Creating the Haystack

News from last week:

The terror suspect who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane is the son of a Nigerian banker who alerted US authorities to his “extreme religious views” months ago, it was reported Saturday.

(Via Andrew Sullivan, who says he is ‘angry‘).

I am reminded of Cory Doctorow’s point at the Convention on Modern Liberty last year, about the problem of collecting too much information:

We’ve been told that we’re collecting larger haystacks of information in the hope that it will make the needles easier tio find.  If you look at the 9/11 Commission report, and you find out that in fact the America intelligence apparatus knew that the September 11th attack was happening – in hindsight – but they also knew a million other irrelevancies, and that an adequate approach to discovering it might have been to collect less information, not more.

The video is below:
Continue reading “Creating the Haystack”

Doctorow at the Convention on Modern Liberty

The English PEN evening plenary was a fanastic way to round up the Convention on Modern Liberty.  For me, it was the writer and blogger Cory Doctorow’s contribution that really caught the imagination. With his laptop on his knee, he seemed to be pulling snippets and sound-bites from all corners of Teh Intertubes:

Later, the panel were asked what piece of art had inspired them to think about freedoms and liberty:

So here’s what’s really inspired me about our capacity as a society, to enforce (or rather, claim) the rights that are our due – not that the state gives us, but belong to us from the beginning: Its the rise of internet culture, and the rise, for all the bad and all the good, its the rise of a system in which we are all part of a single dialogue, in which we can make any kind of art, and in which any person can communicate with any other person, without any third party intervening, has given rise to a global dialogue that, I think, beggars the imagination of even the most optimistic philosophers of a generation ago. 

And I mean that literally – you read the science fiction of the 1960s and the closest they come is they think maybe we would have a really good video on demand service with some video-phone on the side.  No-one predicted just how, just, the fantastic Cambrian explosion of genres, of forms, of ideas, and of participation from every corner of the globe, that the Internet has enabled.  And that’s for me, why keeping the network free is the first step to keeping us all free.

Its better in video! Billy Bragg, Feargal Sharkey, Paul Gilroy, Henry Porter and English PEN’s President Lisa Appignanesi also answer:
Continue reading “Doctorow at the Convention on Modern Liberty”

Looking Tragedy in the Eyes

At the Convention last week, the magnificent array of speakers did their job of giving us some strong and pithy arguments against the encroachments on our shared civil liberties. Memorable rhetoric is important, because the shifting of public opinion is not shifted by one speech by Philip Pullman, (however lyrical) but by a hundred thousand discussions in homes and offices, and more than a few more opinion columns and TV shows in the coming years. The memorable, confident arguments will be remembered and repeated, and they will persuade.

However, while there was much pride expressed in taking the side of the underdog, its seems that when it comes to admitting the full implications of our values, we do not always sound so confident. One issue I did not hear raised was how to address the possibility that specific crimes may be committed, when some of the state’s major incursions into our liberty are rolled back. It is crucial that those of us who push for a tempering of databases and surveillance own these possibilities and embrace them.

Its a difficult argument to broach, because almost all of the debate centres around the idea that all the government’s new legal and security measures are actually ineffective: we argue that ID cards wouldn’t have stopped 7/7, say; or that Torture and rendition leads to useless intelligence.

Unfortunately, although the warnings raised by the authoritarians are usually phantoms, sometimes they are based on a kind of truth. A stop-and-search policy that alienates black and Asian youths might also reduce crime; a comprehensive DNA database might actually speed up the detection of a murder. Keep the entire Muslim population under 24 hour surveillance, and sooner or later you will stumble accross a disgruntled Islamist militant, ready for marytrdom.

So when I say that the civil liberties lobby must “own” these possiblities, I mean that we should admit that a more liberal approach in some areas might mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7; that, yes, there will be another Ian Huntley, and another hollyandjessica. Only when these horrible possibilities are admitted, can we truly begin to explain that the “mythical state of absolute security” (as Dominic Grieve put it) is unachievable as well as undesirable, and so win the argument on our own terms, not those of the authoritarians and the populists.

Ultimately, we need to be prepared to defend of this political philosophy in the wake of a terrible atrocity, because that is when it will be most under threat. Just as just as Sir Ian Blair and Cressida Dick looked into the eyes of the de Menezes family (or perhaps they never did) when the inevitable outcome of their shoot-to-kill policy was realised at Stockwell, at some point we may have to look into the eyes of other widows, orphans or traumatised parents. We will have to make an abstract political argument in the face of a very practical and real tradgey. This will not be as easy as standing in a room full of supporters and affirming “freedom”.

I’ve been highly equivocal above. “Specific crimes may be committed”, I said. They are by no means certain, and can be avoided. Our arguments for civil liberties become more effective if we can also provide alternative suggestions for improving security. Two of the breakout sessions I attended at the convention, The Left and Liberty and the left, and Xenophobia both made attempts at this, putting forward policies that nip crimminal behaviour in the bud, before it becomes something that only draconian laws can combat.

The question is, can such policies be enacted soon enough to prevent another outrage? Unlikely, I’m afraid, which means there are some extremely difficult arguments ahead. Those who have the courage to make them will need our support.

A Note on My Note on Modern Liberty

The Convention on Modern Liberty has invited its attendees to post video responses to the messages that their key speakers have created in support of the project.  I’ve had a go, and created an archetypal ‘head to camera’ YouTube video:

My take is to highlight the problem of small, minor liberties being taken away without comment. If we guard against the loss of these, then the large incursions onto our freedoms, the kind that bring about a totalitarian state, will never happen. But those freedoms are also valuable in themselves.

I am slightly uneasy about saying that the large infringements, such as the 42 days detention laws, or the existence of Guantanamo, are somehow ‘abstract’. Some might see this as an insensitivity to those who have fallen victim to such state-sponsored action… and that may indeed be the case. However, my aim in making the video (or rather, making the point) was to provide a persuasive argument that may convince people that remain ambivalent, rather than a place to show anger, solidarity, or both.

I think that feature has come to be the tone of this site over the past, say, twenty months. I’ve found this is less a place to rant, less a place for me to find catharsis… and more a place to push an argument into new places. If it appears to some people that I have missed the point, then there’s a chance that the argument wasn’t intended for them in the first place.

Shirky on Documentaries and the Web

Clay Shirky speaks at the Demos event, 'Hello Everybody' 14 July 2008
Clay Shirky at Demos, 14 July 2008. Photo by Lloyd Davis

A few months ago, sociologist Clay Shirky spoke at a Demos event around the launch of his book, Here Comes Everybody. Irritatingly, I missed the event, but did download the handy podcast. In a question about “how to use the web to make a documentary about the web, he had this to say:

If you’re making a web documentary about the future of the web, you can open it up for digital production. You can say, “make a video of yourself, talking about what you think the future will be like, or show me what you are doing, document this somehow, and send this to me as raw material.”

You can harness people for the outlet: “I’m doing a video documentary on the web and we’re going to launch it on One Web Day (or some such event), and we’re going to host virtual salons where people are going to get together to view this thing” and you can find the audience [via the web].

But the really interesting bit I think is this sort of ‘A&R plus Remix’, which is: how many versions of a documentary could there be? Because the choice for all of this stuff is, “here’s the main thread, right” but then there’s always going to be people who want more of X and less of Y. Is there a way to let people who are interested in, say, the change in music culture, have a documentary that, while keeping true to the through-line, has more of that aspect? And then for people form whom transformation of the political environment [is most interesting], you have more of that aspect instead.

And so that, it seems to me, is the really interesting thing – looking at essentially raw material; discovery; production; and distribution… and figuring our whether you can use the web at all of those touch-points.

I know the Convention on Modern Liberty will be extensively filmed. All the plenaries and breakouts will be recorded and podcast, and the main speeches will be streamed live. Some of the keynote speakers have already recorded their own thoughts in short pieces-to-camera, and the organisers have invited the public to post video responses.

Moreover, the range of freedoms under threat, and indeed the number of competing definitions of what “Modern Liberty” actually means, suggest to me that the Convention is a ripe subject for a Documentary-Plus-Remix, along the lines Shirky describes above.

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Writing in the Observer, Henry Porter advertises the convention, to be held on 28th February at various locations throughout the United Kingdom.

But this is no awayday for MPs, because in some sense the convention is a challenge to a parliament. For a brief moment, we will be airing the issues that haven’t been heard in the Commons this past decade, because Labour has all but anaesthetised the business of the chamber to push through its laws.

The website is now tested and live at  Please tell your friends, spread the word, and buy a ticket.  That other site of mine, LiberalConspiracy, is a supporter too.