(mis)adventures in software development...

18 February 2015

Electronic Graffiti

Category Technology

Knighthood fail, leadership fail, and many online activism fails.

Australian politics is weird at the moment. More so than usual.

We have a conservative Prime Minister so incompetent and unpopular that even conservatives are having some pretty intense buyers’ remorse.

His own backbenchers even tried to get rid of him. But he survived, so the country is still stuck with Tony Abbott as PM. For now.

Tony Abbott survives to gaffe another day, and if past performance is any indicator of future performance, there will be more gaffes to come. Many, many more.

Abbott just stumbles from one gaffe to another. We barely have time to laugh, scoff, scorn, shake our heads and wonder in disbelief at what Abbott was thinking when he said that — before he goes and says or does something else even more astonishingly stupid.

Or one of his ministers obliges.

When Attorney General George Brandis hilariously bungled an attempt to explain metadata on Sky News, it quite rightly made him an object of ridicule. But not for long enough, in my opinion. I felt this particular fuckup was so bad yet so easily preventable (do some research Brandis, it’s your job!), that the public deserved to dine out on it for much longer. Despite the ridicule he got, Brandis deserved a lot more, since he clearly did not have any understanding of laws he was proposing. It got a bit of media attention, then the media focus quickly moved on to other senior government ministers embarrassing themselves, so I think we got a bit short changed. Brandis’s self-inflicted metadata mess was soon overshadowed by other government ministers saying stupid shit — Treasurer Joe Hockey saying poor people don’t drive cars, and Senator Eric Abetz claiming abortion causes breast cancer.

Stupidity must be contagious in the Liberal Party.

But seems even the Liberal Party must draw a line somewhere. And looks like Abbott crossed that line by giving a knighthood to British royalty. On Australia Day.

Yes, the Prime Minister of Australia bestowed a knighthood on Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband. On a day when the country celebrates the achievements of great Australians, Tony Abbott decided to honour British royalty instead.

Obviously, a lot of people thought this was really stupid. It was another episode in his sitcom of a government; another moment when the nation collectively asked: “What the hell was Abbott thinking? Didn’t he run that idea by anyone first? Doesn’t he have advisers?”

Quite predictably, social media had a field day with this. Especially on Twitter.

But Abbott dismissed the outpouring of scorn on social media as electronic graffiti. His exact words were:

Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti and I think that in the media, you make a big mistake to pay too much attention to social media.

You wouldn’t report what’s sprayed up on the walls of buildings and look, as I said, social media has its place, but it’s anonymous. It’s often very abusive and, in a sense, it has about as much authority and credibility as graffiti that happens to be put forward by means of IT.

Predictably, this didn’t help his cause much, and it definitely didn’t make him seem any less out of touch.

But while the “electronic graffiti” line will no doubt live on as an ironic Twitter hashtag for a while yet, once again mainstream media coverage (and derision) was disappointingly brief, as leadership speculation and the subsequent spill motion became the story.

So I want to pause for a moment, and ponder the electronic graffiti comment a bit.

Sure, it’s a another sign that Tony Abbott knows little about technology, and certainly doesn’t “get” social media. Dismissing what has become a mainstream communication and entertainment medium in this way is just weird.

But treating this as another example of Abbott being out of touch and technologically illiterate is far too simplistic. Maybe even far too generous. I think it goes far deeper than his apathy — and sometimes outright disdain — for science and technology.

Abbott’s “electronic graffiti” comment is nothing less than a sign of his utter contempt for voters combined with an unbounded ego. The subtext behind it isn’t just that things people say on social media don’t matter — it’s that things people say in general don’t matter. Abbott simply does not care about other people, their opinions, or criticisms. His overblown ego doesn’t allow it. Hence his many silly “captain’s picks”, made with little consultation, and probably with the firm belief he was making great decisions.

Tony Abbott has a weirdly inflated view of his own superiority and infallibility. Even his own backbenchers are not worth listening to, it seems. The recent spill motion was initiated by backbenchers who felt their views and need were being ignored. If Abbott doesn’t care what his ministers or backbenchers think, he sure as hell won’t care what randoms on Twitter think of him.

Another manifestation of this mindset was demonstrated during his National Press Club speech, when Abbott insulted voters and disparaged democracy by saying people elect Labor governments in a fit of absent-mindedness. Tact and subtlety are not exactly hallmarks of Abbott’s communication skills. Neither is any awareness of irony — someone as famously gaffe prone as Abbott really isn’t in any position to be calling anyone else “absent minded”, and certainly not millions of voters!

Of course, an egotistical and arrogant politician is hardly a rarity. It’s more like a prerequisite for the job. But it helps if there is a vision and intelligence — there’s little evidence Abbott possesses either — to back up the attitude. Abbott’s confidence is based purely on his own delusions.

All of this has some potentially profound implications for those contemplating any kind of political activism.

Some people use social media with an determined earnestness, labouring under a false belief that their social media sharing and posting might make a difference, somehow. That their Facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts actually matter.

I doubt it. The idea that social media makes a difference is just as delusional as Abbott’s belief in his own superiority.

I’ve always been sceptical of the effectiveness of online activism of any kind. Whether it’s the slacktivism of online petitions, the clicktivism of groups like GetUp, or the various combinations of blog posts, memes, Facebook status updates and tweets — mostly it’s just shouting into the digital void.

Proof of this abundant, if we look at the many cases where online activism failed. Especially in technology-related issues, which are more likely to provoke online angst.

Take the National Broadband Network, for example. Few people within the IT industry thought the Coalition’s alternative to the NBN was a good idea. Pretty much nobody on Twitter thought it was a good idea. But online petitions and widespread derision on Twitter didn’t stop the Coalition from destroying the NBN. What we’re getting now cannot even be accurately as either “national” or “broadband”, and it’s barely even a “network”. Labor’s vision for universal fibre is pretty much dead. All the online outrage and well reasoned articles and blog posts didn’t save the NBN.

Then there’s the new National Security laws, many of which are designed to restrict online freedoms. The first two tranches of National Security laws were unnecessary, un-democratic, and deeply flawed. Reaction on social media (and also mainstream media outside of Murdoch publications) was mostly negative. Yet, the legislation passed. And there’s more to come with the third tranche of laws — for mandatory data retention — still before the parliament.

The battle over mandatory data retention is still being fought, but like the other battles between the technology industry and the government, it’s one were the government will probably win. The government will win because people outside the tech industry don’t care, and those within it who do care are wasting time online instead of taking the fight to politicians offline. Despite widespread criticism on social media and opposition from the telecommunications industry, mandatory data retention is likely to be implemented. The government will succeed at forcing the telecommunications industry to implement ineffective, expensive and misguided policy.

Of course, few would have realistically expected much from this government in terms of science and technology. Though many might be surprised by the level of hostility towards issues in these areas — not to mention abject incompetence. From broadband to climate change, this LNP government seemingly prides itself on being behind the times. Australia currently has a government suspicious of any technology that’s not directly coal-related.

We can certainly forget about any prospect of sensible technology policy from this government. Not while we have a Prime Minister who thinks the internet is “essentially a video entertainment system”.

The best we can hope to achieve is to stop these idiots messing things up too badly — stop them implementing bad laws and bad policy based on outdated beliefs and flawed ideology. Our chances don’t look good based on past performance. Especially if we’re going to rely on social media as our main strategy. (Thank God for a hostile Senate!)

Tony Abbott’s view of social media as “electronic graffiti” is further evidence of the impotence of social media in influencing the political process. I suspect it’s more than just another of his weird-ass, brain-fart soundbites. In this case, it’s a reflection of his true beliefs — and from his position of power and privilege, those beliefs become self fulfilling prophecy. By believing social media is not worthy of his attention, Abbott will happily ignore it, as will his ministers and his government.

Another reason I think social media matters little to politicians is that they’ve made little attempt to regulate it. Politicians love to regulate stuff. It’s kind of why they exist. They regulate things even if there’s no sensible reason to regulate it (the data retention thing is an example of that). I suspect the reason that they’ve largely left social media alone is partly because they don’t really understand it (even though they’re spending a lot of money monitoring it), but mostly because they realise it’s an excellent (and low cost) marketing tool for their own purposes. Which is essentially the whole point of social media. Some users might think they’re being subversive by posting political content, but it’s all part of the plan. Social media is mostly a platform for advertising and marketing. It is just entertainment for the masses. In the bread and circuses of politics, social media is just another circus.

Maybe one day social media will have real influence in the political process, but I suspect that day is at least a generation away. Maybe when the current generation that has grown up with social media is in power, they will be more inclined to pay attention to the vitriolic rantings of the Twitter hoards. Although by then social media will probably have morphed into a different (more corporatised? more regulated?) beast than what it is today.

Or maybe social media will remain mostly a distraction for the masses, and mostly useless for political activism. While online activism may occasionally have a win with little issues, it rarely has much effect when it comes to big political issues — especially issues driven by corporate interests with lots of money on their side.

In a way, the current Coalition government is a case study in the ineffectiveness of online activism. Just about everything they’ve done — from border protection and asylum seekers to national security — has been met with widespread criticism on social media. As a government, they are incompetent and clueless, and about as unpopular as it’s possible to be in Australian politics. Yet, they’ve been remarkably successful at implementing bad laws and making bad decisions, particularly on issues affecting technology users and the technology industry, where the online backlash has been especially harsh.

Despite this, they won.

They won because governments don’t care about criticism on social media. They won because there aren’t enough votes or campaign donations in technology issues for it to matter that a bunch of nerds on Twitter are angry at them.

We’re going to need a lot more than dank memes to make a dent in the entrenched LNP apathy to technology issues.

By all means use social media to vent.

Just don’t do so thinking it will achieve anything. Because if past performance is any indicator, it won’t.