Apr 072012

The Internet was an invention of the US military, designed in part to survive nuclear attack.  It was a product of Cold War thinking and designed as a shield against a very different sword from the ones which most preoccupy us right now.

This is why part of the hatred that so many powerful sectors of society feel for the Internet is driven by a profound self-hatred (more here).  That a massively intelligent tool which you constructed as a potent defence may now be used to undermine your very own sense of self must be so terribly galling as to engender the kind of reactions and behaviours we are currently seeing in both the US and the UK.  Which is why I might ask the question: “Can we defend liberty by hating the Internet?”

Part of the plot of the 2008 film “Eagle Eye” predicted the hacking into and closing down of power grids.  This is undoubtedly a scenario which should worry us all – and perhaps allows us, via many others currently being rehearsed by Hollywood and its outriders, to understand if not accept the paranoia which is leading Western governments to defend Western freedoms from terrorism – precisely by eliminating them at source: eliminating, that is, through anti-libertarian legislation, the freedoms of ordinary citizens to act outside overbearing government control.

The Internet as was originally conceived was designed to route around external interference.  The Internet the American military wishes to re-engineer would be a return to the censored worlds of the Cold War.  But the rationale for changing so dramatically the ground rules for playing on the Internet would seem to have solutions of a very different nature – solutions which no one seems to be contemplating.  And I wonder why these solutions are not being evaluated.

If, for example, power grids need to be protected, why not go back to a 20th century time by a) giving up the upsides of efficiency computers brought to the system in order to b) lose the downsides of centralised access?  How?  By simply disconnecting the grid from all computer control.

We could, in fact, instead of contaminating with our paranoia and fear the hard-won and hard-engineered freedoms of the Internet, simply disconnect what we need to protect in a constructively Luddite-like way.  For it doesn’t half seem to me, right now, that by connecting everything up to this virtual network of interchangeable accesses we are actually centralising accesses in a dangerously aggressive way.  The Internet of devolved communication has potentially allowed in an inverse kind of way everyone everywhere to access the red buttons that most make our society start and stop.  And that is surely a foolishness of the grandest sort we can imagine.

No wonder the US and UK security services are running scared about the future.

Essentially, clever old Frankenstein has created a genius of a defensive capability which has become a monster of an aggressive tool.

Why, then, instead of disconnecting billions of people from the concept of privacy, can we not simply disconnect those bits of society we most need or want to protect?  The utilities, for starters.  The grand content providers too.

Surely the real problem here is that civic society and the military are getting mixed up in an awful mash.  Sadly, our freedoms are being seen in terms of the architecture of a supermarket.  Make it easy for people to pick the product off the shelves because income needs to be maximised to the full – but prevent people from acceding to the temptation to steal by monitoring through CCTV, security personnel and electronic tagging.

But democracy isn’t a supermarket.  And freedom of speech isn’t a tin of beans.

No one who hates the Internet can defend the openness of liberty for all that it promises our society.  If you hate the Internet as the film and music industry now do, as the military must have done almost since the Berlin Wall collapsed, you can’t take intelligent advantage of it.  All you will end up doing is destroying the very freedoms you claim to be striving so hard to protect.  You will, in fact, through your desire to generate economic benefit, destroy the very tool you chose to channel.

In the meantime, the creators you depend on to invent the future in both the sciences and the arts will find the progressive and subtle suppression of freedom of speech imperceptibly undermining to such an extent that humanity will end up sleeping on its feet.

Without even knowing it has happened.

Feb 182012

There’s been much movement on Twitter and other social media over the past couple of days as Tesco and other companies have admitted to using workfare (more here).  To be fair to Tesco, public outrage does seem to have had an impact as it is now asking the government to ensure any such schemes become entirely voluntary.  But voluntary is as voluntary does.  And the principle of workfare, once established, may quite easily continue to be used against the vulnerable and unemployed in our society – whether, in principle, it is considered voluntary or not.

It would seem, therefore, that slavery – of a kind – is returning to our shores.  Which makes the website Slavery Footprint evermore relevant. Take the test and compare your result.  For my standard of living, for the gadgets I’ve bought, for the few clothes and shoes I own, they calculate that at least forty people across this 21st century world are currently working in conditions of slavery.  That is to say, I inhabit the society I do – as I do – because forty other people find themselves existing in a living hell on earth.

Which brings me to my final point tonight.  Do you remember the story last year about the supermarket bullies and how they were driving farmers and suppliers out of business through abuse of their monopolistic positions?  Well, it did occur to me this morning that what we really need is yet another piece of ethical and informative labelling on our food products.

No.  Not more data telling us how everything we like is bad for us.  Rather, a percentage indication of how much of the final cost to the consumer went to the farmers and suppliers.  This would then allow us to determine – in a Fair Trade-like kind of way – where we would be best leaving our hard-earned cash on that inevitably weekly shop.

If slavery – of a kind – must return to our shores in this and other ways, at least let us fight back with the best tool we have to hand: a free and just flow of consumer information for the benefit of the whole supply chain which finds itself supposedly at our service.

In fact, it does also occur to me – in the light of the recent workfare stories – that we might have to add yet another piece of labelling to our already overloaded products and services: the differential paid by the company in question between its lowest and highest-remunerated personnel.

But more of that anon, I think …

Nov 222011

Apologies for the title, for the more sensitively minded amongst you.

This morning, however, from the Guardian, we get two articles on high executive pay and how public trust in the private sector is being corroded.  The first runs as follows:

Warning high pay is “corrosive” to the UK economy, the High Pay Commission calls for greater transparency in the setting of executive pay and says employees should sit on remuneration committees. Its recommendations come in the most comprehensive report yet on the need for action on top salaries.

The report shows executive pay has risen sharply – the pay of the head of Barclays is up nearly 5,000% in 30 years – while average wages have increased just threefold.

The commission was set up by the leftwing pressure group Compass and backed by money from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. A government source said on Monday, however, that the work was being taken seriously.

Meanwhile, the second takes us equally firmly by the hand as it reports thus:

The boss of one of the UK’s most valuable public companies has admitted the country is losing trust in British businesses after a new independent report on “stratospheric” executive pay.

Andrew Witty, the chief executive of pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline, said: “Trust in business has clearly eroded and needs to be reconstructed. It’s very dangerous if a country doesn’t trust the private sector.”

And then goes on to underline that:

The comments were made to the High Pay Commission, a body set up by the left-leaning thinktank Compass and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to probe executive rewards, and are quoted in the final report of its year-long inquiry, which lists 12 recommendations aimed at curbing rocketing executive rewards.

The study, published today, adds that the public believes “senior company executives are ‘rigging’ the system for their own ends”, and that “excessive high pay damages companies, is bad for our economy and has negative impacts on society as a whole … This distortion creates an impression that business leaders are ‘in it for themselves’ and is damaging trust in British companies, especially at a time when most workers are seeing little or no increase in their pay”.

But it’s not only boardroom pay which is rocketing.  There’s the barely ever commented case of supermarket chains whose profits are multiplying even as people have less money to spend (and still they claim inflation is being kept in check by the supermarkets’ probity – well, I’m sorry: I really don’t see it in my weekly spend).  So is this a case of Giffen goods perhaps?  Or something rather more unpleasant?  As Europeans for Financial Reform point out:

The sharp increase in the prices of food and agricultural commodities, as well as of oil, in 2007 and 2008, raised many concerns. The high price of basic food commodities contributed to social unrest and an increase in global hunger, undermining development and people’s right to food as defined in the Universal declaration of Human Rights. The IMF price index of internationally traded food commodities increased 130% from January 2002 to June 2008, and 56% from January 2007 to June 2008. This period of exceptionally steep price increases ended at the time the financial crisis intensified, mid 2008, with food commodity and oil prices showing a sharp decrease. However, late 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) issued a new warning about rising food prices.

As the press release goes on to point out:

[…] The two fundamentals that traditionally constituted agricultural commodity prices are roughly described as (1) demand side factors (e.g. more people needing food, income growth, and increased demands for bio-fuel) and (2) supply side factors (e.g. yield growth or bad harvests, the prices of inputs, and availability of food reserves).

Manipulation of these fundamentals, e.g. by keeping commodities away from the market (hoarding), causing shortage that results in price increases, is the kind of speculation or price management that might still play a role in today’s commodity markets.

So whether this is intentional or not, those who already have plenty – at least in the UK, that is – would appear to be on the point of benefiting from the wider crisis on both a personal take-home pay basis as well as at a more general corporate level.

That is to say, the ratios relating to relative standards of living between workers at the bottom and executives at the top may not only have increased through the stratospheric remuneration of the latter but also – via the actions of those whose responsibility it is to marshal commodities – through the manipulated market behaviours of those who buy, sell and hoard.

For if you thought it was bad enough that people might speculate with your money, how very much worse would it be if they chose to speculate with your food?

Oct 102011

There’s a sociocultural history behind this story:

A Facebook campaign is calling for people to boycott a shopping centre after claims a man was questioned by police for taking photographs of his own four-year-old daughter.

Chris White took a picture of Hazel eating an ice cream in the Braehead shopping centre, near Glasgow.

A security guard told him it was illegal to take pictures in the centre.

I’ve written about it before.  Most recently here and here.  But also, rather more anciently, here and here.  If we will give up our right to municipal places – both offline and virtual – well, this then is all we can expect.  You own it, you loan it – and if you don’t like what we do with it, you simply take it back.

Your ball, your rules.

Personally, I think we need to be far more aware of the dangers of a quite different kind of privatisation to the ones that normally occupy us: the privatisation of these spaces of public use which, whilst originally seeming a benign and supportive process of the economic needs of their corresponding communities, doesn’t exactly seem to be panning out that way.  And if the kind of behaviours the above shopping centre has demonstrated are anything to go by in bricks-and-mortar land, just imagine what is awaiting us in the very near future as the Internet becomes as gradually possessed?

Jul 022011

Earlier today, I was talking about how an important part of the British high street probably lacks imagination and creativity – and thence its current economic woes.  Now I discover that even those successful bits we can point to are only successful because of their bully-boy techniques:

[…] There is a “climate of fear” – the National Farmers Union’s phrase – in the monopolistic world of modern food retail: small producers are too frightened to speak out about the abuses that are impoverishing them because they risk “reprisals”, which may mean losing the only customers there are. Very few felt able to speak to us on the record.

The Observer article goes on to explain that:

At the heart of the problem, say campaigners, is public ignorance of how supermarkets buy produce and the system that allows them to offer lower prices while increasing their profits. Tesco’s profits were above £3.5bn for the first time last year, and Sainsbury’s rose by nearly 13%.

These results – despite the supermarkets’ endless price wars – are achieved largely by getting suppliers to reduce their prices. Most sectors of British farming, from eggs to fruit, vegetables and pork, have seen farm-gate prices drop in the past year, despite record increases in costs. “Supermarkets have handed the risk back to us: they charge ever-increasing markups, force us to take part in promotions,” one Welsh farmer in vegetables and dairy told the Observer. “The farmer takes all the risk, pays all the costs and gets virtually nothing above the price of production.”

Discounts such as “buy one get one free” are not a generous gift from the supermarket. What they mean is that the farmer will be paid less – but he or she has no ability to negotiate or even be informed if their crop is put on special offer. If a crop has been over-ordered and doesn’t sell, the supplier may have to pick up the cost of disposal.

I strongly advise you to read the whole of this depressing piece of journalism – because it will open your eyes to the rank absence of brainpower in substantial elements of the successful side of British retailing.  What’s more, it should serve to lead us to conclude – if the conclusion wasn’t already forthcoming – that the “clone towns” mentioned in my previous post on this subject are, at least in part, a result of such a shockingly overbearing and monolithic reliance on brawn.

It also begs a very serious question the supermarket suppliers surely do need us to ask: who should we really be shopping with now?