Aug 162014
 
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This tweet led me to this Labour Party YouTube video:


http://youtu.be/2CyHZh10nro

Before I continue, let it be clear from the start that whilst I’m still currently a Labour Party member, its behaviour during the recent #DRIP process has meant I will be deciding in September whether to continue to pay my dues.  I am as a result less predisposed to be friendly to videos such as these than I might have been several months ago.

With that declaration of interests upfront, I’d like to examine what the theme of the video really means.  As the tweet points out (the bold is mine):

You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators. Find out why Labour means business – http://labour.tw/1ydlXK8

There is plenty in the video which looks to cover all the bases: from global investment (and presumably very big business) to a local focus (and presumably very small business).  Of course, covering such bases may be little more than good intentions; maybe disingenuous good intentions at that.  None of the Labour team is stupid: all of them must realise that to get elected, big business rules the roost; anything you say which may favour small boys and girls over big boys and girls must be couched in such lukewarm terms so as not to disconcert the latter’s sadly rapacious instincts.

The problem is that whilst defining One Nation Labour as an economic construct where everyone benefits from the functioning of such an economy could win elections, were the appeal to be made effectively over the heads of the media interests of big business, in reality this kind of appeal cannot be made without the mediating instincts of these selfsame interests.  And so we face the dilemma Tony Blair faced: the need for a socialism by stealth, a piebald socialism implemented in New Labour times, which unfortunately (later on) opened the door to – and put in place the legislative tools of – the violent but vigorously denied privatisation of Coalition austerity.

In truth, when Labour says “You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators”, it plays a two-handed game: to the small boys and girls, this sounds like they mean us; to the big boys and girls, this sounds like they mean them.  And right up to election day, right up to that day and beyond, we shall never be sure whether we were diddled or we simply misunderstood.

How so?  Are we so uncouched in the words of political double-speakery?  I don’t think so.  It’s just that hope runs eternal – even in times of austerity and social injustice.

A long time ago, I wrote a piece on the Coalition’s war against the professions, describing how it was dismantling the latter’s power and former right to infuse debate with evidence-based arguments.  I suggested that, at the same time, politicians – members of the only unmanaged profession around, the only one with no clear career path, training process or evidence-based evaluation system – were deliberating ring-fencing their rights not to be properly organised by an increasingly educated society.

In the light of such an assessment, when Labour speaks of being “pro-job creators”, I am minded to wonder if a similar process of saying one thing and doing another isn’t taking place – even, we might like to suggest, for very similar reasons.

Substitute that word “job” with the word “capital”: “You can’t be pro-capital without being pro-capital creators.”  Doesn’t that sit so much more accurately with what we all know is going to happen?  For sooner or later, capital will realise its interests lie in moulding Labour, given that sooner or later it will begin to realise the Party may have chances of gaining some kind of power next year.  And whilst Labour knows this and will eventually have to kowtow to a painful reality (a reality for the leaders less painful already through a currently invisible train of capitulation), it still has to carry its working vote to the polls.  Only then can it deceive and disillusion.

To be honest, hung parliaments clearly benefit those who control – at the very least, form part of – the status quo: business leaders, politicians, everyone who’d like to take “difficult” decisions but doesn’t always like the responsibility and flak these bring, can use coalition dynamics to give the impression it’s not their fault.  Very easy; very nice; very dishonest; evermore common.

So what would make me trust this video-pitch a little more than I do?  Perhaps an approach which put the job of being a job-creator on the curriculums of all schools, all further education colleges, all foundation years in universities.  An approach which would couple commercial wisdoms with social responsibilities.  An approach which didn’t use double-speakery – nor left open the door to the suspicion that it was being used.

To summarise, an approach where politicians were professionalised in much the same way as doctors, nurses, teachers and others; where the currency of communication was evidence-based in all contexts; and where money became a tool to create a sharing economy.

Instead of, as now, as is unhappily the case, perpetuating itself as a financial device to capture and ensnare the cleverly astute from the rest of us – thus removing all social conscience from the planet’s powerful.

However well-intentioned some of them may start out.


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Aug 122014
 
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I just posted this on Facebook.  It explains how I feel today.  No word describes it better than sad.

Feeling rather sad today.  Don’t think the news about Robin Williams helped.  Shouldn’t affect me so much I know; never met him; only knew him thru’ cinema.  One person in peacetime, not hundreds in wartime.  But I can’t help feeling it’s always the deep thinkers who go like this.  The thinkers who make jokes also understand life as it is: there is no way they can avoid seeing it all in both its full glory and its full tragedy.  And sometimes that knowledge is not power but a heavy weight. So, ‪#‎RIP‬ ‪#‎RobinWilliams‬.  Bicentennial Man indeed …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bicentennial_Man

And this is the conclusion of that tale linked to above – where Andrew, the robot who is to become the Bicentennial Man, effectively forges a strategy to commit a slow but irrevocable suicide, in order that human beings may accept him into their humanity:

Andrew decides that he wants to be a man. He obtains the backing of Feingold and Martin (the law firm of George and Paul) and seeks out Li-Hsing, a legislator and chairman of the Science and Technology committee, hoping that the World Legislature will declare him a human being. Li-Hsing advises him that it will be a long legal battle, but he says he is willing to fight for it. Feingold and Martin begins to slowly bring cases to court that generalize what it means to be human, hoping that despite his prosthetics Andrew can be regarded as essentially human. Most legislators, however, are still hesitant due to his immortality.

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.

It’s sad that our humanity often needs such moments as these to be felt at its keenest and sharpest.

So many people I wish I could meet.

So little time to do so.


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Aug 102014
 
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A story from the Guardian/Observer website today got me thinking.  It’s headlined:

Rising Ukip star on Roma in the UK, vaccines and racist gardeners

and it’s introduced:

Rotherham is a Ukip target in next year’s general election. Jane Collins tells how she hopes to unseat Labour by being ‘different’

Notice the adjectives “rising” and “different”.  A prominent article in a notable newspaper of liberal leanings for a party with no MPs, no policies – and one narrative which, whether we like it or not, would surely lead to a business cataclysm and upheaval of unpredictable proportions.  A similar thing, though on a separate part of the political spectrum, is taking place in Spain with the movement (I respectfully resist calling it a party for the moment) Podemos.  Plenty of free media attention for something creating interest, it is true – but not with the credentials a careful democracy should perhaps require.

However, let’s try and focus on these dynamics from an apolitical stance.  I’m fascinated by the fact – it’s undeniable – that practically all our media, whatever its political opinion, is drawn magnetically to change: in such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that an up-and-down approach to communication should be the rule.  Whilst the peaks and troughs of idiotic statements capture the headlines day after day (no longer simple soundbites – more often unruly video exchanges designed to move us, almost assign us, emotionally from one monolithic bloc to the other), alongside the oft-quoted “he said, she said” journalism defining what they think we should think, it’s no wonder the careful, timely and intelligent chugging away of good practice ends up in the sewers of our perceptions.

Change, its aforementioned magnetic effect and practically all our media … yes!  This is what captures the agendas of daily politicking.  But it’s not only bad for the human race that constancy gets no publicity; it’s bad for those who enter the public sphere with the idea of working via evidence and humane values.  In the end, their initial desire to “make a difference by focussing on the universal” gets consumed by all these up-and-down appeals to “listen to me and what I’ve got brand new to say” – which, in any case, is rarely ever even moderately new in an objective and historical sense.

They say that change is inevitable – so get used to it.  What they don’t like to admit is change is not monolithic – nor, indeed, as inevitable as they suggest.  Our instinct to popularise, promulgate and propagandise around change is extremely common, that is true (as is our habit of arguing that it’s always an opportunity) – but the universal needs of a society of social beings like those of us who form this humanity I describe don’t change half as much as the change merchants would have us believe.  And if this we are to change at all in the near future, we need our media – that is to say, at least a substantial minority – to recognise that the chugging away of good practice I mention above is far more useful for that future than unceasingly spurious calls to perceive as positive, and to go ahead and opportunise, all dynamics of so-called change.

Just because it moves doesn’t necessarily mean it’s progress.  And just because it’s stable (that is to say, doing its stuff silently behind the media veneers) doesn’t necessarily mean we should proceed to ignore its true worth.

And I don’t just mean within the fields of established politics, where plenty of examples tumble out on a daily basis.  I mean also the new guys who claim – this time! – to be making a “real” difference.

Right UKIP, Podemos et al?


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Aug 032014
 
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This was the tweet which I finally put together this evening, after a long time of not knowing how to put my finger on what I felt.  A tweet which finally clarified things for me: on a whole host of conflicted feelings about colonial pasts, victimhood, racism and cultural confusion:

At heart, we’re racist. We expect non-Westerners to bomb the hell out of each other; we don’t expect liberal democracies to do the same. :-(

Now as I’ve already suggested on these pages, the supreme dangers of a very real – that is to say, of a latent but all the same rapidly manifesting and evermore visible – anti-Semitism cannot be underestimated in the current context.  And so I’ve been writing to understand my own responses; almost certainly disappointing, to date, many of those who still read this little blog – especially from the context of the left of the British political spectrum.

Many terrible things have been written and posted over the past couple of weeks.  The pictures and words which impose a continuing sense of violence on those of us who are utterly impotent and yet terrifyingly, permanently, engaged with all the horrors that first troop, then stumble and ultimately totter, break and collapse before us … well, such a sequence of photographic and verbal imagery can be quite unbearable.

Today, I have even read – written in the register of a bitter lifestyle choice – a piece on whether genocide is right for you.

And so it is – after much cogitation – I finally understand my reticence; I finally taste in all its glory the bitter pill I’m having to swallow.  I am part Spanish Jew; a very little part it is true, but a part I wish to recognise and be proud of.  How then – after the terrible times of the Holocaust, of the legacy my European side must never, nor should ever, forget nor obviate – can I continue to feel a sense of severe unhappiness with the part that Israel is playing in this conflict?  How can I be … well … so disloyal – after all the suffering that Jews have undergone?

I suppose, if truth be told, the tweet is right: I, like many of my compatriots, many of my fellow Europeans, am racist: we ignore the vast empty toothless neighbourhoods of destruction where Arabs have committed evil against Arabs, and only concentrate on what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.  Or, indeed (far more occasionally I guess the Israeli government would say), on what the Palestinians are doing to Israel.

Only I also wonder if this is really, or solely, racism on my part.  For sure we do guard a strong sense of anti-Semitism, and things like the past month do serve to add a frisson of  “There, I told you so!” to our daily interactions.  But I’m not absolutely sure, as I dare to explore this train of thought further, whether the real battle is one of racism or ideologies.

The current Israeli government’s position doesn’t half seem to mimic our own government’s behaviour around the time of Iraq when Tony Blair led Labour.  The “Arab/Muslim/terrorist threat in general” meme – which has served to coalesce so many positions and postures into singular monocultural points of view – is clearly being used, with evidence from the battlefield I agree, to justify all manner of war crimes in Gaza.  But I’m beginning to suspect that, in truth, what certain ideologues are doing – on our side of the walls being built, mind – is to use that meme to hide from the public a more complex reality: that in Arab societies it would be as easy to find people who from our liberal perspectives we could get along with, who we could build bridges towards, who we could engage with at social and cultural levels in order to create shared future, as it would be to find them in countries like Israel.  And similarly (perhaps far more importantly, this), that people as ideologically fanatical – as fundamentalist in their world views, I mean – as Hamas or ISIS clearly are can be encountered in positions of power in our European and North American contexts, as well as in Israel itself.

Bombing people and places to smithereens is nothing like allowing the disabled to slowly die as support systems are suddenly removed – but in the black-and-white nature of the worldviews in question, certain conceptual elements are shared.  The “I am right, you are wrong” mentality; the “No gain without pain” attitudes (as long as we understand the pain will be yours, not mine); the “If I’m at the top and you’re at the bottom, there’s got to be a God-given reason” assumptions … these are shared by so many of those currently running austerity the world over.

And there’s little difference for these distanced stratospheric makers and shakers – makers and shakers who’ve neither suffered a shrapnel wound in their lives nor had to witness a baby’s blood spatter the concrete before them – between the poverty of action that allows them to gaily crunch spun statistics whilst people starve at the doors of hundreds of food banks, and the poverty of thought that allows governments who say their enemies mix military and hospitals packed to the defibrillators with utterly defenceless human beings, to go ahead and destroy the lives of hundreds of terrified persons.

In truth, we do expect Israel, as a Western democracy, to do better.  And in truth, we do expect Arab countries, as non-Western regimes, to do their worst.  And in truth, this is highly racist.  And in truth, we shouldn’t think like this.

But it’s also – kind of – just as racist to believe that Western democracy means just one thing.  And what’s more, one inevitably good thing.  At the end of this lovely review in the Financial Times two days ago, on the subject of the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ new book about the wider pursuit of the recent phone-hacking stories, Davies is criticised for ranting on about neoliberalism.  I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment if it’s a rant or not.  But I imagine if he does rant, it’s because it’s all too easy for him to fall into the trap of doing so.  So much of what we understand to be a latterday Western democracy seems to have been handed over, lock, stock and pork barrel, to those who have professional time on their hands to take over completely the “representative” in “representative democracy”.

I am sure, in the end, that so many of us have more in common with good people of a liberal inclination in many Arab countries, wherever they may find themselves, than we do with some of the right-wing austerity fanatics in the UK – in particular, that bit of the UK we call Westminster!  This is not to say that fundamentalism in the Middle East isn’t a threat to be taken seriously.  But it does mean that a liberal view of democracy must begin to fight more vigorously to be heard – if for no other reason than to let it be known that good people are to be found everywhere in the world.

And more importantly, as I’ve already indicated, that real poverty of thought may also be found on many of our own doorsteps.

For we are not one in anything – but, rather, multitudes.

As someone far better than me once pointed out …


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Aug 012014
 
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We live in horrible online public spaces – even as our private lives may contain in equal and respectful parts the beauty, sadness, love and fear, natural and appropriate to the curiosity that is this planetary existence of ours.

So whilst I’m having a wonderful time at home with family and friends, with good food and drink, with affection and humanity and everything that relates to being a good human, every time I sign on to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, speckling (inevitably it would seem) the thoughtful and even inspiring in a way that reminds one all too soon of a flock of malevolent birds – or maybe even a Petri dish of bacterial growth – I see the awful things that are happening out there, and – then – wonder, at a loss for better or more useful words, simply “Bloody bloody hell!”.

Meanwhile, Israel proceeds to bomb Gaza furiously, and Hamas proceeds to fire rockets just as hatefully … and I read reports of Israeli snipers repeating the terror of the Balkans in the 1990s … and children die and women bleed and men are corralled in that part of humanity that only deserves partial dismay when their deaths are duly reported because, as men, they are (perhaps) somehow more to blame for this tragedy (even as they are entirely innocent too – even those who belong to duly constituted armies) … and so we realise to what extent our natural shorthand in the face of complex situations has disintegrated into a moral idiocy of revolting proportions: an idiocy which assigns no virtue to any position held by anyone still able to effect anything, never mind those of us who look on from afar.

Yes.  We move very quickly from cautiously prejudging the world around us – in order to be able to understand it better and in time – to forming layers of prejudice around those other occasional, and ultimately immensely damaging, prejudgements which emerge from a dark and painfully reactive emotion.  Like cancerous oysters surrounded by and embedded in a blandly clever rhetoric, we erect upon foundations of cack-handed and half-baked thinking entire strategies of self-justification – a self-justification which allows us to acquire any number of permanent badges of courage, and continue to wear them whatever the implications or circumstances.

Prejudging the world is a necessary summary of what happens around us.  We do it all the time.  We look at a person’s face and then draw conclusions and, if the conclusions are fortunate, we continue the conversation, adapt our initial impression and come to a fairer, more accurate, understanding of what we are engaging with.

But in extreme conditions – conditions such as the Balkans, now Gaza, a fairly unreported Syria, a confusingly reported Ukraine, a whole host of depressing moments and conflicts – there is no time to do anything more than rapidly, and often cruelly, form a prejudice out of a prejudgement.  That person’s face is behind a rifle crosshair; that uniform signals “enemy”; and so the dynamics of civil conflict kick in like the destruction of a RORO vessel: the seeping of water into one side of a craft suddenly becomes a gush of slippery liquid knocking sideways and upside down all opportunity for stability – or, even, in the case of all-out war, all embarrassed chance of a gingerly outstretched seeking of dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Without dialogue, we are not human.  This is why our political class now is inhumane.  The most it ever achieves these days is a pasty-faced process of heavily circumscribed “listening”: no obligation to take any notice; no requirement to register the results publicly; no inclination to do more than spin the opinions of the many into the poverty of thought of the very powerful few.  But true dialogue, a true exchange of positions, a true equality of hierarchy, a peer-to-peer set of relationships if you like … of this we have none; of this no government – nor, indeed, authority of any note – cares to believe in and sustain.

And now I read in the Guardian that (the bold is mine):

Antisemitic hate crime rose by more than a third in the first six months of the year and spiked to a five-year high in July, figures show.

The Community Security Trust, which records attacks on the Jewish community in the UK, found there had been a 36% rise in antisemitic incidents, including violent crime and vandalism, to 304 between January and June. This was followed by 130 incidents in July alone, which coincided with the Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The story goes on to describe the fear the community, also innocent, is experiencing as the ghosts of European anti-Semitism begin to rise from the graves of the millions who died at its hands.  Florid language, yes … OK.  Maybe it is.  But the situation is both fearful and ever-present.  For anti-Semitism is an oyster of permanence, buried but not crushed, hidden but not bowed.

As I said in my previous post:

But if I were the [Israelis], and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

And if you think this is beyond all bounds of realistic possibility, just contemplate the following scenario: an underground of neo-Nazis, for decades unable to convince a wider population that its prejudices relating to the Jews in Europe were anything but prejudices, suddenly, and in a highly social-networked way, grabs hold of a complex and miserably visceral situation which most Europeans can only protest about.  Imagine what could be done with such an emotionally explosive situation – a situation which lends itself so easily to the prejudgement I was talking about above.

(A gentle by-the-by on the way too, if you will: compare and contrast, if you do remember anything, what happened in the Balkans – much closer to our European homes.  Compare the urgency with which people took to the streets to defend and protect the innocent.  Compare what was done to Sarajevo’s plural community.  Compare how level killing-fields were not to be permitted.  Compare how everything was kept isolated for so very long, whilst Europe failed to decide how to deal – once more – with a home-made genocide; a genocide on its doorstep.)

I used to argue the following: “It doesn’t matter where the opinion comes from – judge instead the intrinsic value of the words in question.”  I’m not so sanguine now.  Words have a history; phrases form out of the prejudgements in question; and prejudice comes from borrowed points of view, often violently bolted together.  We cannot isolate from the mouths of those who speak, or the fingers of those who write or type, the words that issue forth.

Words can be bullets – fired by snipers of clever and accurate intent – just as easily as any piece of deadly lead.

And whilst the Israelis are committing serious offences against humanity, there is a trail of complicity and criminality on many sides which makes the acts of war being carried out in the world today little more or less than a cultural DNA we all share.

The damaged genes we all carry – and sometimes exhibit in our families and personal environments, as well as on world stages – have also made the body politic and social what it is in these terrible moments.

So as we try to unravel where it went wrong, the only easy prejudgement that doesn’t fall into the prejudice we should always try and resist is to say the innocent bear no single nationality at all – as do neither the culpable.

For what I fear most, of course, is if this democratically-elected Israeli government – in the confusion of easy latterday socially-networked prejudice – succeeded in convincing a significant number of Europeans that an excuse to “hate the Israelis” (the codification process going on would be clear, I think) was actually a reason.

The pain, for me, with Spanish Jewish blood in my family, would be overwhelming.  That a determined 21st century government, through its actions one unhappy summer (whether imposed from without or initiated forcefully from within), managed to unravel everything good Europeans – both Jewish and otherwise – had worked for decades to remove from our sociopolitical and cultural agendas … and what’s more, this government was Israeli … and what’s more, its direct supporter was US … well, the irony with respect to those who truly saved the 20th century from oppressive European dictatorship would never be stronger.

I no longer know what to think.

And even so, this doesn’t stop me from thinking.  As yet, does it you?


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Jul 272014
 
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There’s a lovely and humane overview of robots and the subject of care-giving over at the Medium blogsite at the moment.  The dilemma it raises can be summed up in this beautifully succinct phrase early on:

Humans have only so many “irreplaceable” skills, and the idea that we’ll just keep outrunning the machines, skill-wise, is a folly.

The article goes on to explain how inhuman – where not inhumane – care-giving robotisation might be, suggesting that:

In my view, warehousing elderly and children—especially children with disabilities—in rooms with machines that keep them busy, when large numbers of humans beings around the world are desperate for jobs that pay a living wage is worse than the Dickensian nightmares of mechanical industrialization, it’s worse than the cold, alienated workplaces depicted by Kafka.

It’s an abdication of a desire to remain human, to be connected to each other through care, and to take care of each other.

Coincidentally, yesterday I finished reading a short story from an excellent collection of Isaac Asimov’s robot tales called “Robot Visions”.  I’ve been lending it from Amazon’s lending library for a while; my time to read mainly taken up by work on my PC.  Now I’m on holiday, I can return to my Kindle.

The story in question is called “The Evitable Conflict”, and – in a very socialistic sort of way (more along similar lines from yours truly here) – describes how hugely ingenious data-crunching Machines have been developed to perfectly organise and balance the different regions of the world’s economy.  Things begin to go moderately wrong in certain places: key people make the wrong sorts of decisions, projects then go off kilter – and as a result those responsible are suspected of petty subterfuge; even, as the story progresses, of possibly institutionalised sabotage.

In the end it seems clear that the Machines are more than data-crunchers, deliberately leading the key people in question to make the undeniable mistakes which will lead to gentle but nevertheless irrevocable sideways demotions.  As the Machines are hard-wired with the Three Laws of Robotics, they are unable to do anything which might harm a human being excessively, of course – but the interests of a wider humanity have clearly begun – in some way – to take a certain pride of place.

And so we humans, as individual figures, become tools to a greater goal: the maximisation of an economic system.

I don’t suppose that rings any bells.

For whilst the writer of the Medium piece, Zeynep Tufekci, is I think looking to avoid such a future submission of humanity to the machines that were throughout history thought to be – more or less – extensions of ourselves, I feel it is also clear – both from her piece and Asimov’s story – that even before such machines may manage to become cleverer than this humanity we currently are, other more powerful human beings than ourselves have systemically created economic constructs which force us to be extensions of an already pre-existing economic machine – instead of, radically (though hardly unreasonably, inhumanly nor inhumanely) the other way round.

If the robotisation of care-giving does continue to remove a human presence from the process – even where the robots themselves were to be indistinguishable from humans! – perhaps it will only be so easy to contemplate and accept because our economies and body politic, before any encroaching mass-robotisation is allowed to make it inevitable, have chosen to sustain the everyday submission of flesh-and-blood beings to the mandatory numbers of the technocrats; have, in truth, little by little pummelled us into accepting the future they want to await us.

And if one day we notice so little difference between a living nurse and a positronic one, it won’t only be because the positronic technology is so brilliantly engineered to fill their place – but also because, well before the positronics come along, the human nurses will already have been definitively dehumanised, along with maybe ourselves as patients too.  The robot engineers will be ingenious souls, no doubt about it – but their technocratic counterparts in politics and business, the opinion formers who make and shake our imaginations, wants, needs, products and services, will already have remade and redefined our worlds to the bespoke requirements of the technologists.

The maximum management of emotional expectations, in fact.

The evitable conflict – and how to fully transition from a historical humanity to a world at the service of the Machines.


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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.

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* 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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