Recent Technology Articles

Blogging is more important than ever

by Sunny Hundal     November 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

If the demise of Liberal Conspiracy marks the end of the ‘amateur blogger’ then I’m the next Pope. I always have one piece of advice for my new students at Kingston University: start blogging.

The media landscape has clearly evolved since 2005, but blogging has only become more powerful and influential. When I launched Liberal Conspiracy in Nov 2007, I was unknown in Westminster; six years later this site was read at the top of the Labour party.

None of this happened because I was well-connected, had worked at a newspaper or had influential friends. It happened only because Liberal Conspiracy ran stories (thanks to tips from many readers) that got noticed. The national media cannot ignore us like they used to. For all its faults the new media landscape is far more meritocratic than old media or the political establishment.

But I had an edge – a good understanding of web programming and technology. Before blogging I used to run messageboards and online magazines that ran on code (HTML, CSS, PHP, MySQL) I had written myself. For Liberal Conspiracy and Pickled Politics I developed new designs and WordPress themes myself (with some help), and was able to make changes, experiment and evolve quicker than others who paid for customised designs. I was also very comfortable with, and more aggressive than most bloggers, in using social media to find and promote stories.

Unsurprisingly, my work at Kingston involves teaching digital journalism: teaching web programming and technologies to leverage journalism. There are far more qualified people at Kingston to teach journalism; my focus is is on how to use the internet to take that further. And I’m grateful to them for taking me on (I’ve given a few lectures on the topic at City University too).

Whether amateur (i.e. independent) multi-author publishing is dead wholly depends on how people approach it. Here’s my advice: don’t expect to start an opinion blog and get 100,000 readers a month. The market is over-saturated with opinions on the Guardian, New Statesman, HuffPo and IndyVoices (just on the left). Only the Guardian pays and yet the others have no problems attracting submissions because so many want to make a name for themselves.

Worse, most opinion blogging only talks to the already-converted and changes minds only at the margins. It may be cathartic for some but that’s not enough to attract a lot of visitors regularly.

‘News’ publishing on the other hand has a bright future and I suspect we will see much more of this. But I’d like people to think outside the box.

Firstly, popular ‘news’ doesn’t always have to mean exposing Traditional Britain, or leaking the Coalition Agreement, it can involve finding interesting stories from social media or putting together publicly available info. Our most popular posts this year have been a collection of Tweets (on British Gas and the EDL’s Tommy Robinson). Another example: How one Twitter troll went from abuse to apology in minutes. All these were stories Buzzfeed or HuffPo would (and did) do but we got there quicker and went viral first.

Secondly, the platform has become irrelevant. We need to move away from talking about blogging, and setting up a simple WordPress blog, to thinking about publishing. The traditional advantages of blogging (simple format, popularity through inter-linking, simple set-up) have become largely irrelevant as HuffPost and Buzzfeed have shown. Both developed their own content system, and meanwhile WordPress has become bloated and slow.

My model for Liberal Conspiracy was simple: use fun and interesting news to amass readers and followers; then get them to read policy material and get involved in campaigns.

There is now more opportunity than ever for someone to start another political news site, make it popular, and figure out a business model to earn a living from it. I stopped Liberal Conspiracy because the traditional blogging model has become defunct, not because online publishing is a waste of time and effort. A budding journalist or publisher has no excuse not to use this medium to make a name for themselves. I hope many more will do.

If anything, internet openness is showing what women have to put up with

by Robert Sharp     August 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

This post by sexologist Jill McDeviitt is quite astonishing. It chronicles her rage at being sent an entirely inappropriate e-mail by a man she had never met, and his subsequent approach to her parents when she threatened to publish the e-mail on her blog.

It is yet another story of how men send women inappropriate, disgusting and/or downright illegal messages over the Internet – an issue that we have been discussing all week.

What I found particularly revelatory is when she describes how her parents behaved, when the man (he was the husband of someone who worked with Jill’s step-mother) contacted them:

I’m left to marvel not just at your individual misogyny, but also the infantilizing sexism that exists in the back corners and in the cobwebs of the brains of everyone involved.

Receiving a repugnant email from you, a strange man, is bad enough. But what makes this case so compelling is how you were able to entangle my normally feminist and self-aware family, illuminating just how deep tolerance of predatory men goes in our society.

I suspect many women, and people from ethnic minorities, already know what it is like to be denied the benefit of the doubt in this manner.

But as a white, middle-class male, such experiences are alien to me. In fact, it is literally unimaginable: I cannot really conceive of how such a situation could possibly arise for me. Its fascinating to have an insight into the unfairness that some women are subjected to, and to understand their indignation at having to put up with it.

And the reason that such behaviour continues in this enlightened age is precisely that people like me find it difficult, or even impossible, to imagine. The mental chain of events that took place in McDevitt’s anecdote are not unique. It was a similar combination of disbelief and sexist assumptions that allowed Jimmy Saville and Stuart Hall to perpetrate their abuse. We need more stories like Jill’s, to cure ourselves of our incredulity.

In the debate about sexism and Tweeted rape threats, there is a certain strain of thought that says that the technology is too open and needs to be censored. But the only reason we are hearing about this unacceptable behaviour is because of the new technology.

If Jill McDevitt had received a telephone call and not an e-mail, she would not have been able to expose the unpleasant person and his ridiculous words. Frankly, it is unlikely many people would have believed her version of what was said. It would have been assumed that she was over-reacting. He would have received the benefit of the doubt.

This is how we wake up to the misogyny in our midst. It has always been there, but it is the new communications technology that is shining a light into this recess of our society.

Break the black box: let’s get our act together on global finance

by Guest     June 17, 2013 at 9:10 am

by Brett Scott

For too long people have viewed the financial system in the same way they view their computer – as an obscure black box that we interact with without understanding how it works.

You can throw things at the black box, and you can lament its consequences, and you can shout at it, but this doesn’t fundamentally alter anything.

Ad-hoc regulatory measures – such as the financial transactions tax – may be useful in the interim, but even if a government found methods to tame the financial sector’s excesses, we’re still left with a population that feels fundamentally alienated by the system, struggling to conceptualise any deep alternative.

For a deeper shift we need a reorientation of approach. In my new book, The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, I’ve attempted to sketch out pillars for such an approach.

Firstly, people need to break down the notion that the financial system is something ‘out there’, controlled by technocratic elites that know more than they do, and somehow only contained via state action. If anything, the state has displayed massive levels of collusion with the financial status quo.

Secondly, people need to start actively exploring the system, in the same way a computer hacker might actively explore a computer. There is a curiosity deficit when it comes to finance, and that entirely suits the interests of the current financial regime. The more people believe that financial knowledge is complicated, or boring, the more power that regime has.

Thirdly, people need to recognise the creative potential that exists in financial instruments and institutions. There is nothing inevitable in the way, for example, shares are used, and that latent potential can be co-opted. Think about creating hedge funds of dissent, shareholder activism and divestment campaigns, and financial transparency initiatives.

Fourthly, people need to embrace their own ability to experiment in the field of financial innovation. On the Left, this requires breaking down any ideological opposition to the concept of entrepreneurialism.

Entrepreneurialism needn’t mean the Economics 101 style of rational economic profit maximisation. It can be driven by a rebellious impulse, an artistic impulse and an anarchic impulse.

Lastly, people need to start testing alternatives. Far too many activist groups talk about alternatives without ever trying them out. How about starting an inter-group mutual credit system? The campaign organisations of the future are not going to be NGOs funded by rich people. They’re going to be live experiments in alternative economics, getting messages across by demonstrating them.

This ‘beta-testing’ is the first step to inducing the network effects required to scale alternatives up. If you’d like to see a video of how this works, check this Youtube clip. The guy doesn’t try to convince people to dance, he just starts dancing himself, so get dancing!

Brett Scott is a campaigner and writer who works in alternative finance and financial activism. His new book – The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money – is published by Pluto Press and is available now. Non-traditional currencies accepted! Brett tweets as @suitpossum.

Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it

by Guest     December 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm

by Tom Chivers

At 10:26 GMT on 30th November, the Google traffic monitoring service recorded a total halt in all internet services in Syria. The research firm Rensys has noted that “all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the internet.”

While this on its own is troubling, as it no doubt signals another attempt by the Syrian government to undermine the organisational abilities of the opposition forces in the country, this literal plug-pulling is sadly just one more example of a government abusing its control of network provision.

The Google Transparency report details a terrifyingly long list, compiled from only the last few years, of each instance where some or all of a country’s access to the internet has ceased. Some of the culprits won’t surprise you – Iran, China, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt all have a dire record of providing stable network services.

However, some of the smaller examples listed hint at a greater problem beyond malign, repressive states. In March 2009, Bangladeshis were totally unable to access YouTube for 4 days after the government claimed that a video threatened to escalate a military crisis.

In August the same year, Morrocans were blocked from using Google Earth for over a year as arguments over the Western Sahara enflamed. In January 2010 the Kazakh government blocked its citizens from viewing a number of different news and blogging websites associated with the opposition movement.

We need only look to our own shores to see how net neutrality, the idea that all information online is equal and free from interference, is under threat. During the London riots many public figures demanded that the Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) be shut down, and only recently the Home Secretary Theresa May’s flagship Data Communications Bill, which would allow for blanket surveillance of all internet usage, was revived for a second consideration in parliament.

Meanwhile, internet service providers are flirting with two-tier access systems; by allowing content providers to pay for better service, the net would essentially be segregated into premium and ‘economy’ services.

These examples are indicative of a festering global crisis which threatens free and open access to internet services, but while these infractions have met widespread public opposition, they are only ever criticised individually. The wider problems facing open data and equal access are overlooked in these sporadic bursts of outrage and at present only a few campaign bodies, such as the Open Rights Group, have stood up for the integrity of the net as a whole.

These groups have commendable proposals for protecting online equality; repealing the Digital Economy Act, for example, would loosen up the copyright laws which have given huge entertainment companies a financial dominance over artists and creators.

Statutory measures are also an effective means for underpinning users’ rights, but what is needed most of all is a continual campaign of awareness and reporting. If Britain is truly supposed to be a standard-bearer for democracy, free citizenry, and government accountability, it’s time that we start expecting those same qualities online, for internet users both in the UK and worldwide.

Unless we alert the wider public to this slow death of the free internet, the true value of open access will never be treasured.

And if we stay silent when other nations (mis)use the net to oppress their peoples, it won’t be long until the internet goes the way of all other technologies which were once capable of such feats; grossly over-regulated, unnecessarily commercialised, and incapable of serving the needs of those it was created for.”

The ‘porn-block’ plans are being pushed through: tell the govt you’re opposed

by Jim Killock     September 4, 2012 at 9:24 am

Liberal Conspiracy has been tracking the “opt out” government porn filters campaign.

It started with Mary Whitehouse’s Safer Media, then Christian groups, Claire Perry and the Daily Mail; but now the policy has well and truly arrived at the heart of government.

A few months ago, the idea moved from Jeremy Hunt’s office at DCMS, which is responsible for Internet policy, to the Department for Education.
continue reading… »

Nine commitments to a progressive digital policy the Labour party should make

by Guest     August 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm

contribution by Paul Bernal

I left the Labour Party in 1999, partly because I was leaving the country and partly because I was already becoming disillusioned as to the direction that Labour was taking – a stance that the invasion of Iraq only confirmed.

One of the reasons I have not been able to bring myself to join has been the incoherence and oppressiveness of Labour’s digital policies, which are not those of a progressive, positive and modern party, of one that represents the ordinary people, and in particular the young people, of Britain today.

I’ve written in the past about why governments always get digital policy wrong – but here is my first attempt at putting together a skeleton of a progressive policy for digital government.
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So why are right-wing groups lobbying for nuclear power?

by Guest     July 12, 2012 at 10:55 am

contribution by Adam Bell

Earlier this week in the Telegraph, an assortment of thinktanks put their names to a letter demanding that the Government immediately stop building wind farms and start a private-sector led nuclear new build programme.

It’s safe to say however that all three want lesser government interference in markets.

But lending their support to nuclear power over wind farms is unusual in this context, because new nuclear power stations in the UK will require higher form of government support in order to be viable.
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Julian Assange’s supporters will end up destroying WikiLeaks

by Sunny Hundal     June 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm

I think WikiLeaks is important. In fact I’ve written several pieces here defending WikiLeaks and its work.

But the drama and circus around Julian Assange is actively hurting the cause of WikiLeaks and his supporters need to recognise that.

And this may be inspite of the technical and legal arguments that support his right to political asylum in Ecuador.
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Mixing the science of GM foods with politics will always be messy

by Sunny Hundal     May 29, 2012 at 11:02 am

I’d to return to the rumbling controversy that is the GREENS vs SCIENTISTS showdown, a.k.a. the decision by some Greens and some environmentalists to protest at the GM foods site at Rothahmstead on Sunday.

I wrote a piece for the Guardian that didn’t convince all detractors, and I got some excellent replies I’d like to address.

I said on CIF: “The divide is not between ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ political parties at all. Rather, politicians and parties will always side with science when it suits their constituency or aligns with their interests.” — Let me elaborate.
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Ten ways to save money on FOI without changing the Act

by Martin Williams     February 17, 2012 at 10:50 am

The Freedom of Information Act is currently being reviewed by the Justice Select Committee, which is likely to suggest changes to the law. One of the main criticisms of the act is that it is a “drain on resources”.

From my experience of using FOI, I don’t think the law needs changing at all. If the government want to spend less on FOI here’s ten ways they can do it without changing the law:
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