Apr 232013

Amazon Cloud services used by 38 Degrees

I saw a BBC Panorama documentary recently on the subject of North Korea.  Towards the end, after showing those of us who know nothing the veritable horrors of the place, it compared the advertising-free misery of the North Korean underground with the magnificent and joyful hoarding-invaded South Korea.  If I remember rightly, on more than one occasion our attention was drawn to this defining advantage of living in the free world – as if the quantity of advertising which serves to puncture our eyes is somehow a litmus test of how free we really are.

Well, I’m sorry but I don’t agree.  And today I read a story from the Spanish El País newspaper which simply confirms me in my resistance.  In it, we discover (robot English translation here) that the Madrid Metro Línea 2 - along with its iconic stop Sol – will become the sponsorship property of the Vodafone phone company, to such an extent that the aforementioned station will be renamed vodafone Sol.  In exchange for a three-year deal, it appears that a paltry €3 million will exchange hands.  But, of course, the story won’t end with the “awarding” of these “naming rights”.  As the article goes on to report:

[…] El acuerdo previsto con la empresa tiene una duración de tres años, lo que supone unos tres millones de euros. Para González es una “posibilidad enorme de ingresos” para Metro. “Tenemos 11 líneas más y muchas estaciones” que ofertar, ha recordado el presidente.

Loosely translating as:

[…] The agreement in question with the company will last three years, which means some three million euros.  For González, this presupposes an “enormous opportunity of income” for Metro.  “We have 11 lines and many stations” to offer, the president has reminded everyone.

So let’s just analyse exactly what’s going on here.  A public entity which has been offering state-funded services to a taxpaying city (I assume the Metro service is still all of these things, though – after so much economic despair – I may of course be wrong by now) has decided, in its wisdom, that it has the right to sell off to a foreign corporation the rights to name public spaces as if they were private spaces of public use.  Given the experience we’ve supposedly had with the Vodafones of the world here in Britain, as perfectly legal tax avoidance has begun to drill holes in the future financial planning of the state and our public services, this really does seem to be adding considerable insult to hurtful injury.  Especially when the people responsible for the deal appear to be saying that the cost of using the service will continue to rise for end-users, despite the corporate dosh changing hands.

That is to say, in an ongoing and awful political and socioeconomic crisis, where Spanish youth unemployment has hit over fifty percent and politicians of parties various have both enriched themselves and their business mates in a long-drawn-out process of terrible fecklessness (clearly at the expense of all the nations that make up the country), the Madrid Metro finds itself obliged to go with its begging bowl to precisely those guarantors of the free world which have brought us all to our knees in the first place.

To such an extent we finally discover that these people don’t only destroy our economies and welfare states so as to own us materially but also, now, look to own our public spaces – so as to own us emotionally too.

Can you imagine it?

The Starbucks Northern Line.

The Google Circle Line.

The Amazon Jubilee Line.

Hurts, doesn’t it?  Hurts so much it burns.  Burns like brands originally did.  And I bet it’ll come sooner than you think to England’s green and evermore unpleasant land.

Happy St Google’s Day!

Wonder what Shakespeare would’ve had to say about it all.

To brand or not to brand, perhaps?  Would that be the question?

St Google's Day

Nov 272011

This deserves to be read all round the world:

Paranoia, like mental distress, flourishes in the absence of a public culture. When ideas can be discussed freely among equals, we can revise and improve overly simple explanations – just as we can challenge unnecessary complexity and technocratic obfuscation. Individuals can change their minds, or shift the emphasis of their concerns, without feeling humiliated. They don’t have to do what many critics of conspiratorial culture demand and embrace the conventional wisdom about politics and economics, with all its absurdities and obvious failure of logic, evidence and common sense.

I am not starry-eyed about occupations and assemblies. And it is far too early to make confident pronouncements about what they mean – their meaning will only be determined by what happens in the years ahead. But there is one lesson that we can take from them – and it is worth bearing in mind, I think.

Public speech is good for us.

If this tells us anything, it is that a profoundly individualised society leads inevitably to a degraded state of mental wellbeing.  Not because of what, thus unleashed, individuals may do; rather, because of what, thus bound, they can’t share.  In another part of this fascinating text (the bold is mine), we are told that:

[…] A number of people have said that they found the experience of being in the assembly profoundly beneficial. One young woman who suffers from anxiety said that she spent an hour in Saint Paul’s before she realised that she had been symptom-free the whole time. People have had a chance to talk with others about politics and economics, and so about the shared conditions of life. They have been able to acknowledge their disquiet and to situate it in the social realm, rather than in their autobiography or in their brain chemistry. That in itself has been an enormous relief.

And this (again the bold is mine):

Part of the inhumanity of the current order resides in the widespread insistence that individual, rather than the social order, is the proper object of reform. In what amounts to an attempt to suppress our political nature, we are told that we must make ourselves acceptable to what exists, to what is inevitable. But troubles in our lives are not our individual achievement. The language and images, the built environment, the power relations that shape our experience of life, these all form part of what must be considered when we consider the puzzle of our own troubles. Sadness is not a private property.

Here, then, in these few short paragraphs, we have a startlingly breathtaking understanding of the problems which drive so many of us – a quarter, they say, along the length and breadth of our lifetimes – to real mental despair.  A figure which, they say, is also rising – and does not include those who simply rub along in desultory disengagement.

And so it is that we need socialism not for profoundly economic reasons; that, in the light of all that has happened recently, is clear enough to see.  No.  The real reason why we truly need more socialism is in order to frame with a manifest justice that battle in favour of our most common instincts and impulses – instincts and impulses which an individualising society has clearly repressed: that is to say, those overwhelming desires to socialise our needs to communicate, compare and contrast with others in supportive and safe public spaces.

They have substituted our public spaces with private spaces of public use; they have substituted our municipal towns and cities with globalised online communities run on the behalf of money and commerce; they have substituted our supportive environments of yore with medication and therapies galore.  How can it not be the case that we might become sad and depressive in such damnably isolating habitats – unable to do anything but locate our social suffering in the personal sin of the culpable?

If the #occupy movements are able to move us on at all positively in the future, it will be in this attempt to regain the power and healing nature of that natural area of socialised communication – that comparing and contrasting I mention above which make us well, connected and humane again in a way that no other system may achieve.

This is why we must remake our institutions.  This is why we must support #occupy.

Jul 142011

It’s like a “Dear John” letter – but to an employer.  Or not exactly to an employer – just once removed, the job itself.  Not the cause of our misery exactly; rather, its manifestation.  A sad piece of lovely writing on the subject of slowly disengaging with the environment that has been public service (and thanks to Paul for the tweet which brought it to my attention).

Only thing is that I also felt, working in the private not the public sector, every word of this post in the months leading up to my own redundancy.  After almost seven years working for a bank, a bank which was lately in the eye of a financial storm, I was reduced to feeling such sentiments.  I’d realised I was no longer needed.  I’d realised even the public didn’t respect what I did any longer.  Entirely without blame, it was entirely my responsibility to shoulder its awful consequences.

To understand one is surplus to requirements in such a total sense is quite a terrible thing.  It’s a trauma of the lowest order.  As the original poster points out:

But recently you’ve changed. I no longer feel cared for, appreciated or listened to. You seem to be demanding more and more from me whilst giving me less and less back. The days feel so long and troubled, and sometimes I find it difficult to sleep at night. There are even others being brought into the relationship to do things that I used to do with you, slowly making me seem no longer needed. Our dreams are moving apart, our shared goals a distant memory.

And as the piece continues to indicate:

I won’t let myself stay downtrodden and unhappy, I can sense that I’m not really wanted and that you have been looking for an opportunity to end things for a while. Well, I’m going to be the bigger person and take action, make a clean break and move on. I deserve happiness and appreciation, and I’m going to make it happen rather than wait around for an indeterminate amount of time waiting for a potential opportunity which may never come along.

How many of us now must be feeling this every day as councils fire entire workforces and take them on again with compulsory pay cuts; as private companies “let go” good employees only to contract temporary workers to do the same roles; as those who do remain in jobs feel the evermore incessant pressures to hit impossible productivity targets – targets which not only impact on their ability to be accurate and useful but also on their ability to maintain a sustainable balance between work and life …

Better out than in?  In is a morass of spun expectations where their reality barely coincides with what we perceive when we are away from their intranets.  So yes, I would say.

Far worse in than out.  Far better out than in.

At least for the moment.

Jun 212011

I love the Kindle, as you might have gathered.  Stan’s not so sure.  First, he points out how people are carving up bits of Internet real estate – and making it all their very own.  Then, in response to my light-hearted accusation of technophobe, he carries out the following most salient thought experiment:

I’m a technophobe? I don’t think so. If I’m a ‘phobe’ of some sort then ‘commercephobe’ would be a better term. People confuse a phobia of restricted commercial practices with luddite-ism.

Ads everywhere, mobile devices tethered to the company that sold them to consume products sold by the same company.

That, is essentially what I am against.

After all, you wouldn’t think of buying a car from Shell, locked into a contract with Shell for fuel, locked into buying your car accessories from the ‘ShellStoreTM‘, with ads, sponsored by Shell, flashing across your speedometer as you drove, would you now?

If you next car was a BP car, you’d discover that none of the cool Shell accessories you’d installed on your Shell car would work on your BP car.

Yet people accept such things when it comes to mobile devices, like phones, e-book readers and tablets. Car manufacturers must look in envy at Apple, Google et al and wonder how they get away with it.

We could, of course, equally say the same not only of the above-mentioned companies but also of government, public services and a raft of other support systems European welfare has cared to provide over the years.

So if it’s OK for big business to integrate vertically, why should it be so wrong for institutions such as the NHS in its current manifestation to do similarly?

Unless, of course, it’s one rule for the rich and another for the rest.

For it’s either bad for competition and market transparency the world over – or it’s not.  But it can’t be bad only for the public sector.

Apr 062011

I just came across this fascinating idea:

Welcome to the Health channel on opensource.com

The stories we share and bring to life here are inspired by health innovation happening around the globe. We highlight how the principles of open source—transparency, information-sharing, community-building, and collaboration—are playing a vital role in the new ways people are thinking about health.

Now if only our government could contemplate such a grassroots approach to improving public services – that is to say, little by little, and winning people over – instead of thrashing around wildly and inexpertly with its grab-bag of economic and social buzzwords, as it attempts either to deliberately detonate everything that has gone before or juggle without wisdom everything that is to come.  (And then, of course, perhaps there is an element of truth in both the latter observations …)

But no.  The Tories can only believe that if a new proposal raises hackles, it must be doing some good.  The latest grab-bag is allowing children to leave school at fourteen.  At least in Scotland.  Now there may be many teachers out there who would love not to have to deal with some fourteen-year-olds.  But deciding that they should be allowed out of school:

[…] to start apprenticeships or attend vocational college courses after just two years of secondary education …

is surely an example of shifting issues from one place to another, without thinking the implications properly through.  As Des McNulty points out in the Daily Record piece:

“We know that putting an extra year on the school leaving age has improved literacy, health and reduced the likelihood of being involved in crime.

“How would this move help children get exams in maths and English that are needed for even low-skill jobs?

“What we do know is if more children leave school at 14, then schools would then cut back on teachers. How many teachers do the Tories want to cut?”

Which might of course be the real reason for the proposal.  As the Daily Record itself adds:

The school leaving age was raised from 14 in 1947 – in an era when most Scots lived in cramped tenements with shared outside toilets.

Powerfully emotive stuff.  And it does beg the question: if a child moves into secondary education at the age of eleven and knows that in two years they can be out on the streets, who’s to say we won’t have the discussion some time down the line about whether it mightn’t be better to reduce the leaving age to twelve – or even eleven?

I jest not.

So where do we go from here?  Change is a given these days – many authorities will inform and underline this.  But some of those who insist this will be our lot don’t half manage to cobble together unhappy examples of such change – and thus, under the cloak of inevitability, often justify a poverty of conceptualisation and implementation in their discourse and practice.

Change is a given these days – yes, I have to agree.  On the other hand, it does not have to be bad change – it can if we choose be good.  It is up to us, the crowd, to insist we are included.  Only then will the principles of open source serve to guarantee sustainable process – and consequently a result which 21st century citizens should expect, as well as surely deserve.

Jan 302011

I’ve had plenty of experience of both state and private bureaucracies but still fail to understand how – in all intellectual honesty – anyone on the libertarian side of politics can hope to reasonably argue that, for example, private medical bureaucracies work more simply for say the dispossessed – or, indeed, anyone – than their state equivalents.  All that form-filling which needs to be carried out, possibly just when you are least able to understand or track its implications, doesn’t half exist just as much in the context of private medical insurance as it does in the public sphere.

Bureaucracy everywhere needs to be kept under control – mainly because it generally becomes self-serving, and self-serving organisations become both wasteful and, for their workforces, mind-numbing places to be.  Just because it’s privately sourced doesn’t make it essentially more acceptable.  The argument shouldn’t be whether we should have public or private bureaucracies – as it would appear to be at the moment.  Rather, it should be whether we have self-serving or customer-oriented bureaucracies – whether they be private or public.

I had some unhappy things to say about the student finance process the other day.  In the end, it looks like the Student Loans Company is perhaps the most efficient leg of the three bureaucracies involved, and the Student Finance organisation and – initially – the university in question itself the least efficient.  (It would appear now, by the way, for those of you interested in knowing the outcome, that Kafka, although not entirely banished from student finance land, is being kept at bay for the moment, at least in my son’s case.  Fulsome apologies have been received from the university for the error committed, processes we are assured will be reviewed, a hardship loan has been promised in the meantime and my son is beginning to learn a little more about the complexities of personal finance.)  But the reality of the matter is that in order to get the money to go to university these days, you have to deal with at least four organisations on a terribly frustrating and rolling basis (UCAS, Student Finance, the Student Loans Company and the university you wish to go to) – as well as their very different web pages and procedures and their often indifferent support staff.

Are you telling me that this is seamless customer-oriented 21st century bureaucracy in action?  I think not.

So let’s change the focus please from public versus private to that of identifying and changing the cultures of the self-serving to customer-serving – wherever they may find themselves.

And let’s do it now – before we fall into the grave and awful error of believing that a change of ownership and a move from the state to the corporate will automatically bring about an improvement in service levels.

For it simply won’t.

Dec 172010

Some interesting articles tonight.  Firstly, from LabourList, we have Simon Wright saying how the Lib Dems may be coming of age:

I certainly believe this is the end of the LibDem magic, that ability to be all-things-to-all-people. I certainly hope it means the incoherence of some of their positions is finally exposed and their failure to stick to a policy will become a very public habit. However, I fear that it might come to be seen as the period when the LibDems started to grow up. The trauma of this experience could give them the resolve not to ever let it happen again. They might learn that people respect parties that can take difficult decisions. There is a long time ahead for this coaliton government – incredibly there are still four and half years planned – and few other topics on which the LibDems are so vulnerable. Our laughing at their current difficulties could seem a bit hollow if they turn out to be teething troubles on the way to becoming a grown-up political party.

Second, we have a lovely piece of traditional logging-the-web from John Naughton, picking up on a piece from Luis de Miranda, where the protocol-riven worlds of diplomacy and the Internet are compared and contrasted:

In what way are the Internet and diplomacy similar? Both are governed by very strict protocols, but their strictures are somehow each others’ opposites. Diplomatic protocol lives on the surface of things, a layer of varnish that actually allows all the treachery, hypocrisy and dirty dealings to go on. The protocol is theatre, while shenanigans play out in the shadows. The rigor of the Internet, on the other hand, operates in all that is invisible: the source code, the programming language standards, the networking standards (TCP/IP, HTML, RFCs). What is on the surface on the web is joyful chaos, depravity, free expression, every manifestation of the kaleidoscope of humanity. We have all been somewhat aware of the stuffy old world of diplomatic protocol, the attention to etiquette and to the rank of governments and their envoys. We are less familiar with the new world of digital protocol.

As de Miranda goes on to point out (the bold is mine):

The world of diplomacy, the world of the rulers, is certainly no sacred realm. The content of the leaked cables – as has been pointed out – is not all that surprising. But Marshall McLuhan strikes again here too: the message is the medium. The momentous nature of Wikileaks comes in its form, not its content: the digitalisation of our representations of the world around us is a new global DNA. And that digitalisation brings to the foreground – partly by contrast – another, complementary aspect of humanity: what I call crealism, the desire to become self-created, to establish a space of liberty outside the automata by seizing democratic control of of the protocols that rule us. Another word for this is empowerment.

In this sense, what is happening to the Internet and what it is happening to the Lib Dems are parallel and perhaps mutually informing processes.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Coalition experience should be forcing the latter to grow up as Wright suggests, as Paul bemoans and as I observe … just at the very same time that WikiLeaks consecrates the coming of age of the Internet.  For we realise that what we are dealing with is a private space of public use.  And just like Liverpool One in the real world, such worlds are not happy places at heart.  As Der Spiegel points out:

The different reactions from Internet firms to the WikiLeaks publications reveal a dilemma. Many citizens regard the Internet as a public space, but in fact it is a private sphere. And the companies that control almost all the forums on the Web can, if in doubt, exercise their rights of ownership and ban who they like.

The extent to which citizens are free on the Internet depends on whether these companies want to get into conflict with the state or other firms, for example copyright holders.

They have to work out, on their behalf, how far the right to free speech goes, and when it infringes upon other rights, for example personal or author rights.

There is a saying “pick your battles.” Well, Internet giants Amazon and PayPal have clearly decided not to join the fight for WikiLeaks. They are avoiding conflict and have thrown out the activists by pointing to their terms and conditions. They have the right to do so. Companies should be allowed to be cowards, if the risk seems too high for them.

That risk could be a general threat from the US political establishment — or the fury of US customers, who regard WikiLeaks as a platform for state treason. Such rage could hit the company a lot harder than the revolt by those activists now calling for a boycott of Amazon and PayPal.

And as it then proceeds to add:

Yet these calls for a boycott should be welcomed. They could show the companies that the situation is actually the exact opposite to what they had assumed: that perhaps they have been wrong in their appraisal of the reaction to WikiLeaks and have actually annoyed more customers than expected with the block. Then perhaps the next time they will do things differently.

The underlying issue does, however, remain the same.  Private spaces of public use are uncomfortable places to be.  As OldTrot tweeted to me the other day:

@eiohel The Social Web is a carefully fostered illusion. Twitter is a private money-making venture. Tweets & trends are traceable & filtered

And furthermore:

@eiohel the open forum is as old as Democracy itself, but the Market monetises, corrupts, and yes sells it. Free speech commodified

So it is we discover – through the implosion that is caused by both WikiLeaks and the Lib Dems – that our 21st century world is not honest, sincere or progressive in the least.

Not in its form anyhow.

The most we can hope for – if everything remains the same (if, that is, we are left at the mercy of those who design and write the code) – is a cuddly kind of content that likes to pretend it loves our every being.

But when it comes to creating the protocols … we are at the mercy of those who create.  And if we do not create them ourselves – or, at least learn how to regularly deconstruct them – then we are lost.

Perhaps it’s time we all become hackers.  As de Miranda’s piece makes only too plain:

Wikileaks was born of hacker culture. Hackers are not spotty, destructive teenagers who provoke a third world war while tinkering at their computers. Hackers work firmly in the real world: they try to reverse engineer the digital world around us. They try to understand how code has been built, especially code whose goal is to keep people out, to monopolistically restrict access. Once the code is understood, it can be mastered and directed to the hackers’ own uses, often open-sourcing the knowledge. The code becomes usable by anyone who puts the effort into understanding digital protocol. This hacking culture does not apply only to digital programs: the hacking digital natives have this attitude towards the whole world; our politics, society, behaviours, tastes, beliefs, identities, have all been assembled like code and are the instruments by which we are controlled.

And as he concludes:

The old, elitist, analog world of double-speak and counter-bluff, the worlds of diplomacy and political institutions, cannot hope to survive the two-pronged attack from digitalisation and empowerment. The message sent by Wikileaks to governments is this: “you are using the digital to organise the world and to control the people; but that means that the people will also have access to your mechanisms of control, the code and the data; the people will be able to hack you – to uncover and subvert your hegemonic uses.” The only way governments could stop this democratising force would be to imprison the coders – a temptation some seem to be tempted by.

Perhaps, then, in the light of all the above, we could see the Lib Dems as the hackers of British politics.  They could be – in some curious way – reverse-engineering our political code, even if not consciously, even if not intentionally.  We’re not quite sure – at least not all of us – that this isn’t being done for entirely undemocratic purposes.  But a small chance still exists – a chink of light coming through the political DNA that might, even so, end up being rebuilt – that perhaps some good will come out of all this pain.

As with WikiLeaks, however, and all those gloriously private spaces of public use we have come to so enjoy … from Amazon to Facebook, from blogging to video streaming … well, it is still utterly unclear if the gain will make the pain worthwhile.

See what I mean?  We can learn a lot from analysing the virtual world.

Especially when the real world begins to become outrageously indistinguishable from it.  Or, alternatively, our thought processes begin to mimic those of the glorious hackers of old to such a degree that absolutely everything becomes reducible to the building blocks of fabulous code.