Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

I was recently informed that the Wizard of Oz can be read as an allegory for the corruption of the banking industry.

The eponymous ‘Yellow Brick Road’ is meant to symbolise the pursuit of wealth, the Munchkins representing the gullible “little people” – that’s us – and the Wizard the glamorous and powerful façade, but ultimate human weakness, of what we have come to know today as ‘The 1%’.

It all kind of makes sense really. A regular, unassuming, country girl is whisked up from the doldrums into this world of fantasy where power seems to be directly related to how much of a twat you can be. The Wicked Witch of the West is the perfect example. If only she’d trained her flying monkey army to plant trees and sow seeds rather than to swoop arbitrarily around, unashamedly fucking up other people’s shit in her relentless pursuit for power.

The poignancy of this allegory struck me all of a sudden as I travelled one day into London for a (rare) freelance job. As soon as I broke that M25 barrier it’s as if a spell fell silently upon me. I know deep down that all those unavoidably impressive skyscrapers represent something I truly despise, and yet… I find myself suddenly in awe.

I can feel the neurons in my brain flooding my mind with dopamine, desperately telling me that this is the centre of the world and that this is where I’m meant to be. Where I can truly be someone.

I spend the whole day under this spell, in this system, and at 6pm with everyone else I more than revel in the ultimate reward and release of a few pints with my fellow screen servants at some chiselled, trendy, overtly masculine drinkery that’s been carved into the underside of a railway bridge for added hipster effect.

Crowded tables throughout the city host a thousand tea parties; a thousand Mad Hatters, March Hares and Cheshire Cats, whipped into hysteria with glutinous delight. And there sits Alice – or maybe Alex in this case – bewildered, aghast, but enjoying the hospitality as much as anybody else.

But at the station, waiting for the train back home, the spell begins to break. And as the Emerald City fades into the background, I start to notice the frayed edges of war-painted businesswomen, their faces melting just like the Wicked Witch herself.

The unadulterated bravado of the men in suits becomes suddenly and painfully desperate in light of their inebriated malaise. They’ve felt like they could be the Great Wizard himself. But in reality, they’re not even the man behind the curtain – they’re barely the levers and cogs of his dastardly contraption.

Kansas appears upon the horizon and I turn my thoughts inward. What exactly have I done today? I got up at six in the morning to commute a four hour round trip just to facilitate this crooked corporate system… why did this make me feel so good?

I suppose there’s only one possible explanation. He must truly be the most powerful Wizard the world has ever seen.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

You, Robot

Unexpected item in bagging area. These are the words that any shopper dreads to hear when standing at a self-service checkout machine. What follows is an often embarrassing encounter with whichever dull-eyed robot warden eventually makes their way over to assist us. This involves a performance of beguiling swiping and prodding motions that one can only presume is some form of futuristic sorcery. Magically, this relieves the beleaguered machine from whatever virtual illness our untrained hands had inflicted and we continue scanning our items until it inevitably happens again.

It begs the question – wouldn't you rather just take your shopping over to a human like back in the good old days? In any case, one can’t help but notice the gradual invasion of self-service checkouts upon supermarket tills across the nation. Indeed, jobs throughout the whole service sector seem to be progressively automated – from customer service assistants to Post Office workers – we increasingly interact with machines more than humans. How long will it be before all manned services will be replaced? What consequences will this have for our society? And is there anything we can do to halt the perpetual march of the machines?

The phenomenon of human labour being replaced by machines is broadly known as technological unemployment. This isn’t a new problem for humanity; we’ve been creating tools to help us carry out tasks with less manpower since prehistoric times, the invention of the wheel being the best example. But as time went on, we have gotten better and better at dong this, to the point where human labour today is almost obsolete. The upside is that we can now accomplish things far beyond what our bodies can achieve alone and at a much smaller cost. The downside is that, in a world where we depend upon selling our labour to society in order to survive, this can become a very big problem.

To understand this conundrum, we must look specifically at the development of technology and its effect on the economy so far. 200 years ago, our economy relied on agriculture as its primary driving force. Tools like the scythe and the plough massively decreased the amount of workers needed to tend the fields. But then the industrial revolution created millions of jobs in the manufacturing industry, so employment remained steady. Following this, the invention of the automated service line massively decreased the amount of workers required in industry. But this was also OK, because the digital revolution created millions of jobs in the service industry, working in shops and offices. 

Today, a large amount of service related jobs are being lost, because the augmentation of machines with computer processing chips now enables these jobs to be automated too. But where’s the next revolution to create new employment for those who are replaced? Although it’s true that the technology industry is ever expanding, the hard facts are that this really isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, no current job is truly safe from technological unemployment. Here’s why: in terms of running a competitive business, machines make better employees in almost every way. They are both cheaper to run, and incredibly more efficient: they can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; without ever needing food, or a fag break; with no risk of turning up late or throwing a wobbly and leaving mid-shift. Also, would anyone truly miss interacting with humans in the workplace? At least in the service scenario, I’d much rather deal with a machine than face the sullen, monotonous demeanour of most wage slave waiters or checkout assistants, for example. At least the machine won’t stare at me with masked irritation as I fumble around attempting to open the plastic bags, or utter an admonished groan when I ask to speak to their supervisor.

Technology isn't a limiting factor either. In theory, machines can carry out any function that a human can. Even the jobs that we class as representing the pinnacle of human skill – for example, brain surgery – could be automated; indeed, modern surgery is already being complemented by machines today. If this sounds at all unfounded to you, think about it this way: machines have been automatically building cars for years. Yes, the human body is far more intricate and complex than a car but, when it comes down to it, we’re not much more than a sack full of parts that can be repaired and replaced, just like fixing anything else.

So, that’s all the jobs that require any manual dexterity out of the way, but what about those that involve the more theoretical regions of the brain? This requires machines to become artificially intelligent. The subject of many a sci-fi story for decades; today, this idea is less science fiction and more science fact. For example, take the emerging utility of voice recognition on mobile phones – for instance, Apple’s ‘Siri’. Although anyone who has actually used Siri will know that the technology is far from perfect, this is still a form of artificial intelligence, i.e. a machine that mimics the human sense of hearing to intelligently respond to basic commands. 

This kind of technology is developing exponentially. Following Moore’s Law – the observation that computer processing power doubles approximately every two years – it is theorised that the creation of a computer with all the power and capabilities of the human mind will be achievable by the year 2020. In theory, this would mean that machines will have the capability to perform 100% of human jobs in just eight years’ time.

Why aren't we talking about this more? Inevitably, the current economic recession has brought to fore plenty of dialogue on the topic of unemployment recently; both in parliament and the mainstream media. Immigration, public sector cuts and higher education have been debated and discussed to the bone as potential problems and causes. It is surprising, then, that technological unemployment has received so little attention, when it is clearly accepted as a powerful contributing factor. Perhaps this is because no one really has an answer to this confusing economic conundrum.

Here’s the problem. On the one hand, the world economy is driven by big businesses, who must replace human labour with machines to achieve peak efficiency and profit. On the other hand, this system relies equally on consumption, the capacity for which is greatly reduced by unemployment. Put another way, if people don’t have jobs, then they don’t have as much money to buy things, ultimately resulting in a loss for business. Is this the only thing stopping corporations from pushing forward with automation? It’s hard to answer this question without having inside knowledge from a big corporate company, but suffice it to say that as jobs become more and more automated we can expect to see this becoming a huge problem - one that someone is going to have to answer.

If we continue as we are, we will be forced to choose between the certainty of growing unemployment through automaton, or the fundamental counter-intuition of repressing technological progress. Could this be the ultimate ‘catch 22’ in our economy? Some might interpret this phenomenon as evidence that our development as a species has outgrown the system. For me, at least, it seems clear that this choice is one that we shouldn't have to make. Having discussed just how rapidly progress is being made, if we embrace technology and maximise the potential to reduce costs, then we could potentially provide ourselves with the ability to feed, clothe and house the majority of the world’s population for little or no price. Critics will say that this would not work in our current free market economy. I think that we will have no choice but to make it work.

Fuel For Thought

Depletion of natural resources. Climate change. Species extinction. Overpriced energy. Pollution. These problems, among others, are all evidence that our current way of living is severely unsustainable. We rely so heavily on exhaustible resources to support our world economy that we are inflicting grave damage upon our planet. Something serious has to be done.

So what’s causing the problem? A significant and rarely discussed factor lies in the way we operate our world economy; specifically, the existence of a phenomenon known as forced scarcity. An explanation: simple free market principles denote that the greater the supply of a given product or service, the lower the price. Take supermarket goods as an example: a product like flour is relatively cheap, because it can be grown in vast quantities and at little cost. However, a product like avocados costs more, because the crop is far less abundant and much more labour-intensive to farm. In short: where profit is the motive, abundance is not desirable, so scarcity is forced wherever possible.

We can see this happening in the energy industry today.  If you think about it, energy is all around us: from the wind that rustles through the trees, to the sun shining overhead and the waves lapping at our shores. Indeed, it’s actually the most abundant resource this planet has to offer. So why do we still use fossil fuels – a distinctly finite resource that requires millions of years to replenish – when there seem to be so many alternatives? The answer is profit; and seeing as the industry is driven by profit, the environment is treated as a mere externality.

An example of these market forces in play can be seen with the electric car. The recent surge in popularity of hybrid and fully electric cars might have you thinking that this is a developing technology. In reality, electric cars were built and used as far back as the nineteenth century and were actually extremely popular. Alas, these early vehicles were slow and could not travel far, so they were soon replaced by petrol powered vehicles. This being said, the idea was not forgotten, and in the late 1990s General Motors (GM) launched the EV1 – a fully electric car with practically the same range and speed as models being released today.

What with rising fuel prices, this car started to become quite popular in the USA… but then the manufacturers unexpectedly recalled and crushed every single one. Why? Well, GM’s publically stated reason was ‘lack of demand’, but the 10 yearlong embargo that the whole automobile industry subsequently put on the production of electric vehicles seem so severe a measure to suggest that some other forces might have been at play. Suffice it to say that a car that doesn’t require petrol is not particularly profitable.

The problem goes deeper. It goes without saying that electric cars are far more energy efficient than their petrol powered cousins; however, they still require charging at a mains supply – a source of energy supplied in most countries predominantly by expensive, polluting and exhaustible fossil fuels. Indeed - from planes and ships to lorries and trains - our entire infrastructure is powered in the same way. Add to this the fact that more and more manufactured products are built with plastic, which is also derived from oil, and it doesn’t take a push to see just how addicted we are to these substances. Sadly, like with any other addiction, the consequences will be debilitating and potentially fatal.

The main barrier to progress in the fields of energy and infrastructure is investment. Incredible technology exists today to vastly improve our energy efficiency, quality of life and success as a species altogether.  Like with the electric car, the ideas have either been around for years, or simply require the time and capital to be properly developed. There’s just one problem – where’s all the money going to come from?

That’s a good question. As discussed above, we can’t look to multinational corporations, because profit is their overarching motive and an abundance of energy would create astonishingly low prices.  We can’t look to governments, because most of the world’s countries are in billions of dollars of debt, so there simply isn’t enough readily available capital.

So what can we do? Well, as long as we allow fossil fuels to dominate the energy industry, there really isn’t much. Small inroads are being made both in the UK and abroad to promote clean energy – but it simply isn’t enough. The only option is for the governments of the world to agree together to implement a programme that will phase out the use of non-renewable energy forever. This might be entirely counter-intuitive to our global system of a profit-driven economy, but it’s fast becoming our only hope for truly positive progress.

Below are some examples of what we could achieve, were we not so stunted by this exhausting dependence on fossil fuels and careless strife for profit.

Solar Roadways

This multi-faceted renewable energy solution is the brainchild of partners Julie and Scott Brusaw. The idea is simple, but ingenious: replace the entire road system with computer controlled solar panels. The main benefit of this would be the huge exposure created for collecting solar energy, but many other positives come in to play as well; for example, inbuilt Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) powered by the panels would eliminate the need for street lights, road markings and most road signs. These would be controlled by prefabricated micro-processing chips, allowing for further benefits, such as pinpoint tracking, inbuilt intelligent motion sensors that alter the road’s LED display when an upcoming obstacle is detected and thermo sensors that turn on prefabricated heating elements to melt away surface snow and ice.

All this technology would be encased in a material specifically designed to withstand the huge loads. It would also be possible to house other infrastructure in this casing, such as communication and electrical lines, removing the need for overhead pylons. The project has been taken very seriously: thus far, the US Federal government has awarded the company $850,000 for research. Unfortunately, this is but a tiny dent into the investment required for true progress.

Maglev Trains

Instead of wheels and tracks, these trains use magnetic levitation to propel the vehicle forwards, achieving super-fast speeds unrivalled by conventional methods. This is not science fiction: the Japanese ‘Bullet Train’ uses maglev technology today, and the science behind it is actually very simple. Ever played around with a couple of fridge magnets, sticking them together and pushing them apart, as if by magic? Well, that’s basically it. Firstly, the undercarriage of the train and the guidelines of the track are electromagnetically charged to the same pole, resulting in repulsion. This means that the two do not actually touch - instead, the carriage levitates a couple of inches above the rails. Secondly, propulsion is then achieved by charging a secondary rail just ahead of the carriage to the opposite pole, hence attracting the train forwards.

Because this system is frictionless and requires no moving parts, reliability and energy efficiency are high; indeed, the only factor that increases energy consumption is air resistance as the train moves forward. This hurdle can also be overcome: patents exist today for a system of running maglev trains through an evacuated tube, hence eliminating the slow-down factor of air resistance, enabling phenomenal energy efficiency, and speeds of over 1000mph. This kind of transport would reduce the journey time between London and Tokyo to under four hours.

Geothermal Energy

Using a process known as ‘heat mining’, this form of energy is derived from the natural heat present in the earth’s outer core. Beneath the crust, natural water deposits are heated by the planet’s molten core to temperatures in excess of 200oC. A shaft is drilled down hundreds of meters to where these deposits exist, and the water is pumped to the surface, where it converts into steam and is used to power turbines to produce energy. Finally, the steam is condensed again into water, and returned to the earth’s core to be heated once more and eventually reused. Utilising the right technology, this process emits but a fraction of the emissions created by burning fossil fuels, and it’s also practically inexhaustible.

A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 concluded that around 2000 zettajoules (two trillion quadrillion joules) of energy is easily available using this process of heat mining. To put this into perspective, the whole world uses just one half of a zeta joule per year, meaning that geothermal energy alone could satisfy the world’s current requirements for approximately 4000 years. Regrettably, a meagre 20 countries around the world currently utilise geothermal energy, of which Iceland is the current champion, deriving 30% of their national energy production from this source. 

Friday, 30 March 2012

Just Lines Drawn In The Sand

This month’s blog is inspired by Channel 4’s recent spate of programmes that explore multicultural Britain. Specifically, a two-part documentary called ‘Make Bradford British’, which was aired earlier this month, and attempted to define “what it means to be British” with the backdrop of a town which is apparently the most racially segregated place in the UK. I say ‘attempted’ because what the programme really did was to put 5 people - who were either racist, closeted racist, pretending not to be racist, or failing at pretending not to be racist - in a house with two Muslims and a black man, examining the many and varied ways in which they could racially insult each other. It was sort of like Big Brother for middle class people, in that it used the premise of intellectual discussion as a crumbly façade to protect the truth that it was basically just a quasi-farcical fracas of lots of people getting upset and shouting at each other.

Other recent multicultural themed highlights included the wittily entitled ‘Proud and Prejudiced’, which follows the life of Tommy Robinson (the leader of the  English Defence League, a far-right anti-Islamist street protest movement), as he tries to persuade us that he’s not just a racist football hooligan by dressing up as a rabbi and throwing stones at “ethnics”. This is particularly unconvincing, especially when you’re told that his real name is actually Stephen Lennon, and that he has pseudonymised himself Tommy Robinson after a famous - you guessed it - racist football hooligan.

In a nutshell, the British media is absolutely obsessed with ‘multicultural Britain’ and discussing specifically whether it’s “worked” or not. To me, this is about as pointless a discussion as whether the fact that humans have evolved to breathe oxygen has “worked” or not - in that there simply isn’t a viable alternative, and those who seek to find one are likely to meet suffocation. 

So why go on about it so much? Well, I expect it’s because most people tend to get quite passionate about their cultural values being challenged, which just so happens to make rather good telly. Whether it’s the Muslim lady from Make Bradford British doubling over in grief after just being told by a pub full of ignorant punters that she’ll “never fit in with us lot”; or the lurid, misguided, fist-pumping of one of Tommy Robinson’s High Street EDL speeches – whether on the giving or receiving end, nothing seems to inflame people more than a good ol’ bit of racism. This all stems from the fact that we seem to have a built in function to wildly and unreasonably deplore any threat to the way we’re used to things being done. In the same way that you might throw a perfectly good cup of tea down the sink because it was made by putting the milk in first, you might also do your best to avoid conversation with a perfectly nice and normal Chinese man, simply because of your preconceptions.

No doubt this very base instinct is in place to prevent us from engaging in potentially dangerous activities like rubbing lemon juice in our eyes or eating the mud off the bottom of our shoes. This being said, we all know that human instincts are often irrational, potentially dangerous and, indeed, socially shunned. For example, despite our inbuilt instincts, reasonable members of society don’t attempt sexual intercourse with every single person that they find attractive; nor do they automatically resort to violence to resolve every dispute. The explanation for this is simple: we have come to learn over the years that habitually acting on such feelings will often lead to negative consequences, which will ultimately be counter to our welfare. Simply, it’s evolution. Applying this concept to multiculturalism, I think it could easily be argued that prejudice, intolerance, racism and discrimination of all kinds are actually counter to our survival as a species.

Allow me to elaborate. In the past, geographical and infrastructural constraints meant that we were forced to live segregated from each other. As such, we developed a number of different and varied cultures, resulting in (loosely speaking) the existence of our modern day countries. This system worked for us back then, as we were unlikely to ever really encounter anyone from different cultures, due simply to the distance between us. The problem was that when we did start meeting each other, we felt so threatened by the sheer disparity between our cultures, that many countries decided that it would be a better idea to try and force the whole world to be like them. Unfortunately, as history tells us, this led to thousands of years of constant warring for power, which still continues to this day. This being said, the difference today is that we are so much more interconnected. Thanks to social and technological progress it is possible for people from all across the world to more freely integrate and live together in the same place. Furthermore, the invention of the internet gives us a previously unparalleled ability to learn about and accept the differences that previously separated us.

So when someone goes against the idea of multiculturalism, in my view they are simply denying the inevitable, preferring the perceived security of their antiquated views. The question of “what it means to be British” doesn’t matter; indeed, any colour, creed, culture, or religion - all these things are irrelevant – ultimately, we all need to learn to accept that our commonalities far outweigh our differences. And whereas in the past banding together with our kin and holing up behind our borders and boundaries may have been the best way to survive – today, I believe that this is quite the opposite. Drought, famine, disease, homelessness, overpopulation, the environment, natural disasters – don’t you think we have enough problems as a species as it is without having to add human conflict to the list?

But what do we do about those who remain intolerant? How will they be persuaded away from their often deep rooted views? There is much scientific debate on this topic and I won’t try to make any grand statements that take anything out of context. Having said this, it is my belief that humans are basically social beings and, as such, conditioning far overpowers creed, or even instinct. For example: someone might be of Indian heritage, but if they were taken from birth and raised in a household in the UK, they will grow up to think and behave like a British person – and vice versa. As such, it is possible for people to be reconditioned. To put it bluntly, it is possible to cure prejudice; not through brainwashing, or anything sinister sounding like that, but through pure and simple education. 

Once people learn that the survival of our species depends on our collaboration, rather than opposition, maybe then we will see a revolution in values that renders discussions about whether we can live together obsolete, and instead focuses on how we’re actually going to go about doing it.

 “Fear begins to vanish when we realise that countries are just lines drawn in the sand with a stick.”Enter Shikari

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Free Labour For All Internity

A news story came to my attention a couple of weeks ago that caused me to shake my head, hit it against my desk and cry simultaneously. To the unknowing onlooker it would have looked a lot like some sort of mad, masochistic crisis, first bludgeoning myself and then attempting to dry my resulting tears with the oak tabletop. Thankfully, this all occurred in the privacy of my own room, so only me and everyone who was watching the live stream through my Trendnet home video monitoring system could see it.

The article in question which caused me such dismay was regarding the following BBC story entitled “Young people's internships and paying for work experience”, and can be seen here - http://tinyurl.com/82q4acu. It struck a particular chord with me, as I have recently completed a three month internship myself, and hence have firsthand experience of what it’s actually like. For those too lazy to watch the clip themselves, in summary, it seems that our helpful and courteous pal, free market capitalism, has now adopted a “kick ‘em when they’re down”, curb stomping attitude with regards to the masses of unemployed youths. As if you weren’t poor enough being out of University with £20,000+ debt, in a saturated job market where no one will hire you unless you essentially become a slave for a number of months first, now the heads of the beady-eyed, greedy, money-grabbing hands of business have reared up from their cess pits of profit margins and overheads in which they reside and actually want to CHARGE you to work FOR FREE.

Since the recession, there has been an explosion in the popularity of unpaid internships where, for the most part, a company will take on a graduate for a number of months, getting them to do all the toilet scrubbing jobs that they can’t afford to actually pay someone to do, in return for said graduate gaining a quite variable amount of work experience in the field they are actually interested in being employed in. Graduates are often lured in by the prospect of bolstering their CVs, whilst often receiving ambiguous hints from the company that there might be some possible slight probability that they maybe could be offered a permanent, paid position at the firm after their internship has concluded... perhaps. It’s essentially the same thing as making a donkey walk by dangling a carrot in front of its nose. This practice (the internship thing, not the donkey thing) is not only illegal - http://tinyurl.com/7ezx4vq - but also, the reality of these situations is that there simply is no job at the end of the process and, instead, the company will just employ another intern to replace you. They call this a “rolling internship” and it seems to be the done thing nowadays in the UK.

But of course, the government wouldn’t dream of acting on any of the thousands of cases of this illegal procedure, as they know that exploiting graduates for free labour is probably the only way that many small businesses and start-ups are staying afloat at the moment. If you believe that this gambler’s gambit system of economics we are unfortunately lumbered with is actually working – i.e. if you’re blind, ignorant and/or stupid – you might say that saving small businesses was a “good thing”. Even so, what about the bigger businesses who don’t even seem to have enough money to spare to give the poor whelps minimum wage? And what about these thieves who are charging people to work for them, or these companies like Inspiring Interns (http://www.inspiringinterns.com/) who are making a fortune from pairing companies up with their free labour slaves? That, dearest readers, is unequivocal and unarguable exploitation.

Don’t get me wrong, if done properly I can definitely see the value of an internship, and the idea of hiring interns is, in theory, both morally decent and corporately responsible. I do have friends who were offered permanent jobs as a result of their internships and, moreover, I myself gained a great deal of worthwhile experience from my own. The people at the company I worked for were extremely helpful and professional with me and taught me a lot – also, I was paid for all my travel expenses, as well as a generous amount for food. This being said, I was lumbered with the horribly monotonous customer service jobs in exchange for all the decent experience I actually wanted – an aspect of the position which was not mentioned in the initial job advert, (although it admittedly was at the interview). Furthermore, there was a rolling internship scheme in place at the company but, even so, it was never made 100% clear as to the possibility of available permanent employment; indeed, I might go so far as to say that I felt marginally ‘lead on’. Finally, all this experience is well and good but, at the end of the day, I worked for this company for 45 hours a week, for three months, for free. By law, that should entitle me to approximately £3283.20, if paid minimum wage. In reality, I received £2197.20, leaving me over a grand short of what I was legally entitled to.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a particular issue for me, as I’m lucky enough to have parents who were able to support me throughout the three months; however, this just isn’t the case for most people. As such, here lies the crux of my issue with unpaid internships: in the current state of the economy, nobody can be expected to be able to work for free, let alone be charged for working for free. The concept is completely unreasonable and, frankly, insane. I mean, at least the slaves from history were provided with food and somewhere to sleep, for christ’s sake. But thanks to a combination of the mainstream media (see the BBC’s tepid and predictably bleached out, unbiased account above), as well as complete inaction from government and universities in standing up for young workers’ rights, everyone just accepts their fate as ‘just the way things are’.

How is unemployment ever going to get any better when paid positions are substituted for unpaid ones? I like to call it constipation of the job market, that is: most people can’t afford to work for free, so remain unemployed due to lack of experience; whilst simultaneously, those who can afford to be unpaid are effectively blocking the employment of the person who should be doing their job, whilst still technically remaining unemployed. On top of this, do internships even make much of a difference to employability? Well, I can tell you that I’ve applied for about 30 jobs since finishing mine and managed to land just one interview. Moreover, my friend who has done no less than four internships doesn’t have a job either. What are we supposed to do, continue being interns forever? Also, now that this practice has been going on for so long, will it ever stop? Even if the economy does somehow manage to miraculously raise itself out of this swamp of a depression, why on earth would any company want to stop getting free labour?

It’s a situation which spawns from a society in which the bottom line is top priority. At a time when people are at their most vulnerable; when the cost of living is ever increasing; where you see hundreds of people applying for one position; and even those who are fortunate to be employed are getting paid less than they’re worth, constantly worried that their positions might be at risk... what do we do? We stand idly by whilst the slave trade resurges from the 19th century before our very eyes, all because we’re told and made to rely entirely on the antiquated concept that profitable business = economic growth = good. That money from the top will trickle down to the masses. Well, as we all know, not much trickling happens when you’ve got constipation.

Something needs to be done. Universities and the media need to do more to raise awareness of interns’ rights. Most importantly, the government needs to steadfastly and fundamentally state the illegality of all unpaid internships. Companies must be enforced to pay at least minimum wage to interns AND to be crystal clear from the beginning as to the potential for further employment. Don’t let money get in the way of simple decency and respect.

To fully understand your rights, and for information on what you can do, visit http://www.internocracy.org/

Monday, 9 January 2012

2012: A Survival Guide

Happy New Year to one and all, and let’s hope your celebrations were particularly enjoyable this time round, because there are many people lurking on the world wide web that would tell you with 100% conviction that the world is going to end in 347 days’ time. That’s right, 2012 is upon us, a doomsday theory so entrenched in western society that Hollywood made a film about it – for those of you who didn’t catch it, it was a bit like if a frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy nut chewed up and swallowed the script of Armageddon and whichever part of the bible talks about Noah, then shat the resulting, partially digested mulch out through a CGI generator. But this isn’t a post criticising Roland Emmerich – there are enough of those already – instead, this month’s entry looks at why humanity is so obsessed with believing in grotesque, over-arching and unproven concepts such as doomsday predictions, conspiracy theories, superstition and religion.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the concept of the 2012 phenomenon, the upshot is that an ancient race of people from Central America, the Mayans, who were “in many ways more advanced than we are today” (pfft), are known to have created an extremely accurate calendar, which has supposedly predicted many world events. The days on this calendar run out on the 21st of December 2012, hence sparking myriad fears that this is some kind of prediction of the end of the world. On this day, coincidentally, the planets in our solar system will apparently align with the centre of the Milky Way for the first time in thousands of years. No one knows exactly why this is important, but it sounds quite impressive, so many people have latched onto this idea. All this is supposedly backed up by findings from other ancient races, as well as that tome of extremely factual facts and truth, The Bible. The theories are deep and complex, seemingly hundreds of (mainly Americans) having devoted large portions of their lives to proving that all our lives are about to end. Sounds like a waste of time, eh?

If you search 2012 on YouTube you can spend literally hours sifting through all the material. Some of it seems to be presented by at least partially sane people… but 90% of it is an assaulting compilation of dazzling lunacy, stark fundamentalism and brash conjecture, (I suppose that’s not particularly surprising though, seeing as 90% of the whole of YouTube is pretty much the same thing). Whether it’s posturing Armageddon; blaming 9/11 on the Jews, George Bush or cheese; posting images of Chinese lanterns and asserting them to be ‘UFOs’; or, manically highlighting parts of the bible that state as fact that we’re all doomed to “brrrrn een heyllll” - it really is quite frightening how many people have no problem blindly following speculative ideas.

It’s easy to dismiss these people as troubled or insane, but I don’t think it can be argued that most people seek to find some meaning in their lives by attributing things that are hard to understand or comprehend to a subjective, ethereal force – whether this be luck, the fates, God or Al-Qaeda. Let’s face it, life is pretty mind-bogglingly difficult to understand at the best of times, so in a way it’s not really much of a surprise that so many of us jump at the chance of subscribing to something that might actually provide something solid and perhaps comforting to believe in. This being said, the real danger comes when people start to actually act on these beliefs and, although this could be as simple and seemingly harmless as avoiding cracks on the pavement, such irrational beliefs have been known to be responsible for occurrences as sinister and serious as cultist mass suicide, and even genocide. The fact is, if we place great value on non-human and uncontrollable forces, this provides us with a convenient scapegoat for when we’d rather not deal with or address certain topics and occurrences. As an example, take the blind ignorance of certain Christian fundamentalists who explain away dinosaur fossils as being put in the ground by God to ‘test our faith’. Imagine if this was the universally accepted view – the immensely interesting and beneficial area of palaeontology would never have existed. Applying this in a wider sense, one can easily see how our progress as a species would be fantastically stunted if we had not begun to question such outdated ways of thinking, and began to seek objective and scientific answers to life’s myriad mysteries.

Thank god (incongruous phraseology alert) that so much progress has been made to bring us into this modern age. Having said this, although we may have stopped imprisoning and exiling the world’s greatest scientists and thinkers, this doesn’t mean that the human race in general doesn’t take an unfortunately blinkered view of people and concepts that attempt to challenge the way we currently do things. It’s gotten to a point in this 21st century where we have replaced the worship of nature and deities with that of the monetary and market system. For example: in the past, people may have sought to appease the sheer futility they felt when a monsoon swept away their crop, or a plague destroyed their livestock by dismissing the occurrence as some kind of ‘sign from god’ and praying just that little bit harder in the hope that they would be spared such cruelty in the future. Today, it seems totally acceptable to dismiss the massive and obvious failings of our current economy and society as “just the way things are” as if we have no choice. In reality, we are an incredibly powerful species, with the ability to cure poverty, famine, suffering and disease not through praying or wishing on a star, but through SCIENCE - the objective understanding and mastery of this world.

And by science I don’t just mean boffins in a lab looking at tiny things through microscopes or long-haired, scruffy Physics professors buried in textbooks pondering the enormity of the universe. I mean applying science and the scientific method of hypothesis, analysis, experiment and conclusion to all aspects of society and, indeed, humanity. Using such a method we can quickly see how, objectively, our current system is inefficient and dangerously damaging to ourselves, and our environment. Indeed, the world might not be ending this year, but I think that most people would have to agree that we’re certainly not doing the longevity of the human race any favours at the moment. And this position certainly isn’t going to improve if we don’t change the way we think about our existence. Instead of focussing on behaving for an invisible man in the sky, or blaming all the things that are bad about society on unseen forces of evil like ‘The Iluminati’ or ‘New World Order’ or, even worse, spending hours fretting over our own demises – perhaps if we all realised that the buck stops with us - that we’re responsible and that only we have the ability to change things - maybe then we can start to build a world that we can all be proud of.

If the earth does get struck by a huge meteor, or the poles shift, or earthquakes and volcanoes rip that land to bits – there’s not much we can do about it. But in the absence of such catastrophes appearing imminent, let’s not destroy ourselves in the meantime.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

On the first day of Christmas... it was October

During the couple of decades that I have existed, I have noticed a strange occurrence, which I’m sure many of you will have noticed as well. It’s like time is shifting. Suddenly, it’s Halloween in September, Valentines in January, ‘back to school’ as soon as the schools have broken up and, most heart wrenchingly annoying of all, Christmas in October. It seems to me that the day that advertisers and retailers decide that it’s ‘Christmas time’ has been sliding slowly forwards year by year. Give it another ten years, or thereabouts, and maybe Slade will get their wish – it really will be Christmas every day. 

Even though I’m generally quite a cynical person, I can’t deny it, Christmas is special. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in the religious connotations of the holiday, or not. The fact is that it’s a time to revel in our good fortune, however vast or disparaging it may be, with good food, good drink, good company and good spirit. It’s like it’s everybody’s birthday - everyone has something to celebrate. And, just like birthdays, one of the reasons why Christmas is special is preciously because it only comes once a year. It’s a matter of perception: if Slade got their wish, we wouldn’t even enjoy Christmas, because Christmas would be normality. 

So what am I complaining about in this month’s blog? I’m complaining about the fact that consumerism is ruining my Christmas, and it’s doing so in more ways than one. Firstly, the build up to this beloved holiday is now so horrendously drawn out that, when the joyous event actually arrives, I'm akin to feeling less merry and more morbidly nauseous. Every time a child on some TV ad luridly shouts "IT'S CHRISTMAS!" it urges me closer and closer to projectile vomit my dozenth mince pie of the day, (which I started buying in August), directly at the Christmas tree, (which I thought I might as well leave up all year), producing an obscene metaphor for what this mongrel festival has become. A combination of desperate retailers, and an even more desperate chancery, has reduced modern day Christmas to nothing more than a prolonged marketing exercise and a much sought after boost to the economy. This is why Christmas now starts in October, and why we are encouraged for months on end to spend as much as we possibly can afford to.

This leads on to my second point – the obscene importance placed today on gift giving at Christmas. Let me say from the offset, anyone who looks forward to the festive season purely for the presents is, in my opinion, either a child, or an idiot. Sure, it’s great to receive a gift, especially if it’s something that you couldn’t usually afford, or wouldn’t usually buy for yourself. However, I assert that emphasising this aspect of the holiday as much as we do today is destroying it. This has a lot to do with the sad reality that most people in this country, and others, seem to have more in common with a sponge than an actual human being; wandering through life, their sole purpose seemingly being to soak up the slippery jizzum of retail and advertising, before wringing themselves out into their own, or their loved ones' moronically gaping mouths. Ultimately, this leads to people wanting more than these hard economic times can afford them.
Just imagine potentially how many families across the country could have their Christmases ruined by disappointment when they realise that the piece of jewellery, games console or mobile phone they so greatly desired isn’t waiting for them under the tree, simply because no one could afford to get it for them? Now imagine how desperate you would be to make sure this didn’t happen to your family… what would you do to prevent this? Get a loan perhaps? Yes, I suspect that at the very least you would feel pressured to. The problem is that, as we all know, excessive debt and credit is the reason why we’re in such an economic mess in the first place. This festive phenomenon is a microcosm of the consumer situation throughout the whole country, across the entire year, and in all sectors of commerce. As such, it serves as an example of just how little we’re actually doing to diffuse the ticking time bomb of private debt.

Meanwhile, austerity measures across Europe and the world are continuing to cause an uprising of civil disturbances, the latest (and most promising) incarnation being the Occupy Wall Street and other global Occupy movements. As dissatisfaction with the current system increases and becomes more highly disseminated to the public through both independent and mainstream media coverage of these occurrences, one can only hope that eventually people will no longer be interested in the phoney fixes and lugubrious legislation currently being spat out by our current government, and demand some changes that will actually make a difference. At this point, I expect that ‘the powers that be’ will have to listen, or else risk an exponential increase in both the violence and frequency of these anti-capitalist demonstrations, until they’re only really left with two choices - fight the power, or fight the people.

And so I am left shaking my fist at the Christmas lights that have already been put up in the West End of London, and living in tepid dread of the first Christmas hit that I will have the misfortune of hearing a month too early, hoping that I’ll be able to survive another year before denouncing my beloved festival altogether. I have no doubt that some people will read this and purely think me a Grinch who, for one reason or another, just doesn’t ‘get’ the Christmas spirit. To all you people I say, in a final flourish of easily dismissed but, nonetheless, accurate cliché – that’s what they want you to think. 

Oh well, if you take anything at all away from this post, just remember this one thing…