Web surfing in Armenia

A teenager surfs the net in Stepanavan, Armenia

The popularity of yesterday’s article GWAFFTEY — is Web 2.0 now just eight things? took me slightly by surprise. Within 12 hours Google was listing 220 links to it. My contention was that just eight brand concepts — Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, FaceBook, Flickr, Twitter, eBay and YouTube occupied the majority of people’s idea about what online life was like in the Web 2.0 world. They are all massively different — strongly differentiated from each other, and each at the top of their categories, which is why they also occupy the top spot for each of their categories in the Alexa rankings. But they are all to some extent attempts to regulate the internet, bringing their own set of rules to bear on what you can do, or how you should do it, or how it will be ranked and appear to others.

Of course, I missed (because it isn’t in the Alexa rankings, and was therefore not quite in my original remit) the ultimate walled garden internet presence — iTunes. Mind you, iTunes is not  Web 2.0, because, strictly speaking (though it depends how you want to define it), iTunes is of the Internet but not of the Web. But add iTunes into the mix and we have GWAFFITEY — easier to pronounce, and probably more memorable. GWAFFITEY also makes a link with an off-line world concept which explains much of the popularity of the rankings game which is played avidly in one way or another on all of the sites I’m talking about.

  • Google — it’s all about getting high on the rankings. Much money changes hands in both black hat and white hat Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Being at the top isn’t just a game; it can be the life or death of your business.
  • Wikipedia — writing text which stays put and doesn’t get deleted or altered by the next person is a real passion for some people. Occasionally (although it shouldn’t), edit-wars erupt, with two people repeatedly editing and re-editing the same text, unwilling to allow someone else to have the last word.
  • Amazon — for user generated content on Amazon, high rankings are coveted, strongly defended, and, occasionally, sufficiently important for some people to cheat for.
  • FaceBook — perhaps the clearest proof that “everything which is counted becomes for some a competition” 1. Just listing the number of friends is enough to get some people trying to beat other people.
  • Flickr — not to everyone, but the photo ratings and rankings are important to some. The comments can be quite brutal, as well.
  • iTunes — some App writers have already been chucked off iTunes for allegedly manipulating their position on the rankings. This is understandable (though inexcusable — there is a difference) for paid apps where people are making money, but competition appears just as fierce for unpaid apps, which is why, very early on, Apple stopped allowing you to view all the latest apps in chronological order, to prevent people gaining more coverage by simply resubmitting their app frequently with minor changes.
  • eBay — high seller ratings are coveted because they assist sales, but buyers can also be jealously protective of their buyer ranking
  • YouTube — popularity is intensely important, not merely as personal satisfaction, but to breed more popularity.

In all these things, people are staking their claim to a particular coveted area of the net. Which, I am told by criminologists, is exactly what graffiti artists are doing in the off-line world. I used to live in an area of East Birmingham, UK, which was high in anti-social behaviour. Something you learned very early on was that if graffiti appeared, you needed to deal with it quickly. If not, more would follow, swiftly. The reason was that (apparently) graffiti artists really do see their work as something worthwhile, and they want it to remain. Places where graffiti is cleaned up are not popular, because the graffiti is impermanent. This is also one reason why some graffiterati paint in unfeasibly awkward places, not because they are channelling Michelangelo and imagine they are doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but because the chances of their work being removed by owners and authorities, or altered or covered up by other graffiterati is limited.

In other words, GWAFFITEY sites allow web users to mark out a tiny corner of territory on the web. You can do this on your own website or blog, of course, but the vast majority of sites get very few hits. This is why sites like Tripod and AngelFire, once ubiquitous across the web for their cheap and cheerful personal web-spaces have all but disappeared (once independent competitors, they are both now part of Lycos). After all, what’s the point of marking out a piece of territory that nobody else will ever see?

By contrast, if you have a FaceBook page and 100 friends, chances are that you will get vastly more exposure through them than if you ran your own site. If you write an Amazon review on a popular item, and it manages to survive the predations of the NVTs [ 2. Negative Vote Truncheon — a term in vogue with the Vine community ], then you may well end up with tens of thousands of people reading it. Make a contribution to Wikipedia on a popular subject and — if it sticks, which most doesn’t — millions of people will look at it. Write a hit App, and millions may be carrying a piece of your intellect around in their pockets for years.

In a world of ever increasing personal insignificance, GWAFFITEY allow those who wish it to find as much as they want of their fifteen minutes of fame.

Suddenly, the comparative popularity of these sites against the specialist communities, the commercial content providers and the home-designed (non-blog) websites becomes easy to understand.

Show 1 footnote

  1. I just made that up, but it sounded good so I’ve put it in inverted commas
Four heads that defined the world

Four heads that defined the world

Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros, four philosophers who defined the world

In the British Museum, London, the curators have placed four remarkable sculptured heads together. They are not remarkable as sculptures — they are all Roman copies of lost Greek originals. They remarkable by juxtaposition — the four great schools of Greek philosophy represented either by their founders or principal exponents. Sokrates, 469-399 BC, of course, needs no introduction. Antisthenes, 450-370, his pupil, was the founder of the Cynic school. Chrysippos, 281-208, was one of the principal exponents of the Stoic school, founded around 280 BC by Zeno. Epikouros, 342-271, founded the Epicurean school.

Sokrates: the pursuit of knowledge at personal expense
Antisthenes, Cynicism: virtue through the rejection of conventional desires
Chrysippos, Stoicism: moral and intellectual perfection by rising above emotions
Epikouros, Epicurianism: the greatest good through seeking modest pleasures and the absence of pain

The British museum has many treasures, but this is an adventure in curating which is to me one of the most thrilling. Rather than considering the philosophers themselves, which, seriously, you can better do through their writings or even Wikipedia, consider the artistic journey by which these heads reached us. First, at some point either during their lives or soon enough afterwards for people to still remember them, four different sculptors created the heads. Based on what we know about Greek sculpting, they created them because they had been commissioned to. Then, two centuries or more later, some four other wealthy persons commissioned four other sculptors to make copies of the heads. These heads survived the depredations that ended the Roman empire in the west, which almost certainly meant that they passed through the hands of preservers or collectors, until they were each, finally, separately, collected in the 19th century and donated to the British Museum collection, about a hundred years after its founding. Finally, a curator chose to exhibit them together.

Looking at the sculptures themselves, the wealth of Greek culture is at once revealed. If you wander a few rooms to the North, South, East or West, you can review the colossal, majestic but inhuman statues of the Egyptians, the flattened reliefs of the Babylonians, repeating the same figures again and again as they emphasise the greatness of the kings who defeated them, the grotesque, stylised representations of the Incas, and the noble, but largely lifeless representations of medieval Europe before the Renaissance. These, by contrast, are filled with life and character, even down to hair and cloth which seem to flow, though they are stone. Like the Socrates of Plato’s writing, they appear to be at the point of moving and speaking. With the possible exception of Epikouros, these are not ennobled heads.

Blurred by time, and second generation copies as they are, these are sculptures that speak. If you will let them.

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

After every election, the public sector is reorganised. It never seems to save any money.

Police Officers

BBC News – Radical police shake-up outlined.

After every election, vast swathes of the public sector are reorganised. And yet, within four years, the opposition — whoever they are — is able to point to a litany of inefficiency, bureaucracy gone mad, pointless red tape and wasteful duplication. Today, the police are being told they will be reorganised. A couple of weeks ago it was the health service. Other public sector bodies should expect the same.

We recognise that there have to be cuts. We are carrying a public sector sized for the economy in the hey-day of Tony Blair. We clearly cannot afford to carry on doing everything that we were doing, or, at least, not to the same extent. Lest we forget, it was not the public sector that got us into the economic trouble we found ourselves in. If Blair et al had had the Vince Cable-like foresight to take steps to avoid the crisis, they could have done it by dealing with our under-regulated financial sector, not by cutting public services.

But we are where we are, and we can’t simply go back. Cuts of some kind are inevitable.

But reorganisation? I’m not so sure.

Politicians, I feel, like reorganisation for two reasons. First, it gives them a feeling of being in charge — they can make their mark on history, leaving a legacy that will endure long after they are gone. Second, it makes them feel like they are running the nation like a business. Businesses reorganise, so should government. And, since businesses are driven by a profit motive, it is self-evident that reorganisation will deliver savings to the public purse, which can either go into more public services, lower taxes, or paying off debt.

Except, except.

First, since every government reorganises, even when the party in power stays the same, no reorganisation is permanent, and therefore no one gets to leave a mark in the history books. Or, if they do leave a mark, it is in pencil, to be rubbed out by the next owner of the book and replaced with their own mark. Nothing is more transitory than public sector reorganisation.

Second, businesses rarely reorganise successfully to reduce costs. Business reorganisations are as fraught with spiralling costs and new inefficiencies as public sector ones, although the losers are conveniently forgotten about. This is to some extent inevitable: public sector organisations tend to continue whether they are successful or not, and the ones which are axed are often not the ones which were inefficient. Private sector organisations that are unprofitable go under and vanish from our memory.

Business reorganisation, when it works, is done to meet new challenges and opportunities in the market place, which, under the now (in)famous BCG matrix, helps them develop the new rising stars which become cash-cows. A proportion of reorganisations can fail, as long as the business keeps its cash cows going, and creates its next generation from somewhere. The reorganisation itself is a costly process which creates duplication. But it is often out of this duplication and time of tension that new, creative, solutions to old problems emerge.

In the public sector this dynamic is not at work. First, there is no market place. The NHS cannot suddenly come up with an idea to beat crime, and move into police work. The Fire Service cannot muscle in on Education’s territory. Public services exist because we need them to exist, not because it is profitable that they exist. If the police spend their time trying to replace the fire service, then they are not catching criminals. Second, there is no profit. Any public sector organisation which underspends its budget faces having that budget subsequently reduced. It can reinvest its money in better services, but it cannot use that reinvestment to give bonuses to its staff — encouraging more efficient working — nor to develop new products for its future diversification.

Perhaps there is a case for a matrix working, self-diversifying set of public sector organisations without portfolio. A sort of generalised charity or trust, which moves to find holes in the public sector market place and fill them. Perhaps not — it would be another reorganisation.

We now face a very real possibility of the entire savings from the cuts being ploughed back into the costs of reorganisation, or, worse, real cuts which are not 25% but 50% in order to pay for the reorganisations. But our problem was not that the public sector was incorrectly organised, but because it was more than we could currently afford.

If we must cut, let us cut. But no more of this rearrangement of the pieces into another, no-more-efficient, and no-more-permanent solution which will be in turn abolished by the subsequent administration.

Toxic dumping banged to rights

Toxic dumping banged to rights

gavelThe case alleging that British/Dutch/Swiss firm Trafigura dumped its toxic waste in Ivory Coast, overloading capital Abidjan’s health system and injuring thousands of people, reads like something from a John Le Carré novel. Yesterday, a Dutch court found the multinational guilty of illegally exporting toxic waste from Amsterdam and concealing the nature of the cargo. Trafigura continues to deny wrongdoing and claims that the ruling is “incorrect”.

The fine amounts to €1 million, substantially more than it would have cost to have the waste dealt with correctly at the time, and it’s the first time Trafigura has faced criminal charges since the scandal struck in 2006.

This judgement is a genuine blow for justice. But it begs the question: how much more of this is going on?

Over the last thirty years we have seen (quite rightly) the growth of the FairTrade movement, aimed at giving growers and producers a price which reflects the value of their goods, rather than their weak negotiating position. But there is no FairTrade on waste. As EU laws (again, rightly) tighten up on disposal of waste on this continent, there are surely many more companies than Trafigura who eye the rubbish dumps of Africa or even Latin America as convenient places to leave their pollution, far from Western courts or the eyes of Western journalists.

Indeed, it was down to Greenpeace to bring the case, although Trafigura has paid out £104 million to the government of Ivory Coast and £32 million to individuals.

What is especially alarming in all of this is that an Ivory Coast court found two non-Trafigura employees guilty in 2008, sentencing one to 20 years in jail and the other to five years. I am not questioning their guilt — but two non-European nationals have borne the personal criminal liability with jail sentences for a crime for which they were by no means the main beneficiaries.

Here in the West, we bemoan the fact that while we put minor drug-traffickers away, we allow the big bosses to get off scot-free. The fact that no Trafigura employees are facing personal criminal convictions shows that, from the point of view of Africa, Western multi-nationals can behave exactly like those drug-traffickers.

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