Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Uncap the budget

Two things that may seem unrelated, but aren’t: how we fund special needs education in public schools, and the axing of a current affairs show by a commercial television network. One is about how society draws on shared resources to look after its most vulnerable; the other is about capitalism and free enterprise, hence seemingly not the business of the public at all.

Last week I was asked to comment on the former after the budget announcement. Amy Jackman wrote a very good piece condensing a long conversation we had, following on from an earlier piece by Jo Moir. We used this picture that Justine took in our kitchen.

It is a privilege to speak to the media about these issues, but also a responsibility since by virtue of being there you end up implicitly representing other advocates as well. In a sector that struggles to organise for a variety of reasons, it can be harder for organisations than for individuals to be heard, partly because so many of them depend on government contracts to survive. This is what makes coalitions like the Inclusive Education Action Group – with their admirably staunch list of priorities – so valuable. Whenever I get the opportunity to speak, I try to keep their work and sense of shared purpose in mind.

The problem is this: when fighting for something as basic as a child’s right to access the same education system as her peers, you are pressured to reduce yourself to what seems possible or achievable in the short term. It is the nature of individual battles and the privatisation of need to make the broader horizon of social justice recede. And so when lobbying a politician or talking on the phone to a journalist, you say the thing you think they will be able to use. You let pragmatism take the place of idealism even though idealism may offer better (or even the only) solutions.

At the present time, it is radical to hold the belief that the budget for such items of public expenditure as special education shouldn’t be capped until such time as the rights provided for in law are guaranteed, or else those rights would be meaningless. Conversely, mainstream thinking holds that children with disabilities should have to compete with one another for an arbitrary number of education vouchers granting them special status and first dibs at the limited pool of resources.

My thoughts on which of those two propositions is manifestly crazy don’t matter. Because our reality is that we have to work within the current system to survive, we can only see improvement in what will make survival easier. This typically means: more resources, more money. But perversely, to extend an inequitable school voucher to more children – as the National party has done in last week’s budget – entrenches the inequity further. The voucher is not a guarantee of the right to an education: it’s a progressively shrinking ‘contribution’ towards receiving some education. Making more children invested in it may alleviate hardship but is no solution.

And so my proposal, hesitant as I am to offer it in front of bigger audiences, is to uncap the budget. Stop forcing families to compete with one other for whose kids are the neediest in our local version of the Hunger Games. Currently most of our efforts and I suspect a very large chunk of our money goes into making sure that nobody gets too much (which is to say, what they need), and that everyone is discriminated equally. This is what makes us look at disabled children as the problem, and not at the school system as disabling. We have it exactly backwards.

Do it the other way, then. Look in all children – regardless of their ability – for any obstacles that may prevent them from learning alongside their peers. Establish what is required to remove those obstacles, ranging from nothing at all to complex interventions and specialist help. Apply for the support to a Ministry that trusts your professional judgment, if you’re a teacher, or your knowledge of the child, if you’re a parent or caregiver. Do a pilot study. See what it takes. Why is this so hard? I honestly suspect that we would find that such a system costs less money to run.

Historically within capitalist societies the education system has been one of the few available spaces for utopian thinking, and the ideal that schools should allow children to thrive in spite of socio-economic disadvantage dies hard even in countries that have sacrificed most other notions of the public good to radical free market ideology. This ideal hasn’t been extended to disabled children until more recent times, but is available to us. It furnishes us with the illusion that a just society is possible, if only in the form of giving citizens an equal opportunity to pursue profit as adults. Yet even this space is under constant attack, its imaginative and material horizons made narrower each day by the demands of capital.

This is where I think that the cancellation of Campbell Live offers some parallels. So long as John Campbell was allowed to work, one might cultivate a residual illusion that the sensational levels of commercialisation of broadcasting in New Zealand might not be totally incompatible with producing public service journalism. Reinforcing this illusion was the fact that the show was profitable, which gave it in the eyes of many – perhaps not unreasonably – a right to exist. The trouble, as Russell Brown has argued in part and most recently here, is that it was not profitable enough for the kind of return that its highly leveraged vulture fund ownership required. To achieve those rates the show would have had to become a better lead-in for commercial dross that is cheap to produce and easy to sell to advertisers. This is how we got to executives chiding Campbell for focussing excessively on the Christchurch rebuild or Pike River , thereby inducing – in their extraordinary, actual words – ‘viewer fatigue’.

When the show’s review was first announced, I counselled against the Peter Pan-like belief that the show might be saved if only we all promised to watch it more. Vulture funds don't care about ethical consumers, if such a thing even exists. Yet the campaign and the surge in viewership still mattered, for it dispelled the notion that Campbell Live was axed because it wasn't popular. It was doing in fact tremendously well, and against the considerable odds of its own network refusing to promote it and pulling its sponsors. It just couldn't be saved because under the runaway commercial imperatives of our networks doing good journalism and turning a profit isn't enough.

The cancellation of Campbell Live is but the latest, concrete manifestation of how capital eats away at the public sphere. Like the fallout from Dirty Politics, it should galvanise our efforts to reconstruct and expand that sphere – not for the sake of progress, but of survival.

Speaking of the prospects of critical writing (ahem), the special Aotearoa edition is complete and will launch at Vic Books in Wellington from 5.30pm on June 4. You can admire Marian Maguire's stunning cover here, peek at the contents here, or join the Facebook event here. Lots more details to come. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

The broken book

The book weighs only 170 grams but has a potentially very large – although not infinite – number of pages. It is made of plastic and rubber, and has a translucent sheet at the front that acts like a window for reading its contents.

The book is portable, durable and robust, but not robust enough that you should sit on it. Which unfortunately is what I did with mine. It bent under my weight and something inside made a crunching sound. When I looked again, the black case of plastic and rubber looked intact but I could tell that the book had been damaged. The bottom half of the page I was reading when I put the book down was badly smudged, as if the text had been drawn in pencil and someone had hastily rubbed it with an eraser. Otherwise, the book was fine. I could still turn the pages and view the top half of each one.

Given the very low energy consumption and lack of significant moving parts, I could preserve the book in this state for quite a long time, there to uselessly collect the top half of a few dozen books and many more articles and essays.

What I chose to do instead was open the book and look inside. This proved a surprisingly difficult task, as the back rubber panel of my damaged Amazon Kindle was held in place by eight very tight clips and took a lot of prying. I wasn’t just driven by curiosity: seeing as I possess an older keyboard model with the screen still intact, I thought I could carry out a little transplant, in the off chance that parts were compatible. I found websites dedicated to replacing a screen on those older models, but nothing for my relatively more recent Kindle 5.

Once I finally removed the back cover, the book looked like this.

The next step was to delicately unplug the soft connections of the display and the page-turning buttons and remove the lithium battery. This was held onto the chassis by two T5 screws and a whole lot of glue: the first sign that my little operation would be unsuccessful. I had to dig the flexible square battery out with a knife and almost certainly damage it in the process.

In order to get to the display I was required at this point to turn the device over, remove the front bezel (which peels off without too much effort), unscrew five more screws, and slide the motherboard out. This is what it looks like.

Most recognisable components are shielded – with the exception of the Atheros wifi chip – but judging from the specifications, housed somewhere under those metal hoods are a Li-Ion battery, 128 Megabytes of RAM, the CPU and a 2 gigabyte flash drive, enough to store around 1,000 books by most standard calculations. I doubt that it would be possible to remove this drive from the board, even if you could prize open the soldered metal cover without damaging it. The shielding is a strong indication that the drive is not serviceable by the user, meaning that if the motherboard had been the part of the device that malfunctioned, I wouldn’t have been able to recover the data.

Once the motherboard is removed, it leaves the block that the display sits on. And it’s at this point that I conclusively discover that I failed in my quest. As it turns out, the display assembly is what is sometimes referred to as a midboard, and it houses components that are specific to this device, plus the frame and the side buttons that are part of the casing. None of these parts can be detached without breaking them, nor is the midboard compatible with earlier devices. It's farewell, then, my Kindle.

Still, I got this far so I might as well go a bit further. I proceed therefore to peel the translucent plastic from the base of the screen. This is the juicy bit: I’ll get to see how the display works. And it’s really quite interesting. The last page of text has stuck to the plastic. Here it is on nothing but my kitchen benchtop, looking (the top half at least) like an ordinary typeset page.

It’s an inert object now, needing no power to hold the ink particles in place. I can bend it, or even rub or scratch against the coarse side where the ink sticks to the plastic, and its appearance won’t change even a little bit.

On the base of the display, which bear signs of the damage caused by my sitting upon it, are the remaining millions of microscopic spheres not currently sticking to the plastic.

Each sphere contains black and white ink particles which an ordinary functioning Kindle would rearrange at each page turn by means of an array of electrodes. The ink particles are charged – the black ones negatively, the white ones positively – so that a negative charge by the bottom electrode sends the black particles to the top, a positive one to the bottom, resulting in the sphere (or pixel) appearing black or white. Yet in spite of its name this ink is not fully electronic, but behaves in most respects like regular ink. I rub my fingertips across the surface of the display, and they pick up a fine grey dust which I can use to make marks on regular paper.

Those marks are a concrete reminder that there is something very particular about these book machines.

Words can be rearranged on a computer screen at will, but they remain virtual, and when I turn the screen off they vanish as if they had never existed. To bring them into the analogue world of inert objects, I need to print them on paper, and then they behave in every way like the old technology. Electronic books straddle those two worlds, typesetting at each turn the ordinary page of a book, only on a special plastic instead of paper. And if the book machine breaks, as it could do at any moment (and eventually will, since the battery cannot be replaced), that last page will become permanent, as if out of your whole library you had chosen to print that one alone.

I enjoyed tinkering with my broken book, although I am not sure what I learned from the experience. It seems likely to me, as it does to many historians and scholars, that the form of the technologies in which our words are written and read affects our psychology as writers and readers, therefore the character that textuality takes in any given epoch. It’s just too early to say exactly what those effects will be for ours. All the same I occasionally worry that books without physical dimensions will entail a loss; that their ghost materiality will make them mean less. As I peer within the layers of the screen of my dead Kindle I am reminded that this is not quite so, and that aspects of that history survive –for history is always the hardest to die.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The purloined blog

I am sympathetic to the desire to disappear off the face of the internet, and believe that people should have the right to be forgotten when this doesn’t interfere with other considerations such as the public interest or the integrity of social and cultural archives. I have also occasionally critiqued the demand that is made of us to be always present and available, even as I’m guiltier than most of complying with it. I derived both great enjoyment and deep resonance from Hito Steyerl’s How not to be seen – a fucking didactic educational .MOV file when I saw it last year in London, and wished that I was practiced in that art.

I have also written positively about the ending of blogs, even when they involve wholesale deletion.

But not all acts of vanishing are the same. Not all acts of personal reinvention are innocent. While this post is not about dirty politics per se, consider Carrick Graham, who abruptly stopped using his Twitter account the day Nicky Hager’s book came out, and just as abruptly resumed the day after the election, soon joining in an attack by Jordan Williams on Otago nutrition researcher Lisa Te Morenga. Graham carried on like this for a few weeks as if nothing had happened, cheering most loudly after the police raided Hager’s house, but it kept getting noticed and eventually he deleted the account. He has now reappeared with a new one, as he is most assuredly entitled to. But what should we make of this attempt to craft a whole new persona?

The case of lawyer Cathy Odgers is even more interesting. Odgers deleted her first blog in 2005, before embarking on the very popular Cactus Kate. This too she deleted in 2013, long before its contents became relevant to stories uncovered by Nicky Hager and other investigative journalists. It was at this later time, however, that Cactus Kate went through a second, deeper deletion, as it now evidently became important to Odgers to remove all existing traces of it. This had the opposite effect to what she might have intended.

Three weeks after Dirty Politics was published, somebody noticed that a series of posts had disappeared from the Whaleoil blog, and put up the list. It included 56 posts starting from 2006 and ending a few days earlier, in August of 2014. You could tell from the URL addresses that they were mostly about Odgers, but since Slater hadn’t bothered to delete them from the Google cache or the Internet archive, you could actually read them and find therein links to Odgers' defunct blog. The links in turn made it easier to find traces of the original posts and the rest of the blog: they highlighted the very thing that the deletion was meant to conceal.

Odgers had done her homework, as you would expect, so Cactus Kate by now had been scrubbed from the internet’s main cache services as well as the Internet Archive, all of which allow content owners to retroactively have their stuff removed and are not bound by other considerations. There was another repository Odgers may not even have known about, however: the National Library, which was granted some years ago the right in legislation to acquire New Zealand blogs along with the rest of its institutional deposits. Sure enough, there it was, the whole blog still intact. I flicked the information off to Matt Nippert, who was investigating the Feeley story among others at the time, and he proceeded to download the material. (I didn’t, as I had no use for it, but I also figured it would be safer with him than with me.)

At some point this surviving version of Cactus Kate must have come to Odgers' attention, and she took further counter-measures. So when I checked a few weeks later I found that the National Library archive no longer allowed to browse the blog online, but required researchers to discuss viewing arrangements with an on-site librarian. Later still, the record disappeared altogether. I asked the Library today about this, and they advised me that
Regarding the deletion of the blog in question, we are in discussion with the author and receiving advice as to its status as legal deposit material.
The legislation, it seems, is open to interpretation – if I had to venture a guess, around what constitutes ‘a New Zealand-based blog’ – and so this peculiar test case has broader implications than those that tie Odgers with the rest of the cast of Dirty Politics. As best as I can tell, the National Library is keen to pursue this distinction and assert its role, which is to make available – and occasionally, in so doing, prevent the destruction of – the published writings of New Zealanders.

The irony here is that Matt Nippert might not have recovered Odgers’ blog if she hadn’t asked Slater to delete those posts. I was reminded here of that Edgar Allan Poe story, ‘The Purloined Letter’, in which Auguste Dupin – the master of deduction on which the character of Sherlock Holmes was modelled – has to find a compromising stolen letter, and discovers it hidden in plain sight on the thief's writing desk, barely disguised among a jumble of papers. The thief did so in order to confound the usual searching methods of the police, which he knew would be conditioned to look only in elaborate hiding places.

This suggests what might have been a better course of action for Odgers: to ask that the Slater posts be subtly changed, or just leave them be. Instead, she called attention to the very thing that the internet – our great reverse censor – is designed to prevent: the removal of information, and the sudden forgetting of who we once were.

Monday, May 4, 2015

'I hate the indifferent'

Two soldi – that is to say, one tenth of a lira – was the very popular price of La città futura (‘the future city’), a recruiting pamphlet in newspaper form distributed in February of 1917 by the Piedmontese youth federation of the Socialist Party. The publication had been entirely written and compiled by then 26 year-old Antonio Gramsci and is considered the most coherent expression of his early idealist phase. However the extract I’ve translated for today’s post won’t tell you much about the development of Gramsci’s political thought or his laborious conversion to materialism, for it is an invective – or, if you prefer, an impassioned civil oration designed to wake the reader from the torpor that characterised in his view the Italian spirit.

The target of the piece is therefore indifference, which Gramsci defines as the failure to be partisan. And if partisan is the noun then the verb, the doing word, is parteggiare, literally to take sides, but I’ve chosen to translate it as to take part. The etymology backs me up on this, for that ‘part’ is also at the root of the Italian partigiano and the French (then English) partisan, reminding us than to be active, to be political means to pick a side. Perhaps that is what is truly peculiar about Gramsci’s invective: that he won’t tell the reader which side to pick, whereas the rest of the pamphlet – an explicit work of propaganda – is punctuated with entreaties for the young reader to join the nearest socialist youth fascio. Another translator’s note may be required concerning the word città, which I cannot translate with anything other than city but has the broader meaning of society, much like the word citizen is not reserved to urban dwellers. However Gramsci is fond of his imagery to the point of making the city seem quite a literal construct, as you shall see.

I should point out that this is in many respects not a great piece of writing. It is also no more interesting than other chapters of La città futura (the one about order and disorder as political categories is more relevant to us; the one about socialist propaganda being the justification for literacy in the national language - which I'll post in the comments - more arresting), but I keep going back to what it would have signified in February of 1917. The war far from over, the czar in Russia about to be deposed, a ferment amongst the workers of Turin that would erupt in six months’ time only to be met with bloody repression; perhaps above all the sense of old orders crumbling, everywhere: to take sides at this time would have meant to truly participate in history. A sense that may seem lost today, but is not beyond recovery.

The Indifferent
By Antonio Gramsci
(Original Italian text.)

I hate the indifferent. I believe, as Frederich Hebbel did, that ‘living means being partisan’. There can’t be men [sic] who are men alone and exist outside of the city. To really live means to be a citizen and to take part. Indifference is abulia, is parasitism, is cowardice. Indifference isn’t life. This is why I hate the indifferent.

Indifference is the dead weight of history. It is the millstone around the innovator’s neck; the inert matter in which the brightest enthusiasms are drowned; the marsh that surrounds the old city and defends it better than its strongest walls, better than the valour of its warriors, because it swallows the assailants within its murky vortices, it decimates them, it disheartens them, and sometimes it makes them desist from the heroic deed.

Indifference is a powerful force in history. It operates passively, but it operate nonetheless. It is fate; it is that upon which you cannot count; it is the thing that disrupts the programme, that upsets the best laid plans; it is the brute matter that rises up against intelligence and smothers it. The events that occur, the evil that befalls us all, the possible good that a heroic act (of universal value) can generate, are not due to the initiative of the few who are active, but to the indifference, the absenteeism of the many. The things that occur do not occur because some people exercise their will, but because the multitude abdicates its own will and lets things be, allowing for knots to form that it will take a sword to unfasten, for laws to be passed that it will take a revolt to abrogate, for men to rise to power that it will take a mutiny to overthrow. The fate that appears to dominate history is nothing but the deceptive appearance of this indifference, of this absenteeism. Events grow in the shadows. Few hands, subject to no oversight, weave the collective cloth, and the multitude ignores it all, because it doesn’t care. The destinies of an epoch are manipulated according to the narrow views, the immediate goals, the ambitions and personal passions of small activist groups, and the multitude ignores it all, because it doesn’t care. But the events that have matured come to fruition; the cloth woven in the shadow reaches completion: and then it seems like it was fate that overcame everything and everyone, giving the appearance that history is nothing but a vast natural phenomenon, an eruption, an earthquake of which everyone’s a victim: those who willed it to happen and those who didn’t; those who knew and those who didn’t; those who were active and those who remained indifferent. Now the indifferent become angry, would like to escape the consequences and for it to seem clear that they didn’t plan for this, that they weren’t responsible. Some weep pitifully, others curse obscenely, but none or few ask themselves: had I, too, done my duty, had I tried to exercise my will or offer my counsel, would any of this have happened? But none or few blame themselves for their indifference, their scepticism, the failure to lend their strength and their work to the organised citizens who strove to guard against that misfortune or to reach a common goal.

The majority of these, instead, when the events have run their course, prefer to talk of ideological failures, of plans in disarray and other pleasantries. They renew then their withdrawal from any responsibility. It’s not for want of occasionally seeing things clearly, or being able to some time present magnificent solutions to the most urgent problem, or to problems that, whilst requiring considerable time and preparation, are just as urgent. However these solutions remain magnificently infecund, and this contribution to collective life reveals itself as lacking any moral spark; it’s a product of intellectual curiosity, not of a sharp sense of historical responsibility that demands everyone to be active in life, not allowing for agnosticism and indifference of any kind.

I hate the indifferent also because I’m annoyed by their whining of eternal innocents. I demand that they account for how they have fulfilled the duty that life has bestowed upon them, and bestows upon them every day; that they account for what they have done and above all for what they haven’t done. And I feel that I can be ruthless, not waste my pity, not share with them my tears. I am partisan. I live, and feel already in the vigorous consciences of my side the pulsating work of the future city that my side is building. In this city the social chain does not burden the few. In this city every thing that happens isn’t the product of chance or fate, but of the intelligent work of the citizens. In this city there are none who sit at the window looking at the few who toil and bleed themselves dry; none who sit at the window, lurking, hoping to enjoy the meagre fruits of that activity, and demean those who toiled and bled themselves dry for of how little they have achieved.

I live. I am partisan. This is why I hate those who don’t take part. This is why I hate the indifferent.

Originally published at Overland.