Oct 162013

Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

Oct 062013

I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.


Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


Sep 212013

Last night (well, early this morning), I discovered how one might be connected to two separate Skype accounts from the same Windows user on the same device at exactly the same time.  I’m currently waiting for clever bods to confirm (if confirmation’s possible) that this is a robust technique – but if it is … my, does it provide a facility I’m sure people with both personal and biz accounts have, for quite some time now, had on their rather random software wish-lists.

If you want to know more, have a look at my Twitter timeline from this morning.  In the meantime, I shall wait for any possible tests to be completed.

This kind of stuff, this random stumbling across felicitous discovery, is kind of what life – certainly my life – has periodically thrown up.  It’s the good bit about life, this – that we can reach beyond our limitations and studies and, through some kind of curious unpredictable case of intuition, add far more value to our sum of knowledge than might be reasonably expected.

We are bigger and better and kinder and brighter than the number-crunching wizards of technological capitalism might allow.

As I tweeted just now:

If we live in a history of masses where individuals have levered disproportionate control, what *is* there to do except live where one can?

And as someone else sadly observed, as a society we are capable of staying up till 2 in the morning to queue up for a new-fangled piece of technology – but, at the same bloody awful time, we do not fight for social justice.

I’ve just, myself, committed the same unhappy infraction: following a train of information-technology thought throughout the early hours of Saturday morning in order to solve a fairly irrelevant issue I’ve long had with a piece of software I regularly work with.

Instead of, that is, going to this socialist demonstration or that – or doorstepping that family or this.

It’s a tragedy, what’s happened.  Yes.  History has become of the masses, as many a Marxian I suppose would suggest was inevitable.  But a small and very focussed group of the selfish has learnt how to conduct the masses in one direction or another.  We are not as complex as we would like to presume.  Through a constant process of “message massage”, we have learnt our place in that mass is a hyper-individualised and localised one.  Paradoxically, social networks do not socialise our environment but actually, massively, serve to individualise our every instinct and impulse.

Really, social networks should be redefined: they do not socialise at all.  Rather, they are pieces of aggressively individualising software code designed specifically – quite consciously – to repeat and reproduce an atomising series of patterns of networked interactions.  We do not interact to build sharing networks with these systems at all.  Instead, we interact to build selfishness-engendering relationships where a contagion and infection of behaviours and beliefs takes place.

They don’t put us, in any way, in a social network to be social.  They put us in a social network to become antisocial.

And whilst Marxian masses were once thought bringers (where not harbingers) of inevitable history, those who still stand atop these society-defining pyramids of (globally) inefficient command and control have worked out cleverly, perhaps unintentionally but certainly convincingly, how to make the masses in question work not for that history we might have hoped for (or not, as the case may be) – but rather for their pockets ever-deepening.

We are selfish beings without a jot of altruism.  That is what we have become – or they have made us.

Your call.

Or your video-conference, as the case may be.

Aug 252013

I’ve been wondering the same.  We’re criticising and slamming and dunking with clever words this state we believe is a police state already.

Or not quite yet, as the case may be.

Yet this tweet encapsulates something I’ve also been pondering:

If you can publish an article in a national newspaper comparing your country to a police state, it probably isn’t anywhere near one.

The question, however, I think is quite different.  What – if like so many post-modern moments – this is now a post-modern police state, where the rules of the game have been utterly reconverted?

A new kind of state which has learned from previous manifestations.  Yes.  I’ve seen a tweet describe how Ceaușescu’s regime registered all the typewriters in the country in order to be able to doublecheck the origins of any communication – with the inference that such behaviours were a precursor to what we have on the table now; I’ve seen other comments appear to compare the American NSA with the East German Stasi – comments which let it be understood the Stasi were small beer compared with today.

But I’m beginning to think that the new contract drawn up – even as it has been drawn up without our cognisance – is not exactly, not quite, the police state we’re assuming it must be.

A police state it is – don’t get me wrong.  A police state where everyone is under suspicion.  But a police state which has learnt to allow social networks an important role in keeping the lid on dreadful circumstance.  In any other time, a government which allowed thousands of disabled people to die as a direct result of its policy adjustments would be massacred at the polls; in the media that cared to report it; in the parishes and grapevines that used to populate our country.

Now it would seem that people can become homeless as a result of the “bedroom tax”; the homeless can end up crushed in wheelie bins as a result of their poverty; and the poor who have nothing to eat can get sentenced to prison for stealing a sausage roll.  And nothing happens.  That is to say, nobody at government level cares to reconsider anything they are.

Anything they are, think or do.

This, then, is the new kind of state I describe above.  A state where democracy no longer pretends its main objective is to represent the will of the people through the ballot box: the function of the ballot box, instead, is to legitimise the actions of a minority.  As John Prescott describes today in a gently analogous process:

As Deputy Prime Minister I was asked by GCHQ to sign phone tap orders in order to trace the terrorists behind Omagh. I later discovered GCHQ had been tracking these individuals for weeks and my ­signature simply legitimised this State-backed phone hacking.

Writ larger, this is what has happened to representative democracy.  What politicians are going to do, like corporations and their blessed succession-planning procedures, is already well laid-out way before an election takes place.  We simply serve to rubber-stamp wealth’s instincts, justifications and objectives.  And if we don’t always act according to the unwritten script, something else happens to impulse other actions; something else happens to cloak the reality in the inevitability of a sadly-tough political medicine – a medicine which aims to make us believe our political leaders, and their sponsors, have their hands just as sadly tied.

What’s really new about this police state is it’s actually morphed into a policed state: everything we are, do or think is getting to the point where it’s liable to be recorded and copied by someone.  From CCTV in train toilets to Internet logs which register every website we go to … you know, it’s actually quite astonishing in a world where copyright law imprisons people for decades for the accessible crime of copying content in its digital form that, at least in security and marketing contexts, the very stuff of our own flesh-and-blood lives is quite easily the most broadly-copied and widely-shared sequence of events on the planet.

And I really do not hear anyone shouting out loud that our intellectual property rights over our existences are being deliberately and summarily violated.

Do you?

I didn’t think you did.

Anyhow.  Notwithstanding my intellectual bleating, this new kind of state has clearly shifted the onus of democratic representation onto the social networks.  As it has become easier to complain virtually, so representative democracy has moved away from giving space to such complaints.  Where we social-network users thought our acts made democracy better, it’s quite possible that our lords, masters and mistresses have actually invented/taken advantage of a way of venting off further requirements to respond – in any politically meaningful way – to any kind of societal dissatisfaction at all.

This is a police state which doesn’t – as a general rule – put people in prison, so much as construct virtual prisons within which we all are now living our lives.

It’s almost as if we’ve moved from being battery chickens to being their free-range cousins; from inhabiting caged zoos to inhabiting safari-parked enclosures.  The frame looks so big and beautiful now – yet frame it continues to be.

And so they’ve imprisoned all of us, and so it is true – just as wild animals and pets become domesticated in what were once very English castles.  And in this new kind of post-modern police state of ours theirs, we they no longer need to incarcerate anyone.

We’re already, most of us, more or less cheerfully behind bars.

The only possible upside being maybe one day – just maybe – we’ll be on the outside looking in.

Aug 152013

Some months ago, I wrote on the subject of my own experiences of mental ill health and made connections with the effect environment can have on people.  In the piece in question, I concluded thus:

Or, alternatively, enter into a completely different landscape where psychiatrists comprehend that much of what is seen as disorder is in fact reaction and adjustment by perfectly sane beings painfully hurting from painful lives?  As James observes:

Britons and Americans have exactly twice the amount of mental illness of mainland western Europeans (23% versus 11.5%). Thirty years of Thatcher and “Blatcher” turned us into a nation of “affluenza”-stricken, shop-till-you-drop, “it could be you”, credit-fuelled consumer junkies. Personal debt – a major stressor for adults – rose from £200bn in 1980 to £1,400bn in 2006. After 1979, the amount of mental illness mushroomed.

Maybe sanity, madness and the family – in its environmental and reactive emphasis – wasn’t such a wild mantra, after all. It’s an old dichotomy, of course – but no less worth revisiting for all that.

Not after the shock to the system which neoliberalism has – more than manifestly – engineered.

Today, meanwhile, this miserable piece of news flits through my timeline, as more famous celebrities from my childhood are accused of the kind of things – sexual abuse on a massive scale – which we should never ever allow anyone to forget.

This is, of course, nothing more nor less than the abuse of power (the bold is mine today):

These matters are being sold as a righteous society cleaning up after sexual perverts.  Two reactions on my part:

  1. The sexual abuse committed (or not) by those currently in the limelight is not principally a matter of sorry individuals abusing others sexually – but, rather, a question of the powerful abusing the powerless.  It is not sex which matters most here but, instead, the abuse by those at the top of our societal trees over those who find themselves almost inevitably at the bottom.
  2. Inasmuch as we are talking not about sex but – in truth – about power, the lesson we should draw is that any abuse of any power by absolutely anyone – and not just tabloidy abuse of a lascivious nature in a sexually couched transaction – is, frankly, as bad as absolutely any other.

And this abuse of power, which everyone has experienced either as abuser or abused (or even both at different times in our lives), is what capitalism – as an overarchingly invasive tool of everything we do, think and believe in – has managed to turn into an object of manipulation; has managed to encourage us to “misremember”.

It seems to me, in fact, as we see the parade of tax-avoiding and evading corporations and individuals, as the link between rights and responsibilities is destroyed for those who have most rights – the already powerful – and unremittingly tightened for those with the least – the inevitably disadvantaged – and as politicians learn to spout evermore vigorously on the weaknesses of everyone, everything and everywhere (excepting that which we are discovering on their doorsteps), so it becomes clear that people’s memories are subject to a permanent deformation which the capitalist system and its leaders in both society and business have always made their special goal.

In some cases, safely at a distance from the time of the original crimes, the people’s memories may be allowed their public space: celebrity DJs, childhood stalwarts, those who commit abuses of power of an easily revolting nature … such releases of feeling help politicians sustain the myth that they are looking primarily to protect us from the evils of our times.

David Cameron’s porn filter is one example.  My blog is blocked already by O2′s parental-control filter.  A small price to pay for a safer world, perhaps.  Or, perhaps, not.  Either way, on the back of the undoubted threat of sexual abuse, and through the long memories of the public now unleashed after so many years under a savagely suspicious control, politicians, along with their business sponsors (maybe indirectly, maybe with little absolute collusion, maybe with a full and cognisant appreciation of every single step which has been taken), are encouraging us to take the opportunity to punish one kind of abuse of power on the one hand, that of sex between individuals who do not occupy similar levels of power over each other, whilst perpetuating another kind of abuse of power on the other.

Which is to say, that of the politician and business leader over their respective constituencies.

Capitalism’s ills may primarily be economic.  Just ask any citizen with problems getting to the end of the month who lives in Greece, Spain or – indeed – Britain these days.  But capitalism’s solution will not be forged any time soon without a common agreement on the importance of maintaining the integrity of people’s memories: about what has been worked in the past; about the crimes others have committed; about the injustice of manipulating such memories.

When the practice of historical story-telling becomes a tool in the hands of those who would undermine objectivity and honesty, we truly have a corrupting system.

This is why I realise bearing witness on social media is, in a sense, a first step to forging that solution.  By denying capitalism’s abusers the opportunity to deform our memories of what has happened, or at least fighting hard to keep our memories as intact as possible, we are better placed to reform the system we all work within.  And if you feel the word is hardly “deform”, maybe the word should not be not “reform” either.  Maybe the latter action needs a far stronger terminology than that.

Whatever we do in the end, whether disruptive or simply placatory, it must be done on the basis of truth.  Capitalism, through history, has always been well-versed in moulding such appreciations to its own benefit – essentially of sustaining humongous lies.  It’s time we understood this can no longer go on.  Out of capitalism’s gadgets; despite the censorship which Western politicians like Cameron want us to sleepwalk into; although our communications will never be entirely free … even so, we have the option of constructing an alternative narrative that doesn’t need to depend on the mainstream to sustain itself.

Our truth will continue to bridge the space between people’s memories and the arrogance of a capitalism which, for far too long, has sincerely believed there is no alternative.

But arrogance is the anteroom to hubris.  And hubris, to downfall.

Even as social media – and its corresponding networks and communities – begin to construct a parallel universe.

Based – quite rightly – on everything the people refuse to forget, any longer.  Actually, on everything the people never forgot.

What’s changed then?  We don’t need, any more, the police or the justice system for the truth to come to light, to be shared, to be massively spread.  And this, precisely this, for the first time in history, is how – together – we are constructing capitalism’s Achilles’ heel.

Jul 312013

Perhaps it’s us who are in the wrong here. Perhaps our expectations of a century of universally-educated civilisations were simply too high.  Perhaps it’s us who’ve got it back to front.  Perhaps the bastards are right to grind us down.

I don’t believe I believe so.  But there’s always a tiny space for a shadow of a doubt.

The issue, essentially, is that Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other social networks don’t only tell us how it is – they also tell us how it always was.  From a right-wing prejudice-based bias at the heart of a supposedly venerable BBC journalism and journalist to long-held Tory attitudes about Northerners and Northern spaces to abusive relationships between men and women, between the powerful and the disadvantaged and between the rich in general over everyone else, all that the last few years of online connectivity seem to have offered us is a consistent falling away of any veils of innocence.

Twitter, Facebook and that small number of other social networks I mention aren’t making a new world: they’re simply, flatly and painfully reflecting a very old one.  When heavy-handed police actions bubble to the surface of our perceptions on such a huge scale, most of us who were taught as children to respect the state’s good faith will question whether something is radically different; will question whether something is radically changing.

Sadly, I don’t think it is.  Sadly, I believe that such networks and media are only informing us more clearly of what we already got up to and did offline; of what we already got up to and did before social came along.

Our politicians a ragbag of corrupt self-serving auto-publicists?  Yes?  And?  So what’s new?

Our business leaders a cabal of establishment-infiltrating fascists?  So?  And?  Need me to explain any more?

Our men and women (mainly men though, it would seem), predisposed to insults and slagging the disadvantaged violently off, given half a virtual chance?  Wow!  And?  Who’d have thought it?

This is the underbelly of life turned over and exposed to the light of online examination.

The underbelly was always there though.

Women were always abused by their partners; by their nearest and dearest.

Politicians always trampled on electorates.

Business leaders always took ruthless advantage of their customers; always hid their dirty boardroom linen.

Nothing’s changed.  Nothing’s changing.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that all of us can see and share more of the shit which they (that is to say, we) used to hide.

Perhaps, then, what we need to propose is something different from this simple reporting, spreading and retweeting of shit.  Perhaps we need to reconceptualise the purpose of social: where the Tories condemn socialism as a tool for the desperately poor – even as they reconfigure and reuse it as a pig-trough mechanism for the scrounging rich – maybe a better use of social would be to reproduce environments of support for the disadvantaged.  Don’t people our timelines with stories of disheartening state and corporate violence – or, at least, don’t people all our timelines with such depressing news as this – but, rather, instead, move to use our connectivity to enthuse and organise parallel environments of a kindly and supportive society of the benevolent.

Yesterday I exchanged a tweet or two on the subject of building a new Berlin Wall around London, with the aim of encircling and enclosing all the prejudiced Tories within.  An underground movement could at the same time be established to help those not of a Tory persuasion to escape their fate.

This was, of course, a joke.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very funny.  Unfortunately, it seemed all too attractive to those of us exchanging our evermore bitter comments.

Maybe connectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Knowing too much about the underbelly of life doesn’t necessarily make one more powerful any more.  Knowledge isn’t power these days.  The willingness to brazenly lie, on the other hand, is.

And I realise, as I reread the above before publishing, that I was a naive little citizen for a very long time.

I’m not sure I don’t want to continue being so.

The problem with veils that fall away, however, is that once on the ground the evil do proceed with their trampling.

The real corporate purpose of social, if you ask me?  To remove all choice of naivete; to remove all chance of childlikeness.

To remove, ultimately, all possibility that our (once shared) humanenesses may return from the caves in which they currently, frightened, hide out.

But we still have an opportunity.  We still may cast a tiny shadow of a doubt.  We still, even so, may be able to turn the tables on the moneymen.  If only we can make of social a proactive tool for the parallel, perhaps one day we can re-emerge blinking from our caves.  Perhaps one day we can recover our humaneness.  Perhaps one day social won’t just tell us how it always was but, instead, help us define exactly how it really should be.

Jun 252013

This is the fifth part of my Citizen Media series, the first, second, third and fourth parts of which have provided an overview of the University of Manchester colloquium which sparked it off in the first place; have described the deprofessionalisation of photo-journalism and the post-human status of technology-ridden imagery; have compared and contrasted the clearly good and truly bad of online “citizenship” and behaviours; and have examined some ideas relating to the attempts by corporations to understand, track and monetise the banal and everyday of broader citizen experiences.

Today, I would like to examine some ideas which were thrown up in relation to the subject of translation.  To many, translation – and its vocal cousin interpretation – would seem little more than “support” industries: professionals whose main role must be to accurately and objectively convey from one language and culture to another the essence and content of a communication.  Whatever the format, the goals must remain the same.  That, after all, is the ethos of professionals everywhere – and in probably almost every kind of profession.  As one person at the colloquium was moved to comment:

As a translator, I don’t want editorial pressure.

A number of the papers and presentations touched on the issue of translating cultures in different directions.  For many of us present, the default direction would necessarily be from British or American English to other societies.  This (if I remember rightly) is how one important translation community, Global Voices, began.  Yet from its US beginnings – described entrancingly by Ivan Sigal – we were also able to witness the story of Italian “offshoots”, manifesting as they did how non-Anglo-Saxon cultures have begun to exert their own profound desires to shift the inertia and momentum of cultural production, and by so doing create new centres and fulcrums of activity.  No longer do they limit themselves to translating English-centric content for the benefit of Italian speakers; instead, far more complex choices are being made to create and translate back and forth between other languages.  (I am reminded here of the battles I had when I helped to set up a Spanish Native-Lang site on OpenOffice.org at the beginning of the last decade.  I wanted to create entirely original content and design parameters.  The English-speaking part of the website, meanwhile, preferred a straightforward copy from the original.  Even then, the conflict existed between an Anglo-Saxon kind of linguistic colonialism and the bright green shoots of difference other cultures often want to explore.  The irony of myself, a native English speaker living in Spain at the time, being responsible for initiating such a translation project is – of course – not lost on me!)

One of the most interesting presentations was given by Mona Baker in the absence of someone who, in the end, was unable to attend.  Media of this talk can currently be found here.  It was titled: “Translation as an alternative space for political action”.  This succinct title I think sums up in very few words the inevitable tensions that political and cultural circumstances have generated in what was once (perhaps too casually) seen as a profession of dry and technical practice.

Of course it’s possible that this was never the case; it’s possible these were dilemmas which such professionals tried to keep to themselves, in the interests of gentler political profiles.

No longer, it would seem.

From translating websites and communities such as Ecos, whose early websites said “Stop the wall!”, and who now use Facebook and its wall, to Babels and many impactful others, the process of moving meaning from one place to another does not equal the physics of thermodynamic law: things are created and destroyed; things are inevitably made up or lost on the way.  And in some cases this is deliberate.  Some notes I took as follows as examples:

  • Some communities use non-hierarchical translation processes, mirroring open source dynamics.
  • Grammatically “incorrect” translation, to English in particular, is almost welcomed as a deliberate tool to undermine the perceived imperialism of the same.
  • The problem is that those of us who depend on professional translations to understand what’s happening in the rest of the world make all translating in a globalised world a political act of some sort or another.
  • Without “trustworthy” translating infrastructures, we cannot know what the truth really is.

Here are some more thoughts from other moments during the colloquium:

  • In a world of globalisation, TV and other news production becomes evermore (demonstrably) parochial.  Silos savagely being reconstructed here – despite all democratising efforts to the contrary?
  • We don’t tweet as we write, so automated translation systems don’t work.  “Translating social media needs social translators.”
  • In order for translators to be able to operate in social media and networks, they cannot avoid becoming curators with politicised antennae.

And back to Ivan Sigal’s Skype chat on the subject of the origins of Global Voices:

  • The importance of language and volunteers.
  • Translation approach of Global voices allowed expression and bias to come through individual (not editorial) bias.
  • Transparency around where source material comes from is key.
  • Positions and views not hidden under a veneer of objectivity.
  • Motivation of volunteer translators: a) looking to correct a personally perceived imbalance in topics of individual interest; b) once they join the network, they find like-minded individuals who keep them going.
  • Spillover into job- and other work-related opportunities – another motivation.
  • Fabrication is a danger – an occupational hazard of those who would parse social media outputs.  (Fabrication is, however, also a danger of those who operate under a pervasive “political economy”, with “charismatic” leaderships who impose their own commercial and political agendas on huge numbers of employees – Murdoch for example; in the cinema, “Citizen Kane”.)
  • Citizen media is “the network of networks”.  All movements (should) have a natural life – they don’t need to have a fully institutional character.

A case of a highly motivated – and almost despairing – process of translating across frontiers through subtitles was that of Greek activists who regularly post videos of current events in order to – again as in the Global Voices example – correct an imbalance in international perceptions.  The subtitling we saw was into English for an English-understanding constituency, in itself perhaps a sad reflection on the quality of “Western” reporting and points-of-view.  There is a home-made air to such reportage; these are not expert reporters nor, even, expert subtitlers – and yet the content which they are producing informs us in a way our mainstream media is unable (or unwilling) to do.

Maybe that is the objective of us all.  As Gramsci was quoted as having said in 1978, to become – all of us – “organic intellectuals”.  By subtitling, by liking, by tweeting, even by blogging, we remain permanent citizen-witnesses to those truths we feel most important.  To the aforementioned “network of networks”, we choose to be “permanent persuaders of ‘good sense’”; and in such a networked, socialising and cumulative way, we ensure that commonly-teased-out threads of reality are woven into tapestries that truly represent us all.

If a profession as ancient as translating can see itself thus inescapably radicalised, who is to say that the teacher, doctor, lawyer or journalist has any other alternative in the matter?

Paradoxically, in a globalising world, these blessed frontiers inevitably become more significant – as well as painful.  Our fate would, therefore, seem to lead us to an ever-deepening radicalisation on all sides; certainly an ever-increasing persistence of personal visions.  That we may all find it easier, in the context of universal education, to express these visions doesn’t mean agreement and cooperation will automatically follow.

On the other hand, an extortionate relationship with truth and reality will help none of us achieve any semblance of equanimity: an equanimity which we can surely only one day build together.

Are we, then, in a post-objectivity era?  A time where “he said, she said” journalism – or translating, or doctoring, or teaching, or legal practice – simply doesn’t fit the structure of our century?  Have political forces driven their wedges so deeply into our societies that every act of communication must become an act – at the very least – of assertion?

An act of assertion – where not an act of aggression?

Jun 232013

This is the fourth part of my Citizen Media series, the first, second and third parts of which have provided an overview of the University of Manchester colloquium which sparked it off in the first place; have described the deprofessionalisation of photo-journalism and the post-human status of technology-ridden imagery; and have compared and contrasted the clearly good and truly bad of online “citizenship” and behaviours.

In this fourth part, I aim to link another two of the talks I was privileged to experience at the colloquium: the first, given by Adam Fish on what he described as “technoliberalism”; the second, given by Kenzie Burchell on what he described as “citizen voices in everyday networked practices”.  In both cases, and as before in this series, I’d like to make clear that I’m not aiming to faithfully transmit the content of the arguments given but, rather, bear witness to how they made me think during and after.

Starting with the subject of “technoliberalism”, I have the following notes:

  • The term includes and covers these concepts: networked technology; economic freedom; free speech; political participation; citizen responsibility.
  • A manifestation of such “technoliberalism” would be Al Gore’s Current TV project.  A convergence of Silicon Valley mindsets and Hollywood bombast – in the end, YouTube for the moderately cultured with a clear undertow of monetisation?
  • The programming structure kicked off with and included the “shuffle” format – an attempt to break down silos of audience expectations perhaps, mixing all kinds of content within similar timeframes.
  • Noticeable there was a strict, maybe even overbearing, intellectual property framework.  The industrial model was very traditional, very lawyerly influenced.  Much more Hollywood than Silicon Valley in this respect.
  • Feels as if the public sphere was an afterthought.  The bottom line (monetary expectations, that is) being the real objective.
  • As already observed, the company suffered from the two cultures: Internet versus entertainment; San Francisco versus Los Angeles.
  • Even had Murdoch and Berlusconi as partners – how traditional in its “political economy” could an online project ever get?  (One remembers Murdoch’s adventures in MySpace-land …)
  • Some people made money out of it: recently, it has been suggested, Gore himself – $100 million out of the sale of platform to Al Jazeera.
  • Could’ve been an open-source type place: full of imagineers and developers/makers.  Ended up poisoned (in a way) by the conflicting cultures of those who would control its development and direction, instead of putting them both in the hands of the viewer/creators.
  • One observation I made to Adam: if Current TV’s objective truly was democratisation via citizen-media discourse and process, maybe it would’ve been better to spend $100 million on citizen-media schools rather than on clone-like (even where online) TV stations.
  • Such media schools could teach democratic engagement: teach young people to become independent distributors themselves rather than tie them down with traditional industrial models.
  • In the end, Current TV was just another mediating process of bottom-line professionals: standard televisual practice defining how perceived, how accessed, how accepted or rejected.  Lesson to be learned?  Spend money directly on consumer/producers, not on the mediating systems and professionals themselves.

We were shown the following satirical video of Current TV’s Emmy award.  There may be political undertones I’m not aware of (Fox appears in the corner of the screen – I’m sure Rupert Murdoch’s organisation would take any and every opportunity to undermine anything Al Gore was involved in), but the video – even so – makes a fairly apposite point.


It’s clear that monetising the banal, the everyday, the normal, isn’t easy for big corporations.

Simply observing it, especially whenever and wherever it happens, can be just as challenging for the student of the same.  Kenzie Burchell had a fascinating approach to understanding and defining a kind of public domain which – nevertheless – exists and functions in a mainly hidden place of exchange.  Burchell describes email interaction, the break down of the dividing line between work and non-work, social-network communication and other technologies as a specific space of its own:

  • Recursive spaces: open source coders for example.  They operate through action: “a moral and technical order”; “making, maintaining and modifying”; “constraining their everyday commitments”.
  • Anti-social behaviours versus pro-social initiatives.
  • Standard open-source practice relevant here: I suggest the case of open-source mailing-lists.  These are examples of fairly private communications which are also publicly available but not necessarily easily findable (either because you don’t know they exist or because even when you do, they’re often difficult to stumble across).  A sense, then, that certain areas of modern communication lend themselves to the creation of a public domain which can remain public but at the same time discreet too.
  • So much of what we do, we do via this fairly private set of not so easily monetisable communications: as already mentioned, email, Facebook liking, tweeting and other kinds of instant messenging.
  • No wonder they’re all trying to change our webmail into something less private, less discreet: examples being the failed Google Wave system and the new composition panes for Gmail which look far more like chat windows than traditional email.  Also, the online status which webmail access activates by default.
  • The attempt to forceably merge social with email and private messaging clearly demonstrates that a discreet (and discrete!) public is a threat to the bottom lines of these corporations.
  • Yet as with Current TV, and so many other projects, a public truly in the hands of the public seems beyond the ken of most of those who would administer it.

In a sense, it would seem that Hollywood – and even Silicon Valley itself – is incapable of fully understanding that there are sections and domains in fairly public life which will do their damned best to resist any attempt to put a price on them.  Presumably, the attempts to make money out of straightforward webmail via contextual ads has failed miserably; otherwise, there’d be no drive to change the nature of email and turn it into something far more visible.

But the models that really work on that fine connection between consumers who produce and producers who consume – YouTube being a classic and continuing example – demonstrate that the public which works in latterday communication is the public that remains in the hands of the same.

The banal which Burchell defines is rich with meaning, pregnant with action, full of content – and mostly what we want.  This doesn’t, of course, mean the monetisers will let it be, but if we can recognise its true value before it’s too late, maybe we can rescue some of its most valuable aspects before they succeed – out of the obstinacy which defines their behaviours – in finally destroying them in the process.

May 012013

This morning, I was talking about the current situation in Spain with some of my students of Spanish.  We were discussing what I had been tweeting on Twitter the night before with a dear follower from Spain, Monica Lalanda.  Monica was feeling sad about her country, arguing that it felt as if it were a country of losers.  I suggested that history had shown the Spanish (all its nationalities) were much more a country of survivors than losers.

As I related the exchange to my students this morning, I realised exactly how much emotion I have invested in Spain.  For a touch-and-go moment, I had to fight back the tears.

I also told my students my experience as a language-training provider for the car components industry in Spain.  This was when I discovered how clever, creative and competent the Spanish at their best really are.  They characterise themselves often as brilliant improvisers and whilst to a certain degree this is true, they are also undeniably brilliant implementers.  You can’t be otherwise in such a competitive and continuously improving sector.

And then one of my students described an experience she’d had as a project manager, working simultaneously with both Swiss and Spanish workforces.  Here, she compared the straightforward Swiss to the brilliantly enthusiastic and colourful Spanish: the documentation produced by each group of workers reflected these differing national characteristics.  She also described how the Spanish wouldn’t stop nattering whilst they worked.  It was clear that the Spanish weren’t only good at continuous improvement, they were also sharp and ingenious at what we could term continuous communication.

Which is when I realised this is indeed what distinguishes the Spanish from other workforces I’ve come up against.  For example, the English will shut down as the 5 o’clock deadline approaches; maintaining a relationship with one’s fellow men and women becomes far less important than finishing the job on time.  Yet communication is the glue of everything business, politics and society does well.  No wonder the Spanish have achieved so many great things in their history: they understand, they fully comprehend, the significance of “wasting” time on relating to each other.

At least in the sector under discussion, and I’m sure in many other areas of endeavour, they won’t sacrifice their right and obligation to speak amongst themselves, simply in order that they might get home on time.

The Spanish are survivors – not losers at all – precisely because they reserve the right to question each other; even at work.  Even amongst hierarchy, they maintain their creative habits of grumbling: this “rechistar” they convincingly sustain which often leads to pragmatic solution.  And competent hierarchy knows all too well they will inevitably be like this – and so competent hierarchy, at least that competent hierarchy you find in certain big businesses, knows you have to take them along with you.

You can’t pull the wool over Spanish eyes, that’s for sure.  You have to convince them up as close as it gets: you have to convince them face-to-face.

So we come finally to the point of this post.  Here we have a New York Times article from last year as one piece of evidence:

[...] We typically feel that we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works — whether it’s what’s involved in a trade deal with China or how a toilet flushes — that we realize how little we actually know.

The interesting bit comes, however, when detailed explanations are finally made:

[...] The real surprise is what happens after these same individuals are asked to explain how these policy ideas work: they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.

With the Spanish experience in mind – that is to say, with their ability to continuously communicate and thus moderate their actions (the only explanation I can encounter as they proceed to put up with soaring unemployment rates of 27 percent) – I am minded to remember my own experience whilst I was a co-opted parish councillor in the place in which I still find myself living.  I had by then set up what I intended to be a local blogsite which would combine photos of the area with pithy comment.  But, in the event, I found it extraordinarily difficult to say any productive or useful word about my experiences.  Simply knowing the potential audience was people I lived cheek-and-jowl next to terrified me into a counter-productive silence.

Or perhaps the silence was not as counter-productive as I thought.  It seems to me, in the light of the findings recounted in the New York Times, that what I was experiencing was actually a virtual equivalent of that highly constructive and continuous communication of the Spanish: I was being forced to explain myself to people I knew I’d bump into – and thus was having to question far more fiercely my own neat and perfectly-formed prejudices.

In truth, it seems to me that if we are to survive the next decade or so with any degree of kindness, humility or accuracy – if England, the UK and a wider Western democracy is to perpetuate its better aspects in any convincing way – we will need to recover a face-to-face society which broadcast politics, social media, online communication and other latterday technologies have almost battered into non-existence.

It might yet be possible too.  This statistic could be telling:

The poll also asked respondents: “Thinking about any local newspapers published in your home town or county, do you think they are on balance a positive or a negative force in your local community?” The majority,  53.3 per cent, said they were positive, 8.3 per cent said they were negative and 32.7 per cent said they were neutral.

I don’t have the data to hand, of course, but I would be happy to assume that local radio, TV and newspapers are generally less aggressively overbearing in their behaviours than the more cocooned and distant national media.  More middle-of-the-road, less extreme in their posturing.  Inevitably so, when your neighbours get to know who you are and where you live.

Hardly counter-intuitive, anyhow.

It may of course be that the distancing effect of social media and networks is something we in Anglo-Saxon countries are actively pursuing.  Who’s to say, after all, that we would like to continuously communicate like the Spanish seem to want to?  But I bet my very last peseta that if you ever properly got the opportunity to find out what it was like, then to live and work in an environment of friendly and intelligent “relationship professionals” would be far more finally fun and productive than in a landscape of pesky “time-keeping trolls”.

As well as leading to a far less destructively cruel, inefficient and partisan politics.

Apr 252013

This story from the Mirror today does really make manifest the idiocy which abounds at the moment:

A young sidekick of David Cameron has claimed hard-up families are turning to food banks because they’ve wasted their money on booze.

The Twitter outburst by Liam Walker caused outrage in the Prime Minister’s constituency.

We’ve had this kind of rank insensitivity – where not inaccuracy – before and we’ll clearly have it again.  Now we could argue, as I did recently, that this was essentially a result of a kind of psychotic relationship with reality at the very top of government.  But I’m beginning seriously to consider whether the real explanation lies elsewhere.  As I tweeted a day or so ago:

Our social-democratic society, in its kindly appreciation of all human beings, has allowed ambitious idiots to climb to the top of the pile.

In a sense, then, we might wish to conclude that the Liam Walkers of this world are the product of social media’s zero hierarchies, which in themselves are the products of our dearly-, and perhaps lately-, beloved social democracy, in its long-pronounced labour and aim to value everyone equally.

If I am at all right in what I suggest, we’re not seeing the result of us all being a product of a hierarchical neoliberalism, where cruel announcements, decisions and outcomes tumble out of the mouths of the vicious; no, not at all.  Instead, what we’re seeing is the results of those “everyone is a human being” socially-democratic mindsets, where everything anyone thinks or says is to be contemplated, understood and considered with a judicious and egalitarian care.

What the Liam Walkers of this world are visiting upon us now is precisely the consequence of what the Liam Walkers least appreciate in their upbringing: they have grown up with the feeling that they have every right to “blurt out” this stuff, because the society, schools, environment and political legacy they respect so little has taught them that hierarchy, meritoriously achieved, has zero importance in the 21st century.

Am I reverting to type then?  A “weirdy-hippy” thinker, perhaps, who spends a decade proclaiming the virtue of flat hierarchies – only to suddenly discover the downsides of their prevalence in the words of a government hanger-on?

Maybe so.  Though I think it more complex than that.  The key is in the phrase “meritoriously achieved”.  This “merit” process, as previously defined by social democracy, and then by New Labour’s more complicated – perhaps more confusing – re-engineering of its implications, was never really achieved.  The society of aspiration and opportunity as thus described ended up simply as more smoke and mirrors to hide the graft.

I suppose what I’m really looking to promote in all of this is that via mice (social media), social democracy (a meritorious society) and idiots (like social you and me), we might fashion a different way of communicating amongst ourselves: a way where each of us, through a little-by-little learning process, acquired the skills that Walker clearly doesn’t have when using the power that flat hierarchies clearly offer.

The Walkers of this world deserve our scorn, it is true.  But we’ve all done similar stuff, driven by the prejudices none of us can ever shake off.  Before social media, we did this stuff behind the scenes and in private.  Now the private has become public, maybe we need a different approach to life.  Maybe what we really need to start doing is filtering out the idiocies in all our pronouncements, as we focus on controlling the terms and natures of the debates which most affect our lives.

Yes.  We will continue, as human beings, to be publicly idiotic.

But maybe knowing we are all so will lead us to a kinder and more respectful place.

We can only hope.

And, also, try.

Even as trying is clearly never quite enough.

Mar 282013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and writing a lot about the squeezed middle, the absolute poor and the stratospheric rich.  For those of us who are living in the United Kingdom – more precisely in my case, the North West of England – you won’t have failed to notice how the government and the governed simply do not see things eye-to-eye.  In fact, lately at least, it’s often more a case of a tooth for a tooth.


The thing is, my natural instinct is to see life from tens of different points of view.  This doesn’t make me popular – or widely read.  Yesterday, I realised the true and abiding power of ranting when itiddly, a Twitter friend of mine, asked me to edit a post of his before he posted it.  He’s a tribal fellow; a traditional political activist.  He insults and damns and blasts the Tories at every opportunity.

I resisted the temptation to help him out with his post – rather patronisingly (in retrospect) arguing that he needed to have confidence in his writing, as well as some exposure, much more than the help of a struggling editor friend.

You can read his post here.  It’s a rant and it isn’t.  There’s a barely contained fury, of course, but all the time it’s an evidence-based fury.  And whilst I rarely get above five or six tweets for my posts, in a very short time his had hit thirty-five (at the time of writing this post, it now reads a hundred).  Exposure wasn’t what was needed on his part here; instead, it was humility on mine.

Yet it is not in my nature to rant one-sidedly, even where ranting of a kind is sometimes something I do.  I would not be able, in all honesty, to write something as single-minded as the post we’re talking about.  And I wish, in some way, I were able to convey the reasons why.  I wish you could all see the ten or twenty different points of view I always see when I see the world.

People have, on occasions, even accused me of dancing around a subject.  Perhaps, in truth, they were closer to the mark than even they realised.  You dance out of engagement and concentration; a dance is a marvellous combination of emotion, precision and attitude.

That is how I see the process of writing.

Which is why I wish, perhaps by using Twitter and other social-network outputs, we could all appreciate better how each of us is perceiving the world: the pain, the glory, the happiness and joy; the misery, the fear, the certainties and hopes.  From high-and-mighty governors to humble barely-surviving governed, the world would surely become a better place if only we could see it properly through each other’s eyes.

So my question must be: is anyone out there at all interested in creating a Point-Of-View Machine?

Or are you all far more interested in setting up monolithic positions of revulsion and non-cooperation?


Further reading: I wonder, quite sincerely, whether the Google Glass project (more here) – rather than inspire our fear of a final assault on all our privacies – should make us more hopeful in the ways I describe above.  If the POV streams resulting from all those users were made available and accessible in a structured way, we would understand much more easily how each of us experienced life.  And from that understanding, perhaps a kinder governance would emerge.

A kinder world.

A kinder species, even.

We can only hope, of course.

And, maybe, pray.

Mar 262013

I know Twitter quite well.  It’s a place I get my information from; a place I practise my writing in; a place I brainstorm ideas to logical conclusion; a place I sometimes even gain a solace of a kind.

Occasionally, very occasionally (as this morning), I also wonder if it’s a place of gradual, long-term and seeping self-harm.

But only very occasionally.

What it undeniably is, without any doubt, is a place of tremendous knowledge and resource.  You find out about things way before they ever hit the headlines – if, that is, they hit the headlines at all.  In its clever online constitution, people aggregate ideas and opinions and conclusions in an ingeniously programmed sorting of the milk from the cream.  People create filters of editorial substantiveness, and so add value – almost by magic – to the mix.

This is how people who use Twitter wisely – and there are many, I can assure you – both manage to teach and to learn in equal measure.

A thought experiment, then, on the back of the above lead-in.

Let’s imagine a government, in times of severe crisis, came to the conclusion it needed to bring people together, in order that opinions, statistics and ideas be exchanged at a relatively benign and constructive level of debate.  Such a government would, indeed, be of a far-sighted mould – perhaps beyond the efforts and abilities of most politicians throughout history.  But you never know.  Just as the populace have become more educated and clever with the advent of universal education, so you’d expect their leaders and representatives to show the same improvements.  (Except that, perhaps in the event unfortunately, the vast majority continue to emerge from the private schools and elitist universities which have always run this evermore unpleasant and dirty land.)

Anyhow.  Back to the conclusion our hypothetical government had arrived at: imagine they desired a vast network of connections.  An extended sequence of brain patterns across the globe; all contributing interconnectedly these voluntary (though also quite addictive) gobbets of intelligence I mention; all sourced from essentially free agents in every corner of every region which was operating under the stresses and strains of tremendous economic fracture.  Wouldn’t such a government, if of an equally intelligent type, be looking to take advantage of and channel these tremendously useful and constructive ideas for the benefit of the future?  Instead of using the tool to bully the flailing and desperate opinions of those they were disenfranchising more and more, surely a far more intelligent approach – a far more sensible, efficient and essentially businesslike approach – would be to see how best to use productively such a resource?

At the moment, all I can see is masses of evermore informed men and women, channelling their anger – sometimes quite violently – against a useless and incompetent set of political and business leaders.  But there’s room for something else, surely.  Room for another way of doing.  Not a left-wing UKIP (more here), as has been suggested by some.  No.  A different mindset, with – and here’s the biggie, the bit where it would all stand or fall in one hugely humongous step – its correspondingly revised organisational structures.

For if Labour, or anyone else moderately on the progressive side of things, wants to win any elections in the future, they will need to begin to see their role as that of enabling progressive forces rather than leading them.  And my description of an intelligent government’s approach to the resource that is the online community of Twitter mirrors exactly how I would like to see Labour remake itself over the next five years or so.

Yes.  Twitter can be called an elite too.  An educated elite which not only governments but also opposition parties wastefully ignore, misinterpret and misunderstand.  Suspicious of the degree of absolute knowledge, of simple braininess and of commitment to truth which the beast clearly enshrines at some levels and in some interactions, such traditional ways of looking at politics can only see it as an echo chamber for the existing broadcast approaches.  But that, my dear ladies and gentlemen of the UK body politic, is precisely where you’re throwing away the value so freely provided and currently added.

In front of you, on your computer screens and phone apps various, you have the most amazing – absolutely free – political tool the world has ever seen.  An elite which doesn’t want to be an elite.  An elite which only wishes to see prioritised the evidence-based holding of opinions; the policy-making which would result; and the recovery of a society so horribly damaged at the moment that repair is perhaps the last thing on our minds.

Survival is all we can think of out there in the real world.

And only in this beautiful cocoon that is social media and its slyly communicating networks do we still, even now, encounter that solace I mentioned at the beginning.

Both intellectual and emotional, however, it needs to be seen for what it fully is: a medium through which a butterfly of progress may yet appear.

So is there anyone in politics up to the job of wasting no more?

Anyone at all?  In any party?

Dec 182012

This video is worth your time.  In particular the very last part.


Lord McAlpine’s lawyer is very clear where he, and presumably other lawyers too, are to stand on this matter.  Web 2.0 and social networks – the whole affair we tend to call social media – were set up on the basis, and around the assumption, that the worldwide web was able to police itself.  The million eyes of open-source-like practice would soon hunt out evil and ensure the web remained a good place to be.

Of course, we have all had the feeling – at some time or another – that the web was more Wild West than worldwide: it took me, for example, quite a few years before I moved from the Labour Party’s intranet and ventured out to blog in full view of anyone and everyone.  Having a blog no one read did help, mind.

Invisibility does wonders for one’s ability to communicate openly.

In a way, this move from invisibility to notoriety – to being known and recognised at the very least – is part of what is affecting us all of late.

Perhaps it is now time to accept that it is part of what has affected us all for quite a while.

Andy Warhol was supposed to have said that everyone could be famous for fifteen minutes.  But that was in a time when the ether was just that: ephemeral; impossible to tape and preserve for ordinary people; seen and then unseen; a flash in the pan which was then just a memory.

Which is why I do not agree entirely with McAlpine’s lawyer.  This is not the ether as we then knew and understood it.  Yes.  It is permanent in its trail, in its aftertaste, in what the Web 2.0 and social networks choose to do with our content.  But in what we do and are directly responsible for, in its generation, it is instantaneous and split-second.  It feels and is framed far more as that casual conversation in the kitchen which you do not tape and record.

Partly because the corporations which invented it did want it to be as easy as that.

A conversation in a kitchen.

They were looking for acceptance, after all; for take up; for early adoption; for substantial and rapid market share.

If we are now to go along with the lawyerly point of view – that everything which appears on the web is a form of publishing analogous to an industry which because of that very same set of technologies no longer properly sustains itself – then I suspect that more than one social network will find its business model collapsing around it.

It’s truly paradoxical, in fact.  Just as the legal profession gets its collective head around a concept of defamation as applied to the web which has its origins in an industry of paper-based media, so that paper-based media disintegrates because of the ether it inexactly understands.

This may be all to a wider good, mind.  That Twitter, Facebook and Google+ can use – and perhaps abuse – what we believe to be our content, whilst at the same time making it easier for governments to track what we do and think almost every moment of our day, is a cliché of a truism even the less paranoid amongst us are happy to admit.  If moves by the lawyerly profession to defend reputations from attacks by the flailing dynamics of social networks go ahead to the degree I suspect the future will shortly encourage, at least one predictable result will simply be a retiral of activity by those who begin to know and hear of people who’ve been fined, imprisoned or otherwise punished for loose words out there on the web.

The celebrities, powerful figures and those in general with the resources to pursue such a protection may be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect.

Governments and their security services, long-term, however, may be less happy with such developments.  A great deal less happy with a population which relearns the advantages of discreet communication over social-media soul-bearing.


And whilst it’s clear that we’re the product and not the customer at all (the customer being primarily the advertisers and their ecosystems of hangers-on), it’s even more clear that we’re fairly disposable cannon fodder.  It was, for example, explained to me recently that when someone is reported for making a suicide threat on Facebook, and as per procedures set up to contemplate such events, Facebook quickly releases to the police the IP address of the person making the threat.  In this instance, I’m sure we can all agree that this is quite admirable.  In other instances, however, who knows?  You put in place a procedure like that – and who is to say it won’t quite easily be misused in the future?

We’re losing something here – and I’m not sure entirely what.

In the meantime, life gets more and more complicated.

Quite curiously when technology really should have delivered a grand simplification.

Dec 102012

Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned.  When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop.  This, for example:

From the start, the Isreaeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas shared clips on YouTube, and posted messages and images on Facebook and Twitter (also here), which initiated heated debates on the platforms. Many reporters followed these and actively participated in the discussions, which made social media an important element of both reporting and criticism of the conflict.

This should hardly surprise us.  That manipulation of social-media news and its transmission takes place must be self-evident to anyone with any experience of how stories in such contexts surge.  Recent cases of sex-abuse allegations have generated claims and counter-claims which can hardly depend only on the dynamics of sheeply flocks.  But in the argument that Ariel develops, we get a further strand of behaviours that add a far more complex interest to the mix.  For he also describes and defines the following processes:

[...] Unlike any other war in the past, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has been characterised by the mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media. [...]

And this has led to the more mainstream media feeling obliged to take onboard, and within their own frames, websites and even offline print, such popular – and, maybe, populist – content.  In a post-blogging Facebook generation, where the very fact you’re an amateur communicator adds weight, veracity and conviction to what you tell, it must be the case that, in order to be able to properly convince, latterday industrial media has had to acquire a journalistic equivalent of what film-makers learned to call cinéma vérité.  A kind of post-modern approach to communication, perhaps.  A veneer of “realistic” edginess to their product where once smooth and house-ridden styles were sub-editorially imposed as unquestioned – and unquestionable – good practice.

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in relation to these words from Ariel (the bold is mine):

Just as cyber-war and cyber-terrorism have become prevalent, social media warfare is here to stay. It seems that the fight for public opinion will keep growing in importance, and play a more central role in future conflicts. The fact that opposing parties can communicate directly with the public will increase the pressure on journalists to stay relevant.

To these words I would be inclined to add that the above-mentioned three battles will shortly form part of a new Holy Trinity of communication.  Just as industrial media was kept in the shadow and practice of the security services throughout the whole Cold War and its aftermath, leading to the corruption that recent phone-hacking scandals have uncovered here in Britain, so now social media will be in the eye of and form a target for such institutions.  It could hardly be any other way.  If amateur communicators are making more of the news their peers are wanting to read than the news outlets themselves, no veneer, however thick, will fool any member of the post-Leveson generation.  There is no way back.  And the security services probably know this well before the newspaper industry is able and prepared to take it on the chin.

Second, these are all matters which have interested a lot of us recently – both readers and writers, both amateurs and professionals.  Such a post-Leveson moment as this will surely serve to define at least the next fifty years of communication in Britain – and people really don’t realise what’s happening.

We’re sleepwalking into the future of so many unfreedoms.

Social media warfare being just one more sorry battleground they’ll fashion in order to restrict our ability not only, not primarily, to freely exchange our thoughts but also – far more importantly – to be able to evaluate their narratives.

Because if the future is going to work as I think Ariel believes, the ability to sift and determine where truth really lies will become far greater and relevant than it currently might be.

A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?

Almost fit for a new generation of Johann Haris … and I mean that in as complimentary a fashion as you care to allow me.

Nov 292012

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

As Peter on Twitter said today:

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nov 232012

I have just spent a couple of days away from home, mostly away from Twitter and entirely away from blogging.  Though not entirely.

I’ve written this post whilst offline, on a Blackberry Playbook, using word-processing software provided by default. It’s an interesting experience, writing from one’s thoughts without being instantly connected to that wider intelligence which is the Internet – and its visual manifestation, the worldwide web.

I suddenly discover the only resources I have to hand, for the moment, and whilst I write, are my own very private thoughts and uncertainties.  I can check nothing, for the moment; I can only write what I am sure of.

And yet perhaps the situation I find myself in is not all that different from writing online.  Who can say that what we read and watch is ever as true as it might be?  If we cannot believe that a BBC current affairs programme of international renown is capable of usefully fact-checking its own content before it broadcasts, where and how can we ordinary people realistically check anything an honest desire to engage with democratic debate would – as a result – require us to do?

On considerable reflection, I find myself siding with Lord McAlpine’s instincts to sue those who besmirched his name.  But I do so with a desire to add the following caveats for the future.  For if the events that have surrounded his calvary are to impact positively on democracy, and if his case and this moment in our body politic are not to be seen historically as a turning-point where an unhappy and impositional establishment brutally re-establishes itself, we must do something more than acknowledge his right under current law to act as he does.

I was, you see, going to write a post about how it seemed to me that the McAlpine case, and the fury with which he was pursued in some sectors of social media, and even in what is now less accurately called mainstream media, was a case of referred anger more than a desire to do away with the reputation of a man very few people even knew existed.  This referred anger would relate to the last two years of Coalition government.  Unable – as the constituency in question was – to stem the government’s impositional instincts, this – that is to say, Twitter – has been a frustrated and figurative rattlesnake of a medium, thrashing evermore futilely away at an evermore desperate set of circumstances.

If my thesis is correct, the Lord McAlpine accusations were simply the unhappy blue touchpaper a hot and angry group of people alighted on in the absence of being able to get political satisfaction elsewhere.

Now I may be right or I may be wrong.  Either way, once Lord McAlpine has achieved his goals as per our existing laws, we need to ensure his legacy will not be that of an establishment grossly re-establishing itself but, rather, much more usefully and productively for our democracy, of a body politic and public discourse renewing itself.

And so I come to the point of this post.  The caveats I mentioned above in relation to the McAlpine case?

It’s true, as this post from the Economist indicates, that if we now live in a world where everyone can publish, we now live in a world where everyone can be sued.  But if this is the case, and legal matters are potentially to enter every sitting-room in the land, surely it would only be reasonable to expect the law itself to democratise itself – that is to say, make itself easier to be understood, complied with, used and exercised.

Whilst the real mainstream media – with its legal departments and journalistically-trained professionals – essentially interfaced with what was seen by many as the more oppressive forces in our society, as well as supposedly on our behalf, it did not seem to matter so much that the law was, for most people, an opaque and arcane matter.  But if we are all to publish now, as indeed Twitter, Facebook and blogging before them would have us do (for without the product, that is to say ourselves and our occurrences, social media would have zero business model to operate with), and if we do feel that Web 2.0 has more upsides than downsides, then we do really need to make it as easy to understand and use the law as it is to go to a supermarket and purchase a week’s worth of groceries.

If publishing is to become as easy as 140 characters and a “Send” button, or simply one retweet, and the implications of getting it wrong are to be criminal investigations by the Metropolitan police, then as a society we cannot, on the one hand, allow the honesty, sharing and the jobs and income social media generate – as well as a whole host of other upsides which such a technologically-linked world provides – to lead, on the other, to the complex and awful risks of prison sentences and prohibitive fines for its participants when forwarding on the equivalent of a simple English sentence.  We cannot allow it, that is, unless we change quite radically its framework.

And if there are malicious people out there looking to witch-hunt others, to act as lynch mobs, to pursue in industrial quantities the reputations of others, then maybe governments too – especially the current one (but not only the current one) – need to ask themselves if there’s anything they can do to make our society less unhappy, less bitter, less desirous of revenge and less violent in its discourses.

A final couple of requests, then, from and to those of us who still wish to act in good faith on behalf of a better democratic society:

  • Lawyers, as perhaps the final profession to open its doors to 21st century society, it is your turn to accept that a wider applicability and use of the law by ordinary people must lead to its democratisation: both in terms of its understandability and in terms of its accessibility.  We need to be able to comprehend it without having to go to law school and we need to be able to pay for it without taking out a loan.
  • Politicians, as perhaps the final profession to want to accede to the desire which 21st century society has to share almost everything with almost everybody, we need you to accept that the importance of conducting reasoned and properly devolved debate requires us to have a system of government and justice which allow for legal actions that do not generate the fear of bankruptcy in ordinary people looking to sustain their right to free expression.  Removing the scope of Legal Aid for so many elements of legal action, as here in England the current government has so recently decided to do, does not indicate any real wish to support democratic instincts in the civilisations we are building.  I would ask you, therefore, to rethink this approach to guaranteeing the realistic exercise and defence of of legitimate rights to free expression.
  • Social media wonks, as perhaps the final profession to care to operate through legislatures across the world, your impatience with the inability of virtually everyone else to properly understand the implications of your genial inventions and online constitutions leads you not to worry too much about the very real legal implications for your consumers of the design decisions which you take behind closed doors, every day of the week – and very much outside the scope of most parliaments and governments.  At the very least, then, I would ask of you to lobby far more firmly on behalf of transparent and less costly libel processes in those jurisdictions where you generate your not inconsiderable incomes.  And at the very most, as I have already suggested on these pages quite recently, you might wish to consider drastically redesigning your software for the needs of what – almost certainly – will become a far more libellous age.

Now whether the above reflections will help anyone out of the morass I perceive as encroaching very soon on the few civil liberties we thought we had here in England, I really cannot say.

But I do hope that someone or some institution will hear my pleas; that these pleas may be understandings which other democratic individuals might share and care to sustain; and that such persons or organisations will be sufficiently intelligent and foresighted enough to comprehend exactly what a vibrant and sustainable body politic really needs: not a long-term slide into an atmosphere of libel and reputational aggression but, rather, cogent debate, accessible public forums, proper and informed dialogue – and as little intervention by the heavy-handed laws and costs of yore as the 21st century can possibly engineer.