Saturday, 31 August 2013

Who Is Watching You?

Why was David Miranda held for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, London under the anti-terrorism act when he clearly wasn't a terrorist?  Who is watching while we walk around in cyberspace?  Are the politicians losing the trust of the people?


Sunday, 25 August 2013


Celebrity Superstar : SPUN 2006
Note : I spoke with the artist, Spun, recently and he recalled a piece I had written in defence of the paparazzi. He is an avid reader of the blog and told me he loved the graphics and suggested a collaboration. He had an idea about a piece of his own artwork that would sit with the paparazzi article, I agreed. This was fortuitous because, at the moment, I am working on a piece about state surveillance, which I will call 'PARANOID ANDROID'. I have this piece in development but I am still in the process of research and want to think carefully about this piece before release. It will no doubt alert the National Security Agency and I will have new readers for my blog. For now... Like SPUN, I am grateful to all the people who have taken the trouble to write, I always try to reply and I more than welcome opinions, criticisms ( constructive of course) related to the blog.

Do we really live in such moronic times? Add paradoxical to this description and I think we have an accurate framework for modern existence.

Don't believe all that empty rhetoric about freedom and democracy, hollow sound bites about state security and civilised behaviour, that's about as meaningful as Katie Price having a boob job. And, Katie Price - a.k.a Jordan - and her breasts sell much more media (newspapers, magazines, TV shows) than worries over how the state conducts surveillance of its citizens at home and abroad - please check out Paranoid Android in my next blog.

After all, Katie Price's breasts, or Kirstie Alley's weight gain and weight loss, or Kim Kardashian's maternal feelings are what the majority of us want to know about, and what we will pay our money to find out about.

Consider this growing phenomenon of celebrity and it's natural oxygen the general public and the vehicle by which it connects with the frenzied masses - the, so-called, paparazzi. Those street corner snappers out at all hours of the night and day in all kinds of weather to supply the public with what it wants. Those salacious, prurient and humanising images of the, so-called, stars of stage, screen, reality bubble and rock arena.

For celebrites and their paparazzi - the name is taken from a character in the Frederico Fellini movie La Dolce Vita - it is a relationship both complex and paradoxical.

Often hated and loathed as they go about their business the paparazzi are like a drink to an alcoholic. Craved by the celebrities who depend upon their attentions and certainly irresistable to the general public who devour their images like a swarm of hungry locusts.

It's a fascinating inter-connectivity which produces incredibly complex and intriguing little scenarios between the celebs, the photographers and the general public.

The confusion around this unholy trinity, is, of course, understandable, given the intricate interplay and mutal need that exists between the three groups. The celebrities need the snappers just as much as the paparazzi need to feed the general public with their demands. Millions clamour for the latest celebrity gossip and images, while the celebrities need to know that they are still being fetted by the cameramen to reassure themselves that they are still famous.

So, let's not get too precious about this. Many photographers would much rather spend their working lives out on warfronts, or on the streets of Buenas Aires where homeless women and their children beg for pennies to buy food* or gainfully employed carrying out more 'artistic' assignments. But celebrity is where the work is, it is where the demand is and where there is demand there is cash - fundamental first year economics.

People, after all, have to use the skills they have to feed their kids, pay their mortgages and have a life, remember that?

The relationship between the photographer and the film star, pop star, celebrity is odo et amor. A love-hate encounter where each NEEDS to suck the blood from the other to satisfy the full moon mania of the fickle masses for images of the rich, famous and, often, fabulously moronic.

In a world where a huge chunk of our planet will go to bed hungry tonight, there exists a massive appetite out there for images and insights into the lives of the astronomically wealthy and their behaviour.

Is it me or is living in these times like existing in a parallel universe of extraordinary and often absurd extremes?

(*I know the photographer who worked on this series of photographs. Remember, Argentina has generated an average growth figure of 3.85 per cent since 1994 ( 1994-2013) and yet women with their children are still left homeless and have to beg for scraps in the street. I know, much to his frustration, he found it impossible to get anyone interested?)

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Working With Spun

Light : J.Z. Fernandez
 I am chasing a couple of stories this week.  While working on research about social media and participatory democracy I was contacted out of the blue by someone I interviewed a couple of years ago at the height of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London.  He has led me back into the world of protest, anti-capitalism, anti-corporatism and anarchy.  He has a story to tell and an inside view of Occupy Wall Street I did not expect, I'll keep you informed.

So, this week has been exciting, frustrating and, certainly different.  In addition to my activist friend, an advocate of what he describes as, direct democracy, I have been talking with the outlandish and challenging artist Spun.  He has selected a controversial piece I wrote a few years ago to be posted in the next blog. To accompany this piece 'In Defence of The Paparazzi' he is allowing me to use one of his creations from 2006, in the spirit of interconnected pastiche I found the experience stimulating in all its retro manifestations.

Watch this space...soon.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Rise and Decline of All-Star Empires (You Are Not Alone)

Dune : Makeshift Studios 2013
I have to admit a fondness for the Percy Byshe Shelley Poem Ozymandias. Shelley's poem is focused on a statue in the desert, Ozymandias - King of Kings, that it is being eroded by weather and time. The really clever part is toward the end of the short poem, when the syntax begins to crumble to chime with the decay of the sculpture.

For those unfamiliar with this work, Shelley's poem is themed around the rise and fall of leaders and empire and I think that's pretty appropriate for the times we live in.

Global economic re-evolutions, social media, atomisation, protest against the ruling elites across the world, increasing disenchantment with the enfeeblement of democracy and the omnipotence of free market capitalism ( see : Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun- rushhour 11/08/2013).

Recent events, the rapid overthrow of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years as Egypt's unelected head of state (1981-2011), and the equally rapid removal of the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, after 12 months, are examples of rise and decline (admittedly at different speeds and in different time frames).

Now, the Egyptian state, tottering on the edge of civil war, is considering outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood (again), from which Morsi emerged.

Of course, Egypt's convulsions were a long time in the making. The Arab Spring, the legacy of Mubarak's rule and before that the assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat, were all investments in the present history of the North African country.

But, it is not only political elites that tumble, economic empires are also liable to dissolve and fall apart as change, in its many different disguises - political, economic, social, cultural and technological - sweep across our lives.

In many ways, thinking about the poem, also reminded me of the American city of Detroit.

Once the motor capital of the world, Detroit was the city that gave its name to Motown, and was synonomous with Tamla Motown, Berry Gordy, Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas et al.

We could re-write The Supremes classic Where Did Our Love Go? Where Did Our Motor Production Plant Go? Where Did Our City Go?

Today, this proud old metropolis gives its name to the largest municipal insolvency in American history.

At the height of its powers in the 1950's, Detroit lived the American dream employing around 300,000 on manufacturing lines alone. The city's population, during this period edged up toward 1.9 million. But, in the intervening years since then, both the jobs and the population have rapidly declined.

Over 1 million individuals fled the city limits as manufacturing employment opportunities fell below 30,000 and the city's debt climbed toward $20 billion.

With the great corporates shrinking, the first victims are always the employees. This, inevitably, has a knock-on effect and backward linkage to those businesses that once fed off the major employers and those who worked for them. The restaurants, the cafes, the entertainment venues, the transport companies, the people who book holidays, the real estate agents, the people who maintain buildings : plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators. Basically, those who base their businesses around the booming economy.

Of course, when that upwardly thrusting economy slows and then gradually fades until there is no pulse, other economic agencies also start to fail - often more rapidly that the host.

Eventually, less people earning on the production lines, less people paying taxes, less cash to support local businesses or pay into the pension pot, less people staying around waiting for the sun to return.

Retired former city employees catch their breath as their pensions are threatened with reduction, there is no money for welfare, no taxes to pay for anything. In such situations, municpalities are decentralised because they are losing their independent means of running their city - never a good thing in any democracy.

It is a downward decline that spirals out of control and eats a hole in the core of the political, social and economic universe.

Change is constant, but it is not the fact that it happens, it is how we deal with it when it does, because we are all part of it and we all have a part to play in shaping it - and that's the exciting part.

(Author's note : I received a couple of emails this week that made me re-think the blog.  It started out as a vehicle to get my ideas down without being too constrained by the demands of editors, to help me think through issues while writing the bigger Rush Hour project.  I am delighted, however, with the emails I received but i think I need time to think things through and I will keep you all informed.  As a footnote 'Zero History of the World' is by far the most popular blog thus far. Second footnote Detroit's demise will be part of the Summer In The City Section of Rush Hour.)

Saturday, 17 August 2013


Hearts Cafe, Peru : Courtesy Andrew Carling

COMING SOON : The Rise and Decline of All-Star Empires - Sunday August 18 rushhour

Sunday, 11 August 2013


La Bandera De La Republica De Las Ovejas : Makeshift Studios 2013
Is it just me or do other people feel that politicians have a habit of promising to do something about an issue, when all they really do is sit on their hands? Haven't they chattered about regulating the financial system, while all the time multi-million dollar bonuses are still finding their way into the pockets of extremely rich bankers?

I have a friend, who is, as he will tell you himself, a free market capitalist. Now, even he, has been dismayed by recent events within his industry - PPI, dark pools, money laundering, High frequency trading, computer glitches.

When I related the story of the miner who had been buried alive when he was 18, worked in the coal industry - often toiling for 12 hours a day, six and, even, seven days a week to supply energy to corporate business - for 40 years and still could not retire because his pension was not enough, he described it as appalling.

He visibly winced and shook his head when I reminded him (what the miner had reminded me) that Stephen Hester was due to leave Royal Bank of Scotland with £6 million 'compensation' ($9.3 million, €6.9 million) for five years work.

But, something is happening 'out there', and I have a feeling it is all interconnected and interlinked with social media and technology.   Is there, among ordinary people, a burgeoning belief that the world is changing and that they deserve a bit more say in their own destinies.

Is there really a growing disenchantment with our politicians and our global financial set up? Are both in danger of being overhauled by early 21st century technology?

I've been watching Angela Merkel, usually one of the most assured politicians around, squirm in the wake of a scandal threatening to derail her, otherwise odds-on, election hopes (Germany goes to the ballot box on September 22). Recent revelations about the US spying on German citizens has unbalanced the usually upright Merkel, and her opponents in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) scent blood.

Her woolly-mouthed platitudes about having equilibrium between privacy and state security are not going down well in Berlin.

Equally restricted by a mouthful of cotton wool, the oddly uncomfortable looking, Vince Cable, had little or nothing meaningful to say about the hideous zero hours contracts. He ordered a review but stopped short of saying he would outlaw the practice as the trade union movement had been advocating.  (Zero hours contracts deny ordinary workers basic employment benefits like statutory hours of work, pension, holiday and sickness support.)

So there is talk, and reviews, and platitudes and vacuousness, and nothing much really changes because - and this might be controversial - our governments now, appear, to dance to the tune of corporate business, not the people who elected them.

But, you don't have to take my word for it.

Robert Reich, a former advisor to president Clinton, asks in his excellent book 'Supercapitalism' :

"Why has capitalism become so triumphant and democracy so enfeebled?" (Robert Reich, Supercapitalism : The Battle for Democracy in an Age of Big Business p5)

His analysis is sharp and centres at one point on the massive growth in corporate lobbying which he compares with, what he describes as, the 'paltry' efforts of non-business groups (p 133).

Let's consider that rather bald statement a while, let's mull it over 'capitalaism triumphant, democracy enfeebled?' 

It is not a million miles from where Occupy stand or from what Jeffrey Sachs wrote in his, also excellent, book The Price of Civilisation :

"At the root of America's economic crisis, lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America's political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world's most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery."

Sachs and The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Selby (going by recent pronouncements), actually sound like members of Occupy.  Actually, they are not saying anything different from the guys I interviewed on the street a few years ago - but that's for another day.


(Author's note : It is remiss of me not to have taken note of the page number from Jeffrey Sachs' book. It is not like me and I do apologise. Robert Reich, Supercapitalism : Icon Books 2009. Jeffrey Sachs, The Price of Civilisation : Economics and Ethics After The Fall : Vintage Books 2012. Happy as always to take comments in that interconnected pastiche world we all now belong to.)

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Next Up!

Are things changing?  Are politicians feeling the heat of an evolving society? A look at 'grotesque' economics in SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN tomorrow.  Let's meet in cyberspace.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Is This The Way To Cyberspace # 1

Prototype : Makeshift Studios 2013

"Take the off-ramp marked 'End of Universe' mate. It is actually a lock-up somewhere in Gorgie* housing a black Ford Fiesta"

"Okay, black Ford Fiesta, check..."

"When you get to the back of the garage you will find a brick wall with a white painted sign eight inches high, 'End Of Universe', you get me?"

Ever asked yourself : 'Where are we headed?'

Travelling in the rush hour, on a crowded subway train, bus, or gridlocked in traffic, sitting at a meeting with the nodding heads and a monosylabic and boring speaker.

' see...this..erm...oh yes, just remembered...ahem...sorry (nervous laugh)...what is this presentation about?'

And, you are thinking....

Are we really the children of a burgeoning cashless society? But, more than that, and more frightening than that, are we really the children of a society which will live out existence somewhere we only know as cyberspace?

Data (where you find the message) shows that we increasingly use our credit cards for the daily round of transactions unless they are predominantly small item purchases like buying a McDonalds ready meal, a magazine, a pack of cigarettes. About 7 per cent of all US transactions are now hard and fast cash and coinage (it is around 9 percent for the Eurozone), the rest are carried out on credit card cyberspace.

For most larger items we will find ourselves flashing the plastic or, increasingly, simply using the cyberspace of computer to computer.

In Sweden, it is now estimated, that as little as 3 per cent of all transactions are carried out with paper cash and coins, and there are now towns in the Scandanavian country where it is no longer possible to enter a bank and use cash!

In addition, Professor Friedrich Schneider of the Johanes Kepler University in Austria has argued that Sweden, with an increasingly digital-based economy, has less of a problem with financial corruption than nations with a prevalent cash culture, like Italy and Greece.

There is also a crime angle on this, I mean why mug someone, or, indeed, rob a bank, if they no longer need to carry cash or credit cards? A 100 per cent digital economy will also make it easier for governments to recover tax, but some worry that a cybereconomic world will prove a bonanza for our banking fraternity.

Maybe, they rub their hands, at the thought of 'the world' having to come to them to have their financial business dealt with in that anonymous space between computers. Maybe, they might place a small charge for all transactions from their 'captive' audience.

Technology linked solely to coloured blips on a computer screen will mean that the once omnipotent credit card will also be rapidly marginalised and that, like paper and coins, will soon be a thing of the past.

To these ends, smartphone apps are now available that allow us to link directly to our bank accounts by using something called near field technology. In the future, we will be able to walk into a shop and purchase goods via our cell phone network. In addition, as we have discussed before, we increasingly go online to shop in cyberspace. Our computer calls 'their' computer and voila we purchase what 'they' - whoever 'they' are - sell.

AXA real estate has estimated that by 2016 around 90 per cent of retail sales growth will be the result of online consumerism.

From our armchair we can order that birthday present using our smartphone, we will be able to buy those tickets for that sporting event, make arrangements to travel, order our groceries ...and we will be able to do all that, increasingly, in cyberspace.

We no longer need to take the car to the mall, or queue in our local bank, or even wait by the Automated Teller Machine (ATM or cash machine) until it is our turn to ask for cash we can simply use the latest generation of smartphone.

In fact, we can carry out all our business seated in our armchairs and between computers in a 'black' (maybe it is white or blue or green or red or many coloured) and invisible world we know only as 'cyberspace'.

Moreover, this is a transition or evolution which is happening before our very eyes as we increasingly move our lives and, with that, our social interactions and transactions into 'cyberspace'.

But where is it...really? What will it really mean for us, for all our futures?

There are no Google maps that will show us the landscape or doors to knock. What it comes down to is asking ourselves what is it? Where is it? Who controls it and for what reasons? That, for me, is worth thinking about...

Author's note : *Gorgie is a district in the city of Edinburgh.