Tag: government (page 1 of 2)

Reality check: in light of the NSA revelations, just who do we need to fear?

Like everyone else, I’m shocked yet not really surprised at the revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) have access to, well, basically anything they want. Since the news broke, I’ve been thinking about what would constitute an appropriate response.

I could, for example, attempt to lock down everything in an attempt to prevent the NSA spying on me. But, to be quite honest, this isn’t really an option: I haven’t got the skills to do so. It would also make my life significantly less enjoyable.

So, stepping back for a moment, I’ve been thinking about who I should be worried about. The current concerns seem to be directed at the US government for having access to people’s data. Now, while I don’t for one second like the fact that my data can (and possibly is being) triangulated, at least the ostensible aim of the NSA’s snooping is to protect people and save lives. Meanwhile, the aim of those allegedly involved in PRISM – companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft – is to maximise shareholder value. Remember, it’s data these companies collected about their users that the US government deems important enough – and extensive enough – to capture.

In a democracy, we can do something about governments: we can replace them by means of elections. But where’s our recourse with private companies? Where are their checks and balances? While it would be easy to argue that we can replace services provided by Company X by those with Company Y, the problem comes with scale and cultural norms. I could (and probably should), for example, decide to swear off Facebook, Google+ and Twitter as they are private public spaces. But not only is there no viable alternative that respects my privacy, I would be a social outcast.

We need more transparent government, certainly. We need to resist secret laws that infringe our privacy to satisfy politicians’ whims and fancies. But it’s also important to keep some perspective here. We are all complicit. We voluntarily give up our privacy to get discounts and deals at supermarkets. We submit to tracking and data mining for the sake of shiny services. Every day we choose (or willingly allow) the sharing of our personal information with companies who host it on servers we do not control.

In my opinion, the best thing we can do in the wake of these revelations is to be more intentional about where we put our data. If we’re making a trade-off between ease-of-use (and shininess) and privacy, then we should be mindful of that. We should realise that we’re involved in a compromise. At the end of the day, it’s not about breaking out the tinfoil hat, it’s about being an informed, responsible, and literate citizen – whatever your position on the privacy spectrum.


I’m fortunate to work for Mozilla, a non-profit that doesn’t track people and, indeed, builds tools for users to be able to track the trackers. If you’d like to see who’s tracking you online, check out Collusion.

Image CC BY Sean MacEntee

Some thoughts on time, performativity, and the State.

Whenever I come across a longer article via Twitter, Zite, Feedly, Google+ or the other places that I browse headlines, I add it to my Pocket account. The advantage of doing this is not only that I can read those articles at my leisure (such as when I’m on a train journey) but also that the app formats them in a way that’s actually readable.

........................................ .....................denbora berdea...

A while ago I added an article entitled Time Wars to my Pocket account. It’s by ‘leading radical blogger and professor Mark Fisher’ and is about the neo-liberal assault on time. I found it fascinating. You should go and read it.

In the UK at the moment we have the situation where the government has declared war on public sector pay and pensions. It’s dressed up to look like something different, of course, but even a quick peek behind the curtains reveals how ministers manipulate the levers in a futile attempt to make taxpayer-funded institutions cost the government less.

Unfortunately, the ideology of the Conservative government (let’s face it, the Liberals aren’t doing much despite their coalition) is predicated upon a lazy idea of the market as the solution to every problem facing society. Climate change? Carbon trading! NHS costs rising? Bring in private providers! Educational ‘standards’ not improving fast enough? De-regulate everything!

The logic of Capital is everywhere. One very prominent and obvious effect of this is the increasingly casualised and temporary jobs on offer. Who has a permanent job with a guaranteed final salary pension these days? Which of us spend more than five years with the same employer? Where are the ‘good’ jobs (the ones that my Grandmother talks about) for graduates?

At the most simple level, precarity is one consequence of the “post-Fordist” restructuring of work that began in the late 1970s: the turn away from fixed, permanent jobs to ways of working that are increasingly casualised. Yet even those within relatively stable forms of employment are not immune from precocity. Many workers now have to periodically revalidate their status via systems of “continuous professional development”; almost all work, no matter how menial, involves self-surveillance systems in which the worker is required to assess their own performance. Pay is increasingly correlated to output, albeit an output that is no longer easily measurable in material terms.

Of course, there are massive benefits to the casualisation of labour. For example, I now work variable hours from home as part of a team that spans at least five timezones. I get to choose when to take my holidays. My performance is based upon my output rather than the number of hours I spend at my desk.

But, there’s a creeping performative element to all of this. When you can work any time of the day, it’s tempting to work   more, not less – especially when you’re dealing with things you’re interested in. I’m fortunate in that I work for Mozilla, whose politics and communitarian approach correlate strongly with my own. But if I didn’t work for a non-profit (or a forward-thinking organisation such as Valve) then I think I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time. Self-regulation and censorship, as George Orwell showed in 1984 is regulation and censorship of the worst kind.

The casualisation of labour is great for those working in what is loosely (and imprecisely) defined as ‘the knowledge economy’. Give me a laptop and an internet connection and I can work anywhere. Others, however, depend upon being physically co-located with others to earn their money. Whilst the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with casualisation is great for those working in the knowledge economy, it’s a definite downside to those who can’t decide where and when they’re going to work. In fact, all they get is the downside, the uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a negative side effect that some of us are willing to live with because of the positives on the flip side of the coin. But that flip side largely doesn’t exist for those who rely on physical co-location to do their jobs. I’m thinking teachers. I’m thinking doctors and nurses and hospital staff. I’m thinking pretty much every job in the public sector. These aren’t occupations that we should be looking to casualise: we should be making people in these positions feel more secure, not less:

The neoliberal attacks on public services, welfare programmes and trade unions mean that we are increasingly living in a world deprived of security or solidarity. The consequence of the normalisation of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic. Fear, which attaches to particular objects, is replaced by a more generalised anxiety, a constant twitching, an inability to settle.

Everything that can be outsourced to the market in our brave new Big Society is packaged up and sold to the highest bidder. Witness the G4S Olympic security debacle, for example. At the same time, training and career development is also outsourced to the market. Instead of taxpayer-funded institutions such as hospitals and schools developing and keeping experienced, knowledgeable staff we’re increasingly faced with uncertain, temporary workers representing third-party organisations. Any ‘innovation’ within such organisations by necessity has to be top-down, as the mechanisms for grassroots innovation are stymied by HR practices:

The reality, however, is that innovation requires certain forms of stability. The disintegration of social democracy has had a dampening, rather than a dynamic, effect on culture in highly neoliberalized countries such as the UK. Frederic Jameson’s claims that late capitalist culture would be given over to pastiche and retrospection have turned out to be extraordinarily prophetic.

I’m not arguing for full communism now. Nor am I advocating a King Canute-style position against the incoming tide. What I am questioning, however, is whether the logic of Capital and private enterprise should be applied to the institutions of our state. Some things, after all, are public goods.

I’ll end where Mark Fisher’s article starts, commenting only that we live in an increasingly polarised society where the haves get to choose what the have-nots get to do with their time:

Time rather than money is the currency in the recent science fiction film In Time. At the age of 25, the citizens in the future world the film depicts are given only a year more to live. To survive any longer, they must earn extra time. The decadent rich have centuries of empty time available to fritter away, while the poor are always only days or hours away from death.

Go and read the article. It’s worth it, trust me. 🙂

Image CC BY-SA Mr. Theklan

Investing in infrastructure: does it work?

Chicago from the air

Yesterday the government announced a combination of public and private funding, a £30 billion investment in the UK’s infrastructure (transport, hospitals, schools, etc.) The private funding would probably come from pension funds and Chinese investment, and it’s anticipated that the public funding will come from cuts to the tax credits system. They’re hoping (and it is a hope) that this will stimulate the economy and provide economic growth.

Earlier this year James Paul Gee, a big advocate of games-based learning, wrote a post entitled 10 Truths About Books and What They Have to Do With Video Games. It included these nuggets:

 3. For good learning, books require talk and social interaction with others around interpretation and implications. 5.   Books can make you smart by supplying vicarious experience, new ideas, and something to debate and think about.

6. Books are often best used as tools for problem solving, not just in and for themselves.

8. Just giving people books does not make them smarter; it all depends on what they do with them and who they do it with. For young people, it depends, too, on how much and how well they get mentored. Mentoring is, in fact, crucial.

10. Books tend to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer” (those who read more in the right way get to be better and better readers and get more and more out of reading; those who don’t, get to be poorer and poorer readers and get less and less out of reading. The former get more successful, the latter, less). This is called “the Matthew Principle.”

What happens if instead of ‘books’ we talk about ‘infrastructure’ in the above examples? I’d argue that the following is true:

  • Infrastructure can give people new experiences.
  • Infrastructure can be used to help solve social problems (especially social justice issues)
  • Infrastructure does not to lead to improved quality and efficiency in and of itself. It depends what people do with it.
  • Infrastructure tends to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer”. Those who have the social and cultural capital to make the most of the infrastructure improve and entrench their position.

The word ‘infrastructure’ can also be applied to the ‘hard’ stuff in educational institutions and especially the kind of educational technology that occupies much of my thinking time.

Time and time again over my (albeit relative short) career I’ve seen investment in educational infrastructure without the associated, necessary investment in people. Not only do we need to provide the kit, we need to invest in skills. In fact, it’s more than that, we need to go beyond training and give people the space to be creative and innovative – job security and hope for the future being a good place to start with the latter. That’s why so many public sector workers are striking tomorrow.

I agree that investing in infrastructure is important. But investing in people, for all kinds of reasons, is crucial.

Image CC SA dsearls

Bauman on inequality and the logic of capital.

Untitled

I’m going to present this without comment. It’s from Zygmunt Bauman’s recent interview that I quoted in a previous post.

Simon Dawes: And what do you make of the recent surge in interest in inequality, and the economic and environmental crises, that proposes de-growth, sustainable economies, post-capitalism or the continuing salience of communism as solutions to these problems?

Zygmunt Bauman: Poignantly and succinctly, the great Jose Saramago has already answered your question, pointing out that ‘people do not choose a government that will bring the market within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions government to bring the people within its control’ (2010).

I would say that the main, indeed ‘meta’, function of the goverment has become now to assure that is the meetings between commodities and the consumer, and credit issuers and the borrowers, that regularly take place (as with the government known to fight tooth and nail over every penny which the ‘underclass’, that is the ‘flawed (useless) consumers’, need to keep their bodies alive, but that now miraculously find hundred of billions of pounds or dollars to ‘re-capitalize the banks’, have recently proved; if proof were needed…)

Let me quote Saramago once more: ‘I would ask the political economists, the moralists, if they have already calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization, to infantilization, to despicable ignorance, to insurmountable misfortune, to utter penury, in order to produce one rich person?

Image CC BY Francesco Fiondella

Too many bricks, not enough mortar.

bricks

A couple of years ago I was going to set up my own business. I got my website sorted out, business cards printed, but then… nothing happened. I’d concentrated on style over substance.

It’s not bricks that hold a house together, it’s the mortar.* Otherwise, it’s a pile of bricks. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re given a bunch of money or are part of a new organization, then you need to create something from scratch. Instead of focusing on connecting people and adding value, there’s thrashing about creating a new community, a new website, new artefacts. Let’s create more bricks!

Right now, more than ever, it’s mortar time. It’s time to stick the bricks together to build something.

Get busy!

Image CC BY-NC-SA lovestruck.

* Granted, there’s lots of examples of dry stone walls in Northumberland (where I live). But that takes a lot of organization, co-ordination and centralised re-shaping of existing organizations. Work with me… :-p

Free schools: the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

I’m all for Free Schools in principle. The idea of community involvement in setting up a school is exactly what should happen in my book. I’m not so sure about the ‘parent-led’ part of it, but a school as reflecting community values and being responsive to context is highly in tune with my own political and educational thinking. That’s the good.

The Bad

But I’m not in favour of Free Schools if they’re all going to be along the lines of the West London Free School. It states proudly that it’s going to have a ‘narrow, academic’ curriculum focused on the Classics. Yes, that includes Latin.

I can remember reading for my MA in Modern History the debate between T.H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold (see here). The latter had a tough time defending the idea of a Liberal education based on the Classics in the 19th century, never mind the 21st. To say that “a classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools” is to commit the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc* – i.e. that there is a causal connection between the content of the curriculum and the success of the current elite maintaining their hegemonic power.

The Ugly

Toby Young, the son of a peer in the House of Lords and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is leading the project for the West London Free School, linked to above. I’m not sure who’s doing his PR but I really wouldn’t be using the video featured on the site (and below) as promotional material. Given the title of his book, perhaps he’s taking his own advice. I have never come across such a perfect example of a smug, inconsiderate and xenophobic story as the one he recounts with narrowly-contained glee towards the end of this interview:

Conclusion

So, schools free of Local Authority control, with the power to adapt their curriculum to the needs of their local community? Yes please!

What I don’t want to see, and what I think the school Toby Young is helping set up is a prime example of, is the perpetuation of middle class cultural capital masquerading as parental choice. Unfortunately ‘answering’ the question about the middle classes in your FAQ doesn’t make an iota of difference in practice.

*See, I can do Latin too and I just went to the local comprehensive. :-p

Why I’m using iPREDator now the Digital Economy Bill has been passed

Introduction

We just love our unelected leaders in the UK. Not only did Gordon Brown get to become Prime Minister without being elected to the position, but Peter (now ‘Lord’) Mandelson has his fingers in more pies of government behind the scenes that I think most people realise. I always think of Gríma Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings when I see him.

And now, of course, Mandelson is ‘First Secretary of State’, an honorific title all but making him Deputy Prime Minister. Oh, and he’s also Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills as well as President of the Board of Trade. It’s a complete coincidence, of course, that his interest in the Digital Britain agenda (and ‘protecting’ intellectual property rights) was piqued after being wined and dined by David Geffen, co-founder of the Dreamworks studio with Steven Spielberg.

The Digital Economy Act

You would have thought that after all the scandal about MP’s expenses that Parliament would have cleaned itself up. Unfortunately the closest they get to this is a process called ‘wash-up’. Unfortunately, as Martin Bell writes in the Guardian:

This unfortunately has nothing to do with cleansing parliament from its many stains of corruption – more necessary now than ever. It is the term used to describe the negotiations between the parties to decide which bills will survive at the end of the parliamentary session and which will not. It is a secretive process, the modern equivalent of the smoke-filled room. Those taking part are the parties’ whips and business managers, plus officials from various government departments. Those excluded are the rank and file of MPs, together with independents and crossbenchers in the Lords. The wash-up is a stitch-up devised by and for the main political parties.

Whilst you can read the Digital Economy Bill (and subsequent Act) online, it’s best summarized in articles like this one. The bits that really irritate me?

  • Government powers to cut off internet connections of those suspected in illegal file-sharing activities.
  • More government control over who can register .uk domain names and for what purposes.

As many commentators have pointed out, once the heavy hand of the State is upon you, the burden of proof will rest with you to prove that you haven’t been engaging in illegal activities. Proving that you haven’t done something is obviously a lot harder than you have.

iPREDator

Fortunately, there’s others who think like me. Not least the people behind both The Pirate Bay and the Swedish Pirate Party who have come up with iPREDator (named, ironically, after the PRED legislation in Sweden). It gives users a way of staying anonymous online.

How does it work? Via VPN (Virtual Private Network). Basically, they provide a tunnel through the internet and a proxy server through which to access everything online. You route your internet traffic through this and they guarantee not to spill the beans.

Why do I feel the need to cover my tracks? I’m not a massive user of Bittorrent and I’m certainly not engaged in any terrorist activities. But I do object to the State spying on me and potentially accusing me of stuff to shut down my internet connection. So I’m protecting myself.

How about you?

Exam performance of looked-after children in England [infographic]

This story pretty much tells itself. We. Need. To. Do. Better.*

Performance of children in England in KS1 SATs

Performance of children in England in KS2 SATs

Performance of children in England in KS3 SATs

Performance of children in England at GCSE level

* For the benefit of those not in England:

To get any kind of decent job, young people would normally require 5 ‘good’ GCSEs (i.e. A*-C)

Definition of ‘looked-after’ (City of Westminster):

The term ‘looked after’ was introduced by the Children Act 1989 and refers to children who are subject to care orders and those who are voluntarily accommodated. Wherever possible, the local authority will work in partnership with parents. Many children and young people who become looked after retain strong links with their families and many eventually return home.

Why governmental educational reforms fail.

failing_streetI’m sure that I’m not the only teacher sick of wave after wave of governmental reforms, tweaking and general tinkering about with the education system in the UK. We all know it needs changing, but it needs changing root and branch, not some remedial (and expensive) tree surgeon work!

The trouble with tinkering is that it prolongs the problem and means that year after year of students entering school for the first time don’t start off on the right foot.

It hit me in the shower this morning that the model Thomas Kuhn set out in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions applies here. For those (like me) who find diagrams easiest to understand, here’s one that gives an overview:

(source)

kuhnian_science_overview

Think of Einsteinian physics replacing the previous model based on Newton’s work:

  1. Normal science – everything seems to work under Newtonian physics so people get on with ‘doing science’.
  2. Model drift – some anomalies mean that some ‘fiddling’ has to be done or scientists have to compensate for the shortcomings of Newtonian physics.
  3. Model crisis – there are now so many anomalies that it is interfering with ‘normal science’ taking place. This would happen at the atomic level with Newtonian physics.
  4. Model revolution – a time of great upheaval where scientists propose new theories and models to explain the phenomena. Think of the early 20th century when Einstein came up with his Theory of Special Relativity.
  5. Paradigm change – a model that explains the phenomena and allows science to move forward is settled upon and ‘normal science’ begins again.

I hope you can see already how this model pertains to educational reform. Although Kuhn’s model is of the order of a ‘grand narrative’ there is, I think, much explanatory power behind it.

If Kuhn’s model is applied to top-down government-funded educational reform then ‘normal education’ (akin to ‘normal science’) cannot progress. Teachers (akin to the scientists in the original model) have very little or no control over where their discipline is headed. There’s also the lack of an adequate feedback loop to explain the anomalies.

Finally, the clincher for me under this model is that governmental top-down reforms in education don’t take into account context. This is of fundamental importance and the biggest reason, to my mind, why such reforms fail. Using the Kuhnian model, the length of ‘normal education’, the number of anomalies, and the possible alternatives are dependant upon any number of local factors and features. In fact, not only is every Local Authority likely to be different, every school is likely to be different.

(read more on Kuhnian paradigm shifts here)

What are YOUR thoughts? Does the Kuhnian model work for you? :-p

(image credit: Failing Street by Chris Daniel @ Flickr)

The six month slap-in-the-face for UK teachers

My video response to the news that the UK government is proposing 6-month teacher training ‘fast-track’ schemes. This is apparently to make it easier for those made unemployed in the economic downturn to enter (what has been called up until this point) the ‘teaching profession’.

Relevant links:

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