on ST RichList increased their wealth by £155bn in 3yrs: enough to pay off Nat Debt: Many of the 1,000 caused crash to begin with.

It’s only the poor sods at the bottom of the pile who will get the poor pickings they most definitely do not deserve.

There is nothing unusual in what I am saying, of course: you know all of this; we all do.

But I do wonder if what has afflicted us isn’t a question of personal and evil greed, after all.  Rather, it may have a lot more to do with the fact that no one, whether at the bottom or the top of the pile, really has those magpie-mind skills I mentioned earlier on: we only know how to do well what our apportioned role in life allows us to.  None of us can manage, however, for reasons of training, education and upbringing, to bring to a world careering out of simplicity a broad and comprehensive understanding of its weaknesses.

No one at the top, no one at the bottom, no one anywhere can comprehend any more this world we survive in.

We are lost because the relationships between our component parts have become too complicated to appreciate their extent.  A single glance, whilst still enough to lead us to love at first sight, is no longer enough to allow us to understand the socioeconomic implications of our civic and political acts.

Democracy is a simple idea whose time has come and gone.

The world has become a tangled ball of wool whose complexity can only continue to multiply.

Paul C and E, if only there were more of your type.  Unfortunately, there aren’t.  We are doomed.

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?

Apr 042012

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of many clever and interesting people, most of whom seemed to want to act in the kind of good faith modern politicking seems to sorely lack.  There did seem to be, it has to be said, far more individuals from the the gaming-oriented community than the political at #PICamp’s session on “What Policy-Makers Can Learn from Gaming”.  Perhaps the former – the manifest good faith – was a result of the latter.  These were, in the main, evidence-based professionals in a society where evidence-based professionals are vigorously ignored by their government (recent and notable examples being the submissions from doctors in relation to the NHS Bill, now Act; and submissions from lawyers on the subject of the Legal Aid Bill still going through Parliament).

No wonder, then, the expressions of unhappiness, communicated by many of those present, into the way that government appears to be run in the progressive absence of clear reference to even available datasets – and, what’s more, where stats are used, with a tendency to pigeonhole on the basis of prejudice, politics, ideology or an explosive combination of all three.

I started out the evening by writing down a series of words and concepts which came to mind in a crossover way in relation to the concepts of both politics and gaming:

  • levels
  • achievement
  • goals
  • participation
  • labelling
  • environment
  • “voters”
  • hierarchy
  • constitution
  • process and procedure
  • command and control
  • “marketing”
  • codes
  • symbols
  • tribes
  • identities
  • friends
  • enemies

I also wrote down the following words:

Gaming, however, is far more successful at gaining empowered adepts – maybe because it empowers.  Politics only empowers the already empowered.  Politics shrinks its base.  Gaming expands *and* renews it.

In her keynote presentation, Jude, from PlayMob, showed us just that:

Seven billion hours per week are spent playing games. The average age of the social gamer is 43 and more women play social games than men. 1/3 of the global population play games.

And that figure of seven billion hours per week is apparently up from three billion the year before.

It’s clear that whilst empowerment is a buzzword in modern political practice, most politicians would seem not to be in favour of giving up the landgrab of power their traditional way of engaging with voters tends to imply.  Meanwhile, in the software constitutions of modern online and console-gaming, you live or die – in a question of maybe a weekend’s launch window – by the virally communicated opinion of the “voters” you are attempting to hook up with.

There is nothing more democratic or transparent than the opinion a gaming community may have of a game.  It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on marketing: the crowdsourced million eyes of communal intelligences will just as easily damn your new baby with trolling of the very worst sort as the mainstream reviewers will similarly do with a more traditionally self-interested faint praise.

The result is the same: your gaming “manifesto” in the rubbish bin – and an expensive reboot and starting from scratch.  Just like losing an election by a landslide in fact.

So what can policy-makers learn from gaming?  Jude made much of crossover opportunities between shoot-em-up environments and the more educative approaches that NGOs and other organisations could promote.  In the roundtable Q&A session held after her presentation, one of the ideas which arose was how to couch gaming – clearly, at its best, a successful exponent of constitutional development and empowerment – in the kind of language which might appeal to policy-makers and politicians.  You clearly have a barrier if you use a linguistic code which smacks of jargon and specialisms, and this will generate resistance to new ideas from your target audience.  Also, many policy-makers, or at least many politicians, prefer to make and tend towards grand statements when launching ideas on the general public: far better to declaim that the government is going to invest in a million brand new iPads for schools across the land than use a pedagogically valid strategy of getting students in multilevel learning paths to use in common classroom environments their own Blackberries, iPhones, textbooks and tools of choice in general.  Hardly the evidence-based approach you’re looking for.

I’d be inclined to believe – and this came up in the debate – that society has already become gamified to a certain extent; and not just within the context of gaming as we understand it.  Levels, objectives, ovearching targets, learning environments, multilevel learning paths and reward systems of all kinds have been used since time immemorial – and certainly as long ago as New Labour’s centralising instincts.  I noted, in fact, how I saw my own children working quite happily with such quantitative systems of measuring progress where I, if now at school or university, would have found them most disagreeable.

I’m am not of the gaming generation.  They are.  But I do wonder, as early photography influenced how painting developed and new ways of painting influenced how photography progressed, if it’s been gaming which has brought about the revolution or if gaming has simply benefited from a revolution which has been brought about by other strands of understanding in our civilisation.

Whether gaming is the cause or has taken massive advantage of all these changes, the truth of the matter is that it would seem modern communication, at least between individual citizens, takes place in widely gamified environments.

Just as 140-character tweets become the envelope within which we may conduct meetings, so gaming defines our ecosystems of productivity and how we should interact with others.

In gaming at least.

And perhaps, at the level of “what”, in politics too.  But still we must make that final step towards the “how” of empowerment.  And that step it would seem professional policy-makers, as well as politicians more widely, are highly reluctant to take.

Perhaps what we really need is a massive online experience which aims to grab from the professional politicians their current rights and responsibilities and create an alternative system of governance.

A massive online experience which allows us to occupy all the organs of state, understand and even input into the whys and wherefores of modern politicking.

A training-ground, in fact, which prepares us – Lara Croft-like – for the challenges ahead.

In a sense, as Twitter seeps into the traditional political consciousness, and as MPs, councillors, businesspeople and other players in our latterday societal patchwork dare to sign up to its attractions, perhaps this online experience is already beginning to create itself.  All it needs is someone like Jude and PlayMob to put an eye-watering interface on the front and a delivery system behind.  To virtualise the real world, make real the virtual – and then allow the connections to begin generating themselves.

Watch indeed, amazed as perhaps we might all end up finding ourselves, as the primary motivation – get rid of your careerist MPs and replace them with real people’s thoughts and ideas! – begins to drive adhesion to the proposal on the table.

It’s a thought, anyhow.

Especially as the market of potentially interested and sufficiently pissed-off voters is growing.

Mar 132012

We’re all getting fat, cardiac attack-ridden  and cancerous, I see.  The latest news from the US this morning indicates those who eat red meat and sausages have an increased chance of suffering from the aforementioned ailments.

Yet the obesity I really fear is the one that Louis highlights:

Just as with food: too much made for too few, too much consumed. Information obesity is about the glut of stuff that passes as information, that masquerades as good-for-you info, and that isn’t; that ends up bloating your day with distended periods of nothing doing but consuming the Tweets by twits, the blogs by bores, the stuff not that dreams are made of but killed by.

And I wonder if the destruction of that ideal of representative democracy Paul so seems to miss has not a little to do with Louis’s information obesity:

At a recent public meeting I watched the Council leader, beetroot-faced, being forced to stand in front of a room full of angry local traders with only one line of response: that there was no way the council were going to change any significant part of their parking policy unless a judge forced them to. The budget was set, and that’s that.

Similarly, the Coalition announced some obligation on Parliament to make time for a debate if 100,000 signatures told them to do so. Or, more accurately, this is what the media reported them as doing. The truth is more fuzzy and equally boring and irrelevant, because Parliament can ignore this obligation if it chooses to, as it did recently with 38 Degrees’ petition.

It’s all such a load of rubbish, isn’t it? […]

I wrote about it recently.  In the end, we may become so absolutely fed up of how unrepresentative our democracy really is that we will simply decide to go elsewhere for our democratic fixes.  Politics is rapidly making itself entirely irrelevant to our needs, precisely because it’s so transparently ineffectual.  It so often says what it really doesn’t mean that even when it means what it says, we cannot believe.  Paul once again:

[…] It’s a downward spiral:

  1. You sense that the public have a lack of faith in Representative Democracy
  2. You introduce a process that allows people to have more of a say in Representative Democracy
  3. The public use it to demand something that elected representatives are not prepared or able to deliver on
  4. The petition is spiked, or paid lip-service to (i.e. perfunctory debate, status quo-ante retained)
  5. Quick assessment to see if this has improved or damaged the reputation of Representative Democracy

The offer of a petition is a typical politicians answer. It should be treated with contempt.

Maybe, in order to resolve the matter, we need to examine not the nuts and bolts of the political machine, processes and procedures but – rather – how the voting public is awash with that information which makes it absolutely impossible for ordinary people to filter and therefore properly understand our reality.

Time for a real movement to accessible open data for everyone.

Not just that hierarchy of power which prioritises the right of our politicos to know before anyone else manages to find out.

We stop insider trading – or at least attempt to – on the stock market: why should our politicians, who currently live and breathe the thrills of political gossip and insider knowledge, be allowed to demand to be treated any differently?

Feb 282012

This morning, we learn that Twitter’s fire hose will be further and more widely monetised.  The BBC reports it thus:

UK-based Datasift is the first company to offer the archive.

Its existing customers will be able to use access “historical” tweets from today, the company said.

“No-one’s ever done this before,” Tim Barker, Datasift’s marketing manager, told the BBC.

It will, of course, as already pointed out, happen at a price:

The cost to businesses will depend on the company’s size, with Datasift’s entry-level package costing £635 ($1,000) per month for “individuals or developers”.

And whilst privacy campaigners argue the following …

“The fact that two years’ worth of tweets can now be mined for information and the resulting ‘insights’ sold to businesses is a radical shift in the wrong direction.

“Twitter has turned a social network that was meant to promote real-time global conversation into a vast market-research enterprise with unwilling, unpaid participants.”

… the marketing manager of Datasift points out that:

“The thing with Twitter that it was always created to be a public social network – which isn’t the case with Facebook which is more of a blended model. Twitter has been public from day one.

“I don’t see that this creates any new dilemmas because this information is being pushed out socially right now.

“What Datasift will do is help companies get a longer view of this and a better insight.”

To be honest, though, neither of the above parties is telling it straight on this one.  The key issue to hand is actually quite different – and is contained in one short paragraph of the BBC‘s report:

Until today, only the previous 30 days of tweets were available for companies to search. Regular users can access posts from the past seven days.

This is not a question of privacy – in fact, as far as I know, the United States’ Library of Congress has a project in place to archive and record all public tweets for posterity.  This is a question of power and hierarchy.  Of course Twitter isn’t as blended as Facebook’s walled gardens and its ever-consuming desire to take over the open web.  But it is becoming just as hierarchical in the relationship between marketeers and consumers.

If truth be told, what the privacy campaigners should really be arguing for is the same duration of search for everyone.

Which is to say, the ability to search all tweets, wherever they come from, from the very beginning of time.

On the other hand, that wouldn’t be a sustainable business model, now would it?

Never were we more at the mercy of our own tendencies to indiscretion than in this trap Twitter has cleverly set us – almost certainly from day one.

Feb 192012

Paul says the following today:

Labour should be a boring party that chases votes around the centre ground.

He then goes on to underline his point thus (the bold is mine):

The job of the left is to drag that centre-ground leftwards. The big unions that finance Labour waste so much money paying for office space when they could be running campaigns that no politician can ignore.

So can you live with this as a definition of what our relationship to Labour should be?

I think I can.

And I think I might.

For the contrary – that is to say, dragging the centre-ground rightwards – is exactly what the mirror image of the left has successfully been doing for decades now.

Paul either accidentally or unerringly has stumbled across a formula – a magic bullet, if you like, of political positioning – which might finally allow us to learn to love Labour in very many of its manifestations.

At least enough to be able to work with it constructively without rejecting our principles in consonance with its less principled instincts.

Two open fronts then?

Why not?

The more, the healthier …

Perhaps we can’t consolidate our many disparate voices around reinventing a party which attracts a winning combination of voting constituencies.  Perhaps that does need to be left in the hands of the practised and practising professionals.  But what we can do, if we so choose, through our many and varied individual actions on the ground, is fight in as structured and organised a way as we are comfortable with – in order to re-engineer where that centre begins to naturally settle.

It will probably take a whole generation – but if we can let it be known it is our long-term objective, the practised and practising professionals may discover that sooner or later some of the pressure they are under to conform with right-wing ideologies begins to become less of an urgency than it might have been.

If we are prepared to let them massage the message and they are prepared to notice, understand and take advantage of our efforts to move the centre leftwards once more, then perhaps a movement built around Labour will one day be just as equally possible all over again.

It does of course depend on whether our politicos are prepared to enter a new kind of contract with what in traditional terms could be seen as a splintering progressive community.

Anyone with real power out there who understands what I’m trying to get at?

And who doesn’t actually believe in all this neoliberal obfuscation?

I wonder.

Jan 032012

I’ve just created a “What’s wrong with Labour?” board over at Quora.  I suggest you read Paul Evans’ blogpost of the same title, which has served to frame the starting-point for the board.

I’m still working out how the system works and have already invited a few authors.  If you’d also like to contribute to the board in such a capacity, why not post a comment at the foot of this post requesting I add you – or, alternatively, if you prefer, you can send me an email to

You can of course simply follow the board – and although as owner it would appear I can actually add followers without their permission, I assume it’s also possible for you to follow the board without my permission!

In which case, please do feel free to do exactly that.

Oh … and Happy Quora-boarding …

Jan 032012

Paul has just posted an excellent piece called “What’s wrong with Labour?” – well worth reading in full.  I wonder as a result whether the problem with our left-wing politicians is that they are too ashamed of what they do – of the mistakes they have made and will continue, as ordinary human beings, to inevitably be responsible for.

Let’s look at it from a broader progressive perspective.  Do we go into politics to do good and make the world better?  If so, does going into politics to make the world better require us to be better people than the people who vote for us?

I note the Spanish experience.  The losing candidate in the latest Spanish general election, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, is already reappearing on Spanish radio and TV with all guns blazing.  Compare this behaviour with Gordon Brown’s post-election disappearance without a trace – and even the Shadow Cabinet’s relative restraint since then in the face of the biggest deconstruction of a body politic since World War Two – and we surely must ask ourselves why this is happening.

Is it, perhaps, because the UK Labour Party is far closer to the politicised Christian beliefs of Northern European Calvinism – and finds itself unable to accept the relief of redemption and repeated renewal which Catholicism unconsciously offers those peoples who still claim to be a part of its philosophy? 

We must, it would seem, as British progressives, pay publicly for our sins and suffer for a respectable period in silence and political mourning.

So whilst the Coalition government has been getting away with figurative murder, the Labour Party and its followers have been affording themselves the luxury of repentance – at the expense of a hugely important minority of defenceless voters who neither have a ready-made voice nor the means to fashion one.

Perhaps it is time that those who would describe themselves progressives choose whether they are in politics to do right or be good.

For it would appear that – at least for now – any attempt to act out both sides of the coin is simply incompatible with the aim of forging a generation which might one day win an election.


There is one final thought which serves only to depress me even further: whilst some might effectively choose between doing right or being good, and still manage to serve a constructive purpose on the planet, others – on a quite different moral plane – might decide quite the opposite: that is to say, choose either to do wrong or be bad. 

With the added advantage that it’s probably quite seamlessly easy to manage to do wrong and be bad at exactly the same time.

Dec 202011

Paul Evans writes profoundly – even if too occasionally of late – over at Never Trust a Hippy, shares more than he should at (his periodically emailed newsletter is always interesting and full of magnificent leaps of faith) – and the little of his company I have been privileged to share has led me to understand how very little I properly know about this world.

With his Political Innovation project, maybe a five-year mission at that, he has been bravely going where few politicians currently dare to go.  If combative politics has always to a certain degree been characteristic of Westminster, and crossing the parliamentary line of trench warfare a real no-no, the truth of the matter is that as the rest of the world begins to embrace collaborative dynamics – from crowdsourcing in general to open source licences in particular – London-centric political activity of the high-level and stratospheric sort seems evermore anchored in a dated and highly lawyerly-laced interpretation of how far an outstretched hand should be shaken in good faith or – alternatively – surgically excised at source.

Paul’s strengths, therefore, lie not only in his ability to see this wider tendency, conclude that politics is missing the boat dangerously and care enough to want to do something about it but also in his capacity to cross those parliamentary lines in the interests of sharing his truth: we cannot make this complex and intertwined 21st century world function if we do not learn to engineer a very different kind of body politic.

Chris, over at Stumbling and Mumbling, has recently described how politicians are becoming irrelevant and whilst I don’t entirely agree I can see what he is getting at.  But where Paul goes further than any of us in this matter is in his firm and evidenced conviction that something can be done about the process whereby traditional politicians (those I describe as visible in the news: the ones we vote for via the ballot box and expect to some degree to choose to represent us) are ceding ground to the highly undemocratic lot who are creating all the mini behind-the-scenes and self-contained dictatorships which revolve evermore powerfully around what we used to understand were our democratic institutions.

Paul may realise or not that this is where he is directing his efforts: I, however, can see it as clear as the light of a brightly clear winter’s morning.  If our body politics cannot recapture for themselves the concept, act and implementation of the very essence we call democratic discourse, the instincts and impulses which have led so many freedom-loving people over long and sustained periods of history to participate in and engage with such ideas will simply shift their focus away from politics as we have known it to other areas of human endeavour.  And whether this endeavour involves communicating across thousands of miles of virtual community in order to construct new worlds of information and emotional exchange at the margins of what we understand to be political activity or – instead – revolves around new ways of actively expressing a sense of sustained and total disengagement with everything and anything our elders and not so elders have cared to fashion on our supposedly democratic behalves, the loss will seriously belong to our existing power structures who will lose entire generations to future activity.

Democracy is as much a human need as food, shelter, education and health.  And if traditional political structures can no longer supply the channels to allow it to develop as it must, then we will all begin to look elsewhere to satisfy this inherent human need – in companies, in local pubs and clubs, in social media, in virtual relationships of all kinds, in diary-writing, in amateur journalism and more generally in the psychological stroking that is liking, retweeting and hyperlinking.

Just because our democracies don’t work any more doesn’t mean we will give up on making democracy operate somewhere in our lives.  As a by-the-by, it may in fact be working as well as it ever did in the past – but those of us who are moving on, the perhaps now excessively educated consumer-producers of the early 21st century, have simply outgrown what those power structures were formerly prepared to allow us.

And Paul and the Political Innovation motto – “For anyone who has ever asked themselves ‘why is politics still done like this?'” – realise this like no one else seems to care to at the moment.

If politics doesn’t get it soon, those of us who believed in impassioned, informed and intelligent public debate will either be unproductively spending our days despising the mini dictatorships I describe in my previous post and above – or will find ourselves sheering off from traditional politics into other worlds of entirely our own making.

Neither tendency would be good for a wider social cohesion – both would lead to greater inequality and trench warfare-like impulses across the political divides; not only those already on stage but also those surely waiting more than eagerly in the wings.

If, then, we are to save politics from itself, we need to explain this broader society – this inherent democratic instinct and need – to a sad, stumbling and mumbling political class which fails to see where the vast majority of society already finds itself.

And Paul has known this for far longer than he has cared to let on to.

You can always trust a hippy.

At least as far as profundity of thought and the requirement – one day – to intertwine it with deed is concerned.

So if you’re interested in beginning to save politics from itself, register for this event now – for the first in a series of translation layers which will serve not to distance ourselves from the matter to hand but bring us ever closer to a clearer understanding of how out-of-time and very near our sell-by dates we have allowed ourselves to become.

And one very important point to begin wrapping up today’s post: remember that in Paul you have not only a leader of the cleverest kind but, also, interestingly and surprisingly, a teacher who is prepared to allow you to believe the bright ideas were originally yours.

That not only shows a rare and generous intelligence, it also demonstrates the supreme – where not arrogant – confidence that comes out of being incredibly knowledgeable.

To be honest, I really don’t know where to start.  But at least, via Paul’s gentle shepherding, over the past couple of years I’ve realised we need to start somewhere.

At least I now know a start is absolutely essential.

So my final question is: what about you?  What do you now think we should do?

Nov 122011

Paul and Chris have both said things over the past couple of days which have made me question the monolithic perception of capitalism which those of us who criticise the latter tend to acquire.

First, Paul.  In his piece “Google: ‘No pay?  No play!'”, he starts off with this intriguing and revelatory quote:

So, entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control” (source). It’s a nice line, and one that sums up a lot of very profitable new tech businesses very nicely.

Meanwhile, at Chris’s place we have this on the behaviours of corporate CEOs (the bold is mine):

It’s widely thought that James Murdoch is either a liar or a fool: either he genuinely did not know about phone hacking, in which case his was failing in his job, or he did know, in which case he misled MPs. As Tom Watson said yesterday:
It is plausible that he didn’t know but if he didn’t know, he wasn’t asking the questions that a chief executive officer should be asking…Either he wasn’t doing his job properly as the chief officer of the company or he did know.

This dichotomy, however, might be a false one. It is quite possible, in theory, for a rational boss to be intentionally ignorant as a tool to increase his bargaining power.

As one of the commenters to this piece observes:

Yes, it’s possible that Murdoch sensed the extent of the problem, but wanted to protect himself by deliberately remaining ignorant of the damning details. He may have been far-sighted enough to calculate that the matter might end with legal or quasi-legal proceedings in which this ignorance would be the cornerstone of this defence. So he may not be a liar or fool, but a very devious and shrewd operator. And these are just the qualities that some people would look for in a CEO.

So here we have two views of what capitalism entails: on the one hand, “the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control”; on the other, behaving as a “devious and shrewd operator”.  Both of these views would coincide with what many on the left might argue are precisely capitalism’s weaknesses: the recent crises in the too-big-to-fail financial services sector being examples of the former; the behaviours of far too many large and medium-sized companies as they substitute the interests of the end-users with those of the shareholders and top-management bods providing examples of the latter.

And yet, in other areas, there are capitalist behaviours even we might argue should be positively recognised – especially if we care to analyse matters from a more historical perspective.  Civil engineering of all kinds; utility infrastructures; the provision of sophisticated products and services – where, of course, this does not involve the colonisation and exploitation of workforces in countries which do not care for workers’ rights.

The latter may happen widely – but surely it is not a necessary aspect of capitalism.  Surely, capitalism could still function – even if the cash mountains were a quarter of what they are.

Surely, it is far more a question of degree.

So perhaps, in times of such mighty upheaval as now, it should be our duty to decide exactly what kind of capitalism it is we are attempting to criticise.

Though this may not serve to underline your prejudices – nor, indeed, make this a popular post – not everything capitalism has brought is necessarily worthy of criticism.  The question – and our current resistance to it – may lie in its discrete implementation just as much as in its systemic reality.

Just as there are, in fact, socialisms and socialisms …

Think about it, anyhow.

And correct me, if needs be.

Nov 082011

Paul has a great and liberating idea here:

A while ago, I posted here giving reasons why I thought it would be a good idea to start involving school pupils in the processing of public data.

There are strong democratic arguments for doing this – ones that aren’t immediately obvious. There are also good ‘transparency’ arguments (but I’d make my usual point here about transparency and democracy not always pulling in the same direction).

Local Ward Atlas data – click to explore it

There are two other reasons why this is worth doing:

  1. It’ll be fun to do. School pupils, doing all kinds of things with data that their older neighbours wouldn’t value just for the hell of it. Anyone watching this will learn a lot and probably have a laugh while doing it
  2. It will be a good thought experiment for everyone involved. In my experience, most people who work in or with local authorities don’t really understand the potential to do good things here.

It does, however, as with the contradiction between representative and participative democracy*, depend on whether those involved wish to channel for their own interests or encourage in the interests of the children themselves.  As I point out in a comment to Paul’s piece:

I agree with the above commenters. This is an excellent idea. Children might eventually be interested in pushing the envelope in unexpected directions, however – as you point out. Would you be looking to channel these directions in an institutionally self-serving way (the institutional interests of the school in question, for example) or in the real interests of the children themselves?

I’m wondering about publicly available data (virtual communities, public stuff on Facebook etc – Google is now apparently integrating the latter into its searches) in relation to teacher behaviours and performance, for example. My own child is getting a bit of grief at her school at the moment which could be resolved through better communication and transparency from the school itself – it doesn’t seem to be getting resolved because it’s a very big school and internal communication is rather poor. How could such initiatives as you suggest help instead of hinder in such circumstances?

And would schools in general be ready for the implications? If not, how could we prepare them to be so?


* In particular, I’m interested in the difficulty we always seem to have engineering the transition between election-time and government and managing its expectations:

We are, after all, those millions and millions of crowdsourcing eyes which open source software so often has turned to its advantage.  But we do need to shift gear from our politicos’ belief in representative democracy to a greater understanding of what participative democracy might look like.  If Obama’s election showed us anything, it is how the channelling of disparate hopes can move electoral mountains.  In the posterior definition is when the dissatisfaction and unhappiness sets in.  But surely that is because movements like Obama’s – even in this 21st century – still move from the joy of participative politics during elections to the misery of representative politics during government.

Our task – as open sourcers, as bloggers who believe in a world of free speech, as people who would prefer a better world where democracy meant communication at all levels – is surely to achieve that shift to participation across the whole range of political activity.

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 242011

Paul asks the following question today:

Referendums – more incompatible with socialism than they are with other worldviews. Why is Labour’s ‘left’ disproportionately keen on them?

And I replied by wondering:

@Paul0Evans1 Perhaps ‘cos it’s an easy way to show interest in democracy without having to change own structures?

It’s certainly true that the hammerhead which is a referendum is even more open to abuse than perhaps opinion polls – where a list of questions generally takes several bites at the apple and allows an outsider to see with greater clarity the real intentions of those behind the survey in question.

A referendum, meanwhile, is often a tipping-point of confusion – and contains within its apparently simple structure a cauldron of prior debate; debate which often never hits the wider TV-news headlines.

So I wonder if the real reason why the progressives amongst us are so keen on such devices is: either a) because we are cowards – as I suggest in the title to this post – and thus choose to be in favour of anything which mildly smacks of democratic engagement, whether it promotes real democracy or not; or b) because we are actually quite calculating, and know that the sop to democracy referendums can serve to appear as will allow us to keep control of our grassroots for far far longer.


On a separate matter, in my post on Alex Salmond’s speech yesterday, one of the commenters – Salmondnet – suggested my own left-wing prejudice was getting in the way of my love for democracy.  He or she quotes me and then translates the reality of my position in the following way:

“There are dangers in such a nationalism in England which I am pretty sure do not exist in Scotland. The Scottish sense of community which Salmond alludes to is, I am sure, not so constructively embedded across the whole of England and its counties. Selfish politics was born and bred in London more than Manchester – and the political elites of Westminster have now visited it on us at least three times in the last fifty years, where the regions have wished for anything but.”

Oh god. Here we go again. loosely translated “the English can’t be trusted to govern themselves because they are insufficirntly left wing for your taste” and “when in doubt, blame London.”

London is represented at Westminster only in proportion to its population, about 16% of the population of England. If you don’t like Westminster policies why blame that 16%, rather than the 84% who represent the rest of the country? I will answer that for you – because it is a convenient excuse for your wish to have your Scottish and Welsh mercenaries continue to help impose policies on England which you fear the English do not want.

Here’s a radical idea. Experiment with democracy. Try letting the people of England decide.

I think that’s a fair observation, and my initial reply was couched thus:

@Salmondnet – you may be right; my own personal prejudices may be interfering in my belief in the value of a real democracy. I’ll think about that anon – and maybe post on it later in the week. But if what you suggest is true – that Cameron & Co is what *England* really wants, then I really don’t think I’m living in the right country. Not the right country for me, anyhow.

Which brings me to my final thought on democracy in this post: we’re familiar, for example, with the abuses of free-market philosophies which lead to monopolistic competition becoming the norm.  Very few of us who argue in favour of the free market will be under any illusions that large companies out there really are practising what they preach.  Why don’t we wonder more often then, when a democratic result comes through, whether the result has been fairly arrived at or not?  I don’t mean the mechanics of the ballot box either.  The latter seems to me an almost sly distraction – used to validate unfair process and give it spurious integrity.

I wonder, instead, how this corruption of daily political exchange – those events and cases which stream out evermore frequently these days – ends up damaging our ability to evaluate and carry out a wider democratic discourse in our societies.  And we may, as a result, truly be turning into democratic cowards – not because we want to be nor even prefer to be; simply, because we’re forgetting how to be anything else.  There is a fight to be enjoined – that is clear enough.  But it would appear that very few of us want to do anything but tinker.

If we refuse to argue a difficult position because it won’t go down well with the electorate, isn’t it just much easier to find a position that will make them smile – whether we believe in it or not?  Isn’t the line of least resistance what’s happening to us all now? 

And doesn’t a lot of it have to do with money?

Much easier to call for relatively cheap and easy-to-set-up referendums left, right and centre – especially when you have a reasonable control over the media which transmit your message – than properly invest in empowering and long-term grassroots consultative and decision-making structures, which would make all referendums entirely irrelevant.

That’s the cowardice I’m referring to.  That’s the cowardice which is damaging us.

Oct 172011

Since the Spanish “Indignados” showed that it’s possible to communicate rage through peaceable expression, the political commentators and analysts have been circling such movements like vultures.

I’m not saying they are vultures.  I’m just saying that – for a person who shares the contained and educated rage of those protesting – it does seem they could resist the temptation while the body’s still warm.

Anyhow, there are at least four notable articles on the subject which I have read to date – all of them sensible, productive, intelligent and strategic.  I can’t write that kind of article right now – so, instead, I’ll just link to them and let you come to your own conclusions.

The first is by Paul at Never Trust a Hippy, whilst the last three are an engaging exchange between Norman at normblog and Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling.

My own personal feeling is that what’s happening right now is as follows: big people at the very top are waiting for the movements either to fragment and divide in violence or coalesce into precisely those things that Paul, Norman and Chris – in their different ways – seem to require of us.  And when I say coalesce, I mean a process akin to that device so beloved of politicians: the blessed portfolio of policies.  When unable to weave a convincing narrative a generation is crying out for, these political beings generally revert to their favourite playthings: policies.  This is where they are always on firm ground – for the aforementioned devices are the very stuff of executive summaries; minuted meetings; wearisome agendas; and the general minutiae of political activity.  Exactly what the sociocultural doctor called for, in fact.  Exactly what they need to reassert their control over the heaving masses.

Make them passive again with our political metalanguage – batter them legally around their thoughtful heads.

So that, in my opinion, is what is happening now: the political beings, the ones who run everything in reality (whether currently in government or business), are simply waiting for the indignant to come down from the clouds of honest communication – and, instead, get mixed up and dirtied by the compromises of professional body politics the world over.

Maybe all movements like this end up either destroyed or, alternatively, transmuted into something we would despise.  But in the meantime, and for far longer than the analysts might allow, those of us who feel thus enraged need our space for peaceable rage – and we need it much more profoundly than you currently acknowledge.