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Ramblinactivist's Blog, 23rd April 2018

Normalising tiredness

The scourge of the Twenty-First Century workforce, keeping pace with machines that don't sleep – and in these conditions where do you end and the technology begin?

Economists seem to look at the "always on" society as a boon to human productivity. More than work now being a 24/7 opportunity, the advent of wearable technology – from mobile phones to activity trackers – means that we're wired into 'doing' permanently; we can never just 'be'. The cost of that, of not 'being' but always 'doing', is that you can quickly lose agency over the events and the things around your life. And if we are not agents of our own conscience, then what are we?

Small groups of aware people make all the difference

There is a kind of unintended compliment in having your words thrown back at you by others, some months or years after you said them.

About two or so years ago I remarked to a fellow fracking campaigner that, "I want my life back". Over the period since I've heard a number of other campaigners express the very same sentiment, in the very same way – rather like a yawn propagating through a room-full of people.

'Fracking' continues to be pressed by a small (but 'well-connected') minority in the business and political community, against all the evidence emerging to its ill effects. It's only the efforts of a relatively small band of ordinary people, standing in the way of that ideological juggernaut, which has almost stopped it dead in Britain. Even so, they still do not have control over the well-connected group promoting it, and so whether they want to or not they can't stop their campaign.

Although these campaigners say they'd 'like their life back', in reality they won't stop doing what they're doing; it's what, deep down, their conscience drives them to do.

Conscience, or rather our sub-conscious, can have other unwanted consequences too. It can provide a hook to make us act in certain ways.

Taking your distractions with you

I don't have a mobile phone; I've never had one. It's not that I'm scared about getting cancer, or being tracked by the surveillance state. I want to have control over my time so that I can get the most 'creative' use from it. We only get 'it' once, so why waste the opportunity?

A mobile, as I observed in most of my tech-savvy friends twenty years ago, works against being able to plan the most creative use of your time; and thus is doesn't 'enable' creativity, it constrains it within certain parameters. Via instant communications "your time" becomes someone else's – with the mobile technology providing the means of 'distraction' from your own goals.

Even Monty Python got that idea thirty-five years ago.

Many aspects of my work since – especially related to the ecological footprint of mobile phones – have reaffirmed my position on having mobile devices.

From 'fake news' to targetted advertising, the true power of information technology is that it can easily snare us within other people's agendas; ones that arguably not favourable to our own.

This is a planned and deliberate process

To those people who are shocked and appauled by the recent revelations over Facebook's use of personal data I say, "stop whining and read a book!" In particular, that classic, ninety-years-old this year book by Edward Bernays, Propaganda.

Allow me to quote the opening paragraph:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

What Cambridge Analytica has done is lifted directly from the pages of this ninety-year old book. Bernay's pioneered these ideas during US government's domestic propaganda efforts to support the First World War – and many, particularly in the field of public relations, have finessed them since to target smaller and smaller audiences. What contemporary data analytics allow is to refine these techniques to target very small groups within society.

In fact, Bernays anticipated many aspects of that process too, in his 1947 essay, The Engineering of Consent. In the context of the Trump election and Brexit referendum scandals, that title should come as no surprise.

And what of Facebook's mission with targetted advertising?

Well, that's nothing more than a technologically updated form of the manipulation of television broadcasting outlined in 1955 by the marketing guru Victor Lebow, in his famous article in the Journal of Retailing:

And television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family.

While we're on the subject of all these trends having been foreseen…

If you're wondering about the role of modern technology mediating our lives, to a large extent – although not in technological detail – that was forseen too. That's because what over-rides the application of technology is economics, and economists have been researching these objectives for years.

One of my favourite pieces of research in that regard is Steffan Linder's 1970 book, "The Harried Leisure Class". It outlines an economic future where people would have more leisure time (yeah, so much for economic accuracy). As a result they wouldn't be as economically active. In order to make up for that they would have to be encouraged to undertake more economic activity as part of their leisure activities. To quote the oft-use by-line from the book:

Consumers in rich countries have become harried in their futile attempt to increase the productivity of their non-work time.

As you try and find time to live the lifestyle you're shown in the media – work, shop, eat, exercise, run a home, and do all the recreational activities you're told 'normal' people should pursue – does that 1970 quote stir any recollections about our contemporary lifestyle?

The IT productivity rebound

Consider the mobile phone again.

Without mobile phones it would be very difficult to operate zero-hours contracts – where people have to be ready to work whenever they receive a call. While a mobile might increase employability, the economic conditions of that work can be lower than previous employment practices. At the same time though the costs of operating a mobile phone are higher than a landline, so any benefit of greater employment can quickly be eroded.

Recent research suggests that information technology, which is marketed as a mean of solving our 'productivity' problems, in fact does not help it. More than that a variety of research, beginning from more than a decade ago, suggests that information technology actually exacerbates the conflict between 'work' and 'life'.

Irrespective of the 'rebound effect' of information technology, these systems and associated human practices are still being pressed by small groups of well-connected business people and politicians – for whom these technologies are a tangible demonstration of the ideology they profess…

Does that sound familiar? And if so, where are the band of people ready to meet this ideological juggernaut?

We're all susceptible

Like many people in full-time work these days, I'm tired.

The reason I'm tired at present is that my work – enabled by digital information systems, and networked communications spanning time-zones from the USA to Australia – has been incessantly driving me for at least the last 18 months; to the point where I do not have control over how I approach my workload. My problems are compounded because I am able to install and maintain those information systems to work incredibly efficiently at extremely low cost, well past the point at which more commercially-minded enterprises would have folded.

Even I then, well-read in the trends that are driving the information economy, and who takes great care to try and avoid the unwelcome aspects of those dictating my work agenda, still find it difficult to avoid the controlling effects of technology.

Or, to put it another way, "I want my life back!"

After another long work day (yeah, I know, it was Sunday), yesterday evening I went for a walk. It's been on my mind all today.

Seven-and-a-half miles, from half-an-hour before sunset to almost twilight; no camera; just a water bottle. I listened to the bird song. I stalked a buck roe deer in the dusk, from upwind, and managed to get about 50 metres from it before it sprang. The thing I missed, which is standard these days, was the early Spring buzz of insects – absent in this area for the last few years.

To see the significance of something, negate it from the equation and see what's left. In this case, something far more than I left within my workshop.

Information technology is active; it's algorithms are adaptable, and combined with enough data it can anticipate human responses. Therefore you cannot be passive if you want to maintain your own personal choice within that process; you have to pick and choose, and then, with discernment, enact those responses – irrespective of whether that makes you popular or not. That is the true challenge here. To be, perhaps literally, Orwell's 'last human' in the machine of society.