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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Oct 172013
 
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I’m conscious that the nuclear option – pressing the red social-networked shit-everywhere button – is not the kindest, nor perhaps the most productive, way of proceeding in these matters.  So I’ll try to be even-handed.

Less than two years ago (well within the standard warranty period I was later to discover), we bought our daughter a Blackberry 8520 PAYG phone on the T-Mobile network from Carphone Warehouse online.  It cost around a hundred pounds.  Ever since, she’s been as happy as anyone might be with her aforementioned present – in a first-world-joy sort of way it goes without saying. Halfway through this year some buttons dropped off, but they were volume buttons and didn’t affect the functionality of the phone.  Then, this September, after a summer of intermittent software freezes, the beast decided to give up the ghost.

Stumbling haphazardly across the original receipt whilst doing some pre-autumn cleaning, I decided to phone up CPW to find out if it was still under guarantee.  To my surprise I was informed that it was.  I went into our local Ellesmere Port store, where they looked a bit dubious and refused to promise anything.  The main complaint we registered was the software freezing; as a by-the-by we also mentioned the buttons had fallen off, adding we felt this was through no fault of the user.  Remember: a hundred-quid object (say a cheap under-the-counter freezer) whose buttons dropped off after less than two years’ use would almost certainly find its way through to some kind of compensation from its vendor, were the consumer to decide to complain.

So the phone went off to CPW’s repair team – no longer to Blackberry itself we were informed by the store – and we waited for about a week.  Unfortunately, the reply was not the one we were looking for: a chargeable repair for the buttons, not the software we had complained about, which would cost around £170.  When I objected to this, and asked that the repair centre be contacted in the store, and whilst the phonecall in question was being made, I was told if I wished to complain I would have to contact CPW via their website.  The store couldn’t do this on my behalf, even though – at the time I asked them to do so, and in front of my dear old self – they were speaking to someone from the very same repair centre.

I duly contacted CPW via Twitter, who directed me to the website contact form I had been referred to instore.

Shortly afterwards, I received an email saying the matter would be looked into.

Today, after a couple of days naively living in hope of better things, times and outcomes, I received the following email (the bold is mine, and I have anonymised the sender’s name to avoid any embarrassment):

Dear Mr Williams

Thank you for your patience in this matter.

I have now concluded our investigations into your complaint. I reviewed the original decision that your handset couldn’t be repaired without a charge being applied. I must confirm that we cannot alter this outcome.

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

Our repair department operate under licence from the manufacturers, and under our licence any invalidated warranty repairs are not able to be completed without a cost.

I understand that this will not be the outcome you were looking for, however I must advise that this is the final response we could offer on this complaint.

If you have any further questions, please let me know.

Kind regards

R_____ B___

CEO Team
Carphone Warehouse

To summarise then: this model of Blackberry has a two-year warranty and a software fault which the vendor – Carphone Warehouse – is unable to repair because buttons have fallen off, presumably due to a weakness in the manufacturer’s original design.  (They are, if I remember rightly, electromechanical buttons covered in rubber – hardly the toughest sort of construction you can imagine out there.)  I do wonder, idly by now I have to say, how many other vendors – and manufacturers, whilst we’re at it – cover their backsides with these techie products by restricting their warranties through exempt electromechanical failure.  And though I am an utter non-expert in these matters, I still fail to see why frozen smartphone software cannot be repaired because totally unrelated buttons have fallen off.

I’ve been a reasonably assiduous purchaser at CPW over the years, and I love my Blackberry Playbook as a forgotten beast of fearsomely strong beauty too.  But I’m afraid when I do upgrade either a phone or a tablet, I shall resort neither to CPW nor to Blackberry.

The nuclear option is it?  I don’t think so.  Acer and Apple and Amazon have messed us around just as much.

Just a disappointed, saddened and disillusioned end-user, then, who was once fascinated by this very 21st-century world; and who’s slowly learned to distrust anything these both foreign and homegrown – both distant and supposedly close – technological corporations so love to promise you, your loved ones and the world they claim to want to serve … when, that is, we unguardedly choose to part with some of our dosh.


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Aug 162013
 
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A short and sour answer to the question posed by the title of today’s post would be: “Basically because we have very little.”

Of course, technological progress and its proponents sell themselves very well.  Like a war photographer who only wants you to see what they’re paid for you to see, the frame is positioned in order to benefit those who would have us believe in their wares.  As it is easy to measure the easily quantitative, so the qualitative in life becomes much less important.  The soft aspects of relationships, where we express emotions, feelings and love, lose their traction in a society where everything must be measured in terms of monetary transactions.

Technology is good at measuring us in terms of money.  Technology is good at measuring itself in terms of what it can achieve.

So good, in fact, its proponents seem to believe – and manage to convince us it is so – that it’s the only possible way to move forwards.

Yet even those of us less enamoured with the development throughout human history of marvellous machines various, inevitably find ourselves in our daily lives unable to resist their bewitchingly gadget-infused attractions.  From those stories of Walt Disney’s frozen brain and the overheated magnificence of William Shatner’s “Star Trek” – both populating the Sixties and Seventies of my still scientifically entranced childhood – to the overwhelming success of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, the arrival of the mobile phone, streaming Internet video and now computer spectacles we can wear and inform ourselves with wherever we go, on its own very specific terms technology does – nevertheless – represent progress.

Perhaps more now, for the majority of the population, than ever before.

Even so, myself, I’m beginning to become a little less entranced with this technology I describe – as well as the progress it supposedly represents.  There are, of course, the obvious downsides: for every computer we make, there is the pollution it generates.  For every TED talk that informs, we have pornography that exploits.  Nothing is new in such an assertion.  For what appears to have been forever, the natural equilibrium in human existence requires every good to have its contrasting and counterpointing bad.

In a sense, then, God and the Devil are hard-wired into our actions.  As, indeed, must be the idea of faith.  And in this case, a very 21st century faith.  Despite every evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe in the validity of technology and its summative progress.  All the rubbish we know more and more about – all the stats and realities which tell a quite different story – are nothing compared to our fervent attachment to the benefits of technological progress.

In fact, I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to believe that corporate capitalism, a centralising capitalism which generates technological advances like no other in history, is driven not so much by the quest for wealth – nor even power – but, rather, by the unconscious desire to beat death.

Remember, if you will, those stories about Walt Disney’s cryogenics – and multiply them up to our days.

Yes.  If those who concentrate such wealth in order to effervescently develop more technologies, even where this is at the manifest expense of a wider societal wellbeing, continue to effervescently develop, perhaps what we have is an otherwise noble desire to beat the impending apocalypse:

[…] Jensen believes we can and should do something to prepare for the coming collapse. For Jensen, how we live now is going to determine how well we’ll do when the great factories of Guangdong fall fallow. Jensen says people should “prepare for it on a local level”, rebuild communities as much as they can, put in place alternative systems of local governance, think about their food supply.

And whilst the rest of us may soon have to get used to the idea of giving up on the future of technological progress – of giving in to this apocalypse some are beginning to speak of – maybe in some strange way the opposite has been the story of capitalism all along.  The impatience of perishable lives which recognise, subconsciously, how little they will eventually achieve.  Capitalism as a latterday manifestation of that ancient pursuit of the Holy Grail?  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Everything goes, everything is justified, any means can find their precious ends … if, that is, the precious ends involve successfully challenging an awfully Final Judgment.

Maybe, then, we need to believe in the progress of technology – in the unseemly concentration of wealth, in the considerable phallacy of top-down trickle-down economics – because all of us, somehow, somewhere and some time, have dreamt of beating our fate.

The fate of the civilisation we’ve built, first and foremost.

The fate of the species, next along the line.

Finally, the fate of the planet itself.

And all along, all our achievements only measured on their own deliberately limited terms.

Our choice in the light of the above?  Between the progress of a technology for all or the decline of a standard of living for the majority?  Is that where we are now?  Is that the crossroads?  Has capitalism finally given up on its historically implicit – even where, perhaps, disingenuous – assertion that it might, one day, beat the Final Judgment for everyone?

Yesterday, I spoke about how we, as intimate participants, were creating the conditions for capitalism’s own Achilles’ heel.  Perhaps those who run the beast have realised this and have themselves given up on any further intent at deception.  This may, after all, be not so much an apocalypse now but – instead – an apocalypse delayed.

Time to run our society down.

Capitalism’s assertion was, in any case, only a mirage all along.  And realising this is a logical consequence of universal education.  In a sense, then, capitalism’s decay is actually our fault.  In the past, its success depended so much on our faith, confidence, trust and belief – none of which, in the light of modern mindsets and behaviours, is likely to be easily deposited by us any more.

Not easily, for sure.

Not whilst we begin to acquire the tools to think with intelligence; to reach our considered conclusions carefully and firmly.

*

One final question, then – a question I ask in all good faith: can we recover that faith, confidence, trust and belief in order that we might avoid the apocalypse I have mentioned?

Oh, to believe in the onwards and upwards march of technology again.  To believe in its being shared around.  To believe in its utility for all human beings.  To believe in reciprocity and kindness.

To recover gentlemen and women as our model to follow.

If only.


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Jun 142013
 
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I’ve just spent two wonderful days in the company of very clever people, at the welcoming hands of the University of Manchester.  Sometimes I felt – from my position as an interested observer and (just about) mere citizen witnessing the event – that some of the English needed translating for my cloth ears.  But even where I struggled to get a handle on some of those terms which escaped me, none of the presentations in question failed to engage in some constructive way.

These were high-powered concepts which matched the serious times we are living.

As you will see from the programme link above, a broad range of subjects was covered.  The deprofessionalisation of mainstream journalism – in particular photo-journalism – and its corresponding issues of ethics and professional integrity linked in quite clearly with the progress which volunteer translator communities had made in the radicalisation – even the overt politicisation – of their labour.  The “crisis readiness” we are all being educated into possessing, that instinct to being prepared to film or snap any and every notable event, in particular those events which occupy the tragic public sphere, neatly engaged with Russian experiences in what was termed “shovel” organisation: the small, localised and politically non-threatening community organisation that has recently begun to accompany not only natural disaster but also relatively impactful man-made and administrative incompetence.

From many of the papers presented, it was clear that those of who occupy spaces in the Western Anglo-Saxon world are barely – if at all – aware of the prejudices we hold: from the mass digitalisation of government documents in Russia to the humongous (and highly active) online participation of the Chinese to the curious state of second-generation immigrants in Italy, the planet as presented through the lenses of these thinkers is never as simple as it looks.

Democracies which treat their citizens like second-class objects of disparaging discourse; one-party states which allow considerable internal dialogue; anarchist groups which organise in such a way as maintain their “brands” and their virtual presences; hierarchical structures which repeat but do not solidify; volunteers who are driven by imbalance to provide contrasting imbalance; worlds where a powerful couplet of bias and its corresponding transparency replaces that ever-so-durable veneer of traditionally institutional “objectivity”.

Frame being so important as it clearly is, we were presented with examples of highly contrasting journalistic practice.  These ranged from citizens in cases of extreme involvement to distancing drone footage attempting to shrug off its surveillance overtones; from overtly biased and authentically stolen moments to manufactured product, clearly pre-packaged and pre-digested primarily for the benefit of bottom lines; from devolving Silicon Valley web instincts to Hollywood-like impulses to teach podcast skills through star-riven trainers.

Essentially, that is, the push and pull between a civic contribution to a broader intelligence and that sliding scale of reward which greater “competence” often chooses to finally demand of the “consumers”.

Where we choose to volunteer, we start out on a journey of societal collaboration.  Where this reverts to being more a case of primarily learning a craft, that old old need to earn a living kicks in.  But in the grey area between one and the other, marvellous things can still be achieved by civic-minded witnesses of events that require mindful empathy.

I’ll be writing in more detail over the next couple of days on a number of the papers thus presented yesterday and today.  In the meantime, here’s a final thought to be going away with: universal education, a glory of latterday progressive societies and perhaps a key reason for the much wider deprofessionalisation of society all of us are manifestly witnessing (from the already-mentioned craft of journalism to teaching to legal practice to even – in Google’s wonderfully weird world of medical search – that doctoring whose bedside manner we thought we would never give up), is no guarantor that progressive behaviours or beliefs will spread.  In fact, universal education is only able to assure us that all parties on all sides of political conflict will become powerfully better at their own particular brands of prejudice.

It is our responsibility, therefore, on understanding that citizen media does not necessarily equal constructive democratisation, to ask ourselves one simple question: what sort of citizens – and therefore what sort of citizen mediators – do we want to become?

And only in defining this answer, and in fixing its location on the spectrum of behaviours the web currently displays, will we ever manage to rescue all the fascinating potential of citizen media from what might otherwise be interpreted (and ultimately seen) as the clutches of a universally educated cruelty.

____________________

Further reading: you might find the abstracts of the papers given of interest.  They certainly make interesting rereading for me, as I strive to sort my way through so many rich and splendid ideas.  A case of a citizen witnessing his own information overload perhaps?

:-)


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Mar 022013
 
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This, from Iceland, on their campaign against online porn, is absolutely spot-on (the bold is mine):

Jónasson’s adviser Halla Gunnarsdóttir told the Guardian this week that the country is “not anti-sex, but anti-violence”, and that “what is under discussion is the welfare of our children and their rights to grow and develop in a non-violent environment”.

As I pointed out recently, sexual abuse is primarily the abuse of power – and any society which criminalises the former should also be prepared to criminalise the latter.  Similarly, the generation of pornography – indeed, the generation of any content which involves the exploitation of people who would not otherwise participate, were their financial, or other, circumstances different – is, above all, an analogous abuse of power.

Iceland’s current move to remove such violence from its children is entirely coherent with earlier reported moves:

The draft legislation follows laws passed in 2009 and 2010 that criminalised customers rather than sex workers and closed strip clubs.

The problem of course, in this particular case, is that the tools which they wish to use involve filtering an open Internet.  Tools which replicate the interventions in human rights that less salubrious regimes across the world are currently using.  Tools which would give these regimes the kind of democratically-stamped approval to continue in their oppressive ways.

A difficult call for everyone who believes in freedom of information.

*

There’s another matter, however, which I’d like to raise in this post: we must accept we live vicarious lives.  From latterday social media to traditional Hollywood films, this commonplace existing through the actions and creations of others is more or less generally accepted.  No one really questions, for example, the right Daniel Craig has to earn a living from the explicit violence of putting imaginary bullets through anonymous bit-parted actors – nor even the creeping-up-behind naked actresses in movie-lit showers of sexual abandon.

Is it fair, then, to say that Daniel Craig and his cohort of stars are being exploited in order to put violence of one kind or another on silver-plattered screens for our repeated delectation and delight?  And if it is fair to say so, should we strive to prevent such processes too?

I’m not really sure we shouldn’t, to be honest – if, that is, we’re really going to get serious about the abuse of power more generally.  Interfering with the freedom of information flow is, undoubtedly, a very big issue.  But so is what I assume to be the increasing exploitation of sex workers as a result of that insatiable content-black-hole that is the worldwide web.

A suggestion then.  Not just a rant.  Maybe it’s time for a new kind of content.  Given that the instinct for sex is about as old as Adam and Eve’s adult teeth, has anyone considered CGI porn as a wider solution to sexual exploitation – and its corresponding abuse of power – which so many people currently find themselves affected by?

How would this work?  Groups of existing sex workers could form officially-sanctioned cooperatives with the right to apply for government-funded training courses.  These courses would serve to train them up in computer-generated film-making.  There would, of course, be strict control over the content – a kind of Hays Code for our time.  Just because the content was computer-generated wouldn’t give the creators the right to reproduce and duplicate in the virtual world the kind of abusive relationships we were aiming to eliminate in real life.

In such a way, the whole balance of power would be altered.  Sex workers could find a gainful living as unexploited, and unexploiting, generators of porn; porn users would be safely educated away from the violent stuff through a plentiful, cheap and consistently benign exposure to non-violent (perhaps even government-subsidised) narrative; and, most importantly, the Internet could then be properly policed as per the canons of the code in question.

Obviously, there would still be significant and unresolved issues: people would almost certainly, for example, not find it easy to agree even on a definition of non-violent porn.  But nothing was ever solved by an overbearing awareness of the challenges.

Technology, in part, got us to the bind we now find ourselves in.  Technology, properly shared out and distributed, and through a generous and intelligence analysis of the whole process involved, could serve to get us out of it.

If only we were prepared to be coherent.


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Mar 262012
 
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I wrote yesterday on the Open Rights Group’s 2012 Conference, held in London on Saturday at the University of Westminster.

Here, now, you can find the keynote speech given by Lawrence Lessig.  Lessig is best known for his work on copyright, but of late his accumulated wisdoms have led him to investigate the real reasons behind the destruction of our democratic discourse.  In the speech you can find below, you will see examples taken from the fields of technology and copyright which – whilst entertaining in themselves and of vast interest to the geekier ones amongst us – have a much greater relevance to the much wider context of general political activity.

Mr Lessig is an obsessive seer of connecting strands.  He understands how our society works by taking many different-angled bites at the apple of our behaviours.  I would beg you, therefore, whether you consider yourself a geek or a politician, to take the time out to see and listen to what he has to say.

His is no longer a discourse limited to the rarefied concepts and theory of copyright law.  He speaks universally – and deserves universal attention.

Many thanks, by the by, for Open Rights Group’s herculean efforts which brought him to British shores this weekend.

Recognizing the Fight We’re In from lessig on Vimeo.


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Aug 102011
 
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We could revisit Blair’s call for more “Education, education, education!”  Only, this time, I’d be inclined to say “Communication, communication, communication!”

Over the past few days, I’ve been arguing the case for seeing the riots in England through the prism of technology.  Most people I’ve seen tweeting on the subject seem to believe the only technology seriously to hand has involved that of lighting fires.
But, in rioting, in the kind of almost-guerilla warfare we’ve seen, organisation is everything.  It seems clear to me that whilst the police – a highly hierarchical and centralised structure as they are – had originally been caught napping in their inability to impose their will (witness what I believe was the original number of around 1,500 officers in London to the current levels of 16,000 just to understand at what cost peace is being bought), the rioters and contra-brigades I described last night have apparently used decentralised peer-to-peer communications, via social media as well as relatively untraceable texting systems such as Blackberry Messenger, to appear and melt away at will.
And there does appear to be a heavy irony in the fact that an encrypted messaging system such as that which the Blackberry is famous for, and originally intended to provide secure means of information exchange for business, should now be turned against those very same corporate bodies.
Anyone who says this is not the old story of sword and shield, of technology versus technology, of electronic intelligence versus electronic intelligence, is therefore burying their head in the sands.
This battle between a centralised state and rioting freebie-hunters is nothing more nor less than a fundamental gear-shift in an ongoing history – a history which is unlikely to terminate very shortly.  That we live in a society where – in most companies – the drivers of greed and free lunches are part of a commonly shared and sanctioned marketing-lore is precisely, exactly, the problem to hand: since Margaret Thatcher, society has moved onwards and upwards in a most insalubrious manner, and these riots and their causes serve only to confirm this reality.
The difference, today, is that the state – highly structured and lumbering as it is – may not in the future be able to guarantee the safety of its citizens.  This may be because what we are witnessing is a new expression of underlying realities, as sketched out above.
It does, in fact, occur to me that what we are witnessing is perhaps a process where Martin Luther King Jr’s “unheard” are finding a much easier way to express their opinions than traditional political exchange allows for.  Representative democracy generally represents those who actively participate anyway.  It’s essentially designed to keep the lid on things such as these.  Which, perhaps, is why – every so often – they flare up as they do.
The pressure-cooker theory of political (dis)engagement.
These riots, then, are simply a way of giving occasional voice to otherwise hidden ways of thinking.
Not all that hidden, either.  We may claim to find resistible the idea that “where there’s free stuff, I want it too”; but, in reality, in our own “peaceful” lives, where have we not given up our date of birth and post code for a cost-of-the-postage T-shirt or a chance for a win on the horses?  The problem with the rioters is they go one step further – and actually break things.  But their mindscapes are really not all that dissimilar from our own.
And until we recognise this, and take onboard its implications, there will be little we can do to remedy the situation.

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Aug 082011
 
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Here’s a thoughtful piece, which won’t easily fit itself into the smart headlines and angles of mainstream media, on what’s really going on in those places where young people seem bent on destruction:

Riots do not resolve the current conflict in London and I do not support violence. However, this is a complex situation for all involved; vulnerable angry young people, local families & business the police trying to keep communities and business from further harm. There are individuals escalating this situation to their advantage to loot local business and earn some ‘quick cash’. In my view what has ‘fuled’ this situation is a death of a local resident, poverty and social exclusion of vulnerable young people. In the north London borough of Haringey youth clubs were shut after the youth services budget was slashed by 75% after a cut of £41m to the council’s overall budget. Hundreds of thousands of young people throughout the UK are affected. Gang experts, MPs and sector workers are warning that these cuts – which have hit youth services harder than any other area of local authority spending, according to the education select committee – could have a serious impact on the safety of young people in urban areas. […]

I strongly recommend you take some time out to read the rest of this piece from Katie Bacon.

Meanwhile, Diane Abbott MP, tweeted this not long ago (the bold is mine):

Message needs to go out to copycat looters that it’s illegal, immoral and profoundly stupid. Trashing your own community.

And, for many, that’s precisely the mystery of riots – why and how so many people through history have been so prepared to “trash their own community”:

A riot is a form of civil disorder characterized often by disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence against authority, property or people. While individuals may attempt to lead or control a riot, riots are typically chaotic and exhibit herd behavior, and usually generated by civil unrest.

Riots often occur in reaction to a perceived grievance or out of dissent. Historically, riots have occurred due to poor working or living conditions, government, oppression, taxation or conscription, conflicts between Ethnic groups, food supply or religions (see race riot, sectarian violence and pogrom), the outcome of a sporting event (see football hooliganism) or frustration with legal channels through which to air grievances.

Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr has been quoted as arguing that:

A riot is the language of the unheard.

So if one is indeed involved in doing something as “stupid” as “trashing one’s own community”, desperation of a certain degree must be coursing through one’s veins.  That is to say, a sense of a wider disconnnect of some kind must be taking place somewhere along the line.

And if politicians cannot see that such “stupidity” deserves a more careful, considered and historically couched response than Abbott’s – and I’m pretty sure most if not all will share her flatly expressed sentiments – then the cyclone of destruction is unlikely to tail off in the near future.

New Labour’s decade was often one of amelioration of social deprivation by a socialistic stealth – frequently, in the face of the devil’s pact with Murdochian instincts to be found in much of the wider British press.

The problem, perhaps, being that root causes were never fully dealt with, storing up potential problems for the future when the regime and the mindsets of our leaders might change.

The right-wing response as exemplified by Cameron’s Coalition government, however, and which has preceded the riots now upon us, has been to suddenly cut away the safety nets which New Labour had used to carry out such amelioration, in the Iraqi-like instinct and belief that – in a flash of bold pseudo-libertarian action – a thousand flowers of entrepreneurial activity would suddenly substitute the corporate-statism of early 21st century socialism, and so lead us safely to a seventh heaven of societal process.

But like Iraq, the aftermath was never carefully considered.  The operating of a destructive hollowing-out of the enemy’s achievements was of far more interest to those involved than the tedious question of the practicalities of reconstruction.

Whither now then?  Whilst politicians on both the right and the left continue to consider those wrapped up in those warped behaviours of communal self-harm as “stupid”, the answer clearly is “nowhere”.  Until politicians are brave enough to go beyond simple distancing strategies – strategies almost certainly aimed at disassociating themselves from anything which the media might consider entirely incomprehensible and utterly blameful – we shall not be able to acquire an iota of understanding in relation to the dynamics of the current situation.

For these are not entirely incomprehensible or utterly blameful situations – unless, of course, we wilfully wish to see them that way.

When we see someone with anorexia or bulimia damaging their bodies, we don’t dare to expose them to the epithet of “stupid”.

When communities riot, they are – in a similar way – damaging their body social, cultural and politic in one fell swoop.  They are engaging in the communal self-harm I have already mentioned above.

And this is why we should be big-hearted and intelligent enough to realise that the self-harm which is taking place has its roots in a far more complex reality than the simplistic conclusions  and soundbites of modern me-too political behaviours allow for.

And so to my question, then, at the top of this rather sad post: when trashing his or her own community, is a rioter ever not stupid?  Well, to be honest, if I could choose, I would rather we chose to believe that the lexicon of “stupidity” and “rioters” simply didn’t fit.

For being in that hard place where we believe quite the alternative – that “rioters” and “stupidity” go together like the “state” and “violence” might – is simply too dangerous for our long-term prospects and cohesion as a society which is able and willing to listen to its ever-growing population of the “unheard”.


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Jun 122011
 
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This is interesting.  The New York Times describes it in the following way:

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

It goes on to describe the technologies thus:

Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.

As I previously pointed out, whilst the robustness of the Internet on a global and statistical scale is not in doubt, the impact and utility it can have at a discrete local level is rather more prone to interference.  As well as, it must be said, identification.

Not what you need when you’re looking to undermine a “repressive” government.

Now although the New York Times – and presumably its sources in the US government – are describing the landscape in question as “liberation technology”, it surely cannot be wrong to refine the terminology in the following way: rather than “liberation technology”, we should be saying “communication theology”.  For when we aim to uncork the genie’s bottle once again – as the American military first did when it created the underlying technologies behind the Internet – we are unleashing not a neutral measure of what freedom means for human beings as a species but, instead, a highly political, highly politicised, understanding of how we should organise our societies.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying the Americans are wrong in doing what they propose.  On the other hand, I am pointing out that just as the Internet as we have come to know it is the crowdsourced beacon of free expression par excellence, except when dictators and assorted folk decide to shut it down, so this new portable Internet may lead to quite undesirable results in the hands of those selfsame folk.

The story of the sword and the shield was never more apt than now.

So do we really know what we are doing?

And are we sure it won’t be turned against us?
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Update to this post: some thoughtful further reading from James Firth can be found here on this very subject.  Well worth your time.


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Jan 232010
 
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Yes.  Technology equals bad – though not always, of course.  And definitely not in this case.  Some fascinating posts recently from Andrew Regan over at the Poblish.org blog.  This on turning political blogging content into a knowledge base, this on improving the ability of software to understand better the true meaning of such content and this on aggregating all UK strands of online political thought.

So Poblish is finally getting close to making real the idea I had a while ago for a Last.fm of political thought; an academy of thought if you like, a virtual nightschool even (in the manner of those Everyman books from the Thirties perhaps).

Finally, and essentially, a data-mining system which is simultaneously able to preserve, maintain and add to a society’s political DNA and extend its members knowledge of such content.

As well as – in the process, as Andrew quite astutely observes – improving our ability to make decisions.


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