Tag Archives: RSA

Anthony Giddens on the Politics of Climate Change

I have been trying to work out quite why I found Dame Ellen MacArthur’s vision of a circular economy so compelling.

I think it is at least in part due to some recent visits to a council tip. I had been helping a friend clear his late mother’s flat; my job was to drive the car, full of unwanted things, to the tip. The feeling of waste was palpable: huge mounds of waste and junk, most of it destined for landfill. We recycled what we could, separating paper, wood, metals, glass and paper, but we could see council workers laying into the piles with forklift trucks. Perhaps some of the disused (and for all I know unusable) electrical goods would be stripped down and the metals and rare elements they contain recycled, but it seemed unlikely. (Interestingly, the council’s rules forbid anyone removing items from the tip – so even if I saw something I might have had a use for, I couldn’t have taken it. That said, it looked like a few people were on the look out for something the might scavenge.)

This came to mind when, again at the RSA, I saw Anthony Giddens talk about the politics of climate change. Where MacArthur was upbeat, Giddens felt very downbeat; indeed, with politicians so unable to cope with climate change, civilisation felt beaten down.

Giddens identified many difficulties for politicians in dealing with climate change. Solving the issues with ameliorating or even reversing climate change requires long term action across national boundaries, when politicians are elected (or appointed) with local or national responsibility over a short time span: ours have four or five years between elections, so getting them to worry about expensive action to be taken over twenty to fifty years which may not benefit their electorate (since many of us will be dead by then) seems an impossibility.

Giddens made two powerful points which felt prescient. The first was his strong view that we shouldn’t assume technological solutions will come to our rescue. The belief that it might may act as a counter to more concrete action – we might just shit around waiting for technology to save us until it is too late for anything else. (That said, recent developments in carbon capture and storage may give us hope, and Giddens said that we must search for ground breaking technological initiatives which may help.)

The second was that many believe we are past the tipping point – a long way past.

The political will to solve these problems seems lacking. Obama has been disappointing, failing to take radical action, in part since his hands are tied by a Republican congress – Giddens was critical how the debate on climate change is largely polarised along political lines when it is such a big issue that it should be beyond politics. In the UK, David Cameron’s desire for this government to be the greenest ever seems empty rhetoric.

Giddens identified four areas that needed progress if we are to avoid the worst ravages of climate change:

  • bilateral and regional agreements in place of “legally binding” worldwide agreements which have failed to deliver
  • searching for ground breaking technological, social and political initiatives
  • in-depth intellectual and policy work to underpin our understanding of the impact of climate change – what will climate change and its amelioration mean for us in terms of employment, prosperity, growth and so on; this is needed he said at a very basic level – how will we need to change the way we think about our lives in a truly sustainable environment?
  • transforming the way we live our lives: actually putting these things in to action – for instance, if industrial society has run its course, how can we live our lives at a very basic level

Giddens said that this was a message of hope, not despair; I’m not sure the audience agreed with him.

After the talk, Matthew Taylor asked for a show of hands: who in the audience felt the solution to the problem of climate change lay in the hands of either governments and politicians, individuals changing their lifestyles, or market forces. Hardly anyone believed the answer lay with governments, with lifestyles and markets split roughly equally.

Clearly, these aren’t either/or questions: the answer must be “yes” to all three mechanisms of change: governments must develop policies to motivate markets and individuals to do what they can.

But looking at the mountains of waste at the council tip which our lifestyles contribute to, throwing things out rather than fixing and reusing, I don’t feel hopeful.

“What Is The Internet Doing To Our Brains?”

This week at the RSA, Paul Howard Jones asked a simple question – “what is the internet doing to our brains?”

Not a simple answer, though – and to be honest, Jones didn’t really answer it. This wasn’t his fault – he was summarising his review of the evidence of impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing (PDF), and most of the work has been done on children (which is also Jones’ area of interest). So he couldn’t tell me whether the internet was frying my brain, Facebook is infantilising me or Google is making me stupid.

Instead, Jones examined the evidence for digital media in general and games more specifically affected users, mostly children. Young people have been the subject of most studies because parents and educators worry about their more plastic brains and that digital media use may affect other areas of development.

Much of the evidence is conflicting. Early studies – before “web 2.0”? – showed that high internet usage increased social isolation and decreased connectedness; now, the opposite is true: the internet is all about connectedness, and the internet stimulates young people to be connected and social. There are downsides to this – young people (and old!) lay themselves open to bullying and abuse, but that’s about society, not technology or the internet – in the US in 2006, only 2% of sex-related crimes against children involved the internet (you can find references to any “facts” in this post in Jones’ paper).

This became a theme of Jones’ talk: technology is neutral, what matters is how you use it: for digital media, it’s when, what and how much.

Apparently, when is important: technological devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – can disrupt our sleep patterns quite significantly. As well as the content they distribute exciting and energising – and hence stopping us wanting to sleep – the light produced by the screens, even at low output, can affect our circadian rhythms and disrupt sleep. This can lead to tiredness, lack of concentration and memory loss the next day – again, symptoms parents and educators may not want to see in young people in classes (though not many employers – or our customers – would be too happy, either).

What can be central to the impact of digital media, too. Shoot ’em up games can teach people to be violent; online learning can help people access resources they otherwise couldn’t. It all depends.

And how much – how much may be the most important factor. The strong attraction of digital media can displace other activities – things like reading books or taking outdoor exercise which educators (and politicians) see as important. But again, the evidence seems contradictory. Apparently, between 1.5% and 8.2% of the population have an issue with excessive internet use – what might be termed “addiction” – except that label may not be relevant.

Jones explored the ways the internet and specifically gaming can have positive benefits – indeed, how they can be used for education. In particular, games can help improve various skills and visuomotor tasks. Even non-gamers can improve their skills through playing video games, and transfer them to other environments (ie the improvement is “sticky”). Interestingly, many of those excessive, “addicted” users are kids playing games. (Others are adults gambling and using pornography, apparently. Who’d’ve thunk it?)

Jones’ message, then, was that the technology is neutral – like older technologies: books can be used for good or wrong, and so can digital media. How we use it matters. Digital media may reduce students’ attention spans, but that may be as much because they provide such attractive pursuits (Jones explained a fair bit about how games work with the brain’s chemistry to be very attractive) than because of any inherent propensity to cause ADHD. It might just be that the online world is more interesting than the real life teachers trying to teach the students…

Eli Pariser and the Filter Bubble

Another week, another talk at the RSA… This time, Eli Pariser was discussing his thoughts (and his book) on the filter bubble – the way the internet shows us a cut-down, “me-too” world.

To some extent, the filter bubble is nothing new. We have always surrounded ourselves with people like us, who share similar views and like similar things; we buy (at least, I still do…) newspapers which reflect our views and interests. It is no surprise that on the internet, we do the same: our friends on Facebook and those we follow on Twitter generally reflect our views and opinions, creating an echo chamber.

Pariser’s argument extends this with a healthy dose of paranoia. He noticed that Facebook was filtering out his friends with views which differed from his, and he realised that this was because Facebook were applying an algorithm to the stream of updates on Pariser’s page which ranked those with similar views most highly, just as Amazon uses an algorithm to generates recommendations – “if you like that, you may like this…”. (Presumably, Facebook only does this when “top news” was selected – I assume by selecting “most recent” to get updates in chronological order, any algorithmic bias is removed. This may be wrong!)

Google uses similar algorithms to return personalised search results, based on previous search behaviour and internet use (mediated by cookies, I believe). Pariser got some friends to use Google to search on “Egypt”, and was surprised by the wide disparity in the results Google returned. Pariser’s view was that most people’s ignorance of this made it quite dangerous.

I can understand the need for Google and others to use their algorithms to filter what they show us. There is simply so much information that we couldn’t process it without some filtering. The problem is that most people aren’t aware that it is happening. (Nor would most care. Probably.) They are also trying to make money, which they do by having us click on adverts and paid links – so obviously the will show us the links which will make them most money.

Worse than filtering, though, he said that by mining our friends’ data, companies (or, perhaps, government agencies?) are able to predict our own behaviour with 80% accuracy – without recourse to us at all. Credit rating agencies could use this to assess one’s credit worthiness, for instance, or insurance companies the risk of a claim – and since it is not based on our data, we would have no influence over it (and nor might it be covered by privacy legislation). This week, WPP, the world’s largest ad agency, announced that it has built the world’s largest database to track our use of the internet, and the London Evening Standard reported that

Google has been hit with a lawsuit by an Irish hotel… one of the first results via Google’s autocomplete function would have been “receivership”. There are no stories or links suggesting the hotel is in receivership… the hotel points out that Google Instant’s suggestion was bad for business

These corporations are only accountable to shareholders – not to us, and not to those whose results they demote or incorrectly list.

I find this disturbing, and perhaps awareness of the ways corporations use data is one way to combat it, the price of freedom being eternal vigilance. Pariser felt that the filter bubble represents a threat to democracy, since a functioning democracy needs informed citizens to exercise their choice. He may be right, but my guess is that people are much better informed of the world around them because of Google than they were before its advent.

It is the almost accidental way that Google, Facebook and others are editing – or personalising – our web experience that is worrying. When I buy a newspaper or watch a tv news programme or documentary, I am aware of the editorial influence. The algorithms designed to filter the web are unthinking and data driven. Their designers are engineers (probably male, probably white, possible lacking in emotional intelligence and with a strong a belief in rationality). Pariser said there is a view amongst the technocrats that privacy is over – all our information will be out there, and we can’t control it (although those with wealth and power may have more chance than others). This may produce a beneficial panopticon, bringing back village values to the global village; but do we want to live in a prison?

I was discussing Pariser’s talk with David Jennings, who pointed out that he’d written critically about the idea of the filter bubble a few years ago. I don’t dispute David’s three objections – that the filtering is far from perfect (Rory Clellan Jones tried to repeat Pariser’s experiment by getting his friends to use Google to search for the same search terms, and Google returned the same links to everyone); if it were perfect, we’d get bored of it, and corporations would have to engineer in serendipidity; and we can see further than our computer screens – we know there are different views out there, and we have a variety of other news sources.

I still find the filter bubble disquieting: there are huge issues around the use of our own and others’ data in this way. It is people’s ignorance of it – the fact that most people won’t care – that worries me. Maybe I need a new tag for this blog – “paranoia”…

(Pariser’s website recommends 10 ways to pop your filter bubble.)

Changing Education: “Education for Uncertain Futures”

I have spent many months over the past few years working with public servants in the Scottish Government on change programmes in the education sector. I wasn’t designing or leading the change – there were pedagogues to do that – but I was responsible for programme management of some workstreams.

Change in the education sector is difficult. There are a lot of deep-rooted interest groups – parents, teachers, unions (surprisingly, learners rarely seem to get a look in…). The change happens in classrooms, far removed from the design and political drivers of change. There is a very long time lag – changing a school curriculum means changing the assessment and exam system. And the political pressures to tinker can be huge.

So changing education is difficult and complicated.

I was therefore really interested in a recent debate at the RSA entitled “Education for Uncertain Futures”. This was held to launch the output of an RSA project, “Building Agency in the Face of Uncertainty: a thinking tool for educators and education leaders”. I haven’t read the pamphlet – yet – but the debate was interesting and raised a lot of issues.

There were four speakers: Keri Facer, who was co-author of the pamphlet (sorry – thinking tool…); Patrick Hazlewood, a head teacher who has been doing some work with the RSA; Carolyn Usted, an educationalist and former inspector of schools; and Dougald Hine, an itinerant thinker (and co-founder of the Everything Unplugged meetup I sometimes go to). A varied bunch, each coming from a different perspective.

It made for an interesting talk, but there was a lack of cohesion in the views and issues discussed. This is what some of the contributors talked about, and some thoughts of my own they prompted. (There was an underlying assumption in the discussion that mainstream education is the way forward. It might not be; but it probably will be the system that most young people work through, so there seems little point in challenging that assumption. Maybe that’s another post!)

The education establishment, like other organisations, faces lots of uncertainty – economic, environmental, technological – but the feedback in the system may take years. Governments and educators are designing the education system in a fog of data: and the educational environment is changing much faster than the system can. The policies being implemented now are not just unlikely to work in the future – they’re unlikely to work today, because they’re based on data that is now outdated.

Beneath this uncertainty, though, is a continuity: the purpose of education remains the same (if we can agree what that is – there seems to be no overriding philosophy of why we educate; we may not even share a common language to discuss learning). The daily business of teaching remains (more or less) the same. Against the background of change and uncertainty, what teachers do and try to achieve remains pretty constant.

The curriculum and its objectives has changed little: the early 21st century curriculum would be recognised by teachers from the early 20th century, though the tools and practice may have changed considerably. Teachers aim to get measurable results – so they “teach to the test”, and always have done (because that is how they are assessed). Teaching is generally a linear, sequential process (though learning may be recursive). Generally, we teach what we know based on the past, not what we may think will be needed for the future (the one thing we can be certain of predictions of the future is that they will be wrong).

Change may be a constant, but the rate of change – particularly technology and the way we use it – has greatly accelerated. Young people – the primary consumers of the education system – are at the forefront of that change, ahead (maybe way ahead) of their parents and teachers. Their access to information and other resources is far superior to previous generations’. Helping people manage the vast amounts of information available now, sifting value from the chaff, would be useful.

One thing that the education system could do is prepare young people to cope with this rate of change: to enable them to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, to improvise in novel situations. Society may come to rely on these skills as institutions – banks or universities or governments – fail. The gap between those in power and influence and those without – consumers of it, perhaps – is changing too, in ways the powerful may not understand (the Arab spring illustrates this, and it could happen anywhere).

Allowing educators to improvise and experiment – removing the yoke of management by results from them – to see what works and what doesn’t in their situation (and every school may be different) might add a lot of value. Teachers are the people who have to manage the change and pass it on to their learners: providing learners with skills rather than answers would be a good start.

Connected: It’s Contagious

The poster for the film “The Crazies” has the strapline “Insanity Is Infectious”; Nicholas Christakis argued last week at the RSA that indeed it might – along with many other social phenomena.

He was in London to plug his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, and he discussed how he’d arrived at his main idea – that many things in our lives are socially mediated, including depression, stress, obesity, emotions, and death – and what it might mean for society.

Christakis said first came up with the idea of investigating the effects our social networks when studying the “widow effect” – that partners in a relationship often die soon after each other. He found that those at some remove also suffer stress (he came across this when a friend of the partner of someone whose parent had a terminal disease said they were concerned: the ripple of stress spread out to “three degrees of separation”).

He started to investigate social networks, and found a lot of different phenomena were mediated through networks. Most famously, his analysis of obesity showed that having obese friends increases the likelihood of your being obese by up to 45%, and this too is effective at up to three degrees of separation – that is, if your friend’s friend’s friend is obese, you are more likely to be obese.

There might be lots of reasons for this – you might all drink in the pub together, or hang out in the same fast food joints, or live in the same gym-free neighbourhood, or …


We are social beings: we are influenced by our friends and their behaviour, and vice versa.

Christakis also demonstrated that emotions also spread contagiously, and postulated that there was an evolutionary benefit to this, going so far as suggesting that we are adapted to networks. He reckoned that 40% of our network structure was down to genetic influence – that is, the number of friends or contacts we have, and the closeness of those contacts, is partly under genetic control. (Spoiler: theories suggesting evolutionary benefits of social adaptations are notoriously tricky and more or less impossible to prove: they might be neat ideas, but they are not particularly scientific…)

He reckoned our social networks influence the following behaviours and emotions:

  • smoking
  • obesity
  • drinking
  • drug use
  • happiness
  • depression
  • loneliness
  • altruism
  • voting
  • innovation

That is quite a broad list, though it is possible to see the social side to most these points. Christakis described this as “a connected life”.

It was interesting, but it actually seemed a lot too neatly tied up. Life seems more rough and unregulated than Christakis described. Much of his work has been done in closed networks, if only to be able to map and measure all the connections. Educational institutions seemed to be common networks to work in. He showed network maps (like the one above – a map of my Facebook network, created by Touchgraph); in closed networks, the people at the periphery look like lonely souls, but of course no network is closed: those people have friends and connections outside, in other networks. These weren’t taken account of.

The book may answer some of my unease – I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say. I think there are a lot of implications in how we manage communications and develop policy: in answer to questions, Christakis said it might be more effective to target policy on specific nodes – people – in a network in order to reduce, say, drug taking rather than everybody in the network. These poeple sound a lot like the mavens described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point – those individuals who are key to spreading new ideas, just as there are carriers responsible for spreading infectious diseases.

Dan Pink on Motivation

Dan Pink was at the RSA this week, selling his new book Drive. Pink’s presentation at TED was one of the highpoints of TEDxTuttle, so I was keen to see him in the flesh.

He was talking about motivation and how it relates to our working lives – and in particular to reward cultures.

I have to say that I was more than a little disappointed. It wasn’t that he was uninteresting or a bad speaker – indeed, he was very engaging; instead, it felt like I had heard his talk before. He didn’t seem to add much to his TEDTalk.

His main thesis is that businesses focus on the wrong things to motivate people. They generally use the carrot-and-stick approach to performance management, relying heavily on financial reward packages, rather than using more subtle, and possibly more effective, methods which utilise other needs – our desire for autonomy, the reward from mastering skills, and our sense of purpose.

He quotes work done by Ariely and co [PDF] which demonstrates, for tasks requiring higher cognitive skill, increasing financial incentives actually have a negative effect on perfomance. (For manual, physical skills – despite the move to “knowledge working”, a large proportion of jobs even today – the link between increasing financial incentives and increased performance still holds.)

The Economist recently reviewed Pink’s new book with a rather successful critique. People need money. Even Pink isn’t giving away his book (though I’d better check that…). I haven’t read the book – though I intend to – my comments are only based on his talk.

In his talk, Pink pointed to a flaw in his argument: if appealing to workers’ higher level needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you need to get pay people enough so that money isn’t an issue. How much “enough” will be is clearly a personal matter – but I would bet that for most people, their jobs don’t pay nearly enough to clear that hurdle. If you pay below that hurdle, financial incentives will probably work. For some people, that hurdle might be very high.

It also felt like Pink was guilty of treating everybody the same, just as most common reward systems do. But different people will have different drives and motivations. Maybe people who do respond to financial incentives are those who will be good at jobs which have that reward structure. We might all scoff at the large bonuses paid to investment bankers, but whilst we might covet the bonus, would we be willing to do the work? I doubt it.

Pink ran through a list of businesses which incorporate an appeal to the higher level drives to motivate their staff: Google with their famous 20% time; Atlassian’s ”FedEx days” (they have to deliver on projects overnight…); Zappos designing their call centres around the simple goal of “solving customers’ problems” anyway staff see fit (doing away with the rigid control and scripts most call centres adhere to); Tom’s shoes, which aims to “transform customers into benefactors” (no, Pink doesn’t know what they mean, either); Skype aiming to “make the world a better place”. (As a sense of purpose, he could have added Google’s entreaty “don’t be evil” – though that didn’t stop them submitting to China’s demands for censorship, nor their apparent flexible view of customer privacy.)

There are other businesses Pink could have discussed – WL Gore, the makers of Goretex and other hitech PTFE solutions, springs to mind: they have a very different approach to organising staff and operations, and from what I have seen have clearly won the hearts and minds of their staff that I have met.

The thing is, this isn’t new. WL Gore was founded in the 1950s. The last large corporation I was employed by went to great lengths in its attempts to bring its staff into the fold – to make them feel they belonged to the organisation and its culture (albeit a culture that was dominated by financial reward), even as they went through serial rounds of restructuring and redundancy. The practice of “human resource management”, which dates from the 1970s, is all about tying employees into the culture, locking them in so that they will go far beyond what is normally required – and to do it by themselves, internalising the motivation and control.

This is what the company men of IBM and GE used to do; it is why the salarymen of Japanese corporations remained with one firm for life. Of course, those same Japanese firms were quite happy to lay staff off during the downturn of the 1990s, as GEC and IBM made staff redundant when they changed their business models.

I’m not saying Pink is wrong – just the opposite, I think he is spot on. I just don’t believe what he’s saying is particularly new or radical, and I don’t think it is universally applicable. Perhaps reading his book may prove me wrong.

How Can We Change The World? Two Months to Copenhagen

Back in January, I saw – and wrote about – climate change campaigner and free-market proponent James Cameron talking about life after the Kyoto protocol and December 2009’s up and coming Copenhagen conference.

One of the things Cameron said was

“why are young people not angry with those who got us into this situation?”

It was a powerful message: here is the most important issue facing the whole of the world, and, frankly, not a whole lot is being done about it. Why isn’t everyone getting angry about governments throughout the world failing to get to grips with this issue?

Two things have got me thinking about this again. Firstly, Francesca raised the question how do we change the world? A pretty good question to ask, and when we really need to change the world – whilst we still have a world to change – why are governments so far failing to do it?

Secondly, and probably more directly related to Cameron’s talk, Graciela Chichilnisky gave a talk to the RSA on the topic “Saving Kyoto” (also the name of her new book…).

So: another talk on climate change. Another really scary talk: when the meeting’s chair Mark Lynas described the best case scenario of current models and what such an average increase of 4°C would mean, there was disbelieving laughter, as if one had to laugh because the likely outcome was too hard to contemplate.

There was also a lot of hope in Chichilnisky’s talk: but it was only hope that we might stabilise atmospheric emissions at this best case scenario, so we’d better get used to planning for this – and not a lot seems to be going on there.

Chichilnisky was one of the brains behind the market in carbon, and she reckoned that the short term solutions to climate change were different from the long term – short term solutions include “negative carbon” power generation incorporating carbon capture and storage whilst long term include utilisation of renewable resources such as solar, wind, bio- and nuclear power – so we need both short and long term solutions, but the short remains a fossil fuel economy at odds with the long term renewables agenda.

She foresaw that one of the big barriers to addressing climate change is the standoff between the US and China – what she called “a new cold war”.

Despite the new US President’s clear participation in the climate change debate, the Energy Bill 2009 has yet to be passed by the Senate and be signed into law: the USA signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but has not ratified its involvement.

Chichilnisky even put a price on solving climate change – that is, using short and long term solutions to stabilise the damage caused to climate at an average rise of 4°C: $200bn per year. That sounds a lot – but what was spent in stabilising the world economy from the ravages of the credit crunch? The US economic stimulus cost $787bn; the US Federal Reserve bought $1,200bn worth of debt to support the economy; the UK government spent $88bn rescuing banks and injected a further $350bn into the financial system to support short term debt; Germany spent $68bn on one of the countries banks; and so on. (All the figures cames from this BBC report on the credit crunch). From just these five interventions that I noticed, that’s nearly $2,500bn – over twelve years’ of spending needed to stabilise climate change.

And yet it seems like nothing is happening.

Why aren’t people more angry?

Why aren’t there marches through the streets in support of the 43 small island nations whose very existence Chichilnisky expects to be threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change?

What can ordinary people do – and do quickly – to stabilise climate change? (I keep writing “stabilise” because remember, the best case scenario is that we might manage to stabilise global emissions at a level that causes an average of 4°C temperature rise – leading to melting ice caps, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

Well, we can sign up to 10:10 – though I greatly reduced my emissions years ago (I got rid of my car; reduced my air flights; buy carbon-offset; use low energy light bulbs; switch my PC off when I’m not using it…) [see – I believe in this stuff – and yet I am quibbling about what action I might take: you can see how governments will squirm to be able to keep their carbon footprint up there!]. We can write letters to our governments – though I wouldn’t expect to be able to influence the negotiating stance at Copenhagen.

I’m doing these things.

So how can I change the world? Before the world changes so much through our neglect that it is too late to do anything about it?

The Political Web: two views on cyber activism

Two conflicting talks about the political use of the internet.

First up was a video of Clay Shirky at TEDxTuttle about social media and democracy. You may have seen the video: starting with the impact of social media on Obama’s campaign for the Democratic candidate for US president and then in his presidential campaign itself, and moving on to the citizen campaigns around the Szechuan earthquake (and the subsequent realisation that building codes were violated) and the Iranian elections, Shirky posits that the rise of social interaction enabled by the internet is a tool for delivering power to citizens. Providing people with the tools means letting the genie out of the bottle, and you can’t put it back: when consumers become producers, governments’ effort to control the media won’t work because their basic assumptions are flawed: the “many-to-many” model of the internet means that the systems governments use ot control and constrain won’t work: as Shirky put it, the firewalls are pointing in the wrong direction.

Clearly, the internet can be a power for good: removing people from the yoke of big government, shining a light on opaque practices, and making governments accountable.

And then… Evgeny Morozov at the RSA on how governments can use the internet to censor and control citizens and opinion. Morozov was partly playing devil’s advocate, I think – pointing out at least three ways in which oppressive regimes can use the web:

  • ”spinternet” – using the internet to distribute progpaganda and misinformation: Morozov gave examples of how Russia, China, and Iran are harnessing the internet to put their side of the story across; in the west, he said that the UK government are training pro-west Islamic groups to use the web effectively. Israel has developed a desktop utility called the “megaphone” to help people manage and influence internet news flows. Of course, companies and NGOs are probavly doing this too – using services like Usocial to buy friends, followers and Digg votes will increase. Where censorship and control fail, Morozov said, governments and others will spin

  • by allowing a certain degree of freedom, comments by citizens actually inform governments where the issues are – what Morozov called “authoritarian deliberation”. Governments can track dissent to find hotspots, and placate citizens by showing that they are taking some action. In this way, governments can brand themselves and through this, increase their legitimacy. The activity following the Szechuan earthquake – when those who had lost children in schools which had collapsed – prompted action against the violators of building codes. In Saudi Arabia, Morozov said that the government encouraged its citizens to identify videos on YouTube which violated their belief systems so that they could co-ordinate campaigns to have them taken down. (The amount of double-think there is pretty convoluted!) In Iran, following the protests at the elections in June, the government is using the wide coverage generated by protesters to identify and target people in the crowd
  • erode civil engagement: despite enabling civil activism and being a catalyst for change, Morozov reckoned that the internet was the ultimate “opium of the masses”: cyber hedonism way, way outweighs cyber activism. Surprisingly, the populations of those eastern countries likely to power the world economy in the future are more hedonistic on the internet than their western peers [opens in PDF]. Governments may not need to control their citizens: we seem to be doing a pretty good job of that ourselves

Morozov finished off by saying that perhaps we need to redraw Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the internet age. At the bottom of the hierarchy, Morozov put entertainment – the hedonistic internet world of porn, illegal entertainment downloads and gambling; above that he placed communciation through instant messaging and email, and then sharing, through social media sites; near the top he placed learning, facilitated through websites such as TED and Wikipedia. Only then, right at the top, do you get activism and campaigning – and, he reckoned, few people cared about that.

Of course, both Shirky and Morozov are right: the internet can used as a tool to democratise and to manipulate and control. One person’s democratisation is another person’s spin.

Through both talks, I had the underlying thought that these are still early, early days. The people at both events were those who find this stuff interesting: we were self-selected, the early adopters who think it is important. Despite the easy access, and governments desire to increase internet access, internet use is still pretty concentrated. (I’m sure someone can give me figures that prove – or disprove! – this…) Most people don’t care – but they do like the way the internet let’s them write to their representatives or access public services in the UK. Maybe even providing these relatively small amounts of control – albeit through “authoritarian deliberation” – will make governments of all shades more accountable.

Andrew Lansley on the NHS and improving health outcomes for all

Never having been to the RSA before, I found myself there three times last week. This wasn’t wholly co-incidence – I had arranged to meet someone in the building, and that prompted me to go to a couple of events there.

One of these was the opportunity to hear Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, talk about the Conservative Party’s plans for the National Health Service. (Audio download and a PDF of the speech are available.)

Unlike many of the audience, I do not have experience of working in health – I was sandwiched between two doctors. Nor am I a Tory supporter – but since they may well form the next Government, I wanted to take the opportunity to hear what Mr Lansley had to say.

What he said made sense, but perhaps understandably it lacked detail: he said what the Tories would aim for, but not how they would actually do it. It all made sense, but I couldn’t work out if it would actually happen. Lansley specifically stated that it should be cost neutral.

The Conservatives’ focus would be on the outcomes of health care, providing local autonomy and decision making at several levels.

In essence, Lansley wants to empower local services – remove central government “management-by-targets”, reduce bureaucracy, make GPs responsible for the patients’ “pathway to care” including owning the commissioning budgets for healthcare, provide “real patient choice” (I’m not too sure about this one – choice means many things to many people – choice of hospital, doctor in a hospital, a voice in the treatment offered, and so on) including opening up health provision to new providers (did someone say “privatisation” just there?) and so on.

I liked his views on devolving health decisions to local – even GP – management: devolving relevant decisions at as local a level as possible makes sense, and I completely agree with removing central government targets, which produced such perverse incentives as those seen in Stafford Hospital. But GPs should be providing primary health care: are they really the people to be managing health budgets?

Local decision making and autonomy could also mean that what is known as “the postcode lottery” – that favourite of headline writers – becomes more acute: treatments available in one area may not be available in another. Will health ministers be happy to live with that when they are questioned by the media?

For local health trusts to be really accountable, would they be elected? In which case, might there not be an increase rather than a decrease in bureaucracy, as functions were duplicated as they are decentralised?

Managing stakeholders in a change such as this would be difficult, too: keeping health workers and other service providers on board would be essential.

Whilst I think many of the ideas are good, I therefore doubt they will be put into practice: changing the system might just be too hard. (Although the alternative – let it fail and start again – is not a pleasant thought.) This is why the details are important: why actions as well as aims need to be understood.

I’ll wait and see. And maybe take out health insurance, just in case…