What do we do now we have Golden Peach Preserve, Imperial Pear, Kumquat, Mirabelle Plum…

I work part-time at a large supermarket chain (surprise, surprise, writing doesn’t pay my bills). Everyday I see the variety of choice out there and am bewildered at the complexity we face today. Not only do we have walls of jam to pick from but babies and toddlers are now improving their palate: organic vegetable, spaghetti bolognese, thai green curry, exotic fruit. My question is twofold: what affect does this  amount of choice have on us, the consumer; and now we have cornered the toddler/baby market where are the emerging markets of the future to come from? In effect, what is the state of consumerism today and what will it look like in the future?

American psychologist B.Schwartz explores the effects of choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, highlighting the paralysing nature of too much choice and denying the official dogma that suggests more choice equates to more freedom. And quite a few scientists agree with him. Further research shows that more choice invariably means people make no choice at all and that oftentimes it can be beneficial to offer up decision-making to others (especially in cases where the other person has more considerably more knowledge than you, i.e. doctors).

At the end of the day more choice lessens the pleasurable experience of each choice you make. Say you go for the Golden Peach Preserve and that’s pretty damn good, what’s to say the Imperial Pear wasn’t better? Of course choose the Imperial Pear next time and  that experience is marred by the memory of just how good the Golden Peach Preserve was. Then comes the problem, which one will you go for now you know both were a mighty fine jam experience? Ultimately whichever choice you make you’ll be unsatisfied and Schwartz suggests this happens even when the decision made actually benefits you. Why do we need the extra stress in our lives? As if modern life wasn’t tough enough already (statistics show that adults are ten times more likely to suffer from clinical depression today than in 1945).

Now let’s turn to the future of consumerism in this country. I fear we are beginning to reach the end of a previously unquenchable line of exploitable markets. We surpassed pre-teens (quite an uproar when I was growing up that was) and are now in the territory of the pre-child. Baby food, educational toys for toddlers, the overwhelming range of nappies, wipes, milk, sterilisers… The list is becoming steadily endless. I think most economists would agree that capitalist economies require burgeoning markets to exploit in order to survive. In this case, where are the next markets to magically appear from? Perhaps we could develop the foetal market, a variety of musical accompaniments to life in the womb perhaps? Sonic resonance massaging, or a brand new range of replacement placental fluid to enhance the developmental experience?

To top this off, now that people will have little to no pension the silver pound will soon start dissipating. Pensioners houses won’t be worth half as much when they get around to retiring and things will probably be twice as expensive. So where are the markets to come from? The answer seems to be from abroad, specifically the developing countries. Here is a positive point for all those of a liberal sensibility. Once we have exhausted all exploitative markets in Western countries global capitalism will be forced to ignite the democratising spark in developing countries. The bottom line is that consumers need to have freedom and expendable incomes to become proper consumers. I have said it before in another context and I say it again: if we want conditions to improve in this country we will need to start campaigning for an improvement in the conditions of the citizens in the developing countries that are exporting cheap goods to us.

If we want to continue in a global capitalist economy (and I’m not saying we should, but it’s what we got) we have deal with the global trade imbalance. Even China has realised it needs to start exploiting internal markets and with this comes the necessary freedoms that must exist in a consumerist world. Consumers must feel like individuals. A burgeoning middle-class in China is already starting to exert a little influence and I suggest this bottom-up pressure will only increase. There’s the democratising spark of capitalism. Osborne’s cringeworthy begging bowl trips to China and India show just how important these markets are to us. Let’s hope the kind of legislative change that occurred in the labour markets in this country will happen in those countries, the minimum wage, decent health and safety. Perhaps then they won’t be able to undercut workers in this country. Workers of the World Unite!

The amount of choice we have in this country is an inevitable symptom of late-stage consumerist capitalism and it probably does us more harm than good. That said, we shouldn’t forget that we are lucky to have the choice. Any choice. Perhaps the silver lining that might emerge is that there will soon be no new markets to exploit and we may be forced to make lives in other countries better. Only because it will be immediately beneficial to us, of course. Looking further into the future, however, perhaps ultimately it would be nice to live in a world where we don’t need ‘stuff’ to give our lives meaning.

Privacy Invaded!

“A sleepy, global village called Privacy awoke this morning to find itself overrun during the night by evil forces using the internet as a weapon of mass destruction…”

Of course, this is simply me being quite facetious (I wouldn’t stretch to funny, I doubt you will either). Privacy is not a village, and it has not literally been invaded. That said, the reason I parodied the headline of a newspaper is to make a serious point: this really isn’t headline news. For years we have been spied on by various institutions under the auspicious guise of National Security, or simply basic policing (take CCTV, for example), and of course via the friendly world of marketing. Consciously or subconsciously we have been aware of this fact for years.

It isn’t in the context of fashion, the creative arts, or even the drugs and alcohol culture that the new generational gap is to be seen. It is in the realm of privacy, precipitated by advances in communication technology since the 60’s, the phone; the mobile phone; SMS; the internet;and lastly but most important: social media networks. Suddenly the older generation is surrounded by a world where individuals are prepared to give a running commentary on their day-to-day lives. The concept of privacy has changed and is still rapidly changing as new advances in connectivity filter out into the wider world. This is where we have to start when we talk about the nature of privacy in the digital age.

The releasing of the Snowden files recently unveiled the overwhelming technological capabilities of security agencies around the world, tracking the extent of Big Data mining and the capability to monitor masses of public and private internet chatter. This report seemed to be a bombshell which should have seen the populations of great Western liberal democracies out in the streets en masse. Riots, parliament in flames, at the very least the peaceful march of millions through the streets of London. There was, however, no such thing. Perhaps this is because most people were indoors glued to their bright screens. To be fair, there has been a limited debate for which I commend Snowden but the fact remains that since he has taken refuge in Russia there has been surprisingly little coverage of this story.

The fact is we now have a generation which lives in and around the social networking sites that gather vast swathes of data from each and every one of us. At the same time they are also far more comfortable with institutions having access to this information, especially in the arena of marketing. In a blog post by J.V. Grove, the attitude to data mining by marketing companies was summed up succinctly in this young girls response to online advertising: “If ads are tailored to me, I’m totally fine with them,” Tess said, “but [advertisers] really should get it right.”. I struggle to believe this generation is unaware of how companies go about successfully targeting advertising to individuals. At the same time the free-to-use model is king yet still Facebook floats itself on the stock-market at an over-inflated price. Again, I think the tech-savvy generation that has grown up in cyberspace knows the score here. We have given our signatures in blood so that the Mephistophelian ‘Internet’ may service our needs, but have we given away our souls in the process?

The fact is, younger people are far more comfortable talking openly about things that their parents might feel to be private. One negative to social networking sites is that there is a plethora of useless information floating around out there (such as the contents of a persons breakfast, or the length of the queue at the post office), but this simply requires we act as a filter. Perhaps the fact that people think others are interested in all this means individuals are developing an inflated sense of self, but the connectivity that has arisen from social networking has also cast light on previously taboo subjects and connected like-minded individuals who would have once felt isolated.

At the same time, despite the idea that younger people are unaware of the repercussions of their lack of discretion I believe this generation is well aware of the amount of information that exists out there. They are knowledgable enough to know that the possibility of future repercussions requires them to curb their actions on social networking sites. We will always naturally keep something back but it seems to me that the world could do with a little more transparency, even if a lot of it is banal.

Meanwhile, the technology that allows such mass surveillance has also given rise to sites such as Wikileaks, allowing socially active ‘hackers’ worldwide to take the fight to the doorstep of previously unaccountable institutions. The secretive domain of intelligence services is getting an unwelcome light shone into the dark recesses of their world. The extent to which their power reaches is a matter for public discussion, whatever your feelings on the necessity of these institutions. The rights of the individual are best served having this information in the public domain. Liberty requires that such power is subject to checks and balances which go beyond the internal workings of the state, to include the wider population wherever possible. The internet is both a tool for surveillance and one that allows us to move towards transparency and accountability in these arenas.

I don’t believe that governments should have impunity in the surveillance that is undertaken on a daily basis. On the other hand, I am also a pragmatist in believing that this doesn’t mean nation states shouldn’t have the capability to monitor communications. I wish we lived in a world free of the threat of harm but human nature is human nature. We would be dull automatons if it wasn’t. That said, the internet is providing us with a rare opportunity to get the balance right between prevention of harm and the destruction of individual freedom. Instead of top down control we should continue to see grassroots organisations such as Wikileaks ‘monitoring the monitors’.

Advances in global connectivity have inevitably seen the nature of privacy change down the years. Perhaps the main problem is the speed with which these changes have occurred. States and individuals alike are struggling to come to terms with the social changes that this has brought about. Nation states have dealt with the freedom of the internet badly, and the link between privacy and individual freedom means we must be wary of the surveillance state. That said, surely it is what institutions do with the information that really matters. Perhaps we should focus less on an individuals right to keep secrets and more on his ability to make choices. If institutions start to curb these choices then we have a problem, but at the end of the day I couldn’t care less what you know about me as long as you let me go about my life and control my own future.

Black. Blue.

Black. White.

Flashing blue.  
Orange. Red.  

"Fight!" 

Aggression. 
A smile. 

The future here is declared through  
the slow waving hand of a child. 

“Weather's nice”—  

Silver hair shivering at a shop window, 
newly-replaced. 

Mouth-mottled paving. 
Footsteps  
hand-in-hand— 

A crackle of voice received— 
“Over”. 

Door slam. 

Inextricable, 
indeterminable sound  
avoids  separation.  

Approaching tide on sand.

Felix Ortiz-Szewiel

The Automatonical Replacement of the Broom

The Automatonical Replacement of the Broom



       Driven somewhat dangerously by Dennis,

(well versed in recent advances in health and 
safety, but blissfully unaware of his surroundings),

With one arm hanging from the cockpit

                               It fires the sound of 
Impending attack,
With a thick-bristled
Hitlerbärtchen
                               Raping

Rooting—

Flushing out culprits
It annihilates 

With a water cannon
Hidden between bared teeth.

Keeping the road 
Like a leashed 
Alsatian following its
Prey, it threatens 

With a Blizkrieg sound 
And a whirl of spray,
Driving the unwanted underground.

Tomorrow it’ll be unmanned and unremitting,
under the influence of silicone chips, 
                                         
                                           cold,  

unbending to resistance—
But today the hi-vis jacket coughs 

and spits 

and scratches in the cockpit—
to the scratchy tune from the cockpit radio.

The Digital Future of Creativity

Whilst living in London I had the pleasure of sharing a flat with a music producer whom I greatly admire. We had met a few years previously at a bar where I once worked, in a particularly trendy area of London at the time, (perhaps not so much now, trendy areas tend to shift like the tides in London). Running under the moniker of ‘Blende’, my friend had been an early exponent of the minimalist tech sound, well respected by those who knew the underground scene, producers and DJ’s alike. Although I was no aficionado I enjoyed his work, but the fact was that his sound wasn’t mainstream and never would be.

When I moved into his flat years later, this talented producer still found himself struggling against a music culture that seemed happy enough to reward banality through the likes of the X-Factor, Pop Idol, etc, etc. As if this wasn’t enough, suddenly he found himself faced with another mountain to climb, driven by the proliferation of streaming platforms allowing access to music for free. This was the rise of the Spotify generation, another link in the evolutionary chain of generation ‘free’.

My friends opinion on this situation is simple: up-and-coming artists are being choked to death by free-to-stream sites that serve only to increase the profit margins of labels, an opinion backed by David Byrne: ‘The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what’s left down to their artists’. Smaller labels are known to provide more equal profit-sharing, but with profit margins at an all-time low (Spotify pays pittance for most of the music it holds), we can only wonder at how long smaller labels will be commercially viable. What we have here is a pincer move, labels are paying artists less, and at the same time strengthening their hold on the market. It is difficult not to feel sorry for up and coming artists in this world, but it is also only one side of a very complex argument.

As a recent winner of the Mercury Music Prize, James Blake has suggested that audiences are simply consuming music in a different way. The fact is, Blake made the vast majority of his album in the comfort of his own home. The same technology that has enabled consumers to access free content is now making music production cheaper and more accessible, whilst a tech-savvy new generation is now able to take more advantage of the latest advances. Gone are the days of wieldy amplifiers dragged around the city to recording studios. You can drop a tune in a day now, between breakfast and lunch, if so inclined. At the same time, sharing free content is fast becoming a way to market yourself to a global audience. The market is changing, and the only thing now is for artists to get together and work out a way of making a living from what they do. There’s no point complaining about a storm, you just have to figure out a way of weathering it.

The debate has raged across all media platforms since the dawn of the internet all those years ago (it’s really not that old at all, it’s just that we can’t see life without it so we can’t see back that far anymore). I remember discussing this issue with a group of like-minded liberal friends when I was flirting with the idea of journalism as a career, as I began to look closely at how I could do this and get paid for it. Having done a fair amount of research I found my originally stringent position on the nature of the internet had begun to sway. I suddenly found myself swimming back against a tide of liberal thought that touted the freedom of the internet, a freedom that essentially meant ‘free’. How would I make a career out of writing? My own selfishness aside, how were media outlets, central to the democratic foundation of any ‘free’ society, going to monetize the internet? I received a lukewarm response to this, and rightly so. I am liberal at heart and ultimately believe the internet is a fantastic tool for the future of democratic freedom. This doesn’t negate the fact that we are shaking the foundations of democratic accountability, and we need to keep a watchful eye on this. Citizen journalism is all good and well, but journalists will still be required to filter and act as an accountable body in the dissemination of information in the future. How will they be rewarded for taking on this vital role?

That said, the internet is not some all-consuming demon spawned to suck the soul from humanity by destroying its art forms and the accountability for sources of information. It is merely a reflection of the society it exists in, and that society currently values skills within a monetary system. What the internet has succeeded in doing is to democratise the creative arts, alongside Modernist and Post-modernist artists who worked to broaden the horizon of what constitutes art in the first place. Elitist artistic dogma has been broken down and the differentiation between popular and ‘high’ culture has dissolved considerably since the heady days of Shakespeare and Eliot. This is of course a good thing, but it also leaves us an undeniable truth: more people have access to the production of artistic forms, something that once remained the privilege of a small group. In this case, each individual product is valued less.

I write this post for free, and you will read it for free. I write poetry that will most likely not lead to any sort of remuneration (of course, it was up to me to choose a dying art form within which to work). I’m not sure how I will get paid, or if I will get paid for what I do. In this I am not far removed from the various artists down the years that have changed the landscape of art for those that followed (though this is probably the closest relationship I can pretend to have with such artists). The difference is that now we are facing a future in which no artist is paid for their work, and this has profound implications for the future of the industry. Sadly, the only creative industry that appears to be thriving today is the banking industry, as over-payed financiers buy and sell imaginary financial products and cleverly think up new ways to get us to cover any losses they might incur along the way. If only artists could do the same. Instead of complaining, we desperately need to find a way to preserve an important part of our culture, the way we see and represent the world around us. The imagination is what drives us forward, and art plays an important role in sparking it. Journalists serve to filter information and ensure we are seeing a broad reality that has a basis in truth.

There is one ray of light with the advent of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, a new form of raising capital for creative works. It is the beginning of a solution for artists of the future, though we are far from an answer to this complex issue. As I said earlier, the internet is simply a reflection of the society it exists within. In this case, perhaps instead of struggling to monetize content on the internet we should seriously consider changing the way we value individuals and what they produce. Until then we simply need to find new ways to serve rapidly changing markets.

If you would like to check out Blende’s work for free, here’s a link to his recent release on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZFC2EIIImI

The Gravediggers

 
The Gravediggers
‘A spectre is haunting Europe’


Between four walls
A young migratory thing
Twitches—
                 Rhythmical,
Nervous little thing
On amphetamine.

The wise, tall grass pays no attention,
Too busy steeping a head in the glass stream

(Tic-tock, tic-tock.)

But the teenage gulls complain,
Missing out on the action—

Above old mourning doves
Occupying a bench;
Settled like book-ends, in love.

If one should die,
                      what happens to the other?

(Tic-tock, tic-tock.)

Not far away, just a step from
                                            Royal Gala walls—

The pungent smell of coffee, bitter, sweet;
Sliding from a cafe on a narrow street;
Melts amongst a grey and steady stream.

The foreign exchange—
The feuds of family,

Inter-generational conflict—
The baby-boomer stealing

Confectionary—

'Show your hand too early
Your daughters will steal it.'
Be wary.

Steer toward economic viability—
                                           Trust no-one.

Take the advise of tarot.

Pool resources.
Flexible equity,

Hedged,
Leveraged—

Variable options,
Market liquidity.

‘Can you hear a distant march?’
                                        (The gravediggers are here.)
Felix Ortiz-Szewiel

					

The Gravediggers

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers…The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’ (Marx K. and Engels F., 1848)

This is a minor excerpt from the monumental ‘Communist Manifesto’, a short exposition that had a drastic effect on the political reality of a large portion of the twentieth century. Firstly, I want you to know that I am not a Marxist. I fear I have to point that out because  the stigma that arose from the aborted experiment that was the U.S.S.R had the knock-on effect of rendering Marx entirely unquotable, unless you happened to be ridiculing or refuting. However, I think recently some have to come realise that he wasn’t entirely wrong in his historical conceptualising of the capitalist system.

I use this particular statement because it has always stuck with me, though for this post it might be better to narrow it down to a more succinct description: ‘Industrial Capitalism engineers it’s own gravediggers’. I say this because Marx and Engel’s words take on new meaning in todays rapidly advancing technological world, becoming narrowed in definition to describe the breakdown of a social contract that arose with the advent of consumer culture. It was a contract which stated that whilst consumerism brought with it a plethora of new markets for the economy to exploit; people wanting more things, experiences, etc;  in order to provide such realities more people would have jobs, enabling them to acquire more wealth which they would spend on ever more things. Into this mix, however, we throw technology.

Technology rapidly advances and improves productivity in this ‘brave new world with such things in it’. More things are made by fewer people. Soon, the social contract between consumer and provider becomes a little shakier. In developed countries, suddenly nobody makes things anymore. It isn’t cost effective, and technology enables providers to ship these jobs abroad whilst maintaining the productivity of the workforce and driving down costs, (a wonderful example of this system comes in the fact that scottish salmon is now caught in Scotland,  shipped to China for packaging, before being shipped back again to the consumers of the West).  Of course, a multitude of factors are involved in this scenario, but technology has played a central role in the rapid globalisation of the labour force. As this has occurred, we have become consumers whilst other countries such as Bangladesh, or China, have become providers. Cue global imbalance. To digress slightly, it would seem now that if we want a living wage in this country we are going have to start actively improving the wages of workers in other countries. Stamp out the competition.

Some say that the automation and digitalisation of labour simply provides new and better jobs for the workforce of tomorrow. At the same time, many jobs in the lower end of the market, service and retail providers, for example, are simply not replaceable by machines, and it will always be the case that some jobs will require the human touch. This seems to me a rather short-termist view, considering the rapid advances in technology in the past decade. Vast swathes of ‘big-data’ now mean that computers are able to simulate human intelligence, ‘A.I’, as they call it. Perhaps I saw Terminator too many times, but surely the road seems fairly unpredictable from that point? How long before computers replace doctors and lawyers? Of course, we’ll need programmers to set-up these grand machines, but how long will it be before they will be able to program themselves? It’s all Sci-fi, futuristic stuff, but so was landing on the moon. Unfortunately, in a world governed by a capitalist system that is driven to narrow cost margins, innovation in the labour sector is where the focus lies.

It is important to state, however, that the link between advancing technology and stagnant employment growth is still debatable. That said, I think the most important factor in all this is not the replacement of human beings in the labour market but the slow chipping away at the the value of that labour. Even though employment has been steadily rising in this country, wages have stagnated. In order to find work, people are having to make themselves more and more flexible. Technology’s role here is to make each individual more productive, thereby lowering the value of his work. If we look at a broader view, access to technology then becomes a precursor to success, and this access is becoming increasingly  limited to those that can afford it, vis-a-vis large companies, thereby obstructing the rise of small businesses and forcing more and more people into employment with the aforementioned larger companies, who are now able to streamline their labour force to the point where they require humans only for certain tasks. Thereby, we get a minimum wage, but we work less hours and take home less than we ever have.  It is a simplification of a complex scenario, but the basic point is there.

Back in the Sixties, technology was seen by many as a tool with which we might unleash the utopia of the future. No longer would we be required to do those pesky jobs around the house, cleaning, ironing etc. Instead, an efficient (and probably more proficient) robot would do these things, allowing us time for other things such as leisurely activities. Unfortunately, what wasn’t factored into this picture is the value of workers in the labour market. Instead of enjoying more leisure time, people now simply work the same amount but have to put up with less job security. A dystopian future can be seen in a capitalist system that only strives to streamline and thereby increase its profitability. In the hands of this system, technology becomes a tool with which to further extend the imbalance between the rich and poor in society. I think we can look at it in two very different ways; the P.K Dick way: Technology and global corporations as a threat for the future of mankind as we know it; or the Star Trek way: The abolition of the market economy and the embracing of technology as a tool for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Unfortunately, either way I suggest the immediate future will be turbulent and unpredictable. One ray of light is that something has to change, and necessity is the mother of all invention.