Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Riot-Skills Paradox

Various post-mortems on the UK Riots have surfaced this week. This Open Democracy post picks out the imbalance between Police power and People power as a major source of unrest, for instance.

The nice thing about blogging for a while is being able to look back over your thoughts. In 2004, I blogged something vague about the clash of cultures, which boils down to the notion that living in a culture of trade is fine if you understand how it works, or something.

In other words, trade is an interesting notion, as it relies on an assumption that you have a) something you want, and b) something you don't want. Once you lack of either of these, things get trickier.

So have we reached a point in society where we've mastered the art of (a), but not (b)? Where we have powerful advertising that can predict what you want before you know, but we cannot reliably create jobs for a generation, or for a particular demographic?

And is this where the real-yet-abstract role of the "Police" comes in? To keep this trade - which powers GDP and pensions and jobs (ironically) and political structures - ticking along, making sure that the want is fulfilled without spilling over into doing something else. Doing something else means you're not propping up GDP.

What's the difference between all those fights as sales open, and looting? Not human nature, for sure.

But the ultimate aim of consumption is different to trade. Consumption is not about swapping, but about efficiency - the evil twin to industrial efficiency that breeds outside of the factory gates. It's about bang-for-buck, and the best deal is getting something-for-nothing. Second is getting something for less than you perceive it to be. Actual worth rarely comes into it.

Social lubricant. img by johnnydapunk

The Police are a lubricant for trade - blinkers that help society to focus on making money "meaningful". Public defacement of private adverts is a no-no. Common spaces for posting free content is at a minimum. Use of public space is controlled - no lurking or gathering. Lurking in shops is fine though, as it increases the chance you'll buy something. A police line is there to channel you to the desired space. Move along, please. Till number 6 is available.

But modern life is a medium for consumption, not trade. (Or perhaps trade so one-sided, it can no longer be recognised.) Where the common spaces used to be there is merely a void of advertising images, carefully crafted and selected to be most efficient. Clone towns swap mediocre jobs for windows and windows of novelty goods. Staff discounts are a nod to the reality that you cannot really afford what you sell.

So conflict is inevitable. Hell, a certain amount of disorder is even desirable - so long as it can be tied back to a particular brand. If people are willing to actually fight over something, it has to be good, right?

To put a fairly shallow perspective on it, one way to restore "civility" is to give people the skills and opportunities to create wealth to spend. This leaves out anything moral or spiritual, but does address the immediate tension in "trade-vs-consumption". Part of that restoration requires nurturing people and places, which also requires trust.

Tightrope Walker
Erk. img by Tahbepet

But here's the paradox: How do you get people to become skilled at basic stuff while also getting them to want basic stuff? In other words, isn't there a "danger" of nurturing people so they can look after themselves, and if you do that, who will buy all the crap?

This is where we find ourselves - unable to bring ourselves to trust people, because we need them to buy stuff. Our survival -no, our definition - has come to depend on people buying stuff.

We made it cheap enough to afford at the expense of others. Then we created huge engines that could manufacture debt from nothing. Then we discovered DRM and region-encoding, all to keep people locked into a way of life.

Such an imbalance is probably a bad way to go into the future. Watch carefully as our policies are defined by getting just the right line between creating wealth, and spending it. Watch as the suspicion of creation has to be balanced by more sticks to keep that creation in check.

Technological skills will be met with greater pro-copyright laws. Networking skills will be met with greater monitoring powers. Even basic skills, as they resurge, will be met with greater requirements for qualifications and health&safety checks.

While this mistrust continues, progress will be slow and frustrating. Those caught in the system will be quickly outpaced by those outside of it, and inequality will rise. The Police will be needed more, because inequality amplifies the tension already outlined.

So I guess we're stuck.