contradictions (ii): an intolerably tolerable democracy

I’m not going to say anything particularly original in this post.  Upfront, gotta be honest.  But it needs to be underlined, so we don’t forget.  It’s easy to forget stuff like this.

I’ve been watching, as I’m sure you’ve been watching too, the circling of governments around their citizens.  As austerity bites – let’s park for the moment whether austerity is inevitable or not – the requirements as far as public-order policy is concerned become self-evident.  More people become more desperate.  As desperation increases, public-order issues increase.  And as public-order issues increase, or at least the fear that they might, so the reporting of what happens becomes more partial; more iffy.

At least the highlighting of what happens.

An example.  It was reported this morning that two New York police officers were ambushed in cold blood.  Reports also mention another crime committed by the same assailant.  In the Guardian story I’ve just linked to, this additional crime merits a single sentence:

Bratton said Brinsley had shot and wounded a woman believed to have been his girlfriend at 5.46am in Baltimore county, Maryland. […]

Presumably because it was a crime of domestic violence, this was not judged to have the societal impact that killing two police officers clearly has.

Now I’m not saying the above crimes – any of them – were due to austerity.  But how they are reported, in the US in particular on the back of the Ferguson scandal and dystopian behaviours such as yesterday’s, could, in my opinion anyhow, be connected to the impact of austerity.

We’ve already seen how the Spanish government and parliament feels it necessary to tighten public-order legislation, especially in relation to social-network usage.  In Turkey, meanwhile, things appear to be getting positively (ie negatively) repressive, for things as silly as cartoon parody.  In the UK, we’ve had to witness how the right to campaign in an extra-parliamentary context has been limited by a Coalition government quite the most oppressive we’ve seen here for a long time.

I don’t think this is the product of conspiracy, even though it’s obviously happening simultaneously in many places.  It’s almost certainly more a case of convergent evolution.  In fact, in bitter hindsight, it gives the lie to our prior perception that our democracy was tolerably so – ie tolerably democratic.  When push comes to shove, governments will tend to shove before running the risk of getting pushed.

All part of being human.  The inhuman bit, I mean.

What’s intolerable about our supposedly tolerable democracy – it’s making do-ness, it’s fudging and just about getting there-ness – is that when under the prism of the periodic fracture that is capitalist bust, it loses all pretence to being what it never was anyway.

This is the bit that’s really not original about this post.  Everyone’s always known that democracy is a rubber stamping of unpopular will; an unpopular will which rarely upturns applecarts, and which generally only succeeds in repeating the narrative.

Rarely managing to renew anything.

That’s the second contradiction I’m posting about today: within its nine evocative letters, letters we should wish to inspire us, the letters “demo” stand out in a quite startling way.  Without getting all etymological, they should remind us of the right they ought to give us to express opinions of a profoundly grassroots nature.

Three lovely words.  One lovely train of thought: “Demonstrate.  Demonstration.  Democracy.”

And in truth, as austerity does bite after all, one ugly reality: “Demonisation.”

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

freedom of speech vs freedom to speech

David Cameron finds it easy to climb onto the barricades of free speech in this Telegraph report this afternoon:

David Cameron has appeared to criticised Sony Pictures for pulling a controversial film about the assassination of North Korea’s leader after cyberhackers threatened reprcussions if the movie was released.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Cameron gave a “very high importance” to the principle of freedom of speech and said people should “never be shy” about defending it when asked about the announcement.

It’s good to hear: a lot of what his government has done over the past four years seems to have set the tone for a quite different nation-state to the one most British people were accustomed to living in.

For example, we now discover that it becomes the job of Scotland Yard to hold press conferences in order that the mainstream media might feel confident enough to report a story Exaro has been battling to get out for months.  This is hardly a sign that powerful journalists and media feel comfortable about defending Cameron’s supposed hobby horse as strongly as they might, and it should lead our Coalition to question the impact its policies have had long-term on the country’s journalism.

Cameron clearly likes the idea of supporting freedom of speech, especially in public.  Perhaps what really grates on his nerves is the freedom to speech, especially in private.  This would explain the government’s attitude to privacy: Belgacom/GCHQ being a classic example of what his security services can happily continue to engage in.

The Coalition’s position could also be explained by the fact that the passive-aggressive system of governance we now have implanted in our body politic prefers to encourage everyone to feel obliged to self-censor before external censorship is necessary, and certainly without direct reference to politicians: from porn and the web more generally to tweeted, posted and (admittedly incessantly) liked humour, satire and parody, it’s ultimately up to the private companies which run these things to act as firewalls to our ire.  “Woe betide any Parliament which passes restrictive legislation!” seems to be the rule of thumb.  Much better that an anonymous corporation carries any blame.

From #DRIP to the gagging law, where legislators do act, we see them acting to tie up our rights in a real-world web of far-too-clever obligations: obligations whose impact none of us non-lawyerly folk will be able to rightly appreciate.

Or maybe we will – just not in time.

Censorship without ownership: that’s the modern political goal.

Whilst we all eagerly mount the balustrades of revolting hordes in order to defend a freedom, that of public speech, which all politicians just love us to adhere to (being in public, they can watch us, inspect us and control us that much more easily!), we get distracted – as we will so frequently in the future, too, by the looks of it – from the real and far more significant need to defend our right to a private sphere.

This is why Cameron finds it so easy to defend “freedom of speech [ie in that public area I’ve mentioned]” in the Sony-hack story and so difficult to criticise GCHQ in the Belgacom case where millions of invasions of the “freedom to speech [ie in that far more private context]” took place at (I imagine) his government’s behest.

Mad, really.  So difficult to know where to get a hold of a government like this: certain kinds of porn consumed in private are wrong – so a non-elected quango decides; certain sorts of speech consumed in private are wrong – so a non-elected security service determines; but, where we need to support the right to insult people gaily in public, a man like our PM, who started out fairly liberal and still shows flecks of the selfsame instincts, expresses fulsome support.

The thing is, on freedom of speech (the public stuff, if you remember), he’s most likely right.  But he’s right for the wrong reasons.  So he couldn’t really be wronger.

It’s not right that you can contemplate encouraging people to be offensive in public in the name of such liberal freedoms – and not allow them, by the same token, to communicate as they might in the privacy of their own households.

What I ask myself is: how does he sleep at night with so many contradictions?

Maybe it’s a game they’re playing with us, eh?

Before, they deliberately confused privacy and secrecy.  Now we found them out, perhaps they think it’s time to promote only those freedoms we are able to exercise visibly.

Under their easy oversight, I mean.

And whilst we do, and whilst they do, they get us to forget (or ignore) all those other more hidden ones – freedoms which the humanity we once were actually, really, needed!