Mar 012012
 
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Labour List had an interesting post yesterday from the always attuned Mark Ferguson.  In it, he suggested there was serious evidence the Lib Dems would be splitting after the 2015 general election.  I hardly think this is surprising.  Society, after all, began to splinter quite a while ago.

And I don’t mean this is a negative way: this is not broken-backed Britain we’re dealing with but a simple recognition that the united society of yore was actually, probably, in reality, a bit of a lie anyway.  The media have always loved to create perceptions which hardly correspond to ordinary people’s lives.  Journalists have deadlines to meet – and a startling angle, however inaccurate it may be, makes their jobs, editors’ jobs and newsagents’ jobs so much easier to do.

On the occasion of the recent Netroots North West event, I came to the following conclusion:

[...] Coordinating the actions of thinking people never predisposed to singular mindspeaks was never going to be an easy objective to achieve.  We are on the left precisely because we often disagree with each other.  So are we prepared, after two years of Coalition ideology, to take our principles in our hands once more and entirely trust a political party?  Or is the way forward some other different (and splintered) approach far more suited to the instincts of the 21st century?

I don’t know.

But I am inclined – if you ask me to bet on the future – that the answer for the progressive left will lie one day far more in the latter than it ever could any longer lie in the former.

So what should we do in the face of Lib Dem initiatives such as these?  Is it our responsibility to circle like vultures, looking to take advantage of easy pickings?  I think quite roundly not.  The rumblings in the Lib Dems could quite easily be interpreted as being entirely due to the strains of Coalition government.  But it would be simplistic to come to such conclusions.  Society, far more widely, for far longer, has become far more discrete and disintegrated than ever before in recent British sociocultural history.

From the strains on the Union and those calls for Scottish independence to the very fact that the Tories were quite unable to win the last general election, the vultures – if we must see them that way – which are gathering round the British body politic should not be traditional political parties looking to carve up the pie that is the British electorate.  The success of single-issue campaigning – from organisations like Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees to the recent social media-engendered movements against the Welfare, NHS and Legal Aid bills currently going through Parliament – just goes to show that getting people involved isn’t, in the future, going to be simply the old trick of putting them all in the same leaflet-delivering sack.  The old political parties will still be needed – but just like the content industries struggling to understand the Internet, they will have to change their business models, downsize their reach and learn how to work with hundreds of different interests.

Interests, incidentally, they will not be able to control in the managerialist ways they have been used to.

If the Lib Dems do split, then, it will be a sign all the other parties should take note of.  To interpret it as a weakness of Lib Dem structure would be to sadly – as well as dangerously – mistake the effect for a cause.  All parties, however well led, will soon have to face the (for them) sickening reality that there are far more ways of getting involved in politics and democracy these days than either joining or even simply supporting one of the existing political groupings.

McMenu comes to politics?  Don’t knock it.  At least, not before you properly understand its implications.

Choice is a powerful harbinger of change.  And change, from now on, is what it’s all going to be about.


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Feb 142012
 
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Yesterday, I put some half-formed thoughts down on the subject of Facebook and a monetisable socialism.  I also linked to this post from Bev which, whilst long (like many of my posts, mind), is well worth your while.  I quote from the latter part of this second post as follows (the bold is mine):

We might start with philosophy – though as someone who makes a living from philosophy, I would say that! According to Aristotle, writing many centuries ago, humans are best understood as ‘social animals’. We are not units existing in isolation from others. And if we are to flourish, we need good, strong relationships and strong communities.

If we don’t like philosophy, we might look to social science. Recent research by the New Economics Foundation found that feeling good about your life doesn’t only come about through achieving your personal goals. Feeling good also comes from knowing yourself to be a part of a wider community. Over emphasising ‘the individual’ while ignoring the social dimension of human beings ignores the fact that we need each other to live well.
The clue to socialism’s relevance is, then, in its name – social-ism.

As Bev evidences, we are clearly social animals.   And as the Facebooks of this world indicate, we are now monetisable social animals.  Something which many of us might decry.

But in the success of such social networks at their carving up of what was initially a free worldwide web – as well as making it make serious money for mainly US corporate behemoths – there is surely a broader lesson: the social instincts of human beings, whilst always at the mercy of a selfish individualism across the world, can never be entirely expunged.  If politics can no longer create worthy spaces for it to exist, it will surely reappear and flower just as significantly somewhere else.

It’s curious, it really is: whilst companies like Facebook want to engender captive marketplaces of social-ism (to use Bev’s terminology) in their customers and clients everywhere, for themselves and their corporate figures they are looking to have the rights a fierce individual-ism apports:

Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like natural persons (“people”). Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state,[2] and they can themselves be responsible for human rights violations.[3] Corporations are conceptually immortal but they can “die” when they are “dissolved” either by statutory operation, order of court, or voluntary action on the part of shareholders. Insolvency may result in a form of corporate ‘death’, when creditors force the liquidation and dissolution of the corporation under court order,[4] but it most often results in a restructuring of corporate holdings. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter. However corporations are not living entities in the way that humans are. [5]

Do as I say, then, not as I do.

Though we should hardly be surprised – money drives many of us to many incoherences.

*

But what is the wider political lesson we can learn from all of the above?  That the winds of Bev and Facebook’s social-ism can be channelled and used to our advantage, if only we are able to see our way beyond the logistical and organisational structures of old.

For it isn’t entirely inconceivable, if we know how to grasp the opportunity, that – five years down the line – a political party of Labour’s intellectual weight could communicate, engage, dialogue, function, fund, advertise and – most importantly – look exactly like the Facebooks and Amazons of today’s splintering Internet.

Not a political party which uses new technologies to structure its interface with the public.  Rather, a political party which – much like Amazon and Facebook – couldn’t have come into existence without such new technologies.

Not a real-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual tools but, rather, far more significantly, a virtual-world political party which knows how to push its real-world message using virtual-world tools.

The ravings of an Internet wonk?

Just think about it.  The barriers to setting up a new political party – in this virtual world of cheap communications technologies – are much smaller than they were even ten years ago; so just imagine what the next five will bring. 

And whilst real-world parties claim to be investing in tools to communicate more effectively with their constituencies and their potential voters, in reality what they’re doing is analogous to the content industries’ attempt to avoid having to deal with their out-of-date business models: that is to say, creating the very technologies which make it easier for any political Johnny-come-lately to suddenly come in and frighteningly raise the bar. 

I really wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if – at some unhappy time in the future – the existing political parties came together to try and pass an ACTA of the Westminster political bubble to make it practically impossible for any new party to come into existence.

For that is what is really at risk of happening: the political parties are doing everything they can at the moment not to fundamentally change their ways of seeing, whilst at the same time unintentionally making it easier for other political visionaries to set up – even, perhaps, across the globe – a multi-million-member base of supporters and followers: everyone participating from home, in hundreds of thousands of communities worldwide, to the degree and capability each possessed and chose to dedicate to the cause.

Volunteering heaven, in fact.

Indeed, it does occur to me that Facebook itself might one day choose to transmute into the kind of political force which – in terrible or benevolent hindsight we still cannot know – history will describe as the grand and considerable 21st century re-interpretation of what political groupings once had to be.

So before it does, or before someone else makes such a move, surely we should consider and value the chances of doing so ourselves for what we might term – after the experiment that was New Labour – a Labour Party, Part III. 

Not monetising old-fashioned socialism, then, exactly – more a question of politicising, in their different ways, both Bev and Facebook’s new-style social-ism.


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Feb 112012
 
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As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.


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Feb 062012
 
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Tomorrow is Safer Internet Day.  The object of the people behind the campaign is thus:

The mission of the Insafe cooperation network is to empower citizens to use the internet, as well as other online technologies, positively, safely and effectively. The network calls for shared responsibility for the protection of the rights and needs of citizens, in particular children and youths, by government, educators, parents, media, industry and all other relevant actors. Insafe partners work closely together to share best practice, information and resources. The network interacts with industry, schools and families in the aim of empowering people to bridge the digital divide between home and school and between generations.

Insafe partners monitor and address emerging trends, while seeking to reinforce the image of the web as a place to learn. They endeavour to raise awareness about reporting harmful or illegal content and services. Through close cooperation between partners and other actors, Insafe aims to raise Internet safety-awareness standards and support the development of information literacy for all.

It’s all beginning to sound a little like Microsoft’s Windows did a couple of generations back.

Some would argue even now.

I’ve often thought the initials “www” should’ve stood for “worldwide west” rather than “worldwide web”.  And I do wonder whether in the freedoms the current web provides – the very fact, for example, that you are just a potential click away from losing all your most precious data – we can find the seeds of its own ongoing destruction.  As it splinters into so many shards of password-protected accesses, we are perhaps right to bemoan its collapse as an all-encompassing commons.

But I do also begin to wonder if, after all, it’s got very little to do with the Facebooks, Androids, Amazons and Apples of this world.  If the web were supplying us with all the comfort and usability we needed – if it were unimaginably and eminently safe, portable and practical – surely the above-mentioned apocalyptic horsemen wouldn’t have a chance in hell; not even the hell they aim to bring about.

If, indeed, it is going to be a hell.

The web is splintering – and perhaps it has brought it upon itself.  If we do want to save it as it currently stands – and there are good and valid democratic reasons to do just that – we will need not only to bemoan its competitors but also learn how to learn from their lessons.

Only then will we be able to properly assure the future of the most beautiful invention the last quarter-century has come up with.


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Oct 072011
 
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I observed in my previous post that we’re losing the joy of the web:

In amongst all this delight in the “machine-readable” world, we’re forgetting and slowly ignoring our ability to do and appreciate the one thing which separates us from the machines we so fiercely love: that surface of beauty which cannot be measured – but is nevertheless still able to provoke an emotion-wrenching response; a response which goes right to our very core as human beings.

A surface which is not superficial – but profound.

It does seem to me, as we access its content through so very many splintering means these days, that the story of network TV’s dominance and fall from grace is repeating itself with the Internet.  Only where network TV ruled for at least half a century, the Internet has barely reached its first astonishing decade – before its ability to knit us together is breaking apart.  Mobile apps, Google Reader-type front-ends, Twitter’s firehose, Facebook’s apparently unstoppable remaking (land-grabbing perhaps we should say) of once common real estate – all these things are serving to destroy a physical sharing of singular places which, once upon a time, most generally looked alike to anyone who visited.

This was inevitable, of course, the day static websites became interactive – but the process has been accelerated by the need to make money.

And perhaps this was inevitable.  We can’t continue to churn out content without a compensation of sorts.  Whilst an economics of some kind must remain in place and functioning, we need to earn something to live.

Thus it is that whilst cable TV, and its ability to reprogramme fixed schedules, made the singular place of network TV far less significant to our need to meet up as one, so online interactivity and an evermore varied choice of delivery has – perhaps – sounded the death knell for that beautiful web I spoke about in my earlier piece.

The timeframes compress, the product lifetimes shorten dramatically – and soon the Internet as a modern equivalent of network TV will have similarly lost its ability to bring together those massive crowds in massive places of reunion.

And yet I’m pretty sure the need to do just that will continue to exist in our societies.  It is an ancient and honourable tradition that the village should congregate as a whole.  Surely now is not the time to shrug off this instinct.

So if this is the case, and the splintering that is happening is intrinsic and applicable only to the space and not the needs of the people, where next will we be able to meet up in singularity and shared environment?

Where next will we be able reassert our old impulses to fight the trends of modern business – evermore focussed on dividing us up into discrete and manageable markets?

Where next will we find that beautiful surface we loved together which I’m already beginning to miss?

A Facebook 2.0 perhaps?

Or something we can still only begin to dream of?


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Oct 012011
 
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Paul has some really good overviews of tons of stuff.  When we meet up, which is far too occasionally, for me anyhow, I find his ability to synthesise big ideas and break them down into gobbets I can understand one of the most exhilarating things about his conversation – and, by extension, though less frequently these days than might be the case, via the words he lets slip in his blog Never Trust a Hippy.

This evening, for example, I am struck by this paragraph:

As far as I can see, the Tories are moving ever-closer to a subscription model of the state – one where a higher-rate taxpayer expects a higher level of service, and where a freemium model of public service is advanced. You can almost see all politics as a tug-of-war in which active citizens game the tax and benefits system (I fleshed this out more here a few weeks ago).

And he goes on to conclude (the bold is mine):

To my poor mind, this isn’t an argument or fight that can be ducked. Nor is it one on which we can’t land heavy blows. Watching the way both the US and the EU are floundering at the moment, tracing the lack of historical vitality – governments that don’t believe that they have the legitimacy to act – this isn’t a trivial issue either.

I think Paul is absolutely spot-on in what he says, when he argues we can’t duck the fight.  And I think the reason we can’t goes much further than simply politics.  It may be the case, very shortly, that the most important development of the last ten years – and here I refer to the Internet – will end up looking like a futile and unhappy blip in our sociocultural history: really what I’m saying here is that I suspect the encroaching monetisation of the Internet – via Facebook, Apple, Amazon and its Kindle and a multitude of other splintering impulses – is acting as an undeniable customisation of our shared and common mindscapes which will lead inevitably to the monetisation of many other parallel worlds; worlds which to date have remained analogously free.

That is to say, the importance of this battle to maintain through the Internet a certain liberty of movement of ideas and content is much much bigger than simply guaranteeing a means of communication.  If we lose the marvellous commons which to date this Internet has more or less brought us, we may almost certainly run the risk of losing a whole raft of other realities. 

Is it really too wild, then, to suggest that the progressive monetisation of the Internet might make the Coalition’s plans to – similarly – monetise the Welfare State far more likely?

For just as the Internet has radically changed the way we think nowadays, and online behaviours have influenced what we accept offline, so the monetisation of the Internet may change what – in a much wider context – we feel we have a right to expect.

Thus it is that, in reality, I fear for the Welfare State not because of the Andrew Lansleys and Jonathan Djanoglys of this world.

Rather, I fear for the Welfare State because of the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs.


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May 262011
 
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The Splinternet is what is happening to our dearly beloved Internet right now.  Before we continue, read this post on the subject – as Twitter begins to carve out its very own piece of Internet real estate in much the same way as Facebook before it.  In short, as Josh Bernoff so succinctly puts it in yet another post on the same matter:

The golden age of the Web is coming to an end. Prepare for the Splinternet.

As we all gird for the launch of the Apple Tablet, take a moment to step back and realize what all these new devices are doing. The whole framework of the Web (and Web marketing) is based around the idea that everything is in a compatible format. Any browser, any computer, any connection, you see pretty much the same thing.

Now with iPhones, Androids, Kindles, Tablets, and TVs connecting to the Web, that’s not true. Your site may not work right on these devices, especially if it includes flash or assumes mouse-based navigation. Apps that work on the iPhone don’t work on the Android. Widgets for FiOS TV don’t work anywhere else.

Meanwhile, more and more of the interesting stuff on the Web is hidden behind a login and password. Take Facebook for example. Not only do its applications not work anywhere else, Google can’t see most of it. And News Corp. and the New York Times are talking about putting more and more content behind a login.

What is really happening, then, is the branding and consequent corporatisation of the virtual world – in much the same way as happened long ago in the real.  Companies generally find the philosophies of open standards and ways of doing and seeing as challenging to their bottom line.  It doesn’t have to be like that – but the thousands of MBA programmes out there must be at least partly responsible for drilling this message into the mindscapes of our budding entrepreneurs.  And so the beautiful frontiers of the World Wild West, which to date have defined our hugely beneficial web, are rapidly being tamed by the trademarkers and value adders around us (and yes – perhaps snakes is the next apposite thought).

Which takes me to another issue I’ve been following today – analogous, I would suggest to the splintering of the Internet I mention above.  Over at Though Cowards Flinch, a marvellous compendium of deep thought which I would only dare to compare in its originality, sincerity and expertise to Stumbling and Mumbling, there is a debate currently going on about whether its writers should move lock, stock and barrel to the group blog Third Estate.  There have been a large number of constructive and considered comments to the post in question – a characteristic of this fine blog since Dave Semple ventured out of Labour Membersnet-land (the Labour Party’s intranet for members) and decided to take on the whole web at one fell (and positively virulent) swoop. 

Some observations.  I originally pointed out:

Hmm. I for one would only be especially unhappy if you moved and didn’t keep online the stuff TCF has done over the past few years. Its value is pretty much incalculable – well, I’m not bright enough to calculate it anyhow. So if moving means TCF goes offline, that’s a no from me. And if cost is an issue, I’d be happy to contribute to keep it online – even if this then means it’ll be preserved in aspic.
:-)

But I think, in retrospect, I would go further.  I remember how I felt when Dave, some while back I think, suggested he was considering whether to renew the TCF domain or not.  And how I felt, as the trained editor that I am, was very very sad.  TCF has always had a clear and cogent voice – speaking out vigorously and unashamedly on behalf of the oppressed.  Its name defined its mission from the very beginning – an example, if there ever was one, of how important a work of art’s frame can be in helping us understand its meaning and its inspiration.  And when the possibility of its not continuing arose, I felt much as I had felt – though in a slightly different way – when it had seemed that Labour Matters was going to disappear: specifically, in that case, because of its very particular success and because of the very real costs that in an online world such success can imply.

One of the reasons I stopped blogging behind the walled garden of Labour’s Membersnet and, instead, put up my stall here at 21stCenturyFix.org was precisely because of TCF, because of Dave’s insistence on the importance of open debate – and because I realised that if progress was going to happen in politics, we needed to break down the walls that already existed rather than put up new ones of our own.

A voice is a precious thing.  It involves the ability to engender dialogue.  A sign of a responsive voice is frequent dialogue.  A good voice knows when to keep quiet.  A precious voice knows when to intervene.  TCF is all of those things – and those of us who love it, as Bob points out, shouldn’t really care how often it speaks to us.  Why should this be?  Well, mainly because we know it is always listening to us – and choosing, with great care, when best exactly to intervene once more.

I notice that Sunny Hundal, editor of the group blog Liberal Conspiracy, urges the TCF writers to make that leap to a group blog:

I’m all for consolidation, and yes, group blogs are better!

Here, surely, speaketh the progressive equivalent of the corporate mindset – that is to say, the corporate mindset which is driving the Splinternet I spoke of at the top of my post today.  It doesn’t half seem that Sunny is looking to do to traditionally individualistic blogging what Facebook and Twitter are looking, more widely, to do to the Internet.  Carve out his piece of real estate, as if this was the only alternative.  Well, it most definitely isn’t – and most definitely doesn’t have to be.  There are other ways to bring free voices together which don’t require a submission to common corporate image, tools and philosophies.  These ways need to be worked on and developed and implemented – but they and the brains needed to bring them about both exist and are out there.  If, that is, we care to look beyond simple ambitions to a rank empire-building which would simply serve to repeat the models of a far too traditional publishing.

And if we go down the route of group blogs because we truly believe this leads to “consolidation”, then we truly do not understand the value of the Internet’s democratisation of free speech.

The challenge is not to put us all in the same box so that in some magical way we learn how to see and communicate with other other.  The challenge is – rather – to take a magical infinity of astonishingly discrete boxes and through clever and apposite technologies allow them to communicate with each other from their very own islands.

What I’m saying is that we really need to build better bridges between our existing political DNA instead of mixing it all up in a cauldron of corporate “consolidation”.

And I do wonder if those who run group blogs such as Liberal Conspiracy are – in some very sad way – driven by the same impulses which drive great but essentially 20th century editors such as Rupert Murdoch.

Empire-building is a great temptation. 

The question is whether it is one we should resist.  The question is whether it is one which – in the world of online publishing – we no longer need.

A final thought: if we do need to create an empire of progressive thought, surely it is time to be as progressive about structures, infrastructures and process as we claim to be about content.  Only then will our ability to continue to generate voices as important as TCF be sustainable, consistent and worthy of our mission.


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