Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Karaoke thinking

You know how some ideas sound really good when you're three sheets to the wind? Like karaoke, or trolley racing. Many thriving businesses have been built on this simple perceptual filter. The kebab industry, slot machines, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire...

Sometimes I think the UK is increasingly being run by people who are in just that stage of inebriation. The precise, finely balanced point of the evening at which, if I were to tap them on the shoulder and say "Do you think running barefoot is an unfair advantage in professional athletics?", next thing we knew one of us would be under arrest for streaking.

For evidence, I present two stories from today's crop on El Reg.

In the first: the Tory party - an allegedly serious political organisation, a party that earnestly hopes and believes it has a good chance of forming a government within the next year or so - is introducing a new stage in the legislative process in which ordinary citizens are invited to give their views on a bill. The idea is being punted by foreign-affairs spokesman (and former party leader) William Hague, in consultation with a veteran of web-based activism, Tom Steinberg.

Now, previously, if you wanted your views to be heard, you had to make a submission to a parliamentary committee - in the bill's committee stage. This new phase - the "public reading stage" - comes before the committee stage, and invites people to rewrite the legislation online. Obviously this is a great leap forward, as it no longer requires you to sober up long enough to print out your submission and mail it to anyone - much less actually get dressed and give evidence in person. And it opens the process to hijacking by every lunatic YouTube host, cable-TV rent-a-rant, and blogger, who can now tell their faithful just what to write where.

Fortunately, the committee stage of the bill remains intact - at which point no doubt the professional lobbyists will take over again, all the changes will be reversed and the bill put back to what it was before the Great Unwashed intervened. But we'll think we've been listened to, and that's what matters.

That's an illusion that should hold right up until the first bill to go through this process makes it to its third reading. At that point, some smartass - quite possibly Tom Steinberg - will undoubtedly compare the texts of the various versions and see what changes have actually been kept. William Hague may not quite realise what he's letting himself in for.

In short: it's a gimmick, and a politically dangerous one. It might net the Tories a few headlines and/or a few votes in the short term; but it'll lose them more in the long run. But it's not all good news. Unfortunately, in the process, it has a good chance of alienating the politically-engaged citizens of a whole generation.

Against that competition: kudos to Anthony Clive Morgan, of Dawlish, Devon, for coming up with an idea that makes Mr Hague's brainwave look positively - brainy: the dumbest business idea I've seen since (the seemingly defunct) PersonRatings.com.

Mr Morgan has noticed what must have been obvious to any Briton these past ten years - that there are vastly more surveillance cameras in Britain than there are people to watch them - and figured out how to make a profit from it. Charge the camera owners £20 per month to pipe their feed to volunteers on the Internet, who will text an alert if they see anything fishy going on. At the end of each month, the most successful of these volunteer curtain-twitchers gets a £1000 prize.

Presumably Mr Morgan has done his homework, and discovered that a significant proportion of the UK's unknown number of cameras is indeed connected to some kind of IP network. (Although the stats on his website don't look very convincing. He not only repeats the wild guesstimates of "4.2 million cameras" for the country as a whole, and "we are filmed 300 times a day on average" - which is just plain false, if we're using common definitions of "average" - but also states, baldly but alarmingly vaguely: "At least 90% of them are not being manned". I don't doubt it's true, but if I were starting an actual business I'd try to find some real numbers, not just pull them out of my backside.)

I won't go into the data-protection nightmare, the randomness of vigilante justice, the social corrosion of setting ordinary people to spy on each other, or the impossibility of guaranteeing that, for your £20 a month, you'd actually get a pair of human eyes fixed on your camera feed for some given proportion of the time. I'll just ask: if you'd spent tens of thousands of pounds on a camera system and found that it didn't reduce crime, how anxious would you be to spend thousands more on a service that might, or might not, provide some random people to watch them?


SMG said...

I am growing more and more alarmed by the endorsing of the blog world as a legitamate source for quality thought. Does owning a PC make my opinion some how more valid than it was 15 years ago?

vet said...

Nah, being 15 years older does that.

Remember 15 years ago? I used to buy a daily paper for quality thought. And I listened to Radio 4. Well, I can't get Radio 4 any more, and either the papers have gone downhill or I've grown more demanding.

Which leaves me with the Internet. Gruesome thought, that.