Oct 162013

Being creative is important.  A student of mine sent me a link to a 2011 Scientific American commentary the other day, and the blogpost it links to shows us exactly how important creative mindsets really are.  The post in question suggests we can actually improve our cognitive performance: essentially, improve where why we find ourselves on that supposedly genetically-fixed spectrum of traditionally understood intelligence.  The author describes how over a period of three years she was able to raise a child’s IQ score from the early 80s to over 100.  The change was permanent.

You can find the blogpost here.  It’s quite lengthy, but very readable.  I suggest you read it before we continue.

The article is not perfect, of course.  It gives into the plague of list-itis afflicting all online media around the globe at the moment.  We get five ways we need to pursue if we wish to improve our cognitive abilities.  Numbers, of course, are magic on the social web.  Such a web has well-learned the lesson from the real-world publishing of yore: get a number in your title and you’ll multiply your sales a hundredfold.  Or more.

Here’s the list of “primary principles”, anyhow:

These five primary principles are:

  1. Seek Novelty
  2. Challenge Yourself
  3. Think Creatively
  4. Do Things The Hard Way
  5. Network

Each principle is then illustrated constructively with clear examples.  One of these examples really hit home for me: I have noticed how as I depend more and more on sat-navs my sense of direction has gone to pot.  A case of not doing things the hard way – in essence not exercising the mental muscle that is the brain, and as a result losing the edge one used to have.

If a simple gadget like a GPS can do that to us, just imagine what sitting for hours on end in front of a computer and the memory-extension tool that is a decent search engine can do to the mush our brains must surely be turning into.

Yet the arguments given in favour of the final principle – networking – made me think twice about the true nature of social networks and media.  Yes.  Silos do reproduce themselves in the virtual ether too – but that, ie tribalism, is a natural evolutionary tendency of humanity we will always need to consciously learn to fight.  Just because we see it doesn’t mean we must give into the trend.  And probably easier to avert it on the web than in rather more formally-constructed organisational environments offline.

Are posting, tweeting and writing more generally drugs?  They may indeed be: the highs you get from putting virtual pen to paper are undeniable.  But if we care to judge social networking with the degree of objectivity it deserves, perhaps we should not so hastily damn it for taking advantage of an addiction.  In a sense, there exists in the Twitter and Facebook zones which now broadly populate our planet the opportunity to actively practise the five principles outlined in the blogpost I’ve been referring to this morning: to actively aim to improve our supposedly fixed intelligences.

And if there was ever a time we needed evidence and viewpoints such as these, then it’s right here and right now: when retrograde ministers, their media hangers-on and the kind of business-people who give quite the worst impressions of latterday commerce all attempt to rule both the airwaves and the ethers out there with the sort of hierarchical nonsense that once stratified in horrible castes a privileged society of the rankly inefficient.

Oct 092013

Compare and contrast.  Read this first (I’ve linked to it before) from Open Democracy on how the BBC – the British public service broadcasting organisation paid for by every TV owner in the country through a licence fee – has consistently ignored the ramifications and reality of a stealthy privatisation of the National Health Service in the two years following the Coalition government’s power grab in 2010.

Now study the BBC‘s six public purposes as currently outlined here:

Sustaining citizenship and civil society
The BBC provides high-quality news, current affairs and factual programming to engage its viewers, listeners and users in important current and political issues.

Promoting education and learning
The support of formal education in schools and colleges and informal knowledge and skills building.

Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
Encouraging interest, engagement and participation in cultural, creative and sporting activities across the UK.

Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
BBC viewers, listeners and users can rely on the BBC to reflect the many communities that exist in the UK.

Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
The BBC will build a global understanding of international issues and broaden UK audiences’ experience of different cultures.

Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services
Assisting UK residents to get the best out of emerging media technologies now and in the future.

Now we could, of course, as per each of our very personal and political prejudices, fisk the above till the cows come home.  But it’s not the purpose of this post to do that.  I have my own view – fairly jaundiced by now – of what the BBC has become.  There is evidence to support my view too – Open Democracy’s piece being only perhaps the most impactful and carefully argued of a raft of recent critiques on what was once a binder of nations and peoples.

To be honest, the BBC‘s decline and fall in the eyes of many was perhaps inevitable: it reigned unopposed in years and decades when the ruling classes had a pretty unique hold on the airwaves.  The virtual ethers didn’t even exist at the time; the ever-suppurating pollution of such singular discourses simply didn’t take place.  At least not publicly.  What counted, in those days, as rebellion involved sexy young people singing their way into our consciences as, simultaneously, they preached revolution by perpetuating – at a personal level at least – the capitalist dream.

Hardly a revolution likely to bring down anyone, or indeed anything, of a traditional bent.

Public service broadcasting today, then.  How does it stand?  How should we conceptualise it?  A broadcasting which serves the public via Parliament’s – ie the Coalition and the wider establishment’s – view of what we as a represented and mediated public need, deserve and can be allowed?  Or a broadcasting which serves the public through a software constitution created behind closed doors by a private company’s software engineers to generate long-term content that can be duly monetised for the benefit of eager shareholders?

You may suggest that for all its faults, the BBC‘s Charter and relationship with Parliament guarantees a closer fit with the needs of the British people than an American corporation of broadly libertarian philosophies, where anything and everything very publicly goes.

Well.  Maybe so.  And maybe not quite so.  Lately, I think, I’m beginning to conclude that if you’re looking for a truly 21st century equivalent of the very 20th century public service ethos the BBC once seemed to enshrine, you’d be better off looking to Twitter et al – even as their very American façades do make us pale on occasions in the face of their terribly gung-ho enthusiasms.  All of the six purposes the BBC supposedly espouses – in its very 20th century “let me do it for you” way – I have seen generated on Twitter over the past couple of years, by the careful drawing up and development of an online constitution which permits people to communicate and fashion their environment directly and through their own voices.

Downsides?  Many, of course.  The biggest being the monetisation process.  We are, it is true, the product and not the client.  Our data, our thought patterns, our attitudes and reactions, are being number-crunched and made money of time and time again.  But is this any different – or, at least, any worse – than a public service broadcasting corporation like the BBC which has not only permitted in its notably halcyon days a paedophilia of dreadful proportions but has also – in what we might term its moment of greatest decline and fall – exhibited a rank partiality to a government of barely democratic means which has shown itself emotionally incapable of leading a country as one?

Never mind via evidence-based mindsets.

It’s not that the BBC no longer serves the public.

It’s rather that, through its political taskmasters, it serves itself of the public.  No difference, in truth, between the shareholding monetisers of American social networks and the allegedly cuddlier nationalities of our islands.

If that is to be our destiny, if that is to be our end, surely better that it should be perpetrated with even a scanty veneer of direct empowerment than this Coalition-sponsored daily thrashing and bashing of stats which BBC journalism and a wider current affairs have now become.

Me?  Even right now?  Even as I withdraw myself slowly from the web?  I’d still far rather mutely follow the occurrences of the crowd on Twitter than turn on the tele and engage in rubber-brick-throwing at the privileged elites.

Oct 062013

I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.


Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


Jul 312013

Perhaps it’s us who are in the wrong here. Perhaps our expectations of a century of universally-educated civilisations were simply too high.  Perhaps it’s us who’ve got it back to front.  Perhaps the bastards are right to grind us down.

I don’t believe I believe so.  But there’s always a tiny space for a shadow of a doubt.

The issue, essentially, is that Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other social networks don’t only tell us how it is – they also tell us how it always was.  From a right-wing prejudice-based bias at the heart of a supposedly venerable BBC journalism and journalist to long-held Tory attitudes about Northerners and Northern spaces to abusive relationships between men and women, between the powerful and the disadvantaged and between the rich in general over everyone else, all that the last few years of online connectivity seem to have offered us is a consistent falling away of any veils of innocence.

Twitter, Facebook and that small number of other social networks I mention aren’t making a new world: they’re simply, flatly and painfully reflecting a very old one.  When heavy-handed police actions bubble to the surface of our perceptions on such a huge scale, most of us who were taught as children to respect the state’s good faith will question whether something is radically different; will question whether something is radically changing.

Sadly, I don’t think it is.  Sadly, I believe that such networks and media are only informing us more clearly of what we already got up to and did offline; of what we already got up to and did before social came along.

Our politicians a ragbag of corrupt self-serving auto-publicists?  Yes?  And?  So what’s new?

Our business leaders a cabal of establishment-infiltrating fascists?  So?  And?  Need me to explain any more?

Our men and women (mainly men though, it would seem), predisposed to insults and slagging the disadvantaged violently off, given half a virtual chance?  Wow!  And?  Who’d have thought it?

This is the underbelly of life turned over and exposed to the light of online examination.

The underbelly was always there though.

Women were always abused by their partners; by their nearest and dearest.

Politicians always trampled on electorates.

Business leaders always took ruthless advantage of their customers; always hid their dirty boardroom linen.

Nothing’s changed.  Nothing’s changing.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that all of us can see and share more of the shit which they (that is to say, we) used to hide.

Perhaps, then, what we need to propose is something different from this simple reporting, spreading and retweeting of shit.  Perhaps we need to reconceptualise the purpose of social: where the Tories condemn socialism as a tool for the desperately poor – even as they reconfigure and reuse it as a pig-trough mechanism for the scrounging rich – maybe a better use of social would be to reproduce environments of support for the disadvantaged.  Don’t people our timelines with stories of disheartening state and corporate violence – or, at least, don’t people all our timelines with such depressing news as this – but, rather, instead, move to use our connectivity to enthuse and organise parallel environments of a kindly and supportive society of the benevolent.

Yesterday I exchanged a tweet or two on the subject of building a new Berlin Wall around London, with the aim of encircling and enclosing all the prejudiced Tories within.  An underground movement could at the same time be established to help those not of a Tory persuasion to escape their fate.

This was, of course, a joke.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very funny.  Unfortunately, it seemed all too attractive to those of us exchanging our evermore bitter comments.

Maybe connectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Knowing too much about the underbelly of life doesn’t necessarily make one more powerful any more.  Knowledge isn’t power these days.  The willingness to brazenly lie, on the other hand, is.

And I realise, as I reread the above before publishing, that I was a naive little citizen for a very long time.

I’m not sure I don’t want to continue being so.

The problem with veils that fall away, however, is that once on the ground the evil do proceed with their trampling.

The real corporate purpose of social, if you ask me?  To remove all choice of naivete; to remove all chance of childlikeness.

To remove, ultimately, all possibility that our (once shared) humanenesses may return from the caves in which they currently, frightened, hide out.

But we still have an opportunity.  We still may cast a tiny shadow of a doubt.  We still, even so, may be able to turn the tables on the moneymen.  If only we can make of social a proactive tool for the parallel, perhaps one day we can re-emerge blinking from our caves.  Perhaps one day we can recover our humaneness.  Perhaps one day social won’t just tell us how it always was but, instead, help us define exactly how it really should be.

Jul 172013

This evening I ranted a bit on Twitter – something I rarely do.  Last November we had a problem.  The local housing trust had just put in a new downstairs door and – in the event – had foolishly put two sets of house numbers on a letterbox they included.  This was when Royal Mail started delivering both our and our neighbours’ letters to the foot of the stairs that led up to our respective flats.

When I complained, Royal Mail claimed they were delivering to the letterbox of the flats in question.  That this one letterbox was shared and when used simply dropped the letters onto the floor on the other side of the door – an always unlocked door anyone could open at any time of day or night – and that two separate letterboxes were to be found at the top of the aforementioned stairs (one for each neighbour) didn’t seem to make any difference at all.  It took two official complaints and two letters at least, as well as a posterior escalation process over a period of six weeks, to get the local sorting-office manager to instruct his/her posties that the post should continue to be delivered (as had been the case for years) to each house using the separate letterboxes at the top of the stairs.

Well.  Now back to my rant.  After a six month hiatus, it happened again today.  On previous occasions, they’d said the problem was the Christmas rush and new staff.  So I don’t suppose Christmas is going to be the problem this time round.  Maybe summer holidays instead?  And replacement staff incapable of reading a manager’s instructions?  Maybe so.  In either case, I was also informed this evening that not delivering a letter to its destination can lead to a criminal offence being committed.  A quick look round the web leads me to believe this might be the case, although – believe me – actually uncovering the legislation in question appears to be a damn tricky task.  The question here, of course, is whether we can count a shared letterbox in a shared outside door as the final destination of the mail of two different neighbours.

Personally, I think not.

But that’s not really the point of this article.  What I’m actually trying to describe this evening is something quite different: if arcane and complex legislation really does guarantee the integrity and destination of postal mail in the real world, and if tweeting has so recently been judged to be as libellous (more here and here) as the real-world publishing we’ve always lived with, why then can a committee of MPs decide that the NSA’s Prism and GCHQ’s Mastering the Internet should not exist in a space directly analogous to our very strict postal mail legislation?

Yes.  It’s possible that Royal Mail are not delivering my post as they should.  On the other hand, they might be.  But if I was of a mind to complain again, at least the legislation (even where arcane) would seem to have a generally accepted and pretty apparent value: in layman’s terms, post shouldn’t be interfered with from its sender to its destination, and must be delivered to its destination without general exception.

To return to the electronic equivalent, and the above-mentioned MPs, this doesn’t quite seem to be the case with Prism and GCHQ though (more here and here).

Now you will want to observe, I’m sure, that the Internet – and its visible face, the web – are not the same as the paper-based communication systems which our Royal Mail administers.  And in that, I would actually be inclined to agree.  There may, indeed, be fundamental differences which technological advances add to the pot that is human existence.  Not everything may necessarily be analogous; not everything may lend itself to building on the foundations of the past.

So that is why I ask: why does the establishment feel that emails should not be treated like real-world post and yet – at the same time – like to argue that tweeting potentially libellous thoughts is as profoundly permanent an act as the publication of real-world books?

Why can we argue that an electronic transmission of one kind (what’s more, the generally private communication between private citizens that email represents) is utterly separate from all the rights we have acquired offline – and yet, at the same time, find ourselves debating whether we shouldn’t fine or jail (for admittedly gratuitous but nevertheless throwaway actions on a social network) such hapless users of the virtual – just as if, in fact, they were pushing two hundred permanently-bound pages of intentionally tendentious analysis?

You know what I think?  All at our expense, I think these ingenious Internet-obsessed bods and political masters of ours are brazenly having their ever-so-clever pie charts and eating them.

Bollocks squared, in fact.

Mar 312013

As regular readers of these pages will know, I find Twitter a very useful tool – both as an editorial filter of news and current affairs as well as something which freely helps to brainstorm ideas.

Today, after a lot of the latter last night, I came to this conclusion:

Is the #Twitter info-bubble the first time in history that knowledge *didn’t* confer power? #NHS #disabled #welfare It’s all here. And?

So let’s review how I arrived at this conclusion, which – if true – is pretty damning.  For even in a world of universal education, it would seem that just knowing what’s happening isn’t going any more to give you the edge.

It started off with me recounting the following:

Just spent evening talking to s’one who works in #NHS. Nose to grindstone, had no idea of stuff we see on Twitter. Twitter is info-bubble.

Other phrases included: “Are we so well-informed we assume everyone else will automatically understand? Or is this going to be a new and tragic digital abyss?”  And: “Must be some way of crossing digital abyss. Use Twitter to inform those who want to use. Create info in other formats for those who don’t.”  And continuing the theme: “We need what the BBC used to be, but progressive, based on news sources such as Twitter and made available in audience-crossing contexts.”  Along with: “@HoboCastro In same way BBC used wire & own journalists to bring world to our sitting-rooms, we now need to use Twitter to access same space”; and: “@HoboCastro It’s space we need to pursue: use Twitter as resource to be transformed in order to reach sitting-rooms of those at grindstone.”

The aim of and finality of all the above being that:

A transformational democracy must involve moving information from one concentrated and specialised space to a more general audience.

Of course, all journalism – all communication of any register – involves such processes of transferring information from a specialisation to a generality: you have tabloids which simplify and broadsheets which keep – or even studiously upscale to – complex.  The issue here, I suppose, is to what degree the integrity of the original remains intact.  Put simply: how much original data either drops off or is deliberately ignored.  If we see information as an equivalent to the energy of physics, something to be transformed repeatedly but never destroyed, then the integrity of the original becomes a far more important objective.  And any system which has as its objective the trawling of complex environments of “hyper-knowledge” like Twitter, in order to better inform a sovereign populace which doesn’t regularly (doesn’t want to/doesn’t know how to) access its technology, will have to keep as a primary goal this maintaining of the wholeness of the datasets.

So let’s drill down to a practical example.  In Dan’s piece, he says this of the BBC:

The BBC is another institution that has so far escaped the attention of the reforming imagination. But its journalistic failings derive from its nature as a creature of parliamentary opinion. If the executive and most of Parliament are uninterested in seeing an issue debated then the BBC remains silent. Given the centrality of the BBC in our information system its dependence on cues from an out of control political class lends mainstream coverage of public affairs an increasingly hallucinatory quality. When Westminster wants something – from a war in the Middle East to the privatization of the NHS – the BBC falls into line. Needless to say, it cannot describe the economy in ways that deviate from the parliamentary consensus.

Now it seems to be a noble and correct idea to want to reform what is essentially a publicly-funded – a user-funded! – institution so it better represents the people over their mediating representatives.  But what if this simply isn’t practical?  What if our democracy is so broken that such a step is impossible?  After all, as we’ve already seen, Twitter’s “hyper-knowledge” is conferring no edge over politicians who control the mainstream discourse.  What makes you think that they would care to give up such a beast – given the advantages it clearly confers?

No.  Whilst I agree with the goal, I would suggest (have already suggested) an alternative.  More generally here, and specifically in the case of the NHS here, I suggest that instead of aiming to remake institutions our neoliberal friends have already taken over, we begin to create and devise alternatives to the hallowed originals.  Today, for example, as per my tweets above and Dan’s cogent arguments, the BBC itself.

For just knowing and sharing knowledge with people who reach your level of extreme awareness of a situation – its truths, realities and veracities – is clearly not being enough to effectively transform democracy.  Twitter, in that sense, is a microcosm of small and emerging political groupings.  Activists who fiercely believe; political souls who not only know their theory but know how to apply it too.

If only they could reach the sitting-rooms of the people.

If only the six to eight o’clock slot in the evening was ours.

So that, then, is the twofold purpose of this post: a) to continue to develop the initial ideas held in my first two “Revolution ’13” posts, applying them this time to an institution as profoundly important to the political direction of British communication as the BBC has been over the years; and b) to suggest that in order to do so, we use Twitter’s ability to triangulate a relatively unmediated truth as a resource from which such a parallel institution can be constructed.

For whilst governments like our current Coalition choose not to manage change in a constructively inclusive way, we must surely consider more proactive ways of acting than simply looking to modify from within: in essence, that is, proactive ways of defending ourselves from a political mentality like today’s.

One which prefers to play the eternal blame game instead of demonstrating any real political, social or technical competences in the matters that now so severely affect us all.


Footnote: even in the Twitterverse, it may be that knowledge does, of course, continue to be power.  Where you’re not the paying customer, you’re obviously the highly observed product.  Others may, therefore, be using our thoughts to anticipate and measure the tenor of citizens’ opinions, and carefully (though perhaps minimally) be adjusting political discourse to keep a shaky lid on mainstream public outcry.  But, in the end, I do not actually think this is a bad thing: openness should be our goal as a 21st century society, and we should act as we mean to proceed.

If anything will save us, it is our capacity to have ideas freely; to act on these ideas; and to implement them with all the means – both technological and intellectual – which we have at our disposal.

It’s in our hands, as always – as long as we don’t choose to use those very same hands in order to strangle our wisdoms at birth.

Mar 282013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and writing a lot about the squeezed middle, the absolute poor and the stratospheric rich.  For those of us who are living in the United Kingdom – more precisely in my case, the North West of England – you won’t have failed to notice how the government and the governed simply do not see things eye-to-eye.  In fact, lately at least, it’s often more a case of a tooth for a tooth.


The thing is, my natural instinct is to see life from tens of different points of view.  This doesn’t make me popular – or widely read.  Yesterday, I realised the true and abiding power of ranting when itiddly, a Twitter friend of mine, asked me to edit a post of his before he posted it.  He’s a tribal fellow; a traditional political activist.  He insults and damns and blasts the Tories at every opportunity.

I resisted the temptation to help him out with his post – rather patronisingly (in retrospect) arguing that he needed to have confidence in his writing, as well as some exposure, much more than the help of a struggling editor friend.

You can read his post here.  It’s a rant and it isn’t.  There’s a barely contained fury, of course, but all the time it’s an evidence-based fury.  And whilst I rarely get above five or six tweets for my posts, in a very short time his had hit thirty-five (at the time of writing this post, it now reads a hundred).  Exposure wasn’t what was needed on his part here; instead, it was humility on mine.

Yet it is not in my nature to rant one-sidedly, even where ranting of a kind is sometimes something I do.  I would not be able, in all honesty, to write something as single-minded as the post we’re talking about.  And I wish, in some way, I were able to convey the reasons why.  I wish you could all see the ten or twenty different points of view I always see when I see the world.

People have, on occasions, even accused me of dancing around a subject.  Perhaps, in truth, they were closer to the mark than even they realised.  You dance out of engagement and concentration; a dance is a marvellous combination of emotion, precision and attitude.

That is how I see the process of writing.

Which is why I wish, perhaps by using Twitter and other social-network outputs, we could all appreciate better how each of us is perceiving the world: the pain, the glory, the happiness and joy; the misery, the fear, the certainties and hopes.  From high-and-mighty governors to humble barely-surviving governed, the world would surely become a better place if only we could see it properly through each other’s eyes.

So my question must be: is anyone out there at all interested in creating a Point-Of-View Machine?

Or are you all far more interested in setting up monolithic positions of revulsion and non-cooperation?


Further reading: I wonder, quite sincerely, whether the Google Glass project (more here) – rather than inspire our fear of a final assault on all our privacies – should make us more hopeful in the ways I describe above.  If the POV streams resulting from all those users were made available and accessible in a structured way, we would understand much more easily how each of us experienced life.  And from that understanding, perhaps a kinder governance would emerge.

A kinder world.

A kinder species, even.

We can only hope, of course.

And, maybe, pray.

Mar 262013

I know Twitter quite well.  It’s a place I get my information from; a place I practise my writing in; a place I brainstorm ideas to logical conclusion; a place I sometimes even gain a solace of a kind.

Occasionally, very occasionally (as this morning), I also wonder if it’s a place of gradual, long-term and seeping self-harm.

But only very occasionally.

What it undeniably is, without any doubt, is a place of tremendous knowledge and resource.  You find out about things way before they ever hit the headlines – if, that is, they hit the headlines at all.  In its clever online constitution, people aggregate ideas and opinions and conclusions in an ingeniously programmed sorting of the milk from the cream.  People create filters of editorial substantiveness, and so add value – almost by magic – to the mix.

This is how people who use Twitter wisely – and there are many, I can assure you – both manage to teach and to learn in equal measure.

A thought experiment, then, on the back of the above lead-in.

Let’s imagine a government, in times of severe crisis, came to the conclusion it needed to bring people together, in order that opinions, statistics and ideas be exchanged at a relatively benign and constructive level of debate.  Such a government would, indeed, be of a far-sighted mould – perhaps beyond the efforts and abilities of most politicians throughout history.  But you never know.  Just as the populace have become more educated and clever with the advent of universal education, so you’d expect their leaders and representatives to show the same improvements.  (Except that, perhaps in the event unfortunately, the vast majority continue to emerge from the private schools and elitist universities which have always run this evermore unpleasant and dirty land.)

Anyhow.  Back to the conclusion our hypothetical government had arrived at: imagine they desired a vast network of connections.  An extended sequence of brain patterns across the globe; all contributing interconnectedly these voluntary (though also quite addictive) gobbets of intelligence I mention; all sourced from essentially free agents in every corner of every region which was operating under the stresses and strains of tremendous economic fracture.  Wouldn’t such a government, if of an equally intelligent type, be looking to take advantage of and channel these tremendously useful and constructive ideas for the benefit of the future?  Instead of using the tool to bully the flailing and desperate opinions of those they were disenfranchising more and more, surely a far more intelligent approach – a far more sensible, efficient and essentially businesslike approach – would be to see how best to use productively such a resource?

At the moment, all I can see is masses of evermore informed men and women, channelling their anger – sometimes quite violently – against a useless and incompetent set of political and business leaders.  But there’s room for something else, surely.  Room for another way of doing.  Not a left-wing UKIP (more here), as has been suggested by some.  No.  A different mindset, with – and here’s the biggie, the bit where it would all stand or fall in one hugely humongous step – its correspondingly revised organisational structures.

For if Labour, or anyone else moderately on the progressive side of things, wants to win any elections in the future, they will need to begin to see their role as that of enabling progressive forces rather than leading them.  And my description of an intelligent government’s approach to the resource that is the online community of Twitter mirrors exactly how I would like to see Labour remake itself over the next five years or so.

Yes.  Twitter can be called an elite too.  An educated elite which not only governments but also opposition parties wastefully ignore, misinterpret and misunderstand.  Suspicious of the degree of absolute knowledge, of simple braininess and of commitment to truth which the beast clearly enshrines at some levels and in some interactions, such traditional ways of looking at politics can only see it as an echo chamber for the existing broadcast approaches.  But that, my dear ladies and gentlemen of the UK body politic, is precisely where you’re throwing away the value so freely provided and currently added.

In front of you, on your computer screens and phone apps various, you have the most amazing – absolutely free – political tool the world has ever seen.  An elite which doesn’t want to be an elite.  An elite which only wishes to see prioritised the evidence-based holding of opinions; the policy-making which would result; and the recovery of a society so horribly damaged at the moment that repair is perhaps the last thing on our minds.

Survival is all we can think of out there in the real world.

And only in this beautiful cocoon that is social media and its slyly communicating networks do we still, even now, encounter that solace I mentioned at the beginning.

Both intellectual and emotional, however, it needs to be seen for what it fully is: a medium through which a butterfly of progress may yet appear.

So is there anyone in politics up to the job of wasting no more?

Anyone at all?  In any party?

Mar 242013

I’m beginning to find it evermore difficult to communicate.  Not on Twitter – that’s become easier of late, as I get a handle on writing in spurts of 140 characters.  No.  Where it’s getting more difficult is in the real world.  I feel my communication patterns are briefing themselves up into real-life equivalents of Twitter.  My wife comes home and so I inform her of a telephone call: the information is given concisely, sufficiently I think, and yet it doesn’t include the straw and space for comprehension which our real-life existences are made of.

So we get into a disagreement; she says I don’t speak clearly; I clearly feel I do; incomprehension all round.

Is this what we might call the Twitterisation of thought?  A clear example of nature versus nurture if there ever was one.  For two Twitter users who meet out there offline (oh shudder!  Good Lord!  The real world exists …), the hashtag sign means something.  The brevity of communication is a virtue, not an obstacle.  We slyly and collaboratively understand each other in clear cahoots, as subtlety and underplay replace repetition and underline.

But for someone like my wife who only lives in the real world of speech, this Twitter way of communicating is tight, alien, unforgiving and unsupportive.  Is that what I have become then – or is that really what I was?  Is Twitter nurturing us to a different way of being – or is it naturing us to the essence we never had the chance to express?

You could argue something similar about the ways and wherefores of online history – and by extension, the offline stuff of books too.  I’m looking at the old technology that is traditional blogging – and its steely decline at the hands of more collaborative and centrally controlled communications media such as Facebook, Twitter and multifarious single-population social forums.  There was a time when I was hoping blogging could be saved via more complex aggregation tools I was intermittently involved in.  But all their clever drivers, those people with the hands-on knowledge of those technologies I could only comprehend distantly, eventually came to the conclusion that blogging had had its day.

Oh it would continue to exist – but not like in its heyday.

The one thing we’d forgotten, however, was the benefits of repressive state agendas:

I’m one of 17 signatories (on behalf of LibDemVoice) to a letter published in Saturday’s Guardian, reproduced below, which opposes the “fundamental threat” of the draft legislation approved this week by MPs of all parties which would regulate blogs and other small independent news websites.

It’s not often you’ll see us, ConservativeHome, LabourList, Guido Fawkes, Liberal Conspiracy and Political Scrapbook agree on something. But what we term the “botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation” has, for once, brought us together. And, as the letter notes, perhaps even more remarkably got Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch agreeing, too.

It seems, for governments and business leaders across the world, the lesson will never be learnt: if you want to stop people from communicating their thoughts, ignore them.  Let the technologies shrivel on their ageing branches.  Simply don’t pay them any attention.

But no.  They simply can’t allow themselves to learn that lesson.  Politicians (and here, I include business leaders too), to understand the present crop properly, are driven by the opportunity for bitter conflict.  They must, absolutely, always have the last word.

And so it is we get threats such as the above to the populace’s freedom to insult and throw brickbats at all and sundry.

You’d have thought that someone would have informed these leaders differently.  Maybe they have; but have similarly suffered at the hands of the “last-word syndrome” I mention.

In essence, I suppose, we have to accept that oppressive regimes are good for democracy.  We take up our virtual and offline cudgels and decide to get involved.  Nurture versus nature?  Of course, it’s much more complicated than that.  What a democracy in the hands of a fascist mentality manages to achieve is public connivance.  But our nature continues to be democratic.  It’s not just a matter of changing the way we behave: it’s also a matter of catalysing innate instincts.

Where we sometimes get it wrong on the left-hand side of history is in assuming the masses will overwhelm.  The great thing about humanity – and its veritable danger too – is that individuals are also important.  Just as a catalyst can make or break a chemical reaction, so a single human being can change the course of a discrete history.

In fact, to take an example much closer to home, our societies are sort of like home-made mayonnaise: yes, the ingredients are always the same; even the mixture must follow the same process.  But there comes a hugely fragile moment when an individual’s acts can either make it or not – a moment when a little too much of one or other ingredient can destroy all chances of achieving the end we pursue.  And then, in the face of the approaching (where not encroaching) dinner party, we must resort to the corporate stuff which never fails to deliver its homogenised result.

So let us admire the fantastic role models out there.  Let us draw inspiration from individuals who, occasionally, do the right thing.  Let us remember that doing the right thing is not always a choice.  And let us never forget that it might, one day, even get better.

Feb 222013

After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.


So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.

Dec 122012

James summarised it thus (more than fully) on November 30th, in a piece clearly titled “#Leveson is excellent on internet free speech. He didn’t brush over it, he robustly defended it”:

Leveson [...] draws a clear distinction between a news outlet which claims to provide trusted reporting and the internet in general, where there is no implied trust (although Leveson uses the term ethical rather than trusted, which in this particular case I believe are interchangeable as trust in news output flows from ethical journalism).

Chapter 7, section 3.2:

“… the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross mischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

Leveson doesn’t say this but there is also a jurisdiction issue online. It’s not strictly true that bloggers may act with impunity if based in the UK, as there’s always the possibility they will be traced using existing legal instruments and prosecuted or face civil proceedings for libel or privacy breach.


“The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.”

James also goes on to point out the difference between social media making content available and the very same content being “emblazoned” on the front page of a highly visible online newspaper.

So.  We have an ethically-driven industry versus an ethical vacuum such as the Internet.  And we have the industry of extreme visibility versus the amateur placing of content at a much lower level.  As I pointed out a couple of posts ago (the bold is mine today):

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

Leveson, then, as per the slant James places on him at the end of last month, seems clear that there is a substantial difference between, on the one hand, the Internet as it has grown up and is manifesting itself through blogging, tweeting and Facebooking and, on the other, the industry of highly visible newspapermen and women.

But today the Guardian publishes a report on a conference Leveson has just given.  An immediate observation: I thought at the time of the report’s launch, Leveson had assured us he would take no questions and make no further comments.  The second “public outing” in as many weeks would seem to give lie to such assurances.

Or maybe I misunderstood.

Or maybe I simply invented the moment.

Talk about picking and choosing your stage …


Anyhow.  At least according to the Guardian, Leveson is now in two minds about the Internet.  Whilst he still accepts that social media is the “electronic version of pub gossip”, and does seem to accept that this might actual inscribe a virtue for human thought (that is to say, the thinking of the unthinkable – the freedom to go anywhere with a train of thought), he doesn’t seem quite convinced any more that the implications in relation to law, and what and how we should apply it, should be followed through.

What’s more, he seems to recognise the ethical side of the newspaper industry isn’t quite as ethical or convincing as it might be, especially when he says:

[...] if journalists saw the law going unenforced against bloggers, it might “undermine media standards through encouraging them to adopt a casual approach to the law”.

“If we are to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained, we must meet these challenges, and ensure that the media … is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned,” Leveson said.

I think, to be honest, and I’m happy to be corrected if you feel I’m being too cynical, that those who’d really be placed at a disadvantage would not be the media but, rather, the rich, powerful and/or well-connected who strive to manage the news which journalists are allowed to print.  If such things as described by Greenslade are happening already – and they have happened for a long time I am sure – just think what they could get away with under a regime where lawyerless and amateur communicators could be silenced and punished to the same degree as an industry.

Leveson is right to say:

[...] that it was a “pernicious and false belief” that bloggers were not subject to the same laws as print and broadcast journalists.

But he is wrong to argue that, in exactly the same way, both individual free speech and the industrial free press should be marshalled, controlled and punished by our justice system.

It’s just not fair, proportional or democratic.  If my yearly income is a minuscule percentage of what a media behemoth turns over globally, I can hardly be held equally responsible for errors of judgement.

Now can I?

So I come to my last question: what does Leveson really think about blogging?  Is it a force for good which often takes us to the wilder parts of human thought in a productive and constructive manner?  Or is it something which for the good of the status quo must now be progressively chilled into holding back its occurrences?

A sensibly policed state – or the anteroom of a police state?

Where is Leveson now?

Dec 102012

Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned.  When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop.  This, for example:

From the start, the Isreaeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas shared clips on YouTube, and posted messages and images on Facebook and Twitter (also here), which initiated heated debates on the platforms. Many reporters followed these and actively participated in the discussions, which made social media an important element of both reporting and criticism of the conflict.

This should hardly surprise us.  That manipulation of social-media news and its transmission takes place must be self-evident to anyone with any experience of how stories in such contexts surge.  Recent cases of sex-abuse allegations have generated claims and counter-claims which can hardly depend only on the dynamics of sheeply flocks.  But in the argument that Ariel develops, we get a further strand of behaviours that add a far more complex interest to the mix.  For he also describes and defines the following processes:

[...] Unlike any other war in the past, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has been characterised by the mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media. [...]

And this has led to the more mainstream media feeling obliged to take onboard, and within their own frames, websites and even offline print, such popular – and, maybe, populist – content.  In a post-blogging Facebook generation, where the very fact you’re an amateur communicator adds weight, veracity and conviction to what you tell, it must be the case that, in order to be able to properly convince, latterday industrial media has had to acquire a journalistic equivalent of what film-makers learned to call cinéma vérité.  A kind of post-modern approach to communication, perhaps.  A veneer of “realistic” edginess to their product where once smooth and house-ridden styles were sub-editorially imposed as unquestioned – and unquestionable – good practice.

Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:

  • We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit.  What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished.  Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there.  I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
  • I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people.  And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case.  If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough.  No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
  • A people’s press, then, perhaps?  A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate?  We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
  • The ideal?  Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit.  But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in relation to these words from Ariel (the bold is mine):

Just as cyber-war and cyber-terrorism have become prevalent, social media warfare is here to stay. It seems that the fight for public opinion will keep growing in importance, and play a more central role in future conflicts. The fact that opposing parties can communicate directly with the public will increase the pressure on journalists to stay relevant.

To these words I would be inclined to add that the above-mentioned three battles will shortly form part of a new Holy Trinity of communication.  Just as industrial media was kept in the shadow and practice of the security services throughout the whole Cold War and its aftermath, leading to the corruption that recent phone-hacking scandals have uncovered here in Britain, so now social media will be in the eye of and form a target for such institutions.  It could hardly be any other way.  If amateur communicators are making more of the news their peers are wanting to read than the news outlets themselves, no veneer, however thick, will fool any member of the post-Leveson generation.  There is no way back.  And the security services probably know this well before the newspaper industry is able and prepared to take it on the chin.

Second, these are all matters which have interested a lot of us recently – both readers and writers, both amateurs and professionals.  Such a post-Leveson moment as this will surely serve to define at least the next fifty years of communication in Britain – and people really don’t realise what’s happening.

We’re sleepwalking into the future of so many unfreedoms.

Social media warfare being just one more sorry battleground they’ll fashion in order to restrict our ability not only, not primarily, to freely exchange our thoughts but also – far more importantly – to be able to evaluate their narratives.

Because if the future is going to work as I think Ariel believes, the ability to sift and determine where truth really lies will become far greater and relevant than it currently might be.

A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?

Almost fit for a new generation of Johann Haris … and I mean that in as complimentary a fashion as you care to allow me.

Nov 292012

Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:


He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.


Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).

Nov 262012

Today, the Guardian publishes a fascinating story – a story that may have the most far-reaching of implications for democracy, free speech, online behaviours and the wider publishing industry.  Essentially it describes how an Australian jury has come to the conclusion that Google’s search engine is actually a full-blown publisher – not simply an automated disseminator of access to interesting, timely and relevant content.

Now if Google’s search, a “simple” aggregator of content, can be accused and sentenced as a publisher – or, presumably, re-publisher of sorts – by a legal system I assume is pretty similar to our own (for it’s hardly going to be more restrictive in matters of freedom of expression I would, at the very least, have thought), just think what kind of intellectual precedent the case could set for our more thoughtful judges over here in England.

Just think, in fact, what they might say about Sally Bercow and that tweet which referred “innocently” to a trending topic generated by Twitter’s very own corporate mathematics.

Just think what they might now have to consider in relation to Twitter’s responsibility for that topic and trend in the first place.

As I just tweeted on Twitter itself:

So algorithms and the companies which create them *can* be held responsible for the content they enable. Twitter (the corp) – watch out!

Meanwhile, a few days ago I was already arguing the following:

What I’m really saying with all of this is that Twitter’s Terms of Service attempt to argue that its software simply distributes and does not publish.  It takes no responsibility for the bringing together of such content – and it consequently allows form to come under one legislation and content, thus defined, to belong entirely to the user.  (Though we know that even this is not true: a user cannot normally access more than a limited number of tweets back in time, whilst companies pay Twitter good money to access on a massive scale such ancient thoughts and occurrences.)

My argument, however, would run as follows: deliberately dumbing down individual ideas into 140-character gobbets and then bringing them together automatically to create interesting streams of thought involves not just the process of distribution but also the process of transformation.  We are not just talking about giving someone else the tool to publish off their own bat: microblogging (ie Twitter) is essentially different from its much more discursive and single-authored precursor – which is to say, the blogging you see in front of you right now.  Microblogging, essentially, is collaborative writing which involves many many others – and in order for it to work someone, or something, needs to sort and filter the information.

That is to say, give it shape.  Edit and give sense and sensibility to what would otherwise be a morass of idiocies.

So who are the authors who write in a microblogging site like Twitter?  Obviously the individuals who post.  But also, surely, if we’re being realistic, the software which joins as a seamless whole the activities of so many busy worker bees; which is programmed and designed from ground up to prioritise speed of transmission over reflection; and which aims above all to indicate the latest over the lasting.

Which is why we finally come to the question I pose at the top of this post: why is a company like Twitter’s social-media software not also legally responsible for what it – basically – creates? Or at the very least enables?

But if this Australian case now proceeds to open the floodgates for “simple” search engines to be taken to court on any and every matter libellous matter arising (the truth being, of course, that they’re not all that simple – levering as they do billions of dollars of advertising revenues), just imagine how this might all impact – as the implications bed down – on the usage and abusage of social-media networks such as the above-mentioned Twitter and the inevitable Facebook.

That it spreads the burden of responsibility for statements made in a bespoke software constitution is to my mind only reasonable.  That it may mean we lose all the virtues of Web 2.0, as well as online communication more generally, should however serve to stop us in our tracks – and make us seriously wonder if this is now going to be all for the best.

Do we really want the law to become even more wound up in our daily discourse?  Is this really the right way for the interactive web?  Do we really not know of any other way of exercising order which does not remove more and more our ability to communicate freely, spontaneously and democratically with other citizens?

As the Guardian concludes in its excellently measured piece:

If the Australian decision is followed by courts elsewhere search engines and platform providers will have to be a lot quicker in dealing with requests to take down material when they are contacted by a potential claimant and they will have to be more responsive to requests to sever links to defamatory content if their “not our responsibility, contact the webmaster” response opens them up to liability.

For those of us who put material online it might mean a more hostile legal landscape. The lesson will be that not only do you have to watch what you say online, search engines will have to do so as well.

And so is it that I fear a massive return to the deep web and its darknesses, if something is not done very quickly.  Just as I also wonder whether the battles are already well on their way to being quite unpredictably – quite hazardously – lost.

I do still choose to believe that there must, surely, be another way to guarantee a future world of intelligent sharing.

It’s just that I’ve become evermore totally ignorant of the proper means to engineer and implement such a goal.

Nov 232012

I have just spent a couple of days away from home, mostly away from Twitter and entirely away from blogging.  Though not entirely.

I’ve written this post whilst offline, on a Blackberry Playbook, using word-processing software provided by default. It’s an interesting experience, writing from one’s thoughts without being instantly connected to that wider intelligence which is the Internet – and its visual manifestation, the worldwide web.

I suddenly discover the only resources I have to hand, for the moment, and whilst I write, are my own very private thoughts and uncertainties.  I can check nothing, for the moment; I can only write what I am sure of.

And yet perhaps the situation I find myself in is not all that different from writing online.  Who can say that what we read and watch is ever as true as it might be?  If we cannot believe that a BBC current affairs programme of international renown is capable of usefully fact-checking its own content before it broadcasts, where and how can we ordinary people realistically check anything an honest desire to engage with democratic debate would – as a result – require us to do?

On considerable reflection, I find myself siding with Lord McAlpine’s instincts to sue those who besmirched his name.  But I do so with a desire to add the following caveats for the future.  For if the events that have surrounded his calvary are to impact positively on democracy, and if his case and this moment in our body politic are not to be seen historically as a turning-point where an unhappy and impositional establishment brutally re-establishes itself, we must do something more than acknowledge his right under current law to act as he does.

I was, you see, going to write a post about how it seemed to me that the McAlpine case, and the fury with which he was pursued in some sectors of social media, and even in what is now less accurately called mainstream media, was a case of referred anger more than a desire to do away with the reputation of a man very few people even knew existed.  This referred anger would relate to the last two years of Coalition government.  Unable – as the constituency in question was – to stem the government’s impositional instincts, this – that is to say, Twitter – has been a frustrated and figurative rattlesnake of a medium, thrashing evermore futilely away at an evermore desperate set of circumstances.

If my thesis is correct, the Lord McAlpine accusations were simply the unhappy blue touchpaper a hot and angry group of people alighted on in the absence of being able to get political satisfaction elsewhere.

Now I may be right or I may be wrong.  Either way, once Lord McAlpine has achieved his goals as per our existing laws, we need to ensure his legacy will not be that of an establishment grossly re-establishing itself but, rather, much more usefully and productively for our democracy, of a body politic and public discourse renewing itself.

And so I come to the point of this post.  The caveats I mentioned above in relation to the McAlpine case?

It’s true, as this post from the Economist indicates, that if we now live in a world where everyone can publish, we now live in a world where everyone can be sued.  But if this is the case, and legal matters are potentially to enter every sitting-room in the land, surely it would only be reasonable to expect the law itself to democratise itself – that is to say, make itself easier to be understood, complied with, used and exercised.

Whilst the real mainstream media – with its legal departments and journalistically-trained professionals – essentially interfaced with what was seen by many as the more oppressive forces in our society, as well as supposedly on our behalf, it did not seem to matter so much that the law was, for most people, an opaque and arcane matter.  But if we are all to publish now, as indeed Twitter, Facebook and blogging before them would have us do (for without the product, that is to say ourselves and our occurrences, social media would have zero business model to operate with), and if we do feel that Web 2.0 has more upsides than downsides, then we do really need to make it as easy to understand and use the law as it is to go to a supermarket and purchase a week’s worth of groceries.

If publishing is to become as easy as 140 characters and a “Send” button, or simply one retweet, and the implications of getting it wrong are to be criminal investigations by the Metropolitan police, then as a society we cannot, on the one hand, allow the honesty, sharing and the jobs and income social media generate – as well as a whole host of other upsides which such a technologically-linked world provides – to lead, on the other, to the complex and awful risks of prison sentences and prohibitive fines for its participants when forwarding on the equivalent of a simple English sentence.  We cannot allow it, that is, unless we change quite radically its framework.

And if there are malicious people out there looking to witch-hunt others, to act as lynch mobs, to pursue in industrial quantities the reputations of others, then maybe governments too – especially the current one (but not only the current one) – need to ask themselves if there’s anything they can do to make our society less unhappy, less bitter, less desirous of revenge and less violent in its discourses.

A final couple of requests, then, from and to those of us who still wish to act in good faith on behalf of a better democratic society:

  • Lawyers, as perhaps the final profession to open its doors to 21st century society, it is your turn to accept that a wider applicability and use of the law by ordinary people must lead to its democratisation: both in terms of its understandability and in terms of its accessibility.  We need to be able to comprehend it without having to go to law school and we need to be able to pay for it without taking out a loan.
  • Politicians, as perhaps the final profession to want to accede to the desire which 21st century society has to share almost everything with almost everybody, we need you to accept that the importance of conducting reasoned and properly devolved debate requires us to have a system of government and justice which allow for legal actions that do not generate the fear of bankruptcy in ordinary people looking to sustain their right to free expression.  Removing the scope of Legal Aid for so many elements of legal action, as here in England the current government has so recently decided to do, does not indicate any real wish to support democratic instincts in the civilisations we are building.  I would ask you, therefore, to rethink this approach to guaranteeing the realistic exercise and defence of of legitimate rights to free expression.
  • Social media wonks, as perhaps the final profession to care to operate through legislatures across the world, your impatience with the inability of virtually everyone else to properly understand the implications of your genial inventions and online constitutions leads you not to worry too much about the very real legal implications for your consumers of the design decisions which you take behind closed doors, every day of the week – and very much outside the scope of most parliaments and governments.  At the very least, then, I would ask of you to lobby far more firmly on behalf of transparent and less costly libel processes in those jurisdictions where you generate your not inconsiderable incomes.  And at the very most, as I have already suggested on these pages quite recently, you might wish to consider drastically redesigning your software for the needs of what – almost certainly – will become a far more libellous age.

Now whether the above reflections will help anyone out of the morass I perceive as encroaching very soon on the few civil liberties we thought we had here in England, I really cannot say.

But I do hope that someone or some institution will hear my pleas; that these pleas may be understandings which other democratic individuals might share and care to sustain; and that such persons or organisations will be sufficiently intelligent and foresighted enough to comprehend exactly what a vibrant and sustainable body politic really needs: not a long-term slide into an atmosphere of libel and reputational aggression but, rather, cogent debate, accessible public forums, proper and informed dialogue – and as little intervention by the heavy-handed laws and costs of yore as the 21st century can possibly engineer.

Nov 202012

For a rather long time, I’ve been thinking about the subject of:

 [...] the hijacking of the benefits of the knowledge society by those who have created the social web.

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

I go on to conclude:

[...] The problem is that these software companies have worked out a way of attracting us to sit down for free in front of our monitors and screens, and input devices various, and create content which substitutes the stuff they promised us fifty years ago was going to release us from the drudgery of manual labour.

Essentially, it would seem the long-promised knowledge economy has been hijacked and dumbed-down by the requirements of the social web.  And, right now, I really cannot see our way around it.

In reality, what we have here is a social-media software which first makes uncomplex the requirements of inputs from ourselves and, once harvested, proceeds to automatically put it all back together in order to make it sufficiently re-complexed to be of interest.

Arguably, without the software to give automated form to the content so produced, we wouldn’t have anything anyone would really want to witness.  Random 140-character text messages which related in no way to any other?  Who’d care to enjoy an afternoon of that?

So why do I return to an issue I did to the death a while ago?  Because, in the light of quite reasonable demands for defamatory reparations, it occurs to me that, in social media, we have a less than clear division between publisher and distributor.  Now I’m quite unaware if – in previous court cases in relation to, for example, obscenity trials of books or other historically significant offline content – distributors of such books ran the same risks as the publishers themselves.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if the history of our country had thrown up prior examples of both parties being asked to carry the responsibility can.

In this case, however, in particular in relation to Twitter, which is what seems to occupy our minds most vigorously at the moment, I would argue that the division between the two roles of publisher and distributor is far more difficult to delineate.  Twitter’s current Terms of Service make it very clear that each user is entirely responsible for their own content:

You are responsible for your use of the Services, for any Content you post to the Services, and for any consequences thereof. The Content you submit, post, or display will be able to be viewed by other users of the Services and through third party services and websites (go to the account settings page to control who sees your Content). You should only provide Content that you are comfortable sharing with others under these Terms.

They then go on to say:

You may use the Services only if you can form a binding contract with Twitter and are not a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction. If you are accepting these Terms and using the Services on behalf of a company, organization, government, or other legal entity, you represent and warrant that you are authorized to do so. You may use the Services only in compliance with these Terms and all applicable local, state, national, and international laws, rules and regulations.

So far, so good.  Content thus generated is under the jurisdiction of – presumably – where one is resident.  Or, alternatively, one’s nationality.  Or, perhaps, where one has tweeted from.

But in any case, wherever the rules and regulations are applicable.


Form, however, is quite a different matter.  As far as the software is concerned, and Twitter’s own corporate liability, Californian law is judged to rule everything else:

These Terms and any action related thereto will be governed by the laws of the State of California without regard to or application of its conflict of law provisions or your state or country of residence. All claims, legal proceedings or litigation arising in connection with the Services will be brought solely in the federal or state courts located in San Francisco County, California, United States, and you consent to the jurisdiction of and venue in such courts and waive any objection as to inconvenient forum.

And the liability in question is limited thus (the bold is mine):



I would rule this significant and almost certainly deliberate.  I’m no expert in law, much less in Californian law, but I’m pretty sure it’ll make it easier to sell and distribute software which makes more complex and interesting dumbed-down content without running foul of legal complaints about issues of free speech than, say, its European counterparts.

What I’m really saying with all of this is that Twitter’s Terms of Service attempt to argue that its software simply distributes and does not publish.  It takes no responsibility for the bringing together of such content – and it consequently allows form to come under one legislation and content, thus defined, to belong entirely to the user.  (Though we know that even this is not true: a user cannot normally access more than a limited number of tweets back in time, whilst companies pay Twitter good money to access on a massive scale such ancient thoughts and occurrences.)

My argument, however, would run as follows: deliberately dumbing down individual ideas into 140-character gobbets and then bringing them together automatically to create interesting streams of thought involves not just the process of distribution but also the process of transformation.  We are not just talking about giving someone else the tool to publish off their own bat: microblogging (ie Twitter) is essentially different from its much more discursive and single-authored precursor – which is to say, the blogging you see in front of you right now.  Microblogging, essentially, is collaborative writing which involves many many others – and in order for it to work someone, or something, needs to sort and filter the information.

That is to say, give it shape.  Edit and give sense and sensibility to what would otherwise be a morass of idiocies.

So who are the authors who write in a microblogging site like Twitter?  Obviously the individuals who post.  But also, surely, if we’re being realistic, the software which joins as a seamless whole the activities of so many busy worker bees; which is programmed and designed from ground up to prioritise speed of transmission over reflection; and which aims above all to indicate the latest over the lasting.

Which is why we finally come to the question I pose at the top of this post: why is a company like Twitter’s social-media software not also legally responsible for what it – basically – creates? Or at the very least enables?

The software, that is – and, by extension, the company.

For if the form which it gives involves fundamental transformation of the content its “employees” end up generating, the line between content and form is far more blurred than any post-modern attempt to confuse our senses could ever achieve.

So think about it.

And then ask.

And then come back here, in order to tell me what they said.