The Point of Vanishing Interest

I have said before that the operative word in ‘citizen journalist’ is not the latter, but the former. Fay Young’s short, personal report on the happenings of an Edinburgh City Council meeting seems to be a good example of ‘citizen journalism’ and the importance of new Internet technologies. The happenings at the meeting were probably not newsworthy enough for The Scotsman or even the Edinburgh Evening News, so a reporter might not be paid to file a report on it. Now, Fay is an established journalist, but it was in her role of ‘citizen’ that she was present and able to post her report (“Hot air stifles climate change debate”) on her blog. More information for the rest of us, which we hope leads to a more accountable, participatory democracy.

Fay was not impressed by the councillors’ collective time-management:

The meeting rattles through some fairly important stuff about poverty … Then the meeting spends 25 minutes debating whether to replace or restore the old Davenport desks and chairs. Finally one Labour councillor protests at this waste of time when there is still a motion on climate change to debate, not to mention the capital city’s alcohol problem. Still they drone on, and it is another five minutes before they vote [27 to 29] to replace the old heavy mahogany with something that can be easily shifted and stacked when it is not in use.

I wonder if Fay Young has read C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymous Parkinson’s Law? This is a fantastic compendium of satirical essays, first published in the Economist, and collected in book form in 1958 (I have a fourth edition from that year, which carries some delightful illustrations by Osbert Lancaster). In his essay, “High Finance; or, The Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson describes a committee that bears a remarkable similarity to that which Fay witnessed last week. Finance committees are, he says, made up of people who know nothing of millions, but well accustomed to thinking in thousands:

The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

So, Fay’s experience seems all too familiar! Parkinson also presents an amusing essay on the ‘Coefficient of Inefficiency’, definied as the size at which a committee ceases to be of any effective use whatsoever. This he puts at somewhere between 19 and 23 members. It is interesting to note that the number of councillors voting at Fay’s meeting was more than double that estimate…

Whatever the accuracy of his theories, Parkinson’s Law is a great read, and a highly recommended stocking filler for the economist or policy wonk in your life.

Brevity

This week, brevity is all the rage. Labour MP Tom Watson finds that plenty of sites are issuing six word story challenges.

Meanwhile, over at The Sharpener, Bondwoman has posted her take on John Reid’s immigration policies in equation form.

One of the more famous short short-stories is by Augusto Monterroso:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)

I always chuckle at that. What sordid goings on occurred the night before?

Government ministers are shit at the interweb

I’m annoyed. Junior Minister Tom Watson has resigned, and I have been forced to learn this from the BBC News website, like some blogless plebeian. This is despite the fact that Mr Watson has his very own blog. But at 1:50pm today, I find no response from the site at all.

Meanwhile, David Milliband has had his own efforts to embrace the new technologies foiled (via DK). His ‘Envrionmental Contract’ was supposed to be edited as a ‘Wiki’ by members of the public. Unfortunately, the ‘Wiki’ was comprehensively defaced, and DEFRA had to abandon the project.

The ‘cyber-vandalism’ was, as Milliband says, rather juvenile. I have very little sympathy, however. The use of a wiki for this purpose was ill-conceived. New internet technologies provide many different ways for people to engage in dialogues and collaboration. But that does not necessarily mean that a wiki open to millions of people, to create a government policy that will affect millions of people, is necessarily the best use of the technology! Such tools will, I believe, be much more effective when used at the lower echelons of democracy – Between civil servants around the country sharing ‘best practice’; or between the members of rural or island councils, say, who may have long distances to travel. Central government will have very little success when it tries to use the ‘Smallweb’.

This jumping on the Wiki/Blog band-wagon in this manner reminds me of the dot-com boom-and-bust we witnessed a few years ago. The people getting burned (or, in this case, custard-pied) are those who assume the new technologies can somehow overcome all laws of economics and politics. I very much doubt Milliband would make policy by standing at Speakers’ Corner with a flip-pad, writing down all the suggestions from passers-by. Sooner or later someone will begin heckling. So why try it online?

Two Zizou round-ups

Jarndyce links to a number of posts discussing that headbutt, and analyses the the political victimology of Zizou:

The presumption that Zizou was justified in “retaliation” can only be explained by assuming Materazzi fits the northern European stereotype of the Italian as a racist wop. To those that charge Materazzi with racially abusing Zidane, on the basis of so little evidence, I call right back at you.

The speed at which this particular narrative (is it ‘The Rise and Fall..’, ‘The Fall and Rise…’, ‘Hero to Zero’?) has cycled through its steps is astonishing. On Sunday, Zidane was the villain who lost France the World Cup. Monday and Tuesday was the lip-reading intrigue over what was said. On Wednesday he apologised and by now he is the toast of all France for standing up to racism! It is as if a peice of history has been manufactured at high-speed.

Now it is Friday, and we are into post-modern parodies for laughs. Anil Dash has compiled a movie of the Internet’s best Zidane animations, in the inaugural Zidane World Cup Headbutt Animation Festival. Full circle.

Sunny at Pickled Politics has curated a similar festival. Apologise to the visitors from there who visited here looking for the above linked YouTube video – I accidentally deleted the embed code from the post. Now reinstated…

Seven-Seven

Plenty of discussion on the blogs and in the media about the london bombings, this time last year, notably from survivors such as the irrepressible Rachel and the idosyncratic Dave Taurus.

The bombings were a terrible punctuation to a bizarre week. The previous Saturday, I had worn white and joined the Make Poverty History march, along with thousands of others. It was a hot day, and we stopped half-way round to have a pint on George IV Bridge. We chatted to a couple who had taken a bus from Bristol to join in the event. The G8 summit was about to start, and there was a feeling of optimisim in the air. It was genuine.

Watching the ‘Live 8’ highlights on TV that evening, and later that week when another concert was staged at Murrayfield, it seemed to me that those events had a certain falseness. Jonathan Ross and his interviewees kept talking about what an historic concert Live 8 would be, before it had even begun. The whole event was a paean to the original Live Aid concert, a consolation prize for those who had missed it first time around. I remember saying that you cannot package and market those moments that will define a decade, and that history has a certain spontenaity – it does not take place at a pre-arranged meeting point.

Of course, the following day four guys went straight ahead and made some real history, at their own pre-arranged meeting point. Not only did they destroy lives and property, but they destroyed the sense of optimism, a rising tide of political activity and awareness, that had been swelling over the previous week. And do you know what? One year on, I don’t think we have regained that momentum. Instead we flounder in scandal and misdirection.

A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.

This was my shortlisted entry into the Ben Pimlott Essay Prize. The winning entry, by Rowland Manthorpe, was published by The Guardian last week.

Read close, o my best beloved, and picture the scene. It is a cold and idle weekday in February. The dance-floor at L— Nightclub is barely a third full. The clientele are young, but in this light it is difficult to be sure that they are over eighteen. Many wear those jumpers with hoods you will have seen in photographs. Thin girls in white denim dresses have braids in their hair. Three youths in turbans lurk in the corner, by the dirty pillar that blocks the view from the bar.

Chunky hip-hop performer ‘Sway’ saunters on stage with the arrogance of a MOBO winner (for that is what he is). Behind him bounces his accompanist for this evening, DJ Turkish. They are both wearing Union Jack tea towels over their faces, like patriotic bank robbers. “These rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles,” shouts Sway, before telling us a story about the mysterious Land of Harveynicks. The entertainment has begun.

We are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital – yes, you know it well, my friend! – in the shadow of the famous castle, where legions of tourists flock each summer to watch the tartan fuelled military tattoo. It is a place where English residents of the city complain that, these days, it is being over-run by Australians. It is a place where a man with a Ghanaian name is reciting American-inspired slam poetry, to a beat hammered out by a Turk from North London. And what of this young audience? Believe me when I tell you, if you were to conquer the countries of their parents, then truly the sun would never set upon your Empire.

Let us be clear, so we make no mistake. Your task in 2009 will be to unite all these people: The tartan tattoo day-trippers, the snobbish English students, the sullen Sikhs… and Sway, who waves the Union Jack proudly, just as you asked. You must convince them that they are one people, and that they all belong to the same privileged club. You must describe the values and the traditions that they must learn to love.

Continue reading “A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.”

Ben Pimlott Essay Prize

I was delighted to be shortlisted for this year’s Ben Pimlott Essay Prize, run by the Guardian and the Fabian Society. The theme this year was “on whether history can help us define British identity”.

It was great to pull together some of the ideas on Britishness I have been reading and writing about online. Tragically, I fear my essay was too much like an extended blog post with not quite enough depth… and my particular offering was pipped at the post.

Rowland Manthorpe is still a student (and a good looking one at that, dammit). His winning essay is published in today’s Guardian. Excerpts from mine will be posted to Guardian Unlimited at some point, I believe. I’ll wait for the dust to settle before discreetly posting the entire thing to this blog…

Over at The Sharpener, Paul has posted his entry, while at Ministry of Truth Unity finds a true Brit: A Pakistani immigrant, British Citizen, hoping to become the first Asian MSP by standing on a platform of Scottish Independence.

Alaa Free

Funny how the same words, in a different order, mean vastly different things. Last month I blogged about the Free Alaa campaign, an online drive to raise awareness of the detention of Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fatah. I heard about his detention via blogging, and by the same methods (via Adloyada) I now hear he has been released.

Part of the campaign was a GoogleBomb, whereby bloggers attempted to fool Google into returning pages from the Free Alaa campaign site, whenever the word ‘Egypt’ was searched for. As Adloyada suggests, this particular tactic may have had minimal effect, but the wider use of the internet as a medium for campaigning is what interests me here.

We are updated regularly on the ‘explosion’ of blogging, with about a billion new blogs created daily. Many of these – arguably the more interesting ones – are likely to spring up in places where democracy and human rights are not guaranteed. I worry that examples of bloggers being detained, already a regular occurence in Iran, will increase with the popularity of blogging in general. Perhaps we will begin to see a form of campaign fatigue, whereby it is difficult to keep track of which bloggers have been detained, and where!

This is where Web 2.0 innovations such as wikis and RSS feeds can come into their own, ensuring we can keep updated and active over a lengthy period of time. Metaphorical ideas of momentum and critical mass are crucial factors in political movements. It will be interesting to see whether technology will lead to more sustained and effective campaigns, or just higher-profile, yet ultimately damp, squibs. Looks like the former in the case of Alaa, thank goodness.

Asymetrical warriors

Brian Haw

Surely the lone protestor Brian Haw is another example of an asymetrical warrior. Despite harassment, including entire Acts of Parliament against him, he remains firm, and uses every legal weapon at his disposal to keep protesting.

Let us not forget Rosa Parks either. Fighting an “asymetrical” battle can sometimes be a noble thing.

Voter responsibility

Last week we heard that a large proportion of voters in the UK are considering voting for the BNP (as many as eighty percent in Margaret Hodge’s constituency, she warns us). This prompted the following quip from the highly entertaining Pigdogfucker:

25% of English voters “might be” terrible cunts.

Meanwhile, Tim Newman comments on the nature of democracy in Palestine, and suggests that the Palestinians are stuck with their choice of government. If that has negative consequences for their international funding, as a result of electing a terrorist group to power, then that is their problem. (Via Devil’s Kitchen, who agrees.)

Whenever I hear someone make a throwaway remark of the format “God, I hate Americans,” I point out that actually, they probably don’t. In fact (I say), what they mean is that aspects of American culture annoy them. Those aspects are probably caricatures (gas-guzzlers, homogenising fast-food chains, the NRA, preposeterous statistics about how few Americans have passports) that are not representative of most citizens. At worst, I tell them, they actually hate exactly half the people in America (usually but not exclusively those who voted red). And moreover, they have no way of knowing who those people are, so to hate them seems rather counter-productive, not to mention a bit racist.

Surely the same applies to extreme national or local governments that may be voted in elsewhere. If the BNP do win council seats during the UK local elections, few will follow the Pigdogfucker lead and say “well obviously the people of Barking are… barking,” because for a large proportion of the population that will simply not be true. Not only will it definitely not be true for those who voted for someone other than the BNP… but we will be inclined to extend the courtesy to many of those who did. Rather than blame the voters for being generally racist and ignorant of what is actually good for them, we will instead cite the rise in racist politics as somehow a failure of the incumbent parties on a national and local level.

We do not extend this ‘courtesy’ to the Palestinians. Instead we write them off as people not interested in peace, forgetting that there are plenty of their number who did not vote for terrorism (only one third of the total electorate voted for Hamas, for example). Nor do we seem willing to appreciate any subtlety or difference of opinion within American politics: “God, I hate Americans…”

Remember the old saying, about how an Opposition never wins an elections, but Governments lose them? This is important with regards to how much responsibility the electorate must take for their government. The adage above implies that people vote retrospectively, casting their ballot not on what they expect the new government to do, but on what the old government has done. If extremists are elected to power, this analysis would place a much of the responsibility on the shoulders of the outgoing government! Only when we consider the electorate to be voting prospectively and not retrospectively, does the balance seem to tip in favour of blaming the voters themselves for a poor choice.

Clearly, people vote for a mixture of prospective and retrospective reasons. But the notion of blaming an electorate for the government it has chosen remains problematic. Personally (and I suspect, in common with many others) find it difficult to take any personal responsibility for the recent actions of my own government, because I did not vote for them. Likewise, pointing at a random Palestinian and saying “sorry mate, you brought it on yourself” seems spectacularly unfair, as is calling anyone from Barking a racist.

Democracy is a bizarre thing. Because governments take their legitimacy from the voters, we are encouraged (especially immediately after an election) to ascribe the policies and beliefs of certain sections of the population, to everyone within that population. In actual fact, we know next-to-nothing about the particular individual at the other end of our finger, other than where he lives. He is damned by the tyranny of the majority, and suffers our prejudice as a result.