Aug 092014
 
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Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?

:-)


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Jun 202013
 
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This should be the third part of my Citizen Media series, where I discuss and cover some of my reactions to a recent colloquium I attended in (mainly sunny) Manchester.  But I had an idea just now which has intervened a little, and will push the next aforementioned instalment back to probably tomorrow.

This is the idea as it appeared via a tweet of mine, on the back of a whole series of others this evening which simply served to underline how powerful PR organisations are managing to get their clients’ agendas into newspapers, online outlets and TV news:

What we *should* be doing, as committed citizens, is crowdsourcing PR companies to give journos ready-made copy: control agendas that way!

Yes.  I know the principle is kind of functioning right now in many different areas: charities, political parties, single-issue organisations, petition sites.  Everyone seems to have a press room; everyone the kind of copy which could easily slip its cheating way into one news-gathering organisation or another.

But none of them ever really get the visibility the professional PR bods manage to employ.  Whilst churnalism has its own search engine, and even its ironic commentators, this doesn’t stop those lobbyists from turning over an estimated 7.5 billion quid a year in selling spin.  It’s clear that from the BBC to the Press Association, churnalistic instincts rule more and more.  How could it be otherwise when the pressure to produce is falling on the shoulders of fewer and fewer journos?

To date, the non-professional strategy has focussed on rubbishing the process and its validity.  In a sense, smacking of sour grapes too, the success of that huge industry at getting its media on the front pages of “our” media has led us to revert to Twitter bubbles, Facebook grumbling and a general retreat from mainstream engagement.  But what if we seriously set up a network of properly crowdsourced and crowdfunded PR companies whose sole purpose was to give hard-pressed journos ready-made copy which they could not only reliably but also progressively use under their bylines and in their content?

Such a network could function in several ways: as a repository of political agendas; as a source of wonky but accessibly-couched ideas; as a quirky distributor of nudging news designed to move the political battlefield evermore leftwards.

We’d have to be clear what it wasn’t going to be: never a media outlet in itself, it’s primary objective would only ever be to service, mould and re-engineer the kind of content which aims long-term to change the nature of how we organise societies.

Not by buying up expensive airtime or web estate or video sites but, rather, simply by giving to journalists the free content and ideas they often don’t have all the time to produce themselves.  Supplying, at no cost, “microwaveable” content which through its ubiquitous and timely presence could achieve a shift in fundamental assumptions.

First steps?  Mission statements, values, general political goals and economic stances.

A practical tool in a Citizen Media environment where both crowdsourcing of content and crowdfunding of resources became a tool for a better way of surviving.

Even if it did involve playing the poacher at their own game.

What do you think?  Anyone see any virtues in the approach?  Or, indeed, practicalities?


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Feb 242013
 
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My sister just sent me a link to a TED talk.  TED talks are fascinating.  This one describes itself thus:

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses — and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person “being” a genius, all of us “have” a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

I think it’s a beautiful idea, one I am inclined to value highly.  I have been a teacher most of my working life – and soon learned to value highly the contribution of students.  Not only in terms of what I asked them to do but – also, and more importantly – in terms of what they learned to ask me to do.

Genius is not the preserve of a man or woman our society determines as being so.  And even if it is, it is only because our society is incapable of perceiving the genius that all of us contain.  Even as we like to focus from a distance on the visibly astonishing, we miss out on the beauty that we exhibit every single day of our lives.  We are clever souls, we human beings.  The virtual democratisation of content we are witnessing this last decade is not primarily a cause of information ills but, rather, a massive release of pent-up generations of humanity unable for so long to visibly express their genius.

And now I have a confession to make.  I haven’t watched the TED talk my sister has sent me as yet.  And I probably won’t.  I really do hope, however, that she doesn’t stop sending them to me.  Today’s post would not have got written if it hadn’t been for her thoughtful including of me in a footnote to a Facebook post.  Although I very rarely watch videos at all, their synopses rapidly read do often spark unfinished and engaging business.

To be honest, I think there’s a reason.  I think I’m a natural reader, not a watcher.  What’s more, I think those who watch are – more often than not (though clearly an exception in the case of my book-loving sister) – natural watchers, not readers.  Which leads me to draw the following conclusion: the old-age battle (or, at least, the sixty-year-old battle) waged between literature and television has subtly restarted since the arrival of the web.  Following on from the middle of the 20th century, our early 21st century online humanity has reasserted a division which should please us enormously.  For between the geniuses of industrialised art and the geniuses of individualised art, we stumble across everything we should admire.  That some of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of tablets and scrolls of yore and that others of us should continue to find pleasure and intellectual involvement in this century’s equivalent of more oral and theatrical tradition simply underlines the power and strength of them both.

All those centuries ago, we got it right first time.

The instincts to register through writing and speech the thoughts, occurrences and imaginations of a wonderful species were just as accurate and apposite then as they still are these days – continuing as they do to strive and fight their way above the flood waters of passing and irrelevant technologies and discourses.

A reader then, are you?  Or a watcher?  Or a marvellous – highly literate – combination of the two?

Lucky you!


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Feb 182013
 
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About eleven years ago I was studying in Spain for a Publishing Master.  There were many great and good craftspeople who taught us the ins and outs of a very particular trade – a very special trade.  At the time, I was looking to set up an online publisher.  I was aiming to cut costs in the industry by using technology to combine the roles of various skillsets in one individual.  This wasn’t the paused, many-handed and time-honoured way of publishing – but in time it has come to pass, and ten years later we live in a quite different world.

What really was focussing minds ten years ago, however, at least in Spain and at least in this course, was what was seen as the evermore pervasive and encroaching danger of an American search-engine upstart called Google (the bold is mine):

Google began in March 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey BrinPh.D. students at Stanford[1] working on the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library” [...].

Google’s aims were clear – as least to the Spanish tradition of editors.  Whether you liked the idea or not, whether you were prepared to collaborate or not, whether you accepted the terms as laid down by the powerful or quixotically attempted to resist their impositions, Google’s ultimate aim was to turn your thoughts, your lives, your very own selves and – finally – even your carefully guarded intellectual property into nothing more nor less than the virtual equivalent of the water that since time immemorial succeeds in seeping everywhere.

In the name of transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS), Google would one day be ripping out the very heart and soul of your entity.

And so that, as well, has come to pass.  Online caches of all kinds mean that however careful a maintainer of your content you are, anything and everything you post is likely to come to someone’s preserving notice and instincts.

But, what’s more, instead of being used to promote the transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS) I mention, it’s become a sorry old tool of a most traditional bent: a tool which, in hindsight, my dear Spanish opponents were right to fear – and perhaps even right to resist.  Google’s asserted desire to make knowledge available to all comes at a massive cost.

The cost is the Googlefying of you, me and the cat’s mother.

*

The Americans have consistently trashed WikiLeaks for opening the door to all kinds of communications they firmly argue are better kept secret.  And yet, from their very own apple-pied backyards, we have Google invading every corner and content we could possibly conceive.  The instinct to bare souls is shared too: you and I, our friends and family … all of us spill our bleeding-edge thoughts into the ether that now embraces everyone.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Googlefying instincts which a decade of brutal exposure has engendered should have now reached the chambers of our democracies.  This story, for example, from 2011:

AN internet blogger has been arrested after she tried to film a Carmarthenshire Council meeting from the public gallery.

Now it would appear that no crime had been committed, nor local law infringed.  The council in question simply took exception to its proceedings being recorded in such a way.  I’m sure that the immediate reaction of most people in the Twitter- and blogosphere would be one of anger and surprise.  And I suppose I’d feel pretty obliged to go along with such reactions – if only it wasn’t for the history of Google I’ve just gone and recounted.

Images and video are such cruelly permanent matters.  Can we honestly argue that our democracy is entirely better for encouraging the kind of politicians who thrive on television appearances and firmly taped and registered political events?  Many would argue, of course, that the transparency they bring is only ever going to improve the transparency of our political processes.  But I’m really not sure this is the case any more.  Images and video seem – of late, anyhow – to promote the worst kind of manipulation our body politic has seen for a very long time.

And if the arguments people have used against WikiLeaks – a dumping mechanism of all kinds of unwary data which makes private truth-telling and negotiation impossible to promote – are to be considered at all sustainable in any way, then equally the Googlefying of our wider world – of which random and unannounced filming of council and other democratic process is simply one of many examples on the horizon – needs to come under a far closer scrutiny.

From a very personal perspective, I would like to see far more politicians who can speak to the public without falling into the temptation of speaking to the gallery.

So ask yourself this, then: which, in the end, will the Googlefying of the world really encourage?


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Jan 262013
 
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I haven’t done much in the blogging or social media world this week.  At last, after a couple of quiet years since I was made redundant from my totally inappropriate – and, I might hurriedly say, humble – banking job, it would seem that money for the work I’ve been carrying out is beginning to slowly flow in.

I’ve invested probably a few thousand of my own – and my family’s – resources on continuing to post to this blog.  I’m now looking to capitalise on this – ethical advertising may be one way, but there are others out there I am investigating.

The content I’ve produced may be to your liking or not – but in the diameter of likes and dislikes which is the worldwide web, there must surely be some people interested in reading and rereading the thoughts I have posted over the past six years or so.  And possibly even paying for the honour.

Well.  It’s a thought anyhow.

Meanwhile, after a few fits and starts (mainly BT Openreach and TalkTalk’s inability to lay fibre as quickly as promised) my English language-learning online service is now very much under way.  I still have to consult on subjects such as Terms & Conditions, Privacy and other policies – as well as the thorny subject of whether tax is applicable to online language-learning delivered from the UK at my level of turnover (very one-man business – and looking to stay that way …).  So if you know a friendly Internet tax and legal adviser, do point him or her in my direction.

My publishing ventures have hit rather more of a brick wall.  I had two lovely texts which I was looking to distribute in Spain last year.  With one of the texts, I came up against strong anti-independence sentiments amongst the intelligentsia of that country which seemed to be responsible for putting a spanner in the works of the initial progress I made.  Meanwhile, the second text was taking time to settle down as the author was still tweaking its approach.  As all good publishing should do, I sat back and waited for it to settle.

So lots of things started; a long haul and much waiting; a lot of investment in time, energy and financial resource; and quite a bit of working as house husband in the meantime.  My children are much better for the latter.  The twelve months prior to my being made redundant had them slightly abandoned as latchkey kids.  Now they have someone to tell their tales to – their school day and thoughts and frustrations – when and as soon as they come through that front door.

They are much better for it.

Much happier and settled in themselves.

*

Opportunities which need to be taken advantage of, then.  Little by little.

And whilst all the above has been happening, our Coalition government, our business infrastructures, our managerialist ideologies, have all been losing the plot.

Though I haven’t posted or tweeted very much at all this week, what little has been able to seep through to me is disastrous lying and half-truths on monumental proportions.

You know how they say the problem with modern life is faceless corporate bodies?  (And in this terminology we can include governments and other institutions just as easily as we might accuse the corporations themselves.)  Well, I think the real problem is not facelessness but faceFULness.  Every time you try and deal with an issue that needs resolving – whether this be after-sales service for a product you’ve bought or simply trying to make an income-tax declarati0n – you are faced not with the faceless but, rather, what we might call the terribly faceful.

And every time you phone up or try and contact someone, it’s always someone else.  They all have first names, of course (only first names as a general rule) – and if you are redirected to a call centre in some faraway country, they have curiously resplendent first names which clearly look to mimic those of the country you are contacting them from.  Names like Cuthbert, Oswald and Geraldine.  Almost there, then, but really not quite.  I wonder out of which hat such names are pulled.

But this facefulness I talk about isn’t the root of the problem so much as an awful symptom.  Whilst the CEOs at the top of the pyramids become publicly renowned and able to wield tremendously irrational power, the poor worker bees at the bottom – who deal with the real customers in this allegedly faceless and yet, even so, face-to-face manner I am describing at the moment – have all the responsibility for everything they cannot do well and none of the rights to decide how they might do it more effectively.

The facefulness I describe, then, is defined and limited thus: plenty of exposure to the consequences of inadequate process and little power to affect how things might be done in the future.

So are our political and business leaders really as stupid as they seem or are they simply entangled in a web of inadequate and counter-productive hierarchy?

And what would the world of business and politics be like if Sir and Lady Worker – the men and women at the coalface of work these days – got to decide themselves how things were properly done?

How things were done – and undone too – for the wider benefit and efficacy of us all?

It’s a thought, you know.

A thought I think we really should pursue.


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Jan 022013
 
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This came my way a few minutes ago:

RT @_Lilykins The irony of Osborne claiming Labour is the party of borrowing, when he’s borrowing at record levels.

As a result, I tweeted the following:

Much better to be the party of borrowing than the party of daylight robbery. At least when you borrow, you aim to give s’thing back.

And then, quite felicitously and via Rick’s always perspicacious eye, came this story from Money Week titled portentously “The End of Britain”.  Apparently we’re stuffed – and not just Christmas-turkey stuffed either.  Roundly, totally and utterly stuffed. Stuffed till the end of time.

The end, in fact, of life as we know it.

Time to buy up supermarkets of tinned foods various?  Time to bunker down in outrageously expensive survivalist holes?

This is clearly Douglas Adams territory.

Clearly is, my friends.

For the solution that Money Week provides for its horrified readers to this veritable apocalypse of barely conceivable and almost indescribable proportions is none other than … wait for it … [innocent drum roll multiplied a thousandfold] … a magazine subscription to its content!

Yay!  Salvation was never so cheap!

A perfect end to a perfectly constructed universe.

The consumer and welfare societies, brought down by their two-headed dependency mindsets.  And yet, now, so dramatically saved at one easy stroke by a simple subscription to a possessor of secret truths like these.

Now where have I heard that before?

<sighs>

Will we never learn?

*

As to whether the oracle, above-mentioned, is right or wrong, I have no professional framework which allows me to provide you with an answer either way.  But what does seem clear is that if what they say ends up taking place, a magazine subscription will be a woeful defence against the societal trauma the publication appears to be predicting.

And if, indeed, as some have suggested, the content is the wizard wheeze of some overblown marketing department, surely it’s time that Money Week did a little bit of fruitful navel-gazing – and analysed its behaviours in terms of the apocalypse it apparently expects.  Printing stuff like this with the mere intention and objective of increasing the take-up of membership subs is hardly the most gratifying spectacle we might witness.

And whether one would choose to be a harbinger of doom or not, there are better ways of making one’s way in the world than this.


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Dec 052012
 
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More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that we need to engage with modern corporations – not aim to destroy them by boycotting their wares.  How difficult the latter is to achieve has just become amazingly clear to me today.

An example, if you wish.  At least, when I visited the 38 Degrees page in question.  A noble attempt, via a festive and timely poster, to highlight corporations which whilst acting entirely legally may also – in the eyes of many – be behaving quite immorally (.pdf).

Only just look at the address bar of the page the poster is served up from:

Yup.  It would appear, quite unconsciously (or maybe otherwise), that 38 Degrees uses Amazon’s web services to publish material critical of the very same company.

Now I’m not posting this to criticise 38 Degrees.  I’m not trying to make anyone look hypocritical.  What I am trying to suggest, for the good of the planet, is that there must come a time when we recognise the brilliant “whats” that these corporations have created on their parallel paths to world domination – at the very same time as we begin to engage constructively with their “hows”.

No.  It’s not right for companies as significant as Amazon or Caffè Nero or Boots to legally tax-avoid their relationships with the communities they make money out of.  It’s not right to do stuff which directly impacts the quality of life of our citizens – especially as governments cut back on social spending the world over.  It’s not right to believe that only the shareholders rule business.  It’s not right to build feathered nests for the few – the few who are lucky enough to find themselves at the top.

Capitalism is a most curious thing.  Amoral to an extreme.  That Amazon should find itself making money out of distribution and delivery services which allow others to criticise its own tax arrangements is just one example of how amoral it is.  And that 38 Degrees, an admirable organisation of our very virtual times, should find it so difficult not to use such a service is, surely, just one more indication of how true my assertions over these past few months have been: there will come a time when the planet needs us all.  Corporations and people both.  The real question is: will we understand this in time?


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Nov 292012
 
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Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:


http://youtu.be/8iuxaVkfHOA?t=3m

He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.

____________________

Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).


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Oct 032012
 
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This story came my way via Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed this evening.  I retweeted it after reading it, then tweeted my own tweet.  I did neglect, however, to take account of the date before doing so.  In the event, the article in question was dated 2007.  Essentially, it accused a major science-journal publisher, which publishes amongst others the hallowed Lancet, of also being involved in the business of arms fairs.  This paragraph in particular captured my gobsmacked attention:

Through its subsidiary, Reed Exhibitions, Reed Elsevier runs arms fairs in Britain, the United States, the Middle East, Brazil, Germany and Taiwan. The same subsidiary runs Lancet conferences, including the forthcoming one in Asia. The Lancet told us how the fairs have in the past included cluster bombs, which are especially dangerous to civilians because they fail to explode and thus create minefields.6The Lancet has consistently spoken out against cluster bombs. Last year’s fair in the US included torture equipment sold by Security Equipment Corporation, who use the grotesque slogan ‘Making grown men cry since 1975.’ The Lancet has long been a leader in condemning torture.

Which was when I then resorted to Wikipedia to see if I could discover anything else.  This section described the current situation as follows:

Members of the medical and scientific communities, which purchase and use many journals published by Reed Elsevier, agitated for the company to cut its links to the arms trade. Two UK academics, Dr. Tom Stafford of Sheffield University and Dr Nick Gill, launched petitions calling on Reed Elsevier to stop organising arms fairs.[21][22] A subsidiary, Spearhead, organised defence shows, including an event where it was reported that cluster bombs and extremely powerful riot control equipment were offered for sale.[23][24]

In February 2007, Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, published an editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, arguing that Reed Elsevier’s involvement in both the arms trade and medical publishing constituted a conflict of interest.[25] He suggested that if academics began to disengage with Reed Elsevier, the company would be likely to end their arms fairs, as arms fairs only comprise a small proportion of their business.

On 1 June 2007, Reed Elsevier announced that they would be exiting the Defence Exhibition business during the second half of 2007.[26]

This means that the company no longer organises arms fairs around the world. The decision followed a high-profile campaign, co-ordinated by CAAT, which highlighted the incompatibility of Reed’s involvement in the arms trade and their position as the number one publisher of medical and science journals and other publications. CAAT welcomed the decision and applauded the board of Reed Elsevier for recognising the concerns of its stakeholders.[27]

So far, so good.  And there was I, kind of feeling a bit guilty for retweeting Tim’s tweet without doublechecking the date and context of the article it referred to.

Which is when a thought did come to my mind: what if Reed’s retreat from the arms business was a tactical one?  What if they continued in, say, related areas?

No.  Surely not.

And really, I’m pretty sure it isn’t the case.  Corporate governance wouldn’t allow a company like Reed Elsevier to retreat so publicly from a position once held so unhappily – and criticised by so many – only for it to once again take up the reins in related areas.

Except …

Here’s a link, hidden under an anodyne TLA on Reed Elsevier’s homepage.  The exhibition ISC West is a security exhibition which “showcases technology and solutions for Law Enforcement, Urban/Border Protection, Campus Safety, and Transportation Security” and includes, in its Global Expo section, “more than 150 international companies featuring leading-edge security solutions from around the world”.

Here you can get a flavour of 2012’s edition on the exhibition’s own Public Security & Safety webpage.  As it coolly points out:

If your job is to protect our borders, towns, cities, schools, healthcare facilities, government institutions, and cargo facilities, Public Security & Safety Expo has all the solutions available for you to research and source. Hundreds of targeted products and services for securing homeland, municipalities, and infrastructure – in all sectors including:

  • Law Enforcement
  • Campus Security
  • Urban/Border Protection
  • Air, Land, Sea and Rail Security

I guess, again, that this is really rather small beer compared to the full-blown arms fairs which used to be the case in the bad old days of 2007 – but even so, hobnobbing with security professionals from 900 companies in total – more than 150 of which appear to come from outside the US – hardly seems to my inexpert eye to be the most compatible activity with that of publishing medical and scientific journals.

What’s more, there’s a helluva lot of money involved in ISC West.  This much, for example:

[...] According to the event’s website, the show’s attendees represent more than $50 billion in purchasing power and more than 50 percent of buyers there do not attend any other major security event.

That’s a lot of money out there for those involved simply to be spending on “access control solutions”, “closed circuit television” and “wireless transmitters”.

So what is Reed Elsevier – a medical- and scientific-journal publisher – doing with a security-exhibition business which allegedly gathers into its fold those kinds of dollars?  If truth be told, at least according to their web presence, at least as I saw it today, they facilitate lots of other exhibitions too – ranging from jewellery to books and production machines.  It’d be churlish and unfair on my part, therefore, not to recognise the breadth of their offer – or to give the impression it was more focussed on security than any other activity.  But without having the resource to corroborate the data, I do wonder if any other exhibition the company organises attracts anywhere close to $50 billion worth of purchasing power – if, indeed, this figure is an accurate one.

One final thought.  If Reed Elsevier’s exhibitions arm was looking to manage this event as simply one more arrow in its quiver of corporate offerings, mixed in with jewellery, book and production-machine expos, I don’t suppose I could find it in myself to argue – at least commercially – with such an approach.  Fair dos, in fact.  Spread your risks; dabble in this and that; ensure shareholder interests are protected … it’ll be, after all, a complex business of contradictory overheads, the cycles of which will need to be balanced very carefully.

Except that, sadly, it wouldn’t appear to be the case.  This, for example, on Reed’s expansion into the security-exhibition business in Mexico:

Expo Seguridad Mexico, Mexico Safety Expo, ISC and ISC Brasil will collaborate on the development of world-class content and customer value for exhibitors and visitors by extending strong customer relationships across borders. Both Expo Seguridad Mexico’s and Mexico Safety Expo’s established strategic partnerships and knowledge of the Latin American marketplace will provide an additional gateway for North American, Central and South American physical security and safety sectors.

And this:

“We are truly excited about the addition of Expo Seguridad Mexico and Mexico Safety Expo into our global portfolio of ISC events and look forward to the co-location with ROC-NFPA’s Mexico Fire Expo”, said Ed Several, Senior Vice President & General Manager, ISC Events. “Together, we will leverage our mutual and combined strengths for this exciting and strategic opportunity to support Mexico’s thriving security marketplace. We are well poised to help customers create an increased profile among international buyers and open new opportunities in this part of the world.”

And this:

ISC Events are part of Reed Exhibitions’ 13 physical, safety and IT security events on five continents: Asia; Africa; Europe; N. America; S. America. The ISC portfolio consists of ISC West, an annual event, held in Las Vegas, NV, USA showcasing the newest products, technologies and solutions to a global audience of security professionals; ISC Solutions, offering the regional Northeast security marketplace with an educational and exhibition platform in New York; ISC Brasil, an annual event in São Paulo, showcasing physical security technologies and products for the South America marketplace and a portfolio of One2one Summits, high-level, exclusive meetings between buyers and sellers to solve specific security needs;

Now it’s clear from all the above that Reed Elsevier and its subsidiaries don’t just do security.  But a trend does seem to be pretty clear – and the temptation to follow the money must be difficult to resist.  Is this a case of that tactical retreat I spoke of earlier – or is it simply a case of a completely and appropriately above-the-board set of business relationships which don’t impact, in any way, on the integrity of the company’s other publishing-related activities?

I do hope the latter is the case, of course.  It’s just that alleged figure of $50 billion that gets me.  It’s an awfully grand amount of money for its expo attendees to be spending on innocuous tech.

Anyone from the company care to comment on, correct or clarify any of the above?


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Sep 282012
 
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I had a bit of a Twitter chat today with a Guardian journalist on the subject of the Guardian and its recent levels of political commitment.  I’m not going to quote each exchange but will, instead, summarise my thesis – a thesis which, in the event, was roundly rejected.

It’s not the first time I’ve suggested this might be the case, but on other occasions I’ve been rather more rambling.  So here’s the short version to bring us all up-to-date.

I compared the trajectory of the newspaper with Rupert Murdoch’s own as publisher.  I suggested that at the beginning of the latter’s professional career, he tended to chase the money more than engineer a particular political point of view.  If I am right in this assumption, his could then fairly be described as a hollow empire – because there was little it did which actually tied its different publications into one particular political mindset or another.

His downfall at the hands of the last decade or two could arguably be said to have come as a result of sliding – much as Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (more here) before him – precisely into that dialectic battle of the committed publisher.  In many instances (though not all, even so: we have, for example, the sharply right-wing Weekly Standard in the US alongside the cuddly but generally subversive TV output of the Simpsons family virtually everywhere), his output now befits that of the charismatic leadership where nothing really needs to be said any longer for people to know which line to peddle.  And so it is possible for a man, who in a huge media empire is clearly unable to be everywhere, to be at the heart of a publication’s daily production cycle.

From simply creator of wealth to kingmaker of the political right.  That is the trajectory of Murdoch.

The Guardian then?  It was easy, at least as I remember it when an adolescent reader, to know who the Guardian stood up for.  As I’ve recently observed, it wasn’t the most concise or focussed of papers – at least in my memory – which is why I actually preferred it: the people who wrote for it, even in the news and sports sections, didn’t homogenise their attitudes but – rather – seemed to share them because they were morally right.  There was a sense of working-life wisdom which its pages seemed to exude.

Rose-tinted spectacles?  Clearly.

But I think, quite at the margin of the contained emotion in the above paragraph, and its corresponding potential to be read as foolish, my thesis still deserves a hearing: Manchester’s Guardian, rooted in the North of England, had quite a different take from the Guardian which slowly evolved after that retreat.  And if Murdoch has moved along the scale from simple pursuit of wealth creation to a far more complex pursuit of political commitment, which simultaneously and more directly shapes society in the UK even as it also serves to benefit his financial interests and connections, then I would sadly sustain that the Guardian has moved in the opposite direction.

From a clear commitment to the voice of the poorer sections of society to a page-impression-chasing relativism which, while to its credit still ensures the poor do have a voice, even so does also drown that voice out in a myriad of other voices – a myriad which, in any case, already owns a far more powerful visibility elsewhere.

It was once the fate of Murdoch to simply chase the money, before he had the power and resources to lose the undeniable focus and ability his early days as editor obviously demonstrated.

It is now the Guardian‘s turn to look for solutions to an admittedly worrying and challenging publishing environment.  And whilst I can understand the reasons for wishing to chase page impressions so vigorously, or find alternative sources of reliable funding, I’m still not clear that as an institution the paper really knows what such a process has done, is doing and will do to its soul.


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Sep 242012
 
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The Guardian is looking for ingenious ways to support its journalism, in a world where “freeconomics” are driving traditional publishers absolutely spare.  And I can fully understand and appreciate the quandary – even as I do not entirely agree with the tools this newspaper has used.

The latest suggestion to come out of the Guardian‘s marketing department was something I suggested years ago on my now dormant publishing blog, Zebra Red.  You can find two of the pieces in question here and here.  In essence, we could argue that the content producers have lost out to the distributors – those who make the money these days, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sell access to generally free content which newspapers, writers, film-makers and musicians various are finding it incredibly difficult to live off.

The solution then?  Cream off some of the money which the ISPs currently keep for their lonesomes – and redistribute it through some ingeniously automated system in terms, presumably, of usage and page impressions.

This is Mr Greenslade blogging on the suggestion this morning:

Has David Leigh cracked it? We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net (see here and here and here). One obvious model is the funding of the BBC through its licence fee.

Objectors to such an idea – including current commercial proprietors – have argued, unsurprisingly, on press freedom lines. Any connection to the state is to be avoided.

But Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, has come up with a very clever quasi alternative: charge a levy of, say, £2 a month on the bills of subscribers to UK broadband providers. Then distribute the money to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership.

You can see his reasoning and consider his sums in his article today – in print, page 32, or online here.

Now I can fully appreciate that content producers which add considerable value to society – whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum – may feel rather abused by the cut latterday distributors are taking from the equation.  In many cases, I can imagine it’s not even the forty percent of traditional book publishing but, rather, closer to a destructive hundred percent of all incomes generated.

So I’m sympathetic to the suggestion, especially as I am myself struggling to make a professional living out of my writing.  But I would ask four questions of those who would jump on the bandwagon – just in case they’re able to think twice before doing so:

  1. If the principle of levies on what are essentially 21st century utilities is to spread to other areas, who’s to say Jeremy Hunt won’t one day argue we need to bill our electricity users to keep the recently privatised NHS lights burning?  This levy, after all, proposes to charge a public like myself in order to support private industries which may very well choose not to publish or disseminate my political views in the least.  Why, under any constitutional arrangement, should I be obliged to pay for opinions and news-gathering positions I do not want to see spread around, when I use something like the Internet: as ubiquitous and essential a utility for the functioning of a 21st century state as water, gas and other basic services before it?
  2. If we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband, and this does help to landgrab more of our evermore limited discretional spending for private journalism (whether we care to read papers or not), and – in the end – this succeeds in rebuilding a battered industry so that traditional newspaper journalism enters a brave new online world with its head held finally and remarkably high (on, it has to be said, the backs of the workers), who is to guarantee that they won’t recreate themselves as wasteful, expansionary and world-dominating media empires?  For if working people’s cash is going to be recycled into corporate pockets without democratic oversight, I really don’t see the difference here between the Guardian‘s suggestion for publishing – and what Lansley first, and Hunt now, have been doing over at the NHS.
  3. Penultimately, why does the Guardian suggest an extra levy on top of existing broadband prices?  Why doesn’t it fight bravely – Robin-Hoodedly even – to extricate some of the cash already swilling around ISPs as the grand evil distributors of our time?  Is it that the paper and its executives have calculated it’s safer to antagonise its readers for a bit than fight the technology corporations tooth and nail for a piece of the existing action?
  4. Finally, if we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband access so that private industries can continue to push the sometimes marvellous, occasionally twisted, content they produce, wouldn’t in some subtle and inconvenient way the content thus produced begin to belong to us?  That is to say, to be reused and appropriated at will perhaps?  Now who’d really like to provoke – and then sort out – a copyright mess like that?

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Sep 142012
 
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Yes, I know.  It’s pretty hackneyed to say so.  It’s a cliché – yet, even so, a truth.

Is that why publishing empires like Murdoch’s have grown to such a size?  He has, after all, specialised in giving people what they allegedly want.  And perhaps, for some decades, what people have wanted is precisely not the truth.  The truth consists in the following:

  1. Those in charge will always remain in charge.
  2. Those in charge are not those best suited to rule.
  3. Those in charge will always try and make your life more miserable.
  4. Those in charge are there to win every bloody battle.
  5. Those in charge are there to win every bloodless battle.
  6. Those in charge are bloody, full stop.
  7. Those in charge are greedy and money-grabbing.
  8. Those in charge are always lying.
  9. Those in charge feather their nests at our expense.
  10. Those in charge are permanent cuckoos in the nests of democracy.

Mind you, one truth that Murdoch does sell runs as follows:

  1. Given the chance, we’d all love to be like those in charge.

Or so, at least, I used to believe.  But I do truly think things are changing.  My last post kind of reaches, in a nakedly rambling sort of way, a quite precise conclusion:

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

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

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

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

Perhaps we are seeing a changing of the guard in the publishing world.  Murdoch’s penchant for avoiding the truth in his papers, that hackneyed clichéd boring truth which no wage slave on a daily basis would be able to survive, is being undermined by the amateur realities we generally honestly transmit in our social media communications.  And even when you avoid your truth in such communications, it’s eventually clear to the gathered audience what you’re really about – as well as where that truth is to be found.  So whether you tell the truth or not, the multi-directional nature of social media makes it impossible to convincingly sustain for any length of time a posture which does not approximate to reality.

Think of the tabloid empires throughout history and how they managed to support establishment inexactitudes.  Think of phonehacking and the police; think of certain MPs’ outrageous privileges; think of Hillsborough and maybe the miners too; think of Iraq and other points of intellectually brutalised conflict, wiped out in a tide of impositional politics.

The age of editing reality – without a productive and immediate comeback from those who might know differently – is coming to an end.

In a sense, therefore, so is traditional newspaper publishing.

The future lies once more in the hackneyed and clichéd realities that fairly paint our world as it actually is – instead of as the powerful would have it be shaped.

Thank goodness it’s Friday, eh?  Thank goodness it’s Friday.


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Aug 192012
 
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I suggested in my previous post that the WikiLeaks publishing model – with a moderately curated information-dumping mission to whistleblow politics and business – needed revisiting.  The value such an institution might add to representative democracy, once the ground rules were rewritten and duly communicated to everyone who has access to the kind of power that almost inevitably seems to lead to abuse these days, would hardly be inconsiderable.

Something, after all, you have to agree, is needed to counteract the overwhelming ability that top-flight politicians and corporate leaders have these days to impose their points of view without healthy and logical debate.  And not because we envy their privileges: rather, because acquiring them as they do, without proper discussion or democratic oversight, is simply prejudicial for the future of our shared civilisations.

But I think we can go further than simply praise WikiLeaks as an institution our democracies and business environments would benefit from.  WikiLeaks is the most notable model of an absolute attachment to revealing unnecessary and inefficient underbellies the world over.  How much better would the process work, though, if WikiLeaks was first and foremost only the first step in a wider industry?

That WikiLeaks was always likely to be at the mercy of Western governments unhappy to be caught with their democratic pants at their undemocratic lead boots is undeniable.  That it needed to be the case – however – is quite another matter.  WikiLeaks may have done it biggest, best and early on – but it hasn’t done it quite as intelligently as it could have done; nor, indeed, as representative democracy needed it to.

What I’m really saying is that WikiLeaks needs competitors to sharpen up its act.  But in order that such a competition should arise from the very many challenges presented by the cesspit in which representative democracy currently finds itself, we need a clear declaration on the part of Western democracies that the WikiLeaks mission – to whistleblow serious and socially prejudicial malpractice in politics and business both – is a mission which we require and desire our media to carry out.

Perhaps, then, what we really require and desire of our governments is a common recognition of and signing up to a Whistleblowing Charter.  A recognition of the principle that whistleblowing is good for politics, good for business, good for society and good for the progress of humanity.  Only then would sufficient groups and organisations feel that pursuing political and business miscreants – difficult and challenging in itself – would not also imply the heavy burden of US disapproval, excommunication or worse.

For curiously enough – in a century where one might presume the freedom of speech the US has treasured for so long would have its ultimate opportunity to shine – the issue ends up being a question of whether the US is prepared to contemplate a proper control of its most powerful.

It’s my assertion that only through a competitive marketplace of serious information can we at all hope to recover the democratic engagement which once guaranteed our marketplaces, our societies, our cultures and our technologies.  But without that Whistleblowing Charter I mention above, who would now dare to follow in the footsteps of a slightly megalomaniac publisher by the name of Assange?

Even where such a megalomania is well documented and established in publishing history.

And even where a massive ego may be necessary to get such a project off the ground in the first place.

After all, in a sense we could conclude that WikiLeaks, with its charismatic and highly visible editor, is more in the tradition of traditional Fleet Street empires than the crowdsourcing intelligences of the 21st century web.  Just think if instead of a rather centralised and overbearing editing and publishing model, we chose to decentralise as per the recent history of the web not only distribution but also mission; not only content but also direction.

And just imagine if this were possible with the explicit permission and sign-up of regenerated democracies – democracies which decided, for their own survival and intellectual efficiency, that they had to look to progress out of the 19th century mindsets which right now they still sadly occupy.

A dream of the foolish?  Well, that’s where these pages often find us.  But in order to build a better world, sometimes you do have to imagine it.


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Aug 182012
 
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I just tweeted the following thought:

WikiLeaks, as a publishing model, made two-faced politics (as well as business, let’s not forget) very challenging. It deserves fresh look.

And I think it’s true.  Whistleblowing in many large organisations is strongly supported and part of continuous-training programmes for all workers – certainly, the theoretical message we often get from HR departments leads one to believe that such an act is an honourable and sometimes all too necessary one.

And WikiLeaks has been nothing more nor less than a virtual implementation of a real-world instinct which perhaps more of us should take on board and exhibit.  That its very visible editor has allegedly fallen foul of the law shouldn’t allow those of us interested in the wider issues of publishing in the 21st century to forget that WikiLeaks offers up an interesting challenge to what was clearly un secreto a voces: those who occupy the top and middle-range echelons of power quite casually lie to their voting publics about sincerely serious and significant issues.

But, perhaps more importantly where the private sphere impacts on the public, this two-faced behaviour, so casually redolent of corrupting Communist regimes of the 20th century, and where allowed to take place, is permitting the private sector – in some cases literally – to get away with murder.

Yes.  WikiLeaks was unfair, in one very important sense.  Everyone knew they could speak their mind behind the closed walls of supposedly democratic government.  And speaking one’s mind is sometimes not a pleasant moment to witness – even as it may be appropriate and, perhaps, inevitable.  Yet what WikiLeaks did was to radically change the ground rules without warning the participants that a smoke-and-mirrors operation was suddenly to become a goldfish bowl of revelations.

If we were to contemplate anew a fresh sort of WikiLeaks, where to some degree democratic government understand the value of an almost absolute public oversight of almost all democratic deliberations, and where it was also judged and agreed that private industry should be submitted to the same rights of whistleblowing access in order to prevent abuses of power and quasi-criminal activity, then perhaps we could move on from what has clearly become a series of personal questions – questions where the behaviours of one individual have come to represent and substitute reasoned argument about the institution in question as well as its philosophy and mission.

I would go further, in fact.  I would submit that if we are to have half a chance in the next decade of rescuing representative democracy from the clutches of private fascism and individually motivated and levered criminality, we will need the kind of constructively merciless and truthful institution which WikiLeaks could quite easily have become.

And if you feel I’m wasting my time on this matter or can’t see the need for modern politicians and businesspeople to hide behind their expensively mounted façades of PR-engineered realities, just take this final thought away with you: how many traditional politicians and businesspeople who you know would be happy, comfortable and in favour of working in the limelight of an independent and exclusively information-dumping organisation run along the conceptual lines of a WikiLeak’s publishing model?

And if the number collapses to fewer than the fingers on one hand, ask yourself exactly why.

Before, that is, you ask that the hand in question be cut off.


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Aug 122012
 
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This started out as a comment to a reply Dave Semple posted in his “Requiem for a Blog”.  I thought I’d reproduce it here because I feel it may have a wider applicability to others who may frustratedly feel the same at the moment on the subject of left-wing participation in the blogosphere in particular – as well as social media more generally:

“But as a great man once said, philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Yes. That is very true. I still do wonder if what we need out here is a better feedback mechanism.  So much of what we have written gets taken onboard (that’s my firm belief) – and yet we can’t be absolutely sure it has at all, because a comment isn’t made even as a conclusion is quietly reached.

Blogging see-saws between furious trolling on the one hand and an uncommon reader silence on the other.  The happy medium – where the comments are just as important and frequent as the OPs; a happy medium which I have to say has often been found on TCF – is not widely apparent elsewhere.  So if you were looking to engage people and get them off their backsides, in our monitor-facing virtual world you already achieved quite a lot.

It’s clearly not enough, of course – and your appeal to change the real world in order that as a side-effect the blogosphere be conquered is revealing.  Everyone wants a job.  That individuals use their freely offered-up writings to lever such positions of paid employment is only human.  That it should corrupt the potential power of the blogosphere was perhaps inevitable.  That the solution is to retire from a game you feel you cannot win – and which you conclude in any case is secondary to the real task at hand – is, however, in my gently expressed opinion, not a viable option.

But I do respect the thought processes which have led you to such a conclusion.  Those I cannot deny – they are as totally coherent as one could want.

Perhaps you’re simply not a natural editor- and blogger-in-chief?  Too impatient to sit back and let ideas take their unpredictable and unrecognised course?

Or perhaps you were once a natural editor- and blogger-in-chief – and now you’ve grown into something else?  Doesn’t mean you have to reinterpret the past – or conclude that the tool that got you thus far is generally corrupting, weak and inappropriate for left-wing agitation.

That the big bloggers scurry rapidly to become as MSM as possible is their choice.  It doesn’t, however, have to be ours.

Each to his own is the principle which I think might operate here.

I’m never going to be able to stand up physically in front of a crowd and lead them intelligently through the steps a revolution should take.  I simply cannot do it – I would physically shake.  I *can* gather my thoughts in front of a computer screen and put them together reasonably cogently.  If you are prepared enough and capable enough to do the first, and are good at organisation, and can see clearly enough to communicate your vision in first person, then do so.  And let others, who are only just setting out on their journey of understanding, creep there slowly by beginning to write and communicate tentatively in public.  Where that is what *they* want to do.

The blogosphere often serves as a mechanism of self-initiated consciousness-raising.  Yes.  It’s inefficient, lumberingly repetitive and leads to so many people reinventing the wheel.  But it also means that once such a state of awareness is reached, a real sea-change of understanding is auto-cemented.

Truth of the matter is that what we’re unable to achieve right now is a useful appreciation of how to tap into those very permanent sea-changes – and take advantage of them for our own ends.  But they *are* out there – and they *do* exist.

Don’t give up on social media, Dave.  Even if it simply means you choose to use it behind the scenes, only.

And I would say the same to all of you out there who find it difficult to maintain the patience of ages.  Publishing – a measured historical act which, under social media’s auspices, has morphed into an instantaneous tool for rapid communication – even now sustains its ability to lay down future paths of unknowable development.  It’s true.  Sometimes we don’t know if what we are doing will lead to a modern “Mein Kampf” – or, alternatively, to a truly brave new world we can all be proud of.

But there is nothing we can do about those unquantifiables – all that is open to us is the choice between an irreproachably perfect inaction or a criticisably imperfect participation.

I know which choice I’d prefer to make.

So what about you?

Where are you going to stand?


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Jun 142012
 
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Yesterday, I wondered if democracy wasn’t too moral – too nit-picking – for its own good.  Today, via Twitter, Philip Blond argues that:

While A levels grades are rising UK now 23rd in the OECD for reading and writing – we are very poorly educated compared to our competitors

Poorly educated?  By what definition?  As nit-pickers who play their fearful tunes on the earthly Titanic of planetary disaster?

Three reasons, then, why Blond’s 140-character definition of where we’re at in education doesn’t convince me.  The first reason, as per George Takei’s Facebook page.

The second reason, which talks about how our traditional methods of defining learning success are totally inadequate to the job in hand – again, as per another Facebook-distributed image.

The third reason, via an Ipsos OTX opinion survey on being human-savvy versus being tech-savvy:

It may be a hi-tech digital world, but the heart still rules. Given the choice, 65% of us would rather be people-savvy than tech-savvy, a number that skews higher with women, 71% of whom value people-smarts over geek-smarts. Maybe that’s why so many tech marketers play to the heart, to connections between people, to romance and dreams.

Interestingly, however:

In emerging technology powers China and India, though, being tech-savvy trumps being people-savvy. [...]

So to the question at the heart of this post: what is reading and writing good for anyway?  Before, as Norm points out, when endured, it guaranteed a certain long-term reward:

[...] I will hazard just one thing, and this without benefit of any familiarity with educational research or theory: some disciplines of learning do have to be imparted, because the very idea of real learning as pure spontaneity or pure fun is illusory.

Very true.  But if the purpose of life in the future is to make money at practically all costs, in order that we may help protect our offspring from the fearful dangers of a Darwinian capitalism (the state withering away as the welfare safety nets which protected us from the wolf at the door serve, instead, to unlock that selfsame door), that is to say, if financial survival rather than educated thought becomes the guiding light of our civilisation, what good will be the nit-picking skills reading and writing sustain when applied in that base and anti-intellectual world of modern cut-and-thrust – that world where professional executive-summary readers rule?

In fact, if survival does become the paradigm for our Western civilisation, who will have the time to want to read and write at all?

If being tech-savvy is the way forward for all our economies, aren’t we disestablishing the place of humanity even more than – to date – our socioeconomic policies have led us to allow?

And who says “if”?  Maybe survival is already our lot.

Maybe reading and writing have been the main cause of our downfall – ponderous skills which lead those who enjoy exerting them to miss the boat of an alleged tech-driven progress.

A word of caution, though, to leave you with: despite my reservations yesterday on the dangers of too much measured and time-consuming democratic morality, I might also be inclined to underline the contrary risks of quick-thinking.  Quick-thinking is the antithesis of many arts and traditions we are losing: publishing is just one; perhaps the one I am most familiar with.  Like a film truly worth its footage, a good book needs time to pass through the hands of its many creators.

Maybe the boat we are really missing is the boat of deep thought.

Or maybe, more sadly, reading and writing have had their day – and the years we now have ahead of us are simply times of inevitable crisis which form part of the cycle that is humanity on this globe.  The other day I read how some international organisation or other was indicating that we as a species were now in freefall towards a place of planetary no-return.  And I do wonder how it is we have managed to place ourselves so firmly at the centre of an ecosystem we supposedly should share with so many other creatures – creatures which have spent centuries suffering at our behest.

If our reading and writing – those activities which really do distinguish us from our fellow species – have passed their sell-by dates (that is to say, no longer serving the purpose they once fulfilled), and our planet rearranges matters so as to remove our existence from its face, surely life will go on as in such closed systems it always must.

Just not necessarily the life we imagined rather selfishly – even where literarily – for ourselves.


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