Falcon Heavy Takes Flight, Rebooting Human Ambition

At a time when distracted Western governments and decaying institutions are incapable of providing visionary leadership, with society increasingly split along partisan lines, it took the vision of a private citizen to remind us what real ambition looks like

“Ad astra per aspera”, reads one of several memorial plaques to the crew of Apollo 1, three brave NASA astronauts who died in January 1967 when the oxygen in their capsule ignited during a routine launchpad test midway through America’s audacious bid to put a man on the moon. A rough road leads to the stars.

But since 19 December 1972, there has been no road to the stars of any kind, no road anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit. The final Apollo missions were scrubbed due to their enormous cost, public apathy and perceived lack of return on investment, and while the Space Shuttle and International Space Station served as holding accomplishments of a kind, one cannot escape the conclusion that we have gone backwards, and not only as it relates to space travel, in terms of our willingness to embrace big challenges or dare mighty things.

Various politicians in recent years have proposed vague and (to varying degrees) fanciful plans for a return to manned spaceflight beyond Low Earth Orbit – George W. Bush had his own plan to send people to Mars, never likely to happen while he was busy bungling the War on Terror, while Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony by 2020. But this was always fanciful thinking – the fact that NASA has not had a permanent director in over a year reveals the truth about exactly how much the US government currently prioritises space exploration.

Thus in recent years it has fallen to private companies (as well as the Russians and Chinese) to keep the hope of future manned spaceflight alive. We are able to fill the sky with myriad commercial and military satellites, but the normally insatiable human appetite for exploration seemed in recent years to have dimmed.

Matthew Continetti makes this point in a piece for the National Review:

It was precisely this dream that seemed jeopardized by President Obama’s 2010 decision to cancel our return to the moon. Not only did America cede the final frontier to Russia and China. The policy lowered our sights. It tempered our dreams. Certain possibilities, such as Americans on the red planet, appeared to be closed off.

NASA’s robot explorers, who have traveled to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the asteroid belt, are scrappy and intrepid. They have told us much about the solar system. But they are not very exciting. They make for good copy in Discover and Scientific American, but they do not quicken the pulse or exhilarate the imagination. Only a vision of the human future in space can do that.

This sense of decline finally started to change with the launch of the SpaceX rocket Falcon Heavy on Tuesday 6 February, a machine half the size and power of the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo missions but far more efficient and able to carry significant payloads into orbit, and beyond. Meanwhile, NASA’s own next-generation Space Launch System is lagging behind and not due to carry its first manned mission until the highly optimistic date of December 2019.

I found the video of the Falcon Heavy launch – much like the footage of the Apollo missions – profoundly moving. I’m a child of the 1980s, and became an adult in the 2000s. And I can name no human accomplishment which has taken place in my lifetime remotely comparable to the moon landings. Nothing even close. Since the Apollo missions we have betrayed that legacy, hugging our own planet and never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit within the lifetimes of most people on this planet. Some even question whether the accomplishment was real, or if it wasn’t all just deception concocted in a TV studio.

The America of 1969 was not without its challenges and issues. The preceding year had been particularly difficult, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War protests. Yet despite these trials and difficulties, still the United States accomplished great things, launching (and safely recovering) the first men to ever set foot on another world. We, by contrast, seem overwhelmed by challenges which are no more insurmountable than those we faced in the 1960s.

Humans need vision and purpose. The prevailing political debate in the West implies that we must be concerned with “equality” (of outcome) above all else, that the guiding star of humanity should simply be ensuring that everyone has equal slices of a pie. But equality of outcome is a state of being (and an undesirable one at that), not a destination. As a society, we need to be part of something, to belong to a collective endeavour. Religion has long served that purpose, but is now a diminishing influence for many, while intersectional identity politics threatens atomisation rather than building unity.

President Kennedy once said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. He was addressing a country and a people who wanted more than simply to protect their own perks & privileges – people who asked what they could do for their country, not what the government could do for them.

Our leaders don’t speak like that any more, because there is no longer any political reward to be gained from calling us to a higher, shared purpose. Atomised and highly individualistic, we couldn’t care less about discovery or common endeavour, or anything that doesn’t directly help us to pay a deposit on our London flat or New York apartment.

It’s easy to blame politicians for our societal and cultural drift, but in truth we get the leaders we deserve. And the reason we are lead by identikit drones who waffle on about “Our NHS” and act like making the trains run on time is God’s highest purpose, or ignorant blowhards who spew empty promises to “Make America Great Again”  is because we reward the people who do so. We are overly self-absorbed.

There is no ambition in our politics anymore, only petulant demands from voters and cowardly pandering by politicians. Young people in particular are (rightly) idealistic – but what, aside from the utterly misguided forced equality advocated by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, is remotely idealistic or ambitious about our politics today? Almost nothing. In Britain, the Conservative government wouldn’t know ambition if it slapped them in the face, while in the United States the “elites” and the “deplorables” are too busy trying to paint one another as Hitler to stop and try to achieve anything remotely tangible.

In 2018, Britain has voted to leave the European Union, and we stand at a unique moment in history. But rather than seizing this opportunity to earnestly debate the meaning of democracy and self-determination at a time when the world is more knitted together than ever before, instead we obsess about personalities and repeat worn-out half-truths and talking points from the referendum campaign.

Rather than starting a serious discussion about the future of the nation state, the challenges it faces and how to preserving meaningful democracy as we move toward whatever comes next, instead we obsess over whether or not the new settlement will put money in our pockets or make us poorer in the short term. The short-term Politics of Me Me Me pervades everything, to the extent that we laugh at and dismiss people who dare to talk about higher ideals.

But this is about so much more than just Brexit; you can agree or disagree with the wisdom of leaving the European Union. This is about the energy, ambition and vitality being sucked out of our politics and gradually replaced over the years with a greedy, grasping self regard. It’s about having no higher purpose (or common purpose) than the fleeting pursuit of pleasure.

That’s why the Falcon Heavy launch, the work of SpaceX and the ambition of Elon Musk struck such a chord this week. The launch of this rocket creates a link to past accomplishments in human spaceflight and reminds us of a time when we set our sights on higher things, when we sought out rather than shunned the difficult challenges, despite the technological deficits we faced. And having witnessed nothing but retrenchment and lowered expectations from government in the intervening years, it fell to a private company and its own commercial ambitions to provide us with that sense of wonder and possibility that we no longer seem able to channel through government or civil society.

 

I look at the historic footage of the Apollo landings, magnificent accomplishments which took place decades before I was born, and ache to live in a time when we as a society cared about something more than our bank balances and social status; when we aspired to goals greater and more noble than mere “tolerance” and “equality” among atomised, self-interested individuals.

Each one of us has in our pocket a computing device more powerful than that which sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, those brave pioneers, to the moon. What are we doing with the near-limitless intellectual resources at our disposal? With the kind of wealth and purchasing power that only aristocrats and industrialists enjoyed a century ago? And yet with all these advantages at our disposal, for what accomplishments will we be remembered fifty years hence?

We are better than the current depleted state of our national ambition suggests. I don’t know how we rediscover or rekindle the spark, but we urgently need to do so. Western society is drifting, as evidenced by the furious obsession with social justice and identity politics in an age of unrivalled riches and opportunity, by our failure to stand up for small-L liberal Western or Enlightenment values at a time when they are under attack on all fronts, and by the shrinking of our political debate into a question of what the government ought to do for us rather than what we can do for our countries, and for the world.

On January 27 1967, three brave American astronauts died during a routine test of their space capsule. They gave their lives for a higher ideal and paved the way for us to later set foot on the moon. As a society, as a species, we need to once again be worthy of their sacrifice, and the bravery of those who followed in their footsteps. Otherwise what the hell are we all doing?

 

Falcon Heavy maiden flight

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Did The Russians Just Hack Our NHS?

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Our NHS is under attack – and not by the Evil Tories, for once!

Newspaper and television news networks are now reporting a major cyber attack targeting NHS England hospitals – apparently all systems are down and an emergency has been declared to initiate backup/recovery processes.

From the Guardian:

A number of hospitals have been hit by a large scale cyber attack, NHS England has confirmed.

Hospitals across the country appear to have been simultaneously hit by a bug in their IT systems, leading to many diverting emergency patients. NHS England said it was aware of the problem and would release more details soon.

Meanwhile doctors have been posting on Twitter about what has been happening to their systems.

A screen grab of a instant message conversation circulated by one doctor says: “So our hospital is down … We got a message saying your computers are now under their control and pay a certain amount of money. And now everything is gone.”

This is obviously potentially very serious, with possible impacts on patient care – apparently local NHS hospitals are reverting to pen and paper, while tweeting that patients should avoid going to A&E.

Was this a coordinated attack by a foreign power, or is it simply the case of a dozy NHS office admin clicking a dodgy link in an email and falling prey to a traditional money-grubbing scam?

(The answer is almost certainly the latter – this time. NHS Digital itself has confirmed that the generic ransomware attack was not specifically targeted at the health service, as a number of other organisations in multiple regions and sectors are affected; so the outraged NHS priests and priestesses on Twitter calling for the execution or maiming of these hackers can probably stand down now).

But since politicians and armchair pundits have been quick to blame Russia for everything else that hasn’t gone their way lately, I’m sure that Vladimir Putin’s name will be put forward as the man behind this craven attack on Our Blessed NHS.

But Putin should be careful – while Britain and the international community will apparently sit on our hands and dither while he invades Ukraine and drags his country ever further backward toward nationalist authoritarianism, provoking a fight with the NHS might be a step too far.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party election manifesto reserves the right to use nuclear weapons, with great cautionin extremis. Well, since the National Health Service is the closest thing we now have to a religion in secular Britain, attacking Our Blessed NHS may be the one hostile act by a foreign power that could still rouse half the country to press the red “launch” button and fire off some Trident missiles.

But when the dust settles, it may be worth considering that yet another drawback of having a monolithic national healthcare system serving all 65 million people in Britain is that it represents a singular target for mischief-makers and hostile foreign powers alike.

Presumably GCHQ and other agencies are constantly on the case protecting Britain’s national energy grid and other core infrastructure. But as a country have we been so busy singing endless hymns of praise to “Our NHS” that we neglected to realise that it has also potentially become our national security Achilles heel?

At this grave time, let us all repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to Aneurin Bevan’s glorious creation, our country’s pride and joy:

I pledge allegiance to the logo of Our #NHS
The envy of the world
One health system, indivisible
With increasingly poor healthcare outcomes for all

And when NHS England has fixed the problem and we have all made ourselves feel good by cheering on the saintly people who work in the world’s fifth largest bureaucracy, maybe we can have a sensible conversation about breaking up the NHS monopoly – for the good of all patients and, apparently, our national security too.

 

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Facebook And The Fake News Monster

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The mainstream media looks to Facebook and technology to solve the problem of “fake news”, while utterly ignoring their own starring role in driving readers into the arms of more disreputable news outlets

Jeff Chiu has an interesting rumination in Newsweek on the way that Facebook tacitly encouraged the monster of “fake news” which it is now being ordered to help slay.

Chiu writes:

Think back just a couple of years, before the 2016 election cycle and before Facebook set itself up as the world’s newswire. Facebook grew to a billion users by being a social network. It’s where you found old friends and kept up with family. I just looked back at my 2014 Facebook timeline. Almost zero politics! And that’s how most people liked it. Many users back then even beseeched friends to avoid political posts, or muted the violators if they persisted. In real life, most of us don’t want to argue politics with our friends and family, so why would we want to do it online?

Then, over the past two years, Facebook aggressively morphed into a media site. It set up deals with publishers to populate all our timelines with stories. It subtly encouraged users to post stories and to “like” and comment on them. Facebook, of course, did this with its own goals in mind. To maximize profit, Facebook needs to keep users engaged and on the site as long as possible, and to get those users to create or interact with all the content in their feeds. That thrum of activity helps Facebook’s algorithms more deftly target ads to more people, which makes Facebook even more attractive to advertisers.

Since politics is traditionally news, of course that topic started to slip into our feeds, and Facebook’s setup encouraged sinister practices. As users zip through their news feeds, scanning only the headlines, they are more likely to click on and share stories that are outrageous or stir emotions. In other words, Facebook—unwittingly, from what I hear—incentivized clickbait “news” over more serious news, and the success of clickbait opened the way for fake news. “We’re more likely to share inflammatory posts than non-inflammatory ones, which means that each Facebook session is a process by which we double down on the most radical beliefs in our feed,” writes Mike Caulfield, an expert in learning environments. “Marketers figured this out and realized that to get you to click, they had to up the ante. So they produced conspiracy sites that have carefully designed, fictional stories that are inflammatory enough that you will click.”

It’s hard to say whether Facebook is the chicken or the egg in this wave of political propaganda—whether it helped create the acidic and divided politics around the world or if the ugly political environment merely found an accommodating home on Facebook. No doubt it was some of both, and the result is that our feeds are now overwhelmed with wingnut political content that gets amplified even if it’s crazy. During the election, a lot of Facebook users just didn’t care if something was true, says Paul Mihailidis, a media literacy professor at Emerson College. “They saw it as a way to advocate,” he says. “They see a catchy headline, and the default is to share.” If you look globally—the U.S., the U.K., France, Colombia, the Philippines—politics are getting more caustic, not less. In this kind of environment, all the media outlets that now rely on Facebook’s audience are driven to flood us with click-worthy headlines that play to our fears and anger. Every trend line points to more of what we’re growing to hate on Facebook.

The perverse incentives created by Facebook’s dominance and algorithms cannot be overstated. At peak times, when I am actively promoting Semi-Partisan Politics during newsworthy events, up to 50 percent of total traffic can come from Facebook alone, some days even more. Other sites have an even greater dependency on Facebook as a source of traffic.

And for media professionals, with this dependency on Facebook comes the temptation to generate extra precious pageviews by pushing the boundaries of acceptable journalistic practice, whether as a ploy to increase web ad revenue or merely for the supposed prestige of more clicks. All other ways of generating extra traffic – like, say, producing better content – are far more arduous and time intensive than simply being a bit more provocative on Facebook. And the returns are nowhere near as good. It would take a media organisation of exceptional poise and integrity to withstand these temptations. And as we know, there are few publications where the words “poise” or “integrity” come naturally as descriptors.

Compounding the problem is the fact that this Facebook traffic is both fickle and disloyal. One can win the passing attention of their eyeballs for a few brief passing seconds with a catchy headline (and often a provocative picture), but the moment your articles stop appearing in the Facebook feed, the vast majority of users will not go seek you out independently as a publisher of content – as a publisher, you are utterly replaceable by the swarm of other sites churning out often superficially similar-looking stuff.

This leads to an arms race of hysteria in terms of online political coverage, with some of those outlets now shouting loudest about pro-Trump “fake news” being themselves the worst offenders. Many of the headlines or Facebook post descriptions published by left-leaning sites like Huffington Post or MotherJones sound like the breathless, hysterical reactions of a high school student as opposed to sober, reasoned analysis, and of course the same goes for the likes of Breitbart on the right. Every utterance by Donald Trump is “scary”, every pronouncement by Hillary Clinton a “threat to America” – and these people dare to accuse others of generating a toxic climate for political discourse.

Chiu goes on to ponder the implications for Facebook:

Despite recent statements by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his efforts to rein in fake news, he won’t be able to do that easily. Zuckerberg hit on the reason when he said it would be problematic to set up Facebook editors or algorithms as “arbiters of truth.” Because—what’s truth? Centuries ago, it was true that the world was flat. When I was a kid, a mom would sit in a car’s front seat and put her baby on her lap and not wear a seat belt. If someone said that was insanely unsafe, you probably would’ve blinked quizzically and said, “That’s not true.”

Facebook apparently is working on software that would flag or block fake news. Last year, Google published research on a knowledge-based trust algorithm that would sort for truth. Some college kids recently got attention for creating a Google Chrome extension they called FiB that automatically labels allegedly iffy sources. British technologist Peter Cochrane recently talked to me about developing software he called a truth engine. These might succeed in banning certain sites or identifying stories likely to be fake because they come from a single source, and yet software solutions can probably never overcome the problem that truth to me might not be truth to you, and truth today won’t necessarily be truth tomorrow.

[..] One constant about the technology industry is that every seemingly bulletproof superpower at some point has a Waterloo. It happened to IBM, AOL, Microsoft, Intel; and it will happen to Apple, Amazon and Google. You might be witnessing Facebook’s moment of truth, in a very literal sense. If Facebook turns into a bottomless cesspool of competing political “truths,” a lot of us are going to soil ourselves and escape to something else.

Frankly, I am a lot less worried about the future of Facebook than I am about the future of political journalism. In Britain, the EU referendum and surprise Brexit vote exposed the mainstream media as horribly glib, superficial, biased and lacking in basic understanding of the topics that they were covering. While the shining ones in Westminster write their articles in prestige publications or pontificate in the TV news studios, one frequently has to turn to the independent political blogosphere – largely strangled in its crib by the big media companies over the course of a decade – for anything approaching serious, granular analysis.

Yet many of these writers are unpaid, doing what they do as a labour of love rather than as a viable career. Many of them could vastly increase their audiences by adopting the same clickbait tactics as practiced by the likes of Buzzfeed, HuffPo or InfoWars. From a medium term career perspective, the best thing that many of these writers and journalists could do for themselves would be to sell out, start trotting out establishment talking points wrapped up in the kind of hysterical catastrophisation which prospers under the Facebook algorithms.

The problem is partly one of human nature: there will always be a much bigger market for sensationalist partisan fluff than serious, sober analyis. But also important is the fact that there is not a neat dividing line between real news and “fake news”. Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.

When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.

We present this as a crisis of technology – or at least those who work for mainstream publications, unwilling to examine their own culpability, present it that way. If only Facebook could stop people falling prey to the great evil of fake news, they cry in anguish, utterly ignoring the role that they themselves play in driving people toward fake news.

But this is not a crisis of technology. It is a crisis of human integrity, and the prestige mainstream media need to examine their own consciences long and hard before finding fault in other people.

 

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Top Image: Facebook

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Why Alan Sugar’s Intervention In The EU Referendum Debate Matters

Alan Sugar - Amstrad Emailer

In the year 2000, when the internet was taking off and PCs and laptops were becoming more widely affordable, celebrity businessman Alan Sugar bet the house on his Amstrad Emailer device – an embarrassing, uneconomical and altogether pointless hybrid between a landline telephone and 1990s-era AOL. It didn’t go well. And now, in 2016, Britain’s facetious answer to Steve Jobs has something important to tell us about Brexit

People who host The Apprentice seem determine to shoehorn their way into our political discourse this year. First Donald Trump defeated fifteen human watercolour paintings to become the presumptive Republican Party nominee for US president, and now Trump’s British not-quite-equal, Alan Sugar, has parachuted into the middle of the raging EU referendum debate.

And Sugar certainly has Donald Trump’s ability to execute a 180 degree U-turn while vehemently denying that he has ever changed his position. Only six months ago, Lord Sugar could be found excoriating Brussels and ranting about how much the EU constrained his business. Fast-forward to today, however, and Lord Sugar 2.0 – newly appointed government enterprise tsar – is telling anyone who will listen that Britain leaving the EU is crazy and unimaginable.

From the Daily Mail:

Lord Sugar has urged voters not to be ‘daft’ by backing Brexit as he joined a host of high profile business figures who came out in favour of staying in the EU.

The businessman and Apprentice boss has produced a video making his pitch for Britain to stay in the EU.

He tells viewers they ‘could not be listening to a bigger gambler than me’ but says leaving the EU is a ‘gamble we can’t afford to take’.

Describing himself as an ‘East End chap’ who had built a business empire from scratch, he blasts the ‘daft ideas and duff proposals’ put forward by Brexit campaigners and said it would be a ‘massive mistake’ to quit the EU.

Lord Sugar, who was appointed as the Government’s enterprise tsar last week, says in the video: ‘Having lived in this country for 69 years, a country which I love, I just don’t want to see a massive mistake being made by the younger generation or, indeed, any of the generations who just simply do not understand the ramifications of leaving the European Union.’

Donald Trump would famously take any position, campaign for any cause, support any politician, donate to any political party so long as it won him access to people in power – that’s how a big Hillary Clinton supporter who was once on the liberal side of all the culture wars is now the presumptive GOP nominee. And it seems that Alan Sugar is an opportunistic sell-sword in the same vein.

But in many ways, there could be no more appropriate intervention on behalf of the Remain campaign than that now bestowed by Alan Sugar, the brains behind the Amstrad Emailer, that revolutionary and futuristic communications device. In fact, the comparisons between Sugar’s perennially unpopular “super telephone” and the European Union are quite striking.

Both the European Union and the Amstrad Emailer are anachronistic inventions, hopelessly outdated even before they saw the light of day (the EU as it is currently known came into force with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, when globalisation was really beginning to take off and the idea of large, homogeneous regional trading blocs was already showing its age).

Like the Amstrad Emailer, the European Union takes something generally agreeable (tariff and barrier-free trade) and packages it in a fearsomely complicated design with a dozen unwanted embellishments such as all the additional trappings of a European state.

Like the Amstrad Emailer, persisting with a fundamentally flawed product in the form of the European Union reveals much about the stubbornness and contempt for democracy (the market, in Sugar’s case) held by the “founding fathers” and today’s leaders of the EU.

Like the Amstrad Emailer, nobody today would ever create the European Union as it currently exists. We only persist with it because forty years of steadily deepening political integration makes leaving a complex process and a daunting one for many – not to mention huge resistance from the establishment who like the status quo, which gives European leaders power with no accountability, and British politicians the trappings and rituals of office without the pesky responsibility.

So yes, we should welcome Lord Sugar’s intervention in the debate because the brains behind the Amstrad Emailer has inadvertently revealed an uncomfortable truth: engaging with today’s globalised, interconnected, multilateral world through the filtered lens of the EU is like trying to broadcast and receive in High Definition using one of Alan Sugar’s duff products.

For example: Norway, outside the European Union but maintaining access to the single market through EEA membership, does not delegate its voice in trade negotiations to a single EU position (itself an awkward compromise between the priorities of 28 squabbling countries).

Pete North gives a telling example of why this matters:

Not only is Norway an independent member of Codex, it even hosts the all-important Fish and Fisheries Products Committee. Thus, it is the lead nation globally in an area of significant economic importance to itself. When it comes to trade in fish and fishery product, Norway is able to guide, if not control, the agenda on standards and other matters. The EU then reacts, turning the Codex standards into Community law, which then applies to EEA countries, including Norway. But it is Norway, not the EU, which calls the shots.

Britain, meanwhile, sometimes even has to endure the indignity of seeing our own vote (on international bodies where we retain a seat) used against us by the European Commission, which controls that vote because the EU claims exclusive competency in matters relating to trade.

This is what remaining in the EU means – forsaking all of the benefits which could come from taking an active, fully-engaged position in all of the global bodies which pass down rules and standards to the European Union, and instead choosing to hide behind the EU’s skirts and accept an endless succession of fudged compromises because we lacked the confidence and skill to play the fuller role in world trade which is available to us.

Like the Amstrad Emailer, the European Union is the basic and highly predictable option, the kind of gift you might buy your grandparents (except nobody ever did) because you think that they would be overwhelmed trying to learn how to use a full PC. And now, while they could be buying things on Amazon, talking to the grandkids on Skype, blogging, editing holiday pictures in Photoshop or even setting up an online business, instead they are doomed to forever make low-quality, grainy video calls to one or other of the remaining six people in the country to own one of Alan Sugar’s devices.

That’s us. That is Britain, for so long as we remain in the European Union. A little old granny whose relatives didn’t think that she would be able to handle the complexity of a decent laptop, pecking out typo-strewn missives to the world on a rickety plastic keyboard and a monochrome screen while the richness and variety of the internet completely passes her by.

Why on earth would we vote Remain when we could vote to Leave the European Union and properly re-engage with the world as the influential, powerful and capable nation that we are? Why, when the brand new MacBook of Brexit sits wrapped with a bow on the table next to us, are we still fearfully clinging to our trusty, familiar Amstrad Emailer?

 

Postscript: This article in The Register provides a hilarious summary of the Emailer’s fortunes as the Next Big Thing in technology:

Since March 2000, he has tried tirelessly, and unsuccessfully, to sell the concept to everyone from journalists to politicians to the City – all have turned the device down.

Termed “the most important mass market electronic product since he kick-started Britain’s personal computer market 15 years ago” by some idiot on the Mail on Sunday, the emailer emerged in a blaze of glory at the same venue as the cheap PCs that made Amstrad a household name 20 years ago.

It cost £79.99 and still does and within a week we concluded it was far too expensive. With even low usage, it would put £150 per month on your quarterly phone bill. The public agreed with our analysis and no one bought the thing.

But the more it has failed to take off, the more fanatical Sir Sugar has got about it. He vehemently denied technical problems in August that year, then when the subsidiary set up to deal with the emailer, Amserve, put up a £2.3 million loss, he took up most of the company’s financial report explaining why the device was so wonderful.

The next set of results in February were even worse. Profit down 82 per cent from £8.2 million to £1.51 million. Again Sir Sugar waxed lyrical about how wonderful the emailer was – sales continued to be “encouraging”. This time Amserve took a £3.9 million loss.

He managed to persuade the then home secretary Jack Straw to back it up. Mr Straw said it was the perfect example of how technology could be used to “improve the flow of information and intelligence in a bid to decrease crime” at a Neighbourhood Watch photo opportunity. It made no difference to sales.

The IT correspondent for The Independent then incurred Sir Sugar’s wrath when he wrote, one year on from the launch, that the emailer had been a failure. Sir Sugar sent an email to all emailer owners, ranting about the piece and providing the journalist’s email address. Unfortunately it backfired because many of the received emails concerned the terrible problems they were having with the device.

As does this classic spoof article in The Daily Mash.

 

Amstrad Emailer

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Introducing Camsurf Safespace – The Social Network For Safe Space Dwellers

Camsurf Safespace

Behold our victimhood culture’s latest creation: a new G-rated social media platform for those too delicate to use Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Chatroulette…

Well, here it is – the logical end result of a victimhood culture in the grip of an identity politics feeding frenzy. Camsurf present to you their new Safespace social network – a heavily monitored video chat site for people (including grown adults) for whom all of the existing online platforms are simply too unsafe to ever contemplate using.

Camsurf describes Safespace in these terms:

Camsurf is a family friendly, G-rated Chatroulette platform and as such is strongly against all forms of bullying. To help combat cyberbullies, Camsurf is moderated by a team of professionals who are trained to spot when users of our service are being bullied. We have a zero tolerance policy against bullying and will ban all bullies from using our service.

However, it is also important that our users are able to recognize, understand, and deal with different forms of bullying. To help any users of our service who want to know more about bullying or feel they are being bullied we have created “safespace”, a place where you can learn about cyberbullying, its effects, how to deal with being bullied online, and much more.

While the press release notes:

Camsurf is delighted to announce the launch of the world’s first ‘Safe Space’ social network, an innovation designed to put a stop to cyberbullying through education and active participation. The idea behind the campaign stems from the rise in bullying and harassment on the web, specifically on social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, a phenomenon which has grown rapidly in recent years to become more prevalent than bullying in the real world.

Users of Camsurf, and anyone else who feels overwhelmed by the rise in cyberbullying, can access the online arena and find a range of educational material and statistics, ask questions anonymously, and interact with other users in a safe and understanding environment. Participation in ‘Safe Space’ is solely focused on putting a stop to cyberbullying and all forms of online harassment. It is the first social network to openly place an emphasis on discussing and eliminating cyberbullying in a dedicated environment.

Camsurf Safespace is not merely a social network which takes a strong stance against cyberbullying. The whole ethos of the site sits in the shadow of cyberbullying – the “About” page says almost nothing about the technical or social features of the site, focusing exclusively on all of the measures in place to protect their oh-so-vulnerable users from ever being made to feel “uncomfortable” (a word that crops up frequently in the FAQs). And it freely uses the university campus-derived, identity politics terminology of safe space theory to promote itself.

But note the picture on the front page. These are not teens or tweens shown using the site, but fully grown adults – the woman is dressed in distinctly professional-looking attire, and the man is likewise dressed for work a shirt and tie. Safespace is not targeted specifically at schoolchildren (the group most likely to suffer from legitimate cyberbullying), but at people with jobs and mortgages and maybe even kids of their own – people who presumably shoulder all of the normal burdens of life, and yet believe themselves unable to participate in the same social networks as the rest of us for fear of being made to feel uncomfortable.

In fact, Safespace goes to great lengths to emphasise that adults are often the victims of “cyberbullying” too:

Q. Are teens the only people who get cyberbullied?

A. Not at all. Cyberbullying is a problem that affects both teens and adults. Although many adults would not like to admit it, cyberbullying is said to affect up to 40% of adults who use the internet. Cyberbullying transcends age or sex and anyone can be the victim of an online bully. In fact, many adults who are cyberbullied lash out by becoming bullies themselves. It is therefore extremely important to confront the problem by taking to someone rather than keeping it all locked up inside.

Yes, Safespace would have you believe that nearly every one in two adults are being persecuted online by nefarious cyberbullies right at this moment (of course, the term “bullying” has been defined downward to the extent that it includes any interaction which sees the victim come away with anything less than warm and fuzzy feelings of contentment).

And worse still, if these adult victims fail to take the correct protective actions and run to an authority figure (either a Safespace moderator or perhaps a trained counsellor) then they are at the risk of turning into a cyberbully too. Apparently being a cyberbully follows the same contagion principles as becoming a zombie.

Fortunately, Safespace has all manner of tools at its disposal to ensure that nothing remotely interesting or controversial ever takes place within its boundaries:

How Camsurf is Standing Up to Bullies

Our aim at Camsurf is to create a bully-free and family-friendly environment that is welcoming to all. As part of that mission we are taking a stand against cyberbullies by implementing various schemes to catch bullies and bar them from our service. We employ a team of moderators who monitor the chat platform for nudity, inappropriate behavior, and signs of bullying. All of our moderators undergo a course in understanding online bullying and how to spot the signs of someone who is being bullied. We are also implementing a series of informative articles and guides to help any victims of bullying and to educate our users to spot the signs of bullying. By taking these steps we will create the safest and friendliest Chatroulette platform online.

And they are very clear that when in doubt, users should err on the side of banality:

Q. Am I a cyberbully if I engage in an argument on Camsurf?

A. Not necessarily. It is important to distinguish the difference between talking to someone about a topic you disagree on and cyberbullying. On Camsurf you can meet thousands of strangers from around the world, all of whom have different opinions and views of the world. On some occasions you might find someone who disagrees with you about a certain topic. If you discuss this topic with them in a civilized manner where both of you can get your points across then it is not bullying. However, if you use insults and hurtful language while discussing issues then you may offend someone or hurt their feelings. This is the line between cyberbullying and talking about a topic you disagree on. The best way to avoid this is to stick to talking about topics you and the person you are chatting with are interested in. Remember, Camsurf is about having fun while meeting new people!

Cue lots of talk about the weather, and not quite so much about a certain American presidential candidate, then.

Note too the defining downwards of the concept of bullying, along the lines described by Jonathan Haidt and Nick Haslam in their recent excellent Guardian OpEd:

When research on bullying began in the 1970s, an act had to meet four criteria to count: it had to be an act of aggression directed by one or more children against another child; the act had to be intentional; it had to be part of a repeated pattern; and it had to occur in the context of a power imbalance. But over the following decades, the concept of bullying has expanded in two directions.

It has crept outward or “horizontally” to encompass new forms of bullying, such as among adults in the workplace or via social media. More problematic, though, is the creeping downward or “vertically”so that the bar has been lowered and more minor events now count as bullying. For example, the criteria of intentionality and repetition are often dropped. What matters most is the subjective perception of the victim. If a person believes that he or she has been made to suffer in any way, by a single action, the victim can call it bullying.

So this is what it has come to. Grown men and women forswearing online forums where they might potentially encounter a boisterous or rude opinion in favour of a “walled garden” where their every interaction is monitored by watchful moderators looking out for their “safety”. Everyday human interaction is now being presented as so fraught with peril that it is best not attempted at all without external supervision.

Fortunately, Safespace doesn’t have the feel of a platform that will be with us for very long, or challenge the major social networks for pre-eminence. But the mere fact of such a site’s launch is sufficiently alarming that we must take note.

Bear in mind that one of the key reasons why heavily moderated, anti free speech platforms are not challenging more aggressively for market share is because the big beasts – particularly Facebook – are choosing to respond to pressure to deal with cyberbullying in almost as draconian a way.

These are the options currently presented to users who want to report something on Facebook which they find to be offensive:

Facebook Report Post - Anti Free Speech

Note the third option – “It goes against my views” – which is now legitimate grounds to report someone else’s post as being offensive and deserving of removal from Facebook.

It can be tempting to make light of sites like Camsurf Safespace, regarding them as a sheltered playground for children, unrepresentative of the mainstream. But when the world’s pre-eminent social network treats its users in the exact same way, it is no laughing matter.

Cyberbullying is a real and concerning phenomenon where it occurs. But the idea of a fully grown, mentally capable adult being “bullied” is absurd, as are these incremental but damaging steps toward regulating and monitoring all of our online interactions to ensure that we are using the internet “safely”.

 

Safe Space Notice - 2

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