Hi tech, the hyper-meritocracy and the rest

A lot of people think that investment in hi-tech will get the world out of the economic doldrums. Under the current system of distributing wealth I very much doubt it. Recently I read an April 2014 edition Prospect article by John McDermott titled You’re next. Will technology make professional jobs redundant? (behind a paywall) which reminded me that not only do I doubt it but I expect the opposite. It reminded me to leave myself a note here about the several things I’ve come across recently which point most persuasively and ominously in this direction.

From the aforementioned McDermott:

“Behind the voguish discussion about technology is perhaps a more important trend: the declining share of income going to labour than capital. And without a political response, the type of technological change discussed by [techno-optimists] Brynjolfsson and McAfee would only further such a divergence.”

McDermott speculates that “new machine age continues to regard capital at the expense of labour”. Because of what I’ll euphemistically call a distribution problem, that capital is concentrated in the hands of a few. For this reason he doubts that education can address the inequalities inherent in a hyper-meritocracy – even with the indignity of ‘venture-philanthropy’. I was reminded of the My Teacher is an App episode I wrote about recently – the Waldorf school in silicon valley where the Google and Yahoo employees send their kids to keep those creative little minds far, far away from the operation of a computer.

I often argue with one of my closest work colleagues. I think that, because of the way this society is organised, computers will take away jobs from more humans than they create jobs for. He is skeptical. Here is a concrete example of my being right. April 2nd was Autism Awareness Day. I’ve twice been thrown into the company of a student at work I’m almost certain is on the spectrum, and I’ve become quite interested in what I understand his challenges to be (and many others – autism is one-in-a-hundred), so I listened to an RSA recording titled Autism at Work: Releasing Talent and Harnessing Creativity. From it I discovered that people with autism tend to be punctual, like routine, are content to do the repetitive tasks their colleagues dislike – and, in passing, that they are losing precisely those jobs to computerised labour. Most people with autism would like to be employed but, squeezed out by machines and misunderstandings, most are not.

Certainly Luddites were right about the problem of machines. Why is technology so attractive to employers that they would prefer to render vast tracts of their potential custom without the disposable income to actually buy their product? Humans, as variable capital, are unreliable. When they go wrong, the employer pays twice – once for their sustenance as workers (their food, fuel, shelter i.e. their wage) and once for their replacement while they take their compassionate leave, maternity, sickness, industrial dispute, resignation or whatever. Machines only need maintenance and phased replacement. Philosopher of education David Blacker devotes quite a lot of the early part of his book The Falling Rate of Learning (sorry, it’s Zero Books – I received it as a gift otherwise I would have hesitated because of at least one of Zero’s authors) to this matter. Citing the economist Tyler Cowen (as does John McDermott above – she must be worth reading. Oh. He’s not a she.) Blacker doubts that hi-tech can sustain education beyond a basic level.

“The trouble is that once those initial large productivity gains have been reaped, the return on the human capital investment levels off – perhaps to the point of unfeasibility. Ironically, while technological development made human universal education possible, those same technological developments and subsequent productivity increases render further education for the masses mostly a waste.”

But surely workers are needed to actually make and run the machines? And here it gets very dark, but very plausible, and I will quote at length (pp47-47 of the 2014 Kindle Edition),

“As the machines get better, however, by definition even a smaller percentage of the machine-maintainers are ultimately needed. This level of expensive educational investment simply does not “pay” with regard to most people, because more and more of us are not exactly needed for much of anything. No longer needed as workers, the domestic masses are needed as open mouths into which to force feed as much consumption as possible, an irrational strategy that purchases short-term overconsumption at the price of long-term underconsumption (due to the inevitable ensuing debt overload) and hence is defeating of its very purpose. Domestically at least, neoliberalism really needs consumers and otherwise neutralized types (e.g. the incarcerated) rather than the industrial era of capitalism’s skilled and semi-skilled labor. For the dirty little secret of the high tech economy is that, despite incessant boosterism to the contrary, it does not need widespread technical competence; most jobs in the high tech environment demand stultifying activities that require nothing beyond basic literacy – if that. … For every “high tech, high wage” worker enjoying a cool workplace at google.com, there are many, many more who are “enjoying” the inverse proportion between high tech and their job demands: the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible (via outsourcing and/ or further automation).”

But even though so many of the biggest companies in the world are involved in peddling consumables (Google is primarily an advertising company, for example) nobody thinks a consumer economy is a good idea. In Blacker’s world very few people get paid sufficiently to consume, so his expectation is that they will be allowed to perish. Which reminds me of the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which temporarily sobered up the establishment for a week or so.

In the book Blacker distinguishes between old kinds of capitalists – upstanding, patrician, enlightened sorts – and new, socially useless kinds who avoid paying tax and when faced with healthy competition, instead, blob-like, attempt to absorb their competitors. He mentions in passing that Henry Ford, one of the old kind, decided to pay his workers $5 per day to create a blue collar middle class which could afford to buy his cars. For the first time I thought of him fondly. Then a bum note crept in – could this even work in a profitable industry? Apparently not – I read a right-winger insisting that Ford paid over the going rate simply to retain a particularly skilled workforce which was very costly to replace at a time – 1913 – when demand for labour outstripped supply.

Not like now. Even if there is growth, it doesn’t have much of a chance to touch the majority of us.

Bonus links:

  • On BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, 29th March, Evan Davies interviews a panel of entrepreneurs who service the super-rich. I found them craven, venal, and generally revolting, and I had the impression that they even embarrassed their host.
  • And spitting in the eye of that, The Austerity Delusion, a May 2013 talk at the RSA by political economist Mark Blyth, who in answer to an audience question points out that, no, the world’s richest can’t buy enough services to flush a stagnant economy – (also available as audio only – but if you don’t really grasp Ivy League economics you may need his slides).

Update – see too:

  • Equity in the Age of the Robot – a Resolution Foundation event on 29th April 2014 with Diane Coyle, Izabella Kaminska, Alan Manning and Michael Osborne. Follow the Twitter hashtag #robotage.



My teacher is an app

Did you know that Rupert Murdoch has a Head of Education? My Teacher is an App just finished on BBC Radio 4. Thanks to a colleague I didn’t miss it.

The brain-based learning side of things is really promising but the big business ‘vultures’ (as Sarah Montague called them) are frankly disturbing. This is one example of what another colleague and I often debate – I tend to argue (too vaguely) that in societies like ours technology, unless open, is prone to replace people because it is cheaper (doesn’t need holidays, benefits, sick leave, etc). My Teacher is an App provided a good example in the Rocketship school (charter school run by a business, a bit like a Free School in the UK)  in a poor part of San Jose which was experimenting with classes of 100 students, 3 teachers and many computers.

It’s a basic Marxist* tenet that people, being ‘variable capital’, are always vulnerable to being replaced with ‘fixed capital’. Software is more predictable than people and doesn’t require sleep, weekends, compassionate leave or holiday.  This displacement has happened ever since the industrial revolution and is always very hard for the cottage workers or equivalent – this is why workers campaigned for and won a welfare state.

Now though I’m wondering (not for the first time, but more so in this credit crunch time) where on earth, in a capitalist society, is the ‘added value’ of educating a society in geometry if that kind of knowledge can be replaced by machine knowledge? My neighbour has just returned from Gujarat where the state education system there doesn’t even nearly accommodate all the kids – education is a luxury outside a skills-based or knowledge economy. So are pensions, incidentally. For a long time the UK has been among the few knowledge economies – but what about now in this newly multi-polar world? Are we moving into a post knowledge economy? What will work look like? And if we don’t have jobs in a world where only big business owners and their few workers have money, then will we become a non-working non-class?

Watch the Google and Yahoo workers closely and you soon pick up that the best start you can give their kids will by by rationing computers. You can bet the Waldorf school where those same Google and Yahoo workers send their kids – the school without a single computer – was a private school.

*Don’t be alarmed – think of Marx as a knowledgeable and firmly establishment commentator.

Fighting, fallen, virtual undergrowth

Paul Mason’s twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere piece is one of the reasons he’s a stand-out candidate on the Orwell Prize shortlist:

“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.”

I recommend reading 1-8 and 16-20. Find some of it hard to fit with what I already know and very thought provoking.

Worth reading, this International Socialism piece by Jonny Jones on Social Media and Social Movements (HT Evgeny Morozov) – I haven’t read it properly the following excerpt seems to contrast with the picture Paul Mason paints of the ‘mix and match’ activist – the ‘mix and match’ activist utlimately depends on an infrastructure of protest:

“The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.”

And on horizontalism:

“It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierarchical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums. The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive.”

That is food for thought.

There is also the issue of how information and communication technologies are used. For example, as Charles Shaar Murray puts it:

“Old-fashioned totalitarian societies control information by suppressing what they consider inconvenient for their people to hear, while the more sophisticated capitalist democracies control information by swamping the truth in a deluge of disinformation, through which it is virtually a full-time job to sift.”

Paul Mason gets to the 20th reason then proceeds to list complications, including reference to the Chinese state model for hiring social networkers to generate pro-government memes. Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada is quick to admit that US Government-aided social networking strategies catalysed revolution across the Middle East; I assume that they were generating memes of their own. I can’t find a reference, but there are artificially intelligent software agents out there which will create accounts on social network sites, befriend a feasible number of people there, and then manufacture political blog comments on a theme. So I’m not sure about Paul Mason’s confidence in incontrovertible facts.

I know that pessimism is a luxury for when things are going well, but we’re currently in another financial bubble related to Web 2.0 and when that bursts you also have to anticipate a scenario where a few very powerful companies are left and there’s a great enclosure of the open web, as happened with telephone, television, and many other things which started off open. I was also unable to tweet for a period during the March 16th demo, because of network overload. How do the masses organise themselves to accommodate this?

And, more fundamentally, you have to anticipate the lights going off during the great bloody struggle for resources to come. Enough people I know with advanced knowledge of computer systems administration have an interest in survivalism – morse code, self-sufficiency, that kind of thing – to catch my attention. It’s an anecdote I know, but coming from them I take it seriously. They know about systems vulnerabilities, and they understand the extent to which we rely on computer networks to exist. And I’ve got somewhat far from my point now, but when you hear a usually sober economist say that during the crash of 2008 she not only withdrew as much cash as she could, but also bought in as much food as she could, you do wonder how securely the technocracy is perched.

I think the right thing to do is to treat the speculation about the power of social media as contingent, and prepare contingencies accordingly.

Back to Paul Mason’s complications:

“…what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.”

From my Observer today (where the Middle East uprisings are now relegated to p27):

“Egypt’s deepening political crisis, which has followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, took a dangerous new turn yesterday as soldiers armed with clubs and rifles stormed protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing at least two.”

And in Yemen:

“…about 100,000 marched in the city of Taiz, where four protesters were killed and about 400 injured on Friday … More than 12people have been killed since protests against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in February.”

In Syria:

“More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began, human rights groups say. But the rallying cry was met with a warning by Syrian authorities that they would crush further unrest, raising the risk of further bloodshed.”

For more on Syria, Al Jazeera’s silence, and Bashar Al Assad’s free pass to murder his own people, read DaveM on Harry’s Place. We-the-people’ will never get a UN resolution to go in there and rout that bastard.

In Bahrain:

“Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained in a pre-dawn raid. His daughter, Zainab, said armed and masked men stormed her house aoutside the capital, Manama, and beat her father unconscious before taking him into custody.”

More on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the BBC site.

And elsewhere I read that in Zimbabwe:

“Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

The activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.”

Fluffy will be flattened.

World War

There’s a bloodless world war going on over Wikileaks (background from Modernity – search for Wikileaks). US government sympathisers are trying to run Wikileaks off the web. A hackers group called Anonymous is responding by attacking the various companies complicit in this. As of now, Amazon is coming down (and sometimes back up) across Europe.

Comment on the conflict from these academics (by the way, in the proposed English funding regime for higher education, these thinkers would not get state funding for teaching about this social side of the Web):

Nothing sensible from me at this time, except I am glad Wikileaks exists, and that I find it provoking that Wikileaks vigilantes have done more damage to capitalist enterprise in a week than anti-capitalists have achieved in the last year.

Update: I hear on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that Amazon say their downtime was due to a hardware fault.

How to be a top political blogger

I was pleased and more than a little surprised to discover this blog among the Total Politics top green blogs for 2010, at number 14. The ranking, which is controversial because it’s presided over by a leading Conservative blogger, is based on the votes of 2,200 self-selected people, but I’m not sure what the question was.

According to Adrian’s foraging (congratulations Adrian for being 8th), according to Wikio Flesh is number 20. Wikio’s ranking is based on the number and weight of links to a blog (other than that the methodology is uncertain, but I have to thank Barkingside21, Weggis, and Bob, and (less, because they’re not listed by Wikio) Mod and Kellie (whom I’ve just submitted to Wikio and who will inevitably nudge me down, selfless creature I am). Update: also submitted The Poor Mouth – and how could I miss out Gordon’s GreenFeed?

But to get things in perspective, my blog has taken a tumble in the grand scheme of things. It’s been a while since the stats got above 3000 readers per month. Its Wikio ranking (general category – I’m not registered there as a political blog) of 724 in November 2009 has fallen to 1398 in August 2010. The pool is bigger and higher quality, for a start. Also work has been more demanding and I’ve also been getting out more, with a consequent drastic decline in the number of posts. Back in the bad old days when my trade union took a piss all over my sleep patterns I was writing 38 posts in a month. This year I haven’t posted 38 in 8 months. And ultimately, I’m too laid back about the ranking to change my behaviour. Long may this harmless self-indulgence endure, because in my case it’s a barometer of security.

But if my frustration and worry develop a sense of potential, and these things become acute enough to engender ambition, I know what I could do to improve my ranking. I’d need to become a political actor as well as member of the chatterati, and use the web-based medium to its fullest extent. Here’s how I’d do it (update: n.b. here’s how I mostly don’t do it):

  • Link frequently to fellow bloggers. Ambitious bloggers treat links as a currency. Unlike the snooty established media, bloggers are likely to link back.
  • Addition: in linking, attend to connections between your readers. Aim to be a node not a hub, so your network remains if you stop blogging tomorrow; act as a sort of socio-political glue.
  • Don’t just write for, or link to, people whose views you share. The most vulnerable ideas are the ones which are taken for granted and left unchallenged.
  • Filter blog i.e. select purposefully from the web and link to the most important things you’ve seen, organised into themes. As well as providing a public service, filter blogging is an acceptable (uningratiating) way to link copiously to fellow bloggers, as mentioned above. It is also more personal than it might at first appear, giving insights into your interests. It’s also a good use of your time. Filter blogging contrasts with original writing; it’s the equivalent of listening – particularly if you provide some contextualisation. Promoting listening on the Web is a good thing to do.
  • Use links as bait – they are a discreet and genteel way to ask a fellow blogger to read your post. Their clicks enhance your ranking. So as well as linking to them, click on your own links to them so that your visit appears in their stats.
  • Never stop posting – if taking a holiday, schedule posts while away.
  • Comment at other places and make the most of your adventures by directing your readers to the online discussions in which you’ve participated.
  • Acknowledge your commenters and treat each contribution as something permanent. Refer to them as works in their own right.
  • Attempt to start conversations.
  • Maintain concern for the events you write about; don’t abandon them as if they were old stories. A long attention span is an article of responsible journalism, and also related to listening. (It’s the most important thing I lack.)

The most open-eyed example I know of these practices is Bob From Brockley. I’m not sure to what extent he’s participating in this rankings game, but he is definitely nurturing a politics on the left and growing a readership is a necessary part of that. More power to him.

To continue:

  • Use the social web. Feed to and from other places frequented by your constituents, which these days include Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use the granularity of the web. Syndicate, assume that your feeds will be analysed and feed the entire post, not just a summary.
  • Post early and carefully on events of global interest, before the rest of the media get to them. Be alert on Sundays, high days and holidays.
  • Go out to observe goings-on of interest, and report what you have observed as accurately as possible. Tweet and harvest your tweets. Aggregate other tweets for triangulation with your own account. Reporting is the part of journalism in greatest need of democratisation, where the web has most to offer. One recent illustration is the reportage of the Californian wildfires; as the established media were glued to Beverley Hills, the people beneath their notice in the L.A. suburbs within reach of the flames suddenly woke up to Twitter.
  • Use a three column layout and position your sidebar widgets to communicate your assets: maintain a blogroll; show your blog’s most recent comments above the fold to encourage participation; show a smorgasbord of your most recent posts, publicise your accolades (e.g. Top 25 Green Blog).
  • Help people to read you: write really well; include a search engine; use keywords and categories intuitively if you want to be read as a resource, and consistently if you want to link to yourself as a resource.
  • Politics is about exposure, so blog broadly – in a resourceful rather than populist way. If you have diverse interests and your blog is a journal of your day-to-day endeavours as well as a campaign, Google will bring a diverse readership to stumble upon your other messages. Reviews, recipes, how-to guides, that kind of thing.
  • Title posts intriguingly and with search engines in mind.
  • Do interviews. Important people will consent to be amplified, and their importance will bring you readers. It’s a nice symbiosis. On the other hand, if you obtain the dizzy heights Norm has, you can give right-minded nobodies like me a leg up by interviewing them. Like Bob, Norm is also building on the left.
  • Addition: thinking about Barkingside 21 which is both local and high-ranked, commenting on local government initiatives and local goings-on is a valuable thing to do – not least because politics begins where you live. B21 is good at illustrating the distinction between local and particular.

At this stage I can’t say I’m as relaxed as I thought I was about the contrast between how much I know and how little I’ve enacted. Suddenly it seems like a missed opportunity  to be only ranked the 1398th blog in the land – particularly when there are bastards, arseholes, linguistic disasters and total menaces higher up than me, and hardly any women getting read. After I’ve retired perhaps I could be number one. Maybe I owe it to myself. Hey, maybe I owe it to the whole wide world, like L’Oreal says.

But for now I have some chores to do, the first of which is to go pick slugs off my pepper plants, the second of which is an hour of shorthand, on which I hope to post next. And then just another quick read of the web to confirm that I want to reopen nominations for the green leadership elections.

The enormous collateral damage of the Digital Economy Bill

Dear [MP’s name]

As your constituent I would like to alert you to key problems with the Digital Economy Bill currently being debated in the Lords (1). Specifically I’ll address those parts which relate to combatting copyright infringement through file sharing. I do not defend breach of copyright, which I recognise as an infringement of civil law. However, I would like to point out that this bill is the product of intense lobbying funded by multinational rights companies who are prepared to compromise the civil rights of their entire customer base for the sake of a holding pattern for their obsolete business model.

I have three main concerns, which I’ll outline briefly below.

1. The need for proportionate punishment which avoids collateral damage.

Under the current terms, the account holder is held responsible for the actions of each person who uses their connection, and everybody who uses the connection is punished along with the transgressor. Moreover, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are subject to heavy fines if they refuse rights holders’ demand for the personal details of infringers. ISPs oppose this bill (2).

Society is dependent on internet to the extent that we can reasonably consider it a utility comparable to water, gas or electricity. We pay our bills, access services, and shop on it. We learn on it – I work in a higher education institution which, under current terms, could be disconnected from the internet, a devastating collective punishment. Universities oppose this bill (3).

My neighbours, two teachers, could be disconnected if one of their two school-age sons were to illicitly share files over the family internet connection. Disconnecting the many small businesses along Barkingside High Street which depend on internet access could be fatal. The Federation of Small Businesses opposes this bill (4).

2. Low standards of evidence and poor appeals process.

Currently the bill permits unspecified technical measures – most likely involving a period of disconnection from the Internet – to be levelled at individual accounts holders on the basis of three letters of accusation from a rights holder. Infringers take measures to mask their identity; frequently the account holder is not the infringer. Because the courts are bypassed, there is no recourse to legal aid in an appeal.

3. Poorly-defined measures and secondary law-making powers.

Currently, the bill entitles law-making on the fly independently of Parliament and the Lords. It is unreasonable to expect the public to accept this bill on the understanding that the Secretary of State will decide the law later by Statutory Instrument. We cannot leave UK law open in anticipation of future, hitherto uninvented forms of transgression; this is particularly absurd given that the bill singles out broadband users and ignores mobile phone connections and established forms of file sharing such as disc and USB drive. It is particularly strange that a sliding scale of fines is not under debate. A fine would limit the collateral damage, and the terms of payment could be negotiated according the the income of the account holder.

I’d like to make the following urgent requests prior to the Commons debate on this bill:

  • Read the Open Rights Group’s briefing for MPs (5)
  • Back EDM 1997
  • Campaign for proportionality in this bill, and for a fine rather than disconnection.
  • Call for legal safeguards for individual internet users, including a clear appeals process with access to legal aid, be written into the bill before it is passed.

I have left a message to arrange an appointment, and look forward to discussing this further with you.

Yours sincerely,

[My name and addresses]
(1) http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200910/ldbills/001/10001.i-ii.html
(2) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/7079982/TalkTalk-would-fight-Digital-Economy-Bill-in-court.html
(3) http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/~/media/Files/members/consultations/2010/DEB_response_Puttnam%20pdf.ashx
(4) http://www.fsb.org.uk/policy/trade_and_industry
(5) http://www.openrightsgroup.org/assets/files/pdfs/p2p-briefing-print.pdf

(N.b. this omits the privacy concerns – ISP’s being forced by OfCom to divulge personal details of account holders to rights holders; possible end to anonymous file sharing.)

The meaning of Climategate

The Copenhagen Summit on climate change is approaching, and the politics are overheating.

Over 1000 private emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU – site is currently down, post-hack).

At The Telegraph, James Delingpole is trying to convince us that climate change is a figleaf over a one-world government globalisation agenda.

Bob from Brockey sent me a Wall Street Journal piece by an author who doesn’t seem to believe that in the physical sciences the ‘peer review’ process precludes the publication of work which puts up “alternative hypotheses” without solid basis for their relevance. More of such understandings below.

The author objects to the following, reproduced from a stolen email sent by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that-take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…”

Note how Michael Mann calls these people ‘skeptics’. I’m not sure this is a good term – or at least, it reflects badly on skepticism. I wish there were a better word which stopped short of ‘denier’ but recognised the role of loyalties and strongly-held beliefs. Reckon I might have to put ‘skeptics’ in scare quotes, which is something I only do when I’ve run out of words.

Anyway, these ‘skeptics’ hope to convince us that the unprecedented scientific consensus that we (humanity) are responsible for this period of climate change is a fiction, and only sustained by suppressing the work of heroic lone voices like the Climate Research journal.

But Climate Research has been politicised for a long time. Former editor Clare Goodess (researcher at CRU) relates the resignation of half its editorial board in 2003. After the publication of a skeptical paper (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) many climatologists protested and the publisher, Inter-Research, initiated an investigation into the peer review process.

“This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.”

Hans von Storch, resignee editor-in-chief mentioned there, now Director of the Institute of Coastal Research at Geesthacht, has (hastily) updated his web site with a restrained account, and a call for action. There’s a link from it to a recent paper – von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Environmental Science and Policy;12(7) 741-747 which I have just read. It’s about the practice of ‘Bringschuld’, the communication of danger on the horizon as a moral obligation of the scientist.

I’m now in a hurry so I’ll dump rather than digest:

On postnormalisation of science and a new awareness of  the role of ‘cultural constructs’ in scientific communication:

“The quality of being “postnormal” was introduced into the analysis of science by the philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1985 S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In: C. Whipple and V.T. Covello, Editors, Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, Plenum, New York (1985), pp. 217–231.Silvio Funtovitz and Jerry Ravetz (1985). In a situation where science cannot make concrete statements with high certainty, and in which the evidence of science is of considerable practical significance for formulating policies and decisions, then this science is impelled less and less by the pure “curiosity” that idealistic views glorify as the innermost driving force of science, and increasingly by the usefulness of the possible evidence for just such formulations of decisions and policy. It is no longer being scientific that is of central importance, nor the methodical quality, nor Popper’s dictum of falsification, nor Fleck’s idea of repairing outmoded systems of explanation (Fleck, 1980); instead, it is utility that carries the day. The saying “Nothing is as practical as a good theory,” attributed to Kurt Lewin, refers to the ability to facilitate decisions and guide actions. Not correctness, nor objective falsifiability, occupies the foreground, but rather social acceptance.

In its postnormal phase, science thus lives on its claims, on its staging in the media, on its congruity with cultural constructions. These knowledge claims are raised not only by established scientists, but also by other, self-appointed experts, who frequently enough are bound to special interests, be they Exxon or Greenpeace.”

von Storch recognises that scientific findings are socially situated, and that the skills and sensitivities of a cultural theorist are required when entering into communication with the public:

“In order to give our analysis depth and substance, we need the skills of the social and cultural sciences. My personal experience, which is admittedly limited, informs me that up to now, however, these sciences have largely kept their distance. What I have heard are occasional and general hints that everything would be socially constructed and relative—which I consider mostly signs of an unfortunate refusal to go into concrete detail, which would be unavoidable for any real synergy. It is annoying when colleagues from these fields obviously fail to notice that the scientific and cultural constructs are falling away from each other; instead, they content themselves with cultural constructions as circulated by the popular media and vested interests.”

He refers to science as a proxy battlefield whereby politicians present politics as subservient to science, and so the political battles are accordingly played out in the laboratories and scholarly publications. Policy-makers wait to see who “wins”, but science is supposed to hold itself open, to explore where there is a lack of resolution. Science is about question-finding; it should not be about propagandist tactics.

von Storch then goes on to discuss risks inherent in the representation of climate change as a catastrophic event for three different actors: scientists, politicians and the media:

“Science, or more precisely: the scientific institutions react to this risk by implementing professional “press relations”—which are oriented to “representational principles of the mass media.” Policy-makers protect themselves by creating a “hierarchy of knowledge, or of advice,” with advisors to the Chancellor, Climate Service Centres and the like. The mass media seek the attention of the public by selectively presenting scientific findings that either agree or conflict with the cultural construct, or else by staging controversies, by which means yet another cultural construct is served; namely, the construct of the allegedly arbitrary nature of scientific evidence.”

He ends by acknowledging that his view is limited to Central and Northern European experience, and hoping (in fact, I think it’s a yearning) for a reconciliation of cultural construction and scientific construction, concluding:

“The insight of two competing types of knowledge has a number of practical implications for science. One is, that science itself is under permanent influence of non-scientific knowledge claims, such as ideological or pre-scientific claims. They influence the scientist in his way of asking and in her request for evidence before accepting answers. Claims, which are consistent with cultural constructed knowledge are easier accepted as accurate than results, which contradict such claims. Another issue is the transfer of scientific understanding into the policy process. Here, the scientific understanding should help to prepare policy design – which must not be misunderstood as enforcing certain designs – by clarifying the natural science part of the issues.”

Besides the security breach of a university’s secure system (which I’ve passed over but which is terribly important), this is what the story of Climategate is really about . It isn’t that climate change is suddenly not human-induced. The consensus that it is is overwhelming. The real story (an old story) is that science is politicised. Consequently it falls to politicians to take responsibility for asking the right questions, coping with uncertainty and acting on the findings. We know that rigorous, disinterested climate scientists are being marginalised and unrecognised as authorities because they are cloistered. Policy-makers must pursue both relations and public relations on their behalf as a matter of urgency.

To read:

Update: “Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “While there will always be debate over climate data, it’s important to remember that the state of the world’s icebergs and glaciers remains wholly dependant on which group of tedious, hectoring arseholes is currently winning the argument.” HT Weggis.

Patrick Philippe Meier on Evgeny Morozov

With Iran in mind I’m reading iRevolution with interest. iRevolution is run by Patrick Philippe Meier, doctoral scholar of individuals’ use of technology in times of crisis, of digital activism in oppressive regimes, and of the Internet as a form of political control. It’s a very good blog.

Evgeny Morozov spoke at the RSA a while ago (vid and mp3), and now he’s in Prospect. His view is that dictators and the bloggers and commenters in their pay benefit more from the Web than dissident activists do, and it’s a view which seems to be gaining some ground. He believes that after a slow start, the repressive regimes are finally and irreversibly appropriating the technologies, and the free world should take responsibility for assisting the dissidents.

Patrick Philippe Meier had lunch with him. They take different views strategically and tactically.

Patrick addresses a number of Evgeny’s arguments, with references to some more recent literature. He calls for fewer anecdotes, more data and scholarship, and more attention to people as opposed to tools. From near the end:

“I disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that the West should be prepared to step in and help the dissenting voices, providing free and prompt assistance to get back online as soon as possible. I’m not a big fan of external, top down intervention models. They don’t work in the field of conflict early warning and conflict prevention. In fact, they fail abysmally.

I would rather take a people-centered approach, local-training-of-local-trainers, something I have referred to elsewhere as a bottom-bottom approach. In other words, lets help foster more resilient digital communities by helping to build internal capacity that minimizes the need for external intervention and maximizes self-learning.

This is why I’d recommend watching a little more Tom & Jerry. Jerry often finds himself trapped in his little mouse hideout because Tom has a gazillion mousetraps set up right outside. If Tom also starts censoring the Internet and blocks the use of mobile phones as well, then Jerry needs to draw on more than just technology to get out of this tight spot. External intervention is hardly possible in some circumstances but if Jerry is somewhat conversant in nonviolent civil resistance, he’ll have a few creative tactics up his sleeve to get him through to the next episode.”

Extremely interesting.

(In defence of anecdotes – anecdotes, in their place, are what you use to form the hypothesis to get the funding to collect data about the new and so-far unstudied phenomenon.)

Saying yes to things, watching Duncan Jones’ Moon

On (give or take a month) the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, Mitch invited us to watch Duncan Jones’ Moon at the Stratford Picture House.

I could feel myself about to say “I think I’ll stay in tonight” when I remembered Matt telling me about a podcast he’d listened to where a bloke had decided to say “Yes” more, so I said “Is it PG”? No, it was Certificate 15. But where violence is concerned I have the viewing-age of an under-twelve.

Sam Bell is an astronaut in charge of a mine works, based alone in a station on the moon without a live communication feed. His sole helper and companion is a robot called GERTY. Two weeks away from the end of a three-year contract he has an accident and when he wakes up, he finds he is not alone any more.

The British Board of Film Classifications explained exactly why it was Certificate 15. I decided to go, because it sounded like a very good film and, as a user of the BBFC’s extended classification information (to me, ‘spoiler’ is a misnomer) I was fairly confident about avoiding the bad bits (but there’s no spoiler in this post). And it’s time to grow up.

I spent the first half hour in a neurotic crash position, two fingers in my ears and four more pressing my eyes shut, my heart beating  “like a little guinea pig” Matt observed unkindly, and as ever astonished by my own pathos.  But the situation was unbelievably claustrophobic, there were sharp implements used by the protagonist, a robot gave a haircut, there was heavy working industrial machinery everywhere, and the noises were menacing. All I could see was sharp or heavy danger, and his impending accident.  I take of my hat to today’s film makers for sheer power over our souls. Watching the old fashioned films this one referenced – 2001, Dark Star – is fine, but modern cinematography penetrates your psyche like a knife into butter.  All the same, there is something a little wrong with my reaction. A film made me jump once and I never got over it.

Then, between the penultimate violent event which caused the 15 certification and the final one (which couldn’t happen because the plot hadn’t sufficiently thickened) I began to watch properly. It was really worth it.

There are some problems with the exposition – for example, it beats me why a company with a monopoly and machinery as sophisticated as GERTY would require a human to staff the station, and why only one human, and why for three years with no vacation? But’s probably best not to ask the plot to carry more weight than it can – there are just some things you have to take for granted in order to get to think about the more interesting stuff.

moon-gertyOne reviewer called Moon “a study of loneliness” but for me it was more of a study of humanity. The way Sam and GERTY (whose voice was Kevin Spacey) related to each other was one of the most interesting things. GERTY’s design was also intriguing – he was not anthropoid but he had a small screen for displaying yellow emoticons. Throughout the film GERTY was confronted with new situations, and the interplay between his range of expressions, the rapid shift between them, and their frequent incongruity were some of the funniest moments. They were some of the most interesting insights into the values of GERTY’s programmer. I think GERTY’s processor would have been some kind of neural network, software which can learn on the job. In an understated way you could see GERTY learning, and this became very important as the plot began to explore what ethical values meant to sophisticated computers, and to the relations between humans and sophisticated computers – what does it mean when GERTY says he exists to keep Sam “safe”? – and relations between managers and their human and non-human staff.

This is no dehumanised technological dystopia flick, and in a really interesting way I can’t go into without giving away the plot, it’s a counter to both technophobia and conspiracy theory films. Watch it.

Then today I regressed; I have just said “No” to something I originally said yes to. There’s a free showing of Joseph Cedar’s Israeli warfilm Beaufort at the Free Word Centre tonight. I had tickets but Matt couldn’t get back in time, and although I had thought, based on the BBFC, it would be alright, one Internet Movie Database reviewer said “I jumped in my seat like I never had before”. So I called them and freed up the tx. I need somebody to hang onto. I need to make the screen go small by looking at it in their spectacles. I’m ashamed.

Incognito blogging; a few things on pseudonymity

I was appalled to learn that for no good reason Mr Justice Eady had ruled to expose ‘Jack Night’, incognito blogger from the Lancashire Police Force and recipient of an Orwell Prize.  When Eady was quoted:

“…the judge said it was often useful, in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source.”


“More generally, when making a judgment as to the value of comments made about police affairs by ‘insiders’, it may sometimes help to know how experienced or senior the commentator is.”

I thought that was a crock. I’ve written before about withholding identity on the Web, advocating a different idea of accountability which involves readers applying their critical faculties to the writing itself rather than, as Justice Eady seems to favour, judging a piece on the basis of the identity of its author. For example, if a piece is didactic but not transparently evidenced, doesn’t flag gaps or areas of uncertainty, passes off opinions as statements of fact, employs rhetoric while being fundamentally insubstantial, is generally one-sided, or doesn’t articulate its reasoning processes, then it should be recognised as a polemic or partisan opinion piece, and given according influence and status. We can do this ourselves; we don’t need a name. This should be the focus of any transparency trend.

It is interesting to note that, for judges, “source” merely means name, not reputation.  Judges – and specifically, it should be noted, scoundrels who are guilty of misconduct themselves – tend to strongly value their own privacy. In contrast, bloggers who hope to withold their names are not asking for their misconducts to be hidden. Pseudonimity, unlike anonymity, permits an identity – i.e. some accountability – without attaching this to the name by which you are known in the eyes or your state, or your family and friends.

The best thing I’ve read on this is Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer. I think it’s an excellent piece and cute with the conceit of sunlight-as-disinfectant constrasted against the shadowy obscurity Night Jack required to write candidly. She observes:

“Blogging’s revival of anonymity, long after publishing and journalism moved on to personalities, is surely one of its more interesting achievements. For as well as liberating writers to be more mischievous or truthful than they would dare to be under their own names, anonymity also means they must be judged, at least at first, on merit. On the net, there is not even the imprimatur of a publishing house, newspaper or loyal circle of influential supporters to reassure new readers.”

I think that most bloggers I know of would agree with that.

In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment – see for example McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission.

Here’s a guide to anonymous blogging from the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

A worrying post-script, Bozeman, Montana local government employers are demanding that job applicants surrender their login details for social network sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, I feel less vindicated in my decision to be pseudonymous on all of them than I thought I would. It’s not just that I’m politically committed and occasionally indecorous, and therefore would be exposed to prejudice – it’s that people should refuse to allow prospective, or even just putative, employers to dominate their prospective employees personal – and private – lives in this way.  I think in this situation I would try to persuade the employers to treat these login details as they would references. I’d stall until I had an invitation for interview, or better, a job offer. Then, I’d refuse to provide them, and get an equal opportunities or human rights lawyer on board if they told me to sling my hook.

But so far, Bozeman’s candidates have acquiesced.