The left desperately needs a better response to a world with a diminishing amount of work

I’m sorry to put you through another Trump-reaction think-piece, truly, but I think this is important and within the masses of pieces I’ve read I haven’t seen this addressed much.

The nature and amount of work in the world is changing at an unparalleled pace, and not in favour of workers. Automation threatens the lifestyles of everyone, whether you’re the person being automated or the one who has to interact with the new automated agents. It is not a matter of asking how it will change things, it is already changing things now and rapidly. One need only look at US manufacturing output vs jobs in manufacturing to see the impact: The US produces more than it ever has with fewer people, this is the same in most advanced economies.

So what happens to those unneeded people? Well, they go from having good, secure jobs that they took ownership of and poured themselves into to insecure, lowly paid jobs. Jobs where they’re often the public face of their organisation, publicly marked as the lowest paid person there - because everyone knows the people in those jobs are the lowest paid people in society.

Then along comes someone who promises to make things better. Someone who verbalises their insecurities, who offers them a point of blame. Somewhere to focus all their anger and anxiety, along with a promise that he’ll take care of them and make things as they were - just as soon as he’s fixed that other issue that’s keeping them down.

That person gets elected and everyone in my liberal bubble goes into a shocked tail-spin.

We need to stop navel-gazing and form a positive policy response to automation. It will be impossible to keep people interested in big, important issues such as gender equality and the climate while they still have no idea how long their work will last. They may care about those issues, but they care about good jobs and their livelihoods more.

This policy response needs to have empathy too. Neoliberalism’s cost/benefit nitpicking needs to be dispensed with in favour of generous universal assistance that everyone in society can benefit from. In this vein, a UBI might be the right response, but the way it is pitched now is patronising and insulting to the people who it is meant to help. Too often when I hear people talk about the UBI it is always as a technocratic response to the loss of income caused by unemployment. I think this is patronising in the extreme, even if those pitching the UBI mean well. To me, it is the result of people who live in a bubble trying to solve a problem so they can get back to their good lives. It will be electoral suicide as long as it is like this.

This is not to demonise the UBI as a policy, but to say that whatever policy mix ends up looking like the right one, it needs to be humanised. The UBI essentially says to people who have done what society have expected of them, who have derived their meaning from their work, that when there’s no more work they should just run along, they’ve got their money, what more do they want? This was the wrong response before Trump and Brexit and is boneheaded now.

People aren’t stupid. If one side is saying things like “your anxieties and insecurities are the fault of Syrian Refugees/Mexicans”, and the other is saying “You’re wrong, take your hangout” who do you expect them to vote for?

This is a crisis for the left, truly. I don’t know what the exact policy response is here, but it needs to be developed with empathy for the people it is designed to help, and then pitched to them in the same language. Hell, it needs to be actually developed with the people we’re trying to help. Then, it needs to be presented as a response to their actual problems, not in cold technocratic terms, but in real language that says “We understand the world is changing and here’s how we want to make sure you don’t get left behind”.

This sort of thing isn’t totally absent in the world of the Left today, but we need a hell of a lot more of it, otherwise we’re in for an inevitable spread of fascism across the west as displaced working people look for help in their situations and take the only offer they find.

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Cranes

The cranes mark the sky, their spindly presence both interrupting the otherwise clear vista and signalling the permanent interruptions which they conjure forth.

It takes a long time to plan the use of a crane, so these were certainly ordered and planned before the 24th of June, 2016 - the day which marks a turning point in a (once) great nation. The excuse that racists and xenophobes up and down this strange island (and across the western world, it seems) had been waiting for to unleash all those thoughts and feelings they used to keep to themselves, but could never quite understand why.

They just want their country back, they say. They just want to make sure that everyone is looked out for. They just want to make sure that this tidal wave of change and progress doesn't fuck them over — on this at least they have some sympathy. They just want to do this in the name of everyone, for our own good.  They have always thought these thoughts, even as society cruelly prevented them from articulating them.

Then they found their champion. A woman (if she must be) who wasn't like the others. Who spoke to them. Who said and endorsed things that sounded at least a little bit like all those thoughts they've been thinking but not allowed to say — but never the exact same, always tempered somewhat. A vicar’s daughter sent from heaven to rescue them from the oppressive rule of the people who live in the places they holiday — whose cooking they enjoy, but who they actually find a bit strange.

This woman admired them. She said so openly in stilted, jaunty prose, as she addressed the nation. But they know she's speaking to them. That she's there to take the country back, for them. To hold back the tide of global progress, while ushering in a new era of their global influence. They know this is not contradictory, for they have righteousness on their side and they know that, in the long run, it is the righteous who will triumph. Their idea of their national history determines this.

Other peoples’ idea of history is different. Incompatible. Inferior. They are weak, deferential. They need to be shown their place, violently if needs must, then they will understand truly how good recent events will be. The country has spoken, they say - though whether anyone was listening all that closely is unclear.

And so both sides find themselves (lost). And both sides realise their differences. And both sides define themselves thusly. And both sides argue. And one side will win. And we'll all lose. And the cranes will disappear.

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Facebook is the message

I just found an old email I received from a friend in 2009. It was easily 2000 words, he was telling me about his time in Buenos Aires. My response was at least 700 words, I was explaining to him about our lives back home, and the recent passing of my godfather. He replied, with nuance, understanding, and another 1000-odd words.

Reading it all now, in 2015, it’s hard to not feel a sense of loss — and not just for the passed loved ones. There’s a feeling that one is looking at a behavioural relic. A mode of communication that people have given up on today, as social media has redefined what it means to stay ‘connected’.

It’s amazing the amount of detail that is contained in our discourse. It is a stark reminder of the influence of a medium: that a letter allows so much reflection and contemplation; actual depth. A letter encourages explanation, structure, storytelling. In 2015, it feels like the only time we encounter such things are in professional media and vapid think-pieces (much like this one…). I can’t remember the last time I had an account from a friend in such detail.

On social media everything is instant, reactive, shallow. We observe everyone’s lives, but without connection. Everything is mere entertainment - an intentional, never-ending list of dopamine hits, designed to keep us looking. This is the raison d'être for the companies that are the custodians of these platforms.

Despite Facebook’s glossy advertising campaigns, these companies have no duty-of-care when it comes to the maintenance or the meaningfulness of our relationships. This much is blatantly obvious when they give advertising equal weight to the posts made by friends - with the exact, intended consequence of both commercial and non-commercial postings reflecting each other in style and tone.

When this is combined with aggressive limiting and algorithmic filtering of the content you see, the platform begins to feel more like a strange, voluntary, prison, rather than the friendly, global meeting place its expensive advertising agencies would like to portray it as.

I remember when all this was new. I was at university at the time, with a particular focus on 'internet studies'. We were all so excited about the new global connectedness, marvelling at our ability to stay in touch with our new-found friends, even when we weren’t all in the same locations. It was exhilarating.

The thrill was soon gone though. It eroded slowly as the platforms (particularly Facebook) rolled out their epic bait and switch. What once seemed intimate has now become impersonal. Where before people shared holiday albums, now we share snippets, 3 pictures at most, captured to get the most likes, rather than to meaningfully share our experience with our friends - not that they'll even see the images.

I know all the business reasons that things ended up like this, but I can’t help but feel that it didn’t have to. We all have choices, and, hopefully, much to the chagrin of idealistic, 2005 Mark Zuckerberg, 2010 onwards Mark Zuckerberg made his in favour of commerce instead of people.

I understand the pressure he would be under, but he has always been in the rare position of chairing the board while being CEO. He could have made a different choice about the role of advertising and popularity algorithms on his platform. Looking back at those old emails just shows me how stark the impact of the decisions made by him and his team have been. To me, it emphasises the responsibility that people like us (founders, developers, designers) have to consider the wider impacts of our product decisions on our users' lives.

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Visual Basics

So here we are: four flag designs and a collective, palpable, rising fear of any of them actually becoming our national flag.

Were I still in New Zealand, I would have been more involved on twitter and such, sniping from the sidelines, safely in the echo chamber. I live in London now, however, the exact worst time zone for engaging with NZ in real-time. Given this, resigned bemusement and the occasional cynical facebook post have had to make do, particularly informed by Elle Hunt's brilliant, damning-with-faint-praise coverage from The Guardian’s Sydney office.

Seeing the coverage spread across various, respected international media outlets has been disturbing — whether from John Oliver, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, or any of the other numerous, internationally influential people who have sought to weigh in with bemused mocking at our lame attempt at self-discovery. It’s easy for these people, though, we’re mostly just a curiosity to them. Seen from a distance as a citizen the sheer, reeking, terribleness of the exercise is much more painful.

As such, I feel it is appropriate to classify this whole exercise. Something like “Most Basic as Fuck Thing Done By A Nation State” seems fitting.

John Key, his Government, the flag selection panel and everyone who seriously believes that one of these 4, final designs is a suitable moniker for a proud, independent nation have conclusively demonstrated that New Zealand is proudly aspiring to a level of basicness heretofore thought impossible. We’re talking aspirational, purely concentrated levels of basicness that not even a Block contestants reunion party could hope to achieve.

In what world do these vacuous beings such as our Prime Minister exist where the flag selection panel made sense? This is meant to be his legacy, to define his time as New Zealand’s most important man. He has entrusted it to a few ex-athletes and business people. He has either completely ignored New Zealand’s cultural and artistic legacy, or purposefully demonstrated his government's profound ignorance of it.

We need to fight this creeping tide of basicness. We must say no to the people who are trying to claim that we are all unified by a symbol as bland and nondescript as a white fern on a black background. Other countries have ferns too, FFS.

If we had embraced the rich catalog of material that is right at our fingertips this could have been wonderful. We have a proud artistic history, and in ignoring it the government and their flag panel have pissed all over it. Told all those people, both those who have created it and those who hold it dear, that they don’t matter.

This whole process has turned us into an international laughing stock. If our fellow countrymen vote for one of these flags in the final binding referendum then we will deservedly have earned and confirmed our reputation as a tasteless, basic little nation at the bottom of the world.

Because of the above, I’m now in the position of passionately advocating for people to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to vote to preserve our crusty, colonial relic.

The basics have ruined our opportunity to come up with a great symbol for ourselves as a smart, interesting nation. Fuck them.

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The beginning of the end

I just my dropped my good friend Felix at the airport, delivereing him to his flight to London. As we were driving out we stopped off at a bank for him to buy some pounds. While I was waiting in the car bFM were playing Bat For Lashes’ beautiful, nostalgic and melancholic song Laura. The version they were playing was from last year’s Laneway Festival and listening to that recording just made all those happy memories come flooding back, carrying with them the stark realisation that our time in Auckland is entering it’s recapitulation.

Close friends will probably read on incredulous that it’s possible for me to feel any sort of emotional attachment to a city which I so openly ridicule and mock. I admit this took me by surprise too, but as much as Auckland is frustrating, the last few years have been fantastic.

When we arrived here we were both on the unemployment benefit. We didn’t really know many people but those we did know proved to be a gateway into a whole cool scene which we immersed ourselves in. We were carefree, work-free and still with savings. These savings rapidly evaporated, but thankfully Alex got a job. I followed, eventually - I’ll be forever greatful to the help I received from the New Zealand Government, it’s just a pity the National Party are doing everything they can to ensure that others can’t receive the same.

Looking back, I’ve acheived a lot more in these 4 short years than I ever thought possible, most surprising of all finding a way to earn money. In a lot of ways the money thing, while being perhaps the most traditionally important factor, doesn’t really impress me or concern me that much. Most important to me is that I feel more sure of myself than I have in a long time. It’s probably a generational thing, but I’m finally working out what I want to do and where I went to spend my time. I’ve got some good projects going at the moment, and I think I’m beginning to understand how I want to divide my time between them, though I must admit, I’m still not fully decided yet - nor do I think I’ll ever be.

One of those is my own music. Just creating this Facebook Page for myself as a musician was terrifying. I haven’t even put anything up there yet. Through a variety of things I’ve done here in Auckland, I finally have the confidence to realease some of my own musical work. I didn’t have that before. Not even close. Sure it’s still terrifying, but I’m going to do it. I’m not sure why I feel more confident doing this now. I do think my songwriting is better than it has ever been, so that could be it, but really, something has changed in me, and the thought of people listening to some of my most vulnerable thoughts no longer terrifies me. If I’m honest, it excites me.

I can’t not mention the work I’ve done in tech. I have a good consulting career now, and have been involved in a few startups as well as running a startup community. I’ve probably done too much. Rowan Simpson would argue that I wasn’t focusing on my startup enough and that’s why I haven’t succeeded. I don’t think he’d be wrong. But I don’t necessarily regeret the work I’ve done keeping The Distiller alive either.

Behind all of this has been Auckland. It truly is a funny place. Massively multicultural, amazing food, infuriating local politics, beautiful city suburbs, depressing sprawl, shitty bars (except ~4), amazing nature stuff (I particularly loved the surfing and mountain biking), annoying public transport, expensive and in the end, long-term unobtainable. It is a city of contradictions. And villages.

I never knew that a city of 1.5 million people can feel claustrophobic, but Auckland manages it. The people who inhabit the cultures and subcultures of the CBD (myself included) are so cut off from the rest of the city that it may as well not exist. I’m even happily in a long-term realationship and I find this annoying, my single friends say it’s awful. Auckland is a city that’s always nearly ‘there’, then the thing that was going to help it gets taken away from it, and they get lumped with some shitty alternative instead (see: commuter rail, stadia). Despite this it’s actually quite a nice place to live.

Alex and I have lived in one of the city’s central suburbs, 3 km from my office with a backyard with fruit trees, a gourmet supermarket around the corner, and some cool bars too. We are 10 min walk to a major shopping and entertainment strip, 30 min walk to the office and there are a number of beautiful parks close by. What Auckland lacks in civic ambition and density, it makes up for in sprawl and comfort. If you have the money it is an incredibly easy city to live in.

Auckland tends to be split between those born and raised here and those who moved - in my experience at least. I’m one who moved here, most of my friends are as well. Most of us came for one/some of the following reasons: it’s warm, our friends were here, it’s the biggest city in NZ, we didn’t want to move to Sydney or Melbourne, a job was here, we didn’t want to deal with accruing interest on our student loans. Very few of us came for Auckland.

This bestows Auckland with an interesting role in New Zealand (for non-Aucklanders): it is our dress rehearsal. We come here to experience living in a ‘big’ city, to get a bit of the hustle and bustle, but mostly as a conditioning exercise before we jump to somewhere ‘better’. It’s been a constant thread the last few years, meeting someone great, only to go to their leaving party in a few months. It’s just the nature of Auckland for a lot of us. We don’t necessarily love it, but we do enjoy living here sometimes.

I think this is where I am. I’m leaving soon, in January. Heading to London because American immigration law is just too damn hard. I want to live where the world happens, not where it filters to. But this time I want to be ready when I go. When I came to Auckland I was actually on the back of starting up my personal music too, only I never really liked the songs I was writing and never released the EP I recorded with my ever-patient father. I’m not making that same mistake this time, I’m sick of watching my friends play great shows and not being able to do the same.

So that’s it for the next few months. I’m going to get my musical side ready, to hit London with at least some proof, even if momentum is lacking. I’m also going to try and enjoy as much of Auckland’s summer as I can before we have to leave our flat. There’s nothing in the world quite like going for a swim after work at Herne Bay Beach, or knocking off work early to go and surf at Muriwai. I’m going to miss that stuff a lot. But that took a few million years to form, I’m sure it’ll be waiting when I get back. Now it’s time to go, to prioritise and look ahead, even if where we’re going is so predictable as to be cliché in New Zealand now.

Here’s to summer.

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Won’t somebody think of the branding?

I’d sworn to myself that I wouldn’t blog about politics. I’m an avid political train-spotter, declared social-democrat and I spend far too much time on twitter talking about politics, but I wasn’t going to write about it. There’s already so many political blogs that I can’t contribute anything new there.

I do know a thing or two about branding though, both from an academic perspective and from real world experience. I’m not some fancy ad exec, but I’ve spent a few years leading product and biz development efforts, and I believe that having a strong, relateable identity is key to a successful product launch.

In the brand identity stakes (and most others…) Labour just got owned. There’s no denying that Vote Positive didn’t work. I’ll admit that I voted for them, but mostly because David Cunliffe smiles and says hi when I see him on Herne Bay beach - and because the Greens annoyed me with their smug ‘Love NZ’ campaign.

There are loads of people, including Labour’s own MP David Shearer, arguing that the solution to Labour’s electoral woes is to move to the centre, thereby capturing swing voters by offering them Labour-flavoured National. This doesn’t make sense and feels pointlessly reactionary. Moving to the centre feels like a strategy born out of anger and bitterness, rather than any kind of rational response to re-building Labour’s vote (this is articulated better by Morgan Godfrey here).

People get behind things they can believe in, and they can believe in the National party because they didn’t have to work very hard to get there. National’s whole brand this election was centred around keeping things stable, and the electorate bought it. National barely discussed any policy, but that was because they didn’t need to. They used slick advertisements and simple metaphors to sell one of the most bland and boring political brands I’ve ever seen in my short time voting (4 elections now). That they got away with it shows just how terrible all of their competitors were at convincing the public to believe in their brands.

Labour may or may not need to move to the centre, that is a political positioning discussion that is for people with more experience than I to hash out. That’s only part of it though. What Labour REALLY need to do is to look at the competitive landscape and go where there’s a gap. I can assure them that bland, boring stability is occupied.

Now, I don’t talk about this to try and minimise the fact that Labour need to sort their shit interally. They’re currently a joke and MPs like David Shearer and Phil Goff going on Morning Report and publicly dissecting their loss doesn’t inspire confidence. Danyl Mclauchlan put it succintly with his ‘Mclauchlan’s Hierarchy of Political Needs’. Labour desperately need to stop being incompetent, but that’s a given so I won’t dwell there.

Assuming they do get their house in order, they then need to find their own space and own it. They cannot own what National already does, so they need to go somewhere else. I personally think this is a good thing. Who really lusts after Dell? We all want Apple (or some of us Samsung I guess), but we only place our trust and dollars there because we believe that they can deliver on it. Once Labour get to that point of competence they need to establish an aspirational brand that New Zealanders can get behind (which New Zealanders is up to the party).

National have actually done them a favour in choosing the easy, stable path: they’ve left open a massive flank. National could’ve gone with a more visionary brand, but they didn’t. They probably still would’ve won, but they also would’ve had more of a story to tell for the future. That they didn’t even bother shows just how strong their internal polling showed their support was. This is a massive opportunity for Labour, but it’s risky because its effectiveness is all in the execution.

They’re going to need coherent messaging from their entire caucus, which seems like an impossible task at present; a strong , likeable leader who people believe when they tell them the message; good, accurate data that allows them to work out the difference between people coming round to the message slowly and outright rejecting it. They’re going to need to set this all up in 6 months.

I honestly don’t know if they can do it, but I hope they can. New Zealand needs a strong centre-left block and they need their politicans to actually articulate their visions for the country. That National currently don’t have to is terrible for New Zealand, but it’s an opportunity for the Labour party. They should seize it, hopefully without fucking it up.

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