on heeding europe’s hostility to american science and tech

The Economist suggests that:

[…] critics have a bigger worry. Europe, they fear, is clinging desperately to old certainties as technological change sweeps past. Some detect signs of this attitude in the tensions between the EU and big tech firms.  […]  This, hints an American official, may have more to do with protecting European incumbents than with competition law.

I’d suggest something rather different.  Europe – in its fudging, almost-not-getting-there but just-about-succeeding, sort of way (that is to say, anything but the gung-ho North American approach) – is expressing a collective dissatisfaction not with science and fundamental research itself (as the Economist article would suggest) but, instead, with how we’re going about implementing a wider progress; perhaps more importantly, implementing what we often unconsciously term change.

The big three questions are:

  1. Do we assume all change is inevitable?
  2. Do we assume all change is progress?
  3. What are we defining as progress?

I’d take point 1 and argue that very few people who make and shake care ever to believe that change isn’t a given.  What’s more, in relation to point 2, I’m pretty sure the same folk believe all change, by its nature, inevitably leads to progress for someone or something – generally, I’d assume, being as they’re so eager to pursue it, in benefit of their blessed sources of wealth and beloved standards of living.  Meanwhile, as far as point 3 is concerned, progress seems to be defined mostly as those processes which reduce wages, cheapen the costs of production, increase shareholder value and allow the eighty-five wealthiest people in the world to continue to own what the other fifty percent of the global population scrabble to maintain.

I wrote these lines a few weeks ago, where I suggested how we might think intelligently about wealth:

There are I suppose two alternatives:

  1. Aim to spread wealth equally so we are similarly poor or similarly well-off (always depending, I suppose, on where you’ve started out and where you’ve found yourself ending up) – I can imagine that here a) taxation systems would play a big part in attempting to achieve this goal; and b) universal basic incomes could also contribute constructively to its implementation.
  2. Aim to allow concentrations of wealth only where and when value is demonstrably added over time.  We would not stop being punitive about the kind of concentrations which just have rich people sitting on their wealth; we would however reward any and all concentrations which allowed us to achieve wider societal goals that Parliament, a bespoke tribunal of the people or any other democratic process could design.

What kind of societal goals could those be?  In no order of importance, then – just as they trip out of the ideas-generator:

  • Dignified, humanly fulfilling and educationally expanding work.
  • Inclusive organisational patterns of relationships, at all community, corporate and political levels.
  • A re-establishment of that liberal bond between responsibilities and rights.
  • An intuitive openness in governance in all kinds of institutions, so that honesty, sincerity and informed debate are to be prized and held dear above all.
  • Profit to be understood primarily as that which benefits the whole of society, and only secondarily the interests of more traditional investors.
  • A careful appreciation, development and implementation of technology, with the aim of putting it at the service of people and not the other way round.
  • A sustainable approach to all our environments – whether natural or human-made.
  • Ultimately, an evidence-based approach to all kinds of decision-making processes – even as the plethora of information available these days should not freeze our collective ability to take such decisions in a timely manner.

In the light of the above – and the “what is to be done” questions which in a minute I’ll pose below – I’d resist most forcefully the attempt to describe Europe, in its already mentioned collectivity, as an entity in the process of rejecting science and technology.

What it is more than probably finding unlikeable about a very US-capitalist implementation (and I’m not trying to be anti-American here; I just think it not only manifestly the case but also something US capitalists would find it easy to be proud of) is the matter of that obvious disconnect between a need for an economy to sustainably serve the people and a fairly tragic reality where people serve economies in situations of working poverty.

It’s plainly not functioning – and the experiment has had decades to show it might.

It’s time to stop claiming that change is inevitable, and must be accepted without configuration or question.

We need more questions, in order to move forwards.

The “what is to be done” questions I mentioned before will help.  Questions I’d pose in the following sequence:

  1. Who is to benefit from this progress?
  2. Who is to suffer from this progress?
  3. How can we increase those who benefit?
  4. How can we reduce those who suffer?

Once it became possible to think around these areas and start to address the implications, maybe Europe’s hostility to what is essentially an American mindset on progress would begin to subside and recede; would become, instead, far more engaged and collaborative in its attitudes.

But whilst US capitalism continues to see science and technology as a means to disrupt ordinary livelihoods to the advantage of established concentrations of wealth and power, rather than empower the lives of perishable human beings who do, essentially, now live under the yoke of capitalism, the suspicion we’re all demonstrating in relation to such notable exponents of change will continue to heighten and become more exaggerated.

the grand stitch-up of micro-biz, consumer-producers and work-life balancing acts #euvat

There’s a bit of an issue heaving around the European Union at the moment.  It might even affect you.  If you deliver automated services on a website you own, and you sell to consumers across the EU, this page just might interest you.

It gets a bit complex, so there’s a very handy table here (scroll down – you’ll soon hit it).  I reproduce it below:

Examples of electronic supplies and whether or not they are ‘digital services’

Service E-service? Electronically supplied? Covered by the new rules
Pdf document manually e-mailed by seller Yes No No
Pdf document automatically e-mailed by seller’s system Yes Yes Yes
Pdf document automatically downloaded from site Yes Yes Yes
Stock photographs available for automatic download Yes Yes Yes
Live webinar No No No
On-line course consisting of pre-recorded videos and downloadable pdfs Yes Yes Yes
On-line course consisting of pre-recorded videos and downloadable pdfs plus support from a live tutor Yes No No
Individually commissioned content sent in digital form e.g. photographs, reports, medical results Yes No No
Link to online content or download sent by manual e-mail Yes Yes Yes

As you can see, it’s not easy for people to understand.  When I say that, I mean the underlying philosophy behind the various exemptions.  In my case, I’m a (slightly struggling) language teacher who gives classes in the online presence (ie via video-conferencing systems) of his learners.  The only e-service bit of my product (as per the above definitions) involves sending emails before and after the class – though as this is a manual process, I don’t think for the moment I’ll be falling foul of the rules.

So onto the meat of today’s post: my title talks of a “grand stitch-up of micro biz, consumer-producers and work-life balancing acts”.  What do I mean by this?  Let’s take one of the examples of e-services (or not) which the HMRC page talks about.  In this case:

  1. live webinars;
  2. online courses which are totally automated;
  3. and online courses, with live tutor support tacked on.

In situation 1, we have a highly laborious and expensive process which small biz will do well, and could continue to perform given half the chance, but which is probably going to be squeezed out of the marketplace sooner or later through the demand for cheap or freemium services – almost certainly sooner if extra admin costs such as VAT go through the roof.

This, sadly, at least for a learning nostalgic like myself, is probably going to be the past of learning – where no one except myself wants to continue to be.

In situation 2, we have highly automated and very cheap, even free, processes which universities and other institutions will do better as time goes by – processes which many are already expanding in to through the putting online and delivery of MOOCs.

This is probably going to be the future of learning – where everyone who wants to make tons of dosh will end up scrabbling for positions; and where those who know best are already positioning themselves ruthlessly.

In situation 3, however, we have what I assume is the object of every training organisation’s focus right now.  It’s here where the biggest opportunities lie in the short-term.

This is almost certainly the present of learning, and everyone but everyone must be squabbling over it this year.

Imagine the situation, if the #EUVAT palaver wasn’t happening.  Budding consumer-producers like myself, with a degree of ambition towards growth in their business, might move in to the partial automation of their training – knowing they would not have to reconfigure their VAT status.  In truth, you could argue, the new regulations allow for this in a most constructive manner.

Let’s say, even, that it’s already happened.  I’m behind the times a tad, but there’s plenty of people out there who’ve been training via the web for much longer than I have.

So maybe they were doing just a little too well for the corporate lobbyists who find it easier to bend politicians’ ears.  With the market splintering here and there – whilst micro biz, its owners and shakers and their treasured work-life balances began to construct a tapestry of relationships outside the scope of the traditional companies of learning – who wouldn’t need something to be done to make life more complicated?

Obviously, full automation would be everyone’s medium- to long-term goal – the pause before it happened not so much technological as one of the public’s emotional acceptance of the beast (my judgement, anyway, as someone with quite a bit of experience in automated training …).

So in the meantime, it was to everyone’s benefit to leave EU VAT on learning just as it is.

At the same time, of course, as the future of automated learning would be tied up in the corporates – as well as other organisations prepared to be big enough to make complex VAT-registration workable.

No place in MOOC-land for little consumer-producers, busybee-ing their courses and livings from the comfort of their cheap PCs, SOHO software licences and sheer imagination.  No chance of making a decent living below the UK VAT threshold, if you dared to have the temerity to enter into the world of automated learning.  No opportunity to maintain those treasured work-life balances they used so much to talk about.  No future in the future everyone believed was on the horizon.

And if we’re talking about doing learning for Generation Y, just forget the consumer-producers they could, they themselves, have become.

Of course, there are many more complications on the way.  I only speak from the sector I know.  But I do get the feeling there’s a stitch-up been sewn quite competently here – the unforeseen consequences of which will take quite a while to unspool and become self-evident.

What is self-evident, at least to me, is that our governments don’t want people to have the time to think too much – instincts to work-life balance being almost punishable by sneaky diktat of late.

Our governments don’t want people to work for themselves too much – having one’s nose to the grindstone of working for some big organisation being the tonic these days of almost every other official announcement.

Our governments don’t want an unpredictable cauldron of heaving entrepreneurial-minded individuals, sincerely capable of inventing futures as yet completely unthought of and unanticipated – let innovation remain in the hands of those best-placed to postpone it, seems to be the cause.

They talk the talk of new economies, all right.

But the shoes they wear when they walk their walk are about as hole-riven as any government’s policy ever was.

And if my example hasn’t hit home as it should have done by now, just read this next tweet and weep.

For weep you will, I assure you.

Twitter artwork credit: Heather L Sheppard @DinobotTwit, and at http://teaceratops.com/dinobot/

“hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention …”

There’s a lovely article in the Guardian Media Network section this week.  The quote that caught my attention dates from 1971, and is by a person called Herbert Simon (the bold is mine):

As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”.

That Simon* could observe this in 1971 is astonishing: astonishing because it indicates that the poverty of attention he mentioned over forty years ago existed even as he drew attention to its dangers.

We haven’t heeded his warnings.

It’s an important set of observations, then.  If the norm is becoming, for at least the younger of our citizens, a displaced attention span to, at the minimum, a pair of screens at the same time (TV and mobile phone; maybe desktop and/or tablet too), it tells us our ability to prioritise and filter is declining quite sharply whilst our tendency to unfocus and fail to pursue to a proper end our goals is increasing equally dramatically.

This may mean, of course, nothing at all: as a species, addiction to this and that has been a historical constant, and the periodic highs – ever shorter as content becomes more frequently renewed – may be nothing new here.  But the fact that it might affect the best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls who are our species’ future, is perhaps a little more than just a little worrying.

It could be that a whole generation – even us older lot whose memories begin to fail us – is growing up in the dreadful misconception that to manage multiple screens of multiple streams of multiple screams of information is tantamount to being able to usefully multi-task in an information and knowledge economy.

It’s not true, of course.  The importance of reflection and gentle cogitation has never been greater.  Particularly when it is thought – or its lack of therein – which will save or condemn our place on the planet.

I remember seeing what happened to Blair: a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed machine of transferable thought who arrived on the political scene and turned it upside down with his sharpness and movement of mind.

What’s happened to him?  Over the years, an inevitable decline: a solidification of ideas, once fluid; a freezing of mindsets, once liquid.  I have this theory (probably other people have it, and have said it better, too …): it runs like this.  Any leader, politician or otherwise, is like a mathematician who never invents beyond the age of twenty-five: what they will think, where they will go, why they will be remembered is set by that twenty-fifth year.  Everything else is a consequence of that: just as much for the Blairs of the world we all democratically strive to inhabit as it is for stratospheric businesspeople like Apple’s Steve Jobs clearly was.

So.  Let’s see what’s happening to those who might lead more invisibly.  The best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls: where do they stand at the age of twenty-five?  What have the vast majority achieved by such a time?  Multi-task on two screens and manage several information streams whilst they’re monetised to hell and back by carelessly distant corporations?

Do we really build the future of our species on liking and tweeting our thoughts amidst an environment of an algorithmic orgasm which never quite manages to come together?

Are these really the giants whose shoulders we must stand on gingerly peer over in order that we might contemplate a better world for everyone?

Perpetually postponed.

Eternally awaited on.

Essentially frustrating our every instinct of natural intention.

Is that really it?


* I believe this is the right Simon; please do correct me I’m wrong!