Jul 242014
 
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I’m finding it increasingly difficult to comment on a whole host of matters.  Even where I do manage to type out eight hundred words of thoughts, half of what I write is so carefully pre-edited as to make me feel the only thing I’m learning to do of late is self-censor my output more ingeniously.

#DRIP was so very shocking as an abuse of everything the British body politic has meant for me, ever since I’ve been conscious of it, that I clearly couldn’t do anything but express my considerable disagreement.  But other matters, many other matters, have me declining in some way or another to comment.

At the moment, I’m finding it particularly difficult to say anything cogent on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Even my choice of overarching terminology – to use the word “conflict” for example – is bathed in a lack of personal liberty: what I should say, what I can say, what might be held against me by people I value – on the one side and the other; both those who are in favour and those who are against.

To be honest, in a way I’ve been here before.  When Iraq hit our screens (always our screens, always our disempowering predigesting mediated screens), I found myself – as now – in Spain.  I saw the world stage from the Spanish majority view; from the British people taking astonishingly to the streets; from the peaceful people who saw only the interests of oil.  At the time, many of us asked why this dictator and not a whole host of others.  If invasion was needed to topple Saddam Hussein, why not the evil inheritors of barbaric colonial rule in other parts of the world too?  Why not aim, at one fell swoop, to dedicate painful resources in order to make a coherent entirety of international relations once and for all?  Where was the logic in prioritising Saddam over so many other genocidal maniacs?

We can ask the same questions now, of course – perhaps, ironically, in reverse.  So many of us find ourselves knee-jerking our hatred for the actions of the Israelis in – again – this thing I gingerly call a “conflict”.  And so many supporters of Israel remind us of the millions of affected in other tragic areas of “conflict” such as Syria, Ukraine – or the forty-two Commonwealth countries where it’s currently a crime simply to be gay.  With all this horrible stuff going down in so many places, why do so many of us find it easy to concentrate on Israel?

Well.  Of course, Europe has a history of anti-Semitism.  It’s in our DNA.  I have Jewish blood – yet my grandfather, who had more Jewish blood than I, expressed – on limited occasions – certain vigorously anti-Semitic sentiments in my youthful presence.  He’d talk about bankers and capitalism from his point of view as a committed lifelong socialist, for example – in the same breath as worldwide conspiracy.  Even at that age, I remember the incoherence and wondered why it was happening.

So those who support Israel do have history on their side, when they ask why Israel is dominating the news and not (for example) Syria.  And this is where I come to the title and subject of my post.  Comment is no longer free – for the following reasons:

  1. Modern history is too complex to be commented on properly – except by those who have lived it, or those who belong to communities whose elders have lived it.
  2. Modern history is too unhappy to be understood properly – except by those who stand aside and look on from afar, and find themselves de-legitimised precisely because of their distance.
  3. Modern technology makes it very easy to pass judgement – it becomes incredibly simple to be incredibly facile.  I’m trying not to tonight in this post – and I know I’m going to fail.
  4. Modern technology lends itself to manipulation on all sides – I am sure I will say a lot less today about Israel, Palestine, Syria or Russia than I would like to, and exactly because I’m aware of forces beyond my ken which might decide to interfere with my voice.  Yes.  I’m a coward.
  5. That we believe comment is free, that everyone can pass judgement on almost anything, means that we join a myriad of causes – sometimes out of a common and understandable desire to prove to others what we would like to be interpreted as our shared integrity.  In some cases, certainly in mine, we collect causes like badges – in the end, forgetting completely that a cause can only really be truly fought by those who find themselves at their absolute wits’ end: in desperate need of salvation, it is true – but a salvation which can only properly come through their own hands and tools.

For I remember Iraq – blogging furiously against its confusion.  I remember more recently the #bedroomtax; the cruelty the British disabled were exposed to; the scapegoating of the poor for the grave errors of powerful elites.  And from both these moments I remember the conclusion I had to come to: the solution is not for me to take on your cause but rather, far more fundamentally and humanely, and where not humanely at least cogently, to ensure that you have an even chance to fight your own battles where you must.

“Level killing-fields is that?” I hear you ask.  “Maybe so,” I answer wearily.  Maybe we’ve progressed no further than the Balkans.  Maybe we are condemned to repeat ourselves.

But in the end, it is the act of tragic elites everywhere to believe we can intervene with a right and freedom to comment from on high.

Give people the tools to defend themselves – or take away the tools their opponents use to attack them.  But stop, right now, using broken bits of babies to further your socially-networked causes, any of your causes – any bloody where in this repetitively nasty world.

____________________

Update to this post, 25/07/2014: I’ve just read this article from Open Democracy on the background to Israel’s point of view.  It makes for interesting reading – where not contextualising reading.  The crimes being committed are serious, of course – but there is always another position.

And history too.


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Jul 232014
 
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Two bloody awful pieces of rubbish which came my way today.

Rubbish not because they themselves are rubbish.  Rubbish because they just had to be made.

The first is this brilliant website from Open Rights Group.  The video they crowdfunded is below.


http://youtu.be/60eKauWFFPk

It explains quite clearly the idiocy of British government Internet filter policy.

Meanwhile, from the current Kafkaesque world of UK control-freakery we find ourselves off to the US world of Original Sin 2.0.  In such a paranoid environment as the Intercept article portrays, you’re not only dangerous at the age of two but also way after death overtakes you.  And as it becomes for such terrified security professionals so easy to contemplate real-life terrorists assuming the identities of those now dead – those now dead but previously suspected of thought crime when still alive – anyone who ends up shuffling off their mortal coil in these paradigms will remain a potentially violent citizen forever.

And on his tombstone, may RIPP mean “Revolve In Pain and Perpetuity”.

The grand virtue (or disgrace, depending on your point of view) of the Intercept article is to publish the guidelines which determine whether you’re going to be on the list or not.  But since they’re so opaque, self-serving, anti-legible and – ultimately – downright inexplicable, I don’t suppose many of us will be much the wiser.  Except inasmuch as it does become jolly clear from the tenor of the reporting that few people will find it inconceivable they won’t be on the list one fine day.

Actually, I’m not sure if that last sentence means what I meant to say – it comes of reading too much 21st century bollocks.  No matter.  What I would now like to ask of the Intercept and its really cool team is whether it mightn’t petition the US government to start drawing up a list of people who aren’t potential terrorists.  That would be much easier to structure, implement and work with – and presumably wouldn’t require so much funding.  And, for sure, would allow the rest of us to forget the need to oversee the legality of what they’re doing with us.

After all, when the aforementioned concept of inescapable and automatic guilt becomes the state’s modus operandi, who needs anyone to administer the idea that we’re innocent until anything is proven?

Let’s, then, make that two things, the Intercept: first, encourage the American security sector to operate not with a list where to be a human being is, by default, to be dangerous (they’re already doing that) but, rather, to have just a simple couple of pages of those you can trust – citizens you can concentrate your time and energies upholding the Constitution for; and second, over the next couple of weeks (or months, if you prefer), publish some interesting stories about “regular” people – those ordinary souls who are deemed dangerous at two and forever risky after death; souls whose lives have been interfered with, intervened in and generally wrecked as a result of the unacceptably unreasonable inclusion on such wide-ranging lists as we have read today exist.


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Jul 232014
 
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I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel.  As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by.  This was the tweet in question:

Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …

And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.

And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.[1] It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago.  I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold.  Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.

And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.

However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:

@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited).  And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see).  In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be.  Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.

Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing.  Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward.  The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated.  As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told.  The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.

It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.

The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to.  Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.

For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:

By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.


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Jul 222014
 
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A couple of articles I’ve read this morning.  The first, from Labour List, documents how Labour has achieved magnificent unity at the weekend – coinciding, coincidentally, with my decision to leave the Party after ten years’ membership as a result of the cack-handed and antidemocratic #DRIP process (more here).  (At least I can draw the conclusion that I’ve finally done something right in my political trajectory – the Party must be well-pleased with my disappearance!)  The Labour List post says things like this:

It is completely without precedent in the history of the party. You can write a history of Labour that is all about its internal squabbles. Morrison vs Bevin. Bevan vs Gaitskell. Castle vs Callaghan. Benn vs Healey. Kinnock vs Militant. Blair vs Brown. There is no Ed Miliband vs anyone narrative. The only people he is vs are the Tories.

Credit also needs to go to the people who could have started a fight. Whether trade unions angry about party reform, Blairites hankering for the lost leader over the water, or party lefties nostalgic for a rerun of the 1980s, they all deserve praise for resisting the urge to have a scrap.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Labour in 2010 was in a very weakened, fragile condition. A bout of infighting and recrimination such as we saw every previous time we lost office, in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 might have killed us off as a potential government for a generation, or for ever.

To conclude as follows:

Ed Miliband has shown incredible political skill in leading a united party into an election year at the same time as assembling a battery of appealing and radical policies. If he shows this degree of skill in uniting the country he will make a very great Prime Minister.

(The sort of stuff, incidentally, I was saying myself quite a while ago.)

Then we get quite another sort of post which defines Tony Blair’s achievements in the context of moon-landing deniers:

That’s not, of course, to say that Blair did not wrong and that is every decision was faultless. Certainly there were problems, at home as well as abroad, although different people from different political traditions will disagree as to what those were. But it seems to me that to focus on Mr Blair’s mistakes is to be like those cranks from Nowhere, Alabama, desperately pointing at Neil Armstrong and looking for signs of studio lights.

And, of course.  Yes.  Blair did indeed pick up Thatcher’s spilt milk – putting roofs back on schools etc – and of that, there is no doubt; but by so doing also stored up disasters for our present.  And I don’t just mean via his mistakes.  I also mean via his outright successes: for in order to counter the cruel neoliberalism of Thatcher – read more of the above for an excellently measured summary of the latter – Blair committed the foolish expediency of PFI and other short cuts to future prosperity.  The short cuts were necessary, desperate measures; the country, after Thatcher, was falling apart physically (and now, it seems, morally too).  But whilst Thatcher’s achievements were, in retrospect, clearly minimal – and Blair’s achievements were clearly, in retrospect, a counterweight the whole country needed – the aforementioned good also contained the seeds of the bad.

It wasn’t just the decisions on Iraq that brought conflict to our country.  It was also the decisions on matters such as tuition fees – seen by some as rank social engineering and by others as a necessary financial tool to lever access to higher education – which now, even on their own neoliberal terms, have clearly begun to fall apart at the seams.

And so I would suspect that here history is repeating itself, as it so often must.  Unity forged of the tribal – characteristic of Blair whilst he held the reins charismatically over the Party – and manifested quite differently with the Ed Miliband of the Labour List commentary; manifested differently but manifested all the same.

It may lead to a competent election result (though without wishing to be an aguafiestas, I’m not sure – even now – that this will happen as much as one might hope) but what is clear, at least to me, is that the very tribalism that political parties – of any political denomination – need to generate in order to have half a chance of getting into power is precisely that moment, time and place where the seeds of their our downfall are created.

If only our body politic were able to function on the basis of healthy disagreement, debate and well-fleshed consensus.  It’s not even as if it operates on agreement either.  Instead, when it happens, it’s a question of people like myself leaving the party in question – at the same time as people like those depicted in the two articles I’ve linked to today end up demonstrating a greater faith, fewer compunctions or negligible principles with respect to our no-longer-terribly-prized democratic process.

People who ultimately find themselves learning how to shut up for the short-term benefit of the tribe.

That the political left can only be acting as cheerleaders for internal Labour Party unity, less than a week after Parliament behaved disgracefully with the agreement, collusion and collaboration (in the World War II sense of the word, that is) of the man they are now saying will become an excellent Prime Minister … well, it bodes little positive, when his time comes, for his command of and fidelity to parliamentary process.

The elite is in charge, unity is the calling-card – and it’s time for the faithful, who often happily criticise the otherwise religious, to blindly believe in their broad church once again.


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Jul 182014
 
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Imagine the script, if you will.

“Diktat 2015″

Part II – 2014

Scene I – February – #caredata

The British government claims to have had a very bright idea: release all NHS patient medical records in England for use by the life-science industry to improve patient outcomes and research opportunities.  The system will involve an automatic opt-in – only if a patient wishes to opt out will any paperwork need filling in.

Unfortunately, it then transpires that data has already been wildly made available – and what’s more, tons of other interested parties have had/are having/will have access to such juicy datasets.

The reaction, ultimately, from the confused population is so strong that the plans are put on hold for a few months – which isn’t to say, of course, that institutions and companies various won’t continue to dig around your medical records.

Scene II – July – #DRIP

It takes the British body politic only three days to pass wide-ranging legislation which allows the state to keep a record (no one knows if rolling or not) of up to twelve months of voters’ private communications, web interactions and other assorted digital records.

That people may be unhappy to have this legislation passed without even a vote in the House of Lords really doesn’t seem to worry the legislators an iota.  The state (and the aforementioned wider body politic, of course) has clearly learnt from the #caredata imbroglio – when in doubt about your ability to persuade the voters and bring them round to accepting a ridiculous undermining of their human rights, just ignore them.

Part III – 2015

Scene I – May – #GE2015

Unable to see the difference between any of the main political parties, insignificant and unimportant voters like myself began some months before to shear off from their traditional allegiances.

This only benefits the Tories, who proceed to win the 2015 general election outright.  Recriminations are multiple on the left of the political spectrum – in truth, the fact is that in what used to be the humane, open-minded and liberal part of our previously shared civilisation we now have general agreement amongst the political parties that process is secondary to expediency.

What’s more, there is also broad acceptance in the political classes that an elitist perception of what people need hits the issues far more accurately on the head than consultation, dialogue and representation ever can.  As we begin to realise that this is what our representatives think, we the voters realise and conclude that there really is no bloody point any more.

Scene II – October – #NewEnglandOldTories

Events not entirely under Cameron’s control lead England to end up giving in to the Scottish Declaration of Independence.  This looks like a defeat, but defeats are unpredictable beasts.  In truth, the Tories now have total freedom to remake England in their image.  The #caredata project is resurrected – perhaps resuscitated would be more accurate – and so it is that no NHS England patient will be given the right to opt out of the scheme unless, that is, they choose to opt out of public sector medicine altogether.  The plan to fully monetise patient data is extended to allow access by any company or organisation which can demonstrate it is a duly registered data controller and user with a financial interest in any of our (ie the voters’) behaviours which might be affected by any medical conditions we have.  These parties include insurance companies, potential employers and local councils.

The #DRIP project will also be revised: the data collected will not now be limited to the last twelve months, but, far more importantly, will be similarly monetised to improve the voter experience.  The details around who will be able to purchase the information are unclear in the month the legislation will become law, but in the totally unexpected and entirely unrelated announcement of a merger between Google and Facebook (dependent, of course, on the relevant tax breaks and other bespoke emollients) there is a footnote to the documentation which indicates they have been in talks with Number 10 for quite some months now.  (It’s even been suggested that the two companies are preparing to install massive server farms on prime greenbelt land around Chipping Norton, fuelled via the fracking of land under a number of local homesteads – land which, incidentally, is currently used to hide potentially embarrassing copies of hundreds of thousands of ministerial SMS texts and unofficial emails of many fascinatingly compromising kinds.)

Scene III – November – #EOP #sofaengland

As government now operates without due consultation or scrutiny, five years of Parliament are finished off in a month.  The #EOP (or, more laboriously, #EndOfParliament) hashtag does the rounds, as it must – but this safety valve was only to be expected.

So it is that the Prime Minister, MPs, support staff and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition suddenly run out of things to even apparently do.  In order to justify their salaries for the next four years and seven months – and out of a residual sense of twisted responsibility, I suppose – they collectively decide to retire to the countryside and spend their days hunting foxes, shooting pigeons, evicting the disabled, cleaning moats, building duck islands, flipping mortgages, gassing badgers and closing down any food banks which have the temerity to set up stall in their constituencies.

In the meantime, the state runs itself very nicely, thank you.  Some weird people protest; get blackmailed into silence, probably via carelessly administered #caredata and #DRIP intel; ultimately accept their lot; and, quite understandably, find themselves dying in front of their goggle boxes Google boxes when their time ineludibly comes.


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Jul 062014
 
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This story – an old one, mind – came my way via Dan Gillmor on Twitter just now:

“As noted previously, Max Schrems of Europe Versus Facebook has filed numerous complaints about Facebook’s data collection practices. One complaint that has failed to draw much scrutiny regards Facebook’s creation of Shadow Profiles. ‘This is done by different functions that encourage users to hand personal data of other users and non-users to Facebook… (e.g. synchronizing mobile phones, importing personal data from e-mail providers, importing personal information from instant messaging services, sending invitations to friends or saving search queries when users search for other people on facebook.com). This means that even if you don’t use it, you may already have a profile on Facebook.’”

There’s a short .pdf you really should take a look at on the matter, which can be found here.  They’re called “shadow profiles” in the legal submission and above, but if truth be told they could also be described – in a way which whisks me back to beloved Star Trek days – as the anti-matter on which Facebook’s expansion is built.  Dark pools of knowledge about those people you don’t yet know too much about, but which will allow you to sustain the indefinite growth you need in order to keep a business model based on the pyramid of advertising from collapsing in on itself.

Or something like that, anyhow.

To kind of paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous assertion, it’s just as important to know as much as possible about what you don’t know as it is to know exactly what you do.

And the problem for the rest of us, as Facebook marches on, is that its manifest lack of either thick or thin legitimacy means potential competitors of a more scrupulous nature end up having to throw in the towel of better behaviours.  Where Facebook treads, everyone else finds themselves having to do so too.

In 1914, a very physical trench warfare became the norm.

A hundred years later, it’s moved online.  In 2014, the nearest thing to trench warfare we have is now raging between Facebook on the one hand and those companies who might respect our data a little more than is currently the case on the other.  Instead of bullets and shells and mustard gas and barbed wire, we have servers and IP addresses and the antisocial-matter that these “shadow profiles” from 2011 constitute.  But just as in 1914, ordinary people continue to be the cannon fodder of such warfare; and their lives, their privacies, their friends, relatives and acquaintances … well, as always, the bread and butter of those who benefit from such conflict.

It’s amazing that people can find out such stuff in 2011, and yet – fast-forwarding to today – for nothing to have changed.  And it’s not necessarily a step backwards in everything it might be either.  To replace the warfare of blood and guts with the warfare of bits and bytes may, in many ways, truly equal progress – even as it still involves the flesh-and-blood aspirations of people around their futures.

What worries me, all the same, is the lack of ambition it demonstrates: with all its massed resources and virtual tools, is this really the best model of civilisation Facebook can deliver?


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Jul 022014
 
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The Guardian reports this morning that:

Facebook is being investigated to assess whether an experiment in which it manipulated users’ news feeds to study the effect it had on moods might have broken data protection laws, it has been reported.

The Information Commissioner’s Office is said to be looking into the experiment carried out by the social network and two US universities in which almost 700,000 users had their news feeds secretly altered to study the impact of “emotional contagion”.

Meanwhile, the original Cornell press release which let on to the experiment has also been altered.  Where it originally asserted the Army had co-funded the adventure, it now says (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. In fact, the study received no external funding.

Perhaps, in the event, it would be churlish of us to complain.  As Paul has ironically pointed out, the T&Cs we signed up to on becoming Facebook users (more and more the 21st century equivalent of passing over to the dark side of a club membership you can never leave once entered) are pretty broad-ranging and may allow for such abuse.

Even so, the situation is sufficiently serious for institutions like Cornell to follow up with these kind of assertions (the bold is mine):

ITHACA, N.Y. – Cornell University Professor of Communication and Information Science Jeffrey Hancock and Jamie Guillory, a Cornell doctoral student at the time (now at University of California San Francisco) analyzed results from previously conducted research by Facebook into emotional contagion among its users. Professor Hancock and Dr. Guillory did not participate in data collection and did not have access to user data. Their work was limited to initial discussions, analyzing the research results and working with colleagues from Facebook to prepare the peer-reviewed paper “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks,” published online June 2 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science-Social Science.

Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

So, then, it’s OK to use research that has been obtained without permission from any source whatsoever, as long as one cannot identify the victims unwilling participants social network users in question – creatures, incidentally, who occupy the lowest of all low strata in the 21st century litany of unobserved rights and excessive obligations.

Which doesn’t half me remind me of another constituency out there.  Indeed, it would probably be rather unfair to criticise Facebook for following on from where certain British political representatives have gone before.

Before #FacebookExperiment, surely we have had #CoalitionExperiment – a deliberate process of emotional manipulation of both the most defenceless in society as well as, in the event, the most determined not to see their rights trampled on.

And if the ICO feels that data protection laws may have been broken when Facebook experimented on the way that people reacted to negative and positive stories, without asking their permission first and even though they’d signed up to a wide-ranging set of T&Cs, who is to say this Coalition government didn’t similarly break human rights laws when they decided to experiment on how a nation might react to a barrage of false stories about immigrants “nicking” jobs, the “scrounging” poor, the “feckless” disabled and a well-packaged myriad of other lies, distortions and half-truths?

If Facebook is to be investigated by the ICO, or perhaps even a select committee which feels particularly (and rightly) aggrieved about the situation, who will have the guts to investigate entire governments such as ours?  And given the close ties between the aforementioned social network and the security arms of the latter everywhere, doesn’t it make you wonder whether in fact this story is little more than a softening-up of public opinion as we await ultimate revelations from the Snowden cache of documents?

Is the #FacebookExperiment an isolated example of an always-slightly-maverick social network going out on a limb – or, more likely, does Facebook simply reflect what others, less visible, are now doing all the time?  And does Facebook do what it needs to sustain a business model – or is it more a question of doing the bidding of those who most need to structure people’s feelings in times of unrelenting crisis?

That is to say, our unrepresentative, undemocratic, inefficient and incompetent political leaders various … excellent reasons all, in the light of the above, to investigate much more profoundly how our body politic is doing a Facebook.


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Jun 272014
 
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I read this on Facebook today, attributed (I assume, from what prefaced it) to Karl Marx:

It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only “petty” interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking.

Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion.

However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one’s own head, and hence these clever people’s knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.

After my post yesterday on the subject of systems versus people, I wonder if the above doesn’t top and tail me as the very reactionary I have cleverly tried to avoid being all these years.  In this post, I said the following:

[...] I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I also added that:

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

As you can see, I look at this whole issue from the perspective of a life-long language trainer and teacher.  I have always felt that given the opportunity and confidence, people tend to do good over bad.  And where they do bad, they have not been given the opportunity and confidence.  Does this then lead me to reactionary conclusions?  I dunno really.

Meanwhile, over at Rick’s blog today we get this:

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. Whether or not senior managers know about the detail, they are the ones who set the tone for the organisation. Employees rarely deviate far from this. If they do, they don’t last long. OK, some may be a little over-enthusiastic and cross a line but it’s usually within a framework of what is generally regarded as acceptable. The rogue trader fallacy is an attempt to individualise what is almost always a systemic problem. If managers set aggressive targets and tell people to do whatever it takes, they usually have some idea of what ‘whatever it takes’ means, even if they don’t (or choose not to) know exactly who is doing what.

To be honest, with this I agree entirely.  We get the figure of charismatic leadership (more here), for example – surely examples relevant to past, recent and future court processes.

But I wonder if my latterday instincts to interpret events in terms of individual responsibility is altogether as reactionary as the systemic people amongst us might accuse me of.  I don’t disagree with the idea that systems affect behaviours: I am a teacher, after all, and facilitating safe and productive learning environments and frames prior to the start of any learning process is always key to any final success.

I do also wonder, however, if we aren’t as a species simpler in the round than we think.  There’s a tipping-point in life, love and war which encourages us to hold out until the last moment – but no longer that.  If we see something is about to go belly-up, it is a reasonably common instinct to try and save one’s reputation, worth, income and wealth.  Perhaps, then, when I find myself now wanting to blame individuals for the corrupting tendencies of systems – whether political, medical or food-related – I am really saying: “Don’t blame these systems, blame something else!”

Politics isn’t to blame; the banking sector isn’t to blame; even Nestlé isn’t to blame.  But that’s not to say, either, that individuals are as to blame as I original posited – nor in exactly the way I blithely suggested.  No.  What’s really to blame is yet another system out there – much bigger and much more lowest-common denominating than all these more apparent and visibly human-made ones.

What may that be?  People sometimes adduce human nature, but to say this reduces our thoughts to immediate adherence or rejection of the concept.  So for me human nature doesn’t cut it.

Maybe more it has to do with the fear that drives that tipping-point I mentioned earlier.  And in a world where fear could be completely eliminated, wouldn’t it be so much easier for the planet – and ourselves – to be systemically “better”-behaved than is currently the case?

Whilst we would all behave better for acceptably systemic reasons, we would simultaneously be behaving better at micro-levels of personal responsibility too.  Striking that balance is surely where the future lies: not somewhere halfway between the systemic and the individual but rather – in a far more complex and as yet unexplored way – simultaneously systemic and individual.


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Jun 262014
 
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Today, I saw a person on the TV show “Good Morning Britain”, a person who if I understood correctly represented Wonga.com in some significant way, saying sorry for a series of (to put it politely) historical “infractions”, most of which which appeared to border on the significantly fraudulent:

Payday lender Wonga must pay £2.6m in compensation after sending letters from non-existent law firms to customers in arrears.

The letters threatened legal action, but the law firms were false. In some cases Wonga added fees for these letters to customers’ accounts.

If I continue to remember rightly, the person who spoke on the tele this morning, when asked about who exactly was responsible for the misdeeds clearly committed, said something along the lines of: “We’re not here today to talk about individuals.”

I’m puzzled by this response.  When I worked for a large 70,000-people financial services corporation, it was impressed upon us – both in our daily job and periodically through continuous training – that what we saw, thought and imagined had utmost significance for the continued probity of the wider company.  Within what you might term the broader systemic behaviours, our own individual perceptions and consequential actions were legally enshrined, inscribed and potentially punishable.

Mind you, perhaps – already out there – there is an unspoken universal law which governs and defines how this focus on individual responsibility decreases exponentially, the greater one’s level of executive power.*  It certainly would seem that way; it would explain a lot of what’s happening right now too.

With my own personal interest in political structures to the fore, and even as this is amateur, ineffectual and irrelevant to current practice (my network of influence being absolutely zero, of course), I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I don’t know about you but I find myself reaching a point of utter inaction on so many different fronts.  Even in my day-to-day life; even as I got to the supermarket for the weekly shop.  So it is I can neither buy from the Primarks nor the John Lewis of the world; I can neither happily fund charitable drug research nor happily buy multinational cereals.

And as the TechDirt piece linked to above quotes, from the mouth of a person of perhaps quite different times:

[...] Here’s what George Merck, who became president of his father’s eponymous chemical manufacturing company in 1929, said on the subject, as quoted on the Today in Science History site: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

We could substitute the word “medicine” with the word “politics” or the term “financial services” – and the impact, effect and consequences would be pretty much the same surely.  The truth and sense of integrity, too.

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

So let’s look in quite a different direction.  Focus, instead, on fashioning for the people the environments which serve to generate the confidence we all need – the confidence we all need to speak up in good faith about what resides in our hearts and souls.

To participate; to act constructively; to communicate, collaborate and talk with each other.

About what we all really need and deserve.  Freedom from fear.

Ultimately, freedom of expression.

____________________

* Maybe we should call it the Stepping-Stone Law, after those who wade in the bubbling brooks of tendentious activity – brooks which finally lead down to the rivers and estuaries of ultimate control and knowledge.  (But then again, maybe not …)


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Jun 212014
 
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I’m a little puzzled; have been for a while.  Why is austerity so good at keeping a sharing culture at bay?

One thing’s for certain – we all love sharing.  And even where we don’t love it, we’ve simply had to get used to it.  Whether it’s biometric passports or fingerprinted schoolchildren or monetised NHS patients … it’s all kicking off.

So sharing has become the default mode in the 21st century.  You’d expect, then, it’d be far easier for those political parties and movements in favour of a post-austerity world to gain traction for their ideas.  But it doesn’t seem to be.  Why is that?  One reason may be the chilling effect of a continually adjusting and self-applied censorship, as described in the Democratic Audit UK article linked to above:

Surveillance can create an environment which teaches young people to self-regulate constantly, instead of having freedom of expression or the space to test out new ideas and opinions. It’s eroding the freedom to get things wrong as well, that it’s OK to make mistakes, that you can be a child, that you can mess about and have jokes and all these types of things. The disciplinary power within these surveillance technologies is so strong. Are we really allowing the kids the space just to be kids?

But if it were just the kids, we’d be talking about a future some years down the line.  What’s astonishing about the last six years – since the banking crises and scandals which gathered speed and impact from 2008 onwards – is that whilst the Occupy and Los Indignados movements have made a very particular noise, and have certainly brought together like-minded souls in common protest, mainstream politics – that which occupies our TVs, radios and newspapers, and which speaks, even now, to the vast majority of UK citizens – has circumvented our otherwise profound and developing instincts to compart ideas, resources and voices.  It’s almost as if democracy’s basic instincts have slewed off into the online corporatised software which marshals our occurrences these days, and in so participating, we care very little about applying the same lessons, instincts or behaviours to a real democratic experience.

This sharing culture is pervasive for a wider societal and narrower one-to-one discourse, it’s true – but not all that available for political communication and policymaking.  And most attempts to shoehorn enabling and facilitating impulses into and onto the current structures of our body politic sound mainly, and largely, laughable.

So then.  If most of our day is spent sharing stuff so freely with our friends, families and strangers we may shortly meet out there, why aren’t we doing the same with our economic policy?  Why isn’t sharing becoming a fundamental part of that economy?  How has economic policy managed so successfully to keep that sharingness at a distance?

A clever conspiracy?

Maybe.

A flocking and coinciding self-interest on many interested sides?

Certainly.

The question I ask is, essentially, whether this must continue to be inevitable.  Must sharing continue to be kept at bay in our economic structures?  After all, Cameron’s Big Idea, right at the beginning, was the piebald Big Society.  This may or may not have been a ruse – I no longer know very clearly how to tell.  It fell by the wayside, that’s for sure.  It had to, of course – after several attempts at resurrection, Cameron failed to flesh it out convincingly on any occasion.

Which brings me back to conspiracy.  Maybe the Big Society didn’t fail because we, the people, didn’t warm to it.  Maybe the Big Society failed because people far more powerful and in the know than ourselves just didn’t like the implications or consequences of truly implementing its potential philosophies.  Where would the TTIP be now, for example, in an economy where the sharing and supportive behaviours which the Big Society seemed to promise finally ended up firmly being put in place and practised?  Imagine a groundswell of public opinion, led over the last four years by leaders like Cameron and Miliband both, where the sharing cultures and instincts of Facebook, Twitter et al infiltrated the very essence and fundamentals of economic infrastructures and institutions.

Yes.

Seen in this way, we lost a lot when we lost the alternative of the Big Society – far far more than we ever imagined.  We lost the freedom and option of transmuting selfish capitalism into something quite different, quite challenging and quite disruptive.  Disruptive in a positive way I would argue, but disruptive all the same.

Conspiracy, then?  Conspiracy is for potheads, surely.  Well.  Maybe so.  But in a post-Snowden world, perhaps we all have a right to think and act like potheads.

Certainly it’s some considerable and communal madness that in a world where ninety percent of most people’s free time is spent on sharing the minutiae of every waking moment, what really runs society should be evermore tight-fisted, closed off, ring-fenced and anti-democratic.


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Jun 212014
 
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The issue I’ve always had with Ed Miliband can be summarised thus: we don’t want the traditional CEO badly pyramidal type of top-down politicians as leaders, because that sort of leadership is based on the medieval dynamics which have served to destroy ordinary people’s economies over the past six years.  From transnational banking institutions which didn’t know – or didn’t bother to care – about the fate of billions of small people’s wealth to large corporate employers which regroup in times of such crisis, throwing millions of innocent workers out of the roles their lives, families and future hopes so desperately depend on, the kind of structures we’re using in business right now are clearly not the model an enabling body politic needs any more.

We need other ways; more imaginative ways; more carefully-wrought and considered ways.

Ed Miliband always seemed to promise these ways – though it may be, in an ultimate analysis, that he simply allowed some of us to project on him our hopes and clever wonkinesses, without ever actually promising anything.  As I said in my “Psycho” piece from 2011, linked to at the top of this post (the bold is mine today):

Now I’m not saying Ed Miliband has succeeded where Hitchcock did decades before: transgression is not quite where most British politicians are to be found these days.  But I do think, in an analogous way, that – in his recent speech at Party Conference – Ed Miliband was at least attempting to break certain moulds in quite a courageous manner.  The very fact that many people felt obliged to criticise his delivery – and not see his register as conversational rather than traditionally declamatory – does make me wonder if this poor man doesn’t have the hardest job in politics: to sell grassroots collaboration to a political party wary of, and thus resistant to, all such similar promises.

A political party which claims to be the very essence of grassroots politics – and then consistently finds itself in search of yet another charismatic group of fixers.

Which brings us precisely to the real issue we should have with Ed Miliband’s leadership – or perceived lack of at the moment.  It’s not simply a question of whether he can out-CEO the Camerons, Blairs and historically charismatic leaders various that Western politics has preferred to occasionally throw our way.  In fact, if we’re really wanting to be on the ball, that is precisely the dynamic we should not be asking Miliband to deliver.  No.  We need to ask something quite different of Miliband: he needs to finally show us he can choose to throw of the mantle of a probable personal insecurity; an insecurity which rears its ugly head when traditional media and political orgs – using heavily hierarchical command and control structures themselves – demand that in Labour and for the country he does exactly the same: that he follows their model and practice to the letter.

So this is it Ed: you have to decide.  You have to decide if you want – or do not want – to be a Victorian father of awful strictness and distance to what could otherwise be our multifarious nation: a Gove-clone; a Cameron-copy; an Osborne out-doer; an IDS instigator … in effect, an authoritarian decider of terrible throwback.

And, in truth, what you really have to accept is even if you wanted the above, you’d never be able to deliver.

Given this is the case, accept your destiny, instead, as enabler and facilitator of our nations – and work to convince the voters that this, precisely this, is where you will be able to add the very most value.  Where, indeed, in a 21st century environment, most value needs to be added.

Don’t suddenly, now, in the time we have left till the next election, try to out-CEO the authoritarians.  It just won’t work.  It won’t work because we won’t believe you have it in you – and this is partly because you don’t.  But it also won’t work because it hasn’t worked in the wider economic landscape either, and evidence of that we all have more than enough.

Your time has come – if only you realised it.

Not us.

You.

Time to define – and by so doing, accept you need to take onboard the very real risk of losing everything you treasure right now.

For that, in the end, is the only possible way to enable the victory of almost everyone.

British politics has been run for far too long as a highly hierarchical national outfit.  You, Labour and the rest of us out here have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change all of that.

So don’t follow the past.  Wreak the future!  (In the kindest possible way, of course …)


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Jun 112014
 
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I’m a member of the Open Rights Group (the British EFF), as well as sympathising with very many of the things ORG stands for: digital transparency; freedom of expression; the right to use the Internet and the worldwide web in as untrammelled and egalitarian way as possible.  Given that this is the case, I’m probably about to commit dreadful heresy with these thoughts I’m setting down tonight on the potential for a trade-off between privacy and security.

Working as I do via the web in a number of fields, I’m a fairly competent user of these pipes as useful channels of communication – even as I’m equally clearly never going to be their all-knowing plumber.  So I’m competent to the extent that whenever a computer stops doing what it should in the extended family, it falls to me to spend half an hour on the phone to some hapless relative or other.  (There are others in my family far more knowledgeable than me, mind, but as they live quite a lot further than the most hapless ones, it’s always me who is going to get the grief.)

And as a fairly competent user, I’ve begun to observe a curious pattern.  You know all those stories recently about criminal bots being broken up by the Microsofts and FBIs of this world?  You know the ones I mean: networks of connected computers, connected quite unbeknownst to owners like you and me (or maybe, just maybe, that is you and me), rapidly and precisely being decriminalised by clever forces beyond our ken for our greater security and safety.

But exactly how does this work?  To continue with the water analogy: if your computer becomes part of one of these bots, it’s like a pipe bursting in your house.  The plumber comes along and repairs the leak; you pay once the job’s been done satisfactorily; the wall and damaged goods dry out; and life goes on as before.

Except this is where decriminalising criminal bots and repairing leaks via a plumber part savage company, as analogous situations I mean.  In the latter case, we participate in the discourse; we see the leak, call the plumber, open the front door to them; watch over the repair; and finally negotiate the price.  In the former, meanwhile, someone quite beyond us sees a burst pipe we are probably never going to properly perceive; calls up a solution without our manifest knowledge; opens the virtual door to our IT infrastructure without our permission; and puts our temporarily insecure infrastructure back on track.

That, surely, is what is happening every day of the week.  Perhaps, then, a better analogy than plumbing would be a road infrastructure: you get a pothole or a broken traffic light or permanently persistent traffic jams, your taxes are used automatically to provide short- or long-term solutions with very little direct recourse to a dialogue with the taxpayer in question.  And up to now, we’ve been quite happy with the arrangement.  The question has to be why it doesn’t seem to be pleasing us at all in relation to the Internet and the worldwide web.  Why, for example, do we accept the trade-off between privacy and security when it comes to the use and policing of our roads but not when it comes to the use of our virtual equivalents?

The first thought, of course, is that perhaps the trade-off isn’t real or worth it; doesn’t add the value which they claim to be delivering.  Dangerous roads, everyone can see the evidence.  And safety measures, policed highways, drunk-drive legislation – well, they’re all comprehensible.  Dangerous Internet and web, no one’s really ever sure of the wherefores at all.   And in fact, for the vast majority of basically competent users like ourselves (unlike our road-driving equivalents), how can we possibly know if the threats are actually sourced in our friendly technology partner, our elected representatives and their inability to conduct appropriately democratic oversight or, indeed, crime-creating transnational beasties whose visages – whether real or imagined – we’ll never get to correctly appreciate?

The second thought is that maybe we are fairly illogically – fairly irrationally – but utterly understandably furious because democracy and its treasured discourses have been completely circumvented for the last handful of decades; maybe since time immemorial even (not the subject of today’s post, mind).

So really, what I’m moving heretically towards suggesting is that whilst we have every right to be fairly illogical in the middle of a powerful anger at this precise moment, the solution (allegedly) being arrived at behind our backs – a policed and secure virtual highway, analogous to those we commute on every day of the physical world’s working week – is not a particularly unusual infrastructure; certainly not something we should find impossible to take onboard as an organisational – even societal-friendly – concept.

A final thought, then, before I finish today’s post: perhaps what really rankles in all of this is that corporations like Microsoft, private industries we’ve paid cash to in a consumer transaction with a contractual relationship which supposedly should guarantee certain mercantile givens, are getting mixed up and confused with government institutions such as crime-detection agencies.  In a sense, we’re now paying double for the plumber (or, more exactly, the road worker): once, through our apparently increasingly inefficient tax system; twice, through our office suite software, operating system licences and evermore blood-soaked hardware.

A plumber (or road worker), that is, who has the keys to our living-rooms and business environments, and who enters and leaves fairly invisibly at the flick of a switch.

So should we be grateful?  If that’s what they’re doing, and they’re doing it to recover the precious shape and form of what was once a relatively liberal offline marketplace of goods and services, maybe the answer we should offer up – even after the revelations of the past eighteen months – is a tentative “yes”.  On the other hand, as the relatively competent user I probably am (even as I’m nothing more than that), it does occur to me, as I’m sure it must occur to you, that top-heavy behaviours such as those exhibited by our leading institutions and companies can lead to considerable abuse.  The temptation to use that ability to unlock all those living-rooms and businesses in order to gain rank commercial advantage, for example, must be pretty huge.

It comes down to the old old question: who to trust?  And because faith isn’t a very 21st century instinct (how, any more, could it possibly be?), the answer to this question must depend on greater knowledge possessed by the ordinary like ourselves.  Yet I really don’t want to have to become a fully-trained mechanic in order to be able to buy a car which will work.  Why, then, should I have to become a tech-oriented bod, at ease under the hood of all these dreadfully sexy and simultaneously incomprehensible concepts – just so I, in that simple user-mode already mentioned, can feel comfortable on this often glorious and entrancing web?

I dunno.  I really don’t.  I don’t want to abandon my prior subscription to freedoms various.  But I do want to use the web’s many ways without feeling I’m always a link away from particular and painful disaster.  And if modern government in this virtual world should be able to guarantee anything these days, surely it’s not too much to expect it to guarantee our sense of security whenever we would like to read, write and communicate multifariously – or simply, flatly, necessarily … just earn a living.

Even, as often happens in these analogous ways I’ve discussed and we all understand, at the expense of some of the most intimate of privacies.


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Jun 082014
 
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In our experience, that’s second-hand car salesmen – but my instinct to be even-handed leads me to generalise.  Oh, and they’re no longer called “second-hand cars” – to you, me and the cat’s mother parent, the correct terminology is now more often than not “used cars”.  (Not to forget the fact that the third option, “approved used cars”, is what they advertise to you – but not what they generally put on their websites …)

Our twelve-year-old Kia Carens was slowly giving up the ghost.  We’d been mightily pleased with how it had put up with the general scruffiness of our family in its not entirely generous approach to the physical integrity of a gentle possession like a car.  A mere one or two problems in that 214,000 km journey led us to truly appreciate the reliability of its manufacture.  But after that 214,000 km, we also found the idea of travelling across Europe just one more time quite resistible and, in reality, not to be ventured.  So came the time to purchase a new second-hand (approved used) used car.

We spent about two months chasing down either a Citroën C4 Grand Picasso or a Kia Sportage, both to be around four years old.  We saw two Citroëns we liked the look of; neither started when we visited the dealers in question.  And we didn’t turn up unannounced on either of the occasions.  Quite the opposite.  We also found a fantastically well-priced low mileage Sportage; arranging midweek to turn up on the Saturday, only to receive on the Saturday morning an hour or so before leaving an apologetic phonecall from a nameless salesman salesperson saying the vehicle had been snatched from under our eager disposition through the competing activities of a salesman salesperson colleague, only the night before.

A week or so after that experience doused our initial excitement we came across a couple of slightly more expensive Sportages.  So it was we decided to try again; this time with a completely new dealer.  Curiously, some of the previous experiences were to repeat themselves: firstly, salesmen salespeople know everything about a car from a technical point of view when they’re looking to sell you its virtues, except when you ask them to clarify something negative you’ve read.  Then they revert to saying they’d have to consult the mechanics on this, that or the other – key and particularly knowledgeable individuals who coincidentally never seem to work at the weekends, and so fortunately unfortunately cannot be immediately consulted when most car sales are likely to be lost clinched.

Secondly, the car we’d agreed the day before to test drive wasn’t available to see on the Saturday we turned up.  This, even though the salesman salesperson had had our contact details from the start, and could’ve quite easily advised us of the issue before we drove an hour down the various motorways that connected us.

I won’t go into the details of what happened next; you probably wouldn’t believe me if I did.  In the end, however, we did purchase the car, and in the end quite on trust too – trusting the salesman salesperson implicitly, and perhaps rather foolishly.  Or maybe not.  Who knows?  For it has been running very well so far; looks lovely for the moment; my wife, the main driver, is very happy – she’s taken to its automatic gearbox like a duck to proverbial water; nothing, in fact, to fault at all as far as my unpractised eye can see.

The only slight problem is that when we’ve phoned the sales line for specific information on the vehicle, they really haven’t wanted to take the call.  It may just be a coincidence, or it may be that I should be phoning after-sales (you know how rigid large companies can be, after all).  In truth, even the main customer helpline of the manufacturer itself seems to have little concrete data on the creature.

But perhaps this is more to do with the fact that these salespersons aren’t; that, in general and more broadly, they are in truth salesmen.  And men of such characteristics, whilst necessary for all companies to work, only really ever end up properly respecting one customer: the internal one that is their employer and its financial targets.

It’s sad, and maybe in our case it hasn’t happened.  But when sales could be such a productive and user-focussed link to enable a long-term relationship between vendor and buyer, in reality too often (it’s happened to us in second-hand car sales not only more than once but also in more than one country) they see you as a veritable mug to be veritably taken advantage of; a mug whose money is worth more to them than you; a mug whose money belongs to them the moment you step inside their shiny hunting-grounds salesrooms.

And perhaps that’s the real common factor here.  My wife and I are mugs to be taken advantage of by people whose profession matches others of a much more ancient tradition.  Yes.  Salesmen are this necessary evil which looks to make companies operate; and mugs like ourselves the prey we should all pray for.

Anyhow.  We’re now on the look out for a reliable Kia dealer who’d be interested in servicing our vehicle in about 12,000 miles.

Any takers?  Anywhere?  Or must we return to our good old local VAT-registered garage?


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Mar 142014
 
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For just over seven years, I wrote this blog quite blindly.  I was reactive, puzzled, thrashing about where many (most) had already thrashed.  I sometimes wondered if it was infirmity which drove me on.  But in just over seven years, I was incapable of ever writing down – in a minute or two – the common denominators that drove me in so many of my posts.

Today, on the occasion of Tony Benn’s sad death, Brian Moylan sent my way this video.  In less than two minutes, it encapsulates everything (I now realise) that made me write for seven quite helter-skelter years.  Watch it – and you’ll see exactly what I mean.


http://youtu.be/Xfk0rfbDnXo

No.  I’m not unmothballing this blog quite yet.  I’m writing over at http://error451.me/blog and blinkingti.me quite happily right now – the former with relative interest from my readers, the latter with very little interest for anyone except me.

:-)

But hey-ho, that’s the life on the open seas.

And with that celebration of a life sincerely lived, I burrow my way back into the anonymity from which I have temporarily emerged.


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Oct 192013
 
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There’s a great article out there all about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  Or perhaps we should really say: Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.

In it we learn how the creator of the web’s most iconic tech-driven shop has supposedly prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in the company.  Instead, six-page articles must be written by disconcerted employees to ensure that thought is clearly developed and expounded.

The technology of PowerPoint, so the position goes, being an impediment to usefully coherent narrative.

You can read this article here.  You’ll find it quite an eye-opener.  You’ll find out in a minute why I’ve mentioned it.

Well, hell no.  Let me tell you right now.  If this ever gets to Mr Bezos’ eyes, this is my customer equivalent of that six-page presentation.

For in the meantime, I’ve been fighting off the temptation to get really cross.  With the gentleman’s company in question and with others of a similar bent.  My story ranges from rants against housing trusts, local councils and the aforementioned tech corps to mobile-phone providers, vendors and manufacturers.  I’m not a happy bunny at the moment – and, of course, my anger is my responsibility. So I know that my surviving and coming out the other side of these first world pains is not your job to engineer.  But as a small and insignificant customer of many tech firms in the past and present, one day one or two of you might want to learn.

My latest unhappy troubles relate to an erstwhile rather reliable holiday companion of virtual e-content, my 3G keyboarded Kindle.  Bought for me from Tesco by my eldest son as a birthday present in June 2011, it cost him 152 quid.  It stopped being quite so reliable a couple of days ago.  After a few weeks ignored in the bustle of ending summer hols, I turned it back on.  First, it wouldn’t connect to 3G any longer (I’ve had it explained to me that this – in the presence of an available wifi connection – is now a feature and not the bug I thought it was); nevertheless, I religiously recharged it and everything seemed OK.  Then yesterday it began to suffer from what Microsoft users of ancient Windows product will surely empathise with: in this case the WSOD, or White Screen Of Death, for those Kindlers still uninitiated in such matters.

As Which? usefully points out, my contractual relationship is not with Amazon the manufacturer but Tesco the vendor.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I phoned Tesco’s customer services helpline to be automatically transferred directly to Amazon.  The Amazon customer services lady went on to hand me over to a member of the specialised Kindle team when she realised my issue was not of simple resolution.  He attempted to carry out some procedures to reawaken my Kindle, sadly to no avail.  He then offered me an upgrade: a new Kindle in exchange, which I would have to pay for.  I said I would be quite happy with a replacement rather than an upgrade – for one thing, I liked the physical keyboard (something he agreed he did too) – but was told no examples were available any more.

I also suggested that although the guarantee was no longer valid, UK legislation had something to say on the reasonable and therefore merchantable quality of any product of certain value.  He referred me to EU legislation which he said gave me only two years.  I suggested, perhaps inexactly, that in the UK we had up to six years, certainly to complain.  We then agreed my query on Amazon’s position should be communicated higher up, and also agreed it should be received via email.  I now have in my possession an email address I can email – pretty much the same one, in fact, I emailed a while ago in relation to an Apple iPod Amazon refused point-blank to take responsibility for.

I’ve decided, in the end, to wait anon.  In the first instance, I’ll be going to Tesco tomorrow.  I still have the original receipt; they are the vendor; and I already know Amazon’s posture.  Time to find out, instead, what Tesco thinks.  After all, Amazon – alongside many others – truly believe it’s a good business model to make expensive objects which we are to be convinced must last only two years before we replace them.

I mean even my father – my World-War-II-scarred father, who is incapable of throwing away a piece of wood, a random cable or a nail on the off-chance they might one day be of use – was heard to say on being told our freezer seemed to have given up the ghost: “Oh well, it’s nine years old now.  Only to be expected.”

To cut what is surely becoming a boring long story short, what’s clear here is whilst human life expectancies are lengthening from decade to decade, their gadgets are becoming evermore short-lived.  So why might this be so?  And what might the broader implications be?

I’m sure all of us, all of my generation at least, can remember stories of washing-machines that lasted fifteen years; fridges that lasted thirty; cars that were made and remade out of this and that for far longer than anyone expects these days.  Yet even washing-machines these days don’t seem to get to the age of five.  Whilst iPods and Kindles and mobile phones and tablets various barely get beyond the magic two.  Not to speak of all those tales of cars whose engines disintegrate at seven.

It’s a problem – a serious problem; a paradox too.

As already pointed out, whilst human beings expect to live longer, their societies’ artefacts fall apart earlier.  Now I’m sure you’ll have read many articles which talk about how society is specialising itself out of sustainability.  As you can see, I’ve written some of them myself.  But this thing I speak of today … well, it’s slightly different.  Here, it’s not the evil corporations maximising their profits.  Here, it’s a different thesis altogether: faster washing-machines, quicker cars, smaller gadgets, brighter screens … all these aspects and more, coupled with the fearful violences of corporate capitalisms, simply make it more difficult to produce stuff which lasts.  Who, after all, would expect an under-the-counter freezer – which cost the same as my Kindle did my son – to function for barely two years?  And yet when it comes to the Kindle, or the iPod or the Blackberry, we gaily accept an upgrade we must pay for as compensation for a product which – be honest and frank about it! – has failed any test of time you’d prefer to sanction.

There will come a time – I can see it even if you cannot – when our objects will have such short lifetimes that the consumer laws will have to be changed to accommodate the inability of the manufacturers to develop products which survive even a full year.  Mark my words.  Bookmark this post.  And come back to it, three or four years down this miserable line.

Bezos is right of course: writing six pages of thoughtful observations has the potential to add far more value than any number of fancy bullet points.  But in the world his ilk and he tend to find themselves moving around, they’re as bound by its constrictions and competitivenesses as much as we consumers are befuddled by their very same massaged marketing messages.  Whilst he may indeed preach no PowerPoint in the thoughtful sides and moments of his companies, in their artefacts and their routinely mundane activities these PowerPoint mindsets have clearly become the order of the day.

Otherwise his customer services wouldn’t offer an upgrade after a bit more than two years of careful usage of a product which costs what many freezers do.  Instead, they would be trained to say: “Let’s repair or replace or refurbish this in a sustainable way.  Let’s look after a customer – and let’s also recognise that the future of our shared living-space, the planet we live on, is just as much a customer we choose to value as that irritating well-meaning thoughtful Miljenko Williams, who always feels obliged to complain so very very much.”

Oh.  And just as a by-the-by.  That freezer even my father now believes is expected to give up the ghost after nine years … well, after a week left to its own devices, it’s begun to happily work once again.

There’s a lesson in that.

We should learn it before it’s too late.

____________________

Update to this post: last night I described over at Amazon’s help-forum pages my recent experience with gadgets.  Part of what I commented went as follows:

[...] In the last year, I’ve had a 16-month Sony Ericsson 150 GBP phone stop working, changed for a new one under guarantee by T-Mobile; I’ve had an 8-month Sony 110 GBP phone stop working, repaired under guarantee by Phones4U; and I’ve had a Blackberry 100 GBP phone, still under 2-year guarantee, not repaired by Carphone Warehouse or Blackberry. I’ve also been batted to and fro between Apple and Amazon with respect to an iPod Amazon sold me via an Audible offer, and whose home button stopped working reliably. Then there were the two Acer netbooks which developed parallel faults at the same time just outside their 1-year guarantee periods. Now I may have been particularly unlucky with respect to gadgets, but I suspect I haven’t been especially. I do have a Gateway laptop which has lasted four solid years without pain. And a Dell desktop soldiers on with Linux. And an Asus netbook is particularly well-made. Not all misery up here in Chester …

:-)

Really, all I’m trying to say in my long-winded way is that a 1- or even 2-year guarantee period is a pretty poor promise when you’re forking out 150 GBP. At least when we talk of products which have less bleeding-edge technologies. No one in their right mind would accept buying a new fridge every 18 months. So why do similarly-costing techie-type products enjoy the freedom to break down and be disposed of after the same period of time? It’s not a question you or I or, indeed, Amazon will be able to answer – but it *is* a question I strongly feel needs to be addressed. Especially when I have yet another faulty gadget to add to my recent and not so recent list.

I suppose that all which is left for me to ask is: am I particularly unlucky – or is the above litany of failure something each of us is rapidly having to become both seamlessly familiar with and resignedly used to?  Any of yous out there reading this post had as bad a series of experiences as ourselves?


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Oct 182013
 
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I was living in the halls of residence depicted below when John Lennon died a violent death, though it was a couple of months after the taking of the picture that it happened.

Me and my family at uni, 1980-style

I can, of course, remember what I was doing: I was ironing clothes.  It must’ve been towards the very end of my first term at uni, for it was a Monday and I don’t think I had yet got into the habit of skipping class too often.

When you start thinking about bits of your past like these, all sorts of things start unspooling.  Two articles I’ve been using in my Skype classes recently are connected to the above photo: as you may have seen, there is a VW camper van in the background, and such a van played a hugely important part in my childhood.  Not only mine – the BBC would seem to have found a doppelgänger of my parents and their behaviours, in everything except perhaps the evil weed of tobacco.

Anyhow.  On the holidays we took every summer or so to the then-Yugoslavia we would be sung to sleep in the evenings by my father’s ITT cassette-recorder.  As my sister accurately recalls in her piece, the Beatles figured highly on the playlist – even before playlists existed!  John Lennon became a part of the furniture of my infancy.  To have him wrenched from me so destructively just as I made my transition to adulthood at Warwick was truly quite a shock.

Quite a shock indeed.

That, in fact, is the destiny of all that is furniture.  Eventually it is wrenched from our precarious grip.  Whether through our own demise or through the demise of another, it is inevitably violently wrenched.  And as much of our cultural output these days, in such plentiful – perhaps even promiscuous – times, the cheap and cheerful Ikeas of the world don’t always get dumped before the Chippendales.

At uni I used to sing Beatles, Wings and Simon & Garfunkel songs on my scrappy acoustic guitar when I felt a bit miserable, and by so doing I would then feel less miserable.  But in the end, it was for me – and it was primarily me it made feel better.

Thus I have continued, once I curiously lost my singing voice in my mid-40s, to act in a similar way with the written word.  Perhaps, in a way, trying to find again that voice I no longer was able to exhibit.  But again trying to find it for myself, not others.

Lennon, McCartney, Dillow, Bell, Geras … curious influences, eh?  Complex connections.  Strange connections.  But all committed, in the positive sense of the word I mean.  Committed – unlike myself – to forging correctly singular paths in those wayward worlds of otherwise terrible and mind-numbing disablingnesses.

So let’s think and wonder a little on behalf of the future.  Be kinder to our furniture I say, before we end up foolishly trashing it.  Use it if we must – but not abuse it.

Even furniture, sometimes, cries out in the pain of that deadening hand of gravity.

That gravity which eventually overcomes us all.


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