Oct 122013
 
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Evgeny Morozov wrote this recently:

To say that “the Internet” is our “sharknado” is to accept that the current configuration of practices, services, and conversations – the Internet discourse – already structures how we talk,  what we say and what we do after all the talking is done.

It’s not that the current crop of Internet intellectuals are factually wrong or blinded by some false ideology. It’s that, in seeking to explain “the Internet,” they keep reinforcing a discourse that itself is in great need of disruption. Simply put, the Internet discourse has outlived its usefulness. [...]

Meanwhile, Chris suggests:

[...] Many professionals of around my age and younger downsize, step off partnership-path careers, leave to work for charities, become part-time consultants or singing teachers and so on. In a more abundant economy, many more would do so.

And then there’s the desperation many people feel with respect to latterday – certainly latterday British – politics, as it bumbles its way brutally from racist nods at awful Berlin Walls of immigration to “free” (presumably not as in beer) schools of a manifestly limited utility to ideologically driven privatisations in health, postal services and even – in this day and age of pained experience – profitably public East Coast rail services.

If Morozov is right about Internet discourse having outlived its usefulness, and if everything we do right now is gravitating more and more to being dependent on all those infrastructures sustained by such unwisely received opinion, it’s hardly surprising that intelligent and thinking people might wonder more and more – as Chris’s professionals are clearly doing – of the value of this constant collaboration we call liberal democracy, in this 21st century now bemusing us.

Those few people now still reading this blog will understand where I am heading.  Over the past ten days or so, as I share less of what I am, and more importantly peer less into the vicariously shared lives of others I may barely know (at least face to face, at least person to person), I am slowly recovering a sense of peace.  I may not deserve this sense of peace.  There are others suffering dearly right now: the poor, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed; the employed, too, who fear for their jobs; the employed who do not know from week to week where they will next earn a crumb of consolation; the employed who work in undignified conditions; the employed, even, in living hell.

So what right do I have to retire from a politics which inevitably affects you and me – whether I participate or not?  Perhaps because that politics, like our Internet discourse, like economies which serve themselves of people instead of – far more rightly – serving us, is at an end of times.  And we resist the temptation to acknowledge it.

For it’s not just the Internet which has been deconstructed by the surveillance state.  It’s all our liberal and free-market tendencies in our businesses; all our liberal and free-market impulses in our politics; all our liberal and free-market instincts in our writings.

And neither has this surveillance state consisted only of government spies.  In parallel, in tandem, sometimes in cahoots it would now appear, large companies have destroyed the conditions for healthy innovation: have destroyed the conditions which allow healthy economies to both evolve and – where necessary – commit timely revolution.

An end of times ain’t necessarily a time to end.  But it is a time to be honest and sincere: to be honest and sincere with not only each other but also, on a singular man-in-the-mirror basis, with ourselves.

Our Internet, our economies, our politics too … on the one hand, they’ve all become inefficient through systemic and individual greed and laziness; and on the other, through a despairing disconnect by the majorities the rest of us make up.

Inefficiency is obviously the mother of an end of times.  The question is whether we can recover our previous vigour, our previous sincerity, our previous honesty, our previous truths.

Yep.  I guess it is so.  A revolution of a cultural bent is needed.  Not that revolution, but one of a certain kind for sure.


http://youtu.be/PivWY9wn5ps


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Oct 082013
 
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This is how John Lennon saw it.


http://youtu.be/L832Jj7C0DA

This is how I’m seeing it:

Hello #Twitter. Was in virtual world, training people to communicate this morn; in outside world, helping wife to disconnect esta tarde.

Good to take a break and re-evaluate. And stepping back is fine (as long as you don’t step back into an abyss, of course!!!).

So I wonder why it’s so untraumatic slowly retiring from blogging and social media. And I honestly think it has to do with this #NSA stuff.

Sharing one’s thoughts has become the biggest Hobson’s choice there ever was.  You can do it with the virtual swathes of people out there and – at the same time – give your heart, soul and everything up to Big Government and its minions; or you can begin to stop dropping pebbles into the wishing-well that is the worldwide web and start keeping them to yourself – on occasions, perhaps, your nearest friends and family too.

But the problem here – and it’s a serious one I assure you – is that spying Big Government hates it when its people’s behaviours get into grinding gear – when its people’s behaviours begin to unpredictably change.  There’s nothing less frightening than a mass of easily satisfied consumers who sit gaily clutching their gadgets galore; nothing more scary than a horde of unsatisfied voters who want to think things properly through.

So even as I wonder at myself – after seven years of more or less continuous blogging and after two or three years of 35,000-odd tweets (or maybe that’s 35,000 odd tweets!) and even as I find this cold turkey I am hardly suffering from leads me to a week without Facebook, a few days here and there without blogging, as well as a highly cursory tweeting and the like – I cannot really believe, even now, how unpainful it is all being.

What’s the reason?  I suppose it’s very simple: I don’t believe the worldwide web is the best place to share any more.  I don’t think, now, it was any place to share.  Perhaps, at the very beginning, there was an ickle chance it could have been.  But this ickle chance was soon swallowed up by far greater interests who understood the historical sweep with far greater clarity.

I’m beginning to realise it was a place where people in power sold a donkey to those who would finally keep them there: consumers; end-users; the creative sorts who loved to show off their wisdoms (me included in this last lot; perhaps me included in all three) … all of these people and so many more out there were assigned the role of sustaining a modulated form of the status quo.

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

Breadcrumbs is all we could perceive.  The trail was ours, I don’t deny that – but the trail led only to the legs of the highest tables at which the powerful today, especially today, swaggeringly continue to sit.

Cold turkey is now easy for me because I see the lie on which this whole Internet was built.  And perhaps that’s exactly the conclusion the NSA, GCHQ and its multifarious hangers-on want us to come to: there’s no point in continuing with such a fundamentally corrupted beast.

Which is why I have to say they’re probably right.  In this, I mean.  Not in doing what they’ve done.

Lord, no.  Not that.  Not in a thousand years.

To undermine so fundamentally our fabric of free speech, to make us feel we have a Hobson’s choice of an empty web of hole-ridden cloth on the one hand or a shutting up shop and a silently reserving our democracy for family and friends on the other, is truly a golpe de estado of terrible proportions.  I mean really, what’s the point of such a democracy if voters are tracked so utterly?  Where is free will?  Where is secular liberty?  Where have all the liberal concepts we once treasured so much gone and ended up?

Freedom of choice?  It won’t exist.  We will find ourselves “pre-imprisoned”, in one way or another, for our own “safety” and for the “security” of our communities.  Algorithms and maths will decide our destinies in an absolutist way, much as omens and heathen religions did in other supposedly darker ages.  DNA, genetic analysis … all this science and so much more will be put to an end which rational thought would in other centuries hardly ever have countenanced: the removal of all fraternity and liberty from the sphere that is human thought and act.

Yet maybe in all of this rather sad landscape I paint a solution could exist.  Maybe the Hobson’s choice I describe is even grander than I describe.  Maybe, just maybe, we might decide that the NSA & Co have actually done us all a favour: in their obvious, perverse and deliberate destruction of the idealism of a perfectly communicating web, they have really brought it down to earth.  And we, as human beings, need the down-to-earth to function well.  We, as human beings, need such challenges as these in order to keep up the fight.

In the frame of a perfectly – and easily – communicating web, we were becoming lazy gadget-consuming materialistic beings.  So perhaps, now, in the snapshot that is an NSA-perforated Internet we can become, once again, the sincere altruistic thinkers and doers of those beautiful decades ago.

Those thinkers and doers who – all those decades ago – brought about the original Internet, and thus raised our joyous hopes.

____________________

Update to this post: via Adam Fish, this warning tale for all of us who would like to sound clever when nattering about Internet discourse.  Evgeny Morozov on the fallacy of, amongst other things, cuddling up far too happily to the enemy.


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Aug 072013
 
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This takes me back to my university film studies days.


http://youtu.be/tzhb3U2cONs

This bit, in particular, catches my attention:

KANE
Mr. Thatcher, the trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to
two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand
three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit prefer, you
see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with
you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run
out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You
may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a
contribution of one thousand dollars.

THATCHER
My time is too valuable for me…

KANE
On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such,
it is my duty, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my
pleasure — to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this
community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just
because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests! I’ll
let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m
the man to do it. You see I have money and property. If I don’t
look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody
else will, maybe somebody without any money or property and that
would be too bad.

THATCHER
Yes, yes, yes! Money and property. Well, I happened to see your
financial statement today, Charles.

KANE
Did you?

THATCHER
Tell me honestly, my boy. Don’t you think it’s rather unwise to
continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer, that’s
costing you a million dollars a year?

KANE
You are right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last
year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to
lose a million dollars next year! You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the
rate of a million dollars a year I’ll have to close this place in
sixty years.

Now compare and contrast with Jeff Bezos’  statement (he being the founder of the Public Transit Company Amazon) on his impending purchase of the US newspaper, the Washington Post.  I’m particularly interested in the following two paragraphs:

So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

[...]

There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports this observation about the man now literally making news:

“Years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post,” said Post chief executive, Donald Graham.

“Jeff Bezos’ proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.”

I don’t know Jeff Bezos – I assume I never will – but if they say he’s personally decent, I’m not going to question the assessment at all.  I would, however, lay before you these three stories about his other business behemoth, Amazon.  First:

Germany is demanding explanations from the online retail giant Amazon after a TV documentary showed seasonal workers being harassed by security guards.

A TV documentary by state broadcaster ARD said employees’ rooms were searched, they were frisked at breakfast and constantly watched.

I’d add the company responsible was a sub-contracted agency outfit – but from the drive to reduce costs at all costs, corporations do tend to provide the conditions that lead to such behaviours.

Second:

The UK arm of internet shopping giant Amazon paid corporation tax of just £2.4 million last year despite earning sales of £4.2 billion.

What’s more:

Amazon received UK Government grants of £2.5 million last year, beating its corporation tax payments.

Amazon reduced tax payments by routing its sales through Luxembourg where its European headquarters are.

Third (from 2010):

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after Amazon.com pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.

WikiLeaks expressed disappointment with Amazon, and insisted it was a breach of freedom of speech as enshrined in the US constitution’s first amendment. The organisation, in a message sent via Twitter, said if Amazon was “so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

That last phrase may come back to haunt Mr Bezos.  Out of the business of selling books and into the business of selling newspapers is surely a case of jumping from the proverbial frying-pan into the fire.  And if everyone seems so cheerful with Bezos’ purchase of the Post, maybe Citizen Kane’s final lines quoted above have more than a little to do with the matter.  He could lose money hand over fist for the next sixty years and still keep the Post afloat.

The real question, of course, runs as follows: given that the people at the top of the paper have known, liked and admired Amazon’s founder for quite some time, it doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility that Bezos was already weighing up the options to buy into America’s newspaper-land when Amazon cut off all hosting services to WikiLeaks back in 2010.  It kind of paints the view we may have of that operation in a quite different way from anything we may have thought to date.  Not just a case of yet another US tech company giving in to the American security services but, rather, an example of a latterday Citizen Kane playing a very long plutocratic game.

And the problem won’t be what Bezos does at a newspaper.  The problem will be, as both a privately and publicly powerful and super-connected newspaperman who is also owner of the Public Transit Company Amazon, how his soon-to-be-extremely-close relationship with government and its many tentacles might affect the ability of his distributor, publisher and hosting-provider side to do what’s right in the ever-thorny matter of freedom of speech in a globalising world.

Especially in a globalising world which – post-Snowden – we now know to be under considerable US and British surveillance.

They already stumbled with WikiLeaks – even before Mr B decided to become embroiled in the ball-game of news diffusion.

The room for dark forces to expose him to political blackmail – as owner of a mainstream news outlet and as CEO/whatever of a portfolio of major communications-associated companies – only increases with this gently curate’s egg of a purchase.

I do, of course, wish Mr Bezos and the Post well.  He has far too much money for me to contemplate reacting otherwise.  But my internal alarm bells do begin to make tiny noises when hyper-powerful men start talking about defending the ordinary, decent and hard-working seven-dollar-an-hour subjects and citizens from the corruptions of (other) plutocrats.

Just look at what happened to Citizen Kane.

Sometimes even the powerful hit heights outside their natural envelopes.


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Jun 212013
 
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This is the third part in my Citizen Media series, which comes out of a colloquium hosted by the University of Manchester that I attended recently.  The two previous posts, plus a novel suggestion for a related crowdfunding project, can be found here and here.

As befits the subject of citizen witnessing, and its corresponding figure of citizen journalism, the posts I’m writing are not comprehensive narratives of the papers and presentations given.  Instead, they mix in a mosaic of ideas original thoughts and my scribbled responses.  In no way are they intended to form a reliable process of story-telling.  Accuracy of authorship is not the objective here; rather, in the mode of a verbal scrapbook, I’m looking to provoke points of future discussion.

I started in the first two posts picking out the increasing deprofessionalisation of society.  Latterly, it seems that the beauty and truth of content comes primarily from posterior analysis and accumulation of data instead of discrete and clearly attributed concepts and ideas themselves.  Little place, it would seem, for the genius reporter or the profoundly heart-wrenching author.  I kind of suggested that a way out of this impasse might be to see citizen journalism as the raw data which, even so, professionals can find a responsibility to verify and assess.  Citizen journalism not as a substitute for the professionals then; instead, as an enriching and context-adding layer.

I also discussed the relationship between drone imagery and long-distance descriptions of important events.  One case of such analysis I neglected to describe, and which was mentioned during the colloquium (though I forget by whom), was that of a “foreign” correspondent who, rather than work abroad, supposedly acted out of a UK city – and proceeded to provide “local colour” to their reports via foreign blogs, tweets and other citizen-generated content.  These kinds of instincts and habits – where intelligent people sit behind computers in a mediated way instead of directly witnessing the situations they get paid to inform on – don’t half remind me of apparent parallels in spy agencies and military organisations various.  The tendency to forget the professional journalist’s assertion that witnessing in situ is key to properly understanding the dynamics of conflict seems to be spreading to all levels and sectors of communication and information industries.

So dispensing with the spooky, we are left with the good and the bad.  First, from the BBC‘s Stephen Ennis, we got examples of constructive online activity in Russia.  Here are some jottings I made which may give you a flavour of what was said:

  • It seems in a sense that civic society is not so developed in Russia.  The web can help this to happen.
  • During recent forest fires in the country, spontaneous citizen-engendered virtual communities and nodes of contact were set up.
  • The need to coordinate these spontaneous outpourings of citizen support suddenly becomes apparent.  Powerful enough individually, coordination would multiply their impact a thousandfold.
  • The need to create structures which nevertheless allow for enthusiastic spontaneity – a contradiction in terms?  (Mirrors the possibility of coordinating professionally the raw data of citizen witnessing.)
  • During the forest fires, information was disseminated by citizens via the Internet, SMS and phonecalls.  Flexibility of interface with the real world is important.
  • So in “bad news” societies – in societies where citizen cynicism is a primary response – how do you enthuse people to act?
  • Online activism is OK and politically permissible if it prioritises good causes.
  • Possible to try and change society by creating parallel virtuous environments first, instead of aiming to face down the existing negative societal power structures.  A way forward perhaps for societies everywhere – but in particular for societies nervous about the web.
  • A number of examples were given of practical “shovel” communities.  Instead of the “megaphony” of traditional online protest, “shovel” impulses aim to bring generally local administrations and communities to book: by gentle but firm organisation, authorities are forced to comply with existing responsibilities (painting stairwells was one example).  In this way, ordinary people are brought to the table of online activism by virtue of small improvements that make a big difference to their lives.
  • Virtuous virtual environments which change offline life through good examples – maybe they can then lead on to more proactive and politically vibrant acts?
  • Finally, the Russian government is – at least in some cases – actively supporting both types of online activism through its Internet policy: one of its notable commitments is to open data, including 33 million judicial rulings and information on one million lawyers and their activities.

So virtuous behaviours – and therefore, we assume, progressive democratic developments – can go hand-in-hand with increased online activism.  In contrast, however, we also get the truly bad.  Here are my notes from my responses to Adi Kuntsman’s paper on the subject of how awfully violent online “citizenship” can become:

  • The horror to be found on the Internet isn’t a problem of the web but, rather, a demonstration of how traditional democracy’s real purpose isn’t to give voice to people’s thoughts but, instead, to vigorously suppress them.  The web, on the other hand, does give a voice to people which offline democracy has deliberately (and possibly quite properly) disempowered.
  • I would assume what really needs doing – long-term at least – is to deal not primarily with the terrible outpourings of the violent web but re-energise and make more truly democratic our wider body politic.
  • Online “citizenship” can be anti-humanitarian – there is no guarantee that universal education in itself will bring about universal peace, brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • We need to teach “proactive web-user behaviours”, just as we are used to teaching “active listening”.  The web needs to be read correctly; we need to allow people to acquire a savvy relationship with its discourses and its frequent half-truths, scams and lies.
  • Online “citizenship” can be considered primarily democratic if we choose to ignore its militaristic manifestations as described in the paper (these manifestations include soldiers using Facebook to post humiliating photos of those they judge to be occupying the opposing side).  But given the huge number of militaristic and abusive content on the web, perhaps the question we should really pose is quite different: is offline democracy primarily peaceful and benevolent?  Is the problem the web – or, maybe, the democracy it has arisen out of?

Just to summarise then, on the subject of “online democracy” – both the good and the bad: perhaps citizen media doesn’t automatically democratise because our understanding of what democracy’s function really must be is actually incorrect/inaccurate.  To date, non-virtual democracy’s purpose is to aggressively limit the voice given to certain sectors of society.  (This may have been positive in the past.)  If we pursue this train of thought, maybe online media and networks represent more directly what a broader representation of people think.  We may look to create a progressive politics out of what citizen media generates.  But we must remember: “Art [and by extension, all media] is politically promiscuous.”

A direct citizen-involvement in communication and information, unmediated by evermore deprofessionalised professionals, doesn’t necessarily lead to a nicer society.

This is something we would do well to recall when we argue in favour of unfettered citizen-empowerment.

Professionals aren’t only possessors of dark arts.

They have also served to illuminate constructively modern civilisation.


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May 052013
 
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This has to be the shittiest government website in the world – the worst, biggest and bitterest digital abyss you’ll ever experience, in fact.  And it’s all here in Cameron’s England for the delectation and delight of those with the right to claim Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Overseas State Pension.

No.  Not those websites.  Those are pretty decent; informative and easy to read.  No.  I’m talking about the website behind this Inquirer story.  The website you are supposed to use to claim the benefits the former websites so informatively inform you about.  Read it and be prepared to be absolutely flabbergasted by IT-shite of the very highest (ie the very lowest) order.  This is how it starts out, at least at the time of writing this post:

About this service

You can only use this service for:

  • Attendance Allowance (AA)
  • Disability Living Allowance (DLA adult and child)
  • Overseas State Pension – if you are a non-UK resident (including Channel Islands).

Rather ominously, it then goes on to say:

This service doesn’t work with some modern browsers and operating systems. Tell me more

We are considering how best to provide this service in future.

You may want to claim in another way.

Here then are “some modern browsers and operating systems” which this online piece of bollocks doesn’t work with:

Operating systems and browsers

The service does not work properly with Macs or other Unix-based systems even though you may be able to input information.

You are likely to have problems if you use Internet Explorer 7, 8, 9 and 10, Windows Vista or a smartphone. Clearing temporary internet files may help but you may wish to claim in another way.

There is also a high risk that if you use browsers not listed below, including Chrome, Safari or Firefox, the service will not display all the questions you need to answer. This is likely to prevent you from successfully completing or submitting the form. You may wish to claim in another way.

OK.  So let’s see what systems it does manage to negotiate:

What the service was designed to work with

The service was designed to work with the following operating systems and browsers. Many of these are no longer available.

Microsoft Windows 98:

  • Internet Explorer versions 5.0.1, 5.5 and 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2

Microsoft Windows ME

  • Internet Explorer version 5.5 and 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2

Microsoft Windows 2000

  • Internet Explorer version 5.0.1, 5.5 and 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2
  • Firefox 1.0.3
  • Mozilla 1.7.7

Microsoft Windows XP

  • Internet Explorer 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2
  • Firefox1.0.3
  • Mozilla 1.7.7

What?  You do have to be joking, right?

“Many of these are no longer available.”

What the fuck (pardon my French) is the Department for Work and Pensions playing at?

What the hell makes it think it has the right to implement/perpetuate such a frightful piece of web estate in order that the disabled, those in need of care and pensioners various can access online services and exert their solemn rights, via insecure (not to say unobtainable) software such as Windows 98 and Netscape?

For Christ’s sake, this has to be the most unpleasant piece of casual government cruelty to those least advantaged, to those least able to defend themselves, in many a cold-comfort moon.

This is a shocking disgrace.

Words are literally failing me.

Words … are … literally … failing … me.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only we were prepared to be coherent.


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Dec 102012
 
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Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas.  Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned.  When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop.  This, for example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?

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


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Nov 262012
 
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Today, the Guardian publishes a fascinating story – a story that may have the most far-reaching of implications for democracy, free speech, online behaviours and the wider publishing industry.  Essentially it describes how an Australian jury has come to the conclusion that Google’s search engine is actually a full-blown publisher – not simply an automated disseminator of access to interesting, timely and relevant content.

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

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

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

As I just tweeted on Twitter itself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Guardian concludes in its excellently measured piece:

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

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

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

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

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


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Aug 232012
 
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David’s post on not posting any more is throwing up a whole host of interesting ideas.  Coupled with the news that Though Cowards Flinch has been included in the British Library web archive, isn’t time – dear ex-blogger – to reconsider what is clearly a premature retirement?

In the meantime, your capacity to comment on and analyse with commitment what is closest to your being continues to please me.  In response to my own thought

It may of course be that the Internet and web are best-placed to transform certain kinds of politics over others. Perhaps better suited to everything-goes libertarianism than socially supportive and human-transforming ideologies?

Dave responds thus:

[...] Whilst I wouldn’t agree that the internet has transformed any particular ideology, I think you’re on to something trying to separate out whether or not particular ideas or models of campaigning have been more or less altered by the internet.

We can’t ignore the online epiphenomena of real-world politics, like Ron Paul or Barack Obama and their online coterie.

But at the same time, the actual power-relations of the capitalist state exist in the real world. If you don’t want to challenge those, then the internet is your dream come true, because it is just another way of beaming centrally-approved content into the homes of millions. It worked for Obama, and when he got elected, that movement of millions who supported him, gave online donations etc, was promptly ignored.

Anyone that doesn’t want to challenge capitalism, which is a relation between people and not an abstract idea, can exist in the aether – as a media face or a net personality, cultivating a select corner of the available total audience. With all their twitter profiles, this is how our current political elite exists. A socialist can’t exist like that, because a socialist wants to challenge people’s passive acceptance of (or even disorganised resistance to) capitalism.

If Dave and I together have reached any point of interest here, it is that – in quite a coherent way, considering the original Internet was created by the American military to allow communications to survive the buffeting of a nuclear war – with the Internet underneath and the worldwide web on top, such structures are best suited, intrinsically so in fact, to perpetuating corporate capitalisms in their more or less purest forms.  And that those who would get something for nothing should beat the copyright giants of the world (and here I refer to the recent battles around SOPA, PIPA and ACTA) is entirely in consonance with a periodical tendency of capitalism to chase its own tail.  Not renewal, though – simply a process of vicious dog-eat-dog.

That there are no ground rules in that pure ideal of the Internet and web at their most paradigmatic is something which reminds me – even if not you – of capitalism at its most simultaneously hands-off and interfering.  To paraphrase Henry Ford, you are free to be free as long as the freedom you want is the freedom I offer.

This is what I think Dave is getting at when he concludes:

The best way to win that argument is not simply to make it abstractly, it is to organise. Organisation changes the conditions of struggle, turning them from hopeless to hopeful, and it happens in the real world, as it too is a relation between people. That is why the internet cannot and never will play a “transformative” role in socialist politics. It can merely assist, like distributing leaflets and socialist newspapers and having branch meetings.

And whilst the Internet underneath and the web on top can assist far more easily those who would reproduce its underlying ideologies, this does not mean – once we become aware of the game – that we cannot refashion them to our own ends.

We do, however, have to become aware of the game: for if we use the Internet and web without too much consideration of their natural states, we run the risk of being shaped without our knowledge, permission or adult consent into believing that everything-goes libertarian freedoms are preferable to socially transforming alternatives.

And nowhere – in my book at least – will I care to accept that perpetuating an existing order is less interfering than creating a new one.


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Apr 252012
 
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My thoughts on this matter continue to emerge.  Bring yourself up to date, if you wish, by reading this and its associated posts.

Just a couple more ideas to throw into the mix.

The social web’s major achievement seems to have been to convince people to work for global corporations for free.  Not only for free but also in exchange for handing over personal data such as names, locations, dates of birth and so forth.  We spend hours every day inputting what starts out as our data in a process whereby it essentially becomes their data – much of which in a discrete sense is of very little value.  But bundled together, as sparse data often has been over history, it takes on a whole new life and existence.

So where has that selfsame history brought us?  Whilst the 20th century was characterised by the multiple players of the industry of film taking over from the single authorship of the previous century’s novels, the 21st century will be characterised by a virtual sweat-shop of voluntary and addicted labour inputting its individually irrelevant datasets in order that algorithms and clever software manage to tease creative content out of the mix.

The creativity crisis both Chris and Rick speak so eloquently of is, in fact, no crisis at all – for there is plenty of employment to go around; the only slight problem from a living-your-life point of view being that it’s manifestly unpaid.

If we feel that the creative arts are inadequately funded, it’s because we’re looking in all the old places to create them.  The new and brightest locations for creativity exist in the online constitutions which convert the product of evermore humble data-inputters across the globe into interesting and engaging Web 2.0 content.  And funding isn’t necessary because the dumbing-down of process which characterises such corporate bodies everywhere has now also been applied to the end-users of such tools.  Which does beg the question: who, in fact, could justify paying anything to anyone for simply liking or commenting on an article?  In essence, we’ve been sold the donkey that what we do is ephemeral and worthless by itself – when in reality, using such dumbed-down processes which gather together and combine disparate data in new and unusual ways, it is really rather valuable, permanent and complex.

Are the machines on the point of taking over then?  I would argue, with billion-dollar stock market flotations and user populations in the hundreds of millions, the modern social web has already turned us into industrialised cogs – freeloading as it does quite brutally on the back of our own falling standards of living as we work for zilch.

This software I talk of serves to take the basest of another’s data and turn it into a financial gold which is then stripped of all authorship and right to proper remuneration.

A virtual alchemy finally exists, then, in the 21st century.  And its objects and goals – and victims too – just happen to be ourselves.

Oh, and one final thought to be going away with: if you believe in remunerating content providers properly but at the same time are thinking of using collated datasets of social content to run your businesses, think for a moment where all the latter information comes from – who produces it, under what conditions and how.

You may discover that the phrase “two-faced” comes to mind as you fight to impose your copyright laws on end-users of film, video, music and journalism – end-users who in a separate context you’re effectively employing unwaged in order that you might market better such legally protected products.

Yes.  Web 2.0 is a classic example of getting something for nothing.  Which doesn’t stop the most fervent supporters of copyright, even as we speak, resorting hypocritically to its charms.


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Apr 242012
 
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One of those nights.  You just can’t stop chasing the trains of thoughts.

I suggested earlier on that for particularly local copyright reasons, users of social media in countries like Spain and France might one day be able to argue they had a moral right to be paid for their labours.  I then suggested that – without such payments – we were, effectively, in a state of 19th century sweat-shop capitalism.

My attention was then drawn to this brilliantly argued piece from David which paralleled my own – but did so with far more evidence and far less rhetoric.

Finally, via David again, the following project came to my attention: “User Labor – A framework for sustaining user labor across the web”; a fascinating idea from a couple of years ago now, whose overview runs thus:

With User Labor, we propose an open data structure, User Labor Markup Language (ULML), to outline the metrics of user participation in social web services. Our aim is to construct criteria and context for determining the value of user labor, which is currently a monetized asset for the service provider but not for the user herself. We believe that universal, transparent, and self-controlled user labor metrics will ultimately lead to more sustainable social web.

So what do we have at the moment?

  1. copyright issues in some jurisdictions – which may lead us to argue the social web could theoretically be obliged to remunerate users;
  2. an economically unsustainable, as well as manifestly immoral, state of affairs whereby more and more work is done for large social web companies without remuneration – thus converting the predicted knowledge society of intelligent labour into a rip-off society of addicted users;
  3. a formal proposal to structure the metrics of measuring user value – and so allow us to define exactly how much value is added by our Web 2.0 activities;

Then to the above three factors, we can add a fourth: as the law encroaches evermore closely on social media and networks – in particular, at least in the UK, Twitter – and as such encroachment expands the number of responsibilities such previously garden-fence discourses now display, there must come a time when such expanded responsibilities will include their corresponding rights.  We can’t, after all, have responsibilities without rights.  Now can we?

And rights generally obtain a return of some sort or another.

You want to make me legally responsible for my tweets?  You want me to sanction their permanent profit-generating nature where before you claimed they were ephemeral?  Then duly reward me for their production.

With a tool and approach such as “User Labor”, you can’t even say it wouldn’t be possible to measure our worth.

In times of a massing unpaid employment, we now have the legal, economic and moral imperatives – as well as the technical tools – to carry out a massive shift in how our social web operates.  So what’s stopping us?  Perhaps a simple public recognition of where all those knowledge society jobs they promised us have gone and disappeared to.

For they haven’t really disappeared at all: they’re called tweeting and liking and posting and commenting – and, whilst they all earn huge amounts of money for some people on the planet, we as very ordinary users have been conned into doing them for nothing!

Whilst, in the meantime, unemployment of the traditional kind just carries on soaring.

Can you really see no connection with the fact that almost one billion people punch data into Facebook on a regular basis for absolutely no compensation whatsoever?

Really not?


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Apr 162012
 
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Sergey Brin, of Google fame, argues the following:

Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

There are other things in this interview which I do agree wholeheartedly with.  This for example:

He said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet [...].

To that list, in fact, we might care one day to add the UK.

Especially in the light of other news from yesterday which indicates that the Russians may be planning to embrace similar controls on their Internet in the future.

But when Brin talks about the carve-up of the free and open Internet, I am inclined to want to take the position that Google itself is not entirely without blame.  Brin is clear that some of the forces ranged against his – and our – baby include the following:

[...] the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Whilst I agree that the entertainment industry wishes to have its cake and eat it – for I might argue that if an existing structure isn’t appropriate for your distribution needs, why take the decision to distribute on it in the first place? – the walled gardens of Facebook in particular are surely a reaction to Google’s monopolistic dominance of the aforementioned freedoms it avows it is in favour of.  As I wrote some time ago on the subject of pernicious paywalls, the worldwide web in its native form is a truly beautiful thing:

To date, the Internet can be characterised and defined by two things: firstly, it has been more a space of discourse, more a flat hierarchy of multiple communication impulses, than a controlled business channel of traditional producer-consumer relationships.  Anatomically speaking, more like a global brain with its extensive network of redundant neurones sparking off each other than an intestinal system which helps process a beginning, a middle and an end.

Secondly, its fundamental tool – the hyperlink – has changed how we read information quite profoundly: the promiscuity of search has taken over from the power of a previously framed narrative.  Through that promiscuity, we look for answers to questions which tumble out of thoughts we must – over and over again – addictively pursue.  Neither is that beginning, middle and end predestined any longer – nor, often, repeatable.  The uniqueness of the narrative experience that each user of hyperlinks brings to the often very private storytelling they engage in as they surf the Web keeps millions of people obsessively tied to their PCs at the end of a multitude of long working days.

These two defining concepts – space and linkage – are what have made the Internet the force that it is today.  And for the vast majority of publishers who currently connect to the Web, this Internet is exactly the Internet they need.  They’re not looking for a mass-market reach to publish their content; instead, they have friends, colleagues and interest groups who actually choose to read what they are publishing, and do so night after night without prompting – quite without the seduction of competitions, bingo, free CDs or tickets to the cinema.

Google, however, has built an advertising empire on a set of hidden search algorithms which it allows to be massaged quite blatantly.  From sponsored ads which sit at the very top of its search results to websites and their URLs which creep up the rankings via carefully lodged supporting links from key sites across the web, the industry of search engine optimisation (SEO) is to Google what, in its heyday, the concept of third-party ecosystem was to Microsoft.  It sells the basic idea and principle to eager paying customers; it supports the legitimacy of the search model in question; and, finally, it helps keep other players firmly out of the market – essentially in order that Google, quite paradoxically, might convince a whole planet that when it monopolises the open Internet it is actually making all of us as free as could be.

No mention, for example, of all the data it has collected on us in order that its model of a “free” Internet might be better monetised on behalf of its shareholders.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I like Apple’s business model either.  Nor is Facebook quite what I thought it might be even a couple of years ago.  But I do get the impression that whilst Google’s landgrab did take place on a relatively open Internet, its ways and methods since then have only served to create a simulacrum of openness – a simulacrum where in reality those in power can move their favourite souls up and down the popularity stakes almost at will.

That original dream of Google’s, to make useful information available to anyone, has been gamed, distorted and messed around with – even, I might suggest, and quite arguably, by the company itself.

On such an open Internet, who wouldn’t want to create parallel universes?

Facebook and Apple aren’t the reason we’ve lost that dream.

Facebook and Apple are simply the symptom of Google’s greed.


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Feb 112012
 
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As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.


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Jan 032012
 
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This piece by Rob Marchant over at Labour Uncut – on why we must continue with our critically, and sometimes apparently internecine, political blogging – has many things going for it.  But I am inclined to take issue with the following argument:

LabourList and Labour Uncut, started more recently, have been doing a sterling job in taking back the internet agenda for Labour, but we still see much apparent discomfort in the comments sections. We fall into easy habits, talking of “loyalty” and “unity”, in order to try and keep party thinking aligned. It is easy to confuse “unhelpful comment” and “comment that I disagree with”. But all comment, in the end, is helpful. Robust debate is, on the contrary, an overwhelming positive, and it is precisely this Darwinism of ideas that can lead us all to arrive at a decent, defensible common view of where the party is at and where it needs to be. The wisdom, in the words of James Surowiecki, of crowds.

This was my response:

The Darwinism of Ideas is all well and good in theory. But I have two reservations: firstly, in terms of the intellectual debate that should be conducted, it closely mirrors in its dynamics precisely the kind of capitalism which is currently being imposed on us. And secondly, precisely because this capitalism – and its analogous debate – does not take place on a level killing-field, the ideas which will win out will proceed from those with the biggest clout (the biggest virtual networks, the largest number of real-world followers etc.) and not necessarily because the ideas themselves have intrinsic virtue – or are of intrinsic value to the Labour Party as a whole, and by extension those who might wish to vote for it in general elections. 

Less macho Darwinism, more humane communication I think might be the order of *my* day.

Crowdsourcing ideas is – of course – an undeniable positive of many modern virtual environments.  But we shouldn’t conflate “robust” with “trolling” – nor argue in a rank relativism that “all comment is helpful”: much of what Marchant describes that takes place on the Internet is clearly so unhelpful as to impede an effective crowdsourcing of absolutely any procedure or process.

The million eyes of interested participants that good crowdsourcing environments coordinate are of course grand pluses we should observe and learn from in the way that Marchant suggests.  But as in the politics he so clearly understands, the constitutional structure of the environment you are dealing with is key to ensuring those million eyes act with either intelligence or a wasteful energy.

And it does so happen that on the few occasions I have commented on the Labour Uncut website, comment moderation has always been in place.

Hardly an inspiring example of where the crowd is shown to be in the driving-seat.

So before we go down the lazy route of justifying the tool of Darwinism in the very hub of all our debate, let us be accurate about the systems we use to give precedent and priority to some choice thinkers over that crowd.

And if we are truly interested in giving the crowd its head of steam, let us be consequential and act in good faith when we create the environments in which such a crowd should be allowed to perform.


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Dec 022011
 
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No.  Not that white space.  What I’m really looking to question is the wisdom of so much webby white space. With all the changes Google is making to its products – and the terrible existential tenterhooks it has us on as to whether a product will continue to function properly after the changes are implemented (or, even worse, remain in its portfolio) – this white space they’ve decided on is surely a step back in more than one way or another.  In the olden days, when we had bulletin boards and text thingies and images didn’t exist and everything was so much simpler, surely we used a lot less electricity in lighting up our monitors.

Nowadays, with all this blankness which blinds, the energy consumption must have gone right off the graph. Instead of complaining for complaining sake, then, couldn’t we instead – perhaps – petition Google on this basis to put things back as they were?

Not geek conservatism but geek conservationism.  The difference is linguistically slight – but the real-world implications are absolutely massive.

One final thing.  I’ve been adding up exactly how much I pay to Google – between one website domain and another – and I think I’m now getting pretty close to $70 a year.  So how much do we need to pay to the behemoth before it stops arguing that when it makes changes we have no right to complain “because you’re the product and getting this all for free”?


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Oct 222011
 
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This is only anecdotal, of course.  But even so …

Well, here goes anyhow.  Up until recently, I was browsing whilst logged on to Facebook with one browser only.  Then, in order to protect my online privacy, I had this bright idea:

“Frictionless sharing” has taken a bit of a beating recently.  Here’s an idea which came to me this morning:
I’ve started browsing with Facebook open in my secondary browser and all other browsing in my primary. Will that help keep Mark Z at bay?

Can anyone confirm if this will help to maintain privacy – and yet allow us to continue to take advantage of Facebook’s undoubted virtues?

Now, a short time before this wizard of a wheeze of mine, Facebook had switched me over to its revamped interface: the one with that stream on the right-hand side which tells me all day what Andrew is listening to on Spotify, and that fixed navbar at the top which I have to admit is an improvement.  At the same time, I began to find that every post I posted onto Facebook direct (that is to say, rather than via my Twitter feed) was coming up, at least on my Facebook feed, as a “latest top story”.  This had never happened to me before: I have relatively few friends on Facebook and am not the most active of users.  I don’t as a rule get priority for anything I write or notify people about.

So then it was that I decided to start separating my browsing out: the vast majority in my primary browser and the Facebook-related stuff in my secondary.  The following day – almost immediately, can you believe it? – I stopped getting pride of place as “latest top story” – and since then nothing has changed.

Now I’m not asking for Facebook to reinstate this foolishness.  I don’t even feel peeved about it.  I do however wonder whether it’s right that the site should be allowed to measure the value of its participants in terms of the number of websites that users allow Facebook to see they are accessing.  And remove a certain degree of priority and visibility to those who refuse to give up all their data and browsing history.

Apart, that is, from name, date of birth, age, place of residence … well, the list is not quite endless, but it’s surely coming close to being so.

And, in any case, I’m probably wrong – this is probably only anecdotal.

Any clever clogs out there who can confirm either way?


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