Francis Irving, Martin Keegan, various others and myself have been working on Downing Street Says, a site which scrapes the transcripts of briefings given by the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman, and the Prime Minister's occasional press conferences, and sticks them into a web log which breaks up the text by topic (where possible) and allows readers to comment on what the government is saying, just like lobby journalists can. (Credit where credit is due: Francis wrote the screen scraper for briefings; I wrote the one for the much-more-occasional press conferences, and various other supporting scripts; Martin helped me set up the execrable Movable Type web logging software; and the various others assisted with domain names, helpful suggestions, etc.)
I should say that I am not a crazed techno-idealist and I do not believe that web logging and web loggers are going to change the world. I don't believe that simply sticking government documents into a web log will make any difference to the governance of the country. My hope, however, is that people will find the thing sufficiently interesting that they will write useful comments on it; some readers, with any luck, will be better able to do in-depth research of the issues behind the briefings than lobby journalists -- who cannot be experts on everything, work to tight deadlines and, who knows, might in a few cases even be a little lazy -- and if members of the lobby use the site too, then it may contribute to more searching and informative questioning at future briefings. I hope I'm proved right.
Since I've now done my idealism for the week (that was the previous paragraph, in case you didn't spot it) I will now return you to your regularly-scheduled cynicism. Last Monday I went to a thing called Con Con UK, a recap of various talks given at EtCon, the O'Reilly `Emerging Technologies' Conference a little while ago. Frankly there was very little to say about this, and what there is to say isn't very complimentary. A few things stick in my memory:
- Listening to some people from the BBC berating an official from 10 Downing Street in a manner which was at once petulant and completely missed a number of very important and interesting points.
- Tom Coates warning everyone that the military (boo!) sent people to the EtCon session about robots. As far as I could tell, the basic message of this talk was ``we `emerging technology' people are so hip and cool and important that even the military want our stuff,'' though this was dressed up as a warning about Not Doing Anything That The Military Might Abuse. I'm not really certain what the purpose of this transparently silly pap was. So far as I understand it, the `emerging technology' people's efforts with robots consist mainly in modifying vacuum cleaners, whereas the military already have robots which can fly for thousands of miles just above the ground, enter a building through a specific window and then blow it up. While it's possible that the military need help with keeping their floors clean, I think this is unlikely, on the basis that they have hundreds of thousands of enlisted cannon fodder to do this sort of thing for them and certainly don't need any help from robots.
- Any number of attendees describing their fellows as `alpha geeks', which is just pathetic.
The most interesting ConCon talk was given by Tom Steinberg on lessons from the Howard Dean fiasco in the United States.
In my opinion, the real lesson of the Howard Dean campaign is nothing really to do with technology or the internet. Rather, it's an analogy with the 1983 Labour manifesto, `the longest suicide note in history'. Like the Labour party of 1983, the political internet is a machine for taking the most extreme views of cranks and nutters and distilling them into an unelectable political platform.
(I didn't say this on Monday, but it's relevant.) A while ago, Anthony Wells wrote about the idea of a `New Political Movement' growing up in the UK, using the internet to build support, as Howard Dean did. He identified three groups of people whose views aren't represented by the main parties -- far-left `anti-globalisation' protesters; younger, socially liberal people; and far-right racist fucknuts who read the Daily Mail -- and who could therefore benefit from such a movement, and concluded,
If new political movements do spring up on the internet, it is my fear that they will be those of the extreme right, and extreme left.
Exactly this effect seems on the cards for the completely bonkers Your Party, an internet-based political party which intends to determine its policies through opinion polling. James Graham points out (you may have to search for `Your Party, Your Fudge' to get to the right article) that Your Party is already in tremendous trouble, because all the people they've asked about their European policy either (a) hate the EU, or (b) think it's a jolly splendid thing. As a result, they've been forced to select for their platform a completely anodyne statement about the EU, but of course that just means that the answers to the follow-up questions have drifted towards the extremes.
The internet, as a political tool, is a kind of LASER for idiocy: idiocy bounces back and forth between a bunch of web logs, reinforcing itself into a coherent beam of insanity, which can then be focussed on a political problem... on which it has no effect at all.
- Surprise was also expressed at the fact that Howard Dean managed to raise $45 million for his campaign. Is this really that surprising? About 100 million people vote in a US Presidential Election. Suppose that 10% of these people wanted Dean to be president. The funds he raised are about $4.50 for each of these people. Now, obviously Dean's money didn't come from 10 million $4.50 donations, but consider: if all of Dean's supporters liked the idea of him being President enough that they'd be prepared to give up the cost of a couple of beers, he'd have no trouble raising that amount. And if they didn't like the idea of him being President that much, they'd hardly be his supporters, would they?
- The current flap over Clare Short obscures a more fundamental point: if it is indeed shown that our spies were eavesdropping on the UN, it will be the first evidence that they've done anything useful during the whole Iraq affair. It may not have been diplomatic, but at least it's a step beyond sticking together dodgy dossiers out of stuff downloaded from the web....
For the obligatory Silly Graph expected by my readers, here's the histogram of results from Am I Sig Or Not?, the silly web poll where you get to decide which of my email signature quotes you like. (You can see the best and worst quotes, according to the Internet's unwashed masses.)