UPDATE April 2022: I wrote this in January 2009, right at the beginning of the expenses scandal and several months before the Telegraph began the week-by-week disclosure of hideous abuse of the system after hideous abuse of the system – duck houses and moats and multiple flipped second homes and families on the payroll etc. But still, the naivety!
I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny.
I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.
But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.
This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. Parliament.uk could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.
That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.
The year is 1823. Nathaniel Burrell, sheep farmer, has stumbled upon a method for duplicating sheep. To cut a long story short, after years of essentially random cross-breeding he now can produce new sheep on demand at no cost. A quick twist of the tail of one of his miraculous cross-bred sheep and you’ve got a brand new one, just the like the old one, just standing there, blinking.
Burrell keeps the news to himself and makes a handsome turn selling the newly-minted sheep at the local livestock market but pretty soon people notice the smart new horse and cart in the drive and start to wonder where all the extra sheep in his fields are coming from and then a lad spies the whole process from behind a hedge and soon enough everyone knows you can get free sheep up at Nathaniel’s place.
To begin with it’s just the local miscreants but fairly soon everyone’s up there, day and night, picking up free sheep and herding them back to their own fields or back yards or box rooms. Of course, it’s not long before people figure out that the duplicate sheep have the same ability: quick twist, new sheep. Blimey.
So now everyone’s got their own and they’re busy making more for their friends. Nathaniel is pissed off. As far as he can tell, these people are stealing his stuff. “These sheep are mine!” he yells as the vicar and his wife lead four fluffy new sheep down the lane. “What do you mean, they’re yours? They’re free aren’t they?” “Yes, but they’re mine! They’re my invention, my thing!” “Does it cost you anything when I make a new one?” asks the vicar. “Well, no, but they’re still mine. And besides, I make my living from selling these bloody sheep. Nobody’s buying them now are they? Not now they can just twist-and-go!”
“I see your point, friend, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Sheep are free now. I think you’re just going to have to get used to it.”
There follows a period of disquiet, during which Nathaniel makes a spirited effort to persuade the world that these free sheep are all really his. There are ups and downs. He wins a few small victories – various slow-witted judges are persuaded that the duplicate sheep actually belong to farmer Burrell, some people are even punished, although transportation seems a bit rich for the theft of a sheep that even its legal owner doesn’t actually need and even wise judges sometimes changed their minds.
Farmer Burrell even invests a few hundred guineas in an elaborate and annoying system of padlocks and sticks, which he calls SRM (Sheep Rights Management) which is meant to protect his rights by stopping people from making copies of his sheep. But the system is awkward and some people can’t get it to work at all (and it hurts the sheep) so it’s soon abandoned. Nathaniel’s not really winning the argument and the whole time people are just making more and more copies of his precious sheep.
An economist friend comes round one afternoon: “the problem with your sheep is that they’re not rivalrous any more and they have precious little excludability. They’re basically a public good now.” His friend encourages him to give up on the law suits and the nasty letters and the increasingly desperate efforts to stop people from copying his sheep. He’s just banging his head against a wall. The world has changed.
In the meantime, of course, the price of an ordinary sheep, bought in a market or at the farm gate, has fallen to a fraction of its pre-Nathaniel value and a lot of people have decided there’s no point trying to sell them at all. They’re opening innovative lamb restaurants and sheep-based circuses and generally adding value to their essentially worthless livestock. Some are given away free with another recent invention: the newspaper, some are fluffed up and sold as ‘premium sheep’ for ‘sheep collectors’. Nathaniel is resigned.
After a few years, Nathaniel has given up on making money from selling his sheep and now specialises in a range of sheep-themed experiences: a theme park, a line of clothing, club nights. It’s a blast – and he’s even making some money. And since farmer Jackson came up with a way of copying cows and farmer Finch pigs, the whole space has got a lot more competitive and everyone’s more-or-less forgotten the days when you used to have to pay for your sheep. Pay for your sheep!
The inner workings of the BBC news operation are a mystery to me (although I did get a peep into the newsroom a while ago which was very exciting) so I find myself wondering about the orgins of this item on yesterday’s Today programme. The premise is that Saturday evening primetime TV in Britain is enjoying a renaissance thanks to big live and drama franchises like X-Factor and Doctor Who. Can’t really argue with that – Saturday night TV has been brilliant for several years now and the ratings reflect that – but is it strictly news? I mean, what’s the trigger? Did something happen? Was something announced? Or did someone in the ITV press office pitch an interview with Michael Grade to the Today editors who then sought a premise for the item?
The interview itself is interesting and Grade’s always good value, although his case, which is that this represents some kind of reprieve for broadcast TV, sounds a bit thin. Let’s face it, the Saturday evening revival is almost certainly a blip in the inexorable decline of broadcast-model media produced by a burst of creativity and investment from the BBC and ITV that probably can’t be sustained (especially not by ITV during the nastiest decline in ad spending in decades). Our collective realisation that broadcast TV has real and enduring strengths in live and ‘event’ programmes will not save the medium from ultimate irrelevance – although it might defer it.
So, back to my question, how does a story like this, connected only obliquely to current events, wind up on air in Today’s peak hour? What’s the process?
Here’s a fascinating thing. A really detailed analysis of a single very important open source project, Open Office.org (OO.o). The author, Michael Meeks, a prominent Open Office hacker, has tabulated and analysed the application’s CVS logs (CVS is the system that stores and organises the code contributed to the project by its many developers). What we have here is a quite fine-grained set of direct, numerical indicators of the health of Open Office.org – in particular, of the engagement of the contributing developers (Meeks acknowledges in the post various weaknesses in the data). How many developers are involved, how much code is contributed and which organisations are most engaged. Meeks’ conclusion is that engagement is falling and that Open Office.org is sick. He thinks the project needs urgent remedial work to get it back on track.
The reason I find this so interesting is because it offers a preview of the way we’ll monitor the health of all sorts of projects in the future. Open source, as a way of working, is spreading to other areas of activity, some quite remote from software development. If it really catches on – in business, education and the media, for instance – we’ll presumably be able to analyse this kind of data for many different kinds of work. A university might select an open source physics course or a manufacturer an open source component design by comparing graphs like Meeks’ for competing projects. And Meeks’ hand-rolled analysis will inevitably mature into a measurement and presentation dashboard for the whole open source economy.
We’re also learning that data, once exposed, is quickly acquired, tabulated, visualised and compared. Open data is much more useful than the closed stuff. Can it be long before I can fly through a 3D virtual world of open source projects floating in space, coloured and shaped to represent their various critical attributes?
Geeks and Internet industry types like to say that Andy Burnham, our Minister for Culture, doesn’t get the Internet. They’re wrong. He gets the Internet all right. He just doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like its pretensions to autonomy and ungovernability and in particular he doesn’t like its inability to protect kids from stuff they shouldn’t be exposed to.
How should the net respond to Burnham’s increasingly pointed attacks? Should we gleefully point out how ‘clueless’ he is? Should we celebrate his irrelevance or the inevitability of his eventual enlightenment by the unstoppable, unarguable net?
No. We should listen to him and recognise that he speaks for millions of people – parents in particular – for whom the net is a frightening thing: a place where it’s difficult to control your exposure to content and experience. A place that contrasts badly, for instance, with the parts of the media where you can exert control (selecting a movie to watch from an age-rated list, for instance). We should acknowledge that these concerns are real and can be addressed.
And why not? Control of our experience of content is vital – you might almost call it a right. Can we reasonably promote increased access to the earth’s ultimate information resource when we can’t offer users anything better than crude control over the experience? Should we really say “hey, here’s all of human knowledge, culture and experience. Some of it will freak you out but there’s nothing we can do about that. Get used to it.”
As a parent, I should be able to send my kids (ten, nine and five) onto the net in the reasonable expectation that they won’t be frightened or exploited or upset. It really is not enough to say that the only way to guarantee that is to sit at their shoulders as they go online, ready to jump in and curtail the experience if I think it’s going wrong (especially once they’re experiencing it from multiple connections at home, from an iPhone on the school bus or in the school’s ICT suite).
It’s possible to dismiss Burnham’s concerns as those of a nervous n00b or an instinctive authoritarian. We could just say “get over yourself: plunge in, you’ll love it! The good stuff always exceeds the bad and most of the time you’ll never see anything that upsets you” (which is roughly what I say to novices) but that’s not enough. It just fails to acknowledge the actual reality of a wide-open net governed not by historic scarcity but by rip-roaring plenty. The net’s structure: the structure we love and celebrate – distributed, flat, open and permissive – virtually guarantees that it will contain content that will upset many users.
The idea that we should just grin and bear it (or, for instance, require parents to ride shotgun at all times) is ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous when you consider the sheer amount of time and energy we net professionals put into filtering and sorting and discriminating in our own net lives. We love the range and accessibility of the net but hate the unordered and unproductive soup of content that makes it hard to get things done and prioritise our lives. For a decade now, a significant proportion of start-up businesses have been in exactly this filtering business: providing tools to control the unmediated rush of content.
In fact many of us are excitedly contributing to a revision of the net’s early indiscriminate structure called the semantic web. We engage in (I’m going to give it a name) filter-seeking behaviour and we actively create filters every time we tag a blog post or a photo.
What we should do in response to Burnham’s reflex rejection of the net’s openness and permissiveness is get on and provide the filters people need. The net’s made of computers after all. If we can build filters as powerful and useful as the DNS, Facebook, Google, del.icio.us, Twitter or RSS feeds (they’re all filters of one kind of another) why can’t we shield kids from scary or upsetting content flexibly, adaptively and automatically? If we can constantly improve the relevance and usefulness of search results why can’t we filter out nastiness and offense for our kids in an intelligent way?
If we as an industry can’t hook together metadata, algorithms, user experience and human editorial effort to provide genuinely useful filters for use by parents, schools and even consenting adults, we won’t long be able to resist the arguments of Burnham and others for restrictions on the supply-side: the content itself. We need to recognise the legitimacy of human filter-seeking behaviour and acknowledge that the continued existence of the wide-open net depends in large part on our ability to filter its experience for vulnerable users.