06 November 2012

And 'Patronise Americans Month' comes to an end.

Now anyone who knows me, knows that I love America. During a recent business trip there, my four colleagues kept on comparing me to the Fast Show's Brilliant Kid (before asking me to shut up):

It's a great regret that I've never had the chance to live and work there properly. But 12 years ago, I have to admit that I indulged in an almighty bout of snark against the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

In the wake of the disputed 2000 Presidential election, and after an evening spent joking about it in the pub, I drafted up a spoof memorandum from HM Government to the American people, revoking their independence, and e-mailed it to 13 friends. It went viral and you've probably seen it a few times since in various expanded and elaborated forms (usually after each successive US election). 

(And, yes, you're probably thinking well who's this guy trying to kid, claiming he started it? Well, all these things start somewhere and I did write about it at the time on various communications and politics websites whose digital footprint has now been washed away (oh, how convenient, eh?). So you'll have to take my word for it. Some traces remain here and here).

Judging by some of the e-mails that came back my way, there were a whole load of people on the other side of The Pond taking it as intended and who gave as good as they had got ("...and regarding World War Two: you're welcome!"). Sadly, a few were also offended.

God knows what either of those groups makes of the attitudes directed towards US voters on social media in 2012.

The mass attempts at patronising them into voting the way that bien-pensant British citizens would vote (if only they could) began in earnest in 2004 when Guardian readers (that ever-reliable weather-vane of how the majority of the world thinks) wrote to the voters of swing-state Ohio in the appallingly misconceived Operation Clark County to urge them not to re-elect George W Bush. It successfully managed to increase Bush's vote in the county by five times the 2000 result.

This time, the Guardian's readers (both of them) are aching for Obama to win. Fine. But dear God, my fellow non-Americans, do you never learn?

Take this, for example, doing the rounds on Facebook today:

Or the endless, sanctimonious orders, disguised as pleas, on Twitter to vote the 'correct' way, because us clever people in the Old World know better than the reckless and ignorant populace of the New.

Now if I were an undecided 'Merican voter, in this election which could be the closest for 12 years, and the Rest of The World was trying to patronise me into supporting the incumbent, I wonder which way I'd go.

Perhaps I should write a memo about it.

20 June 2012

Who is Dr Helen Wright really talking about?

Today's Times (£) trails the speech of a Headteacher at a private boarding school for girls, to be given tomorrow at the Institute of Development Professionals in Education:
Girls are pressured to think that being the hottest woman in the world is more important than academic success, a leading headmistress will say this week.
Dr Wright lambasted a recent men’s magazine cover, featuring (Kim) Kardashian posing provocatively in skimpy lingerie.
She said: “It is not too strong a statement, I venture to suggest, to say that almost everything that is wrong with Western society today can be summed up in that one symbolic photo.
“The descent of Western civilisation can practically be read into every curve (of which, you will note, there are indeed many). Officially the hottest woman in the world? Really? Is this what we want our young people to aim for? Is this what success should mean to them?”
I wonder what the pupils (and the fee paying parents, for that matter) of St Mary's Calne school in Wiltshire think about their most senior educator, Dr Helen Wright, offering this sort of analysis of world history? I suspect that, for £21k-£30k a year, they would hope for something a little less simplistic.

I am only peripherally aware of the Kardashian family and their various forays into celebrity. To be honest, when I first heard of the TV programme that launched them, At Home With The Kardashians, I thought it was a Star Trek spin-off. So I have not studied, as Dr Wright has, the bodily contours of that clan's most famous daughter. Nor am I a young woman. So there's at least two reasons, right there, why I am unable to speak authoritatively to Dr Wright's claim that the effect of images of a semi-naked actresse/model on teenage girls is correlated with the crumbling of civilisations.

But then I also don't happen to subscribe to Dr Wright's central assertion that the West is in some sort of absolute, terminal decline. Let's just run with the idea, though. For argument's sake. For there are those, from former cabinet ministers to Astronomers Royal to well-meaning but counter-productive urban campers to sections of the press, for whom this is a core belief. Various reasons given for our supposed descent include:
  • rapacious capitalism
  • catastrophic climate change
  • conflict in the Middle East
  • 'peak' oil
  • risk-adversity
  • political correctness
  • family breakdown
  • abandonment of religion
Maybe it's overly presumptive of me to question somebody of such vision and experience, but I find it a little difficult to find any of that (never mind all of it) inextricably symbolised in a magazine cover featuring a charismatic socialite in her undies. 

Of course, I don't think that Dr Wright really does either. She is employing hyperbole to underpin a more basic point: that young people, particularly young women, are overly influenced, and made less happy and healthy and ambitious, by the pressures exerted upon them by such images. Her world is, apparently, full of otherwise intelligent, aspirational, confident girls who are reduced to simpering, sexualised, celebrity-obssessed wasters by Zoo, Nuts, lingerie advertisements, those videos which accompany songs currently in the Hit Parade, and 'reality' TV.

Now maybe all these things are destroying the will and well-being of our nation's female youth and maybe they aren't. I'm sure if I were a parent, that my attitude towards such images would be a lot less liberal. I am happy enough (for the moment) to defer to the media studiers, psychologists and feminist theorists amongst my readership (you're both familiar with these areas, aren't you?).

However, reading about the second half of Dr Wright's proposed speech, in which she calls for less state interference in schools, a solution struck me: she and her staff should just do their job.

For is it really the case that "this is what young people see around them all the time: online, in magazines, on TV". Really? ALL THE TIME? Even for the seven or eight hours a day that they're in your classrooms? I do youthwork two hours a night, two nights a week in one of the most deprived wards in the country. On those evenings, I help 12-18 year olds, both boys and girls, learn some new things, apply for qualifications, and generally shape their ideas of what they want their training and education, and future careers, to be. Now maybe the boys are just humouring me and they all intend to be Premiership footballers, and maybe the girls are highly skilled at masking their true desire to be the next star of The Only Way Is Essex. But I doubt it.

The good teachers of St Mary's Calne have far greater opportunites to influence their charges than just about any other educators or mentors in the country. If they're concerned about 'bad' role-models for their pupils, then why not use the expansive curriculum to introduce them to some good ones? If they think that Zoo and Nuts are too prevalent, why not stick some copies of Wired (with its excellent coverage of female entrepreneurs) or Intelligent Life in the library? Surely a learning support fee of £30.90 per lesson would stretch to the subscriptions? Why not use your critical thinking and personal development lessons to address the issues you have raised?

Of course, all this is predicated on the fact that Dr Wright is talking about St Mary's Calne pupils. I mean, that's who she means, doesn't she, when she frets about youngsters turning into superficial, undisciplined adults? She couldn't just mean the less privileged young women of the world who don't have the benefit of experiencing her school? She surely could not be stereotyping girls from more urban and lower-income backgrounds. Could she?

12 June 2012

Modern communication #2

From my recent trip to Bogotรก:

Something satisfying about a Ministry of Communications covered in graffiti. 

A best as I can establish, "UCMC" and "UPN" references universities of those initialisms. CAF is the Development Bank of Latin America. The "UDPTE" and "GRABO" references elude me.

I think the unfinished swastika has a half-hearted line going through it as if to say "No to Nazis!". But whether CAF and UCMC are being accused of National Socialism, or are being urged to oppose it, only the artists may know.

19 May 2012

Somebody spare us from these idiots raging against the social media machine.

Another week, another patronising article telling us that we're all going to virtual hell in a social media handcart because Facebook and the like are (I hope you are sat down reading this) changing things. That's right: changing (*shivers*) things.

Today, it's the FT's San Francisco correspondent, April Dembosky (who is on neither Facebook nor Twitter), telling us, in the strapline of her latest article, that "therapists fear that social networking is changing the way we relate to each other". The correct reactions to this assertion are:

1. I don't give a creamed turd what therapists think about anything...

2. ...but, yes, social networking is changing real-world networking. Well done for noticing. While you're here, could you explain me to what that rather ursine-looking creature is doing in that area of heavy flora? (See, anyone can sound 'scientific' if they try).

3. And, anyway, this isn't a bad thing.

For a start, it enables the wonderful practice of fisking. Allow me to demonstrate:
Then the groom pulled out his iPhone. “I wrote my vows on Evernote,” he says, referring to the note-taking application for mobile phones. “I pulled out my phone to read my vows.” Technically, it was a breach of the couple’s pre-nuptial agreement: no mobile phones at the wedding, no checking in on Foursquare, no posting to Facebook, Twitter or Path, the social networking site where Matt works.
Technology is pervading every moment of our lives – even the most sacred of our most intimate relationships. 
It is perfectly sensible to put restrictions on where and when anything distracting can be used. I'm sure the couple didn't want people juggling coconuts, reading newspapers, listening to transistor radios or playing cards during their wedding either. But the fact that something necessary to the ceremony was written in pixels on a screen rather than scratched on to paper with ink does not equate to some pernicious invasion of our lives. Let alone the most sacred bits of the most intimate bits (whatever the Blackberry that means).

(We then get some statistics demonstrating that a lot (I mean, like, OMG loads!) of people use the internet and that a lot of those people use social media).
As much as platforms like Facebook have become an online scrapbook for people’s lives, they have become public portals, almost performance spaces, for people’s relationships. They are not only places for sharing momentous events in a couple’s history – engagements, weddings, first dog – they are also a play-by-play chronicle of the couple’s every date, love note and even fight. As Matt says, “A guy will get in a fight with his girlfriend, then post photos with his arms around other people.”
Etiquettes are still evolving concerning the levels of privacy and think-before-you-post dilemmas on such sites. If you are naturally self-obssessed, boorish and indiscreet then the temptation to be self-obssessed, boorish and indiscreet on your Facebook timeline is probably too much to resist. It is unpleasant, to be sure. In terms of the charting of human relationships, it is not a massive leap away from the hatch-match-despatch sections of local newspapers, making an ex jealous by dancing with your new paramour at the local discotheque, or boasting about a conquest at the office party. Social media may amplify the outcome of how we behave. It does not change that behaviour, per se.
some relationship counsellors and mental health experts are concerned that online socialising is compromising the quality of real-life relationships
And those whose livelihood does not depend on therapeutic claptrap, are not concerned. In fact, quite the opposite. For there are equal claims that social networking improves the quality of our real-world relationships and increases the quantity of meaningful social contacts.
These sites are so engaging, so addictive, that people are choosing to spend time in front of their screens instead of face to face with their loved ones. “People are coming home and getting on their computers instead of having sex with their partners,” says Cameron Yarbrough, a couples therapist in San Francisco and a friend of the reporter. “I see couples break up over this stuff. This is real.”
Interesting anecdote. Show me the statistics. While you're looking, how about disentangling cause and effect? What really happened with these couples? Were they at it like rabbits, morning, noon and night? Did they hourly test the structural integrity of every piece of furniture in their house to destruction every day? Then one of them got an iPad and that was it? Or was it, rather, that the spark and chemistry had long since gone and interacting with technology filled the gap? The same way that TV used to. And reading did before that. And cave-painting before that. "Oh I don't know, Dr Ug. He used to have my bearskin off before he'd barely got in the cave after a day's hunter-gathering. But now he's just addicted to drawing pictures of spears and mammoths with his mates on next door's wall".
Some people, young and old, are choosing to communicate with each other through texting and social networks specifically to avoid the ambiguity and awkwardness of telephone and in-person conversations.
You're damn skippy we do! And we also use medical technology to avoid the awkwardness of dying (up to a point, obviously).
But it is through those ambiguous, awkward moments that people truly get to know one another. It is by interpreting facial expressions, tones of voice, and half-finished sentences that we figure each other out, and become sympathetic to others’ points of view.
Relationships that happen only through the prism of Facebook updates, blog comments or Twitter @s are, of course, very different from those that occur through working and playing in meatspace. However, I'm not convinced (and no science is offered in the article) that bantering with someone on my virtual timeline tells us that much less about each other than mixing it up over a pint. But even if it did, why can't you just do both? We're complicated and messy beings. Take the simple pleasure of restricted-character communications at one time; enjoy the opportunity for deeper face-to-face psychological insight at other times.
Some experts worry that the more people habituate themselves to these rational, binary communication channels – thumbs up, thumbs down, smiley face, frowny face – the less they pay attention to, and tolerate, the nuances of emotions.
So far we've had "concerned" experts and "worried" experts but no actual evidence-offering experts.
Our brains are increasingly colonising our hearts.
To be sure, our interaction with technology can influence what we think and how we behave. From Marshall McLuhan's assertion that "the medium is the message" to B.J. Fogg's captological Persuasive Tech Lab, the link is clear. Dembosky can't have it both ways, though. On the one hand, we're being told that social media is making us more simplistic, more reactionary and less able to understand each other properly. On the other, that cognition and knowledge are becoming too influential over raw emotion. I think the author actually means that hearts are taking over brains. Either way, and as I've said, humans are complicated. We don't always get the balance right, especially during periods of great upheaval and transition, whether political, social, economic or technological. But we do get it right in the end. We've learnt to co-exist, thrive and immeasurably improve the vast majority of lives across the globe while adapting to and exploiting, for example, radio, individual motor transport, the telephone, mass international travel, birth control, television, smaller households, the internet, e-mail and mobile telephony. I very much doubt that social networking will defeat us. Quite the opposite.
“Those parts of who we are as human beings are becoming less available as we become more attached to our technology,” says Michael Klein, a clinical psychologist and couples’ therapist in San Francisco. 
Oh, give it a rest. We're not Borg. You're not Captain Picard.

An ex-Borg. Yesterday.
“It has a very negative impact on relationships.” In the past few years, Klein and other therapists have also noticed an increase in extramarital affairs facilitated by Facebook. “People reconnect with old flames from college or school, and there’s this easy way to flirt or chat,” he says. “And when people are dissatisfied in their marriages, which is a fairly chronic condition in our society, it’s easy for those flirtations to catch fire.”
OK. So it's very bad for some relationships. And apparently absolutely flipping fantastic for others. If you want to write an article on the fragility of marriage, be my guest. Just print it in the Lifestyle, not the Technology, section. 
There is little quantitative research on these points. Various studies have been conducted about people’s use of technology and social media platforms, but few have examined the kinds of sensitive issues that arise in therapy offices on a larger scale. Many questions remain to be asked, let alone answered, about the effects online social networks have on our closest relationships.
Correct. So obviously it is better to write 4000 words for an international newspaper, wildly speculating about all this, based on a few tales from your commercially-interested mates, rather than do or commission the necessary research yourself. Good work.
We are in a transition. Humans have always created technology before figuring out how to manage it socially. Both benefits and pitfalls emerge, and humans adapt. Many people praise mobile phones and social networks for keeping them connected to loved ones, especially those they must be apart from – for work, school, or even military service. Humans are still identifying and balancing the pros and cons. Online social rules and etiquette have yet to be codified. But the trend is forging ahead, and people, young and old, are increasingly living their relationships online.
Think I've already dealt with this. Agree wholeheartedly. In which case: relax.
Silicon Valley is a land of introverts. Scores of geeks flock to the area to join or start their own technology company. They are idealistic and passionate about the computer code stored in their laptops. But social charmers, there are few. Many, though certainly not all, are painfully shy, quiet, awkward. They are reluctant to make eye contact, staring at the table while they describe how they get people to connect with each other online. They detest talking about themselves. And yet these are the young men Valley venture capitalists call “the geniuses of social”.
How these engineers define social in the online context is, of course, markedly different from how their psychotherapists would define it.
“When we tweet and have lots of friends follow us, we get surges of dopamine and other neurochemicals that make us feel excited,” says Stan Tatkin, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, and a psychobiological couples therapist. “These reward circuits activate, and we want to do it again.”
It is the ultimate revenge of the geeks.
Absurd, pseudo-psychological non-analysis, which laughably attempts to anthropomorphise social media platforms with the flaws of their creators. Grow up. Some people invented something that other people like doing. Get over it. Decent debate on this requires more than having watched The Social Network.

The article then meanders off into territory that it has already well covered, arguing that social media encourages us to denude our lives and self-promote, while avoiding dealing with real issues, concluding that:
It remains to be seen what kind of cases this shift will deliver to therapists in 10 or 20 years’ time. They could grow out of certain social networking habits in the same way teens grow out of a range of behaviours, and arrive in their adult relationships no worse, or better, than their parents did. Right now, all generations are navigating the lines of public and private, deciding what to share or not to share, according to their own starting points.
In which case (and I know I'm repeating myself here): relax. We're different at work to how we are at home. Different at, say, a football match, than having dinner with the family. Different in a world of 140 characters and quickly snapped photos to a world of lengthy conversation and true love. Sometimes all our worlds, the different corners of our lives, overlap. Occasionally, they may be incompatible. 

Overwhelmingly, we adapt and adopt until we're comfortable. Then we find another complication. And its brilliant. 

Now excuse me but I've got to share this post with my followers and friends before the cold sweats breakout. 

17 May 2012

Games, campaigning and policy-making

This post is an aggregation of a few similar pieces I've written recently on the theme of games and politics. For Political Innovation on their use in making public-policy. For The Web Psychologist on how they help us understand behaviours in social media. And for IMSL on their role in encouraging ideological extremism.

In 1998, the media and political commentator Neal Gabler published “Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality”. His central thesis was that the entertainment industry has become so dominant that its products, especially film and TV narratives, are the prism through which we analyse and plan our real lives, expecting story arcs and characterisations to play out as “normal”. 

As twentieth century cultural history, it is an interesting work. But Gabler overstates much of the supposed influence of the screen – small or large – on our lives and never really sufficiently disentangles artistic cause and imitating effect.
In any case, in the first decade of this century, the influence has moved away from Hollywood, and north to Palo Alto and Seattle. Online and digital forms of media and entertainment now hold sway over the way that we interact and behave.

Each week, across the world, three billion hours per week are spent gaming. Many organisations, from the most successful commercial brands, to educational establishments of all levels, are trying to address how this dedication to playing can be harnessed to influence and motivate. The answer has come in the form of gamification: the application of game mechanics to non-game activities or environments.

One of the best breakdowns of what makes a game a game is given by Jane McGonigal, the American academic and game designer based out of California, in 2011’s Reality Is Broken.   She defines a game as needing a goal – a final aim and win condition for which players strive. There also have to be barriers – such as rules or time limits or other restrictions; feedback – points, scores or rewards; and that it’s voluntary – everyone agrees to and about the other three elements (and to take part in the first place).  Laid out like that, it’s possible to perceive many an everyday activity as a ‘game’, or as having the potential to be turned into a game. Life: The Game is all around us.

Nowhere is this truer than on the web. And nowhere is this truer on the web than with social media platforms.  McGonigal’s four basic elements are clearly matched. There are goals: to communicate, connect and promote. There are rules and restrictions: etiquettes, how much time you have, competition with all the other data. The feedback is quite clear: the number of your friends or followers, retweets, likes, shares, badges, statuses, comments, and the basic traffic statistics. On some platforms, this is even more explicit. Apps like foursquare and SCVNGR are game mechanics in themselves.

Within these ‘games’, influential behaviour can easily be applied. Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion are the basis for much of this. Especially reciprocity, getting people to commit and be consistent, and reinforcing social proof. The starkest example of gamification influencing people on the web is extremist websites, at both the jihadi and white supremacist ends of the spectrum. Studies by Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine have identified game mechanics that keep people engaged in these spaces, such as: reputation points; differentiated avatars, and font colours and sizes; access to restricted parts of the site (a good example of Cialdini’s scarcity motivator at work); fundamentalism metres; promotions to Administrator or Moderator statuses; and platforms for collecting and trading photographs, videos and documents. Their conclusion is that:

"like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition"
It is no wonder that mainstream campaigners and policy-makers are beginning to get in on the gamification act.

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is about to release the sci-fi MacGuffin-sounding Dashboard: its online and mobile data-mining and campaigning app. It will take the game mechanics of internet phenomena such as Farmville and apply them to fundraising, canvassing, knocking-up and voter registration.

And it’s not just about getting elected. A better understanding of games can also help us once we’re governing and communicating after an election is won. In April, Jude Ower, of games-for-good enterprise PlayMob, led the latest of Political Innovation’s Translation Layer Events.

At least three significant uses of games by policy-makers were identified: simulating and testing proposals, gamification to support ‘nudge’ approaches, and as a communication tool (especially when addressing the concerns of young people).
None of this is new, of course (anyone remember the bronze, silver and gold rose badges you could get in the mid-90s for signing up new Labour Party members?), but the immediacy, mobility and social nature of the web, immeasurably amplifies the power of gamified approaches, whether we’re delivering leaflets or delivering public services.

For more on using games and game mechanics, please visit the website for my day job with The Game Trainers.

23 April 2012

Broadband of Brothers

Following my victory at last month's Pragmatic Radicalism Defence Top of The Policies, I've debuted on Labour Uncut, expanding on my idea of a skills-focussed Cyber Reserve: 
A national reputation and capability for cyber resilience – that is, not just securing us against attacks but exploiting the innovation that they inspire – will not just make us safer, but wealthier, too. To update Wilfred Owen, it is sweet and fitting to code for one’s country.
Read and comment on the full version here.

21 April 2012

Modern communication #1

From this week' Glee:

Finn: I saw your tweet, 'anyone who is engaged to me should come to the auditorium'. Could've just texted.

Rachel: Yeah, well, I wasn't sure if we were speaking.

18 April 2012

Siobhan Benita and civil 'service'.

From the website of Siobhan Benita, the independent candidate for Mayor of London:
Siobhan joined the Civil Service in 1996 and worked at the very heart of Government for over 15 years. As a senior official at the Cabinet Office she led major projects across Government and has worked with ministers and officials at the very highest levels. Siobhan knows how political decisions get made and is experienced at working with a range of senior people - from across the public and private sectors - to get things done.
From her interview in the Guardian on Saturday:
But, she says, she was losing faith in the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check: at the Department of Health, where she worked, Andrew Lansley was rolling out a plan of reforms she felt she could never help implement. "I'd always believed in public service as a way of doing good, but I started to realise that the way I'd done it wasn't going to work any more."
So did she spend 15 years exercising "the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check"? Or did she spend it "working with a range of senior people...to get things done"? Or is she saying that when she agreed with something she was the epitome of bureaucratic endeavour - and when she did not like something, she blocked it?

While it is admirable that she has resigned from the civil service in protest at the Lansley health reforms, it is disgraceful that she has done so because she couldn't keep the Secretary of State "in check". It's not the job of the civil service to keep politicians "in check". That's what Parliament, the media, civil society are for. Yes, Minister is a satire, not a training aide.

It would seem that she ate her cake and had it while being employed by us to serve the politicians we elected. I'm Labour to my core but I would rather have the elected Lib-Cons doing bad things accountably than unelected Siobhan Benitas "doing good" unaccountably.

I welcome that more independent candidates are getting heard and elected in politics. Parties are crucial to democracy but our current models of participation are not fit for how we communicate, act and vote in the digital-leisure age. That partly explained the Bradford West by-election result. Independents could give the incumbent political machines the scare we need.

But let's not fool ourselves that every person who comes along with independent (or Respect, for that matter) scrawled across their website is some great anti-establishment challenger. Indeed, of the seven candidates standing for Mayor of London on 3rd May, Benita, in both attitude and personal history, is the most establishment of them all.

16 April 2012

Games and policy-making: my review of Jude Ower at Political Innovation Camp.

Earlier this month, the impressive Jude Ower of PlayMob was the guest speaker at Political Innovation's latest (and sadly last for a while) Translation Layer event, on what policy-makers can learn from gaming

As someone whose main professional interests are creating policy and creating games, I've reviewed Jude's talk, the conversation that followed, and some of the wider issues:

With the exponential growth in mobile technology and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, games are becoming more popular, more social and more significant.
Games are moving from the entertainment to the experimental sphere.

Read more here.