Category Archives: Economics

Brighton Council uses public money to bully councillor

I was about to blog about something fun when this came up.

A few weeks ago a local councillor down here in Brighton was suspended from Brighton & Hove Council. What he’d ‘done wrong’ was this: the council runs a live video feed of council meetings online, so you can watch what’s going on; see who is throwing the biscuits. Green Party councillor Jason Kitcat had gone back through the previously aired footage and put up on YouTube a couple of short bits that were relevent to something he was writing about.

Tory councillor Ted Kemble made a complaint about this and Clr. Kitcat was suspended. I didn’t even know that was possible – since he’s an elected councillor – but it is.

Anyway I knew Clr. Kitcat had got suspended but I’d assumed that because it was a while ago, he’d gone back by now, maybe resumed his seat with a slap on the wrist or something. But it turns out the opposite is true: Conservative councillors are taking legal action against him. And they are using public money to fund a private legal counsel INSTEAD of using the freely available Council Solicitor.  Quite apart from how trivial the supposed offence was, as well as how it stinks of at the least politicking and at worst bullying of Clr. Kitcat, this is OUR MONEY. And there ISN’T MUCH TO GO AROUND right now.

Here’s the email I just wrote them. If you’re in Brighton or Hove, maybe write one of your own, or phone them or go see them? The details you need are:

Ted Kemble (Con) ted.kemble@brighton-hove.gov.uk
phone: 01273 291166
surgery: Fourth Saturday of each month 9.30am
Hove and Portslade Conservative Association, 66A Boundary Road, Hove

Mary Mears (Con, leader of the council) mary.mears@brighton-hove.gov.uk
phone: 01273 294370
surgery: Third Tuesday of each month 6pm
Round Room, Whiteway Centre, Whiteway Lane, Rottingdean

Clr. Kemble, I hope you are well.

Why are you using public money to fund your legal pursuit of Clr. Kitcat?
Is it true that you are spending our money on a private counsel when you could use a Council solicitor?
If so, why?
This is a despicable waste of our money at a time when we can ill afford it. Regardless of whether your pursuit of Mr Kitcat has any basis or not, it is an utterly trivial issue that should have been sorted out with one polite conversation. It is both childish and irresponsible to be behaving this way – you do not deserve to represent us.
Mr Kemble and Ms Mears, are you politicking bullies, or honourable stewards? Because right now our city – like everywhere in the UK – needs the latter and the former should GET OUT of public office. You are here to serve us, not spend our money on schoolboy vendettas.
Learn to disagree responsibly.
I look forward to your response and possibly meeting in the future to discuss this matter further.

A proposal for community ownership of Twitter

I think Twitter is very important; the most important web-based communication tool yet developed. I don’t need to tell you (whether you use it or not) that it has had a profound effect around the world, created an accessible, robust new route for contact and real-time search. We’re only beginning to learn the benefits it could bring.

I just realised we should somehow liberate the Twitter team from the profit-motive. They’re embedded in a world that their innovation deserves to be allowed to transcend. And I think we could do this by looking at the idea of community ownership… yeah I know, no chance. But dudes! Let’s ‘buy’ Twitter for ourselves and thus protect it from profit-oriented future developments that will otherwise – I’m certain – ruin this beautiful innovation. Here’s the idea:

1. Why?

Because it is too important not to. Twitter as it is now is damn near perfect. It’s a beautifully constructed, elegant yet powerful process for communication. It has already – and can further – change the world. It is also futureproof – so simple and universal, it can continue to work with whatever devices and protocols we will develop in the next few years. According to leaked documents the Twitter team expect to have a billion users by 2013. That seems quite possible, given its rate of growth compared to other social networks. But also, regardless of speed of growth, Twitter provides massive access and a unique new way to speak out and be heard when needed.

Here are some accounts of Twitter usage beyond the trivial. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of tweets are still trivial: it is the tool itself that is game-changing, not current bulk usage of it.

The problem is that, already and from now on, each new alteration or development added to Twitter is actually negative for us users. This is because they (fairly urgently) need to make it pay. It’s no big secret, in fact it has become quite a famous dilemma for the team behind Twitter, that they’re working hard to monetize their invention. According to Wikipedia (using the top end of their estimates) to date the team has received approximately $62million from venture capitalists in three rounds of funding – and of course venture capitalists only ever give out money with the expectation of making money back. Examples of negative developments are already with us: the useless ‘Who to follow’ box and irritating ‘promoted’ trending topics are the sort of trick we will increasingly see. I’m not a web stick-in-the-mud but it’s clear that any future development with money-making in mind can only be detrimental to the system. And it is crucial that Twitter doesn’t follow the curve of so many web-based innovations ankle-chained to profit. When was the last time you checked your Myspace? Worse, if they don’t figure out a clever solution they’ll be forced to charge us all rent that locks out the poorest, turns a wondrous free service into a minority paid-for service and generally seals the slow death of the system.

Perhaps there is still room for innovation but the best innovation for Twitter was always crowd-sourced anyway. If you’re a recent user of Twitter, you may not know that the RT (retweet) protocol wasn’t developed by the team, it was an organic invention by users, eventually becoming so popular that Twitter created the ‘RT button’ in response. If ‘we’ own Twitter, then any decision to alter the system, even in small ways, will go through this organic succeed-or-fail development process. Or, if proposed from source, we could democratise decision making.

So to me the benefits seem extraordinary and, even though achieving community ownership is an enormous challenge, Jack, Biz and Evan have created something that deserves to be shared with everyone. This is why we should look at ‘the world’ buying it from the developers and preserving Twitter in the near-perfect state it is now. Remove the profit-motive and give the whole world a perfect tool.

2. How?

Quite apart from the thousands of communes, co-operatives and land-rights victories around the world, there are some ace precedents for community-oriented or altruistic behaviour in tech. Early in the 20th century sci-fi giant Arthur C. Clarke postulated geo-stationary orbits for satellites before anyone else and he gave it away, which stopped any individual nation or corporation gaining from this extraordinarily powerful ‘secret’.* We all know Tim Berners Lee was similarly altruistic when he came up with the World Wide Web. Even the US military deserves thanks when we use SatNav, as they effectively donate GPS to the world. So.

Option 1 is users collaborate as individuals to buy Twitter, build a global online tool to fundraise and propagate the project, use persuasion and publicity to get the team to abandon profit and sell to ‘the world’. They pay back the venture capital suits, take probably very large personal pay-offs and get to decide whether they want to stay on as stewards, or just wander into the sunset with our money and gratitude driving them forwards to their next big idea.

Option 2 is we get a huge organisation that represents the interests of billions of people around the world to buy it for us and hold it in trust, yet not interfere in the running of it in any way. They do this because they realise Twitter’s immense empowering and connecting qualities. They do this because they should’ve done it decades ago with mobile phone technology but didn’t because they didn’t have the guts. The UN maybe.

Option 3  is a bunch of nice governments who believe in freedom and democracy and all things chewy get together and set up a collaborative organisation to buy Twitter for the world, chipping in what they feel they should. Like space exploration projects or something. Slightly worrying on the ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘complete independence’ fronts but still, a worthwhile option 3.

Option 4 is a combo of options 1, 2 and 3. My favourite version would be; we buy it, then the UN out of the kindness of its heart chips in enough to guarantee running costs forever. They can make exponential predictions about growth in the mid-term and provide the capacity for potentially every single person in the world to be hooked up.

How much should Twitter ‘cost’? The problem with profit-oriented tools is they’re valued using estimations of their future profitability rather than what they’ve cost so far. Obviously, if we’re buying something for the world, we’re not going to pay astronomical imagined profits, we should just pay back the venture stakes and then pay the original developers a big chunk of money to thank them. After that we have plain running costs. So this is a big stumbling block and it’s a totally imagined one, resting on the greed of the owners – yet they can get more money than they’ll ever need without being greedy. Perhaps the sale should be forced, or at least ton of moral pressure could be brought in. Access to Twitter and maintaining it as it is now – is it more important than the ‘rights’ of the ‘owners’? Too much? Certainly if they’d owned the last cottage on a new railway line route, or they’d lived on the Chagos Islands when the Brits decided to lease them to the US for an airbase, they would’ve got short shrift for their ‘rights’ as owners…

(by the way, arguments that collectivising like that kills innovation are gibberish: they get lifelong global reputation, a retirement fund in the millions and the world’s gratitude for incredible altruism. And to move onto something else. Who wouldn’t want that?)

Even rounding up costs (venture capital) so far to $100million, which is a lot more than the team has received so far in funding, well, there are currently well over 100 million users, posting over 65 million tweets every single day. So we somehow organise and get the owners to sell at cost (plus the very generous individual payoffs and agreements whereby they could still remain in place as caretakers as long as they wished) tomorrow morning and it costs us each a one-off payment of less than $1. Aiming to keep this separate from the idea of ‘charging for use’, we set up an online donation model around the bid, so that richer users can ‘fund’ the rest of us if they so chose, taking the Wikipedia route. Many other community-oriented systems run successfully on donations.

Alternatively, accept a one-off price at first sign-up and then a very, very low annual subscription. I’m not even talking about the kind of subscription someone would need to make a profit, purely something that covers strict running costs. And because it’s low, people could pay a decade in advance. This sort of figure would be far closer to web domain name prices than, say, television licences. Would you pay £20 a month for Twitter? Fuck off. But would you pay £1 per year – or £10 for guaranteed use for the next 15 years? Of course you would.

Anyway, that’s the idea. Twitter themselves know they need to own the best innovation around themselves. They looked around at the apps independent developers were releasing to run Twitter on iPhones and when they found the best one, they bought it and made it the ‘official’ Twitter app. This is what the world should do to them.

* bit of a distraction but there’s another wondrous Arthur C. Clarke innovation out there in the PD waiting for science to catch up as well, which one day our great great grandchildren may be hugely grateful nobody can copyright: the concept of an elevator running from ground level to orbit using microfibres. His idea works and it could revolutionise transport of people and goods into space. It’s just waiting for tech to catch up.

what augmented reality can do for real reality

In a conversation with Anth Melton a couple of months ago about augmented reality, Anth said something that turned my view of the technology on its head. It’s stuck with me, got to be shared and he won’t be bothered, so here goes.

We tend to come at augmented reality from the point of view of the benefits ‘within’ it, ie. what it does for you once you’ve got your Google Goggles or iSpecs on and you’re wandering around a world you’ve programmed, seeing a range of content and adverts picked out and filtered for you. But Anth suggested we should regard the development of AR from the other direction, from a town planning / eco-improvement perspective. Perhaps it offers an incredibly powerful tool (or at least impetus) to sort out the real physical world. I honestly haven’t heard this perspective on AR anywhere else and it amazes me, the more I think about it, it’s almost Mayer Hillman counter-intuitive.

You know the way that sometimes urban spaces look suddenly, unexpectedly beautiful if you look up above the ground floor? The truism that if you’re walking around a shoddy town centre, overcrowded with consumers, full of advert hoardings and with every building covered in shop signage, that the buildings themselves are actually gorgeous? You just have to look slightly upwards – to the first floor and above – to get smacked in the face by how lush these streets of varied historic architecture are, especially at a quieter time of day. For me Oxford Street and in particular Charing Cross Road are like that early morning, when there aren’t the usual bucketloads of numpties. Brighton is like that too because we have ramshackle, alleyway architecture which fades into the background when the town is rammed brimful of tourists and shoppers.

So what we do is migrate all extraneous commercial and social signage onto augmented reality, provide everyone with the means to view it when needed, then enjoy an improved real world that we can drop in and out of as suits. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months, imagining the extent to which the exodus online of commercial industries could go hand-in-hand with renewal of (both urban and rural) spaces. Someone needs to get the ball rolling with a trial space.

Pick an area, such as a small progressively-minded town. Then digitise as much commercial traffic and transaction as possible, not simply to improve its efficiency or make the same advances everywhere else is trying to make, but with a conscious aim of ‘cleaning up’ the physical world. Trial this small town free of any advert hoardings or roadsigns, which are all in a town-planned augmented reality space. It becomes illegal to drive a car without your council-supplied AR iSpecs on.

Go nuts. Hoodied yoof gets hold of special AR spraypaint apps to graff up the ARscape. Gig promoters and theatre managers flypost and billboard their shows in the same ARscape as newspaper sellers posting up their headlines. The only dogs you’re allowed to walk around town exist in AR, so the shit is deletable. Political campaigns and letterbox junkmail are in that space too. Parents can limit what their kids’ glasses pick out, so that they’re not exposed to the more adult-oriented promotional material, while similarly filtering the childrens’ adventure games out of their own AR.

Meanwhile we can switch civilisation off and opt out, temporarily or permanently as we feel, choosing to breathe in an uncivilised alternative.

Just for a start, out a little challenge to all the hi-tech digital conventions (that may be inevitable anyway): run your events with no physical invasion of the space you’ve descended upon, other than the people themselves. Imagine South By Southwest 2012, not a single leaflest, nor goodie bag, nor poster. Just hundreds of geeks in shades, knowing slightly more (and deliciously slightly less) than the rest of us.

Anyway, I liked it. Only downer is, it reminds me of the paperless office that never happened. But never mind, it has staved off post-tour blues for half a day.

Foundation & Empire

In Isaac Asimov‘s seminal ‘Foundation’ series of sci-fi novels, he postulates the fictional science of ‘psychohistory‘ by which the close observation of mass groups of people – and how they respond to circumstances – can allow you to predict and even manipulate major societal events. The galactic empire is nearing collapse, so a group of visionary scientists set up a Foundation, aiming to manipulate people using their pioneering science, to ultimately reduce the length of the ‘period of chaos’ between the empire collapsing and the rise of the next civilisation.

For a couple of months, it’s kept popping into my head that Google reminds me of the Foundation. Yep, it’s sci-fi, sorry, but think about the overwhelming complexities and depths of data-mining being done at Google right now, as we’re simultaneously on the cusp of monumental shifts in civilisation worldwide. They can track how a disease spreads for example way faster than government medical strategists. You can be damn sure Google are tracking societal trends and responses to major events faster and in more nuanced ways than we can imagine as outsiders. I wonder if they’re getting close to psychohistory.

Also, we’re going to need something to help the survivors rebuild some form of global network, however formal or anarchic.

Anyway, I’d been thinking about this stuff then unnervingly last week I read in a Wired piece that Hal Varian, one of the Google top boffs, is a huge fan of Asimov’s Foundation series, so there’s even consciousness to the connection. Cripes.

Then on Friday I went to the launch in Oxford of the Dark Mountain project. I’ll write about it in detail for the Morning Star column this week [updated – link] but basically it’s a new post-eco manifesto and ongoing arts project called ‘Uncivilisation’. It seems to be aiming to connect the culture we make to a post-civilisation reality, instead of tying it to the current structures and heirachies we seem to be obsessed with protecting, despite their desperate lack of worth. So far, so comfortably chiming with my views.

It’s curated by environmental writer, activist and former deputy editor of the Ecologist Paul Kingsnorth and blogger and former BBC journalist Dougald Hine, who I mistakenly called ‘Dougal’ in all my tweets. The launch was an understated affair involving me and Sam Get Cape in the garden round the back of the Isis Tavern. They’d made a limited initial pamphlet run of their Uncivilisation manifesto, which is beautifully presented. The garden was lush in the dusk and the people were bookish and folksy. Oxford folkscene doyenne Tim Healey read poetry, which was all well chosen and thought-provoking.

Oh my fucking god, even as I type this, I’ve smacked into a massive conspiracy theory wall that neatly ties in: Tim Healey is Denis Healey’s son and Denis is a founder member of the Bilderberg Group, the secretive annual global gathering of super-powerful investors and government financial types who are, they say, aiming to improve the world by pooling their expertise. Conspiracy theorists the world over tie them to the Skull & Bones and Illuminati conspiracies. How extraordinarily lame that I didn’t make the connection at the time. And fuck me for not thinking to ask Tim A) what he thought about the Bilderberg Group and B) whether he saw a connection of intention between their efforts and Dark Mountain. Christ on a bike! I’m laughing but I’ve really scared myself. Gotta get on that…

Anyway, (I’d already written this bit, feels a bit passé now…) as Paul and Dougald explained their ideas for the proposed movement, it jolted me back to the Google / Foundation thing and then another image from sci-fi: the artilleryman in War Of The Worlds. The Martians have almost defeated humankind and an artilleryman claims to be building a new civilisation underground. Of course, really he’s just dug a 12 foot hole to hide in. So you’ve got a hopeful and a sceptical response, both from sci-fi. I described these onstage, trying to encourage people to actually do something with the Dark Mountain ideas – but I’m not sure a single person in the room took it in. They seemed to enjoy my songs but nobody particularly connected with anything I said. It felt like literary book-launch schmooze rather than a gathering storm, though that’s no bad thing because people can’t begin to wrap themselves in a manifesto til they’ve actually read it.

Halfway through Get Cape’s excellent set, I clocked I had almost no chance of getting home. It was 11.15pm and I was miles from the centre of Oxford. I walked back alone along the banks of the Isis, past the barges, where there are no lights and bats flew all around me. I couldn’t hurry, despite having no hotel room booked, because I felt spaced out by the event. I love that shit, especially fantasising about the collapse to come – easy when one can’t actually imagine the human suffering involved.

And somehow the first cab that drove by stopped; took me to the Oxford Tube; the bus got diverted along the Bayswater Road in a way that actually made it quicker; I got to Victoria with 2 minutes to spare and made it breathless onto the Brighton train. There’s even another story from that train journey home but that’ll have to wait.

Crazy.

corporate gig = court jester?

A quick extra blog, here’s an interesting vid of (excellent) lefty US singer-songwriter Jill Sobule performing at the D: All Things Digital conference, which is run by Rupert Murdoch’s people. She sings a sweet song written ‘for’ Rupert Murdoch.

Imagine being hired for this kind of event and then being asked to be specifically on-topic, yet non critical! Everyone knows who everyone is here: they know she’s a lefty, she knows her co-star runs Fox. I like Sobule and she manages it well but there is something uncomfortable at the heart of this relationship.

If she did ever feel debased, how would she express it? Wouldn’t want to jeopardise a lucrative relationship. For now at least, she’s owned. In an odd way this follows up what I was trying to say in my Morning Star column about Britains Got Talent. She’s not even a court jester here: too soft, doesn’t really speak truth to power, just makes a joke.

saving the economy in one go / last night

Yesterday I realised the ultimate right-wing dream: a one-step solution to the global economic crisis that doesn’t involve scary socialism. Just make a big (cost-free) ethical shift instead of these crazy-expensive fiscal shifts… here we go: let’s legalise the black markets. Drugs, the sex trade, the movement of labour and suddenly some of the world’s biggest, most stable and profit-making trades become a sizeable chunk of the ‘official’ economy. All the resources currently spent fighting them can be channelled into their development and the deregulators get to crow victory. A shot in the arm, if you like.

Really enjoyed yesterday’s Manchester jaunt. Marc Riley is a total gent, his team are lovely and we rocked it. It’s dangerous having a bar so near the studio though – especially with gaps between each performance – because the band has a swift one after get-in, another swift one after soundcheck and then one between each song.

Not me, I was driving.

Only bummer was, we adjourned to a highly recommended curry house, where everyone else had a delicious meal but I had a shite one. My floridly-described main course was just sag aloo with an onion. Asked for it mild, got it medium-strong. The tarka dal was viciously hot as well and even the pilau wasn’t much cop. And they forgot my mango lassi (though it was the nicest bit when it came). So I don’t care that the rest of the party was raving, I was gutted. Then three hours down the motorway I nearly lost my rag in Welcome Break, where it took thee different attempts to score a pathetic excuse for a coffee. Both Coffee Nation machines in WHSmith were bust and the staff were a bit ‘confused’. Especially once the milk started running and running. So I was forced into Coffee Primo, Welcome Break’s pretend café brand. It’s the worst! The staff can’t make hot drinks for shit, you get a filthy lukewarm milk’n’dirt mess and you don’t realise it’s undrinkable until you’re back on the road, doing 80 miles an hour with nowhere to throw it. The canteen was full of flies as well. God I hope their IT department tracks back!

btw (praising Chris Huhne for once)

btw Don’t let the Tories paint themselves white on economics this week. Chris Huhne pointed this out on Friday’s Any Questions: Last year, John ‘euch!’ Redwood’s Tory report on fiscal regulation said: “We see no need to continue to regulate the provision of mortgage finance,” (!!) and at last year’s Tory Party Conference, shadow chancellor George ‘loud sniffing noise in the loo’ Osbourne said: “[this report] sets out how we liberate our economy to compete with the likes of India and China, cut government regulation, planning restriction and red tape … this is the most impressive and comprehensive analysis of the economy produced by any British party”. (!!!) Even Cameron called it a “great” report.

As Huhne concluded, “The Tories were cheerleading de-regulation all the way to the bankruptcy of Northern Rock.”