“the experimental society”

As I write these words, I am attending the Nesta event “The experimental society”, at its headquarters in London.  

The comms tech being used – easily visible to both speakers and audience – is really nice: poll and question software called sli.do, which even allows for spontaneous thought-up answers to add to the standard multi-choice responses.

The debate has already touched on the privacy side of ID cards where politicians reframe studies whose results they don’t like; on the right a society – more importantly, the private sector – has to conduct the often hidden experiments being discussed tonight; specifically, quite a lot of debate around Facebook’s manipulation of people’s streams around election times; and particularly on the allegedly “poor science” nature of such social experimentation.

I have to say as a newly recruited ethnographer in the context of Criminal Justice, and as a citizen never instinctively in favour of the Facebooks of the world, to condemn such beasts as having conducted bad science shows a gently limiting acceptance of what the scientific method can mean.

A large scale ethnographic experiment may not have been what FB actually did on the occasions described this evening, but with more work and preparation, and an understanding of the various options too, it would be very easy to do good ethnographic science – that is to say, deliberately going in without a prior hypothesis to hand – whilst generating the kind of data which FB functions with every day.

My impulse in all these things is never to stop nor attempt to control what anyone does, but work from a promoted and shared culture and wider environment which aims to better encourage societal participation in both experimental design and the understanding of the end results themselves.  Never even attempt to stop stuff full-stop: rather, look to create a far more collaborative and cooperative societal Petri dish out of which this experimentation will then emerge quite naturally.

To paraphrase Peter Levine: work to a Good Democracy where inclusiveness and efficiency are balanced – not only in well-understood political debate but also, now, in experimental societal-wide innovation and implementation.

hyperlocalians (or how to make journalism pay)

I wrote the following lines back in January of this year:

In truth, what we became was the second Industrial Revolution.  Instead of mining coal, iron ore, slate and diamonds, the Facebooks and Googles and Twitters et al mined what they managed to convert into our freely available and plentiful thoughts, using relatively simple and cleverly repeated programming strategies along the insatiable way.

The grand achievement of the Industrial Revolution of the 21st century has been to turn human beings – in an ever-growing and significant minority – into natural resources to be exploited and maximised for the benefit of those who still conserve some dignified relationship with work.

As the minority slowly becomes a majority, we shall see whether this will remain a sustainable state of affairs.  Whilst people like myself have laboured under the foolish and confused state of mind that no one paid us for what we did because what we did wasn’t worth paying for, people, institutions, finally very large concentrations of wealth, which have known all along far better than we ever did, have taken all those ideas, have created firehoses and algorithmic streams whose intelligence – whilst no longer the work of any individual author, and thus becoming free of all copyright, payment and intellectual recognition – nevertheless still requires the billions of authors to continue contributing without financial compensation.


It’s amazing how the our virtual 21st century ecosystem has become, essentially, a capitalism which exploits a millionfold more than Victorian times ever did.  And yet few people who are exploited seem to see it as exploitation.  They say: “Social networks?  Hey!  That’s fun.”  And if you say to them: “You know, whilst you’re not making ends meet, someone in Silicon Valley’s turning a helluva business on what you do when you look at your smartphone!”

To conclude:

Isn’t this all a case of colonialism squared?  Only, instead of geographic and racial, it’s become virtual and mental.

But the ethnocentricity, the self-centred commerce, the egotistical carelessness … even the cruelty that comes out of thoughtless acts which start out in one type of place – and end up condemning real lives to heartless despair in quite another …

These are the real implications of this very 21st century destruction of all of the natural resources alluded to.

Shortly after writing these words, I created a project called chester.website, where (I think) I was stumbling to create a sustainable relationship between intellect and reward.

After seven months of slog, I realised I’d not got the skills to generate the engagement and sense of belonging which I needed others to feel for the project in question to take off properly and function.

But I haven’t given up on the idea of avoiding the mistakes of the blogosphere’s past decade; of social networks; and of Web 2.0’s ultimately sneaky pulling of the wool over our collaborative eyes.

It seems to me that within the hyperlocal environments that have sprung up around the country over the past few years we are resolving many of the issues that currently face the sector of local news.

Maybe, longer-term, national and global news too.

One issue which is creating considerable tension however – I’ve seen it in others on Facebook and elsewhere, in particular in the comments that committed individuals working in hyperlocal leave every so often for us to read – is that which occupied me in my January piece quoted from above: the dignified, sustainable and just relationship between a good day’s work and a good day’s pay.

That people who work – I resist the term “professionals”, as it tends to imply a certain kind of worker and I certainly don’t mean to restrict the categories here at all – should in a world of plenty be receiving plenty less than they used to, or perhaps nothing at all, makes me wonder if there can’t be a better way to reconceptualise everything.

Even within Web 2.0 and social networks the idea of reward for work is not ignored: when you post a photo people like, you get temporary notoriety (oh, all right! Call it fame …) as the “likes” and positive comments flood in.  So the nexus of doing and getting something in exchange holds up – forms, in fact, the whole foundation of social media as all of us know it.

What’s broken, though, at least to my mind, is the convertibility of the reward generally assigned us.  What’s broken is the ability to do something useful for ourselves with those “likes” and comments, which isn’t simply – little more than – a square root of narcissism.  Was it Newton who argued energy not only couldn’t be destroyed but could also be moved from one form to another?  Well, Zuckerberg has destroyed that sequence of laws and beliefs.  In early 21st century Web 2.0 as it has become, “likes” and verbal love remain congealed in a personally useless aspic.  The energy of the Facebooks of the world is deliberately stuck in virtual craws.

This is clearly not healthy.  So I wonder: how best to deal with the situation?

As I continue to argue, there’s always a better way.  Whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, there’s always, without exception, going to be a wiser direction towards the future.  The question is really whether we are able to lift our heads above the walls they have built around us, and see the green grass beyond which is waiting to be rolled in.

The key here, in this particular case, is convertibility.  Money has lost its utility in Web 2.0, because what we do – the reward we get –  has had money as its currency gouged out of it.  The only people who get money from Web 2.0 are the tech orgs which run it for their benefit.

The alternative, then, has to be time (it is, in any case, all that they’ve left us).  At the moment, as I pointed out above, our time is being mined just as coal – once – was mined and delivered to colonialists who reserved the right to rip resource out of virgin land.

But what if we turn our Web 2.0 time into the convertible substitute that money historically has operated as – the convertible substitute we need in order that intellect may continue to earn us a living wage?

Time banks you believe I mean?  Not exactly.  Or, at least, not as we know them.

Time banks are general repositories: they’ve always seemed rather cold to me; anyone and everyone can participate, in theory – they then, as a result, lose particular focus.

No.  I’d be suggesting something rather more tied into one particular sector.  Hyperlocal media and communication hubs, to be precise.

Less, minutes and seconds for all and sundry.  More, “hyperlocalians” to pay our journalists.

The question being: how can we make work pay for journalists, contributors and authors in the future?  How can we turn thoughts and ideas no one currently values or filters into the stuff that dignified lives of remunerated souls are made of?

This is my challenge for this autumn and into 2016.  To make journalism pay.

outsourcing our souls

I wonder if the online world doesn’t actually provide us with a sense of structure we can easily doublecheck, and an environment of security most would argue is manifestly not the case.  And in such a context, the offline world becomes a real challenge – a really hard call for sensitive souls to deal properly with.

A case in point.

I spent the last couple of days in London.  I’d never used an Oyster card before.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s a contactless payment system to allow you to travel around the city.

I don’t know, even now, how to properly use it.  I don’t feel confident in its using.  I’d much prefer it to have its own LCD screen, which informed you, as and when you needed, how much dosh was left on it; how much you had spent.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Neither is the Underground – nor the other rail & road services which connect off it – a network I understand with the necessary degrees of confidence.  Perhaps familiarity breeds contentment – who knows?  If I spent some time in London, I’m sure I could see it as a real-world equivalent of a blogging CMS; and be as comfortable with that network as I am with online ones.

So what was the purpose of all this stressful travelling around?  I was attending the last public interview of Alan Rusbridger, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper for the past twenty years or so; an event and a half as it turned out; an event worthy of all the stress I kind of had to endure.

I even got to meet him after the interview; he was pressing the flesh patiently as any politician must.  In a sense, then, being an editor is like being a politician; in the same way, perhaps, as a pope like Pope Francis shows a religious personage can also be political: politically attuned, at the very least.

Before the occasion started, convivial drinks were had by convivial people you’d probably expect to attend such a gathering.  I’m not sure I am exactly that sort of person; but maybe oddballs fit into the Guardian‘s left field too.

The interview lasted around ninety minutes and covered a lot of ground.  It reminded us of historical idiocies: of libel actions built on the sands of massive lies; of the phone-hacking stories; of the Trafigura super-injunctions which in themselves were super-injuncted (if I remember rightly …); of Snowden, the surveilled past he described and the rabbits-in-headlights future we are now living; of that awful billowingly fuel-laced 9/11 frontpage; of this and that and so much more.

What shone through all the way was a steely humanity: a necessary thick skin even notable editors sometimes fail to entirely acquire.  I’m not sure I’ll ever have it; so really not sure I’ll ever be what – otherwise – I might have easily been.

But in the absence of something one would wish to possess, one can only admire more fully those who demonstrate it really can be done.

After the event itself, we went up for the complementary drinks.  In the mix of disinterested and interested souls, there was the whiff of self-representation amongst some of those who attended.  I always feel a little bit uncomfortable on these occasions: it seems bad form to approach someone who’s celebrating their tenure in order to exchange a business card.  But I suppose thick skins do make the world go round.  Or something …

Yes.  Most people seemed older, and didn’t care too much about the impact of their words; but there was one young and gently thoughtful thirteen-year-old who spoke so clearly on the matters he had witnessed, it cheered me up immensely.  As someone who’s part of a generation which has so failed the world, I can only hope more of these youngsters grab what has been our manifest and rank failure, and manage – in some way – to turn it round.

I see my own weaknesses, and wonder if I can ever turn my back story into history.  I’m not sure it’s possible: it’s easy for people to play mind games with me; such an easy sport that like fox hunting, it should surely be outlawed.

Though they do say they want to bring it back, don’t they?

My question, then, I suppose is this: how can we create a world where the mind-gamers don’t trash and poison normal human relations?  How can editors help to edit reality so it reaffirms instead of damages human discourse?  How can the sacred role of journalistic endeavour bring us real truths that’ll pan out like the nuggets we really deserve?

How can we stop the bad editors taking control – of going so far as to outsource our souls?  And how can we ensure that the mischievously good, clearly the Mr Rusbridgers of the world, win on our behalf the battles we need fighting?

Answer me that, and we’ll have solved half of everything that’s currently hurting.

Fail to provide any cogency – and people like myself, at least, who probably see and comprehend far too much of what really happens out there, will simply shrivel away in a morale-sapping decay we could easily call a final resignation.