Digital Skills Select Committee: Some answers on skills, education and the future of work

I was offered the opportunity to submit a written response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills in my capacity as member of the CIPR’s Social Media Advisory Panel.

My submission covered issues such as digital skills education, the future of work and the higher education system has been accepted and can be found in the Committee’s latest publication.

To save you trawling through the document, however, I’ve pasted my responses below. Enjoy!

Q. 5 How are we teaching students in a way that inspires and prepares them for careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist, rather than the current one? How can this be improved?

From experience of teaching undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals, it can be argued that there is still too much emphasis on classroom or lecture based teaching, taught to syllabi that are out-dated – or not necessarily reflective of emerging or transforming occupations – and are limited to rapid change or development due to bureaucracy within higher education or professional bodies.

Given the highly practical and technical as well as experimental nature of some elements of digital knowledge and skills it is important for students to gain hands-on experience of technology and its application in specific fields. This can be limited by the syllabi of courses and qualifications which tend to be taught by academics and professionals not familiar with new or emerging products or techniques as well as the facilities of education institutions which remain wedded to lecture theatre and classroom style teaching. The provision of ‘wired’ teaching spaces or computer-labs can be scant and, where it does exist, highly popular making it difficult to reserve and teach in.

As well as infrastructure limitations, education is also held back the scope of syllabi which remain unchanged and rooted in non-digital content. Part of this is linked to out-of-touch, established tutors as addressed above, but it is also partly to do with the laboriousness and time-taken to review and re-validate course content. The additional work and duration of this process is prohibitive to updating and adapting courses to new and emerging technologies, knowledge and skills.

Q. 7 How can the education system develop creativity and social skills more effectively?

The answer provided to Q. 5 above provides part of the context and answer to this one as well. However, the issues that require addressing to help the nations’s education system develop creativity lie pre-higher education and within the approach schools take to teaching and learning. For example, many undergraduate and postgraduate students encountered through my experience are overly focused on learning the ‘facts’ required to pass assessments, rather than recognising the ability to think critically and creativity and value the ‘process’ of knowledge exploration and development. Anecdotal research among student cohorts across a number of years indicates that this approach to learning stems from GCSE and A-Levels where the goal is not to develop techniques for learning per se, but rather ‘learn’ the exam inputs required to pass. By extension such an approach to teaching may well stem from schools’ desire to achieve successful results in order to satisfy league tables.

Locked into this approach is a highly detrimental way of learning which overlooks the value in self-directed exploration, creative thinking, experimentation and a recognition that coming up with creative ideas, trying them out, failing and adapting them is an important skill set to possess in contemporary society.

I’m not sure the education system has a primary responsibility for developing social skills.

Q. 8 How does the current post-16 system inspire and equip students to pursue careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist? How can this be improved?

Education and other state systems can be notoriously process-driven and focused on outputs rather than critical and creative thinking. In some respects it may be worthwhile developing partnerships with credible third parties to help students identify, understand and pursue careers in the future workplace. Linked to my response to Q. 7, one of he emerging areas of the economic and employment landscape is the increasing rise of individual responsiveness and entrepreneurship. Driven by digital technology’s empowerment if individuals and its fragmentation of existing industries this trend emphasises – at least presently – the opportunities for individuals to identify problems and develop solutions, either as start-up organisations (e.g. AirBnB, Uber, etc) or as individuals (e.g. the freelancing of traditional career paths and roles). Enabling students to think creatively, explore and test opportunities and even fail are key skills to be equipped with in such a broad, entrepreneurial economic environment.

Q.9 How can the digital sector be supported in the short- and medium-term? What is the role for higher and vocational education, national colleges, industry, and industrial policy?

In terms of the short and medium-term role for higher and professional/vocational education, more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding through research and embedding through teaching the key core knowledge and skills, e.g. techniques, ethical implications, successful applications, etc, of the major trends in the digital sector. These will be high-level insights and not necessarily available from existing workplaces or on course curricula. Extra funding for research and curriculum development will be key. One potential limitation for education is the growth of commercialised involvement in elements of the digital sector. The once open field of the Internet and ‘social media’ is fast being consolidated, commercialised and hide away behind patents and copyright. While tho is arguably inevitable in a market economy it means that teaching the application of popular or widely-used tools, technologies, platforms, etc will require ether partnerships with or licences for proprietary products. This is something that would potentially restrict education providers to limit student expose to one or two key technologies given exclusivity clauses or often exorbitant costs.

Is the NSA ‘whistle-blower’ news a damage limitation exercise for a bigger story?

Just a quick post on the NSA/PRISM story that broke last week highlighting two great articles that I happened on over the weekend and which – I think – set the appropriate tone for any robust discussion of the issues involved. You can also possibly identify a hypothetical scenario that might imply the recent NSA leak is a damage limitation move by the US Government. It’s a bit far fetched and based on supposition and limited evidence but worth pointing out anyway.

Firstly, ZDNet has a great analysis of the current situation which highlights the likely reality that Facebook, Google, Paltalk et al are probably telling the truth when they assert that they knew nothing of the PRISM programme. ZDNet’s reasoning for this requires us to go back to a slightly earlier story (also published by the Guardian) that revealed how the US Government’s NSA has been hoovering up social media – and presumably other online – data passing through network provider, Verizon, infrastructure at least since 2001. This original story was published a day before the Guardian broke it’s big NSA ‘whistleblower’ story.

ZDNet’s argument is that the Verizon story is much bigger than the NSA one. As it points out:

One by one, nearly all of the named companies denied knowledge of either knowing about PRISM, or providing any government agency user content, data or information without a court order or a search warrant.

But during that time, almost everyone forgot about Verizon. It’s the cellular and wireline giant that makes the whole thing come together.

According to ZDNet, Verizon – or more specifically, Verizon Business Network Services, is a Tier 1 network provider. Tier 1 providers are, in ZDNet’s terms, “the main arteries of the Internet” and there are only about 12 Tier 1s in the world “including AT&T, Level 3, and Sprint in the U.S.; Deutsche Telekom in Germany; NTT Communications in Japan; and Telefonica in Spain”.

Tier 1 networks function as privately controlled networks that help deliver business or mission critical data around the web. Unlike the publicly owned, distributed infrastructure of the web which will route data the most open way. Tier 1 networks ensure data is sent quickly and efficiently. Their private ownership, in short, guarantees quality network service to their customers – which is why the like of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, etc use them. Hopefully you can see where this is going…..

With access to such a high-level network, it doesn’t take much for the NSA to legally tap into a US-owned/based Tier 1 network such as Verizon and subsequently harvest all the data as it travels between personal devices and the business (e.g. Facebook). Add to this fact many data-heavy platforms, such as Google and Facebook store cached user information within the cloud on the same network service and it becomes quite easy to see how a simple intercept can give the NSA lots and lots of private data.Not only that, but it can do this without Facebook, Google, etc ever knowing or even (presumably) needing to give their consent.

So far, so good. But where does Edward Snowden  come into it?

Well, such a question is picked apart by Lauren Weinstein in this great blog post. He queries a number of claims that supposedly support Edward’s motivations – ones which I had trouble taking at face value too. He rightly points out:

Snowden’s situation brings with it some real head-scratching questions.I’m immediately struck by Snowden’s current choice of Hong Kong as a place of refuge. He says the choice was based on their “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” I’m not entirely sure that he’s talking about the same Hong Kong I know, which is actually part of China, operates only with China’s sufferance, and — we can logically assume — is saturated with Chinese Intelligence. […] We’re also told that Snowden is “lining the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping,” and “puts a red hood over his head and laptop to avoid cameras capturing his passwords.”

I’ll admit to being puzzled by such actions. Neither of them are likely to negatively impact skilled eavesdroppers in any significant way, given the tradecraft available today.

Aside from this peripheral detail, Lauren then questions as to why Snowden’s revelations are such a big news story. Again, he rightly points out that the material of the leak is nothing that privacy, technology and civil liberty campaigners haven’t been pointing as likely outcomes of various US legislation for a while.

More importantly, he draws attention to the media narrative that the NSA has secret or covert access to big social media platforms. He asserts: “The PRISM documents have been widely touted as “proving” that NSA has “back doors” into the servers of Google, Facebook, and other firms, through which NSA could query and extract personal user data without interaction or control from these firms themselves.

Such a perspective, he argues, is wrong based on his own insider experience and knowledge of these firms. This position is supported further by the ZDNet analysis.

So, combining the two blog posts we get to ask the question: is the ‘whistle-blower’ / social media handing over your personal details simply a useful PR angle for the NSA to divert attention front he earlier, much more significant story that it is routinely and legally siphoning much more data via its Verizon (and presumably other US Tier 1 providers) wiretaps? Maybe.

I suspect this is little more than a hypothetical reading, but it would be good to get more insight into the background to the story – along with greater information on the following issues: What was the source of the Verizon story? Was it part of Edward Snowden’s material? When did Snowden come forward?

Hansard Society report on Parliament and #futurenews

The Hansard Society has published an interesting report, #futurenews – The Communication of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World, that examines the ways in which Parliament can (and should) adapt to social media to enhance its communication and engagement with the public.

Future News: Can Parliament seize the opportunity to better communicate parliamentary democracy

The reports main findings are that:

  • Parliament needs to adopt to social, mobile, data and video-led digital communications
  • Parliament has the potential to play a crucial part as “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy” – but one which is largely absent from popular political debate
  • Parliament needs to spend time identifying key online communities and developing ways to communicate better with them (i.e. faster and using more granular, social content)

In order to step up and start meeting these challenges, the reports authors argue that the following actions must be prioritised and implemented:

  1. “Appoint a Community Team (for each House or on a bi-cameral basis) to build links with online communities with specific audience interests and an AV media officer to produce rich in-house content to populate the website and be disseminated to a variety of audiences
  2. Invest in its broadcasting and digital infrastructure to enable a wider range of online sites to take its material
  3. Produce contextualised video news releases and make video of up to two minutes’ duration available copyright free, with attribution for any user to download and embed
  4. Revise the  broadcasting rules, particularly for regional select committee visits
  5. Live-log, time-code, tag and key-word Hansard, and improve the website search functionality in order to enable people to access relevant material more quickly”

These findings and recommendations are interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that none of results and outcomes are particularly ground-breaking – at least if you work in a digital PR or social media agency. But it is striking that none of the, even fundamental steps, have yet to be considered let alone implemented by an institution described by the report authors as the “apex of our democracy”!

Secondly, a lot of this reminds me of the work I delivered with We Are Social as part of a project with Parliamentary Outreach, the marketing arm – if you will – of Parliament*. This project was focused on opening up the work and processes of Parliamentary committees – and as an aside, it’s interesting to note that the report intimates the ethos and perhaps some of the original actions from the project have filtered through to a practical level within Committee business (see p.37 and the #askgove example). One key learning from this project – and something commonly experienced across established institutions – was that while the recommended actions were widely recognised as imperative for engaging digitally and opening up the organisation, dominant cultures and stakeholders prevailed, limiting the potential of the project.

This latter point is one issue that the report needs to consider as a next step for ensuring its accurate recommendations become reality. There are, of course, many ways to embed social norms within traditionally hierarchical organisations but I think another factor that the Hansard Society and Parliament need to consider is the presumption of centrality and self-importance of Parliament and by extension, democracy.

The report itself describes Parliament as occupying an “authoritative place at the apex of our democracy”. But is this a risky start point for socialising Parliament’s communication (and by necessity, Parliament itself)? Based on both the disintegration of public trust in Parliament and democratic institutions as well as the empowering of ‘ordinary citizens’ through social technologies surely a more appropriate starting point would one of deference and a recognition that both in terms of political purpose and social media knowledge and practice, Parliament has a lot of catching up to with wider society.


* It always amused me that Parliamentary Outreach’s portcullis logo on We Are Social’s client page was consistently mistaken for Ministry of Sound!

Conference presentation: Re-Assembling Mediated Power

I was meant to give this presentation last week at the SEDTC conference at Royal Holloway last week but unfortunately wasn’t able to. I thought I’d share it here anyway.

The original abstract is here to give the presentation some context and I’ll hopefully uploading the full paper in due course.

Just Do It! film now free to download

I’ve been catching up on a load of great independent films made recently that are trying to shed light light on some of the current problems and productive responses to them. One of those is Just Do It – a tale of modern-day outlaws. I highly recommend watching it and there’s really no excuse as you can now download it for free from the Just Do It website and even stream it – which I’ve done, below.

Although I’ve been ever so slightly involved with the film, it really is a great British film that has taken time and courage to bring to life the surprising, funny and passionate responses of environmental activists to the frankly depressing and thuggish actions of business, the police and Government. Quoting the official blurb:

“behind the scenes of the secretive world of direct action, Just Do It is a unique look at the planning and plotting behind the mass media headlines.”

Just… er….. it’s too easy…. go and download it!

Free spirits, fairy dust & free-markets: some notes on the post-political

Ive been doing some reading recently around the post-political – largely contexualised as post-cold war political philosophy.

I’m trying to apply some of the insights offered by the likes of Jacques Ranciere and Slavoj Zizek to the contemporary situation we find ourselves in in early twenty-first century Britain, and how/whether we can find a way out of the current throes of capitalism.

Then an interesting thing happened, a handful of really prescient stories and ideas converged on me. Here’s a summary…

I was stirred to recap on the post-political by the excellent blog post by Dan McQuillan who examines the seventeenth-century English radical Antinomians in light of the contemporary Anonymous and – to an extent – #Occupy movements.

Fascinatingly both groups seem to reject any attempt at formal, strategic opposition to dominant structures and forces. Instead, such groups adopt a tactic of detachment in which they go about their aims without giving credence to authority’s  anticipated or expected responses. far from entering into power structures, both the Antinomians and Anonymous envision and produce another world. And this in turn is their strategy. It’s a de-strategy.

Highlighting this tactically productive approach, Dan’s post draws a lineage from the heresy of the medieval proto-antinomians, the Free Brethren of the Free Spirit, through to the radical seventeenth-century Antinomians and on to contemporary hackers. A timely reminder that struggles against authority and oppression are nothing new and that revisiting previous excursions into sites of radical action may bring new ideas and new ways of acting.

Then, just as I’m getting into the post-politics at a more contemporary level I come across the excellent chapter, On Fairy Dust and Rupture, in the even more excellent book, Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why its Kicking Off Everywhere.

Penned by the The Free Association the chapter seeks to account for the intrinsic faith people have in capitalism as viable system – a faith that, on the face of it, could be considered a ‘magic’ quality – and how this internalised logic can be tackled and shown for what it is: a sorcery created and maintained by a range of forces operating explicitly and implicitly; at a structural level and at an individual level.

For the authors, the fairy dust refers (via The Troggs!) to an unknown quality that can transform something mundane or everyday into something that exceeds the sum of its parts. “Fairy dust,” they argue “invokes the need for a gamble, a roll of the dice, an experiment.” [p.29].

The authors go on to map out ways this fairy dust can be sprinkled on actions and events and how these one-off ‘ruptures’ can be built upon to spread greater and deeper social and economic change. The spark of nature’s fire that could trigger new antinomian movements, so to speak.

And finally, coming hot on the heels of reading this a friend shared Adam Curtis’ latest blog post on the Soviet stagnation of the 1970s/80s and the responses undertaken by a disaffected youth.

Curtis’ prescience and the dimensions through which he explores seemingly mainstream topics generally unnerves me, and this post is no exception. In it, Curtis plots similar themes tot he ones I’ve been tracing – but from a different angle: the post-political Soviet end of history as The Plan began to fail.

Curtis’ piece is amazingly timely as it looks at how soviet art and cultural movements of post-political Russia sought to reject soviet communism and, realising if offered an equally – if more subtle – totalitarian system, liberal democracy.

Curtis presents a critical appraisal of the economic and social (i.e. human) failures of the soviet system in ways that cannot fail to generate resonance with the reality of our Western society today.

This is especially powerful as Curtis succeeds where others (save for the radical left) have failed. Offering a genuine critique of Britain in the here and now is difficult as The Free Association’s ‘sorcery’ of capitalism maintains its hold creating either a denial or an awe of the system.

Yet Curtis’ analogy is hugely powerful as it shows how the great Soviet Plan entered into increasingly illogical and absurd spasms as it attempted to predict and manage the complex demands of the population.

It would be easy to laugh at the examples given by the scientists and economists as they explain their predicament were it no for the increasingly absurd lengths we see capitalism going to in its attempt to shore up the yawning gap between the economic, material reality and the glossy, consumer driven fiction all around us.

Curtis concludes with the somewhat bleak transition of Soviet Russia to a pseudo-Liberal Democratic Russia where the radicals of the post-political 1970s have either committed suicide (quite a few seemed to go that way, interestingly) or embraced the far-right or liberal democracy or, in the case of Vladislav Surkov, both.

That is is why Dan’s post and The Free Association are so important. They point us towards practical tactics and ideas for conjuring a way to another world.

Back to the post-political and searching for ways out.

New from Escalate: Salt

I’ve blogged about the Escalate Collective before; they’ve produced some pretty excellent critique and analysis.

After months of silence they’ve published a new – and much lengthier – response to the current politics. I’ve not got around to reading it all yet, but I anticipate great things.


#ukriots and the limits of traditional media (and what it means for democracy)

This post started out as a few immediate thoughts about the way the #ukriots played out across the media.

By the time I'd got around to tidying up what I'd written it'd been superceded by a wealth of good analysis – some focused on media, some not.

Having written something I felt it worthwhile adding my own initial reactions to the debate, particularly from a media perspective given the political role the media has within liberal democracies.

I end the post with some next step ideas about what this all means for democracy. Something I'll hopefully return to a later date.

As mentioned above, recommended wider reading would include: Zygmunt Bauman's article on the consumerist context for the riots; Critical Legal Thinking and Schnews' account of the broader neoliberal capitalist project as cause of the riots and the London Review of Book's historical perspective.

I wanted to capture some of my thoughts around the limitations (and failings) of the media during the worst of the rioting, which may be useful for my ongoing research.

The guiding theme for all the points I jotted down was how the liberal media has possibly reached its limits for effective and adequate reporting in the 21st century.

This is partly due to the emergence of networked media powered by the internet and increasingly networked mobile technology; however, it is also down the wider structural limitations of liberal democracy within which the media plays a central role (see Louw, for a good overview of how the emergence of liberal democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the media).

During the worst of the riots social media gave access to multiple sources of information enabling anyone with internet access to gather information and build their own real-time stream of news.

Fascinatingly, the BBC was urging people not to use social media (Twitter in particular) to interpret events.

They told us: Twitter was full of misinformation, conflicting accounts and unverifiable information. Stay tuned to the BBC for verified and authoritative coverage.

Importantly, this random, disparate and admittedly sometimes misleading information flow of Twitter was the reality of the situation.

Gathering real-time streams of information and content from social channels and augmenting it with mainstream media coverage or official sources allows individuals to build their own personal news feed using multiple, heterogenous sources.

The flaw in the BBC's argument is that live streams of social information are much more reflective of the reality of the situation and allow individuals to create a flexible, open-ended picture of what's happening.

The role of the BBC (and other traditional new providers) is to crystallise information into "news" whereas following events through social channels recognises the fact that "news" is never created as a fixed reality, rather it allows us to infer a complex and ever-changing picture of events.

It can be suggested that this problem arises from the industrial model of news production where the gathering of information has to result in a completed, finalised and sellable product.

The BBC's idea of Twitter being misleading and unreliable is also a flawed argument based on the fact that it fails to recognise any other mode of editorialising except their own, professional news-production.

For example there are a number of filtering, accrediting and editorialising information using peer networks as Yochai Benkler has examined – see chapters 6 & 7 in The Wealth of Networks for an exploration of the different models of peer-to-peer information gathering and filtration.

As an example, I relied mainly on my own Twitter and Facebook network for gathering information about events, turning only to the #riot and #londonriot hashtags to verify what the BBC and mainstream media was reporting.

And as James Cridland has pointed out in a great blog post, when it came to gathering useful or verifiable data on the riots, traditional media – including the BBC – was reporting inaccurate information on events.
So, the BBC's attempts to warn people against using social media was telling: if anything, it reveals the real power of social media.

That the nation's public service broadcaster needs to try to convince people it has better information than the people on the ground suggests the game may soon be up for traditional, top-down, authoritative media.

(an ironic foot-note to all this, most forward-thinking mainstream media are actually seeking to build on real-time, social reporting as articulated by by the emerginging concept of "ambient journalism" according to Alfred Hermida.)

Reinforcing the argument that social media is over-taking traditional editorialising was the quality of the BBC and Sky's rolling news coverage.

Throughout the night, as I skipped from the BBC News channel to Sky News all I saw were news anchors repeating a variation of the same information drawn predominently from official sources; largely inane commentary from the paid-up commentariat or politicians and police sources who simply maintained an entrenched position that arguably created the socio-economic situation that gave broth to the riots in the first place.

The real voices of people involved or pragmatic analysis by individuals perhaps better qualified to talk about what was happening – people on the streets, sociologists, political economomists and the rioters/looters themselves – went unreported.

In fact, the news coverage on Sky went further than not offering real voices by actively seeking out and then mis-preresenting real voices.

Reporting on being told by one looter that they were looting because they paid taxes and got nothing in return, the correspondent reported this saying: "But I wouldn't say that's a political response. This is all just opportunistic."

If these points are political and cultural reasons why mainstream media has become inadequate in reporting news then there are also arguably institutional reasons as well.

For example, once the sun went down or rioting become too intense, dangerous or moved to perceived unsafe locations, such as housing estates, both BBC and Sky resorted to reusing aerial footage of burning buildings or footage recorded earlier.

No doubt this is to protect the health and safety of reporters, but it further reveals the limits of the media's ability to tell the full story.

Just as the textual/spoken reporting was limited to a repetitive set of 'known' or 'verified' information so too was visual reporting limited to unhelpful long-range or out-dated scenes.

There was arguably some 'citizen reporting' via Sky and the BBC – but this itself brought about an interesting blurring of boundaries between social and institutional reporting.

With many of their own correspondents living within areas subject to rioting and looting, Sky and BBC brought their reporters into live broadcasts on the phone.

Similarly, many were reporting events in real-time via Twitter. These off-duty reporters were reporting on local events from a personal persepective: remember almost all of these individuals have a "tweeting in a personal capacity" disclaimer on the accounts, plus by reporting through Twitter their coverage isn't limited to Sky subscribers or license fee payers.

Their actions were arguably blurring the role between being a professional reporter and a personal or citizen reporter. 

Limits of liberal democracy
The limits of the media can be extended, I'd argue, to an analysis of the increased decline in liberal democracy and its hold over people's lives and society as a whole.

Firstly, which is the demographic consuming least traditional media? Young people of course. And what was the core demographic of rioters? Young people – although, of course, with exception.

Young people as a whole crude homogenous lump don't consume mainstream media. On the one hand this is causing advertisers and media companies sleepless nights, but on the other it also means that the media's role in performing its rational, liberal public information or watch-dog role is being undermined.

Added to this situation is the established – and growing – disenfranchisement of young people by other structural elements of liberal democracy, such as government policy, political parties and the police.

For example, see my post on the March 26th demo and how so many of the young people I saw were serious about fighting back against police brutality meted out at the last year's student demos and a government which has made only too clear how public policy is dictated by the market by u-turning on student fees.

As a result, you have a liberal democratic mechanism of managing public opinion which is no longer effective among the emergent population (not to mention further exacerbated by the ongoing economic effects on quality of life and perceived life chances).

Then there is the content of the media and the role it plays in liberal democracy.

At a normative level the media is meant to help us rationally debate and discuss events in the public sphere and form reasoned, democratic responses upon which our political institutions will act.

However, the trend over the past decades has been an increasing sensationalism and populism among the broader, mainstream media.

The public – and in particular those who consider themselves liberals – who pay particular attention to the media to stay abreast of topical issues – are failing to recognise or discover the nuances and complexities of what is happening.

The public appears almost unanimous in adopting the sensational language used by politicians and media commentators and most importantly the predominently white, middle-class news readers who themselves are guilty of reinforcing this media "restyling" by adopting media stereotypes, e.g. referring to looters as animalistic, feral, etc.

There's no space in this type of traditional media coverage for critical debate. Suggestions that the government's strategy of destroying communities by cutting its funding and increasing levels of unemployment is parallel to destroying a community through the physical violence of trashing shops go unheard.

Arguably, the strategy is the same; the tactics differ. The government has the upper hand and can destroy communities through policy-decisions and structural means; young people adopt much cruder approach

And this allows us to glimpse a subtle and potentially crucial failing of the traditional media in what we might term 'end-stage liberal democracies'.

The government and the wider political institutions in a liberal democracy (of which the media is one) are used to controlling the media and shaping coverage.

Young people realise this. Many refused to become part of the media spectacle by attacking journalists or refusing to be interviewed – which further inflames the media's democratically privileged position and response.

Of course, social media's operational relation to this is not unproblematic. While social media can (but doesn't always) cut through the manipulation of media coverage by dominant interests, it can also incriminate people committing criminal acts.

As if to reinforce how important the traditional media's role is in supporting or facilitating liberal democracy – and social media's potential to disrupt and challenge established ways of working – as I write this endnote David Cameron is stood in the House announcing plans to censor social media during public disorder, effectively legislating for an enforced reliance and dominance of traditional media when liberal democracy is faced with 'legitimation crises'.

As none of the proposed knee-jerk respoens are likely to identify or attempt to fix the underlying causes of the #ukriots I expect we'll see more legitimation crises.

Escalate Collective: a critique of a critique

The Escalate Collective has recently published its latest essay/communique/article/post about events on the 26th March demo which is definitely worth reading.

Escalate, a collective of writers and activists from within the University of London, seems to be the closest we have to Tiqqun here in the UK and at this particular time. For that they should be commended.

On reflection I think I prefer their first essay but in both communiques they unpick key issues unfolding within current events by charting a path direct through centre of the problem. And by that, I don't mean they adopt a middle ground as position for analysis. Rather, they split issues down the middle; break them open; expose the vacuity… I'll end the metaphor there. It's late and you get the idea.

What gets a big thumbs up from me is the inclusion of 'social media' in their list of targets for critique. Their analysis isn't always spot on but crucial contributions include the following:

Escalate challenge the misrepresentation of "social media as panacea". While this is a crucial criticism that addresses and undermines both pro- and anti-technology camp's arguments the collective also over-state the case somewhat. Let's unpack their critique.

Firstly, technology – and in particular Twitter and Facebook – are critiqued for being glorified as radical tools for emancipation. The collective writes:

"The praise Twitter and Facebook have received is matched only by the compliments showered on a mythical young generation who have supposedly expropriated the potentials within this technology for radical means."

It's their belief that this myth hides the reality that social media – incorporating their broader definition, "web-based media" – is of course a commodity. A commodity that young people consume and of course which is as radical as tie-dye t-shirts were for the Soixante Huitardes: "the only victory can be further consumption, this time of web-based goods."

In fact, it gets worse than this. Not only is social media a de-radicalised consumer commodity but it's a commodity whose consumption is undertaken as part of what Jodi Dean has termed 'communicative capitalism' – that is (perhaps stating it too strongly): "Web 2.0 is a political trap that disempowers political action" by grounding it in endless discussion, debate and content circulation.

Grounding this emergent concept in more classical Marxist terms, Escalate point out that: 

"Software corporations and PR agencies have entire departments devoted to astro-turfing and the countering of malevolent online publicity. Professional journalists and salaried unionists have the advantage of time and often resources to invest in their Twitterfeeds and Facebook friends."

The initial criticism is arguably wide of the mark – although I utterly understand where the writers are coming from here. For instance, why pick out software corporations? Odd choice – software corps aren't really at the front-end of current political debate as they make software. I put this down to a misunderstanding.

In terms of PR agencies, I'm fairly confident I can say that my dalliances with a couple of very big PR firms' digital teams has shown me that a) many high-profile firms they are not involved in intentionally astro-turfing (to the point of proactively avoiding anything that could be mistaken – although this policy has not always prevented it) and b) "whole departments" in my experience means less than 30 and usually a lot less (the implication for me here is that we're talking 100s as per the Chinese Government's 50 Cent Army) and never the whole department working on a single client.

On the latter point of journalists and union reps I do agree. It is a solution offered by economic capital – perhaps a wider critique missed here: the volunteeristic power of social media is based on social capital. A significnat benefit in circumstances where social relationships are all that's needed to negotiate an outcome. But by injecting economic capital into the mix you get a relational imbalance and if that relational imbalance is desired to misdirect, destabilise or destroy networks of relationships then it can be highly effective – providing you have the resource to scale. Refer back to China's 50 Cent Army.

Escalate also reject another misperception perpetuated through the media and some enthusiastic activists and academics. That is, the binary of social media and horizontality. This is a long-standing bugbear: just because something occurs via the web or social media doesn't make it horizontal.

Yes, the rhizomatic structure of the web often sets the default organisational settings to non-hierarchical networks but care is needed to ensure this myth doesn't end up hiding more deeply set hierarchies and power relations. And lest we forget: horizontal organising can – and does – take place outside of virtually networked structures.

Linked to this, another major critique of social media arises, again from media and organisational misperceptions of what the social web is and how it functions.

Escalate argue:

"Many organisations enjoy the perceived leaderlessness of Twitter and Facebook because of how clearly this myth masks the mechanisms of privilege and capital power which allow leadership to emerge when any network is left unchecked."

While I broadly agree with their conclusion that the "perceived leaderlessness" within social media allows privilege (presumably time-based and technological knowledge) and capital power to allow leadership to emerge this statement is useful because it points to a wider theme that runs through much of Escalate's analysis of social media.

Namely that social media, Twitter, Facebook, "web-based media", etc are interchangable, homogenous wholes when in reality they aren't.

While this methodological short-cut still allows Escalate to make incisive and accurate critique of conteporary politics, media and capitalism, it means that there is arguably a much more deeper analysis and (potentially constuctive) critique that could be made.

I say potentially constructive because this is something I'm thinking and writing about at the moment: how analysis of the complexities of the social web and its components can be used to achieve a greater understanding of forms of resistance.

Perhaps now isn't the time to go into the detail, but perhaps take a look at this recent conference abstract  for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Finally – and most glibly – the collective's approach to writing anonymously overcomes some of the ego issues that definitely can be seen within the liberal/left blogo- and Twittersphere. It's a breath of fresh air and allows – IMHO – a much more radical exploration of contemporary issues to be broached.





*UPDATED* March 26th demo: some initial thoughts

This blog post sets out some of my thoughts from Saturday's demonstration against the Government's cuts agenda.

It should be taken in the context of my immediate reaction to some of the things I witnessed; my initial analysis and the resulting insights.

I'll also use it as an opportunity to develop some thinking around ideas related to my PhD, in particular theories of power and the media, using things I saw as case studies. I'll save these for a follow-up post.

What follows is, in part, a narrative and, in part, a series of first-hand accounts and analyses. It's been written quickly so my apologies for typos, errors, etc

Firstly, some observations

1. Mass turn out
Make no mistake, Saturday's TUC march was huge. Thus I was surprised to see the BBC reporting that the estimated figure was only 250,000 [EDIT: the BBC has now revised this to "250,000 – 500,000" which is possibly even more useless]. Frankly, I don't understand how they arrived at that figure. More below

2. The limits to social media showed
While social media and digitally networked activism provides radically different opportunities for movements (e.g. UKUncut growing from and organising around a hashtag) there were some limitations with the 'real-time' web on this demo. Although I should caveat that I used my smartphone sparingly to converse battery-life.

Firstly, I found it difficult to track everything that happened in real-time. This is perhaps less a limitation of social media and more a by-product of the sheer dynamism and fluidity of the demo. 'Real-time' on Twitter just wasn't real-time enough to keep pace with the speed things evolved on the streets.

Secondly, some technologies (at least the official Twitter iphone app I was using) struggled to function appropriately under the circumstances. So, for example, the official Twitter app pushes popular tweets (determined by the number of RTs) to the top of the timeline. Perhaps there's way of turning this off but it meant that the up-to-date information so essential in live situations wasn't instantly accessible. The anti-kettling site, Sukey, too while appearing very useful in mapping the situation on the streets also aggregates important tweets, but crucially without a time stamp.

Essentially, the point I suppose I'm making is that in very dynamic and fluid situations making sure real-time is real-time and knowing just what 'real-time' is becomes of paramount importance and I didn't feel the information I was getting was reliably timely.

Perhaps there's a need for an activist-led Twitter/online info tool that is built around quite specific needs.

As a footnote – and I have some thoughts I need to work up – SMS became a really useful too in this situation.

3. Massive black bloc
The size of the black bloc surprised me greatly. I'm no veteran activist but I was with some when we heard about the size of the black bloc and I think it's fair to say even they were surprised. Newsnight's Paul Mason, tonight said it was the biggest black bloc seen on the streets of the UK for a long time.

Speaking from personal experience, I recall seeing a small black bloc of no more than 20-30 during the G20 in 2009; and if you believe the tabloids these were possibly a European black bloc summit-hopping.

At the Mayday demonstration in Parliament Square in 2010 there was a similarly sized black bloc – or at least a group of activists dressed as a black bloc. From recollection they weren't active.

On Saturday, word on the street was that a black bloc of between 2,000 – 3,000 mobile around central London.

I've seen a similar number reported by activist media although a smaller number reported by the mainstream media [saw it somewhere but no link just yet]

Aside from the finer detail, I don't think I've ever seen such a significant black bloc in the UK.

3. The black bloc had very, very young elements
I mean seriously young. On the strand we passed a group of young people possibly 16-17 who were clearly 'blacked up' under their day-to-day clothes. The same scenario was repeated through-out the afternoon on Oxford Street.

4. These have possibly been 'radicalised' by the student demos
There's a very strong possibility, IMHO, that the younger elements of the black bloc have had their outlook on the police, state and capitalism changed as a result of a) government policy and b) their experiences from the student demos late last year.

These young people have had their perceptions of democracy (built up through education, media and recent prosperity) challenged by the reality of how liberal democracies in free-market regimes operate and the inter-relation between the state and police.

5. Black bloc violence wasn't mindless or unconnected to anti-cuts demos
It is a mistake to believe the media reports on this as they're based partly on police press releases and official statements and partly on internalised beliefs within which the media operate (more on this in the conclusion).

Reporting that claimed – as the BBC did – that the black bloc weren't connected to the wider anti-government protests are incorrect and misleading [EDIT: since reading the original BBC report I can now only find references to the black bloc as a 'separate group'].

Those in the black bloc were – from what evidence I saw – acutely aware of the reality of capitalism; the government's policies and agenda and its effect on people. This wasn't mindless vandalism. It was very mindful vandalism. Neither was it violence.

Secondly, some ideas and insights…
5. What is the role of the internet in supporting the black bloc phenomenon?
Thinking about this, the role of the Internet has been perhaps to play two significant roles:

  1. Educating people about role of the black bloc
  2. Connecting people keen to build affinity groups around black bloc tactics

Perhaps this is a facile point but without the internet, finding out about black bloc history and its tactics and then connecting with others sharing similar aims would be difficult.

For obvious reasons this activity traditionally would be based around small-scale affinity groups and learning would be a rare and practical experience.

For #26March there was a well publicised Facebook event for those wanting to take-part in black bloc tactics – with upwards of 1,000 – 2,000 cofirmed attendees reflecting the younger demograhic mentioned above [again, no link showing on facebook anymore]

Of course, using the Interent to research, plan and implement black bloc tactics will potentially open up other challenges such as online surveillance and data mining, but that's something for a separate post.

Some conclusions
I've got an embryonic conclusion to write up that ties some of these thoughts together within a framework of power and media but I'll save this for a follow-up post.

*UPDATE* I was hoping to get these concluding thoughts around media and power blogged shortly after this post – however, I need to get some more reading and writing done for my PhD and then hopefully I can come back to this line of thought with a more robust and radical argument.