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Category Archives: Society

The failure to explain

In the wake of the recent UK elections for members of the European Parliament, I am unbelievably fed up of hearing that the rise of undesirable parties is the fault of non-voters.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

It is not.

I am fed up of being told that if I don’t vote I am not entitled to an opinion.

I am.

Let me be clear – I have an opinion, and I am not going to stop having one because you believe that you have the right to tell me what you think I should do about it.

There are two strands here which bind together in an ever-quicker plunge into a vortex of dumb that will doom us all. Not that I want to over-cook it, but I mean it this time – this is the stuff that is going to fuck us right up… The first strand you know, already. C’mon, deep down you know it. And you know it isn’t just you or me. It’s the people you’ve been listening to, too. C’mon, it’s OK. We can let it go. Together.

1. The trend towards “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP”

You do not know what you are talking about. You looked something up on Google. You listened to a friend’s rant in the pub; you read something by that columnist you like. You took an opinion – someone’s interpretation of the facts that they arranged into a pleasing narrative – and you made that opinion your own. I do this all the time and so do you.

To pick a UKIP topic, everyone has an opinion on the EU. Do you know what makes it work? Why it exists? Do you even know that some of it might function adequately and appropriately? Or have you only been listening to all the fun, easy-to-remember bits about stupid rules and corrupt bureaucracies?

Seriously, this woman was a freak with a vision of a world that ignores what 90% of the population are actually like. And people adopt her narrative as if it's the only thing in the world worth listening to.

It’s always at least partly Ayn Rand’s fault.

What’s your take on the effect leaving the EU would have on the UK economy? What do you think about tax cuts? Interest rates? House prices? Perhaps you completed your PHD in economics after a decade of study and research and followed it up with a decade of experience in practically applying it to be able to deduce an adequate opinion.

No? Oh, so you have an economics-based background of some sort, right? Or perhaps, at least, you’ve read a good few of the classics of economic literature? You read quite a bit about economic theory other than just leader columns in newspapers or leaflets that came through the letterbox? Maybe just a few contemporary thought-leaders in… wait – hang on, I get the feeling you never did any of those things. Why do you think your opinion is valuable again? Have you checked it against the leading opposing argument to see how it stacks up? No?

Fuck off, then.

We all follow up the tendency to think we know what we’re talking about but this is going beyond mere debate and exploration and delving into deep pools of madness.

So, the latest round of politically and morally bankrupt narratives surrounding immigration and the time-honoured tradition of blaming Johnny Foreigner for everything comes around again. Never mind that nobody really knows any of the immigration facts; never mind that the reality of the economy is that it is made of many complex threads which can barely be affected by governments and policies, dependent as they are on global circumstances beyond our understanding.

Instead, people buy the pleasing, easy-to-understand narrative. And because it is pleasing, because it “chimes” they will tell you that they “know what they know and shut up.” The power of the narrative has become all-encompassing.

If the narrative sounds right to you, it must follow that it is right.

This brings us to strand 2:

2. “The Failure To Explain”

Go on, tell me why free education is important. Then tell me about the importance of healthcare. Tell me why the banks shouldn’t pay bonuses; later, you can give me your explanation of why Michael Gove is an arse or Ed Miliband is whatever he is or why Nick Clegg is just a house-can’t-use-that-word-any-more. Then you can explain why you can’t use “that word” any more, right?

Offensive? Maybe. But not as offensive as enabling the most ideological parliament in recent UK history despite that party's ideology having been voted for by a minority of the population. Good work, Lib Dems!

Nick Clegg, yesterday. Just helping out the massas.

Except for the most part, you can’t.

Because either you actually don’t have a cogent argument (because it is a belief you have grown up with and adopted – see above) or because you don’t have the ability to communicate with your audience.

Try explaining why welfare or taxation are important to a 14 year old at the bus stop. Or maybe just someone who isn’t as middle class as you are. No fucking chance, mate. Then try it with someone just as middle class as you are. Then, when you’ve listened to them drone on about whatever version of the narrative they last heard on 5 Live / Radio 4 / Match of The Day, you can deduce that there is no substance whatsoever. Mainly because they can’t quite remember the exact words, the salient points, just their own slightly corrupted, waffly and inconsistent version. They don’t have to try hard to remember these things because “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP.”

These issues were important 50 years ago because people had lived through the circumstances these policies were designed to eradicate. Now the same people these policies are meant to help no longer realise or understand that they affect them. They have no idea. And you are not helping.

Bankrupt and dead ideologies – party politics and religion alike, philosophies that were imagined to explain an era long in the past, are simply not equipped to adopt to change. And like it or not, the world always changes. And it is changing quicker than ever.

But when you combine the polarisation – which comes as a result of everyone thinking they are right without the need to hear another side to the argument  – with the failure to properly explain their own argument, then GUESS WHAT! People just drop both sides. Or take the easy argument that appeals. The pleasing narrative, the one they actually understand.

Voting? Fuck off. The old jokes of “the government always wins” are writ large; they all end up tasting like shit – just slightly different flavours of shit. A choice between a big plate of shit and a big plate of shit with extra cheese is not a choice. You want some shit? No? But it’s got extra cheese!

You want me to vote? Explain why. Explain what you have that is meant to be appealing to me and my values. Maybe explain why I should have any values at all. A lot of talk based on opinion polls is just politics, not government. There is no choice, so why choose?

The illusion of this kind of choice and why people get involved is something I wrote about a long time ago in a music magazine far, far away. At the time it was all “Kylie vs. Posh Spice” and “Blur vs. Oasis.” If you’d asked me if I liked Kylie I would have said no. Likewise for Posh. But ask me which one I’d prefer and suddenly I have to make a choice. I didn’t like either, but I did feel the need to choose. The same went for Oasis and Blue – the implicit polarisation in the question drove people to choose and this helped both sides’ record sales. Disinterested fence-sitters became fans. Nice trick. Behavioural economics at work, right?

Well, I fucking hated all 4 of them. And I wouldn’t have voted for any of them, either.

This, of course, is where people step in and say “But you need to vote for those guys – or those other guys will get in!!” So let me say this straight:

If the best reason you have for someone to vote for your party is that the other guy is shit then you have nothing worth voting for.

You are the Dave channel, showing the Top Gear rerun for the 3098th time, knowing full well that you will pick up sufficient viewers who will choose you as the least-shit thing on. And that will do. You know people won’t just shut the TV off – just like Labour and Tories,  Republicans and Democrats; they know you won’t shut off their bullshit game, either.

But the game has changed.

The masses are people you do not know. I see them in the data I work with, but they are practically unrecognised in the media. UKIP tipped the nod to many who may be unengaged with politics, but they still had to be registered to vote and know what to do. There really is a silent majority out there and they do not know how to vote or – most importantly – why the hell they should. And I’m not talking about underclasses or squeezed middles or any of that narrative-driven crap. I’m talking about all kinds of people who are out there living their lives without any reference to newspapers or news programmes, Westminster or whatever.

With thanks to a random B3ta user whose name I could not find

Plane-crashing twat.

They don’t vote because nobody has ever given them a good reason why they should. If you don’t know what it’s like not to have free education, you don’t know what it’s like to want it. If you didn’t live through polio epidemics you probably don’t have an idea what it’s like to see your friends die. The explanations that worked for generations that did experience those things are not going to work for those that did not.

The arrogance of people going around telling them that they know they should vote, that people died for it, that not voting causes cancer – whatever narrative works for them, huh? – you really think that’s going to work? That the world will change because of such weak premises?

When voter turnout is so low, when the debate is so criminally under-informed, it is time to hit the reset button. The old arguments are done; they are boring; if they are important, they need a rewrite and a re-representation. But if you are clinging to the current crop of political parties, you are the problem. You are just a ripple in the far reaches of the pond, far from where the original rock was dropped, the last dribbled smear of a once-joyful but long-spent ejaculation.

You have a point of view? EXPLAIN. Convince me using evidence you came up with through investigation, checking facts, using experience you have actually earned. Stop bullshitting based on other people’s bullshit.

But tell me again that my failure to vote for your favoured shitty candidate is responsible for whatever ills you perceive in society and watch what response you get. I assure you, it won’t be an especially democratic one.

The failure to explain is everywhere.

And that is the real threat to democracy.

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Why The Entertainment Industry Is Wrong About Everything Pt. 1

The coming of the digital age should have been a golden era for entertainment and, for some, it was: Amazon, Facebook and others appeared from nothing to conquer the world in a few short years. But for others? A darkness descended on the giants of old… Major music labels, broadcasters, production behemoths, newspapers, games manufacturers – their revenues plummeted whilst demand for their products actually increased.

"It's all about a long-term vision."

And there was one reason, above all, for all their misery; one thing that set them apart from other industries that had reaped the golden benefits of the digital age: these giants were – and often still are – steered by people whose idea of proficiency in ‘digital’  languishes somewhere around the Casio watch on their wrist. These are people who have never really used the things they are meant to be mastering, people who are simply not equipped for the job.

This series of articles will attempt to explain why, as a result, the entertainment industry is wrong about (just about) everything.

The first thing to do is shoot down a few myths that are repeated in every sector – enduring myths that, through their luscious soundbitey-ness, have become conventional wisdom. These mythical narratives are harmful because they are so cognitively appealing that they have become the whole debate:

  • You can’t expect to get anything for free
  • Piracy is theft, like stealing from a shop: aka “You wouldn’t download a car”
  • Piracy does only harm for artists and other content owners
  • Illegal downloads = lost revenue
  • Once people taste ‘free’ they never go back to ‘paid’
  • Telling people about piracy in a ‘zero-tolerance’ fashion is the only way to stop it

1. “You can’t expect to get anything for free”

Proponents of the age-old adage that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ point towards a truism: everything has a price. They are generally correct. But the mistake is to believe that the ‘price’ is always a directly or solely financial one.

We have many examples of every day consumption that – if not wholly free – are ‘free’ to use on a daily basis. We may pay a yearly licence fee for TV in the UK but (a) it’s only about £14 a month – compared to, say, upwards of £50 a month for Sky – so seems relatively insignificant to most people and includes payments for the whole BBC including radio, but more importantly it’s (b) not something you physically pay for on a daily basis.

Behavioural economists will tell you that because you aren’t paying for it there and then, it doesn’t feel like you’re paying. It doesn’t cost you any more to turn the telly on five times a day than it does to turn it on once.

Commercial terrestrial TV is a good example because it feels free. But it isn’t. In fact, commercial television relies on free viewers as advertising revenues depend on the size of the audience. The more people who watch, the bigger the fees advertisers pay. I can watch premium content on ITV – say Champions League football – and the cost to me has been subsidised by advertisers. If I watch a newly released film on Channel 4, it will have been subsidised (usually) by a sponsor who pays for a whole season of films, plus the advertisers who pay for slots in the middle of the film. The cost to me is that I don’t get to watch the film uninterrupted – I have to wait for the ads. If I want, I can buy the DVD or watch on a premium subscription channel and then I can have an uninterrupted viewing experience.

In other words, I pay a price but it isn’t directly financial.

The business plans of the broadcasters don’t depend on me paying them money, they depend on me watching. For free. It’s basic economics of supply and demand – the cheaper the price, the more people will watch. The more people watch, the more the advertisers have to pay them. This is true of radio, it’s true of websites like YouTube and Google, it’s true of me taking surveys to get free access to eConsultancy market reports. These things seem free to us, but our exposure to advertising is the price we pay.

So, the idea that ‘free’ is wrong is… wrong.

It’s vital.

2. Piracy is theft, like stealing from a shop: aka “You wouldn’t download a car”

Erm, no. If I steal a car, the owner of the car is deprived of it and cannot sell it to someone else to realise its value. If I download a song, the owner of that song can still sell it again. And again and again. It does not disappear from their repertoire. If I watch a film on terrestrial television it is the same: I do not deprive that film owner of the ability to sell it again. Digital products just don’t behave the same way as physical products.

You think people like visiting showrooms and being attacked by sharks with moustaches and cheap suits?

The fact is, for a lot of people the free downloading is similar to the behaviour in listening to something on the radio: a free – and thus slightly crappier – experience than the paid-for version. I don’t really like mp3s because I like hearing things at a certain quality that mp3s don’t deliver. I listen to digital music on the daily commute because even I’m not quite enough of a Luddite to use a CD Discman. But the things I love, I buy on CD because the quality is better. Some things I prefer to buy on vinyl (old punk and  reggae for example) because they were made for the format and digital doesn’t improve the sound. Not only has the entertainment industry missed out on realising the difference between ‘lost revenue’ and ‘lost opportunities’ but they’ve failed to recognise the value of the digital product – and priced it accordingly.

Simply, digital is, for many things, a worse experience with far cheaper distribution overheads – pricing it at the same level as the physical (or not significantly less) just overvalues the inventory. If you could download a car right now, it would be made of paper and need to be powered by wind and pedal-power.

3. Piracy does only harm to artists to and content owners

Ha. Funny thing – the most downloaded stuff is often also the stuff that sells the most. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Back in the very early 90s, before the internet was something people had at home much, I had Sky. I loved the Simpsons. All my friends thought it was for kids and I was loving the subversive humour and telling people they were wrong. Some people came round on a Sunday and would get sucked into the couch with a bag of weed or a beer and it would click. But I was obsessional – I used to record Simpsons VHS tapes on long play, which means eight hours of continuousSpringfield. I did this mainly for myself and my housemates as Sky only broadcast two episodes on a Sunday back then.

But over time, once I had sufficient stock, a trusted friend would be given a tape to enjoy at their leisure – and they would show it to their housemates. Over time, they too would become infected Homerphiles and so forth. As Sky’s broadcasting of episodes increased, so did my taping. People used to beg to be allowed to borrow the tapes. I can confidently state that hundreds of people in the Hyde Park area ofLeedsin 1991-94 were converted to the show through my piracy. And back then, we all spent money on the show too – not only did we watch the show on Sky and thus had a part in improved viewing figures / ad revenues, but we all had t-shirts, pens, stupid bathroom kits, caps, whatever. When my mother found out I liked the Simpsons, that took care of 10 years of Christmas presents: alarm clock, sponge, shower radio (yes, what of it?), bubble bath, greetings cards. Endless revenue. Multiply that by the 100s influenced by those pirated tapes. How’s that working out?

Years of lucrative brand engagement, thanks very much

And it wasn’t just those shows. Over the years, the sharing of pirated material amongst my group of friends that has led to people being converted to fans has included Futurama, The Wire, Treme, Family Guy, South Park, American Dad, Fringe, Medium (only the girls, obv.), Lost… just about every major show that hadn’t yet made it to the UK. And those people talked about those shows, became part of the groundswell of opinion that eventually influenced UK TV stations in their choices of imports (NB a lot of those shows were picked up much later than, say, The Sopranos or Game of Thrones).

Piracy can be pure promotion for some entertainment. We used to license records for release in Russia knowing full well that Russian rip-offs would appear in nanoseconds (official sales used to number in the dozens but they’d be in every shop in every city a week later), but the artists used to make money from touring and we’d share the revenue from tour receipts and merchandise. Good days. If you didn’t have pirated material ordinary Russians couldn’t afford your stuff, nobody knew who you were.

Recently a pirated PDF of a children’s book parody called ‘Go The Fuck To Sleep’ was sent round by every parent I know. What happened to the poor unknown title / author? They went to number one on Amazon.

And whenever there’s a study that shows the beneficial effects of piracy, it’s suppressed by lawyers and lobbyists for trade organisations whose narratives are not served by the idea that, say, people who pirate movies are also those most likely to treat it like an extended preview / tester for things they go on to buy.

I have discovered hundreds of games, movies, TV shows and bands from having a pirated copy that I then go on to buy. I know dozens of people like me. I meet hundreds of people like me online. I can see empirical research that supports this notion. So why are the people who could most profit from this knowledge also the people who are shouting loudest against it?

Because they are just not that bright.

4. Illegal downloads = lost revenue

Now, let’s be clear – there is a difference between making the above point and advocating that piracy has no harmful effects and doesn’t deprive – in some cases – people of rightful income. It does, and especially with smaller independent artists and copyright owners who don’t get to make the revenue up from other sources as much as the big guys.

But this argument is often used to back up the idea that piracy costs an entertainment sector £X billion a year and so forth.

This is a crude fallacy.

Supply and Demand is one of the basic elements of a free market and is lesson #1 in high school economics. If the price of something is too high, there will be lots of people willing to sell it (supply) but fewer people will want to buy it because it’s too expensive (demand); if the price is too low, there will be lots of potential buyers but fewer people will want to sell it at that low price. The smart move is to price your product just right, so that lots of people will want to buy it but it’s also profitable to produce. In other words, moving the price up and down affects demand for a product. See the graph below:

It's the economics, stupid

What the entertainment industry does is look at the demand for illegal downloads and put a price on it on a per-download basis – the price in the marketplace today. But those downloads are actually priced at ‘free’ – which explains why the demand is so high. If, in fact, the cost of getting that download was the market price, there would not be so many downloads. This is so basic that it makes me want to cry that anyone can have the gall to stand there and tell me that the lost revenue calculated this way is a real figure. It isn’t. It’s not even close.

This MPAA pdf is a good example. It twists the data to fit a point of view but has very little basis in reality – you cannot “lose” sales that would never have happened. This is not to say that there wouldn’t have been some losses – of course there are.

If the price had been 10p a movie download, and it was delivered easily, in an agreeable format and quality, you might have seen, say (just for example), 85% of those people choose the legal option. Had they done that, the legal income on the 5 billion or so movies it takes to make up their “illegal download” figures would be around $500 million. And suddenly all their maths-based hyperbole falls to bits.

This whole approach is unfit for purpose. And that’s not all. I don’t agree with him on a lot of his conclusions but Lawrence Lessig put his finger on the discrepancy between perception and reality as long ago as 2004:

“In 2002, the RIAA reported that CD sales had fallen by 8.9 percent, from 882 million to 803 million units; revenues fell 6.7 percent. This confirms a trend over the past few years. The RIAA blames Internet piracy for the trend, though there are many other causes that could account for this drop. SoundScan, for example, reports a more than 20 percent drop in the number of CDs released since 1999.

“That no doubt accounts for some of the decrease in sales… But let’s assume the RIAA is right, and all of the decline in CD sales is because of Internet sharing. Here’s the rub: In the same period that the RIAA estimates that 803 million CDs were sold, the RIAA estimates that 2.1 billion CDs were downloaded for free. Thus, although 2.6 times the total number of CDs sold were downloaded for free, sales revenue fell by just 6.7 percent… [So] there is a huge difference between downloading a song and stealing a CD.”

And that, as they say, is that. Yes, there are losses, but they are way smaller – and have way less effect – than we are being led to believe.

5. But once people have had it for free, they won’t pay for stuff right?

Wrong… so very, very wrong.

I used to hear this a lot in the music industry. In 1999 you should have heard the screaming. For a while the mantra was “once music has been free, people will never pay for it again.” And then, within a couple of years, there was iTunes.

iTunes gave people what they wanted in a format they accepted at a price they deemed reasonable. And if my memory serves me well it did OK, no?

Supply and demand tells you this – the price may be free, but everything from quality to ease of finding something to format is not well-served by ‘free’. iTunes does it better and punters buy it because of it.

The presumption is that people download illegally because they are either fundamentally criminal or simply don’t understand that content has a value. There may be a little truth in either point, but I’m going to let you into a secret : the real truth is that the vast majority of people download stuff because they want it.

And whoever makes it easiest for them will win. People pay a price for ‘easy’ – understanding demand helps you define “easy” and the basics of supply and demand should tell you what the price is.

"OK, but first we need to sue you."

6. The only response is “zero-tolerance” enforcement

Yeah, hard to believe this was a joke sometimes.

The funny thing about that Onion article is that in the 1920s and 1930s record companies got drawn into lawsuits against radio stations as artists feared they were being robbed of both record sales and performance income (they thought if people had radio they wouldn’t pay to see live performances. Here’s a good tale from 1935.

The problem is that the enforcement approach starts from a very bad premise: criminalising your potential customer base. If you want people to buy your stuff (which includes, by the way, your PR) then I’d suggest threatening is not a very effective of communication. Even if wholly justified you are going to become the bad guy when you sue a dead grandmother, a homeless man or a 10 year old girl with a disabled mother.  Most companies seem to hold the idea that they should be good guys with something valuable to offer to a consumer and would shy away from such confrontations – especially when the net benefit is, at best, a pyrrhic victory.

Once again, this is a failure to understand the nature of the market and its consumers. People take stuff because they can – and the legal options just aren’t as appealing in terms of price (yes, obviously), format, ease of search / discovery etc., i.e. ‘demand’. Reducing the demand for illegal content is not just about stopping the illegal stuff – it’s about increasing the demand for legal content. And if Apple can do it, why can’t these other companies? That’s right: because they’re idiots.

In the book Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner (who seem to enjoy nothing more than poking economists’ bee hives with big pointy sticks and, frankly, good for them) tell the story of Paul, the Bagel man. He spent years selling bagels by dropping off a load at office parks around Washington, relying on the honours system for payment (i.e. you take a bagel, you drop your money in a collection tin). Crazy, right? Actually, no. It worked damned well. And better still, because he did it for so many offices over 20+ years, and kept meticulous records, he performed a huge economic experiment. 20+ years of empirical data about honesty. How cool is that?

In fact, he found that honesty rates never really varied much (there were some small local variations related to things like local unemployment etc) – the overriding statistical conclusion is that between 87% and 89% of people are honest. Eleven per cent of people are always going to screw you over and there’s nothing much that changes that. I can’t recommend reading the article highly enough.

So tell me – why concentrate all those resources on trying to identify and punish the 11%, taking down a significant proportion of sympathetic defendants from the other 89%? Why not use those resources to improve the service and supply to the 89%? For most entertainment sectors, i can’t see how it’s in any way a a controversial suggestion to say that if they serviced demand properly they would make more money from the honest majority.

In the UK, it’s difficult to estimate how much is spent on copyright enforcement every year but there are some expensive-looking offices and lawyers dedicated to it. There’s also talk of ISPs being asked to fund 25% of such costs – and that’s estimated at up to £500m in costs to the consumer (when the ISPs pass on the costs, which they will). That’s a lot of enforcement going on.

Sounds a bit like The War On Drugs to me. And that’s an unqualified success, right?

Enforcement doesn’t stop criminality in copyright any more than it stops criminality in the real world. It competes with demand, which will always be strong – people love music and don’t want to be kept apart from it. Fear of punishment isn’t as strong a method as convincing people of why you should buy legal. You can carp on about supporting artists, but when these messages come from companies with as much of a record of ruination and interference with artists as success, well, it just doesn’t ring true. These captains of industry, when at a different dinner engagement, will tell people that it’s the market which has the greatest effect on consumer behaviour – so why do they maintain the myth that enforcement can work?

That’s right: they’re idiots.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. But the pattern is clear – actions are based on prejudices and presuppositions rather than evidence or simple market economics – in some cases undue influence on market forces is preventing innovation that may yet become profitable. People who are not qualified to do their jobs often use other people’s opinions to guide their decision-making process, but that isn’t working for large swathes of the entertainment industry because the same personnel have now been institutionalised to believe myths about piracy instead of engendering good business practice.

Instead of digital heralding the golden age for the entertainment industry, it’s become a golden age for entertainment industry lawyers.

In other words, there’s too many people that work in the entertainment industry that are wrong about everything.

To be continued.

 

Next in the series: how they’re messing up sport on telly.

 

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Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Once upon a time a man called Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. It was 1876 and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. That’s not the interesting bit. What’s interesting is that Bell himself, despite predicting the immense social consequences, never owned one at home.

The reason was generational: having grown up with nothing more than telegraphs and morse code to communicate further afield than the next town, the need for these new forms of communications had not really touched his own life. He just didn’t feel the need.

In 1878, the first switchboard opened in Connecticut. It was staffed – as were many of the first exchanges by young men (average age 17, apparently). This was because they had the stereotypically “male” trait of being able to look at these complex devices and be able to work them without lengthy training. By 1880, there was one phone for every thousand American households. By the mid-1890s, that number had dropped to one in 70.

Most interesting to me was that, at this point in history, these expensive machines were not for fun – they were treated like a telegraph machine with a little more functionality. You didn’t chit chat, you didn’t top and tail your conversation with pleasantries, you just verbally expressed what you would have sent by telegraph. People would pick up the phone and say “Need 17 cases STOP Delivery by Wednesday STOP Price as previous order STOP.” And put the phone down.

By the 1920s, the machines were more ubiquitous and the companies that sold them were trying to get people to use them as more social devices. AT&T’s legendary “Reach Out & Touch Someone” came from a realisation that the families and friendships that had been scattered by America’s still-recent migration could be reconnected using the phone. This marked a change in direction, although it was one that businesses had already realised, as they networked a series of offices across the country and even the world. Using the phones was big business, but people just hadn’t grown up with them so they needed help.

An industry grew to help these businesses. This is a film from 1927 (it has no sound, sound hadn’t been invented then and I believe people mostly mimed to each other in the street [CITATION NEEDED]).

Around this time, the switchboards were getting rid of those young boys who had ruled that particular roost. With competition raging between Bell Telephone, AT&T and Western Union (the latter merging under the same president, Theodore Vail, who was related to the one of the people who developed the first telegraph and was such a stickler for centralised power that Vailism became a byword for monopoly practices) there was a move towards service as a feature rather than mere functionality. Owners found that the boys were often rude, made short answers and were unhelpful – another stereotypically male trait, unfortunately. This is why, by the time cameras got around to capturing them, most of these switchboards were operated by women – they were simply more pleasant to talk to than their spotty teenaged male counterparts.

If you look closely there's a smug guy saying "Plug it in there and say "Hello, sir.""

There must also have been a change in the employees that were taken on. By the mid-20s, many would have had experience in using a telephone at home and would have been more comfortable with the conventions surrounding its use. And training would have become less of a specialty – these operations would have become focused over time less on how to talk on the telephone and more about how to monetise operations off the back of them. Think of terms used in callcentres today and it’s all cross-sell and up-sell. You would imagine that the training around saying “Hello, welcome to Acme, my name is Allan, how may I help you today?” would be a short side note. The real meat of training is how to sell, how to serve, how to make sure the customer leaves happy and with a lighter wallet.

And so it is – and will be – with social media. It seems odd to me that this is even something worth mentioning in 2012, but I was reminded of the need by an idiotic spat with a “social media consultant” over their use of hashtags to hijack news items and conversations. I’ll save the details for now, but it occurred to me that these snake-oil salesmen are still out there relieving businesses of budgets for nothing more than, effectively, learning how to speak to people in these channels.

This was social media strategy for most of us in about 2005. Since then, it’s become more about how to integrate this new channel into business operations. With the advent of “social CRM” (yes, I know, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can really be distilled into listening to what your customer wants and then working out how your company can service their demands and needs), there is an even greater push to get brands and organisations engaging, listening and responding operationally.

But this is not where the social media consultant lives. They still think that their ability to chat on the phone sets them apart as specially talented, that brands haven’t yet caught on, that the need to impart wisdom gleaned from sometimes as much as two years’ experience as a self-appointed consultant qualifies them as a business requirement. But every year that passes, another generation of young employees comes to a company and for them social media is not something special – it just “is.” They’ve grown up with these things, it’s natural to them, they don’t need training in how to use it; they need training in how businesses work so they can work out how social media becomes as much a part of everyday company life as it is for the next generation of consumers coming through. Communication skills are easy to teach; how to run a business is not.

Snake Oil - check out that ROI!

The social media consultant should be dead by now, but they aren’t. They use each other to bolster their follower accounts, content farming like crazy to set out nets to catch each other with, giving the impression of huge networks that are bolstered by pointlessly-inflated Klout scores, but despite dropping phrases like ROI into their copy they offer very little of real worth to anyone that has learned to use their new version of the telephone. In an age when social media should be moving people towards transparency, they are skilled at setting up false impressions that easily impress the last few clients on the block not savvy enough to see through it. In this respect, they have another historical counterpart – the snake oil salesman, the guy that used to ride into wild west towns, sell everyone a magic cure based on miraculous results witnessed by the crowd when some poor miscreant (who also happened to be a stooge) would suddenly be “cured.” Then they’d ride off to the next town before the last one discovered this stuff had done nothing at all or, worse, poisoned them. Often, the placebo effect would make people believe they had actually gained relief, so those salesmen knew which towns they could visit again and which ones would lynch them if they ever set foot in the place.

A couple of years ago, I saw the video below. It made me laugh so much that I immediately removed from any of my copy any kind of terminology that seemed to imply social media guru credentials. I (honestly!) wasn’t in the same game but I knew plenty who were and it seemed like a red flag, a warning not to be lumped in with this kind of behaviour. I watched it again. And what made me laugh more than anything was the thought that with 2012 just around the corner, it’s still relevant – unbelievably so.

To anyone that might consider employing one of these chumps, I beg you – ask why you need them. Again, this feels like a five year old issue, but it clearly needs restating. Ask why you need “social media” and be clear what exactly your company can use it for. Treat it like any other channel and apply some meaningful metrics. Your telephone is connected to – potentially – billions of people, but just because it has that potential connection doesn’t mean you are actually connected.

That connection depends on whether or not your business has anything they want. Without that, your Twitter follower count means precisely dick-all. If you have the kind of business that needs it, there are specialist call centre companies which can help with outsourcing. They work because they are well-trained, understand your business requirements and deliver against them. Outsourcing social media should mean nothing less, but it often does.

Whilst “social media strategy” used to mean “how to talk to customers through social media” it is now about the more complex relationships involved between organisations and their customers, including collaboration and co-creation and how to integrate what is created into business operations that run a profit. Social strategy is a part of digital strategy is a part of business and marketing strategy. It’s all inextricably linked. Stop being impressed by surface impressions and ask more questions about what this stuff does for you. Stop drinking the snake oil.

Like the boys who once ruled the switchboard roost, or the maker of the instructional film, the social media consultant will one day be consigned to a minor footnote in history, notable only as a passing interest that “huh, we once used to need people to tell us how to use this stuff.”

Huh. How about that?

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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How To End Rioting With Targeted Advertising

The title of this piece disgusts me. Marketing people are always telling you how products will change lives for the better; usually such positive changes are evident in the swelling coffers of their and their clients’ bank accounts. The level of self-regard and rampant egotism in marketers is not something I try and subscribe to but bear with me, I think I’m onto something here.

Burning, man

Burning, man

Firstly, we all know London and parts of the UK “erupted” in riots in August 2011. This caught everyone by surprise except, say, people that actually lived in these areas who feel the boiling, feral emotions of everyday urban life day in day out and were waiting to see how and when the volcano would erupt. In the immediate aftermath, it was a race to apportion blame; facts, evidence and calm heads at this juncture become irrelevant – it’s a big ol’ game of point-scoring and the first to come up with a cosy-sounding theory that fits with people’s pre-existing prejudices is usually the winner.

Depending on which variety of politician or media outlet you personally subscribe to, you could take your pick from “pure criminality,” the breakdown of family or community values, poverty or gangs. Or something even more bizarre if you fancied – perhaps social networks  were to blame, just as, say, phone boxes were responsible for 1970s Irish Republican terrorism… weren’t they? In fact, so beautifully dogmatic was the government on this issue that an immediate “anti-gang task force” was announced as well as the hiring in of a US-based anti-gang specialist  at the expense of the local forces (much to their annoyance). Later, we would discover that over 80% of those arrested had nothing to do with gangs and that they weren’t really the blame but – hey! – at least we’ve satisfied ourselves that there’s an “answer” to a “problem” that we can repeat down the pub and that’s all nicely done with.

However, life, despite the attempts of those to categorise it as such, is not that simple. People are not simple. They are complex beings with multiple interwoven behaviours and desires. All of the above reasons have something to do with why riots erupt, but they are not everything. (And if you have a spare hour or so, Adam Curtis’ beautifully written / researched blog piece on “Goodies & Baddies” examines how classifying people as one thing or another is a dangerous game and illustrates the point with loads of great news archive footage. I can’t recommend it highly enough.) The truth is that there is a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that need to be fitted together before you can grasp the real picture of what makes human beings act so rubbishly in these kind of events.

Standard newspaper fare

One of these jigsaw pieces involves marketing and another involves consumerism. Yep, we’re getting to the point, people. Much of our economy’s strength is based on people buying shiny things. We don’t have much in the way of resource production or manufacturing any more so we sell goods and services. Marketing exists to convince us to buy stuff, we buy stuff and companies make money, that money is used to pay wages so we can go out and buy more stuff. And so forth.

But there is a problem. Marketing exists and pumps forth just about everywhere, even if its real target is only a small percentage of those watching or consuming it. Consumerism demands the constant addition of new products and markets to feed the economy. As a result, even a small child is convinced that their life is incomplete without those shoes, a princess dress, that toy, that brand. I was forced to watch a Barbie film with my 4 year old daughter the other week. It began in an era of princesses and dragons, castles and kings. Despite this medieval aura, the first scene involved the princesses leaping from the dinner table in excitement at – I kid you not – the arrival of the cobbler. Yes, he rode up in a carriage with horses and opened it up to reveal which shoes he had brought them. Even 4 year olds can learn the importance of shoes to happiness and well-being amongst one’s peers. And so it goes on.

"Today we are going to learn the Spanish for 'Buy all my shit,' amigo"

Your average Joe these days knows he is a social outsider if he doesn’t have the latest trainers, this month’s console  game selection or certain items of branded clothing. Every character to which one might aspire on TV or film has a swish smartphone, a nice laptop (both of which are likely to be higher spec than their real-life counterparts because of product placement) and will lead lifestyles of varying degrees of glamour. When you add up the sheer cost of leading such a lifestyle it’s astounding. To keep up means literally hundreds of pounds a month and that’s at the conservative end of the scale.

And then you consider the average wage in the UK is under £20K a year for most in the likely riot-y groups , and you realise that this is not an affordable lifestyle for a significant portion of society. I look at the kids from the estate near where I live and try and put myself in their shoes. They are living in a place where they are led to believe that  to be a functioning, successful member of society they need to wear a couple of hundred quids’ worth of clothes, drive BMWs or Mercedes, have £200 PlayStations and £44 games to go with it, play football in £100 boots… But their wage earning potential is likely to be somewhere around minimum wage or, perhaps, traveller site slave. Education in my borough is mainly piss-poor for ordinary folks who can’t afford school fees or housing within the catchment zone of the good schools. Jobs are thin on the ground outside of chicken-based takeaways. How are they ever supposed to “succeed” or even be “normal”?

And then, for a couple of days only, the shops were open and the tills weren‘t ringing. And so these disenfranchised under-funded aspirational consumers-to-be helped themselves to the lifestyle to which their imaginations had become accustomed. Remind me: how is that in any way surprising?

Marketing and consumerism play their part in forging these unrealistic expectations. Aspiration is seen as a normal thing even though social mobility in the UK is regularly highlighted as being the worst in the developed world outside of the USA. Kids born after 1970 have no realistic prospects en masse of social mobility. Those that do move are the exceptions not the rule. Meanwhile, everything from billboards to advertorial to TV ads to display advertising aims at maybe 10% of its potential audience but doesn’t care that it’s unrealistically raising expectations for the other 90%. And fuck what damage it does – we marketing types just want the 10% at any cost.

Targeted advertising, then, solves the problem. Truly targeted ads – ones that are fed by a knowledge of your search history, behaviour, preferences and propensities – really only exist online and on mobile at the moment and in relatively primitive form. Targeted advertising is better for marketers as it has far better response rates and you only pay for advertising to your targets rather than for the other 90% you don’t care about. If you think about a TV ad, it splatters a message at several million people at once, even though the product isn’t aimed at everyone. That whole Minority Report schtick with billboards that know who you are and talk directly to you is only round the corner, however.

And then imagine multi-view TV sets display, mobile and email plus whatever new tech is developed in the future for zapping marketing messages into our brains. (There’s a great moment in Futurama where Fry has a dream which is sponsored by Lightspeed Briefs but stupid copyright means I can’t embed it or link to somewhere you can see it in the UK. I may have to riot about this later).

For advertising to really work, it needs to show you something you can afford (or nearly afford if it’s something worth saving for). If ads become truly targeted, we’d end up only seeing stuff that was relevant to us personally. I would no longer see ads for cars or food I can’t afford; I would doubtless see a swathe of ads for second hand Toyotas, the joys of travelling by bus and coach, prescription drugs that dull the pain of existential angst, rented accommodation and affordable credit. Relieved of the aspirational desires that kill my appreciation of my current lifestyle, I would be able to be satisfied. And so would the missus – imagine that, folks: a world in which your partners’ desires were tempered by affordability and pragmatism: unbounded joy, in my eyes.

And so, as the youthful, disaffected mob are relieved of the need to aspire to unrealistic goals, they are instead fed with advertising that fails to do the ultra-consumerist damage we are currently inflicting on the nation’s yoot. Ads for Gola trainers, delicious Netto snacks and Morley’s Fried Chicken, socks 3 pairs for a pound from your local market stall: all achievable, satisfying consumerism.

And the economy continues to be healthy without the need for rioting or looting.

Problem solved, clearly.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Advertising, Digital, Online marketing, Society

 

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When Hari Got Sullied

I’ve written before about what I see as the danger inherent in subscribing to a particular set of beliefs. The Johann Hari saga has been yet one more example of why this is, frankly, spot-on.

We’ve got all excited about phone-hacking in the last few weeks and rightly so. In comparison, Johann Hari’s little saga has had relatively little coverage but it is part of the same problem. Politicians are meant to respect the Rule of Law. You have principles about how people go about their business? They apply to you too. I quite like Johann Hari’s writing and his passion, but he’s let the latter get the better of him and, as a result, his work has suffered. Every time I try and cut him some slack there’s another revelation of some appalling journalistic practices which are indefensible. If I’m going to be pissed at Murdoch’s minions, I have to be pissed at Hari too.

The problem is, people love to kick their enemies, but they feel uncomfortable turning the attention to one of their own – it’s as if they feel it weakens their point of view to have one of its exponents taken down. This, to my eyes, undermines their legitimacy. You can’t forgive Cameron for something you’d never have forgiven Gordon Brown; you can’t forgive the Guardian something you wouldn’t forgive the Mail. Yet, a long line of well-known Twitterati lined up to defend him, seemingly willing to overlook his misdeeds for the benefit of the bigger picture. And I’m not naming them here because…

Then there’s another side to it – using ad hominem (i.e. personal) attacks to undermine a point of view. You see this all day long in politics – that person’s point of view is invalid because he used to be a socialist; this MP’s point on unemployment is illegitimate because he has a second home. And the unravelling of Hari’s work has been similar – a lot of the attacks seem motivated by a desire to give him back some of the kickings he’s given other people. Hari has done some brilliant things – watch him tear Richard Littlejohn a new arse – and it’s a shame to think that we have to judge him as either “good” or “bad,” wholly legitimate or wholly illegitimate. Human beings are rarely so easily categorised.

I must admit, as time has gone on and more and more of his work – including his Orwell Prize piece – has been torn down, I feel less like making this point but it needs to be made, irrespective of Hari:

You have to separate the art and the artist.

Just because someone is a total arse, it does not make their work illegitimate. James Brown was a wife-beater but his music is still amazing. Picasso was a misogynist and womaniser but you wouldn’t want to take all his paintings off the walls and disregard him from art history because of it. Just because you love Michael Jackson’s music doesn’t mean you have to defend him as a person – I am constantly baffled as to why people can’t separate the two things. Hari is an idiot but it doesn’t mean everything he’s ever said or done is illegitimate. That will come down to an examination of the facts alone.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2011 in Journalism, PR, Social Media, Society

 

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Caution: Do Not Subscribe To This Blog

I really mean it. Perhaps that sounds odd in an age where everyone seems to be trying to gain a personal following. I mean, shouldn’t I be trying to build up an audience for this new blog? Should I not be kissing link-butt and drawing in you in? Maybe, but I don’t like the idea of “belief.” And following people – or, indeed, subscribing to their blogs – seems to engender a notion that one believes in them rather like one believes in a religion or political agenda. And that stuff is getting old, baby.

There is nothing that can't be said through the medium of lolcats

Let me explain: I am, basically, an old punk. My favourite band is probably  Dead Kennedys (caution: maybe NSFW / NSFL) and my favourite comedian Bill Hicks (likewise). It is plain weird to me that I have somehow, despite all my best efforts, ended up working in the field I do with the principles I hold dear, but that, as they say, is life. One of my main principles in thinking punkyish is that you burn your idols. You don’t have them. Nobody gets to be right just by virtue of who they are. Our political systems (West, East, everywhere) are based on the idea that we believe what certain of our leaders say with often then very lightest of questioning.

This is a form of idolatry. I want to question everybody, I want to know what they know so I can see whether their conclusions are ones I would come to myself. We all tend to use cognitive shortcuts – instead of examining the raw data or information, we rely on the source – some like The Guardian, some like The Times; some follow the guy with that kind of beard, some with this kind of hat. Are you a Redditor or a 4Channer or a Digg-er? Noam Chomsky or Leo Strauss?

There is a certain necessity in all of this. Few people have the time to examine every fact for themselves; more importantly, few have the intellect. There is no reason why anyone who has not studied economics (academically or in practice) should hold a valid opinion on whether or not we raise interest rates or cut taxes. This is why debates like whether or not the UK should join the Euro are reduced to nationalist issues such as whether or not the Queen’s head would be on a 10 Euro note or whether or not it’s a matter of national sovereignty. The media – and commentators, blogs etc – act as a filter or translation mechanism. If you don’t understand an issue personally, then you use outlets you trust to make those decisions for you.

This is a responsibility which is often abused. Headlines about health that play on fear or offer unrealistic hope by pulling a medicine trial result out of context – cancer is not necessarily cured because a bunch of rats showed some promising results in a single experiment. But media need to sell papers and advertising and bloggers need their status and ego-stroking, so that’s what tends to happen. Andrew Wakefield falsifies results in a tiny trial regarding autism and the MMR vaccine to bolster his shareholding in a company which sells single-shot vaccines. Years later, children suffer from diseases which had all but been eradicated; media and others have used the confirmation of what they “believe” in the media to bolster what they think they “know.” And it’s totally understandable – we just don’t have the time or intellect to read up on everything we need to have an opinion on, be sure of the validity of the source of the information and interpret it accordingly. Which begs the question: do you really need an opinion on every subject?

Believing something and knowing something  are two very different things. Scientists are supposedly the benchmark: a good scientist can hypothesise on something for years, treating it almost like a belief, but – unlike, say, religious or political people – when the evidence shows them to be wrong, they change their minds.Science is not a belief system – it’s about being able to observe something and repeat it, in essence it’s only about what can be actually proved to be true. It requires no belief other in one’s own eyes and ears.

In practice, of course, that isn’t often the case. Andrew Wakefield still “believes” he is right (as he is paid quite a lot of money to do so) despite all the evidence proving he is quite wrong. Renegade / sceptical climate scientists make a name for themselves by being available to undermine the 97%+ of climate scientists who agree that the evidence is compelling. The public’s difficulty in sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff (most of us are lucky to have a physics or chemistry GCSE let alone a career’s worth of learning to be able to decide for ourselves) and so we fall back on belief.

Where the science element fails is often not in the science or scientists, but in those that follow them. I love Ben Goldacre’s work in this respect, but those that follow him tend to use his proclamations as fact when they are often opinion (which he is entitled to) – I suspect relatively few of those that cite him understand his actual scientific work in the slightest. I also adore the work of Adam Curtis as he’s one of the few documentary makers I’ve come across who can stimulate thought and discussion around complex topics, but it’s foolish to take it all at face value and represent as pure fact. This is exactly what religions and political parties do; you may believe that God sent the 10 commandments for his people on Earth but how much more of a religion’s commandments are actually just interpretations by mere mortal men & women? You may believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy because your political party tells you it does and provides you with a single historical example of when this appeared true – but does it also show you examples of all the times when it didn’t?

This is why I love the likes of Wikileaks and (some) hackers. The opening and democratisation of information allows people to see the facts for themselves without the media’s filter process. The downside is that people often do not recognise their own shortcomings in interpreting the information. But that problem is the same with or without the media in the middle of the process. My mother clearly has trouble questioning what The Daily Express tells her – give her the raw data and she’ll still most likely see what she wants. In that respect, I think she’s fairly typical of most of us, whatever publications we choose.

Some credit, then, to Noam Chomsky this week. He’s someone I both love and hate, although most people treat him in exactly the fashion I am trying to address. They either idolise him and repeat every word as gospel or treat him with contempt and ignore everything. But this week he did an interesting volte face. He’s previously hailed Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution in Venezuela. But he’s also had the guts to say “Actually, you’ve gone a bit wrong there, pal” when it matters. Must be hard to lionise someone one moment and then be critical when required. Try finding newspapers that apologise for their errata with the same amount of column inches they gave over to being wrong in the first place.

Truth is, Google (or Wolfram Alpha or Bing) is my guide. If I want information on a subject I look for it and try and find as commendable a source as my feeble brain can understand. What I don’t do is have a small selection of media outlets on which I rely for information. If I see something in The Independent I may wish to cross-check it with The Guardian, Telegraph or specialist blogs. Just because I see a good post by a blogger does not mean that everything they write is spot-on. This kind of thing is endemic in the kind of people I meet in my work. Malcom Gladwell, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Robert Scoble. All good, intelligent people, but whilst some of their work appeals, some of it is, frankly, utter shit – churned out to sell a book, bolster blog traffic or gain new followers. Once anyone is in the business of providing information, their motives should always be treated as suspicious. That scepticism is healthy – although instantly disbelieving someone because they make a buck is equally stupid.

”]Belief is like a cancer. It grows in a person until they can no longer function effectively. How on Earth can it be that people believed in the Rapture / end of the World? Because they believed in Harold Camping. That’s bad enough, but when he’s proved wrong by a distinct lack of, y’know, earthly destruction, how can people continue to believe him. In fact, people’s beliefs are more likely to be strengthened even when they are “proved” wrong. Seriously, how mad is that?

So forget your idols. David Cameron is not right about everything by virtue of being Prime Minister. Obama is not wrong about everything by virtue of being “leftist”. Your rabbi / imam / priest / prophet is there to be questioned not idolised, your favourite writer / commentator / scientist is just one voice. And yours should be asking “Why? How? When?” or maybe just “WTF?”

So, as I said: do not subscribe to this blog.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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Hacking? Wise up – this is just democracy in action

Hackers – we’re all going to lose our financial information, our national security, our gaming info, our very LIVES. And it’s all their fault.

The mad bastard that started it all?

Once the reserve of honourable and lovely young men like that chap in War Games or that nice Angelina Jolie in “Hackers” the movie, now it’s the reserve of dangerous anarchic nerds and –worse – one of them is from Essex, goddamit.

You’d be forgiven for holding this view if you get your information from a media that clearly doesn’t understand what a hacker actually does, the difference between a thief and a pisstaker or the cultures that surround either. As a source of information on hacking, the media at large is distinctly underqualified.

We're in BIG trouble, people.

First of all, let’s discount the thieves. A thief is a thief – they are motivated by personal gain and their motives for said gain are not our concern here. Whether it’s a starving artist stealing to fund his art or a drug addict stealing to feed a habit or organised crime looking to amass vast piles of cash, the end result is the same – it’s just theft. When someone steals 10s of millions of bits of credit card data they are thieves. Occam’s Razor: that data is highly valuable, you most likely don’t steal it for any other reason than profit. When Sony pointed a finger at Anonymous for being a suspect in their data theft, they displayed just how little they understood about both Anonymous and data theft. Treat thieves like thieves, but be cautious about what their motive is.

The truth is, when someone steals my credit card data, this has a direct effect on me so I want justice, pitchforks and lynchings, redress and revenge. But when Gary McKinnon tries to steal UFO files I just think “Bless. He’s not really doing much harm.” In fact, the net result of McKinnon was that various government data holders wised up to the fact that a lot of their security was piss-poor. Once you subtract the thieves from the hacking, you’re left with more people like this – enquiring minds at one end of the scale, mischievous anarchists at the other. Neither make me quiver in fear in my bed.

The reason I don’t fear them is that I haven’t pissed any of them off. At least, not yet. Hacking targets are much more likely to be organisations or people that have acted badly – see Blizzard, Sony (multiple times),Scientology and The Westboro Baptist Church for details. Sony compounded their sins by attacking a teenage boy as if he was a criminal mastermind – this perceived injustice (rightly or wrongly) was never going to be allowed to stand and just poured toluene on the flames. And, just like in my chemistry lesson, it blew the fuck up. See this site for the latest.

This, then, is democracy in action. It’s just a system that we haven’t recognised up ‘til now – we usually think of voting, lobbying your MP, demonstrating, gaining media support or writing letters if we think about how to engage in government; we think of writing feedback via letters or websites or Twitter / social media, or, again, gaining a bit of media coverage if we have a problem with a brand.

Trouble is, none of it works very well.

If you’re wealthy, you can afford to lobby government. You can donate to campaign funds for a political party, or you can sponsor events or policy. These options are not open to most of us as individuals. Who listened to “the people” over companies when it came to the DMCA or control over ISPs? Who’s listening on net neutrality or education or the NHS?

So you complain your train service is rubbish. Who’s changing anything? You sign a loan agreement you can’t possibly understand because you aren’t a commercial lawyer; maybe you have the chance to challenge the hidden effects with the ombudsman, maybe you don’t. Maybe your new car starts playing up but for some reason the warranty doesn’t seem to cover it. There are any number of reasons why traditional methods for engaging with either brands or government are often insufficient – the majority of the power lies on the side of the big guy, however you look at it. That’s why Vodafone can get away with not paying a £6bn tax bill.

Yeah.

What do you do then? When you’ve exhausted the existing possibilities? Shut up and take it?

Hackers in the majority are just disaffected voters and consumers like the rest of us. Seen some government-sponsored injustice? Take action. Seen a big brand run over the little guy – stand up and defend them. Years ago, this would have just been called “direct action.” You campaigned against racism, you voted out the racists wherever you could, but you still had to go and stand on Brick Lane and defend the curry houses and the Asians from the White Power newspaper sellers and their attendant little crowds of hatred. The legal stuff had to be done, too, but you needed a physical presence the police couldn’t provide.  This was a grey area, and it still is.

Democracy requires (by definition) a free flow of information; we are meant to be informed before we make our choices. But that [Adam Curtis voice] is a fantasy. Information is carefully controlled, partly out of habit. That’s the way it’s been for years. But now we have the internet and we can exchange information quickly. Failure to be open with the official information on everything from UFOs to 9/11 has left a vacuum which is filled by – often – the ignorant rather than the informed. This helps nobody. And so Wikileaks and those like them – the hackers supreme – respond to the demand of the market and provide real information when its guardians refuse to release it. Have a look at this list of info released by Wikileaks – how many people died like governments said they would? Or are we better off for knowing? Can we be trusted to know?

Hacking and leaking are on the same spectrum. Give us the information to make the democratic choices we are told are so important. Don’t treat us badly knowing that all anyone can do is fine or reprimand you – that’s insufficient if you are walking away with enormous profits. Protect our valuable data. Don’t sell us shitty products.

Our consumer champions are no longer the likes of Esther Rantzen and ‘That’s Life’–  they were the ones I remember as a kid who picked up the consumer cause when the little guy had got nowhere. They may have struck fear into the hearts of the big brands of the 1970s, but they would be a rather blunt instrument in 2011. The lesson is this: if you don’t want to get hacked, behave better towards your public. I can’t help thinking that if, on day one of discovering their hack, Sony had said to their audience “We’ve screwed up. Please help us” a load of hackers who also love their PS3s would have joined the team. And they would have been far more effective than some of the snake-oil-selling security people that always seem to crop up in these affairs.

Hacking – the Esther Rantzen of the internet. Who’d have thunk it?

 

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