Eye of the Storm…

As with every storm, there is a period of tranquility as long as you are in the right location at the right time.

With chaos and turbulence all around, there is a period of respite if you happen to spend time in the eye of the storm which gives one a time to recharge, to gather thoughts before the inevitable onslaught of a second wave.

This week I sought out the eye of the storm, and after many years of promising to spend some time on the south coast of England, airport blockades gave me the needful kick up the backside to experience what others have always said about Devon.

Keeping costs down to a bare minimum, we set up camp in Dawlish (scene of its own storm seven years ago when Mother Nature ripped apart its coastal railway to pieces) and plotted our week of relaxation, exploration and adventure.

Like the mystic who peers into the bottom of the teacup for insights, I held my plastic beaker up to the sunlight to see it also reveal a similar eye of the storm. Ordinarily that would predict an ensuing hangover but we managed to find non-alcoholic rum which tasted remarkably like the real thing when poured over “the real thing”.

Like a great many of us, lock-down has provided its own opportunities to learn new things. New hobbies, new skills, old habits which die hard. I’ve gone through extended periods of sobriety over the last six months but also recall a few regrettable occasions where empty bottles have been kicked aside by unshoed toes through bleary morning eyes.

So our trip was a sober one (save one day where we consumed a few afternoon beers) and a much welcomed change to our usual holiday boozing and excessive weight gain.

The campsite itself was the best I’ve ever been to in the UK, with outdoor and indoor swimming pools, restaurant, pub, shop, kids adventure playgrounds and five fishing lakes, and the weather made it the perfect place to kick back and whittle some.

Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torbay and Brixham provided our south coast adventures, with adventure golf, ancient caverns, forest walks and obligatory fish ‘n’ chips on the beach keeping us busy and Woolacombe Beach on the north coast allowing us to swim in the sea, embarrass ourselves with some primordial body boarding, as well as giving us all the obligatory lobstered-look the next day, as only the Brits can truly achieve with aplomb.

All of this was proliferated with several short early morning bursts of fishing on the lakes, catching bream, tench and carp (the largest of which was around six pounds – the biggest fish I’ve ever caught).

Our last day saw us take a boat trip down the Jurassic Coast, taking in the views of the coastal towns, sandstone outcroppings and the beautiful and pea green sea (apt after eating at the Owl and the Pussy Cat in Teignmouth for the wife’s birthday the night before), accompanied by clotted cream scones, jam, tea and Julie Peasgood – soap star from Brookside which set in my home time of Liverpool, who sat next to us who now lives in the area as a writer.

The overwhelming beauty about this week was just how “normal” it was. Camping is by its very nature self-isolating and socially distancing, with each family given there allotted “metreage” away from everybody else, as it was at the outdoor swimming pool, play parks and fishing lakes. The only notable difference was the directional arrows on the floor of the shop and the masks worn by the bar and restaurant staff, but done in a subliminal way.

The footfall was notably lesser too. This week being the height of the summer season (kids first week off school in the summer holidays in the UK), our last three days were spent in isolation our field of twenty camping spaces. Whether the site will be there next year with the same facilities and capacity time will tell, here’s hoping it will as the staff there were uber-friendly and it would be a real shame for it to go under. We are already booking to go back there such was its appeal and such is the uncertainly about international travel.

As I was up all week as dawn broke to go fishing, my circadian rhythm was still set to daft ‘o’ clock so I was up early today, taking the dog for a walk on my local beach up north, both man and dog happy to rekindle their morning sojourn before the day started for the rest of the troops.

The low tide brings with it the opportunity to get to the other side of our local lighthouse, and for a brief moment, a break in the dark and foreboding clouds gave the light of the sun the ability to shine through its fresnel, providing a clearer outlook, not unlike my trip to Devon this week.

Who knows what the new normal will be hereafter, but if you can take time and spend it in the eye of the storm, you will feel a lot better for it as I do today…

Divide and Conquer…

Polarise (verb) – to divide into sharply opposing factions.

Humanity, it seems, is becoming more polarised with each passing day, with little or no hope for respite. Taking a world view and with a few exceptions (where polarity is not tolerated, like North Korea), each “democratic” country on Planet Earth seems to separate into different factions on an all too regular basis.

Take my homeland, the United Kingdom. For the first 4 decades of my life, polarity centered around several themes, politics (Labour or Conservative), football (Everton or Liverpool), music (Rock or Pop), animals (Cats or Dogs), sexual orientation (Hetero or Homo) and wealth (Haves and Have-Nots), and ones choice or preference didn’t really have a major impact on society as a whole (with the exception of wealth where choice doesn’t always play its part).

The United Kingdom and the population that resides here, was until recently a relatively united kingdom comprising of four component states, each with its own nuances and idiosyncrasies and by and large we got on quite well all things considered.

We joined a bigger family when we entered the European Union (then the European Economic Community) in 1973 and again, by and large over the last four decades, we got on well, with the added bonus of freedom of movement across the member states, which I have had the privilege of using many, many times.

Something has changed of late, and not in a good way. Our political system and the society I now reside in is completely broken. We have been used to seeing Red fight with Blue to gain supreme power since it took over the reigns from the Liberal Party in the 1920’s, placing our X’s next to our party of choice ever since.

The childhood I can remember was governed by the Conservative Party when Margaret Thatcher was at the helm, growing up in Liverpool in the early 1980’s when the shipping and manufacturing industries were decimated by Tory policy, making it difficult to put food on the table in the vast majority of households.

We cracked on as any community would do under the same circumstances, and we did it as a pseudo-syndicalist collective, coming together as one to support each other during what were difficult and challenging times, putting two fingers up to Thatcher and her “managed decline” edict, with the help and support of Tory MP Michael Heseltine, an unlikely hero still in these parts.

The wealth and the glory of bygone years (due to the profiteering of shipping merchants during the truly abhorrent Slave Trade of the 1700’s) and the excitement of the Merseysound had all but gone, but the city got itself up off the floor, dusted itself down, and had a renaissance in 2008 when it was awarded the European Capital of Culture, and with it, truly significant investments from our EU comrades. Run down areas and tired city centre establishments were all defibrillated back into life and until very recently, the city had enjoyed an upturn in fortune.

The real turning point (for me at least) was Brexit (as I have mentioned in my State Of The Universe Part 1). In Liverpool, we had just short of 60% voting for remain, a real mandate to keep things the way they are, but alas no, the wider collective decided against it, pushing the entire nation into the abyss, to go it alone.

We then had three and a half years of stagnation and another election, putting the Conservatives back in action for another term.

Now we have Covid, and with it, something even more divisive, even more worrysome. Never in my life have I seen and witnessed such polarised views.

Once again, we are faced with choice and what we believe in; truth (Fact or Fiction), masks (Wear or Don’t Wear), science (Real or Not Real) and political integrity (Honesty or Conspiracy). I dare say more choices are to follow, namely cure (Vaccinations or No Vaccinations), legislation (Support or Reject) and possibly totalitarianism (Acceptance or Anarchy).

Whilst previous views were by and large for or against the establishment or a personal preference which had no material impact on society as a whole, what has happened over the last few years (spiking with Covid) has turned (wo)man against (wo)man and with it the birth of divided factions, and with that some quite appealing behavior.

The venom with which targeted abuse is delivered is something to be utterly ashamed of too and it really brings into question the fundamentals of ones personal relationships.

Social media makes it far too easy for some to become keyboard warriors, sitting comfortably in their socially distanced locales, cowardly brandishing all manner of vitriol and verbal abuse on platforms that were meant to connect people together in a positive way, not to pour petrol on incendiary situations like we find ourselves in today. This week has already seen non-virtual altercations occurring in shops and supermarkets as the factions clash face to face, now that masks are compulsory.

It was a very easy decision for me to disconnect from all social media applications (with the exception of WordPress which is for me an anonymous and cathartic vehicle) and from what I have heard and seen most recently, the decision in January this year was the right one.

I now have to make a different type of choice, a preference as to whether the opinions and subsequent behavior of others is something I chose to acknowledge and accept or choose to walk away from.

State of the Universe address (Part 2)…

“Even a casual glance at the media whether in print or streaming form reveals a distinct shift in energy and sadly not a positive one. Recent events from all over our little blue dot have shown that humanity appears to be on a disturbing downward spiral, towards a destiny I don’t think any of us can predict. Even the glass half full brigade is starting to see the drink drift towards the bottom of the tumbler.

The have been several events of late which have upset the balance in the Universe which even videos of kittens playing and falling off stuff are failing to have the desired uplifting effect”…

Those exact words were scribed here on the twenty sixth of July, twenty sixteen during the aftermath of the Brexit vote here in the U.K, my abject disbelief in the majority (not overwhelming by any means, but majority nonetheless) of citizens voting to go it alone, to disconnect from a union which gave more freedom of movement, more freedom of choice, more freedom opportunity for cultural exchange, just more.

The pursuing three and a half years in stasis were frankly embarrassing, like two school children endlessly bickering in the playground over which colour was best, blue or red, only to be resolved by asking the question all over again.

I was, as were many of my close friends and family, truly disappointed by the outcome of the general last year but it was apparent to us that a different type of politics had emerged. The time of robust, transparent and progressive manifestos had gone, replaced by rhetoric and hyperbole, and the more succinct the better. A manifesto of three words won the election. “Get. Brexit. Done”. That was all it took. No five-hundred page visions of the future required, no clear or quantifiable plans to take the U.K to the next level. Simply, these three words resonated with original voters and with new found sympathisers in socialist strongholds (depleted of energy in a stagnating country) who were targeted by social media campaigns and the less-than independent and biased views of the BBC.

As much as I admired Jeremy Corbyn in the past, it was clear that all hope was gone leading up to the election result, when so many people uttered the words “I cannot bring myself to vote for that man”, choosing instead to hand Boris Johnson a fresh set of keys to Ten Downing Street.

After the dust settled and a period of reflection, it was clear to me that the election was lost by a total destruction of the “Red Wall” due to the beleaguered populace wanting an immediate end to the vacuous stalemate in Westminster on Brexit which only the Conservatives were truly offering. It was a vote for capitalism and the self rather than for socialism and the many.

One thing that did concern me during the whole period (and even more so today) was the role media and social media organisations play in such events, and how much of our personal data is used against us to influence what we think, how we think and how we subsequently act.

1984

The rules of the game have changed. Take a step back in time and look at the amount of information or personal data that was available to organisations in the past (government, civil service and private organisations). To say it was sparse compared to today is an understatement.

I grew up in the early nineteen seventies:

  • We got the bus to school and work every day, no personal data at all
  • We had newspapers delivered each day which contained information on current affairs, no personal data held other than our local corner shop knowing which publications we preferred
  • We had our post delivered each day with letters and postcards from loved ones, no personal data captured other than offline credit card and bank statements
  • We went to the shops to buy food, clothes and toys, no personal data held other than store receipts
  • We had three television channels with one daily one-hour news bulletin on two of them, no personal data held other than we had a television licence
  • We listened to music on the radio, vinyl, cassette tapes and watched films on video tape (eighties) and at the cinema, no personal data held other than store or picturehouse receipts
  • We had a landline telephone, which allowed us to communicate with others, no personal data captured other than the more left-wing voters with affiliations to certain political groups having their lines tapped (and I know a couple)
  • We borrowed books from the library to enhanced our knowledge on certain topics that interested us, no personal data captured other than which books we had to pay fines on as invariably they were overdue
  • We went on holiday in the U.K due to limited funds to travel abroad, no personal data captured
  • We had a voting card (well my parents did) and placed our X next to our preferred candidate, no personal data captured other than the binary choice (red or blue) we made on the day which made the peg count in election of the day

Life was much more private then, simpler, with only rudimentary individual/consumer profiling available to those who sort it, which in itself was minimal, marketing types really. Not so now. The migration from analogue to digital has heralded an unprecedented technological evolution the likes of which we could only dream of back in the seventies.

Clearly our lives are enriched by the positive aspects of technology advancement:

  • The multitudinous, multifaceted and multifunctional devices we have at our disposal
  • The wealth and depth of information that is available to us via online search engines and thousands of media channels
  • The convenience of online shopping and having any goods delivered the very next day
  • The immersive audio/visual experiences we take part in through online games, streaming films and music from all genres tailored to our particular tastes
  • The majestic and global reach of contacting others via phone/video/email many thousands of miles away making the world a smaller place
  • The ability to pay for goods, services and travel through credit and not cash, via a watch on a wrist, an app on a phone or a contactless payment/travel card
  • The ease of voting online, never having to traipse in the English summer rain to the polling station

IsaacNewton

But as the late and great Isaac Newton famously once said, “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction” later paraphrased by Albert Einstein (“For every action there is reaction”).

Big data is big business and, in my opinion, a big risk that could lead to a Big Brother.

In the current capitalist/consumerist paradigm we find ourselves in, social and economic profiling by identifying the what we think, the way in which we think it and how we subsequently act and react is something a lot of people are very keen on understanding. Big business and big governments appear to be launching a crusade to uncover everything there is to know about us and how access to that data that can or will influence our actions and reactions.

The vast majority of us buy into that paradigm, myself included (although I am taking active measures to “anonymousise” my digital footprint). Take a step back if you will and see how proactively we are feeding the machine.

Every single digital transaction we make (from Google search, to Amazon purchase, to Facebook like, to Twitter retweet, to Instagram photo check-in and beyond) leaves behind a digital footprint, breadcrumbs of data which can be used to build up a profile of us.

Marry that up with every text or social media message we send, every phone call we make, every Alexa command we utter and we very quickly come to the conclusion that Edward Snowden was right, our social interactions, our online presence is being monitored constantly. We have all experienced an advert popping up on Facebook for something obscure we have just been talking about the day before.

The learned and the well-educated will know that already, but the less well-educated or socially unaware will remain in ignorant bliss. They will be blind to the more subliminal methods organisations are using to profile them, turning them and us into perfect consumers.

Events over the past few months relating to Covid-19 have, in my opinion, taken profiling beyond consumer and economic and are now venturing into a dark realm of social, physical and even DNA profiling. Only yesterday did we hear about the U.K government allowing a private AI company (Faculty) to access sensitive patient data against the rules of GDPR to execute algorithms and produce predictions on how things may materialise and how measures can be taken to combat the pandemic. We also heard that the government are launching a tracking app which will use the GPS signal on the smart phone to monitor the movements of the population.

Whilst I don’t believe that there is a covert operation currently underway towards the creation of an Orwellian-esque New World Order (I can’t see Johnson, Putin, Trump, Xi, Jong Un, Merkel and Macron collectively agreeing about anything just now), we do seem to be setting the foundations of Big Brother via big business and this pandemic, and that is something to keep a very close eye on over the coming days, weeks, months, years.

In closing, take a good long look at the Rehoboam in Westworld Season Three. How do you think something like that would start off, what foundational building blocks would need to put in place?