Saturday, October 22, 2016

Open Day Brunel Links

Twitter: @EnglishatBrunel
Cutting-edge use of new technology:
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Monday, October 17, 2016

Creepy Clowns and Trolls: Technology of Masking


The recent scary clown mask craze has a retro-whiff about it.  Rather than people being hounded by trolls on the information super-highway, they are being menaced by clowns on the streets of their neighbourhood. 

Although an ancient art, clowning has a great deal in common with trolling in particular the use of the mask.  All clowns put on a mask, of course, as a method of distancing themselves from their day to day personality, and also as a licence to behave on the edges of acceptability. 

Trolling too is a form of mask-making.  While it is hard to define precisely what trolling is, my millennial students reliably inform me it is not so much bullying on line as taking on an exaggerated persona to get the most effect: being excessively insulted by something, being overly violent in your online responses, taking up exaggerated positions on topics and so on.  When you toll someone you use the anonymity of digital masking to create a mask for yourself that is more impactful, violent and share-friendly.

Indeed both trolls and clowns share in the use of the mask to distance themselves, from their real selves, and to also distance themselves from their effect on others.  But more than this trolling and clowning share a symbiotic i-relationship.  The recent proposed Clowns Lives Matter March was organised through, what else, social media.  Facebook and Twitter have been sources for organising attacks and sharing imagery inciting further attacks. 

So it would appear that clowning adds a new physicality to online bullying.  While trolling can have tangible real-world effects in extreme cases, mostly the cost is virtual.  With clowning the disaffected of the world are closing their laptops, coming out of their bedrooms and taking back the streets. 

It was only a matter of time before the currency of the web, likes and shares, until recently the crack cocaine of contemporary social life, would lose its edge.  In the run up to Halloween there is a new drug in town, dopamine, the fight or flight drug that you can only score on the street when you are mask to face with your victim. 

Does this mark a decline in virtual violence, as I said a retro-shift back to a kind of Clockwork Orange world of ultra-violence?  Or does it draw a new frontier where the social drug of sharing is cut with the brain-drug of scaring to produce a new high for bullies around the globe? Whatever the answer it is clear, as Victor Hugo once said, “Virtue has a veil, vice a mask”.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Lethal injections and the tragedy of America's execution addiction

Lethal injections and the tragedy of America's execution addiction

William David Watkin, Brunel University London

It began in Utah back in 1977. On January 17 of that year, Gary Gilmore became the first man to be executed in the US for more than a decade, ending a national moratorium on the death penalty. Gilmore, guilty of murdering two men during a 24-hour spree, insisted on being executed and chose to die by firing squad.

It is possible that if this mentally disturbed, indeed suicidal man, had not elected to be shot that day, the history of the death penalty would have been completely different and the lethal injection never invented.

As it was, Gilmore’s intransigence over the issue of his destruction meant that the death penalty was acceptable once more and states were faced with a series of tough choices. Should they kill or not? If so, what’s the best way of going about it? And how were the states that eventually reinstated capital punishment going to answer to legal challenges based on the Eighth Amendment that outlawed any form of punishment that was “cruel or unusual”?

Enter Jay Chapman, a young forensic pathologist with no medical expertise in the field of pharmacology, who was tasked by an Oklahoma legislator to develop a more humane method of execution than the firing squad, hanging or the electric chair. It was a chance event that may have been precipitated by a simple remark made by Chapman that animals are put to death more humanely than humans. Such a bald comparison between man and beast inspired strong feelings in the Oklahoma legislature and Chapman was asked to right this wrong by developing a safe, effective and humane drug protocol for the now resurgent killing states to use.


              US states that retain the death penalty on their statute books.
              Death Penalty Information Center

Chapman’s solution was devastatingly simple:

We simply took the standard set for anaesthesia in surgical procedures, then all we did was take the amounts of drugs to lethal levels recommended by a toxicologist.

This standard set consisted of three drugs: Sodium Thiopental to bring about unconsciousness, Pancuronium Bromide which paralyses the body, and Potassium Chloride to stop the heart. It was the potassium which did the actual killing, the other two drugs were applied rather to ameliorate its searing effects so that the patient could die violently of a heart attack, yet peacefully and without pain. Since its inception, around 1,000 people have been killed this way in the US according to Amnesty International. Lethal injection is by far the most favoured mode of execution there – and is a system that has been exported around the world.

Yet the protocol has no real basis in standard medical methodology. It was never tested then – and never has been since. But then again, as Chapman says:

People talk about the drug not being “tested”“. What does that mean? Should we be lining people up against the wall and testing them with different legal drugs?

Ludicrous as this suggestion may sound, that appears to be what penitentiaries across the country have been doing, due to a complex set of global circumstances that means the favoured three-drug model is no longer possible simply because the European pharma companies that used to supply these drugs have since refused to do so.

Drug dealings

In 2009, Hospira – the company that supplied that crucial first drug Thiopental (crucial because it allowed the killing states to prove that the lethal injection was humane) – suddenly found that it could no longer source its active ingredients in America. After an exhaustive search it found a company near Milan in Italy which agreed to provide the missing component. But once the Italian government caught wind of what the drug was being used for, it refused to allow its export. This was to provide a pattern that was initially ad hoc but eventually became a semi-official embargo. First Britain, then Germany suspended the rights of companies to export drugs to America for use in lethal injections.

Oklahoma is called the Sooner State and has a reputation of being first to the party. In the case of the lethal injection, this reputation is deserved, for when they found out they could no longer source Thiopental they switched to another drug, Pentobarbital, supplied by a company based in Illinois called Lundbeck. Pentobarbital is a pretty good switch for Thiopental – but perhaps officials at Oklahoma state pen should have paid attention to the name of the company. Lundbeck is a Danish company and, when the liberal Danes discovered what their Pentobarbital was actually being used for – not for treating seizures as it was designed to do but for masking them – they ceased to ship the drug stateside.

By then it was 2011, which proved to be a bad year for the lethal injection. The halting of supplies by Lundbeck was followed by a Europe-wide decision of nearly every big pharmaceutical company to refuse to provide any drugs to America for lethal injections, an embargo encouraged and backed by the European Union itself.


              The execution chamber in San Quentin prison in California.

The embargo slowly took effect. By 2013 the amounts of lethal stock in the drug cupboards of Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma had dwindled to such a degree that death by lethal injection was, for all intents and purposes, foreclosed. By 2015 the number of executions in the 31 states still using this form of extreme punishment was down to just 28, compared to 98 in 1999.

Although this dramatic reduction has been a massive global success for abolitionism, it is not a definitive victory by any means – the death penalty is being defeated not because it is immoral, unconstitutional or because it contravenes the Eighth Amendment. Rather, it is abolition by a technicality – you can use the drugs but only if you can find them. And, in any case, abolition by technicality has not proved sufficient to put an end to state-sponsored killing.

Faced with the possibility of not being able to kill their criminals, in 2014 many death penalty states started to simply try other drugs to see how they kill. For although the lethal injection always came with a veneer of medical legitimacy, it was never a truly medical procedure. There was no medical evidence that the original drug combination was safe and painless – quite the contrary – so what was to stop states trying other drugs? Nothing, it transpires, nothing legally and nothing medically. So that’s what they started to do.

The terrible botched death of Clayton Lockett

On April 29, 2014 the state of Oklahoma executed a man called Clayton Lockett for his terrible crimes. They didn’t have the right drugs to kill Lockett and they didn’t have the right medical staff on hand either, but that didn’t dissuade them. Unfortunately, things went very wrong indeed.


              Clayton Lockett took over an hour to die.
              EPA/Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

It was decided to try a new batch of drugs that was doing the rounds now that the key drugs were no longer being shipped from Europe. Instead of Pentobarbital, they chose Midazolam, not a very good killing drug to say the least as it is a sedative primarily used on children and the aged because its effects are so mild.

But it was not just ineffective drugs that led to the terrible botching of Lockett’s death – Oklahoma has since been criticised for a lack of technical know-how in the killing room that day. It began when the executioners tried to insert a needle into the arm of Clayton Lockett, usually a routine procedure.

The executioners repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed. Eventually they found a vein in Lockett’s groin, at which point the warden asked for a “modesty sheet”. The provision of the sheet preserved Lockett’s modesty, perhaps, but it also meant that the staff couldn’t see what they were doing – and, after 16 minutes, the blinds were drawn which meant that those legally permitted to observe the procedure were no longer able to observe the procedure.

Behind the curtain it would appear that the botching went on. It had taken nearly an hour to find a vein and during this interminable search it was observed that the IV had infiltrated tissue. This meant the treatment could fail and would probably produce undue suffering. Finally, outside the chamber, corrections director Robert Patton and general council Steve Mullins, argued and then agreed to stay the execution. Unfortunately, in the meantime, what the executioners had been unable to achieve through intention, they had brought about by ineptitude. Lockett, after more than an hour – according to a timeline released by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections – had died of a heart attack. A lethal injection procedure is supposed to take about 15 minutes.

Even at this stage it was argued that Lockett could have, and should have, been revived, so that he could be nursed to health and killed “properly” at a later date. In the end this did not happen, which was yet another breach of standard procedure.


              Oklahoma State Penitentiary which staged the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.
              Charles Duggar - Oklahoma State Penitentiary, CC BY

By the end of the whole appalling Grand Guignol staged in Oklahoma that day, it was unclear if the untested drugs were the cause of Lockett’s suffering or not, but, as reports came in from other botchings using similar drug combinations, such as the extended asphyxiations of Joseph R Wood III in July 2014, and Dennis McGuire in January 2015, it became clear that these new protocols had transformed the rapid efficiency of the lethal injection into an extended mode of torture.

The “Oklahoma report” was released in May of this year criticising, in no uncertain terms, the officials whose professional duty it had been to carry out executions in recent years.

Here are some of the indictments levelled against Oklahoma’s legalised killing machine after a string of botched executions, including that of Lockett. Their pharmacist ordered the wrong drugs. Even then a top official in the governor’s office insisted the execution go ahead, with the wrong drug. The attitude of those in charge of the executions was described as “careless, cavalier and in some circumstances dismissive of established procedures that were intended to guard against the very mistakes that occurred”. More than once the state used the incorrect drug to kill a prisoner, and – in a strange legal twist – when the state administered the incorrect drugs, this meant that prisoners were not legally allowed to challenge the procedure before their deaths.

Mullins was singled out by the report as “flippant and reckless”, allowing executions to go ahead even though he knew the incorrect drugs had been obtained. He has since quit his post. The list of errors goes on and on; the report is more than 100 pages long.

Cruel irony

Some of the methods that states have used to get around the recent drugs embargo are worthy of a HBO mini-series. Some have been sourcing non-regulated versions of key drugs in India and importing them, illegally, into the US. How do we know? Because the FDA caught them. Other states have made extensive use of poorly regulated compound drug companies to synthesise the embargoed drugs. The FDA is cracking down on this practice.

The awful, tragic irony is that these state authorities charged with taking the lives of criminals are attempting suspect acts in order to continue doing so. In one recent case, a consignment of drugs was paid for in cash with no receipts, making it impossible to trace the provenance or quality of the drugs in question. To compound this obsession with secrecy, even the staff charged with carrying out the execution were paid in cash.

Around the same time as the news came out of the Oklahoma hearing, Pfizer announced that it would no longer supply its products to any agency involved in capital punishment. This effectively means that the embargo is now complete and abolition has effectively been achieved on a technicality. But this is neither safe nor satisfactory. The only satisfactory end to this barbaric practise will be when the US Supreme Court acts. But the court, when last given the chance in 2015 – largely as a result of the Lockett killing – to ban capital punishment refused to do so … but only by a margin of five to four.

The embargo on drugs inevitably feeds into this process. The public may not give a damn about the difference between Pentobarbital and Midazolam, but people are starting to sit up and take notice when they see news reports about botched executions. So it seems likely that the practice of experimenting with new drug combinations will have a limited shelf life, as the public reactions to increased botching will be too negative. Even though most people in the US still favour the death penalty, those who are in control of its fate – the judges – are themselves subject to more localised pressures of opinion and, of course, must uphold the Eighth Amendment. Deaths by botching are clearly in breach of that.

So much so that, following Lockett’s execution the US president, Barack Obama, called for a federal review of America’s death penalty procedures: Americans should “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues”, he said.

Tragic farce

Which raises the question, what happens next? Already several states have started to look for alternatives. Many still have the right to execute by other means on their statute books. Some states have spoken of using the firing squad, others nitrogen gas.  And then there is, of course, Hollywood’s favourite, “Old Sparky” (the electric chair).

Yet most states are painfully aware of the effect these more graphically violent and symbolically loaded methods may have on a wavering public opinion. At the moment, many continue to play a dangerous game to keep on killing criminals.


              ‘Old Sparky’: the electric chair at Sing Sing penitentiary.

Yet it is not only the 31 states who have capital punishment on their books that face tricky decisions. The whole issue of capital punishment teeters on a knife edge. If you find the latest tactics of places such as Oklahoma questionable, is not the current abolitionist strategy problematic as well? It is undoubtedly the case that the drug embargo has led to greater suffering on the part of those who have still been executed by lethal injection. If you are an abolitionist, are you comfortable with suspension on a technicality, when this pushes states to use crueller means to kill?

Either way, it is probably the end of the road for the lethal injection. Its brief life has been a rip-roaring yarn of vision, carpetbagging and malpractice that says so much about attitudes to death, revenge, science and the law – as well as our dependence on drugs. As you read this, I am preparing my pitch for HBO. “It’s like Breaking Bad,” I’ll say, “with chemists and everything. Only Jessie is a prison warden and the drugs they deal don’t make you get high, they kill you. Where’s it set? Oklahoma, where else?”

The Conversation

William David Watkin, Professor of Contemporary Philosophy and Literature, Brunel University London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Snuff or Duff? Images of Brussels Terror Attack are fake

Snuff or Duff? Images of Brussels Terror Attack are Fake

Some of the Brussels terror images are fake.  But then what does authenticity matter when it comes to snuff? Because make no mistake that what these images are.

See Vlog of the article here.

Fake Images of Brussels Bombing

Wait A Minute, That’s Not Brussels!

It transpires that some of the images broadcast after the Brussels bombings were fake.  One particular video, posted on Youtube, appears to show CCTV footage of blurred figures fleeing Zaventem airport.  What they actually show is a flipped and relabelled image of blurred figures fleeing a terror attack on Domodedovo airport, in Russia, in 2004! Other images from terror attacks in Minsk were also used.  This is something that has been going on for a while apparently.  Images shared after the Paris attacks were originally footage of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Vids of Eagles of Death Metal playing at Bataclan on the night of the bombings were actually from a Dublin gig and so on.

Faking the news is as old as the news, but the rise of social media has dramatically increased the possibility that the imagery that accompanies our journalism is fraudulent.  First, because people will publish anything to increase their clicks, shares and so on.  A click or like is the crack cocaine of online addiction, proof that you count, that the world listens to you, that you are included in the endless conversation.  Second, because now there is now such an abundance of footage around, shot by amateurs mostly, that it makes it all the more difficult to determine authenticity. 

This is particularly grave as these days the news is pretty much the image.  In the past a false image would only support the facts of the article, give it a boost. Now the ‘article’ is often just a caption for the image, a tweeticle call it, meaning you can create a whole story out of just one good clip.  It’s an extremely efficient mode of communication, but if the clip ain’t no good, then the whole story is worthless, or so you would think.

You’re Gonna Have to Face it You’re Addicted to Snuff

So the clips are fake, does it actually matter?  Having recently blogged in response to the images from Brussels I revisited them armed with the possibility that some or even all of them were not what they purported to be.  I found that it didn’t make any difference really.  The effect of the images is pretty universal.  One airport looks like another, one wounded victim is as tragic as another, and in any case none of those images represented something new or unique to me or to any of you. 

Since the rise of handheld devices and social media we have all flung open the casements on our consciousness to a steady stream of snuff and these latest images were just a continuation of that mounting contamination.  And yes, I do regard this imagery as snuff because authentic images of violence and death are nothing other than that. So what if those terrified forms are Russian and not Belgian? They are still suffering, terrorism is still the scourge of our age, we should still bomb the shit out of ISIS.  The facts may differ, but the truth of the image, its shared purpose, remains stable, I discovered.

Still, the question over authenticity does give one pause for thought and in that hiatus, that hesitation of consideration that social media buttonism normally militates against, I asked myself, why do we even look at such material? I realised it is because we are now fascinated by, addicted to, our regular hit of snuff.  Snuff has become as much a part of our social existence in the past decade as funny kittens and emojis; indeed we seem to have the same evanescent emotional response to each.  

If we are outraged by images of bleeding corpses that indignation lasts about as long as the giggle we have over a child scooting around the kitchen on its potty.  We like it, we share it, its affect dissipates soon after.  A few days pass, we feel restless.  What, of significance, have we shared of late?  Then, thankfully, something else appalling goes down and we can get incandescent again at terrorism and feel the power of that hatred add a strata of depth to our commute or that tedious mid-morning health and safety training session.

Authentic Fakes

The journalists who have reported the fake imagery naturally take the part of the erosion of authenticity as an attack on the reputation of the fourth estate.  But sadly, as ever, the mainstream media entirely miss the point of social media in a hopeless attempt to retain some relevancy for themselves, a foothold of safety in an avalanche of the erosion of its relevancy.  Truth is, questions of authenticity no longer pertain to the world of snuff.  

In fact, one of the defining features of the genre is the viewer’s titillation bred of their inability to differentiate real from fake; titillation of uncertainty coupled with a profoundly credulous response to any presentation of the pornography of real violence.  Part of us wants every snuff image to be fake, let’s call that the decent part.  Just as part of us wills that every fake image be real, call that the honest part.  Put the two parts together and you find that the whole creature doesn’t much care either way, as long as they get their emotional jollies.

Of course debates over image authenticity go way back to Baudrillard’s famous essay of 1981 on the simulacrum, and his infamous statement later that the Gulf War Did Not Take Place.  The French philosopher’s highly moralistic point was that the new media meant we had lost sight entirely of the authentic to the degree that we were no longer in touch with the real.  In many ways this was a prophetic response to new technology, but looking back now it seems a tad myopic.  What in actual fact has materialised is not a question over the authenticity of the image itself, but the authenticity of our response. 

Baudrillard could not have predicted that we would live as we do now, surrounded by unquestionably authentic, powerfully violent, imagery on an almost daily basis.  From the ISIS decapitations, through the images of Aylan Kurdi on the beach, to this sprouting of questions from Brussels, the question is not, as Baudrillard would have it, that of the hyper-real, but rather of the omni-real.  We do not have a problem with too great a distance between the real and its image as he argues, but instead are grappling with the knottier difficulty of too great a quantity of imagery of the violence of the real.  Baudrillard’s was a rather refined question of quality: How real is this image?  Ours is a much more quotidian issue of quantity: How many images can we contend with, share, approve and subsequently repel?

If We Can’t Share it, We Can’t Bear it

I would go further, as I always go too far.  For my money the significant disjunction of our times is not between simulation and reality, but rather between language and imagery.  Time and again it can be recounted how horrendous it was crossing the Med. In a blow-up boat, or the treatment of ‘’infidels” at the hands of ISIS, but we will only believe it when we see it.  It no longer matters what enters you through your ears; it is all about what enters your consciousness through your eyes.

In my recent article Uneasy Lies the Head for The White Review one of the many points I made about the ISIS videos was that they are in reality rather fake.  They don’t show people being beheaded.  They show people being threatened, then a cut (not a real one but an editorial one), then a body with a head resting on top.  The fact that these images were fake didn’t seem to trouble anyone and was barely commented on at the time.  What was all important was that we suspected ISIS to be beyond the pale, journalists had told us ISIS were beyond the pale, but we needed that visual confirmation.  Thanks to ISIS, the digital caliphate, and the unwillingness of the social media behemoths to police their own content, visual confirmation, in the form of true snuff, was what we got.

As we currently stand the accessibility of snuff is a new phenomenon.  When 9/11 occurred there was little or no hand-held footage of the event.  We just couldn’t accept that now.  No disaster can pass us by without our exercising our digital privileges to be there, first hand, front row.  What is more, if you don’t got the goodies in terms of pics and vids, then you are not going to be liked, shared and so on, and so it is as if whatever happened, never happened.  If 9/11 occurred now, true Facebook would go into melt-down from all the sharing of first-hand footage.  As it stands, however, maybe in less than a generation it will be as if 9/11 never was because, if we can’t share it, then we just can’t bear it.

Not Hyper-Real but Hyper-Feel

Last week I blogged about the interesting resistance there was to sharing the Brussels attacks’ more graphic imagery.  At the same time others noted there was relatively little traffic online about the explosions.  My point was we were developing an emergent, communal social conscience.  Others went instead with the possibility that perhaps we were getting a bit inured to snuff.  Now, less than a week later, my prophesy seems even more irrelevant than Baudrillard’s especially as he had to wait three decades to become obsolete. That my aprerçus couldn’t even last three weeks is evidence of the pure velocity of experience and change that we currently occupy (as well as of my lack of French genius?) 

Looking back, after one week looking back, I see how ridiculous we have all been.  In resisting the urge to share, to show that we really care, we were actually debating whether or not we should transmit images that themselves were not the transmitted images of the event.  While we fiddled about with our consciences, the Rome of snuff burned all around us, consuming our self-righteousness along with our grip on authenticity.

The simple fact is; it doesn’t matter to us if the images we share are real or fake.  It has never mattered very much whether snuff was real or fake.  What matters is how it makes us feel and, in sharing that experience, how it makes others feel, about themselves yes, but first and foremost, how they feel about us.  And so, in our hunt for constant instant affirmation we are become the new auters of snuff, avid purveyors of all kinds of violent filth and, like any low-level pornographer, we don’t concern ourselves with the quality of the goods, we just attend to the number of bums squirming on seats, and the rapture of those eyes affixed upon the obscenity of the screen. 

Baudrillard was wrong.  The Gulf War did take place;  9/11 did happen.  There are no simulacra in the world of socially mediated snuff, because authenticity does not belong with the quality of the image, but with the power of our investment in it.  We do not live in the age of the hyper-real, but in that of the hyper-feel.  If we can see it, feel it, and share it, then whether the image is snuff or duff, matters not.  We don’t care about what actually happened, we just want another excuse to pass the click-pipe round, and feel that warm glow of social relevancy soften the edges of our increasingly friable, post-millennial existence.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Crisis in Capital Cruelty: How Europe is Slowly Banning the American Death Penality

When I was a child we used to play a gruesome game. Of a weekend you would often find me, my siblings and the occasional honoured guest, lined up on the wall of our back garden. Whoever was ‘It’ would go down the line and ask, in a tone hardened with menace, ‘What do you want to be killed by?’ Each child would choose a method of execution and the executioner would shoulder a rifle, fling some daggers, jazz up a flamethrower or what have you, ‘killing’ the person in question. The convicted would then dramatically perform their death with all the ham and trimmings they could muster. The winner was the best die-er.

I was particularly good at this game. I could really throw myself into a poisoning. If you tried to stab me, you had a West Side Story jazz-fight on your hands, before the inevitable up-to-the-hilt in my gut and down I would go. The elegance of my firing squad, almost Beckettian in its reduced action, was deemed powerful and intense. Boy could I writhe on our small, sparse lawn. Man would I moan, as the noose was draped about my neck. I died countless times in innumerable different ways as I grew up and eventually out of the game, yet never once did I, or any of my fellow delinquents, request the lethal injection.

Clearly, an impassively administered injection did not appeal to our sense of drama. Given free rein across the full menu of annihilation, why would I want to act out the lethal injection? You just lie down in a room smelling of chemicals, and they pump a few drugs into you. Where’s the fun in that?
The banality of death by lethal injection which disallows it from tasteless child’s play, at the same time recommends it as the primary mode of state-sponsored murder in the US. The almost asymbolic nature of the injection is an important by-product of the method’s supposed humanity and efficiency. States want us to think it a pretty mundane task to eliminate the most ‘dangerous’ of our citizens; a run-of-the-mill medical procedure, like having your braces tightened or your ears syringed.

In avoiding the death injection as a child for all these reasons, in retrospect I realise I was missing a trick. For it turns out that lethal injections are not so ‘ho-hum’ after all. That they are regularly botched, with gruesome consequences, is something I could have done a lot with back then. Indeed the difficulty of killing someone through the injection of a compound of drugs such as pentobarbital and potassium chloride, has become so pronounced that, as I write this, the whole practice has been suspended across the majority of states in the US that had previously used the injection as their main mode of execution.

Read the Full Article Here: 

the crisis in capital cruelty or how europe is slowly banning the american death penalty

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Graphic Images of Brussels Terror Attacks: Twittersphere Says No Thanks!

Graphic Images of Brussels Terror Attacks: Twittersphere Says No Thanks!

As Twitter resists the sharing of graphic images of the Brussels Attack, is the Twittersphere finally developing a real social conscience?

An interesting moral and ethical debate is emerging on Twitter over the broadcast of graphic images of the Brussels terror attacks.  Within minutes of logging on this morning, as you might expect by now, I was able to see multiple images of severely wounded people and watch videos of the panic and fear of the aftermath of the blast.  

Two women sit stunned on a bench, the shoe of one missing, her foot dripping.  A man lies on the ground, his legs outstretched before his incredulous regard.  They are framed in red and the angle appears odd, wrong somehow.  A woman flees the airport wearing white jeans with scarlet, bloodied knees.  A man's head pours with blood as someone tries to staunch it with an item of clothing, a scarf I think.  

Yet under the heading “graphic images” there are probably twice as many tweets condemning the sharing of those images, and a widespread call across the twitter-sphere not to retweet them.  Which is fitting.  Aside from it being clear that the victims did not give permission for their images to be used in this way, seeing them there they look vulnerable, terrified and alone.  Capturing images of fellow humans in their moment of crisis in this way reminds me of the old, probably apocryphal, story about photographing indigenous communities.  It seems to me that in a godless world, when you steal the privacy of the wounded, it is as if you are stealing their soul.

Could it be that Twitter is growing up, that we are witnessing something rather unique, the spontaneous emergence of a moral sense, of a communicable intelligibility of right and wrong, that people are more interested in sharing than simply images of gore and violence?  I feel almost like I am witnessing the transformation of a pupae into a butterfly, or the birth of a new star.  In the past social media was all about sharing intimate images of violence for the ‘good’ of the wider community, a kind of pity porn that reached both its nadir and its apex with the images of the drowned body of Aylan Kurdi.   

Although people expressed a moral sense of outrage as they passed the pity porn on, we all knew that titillation and novelty was as much a part of the process as social conscience.  That this appears to have changed is perhaps simply that we have suffered too many attacks of late, shared a little bit too much, and have started to overcome that initial thrill of being broadcasters of snuff, because that is after all the technical term for such images of violence and death.

At the same time as we can witness the birth of an ethical social contract across the twittersphere, we can also record a small victory of text over image.  To resist the sharing of images you can't use images, you have to use words, rhetoric, the power of persuasion.  Granted the whole premise of Twitter militates to hamper proper democratic discourse, what Jurgen Habermas calls communicative action, because the tweets are just too short for that and the propensity for violence to prevalent in an anonymised and consequenceless universe.  But in this case simple states of refusal, renunciation and moral outrage combine to form a kind of hive-heart or hive-soul, a communal, spontaneous, philosophically emergent demos of opinion that only words can convey.

It seems that a shift has occurred, a clicking point if you will. People have begun to realise that just because it exists, you don't need to look at it.  There is a choice on social media, not often felt due to peer pressure and the anthropologically novel millennial phenomenon of the Need To Share.  You don’t have to pass it on, the buck can really stop with you and if enough people take this stance, the virallity of the image which is at epidemic proportion, can be vaccinated against and its spread halted.

This impulse of renunciation and arrest of pity-porn, of snuff, of graphic imagery is surely to be applauded.  It is an impulse however has not yet extended to those who captured those images and tweeted them in the first place.  In one example a man, I think it is, takes a two-minute video of panic in a departure lounge full of smoke and fumes.  Overhead warning sirens screech to a degree that it becomes unbearable.  The man is crouched over another figure covering their head with their arms like a child, as if hiding  means they can’t be seen or touched.  It is apparent that absolutely no one knows what is happening.  Occasionally stunned figures, still pushing their luggage on trolleys, slowly cross the floor.  Once or twice a person runs past at full pelt towards the exit sign.  Other than that the scene is drear and empty.

Another bomb could go off any second, the fumes from the smoke could be toxic, a fire may be spreading their way, yet still the man films.  Finally, a security guard arrives to tell him to leave.  Still recording, he stops to put on his jacket, of all things, then the image goes black.  

Why did he put his life at risk to shoot that?  Why did he film instead of consoling the distraught figure at his feet?  Was he gripped by simple voyeurism, or something more noble, a journalistic impulse to record the truth as and when it is happening, no matter how awful and irrespective of the consequences?  

Most likely he was in a state of shock and just did the first thing that came to him, an automatic instinct like pushing your luggage through Armageddon, which makes the decision to record even more confounding.  In days gone by, at moments of crisis, people would reach for their bible and pray.  In our new millennium, face to face with death, we grab our phone and film.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

Banksy Mugged by Invasive Geoprofiling

Recent geoprofiling has confirmed the identity of Banksy. But more importantly it has opened up a new method of criminalising protests under the guise of the war on terror.

Tagging Banksy

A recent article published in the not-oft-perused Journal of Spatial Science caught the attention of the world’s press.  Well, a couple of the quality papers and one or two blogs picked up on it anyway.  The piece is called “Tagging Banksy” punning, I presume, on the practice of tagging or signing your name intrinsic to street art, at the same time as the mode of digital surveillance that we all submit to when we allow our pics to be tagged on Facebook. I say I presume the title is punning as the paper itself is devoid of wit, drear of irony.

Making it sound much more exciting than it actually is, let’s say the paper tells the story of how four maverick scientists got together and decided to use a process called geographic profiling, normally the preserve of criminology and the study of infectious diseases, to instead profile the anonymous and ‘cool’ street artist who goes by the name of Bansky.  There was no point to this, they admit, in that Banksy was already outed by the Daily Mail in 2008 as one Robin Gunningham.  They were just a bunch of dudes, havin’ fun.

Not letting intellectual irrelevancy get in the way of a possible publication as is often the case with modern academia, our envelope-breaching team set about analysing the location of nearly 200 of Bansky’s works, all of which are site-specific making him an ideal target for the geoprofiling technique.  The mathematic algorithms of geoprofiling allowed them to map these 200 works against 'anchor points' pertinent to the life of the suspected Gunningham, such as where he lived, his school, his girlfriend’s address, his local pub and so on.  Putting the data together in the same way as is used for other criminals like serial killers, it was found that in all likelihood Banksy is Paul Gunningham further suggesting that, going against the grain of most advice, he does tend to shit on his own doorstep. If the discovery itself was long short of revelation, that fact that the Mail once published a fact that was correct is itself a miraculous find I am sure you agree.

One Person’s Protester is Another’s Terrorist

In that we already knew Banksy was Gunningham, and in fact it was because we knew this that Banksy was profilable in the first place as geoprofiling needs suspects in order to map their movements when they are abducting their live victims and abandoning the murdered corpse, the point of the paper is mainly unclear until you get to the final, to me chillingly negligent, paragraph.  Here we learn that the purpose of this mode of profiling is to catch bad-guys, in particular those bad-guys that are “so hot right now”, namely terrorists. 

Indulging in two whole sentences of cultural history, the paper reminds us that Graffiti, acts of vandalism and the like have long been associated with protest groups.  In fact, one of the first applications of protest tagging was tracing the profiles, in 2014, of known anti-Nazi protesters Otto and Elise Hampel.  The Hampel’s bravely left around 200 protest postcards in Berlin apartments during the war, urging their recipients to resist the Nazis.

As we tend to forget, one person’s political activist is another’s terrorist and the practice of low-level protest of these kinds is something they both share in common, mainly because activists and terrorists are often the same people, described in different ways.  So if one is able to trace what the authors term a terrorist’s “low level activities”, not just the headline grabbing bombing and decapitating, then a new front could be opened in the war of terror, one at street level, one based around the tracking your daily life.  Geoprofiling basically uses surveillance to see how you are living and thus tag you as a potential committer of crimes. This then is the authors’ justification for outing Banksy when a) it violated his privacy and b) it had already been done.

A Load of Gunningam

The paper ends with something of a sense of its own purposelessness with this rather flaccid pay-off: “Of course, all this would be unnecessary if political protest only involved bombs stencilled on building walls”. I find myself a little confused by this I must confess.  Are we keeping an eye on protesters in case they become something more?  If so, who determines when protest becomes terrorism and does this mean that all forms of social protest should be subject to invasive surveillance?  Or are we trying to catch terrorists using the minor acts of protest that they might also indulge in?  And what of poor Robinsy, is he a protester who is a terrorist in potential, or is he a terrorist suspect who also protests?  Neither would appear to be the answer.  We are at war; Banksy is just collateral damage.  Sorry Banksy!  Shit happens.

What the scientists are arguing, in essence, is that because of terrorism, we need to use science to improve the surveillance techniques of the modern virtual police state.  What a load of Gunningham.  We have had terrorism for over two hundred years and we have never had at our disposal the means to track terrorists that we have now.  We don’t need more tools; we need more controls on the abuse of those tools.  If you doubt my argument think for a moment of the Hampels.  Didn’t the Nazi’s view them as terrorists or, using the rhetoric of their age of hate, degenerates?  Yes, they did.  It took the SS two years to trace the precise identity and location of the Hampels, but trace it they did.  They were both executed in 1943. 

So what precisely does geoprofiling actually facilitate?  It allows a state to trace its Hampels in a couple of weeks or months, not a couple of years.  And if the paper is successful and its authors can work in concert with the astonishing developments in data harvesting, face and voice recognition, digital tagging and so on, that might be reducible to a couple of hours or a couple of minutes.  I am sure they are drafting their funding bid along these lines as we speak.  What this means is that the Hampels would not have enjoyed two more years of married life.  What this means is maybe 100 or more postcards of protest they would have been unable to leave behind.  What this means is yet another nail in the coffin of our legitimate right to privacy and protest in the name of a chimerical threat of terror which is yet to substantially materialise, fifteen years after 9/11.

Weaponising Surveillance 

Why should anyone but Banksy and a bunch of doggy Graffiti artists care? It is not like we are living under a totalitarian regime and most of us are not criminals or even protesters right?  For the record boycotting Starbucks does not count as protest, not does whining about the ‘environment’ over a latte bought in Costa.  But let me just make this point.  In recent times the UK government has illegally executed several of its own citizens by drone, in particular Reyaad Khan, Rahul Amin and most famously Mohammed Emwazi. More than this, in recent years it has also sanctioned the rendition and torture of its own citizens, and other people’s for that matter.  All in the name of an entirely bogus War on Terror.  Bogus because we are not at war and so we cannot declare a state of exception and simply disregard the rule of law.  And bogus because we don’t agree what terrorism actually is in the world—and we are always in the world these days—and accordingly we don’t know who the terrorists are. 

Example, since the commencement of their bombing campaign the Russians have killed over 2000 civilians in Syria, systematically, openly, with the aid of digital surveillance techniques.  These techniques have been used to purposefully target civilian life in Syria, such as hospitals and schools, to demoralise the anti-Assad forces.  Calling all anti-Assad protesters terrorists, the Russians have, effectively, weaponised locations of care and protection.  How have they achieved this?  Through the historic weaponising of the term Terrorist by George Bush and Tony Blair fifteen years ago, allowing the Russians to use the same word to refer to anti-Assad forces without anyone in the West being able to say anything because if they did then we would have to speak about our own dirty secrets in Basra, Guantanamo and the like.  Those children, those doctors, those NGO workers who are no longer with us, are the Hampels of Syria, and geoprofiling will be a welcome tool, a welcome weapon, in the arsenal of states who wish to oppress any kind of protest, and that includes our own.

Bad Impact

For me this paper is an enemy of our freedom now just Banksy’s, and that is bad, but it is also an enemy of knowledge which is maybe worse, and I will explain why.  I am an academic and am embroiled on a daily basis in the politics of publication.  From an outside perspective it may seem silly to publish a paper based on identifying a fact we already know, Banksy is Robin Gunningham, so why did the authors do it?  Out of love for Banksy’s art?  One of the authors said they thought Banksy was a cool artist, but when asked if they had learnt more about his art with this paper they admitted not.  I think it is clear that the paper was not the product of art lovers.  Rather, the choice of Banksy was a cynical ploy on the part of the authors to attain impact, a plot that has been hideously successful. 

Impact is a measure of how widely read a piece of work is and in scientific research all papers are assigned a numerical impact factor.  This number ties into your reputation as a scientist.  If you go to the Journal website where you can read the paper if you are willing to pay for it, you will even find a lovely rainbow hoop called the Altmetric.  The Altmetric measures the impact of this paper in real time based on its mentions in various sources. Not just academic sources but, more importantly for the modern academic wishing to attain funding, promotion, and a better life, the public impact of a piece. 

Last time I looked “Tagging Banksy” had been mentioned in 60 news sources and 4 blogs, make that 5 now.  It had been referred to on Twitter over 500 times. In short, in answer to the question what does this paper prove, what does it add to knowledge, the answer is you are missing the point.  Increasingly, modern academia is not about adding to knowledge.  Since the rise of the internet we are all up to our necks with knowledge, with data, and we academics are sick of it, overwhelmed by it. The paper is not about adding to the sum of knowledge in the field but is itself, ironically, an exercise in profiling, in this case augmenting the profile of its authors.  In choosing to geoprofile Banksy they are piggybacking on Banksy’s cultural capital to gain visibility, and probably notoriety, for their own work. 

Mugging Banksy

If Banksy possesses a lot of cultural capital, and the denizens of The Journal of Spatial Science do not (have you ever heard of it?) then what the paper “Tagging Bansky” actually commits is an act of cultural theft.  Banksy has what the authors never will, cultural significance, because he has what they appear not to desire, cultural and social awareness.  Banksy’s lawyers are said to be in conversation with the authors of “Tagging Banksy” and so they should be.  Not just because they have invaded his privacy but because they have robbed him of a cultural capital which is also, by the way, worth a shed-load of actual cash. It is no use the authors saying they are respecting the privacy of Banksy in an “Ethical Note” tagged on to the end of the piece, when they are at the same time rifling through his private affairs. That’s like a burglar saying they respect your privacy because they only steal the things they can easily see around the place.

For me at least the authors of the paper are not so much involved in geoprofiling than kleptoprofiling; they are not naming Banksy they are mugging him. And in that petty theft is one of those low-level activities that terrorists engage with, and that this paper is clearly a threat to our freedoms, I ask the powers that be if it is not time that Hauge, Stevenson, Rossmo and Comber (the authors of the piece), be the target of a new campaign of geoprofiling?  Let’s track them when they go to the pub, when they visit their sexual partners, when they drop in on their mum and dad.  Let’s assume they are guilty until proven innocent and tag them.  Let’s spy on them as they live out their humdrum lives and see how they like it.

Tag, You're It!

The final grand irony of the piece of course is to do with Banksy’s quest for anonymity.  I could dwell on the law that the more you seek anonymity in public life, the more obsessed the public become with finding out who you are.  I could also discuss the means by which a quest for privacy is the quickest way to guarantee that this right is breached.  But perhaps instead I will go with the observation that this whole process is based on a layering of anonymity and the quest to be heard that is really rather fascinating. 

Banksy is Robin Gunningham’s tag, his way of making his mark on the streets where he grew up, a method for all Graffiti artists to say here I am, I exist, I am worth something.  Anonymity for them is the result of their being painfully aware of being considered low-level criminals, it is a prophylactic, a shield against reprisal.  That the same word is also used by agencies and scientists alike who want to trace the identity of Graffiti artists, and not just Graffiti artists but all of us who protest, taking the first step, apparently, towards terrorism, is a delicious little thing to ponder on 

Going further, the relative anonymity of the authors of the article feeds vampirically almost on the notoriety of their innominate quarry, giving them an opportunity to make their name by giving a name, Gunningham, and taking an identity, Bansky.  While it is clear that the scientists have the most to gain from this, surely Banksy is giggling under his facemask because the whole discussion, in the end, is money in the cultural bank for him.  Although I dislike the geoprofiling of Banksy, in the end both parties have much to gain, both are benefitting in a kind of cultural/political game of tag.  So they are both winners it is we who are the losers.  We have nothing to gain from tagging, we have no cultural capital to rely on, nor do we have any kind of impact.  We are not the Banksy’s of this world, at best we are the Hampels, the little people desperately trying to make a difference.  We are the small change protesters in the billion-dollar industry of tag which we cannot possibly win. 

By the way, whilst you were reading this you got tagged.  How does it feel?  Did you notice?  Either way, little Hampel, tag, you’re it!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Perpetual Parole: Cameron's Prison Reforms are Less Liberal than they Seem

Cameron Giving his Speeh at the Policy Exchange, 8th of February

David Cameron's Prison Reform Speech appears to show his liberal side. But look closer and he is advocating a new form of punishment, a kind of perpetual parole.

Cameron the Liberal!

David Cameron’s recent prisons speech on February 8th left many left-wing commentators wrong-footed.  Touted as the first proposal of full-scale prison reform for a generation, Cameron came over at the podium all concerned, empathetic, and sociological—although he retained his rather smug and rubicund natural demeanour throughout. We lefties didn’t know what to make of it all really.  The Guardian’s John Crace, for example, had to invent a whole new malady, the Odysseus complex, to describe the way the Cameron keeps being blown of course.  The problem was not so much the tone of the speech, Cameron only has one tone, slightly exasperated verging on tetchy then suddenly emollient, but the content of which, surprisingly for one of his speeches, there was a worrying abundance.

The shocking headline is that if you are a criminal Cameron doesn’t hate you, in fact he rather likes you.  If you commit a crime, show remorse and agree to upskill, Cameron almost pledged to be waiting for you at the gates of the Scrubs with a job-offer, a shoulder to cry on and a lift into town in his limo.  Oh, and a satellite linked digital tracking device. More on that little beauty in a moment.
Okay maybe that is going a bit too far but when did you ever think you would hear a conservative Prime Minister admitting that prisons are not a “holiday camp”, an accusation over the years that says more about the dire state of the British leisure industry than the reality of our penal system. “They are often miserable, painful environments,” Cameron explained. “Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-Harm. Violence. Suicide. These aren’t happy places.”  You can’t blame him therefore for preferring a ‘staycation’ in a Cornish surf-resort than a week in Pontins, Southport, recently reviewed on TripAdvisor with the simple headline: "Awful! Violence Everyday". Oh, he was talking about prisons all along.  My mistake.  I am just not used to a Conservative politician telling the truth about the real state of our prison system. 


Right Policies Wrong Speech?

I almost feel like calling out “No fair!”  After all it is rather rum of him to suggest that prisons are as bad, if not worse, than Pontins, but downright queer of him to even care.  To develop Crace’s Odysseus complex a little, has there been a sea-change in contemporary Conservatism, or is Cameron just riding the wave of yet another half-thought-through whim? As we all know, he can be victim to the occasional attack of niceness, that’s why he keeps George Osbourne so close, to remind him that from time to time he is supposed to be an old Etonian bastard in power, not the call-me-Dave, nice-but-dim persona he uses during elections.

I have to face facts.  Based on what he said in the speech, David Cameron is as liberal as I am when it comes to penal reform.  He advocates a reduction in re-offending, he speaks of the need for proper rehabilitation and he criticises the dire circumstances of the modern prison.  What is more, he really seems to think many prisoners are banged-up due to poor attainment, low literacy, mental health issues and abusive childhoods.  You know, like the rest of us do?  It is almost as if he left in a hurry and picked up the wrong speech on the way out, the one sent to him by the beardy sociologist he met at the Cornish beach-café whose work he agreed to take a look at just to get rid of him and his sock-bulging sandals.  The one George Osbourne urged him to bin or better to burn.  The one actually written by Michael Gove who looks very different in a fake beard and who possesses a surprisingly convincing west-country burr when pushed.
I am not Michael Gove, honest!

Tough on crime, soft on the criminal and when it comes to the causes of crime, just kind of bleh!

Yet take another look at the speech and all is not what it seems.  True, on the surface it is a liberal agenda to ask for prisons to be places of reform not just punishment.  It is also liberal to accept the statistics around incarceration and ask if it is right to punish those whom life has already punished excessively.  Yet the whole project seems a lot less liberal when you pay attention to the language Cameron uses and the solutions he proposes.
I suppose some of you may applaud Dave’s idea that “we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.  To my ears however that sounds suspicious.  Are prisoners assets and is our role to harness their potential?  If you follow this logic through then in reality what he is proposing is using prisons as a means of addressing the social ills on the outside that have dogged our nation for hundreds of years by tackling them on the inside once the mentally ill or addictive personalities have committed their statistically probable crimes.  Perhaps I am getting the wrong end of the stick, but shouldn’t you prevent crime before it happens, not after?

You remember Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” of course, who could forget?  What Cameron is suggesting is tough on crime, soft on the criminal and when it comes to the causes of crime, just kind of bleh!  We all know that with recession-rabid Osborne on board the social causes of criminality, all of which depend on the public sector for their amelioration, are spiralling out of control.  Instead of tackling disadvantage and social alienation at the root, or even beefing up the various institutions that deal with social care, drug addiction and the like, Cameron is suggesting all that can be managed by getting the poor beggars into prison and fixing them there! Maybe DCam is a genius. innovating a new kind of one-stop shop for social care, instead of the traditional idea of the prison as punitive incarceration.

Jigsaws and Pants: Down with Rules!

For the sake of argument let’s say that prisons are no longer holiday camps with all the good and bad that implies, that their role is not strictly punishment, and that yes, they are a convenient way of sort of gathering up the disenfranchised and disadvantaged into one place so that their problems can be addressed, although sink estates are also good for this, then what will go on in these new centres of excellence for social reform? What will prisons look like in a caring Cameronised world?

Cameron said in his speech that he would be introducing a raft of new monitoring procedures into the prison system to replace the excess of rules that dominate prison life at the moment.  Is there really a rule that dictates the possession of jigsaws and pants as he claims, or is that one of those Boris Johnson ‘facts’ that the Telegraph and the Mail like to gurn over?  If there is, it gives us a chilling insight into the pastimes of your average recidivist: jigsaws and pants, it sounds less then edifying .
So out with rules.  That’s not what prison is about.  And in with regulation.  The remarkable thing about Cameron’s proposal is that it is now the prisons themselves that are on trial.  Following the ‘successes’ of managerial incentivising in other sectors, the new prison will resemble nothing so much as my kids’ local primary school or indeed the university where I work.  Prison wardens will be given autonomy in exchange for which they will succumb to accountability and transparency.  They might leap at the chance or more power initially, but anyone who has spent any time in cahoots with OffSted, or my own personal regulator the QAA, will probably prefer the company of hardened lags.

And the Award for Prison of the Year Goes to…

Possibly the most confounding element of the reforms is the introduction of league tables into the prison system.  From now on prisons will be ranked like universities.  I know, shine on Cameron you crazy diamond. Does this mean the discerning villain, no longer a criminal but a psychologically damaged client, will be able to choose which prison to be sent to based on KPIs and published league tables?  The next thing you know gangbangers will start moving to areas that are in the catchment of one of the better prisons, having a dramatic effect on the local house prices. Recognise this model those of you paying over the odds for a doddering three-bed semi simply because it is local to the one school where you are sure your kids won’t get stabbed?  Only in the case of prisons of course prices will go down rather than up.  Is this how Cameron is planning on fixing the housing bubble.  Like I said, DCam is a genius.

Naturally the definition of a good prison will not match that of the criminal mind.  We are not talking, I assume, about prisons with low walls, mixed showers and bars (booze bars silly, not those other kind).  All the same, the prospect of a prison being assessed for its quality of outcomes is so bizarre that I kind of like it.  After all, if in my profession I have to take into account quality, learning outcomes, best practice and so on, why shouldn’t all professions do the same?  I can imagine this rolling out across the sector, making significant impact in areas like prostitution and drug dealing where the question of quality, transparency and the like are particularly piquant.  I would love to see pimps filling out pro formas and crackheads cramming for professional qualifications.

The Soul is the Prison of the Body

It is on the issue of league tables that the real agenda of Cameron starts to take shape and if you are a liberal you can now begin to sigh that sigh of self-righteous lefty relief.  Taking as our ally Michel Foucault we can recall how in Discipline and Punish he notes that the shift in punitive measures from capital and corporal punishment, to prisons as locations of reform, may seem, initially, to be more humane.  Yet, in as much as from trial, through sentencing all the way to incarceration it is the life of the criminal that is considered not just the crime itself, seemingly liberal measures can turn out to be anything but. 

Take the issue of social care.  If a sentence is commuted due to diminished responsibility thanks to poor mental health as a result of abuse during childhood, that sounds humane.  But when an expert panel starts to gather data on your life, pass judgement on it, and control your future based on that judgement, you begin to enter that scary zone that Foucault calls Expert Knowledge Power.  Suddenly, the question is not, did you commit a crime and if so how should you pay, but now, how do you live, what is the state of your mind, what is your fault and what is beyond your control?  As Foucault says famously, the result of this kind caring punishment is that the body is no longer on trial, now it is the soul itself that concerns the justice system: “The soul is the prison of the body”.  The mantra of Knowledge Power is not how will I punish you but how will I fix you.

This seems to me downright wrong.  There needs to be, surely, some element of modern life that is not dictated to by quality, best practice and NVQs.  One last great frontier of freedom to say and do what you think.  I feel this keenly because I became an academic all those years ago because I was a free thinker.  Only to discover yesterday as I emerged from my fourth committee meeting that what I have become is a middle manager, an expert, a despised purveyor of knowledge power.  Can’t criminals be left to be the despised other of our society, free from improvement, from performance management, free from good conscience?  If the criminals succumb entirely to Knowledge Power then what hope is there of some future counter-cultural uprising?  We need the disaffected and the disaffected will commit crimes.  We will go from I predict a riot to I predict a reformed character.


Project HOPE is Watching You

If you don’t believe me harken thee some more to Cameron’s speech, particularly the section called, chillingly, Behaviour Change.  Following an American model of sentencing called HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) innovated by Judge Steven Alm, previously famous for the amount of wrongdoers he sent to their deaths, Cameron advocates a new kind of incarceration that Graeme Wood calls, in his powerful piece for The Atlantic,Prisons Without Walls.

In this new vision of punishment, currently being tested in various US states, prisoners will no longer be in prisons.  That is, after all, a terribly old-fashioned view, like the chestnut that the mentally ill should be in secure facilities.  No, following the HOPE model prisoners will be released into the community as soon as possible, tagged with satellite monitors called BI ExacuTrack AT and told to behave or else.  That is, after all, what the combination of Opportunity and Enforcement actually means.

These canny gadgets track your whereabouts in real time. Some can even detect physiological changes such as excess of alcohol or drugs in the system.  The tagged are also subject to random drug and probation conditions tests.  If they fail these tests they are automatically sentenced, without trial, and go straight back to jail for a couple of days before being released once more.  The same if they break curfew or stray into areas from which they are legally excluded.  Every time they break their parole, the ExacuTrack goes ping somewhere and the perp is flung back behind bars for a couple of days to think about what they have done. Sounds terrible doesn’t it, torturous even. 

Wood’s article highlights the psychological effect wearing the tag has, a kind of wearying, low level, good for you, psychological torture.  Yet the statistics for this program are impressive and in the world of Knowledge Power stats rule.  Prisoners tend to cease reoffending, even coming off class A drugs and booze, because, Wood argues, they finally have a conscience, a voice that tells them to resist their impulses. 

The owner of this voice? Big Brother of course. Operating these days under the alias Steven Alm.

A State of Perpetual Parole

What Cameron appears to sell us from his carpet bag is a panacea for the problem of repeat offending and the truly appalling conditions of our jails.  Prisoners are now seen as assets, prisons as autonomous rehabilitation academies.  More that this, when prisoners are released on warrant they can be tracked and assessed.  But really he is just touting snake oil. The perfection of the reversal is delectable.  Whilst in prison prisoners are not criminals but clients, succumbing to state-interventions, Entering Wormwood Scrubs from now on will be a bit like going into rehab.  When they are out of prison however that’s when they actually become prisoners: monitored, controlled and punished on a daily basis.  Each time they fail then they are sent back behind bars for a quick dressdown and intervention.  Their lives are no longer their own but belong to experts with their best interests at heart.  Ceasing to be people, they are reduced to controllable statistics, treatable problems.  Even Foucault lacked the paranoia to predict this.  In Cameron’s new reforms Knowledge Power does not just control you life before the crime, during the trial and later in prison.  It goes on to control your life after you have been punished, potentially for the rest of your existence.

David Cameron calls his new reforms “Finding diamonds in the rough and helping them shine”.  He is being overly modest. For me this is the first instalment in a completely new relationship to life and the state.  How long will it be before many of us willingly submit to a three month suspended detox followed by a digitally-tagged program of surveillance, inducements and small scale punishments? Initially the program might be based on straying from the straight and narrow, drinking a bit too much, staying out too late, that kind of thing. 

But how soon will it be before people start to freely succumb to the expert surveillance of their fat intake, their monthly spending, how much quality time they spend with their children? And how soon will it be before those two microfascists in the world, employers and parents, start to tag their charges as a matter of course?  We will have to junk the term nanny state as it is no longer capacious enough to encompass the implications of punitive surveillance potential.  Rather, we will be living in a permanent Panopticon, a perpetual state of parole.

David Cameron is right; prison is not a holiday camp.  At the end of a holiday you can go back home.  But if Cameron and his ilk have their way, our homes could be our dungeons; we could all end up living in one great digital Pontins.  Which for some of you may be fine.  But if you are that way inclined, if you already allow FitBit to rule you every waking hour and Facebook to record it, in other words if you are already subject to a kind of digital parole, let me just recall for you that wonderful review of Pontins: “Awful! Violence every day”.  For that is what it will be like if David Cameron and Steven Alm have their way, first for repeat offenders, but potentially, in years to come, for many more.

Watch the whole speech here: