Tuesday, 28 March 2017

It’s not algorithms that I fear so much as unimaginative managers.

Banking giant NatWest is to close branches in Stoke, Burslem, Trentham, Biddulph, Cheadle and Stone. Customers will be inconvenienced and the communities affected will be a little poorer; but hey, that's progress folks.

Speaking to the Sentinel on Friday a NatWest spokesman said they had ‘listened’ to feedback from communities and were aware that ‘not all of our customers are comfortable and familiar with online banking.’ The company has promised to put a ‘taskforce’ in place to help customers find alternative banking options.

Is there any problem these days that doesn't merit the setting up of a taskforce? It sounds good, but in practice means almost nothing.

As for listening to feedback from the community, I think NatWest are confusing that with hearing, which is not the same thing at all. You can hear something without paying it the least bit of attention.

NatWest, and all the other banks have been listening to communities in Stoke-on-Trent and countless other cities say they don't want their local bank to close, guess what happens next? They shut it anyway and the progress Juggernaut rolls on regardless.

George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm about sheep who like a ruminant chorus would bleat ‘four legs good, two legs bad. They were a metaphor for the way a certain sort of communist would believe every diktat handed down by the party, however illogical or criminal it might be.

You can hear their echo whenever things like bank closures or the willful destruction of something else we the little people value is announced. It is the fanfare for a world view that sees humanity as only ever moving forward. The mere suggestion that a better route to the same destination might be the indirect one is classed as treason.

In an age when we are starting to become uneasy about automation and AI changing the world out of all recognition, what keeps me awake at night isn't algorithms with ideas above their station; its managers without a trace of imagination.

They are the sort of people who view the world through the screen of their laptop, in the way the rest of us do through a fairground mirror. The resulting distortions lead to them failing to understand some basic things about progress and human nature.

To them progress is a huge uncontrollable beast to which we can only cling helplessly as it stampedes to points unknown. The idea that in order to reach any destination someone has to take hold of the reins is lost on them.

As does the unavoidable truth that human beings often make their best journeys by following a roundabout route. Try to force change for ‘the good of all’, and you run the risk of getting mired in resistance or charging down endless blind alleys.

Just because we can do our banking and so many other things online, it doesn't necessarily mean that we want to, or that we should do so.

Change is inevitable, but continuity helps us to feel comfortable; machines have the power to make life easier, but human contact is what makes it worthwhile.

Balancing off those contradictions is going to become ever more important. Recognizing that change should never be an end in itself is a good place to start.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Labour’s entropy gathers momentum.

If it’s Monday, then it must be time for the Labour Party to tear itself apart, again.

Deputy leader Tom Watson took to the airwaves to mutter darkly about a ‘plot’ to destroy the party if, or when, things go belly up at the forthcoming local elections.

In the frame were far left group Momentum with trades union UNITE led by Len McCluskey lurking menacingly in the shadows. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth, angry rebuttals and, by close of play a plea for party unity from Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

It would be laughable, if so many people didn't still place their trust in the Labour Party.

I don't know and don't much care if there really is a plot to destroy the Labour Party, as I see things its doing a pretty good job of destroying itself.

Momentum seem not too different to most other left wing groups. They have a ‘position’, a certain romanticized view of how politics work; but they're hardly agents of revolution.

Their loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn is as touching as it is misguided. I retain the opinion of him I held when he won the Labour leadership against all the odds. He is a decent man motivated by principle, but he lacks the killer instinct necessary to win an election.

These days he looks worn out, far from wanting a praetorian guard to cement his grip on power, he probably longs to slip back into back bench obscurity.

Tom Watson’s claim that if McCluskey is re -elected as leader of UNITE the union will affiliate to Momentum and the fall of Rome follow shortly after seems less than credible.

Trades unions can and affiliate to all kinds of organizations, the influence this has on the voting intentions of their membership is minimal. To say otherwise is like putting two and two together and getting infinity.

The government is on the verge of leading Britain over the cliff into Brexit, austerity continues to bite and the NHS, Labour's greatest achievement is under threat like never before. Working people need a strong political voice, what the party many still turn to by default is providing instead is the din of a thousand private squabbles.

There are rumors that at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party MPs cheered Watson and booed Corbyn. A cynic might think the threat to King Jeremy comes from his deputy rather than than the Trots of Momentum; cynics are often right too.

There are, of course, alternatives to Labour, but the inadequacies of our voting system make it hard for them to gain traction. If this latest crisis is one more step towards the tar pit for the Labour dinosaur, though it may be sad for those people who are still loyal to a cause that stopped being loyal to them a long time ago, it could open the door for those parties who want to oppose the government; not engage in private feuds.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Is it time to bring back Sanity Fair?

In many ways, attitudes towards people living with mental illness have improved vastly in the past decade. Look beyond the surface though and a less pleasing picture emerges.

Lazy media stereotypes, deep-seated prejudices and the perennial struggle to access services, mean that people living with mental illness are still struggling for recognition of sometimes even the most basic rights. Popular culture also too often still presents them as a ‘problem’, rather than as members of one of the many communities making up our society.

Matters weren’t helped a couple of weeks ago by the comments made by Tory MP George Freeman that people with anxiety are just sitting at home popping pills and aren’t suffering from an illness that can be as limiting as any physical disability. Our sainted Prime Minister might talk about a ‘shared society’ where those living with mental illness are no longer excluded; it doesn’t seem like one of her pet policy advisors got the memo.

Individuals and charities do much to redress the balance, but there is a lot of needless duplication and when spoken by more than one voice at a time an otherwise strong message can end up being diluted.

What we need to do is celebrate in a positive way the possibility of living an empowered, productive life despite mental illness. One way of doing so could be to bring back Sanity Fair, the festival of all things relating to mental health held in the city up until a decade ago.

It could work rather in the way ‘Pride’ events have for the LGBT community, as a way for an unfairly marginalized community to say, ‘We’re here and We’re proud of who we are; get over it.’

The problem, of course, is how to pay for such an event. Council budgets are shrinking, so is that of the NHS.

The answer is to look to local employers, many of whom are slowly coming round to the idea that the mental health of their staff matters as much as their physical health and safety. Mental ill health in the workplace is a serious drain on productivity, profits and staff retention.

Concern for their bottom line, along with the slow realization that a good reputation is the best form of advertising should make business open to demonstrating social responsibility on such a major issue.

It is certainly an idea worth considering, if only because organizing a new Sanity Fair would bring the disparate mental health charities and support groups who do so much good work, often in isolation together to pull in the same direction.

It would also help to blow away with balloons, music and good spirits the clouds of stigma and suspicion that hold so many people back from reaching their full potential. Along the way, it would help to remind the wider world that Stoke-on-Trent is a modern and inclusive city, not the stereotype people locked within the embrace of the M25 like to think.