Category: Politics

The power of citizenship.

For the past few months much of the media coverage has been focused on the incompetency of the parliament to execute Brexit.  I say Parliament, for it is not just our incompetent government; but the opposition and machinations behind the scenes that are failing us.  Whilst I fervently disagree with Brexit, a greater concern is that those incompetent chiefs in place now will be the ones left running the show once the split is confirmed.

The UK does not have a written constitution, but has a political system that has been twisted and broken through the imposition of party politics above of a constituency based democracy.  Our machinery of government, the civil service, has been neutered through a ‘presidential imposition’ by Prime Ministers acting without the support or mandate of Parliament, and ministers articulating their points not from expert briefings, but from ideological dogma and ignorance.

When Amber Rudd articulated her position on encryption, stating that ‘real people’ didn’t need end-to-end encryption, we’ve found ourselves led by a home secretary who exhibits both with gusto.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that cryptography is also at the core of the new wave of cryptocurrencies – itself a system that is growing up and able to challenge the power of the state.  A global store of economic value outside the direct control of any nation state, but available to all global citizens, is something that few will have anticipated coming into fruition.  Granted, the machinery that it runs across is dependent on nation states – but now that the concept has been birthed, many new revolutionary ideas will come from it.

I’ve written before about the mechanics of the state, namely the founder of the UK Police force Sir Robert Peel.  The relationship between the citizenry and the police has now developed far beyond his original vision.  I believe it is right that each citizen of the country is responsible for the welfare of their fellow citizens, their welfare and existence.  The recent tragedy at Grenfell Tower and the subsequent inspections of other buildings, have now revealed that many have also been fitted with flammable insulation or cladding.  Regulation should not have been relaxed; it should be in place to prevent such materials from being used; but it should also be on every individual who participated in the tender, responses, allocation and fitment of those materials to ensure the welfare of those living in those buildings.

One of the things that’s always bothered me as a technologist is the lack of training in ethics required to enter the field.  If it’s possible to do via a computer, then most of it will have been attempted.  This is far removed from the traditional scientific and engineering disciplines that have dedicated bodies setup for the assurance of an ethical standard for their profession.  With the ever increasing pace of technological innovation, the Government are failing to consider even the most basic of these challenges facing technology today.

Cambridge Analytics, the mercenaries responsible for both Brexit and Trump, may not be lauded by the technological community – but I dread to think how many copycat ventures have been setup to try and follow in their footsteps.  I’m not sure there are many out there can claim to understand the consequence of such a technological battle; nor the emotional and political division such war gaming may instigate.

Looking across the political spectrum, the tactics appear to be those of demeaning or attacking an opponent, rather than taking the time to understand the others’ viewpoint.  Whilst Brexit saddens me, I also understand that I’ve been lucky enough to benefit more from the union that many other Britons.  That said, my belief is that the vast majority of us have been positively affected by the union, and it should not be seen as a zero sum game, whereby my greater benefit causes my fellow citizens greater loss.

Whilst Brexit is the ultimate consequence, the root of the vote can be traced back to those who felt disenfranchised by being a smaller fish in a ever growing pond.  People that felt like their voices wasn’t being heard in Europe, so assume that by reducing the size of the state their voices would now be heard.

If the politicians are not capable of listening to the experts in their ears, why should we believe that they’ll listen to us?

The way to take back control is to reawaken our communities.  It’s to empower those within our communities that we want to represent us; to not select our representatives based on political party – but on who we know and trust.  In Lambeth, where I live, even at the council level, the People’s Audit have uncovered gross misconduct and widespread collusion and corruption.  That’s the place to start.

Go local; empower your community – and start looking our for each other as citizens.

Nick Timothy’s Resignation Letter

Having read through Nick Timothy’s resignation letter [read it here], this really stood out to me:

because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.

This implies modern campaigning is about winning, about getting power, about putting your party ahead of the country.

When we look at the millions spent on campaigns, these are no longer used to broadly inform on policy, but have a very simple target in mind – to swing a vote; potentially even on just a single issue.  Now that we have this capability, is it ethically or morally right to fight an election with such a narrow strategy in mind; or should the manifesto have a more prominent place, making sure that all votes are ensured of a fuller context to their decision, rather than gamified with single issue targeting?

General Election 2017

I thought long and hard as to whether to publish this piece about the recent general election in Britain.  The purpose?  Potentially for something for me to read back on to understand my frame of mind this week, but also to set a benchmark for what is likely to become a tumultuous few years for those living in the British Isles.

It’s been frustrating to be waking up on the day after an election and feeling upset at the result.  That’s the way I’ve felt for the past few elections.  This time was different.  I hadn’t cast my vote for the winner, but I finally felt as though the opposition in the UK had finally found a voice against an ever right-leaning Conservative agenda.  The irony is not lost on the fact that in order to hold onto her fragile leadership, Theresa May is now looking to form a coalition with a DUP that many would consider more extreme than UKIP.  UKIP were the bumbling fools, with a single policy that is now irrelevant.  The DUP are no bumbling fools.

Let’s go back to before the election.  Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t been a strong opposition before he began this election campaign.  His party has been fracturing, and he is not a ‘statesman’ – or wasn’t seen as one before this campaign.  A campaign fought not on demonising a person (which he could easily have done), but on criticising the implications of past policy decisions is exactly the type of politics that I want to support.  Let’s stop attacking people on who their appearance, and instead focus on the content of their endeavours.

I admire his comments Nuclear disarmament; what’s the point in agreeing to fire second; at this point the game is up and we’ve already failed.

What JC has done for me is to put the people first in politics.  Since graduating from University, I’ve had to fight my way through an economy restricted by austerity.  Austerity put in place due to the fact that much of my generation’s tax receipts appear to have already been spent.  I don’t want to be sat here in 18 years time explaining to my children why we’re still stuck in austerity.  An economic policy for the term of a parliament doesn’t make sense; Osborne failed spectacularly at keeping his short-term promises.  I can’t go back and suggest that not having austerity would have been any way a better path – but for where we find ourselves today, we seriously need to consider a different approach.

This different approach shouldn’t be built on doing the opposite of austerity – but setting a very clear long-term vision for the country.  Can we put down a marker to say – “This is what we expect our society to look like in 2050” and making decisions to make progress towards that vision.  We also need to draw a line between macro and micro economics.  I’m not well read enough (yet!) on this subject (please suggest books for me to read in the comments) – but I’m anecdotally aware of the impact of viewing micro-economic policies through a macroeconomic lens – and this doesn’t work well.

I also think we need to review our ethical framework for progress.  Theresa May has been working to abolish the Human Rights Act – I think it needs extending.  We have already built technology that is ethically questionable, without any controls or even awareness of the full implications.  The standard technologist experimentation cycle of “build, measure, adapt” is no longer ethically sound when the subject of the experiment is the global population.  It always astounded me, having studied Psychology at University, that the experts’ hands are tied when it comes to experimentation, but an enthusiastic amateur could be more than capable of running far more dangerous experiments with no trained expertise.

At WebSummit last year I attended a panel on the ethics of humanoid robots, and the challenges they face due to the ‘humanoid’ element.  When you look at the mechanism through which you’ve communicated with your loved ones over the past few weeks, what % of that communication has been “humanoid = eg, face to face” versus “digital” – and when you consider your digital interfaces, how simply could the response have been a computer?

For all of this technological advancement, we need a long-term lens through which to review it, so we can make sure that we are continuing to build a society, and not take society for granted. We’ve lived through a period of immense relative stability, and we’re now starting to see the cracks appearing.  People often used the phrase “Standing on the shoulder of giants,” for the great advancements in this world.  What I feel at the moment is that we’re climbing up the giant’s back with pickaxes, damaging the fabric of the thing we’re supposed to be building upon, and breaking the backs of the giants beneath us.

The result of this election has left our government in the balance.  We don’t have a vision for our country, so we don’t know what Brexit looks like.  I’d ask all politicians to get ready to set out that long term vision before the next election is likely to be called so that we can all vote on the type of society we wish to live in.  I hope it’s a society that provides care for others, by investing in the NHS to allow it to continue to develop; a society that looks out for those who cannot helps themselves, and rewards those for helping others.  A society that can attract the very best, but also continues to give back to where the very best have come from.  Where we can develop new ideas, technologies and medicines, but for the benefit of those both within and without our borders; and where national pride isn’t limited to the pride that we feel for ourselves, but the respect and envy we receive from others.

Freedom to do evil?

One of the key paradoxes about freedom is the freedom to do both right and wrong.  We balance freedom with laws that restrict certain freedoms by providing limits on what society regards as acceptable.  In a completely open model, those freedoms can be used for both good and evil.  Despite being of a liberal mindset, I also understand that we must take responsibility for our own actions, which may mean balancing our own freedoms against our responsibilities to our fellow man.

With the announcement today that Facebook, Google & Microsoft are teaming up to block extremist content on the internet, should we be concerned that such technology could also be used to restrict access to any content?  If Donald Trump doesn’t like a particular news article about him, can he get it blocked?

One of the most clearly concerning episodes from the recent US election is that conversation is being channeled into separate media – rather than having a balanced debate on a platform, echo chambers on both sides of the argument are being setup to polarise opinion.  Twitter is blocking the ‘alt-right’ and fascist behaviours, only for that community to move over to a new platform,  The liberal left are unlikely to want to join the platform, so the problem is exacerbated.

Does ‘Freedom of speech’ on the internet require a new paradigm?  Whilst media censorship has been an accepted means of protecting the liberty of groups and individuals in protecting against vile, fascist and immoral diatribes from groups that make the majority of us uncomfortable – does the communication revolution of the internet mean that we can no longer use these old methods to protect our citizenry?

I’m unclear as to whether there’s an answer, or whether the answer is unacceptable to our traditional values.  We cannot create a ‘clean’ internet without gagging certain views, and in doing so we’re giving the control to whom?  The technology companies are immature as far as moral and ethical codes go, so maybe we need to lean on other organisations that have more experience in ethical/moral frameworks to help shape the better model of intervention?

Embracing imperfection

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.
— Vince Lombardi

As a consequence of both election results, in the UK with #Brexit and in the USA with #Trump, I have found myself thinking about the impact that the role I play in society has on such events. I’ve worked in ‘technology’ for most of my career, minus a short career break for some quasi-philanthropic charity work in India. Given the attention given to issues such as #fakenews and social media #echochambers – it does appear that the role of modern technologists is quite substantial.

I was attending the #WebSummit conference when the news broke that #Trump had won the US election. I was surrounded by 50,000 people of whom the majority seemed shocked and despondent at the result. There were some passionate speeches, incredulity at the result, and a real sense of bitterness at those who had exercised their democratic freedoms to elect #Trump. However, like with #Brexit, I felt the need to turn the mirror on myself and question what I had contributed.

One of the topics of conversation at #WebSummit was on Robotics and the ethical dilemmas created by new humanoid technologies. Ben Goertzel, from Hanson Robotics debated strongly against Andra Keay, from Silicon Valley Robotics, espousing the laissez-faire approach to ‘suck it and see’ and deal with the ethical dilemmas as they appear – whereas Andra proposed spending time to contemplate a code of ethics before the jump is made.

I admire Andra’s approach, but for me this code is decades too late.

Media, communication & social interactions are all things that affect our emotions, decision making and world-views – even without a human face. The power of books and films to elicit strong emotions is just as powerful when read on or Facebook. With traditional media, we understand the implicit contract so beautifully articulated in Yes, Minister! by Jim Hacker*, we question the stories and understand the biases if not quite accepting that we’re affected by them. However with Facebook, Twitter & other online communities we’ve been tricked. We expect them to be passive commentaries on our social circles, not biased media outlets, shaped to affect our emotions. Technology strategists like Nir Eyal seek to focus on modifying behaviour; using digital cues to affect real-world actions. Where was the debate around ethics for non-robotic technology; surely this is as relevant a field as the new humanoids we’re creating?

Just because we can do it, does that mean we should?

In the world of science, this question is used to temper progress. Without understanding the consequence of our actions, we should not seek to blindly continue. This doesn’t mean we have to answer all the unknowns, nor does it mean not take risks. It does mean that we should have a thought for our own safety, and the safety of others before continuing down that road. Ironically President Obama gave a wonderful speech on the 17th October, about how the government cannot be run like a Silicon Valley startup. His pertinent message included reference to the following:

So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and they start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences – setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio – then I think those suggestions are terrific.
— President Obama

So perhaps it’s not government that’s broken; perhaps some of the bureaucracy is good? In technology and start ups we solve problems; we’re progressing to find near-perfect solutions to particular problems, without contemplating how some of the brokenness serves a function. We destroy low-skilled jobs in the name of automation, without thinking about how to provide purpose to those who would quite happily take on those low-skilled tasks for financial reward. We disrupt low-margin business models by disinter-mediating those who cannot provide a robust defence and let big businesses who’d fight back off the hook.

Let’s as a community start to look before we leap and to make sure we’re benefitting the whole of society; not just ourselves.


#Brexit – communcation breakdown / too much information.

I’ve often woken up on the morning after a vote with a sense of disappointment.  It’s unfortunately a feeling that’s all-to-familiar for me and many of the people whom I choose to call my friends.

It is estimated that a week’s worth of information in a single newspaper contains more information that someone in the 18th Century was likely to come across in a lifetime.

Living outside of London, I grew up constantly frustrated by the London-centric coverage on the news; the family holidays where people would ask where you were from, and London became synonymous with England – or by big business talking up London being the capital of the world, and ignoring the wonderful cities of Britain who’ve contributed significantly to London’s affluence.  Would London be as affluent today without Sheffield Steel, Manchester’s Cotton, Sunderland’s Shipping & Cardiff’s Coal?  Industry helped lift London up to be able to compete at a global scale.

It’s easy to focus on a class-divide between the voting groups, but it’s both more complicated and more simple than that.  Where London and affluent Britain have failed to provide, the EU have stepped in to fill the void.  It is an unfortunate irony that the election results show that those areas most heavily reliant on EU funding (therefore abandoned by the current UK political system) have voted to leave the EU.  Theirs was not a vote for separatism, isolation, or political ideals, but a vote for change.

The other realisation after the vote, is that posts such as this one are being published places that fail to reach a representative audience.  What vehicle do we have that allows us to bridge the chasm between those who voted out and those voting in?  Historically that may have been the Labour party – but how many unions are properly represented outside of London?  Sure there are national unions, but due to the volume of people they need to represent in London, has their focus left their members outside of London frustrated?

Some videos have been doing the rounds based that illustrate ignorance & xenophobia; responses to those videos have been just as ignorant and xenophobic.  Neither side who’s actively engaged in this debate comes out of this with any credibility.  Those of us who failed to engage lack it even more.  Politics has always been a communication game – 100 years ago it was different.  It wasn’t possible to actively communicate every nuance of every policy – instead we had representatives that we believed acted on principle and with integrity.  Watching shows like ‘Peaky blinders’ – are we that ignorant to believe that ever was the case?  Is it not more likely that the controls around what was communicated were tighter?

We now have a different communication problem.  We need to find a way to communicate across boundaries.  We’ve got a supposedly neutral BBC, a right-wing Sky, and nothing balancing their arguments.  We don’t have a Jon Stewart.  We have a negative Guardian (when’s the last time you read an article with a positive spin)?  Yes – the world isn’t perfect and it doesn’t align perfectly to our ideals.  The answer isn’t to give up, to throw stones – the answer is to start to move it towards where we want it to be for the future.