Tuesday, 23 July 2013

When virtual means 'not terribly good'

I sometimes feel I am the little boy in the Emperor's New Clothes.  I am  probably flattering myself outrageously in this, but a wave of Emperor's-New-Clothes overwhelmed me as I listened to the report on internet pornography yesterday.

The Prime Minister, who is clearly keen to have some kind of bust-up with the internet search engines - and I have no problem with that - has agreed with them that there should be a moment of decision in every household whether internet filter controls should be set on or off.

I agree with him.  My children are encouraged to search the internet for their school projects, and it is all too easy for them to stumble on, or dare each other to find, stuff I would prefer them not to see.  But why the assumption?  Whoever said that the internet filters work?

When this first bothered me, I spent a great deal of time trying to turn on the internet filters provided by my provider (AOL).

AOL is admittedly the most useless organisation it has been by misfortune to get myself involved with, so this may not be typical.  But I did finally work out how to turn on the filters.

I did a few experiments with it just to make sure they worked, and found they allowed me to view pretty much anything - but for some reason they drew the line at Google and blocked it.  I gave up but then found I couldn't change the settings back.  It was a frustrating business, but that is AOL for you.

But I wondered afterwards whether this was the basic problem about so much political debate: all the assumptions are that the measures, the institutions and the solutions they are arguing about actually work - whereas anyone who spends much time on the frontline knows perfectly well that they don't.

The internet filters are a case in point.  I don't know if they work or not, but my own experience suggests it is a complete fantasy - a version of the other meaning of the word 'virtual', which is not quite.

Mainstream public services work because of the commitment of the frontline staff, in schools and health centres, demonstrated every day - and often they have to resist or occasionally flout the procedures to make things work at all.  But the institutions designed to help people are often entirely dysfunctional: the job centres which can't help because of the screeds of procedures, the housing repairs services based on the approved disconnect between back and front offices - so many of them rendered virtual by targets and payment-by-results contracts.

What really makes things work is human beings, committed, brilliant and able to make transformative relationships.  Yet the political argument is so often about institutions or regulations that, to anyone outside Westminster, quite obviously serve themselves.  More on this, and some solutions, in my book The Human Element.

So much of modern life is taken up by this disconnect, the rhetorical gap between appearance and reality.  Both internet providers quoted on the BBC used the same vacuous phrase to describe their attitude to child pornography - 'zero tolerance'.  Yet despite this zero tolerance, the internet is clearly awash with it.

By coincidence, the next item on the news was the criticism by the government of ATOS, their disability evaluators, because as many as a third of their assessments have been overturned on appeal.  ATOS said that they were sorry "when we do not meet our own high standards".

Why do we put up with this kind of demolition of the language by cliche?   High standards and zero tolerance?  I'm tempted to exclaim - do we look like idiots?  But I fear we probably do - years of listening to this corrosion of language has undermined our ability to see clearly.  At the same time, years of reducing services and institutions to numbers have rendered them virtual, in other words: not terribly good.

Next time we argue about the cost of public services, can we discuss what works and what doesn't?  Because that discussion comes before the argument about costs, or it should do.

2 comments:

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