Monthly Archives: December 2009

RATM for Chirstmas Number 1

This week’s Net Office went live this morning. Original copy here, final copy over on the NS website.

The Mirror is reporting today that RATM are 60,000 ahead of McElderry, but that CD sales may close that gap. I don’t mind saying that I haven’t been this excited by the charts since Blur vs Oasis.

And so, the decade ends with a clash of ideologies. In the blue corner, we have the individual, coiffed, tanned and flossed, battling against what life throws at him, relishing each challenge without questioning the system that created the obstacles he must overcome. In the red corner huddle the united masses, dreadlocked and disaffected, aware of the complex elites that govern their lives and ready to overthrow them through the simple act of violent rebellion. The fight for Christmas number one has never been so exciting.

Before Joe McElderry had been announced as X factor winner last Sunday, members of the 700,000-strong Facebook group “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1!” were already purchasing downloads of the US alt-metal outfit’s 1993 single “Killing in the Name”. Their aim? To boot McElderry’s disinfected country ballad “The Climb” off its almost guaranteed number one spot, in favour of a track whose lyrics contain the word “fuck” 17 times. If each of the 700,000 Facebook group members defy the economics of collective action and download the track this week, their victory is almost assured.

The Titanomachia of old and new media is compelling. Simon Cowell has branded the RATM campaign “cynical”. In reality it is anything but.

“Killing in the Name” was released back when the recording industry still seemed authentic – at least to the middle class kids who made up most of RATM’s fans then, and probably most of the Facebook group now. Yes, RATM are signed to Sony. But in 1993 Sony and the like hadn’t yet commenced their war against the internet – and by extension against all young people. It’s a war that is right now culminating in Westminster, as legislators debate a Bill with shady provisions for punitive action against illicit filesharers, that gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to devise enforcement measures in favour of record labels. What the RATM Facebook action recognises is that the music is ours, as well as theirs – that years after a track has been produced, hundreds of thousands of people can still be moved by it to take action, however trivial that action might seem.

So if you fancy your hope a little subversive this Christmas, join the Facebook group and get downloading. And as you’re pogo jumping to some of the best guitar riffs of the nineties, remember, the devil doesn’t have to have all the best tunes.

Spotted: me at Resonance FM’s Media Playground

I’ll be at The Foundry in London on Saturday the 19th, taking part in Resonance FM’s Media Playground event:

At 2pm: discussion for broadcast – Pathological Over-Sharing. Featuring Becky Hogge (New Statesman, Open Knowledge Foundation), Ken Hollings (Destroy All Monsters), Mark Rock (Audioboo, Best Before Media) and Paul May (The Whale in the Room). As social networks proliferate, newspapers retreat and self-exposure goes global, a panel of culturally savvy thinkers gather to address such questions as, Is the internet a tool for democratic change or economic repression? What is the individual’s impact on media? And what is the impact of the media on social space?

More details here.

Climate emails

My column went live at the New Statesman yesterday. Unedited draft here, final version here.

What does a journalist do when a metric conspiracy-load of private emails between scientists land on his desk which he has neither the time to read, nor the skills to dissect? As the Climate Research Unit hacked emails story has developed, we’ve seen several different answers to this question.

On Today last Monday John Humphreys and Ed Miliband, having both agreed with each other that neither of them was a scientist, proceeded to strip down to their metaphorical loin cloths and dance around the totem they had built together out of “the science”. The previous Saturday, Simon Heffer in the Telegraph had précised his denialist contribution to the debate with “I have not so much as an O-level in physics or chemistry”. The polemic was illustrated with a picture of a green-haired climate protester screwing her face to camera, sardonically captioned “the voice of reason”. Thus did it perpetrate that most common of crimes against the Enlightenment: confusing ideology with reality.

Like the scientific method – itself more cybernetic than democratic – the hacked emails debacle is very much an internet story. More, it is a story of the public web, whose high incidence of “flat-earthers”, sceptics and chat room mavericks has apparently helped dissuade the CRU from hitherto publishing their data and workings, versus the private web, across which those same scientists bounced email after email, amassing a decade-large corpus that would make Cardinal Richelieu giddy. Whoever sent the whole thing to Wikileaks less than a month before the Copenhagen negotiations knew what they were doing. The mainstream media mostly enjoys telling stories. Twists in the tale are likely to be evaluated less on merit and more on where they take the narrative.

The constant questioning and debate that indicate healthy scientific discourse look entirely different to a media obsessed with the U-turn, that nasty little concept that distils every public debate into something slightly less sophisticated than a football match. But whatever comes out of Copenhagen this week, it will be the beginning of science’s involvement in the public discourse, and not the end. For society to survive, we will have to make good choices, and they will be choices about science and technology. Totems, ideology and story-telling will not be useful. If the public is to have any kind of scrutiny over these choices, the media need to get used to an altogether different type of refereeing.

9/11 pager messages

This week’s column now live at the New Statesman. Unedited copy below, final version here.

If extraterrestrial life were to swing by, the first impression they got of our blue-green planet might well be cacophony. Last month’s Wikileaks release of pager messages sent on September 11 2001 is one testament to this. Over half a million messages, intercepted in New York and Washington DC for the 24 hours surrounding the World Trade Centre attacks, were released by Wikileaks, broadcast in a kind of sync with the day they documented. The 12MB file of text messages can still be downloaded from the Wikileaks website. They are credible and their provenance is undisclosed.

The messages paint a surprising, if chilling, picture. They are sent by both machines and humans, almost in equal proportion. Computers running major parts of the globe’s financial infrastructure deliver warnings about their faltering connectivity (“08:46:46 Market data inconsistent…Cantor API problem Trading system offline”). Humans deliver messages to employers and loved ones. Some call in sick (“06:50:48 THIS IS MIKE. I HAVE TO TAKE MY SON TO THE DOCTOR… ”), others send saucy greetings (“06:31:26 Got my zebra thongs on!!!”), a few talk about bagels, furniture deliveries. Those that have heard the news, send messages of panic – “10:07:46 Don’t leave the building… Please be careful. Love you – Tiffany”. The panic intensifies: “10:35:50 PLEASE PRAY…”

In the background, heard quietly but consistently, the Twin Towers fall. policemen and members of the secret services send messages to each other as the situation escalates: “08:50:50 BOMB DETINATED (sic) IN WORLD TRADE CTR. PLS GET BACK TO MIKE BRADY W/A QUICK ASSESSMENT OF YOUR AREAS AND CONTACT US IF ANYTHING IS NEEDED”; “09:21:44 US bombers are in the air in-route to Clasified (sic) targets waiting for strike orders.”; “10:24:31 TWINKLE AND TURQ (codenames for George Bush’s daughters) ARE ACCOUNTED FOR AND SAFE”.

Humans with their artefacts, crashing about to save themselves or else causing this destruction in the first place. The messages we and our machines sent that day are a new kind of news – raw data news, or sousveillance news, perhaps. Like spies, the community news portal Reddit dissected the raw material (, sifting through the data by hand, and devising scripts to extract word frequencies (“please” came out top) or the pager numbers of all the Secret Service agents. Can we expect this window to open on all future news events? Perhaps not. But on this particular one, it bears a powerful aspect.

Dead Pirates

Currently enjoying this video: