No Plastic Bags

Today, October the 5th 2015, England finally caught up with the rest of the UK in trying to encourage a nationwide experiment in positive constraints: No Plastic Bags. From today, all shops and chains with more than 250 employees (in total, not per shop) will have to charge at least 5p for a plastic bag.

On the face of it, this is an excellent initiative and not a moment too soon. Plastic bags are phenomenally damaging to our natural environment. They are not biodegradable and litter the countryside and pollute our rivers for, not decades, but hundreds of years after they have been discarded.

Plastic bags are also totally unnecessary. The number of times I am automatically handed a plastic bag when I’m only buying a banana and a block of cheese is a constant source of annoyance to me. Even when I do need some sort of conveyance to transport my produce from shop to home, I’d far rather be given something I can either use again or that I can throw in the compost, like a paper bag or cardboard box.

But…

You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you?

While I applaud any attempt to encourage us to consume less plastic, I know from experience that you can’t force people to adopt a positive constraint. In fact, that’s a contradiction in terms. The “positive” refers to the free agency of the person affected. This, effectively, is a government-imposed negative constraint – albeit one that has very noble ambitions. And negative constraints don’t work very well in the long term.

It is far more effective to freely decide yourself to stop using plastic bags than it is to allow the pain and inconvenience of a 5p charge make that decision for you.

Fascinatingly, if you take a close look at the statistics, there may already be some evidence to back up my worries. Much has been made of the 78.2% reduction in plastic bag usage in Wales since they introduced the 5p plastic bag charge in 2012. However, if you look back through the data, plastic bag usage has increased every year since the charge, from 62 million in 2012 to 73 million in 2013 and 77 million last year (you can delve deeper on the BBC here).

This is, of course, still a huge drop from the 273 million plastic bags that were used in 2011, but it does make me worry about the long-term efficacy of such a scheme. Why? Because a negative constraint (or “stick”) approach like this provides only an extrinsic motivation for No Plastic Bags. Extrinsic motivation, for example when we are motivated by money, fame or public approval, is linked with lower levels of compliance and lower satisfaction when we achieve the object of the motivation.

What we need are postive constraints, where the motivation for the behavioural change comes from within each of us, so that the motivation is intrinsic. This is how our new No Plastic Bag habits will last, not just until we forget the pain of the 5p charge, but for the rest of our lives.

(But still: No Plastic Bags, yay!)

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Data Disasters

This is the twenty-first in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Anton, from CryptoParty Graz is equally fearful. “There is no mass damage from mass surveillance,” he says, finding only a few small examples of people who have suffered from internet surveillance. “There was no big data disaster. I am afraid that we’ll need something like that to happen before the rest of the users wake up.”

Micah Lee, the man who put Edward Snowden in contact with Glenn Greenwald, hopes that the NSA leaks have been the first alarm clock. “But you might be right; that might not be enough,” he says. “We know they’re spying on everything we do, but people haven’t felt bad things happening to themselves.” He hurriedly corrects himself: “I’m sure some people have. If you live in the United States and are Muslim, I’m sure you are a lot more terrified than I am, living in the United States and being white.”

Nevertheless, historical examples of such data disasters come easily to mind for the panel. When they invaded the Netherlands, the Nazis used government data on religion to round up Jews; while, in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US government used census data to round up Asian Americans. Today, of course, data collection is much deeper and more comprehensive than during the Second World War; a modern data disaster could be instant and inescapable. “Now, we’re just bleeding data with everything we do,” Micah says, “and this data is available to people who will start internment camps in the future.”

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Felix is, however, quick to point out that most people don’t think of their governments as Nazis and the comparison could be misleading. “It’s not about the wholesale repression of entire populations, but the very precise targeting of individuals,” he says. “So it’s very hard to notice until it arrives at your doorstep and then you’re the only one when it arrives because it arrived at other doorsteps at other times, in other contexts.” Surveillance capitalism is not a problem for you, until it is – and then it might be too late.

The issue for Shoshana is less a privacy catastrophe than “a ubiquitous digital infrastructure that is monetised and that those revenue streams are produced by the interventions to modify our behaviour”. Shoshana quotes former NSA operative William Binney, who says we are very close to living in a “turnkey totalitarian state”, where we live in a permanent condition of “anticipatory conformity”. Shoshana coined this term in 1988 to describe the self-censorship we perform when, for example, we decide not to tweet a joke about bombing an airport.

Today, we are one stage on from self-censorship; our behaviour is being manipulated without our awareness at all. It’s the world of stimulus-response. “And that world comes in quietly,” Shoshana says, “without a big data catastrophe.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Power and “Social Gravity”

This is the twentieth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Nadim Kobeissi, creator of the encrypted chat app Cryptocat, criticises Shoshana’s argument from a different direction. “There is a kind of politics that I have grown to dislike very much, which is the politics of us versus them,” he says. “It’s very effective, when you are wanting to mobilise a political movement, to use absolute terms,” Nadim adds, taking issue with the strong language that Shoshana uses: “usurping the internet”, “they’re conquering the internet” and “they’re taking privacy rights for themselves”.

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“It was never a question whether Google was harvesting user data,” Nadim points out. “It’s not the case that they have usurped society by forcing people to sign up for Google. People were voluntarily signing up and they were, in return, receiving a legitimate service.” Nadim sees the rise of Google and the tech giants in many more shades of grey than Shoshana has perhaps shown us. “Is it really like there’s this bunch of bad guys who are conquering the internet with internet soldiers?” he asks, his voice rising with incredulity.

But Felix is exasperated with this perception of the exchange, which he sees as a strain of Stockholm Syndrome. “I think this is a common misunderstanding of how power works,” he says. Felix explains that there are usually two ways of exerting power: the “hard power” threat of violence and “soft power”, like Hollywood films that give you “ideas” on how to lead your life.

“The way Google exerts power is neither through one nor the other,” Felix says. “I don’t meet anyone who likes Facebook, but I also don’t meet anyone who says, Okay, I’m going to quit it,” he adds. “This is a form of power that makes you voluntarily do something you don’t want.” All these technologies enable you to do some things and constrain you from doing other things; the problem is that you must either accept it or reject it wholesale. Here Felix agrees with Shoshana. “This is not a legitimate choice because it is: Do you want to talk to your friends or do you not want to talk to your friends?”

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Felix illustrates his argument by bringing it right into the room. “We’re in a German-speaking country and we’re having an English-speaking discussion,” he says. “So the price to contribute to that debate is to learn English.” This cost, of course, has consequences. People whose first language is English will have no problem expressing themselves clearly, while people for whom English is a second or third language will find it much harder – but, remember, we’re all “free” to participate or not…

The same is true for using Facebook or Google. “We are free to operate under these conditions,” Felix says. “They don’t tell us any more what to do, but they just slant the playing field.” This exertion of power might be subtle, but it is no less effective than hard or soft power. Felix returns to Nadim’s objection: “Yes, this is not a territory that gets usurped,” he says, “but this is a territory that is getting slanted; to do certain things becomes harder, to do other things becomes easier.”

Felix calls this “social gravity” and it is changing, both online and off. You can choose to walk against the slant, but doing that will make your life more difficult and, unless you are superhuman, gravity eventually wins. I no longer have a Google account, which is annoying when I want to post or comment on YouTube videos, but I have kept my Microsoft account for email because that’s just too complicated to quit.

“We think about these things as communication platforms, but they’re not,” Felix says. “From the point of view of those who create these platforms, they don’t care what you say, as long as you produce data. They’re not about content, they’re about constraining and shaping behaviour.” Furthermore, as more and more people use these platforms, the slant gets steeper and steeper.

“A lot of people face a big dilemma,” Daniel says, “because you are drawn into these things; all your friends are there. Some people don’t even access their email any more.” This subtle social gravity is tilting us towards surveillance capitalism, whether we like it or not. “You can post every day, I hate Facebook,” Felix says, “and they like it, because you use the system!”

“I thought the analogy was interesting,” activist and cryptographer Bill Budington says. “It becomes slanted and then you lose your balance and, as time goes on, it becomes so slanted that the effect of gravity overtakes your ability to resist it.” He gives an example of the US government serving legal papers on people through Facebook because of their real name policy. “Facebook wants to become incorporated into the state apparatus,” he says. Do we want to live in a world like that?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Participation or Privacy?

This is the nineteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The central dilemma facing the average citizen hasn’t yet been discussed: How to participate in society without accelerating this dystopian future of surveillance capitalism.

Micah gets right to the point: “I’m actually very happy about the fact that I’m never lost any more because I have a phone with GPS,” he says. “This is my first time in Austria,” he adds, “but I’m able to see where I’m staying and find directions to walk there.” But this same technology means that, everywhere he goes, his location is being tracked, not just by Google, but also by T-Mobile and all the other ways data can leak out of his phone. “Still, it’s an amazing technology,” Micah concedes. This kind of trade-off between the enabling and the terrifying aspects of technology is widespread in the tools we have today.

“Every time we use the web,” Micah explains, “there are tonnes of services that track what we’re doing and tonnes of services that make the web more rich.” YouTube videos embedded in blogs, social media or other websites are a great convenience, but mean that Google can track, not only what videos you’re watching, but where you’re watching them. “Everything that we do leaves data trails,” Micah says, “and these data trails end up in databases of a wide variety of companies and many of them we have no idea they even exist.” Say what? “Like, you go to a website and there are dozens of advertising networks tracking you,” he adds, “and you don’t even realise this.” Well, there’s a comforting thought…

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Since the Snowden revelations last year, we now know that all of this data is also accessible to governments and spy agencies, particularly skewed to favour US surveillance operations. A huge percentage of websites use Google Analytics, a great convenience for website owners managing and analysing their traffic flows. “This means that, as you go from website to website, each of these totally separate websites are all sending their information to the same Google database,” Micah explains.

These databases are stored on servers in the US and, because your data has now landed on their soil, the US government can demand to have a look too. In total secret. “There used to be a small minority of paranoid people and everyone would think they were crazy,” Micah says, “and now it turns out they were completely right.”

However, Micah is hopeful in some ways. “People are starting to wake up and finally websites are starting to use encryption,” he says. “Things are starting to go in a better direction, but there are a lot of things that are almost impossible: How can I carry a phone that has a map and GPS without being tracked by the cell networks?”

There are ways to protect yourself from certain aspects of surveillance, but, as Daniel Erlacher says, “If you really want to defend yourself, your browsing experience is not just click and go.” You can install software that blocks JavaScript or anonymises your browsing, but your web experience will be much less rich, pages will load more slowly and, in some cases, not work at all. You are left with a choice between protection and participation.

Shoshana calls this an “illegitimate choice”. For her, this is reminiscent of the illegitimate choice that women in the 1980s were forced to make between having a family or a career. Shoshana and her generation of women had to resist and overturn that illegitimacy; our generation has to resist and overturn the illegitimacies of today. We each must take Shoshana’s vow of resistance: “I will change whatever I have to change around me to not be faced with that choice.”

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The internet is as essential for effective living in the twenty-first century as balancing family and career has become for women since the 1980s. “A few months ago, Facebook had a server crash and people around the United States couldn’t get onto Facebook,” Shoshana tells us. “People were actually calling 911.” We laugh, but the point is made: to millions, these services are critical to participation in society today. “Can you imagine living without Google search, or any kind of search?” she asks. “I certainly can’t.”

This is what makes surveillance capitalism “a Faustian pact” according to Shoshana. If we want to use these services to participate in society, then we are forced to give up certain things, such as our privacy. You could argue that this is not unlike the social contract we all implicitly sign up to when we give up the daily freedom of our children in exchange for eleven long years of education.

The problem with surveillance capitalism is that we have not agreed to give up these rights through the democratic process. There is no social contract; there are only corporate terms and conditions. Privacy is taken away from us unilaterally and without discussion or debate. “It’s a completely unregulated way to do things,” Daniel says. “It’s like driving on the road without any signs or any rules.”

There is, however, some doubt over the potential of our democratic process to face down the biggest technology companies. Daniel Erlacher reels off a list of the ready cash held by the big technology corporations. Apple have one hundred and ten billion dollars on hand, Microsoft fifty-one billion, Google fifty billion – and this was in 2012. That is more cash than most nation states.

Daniel cites Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks: “When we talk about Google,” he says, “we talk about US policy-making.” The implication is that the US government are perfectly happy to have Google in charge, as long as the US government can influence Google. The will of the people, meanwhile, doesn’t come into it at all.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Who Will Cook Capitalism?

This is the eighteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, immediately takes issue with Shoshana’s central recommendation. “I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion that the alternative is to cook capitalism again or face a wasteland,” he says. “Historically what cooked capitalism was the real competition with socialism that put pressure on capitalist institutions and states to mitigate against these tendencies that are inherent in unregulated capitalism, that they increase social inequality.”

For Felix, social inequality is not our biggest problem; it’s a side-effect of the current way we have organised ourselves. He argues that we need to extend democratic participation into the running of the economy, before society descends into anarchy. “This new capitalism,” he says, “creates surplus populations that become very unrestive, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere. And that’s very dangerous.”

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“First of all, Google is not the only problem,” says social media critic and educator Miriam Rasch, “so we have to talk about it in a broader sense.” But she argues that Google already intervene to nudge our behaviour in a particular direction, through algorithms, filter bubbles and the automatic suggestions they provide in their search, for example. “For the billions of users of Google, it looks like an objective tool,” she says. “The first step would be to explain that this is not the way it is.”

Although Miriam accepts that algorithmic interventions lead to an inequality in power and privacy between the few at Google and the many of its users, she does also suggest that Google’s automation “makes the majority into some kind of equal un-individual mass”. She means equal in a bad sense, but I suppose it does also mean that Bill Gates and Barack Obama get the same rough treatment from Google Search as I do, which is something at least.

However, like Felix, Miriam is sceptical about looking to our institutions for solutions. “It’s a problem in the whole of society that everyone is gathering all this data about you,” she says. “You can hardly live your life without going along.” In the Netherlands, where Miriam lives, they have a chip card system for the transport network, much like the London Oystercard. The card gathers data about the holder’s travel around the country.

“This is a lot of data gathered by my government about me and I don’t know what they do with it,” she says. Miriam pays for a card that allows her unlimited travel at any time throughout the Netherlands and yet, curiously, she must still scan her card for each journey. That can only be for the unknown purposes of data collection. “So it’s not only Google or the tech companies,” she says, “it’s really about our real daily lives.”

Micah Lee, chief technology officer of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, agrees. “The problem is bigger than Google,” he says. “Google really did pioneer a lot of this stuff, but, at this point, every time you do anything, there are databases logging this information.” Micah tells us about traffic cameras placed at intersections in cities in the US that log every licence plate number that passes. “This is used to catch people running red lights,” he says, “but this is just a database with a data set that can show exactly where people have been driving.”

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If Felix, Miriam and Micah are sceptical about trusting government institutions with protecting us from the worst ravages of capitalism, Nafeez Ahmed is downright scathing of Shoshana’s proposal. He describes institutionising as a “totally banal response to the scale and systematic nature of the crisis”. Nafeez wants us to be more ambitious: “Surely we should reclaim the commons,” he says, “reclaim public ownership and break the monopoly of the corporations.”

Shoshana takes the opportunity to respond. “I’m not suggesting that we recreate the institutions of the twentieth century,” she explains. “We’re not going back to those social conditions.” She draws on the writing of George Orwell, where he defines cowardice as taking whatever is happening now and assuming it will continue to happen in the future. To make that assumption is to subjugate yourself to the power structure of the moment and that is cowardice.

“The future is not a straight line from the present,” Shoshana says. “The real challenge,” she adds, “is taking the challenges we face now and understanding how we create the new institutions that reflect our conditions of existence today.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Reality is the Next Big Thing.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing: Keynote

This is the seventeenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. Shoshana begins her keynote speech with a simple question: “Why does Google matter?” But her answer penetrates far beyond the company’s profit and loss, share price or market capture to address the root existential threats Google poses to our society and democracy.

(Shoshana explains later that she is “focusing on Google as emblematic of a new mode of practice and a new mode of capitalism”. It’s not just Google, as demonstrated this summer by the revelations that Facebook have been manipulating the emotions of their users without permission.)

Shoshana starts her analysis by describing the new business model that she and her colleagues have seen rising since the 1970s. “You can call it neo-liberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism,” she says. “The label is less important than understanding its consequences.” And the consequences have included, not only social exclusion, stratification and inequality, but also reactions to those consequences – fundamentalism, despair, violence – and the reactions to those reactions – repression, resistance and extremism. “This is a business model that I consider to be contemptuous,” Shoshana says. “Contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.”

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Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has written an incomprehensible modern classic critique of twenty-first century capitalism, called, not incomprehensibly, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Shoshana is one of the few people who have read past the introduction and she reports back from the trenches. “I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence,” Shoshana says, snuggling up to the microphone like a magician. “Ready? Okay: Capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw.” There’s a titter in the audience.

She elaborates: “Piketty demonstrates that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se, but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints.” According to Piketty, that’s the kind of raw capitalism that produces such pernicious inequality. The solution is therefore simple: “We need laws, we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible,” Shoshana explains. “And that’s the stuff we have lost in the last thirty years.”

While neo-liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) has been merrily dismantling the laws, social institutions and collaboration that made capitalism palatable, many people took refuge in this new thing called the internet, which promised autonomy, freedom and creativity. “But the thing we need to understand now,” Shoshana warns, “is that the online world, which used to be our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways.” By which she means the capitalism of, among others, Google. The critical question for us is: Will these new forms of capitalism, developing in the networked world, solve the problems that we face today – or are they going to make them worse?

Although Shoshana sees some positive developments for capitalism online, she also sees some really dangerous developments, “developments,” she says, “that are really hard to grasp because they have been designed to be undetectable”.

This is the context in which Google matters. Now back to the original question: Why does Google matter? Google matters because they have pioneered a wholly new business logic, new in the history of capitalism. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses, applications and start-ups. If the Google model is already the dominant model in the online world, then, assuming that the current rush from offline to online commerce continues, it follows that the Google model will become the dominant model of the entire capitalist system. And that, says Shoshana, is a very dangerous prospect indeed.

In what way is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: customers and employees. This is no longer true. We, the service users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who purchase its data analyses. As users, we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. We are not needed as customers.

Google, the third most valuable company in the world, employs less than 48,000 people. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. The success of twentieth century capitalism was founded its employees; at the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was also the largest private employer on the planet. “That gives you an idea of how we’ve flipped this model,” Shoshana says. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many workers. Most of us are not needed as employees.
So if the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data.

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“Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so-called big data is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls big contraband or big stolen goods, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch. “I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices,” she says, “designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual, but now also the real world.”

These practices are complicated by collaboration between corporations and state security services in the surveillance of citizens, and further complicated by the accelerating pace of these practices. “Google is now investing in drones,” Shoshana points out, “in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything.” This is creating a massive infrastructure of big contraband collection.

This new economic logic, where we are not required as customers or employees, but only as data sets, has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google, she explains, is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And this new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. “What is key to understand is that populations, that is all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served,” Shoshana says. “We exist to be harvested, harvested for behavioural data.”

These developments are moving very quickly. Google have already progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing, to making predictions of things we might do. Now, according to Shoshana, they are “actually intervening, in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways, to modify our behaviour, to shape our behaviour, in order to try and determine what we will do next”. No, wait, there’s more good news.

“Every single point in that process is going to be monetised and marketised,” Shoshana says, “turned into revenue streams for Google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behaviour to serve their financial interest.” This is becoming the new economic model, this is becoming the new reality of our lives. “Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour,” Shoshana says. Reality is the next big thing.

You might think this would hail the end of privacy. Far from it. There is actually a lot of privacy, but it has been redistributed. “Instead of everybody having some privacy,” Shoshana says, “the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights: they have all the privacy and we are left with no privacy.” The surveillance capitalists use their privacy power to prevent us from being able to inspect or control their behaviour.

Shoshana sees this unilateral usurpation of our rights as going far beyond simple business; this is now serious politics. “Google represents a revolutionary new politics,” she says. “It’s a revolution from above. It’s not a coup d’état, it’s a coup des gens – it’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state.” This is a remarkable reappraisal for a company whose company slogan is Don’t be evil. “That’s why Google,” Shoshana continues, “which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future.”

This overthrowing of the people, Shoshana says, is caused by an “automated passivity, that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition of stimulus and response”. Shoshana compares what Google is doing to behaviourist researchers who put rats in a maze and give them rewards and electric shocks in order to determine their behaviour. “That’s the direction that surveillance capitalism is taking us,” she says.

Shoshana now returns, somewhat sardonically, to the question of whether surveillance capitalism will solve our socio-ecological problems or make them worse. “Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality?” she asks, rhetorically. “Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced?” The questions hang, hopelessly. “My answer to that is no. Instead, it’s going to institutionalise these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate.”

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Must this be our destiny?

Shoshana urges us to turn and make eye contact with the person sitting next to us. “When you look at the people beside you,” she says, “you are not seeing illiterate serfs. This is not the fourteenth century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual.” I’m flattered. “That’s who we are,” she adds, “and people like us are not going to let Dark Google be our future.”

Staying positive, we have to remember that surveillance capitalism is still very young. “We are only at the beginning of this new information civilisation that will dominate the twenty-first century,” Shoshana says. In 1914, the Ford Model T car had only been in production for six years and General Motors was a small start up company; both became giants of twentieth century industry and neither destroyed democracy. Shoshana puts this success down to “the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplified capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses”.

In other words: we cooked twentieth century capitalism. “Just what Piketty was talking about,” Shoshana says. Capitalism in the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption in the twentieth century.

Now we must fight those political battles all over again. To avoid the risks of slipping back into a nineteenth century world of inequality, where raw surveillance capitalism gives us all bellyache, we all must now don our aprons, our oven gloves and our toques and become economic chefs. Google’s raw economic model must be made palatable through a reassertion of democratic rights, oversight and law.

Our future depends on us finding alternative, pro-social forms of information capitalism that, as Shoshana says with passion, “do not subjugate us, but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life and do not try to usurp our rights, but rather allow us to flourish”.

For Shoshana, it is essential that we develop our solutions through our democratic process. “In the shadow, in the gloom of today’s Dark Googles, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era,” she says. “But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now.” Shoshana’s support for state democracy seems to be less a warm endorsement and more a cold fear of likely alternatives: despotism, oligarchy or military junta.

“The real road to serfdom,” she continues, “is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future, that they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism.”

Having raised the spectre of a future where democracy has been obliterated by surveillance capitalism, Shoshana tries to reassure us. “This is the wasteland,” she says, “but I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it and I do not anticipate it because I believe in you.” She jabs a finger at us and smiles. “My hope for the future rests in you, in each one of you.” She leans back into her leather padded chair on the other side of the planet. “That’s the promise of today. So go, do.”

Shoshana beams into her web cam, sending the smile down the fibre optic cables, patiently watched by the NSA and Google.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Fair and Open IT

This is the sixteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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IT: Systematic Exploitation

The IT industry is founded on systematic exploitation, from the mining of raw materials right through to the way we dispose of our old technology. Why is the industry so exploitative? The usual hoary reason: profit. Companies don’t pay sufficient attention to the ethical consequences of their entire supply chain or the life cycle of their products because that would be too costly.

Regina Joschika is a consultant for Clean-IT, who campaign for fair working conditions in the global computer industry. She outlines the three key features of this exploitative system. First is the demand for fast and inexpensive technology. The lifespan of a computer is much shorter in 2014 than it was in the 1990s. Back then, according to Regina, you would expect to keep your PC for seven years. Now she says that the average life cycle of a computer is just two years; we are now living in a culture of regular technology upgrades. These regular upgrades deliver rapidly decreasing improvements in technology for the user, but the IT industry relies upon them for their annual profits.

This shortened lifespan is a concern because the amount of raw materials required to produce a computer is truly shocking. According to research by the United Nations University, it takes 240 kilograms of fossil fuels, 22 kilograms of chemicals and 1,500 kilograms of water to make one desktop PC. Furthermore, countries in the global south are richest in these resources, but they are not the ones overwhelmingly profiting from their exploitation.

The second key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system is the complexity of its supply chains. Unlike chocolate or clothes, IT products are made up of many tiny items. In a computer, hundreds of companies will contribute to the supply chain for a product that is eventually labelled “Apple” or “Dell”. Most IT companies simply don’t know the set up of their entire supply chain because it is so complex. This means that they can’t control environmental abuses and worker exploitation.

At the start of the supply chain, the extraction of raw materials for the electronics industry is highly dangerous. The mining workforce is often not well-informed and not protected, leading to many deaths from exposure to toxicity or from mine collapses. In some countries, children work in the mines. During the next stage in the supply chain, work in electronics factories is often inhumane. Workers are forced by low wages, the threat of lay-offs or worse to work unpaid overtime or overnight. In many countries where these IT products are built there are no trade unions or union activity is restricted. The majority of workers don’t know their rights. Work in the computer industry is also dangerous. During soldering, for example, toxic chemicals are released which can burn skin.

Finally, we come to the third key feature of the IT industry’s exploitative system: disposal. An estimated fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated every year. Two thirds of this is not disposed of correctly or recycled – computers are full of valuable input material that could be reused. Most of this waste is toxic, with tragic consequences for the environment and the communities on whom it is dumped, often in the global south, where there is not the expertise to handle it properly, leaving children to exploit the dumps for things to sell.

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Regina ends by demanding that we pay more attention to human rights: they must prevail over profitability. In 2012, Apple were forced to join the Fair Labor Association after a public relations disaster in the wake of a New York Times article concerning labour violations in China, but abuses in their factories persist. In July, China Labor Watch accused one of Samsung’s suppliers of using child labour. We must do more.

We can increase pressure on these companies through raising awareness (Just by reading this – well done!) and by using our purchasing power to force change. We can start by using the work of Electronics Watch, the world’s first independent monitoring organisation for labour rights in the electronics industry. We, as citizens, must begin to take responsibility when buying our computers, smartphones and other technological miracles. Starting, perhaps, with the fair mouse.

Fairness and Open Supply Chains

In 2009, Susanne Jordan and Nager IT took on the challenge of developing the first fair IT device on the market. “I have been unable to find alternatives,” she says. “So I did it myself.” Her aim was to offer critical “consumers” an alternative. “At the moment, we either buy nothing or we buy what is available.” Nager IT’s first product is the fair computer mouse. “A mouse is not a hip product,” she says, “but it’s quite a simple product, so I thought I could be able to create a fair mouse.”

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There are only about twenty little components in a computer mouse, so why did the development take three years? Susanne demonstrates by showing us a diagram of the supply chain. It is huge, spreading from wire manufacturers, right down to the mines that take the metals out of the ground. Each element of the supply chain is labelled in green or red depending on whether the working conditions are acceptable or not; it’s about half and half at the moment. All the raw materials are labelled red, unfair, except the copper, which was recycled in Germany. “The reality is we still have to use unfair components for our mouse,” Susanne says.

Susanne illustrates the complexity of the process by telling us the story of her mouse cable, which was made in China. She personally went on a tour of the factory and found that the entire cable was not made there, only the processes that could be automated. The rest of the production was actually carried out by hand in the countryside, where the wages were so low as to be cheaper than automation. “It took us three weeks to find this information,” Susanne says. “And, once we find unfair suppliers, we have to find new ones.”

It’s a constant battle and Nager IT are one of only a very few technology companies who are interested in learning about their supply chain. “Transparency and openness is of the essence,” Susanne says. “If other companies did similarly, then we could share information.” Instead, she has to visit every supplier in person, with no guarantee that she’ll be able to find a fair supplier at all. It’s a massive amount of work, even for something as technologically simple as a computer mouse.

Furthermore, as a small business, Nager IT do not have the influence on suppliers that Apple or Dell would do. “If I go to a supplier and ask for fifty grammes of tin, then I have no power,” Susanne says. Nager IT cannot change the entire industry on their own, but they can wave a red flag. “We want industry to notice us,” Susanne says, “see their sales fall and encourage them to make their mice fairer.” Nager IT have only sold 4,500 mice so far, a number that will not make the slightest impression on the sales figures of the mouse giants (I like that image). “But still we try to convince businesses that fairness is a purchasing criterion,” Susanne says.

The Power Relations of Openness

The openness of Nager IT’s supply chain encourages fairness. If we could see clearly how unfair a company’s products were, perhaps that would discourage us from buying them. The closed supply chains of most IT companies keep abuses hidden, even from the companies themselves. But openness can also be a bad thing when it is not fairly distributed.

At the moment, we are subject to the Customer Relationship Management of big businesses like Amazon. There are huge databases full of personal information that we have given away: our home address, our credit card details, our shipping preferences, our purchase history and so on. We have been incredibly open with this data, but Amazon themselves are not reciprocating with open supply chains or open accounting systems. This doesn’t seem to be a fair balance of power.

Markus Sabadello, of the FreedomBox project, wants to flip the relationship that we currently have with businesses like Amazon. He wants Vendor Relationship Management. Instead of Amazon, eBay, Google or Apple storing your personal information, you would store it for yourself in your own personal data vault on a FreedomBox at home. You, the customer, would then decide who would be allowed access to that information on a temporary basis. Open Notice in the UK are currently working on one element of this: a “consent receipt”, which would allow access to your data on terms that you set.

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In the same way, the FreedomBox could also hold your social data. At the moment, we have a very centralised web architecture: Facebook holds your identity, not you. The influence of Facebook-as-ID is spreading through the “Login with Facebook” system used on many websites. Again, our openness with our personal data is not being reciprocated by this for profit company. A FreedomBox could be a way of allowing us to take back some of the power of our data. “It’s not about disconnecting from the network,” Markus says, “it’s about owning part of the infrastructure.”

Openness is a Business Model

This idea of taking back control is the same impulse that drives the open source hardware movement. Open source hardware is hardware whose designs are made publicly available for people to study, modify and use to build and sell products. It’s about empowering people with knowledge, rather than becoming dependent on the jealously guarded, patent-protected knowledge of closed corporations.

Tsvetan Usunov runs Olimex, a hardware company based in Bulgaria. They have made over six hundred products, of which about half have an open source hardware licence. “Where we can open the products, we do,” he says. Why on earth would he do that? Because, as Tsvetan says, open source hardware is important for communities, for customers – and for his business.

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Open source hardware is important for communities because it allows people to understand how things work and to learn how to modify and make their own products. This is also why open source hardware is good for customers: it gives them independence from the manufacturers. Even if Olimex decide to stop producing a certain product, this will not hurt the customer because they can always take the open design and make the product themselves or hire someone else to make it for them. Everything is under the customer’s control and this helps to secure their business. Furthermore, if they don’t like how something is made, or where something is made, they can change it.

All these things are nice, community-orientated reasons for openness, but where’s the business benefit? For Tsvetan, building open source is actually a crucial element of his business model. “You have not just customers,” Tsvetan says, “but collaborators.” A Chinese competitor, inspired by Olimex, opened their designs as well. This is an extraordinary development; it is more common to hear of “protected” designs being stolen by Chinese companies and made more cheaply. Thanks to the principles of open source hardware, Olimex and this Chinese firm are no longer competitors, but collaborators. They will both benefit from the research, design and manufacturing they share. This reduces costs to both parties and, as Tsvetan says, “We both learn and build better products.”

Jan Suhr, one of the developers behind CryptoStick, tells us that open source is critically (and perhaps surprisingly) important for IT security products and software, to the extent that you should not trust any security product that is not open source. CryptoStick is an open source USB device designed to store encryption keys securely, so that people can send encrypted emails even when they are on an untrusted computer. The open source nature of the product means that its security is independently verifiable by anyone. It means that you can yourself guarantee there are no NSA “back doors” or security flaws. Its openness is the very guarantee of its security.

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Fairness and Openness Together?

“The conclusion is that they’re not together yet,” Michel Bauwens says. “There are people who talk about openness, but not fairness; and people who talk about fairness, but not openness.”

For Michel, part of the problem is the conflict between labour and liberals, represented by the “open” and “free” movements. “Liberals only look at formal rights,” he says, “not the real conditions where those rights could be exercised.” He gives the example of Linux, which is distributed under a General Public licence (GPL), allowing full use of the commons to anyone. Unfortunately, this licence means that the Linux economy is almost entirely dominated by those with the resources to capitalise: seventy-five percent of the Linux economy is swallowed up by big companies like IBM and Redhat. This leads Michel to ask the question: “Can we have openness and at the same time a more equal economy?”

Michel’s proposal is both controversial and a bit complicated. The complication arises from an apparent contradiction: “The more commonistic the licence,” he says, “the more capitalistic the practice.” As we have seen, the result of the entirely commons-based GPL is domination by big corporations. The same, Michel says, is true of open hardware, where designs are appropriated and made cheaply for private profit in China (Tsvetan’s experience notwithstanding).

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Michel’s solution to this problem is the commons-based reciprocity licence. This licence is the same as the GPL, but with one crucial change to the rules: for profit businesses using the commons must pay a licence fee. This proposal is controversial because some people in the commons movement see anything that is not one hundred percent open to be a retrograde step. But Michel anticipates a double benefit from this change.

Firstly, it will create a stream of income to the commons itself, from the side of capital to the side of commons. Secondly, it will integrate externalities. Externalities are not normally considered in business, unless managed through government regulation. However, Michel argues that effective regulation “is endangered because the state is being captured by those it’s supposed to control”.

Michel sees this commons-based reciprocity licence as a social charter, protected by a global foundation that we must yet build. “Every project today,” he says, “is starting from scratch. If we had a coalition, we’d have scale, we’d have pre-existing solidarity.” This is Michel’s link between openness and fairness: “If we had a licence,” he says, “we could have open book accounting and open supply chains.” This transparency, Michel believes, leads to fairness, or at least the possibility of fairness, as we have seen with Nager IT and the fair-as-can-be mouse.

Michel’s example is Curto Cafe, a Brazilian coffee company who operate open book accounting and an open supply chain, showing exactly who produces the coffee, under what working conditions and also exactly who gets paid what. They also have open research and the designs of the blends of coffee are posted online. Their retail expansion is crowd-funded, under a similar model used by Kleine Farm, by asking the local community to fund their rent. This transparency and community accountability ensures that Curto Cafe run their business in the fairest possible way.

Michel believes that, if we want a fairer society, we will ultimately have to create an open and commons-based counter-economy. Part of that counter-economy will be the development of an alternative currency. Together with the CIC in Catalonia, Michel is buying up a fairly-distributed crypto-currency, Faircoin.

Unlike Bitcoin, Faircoin doesn’t encourage rent extraction: stockpiling coins in order to profit from rising currency value. “This is not positive from a commons point of view,” Michel says of Bitcoin. “But what if you could use rent extraction and give it away to entrepreneurs?” CIC and Michel want to use Faircoin as a capital investment collective, to create a flow of value from the capitalist economy to the commons-orientated economy.

There are many problems obstructing fairness and openness, not just in IT, but in our entire social and economic structure. The challenge is, as Michel says, “to design a system in which these problems are already answered and solved from the very beginning”. From environmental impact research and open supply chains to open source hardware and alternative currencies, we have perhaps seen a glimpse today of that beginning.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Research for Transition

This is the fifteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Michel Bauwens, director of the P2P Foundation, starts the workshop by quoting anthropologist Alan Page Fiske. Fiske describes four basic ways of interacting around resources. The first is the gift economy, which is based around equality matching. The second is authority ranking, where what you get is relative to your rank. The third is market pricing, the dominant model in capitalist society. But the fourth is what interests us: communal shareholding, where an individual exchanges, not with another individual, but with a collective. This is the commons.

Because of the networks that we’re building on the internet, Michel believes that we’re beginning to put the commons at the heart of our economy. This new way of creating value, he says, is profoundly different to the usual capitalism. Firstly, it’s not based on labour; it’s based on contributions and, secondly, we’re not creating capital; we’re creating commons.

Michel outlines his ideal three-level structure for a functional commons economy. At the base is commoning itself, the creation of the commons or “peer production”. Next, Michel envisages the creation of cooperatives based on the commons, so that people can actually make a living. This is “peer property”. Overseeing both these levels, would be enabling institutions, so that cooperation can endure through time. This is “peer governance”. I would repeat that, unfortunately, this is Michel’s ideal, not yet the reality.

The reality is that, rather than cooperatives, the value of the commons is predominantly extracted by “for profit” companies. Facebook is Michel’s most extreme example of this. The value of the company comes almost entirely from volunteer contributors: its users. But Facebook Inc. extracts 100% of the value. Hypothetically, if Facebook had been happy with “only” the five billion dollars they asked for when they floated on the New York Stock Exchange instead of the sixteen billion they got, they could have paid over a hundred thousand contributors a hundred thousand dollars each. An extraordinary thought, especially when you consider that Facebook is now worth ten times that initial public offering.

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The problem with this current economic model is that most of the value created is not put back into the commons. This is what Michel calls the “value crisis”. Thanks to advances in technology, more and more people are able to create “use value” – by writing interesting blog posts, uploading funny videos or beautiful photographs – but, of that use value, only a marginal amount is being put on the market and, overwhelmingly, that marginal amount is captured by platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter. As Michel says, “The feedback loop between creation of value and distribution of value is not working.”

The P2P Foundation, of which Michel is director, aims to observe these emerging economic processes and ask: How do we transition to a system where we have a thriving economy based around shared resources?

Michel had the opportunity to explore this question in unprecedented depth when he was appointed director of the FLOK research team. FLOK is a research project at IAEN, the Ecuadorian university for public services, who were invited by the government of Ecuador to “fundamentally re-imagine” the country, based on the principles of the commons. This extraordinary opportunity emerged from Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan published in 2009 called the “Plan of Good Living”.

“Ecuador is a new colonial economy that depends on extractive exports: bananas, oil, agriculture,” Michel explains. These are, however, low margin profit items and Ecuador is forced to import high margin goods, such as information technology, from the west. “Part of this problem is intellectual property rights,” Michel says. “The Chinese manufacturers make three percent profit on the iPhone, but Apple make seventy percent profit.” These high margins keep developing countries like Ecuador in a state of dependence.

Thanks to intellectual property protections, such as those covering iPhone technology, knowledge is largely privatised. One direct consequence of this is that there are only three science labs in Quito. A patent-protected microscope costs six thousand dollars. According to Michel, however, we could build an open source microscope for only six hundred. “If there was a commons,” Michel says, “you could have thirty science labs in Quito.” These sorts of open hardware projects are already happening, at L’Atelier Paysan and Farmhack for instance, but we need to scale up.

Intellectual property rights are antithetical to the knowledge commons, but are one of the foundations of capitalism. So any transition away from dependence on patent or copyright protected products would be a radical, if not revolutionary proposition. That radicalism derailed the FLOK project. Although Michel had been invited into the country by the government, who had promised to sign any conventions that came out of the process, it was obvious that there were many powerful interests who did not want FLOK to be a success.

Michel is proud of the participatory FLOK process, however. They held twenty-four workshops in the twenty-four provinces of Ecuador, using Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, covering topics such as the high price of medicine and “terminator” seeds. These workshops were aimed at common citizens, to elicit their reactions. FLOK also held conversations with around seventy organisations, including indigenous farmers, a Linux usergroup and a 3D printing hacker space.

“On the basis of this input, we created the first proposals,” Michel says. They ended up with eighteen legislative proposals, covering topics such as biodiversity and open hardware. They took these to the government. After three days of discussions, the government refused to sign the conventions. “The reality is we were not paid for three months,” Michel says. “Clearly a number of people didn’t want us there. The president of the country didn’t even know what we were doing.”

Despite this failure, the project was still a success in terms of developing a commons transition plan, which can now be acted upon by anyone interested in transitioning to a commons-based society.

One limitation of the FLOK project in Ecuador was that it was only about the knowledge commons. In addition to knowledge, Michel counts three other “fake commodities”: land, labour and money, making four commons in total. We need to ask the question, how would land, labour and money function if they were commons, not commodities? Through answering questions like these, Michel aims to create a culture of commons policy-making. “We want to politicise the commons,” he says, warning us that this isn’t some fancy theorising, but a pressing need to protect ourselves from the aggression of capitalism.

The welfare state is an achievement bequeathed to us from the politicisation of labour in the last century. “This is structurally dissolving in the west,” Michel warns. “All our achievements based on labour are in danger and are being dismantled as we speak.” Michel’s solution is this politicisation of the commons. “If you want a new narrative,” Michel says, “you need to start thinking about the commons, of which labour is a part.”
Michel defines commons structures according to two axes. On one axis is who has control of the commons, ranging from totally centralised to totally distributed. On the other axis is about what happens to the end product of the commons: Is it for private profit or for community benefit?

Facebook is an example of a centralised and for profit commons. “Facebook extracts capital from our exchange, from our human cooperation,” Michel says. “You could argue that capitalism is moving towards letting us do the work and extracting from our exchange.”

Bitcoin is an example of a distributed and for profit commons. According to Michel, ninety percent of Bitcoin is not used for exchange, it’s hoarded. “It’s the anarcho-capitalist dream,” he says.

Local community benefit farming is an example of a distributed and for benefit commons. This is preferable to the two above structures, but Michel thinks this is not enough. He prefers the centralised and for benefit commons, on a global scale. We have states, multinationals and NGOs that operate on a global scale, but no body that represents the commons. “Make it locally, organise globally,” Michel says.

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The reason why we need a global organisational structure for the commons comes down to the realities of putting food on the table. “The key problem working in the commons is it’s easy to volunteer,” Michel says. “But after a few years, you have a choice of either going back to a hierarchy or you try to make a living on your own.” But how can individuals profit from their work contributing to the commons when, by definition, it is a commons? “You cannot commodify your commons,” Michel says. “If you asked YouTube to pay you, you wouldn’t be making commons, you’d be making commodities.”

This problem could be partially solved by cooperatives using an open value accounting system, like Sensorica. Sensorica allows people to log their contributions to the cooperative and received in return a “karma score”. If anyone in the cooperative wins a contract off the back of the commons, the money earned from that contract would flow back to all members according to their “karma score”, not just to the person who won the contract. This is a way of ensuring that all effort is rewarded fairly, even before there is any financial return on that effort.

But there are more fundamental reasons why we need a global organisation for the commons: capitalism simply doesn’t recognise “externalities”. This could be anything from pollution that kills fish in the sea to the cost of bad working conditions to the national health service. “If it’s legal, it’s okay,” Michel says of capitalism. “We want an economy that recognises externalities.”

Michel’s answer is a reciprocity licence for businesses that do commons production. He explains: “Everybody with a common good orientation can use our commons. Every not for profit and every for profit who contributes can also use the commons. But for profit businesses who don’t contribute have to buy a licence.” This licence embeds the concept of reciprocity. “It’s still a market, but it’s not a capitalist market.”

Michel finishes by introducing an alternative market that already exists: the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC). Their ideology is: Everything they can do outside the capitalist market, they will do outside. They only use the capitalist market as a last resort. “They try to create a cooperative circular economy,” Michel says, “which also creates a commons, because everything they do is open.”

For example, CIC pay the bare minimum amount of taxes to the Spanish state. “They don’t recognise the legitimacy of the Spanish state,” Michel explains, “but they realise its reality.” Instead, they have an internal tax system with social and environmental characteristics. This “tax” is shuffled around between internal departments; they operate, ironically enough, exactly like a multinational corporation in this regard. This “tax” is re-invested into the community, healthcare, food, shelter and support. Over eight hundred freelancers work inside this system and are “taxed” by CIC. Now CIC are trying to demonetise their internal economy.

Michel’s dream is for a global community of commons contributors, bound together by a social charter, using open book accounting and an open supply chain, to create a global economic system that is both outside of the capitalist market and outside state planning.

This is the commons.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Header image © Lia Rädler

Elevate the Commons

This is the eighth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Addressing the oft-repeated accusation from the mainstream that alternative thinkers have no practical proposals for a replacement to capitalism, I hereby present Exhibit A: the commons. In an echo of John Holloway’s opening speech, Silke Helfrich characterises the commons as “putting hope into practice”.

The idea of commoning is that there are certain things that all of humanity holds “in common” and that responsibility for and access to those things should be shared equally among us all. Examples might include the air we breathe, the languages we speak and the water we drink. Commoners seek to extend and protect these basic shared resources; while capitalists seek to privatise and profit from them. Unless you happen to live right beside a fresh water spring, the water you drink has already been turned into a commodity that you pay for. Perhaps you believe that the air you breathe is a more genuine commons, free of commodification and profiteering. But would you say that you had an equal share in its pollution? Does this pollution make its way onto the balance sheets of industry in a way that reflects the damage done to your lungs?

What other resources should we have in common? Perhaps you might think the seeds that grow our food should be a common resource, provided by Mother Nature herself. But genetically modified “terminator” seeds that die after harvest have already been developed, so that farmers are reliant on buying more from the supplier. What about life-saving drugs? Private pharmaceutical companies using patent protection are systematically withholding life-saving drugs from the people who need them most. Or the internet, should that be a commons? According to a 2013 study, a quarter of all US internet traffic goes through Google’s privately owned servers; in 2011, that figure was just six percent. What about democracy, surely that must always be a commons? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated behind closed doors by the US and the EU, threatens to extend intellectual property rights and could clear away the national regulatory rights of individual EU countries, raising the prospect of the corporate imposition of genetically modified organisms and shale gas fracking. In return for this gift from our commons, TTIP promises the average household an increase in earnings of about fifty dollars per year by 2027. Not exactly win-win.

Silke Helfrich is so obsessed with commoning that she has, quite literally, written the book (well, co-edited it, at least). “The definition of the commons is a commons itself,” she says, slyly. “It is always developing. Commons are a process, another state of being.” As a process, Silke explains that it takes hard work to maintain the commons; they have to be made over and over again.

Michel Bauwens, the founder of the P2P Foundation, describes the commons as “any shared resource which is governed and owned by its community”. He also makes the distinction between material and immaterial commons; the distinction between common land and common language, for example, or between open hardware and open software. Michel sees a problem in that the material world is still governed by the old world, the corporations. “Capitalism destroyed the old commons,” he says, “and the socialist state was even worse!” While there are organisations working for the immaterial commons, like Mozilla and Wikimedia for the open software and knowledge commons, there are no organisations working for the material commons.

Silke Helfrich sees no such distinction between material and immaterial commons. “I’m convinced there are no immaterial commons that do not grow out of material,” she says. “Programmers need to eat.” She prefers to look at what these different commons have in common. “It’s about sharing resources that aren’t owned by any one person and never will be owned by any one person,” she says. Michel Bauwens responds by agreeing that, although the material and the immaterial are inseparable, the nature of the differing goods demand different rules. “The immaterial,” he says by way of example, “doesn’t mind freeloaders.” For Michel, this means that we have to create new forms of governance, new forms of ownership, “to create a seed from which something new can grow”.

Michel Bauwens is excited about the potential for commons production to help us move, as he says, “from anti-capitalism to post-capitalism construction”. He would like to combine open source knowledge and distributed machinery to create a new means of production that will not bear the hallmarks of capitalism, such as planned obsolescence. “If we add green – cradle to cradle design, shared resources – to the hacker mentality,” Michel says, “then we have a revolution.”

One obvious question suggests itself: If the commons are such a great idea, then why don’t we have more? What are the threats facing the commons?

“The value capture,” Michel answers, simply. “More and more people are creating commons, but the use value is created and the market value is captured almost exclusively by capital.” For Michel, this is a real problem in our society. “As a commoner,” he says, “I can’t make money from it unless I become labour for capital.”

This is an obvious contradiction and one that makes a commoning life currently unsustainable; under the economic conditions of today it is not possible to remake the new world in the shell of the old. For Michel Bauwens, we need to build commoning institutions and regulatory frameworks that allow us to make a living from our commoning work. This work, trying to move from theory to reality, is exactly what John Holloway meant when he talked about hopeability. Hope needs to find an echo in the world; there needs to be potential in the old world for the new, fertile ground for the seeds.

For Silke Helfrich, another threat to commoning comes from what she calls the “monoculture of thinking”, meaning classical economics, taught in universities and parroted in the media, which restricts what people are able to imagine as possible. For many years, classical economics has almost ignored the commons because it does not produce financial capital. A monoculture of thinking such as this returns us to the idea that change is not possible if you can imagine the end of humanity more easily than you can imagine the end of capitalism.

Talking of the end of humanity, Silke Helfrich raises a more serious threat to the commons: the ongoing depletion of natural resources. “At a global level we have little time,” she says. “Natural resources are becoming scarce.” And, without natural resources, there will be no material basis for the commons; without anything to share, there can be no commons. “This, in my opinion, is the bigger threat,” she says. “But I’m really enthusiastic about the opportunities.”

Silke Helfrich’s enthusiasm for the commons shines through in her optimism for the future. In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Silke was studying in Leipzig, East Germany. “We didn’t know in the summer what would happen in the autumn,” she says. “We didn’t know what the world would look like.” She sees a similar potential for radical, overnight transformation in the commons. “Technology means we can get the commons idea out into the world,” she says. “Big infrastructures and investment are not needed. We are in a transition where people are taking things into their own hands. We have to redefine what work means in terms of commons, what infrastructure means, what a unified state means.”

Michel Bauwens, however, sounds a warning note. “The only reason we have a welfare state is because we have a labour movement,” he says. “But that is weakened and can no longer defend the welfare state.” His solution you should be able to guess by now: “We need to change from labour to commons. We need to rethink politics around the commons.” Michel is hopeful, not for the labour parties, but for the new transformative political parties springing from the wreckage of European austerity: the various European Pirate Parties, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece.
“Everything is connected,” Silke Helfrich says, in conclusion. “The commons are older than every state in the world and they have a future,” she adds. “The commons are the basis of an emancipatory society.”

From Wikipedia and Mozilla to urban gardening and food cooperatives, we can help build this emancipatory society by joining our local commons movement. Let’s continue putting that hope into practice.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Elevate the Commons >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Image © Jakob Isselstein

No Money Mondays

This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:

Why No Money Mondays?

  • It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
  • It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
  • I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
  • It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
  • It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
  • I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
  • Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.

The History of No Money Mondays

I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.

Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.

The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.

I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.

But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.

Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.

The Rights of Religion

I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:

  1. Community.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Charity.

These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.

It is with absolutely no surprise whatsoever that I see science gradually demonstrating the crucial importance of these three areas of life to our well-being as humans. A healthy network of colleagues and friends is an excellent marker for happiness. Purposeful contemplation, of the sort that prayer or meditation offers, is great for our physical and mental health. And charity, including volunteering our time, makes us feel happy.

To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.

I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.

So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.

Lies, damned lies and real unemployment statistics

Unemployment is falling, the Office for National Statistics tells us. They say a lot of other things as well, but that’s all we hear from the government and in the press: unemployment is falling.

Unemployment, the ONS tells us, has fallen to 2.43 million, after the largest quarterly fall since August 2000. Or, as The Guardian put it last month: “UK unemployment falling at fastest pace in a decade”. Great news, you might think.

But the ONS also reports other figures. One of those is economic inactivity in the workforce, i.e. among 16 to 64 year-olds. That figure is up 0.1% to 23.3% of the workforce. That’s right: almost a quarter of the working population, don’t work. 9.37 million people.

Of these, 2.29 million are students inactive in the labour market. So they can be knocked off the total, assuming that they are at least doing something productive.

That leaves us with 7.08 million people not working, out of a workforce of about 40 million.

[Of these, incidentally, only 1.49 million are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. You can look at this figure in one of two ways: 

  • The Daily Mail way – “5.5 million can’t even be bothered to look for a job!”
  • The Independent way – “5.5 million are being failed by the welfare state.”]

But there are also 1.21 million people who are underemployed. In other words, 1.21 million people forced to work part-time because they can’t find full-time work. This is the highest figure since records began in 1992.

So, in total, there are 8.29 million people of working age in Britain who are either out of work or unable to find full-time work. That is 20.6% of the working population, a fifth.

In August 2010, this figure was 8.12 million people or 20.2% of the workforce*.

Now you can judge for yourself whether unemployment is falling or not. Don’t just listen to the headlines, look at the figures.


April 2011: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=12
August 2010: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/lmsuk0810.pdf

*This is made up of 9.35m economically inactive; 2.3m students and 1.07m underemployed. In August, the ONS changed the way the number of economic inactive people were calculated, by raising the working age threshold for women from 59 to 64. Figures before August 2010, therefore, are not comparable with current figures.

Money

Money’s a funny thing. It seems to be the most important thing in all the world, essential to feeding and loving and living. Then, just when it seems more important than ever, you realise that it isn’t at all.

But surely money…

  • gives you power.
  • makes you feel good.
  • makes other people respect you.

Well, yeah it does. But it’s a short-cut.

It is easier to buy your power than it is to influence others by your actions. It is easier to spend on instant gratification than it is to spend your life content. It is easier to earn money than it is to earn the respect of others.

But this isn’t what I’m most concerned with. I couldn’t really care less if you want to spend money on power, happiness or respect. No: I’m worried because money is boring.

Here are some choices, with money or with imagination:

  • We could go to the cinema tonight. Or we could jump in the Serpentine and make out on the island.
  • We could go to a restaurant for dinner. Or we could rummage around the fruit and veg market after closing and cook up some free food on an open fire in the woods.
  • I could join a gym and work-out in front of a mirror. Or I could go for a run in Epping Forest, get covered in mud and see how high I can climb a tree.

Boring is the enemy and money is the friend of boring.

If you think about it, it’s obvious: money is what (stereotypical) accountants like best. Anyone who wants to live like a (stereotypical) accountant is welcome to their money, but me? Naw thanks.

This boredom can be overcome, of course it can. I’m sure you can think of a hundred interesting things to do with a hundred pounds. But how many people actually spend a hundred nicker on fitting out the local bus shelter with velcro so that all the morning commuters get their suits stuck on the sides?

Of course we don’t. That’s because money is part of a system and that system is boring. You can’t package up a sunset or a tree mud or a lake. People have tried, oh boy have they tried, but some things are beyond market forces.

Money is part of a boring system so we can only spend it on boring things. Rent, restaurants, retail. Drink it on a Saturday night, then dance it away at a club – who ever thought we’d pay to dance?

Do you think Zorba would have paid to dance?

Get More Sex #1: Wealth

If you want to have more sex, get rich or get poor.

People on very low incomes and those on very high incomes have sex more frequently than anybody else. Men earning a middle class income of £45,000 (US$75,000) per year average twelve fewer days of sex a year than men who earn about £15,000 (US$25,000) annually. Ouch.

I would hate to speculate why this might be, but I will nevertheless.

Low GDP has long been associated with high birth-rate in developing countries. But why? One possible answer is evolutionary.

A low income means an uncertain future for your progeny, compared to the future of sons and daughters of a person with plenty of money coming in. Poverty means inhibited access to medical care, education, food and many other things necessary to a secure life.

Therefore, in the absence of increasing wages, we have loads more sex in the hope that plenty of descendants will survive to pass on our genes through sheer statistical weight of numbers.

So why do the rich get loads of sex too?

One answer is that wealth has long been associated with desirability. If you’re rich and powerful, you are intoxicatingly attractive to the opposite sex, particularly to women if you are a man.

This doesn’t mean that men are any less shallow than women, just that we tend to go for a luscious child-bearing physique over a big bank balance.


Thanks to http://taraparkerpope.com/ for the fact.

Too Much

There’s too much going on.

Join now!
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Register today!
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How many websites, how many lists, how many directories, how many databases am I on? If I could just hit delete somehow, just fade from the page, erase myself and come back another day, when I’ve arrived somewhere else.

Once, the only thing to think about was whatever was right in front of us. Now we are surrounded: top and bottom, left and right, in front and behind and we can’t remember what we’re supposed to be thinking about.

Everything is silently monitoring, shifting behind the scenes, priming for our attention – Now! Today!

I sit here at the table, with music playing, another person in the next room – but I just know there’s a website somewhere trying to contact me, trying to tell me about where to put my last three pennies, somewhere there’s a call centre that’s just coming to my name on the list and needs to ask me how my house is doing for glazing, somewhere there’s a postman walking up my drive, knocking on the door, throwing demands on my doorstep, asking, whining, pleading.

And I’m complicit: the more I get involved, the more I get involved.

The last thing I expected was this.

Have Fiction Publishers Got It Wrong?

The publishing world is after one thing: selling shed-loads of books.

Writing for Now

Here’s a list of the best-selling books of 2010 (according to buzzle):

  • Alex Cross’s Trial by James Patterson and Richard DiLallo
  • Cross Fire by James Patterson
  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
  • Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
  • House Rules by Jodi Picoult
  • Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • The Confession by John Grisham
  • The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl who played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  • U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton

And you have to say that the publishers have got it absolutely right, haven’t they? These books do sell shed-loads. But, I think it’s fair to say that none of these books will still be selling in a hundred years.

Does that matter? Not if your publisher is owned by a French arms company*, it doesn’t, no (or an Australian media magnate for that matter*). They couldn’t give a monkey’s pyjamas for English literature.

Writing for the Future

But let’s have a look at the ten best-selling books EVER. The books that don’t just sell millions, but tens, hundreds of millions.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (>200 million)
  2. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  3. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  4. 红楼梦 (Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin
  5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. She by H. Rider Haggard
  8. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  10. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (65 million)

This is where it becomes more interesting. Yeah, sure, there’s still a huge heap of garbage here. The Da Vinci Code is never, ever, ever (please God) going to win award for literary merit. But A Tale of Two Cities? The Catcher in the Rye? Hey – some of these are actually good books!

Some of these are actually worth studying, worth holding up as genuine achievements of human creativity and beauty, rather than simply excellent business models and marketing talent.

Further down the list, in amongst Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsAngels and Demons and The Happy Hooker: Her Own Story, you’ve got genuine classics of world literature like To Kill a MockingbirdNineteen Eighty-Four and the Divine Comedy.

So my point is this: if publishing were an industry built around long-term strategies, then literary merit would be a legitimate marker of profitability. Unfortunately, in this time of take-overs, no one really cares if your book is going to be a hit in a hundred years or not – and the loss is ours, the loss is to humanity.

I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.

Any Ideas?

So is there a solution for writers who want to write – not just good pulp – but great fiction? Maybe.

Maybe the answer is to do it yourself, to win your audience through hard work, rather than swapping greatness for money.

Maybe the answer is to team up with a publisher who has more modest financial ambitions and more courageous literary spirit, publishers like Zer0. I went to a talk given by the founder, Tariq Goddard, last week and was impressed and heartened by his passion for literature and by his confidence in the power of the long-tail of our great, ignored literary fiction.

Maybe, when we’re all history; history will remember the greats as well as the pulp.


*Hodder and Stoughton, owned by Lagardère, who co-control the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company; HarperCollins, owned by News Corporation.

No Supermarket: Week 4 – The End!

So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.

Things I learnt this week:

  • Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
  • Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
  • Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
  • Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00
  • Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.

The Final Score

  • Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
  • The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.

So what am I going to now it’s over?

Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.

Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.

I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.

But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?

  • I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road. 
  • I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s. 
  • I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
  • I’m not advertised at.
  • I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
  • It’s closer to the college where I study.
  • I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
  • I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
  • The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.

Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.

So here’s to much more No Supermarkets in 2011.

No Supermarket: Week 3

No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.

Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.

So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:

  • No Supermarkets: £23.07
  • Sainsbury’s: £18.91

As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.

One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.

I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:

  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
  • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84

Massive.

However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown that the more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.

It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.

No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

  1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
  2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

And here is what I found.

Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

Answer: Spain.

I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

  1. Spain (20 products)
  2. UK (19)
  3. Israel (9)
  4. Morocco (6)
  5. South Africa (6)

I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

How Much Choice Is There?

Answer: Too much.

To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

Is Choice a Good Thing?

Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

You can see the full video here:

But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

“In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

I wouldn’t know where to start.

No Supermarket: Week 2

Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.

Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:

  • 1l washing detergent @ £2.96
  • 250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
  • 100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
  • 500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
  • 680g sauerkraut @ £1.67

And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.

The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.

However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!

Fareshares

Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.

They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.

It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!

Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm
Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE

Go – it’s brilliant!

No Supermarket: Week 1

Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.

Here’s what I bought this week:

  • 3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
  • Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
  • 20 bananas @ £3.18
  • 2 cucumbers @ £1.00
  • 15 tomatoes @ £2.25
  • 1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
  • 2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
  • 125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
  • 1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
  • 200g feta cheese @ £1.69
  • 350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29

Total: £18.52

So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?

So, if we exclude that from the list:
My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.

So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.

There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:

  1. I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
  2. I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
  3. I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
  4. I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
  5. I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.

I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).

It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.

The Lessons of Week 1

If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:

1. No Supermarkets are less convenient

My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.

2. I need to learn how to shop again

Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.

I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!

I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.

3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop

…if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.

4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket

This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.

5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets

The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.

6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable

You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.

7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets

Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.

Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!

No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

This was what I bought:

  • £1.18 6 bananas
  • £1.00 2 cucumbers
  • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
  • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

Total cost: £4.40.

I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

No Supermarket January

New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

Why?

  1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
  2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
  3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
  4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
  5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
  6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
  7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
  8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
  9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
  10. It’s something to write about!

The Toothpaste Test

At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.

How to Succeed in Business (Or How to Become a Writer)

I was at a business networking event this lunchtime (woah – I’ve just upped my street-cred), where I suffered a wonderful presentation given by a business-woman who supplies live-in carers to disabled, elderly or bored people.

Now, I usually spend the entire duration of these presentations wondering how the hell the panicking presenter has managed to start their business, let alone how they’ve come to be lecturing others about their wonderful success – but, right from the start, this presenter was different.

And when this truffle of wisdom fell from her lips, I knew I was in good hands:

“Don’t jump in,” she warned us, “with all feets a-blazing.”

So here it is, the wisdom of Lee-Ann from Choice Homecare on how to succeed in starting up your own business.

How to Succeed in Business

As you may have noticed from the sentence above, Lee-Ann loves figurative language. Well, who doesn’t?

Not one for hyperbole, she describes her battle for self-employed success as like the battle between David and Goliath.

She’s David, by the way, and Goliath is the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of running your own business.

Persisting with the metaphor, David slew Goliath with five stones in his sling and so, for Lee-Ann, there are five ‘stones’ in her ‘sling-shot’. So far, so metaphorical. Here are those stones:

Stone 1: Passion

Your business must be something you are passionate about because nothing else will keep you going through the tough times.

Success or failure will be down to you, you can’t rely on others and nor can others let you down.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

At this point Lee-Ann also trotted out a lovely little cliché: ‘Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

As an employee of a regular business, you never have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

As the owner of your own business, you will constantly be worrying about tomorrow. Equally, though, there is no cap to the possibilities of what you can achieve; it’s up to you what you plan for.

Stone 3: Priority

You’ve got to know what is worth doing and what isn’t. Don’t waste your time on trivialities.

Stone 4: Past success

Keep a record of your achievements, so that you can look back on them when you feel like you’re a failure.

The memory of winning her first client keeps her going when she is finding it tough to find new clients.

Winning that first client told her that all her hard work had been worthwhile.

Stone 5: Perseverance

Lee-Ann had many nos before she got just one yes.

It took her 15 months to get her first client and she only became profitable in her third year.

Ka-pow. Goliath is slain. But what do all those deadly stones mean for me (and you) as writers of serious intent?

How to Become a Writer

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again because a dead horse is there to be flogged: if you want to write seriously, then make it your business.

If you start taking it professionally, then the results will be professional. So let’s have another look at Lee-Ann’s five stones from the point of view of writing.

Stone 1: Passion

Because no one else is going to tie you to your desk and only you can make this a success.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

I personally don’t plan novels when I start them, but boy is there a lot of planning after the first draft. There’s also a heck of a lot of preparation involved in creating the right conditions for writing, i.e. a huge block of alone time, a typing machine, copious pots of tea, etc..

I guess I did a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in writing with my 18-year academic career as well. And the possibilities are limitless with my writing.

Stone 3: Priority

Er, like not doing yet another blog post when I should be writing my novel.

Stone 4: Past success

I will always have written one novel. I know I can do it and there is no reason why I won’t be able to again. I know what it takes.

Stone 5: Perseverance

How many nos will I have to hear from agents, from publishers, from editors before I get that one yes?

Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to keep going until I find out.

Slave for Hire

I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.

The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.

In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.

Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.

But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?

This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.

I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.

Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.

Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.

Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.

It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.

I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.