Thursday, 28 August 2014

Swapping one warzone for another: the refugee rights movement in Berlin

"Politicians do not just want to evict buildings like the school in Ohlauer Straße or the house we squatted. In our opinion they want to evict movements, they want to evict the possibility of free decision making and self-organization. They are sneaking out of their responsibility on the cost of marginalized people." Indymedia

August 27, 2014: Oranienplatz, Kreuzberg.

They all had different skin colours, and different accents.  But whether they were fat or thin, short or tall, young or old, they all shared a certain calm, resigned strength.  Their eyes, too, shared an intelligent gleam that had been dulled to a persistent, smouldering glow.   

A few words with any of them reassured me that these people - refugees, mostly male - had not come to Germany just for fun.  Their absolute certainty in their reasons for fleeing their homelands didn’t even need to be expressed in words; it just sort of emanated from every pore.  It was just a matter of fact.

I looked around Oranienplatz.  It was almost entirely encircled with police.  Close to a hundred officers of the law were circling, hovering at a safe distance, eyeing the mixed group of 30 or 40 activists and refugees who were clustered around a bowed-but-unbeaten info stand located near the center of the platz.  With tight jaws and grim faces, the police seemed to be on high alert: constantly, inconspicuously maneuvering themselves to cover every angle of Oranientplatz, like members of the SWAT team on field operations.  They were mostly male, too, but hulking and towering over the rest of us, padded in black, armoured uniforms.The kind of uniforms that they’d normally put on to face down stone-throwing rioters.   Many were staring at us with open expressions of contempt and disgust; some looked like they could barely stand the sight of us and yearned to erase us from view.

As I watched, a group of eight or nine police suddenly splintered off from their ranks and marched toward a group of black men sitting inconspicuously in the grass, off to one side of the square.  Six-foot tall officers surrounded a painfully-thin man with Somali features who was sitting on a low metal fence.  They waded through his friends and started hustling him to his feet with brute force.  The Somali man was almost a foot shorter than the officers and made no attempt to get away; he didn't even try to move.  His face crumpled with despair and physical pain, though, as one gorilla-like cop locked each of his arms in the crook of their elbows, with biceps tightly flexed. It looked like his arms might snap in half, they were so thin. He was frog-marched in this humiliating fashion toward the road that cuts through Oranienplatz.  On the other side of it sat a flotilla of parked riot vans.  The cops were moving so briskly that the refugee was lifted up off of his feet, clamped between these hardened, robotic beings that seemed like they were made of flexed brawn.   

He didn’t make a sound as he was dragged away and vanished into a van. 

“This is a police state," cried an older activist at them as they passed, looking visibly shaken.  A blonde-haired, muscle bound cop standing near the street laughed.

“Welcome to it!” he jeered.  

I ask one of the organizers of the Oranienplatz protest - a show of solidarity with 108 recently- rejected Berlin refugees - what was going on.  Had that Somali man just been arrested?  She was a nervy young woman with long dreads, her hair shaved at the sides.

 “They have a list of the people who are to be deported,” she said.   “They recognize them from and pull them out.  They have pictures beside the names.”

“What happens to them then?”

She shrugged.  “They take him in the van and tell him what will happen if he does not leave the country.”

Apparently, one of the refugees was held in a van, a kind of mobile intimidation chamber, for eight hours yesterday.   Presumably he was beig browbeaten the entire time by military-style police, threatening him to leave or else.  No one really knows, though.  Everything that happens to Berlin’s refugees happens in isolation, without witnesses or accountability, by design.   Is this Germany's idea of transparency?  If so, then it should consider painting the glass dome on the Bundestag black. 

August 26, 2014: Gurtelstrasse, Friedrichshain.

I spent the night outside of a hostel in Gurtelstrasse where 64 refugees were moved a couple of months ago, after being evicted from the abandoned school they'd occupied in Kreuzberg’s Ohlauer Strasse.  They'd squatted the abandoned school as part of an ongoing protest against the German refugee system.  Activists call this system the lager.  Lager is the German word for a basement or storage room.  It’s an apt term for the policy, which sees refugees confined to a single neighbourhood and residence, under close watch - not unlike inmates in a compound.  
While they’re waiting for their cases to be decided, refugees in the lager are subject to a curfew and must show their I.D. every time that they go in and out of their residence. Apparently, they're not even allowed to have guests visit them.  They have no right to work or move freely in the country and few chances to socialize.  Basically, they exist in a state of suspended animation for up to six months, where only the bare minimum of basic human needs stand a chance of being fulfilled.  The need to integrate and acclimatize, to learn the language, to socialize, to be productive?  They aren't included on the list. 

Out of sight is out of mind.

After they were evicted from the school, there was a brutal and un-photogenic standoff.  It made it into the mainstream media, despite an attempted blackout; police denied the press any access to the school and its occupants.  Despite the fact that nearly a thousand (that's right, a thousand) armoured police were present at the eviction of Ohlauer Strasse, they failed to evict the refugees, in large part due to public pressure to let them stay.  One hundred and eight of the refugees remained at the end of the standoff, and those were offered a settlement by the Berlin Senate: they got free accommodation in two hostels in Friedrichshain and Mariensfelde and an allowance of three hundred Euros per month to live on, while their asylum cases were being evaluated.   

It seemed like baby steps were being made towards meeting the refugee's demands, and they were finally being treated like human beings.  

Then, on Monday, the agreement was suddenly and inexplicably broken.  Scores of armoured police turned up in force at the hostels where the refugees now live, and they were told that their applications had been rejected en masse.  They were to be evicted on Tuesday, the following day.  According to one activist who I spoke to in Gurtelstrasse, the police were carrying deportation orders for some of the refugees when they arrived.   

The  eviction of Gurtelstrasse and the Mariensfelde hostel appear to violate the Ministry of the Interior's own guidelines for handling deportations.   The Bundesministerium’s website states: 'Asylum seekers are notified of the decision in writing and given information on legal remedy.'  There’s no mention of same-day evictions being executed by armoured police carrying deportation orders.   It seemed like this was a stealth attack, calculated to get the refugees as far away from the public consciousness as possible, as quickly as possible, without any opportunity for the decision to be appealed or the tactics questioned.  

The activists that I spoke to were understandably suspicious.  One of them told me  that asylum cases are never assessed that quickly, so something must have been done wrong.   There have been other unethical moves by the Ministry of the Interior, too: a number of refugees have been threatened with deportation before the minimum six-month period of temporary asylum has passed. According to the site Contra Info, quite a few applications have also been rejected without even being assessed.  Trust in the system’s fairness is at an all-time low.  Both the activists and the refugees that I spoke to seem to feel that these applications were turned down, not because they didn't meet the necessary criteria, but because the refugees have put city officials on the spot and embarrassed them with their protest movement.  They see the evictions as an act of revenge... and the behavior of the police at Oranienplatz did suggest a sense of resentment and hostility toward the refugees.  

Photographer catches snaps of would-be deportees, to be passed on to the police
The people I've spoken to in the last couple of days have all been unanimous in their belief that the refugees’ mistreatment by German authorities all boils down to one thing: the colour of their skin.  They may have a point.  During my years in Berlin, I've seen the police handling all kinds of difficult situations: hustling an aggressive, mentally ill homeless person  off of  a train; containing unruly groups of city drunks; clearing Skalitzer Strasse after an outbreak of violence on Mayday.   In all those situations, they seemed to follow a standard protocol: they approached the (white) offender from a cautious distance and informed him what he was doing wrong or what  they were going to do if he did not stop.   After repeated warnings, they escorted the offender away with minimal physical contact and force.  But when it comes to the refugees of Oranienplatz, those boundaries don't even seem to exist.   They are denied formalities; denied personal boundaries, and their emotional and mental boundaries are treated like they don't even exist.

One of the refugees who I spoke to at Oplatz (I’ll call him 'Thomas' to protect his identity) told me that he came to Germany to escape from a vendetta campaign against his family, back in his homeland.  The country that he came from was not technically at war, but it has been recognized as being impoverished, underdeveloped and politically unstable.  Blood feuds can carry on there, generation after generation, with impunity.  After seeing his father and a friend murdered in the same night by a rival family, Thomas fled.  He eventually ended up in Germany. 

Blood feuds are much more common in destabilized nations.  So is the murder of young boys who come from the ‘wrong’ faction.  

“They take the baby boys by the feet and swing their heads against a tree to smash it,” he said, graphically.   When I asked him how many babies he'd seen killed this way, he shook his head mournfully and said, "Too many."

I suppose that goes a long way towards explaining the disproportionately high number of men on the run from homelands that are going through any kind of civil strife.   Thomas explained that in his village, women usually stayed behind because they were not targeted for revenge killings in blood feuds.  That's not to say that the women have an easier life -  they just aren't in such immediate danger of being killed.

Stories like this explain why the refugees I met at Gurtelstrasse and Oranienplatz all share a kind of dogged pacifism.  As Thomas said, “I didn't come here to make trouble [...] but I don’t want to go back and be caught up in a fight.  Then I might get caught up in a fight and kill someone and then, their family will kill me too. I just want to live.”  But instead of helping people like Thomas escape the bullies a Germany has taken to bullying them in its own turn.   

One does get a sense that what's happening here is not the routine assessment and administration of refugees, or an orderly dispersal of people who’ve been deemed ‘safe’ to return  to their homelands.  One gets the sense that a campaign of terror and intimidation is  being allowed to go continue just because it can.  Refugees in Berlin are treated like their being here is due to some sort of failing on their part.  To me, and any other compassionate person who drops into Oraneinplatz today, it’s obvious that the only failure is on the part of the German administration for treating them that way.   

I asked one activist what the average Berliner could do to help these refugees.  His humble reply: "Just come here and witness, have a look at what is going on."  It seemed like a humble request at the time, but now I understand why.  The German activists involved in this movement are being run ragged as they try to just be there for these refugees as they are isolated and picked off and moved around, shifted like so many props on a stage, under the direction of the German government.  By just simply being there, these activists are able to prevent the worst abuses happening because it turns the spotlight on the short cuts being taken by the authorities, instead of letting them go on behind the scenes.  

On Wednesday afternoon, there were only enough 'witnesses' like me there to catch the overflow of helplessness from the refugees and suffer alongside them; it will take hundreds more of us to actually repel it. So I'd urge any one reading this to go down to Oranienplatz and, if nothing else, make a visual statement of support that drowns out the officials’ condemnation and contempt.  It seems like the only way that this situation is going to change.   

Find more actions using the hashtag #oplatz on Twitter 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

No Future (or, How To Succeed in A Dystopian Workplace)

This isn't the cover for my book... it's an artwork by David Holtek of

The story below is taken from my new book 'Vote Tekno Party'.  And yes, that is the same book that I spent the last seven months working on instead of blogging!

Vote Tekno Party is a collection of stories written from the point of view of Selene, a 24 year-old expat living in late-nineties London.  She is pushing herself to live what she considers to be a totally independent, DIY lifestyle.  Throughout the book (which mostly takes place in squats, underground clubs, illegal parties and riots) she keeps on running into unexpected obstacles to that goal.

In this chapter, Selene gets fired for drawing and daydreaming while at her desk job instead of "pretending" to work, like all of her colleagues seem to be doing.  I wrote it to show the reader how out of touch Selene's expectations are with what's going on around her.  While I was writing it, though, I started to think about the difference between what people 'expect' to happen and what they think is 'meant to be'.  Good example: almost all of the artists, musicians and writers that I know 'expect' to make very little money, even though they mostly believe that's not the way that things are 'meant to be'.  Where does expectation become acceptance?

Read on to find out how Selene's answers that question, and feel free to share your own experiences and viewpoints after reading it!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Paying the Troll Toll

Corporate Puppets -  from Eurekastreet
I don't know if it's just because Saturn is transiting Scorpio but recently, I've been experiencing a growing sense of unease about the Internet.  I'm not talking about the simple suspicion that it isn't as benevolent as it paints itself to be, but an active concern that it may actually be damaging the mental health of people who are using it. Part of this can be put down to my own natural state of paranoia.  The internet is so benign, so effortless and ever-present that there has to be something wrong with it, right?  If it's too good to be true then it probably is, and so on.

Then, I stumbled upon some research indicating that Facebook can be physiologically addictive; and then I learned that its designers are seemingly aware of that addictive potential and use it to their advantage, regardless of the psychological problems they may be creating.  And then the NSA scandal broke.  More recently, there has been a deluge of threatening comments sent to female writers and politicians which has led to me to look deeper into the phenomenon of right-wing trolling on the net.    While the people recently charged with threatening to rape and murder female public figures were tweeting their own views, I suspect that they felt encouraged to do so in part because there is so much right-wing trolling on the internet.

Most of you will be familiar with the existence of trolls - yes, those horrid people who continuously spout abusive, right-wing views on forums and comment threads.  Until recently, I think I assumed that they were all backwoods yahoos with unformed, uninformed opinions.  Their comments tend to be riddled with spelling mistakes, bad grammar and profanity.  They tend to be vehement promoters of false 'facts', disproven research and phoney statistics.  Very little of the information posted by trolls on the net would stand up to the scrutiny of a drunken pub debate, let alone a court of law.  And yet they seem to have vast amounts of conviction, and time, to push their dumbed-down views on us from points all across the web, creating and discarding an endless number of fresh aliases on an endless number of forums and comment boards; waging war on moderators who seem to have their hands full deleting their streams of abuse.  It's almost like being a troll is a full-time job.  Or like they're getting paid by the post.  This may be closer to the truth than you realise.

In 2011, the Guardian's George Monbiot wrote that he'd been contacted by a whistleblower who said he was, "part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them."  Sound familiar?  It will do, if you've ever participated in an internet forum.  This particular whistleblower told Monbiot that he posed as up to 70 different individuals at a time... which probably helps to explain why different trolls' posts are often nearly identical in tone and content.  Bear in mind that this whistleblower was just one employee, from one company providing 'social media management' services to corporate clients. Doubtless there are many, many more out there.

The practice of paying people to post supportive comments for a specific interest group online is said to have originated in China in 2004, where such posters are known as the '50 cent party'.  As the name suggests, these posters are paid 50 Chinese cents for every pro-government or counter-dissident post that they write.  In 2009, wrote that: "China’s 50 Cent Army is everybody's business.  With 300,000 people, you can see how the CCP could easily determine what makes it onto the front page of Digg, and what gets shouted down. They could use Wikipedia, YouTube and Slashdot as their most powerful tools of global propaganda."

That's true if China is the only country that hires right-wing commentators, but it isn't.  Throw in the U.S.A., Russia, Canada and Israel - to name but a few of the countries whose governments have hired 'online supporters' in recent times - and the potential to skew public perceptions becomes overwhelming.  In 2011 it was revealed that the U.S. military's Central Command, or Centcom, had signed a contract with a company known as NTrepid to 'manage online personas' for its staff.  NTrepid's software would enable every serviceman and woman to create and use up to 10 fake online aliases worldwide.  The Guardian reported that:  'The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".'

Presumably, the phrase 'sophisticated adversaries' is used here to refer to anybody with an intelligent counter-argument, or an awareness of insidious propaganda machines!  Centcom, predictably, has stated that it cannot reveal what these fake online personas are being used for.  They say it's classified.  In these post-NSA times, that is not a word that inspires confidence.

NTrepid has also run surveillance to keep tabs on anarchist organizations in the past and, as the PrivacySos website points, out that, "The DoD is therefore paying a company that monitors the internet use of anarchists and radicals in the United States to actively interfere with and inject pro-military propaganda into online conversations about politics."  How that is any different from China's 50 cent party?  Although Centcom claims that its online tool will not be used in English-speaking countries, one is invited to view that claim through a skeptical lens too.

The practice of 'astroturfing' (creating fake grassroots groups to make a fringe cause appear more popular than it is) has also entered the online world, where it's become virtually untraceable.  In 2010, Canada's CBC News reported that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade had hired a Toronto-based company called Social Media Group, "to help counter some information put forward by the anti-sealing movement."  There doesn't appear to be any record of what this hired help got up to online.  Were they clearly identified as government employees?  Were they abusive?  Did they cite misleading studies or facts?   Why do I get the feeling all that information's probably 'classified', too?

The biggest problem with these hired commentators is that they are in a prime position to skew public opinion in favour of groups which already wield a great deal of influence - people who have lots of money or some other form of control over the masses.  If these groups are also using 50 cent parties to 'influence' the public opinion, then they are crossing a line into mind control.  Governments do not exist to influence our opinions after all, but to represent them.  Just as corporations do not exist to tell us what we want, but to listen and provide for it.

If you regularly read any forum that discusses left-wing issues, you have probably witnessed how quickly a troll's reactionary tirade can shut down intelligent debate on any subject.  Regular internet users know how to recognise and avoid trolls but for the casual users - those who go online just to read an article or two - the mass of vitriol out there can be disturbing.  I wonder how many casual internet users come away from their computer feeling that intolerance is the new norm.  And yet it isn't - at least some of that online vitriol is being manufactured by the powers-that-be.  You have to wonder what their endgame is in doing so.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

195 Mare Street: Un-gentrifying Hackney

The days of Hackney being the 'most squatted borough in London' may be in the past now, but that doesn't mean that the odd occupation can't still be carried off when needed. In the case of 195 Mare Street, the 'need' they are responding to is that of offering a community meeting space, with services that locals whose presence predates the gentrification, can actually afford. Since the government is currently refusing to keep up its end of the "public taxes=public services" equation, centers like 195 Mare Street really need your support and probably your hands-on help too. Why not drop in and see what they can offer you & vice versa?

The centers blurb (from Indymedia):

"A new squatted social space has been created in Hackney - 195 Mare St. The space aims to be an active and inspiring hub for local individuals and community groups.

The current projects being are working on are a language school, bicycle workshop, library, free shop, screenings, hack lab and a vegan cafe. There will also be workshops and info nights. Everything will be either free or for donations.
However, there is scope for so much more. If you have any ideas or projects that would suit the space please get in touch.

There are many ways to get involved, and people are very welcome to contribute.

If you are able to donate materials, the following would be very useful:

building / decorating tools and equipment
kitchen equipment (especially cookers and large pots)
computer parts
bike parts
clothing for the free shop
books for library
art equipment

Please email us of feel free to drop by between the hours of 3-6pm on Sun - Tues and Thurs.

The 11th October will be our official opening night, with live music and other entertainment. Well worth a visit! 

Monday, 9 September 2013

An Alienated Generation?

The press has a lot to say about Generation Y's lack of workplace and social skills. But the real question is: do they have what it takes to deal with an alien invasion? Read on to find out...

Image courtesy of the Nuclear Hipster App page
Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Helicopter parents.  Delusions of grandeur.  Hyper-materialism.  What do all these phrases have in common?  Apparently, they are all features of "Generation Y" - which is what the generation that was born between 1980 and 2000 A.D. is now being called.  Previously it was known as "Generation X" and "The Millenial Generation".  (No wonder these kids can't stay focused on anything for very long... the people that named them aren't exactly setting an example.)   

Anyways, the business world seems to be taking issue with this generation of well-bred, too-poised miscreants; specifically, with its unrealistically-high expectations.  Generation Y is said to take criticism badly and to expect great rewards (e.g. positive feedback and annual raises) for its average work performance.  It's hard to blame them - Generation Y, that is, not the managers that are lining up to run them down in surveys.  Generation Y has grown up in a society which shamelessly forks over 99% of its profits to the 1% that least deserves it.  So when Generation Y-ers don't get the same treatment as those wasters in upper management from Day 1, it's no wonder they tend to move on to a different job in a hurry. Again, how is this unlike an industrial magnate who walks away from the countries he's ruined and runs for government?

A few social commentators are wringing their hands and asking what Gen Y's fickle tendencies bode for the future of our society.  That may be a scarier prospect.  When you extrapolate this generation's high expectations, perfectionism and non-committal tendencies into purely social realms (e.g. those where there is no possibility of world domination and/or obscene wealth accumulation) then the desire to snicker sadistically at their managers fades a little.  Imagine what life might be like in the year 2040, when these "narcissistic  gadget-junkies" are running the show.  What would their reaction be to a calamitous emergency?  How would they react, say, if aliens invaded the Earth and started eating people alive? 

I can just imagine how the diary of a Gen Y prime minister facing such a crisis would read....

Day 1: Just got back from a meeting with the alien invaders.  They are saying they will only give us peace if we allow them to consume 1 million of our healthiest young citizens per year.  WTF.  If we lose that many teens and twenty-somethings per year we'll run out of pop musicians, reality TV stars and models in, what, five to ten years?  This invasion has got to stop!

Day 2: The aliens have ignored our parents' efforts to make them leave us alone (WTF).  So we have been forced to launch a Facebook campaign against them (Facebook/Causes/Stop Invading Us You Awful Aliens).  

One of those old-timer MPs protested our course of action, saying, 'What will we do if the aliens aren't on Facebook?'  He was so smug about it!  So we all blocked him and formed a Facebook group to make jokes about his hair.  That'll show him.  EVERYBODY is on Facebook!

Day 4: Alien invaders have responded to our Facebook campaign by blasting Facebook's headquarters with a laser and devouring Mark Zuckerberg's flambeed remains.  We have all gone home early today to mourn the loss of our friends... friend LISTS, I mean (same difference, I guess).  

I really hope my entire Cabinet doesn't resign in the face of this setback, like it did when we received that rude email last year...

Day 5:  Great news - half my Cabinet is still on board!  And we've struck back at the aliens!  We posted like, a DOZEN links to videos of the alien-Facebook attack on Twitter.  Now the people can see what is happening, they can rise against up the enemy!

Day 6: Good news: the Twitter videos went viral.  Not-so-good news: the people have risen up against each other! Not the aliens!  (Major WTF)  They're looting each others shops, stealing each other's necessities and beating and maiming each other to secure the remaining shelters.  Like, can't they just go and live with their parents if they need food and shelter?  And aren't they embarrassed to be caught on camera acting all... desperate?

Day 7:  After this stressful week, I think we were all in need of a retreat... but we soldiered through.  After an exhausting five-and-a-half-minute emergency session, we finally came up with a solution for the uprising.  We will send some celebs out in the streets to plead with the angry mobs.  If someone really fit and popular tells them they're ruining the city's image, the mob will back down.  I know it.  

By the time we'd hatched the plan it had already gone four p.m., though, so we all had to go home for the weekend. We'll be sending those celebs out first thing Monday morning, though.  Aliens, watch out!  

Day 10: The celebs went out this morning and only one made it back (so far).  I watched the carnage on the CCTV live feed and kept waiting for the credits to roll; it was so realistic, like something on TV.  

The celeb spokespeople tried every means of reconciliation they knew: offering the mob autographs, guest slots on Big Brother, even hugs!  Then things got a bit heated and a couple of celebs told the mob that they were a bunch of haters, and said that blood-spattered hair and torn clothes was not a good look (so last year, too).  Well, I guess they paid the ultimate price for losing their cool: they won't look much better than the mob when the air-limousine brings them back.  

 Day 17: After taking a week off from the civil unrest/alien invasion situation for mental trauma, we are back in session.  Our first order of business was putting a 24-hour curfew in place.  Next, we tried to contact the military so it could enforce the curfew.  We couldn't reach anybody at the military H.Q. at first but then I sent Mum round in her car to scout the place out.  She learned from the janitor that the Military personnel had all left - they decided to switch careers because keeping the peace is just way too stressful now.  I can't really blame them.  

Gotta go... I've got to email this group referral-letter out to our ex-military personnel before the end of the day.
Day 22: The alien invader's army has stepped in and is now keeping peace for us.  They say they don't want all their prey killing each other off.  I guess I can't blame them but it still kind of hurts my feelings (they were so rude about it).

Day 25: The aliens do seem to be much better at this keeping-the-peace stuff than we are.  I think we should leave them to it.  It's the sort of work that is best left to ugly people... or whatever they are. We don't have to see them under all the visors and armour.
Day 27: Some people are saying that the aliens are so good at keeping the peace, they should be put in charge of the planet.  WTF.  And who is leading them, but that cranky MP we blocked?!  (I can't remember his name anymore, without Facebook to remind me... SO annoying). We passed a bill denying the aliens a right to stand for election though, so, problem solved.  We also designed an ad campaign warning people not to vote for any aliens.  Take that!  Now we just have to wait for the eleccy to come back on so we can run it (I sent all the power station staff on a paid retreat this week to thank them for their hard work.)

Day 30: The aliens have shut down the Parliament and are converting it into an abattoir. I've really had enough of this job now - a whole 30 days and no word of promotion from anyone.  So first thing tomorrow, Mum's going to get us a spaceship to outer space and look for another planet to live on. I don't know who ever asked NASA to send out all those stupid satellite signals and tip off the aliens to our existence but it wasn't ME.  Why should I clean up the mess? 

Day 31: Bad news.  Turns out that the richest 1% people on the planet flew all the spaceships away about four weeks ago.  They've gone to find a new planet... without us!  SO not fair.  But I guess it's my fault for not aiming high enough in my career.  I should never have settled for being a lowly Prime Minister. 

Day 39: We have resumed negotiating with the aliens now. Our proposals are as follows: They can eat 1 million of us BUT ONLY IF they keep the streets clean, the eleccy running, the shops, pubs, bars, clubs and galleries and gourmet fast food joints open. Government and military would be nice too, but not essential. 

Day 40: The aliens totally rejected our terms so now we've gone underground to the sewage system. Gross, right?  But we discovered the aliens can't reach us here.  While we were watching videos of them on Youtube (and posting insults about their clothes, lol) we noticed that they seemed scared of manholes.  Actually it was that cranky MP who noticed it, but I'm still not friending him cause Facebook's gone (that's an upside).  After some trial and error, he and I discovered that the aliens don't like the sewers because they have super sensitive noses.  I have a sensitive nose too though, so that  needs to be taken into consideration, no matter what the cranky MP says about our 'odds of survival'.  I happen to think surviving in a sewer is very odd, thank you very much!

Day 73: The aliens are all starving. But there's some good news!  They have turned the eleccy back on so we have Internet now!  

Day 74: Better news!  The aliens sent us a Tweet today - they have agreed to ALL our proposals. They'll only take 1 million peeps a year and they'll keep all the shops and stuff open. We've won! 

Day 75: We are back above ground again.  Everything is almost back to normal except for the part where we are being eaten alive. But nothing good ever comes without a price - that's what my business management teacher used to say. He taught us skills for life, that man. 

Day 77: The shops haven't reopened though because the aliens are renovating them.  And the net's gone down again. I was a bit worried when I found out that the aliens had started filling in the sewer tunnels, too, but apparently they are just trying to save us some money on the maintenance budget.  How nice!   

It's easy enough to mock people 10 or 20 years younger than oneself as being inexperienced and naive.  Too easy.  When they reach the same age as the people dissing them, though, they will probably be a lot harder to make fun of because they won't be young and naive anymore.  Older people have just had more time to realize that the rules they learned as kids are not all "hard n' fast" rules.

Ironically, the rule that 'Generation Y' seems to have all learned best is that all rewards can be bought for the right price, and that image is everything - which probably explains the rise in materialistic, narcissistic tendencies among them.  They didn't learn that rule from Mum and Dad's confidence-instilling parenting strategies, though.  They learned it from the ad campaigns designed by the very same companies that are whining about their poor work ethic, today.

Poetic justice?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Benefit cap Q&A in London, June 24

I just received this email vi
Haringey Solidarity Group's anti-benefit cap campaign:

"we are holding a street training session on monday 24th june between 7 and 9pm, at the Phoenix Millenium Centre,   about the benefit cap.

The training session is for hsg members in general who might be asked about the benefit cap while they are out being active on any issues. You will not be asked to get involved with the anti-benefit cap campaign itself.

Questions to be amswered: where does the cap fit in with welfare changes ?, is it the same as the bedroom tax ?, will i have my benefits capped ?, how can i stop it happening ?, haringey say i have to move/get a job but i don't want to move and can't find work what can i do ?, is it my fault ?, is it just another tax ? why aren't my friends in Brent aren't being capped ? what's it all about..... ?

Come and explore the answers to these and any other questions there may be...."

Although it is "for members" they are an open & helpful group that has been working with benefits claimants for years so, if you are on benefits and want to inform & empower yourself, you will surely be welcomed.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Please don't 'like' this post.

What is it about Facebook that turns seemingly-sane people into juvenile delinquents, sociopaths, cheese balls and pet-fetishists? People who you once thought were intellectual suddenly develop a thing for YouTube videos of cats talking. People who you once thought of as politically correct develop a penchant for 'liking' sexist crap dredged up from the bowels of the 'net. People who you once found deep and mysterious reveal a tragic affinity for games that were clearly designed for a three year old.

Watching the people that we know interacting on Facebook can be reminiscent of watching one's colleagues at an office Christmas party that's about to close its doors; the way that they all suddenly seem willing to chat up the bartender, tell stupid jokes to get the boss's attention and show naked photos of their lovers (or their dogs and cats) to the waiter... all in the hope of getting another round of free drinks and food. But it's not mince pies and beer that drive Facebook users - you and me included - to share and bare their most shocking, pathetic or downright annoying sides; it's the free dopamine and serotonin that the site offers.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that rewards seeking behaviour with a sense of exhileration. It's an inbuilt learning mechanism that precedes emotion and supersedes thought, ensuring that we learn what we need to do to survive no matter what. As one writer at The Cerebral Cortex blog puts it:

"[When] the person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event, his [dopamine] neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired."

In the same article, the author describes an experiment which helped establish the link between dopaminergic surges and unexpected 'rewards', carried out by Dr. Wolfram Schultz at the University of Cambridge, 1997:

"In the experiment a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat. Schultz discovered the dopamine response [occurred] in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received."
That seems pretty standard: ejoyable reward = happy feelings. But because dopamine is associated with learning, it quickly fades when the pattern stays the same. There's nothing new to learn, that's why. "Over time," writes the same author, "this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again."

How excited, you ask?

"The unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the [initial] learning period. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light."

I don't know about the reader, but this pattern of uncertain rewards reminds me of a certain, small red box that I can see in the top left hand corner of my screen as I write this, and its ever-changing tally of 'notifications'. I'm not the only one that's made the connection...

"Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward," the author of The Cerebral Cortex writes. "As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest."

And this reaction kicks into overdrive when a greater array of learning possibilities are available. "It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying 'more more more', seeking even when we have found the information," writes Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D, a contributor at Psychology Today. "Research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in," she adds.

Dopamine has had all sorts of mud slung at it because experts blame addiction on that lack of satiety. But that isn't the dopamine's fault, is it? It's the fault of the people who exploit it. People like Facebook's design team.

When E.B Boyd of the Fast Company met with the Facebook design team last year, she summed up their current design strategy this way: "Facebook doesn't just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions." Boyd went on to describe how, "A sticky note with the word ['serotonin'] scrawled on it is tacked on the wall of a design meeting". Design team manager, Julie Zhuo, explained why it was there, "[Serotonin is] our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook". The vice president of product at Facebook, Chris Cox, added, "It's the science of things you can't reason about, that you just feel." Anyone looking for evidence that emotional manipulation is the endgame of Facebook's interface design need look no farther than the designers themselves.

"It wants you to have the same feelings--the positive ones at least--that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person," summarizes Boyd. And if the fact that people are having those feelings for an automated interface, rather than for the people themselves, has led to addiction and alienation from real friends & family, then who really cares? All that matters is that it sells.

Serotonin may be responsible for the feeling of happiness when a person has found what they want but what motivates them to seek it out is dopamine. And dopamine, says Susan Weinschenk, is stimulated by three things: anticipation, unpredictability and incomplete satisfaction. Facebook has all three in spades.

The 'like' button and the 'adds friend' button are perfect examples of dopamine and serotonin manipulation. For a start, both limit the range of interactive options to a relentlessly-upbeat range. To the receiver, 'friend' and 'like' sound positive and to the sender they sound nice too, but also neutral enough to be bandied about pretty recklessly. Anyway, it's not like people have much choice... if they want to leave feedback or add a connection in a hurry, there sure as hell aren't many other buttons that they can click.

The word 'like' is usually not even an accurate reflection of what a person wants to convey when they click the 'like' button anyway. 'Like' might not look as strong as a word like 'love', but how often do you hear a phrase like, "I like you," "I like what you think" or "I like how you look"? Not every day, that's for sure. That is why, if I post a link to an interesting article on Facebook and one of my 'friends' clicks the 'like' button just to show me that they read it, I get a little kick of dopamine.  It's because of the inbuilt positive connotations that the word 'like' has. The same is true when I see a photo of a friend at a party that we went to together, and 'like' it to let her know that I saw it.

In the real world, telling someone that you read the same article or saw the same photo as them just doesn't arouse such strong feelings as it does when you 'like' them or 'friend' them on Facebook. Basically, Facebook has managed to turn the banal act of saying, "Hey, I read/recognized that too" into a little seal of approval, even when there isn't any approval going on. Who wouldn't like that? Well, honest people, for a start. The 'like' button is a lie, a misinterpretation by the middle man of the Facebook interface. And like any middleman, it wants us to like it so badly that it never stops fishing for opportunities to flatter our egos.

That may be why, when a Facebook user meets one of her Facebook 'friends' in person, the meeting sometimes feels anticlimactic and the rapport less positive than it did on Facebook... unless they happen to be good friends in real life, that is. Without the super-positive filter of Facebook people seem less nice, less supportive, and less ideal. The only way to interact with the ego-stroking version of them is to stay on Facebook... forever. Creepy, no?

Now for the 'add friend' button. In real life, people tend to consider who their friends are very carefully. They still like being called a 'friend' by somebody else, though, regardless of how close they feel to that person. Maybe that is why Facebook decided that everyone you connect to on the site has to become a 'friend'. Once you've added them as 'friends' you can divvy people up into acquaintances, colleagues, family members and close friends, etc, but from the moment that they send you a 'friend' request (or vice versa) they are first and foremost a 'friend'.

The word 'friend' is similar to the word 'like'. It doesn't sound very intense but it does have an in-built emotional charge, full of positive connotations. Whenever you log onto your Facebook account, the first thing you will see will always be "368 friends". You will never see "16 friends, 52 acquaintances and 300 people-that-you-met-just-once-and-will-almost-definitely-never-see-again". Facebook wants it that way so that, every time you see that figure (368 friends, wow) you'll feel the same emotional charge that you get from being called a 'friend' by another person, multiplied by 368. A dopamine and serotonin rush, multiplied by 368. You might only feel it for just a second, but that's long enough to elicit a neurochemical response and bond you to Facebook on a slightly deeper, subconscious level. Which is the real aim of the interface: Facebook is not designed to enable bonding with real people; it's designed to enable bonding with the unconditionally positive version of them that is only available via Facebook .

Some Facebook users reading this may be thinking, "Well, I already know all about that... in fact, I posted that same article on my Timeline three days ago and 21 friends liked it, so they know about it, too." They are all missing the point: knowing something is a conscious, secondary action while the dopaminergic response is subconscious and primary one. It's an involuntary reaction that reprograms one's brain at a neurological level... and it happens so fast that the brain has already been changed by the time its owner 'knows about' it. Maybe it's possible to undo the effect with greater mental control, but is that really desirable?

"With mental control over neuronal firing," writes the author of Cerebral Cortex blog, "Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?" Never mind about pleasure - if we could control dopamine's action, would we even still be able to learn? To survive? In an experiment in which rats had their dopamine exhausted through chronic overstimulation, they simply died of starvation. They had food but no desire to eat, since it gave them no pleasure.

By triggering a dopaminergic and serotinergic response in nearly every interaction, Facebook is effectively drowning out negative feedback and instilling a false sense of acceptance. It is silencing the social alarms that tell people when an attitude adjustment is necessary to survive.  At the same time, it is also deadening them to less stimulating realities. Take a Facebook addict away from his / her computer and witness how apathetic they can be without the constant reinforcement of the 'like' button.

Until the invention of Facebook, the only way to get that same sense of stimulation and enjoyment artifically was to engage in obviously antisocial, self-destructive behaviour: compulsive shopping, drug abuse, joining cults, gambling, etc. The difference with Facebook is that it cleverly disguises its non-stop dopamine buzz as actual feedback from actual people on a 'live' social media site. None of the usual warning bells are set off by this set-up, despite the fact that the usual addictive mechanisms are totally involved. As anyone who's lost a friend to Facebook knows, spending hours on it per day can be every bit as self-destructive and isolating as any other bad habit out there.

By now, a few readers are probably thinking, "So what if Facebook makes people feel better about doing silly stuff online? That's hardly a crime, is it?" And it may not be a crime... as far as we know. There may be nothing at all wrong with 'liking' posts of someone's cat in a hat on their timeline, just to give them that random dopamine hit, like that monkey getting his apple-juice windfall. But what if this action is a crime that takes a long time to show its adverse effects? What if its damaging them / us, and we just haven't realized it yet? After all, dopamine is the very same neurochemical that rewards a person when they first learn how to speak, read, make food, have sex, listen to friends, fix a bike, graduate. It's the same chemical that programs a person with every necessary survival skill, embedding it deep within their physical brain. It may be that dopamine is just a tad too important for us to be tampering with it gratuitously. I would be especially reluctant to mess around with it on Facebook, where the only demonstrable benefit of my dopamine buzz is to get me hooked on the site so that Mr. Zuckerberg can brag about its potential advertising revenues to his shareholders.

If manipulating dopamine and serotonin somehow prevents our species dealing with its immediate survival concerns - anything from environmental and political problems to their own emotional well being - then messing with that now, when humanity's survival is poised on a cliff's edge IS a crime.

Plenty of financial commentators have been singing Facebook's praises for the sneaky ways in which Facebook taps the dopaminergic and 'serotonogenic' systems of Facebook users. Never mind that it's been done in much the same way that bile is tapped from a live tiger for the commercial Chinese medicine market; that it's led to much the same result e.g. a force of nature has been isolated and rendered useless by technology, for profit.

We're talking about the first computer interface that has ever been deployed to manipulate huge masses of people, and it's doing it in such an indiscriminate way that it supports every kind of behaviour, whether good, bad, malignant, insignificant or benign. Never mind if it furthers our survival as a race or not.  All in all, it's a social experiment way too huge, and too risky, to be carried out by an utterly mindless, self-promoting commercial interface.

I asked what the social consequences of manipulating dopamine gratuitously could be; the advance polls seem to be saying, 'not good, not good at all'. Take the example of smartphones and mobiles; everyone currently owns one, which I strongly suspect is more down to the combined dopaminergic allure of having text messages, Twitter, email, answer phone and Facebook all in one place. And yet, every single mobile phone manufacturer on the planet is, somewhere along the line, doing business with a genocidal, rapist warlord from the Congo simply because he is in control of the world's biggest/cheapest cooltan mines (cooltan being the crucial mineral in mobile phone production). So yeah, basically, all of those stories on the six o'clock news about child soldiers being jacked full of meth, trained to use AK-47s, encouraged to gang rape girls and women, using old people and POW's for target practice... essentially, they are stories about how smartphones and cell phones get made.

That isn't half as shocking as the fact that most smartphone users know where smartphones come from... and still continue to buy the damn things. Even left-wing, humanitarian types who have been resistant to consumerism for decades. What could possibly be so special about owning a smartphone, or a top of the line mobile, that it would cause a person to ignore their deeply-held morals? Perhaps this is yet another unstudied, adverse effect of activating that teacher-neurotransmitter at every new message, tweet or like we get. Perhaps people who have had their dopamine gratuitously tweaked, again and again, actually start to believe that keeping up to date with their notifications is as life-and-death as genocide in the Congo.

When clearly, it is not.

Without any hard evidence, many people will probably continue to believe that Facebook, which uses nature's strongest bio-reward to reinforce trivial behaviour on a mass scale, is not that big of a deal, in the grand scheme of things. Maybe those same people would change their tune, though, if they considered the effect that the site has had on reinforcing the attitudes of woman-haters, fag-haters, neo-Nazis and all the other right wing nut jobs that are also using the site.

The Rapebook scandal was another little insight into the possible consequences of Facebook mind-f*ckery: dozens of 'fan pages' were discovered where men (probably all abusers) were posting violent images and comments about women on Facebook. And with very few exceptions, every she-was-asking-for-it rant, beaten-wife joke and dead prostitute picture was flooded with 'likes'. because Facebook is first and foremost a private networking site, anybody wanting to challenge such rabid bigotry had to put their private account in the firing line to criticise the bullies directly. By comparison, clicking 'like' is virtually anonymous. The result is that 'likes' are guaranteed, by default, to outnumber the critical comments left on hate pages.

It seems to have never crossed Facebook's mind that handing out digital serotonin to whomever signs up for an account, unconditionally, is like a really bad idea. Especially when that person has a habit of setting up pages like, “Hitler was right”, “How to kill a batty boy” or “Get on your knees bitch...and beg!” The site's relentlessly positive interface guarantees that even the creators of such hateful pages will receive far more positive reactions, even if they are only coming from a demented minority that actually agrees with their bigotry. I wonder what this says to the creators of said pages? And to the casual visitors who accidentally, or out of curiosity, end up on their fan page? Perhaps it makes unconscionable attitudes seem supportable, and vice versa.

Facebook's interface is not only too positive, but it's too easy to use. It favours simplicity over complexity, agreement over debate and superficiality over depth. Just what we need.

Not only has Facebook unleashed a program that allows some severely f*cked up people to reward one another's f*cked up-ness with innocuous 'friend' and 'like' buttons, but it has also been painfully slow to act in blatant cases of hate speech and bullying. Maybe it's more than just a coincidence that people holding right-wing and extreme attitudes are becoming stupider, louder and brasher by the day. Or maybe it's Facebook's fault for offering hate groups the near-total illusion of support. Or maybe not... but, at any rate, somebody needs to be asking these questions. At present, the only people talking about it are big business and bodies wanting to boost their following, like the Church. Yes even they are falling all over themselves to copy the facebook formula.

Plying psychopaths, neo-Nazis, misogynists and bullie, or even just weak or uneducated people, with neurochemicals that make them feel loved and accepted by all is a dangerously irresponsible thing to do. And no, I don't think that Facebook activism will solve the problem because Facebook IS the problem. Rapebook exposed just a few of the ignorant attitudes that have found almost-unconditional support on Facebook, but thousands more will probably grow out of that almost-unconditional illusion.

Websites that make everybody feel great about being whatever they want to be, can only work in Utopias full of perfect people. But the irony is that Utopia will never exist so long as Facebook keeps 'liking' our every move.


I should add that I have tried to go offline from Facebook a few times but came back, because there were always a few friends who I never heard from if I was not using my account. Friends that I knew well and was able to keep in touch with for years before Facebook was invented. As I cancel my personal account this time around, I know the chances that I may never hear from them again but hey, everybody I know has email and phone, so that's their issue. There is no practical reason for them to be so attached to a single site, but clearly there are plenty of irrational reasons at play that need to be addressed.

And my case is hardly unique: nearly everyone I've asked has tried to avoid using the site at some point, and struggled for the same reasons above: addiction and alienation from people they care about. Facebook has a monopoly on certain people's affections that mere individual friendships cannot match. That is why the site can act as a dividing line, keeping real-life friends apart instead of bringing them together. That is because keeping you in touch with your friends is not Facebook's real goal: keeping you on their site is.