Jul 242014

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 …)

May 312011

This popped up on the very Spanish version of Twitter which I believe my dear old friend – that is to say, the newspaper El País – is responsible for.  It’s called Eskup, by the way (not a lot of English-speaking people will know this): the verb “escupir” means “to spit” – and though I’m sure it was a million miles away from its creators’ minds when they named it, it’s a mightily appropriate way of describing what meaningful tweeting should actually be.

I say very Spanish because it not only gives us twice the number of characters to play around with (Spanish is a beautifully verbose language), it also lets us add images as part of its original infrastructure (well, as you might imagine, the Spanish are very tactile, touchy-feely and full of the very real delights of multi-sensory perception).

Anyhow, the title of this post, loosely translated by yours truly, more or less runs as follows:

“The Internet allows us to think what the powerful don’t think they will allow.”

This is a wonderful way of looking at the power of cheap global interconnectedness.  And that power, that ability to communicate selflessly, to think of the wider interest before one’s own individual circumstances, is truly what should define a 21st century socialism – a socialism precisely on the lines of Web 2.0 if you like.

If you don’t believe me, just take a gander at this story today:

A group of more than 200 Japanese pensioners are volunteering to tackle the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station.

The Skilled Veterans Corps, as they call themselves, is made up of retired engineers and other professionals, all over the age of 60.

They say they should be facing the dangers of radiation, not the young.

Suicide bombers are one example – and the very darkest side – of a foolish submission to a greater cause.  But these elderly Japanese gentlemen and ladies are quite the other side of the coin: they know their lives will end before cancer can properly strike and are prepared to run the risks of contracting the disease in the interests of leaving a better world for the young.

As Tim O’Reilly pointed out today:

Clear, brave, public-spirited thinking: senior citizens offering to clean up Fukushima http://bit.ly/m8CX2N #chokesmeup #gov20

I don’t think there’s anything to add to that – except that those who criticise freedom of speech, as they often talk about how the oxygen of publicity provides the underbelly of society with the visibility we rightly despise, really should think twice when the latter kind of story whizzes so wonderfully around the world.

And this is why I firmly believe the Internet generation – this cheap and exemplary global connectedness I talk about – is where we should deposit our faith.  When the barriers to communication are as low as they have become is when ordinary people suddenly acquire the opportunity to express their innermost feelings to other ordinary people – quite despite the interests, spin, control and general agenda management the powerful have, to date, had within their grasp.

Our future lies, then, in that honesty expressed in a certain Reagan-esque way – Reagan-esque that is, but quite in reverse: over the heads of the powerful in much the same way, without passing through their matrix, but this time from the crowd to the crowd – from the bottom of the pile directly to the bottom of the pile.

In this way, ordinary people are beginning to find their own voices through technology, software, virtual communications, start-up entrepreneurs the world over and, why not admit it, the US military – in a way that traditional politicking has never managed to deliver.  And if such politicking isn’t very careful, it may become – sooner than we think – less than entirely relevant to the expression of our sociocultural desires.

So watch out famous politicos.  The value you used to add when you crystallised our unspoken thoughts is no longer so definitive, no longer so justifying, no longer so convincing – now those thoughts are finding a direct channel for their exchange.  We do not need you to mediate our communication in quite the same way as even a generation ago.  But you don’t seem to have realised it as yet.

Ignore this at your peril.

Update to this post: this, from John Naughton’s Memex today, which came my way via Slugger O’Toole tonight, says similar things to the above, but far more succinctly and to the point.  Oh, and it’s actually about businesspeople and their crass approach to customer needs, as expressed by customers themselves – but then most of us would probably be comfortable with the idea that between modern business and modern politics the dividing line is managing to be about as fine as it can get. 

That is to say, it wouldn’t be the first time that consumer-voters like ourselves were in receipt of such a top-down and condescending double-whammy from both their business sectors and their elected representatives.

Meanwhile, this article comes to some rather unhappy conclusions – at least as far as my gut instincts in relation to this subject are concerned:

[...] we might do better to listen to the original biologist, Aristotle, who argued that human beings are nothing like ants, for the simple reason that human beings are political. They have an inbuilt tendency to create and debate political systems, and they do so deliberately, hierarchically and intelligently. In order to imagine a self-organising social group, we have to forget most of what we know to be true, namely, that organisers, leaders and visionaries inevitably arise, and start to exercise power over others.

And even with the kind of evidence wise words such as these provide, I find it impossible to give up on my pet hatred for hierarchy.  So what say you?

Feb 272010

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now – and wondering where exactly my allegiances should lie, intellectually speaking more than anything else.  Then I stumbled across this paragraph today, via (as often happens these days) a link from Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed:

One worry I have is that netbooks, tablets, and cell phones will become so dominant that meaty desktop systems will rise in the cost till they are within the reach only of institutions and professionals. That will discourage innovation by the wider populace and reduce us to software consumers. Innovation has benefited a great deal from the ability of ordinary computer users to bulk up their computers with a lot of software and interact with it at high speeds using high quality keyboards and large monitors. That kind of grassroots innovation may go away along with the systems that provide those generous resources.

I think I remarked recently on a creeping sensation that I was inclining towards the dark side as I began to realise not everything Microsoft did – or, rather, did to us – was evil.

Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that Google’s former halo of making information more accessible to everyone has become disturbingly tarnished with the latest scandalous implementation of Buzz.  I still love Gmail but in order to continue using it have felt myself obliged to deactivate Buzz – not out of any sense of shame on my part but simply to protect the anonymity of those who have emailed me.  To be honest, Google sort of did the same with their Preview implementation of Wave, as we suddenly rediscovered people we’d perhaps only ever touched base with once – in a previous existence even.

I remember whilst studying publishing in Spain almost a decade ago that there were some astonishingly virulent expressions of resistance to what Google represented even then.  “It’s like water – it’ll seep everywhere.  No one’ll be safe, not in the end.”  Now that prediction seems to have come finally true as the relative frequency of our email contacts becomes common knowledge in a virtual world which seems more and more like the local pub.  The only difference would appear to be that we have the permanence of Google cache to ensure anything we say or do remains undeniable and eternally reportable.  Our freedom to speak before we think is becoming slowly encroached upon to the extent that one day we will find ourselves tied up in knots of our own making.

Google is not the problem.  Google is simply the latest exponent.  The tendency to play hardball with customer data has existed ever since corporations realised there was money to be made out of post codes.  But what Google has done – with its bright people, tight vision and astonishing wealth – is hurry the process along mightily.  Oh yes.  Facebook, Twitter and other social media are clearly in the same business of making money out of our privacy.  But only Google can make us shake in our boots.

So what does the future hold in store?  Consumer software as per Apple and its locked-down applications and operating systems – and perhaps, with an eye on Nexus, Google at some point too – or open architectures such as Microsoft’s infinitely upgradeable desktop PCs?  (Curious for me, in particular, to be writing these words – but Linux, essentially, piggy-backs more on Microsoft’s vision than it ever could on the consumer electronics king Apple’s construct of good business practice.)  That is to say, do we return to the tendency of the last decades of the 20th century to refine utility, effectiveness and value to such an extent that we limit our freedoms as users to amend and reconstruct what we purchase?  Or do we go back to the 19th century glories of Victorian redundancy – which, in a way, Microsoft-driven PCs ended up being a marvellous exponent of – and continue to buy more power and space than we actually may ever need, just so the geeks we should believe we need to innovate all our futures continue to have the resources to carry on doing what they do best?

Do I side with the seeping and watery cloud that Google and Apple may both end up representing or should I put my cards on the table and finally admit that the desktop experience was a far better ride than many of us have cared to admit?

Well.  I suppose I can go this far: sort out the operating system Mr Gates, and there’s still life in the old model yet.  More potential for growth, more potential for curious and unexpected tinkering, more potential for a libertarian computing of a positive nature and – in its devolved and decentralised nature – perhaps simply more privacy all round.

No.  I don’t like the sleaze of a second-hand car salesman that Microsoft and its supporters have often exuded.  But just as corrosive is the water that seeps everywhere which I have already mentioned.

So where next?

You tell me.

(The Victorian Age was a magnificent time for so many things, though – wasn’t it?)