Thursday, December 2, 2010

Layer 392 . . . Wikileaks, Collaboration, Transparency, Ed Miliband, New Politics, Promoting Happiness, Cutting Welfare

An excellent letter in the Guardian:

Filling Ed Miliband's blank sheet

Your editorial (27 November) and at least two other articles in the same edition (A misleading Blair lesson; Move beyond New Labour, urges Miliband) concern themselves with the current predicament of Ed Miliband.

 However, it is appropriate for him to "dither" and even to maintain a "blank sheet" on policy while he carefully assesses the mood of the nation and allows current events to unfold. All three major parties boasted about a "new politics" before, during and after the election, but so far the only innovations we have seen are from the people themselves, in their demonstrative responses to existing politics.

Meanwhile the impetuous coalition have disastrously mistimed their swingeing changes, when they have nothing like the mandate Blair had in 1997. If the election demonstrated anything it was the profound uncertainty of the people, and it is therefore wholly irresponsible and destructive to attempt such major changes at a time when the country cries out to be allowed to relocate its identity, its economic and social equilibrium.

Ed Miliband may look a little green, but that is precisely why he had to be elected leader and not his brother, who was so tainted by New Labour. Ed Miliband's hesitations and perceived youthfulness therefore seem appropriate in an hour when our politics is truly being led by students and schoolchildren.

 We must hope there is a truly "new politics" on the horizon, and it would be good if Labour can play a significant part in it. But Ed Miliband probably understands that Labour first has to defer to the greater knowledge of the British people – something the coalition has completely and tragically misunderstood.

Dr Paul O'Kane


WikiLeaks: the revolution has begun – and it will be digitised

The web is changing the way in which people relate to power, and politics will have no choice but to adapt too

By Heather Brooke

Individually, we have all already experienced the massive changes resulting from digitisation. Events or information that we once considered ephemeral and private are now aggregated, permanent, public. If these cables seem large, think about the 500 million users of Facebook or the millions of records kept by Google. Governments hold our personal data in huge databases. It used to cost money to disclose and distribute information. In the digital age it costs money not to.

When data breaches happen to the public, politicians don't care much. Our privacy is expendable. It is no surprise that the reaction to these leaks is different. What has changed the dynamic of power in a revolutionary way isn't just the scale of the databases being kept, but that individuals can upload a copy and present it to the world.

To some this marks a crisis, to others an opportunity. Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography – replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency.

The former US ambassador to Russia James Collins told CNN the disclosure of the cables, "will impede doing things in a normal, civilised way". Too often what is normal and civilised in diplomacy means turning a blind eye to large-scale social injustices, corruption and abuse of power.

Having read through several hundred cables, much of the "harm" is embarrassment and the highlighting of inconvenient truths. For the sake of a military base in a country, our leaders accept a brutal dictator who oppresses his population. This may be convenient in the short term for politicians, but the long-term consequences for the world's citizens can be catastrophic.

Leaks are not the problem; they are the symptom. They reveal a disconnect between what people want and need to know and what they actually do know. The greater the secrecy, the more likely a leak. The way to move beyond leaks is to ensure a robust regime for the public to access important information.

Thanks to the internet, we have come to expect a greater level of knowledge and participation in most areas of our lives. Politics, however, has remained resolutely unreconstructed. Politicians, see themselves as parents to a public they view as children – a public that cannot be trusted with the truth, nor with the real power that knowledge brings.

Much of the outrage about WikiLeaks is not over the content of the leaks but from the audacity of breaching previously inviable strongholds of authority. In the past, we deferred to authority and if an official told us something would damage national security we took that as true.

Now the raw data behind these claims is increasingly getting into the public domain. What we have seen from disclosures like MPs' expenses or revelations about the complicity of government in torture is that when politicians speak of a threat to "national security", often what they mean is that the security of their own position is threatened.

We are at a pivotal moment where the visionaries at the vanguard of a global digital age are clashing with those who are desperate to control what we know. WikiLeaks is the guerrilla front in a global movement for greater transparency and participation.

Ironically, the US state department has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for technical innovation as a means of bringing democracy to places like Iran and China. President Obama has urged repressive regimes to stop censoring the internet, yet a bill before Congress would allow the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites. Is robust democracy only good when it's not at home?

It used to be that a leader controlled citizens by controlling information. Now it's harder than ever for the powerful to control what people read, see and hear. Technology gives people the ability to band together and challenge authority. The powerful have long spied on citizens (surveillance) as a means of control, now citizens are turning their collected eyes back upon the powerful (sousveillance).

This is a revolution, and all revolutions create fear and uncertainty. Will we move to a New Information Enlightenment or will the backlash from those who seek to maintain control no matter the cost lead us to a new totalitarianism? What happens in the next five years will define the future of democracy for the next century, so it would be well if our leaders responded to the current challenge with an eye on the future.

Good Article.

Heather Brooke has written a book called The Silent State, and is currently writing The Revolution Will Be Digitised.


Madeleine Bunting is always worth reading:

Promoting happiness and cutting welfare: what a devious combination

Bentham's 'architecture of choice' is echoed by Cameron's initiative, but the reality is that many have no choice at all

Most people – and Cameron explicitly acknowledged this – think that there is very little if anything that government can do to make people happier. Good marriages, happy families, meaningful hobbies aren't created by legislation.

This is zombie politics: a prime minister spending time on a subject on which it is generally agreed politicians can't do much, while abdicating responsibility for the things on which they can have considerable impact – such as inequality.

New Labour used to talk seductively about how people wanted to be the "authors of their own lives". A fond hope. But the one thing no one can do is to say that they don't like any of the options, they are all terrible.

Yet terrible options are the reality for a growing proportion of the population. Standing, in his book Work after Globalisation, coins the term "the precariat". These are the millions whose jobs are insecure, who have limited access to secure housing and who juggle jobs and childrearing in a frantic effort to keep up. They are exhausted, stressed and anxious. They are disproportionately represented among the young.

Above all, the lives of the precariat are deeply insecure and Standing draws on research that has shown that insecurity is linked with higher levels of intolerance and lower levels of social solidarity and altruism. Standing estimates that about 40% of the UK population now belongs to the precariat – a definition that he argues is far more important than the outdated middle class.

The precariat may not like any of the choices in front of them – short-term contract jobs, pricey homes, long commutes and costly childcare – but they are too fragmented and isolated to organise to achieve better options. They are more likely to blame themselves, or find someone even less fortunate to blame, than to criticise the system. There Is No Alternative, they believe, so their dreams of security are invested in luck. Winning the lottery or X Factor.

The neatness of neoliberal utilitarianism is that it echoes consumer culture; it flatters the individual that they are in control and are making their own choices, whereas the treadmill of work and consumption is tightly constrained.

All that is asked of you is to find happiness – the goal endorsed by consumer culture and now placed centre stage by Cameron. And the feedback loop insists that happiness is perfectly attainable, just within your reach as long as you keep trying to find it. It's a cruel mythology.

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