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Is freedom too great a price to pay?

Freedom

The 1st of October was a bad day, I watched the news on television in dismay, as I seem to frequently do these days.  Fifty eight people killed and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas.  Over a few days I thought about this and continued watching news bulletins and the discussion on gun control and the right to bear arms.  I recall previously seeing Barak Obama on television, lamenting the illegal use of guns in the United States and attempting to convince people that gun possession needed to be controlled.  He failed, but from news reports not for the want of trying.  The gun lobby and politics were a powerful block on any movement in that direction.

The present incumbent Donald Trump does not seem to have much to say about the matter other than the usual platitudes that come out at a time of national disaster.  So my thoughts turned to politics and ideology.  I can’t profess to know much about American politics or the American Constitution but as I understand it, the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution. The debate about whether the Second Amendment intended that ordinary citizens had the right to bear arms or the right to bear arms was intended for the militia is one that has continued for many a decade and it seems the courts, not without some dissent, fell on the side of the citizen.

As I continue to try to make sense of it all, I question what was intended by those great people that drafted and redrafted and finally agreed the American Constitution.  If the very people that debated and drafted the constitution were to consider the matter now, in contemporary society, knowing the advanced technology and the damage that firearms have caused across America, including the illegal use of firearms in the name of the law, would they have drafted the second amendment in such a way?

Of course we can think about this concept a little wider and apply it to various ideologies across the world.  Take the concept of free speech, would those that drafted the various constitutions and rights in many a country have foreseen that the concept of free speech would be used to spread hate against various groups of people?  Did they intend that free speech would be used to adulterate and twist religious texts so that hate could be espoused and acted upon?

These rights were drafted and agreed in a different era.  Those that espoused them could perhaps not have conceived that they would be abused to the extent they are now or that the concepts would cause so much damage and misery. If we could bring all those great minds together now, would they amend those rights perhaps putting some stipulations on them?

I have a feeling that many a great mind would turn in their graves at these notions and of course I understand it is not quite so simple but I do just wonder? Is freedom too great a price to pay?

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Speeding towards disaster: the absence of a capable guardian

car crash

Vehicles are lethal weapons, we all recognise that, particularly after the reminders given to us by the terrorist attacks across Europe.  Every year in this country, there are more people killed on the roads than there are as a result of murder and yet people still drive on the roads like complete morons.  It seems that driving cars, vans, and lorries brings out aggressive behaviour that to most would seem quite out of character.   A good few years ago, the media castigated ‘White Van Man’, the drivers of white vans that displayed all the worst of driving behaviours, in particular positioning their vehicles aggressively so close to another vehicles’s rear bumper that they might as well have been sitting in the boot.

The shame of it is that White Van Man is now replaced by the general driving public. Gender and age seem to have no bearing on the manner of driving.  Minor mistakes and indiscretions by other drivers are punished with blaring horns, flashing headlights and hand gestures more at home on the football terraces, although if you watched the recent England game, you might suggest on the pitch as well.  Drivers barge their way past parked cars despite oncoming traffic and drive at speeds exceeding the speed limit.  The dual carriageway that reverts to a single carriageway sees drivers racing to get ahead of each other determined not to let anyone into the now single file of traffic.

And yet, introduce a capable guardian, I borrowed the term from Felson’s 1998 Routine Activity Theory, and behaviour seems to change almost instantaneously; let me explain.  The village I live in is fairly large and sits on the outskirts of a county town.  The village is expanding rapidly and consequently through traffic can be quite considerable, particularly during school runs. This accompanied by pedestrians on narrow pathways and the gaggle of school children massing around the bus stop waiting for the bus to another village increases risk considerably.  The road which meanders in and out of both semi-rural and urbanised space has a thirty mile an hour speed limit and the odd flashing sign that warns motorists to slow down.  Not unreasonable given the volume of traffic and pedestrians and yet it has little meaning to drivers, including those carrying children in the car, who regularly exceed the speed limit.  Dare to drive at thirty miles an hour and you will rapidly find cars sitting on your rear bumper itching to get by or aggressively getting closer and closer in an attempt to bully you into going faster.   A slight glimpse of empty road sees overtaking manoeuvres more suitable to the Silverstone racetrack but accomplished by drivers who probably lack anything like the skill required.  Demonic aggression and recklessness is the name of the game and yet the very same drivers will change their driving behaviour just a few minutes later.

About a mile from my village is a small hamlet dissected by a fairly busy road.  The speed limit leading up to the hamlet is 40 miles an hour and the speed limit through the hamlet is 30 miles an hour.  Watch vehicles traverse this stretch of road and you will see politeness, adherence to the speed limit and gaps between vehicles that would make the author of the highway code proud.  Why such change in behaviour, you probably already know? Two somewhat insignificant, inconspicuous, despite the bright yellow paint, average speed cameras. Nobody knows if they function but they certainly work.  It seems that altering driver behaviour is simply down to the presence of a capable guardian but it does beg the question why so many people have little regard for the law or their fellow human beings when they get into that driving seat.

The commodification of youth: waiting to grow up

struggle-1271657_960_720I find myself reflecting on the problems of youth as I watch my two lads growing up and preparing to leave school. Well I think they’ll leave school and I think they’ll grow up.  The latter begs the question, when is a young person grown up, when does a young person embark on that journey into adulthood?

In the eyes of the law an adult is 18 or over and yet in certain aspects, young people are treated differently until they are 25, for example, state benefits are not equitably distributed between those that are under 25 and those that are over.  Young people cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18 and yet they can legally have sex, get married, with parental consent, and sign up to a near enough £30,000 debt as part of their commitment to higher education, a commitment that derives many a time from external social and economic pressures and expectation rather than personal choice.

At the age of 16 I left school and went to work with 5 O’ levels to my name.  I had a choice and looking back, it was a good job I did; education at that time was not for me.  What choice do 16 year olds have now? Stay at home and be funded by parents, an extension of childhood and then at 18 a debt that hangs over them like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to be sold off to the highest commercial bidder later on? Or simply stay at home with parents and then at 18 seek work in low paid zero hours contract jobs that belie the true state of unemployment in this country.  A somewhat limited choice, I would suggest.

I have watched the manufacturing industries of the past disappear and with them the hope of jobs for many a youngster, perhaps not academically inclined to go through higher education.  So the choice for young people is stark, low paid, irregular work usually in a service industry, resulting in a need to stay in the parental home, or a massive debt and some offer of freedom, albeit perhaps temporary.

Unemployment is at its lowest level and there are more people accessing higher education than ever before. On the surface a success story but delve a little deeper and it is the young that are a paying the price for the elongation and commercialisation of education.  They are prevented from growing up by the restriction on school leaving age and the socio-economic pressures that seem to abound. But if the young cannot get jobs, are not allowed to grow up and develop into adults that contribute to the treasury’s coffers, then in the not too distant future they will not be the only ones to suffer as various services slowly disintegrate due to the lack of funding.  It is time government rethought education but more importantly thought about the future of the young, they are after all our future and deserve better than a lifetime of debt, poverty and insecurity.

The business of government

 

Government responsibility

A few weeks ago, the gas company started digging up the road outside my house as part of major works to replace gas pipes in the village. Days after starting the work, holes filled with water and a muddy stream gushed out across the pavement and down the street. Belatedly, the water company turned up and promptly blamed the gas company for the problem. They were unable to do any repairs owing to a submerged electrical cable fizzing away. The electricity company wouldn’t do any work until they knew who would pay for it.  Several days later following intervention of the local highways department the matter was resolved. But the mud left on mine and my neighbour’s drive, the pavement, and the street had to be cleared by me and my neighbours. Not cost effective to clean up I guess.

What rapidly became apparent is that the driving force behind the work and the argument over who pays is profit, not public service, purely finance. Friedman (1962) advocated that the only duty of a business was to maximise profits for the benefits of the company and its shareholders, it had no responsibility to the public or society. I don’t have problem with this ideology, business is about making money not providing public services. So, who has responsibility for looking after the public’s interests, well that’s government surely. After all, as Locke advocated in the 17th century, it is government that has a duty to ensure ‘the peace, safety and public good of the people’ (Locke 1689:299).

Much of what the public need, in the way of welfare, health services, social services, criminal justice, education and a myriad of other service provisions are not profitable, in fact they are in a true business sense not financially viable. It is government that needs to take the lead on these and it is government that needs to ensure that the services are run for the public good. So why then do we hear every service state that they are in financial difficulties, that they need to cut back services, that they cannot cope?  Because government has not done its job. It doesn’t really matter what flavour government you prefer, left or right, conservative or labour, socialist or capitalist, over the last half a century, government has quite simply failed to deliver. Instead it has abrogated responsibility to business, social enterprise, voluntary organisations, and the public. It blames society, the poor, the underclass, the immigrants and youth. It blames those running its own apparatus, the police the prisons, the schools, and the health service amongst others. Government has become self-serving and introspective, it has taken on a business ethos.  It sets its own agendas based on not what is good for the people but what is good for government and those that serve in it. Government congratulates itself on its own defined successes and glosses over disasters. Government has forgotten its true purpose.

The small hiccup in my road is inconsequential compared to the recent tragic events in our country but it served as a reminder, if ever I needed one, that business and the business of government are a toxic mix. Government would do well to remember ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’, (Locke 1689: title page).

 

Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth anniversary edition, reprint, London: University of Chicago 2002.

Locke, T. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, reprint, London: Whitmore and Fenn 1821 [online] available at https://archive.org/details/twotreatisesofg00lockuoft [accessed 26/6/2017].

Safe data: your inside leg measurement is?

Data

Data is now an intrinsic part of our lives.  It always has been, but those of you that are old enough to remember the pre-computer days (PCD) that’s not the Neolithic period, only a matter of 40 odd years ago, data didn’t seem that relevant.

In the PCD, if a shop assistant asked you for your details, i.e. name, address and telephone number, it was for a guarantee or a mail shot or at worst, to miss sell PPI. Now you are asked as a matter of course for your name, address, phone number and email address (not available PCD).  Refuse and you are looked upon with incredulity or even disdain and woe betide if you dare to ask why the information is needed? But, provide the information and this is what happens…

I needed new tyres for the car and on Saturday, whilst on my way into town, I popped into a well-known supplier.  I negotiated a reasonable deal, actually that was always going to be the price but it makes me feel better to say that, and I paid for the tyres. I was asked for and provided the usual details i.e. name, postcode, house number etc.  Job done, didn’t think about it any further.

Monday morning, phone call on the mobile, private number; I duly answer.  Is that Mr (full name), yes, I reply, thinking I wonder who this is, sounds official. I’m Sandra from UK Investments, can I confirm your address as (address given) … Sorry who are you, I ask and Sandra reiterates the company name. How did you get my phone number, asked in a somewhat annoyed tone…? You must have ticked a box… I don’t recall ticking any box and I’m not interested in any investment… please explain how you got my number … and the phone goes dead.

Coincidental that I gave away the information on Saturday and now it’s being used on Monday? Maybe, maybe not, but I suspect my details have been sold on.

Sometime ago I had an accident in my car and had a phone call from the other parties’ insurance company to get my details and sort out my claim.  Two days later, a phone call on my mobile from someone asking about the accident and whether I had been injured at all… where there’s blame there’s a claim… and lots of money for the lawyers. I gave them short shrift but a couple of weeks later another call on my house landline… same thing and another short conversation involving how did you get my number and a phone going dead.

Two months later, my partner, same address, different surname, received a call on her work mobile… has someone at this address been involved in an accident… and a few weeks after that the same call on her personal mobile?  How on earth do they tie all of these together?

So, when my doctor’s surgery asks me whether I consent to allow my details to be input onto a national database, because this will benefit me when being treated anywhere in the country, I am somewhat reluctant and sceptical.

Whilst I think back to the recent hacking of NHS computers, hacking is probably the least of my worries.  Back in the PCD my personal data felt relatively private and respected, in contemporary society privacy seems to be an antiquated notion that is wilfully ignored in the pursuit of financial gain. Privacy and your data, think again and oh, my inside leg measurement is…

Technology of the future: zombification

800px-TGS_2010_Zombie

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I guess it depends on your viewpoint I was brought up in an era where technology, as we now know it, was not that complex.  Mind you, when I was 5 years of age they still managed to put a man on the moon, so I guess complexity is somewhat relative.  Anyway, we didn’t walk around with smart mobile devices, in fact the first mobile phones were well, not that mobile, car batteries in fact with handsets on top of them. Computers were not that advanced, my first computer had a hard drive of 540mb and that was considered huge. We were told, well almost promised that technology would work for us, the three-day working week was on its way.  Technology would free us from the chains of work and everyday drudgery. Instead, we have become slaves to technology and are slowly but surely losing key skills along the way.  One of those key skills is the ability to think and interact; a slow process of zombification.

A while ago I had the good fortune of going to see the comedian Russell Howard in Birmingham; that man is so funny.  So how do you get there, obvious, sat nav? Now there is a nice bit of enabling technology, post code, no thought, there we go, on our way. I’m sure you’ve heard about those drivers that have gone down dead end streets or lorry drivers that have attempted streets too narrow for the lorry; you guessed it, I did something similar. When the nice, polite sat nav lady says turn left, who am I to say that’s not correct? We ended up in an industrial estate at the back of our hotel and had to retrace our steps and try to work out how to get to our destination.  The problem… I stopped thinking. I didn’t need to look at road signs and I didn’t need to work out the best route to follow, I didn’t need to stop and ask anyone, I just needed to follow what the nice lady said, like a sheep.

When I go into work and I fire up the computer, I’m met with a plethora of emails, most of which are complete garbage and of no relevance to me. It is all too easy to fire off that email without thinking, why not cc it into the whole world?  People send emails that make little sense, or seem rude or offhand, the problem… they didn’t think, and it’s all too easy, particularly from so called smart devices.  Sometimes I think the device is smarter than the operator.

Now I’m sure you will recognise this one; the mobile bleeps, you have to check it, never mind that you are in deep conversation with friends, colleagues or those nearest and dearest.  The phone, or the message suddenly becomes more important, if you were thinking and adding some value to the conversation, you are not now.  The phone now controls you.

The problem is that technology now dictates how we act and what we do.  We take the easy route and stop thinking and we have more concern for the technology than we do for humans that we interact with.  I’m not adverse to technology but I am adverse to the way we misuse it and allow others to bring us into their fairy-tale technological world of zombies.

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