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Why I closed my Facebook account

May 19, 2011

I am closing my Facebook account today.

I am closing it not because I think social networking is a bad thing, or because I don’t want to connect with people in cyberspace. I don’t think being online is preventing me from having fulfilling relationships in the real world.

I have a particular problem with Facebook – mostly related to the fact that on Facebook, you are the product, not the customer.

I think social networking is a wonderful thing, and I have no problem with technology facilitating my interactions with other people. I prefer to meet in person, of course, but social networks are a fantastic way to interact with people you can’t see because of distance. I live on the other side of the world from where I grew up, so I need technology to stay in touch with people.

Facebook is a parasite

My problem is with Facebook. There is something about Facebook – best explored in the film Catfish – that I find really creepy. My relationships with other people are the most precious thing I have. The fact that they are mediated by a company that uses me as a nothing but a data source really is a problem – I keep getting that image from the Matrix in my mind, of Zuckerberg feeding on our relationships.

I am not particularly paranoid about surveillance and privacy, but it’s worth noting Julian Assange’s recent comments about Facebook being a massive spy machine for the US Government. In East Germany the Stasi went to great lengths to monitor people – we are happy to fill in databases for the security services ourselves.

The recent Facebook purge – a number of political accounts were closed by Facebook – shows it is subject to political influence. The West is in financial and existential crisis, and civil liberties are already threatened as a dying Empire clings to power. I think this will get worse, and I don’t want to be exposed more than absolutely necessary.

Recuperation

Facebook is an instrument of US, and neoliberal, soft power, and it’s a post modern space I don’t want to inhabit. Facebook recuperates humanity’s most radical expressions of liberty, and turns it into entertainment. ‘Liking’ revolution on Facebook does not change the world. Facebook reduces political activity to a lifestyle choice and politics becomes an online pose. It amazes me how many ‘radicals’ I know whose sole political activity appears to be posting radical messages on Facebook.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing political links, but if the medium is the message, you’re inviting people to participate in a post-political future where all our decisions are made by Pavlovian responses to an endless spectacle of stimulants paraded in front of us. Maybe in future we won’t have elections – just ‘like’ buttons on Facebook. The party with the most ‘likes’ can run the country.

The Net Delusion

I also think Facebook’s organising potential is overstated. The Arab Spring is widely touted as being a Facebook and twitter revolution. Evgeny Morozov criticises the view, which he feels is dangerously utopian. If online slacktivism is mediated through Western corporations, how on earth can we be sure we’re influencing the world in the right direction, and not just promoting Facebook?

If Facebook appears to be a useful political tool, this will encourage activists to use it – and add themselves to the database. It’s bad enough if our activism is subsumed into Facebook – even worse when the Metropolitan police buy software that can track us through social networks and mobile phones.

Morozov is half right in attacking cyber-utopianism. He diagnoses the problems really astutely, but doesn’t deal with alternatives very well. Technology can bring liberation – this is the point of my cyberunions project – but only if we control it.  There are some basic principles that are necessary. If the current Net isn’t appropriate for building participatory online movements, then surely the challenge is to build a better Internet, not retreat from the 21st century.

It is not just politics that is affected: humanity, in all its uncomfortable glory, is neatly framed in blue and white, and even the most extreme and fringe ideas are rendered mundane by Facebook. The chthonic power of a Black Metal band is made ridiculous. The numinous wonder of traditional belief systems is dissipated. Science sits next to conspiracy theory in a perfect equality of meaninglessness. There are no exciting new terrains to conquer.

The illusion of intimacy

Clicking on ‘like’ is not, for me, human interaction. I am more than my Facebook profile. It’s a vacuous commodification of our most intimate relationships. I don’t like what Facebook does to me, either: we are interested in The Lives of Others, and so it turns me into a voyeur (and I suspect I am not alone in this). I find myself clicking through pictures of people I don’t know very well, looking at the precious moments of their lives. It all becomes part of the spectacle, the endless parade of the human zoo.

Far healthier, I think, to actually ask people about their lives than to cyber-stalk them. I think people make less of an effort to connect in meatspace because of Facebook. It makes us lazy, and we are not really there for each other in the ways we should be.

Alternatives

I use new media as part of my job. I may have to create a Facebook account in future for work reasons. But my days of using it for personal social networking are over. Some people say that there’s no alternative to Facebook, because everyone is there. According to Metcalfe’s Law, “the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system”. In other words, Facebook is valuable because everyone is on there – not because it’s any good. By leaving Facebook, I reduce its value very slightly. If the exodus grows, Facebook will become the next MySpace – a social networking graveyard. Each profile is worth about $100. I am very pleased to take that money away from Zuckerman.

There are choices and alternatives. Before Facebook, I scheduled regular Skype calls with people who were far away, or just spoke on the phone. The development of web 3.0, which embeds metadata in our online actions, means we will be less tied to individual services, as our different online identities are increasingly able to talk to each other. OStatus, an open standard for social networking, will let people on different services communicate with each other – just as some one with a Gmail account is able to email some one with a Hotmail account.

We need a system that is secure – we need to control our own data – and distributed. If all your information is stored on a central server, it is vulnerable. The owners of that server are vulnerable to political and commercial pressure, or it might simply fail due to load.

By distributing data over peer to peer networks, we avoid this problem. Hierarchical information structures benefit a hierarchical society. To create a new, transparently horizontal and networked society, we need a different information architecture. The problem is the privatisation of virtual space, not the space itself. The answer is to build and defend the digital Commons. We need to move the discussion on from the shortcomings of Facebook and on to a wider look at the role technology plays in our lives.

Facebook is a ghetto, and part of a developing splinternet where we are separated from people who use different services. We need a social network that is open source, secure, and distributed over peer to peer connections so that our data is not stored on anyone’s servers. If OStatus is adopted, and Incliq lives up to its promise, we will have this. In the meantime, email, twitter, flickr and identi.ca are fine for me.

Finally, my decision to leave Facebook is not a judgement on your decision to stay. If it works for you, stick around. If not, break out of the walled garden and I’ll see you on the other side.

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The Scottish Election

May 7, 2011

Here are my thoughts on the election to the Scottish Parliament held on 5 May. It’s not really aimed at readers in Scotland, who can figure this out for themselves, but for people in England and outside the UK. I am writing it because I think the analysis in UK national as well as international media is poor.

I’ll disclose my own vote, to give context: I voted Labour in my constituency, and Green on my regional list. I probably voted Labour more out of pity than anything else, because they really didn’t deserve my vote.

The Scottish National Party won an overwhelming majority, gaining 69 seats out of 129. Labour has 37 seats, and the LibDems were annihilated – they have just five seats, and lost all their constituencies on the Scottish mainland.

What does this all mean?

Scotland is a left wing country. There is a progressive majority, and left wing voters are king makers. If you capture the left in Scotland, you win the election. This has manifested itself in different ways over the years: Labour have generally had the support of the majority, but in the past there have been some interesting results: in the 2003 election, the Greens had seven seats and the Socialists six. The SNP had 35 seats in 2003, which is an indication of how staggering it is that they won an overall majority this time.

Just a jump to the left

The main reason for the SNP’s success is that the party has shifted left over the past few years. Its election campaign was solidly green and social democratic, and it offered a real alternative to the tired impasse of UK politics. The SNP has specifically modelled itself on Nordic-style social democracy, and this has paid off.

The SSP collapsed after the Sheridan debacle and the Nats stole a lot of the Green’s clothes. Republican socialists, social democrats and many greens shifted their support to the SNP. The party also picked up a lot of support from Scottish Asians, with prominent activists like Osama Saeed coming on board. In Scotland, the SNP are the party of ethnic minorities – not Labour.

Trajectory to power

Despite some staggeringly negative campaigning, in the 2007 election the SNP won 47 seats to Labour’s 46. Labour was stunned: how could the people of Scotland desert them? Those votes were rightfully theirs – how dare the SNP take them? I heard plenty of Labour people at the time saying that people had made a mistake, or were too stupid, that the SNP government would soon collapse and normal service of Labour hegemony would resume.

Labour spent the entire parliamentary term trying to undermine the SNP – something that was widely noticed by Scottish voters. Labour was more comfortable joining an Unpopular Front with the Tories than working with the SNP, and voters could see the interests of Scotland were being subordinated to the interests of the Labour party. I got the impression that if the SNP had delivered world peace, Labour would have attacked them for threatening defence jobs. Labour also failed to distinguish itself from the Westminster party, and voters were treated like cannon fodder for London-based political priorities.

The SNP ran a highly successful and competent administration. Their tactic was to show what could be delivered under very restrictive circumstances with a minority administration in Holyrood, and invite the people of Scotland to trust them with more power.

And competence is a very effective argument.

Labour’s appalling campaign

Labour’s campaign was overwhelmingly negative – but not negative enough for John “nasty cardMcTernan. Despite stealing SNP policies, Labour ignored the SNP’s leftward shift and implied they were the same as the Conservatives: the Tories are back, and only Labour can save you. Come back to Papa. Despite this, they failed to articulate any alternative to the centrism that has dominated UK politics since the 1990s.  I was told by some (admittedly clueless) Labour supporters that the SNP are the Scottish equivalent of the BNP. The election agent for the Labour candidate in my constituency spent the campaign banging on about “Tartan Tories”.

Given the rightward shift of the Labour party, and the fact that the secret of the SNP’s success is its move to the left, this is politically illiterate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the SNP position:

  • Anti-nuclear power
  • In favour of 100% energy from renewables
  • Anti-nuclear weapons – opposed to Trident and other defence spending
  • Anti-war – opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as NATO intervention in Serbia
  • Anti-PFI
  • In favour of civic, not racial, nationalism: immigrants are “New Scots”, and should be attracted.
Calling them “Tartan Tories” is a completely transparent attempt to smear them, and it treats voters like idiots.

Labour had absolutely nothing to offer Scotland – or if they did, they didn’t tell us about it. The flagship “policy” was an idiotic, unworkable and reactionary non-policy on knife crime, the basic subtext of which was “Vote Nat – get stabbed”. I got nothing but negativity and fearmongering through the door from Labour. The Nats had an entirely positive campaign, and the SNP activist who knocked on my door was friendly, honest about the SNP’s limitations, and shared some of my concerns.

Labour were also useless and inept at social media, broadcasting party slogans and Tartan Tory cliches while SNP activists piled onto twitter and provided nuanced engagement with voters.

I listened to BBC Radio Scotland all day on Friday for analysis, and listening to the Labour speaker – I think it was James Kelly MSP – it was clear that Labour was still in denial. “Our vote held up”, he said. “It’s the media’s fault, for portraying our candidate in a bad light”, and “it’s the LibDems fault, for collapsing so spectacularly”. No mate – it’s your fault for being so dire. Why did all the LibDem voters go to the SNP? He was so poor that I was sorry Labour’s annihilation wasn’t worse. A party this out of touch really doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near power.

Independence?

The big question is whether this result will lead to Scottish independence. I don’t know. Independence isn’t massively popular in Scotland – about a third support it, a third are opposed, and the rest would probably like greater autonomy without full independence. Salmond is a political wizard, and he will play it skilfully. It will certainly result in greater autonomy for Scotland, which is a good thing: Scotland is to the left of England, and is dominated by right wing politics from south of the border. Autonomy could facilitate the development of a progressive alternative – which would also be a pole of attraction for English progressives.

The early days of a better nation?

On balance, I am cautiously optimistic. The SNP doesn’t have the deep socialist roots of the Labour party, but they won an election on a social democratic mandate, and they will be expected to deliver on it. In a world of negativity, they were also overwhelming positive and inspiring – it was Salmond’s Obama moment. If Labour, trade unions and civil society engage constructively with the Nats, we can build a progressive national polity. If we try to shut them out, the right will engage with them. The Nats were rewarded for shifting left. We need to make sure this shift is consolidated, and use the opportunity to strengthen other progressive voices – Labour and the Greens. We should have left wing hegemony in Scotland, and it’s madness to fight other progressives.

March for the Alternative

March 30, 2011
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I took part in Saturday’s March for the Alternative through central London. There is a general consensus that more than 250,000 people participated, but no one is sure if there were 300,000 or 500,000. There certainly were a lot of people – it’s the biggest demo I’ve ever been on. The only comparable event I have taken part in was the Cosatu general strike in May 2000:

 Cosatu strike

More importantly, a clear majority of the people of the UK, including 19% of Tory voters, supported the aims of the march. This was democracy in action: there was a clear mandate and the march represented the people of Britain in all their diversity. I loved seeing the range of people: many of them dressed in their work uniforms, I saw university professors, archaeologists, hotel porters, fire fighters, nurses and many more. There was a Ghurkha contingent, and people from every community in the country.

Before we go any further, have a look at this footage. It’s nothing spectacular as it was filmed on my mobile phone, but it captures what almost all the participants experienced on the day. I didn’t see any of the violence that the news reports focused on, and neither did most people.

Also worth watching is this video from Counterfire, which gives a sense of the sheer scale of the march:

The day was crucial for trade unions: we have been declining in numbers and influence since 1979, and Thatcher’s anti-union laws have made it difficult for us to organise. We are vilified in the press – even the Guardian thinks we’re dinosaurs – while the left thinks we’re sell outs for not starting the revolution. Do I thinking marching half a million people through the streets will change anything? Probably not. But it gets us a very good base to build on.

The march shows people that cuts can be resisted, and participation is easy. This is the first time in a generation that the majority of the country has united behind the unions. And unlike the march against the Iraq war – which failed to stop the conflict – half a million marching trade unionists represent something: we are organised, all the way down to shop floor level. This wasn’t half a million individuals marching, but an expression of an organised structure that has the potential to shake the foundations of the country if it acts together.

In addition to the peaceful union march, there were several other actions. There was the UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum and Masons, an attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square, as well as generalised black bloc vandalism in Piccadilly Circus. I think the UK Uncut action was inspired, and the police dishonesty disgusting. The attempt to occupy Trafalgar Square was an interesting idea, but not worth fighting the police over. If ten thousand trade unionists had shown up, it might have been worth a go, but 150 students is just sport for the Met.

But I think throwing bricks and paint is a phenomenally stupid thing to do. I sympathise – I am angry enough to want to lob a brick through a bank window too. But as a tactic, I think it’s disastrously stupid and arrogant. The media message changed from “half a million stage peaceful protest against cuts” to “rioters battle police”. Clearly the media is complicit in this, and a handful of arrogant elitists managed to dominate the coverage – I saw a tweet that said:

RT @CharlieLexton @ns_mehdihasan a break off group of 500 protesters, 5000
photographers and 25000 journalists are staging a photo opp in Piccadilly #
March26

Rioting diverts attention from the real issues, and puts ordinary people off taking part in protest. It also associates anarchist politics with violence in most people’s minds. There were plenty of anarchists on the main march, but the red and black brigade that got stuck into the police held an entirely separate event. Clearly, ordinary trade unionists aren’t good enough for them.

The few score anarchists who think having a go at the police is the way to change society are anti-democratic. You’re ruining it for everyone. Stay at home. Your politics is driven by ressentiment rather than analysis.

The rioters counter that the unions are too passive and are looking for ways to sell people out. But if unions are not more radical, it’s because we don’t have a mandate to be more radical. Sorry, but most ordinary people are not revolutionaries. Unions are mass democracies representing ordinary working people, whose concerns are often mundane from a political perspective. The union’s role is to represent its members. Most active trade unionists are political, and we try to take our members with us an engage them in politics. It’s not easy, though. It’s already difficult to recruit in white collar workplaces because people see us as radical trouble makers.

I don’t like to make a big issue of my personal politics, but broadly I’m libertarian communist – an anarchist, in other words. However, I realise that most people aren’t, and I have to live in a world with other people. For me, this means working with and respecting majority opinions. I have no time for ultra-leftism. I am interested in bringing about actual social change, and I have no interest in politics that insists on ideological purity but represents no one. This is elitist and ineffective. To change society, we need to take the mainstream with us. Shifting the political centre ground even slightly to the left opens up tremendous organising opportunities further along the spectrum of progressive ideas.  A small victory is better than a glorious defeat.

This does not mean that I only support gradual change, or think that voting Labour will bring about a better world  – Egypt taught us that change can come quickly when people are ready for it. But you can’t force the revolution to come by throwing bricks or by shouting loudly into a megaphone.

The question, then, becomes one of tactics: will this action encourage and inspire other people to get involved, or put them off?

I am generally irritated with student calls for unions to hurry up and call a general strike. I first heard this at the trade union march in Edinburgh in October 2010: a group of students were marching with a loud hailer, and heckling speakers with the chant:

Tous ensemble, Grêve Générale!

My feeling at the time was:

  • Get a job before you call for a general strike
  •  Chanting in French at a Scottish demo is just pretentious

Workers have more to lose than students. Most of us have mortgages and household debt and families to support. If we strike, we lose pay – and we’ve already had a couple of years of wage restraint, so we’re feeling the pinch. Also, since a general strike would be illegal under UK labour law, we risk losing our jobs too, and our unions risk being fined for losses due to strike action. To put it simply, we can’t afford to take part in any action we might lose. By contrast, students usually have fewer responsibilities and family support to fall back on, and they can enjoy the visceral thrill of revolution with less personal cost.

(Here’s a side project for you, students: if you want to see more trade union militancy, campaign to get the UK’s regressive labour laws changed).

The unions are the most powerful political tool we have, and the most effective anti-poverty measure we have ever created. The crucial task is to build a mass movement opposed to the Tory decimation of the welfare state, by linking campaigns from civil society with the strength of organised labour – like the links betweenthe United Democratic Front and Cosatu in South Africa. If this worked to bring down apartheid, it can certainly end Cameron’s plans to carve up Britain and give it to the wealthy.

We need to build a movement. Elitist, violent side projects will distract us from this. In the end, the unions can mobilise half a million people. The anarchists can’t. They’d benefit from building links more carefully, and being part of mass democracy instead of taking the approach of trying to start the revolution on our behalf. Why not start by joining a union?

Wolf among wolves

January 13, 2011

Why can’t I be loved as what I am?

A wolf among wolves

and not as a man among men?

– Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy

 

I have just finished reading Hans Fallada’s Wolf Among Wolvesdefinitely a close contender for book of the year, 2010. It bears no relation to the song quoted above, but I like them both.

Originally published in Nazi Germany in 1937, the book has been out of print in English for 70 years. It tells the story of Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier, and a number of other characters, as they try to live with dignity in the ethical and economic morass of Weimar Germany. The book starts in July 1923, when inflation is so bad people are paid twice a day, as new prices are set in the morning and at lunch time. Currency is almost worthless; as soon as you get any, it needs to be spent immediately, on anything, before its value disappears entirely.

Pagel is living with a girlfriend, a prostitute he picked up one night who never went home. She loves him, but he is lost in the moral wilderness and spends his nights at Berlin casinos, trying to win enough to live on. Over almost 800 pages, the characters are lead through a number of experiences that test them utterly. What makes the book astounding is the attention to detail, the realism and the character development: there are no minor characters. The narrative burns like a slow fuse until a climatic putsch attempt brings the character’s personal crises to a head.

There is no salvation for the characters, except for what the manage to salvage for themselves from the wreckage that surrounds them.

I have read reviews that say the book is boring, slow moving, and that nothing really happens. Indeed, the first half of the book covers just 24 hours, in extreme detail. I confess that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the book as much if I hadn’t read it over a few days on a Scottish island with no mobile reception or television. The book moves at a pace we are no longer accustomed to – we have become used to instant narrative and just-in-time action. But the effect of understanding the characters, their motivation and the milieu intimately make the experience of reading the book so much more immersive than anything I have read in a long time.

By giving us an intimate picture of conditions in the Weimar Republic, it becomes easy to understand the environment that gave birth the Nazism, and in particular the resentment bred by the Treaty of Versailles, the French occupation of the Ruhr and the punitive attempts by the Allied powers to destroy the German economy.

The bigger story, though, is Hans Fallada. He’s a writer of the calibre of Thomas Mann, but I hadn’t heard of him till this year, and I don’t think he’s well knownin the English-speaking world. He lived a varied and troubled life: at 18, he killed a friend in a dual which was also a suicide pact, and narrowly avoided  a prison sentence. He endured years of drink and drug addictions, prison and institutionalisation. All this gave him a unique insight into the underbelly of German society between the wars, and he captures it beautifully.

Clearly, some enlightened soul in the publishing industry decided it was time to reacquaint the English speaking world with Fallada, and went about it systematically.

First, Alone in Berlin was republished and widely distributed – it’s available at Waterstones and WH Smith on various multibuy offers. It’s an excellent book – plotted like a thriller, it’s based on the true story of one ordinary working class couple’s resistance to the Nazis. This Guardian article calls it a ‘miracle’, and it is an astounding book. It is also probably the most interesting and accessible for an English-speaking audience, so it’s an ideal entry point. If I hadn’t seen the book on 3 for 2 offer at Waterstones, I wouldn’t have know of it’s existance.

The publisher, Melville House, have also released attractive editions of two other books, which I will read shortly. Little Man, What Now? was his breakthrough portrait of ordinary people crushed by circumstances beyond their control, and The Drinker was written secretly while Fallada was locked up in an asylum, smuggled out and published after his death.

I was brought up in public libraries and came to fetishise books as remarkable artefacts. This was destroyed for me when I worked as a book seller for a while, and saw publishers heavily promoting profitable rubbish while quality literature received no support. Even more heartbreaking was having to destroy books which couldn’t be sold: having to stand and tear up hundreds of books that couldn’t be sold was soul destroying – I wasn’t even allowed to take them home, as this would have been theft.

The promotion of Fallada restores my faith in the publishing industry to some extent. Despite the fact that books are commodities that are sold for profit, there are clearly still people in the industry who love literature. 

 

On Facebook, you are not the customer. You are the product

January 6, 2011

Most of us make a major conceptual error when using Facebook. We assume, because we have created an account, that we are in some ways customers. Even though the service is free, this is still the way most of us conceptualise our relationship with web 2.0 companies – Google, Spotify, last.fm, and so on. Many of these companies employ a freemium model and hope to turn us into paying customers in future.

But on Facebook, you are not the customer. You are the product.

Every time you ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ something on Facebook, you’re contributing to the creation of an increasingly sophisticated database for marketers. This is worth a lot of money – $50 billion, in fact, which is what Facebook is valued at. Which means that your Facebook profile is worth $100.

And because you’re the product, you have no rights. You’re packaged and shipped in a way that suits your corporate overlords, not you. Anything you upload to Facebook becomes the property of Facebook. Anything you post that conflicts too strongly with their capitalist realist perspective can be removed by Facebook, and you have no right of appeal. If you invest emotionally in your Facebook profile, and it gets taken down or sold on by Facebook – is that not identity theft?

Mark Zuckerberg has built his career on stealing data and profiting from it, and yet we trust him with our most intimate personal details and the most precious thing we have – our relationships with other people. Facebook’s approach to privacy is unethical, and many of us are tricked into revealing more than we want to.

I feel that Facebook corrodes my relationships. Facebook cheapens them and makes them more superficial. Instead of really connecting with people, I am reduced to ‘liking’ their status updates. Everything is reduced to an anaesthetised world of likes and recommends. What happened to heart to heart conversations down at the pub? Lying on the grass together, looking at the stars? What happened to meeting some one, finding them attractive, and slowly getting to know them over time, through shared experience? There is something very beautiful about the slow unfolding and blossoming of human relationships that is collapsed into a perpetual ‘now’ by Facebook. Everyone you have ever known is in a room together, at the same time, passing comment. It’s like the worst Big Brother episode ever.

Politics, spirituality, culture, philosophy, art – all the things that make us human –  are reduced to lifestyle choices indicated by ‘like’ buttons. Walton likes Revolution on Facebook. Walton likes Biko and Žižek. Walton likes Hans Fallada, Sunn 0))) and sacred minimalism. But what does it mean? Just that online retailers know what books, T-shirts and CDs to try and sell me. Capitalism is a remarkably innovative and adaptable system, and make no mistake, it’s quite happy to sell revolution as a cutting edge cultural product.

There is something insidious about the ideology of Facebook: the self-surveillance, panopticon society that turns us all into cyber-stalkers. What does it mean for politics, and global culture? We don’t know yet, but this article has the beginning of some ideas.

This is an extreme example, but the story of the women who posted a Facebook update saying she had taken an overdose of pills shows how low the value of Facebook friendship can be: instead of helping her, many of her 1,048 ‘friends’ mocked her, and she was found dead.

The other danger, of course, is the one inherent in all cloud computing: your data is one some one else’s server, and you have no control over it. The attacks on Wikileaks show how vulnerable the cloud is.

I’ve been toying with the idea of closing my Facebook account for some time. For now, I am still on Facebook, because I want to be accessible to people. But as soon as we get a viable, decentralised network that values privacy, I am jumping ship.

For me, twitter is still a bit of a free space. It doesn’t have a viable business model yet, which means to a large extent you’re still free to make what you want of it. If Facebook is full of people you know but wish you didn’t, twitter is people you don’t know, but wish you did. Twitter is a news source, rather than a social network, but the quality of interaction I get there is much better than Facebook. On Facebook, I get idiotic comments from god botherers I haven’t seen in 20 years; on twitter I get intelligent – or at least funny – comment from strangers.

A social network is a great utility – it is very useful to me to be able to easily keep in touch with people I care about. The fact that I live far from where I grew up makes this doubly important. We are who we are through our relations with other people, and my sense of identity suffers when I am isolated from people who know me.

But maybe allowing old relationships to fade away instead of keeping them artificially alive on Facebook is the better approach.

 

Top marks to Strathy Polis

November 21, 2010

There was a violent incident in my tenement building last night. Without going into too much detail, there was a fight in a flat below me that involved front doors kicked in, broken glass, screams, knives and lots of blood.

We phoned the police, and when I went down to see what was going on, I was confronted with a young woman leaving the flat, covered in blood. I let the police into the close and sat with the woman until it was all over.

From phoning 999, it took exactly two minutes for the first officers to arrive. Within 10 minutes, there were more than 10 on the scene. They used pepper spray to stop the fight and lead the belligerent parties away. An NHS ambulance was there within half an hour to tend to the wounded. In the end, no one was dangerously hurt, and it was all over within an hour.

The priority of the police was a) Control the situation b) Restrain the violent characters c) Check that everyone is OK d) Take witness statements.

They did this excellently, and with a high degree of professionalism. Even the culprits got medical attention before being taken away. As a Leftist, I have a strong negative bias against the police – because my experience of them has usually been the heavy-handed repression of protest. It was a really good experience for me to see Strathclyde Police protecting people from harm.

Frankly, I don’t care what happens next.I don’t care whether anyone is charged and goes to jail. What is important is that the police were able to step in and prevent a dangerous situation from escalating. Top marks to Strathy Polis there.

None of this, of course, cost anyone any money.

Some people would be freaked out by a situation like this, and wouldn’t feel safe in their homes. On the contrary, I feel reassured – because even when things go dangerously wrong, this society has the capacity to step in and deal with it quickly and cleanly.

I have been involved in similar violent situations in South Africa. The police simply don’t come, or at least not quickly enough to be of any practical use. When they do come, they are likely to arrest the wrong people, based on their race and class prejudice, rather than listening to witnesses. They are also likely to use it as an excuse for a bit of a fight. If you can afford armed response, they’ll probably be there quicker, but there’s no guarantee that the response will be professional and proportionate, and you might have to live with the guilt of seeing people bludgeoned down by security guards you hired.

An ambulance won’t come either, unless you have private medical insurance. In South Africa you face the choice between shutting your ears to the screams or intervening yourself, neither of which are particularly attractive options. It’s lead me to wander into situations, scared stiff, with a meat cleaver in hand, trying to convince everyone to calm down and go home.

Unlike many expat South Africans, crime was not a factor that lead to me leaving the country – it was just an impulse to travel. My experience of crime in the 10 years I lived in Cape Town was probably quite average: I have been robbed at gunpoint twice, and threatened with a knife about five times. Once I escaped a gang by jumping out of a train window; another time by running into a corner shop. I’ve also had plenty of break ins, and had to intervene in a number potentially dangerous situations.

I resented the fact that I wasn’t safe, but I learned to live with it, and even convinced myself that being responsible for my own safety gave me a visceral sense of living on the edge. I was a young man, and young men are immortal.

It was only after I had lived in the UK for a while I realised that – like many South Africans – I was probably suffering from a bit of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I first noticed it when a car backfired and I instinctively dropped to the pavement, while everyone around me looked confused.

There is violent crime everywhere, though crime in South Africa is an order of magnitude higher than it is here. Glasgow is supposed to be the most dangerous city in Western Europe, but I feel safe. To be fair, I live in Shawlands, not Easterhouse. My neighbourhood is mostly thirty something white collar workers, and apart from the usual weekend exuberance, things are usually pretty quiet. The important difference between Glasgow and Cape Town is not the crime rate, though: it’s the fact that Glasgow can deal with crime.

I really would like to move back to South Africa, because it’s my home. But do I really want to live in a country where your right to safety and medical treatment is privatised, and dependent on your ability to pay? I really don’t know.

Functional emergency services are the sign of a civilised society. South Africa is poorer than Scotland, but we can do a lot better. And in the UK, we must do everything we can to protect them from the Tories.

They save lives.

We need to boycott Israel

June 2, 2010

I hate commenting about Israel, because to do so means getting sucked into a vortex of hatred and lies. As Anton Vowl describes brilliantly, it is almost impossible to write anything without being overwhelmed by a deluge of vitriol.

There are nasty, dishonest people on both sides, but no one beats Israel’s volunteer online army of hasbaranik trolls for sheer viciousness. It’s also a very polarising debate, and its easy to become associated with people you disagree with: “you oppose the attacks on the flotilla? Then you support Hamas!” I really don’t have the time or energy to engage in that kind of poison.

But Israel needs to be stopped. The State has gone, literally, insane, drunk on violence and power. It’s run by the Israeli equivalent of the BNP – violent racists like Lieberman. As Israeli writer Amos Oz puts it

To a man with a big hammer… every problem looks like a nail.

So what do we do? Diplomacy isn’t working, as Israel clearly only understands raw power. Our political leaders are spineless and refuse to speak out. The only solution I can see is to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. I know all the arguments against BDS – that it is a blunt instrument that effects good as well as bad Israelis – but I don’t see what the alternatives are.

I grew up in South Africa under apartheid. I believe that sanctions were very effective at alerting whites to the fact that there was something wrong with their society. At the time, most us became inward looking, and complained about the foreign media lying about us, and said things like “yes, but their blacks aren’t as bad as our blacks”. But in the whites-only referendum of 1992, 69% of white South Africans voted in favour of reform – largely because we wanted to be part of the outside world again. In the age of globalisation, I think this is an even more powerful motivator now.

Of course, the comparison with South Africa and Israel is not straightforward. The union federation COSATU, peace activist Desmond Tutu, and many others have visited Israel and the occupied territories. Many of them conclude, with Ronnie Kasrils, former freedom fighter and South African government minister, that Israel is “worse than Apartheid“. And Kasrils, who is Jewish, should know: he spent his life fighting apartheid.

We need peace and justice in the Middle East. I think that BDS is, realistically, the only weapon we have. Many trade unions in the UK and around the world support it already – only to be denounced as stooges of Iran by pro-Israeli trade union groups.

But we can’t let the hate and lies stop us from speaking out against injustice.