A simple idea to help the pro-democracy movement in #Egypt: Publish

Tahrir Square – “The biggest think-tank in the Middle East”

In the Western world, there is much hand-wringing over just how our people and governments can help the people of Egypt get a better government.  Since we are viewed as part of the problem, any interventions (either supporting the Mubarak regime, or condemining it more forcefully) will likely make matters worse.  So for now, we hear slightly patronising platitudes about how the Egyptian people “must decide for themselves” followed by cautionary tales of radical Islam in the very next breath.

There is one way in which Western nations – or rather, the people civil society groups in those nations – could help the pro-democracy groups, and that is by publishing their message.  With communications still slow and unreliable in Egypt itself, the messages of What They Actually Want are patchy, stilted, and vulnerable to pro-Mubarak spin.

In Tahrir Square, just over one hour ago, Mostafa Hussein sends out the following message:

Tahrir square is the biggest brainstorming & think-tank in the middle east and possible the world now. #egypt #jan25

Well then: how about the people of Europe and North America, with their unrivalled and unfettered communications network, publish the preliminary findings of this new think-tank?

I do not mean “Let’s publish thoughts of Egyptian journalists and analysts” or “thoughts of Arab writers” or “eye witness accounts of what is happening”.   I mean, why not publish the debates and discussions of those in the square right now.

Now, I actually think that a book is the right medium for this.  Something that has been formally published and can exist in printed form has a certain authority and weight (literally and metaphorically) that these ideas need.  TV interviews and news reports are two-a-penny and far too transient, as are blogs, YouTube Channels and Twitter feeds.  A book on the otherhand – even a short book – can step outside the river of news and become something more tangible and influential.  It will be something other than the charter of the Muslim Brotherhood, that everyone can point to as an alternative to Mubarak and his henchmen.

With the new digital inventions at our fingertips, there are no technical barriers to doing this.  Initiatives like The Benjamin Franklin Project have shown that the free tools on the Internet are all that is required to gather and publish news and views.  And the means to pull content together are already in operation down on Tahrir Square.  Lulu.com allows you to publish a proper book, with an ISBN and a listing on Amazon, almost on a whim.

So, how about a British or American civil society group offers to spend until the end of this week managing the project, and undertakes to publish the book, in English, to an international audience.  I am thinking of a projects of the scope of The New Liberal Arts project – short essays.  I reckon think tanks like Demos, or the Fabian Society have the capacity to pull this off… or maybe a forward think news organisation like OpenDemocracy, The Guardian, or The Atlantic?


A couple of PEN members may be putting this together with their contacts in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya!  Get in touch via the comments if you would like to help.

#Egypt, The Most Important Data Nexus on the Planet

Amid all the uncertainty and violence happening in Egypt, I was struck by a story from Alexandria.  Youths have been organising to protect Bibliotheca Alexanadrina, ‘The New Library of Alexandria’.

The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria.  They are collaborating with the army.  This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.

A major early move by the Egyptian government was to ‘flick the switch’ and choke Internet communications.  In the short term this has clearly given Mubarak and his cohort the upper-hand, by keeping the pro-democracy groups divided and chaotic.  However, the short-term gain might weaken them in the future.  As the the freelancer journalist Ashraf Khalil just tweeted from Cairo:

Told Nile TV that the main economic damage to #egypt is from Net shutdown (estimated $90 mill) and images of violence scaring away tourists

The stories of the Library and the net shut-down recall an old Wired article by Neal Stephenson, where he traces the paths of fibre-optic cables around the world (I actually mentioned it last December when discussing Wikileaks). Stephenson’s travels take him to Egypt, where a major new communications cable is being landed in Alexandria, at a most historic location:

If you turn your back on the equipment through which the world’s bits are swirling, open one of the windows, wind up, and throw a stone pretty hard, you can just about bonk that used book peddler on the head. Because this place, soon to be the most important data nexus on the planet, happens to be constructed virtually on top of the ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria.

Just one more reason why we are all bound up in Egypt’s fate.  Let’s hope that the people who marshalled to protect their museums, are the ones to prevail.

Global Culture vs International Culture

International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.
International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.

And now for some semantics.  David at Minority Report muses the problem of net nuetrality, and highlights a post over at Confused of Calcutta on the ‘un-national’, a word borrowed from a William Stafford poem.  JP contrasts concepts like ‘global’ with apparent synonyms like ‘international’ and its derivatives.  The former has an implied statelessness, the absence of a nation, whereas the latter implies that the thing we are describing (a person, or an organisation) does have one or more nations of origin, a liable jurisdiction that can control and curtail their activities.

This chimes with Jay Rosen’s description of Wikileaks as the first ‘Stateless’ news organisation, an idea he expanded on in a recent edition of his Rebooting the News podcast (#76, I think), making the same point that ‘global’ and ‘international’ are not necessarily the same thing.  In the context of net neutrality and cyber-dissidence, a ‘global’ organisation, with no final country of origin, is better protected against interference and attack, than an ‘international’ organisation which nevertheless has a home nation. Rosen recommends that Wikileaks adopts a similar model to Greenpeace, Amnesty, and PEN, with national organisations/chapters in many countries.

My thoughts naturally turn to multi-culture and how these terms might be applied in that area.  When cultural phenomenons, and pieces of art and cultural expression, become popular in many countries, are they international or global (in the senses described above).  I would say that musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles (bigger, for a time, than Jesus) and Michael Jackson are all international.  In each case, their music is a product of a particular time and place – regardless of where their fans are located, or where they play their concerts.

However, I think cultural phenomenons like Islam or Football are clearly global.  As they exist now, they seem to be a product of the human race as a whole, even if their origins can be pin-pointed accurately to a single country.  You could even include things like World of Warcraft, and the graffiti aesthetic in that list, but not Les Misérables.  What about LOLcats?

On Passwords and Privacy

The popular Gawker/Lifehacker network was hacked this week, compromising tens of thousands of passwords.  This news provides an excuse for a couple of paragraphs of boastful geekery in the fascinating area of password management.

I spend a lot of my day roaming the Internet and the various services it has to offer, both for work and personal matters. In many cases, I operate an organisational and personal account (for example, @englishpen and @robertsharp59 on Twitter).  Logging in and out of the various accounts can be a drag, but I’ve recently started using the Sxipper password management tool for Firefox.  Browsers already have the capacity to remember your passwrods of course, but usually only one-per-site.  Sxipper stores all the possible options and let’s me choose.  A Godsend.

This transition has allowed me to become a little more rigourous in managing personal privacy.  Prompted by this salutary tale from Cory Doctorow, I decided that I would create unique passwords for new websites I sign-up for.

I carefully tapped in my password, clicked the login button, and then felt my stomach do a slow flip-flop as I saw the URL that my browser was contacting with the login info: http://twitter.scamsite.com … And that’s when I realized that I’d been phished. And it was bad. Because I’d signed up for Twitter years ago, when Ev Williams, Twitter’s co-founder sent me an invite to the initial beta. I’d used a password that I used for all kinds of sites, back before I started strictly using long, random strings that I couldn’t remember for passwords.  …  What’s more, Twitter isn’t the only place where I used my “low-security” password that has turned into a high-security context, which means that hijackers could conceivably break into lots of interesting places with that information.

The recent Gawker breach only reinforces Cory’s advice to use a different password for each site.  Back in the day, before my laptop was stolen, I would use the same password for all websites, as (I guess) most people continue to do.  It was only after the theft that I began to diversify, and only in recent months I have gone the whole random hog and started to use opaque strings. To do this with ease, I have bookmarked PC Tools Random Password Generator.

JR Rapael at the PC World blog has an interesting article on all this: Gawker Hack Exposes Ridiculous Password Habits.  Apparently “12345” is the most common password, followed closely by “password”, obviously.  If those combinations feel a little too close to home, it would be wise to make some changes to your own online life, ASAP.

The Seams of Our Society Are Exposed Tonight

We live in interesting times. As I write there are protesters kettled by police on Westminster Bridge, and burning portaloos in Parliament Square. The army are deployed in Edinburgh, clearing the effects of the worst snow for 40 years. Meanwhile, an ‘info war’ is being waged on the largest financial services companies in the world by a disparate group of hacktivists. Digital technology allows us to watch all these crises unfold in realtime.

In my twitter stream all these stories are spliced together. This makes them seem like different scenes in a single master-narrative.

All these events are compelling because they show just how tenuous our human systems are. Visa and MasterCard should be reliable to the point of invisibility – instead we are reminded that they can turn off our credit on a political whim. The food supply into our cities should be consistent and unbroken, not severed by a bit of snow. And our shopping districts should not erupt into blazing vandalism in an instant.

These confusions expose the thin seams of our society. I do not think they will break, for tonight at least. But the strain is obvious.

Wikileaks is More Than Assange

As was debated a few days ago at Liberal Conspiracy, it is very difficult to know what to think about the Swedish allegations against Julian Assange. In such situations one can only hope that the evidence against him is presented in a timely fashion. Then he can be either charged and tried, or released, as the available facts dictate. We will know what to think in due course, there is no need to pre-empt a due process which so far seems to be progressing as it should.

But let us assert one thing right now: the personal exploits of Julian Assange tell us nothing about the morality of the Wikileaks project and it’s recent #Cablegate actions.

If Assange is convicted, watch out for those who use it to cast doubt on the idea and mission of the Wikileaks project. Such arguments will merely be an ad hominem that will add nothing new to the debate around Freedom of Information that the site has brought into sharp focus.

In the arts, many critics take the biographical approach when they analyse artists’ work. The classic questions: Is ‘The Wasteland’ reduced if T.S. Eliot was an anti-semite? Was Paul Gauguin a worse artist because he abandoned his wife and children? We might ask the same questions of political philosophies too: are we to abandon the American experiment because the Founding Fathers were slave owners? I don’t see how (especially when the principles which ultimately guaranteed the freedom from slavery were written by those same men in the Bill of Rights). Likewise, should we abandon the philosophy of Wikileaks if Julian Assange turns out to be a rapist? I think not.

Indeed, the very name of the website argues against this. It would be a very poor sort of Wiki that was vulnerable to a ‘decapitation’ strategy. Surely the whole point of a site worthy of the prefix is that it depends on a community, not an individual. Those who try to propagate the ‘Assange ⇔ Wikileaks’ meme in the next few weeks should be reminded of this.

Wikileaks and the Long Game of Political Change

I have probably said before on this blog how delightful it is when someone else makes the point you want to make, only better, so you don’t have to.  There is scant need for me to write much on the latest Wikileaks #Cablegate revelations, when there is already a lot of good writing being spread about.  This is all grist to Glenn Greenwald’s mill, and he has a masterful round-up of the reaction to the leaks at Salon.com.

It’s staggering to watch anyone walk around acting as though the real threat is from excessive disclosures when the impenetrable, always-growing Wall of Secrecy is what has enabled virtually every abuse and transgression of the U.S. government over the last two decades at least.

Simon Jenkins makes a simple, powerful point: “The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment.”  At the end of his column, he makes the following pertinent point:

But coupled with the penetration already allowed under freedom of information, the walls round policy formation and documentation are all but gone. All barriers are permeable. In future the only secrets will be spoken ones. Whether that is a good thing should be a topic for public debate.

This topic is analysed more fully by Zunguzungu in a post entitled Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government”.  The author points to Julian Assange’s essays from 2006 on the nature of government and his definition of conspiracy, and explains the view that such conspiracies can be viewed as computer-like, network-like (or even Al’Quaeda like) in their form.

[Wikileaks is] a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

This is derived from none other than Machiavelli, from whose Il Principe Assange cites approvingly:

Thus it happens in matters of state; for knowing afar off (which it is only given a prudent man to do) the evils that are brewing, they are easily cured. But when, for want of such knowledge, they are allowed to grow until everyone can recognize them, there is no longer any remedy to be found.

I read The Prince at University and had forgotten this quote, but I think it is a crucial insight not just into the nature of conspiratorial governments, but of politics as a whole.  I see now that it was the subconscious message of my last post, tapped hurriedly on the train yesterday morning.  I’ve also tried to capture the same insight in discussions about Tony Blair and his squandering of political capital, but Niccolò makes the same point more succinctly.  I repeat, it is delightful when someone else makes the point you want to make, only better.

The Internet is A Really Nice Place

In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes on the delights that post-colonials bring to the English language, and laments the decline of language and civility online:

The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.

She joins Dame Helen Mirren in lamenting the decline in standards brought about by the new technologies.  Andrew Marr recently made similar comments about ‘ranting’ bloggers.

I fear that such comments will become a regular punctuation in our discourse from now on.  Such attitudes from the dead-tree columnists come about by a failure to understand that the new technologies like Twitter and teh blogs are not changing culture, but revealing it.  Clay Shirky, in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody, likens the net to a public mall.  Its a public space, but that doesn’t mean every conversation is directed at you.  In a shopping centre, if you were to eavesdrop on a chat between a group of teenagers, then make comments about their awful slag, you would be regarded as, at best, a curmudgeonly pedant; or at worst, a dodgy weirdo worthy of a report to the mall security guards.  Likewise with blogs and twitter, not every conversation in the public domain is intended to be a public pronouncement in the way Alibhai-Brown, Mirren and Marr traditionally understand it.

Of course, one could argue the opposite. Tweeting and blogging about a celebrity might also be likened to taking your conversation from the pub after last orders, and continuing it loudly outside the door of the house of the person you are talking about.  There, the awkwardness, the social autism, is on the part of the speaker, not the listener.  If (say) Yasmion Alibhai-Brown has to step over noisy yobs outside her gate, then she may well choose to call the police.  Thankfully, to take the analogy to its conclusion, she has told the yobs (in this case a conservative Councillor from Birmingham) to “stop being so rude, and to bugger off”… which seems the most healthy course of action to me.  Her disgust is registered without anyone’s free speech being censored.  Dave Osler’s take on the case is interesting and Paul Sinha’s speaks my own mind perfectly:

If you believe that Paul Chambers is a victim of a miscarriage of justice … then you should also believe that the police have no role to play in the strange case of Alibhai Brown vs Compton.

Back to those who feel that the Internet is generally unpleasant:  We can point out thousands of counter-examples!  Paul Staines, and his phalanx of Tourettes-suffering anonymous commenters, get all the attention, because the blog is the online equivalent of a tabloid, intent on winning readers in the rudest and crudest way possible.  However, for every Guido Fawkes there are hundreds of more thoughful bloggers, writing for pleasure and to seek out genuine and meaningful connections online.  How to pick just one?  Well, as it happens, I have Federay Holmes’ blog open on my browser (because she just won a PEN competition).  She writes thoughful posts about politics, literature and family life, and seems to have as much sincerity as Fawkes has cynicism.

Alternatively, read the fantastic story of How Justin Long Affably and Reasonably Ended and Internet Flame War.

Finally, I might point to the huge continent of Internet dialogue that is Facebook.  As far as I can tell, the discourse on that site is entirely made up of expressions of friendship, congratulatory messagages (concerning love and friendship) and photographs of events that are themselves marking friendship, love and achievement.  It can be saccharine at times, but its entire structure pretty much enforces civility and niceness.  There are ways to signify ‘Friends’ and ‘Like’, but no means to do the opposite.

Geeks on the March

… and the April, and the May.

The latest fundraising project for the Libel Reform Campaign is the Geek Calendar.  The video below features a number of eminent scientists and science journalists explaining why the libel laws are so terrible, why science and medicine are particularly threatened, and therefore, why they agreed to feature in the calendar.

The Geek Calendar project is, I think, a fantastic example of a good idea that has been very well executed, with the help of new technologies. (To add a disclaimer lest the reader thinks I am sucking my own trumpet, the project was not managed by me – though as part of the Libel Reform Campaign I did get to watch the team in action at all stages.) The above video is a classic example of how a little forward thinking creates a significant amount of added value. The ‘geeks’ (including celebrities such as Jonathan Ross) were already being photographed – so why not do a quick interview while you’re there?

The Geek Calendar team have also been using behind the scenes imagery to build momentum for the project. At the other end of the production line, there have been several opportunities for us to spread the word and seed the #GeekCalendar hashtag via social networking sites – when the shop went ‘live’ for pre-orders; at the launch party last week; and when the calendars arrived through people’s letterboxes.

It also helps to have a strong constituency for the message and product.  As Nick Cohen pointed out in April, it is clear that one reason that the Libel Reform campaign has been so successful in lobbying the government (both the Labour administration, and the post-election Coalition) is that there exists a community of technologically savvy, but also very motivated and passionate geeks, to drive the message forward.  Earlier this year, Christina Odone labelled this group “the Lib Dem Spooky Posse of Internet Pests” after a forestorm of tweeting against her during a spat with former MP Dr Evan Harris.  Over at the New Statesman blog, David Allen Green gives a little more insight into the ‘Skeptics‘ movement.  These people would hate to be compared to the religious Right in the USA…  but in their dedication to their cause, and their belief that their engagement can actually cause change, I percieve more than a passing similarity.

Ebenezer and the Salvation of Debbie Draupati

My election day story about a blogger and some supernatural goings on received mixed reviews.  Some saw it as failed satire, while others enjoyed the ambiguity.  It features a character I had previously put at the centre of a couple of unpublished stories.  One (about an explosion in Jerusalem) is growing rapidly out-of-date, as the technology it describes becomes obsolete and the zeitgeist it tries to describe disappears into history.

The other is republished below.  I’ve just read an article that mentioned ‘web-sentience’ and realised that this story, too, may become irrelevant if I do not publish without further delay.  My other fiction you can read here.


When most people over-achieve beyond their wildest imagination, their voice betrays their desire to talk about themselves.  They might be talking about some commonplace thing, but if you listen carefully, you can hear the eagerness to talk about What They Have Done. Eventually, they will find a way to drop their success into the conversation.  It will as easy to them as dropping a lump of sugar into your tea.  In both cases, you find yourself thanking them for their consideration, even if it is the precise opposite of what you desired.

But what was true for most people was not true of my friend Ebenezer, the prolific blogger. Continue reading “Ebenezer and the Salvation of Debbie Draupati”