Nov 142014
 
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These three tweets retweeted into my timeline this morning have caught my eye.  They attribute the following statements to Channel 4’s economics editor, Paul Mason – mainstream (if fairly independent and questioning) media to boot.  And they run as follows:

“We’re trapped inside neo-liberalism” says Paul Mason, Economics Editor, Channel 4 News.

#futureshock

If I was to form a party, it would have two core tenets, says Paul Mason:

1. Kill neoliberalism
2. Move beyond capitalism

#futureshock

I’d nationalise all grids, all networks. And bring in universal basic income; a subsidy for moving to a non-work economy—Mason #futureshock

Now if someone like Mason can be saying, publicly, stuff like this – fairly revolutionary stuff in the context of so much unchallenged austerity (or if not unchallenged, at least untoppled) – what must be going on behind the Bilderberg scenes?

Let’s just take apart the trajectory of austerity: a very old childhood friend of mine once explained to me how they’d been told the 2008 crisis was deliberately triggered.  At the time, I dismissed this as conspiracy baloney (without saying I did), but to be sure this crisis didn’t half come in handy.  Ordinary people were becoming wealthier; leisure time was being dedicated to ever-growing active participation (or meddling, depending on your point of view) in democratic process (as well as cut-price holidays to all corners of the world!); citizens in general were getting a taste for the better times, both culturally and more importantly economically.  Salaries were rising; demands for decent, dignified working conditions becoming more widespread … all in all, life was getting hard for those top capitalists amongst us of a lazy bent (not by any means the majority, of course; but perhaps far more than a minority if we define them in terms of the riches they lever).

So 2008 was a great excuse to empty hard-earned savings from the pockets of the reasonably ordinary – the ones really to be feared in times of significantly peaceful disruption.  (The extremists are never a problem: it’s easy, rightfully so, to get people to side against them.  But the people you should never keep your eyes off are the decent, thoughtfully silent majorities.)  By emptying such savings, we were emptying peace of mind.  And by emptying peace of mind, we were emptying the ability of most to react creatively before the war that the elites were about to wage on them.

‘Question, naturally, is: why wage a war on your own people?  Why, in a supposedly liberal economy, would you want to destroy the ability of your customers to continue buying your products and services?

I suggest two or three reasons to explain austerity’s implementation:

  1. In times of crisis such as these, when markets splinter and smaller units of production begin to attack existing interests, it’s normal for the latter to want to neutralise the dangers.  I’m not attributing evil motivations here; I can understand, from my irrelevantly tiny experience as a businessperson myself, what drives people into – and keeps them within – what we might term the jungle of capitalism.  So austerity is a perfect tool to put into place a siege: a process of attrition, if you like, which only the biggest can survive.
  2. The second step is to argue that people must become independent of the state, so as not to occupy the role of scroungers who live off society (this also, partly, with the objective of distracting us from the reality that large organisations and transnational corporations are anything but independent of their political sponsors).  And whilst all possibility of being independently and sustainably employed has been progressively eliminated by step 1, as described above, and all possibility of feeling decent about being dependent on the state has been eliminated by step 2, as described here, we create a society of subjects absolutely unable to and terrified of using their imaginations for anything like getting out of the holes they suddenly find their leaders have located them in.
  3. Therefore, as society’s overriding discourse becomes one essentially of the need for both corporations and flesh-and-blood persons to sink or swim on their own behalf, the reality is actually as follows: on the one hand, these corporations absorb the wealth that once belonged to the public sector, living as parasites (or symbiotically – I am still not sure which) on the public host; on the other hand, these flesh-and-blood persons, whilst rubbished for being poor and being simultaneously exhorted to stop being poor by themselves, become even more dependent on the state for their mental and physical wellbeing.

In the end, the three steps as described above reposition our leaders, both political and business, in roles of great power and immense hierarchy over the ordinary folk: the paradox being that whilst independence is being savagely preached in public discourse, in truth the reality has reimposed a grand and terrible dependence of almost everybody on pyramidal structures we thought once well-vanquished long ago.

So is that the be-all-and-end-all of austerity?  Just that?  Isn’t there a loose end – a humongous loose end – dangling at the end of our process?

Why undermine the spending of so many “units” of consumer purchasing-power?  Why deliberately reduce the potential market for value-added products and services?  Why aim to make everyone as poor as church mice?

Here, then, comes step 4: whilst the first three steps were necessary to re-establish corporate capitalism’s equilibrium and rules in the face of open-source movements, libertarian politics and much nastier elements out there, once re-established such an equilibrium, the plan will be also to re-establish that lost purchasing power.  Of course, before that is done, the public sector (the NHS, education, fire services, Legal Aid, police services and a whole swathe of other support environments) needs to be privately mined for as much public wealth as can possibly be transferred in the meantime.  But eventually, even economic behemoths such as health services will run their course.  And private citizens’ spending power will return to the agendas of almost all politicians – clearly alongside, that is, their cosy business leaders and interests.

So it is we come to that step 4 which I’ve mentioned previously: the universal basic income (UBI) which Mason has publicly espoused.  Imagine, now, after austerity’s been a) used to re-engineer terrified dependence on the status quo by formerly independent, creative and thoughtful souls – unpredictable souls, mind (maybe that was the real problem) – and b) used to re-establish important controls over society’s running by equally dependence-forming transnationals, how easy it would now become to introduce such a basic income, as well as get widespread and publicly relieved acceptance.

To understand the issue and the establishment’s fears, of course, we’d have to examine what might happen were it to be done in a different way: in a world, pre-austerity, with a) the sense of security provided by so many hard-earned savings in so many hard-working pockets; b) coupled with the guarantees and safety nets a society with secure welfare systems in place would offer; and c) in addition to the joy of not worrying any longer what the end of the month would bring … well, to introduce a UBI in such a context would mean the predictable and probably short-term collapse of the big interests we’ve been talking about and their hierarchies.

However, if you use austerity first to position society as you need it, ensuring that ordinary citizens forget what different futures might have been, as you force them to suffer a decade of lost generations … well, then, a life as a kept consumer-patty doesn’t seem such a bad choice or outcome after all.

Am I right?  Is this analysis just the ramblings of a daft amateur thinker?

For you to judge, dear readers.  For you to judge.

Have a good day, as always.  And don’t forget – whatever the miseries around you – to continue to strive to be creative in your thoughts.


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Oct 102014
 
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A while ago I had this to say about the hollow empire that once was Rupert Murdoch’s – and how I felt that the Guardian, in its page-impression-chasing “Comment is Free” section had reproduced such hollowness, perhaps quite despite itself.

The corrosive relativism – that platform for anyone, even one’s enemies (which, as you can see, I am suggesting has very curiously grown up in Murdoch’s imperial shadow and early example) – must have seemed a good idea at the time: that is to say, not corrosive.  But I would argue that in particular the last General Election – the commentariats’ recommendations and all that has rained on us since – has shown the consequences and ramifications of such an approach: ideologies, after all, are not important in order that they may allow the non-thinking to impose the inflexible on good people but, rather, precisely this, to make it possible for the thinking to measure the pitfalls of the relativism they rightly explore.  By always measuring such pitfalls at the same time as investigating new ideas, ideology helps – like a compass in the wild – the explorers amongst us keep on the right, intelligent and humane side of mix-and-match instincts to thought.  And equally, in ideology’s absence, there is nothing left to define how far we are travelling away from the goals we started out with.

So if exploring ideas in a relativistic way is good, how do we guard against its long-term corrosive downsides (if, indeed, I am right to term and argue it thus)?  That our newspapers are a reflection of our ways of thinking, doing and seeing is undoubted; that they fashion and impact on such ways is also clear; and that, above all, in the economically aggressive times for the industry all media are currently experiencing, that they will tend to strive any which way they can to overcome their own destruction, via online tricks (and tics!) of all kinds … well, it’s obvious that much of what has happened in the press over the past thirty years has had more to do with the overarching need to get to the end of the month than alleged empire-building and king- and queen-making antics.

In truth, democracy has been corrupting itself since the 70s; and the evidence is out there if you just care to look.  Which hasn’t meant there haven’t been parallel movements designed overtly or covertly to satisfy – as a social species – our democratic urges.  Open source software communities are one example of this.  Where cogent and useful and supporting real purposes and needs, they can be examples of alternative democracy worthy of significant study.  But we don’t even need to go so technical: the web, whilst mining the data and lives of so many of us, does also allow like-minded souls to aggregate around like-minded goals in so many online environments.

What’s now approaching is, however, something quite challenging.  The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will blur the lines between offline and online: our fridges will tell us that we need to buy milk on the way home; our cars will end up deciding where we need to drive; our watches will inform us of our health and any remedial urgencies to be contemplated.  As I concluded in another post on the same subject (whilst observing, sadly, the following lost opportunity: if only we’d called the Internet of Things a much happier Internet of People!):

As John Naughton reminds us, and Larry Elliott before him, the dominant mode of business is a business not of people but of things.  It’s hardly surprising that someone should have defined the next wave of connectedness thus.  What’s most worrying about it, however, is not the way such organisations repeat their behaviours.  What’s most worrying about it is that democracy itself – currently beholden only to ballot boxes, paper-based procedures and other remnants of quite ancient times – will shortly migrate to this still undefined Internet of Things; will shortly be defined from top-to-tail by corporate capitalism.

And then where will people be able to find even a niche?  Then where will people even exist?

This, for me, is the key issue to hand: how to make of an approaching (maybe we would more accurately say “encroaching”) Internet of Things a place designed for the grassroots input of all kinds of people.  Not to connect the offline and online worlds only through technologies which track us, measure us and – ultimately – define us quite despite ourselves but, rather, use tech to bring the real world back into the centre of all our endeavour – whether that endeavour be cultural, social, political or economic.

From a corrosive relativism to truly recovering the soul of one of our greatest newspapers?  And, consequently, in part, our much wider civic engagement?  I don’t think it’s beyond the ken of intelligent people to be as ambitious as this.  Look at this initiative, for example:

We believe that the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better

Guardian Membership brings together diverse, progressive minds, journalistic skills and the best of what others create to give you a richer understanding of the world and the opportunity to shape it.

And this:

In 2016, the Guardian will reopen the Midland Goods Shed at London’s King’s Cross to create a new kind of civic space.

The building will be a hub for big ideas and stimulating conversations. It will host events, activities and courses from Guardian Live and institutions we admire, as well as being the home of Guardian Membership.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the following article from September 2014 gives more background to how the Guardian sees itself in terms of this project.

So why do I suddenly find this so stimulating?  We can harp on about London-centric initiatives (I myself often do; I don’t have the resource, on occasions neither the emotional desire, to trog on down to a place which is often quite negatively foreign to my ways of thinking); we can even argue that it may become a white elephant of grand corporate self-aggrandisement, if those who are developing it aren’t careful.

But right now, with the data I get the feeling that I have to hand, I don’t think the above will happen.  And I certainly wish for it not to take over a beautiful idea we should all prefer to support, whatever our politics or ideological inclinations.

If we are to rescue the Internet of Things from those who would worship things instead of prioritise people, then public civic spaces like these where people of all ways of thinking, doing and seeing are physically able to meet other people, combined with video-conferencing tech for those who cannot be there in person, will inevitably become progressively more practical as the Internet we name the Internet of Things is – perhaps most hopefully – recovered for that Internet … of Our Mutual Civic Soul.


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Aug 092014
 
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Some thoughts I just brainstormed via Twitter:

#Globalisation promised progress from the well-off to the poor. TBH, it increasingly delivers pockets of poverty to the formerly well-off.

#Globalisation’s making us poorer: s’times literally, as water loses its status as human right; s’times, just a simple poverty of spirit.

The more our leaders (we too) get used to remote-controlled fixes, the less #globalisation leads to a coming-together of minds/their ideas.

Maybe the Interwebs have driven this tendency: being able to access it all from one’s own workstation leads to stationary attitudes to work.

For a particular tech-based mindset, the web is simply the beginning. But what if eventually it turns out to be distortion? A blip? A fork?

What if our future doesn’t equal remote-controlled fixing? What if a different disruption – instant travel, say – makes this web irrelevant?

Instant travel would make face-to-face skills & expectations as important as they ever were; but more importantly, democratically available.

The best of the web – instant access – without the worst: that distancing of physical everyone from everyone, which makes us so suspicious.

Those thoughts cheer me up, in an Asimov way. Imagine a world, where anyone could visit anywhere – in a second. #disruptiveinnovationforsure

Mind you, thinking less airily, more grounded in reality, the following issues do arise.  As per 3D printing, the ability to digitally whisk stuff across currently sovereign frontiers does kind of explain the rush and haste governments across the world, whatever their political colours, are all exhibiting: the borders of the future will not be sealed at all, if not sealed virtually.  Now whilst it’s true that instantaneous travel from anywhere to anywhere, and (more importantly) from anyone to anyone, could serve to liberate democratic citizens – and societies like our own, clearly struggling at the moment to be democratic – in a way no human being would ever have experienced before, as well as lead us back to the good old times when people thrashed out their problems through dialogue and at round tables of equal communication (or at least, when in Arthurian mode, so we’d allow ourselves to believe), in all probability the “dangers” of a humanity getting to know a humanity would not be underestimated by those running the serious risk of losing their privilege.  The darndest thing about democracy, of course, being that people don’t always vote the way you would like them to.  Just imagine, then, the problem of a society totally unmediated by content industries; totally informed by real, cheap, instantaneous opportunities to witness situations on the ground in first person.

Whenever anyone wanted.

Wherever anyone cared.

They’d have to invent a whole host of new reasons to make instantaneous travel a danger worthy of a surveillance state.

Ah well.  I’m sure they could, and would.

Until then, and whilst the new “computer companies” still had time to do their disruptive worst best, we could perhaps recover some semblance of the freedoms we once enjoyed on the Internet – and, more specifically, the worldwide web.

If, I suppose, those freedoms ever really existed.

Anyhow.  As I suggested in my final tweet above, I do feel kind of cheerful at the moment – thinking as I am of the Internet and what may lie beyond.  The wonder and excitement, for me, of that adolescent time when I read huge amounts of sci-fi books and short stories – admittedly a time when I was most impressionable about what I perceived, and when I was quite the least critical of the life unfolding around me – does right now make me smile as I believe that maybe the future can be rescued through technology after all.

The right sort of technology, of course.

The kind that makes democracy, not breaks it.


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Aug 092014
 
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I posted earlier today an email which reached me as the nominal Amazon author I am (I’ve never received any payment as such, but this blog is still up there on their site as a product).  I was quite positive about the thrust of the argument this presented.  An apparently virtually identical letter was posted by Amazon at this website at about the same time.  A blogpost then argued that Amazon is getting nervous (presumably about tons of stuff – not just e-books I mean), and a tweet which flitted past me even sardonically commented how the company was being true to its $9.99 maximum e-book price tag policy by paying a similarly restricted amount of dosh to the firm it “obviously” used for its PR.

We then have a lovely summary of Almost Everything Amazon vs The Rest Of The World here.  That post came my way via Dave Winer, who suggested as he prefaced his tweet that Amazon will always be a computer company.

And so to my final quote before I get started.  Evgeny Morozov went and said this about an hour and a half ago:

Writers, embrace disruptive innovation! Stay hungry, stay foolish! Someone has to pay for Jeff Bezos’s plans to mine asteroids in space!

Yep.  Disruptive innovation … it just had to rear its ugly head.

Why ugly?

Recent history informs us so.

Amazon is a great “external customer” company.  There have, however, been plenty of tales about how it doesn’t treat some of its workforces quite so well; how it doesn’t engage with some of its tax communities quite so constructively; how, even, that its fierce McDonald-like focus on undercutting prices and achieving market share at the expense of almost everything else (not customer service any longer – I’ve been there and seen the ugly, bad and now good) is destroying independent booksellers and the craft of face-to-face relationships in ways we could term brutal.

But it was that comment of Dave Winer’s about Amazon always being a computer company that caught my attention.  Morozov’s reminding us of disruptive innovation is apposite in this context: a concept I’ve generally understood to mean providing intellectual justification and coverage to thinking the only customer worth paying attention to is the external one – everyone else, consequently, being allowed to go to hell.

And computer companies – tech companies to be more inclusive – have razed the more old-fashioned sectors of many countries to the ground, even as end-user external-customer-types have, medium-term, benefited everywhere.  In this, as distributor (I’d argue distributors generally ultimately win these battles for new technological turf), Amazon has productively disrupted accepted models for ages.  But not only Amazon: we also have Apple, to a lesser extent Microsoft.  Whilst Microsoft continued to focus on publishing software, Apple got a leg-up via music.  And so two of the oldest types of content joined one of the newest and least tangible to form a triumvirate of content distributors.

So far, so good.  But the philosophy of disruptive innovation makes for rapacious souls when it comes to living alongside the rest of the world.  The fact that these “external customer” companies paid far more attention to the needs of only one potential client meant that this was no democratic universe of relationships: this was the re-establishment of ancient pyramidal monarchies.  No P2P hierarchy or mentality; instead, a hierarchy where only one objective counted: shareholder value, levered by the continuing satisfaction and capturing of these end-user external-customer-types.

If we’re to make better large companies in the future, this monarchy of customers must become far more democratic.  I remember two examples from personal experience.  In Spain, a car components group promulgated the idea of the customer being king (still monarchical, I accept – only wait …) – but the customers in question were entirely circular: you could be your boss’s customer; your boss could be yours; you had to see all personal and business interactions as moving – in both directions – between the nexus of customer and supplier.  In the UK, meanwhile, cack-handedly implemented, I experienced the half-baked taking onboard of a concept which divided customers up into the already alluded to “external vs internal”.  Of course, this automatically led – by the clearly uninitiated – to a prioritising of the “external” and a pretty savage ignoring of the “internal”, to the extent where historically damn good industrial relations were destroyed within a year.

No longer a monarchy of customers, then; quite a different hierarchy of customers is what we need to fight to achieve.  But whilst computer companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft continue to dominate and manage our economic expectations, and continue only to focus on our manifestations as end-user external-customer-types, we won’t be able to make corporations good for everything we really do need them to deliver.

Maybe the disruptive innovation we’re actually looking for is to be found somewhere else: make of the world a huge business simulation – isn’t that, anyway, what the stock markets are? – where the bottom line grows through a far more complex combination of actions than simply destroying the carefully woven threads of competition: cashable points for this, cashable points for that, cashable points for everything that makes good our human obligations.

A democracy of customers indeed.

All of us.


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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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Aug 062014
 
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I read that the first Wikipedia page has been lost to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” rulings – and like #DRIP (more here, here and here) after it, I’m afraid that very little has been thought through at the moment of its conceptualisation.

Many have written well and hard about how incompatible this “right” has to be with a modern representative democracy.  But then many have observed – just as equally – how incompatible with true democracy our current manifestation happens to be.  And as Paul Bernal pointed our a while ago, little in this life is ever a complete disaster or a triumph:

On a slightly different tack, criminals and scammers have always been able to cover their tracks – and will still be able to. The old cat-and-mouse game between people wanting to hide their identity and people wanting to uncover those hiding them will still go on. The ‘right to be forgotten’ won’t do anything to change that.

But as is my wont, I’m sometimes inclined to a rather curious impulse to run with an idea – and instead of looking to rebut its founding principles, I aim – rather – to take full advantage of it.

So what exactly am I getting at?  If the “right to be forgotten” becomes firmly established as a principle of modern democracy, and I’m pretty sure this will eventually be the case, why not use it as a precedent to establish further protections?  For example, whilst people with sordid private pasts – who, nevertheless, have the moral right of us all to keep these private lives private – may use such rulings to rub out from easy public view historically negative images of their selves, and so make the rest of society, democratic citizen and all, “forget” what the mainstream media once sold millions of copies on the back of, if we are to continue to build societies of the just and equal, surely we must contemplate that modest private citizens – alongside those scandalously public figures – should have a similar opportunity to choose what may be remembered or not about themselves too.

And if this is the case, perhaps they should also have an opportunity to choose who may remember or forget.  “Who?” you blurt out.  “Yes, who!” I respond (I have to admit curiously with an exclamation mark …).

Anyhow.  If all citizens are equal, and the smallest unsliceable atom of existence of the state is a citizen too, in the figure of a civil servant of some kind or another, and the “right to be forgotten” gives to all citizens the right to be forgotten by all citizens, why cannot one day we contemplate using such a precedent to demand that the state – in its many surveilling instincts (#DRIP not the least of them, as already observed on these pages) – also learns how to forget us in some analogous way?

Don’t battle to remove the “right to be forgotten” from the list of cack-handed 21st century assumptions but use it, instead, to widen the application of such principles to other areas of endeavour.  If, for example, it should exist amongst the citizens of a country, it should also exist amongst the relationships which the aforesaid citizens  of that country have with large companies and government bodies various (especially as those who support corporate organisation are always arguing they are mostly equal to their flesh-and-blood equivalents anyway).

And so a circle of balance could be re-established: we wouldn’t only choose to be forgotten to reset our unhappy private mistakes but also to recover our privacy from an ever-encroaching dragnet of behaviours.

*

An afterthought: remember when Google dismantled Reader (more here)?  In the light of the European ruling on the “right to be forgotten”, it hasn’t half played into the hands of those who wish to better control the flow of the information.  That people should be accustomed by virtual force to use Facebook, Twitter or Google+ in the absence of the far less subjective RSS is, of course, a coincidence I am sure.  But a coincidence, in any case, worth contemplating – especially in relation to its impact on how easy it may now become to make such information invisible.

For a wider usage of RSS would have guaranteed better the permanence of controversial content.  That companies as big as Google have done their best to woo people away from it – or, minimally, have refused to promote its technologies – is therefore if not suspicious, a tad unhappy at the very least.

Don’t you think?

____________________

Update to this post: this, from the Independent, has just come my way.  Fascinating, and relevant, stuff.


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Jul 242014
 
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Yesterday, I read this phrase quoted from Tim O’Reilly (the bold is mine):

We couldn’t agree more: “Technology should be about values with people at the centre” @timoreilly #OSCON2014 #OSCON

This afternoon, meanwhile, I read three amazing articles – all of which, in some way, may lead to a final fixing of our broken political process.

The first article is from Wired UK, and describes how the tech industry is leading to increasing inequality.  A lack of morality – manifested by the industry everywhere, as well as large corporations in all sectors since the beginning of capitalism – leads to “ordinary people” being forced out of their suburbs.  The wealth generated by workers, who with their interconnected technologies can set up business anywhere, soon distorts and deforms the social patterns and financial dynamics of every community they set their eyes on:

[…] The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

The second article comes from the Guardian back in June (again, worth reading in its entirety), linked to from the Wired UK report above.  And it asserts things like this – things I have failed to hear for a long time but which were music to my ears a naive decade ago:

So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

A perfect riposte to Google & Co’s Melian dialogues, I think.

The final article which – at least in my opinion – serves to build on the first two is this one from today, also published in the Guardian.  In it, Cory Doctorow suggests that the very tech which has corrupted further our politics can be turned round and used for and by the people to recover integrity.  As he concludes most powerfully (again, the bold is mine):

This threshold-style action system is at the heart of Kickstarter (pledge whatever you like, but no one has to spend anything unless enough money is raised to see the project to completion) and it’s utterly adaptable to elections.

In democracies all over the world, voting is in decline. A permanent political class has emerged, and what it has to offer benefits a small elite at the public’s wider expense.

We hear a lot from tech circles about “disruption” of complacent, arrogant and entrenched industries. Politics is the foremost example of such an industry and it’s overdue for disruption.

Incidentally, this afternoon a short Slideshare came my way.  I’ll embed it below so you can see that others are having similar thoughts:

And as an adjunct to all the above, back in 2012 I suggested this alternative to our first-past-the-post electoral system, where I said things like this:

This would clearly be a brand new electoral system – a system which depended heavily for its functionality on virtual-community technologies and multifarious software tools.  But it would also be a brand new electoral system entirely fit for a consensual and collaborative – that is to say, a coalition – age.  No longer would politicians have to triangulate their positions.  No longer would the electorate have to compromise when they voted.  In everything we began to do in such a body politic, honesty, sincerity and directness would become the definers of a completely new era in representative democracy.

*

To my final observation today.  We all know how “Citizen Kane” turned out, of course.  But maybe a “Citizen Kane 2.0″ could be worth pursuing.  Imagine that a campaigning paper of the history of an organisation like the British Guardian, say, decided that – with all its present online and virtual experience and activity – it might be able to do much more than freely comment the world’s events.  Initiate, proactively participate, manage, channel and forge a new politics as per some of the ideas contained in this post today … in particular with respect to what Doctorow proposes.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine and life-changing experience for not only the journalists and readers already involved – but also for the wider population of despairing citizens?

Reshape parliamentary process through the very technology that has so fiercely pwned – in the nakedly Melian terms I mentioned earlier – every step of 21st century governance as we have experienced it to date; reform the process of exchange and blur the lines of hierarchy intelligently between leaders and led, between the thinkers and the thought; and remake, finally, the balance of power amongst those who promise so much and those who are lied to so frequently.

A temptation too far?  Come on, you clever bods of the written word.  Remind yourselves truly: the pen is mightier than the sword.

(But in order to be so, it needs occasionally to be unsheathed …)


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Jun 252014
 
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There has been a lot of rubbish written about the subject of British Values recently.  This post of mine will probably serve to make the already high pile even higher.  But hey-ho, here we go.

Although my mother came to Britain as an immigrant, in a sort of way fleeing her experience of Communist oppression in the ex-Yugoslavia (her parents were anti-Communists during World War Two, and so lost a lot by way of opposing Communist privilege in the post-war period of Tito’s regime), I myself was born in Oxford.  About as quintessentially English as anyone could get, in fact.  I’ve always wanted to return there to live – but one of the undeniable British Values of recent times involves finding it prohibitively expensive to get decently-priced accommodation in places where jobs simultaneously exist.

So here I am, making my living via Internet and web tools and environments, in a property no one would care to call their own.

Stoicism, then?  Another British Value?  That’s two already, and I’ve hardly got started.

Actually, the thesis of this post was to be rather different.  For me, born and bred British but having grown up in between quite different cultural vectors (atheist English/Welsh/Yorkshire/British/European versus dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist Catholic Croatian), it has always seemed that the greatest achievement of our cultural cauldron has – really not surprising, this – mimicked very closely the outlines and structures of our linguistic heritage.  Yes.  We always look to the United States in these matters – and, admittedly, their achievement is considerable: melding (or maybe that’s welding) a multitude of different – still growing, still effervescing – cultures together in a primal soup of patriotic belief in order to create one country out of an astonishing federal association.  But what we’ve achieved in Britain over the years – what lately we’re looking to ditch, too, as we take onboard everything and anything American – is typically contrary to our cousins across the Atlantic, even as in our diffident way we assume we’ve done really nothing at all to differentiate ourselves.

And, actually, maybe we have really done nothing: our secret being this nothing we’ve really not done.  One of my skills, and one way I make my living, is as a language trainer: www.speak-ok.com is where I ply my trade.  Over the years, I have noticed – as many of us who train will concur – that learners of English almost invariably find it difficult to learn because there is a hole at the centre of its grammatical structures.  The beauty of English is that the formation of its tenses is relatively straightforward; that the subjunctive is mostly invisible where not completely unnecessary (and becoming more so); and that you can make yourself easily understood, especially to other foreign speakers of the language, even where you commit mistakes in what we are normally supposed to say.

I would argue, therefore, that – given a chance – English, and the British, are generally forgiving when it comes to meaning.  We’re not pedants; we don’t pursue arguments to the death; we generally look to comprehend what you meant to say rather than, exactly, what you did.

And this huge vacuum at the centre of the language itself finds an analogous vacuum at the centre of what we feel we can agree upon is the essence of British Values.  But in reality, it’s no vacuum at all: in reality, like foreigners attempting – and failing – to find one-to-one grammatical correspondences with their own finely-wrought languages, what’s to blame is our perception of what we believe – perhaps from a US-style perspective we’re absorbing (or that’s absorbing us) – that we should now be encountering in our cultural heritage, even though it has never been there in the first place.

If the greatness of English, as a linguistic construct, is to be found in its forgiving nature as far as comprehending broken forms and attempts at communication, and therefore making them work for the benefit of everyone, then the greatness of British Values is surely located along the same lines: the same lines as one of its key linguistic heritages; the same lines as the people formed by such a set of linguistic patterns and ways of thinking and seeing.

We are what we speak.  And what we speak, for people from other languages, works in the absence of a certain complication they have learnt to need, to value and to use to control their own national characteristics and ways of doing.

So after all of this, what’s my conclusion?  Let’s, once and for all, stop trying to fill the “vacuum” at the centre of British Values.  An absence doesn’t mean a lack.  It can mean a freedom.  It can mean a liberty to do what we choose – when we are taught rightly not to hurt others.  It can mean a space to move as we would wish.  It can mean an efficiency to finish a job without irrelevant and unhelpful fuss.

That, for me, is where British Values are to be found.

In particular, in English’s inclusive ability not only to acquire new vocabulary and ways of communicating from other cultures but also to live alongside other proud and honourable traditions; to collaborate with them; to learn from them; and to synthesise new ideas from them.

English the language, and Values the British, don’t so much simplify stuff; rather, instead, they simply make it easier to get along.  And that, right here, is the real virtue we should perceive.

That, right here, is what we should all be attempting to perpetuate.

British Values: the essence of an existence, well experienced.


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Mar 142014
 
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For just over seven years, I wrote this blog quite blindly.  I was reactive, puzzled, thrashing about where many (most) had already thrashed.  I sometimes wondered if it was infirmity which drove me on.  But in just over seven years, I was incapable of ever writing down – in a minute or two – the common denominators that drove me in so many of my posts.

Today, on the occasion of Tony Benn’s sad death, Brian Moylan sent my way this video.  In less than two minutes, it encapsulates everything (I now realise) that made me write for seven quite helter-skelter years.  Watch it – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.


http://youtu.be/Xfk0rfbDnXo

No.  I’m not unmothballing this blog quite yet.  I’m writing over at http://error451.me/blog and blinkingti.me quite happily right now – the former with relative interest from my readers, the latter with very little interest for anyone except me.

:-)

But hey-ho, that’s the life on the open seas.

And with that celebration of a life sincerely lived, I burrow my way back into the anonymity from which I have temporarily emerged.


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Nov 032013
 
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I’m not absolutely sure if this will be my final blogpost here.  It should be, of course – I promised you as much.

But promises – especially when one finds oneself in a state of unrequited love – are clearly made to be broken.

A retrospective of sorts, then; an overview of what this blog has done for me.  I started it on November 3rd 2006, over at Google’s Blogger servers (was it already Google’s when I started?).  I was a massive fan of Blogger as an easy tool for simple writers.  Looking through those early posts, I clearly took my inspiration from the original meaning of the word: logging the Net.  Short posts, maybe a brief commentary if that, which aimed to create a tapestry of meaning from successive forays onto the web.

At the same time, or maybe a couple of years later, I began to blog in a parallel fashion for a project I believed in incredibly at the time: Labour’s Members Net (more here).  I wrote under the heading of the Cogwriter – a typewriter of engineered ideas, and means of production, I think was where I was kind of coming from.  This blog may still exist for all I know, behind the virtual four walls of the Labour Party’s IT infrastructure.  It looked to encourage partisan participation and community, even as it ultimately failed through its own unavoidable intellectual contradictions.  Meanwhile, via the support (not always appreciated by others or – indeed – myself!) of Dave Semple, who progressed from digging in his heels (as only he knows how) to then publicly spreading his wings as the founding thinker behind the far more public – and ultimately combative – Though Cowards Flinch, I was encouraged myself to spend more time on the open web in the finally firmly accepted understanding that we had to shape the battle in full view of the public we wanted to vote for us.

I assume Dave now sees Labour as a lost cause of some considerable tradition.  Myself, if I am to stop doing what – over the years – I have been doing here, it is primarily because I need a new frame where sitting on the fence isn’t my modus operandi.  And if anyone has impressed on me the importance of taking such a step, it will have been Dave in all his irascibility who has ultimately won the arguments.

The Galludor, too, was a big influence on how my thought developed, both within Members Net and, later, on the open web via his gentle, perceptive and often striking Equals.  A gentleman in everything one might care to be, in fact – including his careful expositions of complex subjects which, nevertheless, never intended to browbeat.

All the time my posts got longer and longer.  I remember Paul Evans once advising me, in the kindliest way possible, that my stuff wasn’t really suited to the web: not to the web of one scroll and TLTR dynamics, anyhow.  I took it as the compliment I’m pretty sure he intended.  In the end, I’ve always been a wannabe Renaissance man of instincts which date from centuries ago, in desperate – and finally unredeemed – pursuit of a Renaissance mind which might have served to provide such redemption.

Never mind.  My memory of what I have written is shockingly poor.  I only remember some posts – and even then, not enough to properly search them.  How I fell in love with the Kindle and the Guardian‘s version for it, only to fall as quickly out of love.  How I loved so very much Amazon’s beautifully constructing corporate machine, only to find myself disgusted with its tax shenanigans to the point where, for a while, I even stopped using it.  How I realised, very early on, that the Big Society was designed for semi-retired white Conservative men, who would deliberately find it in themselves to squeeze out the truly deserving through their state-sanctioned privilege and prejudice.  How my long-held admiration for the Dutch understanding of consensus in politics was brutally destroyed by the experiences we have had with our alleged Coalition government.  How the Blair I had admired during 9/11 – and even the beginnings of Iraq – lost all my sympathy, even all my empathy, for anything and everything he had achieved.  How I cruelly realised, ended up quite unable to deny, that Hunt, Lansley, Gove, May, Osborne and chummy Cameron himself were nothing but a logical extension of the groundwork New Labour had carried out.

A groundwork at the time I had been happy to sign up to and believe in; to promote and divulge; to learn about and study; to spread and evangelise.

I loved America – the USA I mean – just as much.  The two seemed to go hand in hand.  My love of the US, the good vibes which Newsweek and Time and Life from my Yugoslav holidaying brought home to me, were finally my downfall in 2003, as a mixture of mental ill health and unhappy circumstance combined to create a dangerous cocktail only nervous breakdown managed to put on hold.

And that, for me, if we have to look for something this blog has ultimately managed to fix, is the biggest reason why I should now let go.  If anything at all has been mended, if anything has been repaired, if anything was once quite stuck and is now – as a result – finding itself gratefully soaring, then it is my own mental wellbeing which these last seven years and one day of assiduous blogging have returned to the hearth of my soul.

You can indeed write yourself out of illness, and if I did anything properly on these pages over the years, it was to share a definitive progress from terrible sadness to what I have often described as a manifest comprehension of a world with many underbellies, it is true – but also of a world with just as many joys.

If any of what I’ve put down on these pages has ever made you think, ever touched you – ever stopped you even a little in your tracks of daily routine or weekly boredom – as it made you wonder how beautiful it is to wonder, to try and repair a broken set of minds, then I suppose I can be reasonably satisfied.

Perhaps, in the end, it has been a strangely selfish project too.  I’m still too close to it to be able to properly gauge.  But if this is the case, if I have been self-indulgent (Dave S would be the very first to say I have!), then let at least the following be known: by allowing me to respond to the world around me, you’ve allowed me, in a way, to save my life.

My new project, blinkingti.me, is already up and running.  I hope to use it to participate much more actively in the offline world, with a fair smattering of reports – in amongst the inevitable introspection that will continue – on real stuff where truly socialising people find themselves able to socialise each other: in essence, to cry, laugh, love and work to a wider good.

And why not?  We may, after all, be under the brutish boot of the oppressors – but that doesn’t mean we should stop doing what human beings at their very best do their very best: fix their surroundings, whenever they can, for the broadest wellbeing of the grandest majority.


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Oct 252013
 
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I suppose, in the end, we have to recognise Blair was right about one thing: we have to win enough votes to win an election before we aim to do anything else.  And in a world such as ours, to draft our appeal in terms of socialism, whilst guaranteeing a certain weight and moral validity, will hardly win any prizes for attracting the sensibilities of those whose votes make the difference between a lying halfway house of a Coalition government (as per the current one) on the one hand, and a proudly declamatory and transparent offering of tone and style (as per a future Labour one, perhaps) on the other.

Maybe we do need to accept that manifestos are vague pitches which most usefully encapsulate broad intentions – intentions which should be judged and perceived from such generous perspectives.  If we look to such a proclamation of promises with the beady eye of “will you, won’t you” conditionality, deception and disillusionment will inevitably be our lot.

We have to be more realistic to our political class.  We have, ourselves, to be far more generous to what they can deliver.

I know saying this will not make me popular.  Even so, I feel it now needs to be said.

We need to give our politicos space to preach a better world – even as we know they will deliver a less good.

Instead, I think it is elsewhere we need to focus our attention – our attention, not our ire.  This wave of history lapping at our feet – in particular with respect to its technological aspect – is driving our society towards a self-taught self-help socialism of determined communities, where both large and small companies and organisations various make their livings off the backs of a renewed focus on such a contextualised individualism (perhaps with every craftsperson’s right and precedent – “Artisans of the world, unite!” – to back up the way they conduct their commercial activities).  In my own case, I find myself teaching people across the globe the ins and outs of my mother tongue.  I feel myself to be, in a way, a victim of the zero-hour generation – and yet, at the same time, I think that I number amongst the very same generation’s most blessed of all.  Whilst I am still healthy, whilst I can still live my life in a reasonably independent way, this life is perfect for me: variety of timetable, customers and content make my work and life balance quite adequate.  And in my case, I have to admit, even as I accept I am suffering the curse of labour instability, that I have never been happier in this life.

I also have to recognise that without the infrastructures of the corporations, mainly American, which I have occasion to lambast most of my days, I would not be able to teach in that global context which makes my working-life so satisfactory.

So it is, then, I would like to suggest the following: if we are to continue, in our very British body politic, to have the kind of rather spurious game that pitching competing political manifestos against each other involves, maybe we should look mainly to the goal of refashioning the aforementioned tone and style through the selfsame hoary old sequence of political “promises”, this time understood by us voters in as kindly a way as we can still manage.

If Ed Miliband could just see his way to seeing our job, as a political party wishing to govern, in the light of an environmental concern (environmental, that is, in the sense of space – not in the sense of ecology), and even to seeing it as a trip, an excursion, a journey rather than a destination in itself, we could maybe, just maybe, aim to develop our electoral process to the point where instead of concentrating on the aforementioned spurious manifestos of what we should and won’t do, we could spend our time using them to honestly develop, promote and sell an appropriate tone and style for the future.

After all, leadership is so often a question of enabling others: not micromanaging their integrities, their actions and their personal contributions out of existence but giving them the freedom to lead themselves.

Precisely for the spurious political reasons and expectations I mention, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is now being expected to provide swathes of detailed solutions to a flurry of truly serious problems afflicting the country.

In reality, the political debate we choose to hold should be quite a different one: Ed Miliband’s Labour Party should be saying that in a self-learning and self-empowering generation of virtual connectednesses – even where this generation has been, and is being, persistently confused by all kinds of commercial and state-sponsored activities (both disgracefully illegitimate as well as clearly rather more sincere) – a new kind of socialism, a socialism which already exemplifies itself although we choose not to name it thus, a socialism which looks to connect evermore intelligent participants, a socialism which curiously – quite individualistically – self-engenders … this socialism I poorly describe must be the self-taught self-help philosophy on which we decide to build a better Britain.

We should not be expecting of Labour the answers to our problems.  We should be expecting of Labour the recognition that we are the answers.

And in and through such a profound recognition, our political parties – all of them – could show us they have the courage to ultimately accept the implications of such a humongous shift in the dynamics of British political process.


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Oct 162013
 
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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.


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Aug 182013
 
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Most of my readers probably consider me an excessively rhetorical soul, given to dancing verbally around subjects instead of providing hard evidence.  Today, I’ll provide hard evidence for the following assertion: our democracy has been gamed from within – and needs to be ungamed about as sharpish as we can.

The evidence first.  A couple of years ago I already reported on ministerial bed-hopping:

It was bad enough in New Labour times.  Something I picked up via False Economy in August (background here) made that pretty patent and clear enough for all of us to see.  Amongst the many unhappy truths, conflicted interests and abuses of power in such times, this one is perhaps one of the most vigorously anti-democratic:

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector. Of these, thirteen were still MPs. Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’ This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months. A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Now – it would appear, however – that as in everything in this world, Cameron & Co are looking to outdo even more of the less salubrious “achievements” of our previous governors.  As the Telegraph reports today:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost the economy.

To be honest, here I’d be inclined to want to argue the toss – and make one very small but important amendment to that sentence:

The bosses of some of the biggest companies in Britain, including BP, Shell and Jaguar Land Rover, are to be given hotlines to ministers to boost their economy.

Yesterday, meanwhile, the Guardian provided us with some important data in relation to who is really represented at party political conferences:

Lobbyists and executives from companies and charities make up a third of the people at the Conservative autumn conference, it has emerged.

The Tory party’s commercial brochure shows just 38% of delegates at the party’s annual meeting are members, while 36% are from companies, charities and other “exhibitors”. Around 20% of attendees were from the media.

If you asked me to compare that figure of 36 percent with how general elections are won and lost, how decisions are taken after election day and who, essentially, our representative democracies truly represent these days, I’d find it difficult to take issue with that figure.  If anything, I’d be inclined to argue it underestimates the influence of moneyed constructors of public opinion and discourse.

Clearly, then, our democracy has been gamed from within.  Political parties which can no longer depend on individual members to sustain their narratives resort to big donors whose interests lie quite elsewhere.  The big push that a general election campaign used to presuppose – where once interpreted as a massively positive referendum on past actions as well as on the potential integrity of future promises – has been positioned as a perfect objective for the Dark Arts of political marketing and spin to focus their actions and massage our opinions.

And so most of us understand a democracy gamed just as clearly needs ungaming.  Which brings me to this fascinating suggestion by Tim, worth reading in full for its measured portrayal of a beautiful alternative to the mess we currently find ourselves in – democracy without general elections:

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

He goes on to explain how a rolling process of weekly elections – not without its possible downsides but nevertheless worth considering in the light of its democracy-infusing and grassroots-empowering advantages – might help wrest power from the centralisers and return it to the people without requiring any profound reorganisation of Parliament itself:

[…] Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

The biggest upsides I can see are twofold: firstly, since it would appear the traditional party political structure is now about as corrupted by Big Money as could possibly be the case (remember that 36 percent of lobbyist representation mentioned in the Guardian article), taking away the right of parties to structure their political persuasion and marketing around big events held every five years would, in fact, take it away from the lobbyists too.  Secondly, no party, however well-funded, could possibly run weekly elections without the true enthusiasm and collaboration of grassroots volunteers everywhere.  Suggestions made to democratise internal democracy in relation to policy generation and planning in particular would rapidly gain traction as a result.

And not just for Labour.

This idea deserves further and wider consideration than simply by my humble blogsite.  If you do stumble across this post, please consider retweeting on Twitter, liking on Facebook or linking to and writing about its thesis.

I do think we need it more than many professionals in the field are prepared to acknowledge for the moment.  But as simple voters who know what it’s like to be on the crappy end of a process, it may be up to us to make them understand their tardiness – before we all lose faith entirely in the glories of what we once called a liberal democracy.

No?


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Jun 052013
 
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I received an email a couple of days ago from Labour in relation to the European candidates selection process.  Part of it said as follows:

Arlene McCarthy, who was re-selected following a trigger ballot, will appear at the top of the list as the only sitting MEP in the region.

Beneath her, there are eight candidates – four men and four women – who need to be ranked in order of preference. The candidate who secures the most preferences will be placed second on the regional party list.

If a male candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest-placed female candidate will come next on the list, followed by the next male candidate and then by the female. If a female candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest placed male will come next on the list, followed by the next female candidate and then by the male.

This process is known as zipping and is used by the Labour Party in European candidate selections to help to balance male and female candidates.

You should vote by ranking the candidates in order of preference by placing a 1 against your first preference, 2 against your second preference and so on. You do not have to use all your preferences, although it cannot harm the chance of your first choice candidate if you do.

As Labour Uncut concluded recently:

At a time when there is widespread mistrust in politicians and disengagement in politics, does this really represent the most transparent way of selecting candidates?

Is “zipping” what the new politics is all about?

Meanwhile, I read yesterday (in Spanish) (robot English here) that in Spain the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is looking to get enshrined in electoral law there the aforementioned procedure of zipping (the Spanish call it “listas cremallera” – “zip lists”).

Whilst the procedure hasn’t been explained as clearly as it could have been, and Labour Uncut is right to bring our attention to this, it is obviously looking to right a severe wrong which the privileged few who control politics continue to exert even in the presence of 50 percent quotas.  It serves no useful purpose whatsoever for men and women to make up an electoral list, if the majority of the electable seats end up in hands of men.

That it is time a representative democracy represents its people properly and transparently is no more self-evidently true than today, where a Cabinet of millionaires holds sway disastrously over our politics.

Zipping is a great idea whose time should have come long ago.  Although it smacks through the word used, even when better explained, emotionally of tying up freedoms, we shouldn’t allow those who maintain existing profiles of privilege to kick the procedure into touch.

We need a fairer and more truly representative democracy.  Properly implemented, a 50 percent quota with equal opportunities of winning for men and women will surely get us there eventually.

A case of a policy which might remove a raft of career choices for men like myself, but would – long-term – benefit us all socially a thousandfold over.  After all, what’s the point of winning if it involves oppression?  That’s not winning at all; that’s essentially the hierarchies of serfdom.

That’s a meritocracy built on catacombs of lies.

Let’s follow the PSOE’s example, and propose giving it legal backing.  Time – long overdue, in fact – to make zipping the law for all political parties.


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May 182013
 
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I must admit I hadn’t been to a Labour Party event for quite a while.  The local parliamentary candidate selection process did bring me temporarily back into the fold, and I had this to say about it most recently.  However, a certain Richard Beacham and helpers various appear to be creating an amazing buzz around what I had long felt to be a CLP hitting way below its potential.

So it was I went to what I believe is the first Labour Live event in Chester.  And in five short tweets from last night, here you can see my reaction to the whole affair:

At the Chester Labour Live event. Brilliant first act. Young singer-songwriter from New Brighton. Class young woman. Great songs and voice.

A folk version of Dancing Queen? With audience participation too? Now that is One Nation Labour! :-) Great stuff.

Stuck In The Middle With You plus iPad and stomping local brothers. Now if all GCs were like this …

You Can Call Me Al … or is that Arnie? Can politics really be this much fun?

Not so much Twist And Shout as twist and get them out. You could seriously win elections with such engagement.

And as I added, once back home:

@CllrSDixon ‘Twas an excellent show, wasn’t it? Never been to a GC like that in my life. ;-) @cwaclabour @cllrben

What a contrast to traditional Party occasions.  Yes, of course it involves allowing oneself to give oneself up to one’s emotions for a time, but the music was good, the conversation enthusing and I simply had a jolly good time.  No, I’m not the selfless kind who loves pushing leaflets through letterboxes; I much prefer to push words into the ether.  But I can feel much more positive about the Party more widely by getting out from behind my weapon of choice for the kind of show that Chester Labour put on last night.

There is a lesson in all of this: there is a moment in politics when desperate measures may be called for.  And those desperate measures may mean appealing occasionally to our less rational and thinking sides.  Democratic socialism of the kind I experienced last night – a local community opening its doors to culture and art in the good long-term cause of winning back government from one of the most incompetent administrations in recent times – is the sort of process and ideology we need to promote and develop.

Political parties as enablers rather than leaders; political parties which know how to bring different strands of protest together; political parties which know how to embed themselves in communities in a symbiotic and not parasitical way.

Whilst Pope Francis condemns the cult of money, MPs decide Google & Co do evil after all, modern life – and in particular politics – ignores the essence of ordinary people’s home and work experiences, and even I remember arguing that privatising intimacy was the ultimate privatisation of all, we see that overlording all of the above is an almost certainly deliberate process whereby serious centres of latterday power look to make of us all much more selfish beings.  And yet countering all the previous, surely more and more community acts of creative solidarity such as Chester’s Labour Live event last night can serve to re-establish a natural equilibrium in the way we see those around us.

Where powerful transnational processes have taught us to think only about maximising our individual and familial outcomes, the kind of political party which Labour may be transmuting into can surely, just as deliberately, re-educate us into looking to maximise societal outcomes too.

If Labour can truly learn to give to its potential voters as much as it needs to ask of them – and in that sequence and order in the grander hierarchy of relationships – then perhaps all is not lost to the selfishness that modern capitalism has ingrained in us.

So this afternoon, this is why you read Partisan Mil arguing that a future of human relationships still exists; is still salvageable; is still within our reach.

Don’t believe the Tories; don’t believe their corporate sponsors; don’t believe that money must rule our every transaction.

Live encounters; real events; natural extensions of hopes, fears, ambitions and futures.  All of this and more can be found in a Labour Live performance.

And hopefully, pretty soon, in a Labour Live political party …


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May 012013
 
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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.


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