Jun 282017
 

The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted for us all the issue of social marginalisation and voice poverty. If you need evidence of how divided communities in this country are, the proof is staring at us in the form of the smouldering shell of a tower block that was once home to hundreds of families who had settled in London in the hope of building a better life.

But if people living in the richest borough in London are not being heard or understood, how many other people and communities up and down the United Kingdom are likewise not getting heard?

The shock of what has just taken place in London should be a worry for us all. Not just for what it says about fire regulation and social policy, but for what it says about communities that have important issues to talk about, and who want to contribute to the ongoing debates about what makes us stronger.

After years of vilification and whipped-up hatred by politicians and newspapers, often to suit narrow political or business interests, it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to see through the deception that being poor isn’t, and never has been, a free-ride.

The stark fact has come to the fore, that people and communities across the United Kingdom are seemingly powerless to act against entrenched local authority bureaucracy, especially when it is entwined with deregulated and unaccountable commercial business interests.

Having been excluded from national debates, vilified for their social differences, or worse, disregarded as legitimate citizens, the anger that is being expressed on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea is understandable. If you push down on people for long enough, eventually they will push back.

This means that the challenge of living together in harmony, in integrated communities, for the mutual benefit of all, is back on the agenda as the defining worry of our age. However, after almost a decade of austerity, the absence of practical support for shared social cooperation, which promotes understanding and mutual engagement, has meant that our communities are more divided and more disenchanted.

None of this is helped by the centralised, concentrated and narrow model of media regulation that we have in the UK, which is clearly not fit for the purpose of community self-representation. The market-based model of local media is letting us down.

Everywhere there has been a hollowing-out of local representation. Local newspapers are put together from press-releases in distant towns. Local radio stations regurgitate nostalgic chat and play-listed music that is a comfort blanket for some, but an irrelevance for many.

Social media is the disrupting influence in this process, as social media platforms are able to demonstrate a proliferation of voices, issues, creativity, obduracy, concern, and anger. Social media has given a platform for many different alternative voices to come forward, though this is a process that can work both ways.

The expression of consternation and indignation that is being voiced, however, is as likely to come from the right – with those who want to exclude marginalised communities and demonise them – as much as it comes from those on the left, who want to embrace and celebrate social differences.

The alternative to a trusted and responsive media, we are so often told, is to share our own news and ideas on social media. But this has also highlighted that many of our traditional media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters, have too much in common, and are chasing the same narrow expectations of shareholder value and profit.

The concentration of ownership of British media, in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations, that are all chasing the same advertising revenues, means that audiences are only ever considered in ways that are constricted, homogenous and static, all to please their sponsors.

It’s frustrating then, that community media is seldom acknowledged as a practical and sustainable alternative to mainstream media. Especially as community media is well placed as a community movement that embraces diversity, self-expression and shared cultural understanding.

Had community media been able to provide a space for voices blocked by the mainstream media and political parties, then the simmering resentment that resulted in the Brexit vote might have found an outlet. Instead, the mainstream media where preoccupied by a wave of jingoistic nationalism that failed to pick-up on the experience of many people living in the left-behind communities who have not shared in the new prosperity offered to only a few by the free market.

Community media in the United Kingdom, however, is desperately underfunded and actively marginalised by speculative commercial interests. If young people and others are turning to extremism as they search for radical answers, because they can feel that they are part of something, then we need to invest in alternatives media spaces that cuts-off extremism and renews our sense of community as an active and enriching set of social practices.

In Germany, the Federal Agency for Civic Education gets federal funding in order to promote understanding of political issues, intensify awareness of democratic cultures, and promotes the political process as something that all citizens can participate in.

Clearly, work needs to be done so that communities are able to share information in responsible ways, be media literate, and learn to question what they are told. But it is only by investing in community-led solutions, that offer people a chance to learn about each other, founded on the ability to participate in the life of their neighbourhood, its civic life, that we are able to renew and strengthen our sense of community.

Community media is a movement of people who want to see change through locally empowered and self-determined voices that are accountable through local participation in media of all kinds. Community media is a movement of people who think globally, but act locally. Community media is a movement that calls for all parties aspiring to government to invest in social and civic spaces that they can cherish.

Community media is about recognising and supporting the right to speak out, about giving back control of media to local communities. Allowing communities to hold their representatives and administrators to account. Investing in support for high quality, grassroots journalism. Including young people in the democratic process. Valuing all voices, from all backgrounds and abilities. Demystify media and the structures built around it. Changing the broadcasting regulations to support wider debate is now essential.

Access to community media should be seen as a right, and not dismissed as a hobby or plaything. But community media can only contribute to the building of a better society if people have time to volunteer, and the resources to discuss, debate and question issues that are relevant to them.

By offering widespread community media opportunities everywhere, and for all people, it will be possible to reach people who are held at the margins, especially those who other media do not understand or cannot represent. Community media is about promoting access for everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, income or any other factor.

This means maintaining the core principles of community radio, which means that there is an alternative media movement that is not run by the state, that is not for profit, which is locally owned and accountable, and which can lead the way in bringing about deeper social change. As media technologies change, such as community television, or small-scale digital radio, we have to ensure that communities have priority over narrow commercial interests.

Funding for community media has to be increased substantially. Ofcom presently gives £400,00 each year to support community radio in the UK, but the BBC spends ten times that on taxis each year. We need to establish flexible and dedicated funds for all types of community media projects, channels and groups, that support reasonable and fair payments for the services community media provide, through training programmes and the promotion of community development campaigns.

Investing in education and learning opportunities through and with community media means recognising community media’s contribution to our civic and social life. Celebrating and valuing the achievements of the community media movement in a way that cherishes the positive impact we can all have on the wellbeing of individuals and communities, is essential.

By working closely with government and community focussed partners it is possible to embed and secure new opportunities for community media participation. Being included in all important conversations about regulation, legislation and resource planning is essential.

Principally, this is about promoting the development and use of existing and emerging media platforms for sharing the creative work of communities. This is not just about mirroring the way that mainstream media works, but instead, it’s about how we understand and support the artistic and creative value of community media, in which we are able to provide physical and virtual spaces for communities to take creative risk and find their voice.

Those of us in the community media movement know there is a different way, and that ordinary people can collaborate, work together on independent platforms, that are owned and run by local communities. Community media has been quietly growing in the background across the United Kingdom, using alternative business models that are not driven solely by advertising, but that embrace the work and the vitality of social enterprises, that increase access, thereby earning money from training, running inclusive membership schemes, and much more.

Community media has been desperately underfunded. The community media movement has to fight for the meagre resources that it’s got. However, community media tells us something about the way forward. That the ownership of media needs to be with everyone and not just a few. People need to tell their own stories, recognising that our differences and our diversity are our strengths.

Mar 152017
 

There is a useful and important question that we can ask about social media, and what we understand to be the emerging role of the social media producer. Does our view of people shape the methodology that we adopt in thinking about social media, or does our view of the available methodologies shape the way that we think about how people use social media? The reason that this is important is because if we adopt different approaches to the study of social media, then we will necessarily arrive at different conclusions and different expectations about the people who are involved in producing them.

I want to use this blog to sketch-out some ideas and principles that I hope to adopt when developing my studies of social media, and the associated creative practices that underpin them. To be direct, my starting point is humanistic and empirical, it is based on the idea that what matters most about the study of media is what people become in the practice of sharing and creating different media products and relationships.

This means thinking about the dispositions that people adopt, the patterns of behaviour that they exhibit, the accomplishments that they seek to achieve, and the conceptual framework and language routines that they articulate in the process of enacting their social presence. This is an approach that is informed by symbolic interactionism, which is a way of pragmatically thinking about our engagements in our individual and social life.

Herbert Mead, the renowned American anthropologist/sociologist, framed the pragmatic view of human life in these terms: firstly, we define ourselves as individuals in relation to our social encounters and situations; second, we define our social encounters in relation to our individual creative dispositions; and finally, we use symbolic forms, such as language, communication practice and media, to establish social relationships which are capable of creating new opportunities for mutual understanding.

This view sees social life, and the individuals that make up the social body, as the primary source of all human undertakings and accomplishments. This means that all the patterns of behaviour, all the concepts that account for our behaviour, and all the meanings that we negotiate between different agents acting in the social body, are observable, and are made meaningful as a process of negotiation, reflection and action.

Therefore, any study of social media has to recognise that it is people, themselves, who create the meanings that we collectively hold about the nature of the world, and so studying and accounting for the way that people make sense of the world is the primary purpose of our reflections on the way that things are, and how we fit with them.

It is the meanings that people create and negotiate that give us the options to act in particular ways, some established, and some emerging and different. And it is people who share the symbolic frameworks of language and mediated representation that are part of the cooperative and developmental process that results in our interactions with the world in purposeful ways.

Now, taking the symbolic interactionist framework at face value, it is possible to map-out some principles and themes that might help to form a view of social media, and the manner in which it is possible to study the forms and practices that social media represents.

This is a sketch and reflection on the practices that I’ve developed in two modules that I teach at De Montfort University, Leicester Media School. TECH1002 Social Media and Technology, and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Productions. The first module is an introduction to media culture and social media practices, and the latter module introduces ethnographic principles of enquiry, combined with creative and collaborative working practices, suited to emerging social media production challenges.

Reflexive Learning
Symbolic interactionists regard human agency as a primary component of social life and activity, thereby adopting a view of human agency that is reflexive and contemplative, and which is able to retain memories of former practices and states of mind, either as habits or as narrative experiences, which we can learn from and reflect on. Thus, drawing inferences about the process of what makes personal and social development possible.

Blogging – Explaining to Others
I’ve been encouraging learners to write and produce blogs that account for their experience as they learn to make media and share their media socially. There are generally three levels of reflection that I have aimed to introduce. First, how does the process of creating and developing media products feel to the individuals involved? Second, how does this process feel to the group of people who are involved? Third, asking how might the products and the process look to other people who are not involved or committed to the repertoire of meanings that are being offered?

By breaking-up the process of reflection in this way, a mature learner should be able to switch from one perspective to another, and thereby they will be able to account for their own intentions in acting and communicating in the way that they do – before accounting for how these intentions might be operationalised with other people. If we get stuck in any one of these modes, the self-observant mode for example, and are unable to imagine what they might be like for other people, then we will be unable to fulfil our potential as participations in our social situations, or feel individually satisfied at the same time.

Vlogging – Personal Reflection
Reflection isn’t a zero-sum game, however, and so identifying our own individual needs does not necessarily mean a trade-off against what we are trying to achieve socially. A useful technique to make this process tangible is the use of video reflection. I’ve only started to do this properly this year, and yet have found it to be a rich and accessible form of reflection. There seems to be something about opening-up to the webcam on a computer that allows for a more extended set of expressions of what we are thinking about.

I’ve used this process through the year in the De Montfort University Universal Design for Learning requirements, that expect lectures to be recorded or summarised on video in order to assist learners make sense of the complex nature of the topics. I was reluctant to do this initially, but I soon realised that I was benefiting from recording a summary of the topic of my lectures, and then listening to it and watching it, before posting it to YouTube.

I was never sure that I was making sense previously. Now I feel more confident that I am using the terminology of the investigative method, and the vocabulary of the topics in a more purposeful manner. I can check-in with myself and find out how I am doing, rather than waiting for the approval of other people to offer this supporting acknowledgement. It seems that I am more independent and self-actualised as a result of adopting this simple practice and turning it into a habit.

Talkaoke – Structured Discussion
One of the challenges working with first year undergraduate learners, is to develop and nurture a more extended thinking practice. It takes a long time to get learners from the UK to engage in a discussion and conversation that stays on-topic, and which focusses on the subject and the issues at hand. Literally, my experience is that within thirty-seconds the conversation gets deflected and takes a track that is only relevant to the immediate and personal experience of the learner, but which doesn’t probe or explore any of the deeper and more intractable issues that might be related to a problem or social issue.

One helpful technique that I’ve explored this year to help to redefine this lack of focus is the use of structured discussions in the form of a Talkaoke. This is a basic exercise in passing a microphone and explaining a concept or an idea without being interrupted by other learners. This means learners are able to demonstrate that they can dig deeper into an issue that would otherwise be deflected and avoided when a conversation between friends takes place.

It’s a challenge to speak to a topic for a sustained period, and the focus by the speaker as they hold the microphone is more engaged, knowing that the discussion is being recorded requires an extra level of preparedness and depth. Not everyone can do this immediately, but it’s something we can all do with practice. As long as we a prepared to have a go and reserve judgements until we listen back to the discussion afterwards.

DIY-Media
Increasingly I have an aversion to mass-produced and industrially distributed media. I’m getting bored with the sterile and limited repertoire of concerns that are voiced in much of what forms mass media these days. Instead, I’m drawn to more independent and DIY forms of media, because they offer an alternative framework of engagement that draws on the creativity of the people who are making it, and the alternative ways of thinking that they otherwise explore.

Engaging learning through doing.
DIY media is useful because there is no one telling individuals what it is that they should be making or saying. This is a form of media production that is self-determined and draws on the interests and the inquisitiveness of the people who are making it. There is no template, there is no right and wrong, no fixed path or pattern. This is about seeing what emerges as a creative expression and as a form of individual self-discovery.

It is also a form of expression that is directly connected with the process of making something and sharing it. The sense of achievement that comes from making something for ourselves, however limited or ramshackle this might be. The DIY ethos celebrates the achievements of everyone, requiring us to turn-down our sense of judgement, or professionalism, or business acumen, or whatever, and to value the personal achievement and the expression that has been invested in a media product by individuals, rather than simply viewing media products as the outpouring of a commercial process or a factory production line.

Avoiding expensive equipment.
To engage learners in the process of creating things we have to learn to value the most immediate forms of media production, craft and technology that we have to hand. Media production learners get well drilled in the art and craft of the mainstream and industrial production techniques, particularly those required for television or radio, for example. But they have fewer opportunities to explore their creative potential in the form of their own limited, hands-on, capabilities.

If everything can be achieved by applying a pre-determined filter, or by using a technology that makes an artefact look or sound like something else that already exists, then our media becomes sterile and lifeless. Knowing that there is a person behind the process makes it more meaningful, regardless of how ramshackle it might appear.

Promoting alternative and independent points of view.
It’s essential, therefore, that we have in place a structure for learning that promotes and exposes learners to alternative forms of media practice. Particularly those forms of media practice that offer alternative opinions, expressions of identity and dynamic forms of creative practice. Simply churning-out graduates who are capable of slotting into the already established and pre-existing employment and skills structure that is represented by mainstream media is no longer tenable.

All we will end up with is a sterile and flat media culture that offers no diversity of thinking or interest, and which can only reproduce that which we already have. Where will the innovation in media forms and practices come from if we are only teaching learners how to fit into the established mould of media producers? Don’t we have a responsibility break and remake the mould from time to time?

Social Learning
One thing that is clearly breaking the mould, even as we speak, is the requirement to learn the skills and attitudes of collaborative thinking and working. The tools that are available to us in the internet age are making it much more likely that we will have to collaborate in ways that we have never done previously, on a continual and a deeper level than we have done in the past.

Collaborations skills are going to need to be richer and more socially based than the old command-and-control models of organisation development will allow. It’s going to be essential that knowledge workers will have an outlook and disposition that is essentially social, and which enhances the network potential of new data-driven tools and communication practices.

Dominance of Skills & Roles Models
Presently we are locked into a model of learning that is process driven, in which the focus is on how we manage the techniques of project development, rather than focussing on the relationships that are fostered by the people involved. This means that we are continually turning-over the ground of set skills-pathways and skills-models that come from a previous age – the mass production and factory age.

The role-models that are advance in this model also tend to come from the same community of practitioners that are identified with tightly-defined set of production techniques. The value of people who can discuss social imperatives is not part of this grouping. How we feel and understand what things mean, is not necessarily something we focus on when putting a production team together, though in an age of increased anxiety, this might be worth pursuing.

Shift to Practical & Experiential Engagement
What we learn from practice and experience will be different from the kind of analysis that we can derive from our understanding of process and systems. While these systems are important and provide the backbone of a set of media practices, the social context in which they are enacted are equally important. One gives life to the other, and to focus on a purely rationalist or instrumental view of human activity and motivation produces a sterile and alienating experience.

Peer-Learning Practices
This is why continuous peer-learning techniques are essential in the development of a social approach to project management and development. Learning is no longer terminated upon graduation. It has to continue and continue to be undertaken for the rest of our lives. So, let’s make these learning practices as accessible and enjoyable as possible. The symbolic interactionist approach recognises that all social activity is learnt activity. We continually learn from one another. To learn in isolation is going against our natural dispositions, perhaps suited to less than twenty percent of the population. So why aren’t we accessing those social learning practices that work so well in informal play or recreation?

Playfulness and Alternative Learning Practices
There is a developing trend towards the use of gamification techniques to enhance learning and comprehension. Simply regurgitating the ‘tram-lines’ models of learning that have been imposed in the mass-media age will not suffice. We need to look again a co-learning and participation-based models of learning that foster and nurture a sense of engagement on multiple levels, not just those that are preferred by the inspectors and supervisors of the curriculum. Humans comprehend the world in many different ways. We approach problem-solving in equally diverse ways, so why not allow learners the opportunity to explore more diverse approaches and use a wider range of practical tools that are better suited to their divergent cognitive dispositions?

Collaborative Practice
If social media is to realise its potential, not only as a mode of promotion and conversation, it also needs to be articulated as a set of collaborative platforms that ensure that work can be developed on a shared, transparent and continually engaged basis. The silo mentality of development is a difficult one to shift in the mind-set of most organisations, as it seems counter to rationalist and efficiency models of social organisation.

Stepping back and allowing self-determined and interdisciplinary teams to take the reins of a project is anathema to most project managers and systems developers, who would rather work by dividing and conquering, as each task and resource that is deployed to focus on the task is optimally deployed on a unit-by-unit basis. Russel Ackoff critiques this approach, when he questioned the ‘systems-thinking’ mind-set. His argument was as simple as: take any single component of a car and see if it achieves anything like what the car can achieve when it is operational as a whole!

Wiki Development
The tool that I’ve been using most to develop this is an instillation of MediaWiki – the system that Wikipedia runs on, and which has been installed on the DMU Commons. It requires a change of mind-set to embrace wikis as a collaborative development space, because the lack of hierarchy, the open structure and the negation of status challenges many of the received models of knowledge development that are incorporated in our public institutions.

As the symbolic interactionist tradition acknowledges, it’s not the institutions that matter, but the perceptions and the shared experiences of the people who form those institutions that make the difference. If we separate the organisation from the people then we are left with a sterile and information-process-led approach which most people seem to find to be an anathema to a happy and fulfilled working life. So why keep doing it?

Social Production Tools
Fundamentally, we have to invest in the social tools that will enable us to maintain meaningful human contact when we engage in dispersed projects and try to achieve extended common goals. Yes, different types of jobs and tasks tend to attract specific types of thinkers, but they might be so much richer and quicker to resolve if they take a more pragmatic and inclusive approach to cognitive diversity. Simply employing people with the same outlook will only produce the same responses. If we paraphrase Einstein, the way to critique one system of thinking is to deploy an alternative system of thought that that can help us to shift our perspective and bring about fresh thinking.

Before Copernicus every expert was adamant that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and that when we looked at the sunset we saw the sun setting below the horizon. After Copernicus, it was possible to demonstrate that it was a false image, and that it was actually the horizon that was rising to obscure the sun. Sunsets, however, remain beautiful and prompt a sense of wonder – so it’s win-win to be able to think both ways.

Social Evaluation Tools
This means that we need to think differently about the evaluation tools that we use to demonstrate that we are engaged in a common endeavour of value. How we look at meaningful social communication has to be understood in different terms than simply measuring the interactions and the number of people who flick a switch and stare at a screen. What are the wider outcomes that we are trying to achieve? What is the context of need and social development that we are trying to cope with? How can change and shifts in disposition be accounted for?

Either we continually try to chase our tails, and keep-up with the numbers and the metrics, or we step back and ask questions about the ethics, the value and the meaning of our social forms of communication. In my work with community media, the challenge is never to measure the audience of a community media project, but instead to ask what people become in the process of developing the relationships they establish in their practices?

Mediation
By returning to the triad of pragmatic communication, associated with Pearce, we can complete the cycle of development and understanding. What are the forms of communication helping us to become? How do they help establish a sense of ‘self’? How are they valued and understood in the context of the community of practice and interest in which they are expressed? The pragmatic symbolic interaction tradition is an anti-essentialist form of thinking. It doesn’t see language as a universal trait of human nature, rather, it looks to practice and activity as the formation of our language.

The need to collaborate and meet shared social goals is what leads us to formulate language and symbolic representation. What, then, are the shared aims and goals that our present forms of symbolic representation seek to address? Our tools of symbolic communication are always shifting and changing, and in the process our goals and aims also change.

Social life is never static, it is dynamic and changing. It evolves in practice, and our reflection on that practice gives us new insight into how we can change and evolve our goals and aims continually. We are restless in this respect, because we remember that we have lived our lives one way before and we are drawn to the creative practice of trying new ways to live, new ways to interact and new ways to see the world.

Pragmatic Models of Communication
Pragmatism, then, takes the dynamic process of interaction and social engagement and asks: what do we become in the process of applying these emergent forms and practices of communication? Accounting for change is the primary need of all social enquiry. We are continually faced with change. We remember the habits of the past, and sometimes we long for those habits with a force that is deeply held within our being.

Periods of rapid social change are always challenging, and they displace the equilibrium and harmony that we previously established. But in time we adapt. In time we establish and incorporate fresh perspectives and the harsh lessons of life get incorporated in our language repertoires and routines. It is impossible for us to live in a word of no memory, though it is often difficult for us to move on from the past. We are driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror, (to steal an analogy).

Affordances & Constraints of Technology
Of course, technology plays an important part in the development of our dispositions and sense-making capabilities. As technology changes, so does our ability reflect on the mechanisms by which we engage with the world, recall information about the world, and engage with one another. The McLuhan’esque determination that it is the technology which shapes our comprehension of the world is only partly true. Technology plays a role, but it does not exist in isolation, and humans still have to make sense of the technology that they engage with and use.

A pragmatic approach to technology seeks to understand the relationship between our sense of self, our sense of the social group in which we operate, and the media and symbolic forms that we have to hand, that allow us to go beyond our immediate bodily senses and capabilities. Any examination of the technology of communication cannot be deterministic. Technology and media practices do not define the human experience. They may help to shape that experience, but they do not totalise it or finalise it.

There is no universal fulcrum on which the world rests. Our experience is the product of the social construction of meaning, which is shifting and developmental, emergent and partial. We never have the full picture and we never will make sense of everything. Our experience is a process of negotiation, and technology and media forms are only one aspect of that process.

Dispersed Meaning Processes
In a sense, the preponderance of social media technologies has helped us to see the world in a different light. We are no longer embedded in mass-media models of subject-object dualisms, and instead can locate the evidence that humans are creative, inventive and generative. Yes, to a large extent we learn by imitation, but if encouraged and supported appropriately, we have the potential to follow richer streams of generative intent.

Mainstream media organisations now spend much of their time mining social media interactions to figure out if they can offer potentially meaningful content to a broad audience. This is a significantly different process than the mass media model of industrial media production. It looks to people and publics to find out what they regard as meaningful, rather than simply imposing content on a uniform and mass audience.

Adapting to these changes is taking time. The levels of collaborative and co-production are emergent, as Henry Jenkins attests, this is a model in which meanings are circulated by users or agents in a network, moving beyond the simple producer-audience binary that has been the mainstay of mass media entertainment through the Twentieth Century.

Post-Broadcast
The task, then, is to prepare for the post-transmission age, in which dispersed and distributed meanings networks are the norm, and the experiences of humans within these networks are given primacy. This will take us beyond the institutions and industry practices of the present, and open a dynamic and shifting mediascape that is driven by individual and unique expressions of belonging, participation, creativity and difference.

Diminution of Importance of Transmission Models of Communication
Gone are the days of reliance on fixed communication pathways. Media will have to work harder to establish a presence within the plethora of social worlds and multiple reality-frameworks that people experience. We might not yet witness the full effect of this change, but it’s becoming more apparent in the dispersal of micro-gestures that make up social media communications platforms and systems. Being able to tune in and out of these reality frameworks is going to be the required skill of future generations.

Rhizomic vs Arbolic forms of Media
Deleuze and Guattari signify this shift in the concept of de-territorialisation, and the contrast between the ‘arbolic’ and the ‘rhyzomic’ structures underpinning knowledge and information exchange and development. Eric Raymond describes this as the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ model of thinking. We may well continue to invest in long-lasting structures and social spaces, as they serve a functional purpose, but they are slow to respond to social change and aren’t based on flexible forms of thinking. Whereas the rhyzomic forms of collaboration and co-development are fluid and continually emergent, offering change many times over, at a rapid pace and in unpredictable ways.

Practical Tools
The challenge, then is to build a practical set of tools that can help us to adapt to these generative models of social experience, and which help us to realise the potential of participative models of media engagement. These are often labelled as part of the digital literacies model of thinking, and there is a great value in exploring this framework of practice. It will be more effective, however, if we can tie these ideas to the symbolic interactionist methodology, because a lot of the groundwork has already been done, and the simplicity of the precepts have been established.

The challenge is to keep thinking, to keep reading, to keep writing and to keep exploring and making points about how all of this works, what difference it might make in practice, and how we can adopt forms of analysis and evaluation that aren’t fixed to speculative or deterministic ideas. Let’s form a view of people that respects agency and then find a methodology that can account for the creativity that is associated with being human.

Feb 242017
 

There is an ongoing debate about the status of media studies as a subject and set of learning activities that suggest that the traditional focus on textual, institutional and political areas of interest are no longer the sole area of concern for academics and practitioners who are developing learning and teaching strategies that make sense in the highly changing social, economic and technical environment. For example, William Merrin suggests that models of media study and practice need to go beyond the ‘broadcast’ and ‘transmission’ age models of production and distribution (Merrin, 2014), something that David Gauntlet reflects by calling for a “media studies 2.0” framework based around creativity and participation (Gauntlett, 2015).

This is a debate that is ongoing and has real implications for the way that media courses are structured, planned and promoted. What might the intended outcome of a media studies or media production programme be when seen in the context of rapid and advancing change? How can media studies and media production programmes meet the challenges and needs of the future, such as the “Great Disruption” (Moore, 2016), with its requisite impact on social resilience, adaptation and planning for environmental change, increased urbanisation, technological automation and information management, as well as fundamental changes to the communications model, passing from the arbolic to the rhizomic mode of generative media (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013)?

This is a quick sketch of issues that I believe are important if we are to address future needs in the development and promotion of the media studies and the media production curriculum. This can best be summed up by asking if anyone needs media studies and media production courses? There has to be a point to our undertaking, such as addressing pressing social problems? This entails going beyond a market-based supply of skills needs, and addressing future concerns of sustainability and participation in communities of practice and interests.

How Focussed on skills are the courses we manage?

Most media courses have a strong sense of planning to meet existing skills needs, but to what extent are we investigating the potential skill needs of the future? As the media production and development working environments shift, so to are the skills expectations. As technical and social change occurs we have to try to anticipate, investigate and experiment with patterns of future skills requirements that are relevant for diversified media ecology.

Cognitive Diversity

Well-structured courses draw on strong emphasis of production, reflection and investigation, while also being mindful that it pays to be a generalist when planning for the future, and thus avoiding a too narrow focus on a limited and conforming set of ideas and core practices. The single-mindedness that academics and media practitioners bring to the development of their courses is admirable, but it is at the risk of failing to recognise and exploit the potential that is offered when we bring together mixed learning experiences and contributions. By introducing diverse learning opportunities, and using interdisciplinary and multiple modes of engagement and practice, it should be possible to enhance the learning experiences that address emerging technologies and practices, in a more collaborative mode of delivery than those that are addressed in the traditional linear and abstract forms of knowledge development.

Cognitive Expectation

It is therefore necessary to draw on different scholastic and investigatory traditions of practice and learning, exploiting and experimenting with interdisciplinary methodologies and approaches. If we avoid the narrowing of our expectations, and the conforming of our practices and routines of enquiry, then we can avoid the pitfalls of monological thinking that removes opportunities for discovery and investigation – with the associated limited range of cognitive expectation that accompany these practices and dispositions. Promoting interdisciplinary, collaborative investigative approaches and structured challenges, means that it will be possible to enhance the expectations of learners, while keeping them engaged in a rewarding and stimulating learning experience for its own sake, and not one that promotes deferred reward, status or approval as their primary outcomes.

Experiential Engagement

What we gain from these developmental learning traditions, which sees the cycle of learning as driven by an integrated sense of learning through practice and concept, is a reinforcing cycle of engagement that opens-up the learner’s expectations, rather than limiting their opportunities and potential for diverse outcomes. A narrow mode of engagement and participation only short-changes the potential that cognitive diversity offers. The potential for problem solving is enhanced if those who are engaged in the activities are able to recognise the inherent strengths of different cognitive approaches, while also being open to multiple opportunities for divergent and reflexive thinking. We are all enhanced if we use the multiple cognitive modes of engagement that problem solving requires, as we are more than the sum of our parts when we collaborate.

Reflexive Improvement

A more reflexive approach is one that utilises learner-centred development processes that are situated in practice and supported by appropriate concepts and ideas. The impulse to normalise this experience into pre-structured roles and expressions, limits and restricts the level of engagement that can be achieved if we simply view media practice as a purely functional task – usually learnt by rote and practiced with a limited sense of self. This classical mode of ‘banking’ learning leaves learners with poor techniques for self-actualisation, and undermines their ability to explore alternative forms of engagement and expression that would otherwise promote growth and self-awareness.

Participatory Engagement

The challenge, then, is to design learning programmes that allow learners to develop social engagement skills and to maximise their contribution to the group enterprise. In the collective intelligence models that promote learning through shared practices and shared understandings, learners are oriented away from classical models of learning that promote engagement as atomised and transactional. This means taking every opportunity to provide social and collaborative learning practices that enhance learners sense of belonging as part of a learning community, and thereby able to explore techniques for co-development and co-production that support innovation and problem solving learning.

Partnerships

However, it’s pointless trying to promote participatory forms of learning if they are not appropriately scaffolded with clear expectations that are drawn from ‘real-world’ projects. Partnerships that raise expectations, and are of an international standard, will be increasingly prized in the future, as they will give learners a sense that their individual learning experience is not being designed in isolation, but has a viable sense of meeting raised expectations based on the status of the partners and their progressive and forward-thinking dispositions. Leaving learners with local and limited expectations is no longer sustainable.

Collaborative Practices

The need to develop and enhanced collaborative practices, therefore, is something that can help to give a greater sense of externalised engagement to a learning programme, and thereby minimises the potential negative effects of a ‘bubble’ mentality. This ‘bubble’ mentality is on in which self-confirmation and self-regard limit the opportunity for realistic externalised engagement. The self-reinforcement of expectations promotes brittle and weak learning opportunities that are unattractive and require sustained (and wasted) investment in internal organisation politics and resource battles. It’s better to be seen to be working with external partners because they bring a different perspective to the learning experience, in the way that they enhance expectations for independent working relationships, founded on a future needs analysis, and a diversity of problem solving techniques and technologies.

Social Disruptions

To this end a needs analysis must address how challenges of social, economic, environmental, technological and cultural change and going to impact on future expectations of media production and media communication. If we only frame our learning practices in terms of what we already know, and not in terms of what we need to know, then we will miss the opportunity to prepare learners for the challenges that lay ahead of them, and the roles that they will be expected to perform as media-producers who are capable of meeting these challenges. Diversification of expectations of use of media, to include wider range of technologies and social uses (i.e. gamification, data management, social participation, virtual reality, digital mapping, media-supported-learning, etc.) should be regarded as a key strategic aim of all media courses.

Sustainability Needs

Diversification, then, is necessary because there is an ongoing requirement to addresses the significant and impending challenges of social and organisation development.  By introducing relevant problem-solving approaches to environmental, social and technological change, it should be possible to promote a sense of engagement with sustainability agendas, such as climate change, urbanisation, automation, globalisation, personalisation, data-integration, ethics, social and civic accountability (among many others). As the oncoming waves of change approach, we will need thinkers and producers who won’t be overwhelmed due to lack of preparation, fixed as they might be in a monological thinking pattern. It’s incumbent on all course planners, therefore, to build-in a sense of evaluation of their proposed learning practices, focusing on future resilience and sustainability, and the practical issues of communication and mediation, the use of technology and social engagement, and so on.

Technical Change

If we can’t promote a strong impulse for the exploration and utilisation of technology for social accomplishment, then we are simply narrowing the expectations and value of technology, design and engineering practices, leading to limited cognitive and practical experiences that won’t keep-up with technological change due to lack of support, investment and advocacy of the technical development process. If we promote the pragmatic and continual re-evaluation of the support that is built-in to our taken-for-granted technological practices, then we also engage learners in progressive and creative methodologies and practice that utilise diverse and experimental methods of investigation and problem solving. Why should we cut off the opportunity for continuous learning?

Innovation Expectation

So, media courses that are going to be fit for purpose in the future must therefore have a strong focus on discovery and engagement with emergent and open development practices. They must avoid any narrowing of expectations that would otherwise lead to a reinforcement of the existing solutions that are commonly available, which, over time, may prove to be insufficient and lack a sense of sustainability, resilience and future-proofing. It’s certain that many organisations are thinking about these challenges, and these organisations undoubtedly will become more attractive because they have a more explicit focus on future potential and possibilities of technological practices and media know-how. Therefore, if we comprehensively review our expectations about the media curricula that we offer, then we can begin to develop the supporting methodologies that will be defined by more open learning experiences and practices, and which are better suited to the emerging affordances of media technology innovation.

Outcome Diversity                       

Overall, then, it is my belief that media courses should manage the expectations that graduates so that they are better suited to a wide range of innovative practices, such as media production, research, technology development, teaching, campaigning, performance, R&D, independent media employability, and so on. If we keep narrowing and conforming our expectations to a limited set of established media practices and technologies, then we will reduce the ‘pool’ of ideas and expectations we have to draw on in the future. By reinforcing the methodological monology, we will only achieve what we already have.

Our focus should be on the way that graduates deal with change, how they are able to account for change, and how they can assess and evaluate the future potential of a diversified and emergent set of media technologies and practices. This means reviewing the status of our current curriculum and methodologies, and positioning ourselves and our learning partners in a direction that is more focussed on open learning experiences, supported by practices that anticipate changing social roles in media, and thus beyond in learning practices, research and development approaches.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2013). A Thousand Plateaus. London: Bloomsbury Revelations.

Gauntlett, D. (2015). Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing.

Merrin, W. (2014). Media Studies 2.0. London: Routledge.

Moore, S. A. (Ed.) (2016). Pragmatic sustainability – Dispositions for Critical Adaptation (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

 

Feb 082017
 

One of the underlying and emerging themes of my teaching practice and research work is the potential for the development of communities of interest, practice and association.

I’m predominantly looking at this in the context of Community Media, however, the net is getting wider all the time, to include community development issues, civic participation issues, and social sustainability challenges.

There is a very good article in the Guardian today from George Monbiot, in which he describes the impact of community development projects.

What is interesting, and I’ve pointed this out to colleagues I work with in the Community Media Association, is that Community Media is not mentioned in the list of activities and accomplishments.

I’ve been contemplating this for some time now, and I’ve been asking myself if we are doing enough with our courses and the research we undertake, to develop and enhance the social and civic contribution that we make, both with and through, media and participatory media activities?

Hopefully I’ll get some time soon to write and post some regular blogs about these challenges,  and the potential insight that media scholars and practitioners can contribute that goes beyond the narrow skills and industry straight-jacket that is so dominant at present.

Jul 052016
 

Who would have thought that the modern Conservative Party would have become so radical and ideological? The referendum decision to leave the European Union has sent shock-waves through our national psyche and is proving difficult to understand because it is the result of some problematic political cross-dressing.

It seems that the advocates of Creative Destruction that is gleefully being embraced and pursued by potential leaders in the Tory Party has caught many by surprise, and leaving many unable to respond or to come up with a suitable counter-argument.

The question I have, however, is doesn’t this go against the foundations of conservatism? I thought that the Conservative Party had a historic role in the British constitution to preserve and endure, whereas the path that is being advocated by the anti-EU head-bangers in the Brexit camp is the opposite of that, and suggest that the Conservative Party has fully abandoned its historic role in British life.

My simplistic understanding of the conservative tradition suggests that conservative principle number one, is to sustain and conserve for future generations. Decisions that we take should be rooted in a pragmatic forms of practicality, focussed on the need to get out of situations if they are not in our interests in the future.

We’ve just spent the last forty years building a sustainable future inside the European Union, only for the second principle of conservativism to be annihilated. A stable society is built on stable institutions, i.e. the Crown, the Courts, the BBC and NHS. Conservatives are concerned that the institutions that we hold dear will endure past the mid-term priorities and perspectives of the people involved.

Stable institutions give us a predictable framework around which we can plan our future decisions. In this sense conservatives are boring, and they certainly don’t promote extreme measures based on ego or an ideological whim for fear of the unknown consequences.

In this regard, however, conservatives are pragmatic and run with what is known to work. Conservatives don’t like to experiment for the sake of experimentation. Change is an evolutionary process that is agreed and built on consensus, rather than being hurled at people who don’t know what they are getting.

Conservatives therefore have a disdain for popular expressions of the public mood, so they don’t use referendums very often. Instead conservatives work within the framework of representative and liberal democracy that protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority through deliberation, expertise and wisdom. Parliament is supposed to debate and discuss issues of national importance and come to a consensual view that suits all parties.

Outside of the political realm conservatives put the family at the core of their ideas. The stable family unit around which the rest of society is based is the central premise of the conservative mind-set, associated with values of self-reliance and merit in which people are able to climb the ladder of life with the minimum of interference from the state or from government.

Likewise, conservatives are stewards of the environment and the natural world. They seek to sustain the world around us so that it is pleasant, free from pollution and works best to provide us with resources for other forms of social life and industry. Conservatives argue for balance between those things that sustain and nourish us and those things that we can exploit for more materialistic ends.

Conservatives, therefore, are patriots and nationalists, with a strong sense of duty to one’s country, King and Queen.  It is this nationalism and patriotism that gives conservatives the space to put strong local identities high on the agenda of our national lives.

The idea of the nation is built on the idea of the strong community with an engaged sense of civic participation. Civic leaders are drawn from the worlds of commerce and social association which is empowered by the stake that people feel in their local community and the benefits in status that are derived from playing an active part in community life.

According to conservatives participating in local politics and decision making is something to be proud about and it relates to your social standing. Conservatives therefor prioritise local decisions and local issues above other needs.

The market isn’t the only factor that conservatives take into account when they are enacting decisions on behalf of their communities. The social impact and the potential detrimental effects of any race for commercial exploitation. This might imply a rigid structure that is slow to change, but it is one that is based on longer-term ideas of the social good and not just an ability to get rich quick.

But there is an ideological mix-up. The Tory Party is now overwhelmed by free-market, neo-liberal ideologues. A process that started over forty-years ago with Margaret Thatcher is now bulldozing all before it.

This ideological fervour is based on the dominant belief that the free-market will provide solutions to social problems. It is the belief that so-called free-markets go hand-in-hand with the power of Creative Destruction, ripping up the rules, changing the game, and if some things get broken in the process, so what!

For more than forty years it’s been said that there is no moral or ethical dimension to the free-market, only economic instrumentalism and utility. That there are no moral equivalences between different services and goods offered in the marketplace. That everything can be reduced to a consumer exchange and the supply and demand of desires and wants.

This neo-liberal mind-set says that there is no need to offer a guiding hand or to mitigate the excesses of the market, as markets are inherently good at what they do, and will auto-correct when things go wrong.

However, when I take a look around me all I see is that the free-market has only delivered a zombie economy based around endless brands, chains and franchises. Don’t bother travelling around the United Kingdom, every town is the same, every place has a Starbucks, a Costa Coffee, Boots, WH Smiths, all in endless and soulless duplication.

If a local community wants to deny planning permission for Tesco to open another supermarket in their area, then there is very little that they can do about it. Local decisions are usually over-written by centralised managers in London who only care about the numbers and not the impact.

Local democracy has been devalued in the United Kingdom for decades. The assault started with Thatcher who disbanded the metropolitan authorities who wanted to invest locally and manage change more socially democratically that the free market ideologies would allow.

This has resulted in the dominance of instrumental thinking in political and civic life, as the mono-logic of economic utility pushes all public and civic life to the so-called free market place. This is a logic that treats everything like cornflakes. Designed, manufactured and distributed from a centralised management, but containing no nourishment or health benefits despite the claims.

The neo-liberal ideologue can’t recognise that measures of sustainability and environmental protection are prudent, so they find ways to derided and belittle the process of ecological stewardship. They become climate change deniers because nothing can interfere with the free-market, not even the mounting evidence of environmental catastrophe.

So expertise is undermined. Universities are reduced to being factories for employability. The idea of the university as a space for independent and divergent thinking is subsumed under the logic that says that students are consumers and that they must be facilitated in their employability needs, rather than being independent thinkers with a liberal conscience.

Our politics has become a giant marketing exercise. The buzz-phrase is the ‘conversation’ which reduces everything to surveys and opinion polls. The fact that politics is the manifestation of competing interests is hidden and made opaque. Who did the Brexit campaign actually represent beyond themselves?

So, the question I’ve been thinking about is why I am a conservative? What makes me want to see a resurgence in conservative thinking that will challenge the destruction of the free-marketers?

I want to see strong, local communities in which local people determine their own priorities on tax, planning, education, health and welfare. This will only come about if local people have a democratic stake, so we need Proportional Representation for all of our elections. With a decentralised model of education we can look to the best practice that allows our young people to become creative, independent and resilient, ending the factory and hot-house model that is failing to engage enough people in life-long learning.

In a globalised world we can only build local identities by promoting local products and producers, by promoting local arts, media and participation in a strong and vibrant cultural life. Too much of our social interactions are founded on shopping and not on shared creative endeavours.

There is a clear role for Trade Unions as long as they are looking to provide stability when planning for change. Ironically the Thatcherite zeal for union-bashing is partly responsible for high-levels of immigration in service sector work. If people are paid poverty wages then jobs don’t look attractive and employers will seek cheaper labour elsewhere.

I want to make it easier for people to access a local market by promoting civic market places that are paid for by taxing parking on supermarkets. How do new traders enter the marketplace when the competitive environment is skewed towards the national and international conglomerates all fighting for a slide of the pie but with no care for the local community?

This means devolving responsibility for competition in our communities to the local level and allowing local communities to accept or reject the presence of corporate brands in their area. Local people should decide if they want to leave space for local people like themselves to trade and build businesses in their areas. Anyhow, we have far too many shops in the United Kingdom. It’s time we started to restrict out of town developments, and endless shopping centre car parks.

I also want to see a shift away from the car economy, so that urban areas can become the focus of family life. British streets have been chocked and blocked by cars. They have become dangerous and anti-social. Children are absent from our streets and communities, and live like prisoners. No wonder so many of them are unhappy.

It is essential, therefore, that we build integrated transport networks based around trams in our cities. Trams are socially democratic, giving all classes of people confidence to use an integrated system. They are clean and they are predictable. The privatisation of the buses is an experiment in free-market ideology that has cursed our cities.

Another priority has to be that we stop building endless homes and businesses in rural areas. Instead we need to protect and invest in agricultural and recreational traditions, and open the country to a different set of priorities that aren’t based on endless urban-sprawl.

When communities face change, though, they need to be given support and help so that they can adjust to the changes that technology, rather than blaming people. Don’t turn your back on people in need and put in place robust safety nets so people aren’t destitute and can plan their lives around stability. The shame of the Bedroom Tax is deeply felt by many.

I don’t understand why successive governments have had such a problem with local democracy. Local services that are accountable through the local ballet-box are better than some technocratic and centralised ministry can offer. Devolve health, education, welfare and competition management to local authorities while also pulling back defence expenditure.

I’m afraid it’s time to give-up Trident because we can’t afford it, which means giving up our seat on the UN Security Council. Our aim should be to leave a smaller footprint that is better suited to our resources, thereby cutting our cloth to fit our reduced circumstances.

Al this said, once I’ve got over the shock of Brexit and the opportunities start to become clear, I’ve no doubt that the future is going to be internationalist, collaborative, co-operative, welcoming and principled. So who knows, we might come out of this muddle with a form of EU+. Something that is built on strong local communities, in which people are empowered and feel that they can reject the technocratic management and monoculture forces of the global finance industry.

I suspect that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party will be dead and buried in five years’ time. The question is, what kind of political leadership will take their place and how will people square the conservative with the social democratic?

Jun 282016
 

The ramifications of the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union are going to reverberate for some time. Not only will the decision to leave the EU mean changes to our economy and political life, but they will also have a significant impact on the way that we think about and undertake community media in the United Kingdom as well.

As supporters of community media adjust to this new reality, it is worth sharing some thoughts about the kind of responses that community media advocates might think about. Depending on your point of view, thinking about what got us into this mess, and what might we do to work through it so we can get the best out of it?

The response of community media supporters at this time will shape the future relationships that community media sustains in times to come. We don’t have any idea at this stage how commercial and public service media will continue to be regulated in the United Kingdom, and what changes might come about as a result of the changing legal and regulatory regimes.

One thing that I hope that can be agreed is that the success of the leave campaign was due in large part to a sense of frustration and indignation at the manner in which our economy and civic life had been playing out.

It certainly became progressively harder to keep community media groups running and focussed as government cuts and austerity hit local communities, but there are other factors that are associated with the general sense of frustration. Community media has been run on a shoe-string for years now, a fact that has been pointed out to government by the Community Media Association on many occasions.

One example that typifies this sense of frustration is the rise of the zombie town, for example, in which every high-street is identical, and populated by the same chain stores and brands? These towns give little opportunity for networks of independent and local businesses to take-root and play a strong role in civic life.

I’ve thought for some time now that it is pointless travelling around the United Kingdom because the high-streets are all the same. Is this a factor in the sense of frustration? Did people become frustrated because they have been cut-off from a clear, independent sense of local identity?

Like the high-street, local media has been under considerable pressure for some time now. Newspapers have been squeezed-out because they haven’t been profitable enough. Local commercial radio stations have been squeezed out as the international conglomerates have built chains of stations around formulas, brands and centralised marketing.

Local commercial radio in the United Kingdom is homogenised, formulaic and repetitive, with little sense of local identity. Playing local travel news in between Justin Bieber tracks isn’t doing anything to foster local expression and understanding.

In hoc only to the needs of advertisers the commercial radio companies have forgotten the listeners needs, and killed-off the chance that radio might be a positive and creative forum for discussion, ideas and local identity.

The BBC doesn’t come away from these events with any glory either. The narrow and condescending programming brief that is given to BBC Local Radio is fascicle and self-serving. Prone to being ‘nostalgia’ radio, BBC local stations have been prevented from fostering a local identity.

Just a change of accents from one station to the next, yet the content is mostly identical.

The BBC Local Radio music playlists are centrally managed, leading to a generic sound that is the same everywhere. No local experimentation, discovery or challenge. Just Daft Punk and Lionel Ritche on endless repeat.

BBC Local Radio should be a place of vibrant, integrated community debate and discussion. Did BBC Local Radio tap into the resentment that was expressed in the referendum, or where BBC Local Radio producers just as surprised as everyone else in the media?

It is often said, and always worth repeating, that the strength of community media is the principle that community media is about people representing themselves. Community media has a proud tradition of supporting community discussion and communication, but community media has been chronically underfunded for a long, long time.

This underfunding, and a lack of active government support, both national and local, has left many community media groups clinging on, not able to develop, grow or expand their services. Everyone I know in community media feels lucky just to have survived.

The Ofcom Broadcast Rules stifle debate and creative reposes to differences of community opinion because they have to be packaged in a ‘balanced’ approach, which for many community media groups is out of their reach given the legalistic framework and ramifications if you get it wrong.

This dereliction of duty by Ofcom to foster and support community media, would be pardonable if Ofcom actually gave some support to community media groups to meet the legal challenges of broadcasting. However, all that Ofcom offers is a PowerPoint presentation based on the complex legal documents they circulate to all broadcasters, regardless of size and status.

Community media emerged from lack of civic support as risk-averse. More often community media groups avoid any controversial topics, news or discussion. This has had a negative effect on civic discussion and compounds the democratic deficit and lack of engagement many people experience.

Four million people voted for UKIP at the last general election, and they have just one MP in parliament. Where do these voices get heard in our local communities? Why are political discussions only left to a few high-profile celebrity politicians on national, centralised stations?

Why aren’t the day-to-day issues of community life shared and expressed in community media forums?

The ideal of community media is for communities to speak to of themselves and to themselves, while also speaking with other communities. The challenge is to do this in a way that fosters understanding and tolerance through shared engagement.

This is a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops by community media advocates, particularly as people try to make sense of the result of the referendum. We have a fantastic opportunity with community media to foster and support communities through open and challenging dialogue, as long as the framework of support is put in place by government.

The alternative is that community media advocates declare their independence and go off and do their own things, using the new social media technologies that are replacing mass media anyway.

I intend to give this matter some serious thought and I’m keen to hear what other people think about it. Is this a moment for community media to step-up and embrace the opportunity to help heal our divided communities by helping them to listen to and understand one another?

Jun 272016
 

In the Post-Brexit political landscape it’s going to be interesting to see what changes in practice, and how people will adapt to the reality that the whole economic and fiscal order of the United Kingdom has to change. This was a vote that I disagreed should be held, and I’m deeply disturbed by the result because it fails to engage with the practical consequences of the decision.

So, here’s some suggestions, a couple of things that are going to have to change over the short-term in order to pay for and adjust to the new reality of Post-Brexit Britain.

Proportional Representation: First, it looks like we got into this mess because we don’t have a fit-for-purpose electoral system. The present system polarises people, and it ensure that parties are embedded in traditional areas without any challenge. This is both Labour areas and Tory areas. Look at Leicester and Leicestershire? Each are rock-solid holds on thirty-five percent of the vote. The priority has to be a proportional election system at all levels of government. We pay our taxes but we don’t get fair representation.

Congestion/Pollution Charge to Pay for Integrated Trams: Leicester is a car-based city, but the damage this does is immense, both to people’s health and to their well-being. The roads in Leicester are constantly clogged and the side-streets where people live are unusable by anything that doesn’t travel with an internal combustion engine. Families and children are cut off from one another because the roads aren’t safe.

Many of the people who drive into Leicester are getting a cheap deal. They pass through and don’t have to live with the consequences. This has left us with a devalued urban environment, and the heavy pollution that an over-reliance on cars causes.

Many other cities in the United Kingdom are successfully building integrated tram networks to change the culture and the feel of the spaces we share. Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Edinburgh, are all building tram systems as a viable and preferred alternative to congestion.

Let’s bring in a congestion and pollution charge so that the money raised from excessive road use can be invested into a modern tram network. Leicester is the perfect type of city for a tram, indeed until the 1950s Leicester was mainly served by trams and buses. So it can be done here.

Property Tax – Rates Based on Market Value: The United Kingdom economy has been based for the last forty years around a number of financial imperatives, the main one being home ownership. Since the 1980s, and the Thatcher revolution for a home-owning democracy, the whole focus of housebuilding has been about property speculation. Some people have done very well out of this gamble and have accrued substantial resources as a nest egg for their retirement.

The problem is that the taxes that are raised locally are regressive, so those people who live in poorer areas and who have not benefited from the gains in property prices that other areas have seen, are paying more than their fair share.

The answer is to return to a rating system similar to that used prior to the Poll Tax. Those who have the greatest wealth and the strongest assets should be taxed fairly, and those who are working their way-up in life, and who generally live in cheaper property areas, should be taxed fairly but less. If a pensioner is living in a mansion by themselves then they should think about downsizing.

The suburbs would suddenly become a less desirable option for people to live in, and the inner-cities would become more attractive. This would reverse the wastelands that typify British urban planning, and the lack of integration of social activities, essential services and amenities. The city would be the place to retire, and we could focus on the quality of people lives.

Business rates stay in Leicester: If businesses are successful in Leicester the money that is raised from their local taxes should stay in Leicester. There is plenty of work that needs doing in Leicester. Walk along any high-street out of the city centre and you will see a picture of decay and a lack of maintenance. Local business taxes will provide money that can be used to invigorate local communities, rather than being syphoned-off to a distant market town or shire county to be spent maintaining the generous lifestyles of rural communities.

Local taxes staying in Leicester would also reinvigorate local civic engagement, as there is no stronger impetus to get involved in local politics and community life than the feeling that you are guiding the resources and the assets that are raised locally.

End to pensioner discounts and benefits: Young people need to be invested in if they are going to have confidence to learn, work hard and achieve in the future. Our economic prosperity depends on how we treat our young people. And yet there has been an asset grab on recent years that has seen resources taken from the young and from working families, and used to secure the prosperity of the older generations.

The referendum indicates that we have to make a choice, we can either have one or the other, but we can’t keep milking young people in order to pay for the leisure pursuits of the generation that has pulled-up the ladder. I’m sorry, but free television licences and bus passes will have to go.

Support University Internationalist work: Supporting younger people means supporting local schools, colleges and universities. I would like to see schools and colleges brought back under the control of local councils, and hence local democracy. So that they can be managed and funded for the long-term, with an international agenda that suits the aspirations of the of the tech-enabled young people of Leicester who aren’t afraid of globalisation and don’t see national barriers in the way that the older generations fear.

Support for Language Communities: One of the things that got cut as a sop to the anti-integrationists was the support given by local councils for language classes and translation services. This act of self-harm just made it more difficult to deal with the changes we have seen in our communities, as the transitional support that people might have benefited from was cut on the basis of irrational prejudice. Every school, college and workplace should have language clubs that help people to improve their non-English speaking skills, as well as help and support for people to learn English so that they can be integrated much more quickly.

Scale-up of infrastructure work to modernize urban areas: Walk around Leicester and take-stock of how much work needs doing to deal with the decades of neglect. Simple things like painting railings, fixing traffic junctions, clearing road signs, repairing and improving pavements. Austerity and the cuts that George Osborne imposed on local councils have taken a heavy toll on the infrastructure of Leicester’s urban environment.

The City Council has to be able to gear-up as many projects as it can quickly to deal with the blight of the urban environment. Leicester’s Mayor has made some progress with the Cathedral, Jubilee Square, the Haymarket Bus Station, and so on, but there is so much more to do. And it is money well spent as it goes back into the local economy, thus generating more taxes.

Scale-up of social services teams to deal with anti-social begging: Anyone who visits Leicester and travels along Granby Street should be able to attest to the problem of street drinking, begging and people who are damaged by drugs. An immediate and practical action plan needs to be put in place so that people who have dropped through the safety-net can be helped and supported.

The scourge of Leicester being used as a dumping ground for other local councils who export their problems needs to end, and the police need to be much more visible in ensuring that forms of anti-social behaviour are discouraged.

Clampdown on noise pollution and anti-social behaviour from bars: I firmly believe that Leicester can be one of the best family friendly cities there is. The problem at the moment is that it is being run on the basis of the so-called night-time economy alone. This is a world of cheap bars that encourage people to crowd in the streets and often ends in violence.

Who would want to live in a city and raise a family in this environment? I’m quite happy with liberal opening hours, but a culture shift has to take place that see the licensing regime changed. Yes, people should be able to go for a drink whenever they want, but there should be zero-tolerance of noise pollution and anti-social behaviour from bars and clubs.

There should also be a dispersal of venues away from the centre so that there is less concentration on large numbers of people gathering in one place. Meals and water have to be available at all times, and everyone has to sit down, just to take the concentration and density of a venue down. The free-market and commercial exploitation can’t be the only deciding factor for permission to open and run a business.

Anyway, these are just a couple of thoughts that I’d want to put forward as practical, local issues that can be dealt with quite quickly, and none of them are the responsibility of the European Union, but can be enacted and dealt with locally.

 

 

Jun 262016
 

Come the hour, comes the man – or woman, but it’s not as snappy a proverb. The fallout from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union looks like it is only just starting to gather strength. The latest overnight news is that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has sacked the shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn, because he was plotting to revolt against his leadership.

With Boris Johnson aiming to lead the Conservative Party, and become the next Prime Minister, after David Cameron’s resignation, the other proverb that comes to mind, but perhaps one that is less welcome, is: ‘may you be blessed to live in interesting times.’

There are underlying fault-lines that have become apparent in this maelstrom of claim and counter-claim. And while those on the right would frame this as a debate about personal liberty or national pride, and those on the left might frame this as a debate about capitalism’s time running out, there are other forces at hand that also need to be considered.

I’ve discussed in a previous post how this is a debate about the old and the young. There is a clear rift in the expectations of those over forty and those under forty. Those that remember life before Thatcherism, and those that have only ever lived with the European outlook.

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Geographic Divisions of Brexit

There is also the divide between the so-called ‘heartlands’ and the urban areas. The vote to remain was embedded in Scotland obviously, but also in the cities of England. While the vote to leave was founded in the shires and counties, the smaller towns of England that are furthest away from the urban lifestyles of the emerging urban economies.

The Observer’s editorial today’s asks:

So what about globalisation? How have free markets benefited the steel worker put out of work by the EU-sanctioned dumping of cheap Chinese products? Seen from Wearside or the Welsh valleys, booming London and the south-east, with its Monopoly money property prices and £70 a head restaurants, resembles Goldrush City, a foreign and hostile land.”

The last time I was in central London I hated it – to use a phrase I thought it was full of arrogant and self-entitled chancers. So these anxieties are being felt elsewhere and have been deeply engrained as form of indignation and resentment for some time.

I wonder, perhaps, if there is another divide, one that is less visible, but one that has shaped and formed these outlooks? Is this a divide between those who use traditional media to keep themselves informed of what’s happening in the world, and those who use social and emerging media to find out what is happening in the world?

The tradition of mass media has not disappeared, despite what Facebook, YouTube and Twitter might want us to think. Newspapers, television, and to a much lesser extent radio, still play an essential role in framing the debates and conversations that we have about our national identity and our place in the world. Often framed by the bias of the newspaper proprietors who are themselves pursuing an agenda of their own interest.

Alternatively, the users of social media have a more flexible approach to information, with sources and feeds being exchanged and shared from many different media organisations as well as individuals. The downside is the jam-jar approach, in which the hornets of opinion furiously echo each-others views and don’t interact with those of different mind-sets.

This is counter-balanced, however, by the ability to look wider afield and to interact with people who are not geographically defined in our localities, or set within our networks of social class, gender and sexual identity, views on faith or otherwise. Social media allows people to spread their network wider than the fixed world of mass mediated politics allows.

Perhaps a good example of the hollowing out of local identities is the way that radio in the United Kingdom has become a centralised, national set of brands and formats that reflect a narrow commercial interest, but which don’t give a flavour to local lives and circumstances. It’s no surprise that BBC Local Radio is designed to appeal to the over fifty-fives. Has this played through into people’s perceptions of a hollowed-out sense of community?

Likewise, we’ve seen a massive decline in local newspapers, local reporting about politics, local information and discussion about civic and local government issues in the press, because the press has been decimated by speculation and commercial interests.

So in a way, the Brexit debate is an argument about changing local identities and emerging social identities. Our collective and social identities are now being formed in different ways, and how we cope with that and respond to it is very important.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 08.14.39On the one-hand people are strongly patriotic and have a clear need for a locally defined image of themselves. While on the other hand there is a great source of energy that comes from rejecting these more traditional forms of identity and instead seeking common cause with people who are of a like-mind globally. Look at the response to the Orlando shootings for a sense of common-cause between LGBT people.

This is patriotism and localism versus freedom of movement and social association. Who you have most in common with is no longer set by where you live, but increasingly by who you link with on social media. This might account in some way for the generational divide that became evident in the outcome of the referendum vote. Do people under forty embrace the globalised social identity afforded through social media more easily than those who are over forty?

This is not clear cut and set in stone. My mum is an avid remain supporter and uses social media to follow the debates and to talk to other people about it. She is seventy-three years old and doesn’t regard herself as nostalgic about the past. Whereas many of her peers feel that they have ‘got their country back’, as if they are reclaiming the glory of Britain in the 1950s, prior to the Windrush.

The challenge, then, is to choose the political side that you think best represents the future? Should we embrace independence because it makes us feel that we are getting something back that was lost? A sense of local identity that was ripped apart by deindustrialisation, the rise of the consumer economy and the Thatcherite experiment in speculative capitalism?

Or should we focus on the requirements of the future economy that is based on knowledge, information, social networks and progressive civic freedoms that enable people to work internationally, absorbing and sharing different cultural traditions and practices?

The Labour Party is in the most difficult position of all parties in this debate, as it tries to figure out if this should be a process of managed decline and localism, or if this reflects ideas that are more relevant to the ongoing process of globalisation and integration?

Labour MP Yvette Cooper is arguing that Labour needs to adopt an approach that listens to the concerns of the heartlands, and takes on board the concerns that people have about immigration and globalisation. This is a widespread, and on the surface a sensible view, but it is also a mistaken view that fails in terms of political leadership.

Political parties can be very effective sounding boards for grievances and complaints. As social change makes people uncomfortable there is an inevitable role for the politics of indignation. However, this doesn’t move people on, and it doesn’t set out the realities that the world has changed and will continue to change.

Political leadership is about challenging the expectations of your supporters and taking them on a journey to a more promising future. In the United Kingdom this promise was high-jacked in what I can only describe as a right-wing coup, organised by about eighty members of the Conservative party and the backers of UKIP.

The economic and social realities haven’t changed, however, so the need to manage people’s expectations about what kind of future is possible needs to be urgent and blunt if it is to be achieved fairly and in a progressive and socially democratic manner.

Everything that we know about social and economic life in the United Kingdom is about to be torn up. If the Brexit supporters think that this will result in form of ‘glorious isolation’ then they are mistaken. The world is still going to change around them and they run the risk of being left behind. Fine, choose that if you wish, but understand the consequences.

This is why we need a broad alliance of the 48% to make the positive case for a progressive and socially responsible future, that incorporates and builds on globalisation, the challenge of technology, and the promise of diverse, mixed and integrated communities.

Britain’s cities hold the key for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom because they are forward looking, multi-ethnic, creative, young. They are finally breaking free from the autocratic control of national government and are being recognised as ‘powerhouses’ of future prosperity.

If the swathes of the country outside of the urban areas can’t grasp that, then they must remain content to work for managed decline and diminished incomes. Economic gains from future technologies are going to slip away from what’s left of the United Kingdom, as technology and digital companies relocate to more welcoming countries.

I don’t think the Brexit voters realise the lasting damage that scratching the itch of indignation is going to cause.

Jun 252016
 

It’s really interesting, do a search on Google Images for ‘UK Managed Decline’ and the search page is filled with images from the 1980s of social unrest and the cabinet of the Thatcher government. Perhaps there is something wrong with the Google algorithm because none of these images suggest that the transition of the 1980s that was brought about by the Thatcher revolution was particularly well managed. If anything decline was unmanaged and extreme social responses where provoked.

The 1980s where a period when Britain was forced to deindustrialise, with whole industries being closed or privatised, and the resulting impact on communities and families hitting them in a way that it was difficult to cope with and respond to.

Many of these communities have never recovered and still show the scars and the resentment of this period of destruction to this day. This has clearly fed into the anger that has been expressed in the referendum decision to leave the European Union.

As I’ve indicated in previous blogs, I’m a supporter of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, however, I am also a democrat so I respect the decision that has been made by a majority of the active British electorate.

There are, however, some questions that I think are fair to put to the Brexit camp that will explain how the United Kingdom, or what’s left after the second Scottish independence referendum, will move forward. I don’t believe in jingoistic phrases like ‘Making Britain Great Again,’ I need more meat on the bone and some plausible, practical answers.

So, how will Britain manage its decline following the decision to leave the European Union? How will the new government under Johnson, Gove, Smith and Farage restructure our economy and our society in order to better suit our diminished position? Here are some proposals to do this:

First, cancel Trident. Obviously we can no longer afford to replace this ‘independent’ nuclear weapons system. It’s a debt that will hang around our necks and stop us from investing in the needs of the British people at home. The United Kingdom no longer needs to be an active nation in world peace keeping, as this can be undertaken by the Americans on our behalf, and for a much smaller fee.

This means we can give up our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council so that we can concentrate on matters closer to home. We can sign non-aggression pacts with Russia and China, so that in the event of any war in the future we can guarantee that no British soldiers, sailors or airmen will be put at risk for the protection of countries that are well out of our domain of influence.

As a member of NATO we can provide defensive services to our allies only, and we can commit ourselves to peace keeping operations only once they have been agreed by the full NATO Council and the United Nations. This should save us many billions of pounds each year, as we will no longer need a nuclear deterrent or expensive submarines and aircraft carriers.

If we are going to withdraw from the United Nations Security Council, this gives us the opportunity to hand back Falklands and Gibraltar to the Argentine and Spanish governments respectively. This will mean that we won’t have to constantly posture with these countries and we can move on to think about making things work at home.

Our managed decline must have the objective to have a smaller footprint in the world and to worry less about the United Kingdom punching above its weight.

Our special relationship with America can be downgraded in the process, as we become more objective and independent we will be able to strike trade deals with new partners that better suit our interests, rather than opting for American investment to the same extent that we do at present.

We can strike a preferential deal with the Chinese to use Weibo instead of the American Twitter. We can buy our movies from India – Bollywood rather than Hollywood, and K-Pop is much more popular than Hip-Hop as a form of creative and artistic expression.

At home, we can further our managed decline by aiming to limit the ambitions of our universities. So we can be content that Oxford and Cambridge are in the top fifty world research universities, rather than the top five that they are at present. Maintaining this position in the international university league tables is expensive, and we would be better deploying the money we save to support home communities and home education services that provide valuable vocational skills for industry.

Obviously the financial services industry that is based in London will have to be given special status and freed from the rules and regulations that the European Union are trying to impose on them. I’d suggest that we use the Isle of Mann, or Guernsey as a model for the City of London, as it becomes a quasi-independent city-state free from national regulation and responsibilities.

At a stroke we can also get rid of HS2, the controversial high-speed rail service proposed for London to Birmingham. It’s not going to be important to move business people around at high-speed, so we can spend the money on more practical local options like buses and trams in our towns and cities. The third runway at Heathrow is also a non-starter, as there will be plenty of capacity at all the other United Kingdom airports once the agreements for cheap air travel in Europe have come to an end.

We might have to spend some money sorting out the railways again, however, as when the franchises for the exiting train services run out it is likely that bidders to take these services on will be harder to find as the focus of British transport shifts back to the roads and to regional transport schemes.

There will be changes to the NHS as well. We won’t be able to afford the universal service that we take for granted now, so it’s sensible to start to plan for both rationing, charging and privatisation of the health service. This will mean shifting the provision of healthcare to cities and the urban centres because with more limited options and expertise, specialists will need to be clustered and centralised. The limits on immigration will mean that we can’t recruit internationally for doctors, so there will be a transition period while we train new medical professionals.

We will also need to rationalise our schools. The somewhat outdated and unaffordable village school will become a thing of the past. Instead children will have to be transported to larger towns and cities for their schooling, at which they will receive a rationalised and simplified curriculum.

These are just a couple of ideas. I’m sure the process of managed decline will suit this country well. We will be able to run things properly without all the ambition of being a world-player, and without having to moralise or preach to other nations about human rights, international aid, social protection and future innovation in the economy, as we will be holding our own quite nicely.

If any of the Brexit supporters can show me where their plans for government and administration of this decline have been published, I would very much like to read them. Being honest about decline and how we manage our reduced influence and status in the world carries no shame. Being dishonest by claiming that we can somehow magically recreate the glories of a bygone age is, however, entirely shameful.

Jun 252016
 

If there’s one thing that people didn’t need following the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is turbulence and instability. Those of us who voted to remain probably feel dejected and isolated at the present time. I know my anxiety levels are all over the place.

The financial markets are going to be uncertain for some time. We have seen a run one the pound in all but name. Thomas Cook has suspended selling Euros to Brits online. In the past we would have seen queues outside banks, and the effects would have felt much more immediate. It’s online, so it seems hidden.

There is now going to be a battle over the type of Britain that emerges from this calamitous decision, and every chancer and charlatan is going to be jockeying for a slice of the action, and to set the framework of how we get along. The Brexit camp have been clear, they want to rip-up the rule books on Human Rights, Workers Rights, Social Protection, Freedom of Movement and Trade.

This is going to be one almighty bear-pit not seen in the United Kingdom since the 1970s. No wonder Scotland wants its independence.

However, in the political and social turmoil that is going to follow in the United Kingdom, there are some practical steps that we can all take to help us feel less alone and less subject to the storm that has hit us.

First, join a Pro-EU political party – this will be either the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or Labour (on a good day). To declare an interest, I’m a member of the Leicester Green Party, though progressive parties are going to have to form an alliance and work together to challenge the neo-liberal and right-wing agenda that is being set in the post-Brexit shakeout.

It’s impossible to set and secure the agenda on environmental protection or climate change without cooperation and collaboration with our neighbours and partners. A collective approach is the only solution to the practical problems we face in a global and interconnected world. Being part of a party that recognises that is the only way to advance these ideas.

This is why proportional representation is now so important. If the UKIP wing of opinion had been fairly represented in parliament, then perhaps these issues wouldn’t have spilt over. They would have been discussed and debated. The two-party politics of the past is dead, but our system of representation is inadequate to deal with the differences of opinion. It can’t be right that fifty-two out of fifty-four council seats in Leicester are held by Labour councillors, when nearly a two-thirds of the city voted for other parties.

Second, join a trade union. Worker’s rights are at the front of the queue to be thrown on the bonfire by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Johnson’s record as Mayor of London shows that he was more interested in billionaire property speculators than working people. Your working rights will not defend themselves. Unscrupulous employers will want maximum flexibility and will try to drive down costs by slashing wages and work-place protection.

Third, educate yourself. One of the complaints of the referendum debate was that there was not enough facts and information given to people. I’m sorry, but this is a democracy, you have a responsibility to find out for yourself the information you need. If you end up trusting biased newspapers, then you get what you deserve.

Educating yourself works on another level as well. Without skills, knowledge and aptitude to get ahead in the global world, with the knowledge-based jobs that will create the future wealth, then you will be left behind.

I’m in favour of a building and securing a robust and accessible social ladder so people can get on, with help for people who need help. But each of us as individuals have to take responsibility for starting our journey up that ladder.

It’s no longer any use to blame someone else for our problems. We are now frozen out of the European Union. In practical terms we are on our own. It’s also no use holding on to the past and feeling aggrieved about the damage done by former governments, which was a large part of what this referendum was about. It’s also no use thinking that this isn’t real, or that some great saviour is going to come and charismatically hand us the solution.

The solution will be made by people coming together and taking small steps. A good friend of mine has a great turn of phrase which I think is useful at this moment: ‘I don’t know what I should do, I only know what I can do.’ Focus on the simple steps first, and the bigger change will happen in time.