Do we need to be wary of Facebook?

Facebook was founded on 4th February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates and has since proved to be one of the most successful enterprises in modern history. In January 2014, market estimates valued Facebook at over $130 billion while Zuckerberg’s net worth is estimated at $28.5 billion as of March 2014. What started out as a network for University students in the United States now has over 1 billion members of all ages worldwide. Facebook’s story is quite remarkable. The social media website has come to be a massive part of the modern lifestyle and in years to come we could well be referred to as “the Facebook generation.” Undoubtedly, the success and popularity of Facebook is extraordinary but whether it is a good thing is a different matter.

Before I begin, let me just make the point that Facebook isn’t the only successful social media website and there are many others. For instance, Twitter has also come to be extremely influential. Nevertheless, this piece mainly focuses on Facebook. Maybe it is a stretch to say that Facebook has changed the world but it has certainly made its mark. Facebook has created a global network whereby communication is easy and free. It has rekindled old friendships and makes the prospect of friendships drifting apart less likely. We all know how easy it is to lose contact with people, even people we like, but Facebook makes that less likely to happen. Facebook allows us to share our experiences with friends whether that be wedding photographs or your thoughts on today’s football fixtures, the choice is yours. Facebook has become a hub of social activity online. In a metaphorical sense, it has made the world a smaller place. Facebook is one of many websites where ideas and information are spread with ease and this is certainly a positive phenomenon; the Arab Spring is a prime example of how important the spread of information can be.

Despite the brilliance of Facebook as a social hub, there are several irritating aspects of the culture that has emerged around it. To take one example, my Facebook “news feed” seems constantly clogged up by pictures from the “Lad Bible” and it’s really annoying. This is a Facebook page I have never visited and never “liked” and yet, simply because friends of mine “like” the page, pictures from it are constantly appearing on my “news feed”. A more serious flaw in Facebook culture is how addictive it is. Every day we refer to Facebook at some point, so much so that it has become second nature to us. For example, when waiting for a train we often pass the time by scouring Facebook pages on our mobile phones and don’t even realise we’re doing it. When you stop to think about it, it’s really quite bizarre and future generations would be right to characterise this generation as one obsessed with social media. “Facebook stalking” is quite a common phrase used in modern terminology whereby people “stalk” other Facebook users and can gather a remarkably accurate view of their daily lives. When you think about it, Facebook presents a window into how we live and that really is a disturbing thought.

There are other elements of the Facebook culture that sit rather uncomfortably with some observers. Indeed, the concept of Facebook would not be completely alien to George Orwell’s world in 1984. The cyber-society that Facebook has created is unprecedented in human history and in many respects that is a good thing. However, when I first signed up to Facebook I was gripped by the feeling that I was sacrificing my privacy. Depending on how you see it, Facebook is intrusive and perhaps it is getting more intrusive. When I log on now, pictures of people I have never met or even seen before appear on my “news feed” because a friend of mine has commented on the photograph. In “groups” on Facebook not only can you see comments made by people but also who has “seen” such comments and the same is true of Facebook chat. Most of the time this simply passes me by but on reflection, the connotations of this are really quite unsettling. The Orwellian analogy now seems a bit closer to home. The thought of “Big Brother” scouring through the Facebook archives is an unpleasant one but one that doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realms of possibility. You might say that this view is a bit extreme. Indeed, we live in a modern democracy not a dictatorship. Facebook is only a website and certainly not run by a government. Nevertheless it is important to be wary of just how influential it has become and appreciate the importance of information in modern culture.

Why is Morrissey such a divisive figure?

To say that Steven Patrick Morrissey is a divisive figure is a colossal understatement. The “marmite analogy” is brandished around too regularly in my view but it is certainly appropriate with Morrissey. Morrissey has enjoyed a glittering career and notable success in the music industry, firstly with the Smiths and later with his solo work. He has been a solo artist for twenty-six years and spent five years (1982-1987) with the Smiths. In this time he has achieved eleven Top 10 albums plus a further nine with The Smiths. On the surface then, Morrissey is a legend of the music industry and one would expect to see him uttered in the same breath as legendary figures like David Bowie. Indeed he is by his fans, if anything Morrissey has his own pedestal and enjoys hero-worship worldwide that would be the envy of most of his peers. In 2006, Morrissey was voted the second greatest living British icon by viewers of the BBC losing out only to Sir David Attenborough. Evidently, Morrissey has had an immensely successful career, so why is he such a controversial figure?

Despite his success and undeniable popularity, to some Morrissey is a figure of ridicule. His critics accuse him of taking a “glass half-empty” approach to life. It is the same old story. Time and time again, you hear it said that “Morrissey is miserable” or that “The Smiths are depressing”. In my experience, statements such as these are made by the ignorant. It is people who have little or no familiarity with Morrissey’s music who brandish these criticisms.     It seems to be the pre-programmed response if ever his music is mentioned. It is such an easy condemnation and frankly, it is boring. For those people who have listened to The Smiths or, indeed, Morrissey’s solo work and decide that it is not for them, I cannot argue and would never intend to do so. On that basis, why are Smiths fans so often ridiculed?

To be fair to the critics, if you were to describe Morrissey’s style it sounds very odd and perhaps it is surprising to think just how successful he has become. This is particularly apparent if we were to draw the comparison with contemporary music. Skrillex has become a very successful musician in the 21st century with his brand of Dubstep and electro-house. I must confess that I am not even remotely a fan but that is not the point, if we are to take this blueprint and compare it to the political messages in Morrissey’s lyrics it is quite astonishing that Morrissey has achieved such a level of success. He must be doing something right! Perhaps it is the very fact that he is so unusual that has propelled him to such levels of success, fame and fortune and it is a natural and expected consequence for him to have ruffled a few feathers along the way.

Let us now return to the point that Morrissey, according to many critics, approaches life as if his glass were “half empty”. A song that is so often mentioned in relation to this point is “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. So many people make the point that this song is depressing. Again, I think that this view is often born out of ignorance but that is not the point. Whether or not “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is depressing is all in the eyes of the beholder. For me, the song is funny and it makes me laugh. To quote;

“I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now”

This lyric is brutally honest and a genuine reflection of what life is like for a young person. I think it is this brutal honesty that people can find unsettling and part of why Morrissey has become such a divisive figure. Now we get to the crux of it, critics accuse Morrissey and his fans alike of approaching life with a glass half-empty approach. I disagree, for me the typical Smiths fan is a glass half-full kind of person; one who appreciates that life isn’t perfect and chooses to make the best of it. Indeed, the ability to laugh at yourself is a remarkable quality. Unfortunately, I feel that this view will fall on deaf ears. The fundamental problem is this; if Morrissey’s glass is half-empty, then the typical Morrissey critic hasn’t even got to the bar yet.  

Sir Tim Berners-Lee changed the world but does something need to be done about the internet today?

On March 12th 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was a scientist working for CERN. He wrote a proposal for a more effective communication system that he called the “World Wide Web” and thus, the internet was born. Twenty five years on, just how significant was this breakthrough?

As somebody who has been lucky enough to have had access to the internet for as long as I can remember, it is difficult to imagine life without it. Wikipedia has become the go-to resource for just about everything that requires an answer. It is an online encyclopaedia that enables the user access to the extent of human knowledge at the push of a button. The ease with which we can now communicate online via email or social networking websites has become so engrained in our culture that we take for granted just how significant the internet is in our lives. So much so that it is hard to comprehend modern life without the internet, it is a pivotal part of our culture.

Berners-Lee changed the world on that day in 1989. Just think of the political reform that the internet must have instigated. One only has to read Orwell to realise how significant information can be to political oppression. Indeed, withholding or manipulating information is arguably the greatest tool of a tyrant. However, the internet has made this so much harder to do. Just look at modern day China; China has become an immensely powerful nation in the global economy. However, on the domestic front the government is scared of the influence of the internet. The Chinese have tried to censor “Google” in an attempt to quash the spread of western democratic ideology and information on the Tiananmen Square protests. The so called “Arab Spring” was a wave of revolutionary activity in the Arab world instigated, at least in part, by ideas circulating on the internet. In sum, the relentless spread of information and ease of communication brought about by the internet is the tyrant’s worst nightmare.

However, there are some worrying inconsistencies here. Berners-Lee himself recently expressed his concern and called for a Bill of Rights to protect internet users. The extent of the NSA’s surveillance programme revealed by Edward Snowden last year is staggering. Indeed, the thought of American officials “mining internet communications” of thousands of citizens is frightening and sounds fundamentally Orwellian with the NSA fulfilling the role of “Big Brother”. In addition, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been ostracised by the United States and the western world. He has been labelled a traitor and compared to a terrorist because he “leaked” some fairly uncomfortable truths regarding the US military. This inconsistency is worrying and makes you wonder just how “free” the internet is. On this point I’m inclined to agree with Berners-Lee. The internet is a brilliant resource and it has changed the world but it is by no means perfect.

Is there anything we can do to “fix” British politics?

British politics is a mess and the political system seems to be flawed in several respects. Britain has no codified Constitution and House of Lords reform is, in my view, long overdue. The fact that members of the House of Lords, Britain’s second chamber, are unelected is quite frankly staggering when we consider that it is 2014. However, to me it seems as if the political system in this country is so well embedded that we take the approach of leaving it be. It is almost as if we accept the imperfect nature of British politics and continue to work within this system because we have done so for so long. Yet, Westminster politicians wonder why the public has, on the whole, become so widely disillusioned. Isn’t it obvious? The current state of affairs is depressingly unsatisfactory.

I have become completely fed up of watching “Question Time” on the BBC. Every week it is the same old story, we see a panel of politicians facing up to questions from the audience. Yet, they never address any of the questions head on, at every opportunity they choose to have a swipe at their political opponents in a pathetic attempt to divert attention or blame over as many issues as possible. I get the impression watching “Question Time” that politicians dread appearing on the show and that the worst possible result of their appearance is being forced to say something honest. More, a successful appearance on “Question Time” is to somehow discredit a member of another party.

It is pathetic and it depresses me, nobody seems to want to achieve anything meaningful. The art of being a modern politician is the art of survival; re-election is everything. It is because of this that “Question Time” is approached in such an incredibly small minded way by modern politicians. Consider this; we pass a law that bans re-election of Members of Parliament, i.e. once elected, an MP serves one term (five years) and at the end of those five years, their time is up. This would take away the obsession with re-election and make the “Question Time” panel one made up of politicians saying what they actually think rather than constantly trying to get one over on each other. It would also make the position of being an MP immensely less partisan, the knowledge that you would no longer be an MP in five years would nullify the threat of losing party support. Maybe, just maybe, politicians would set out their stall to achieve something meaningful within their five year term and actually do this country some good.

What are we to make of the crisis in the Crimea?

Russian military action in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has created arguably the most serious diplomatic incident in years. There are several worrying historical comparisons that could be made here. Putin has argued the case that the Crimea is ethnically Russian in order to justify Russian actions; surely Adolf Hitler taking the Sudetenland in 1938 was under the exact same premise. The incident is certainly one to be watched very closely but what has struck me as one of the most interesting elements of this is the role of the United States.

When news first broke of Russian intervention in the Crimea, my reaction was one not of surprise but one of fear. How would the United States react? Would this escalate into a global conflict or mark a return to Cold War politics? I thought back to the Bush administration and what their policy might have been towards such an incident. These hypothetical scenarios made the implications of Russian aggression seem very bleak indeed. However, in light of these initial fears, US response to the incident has, in my view, been astonishingly calm. There is no doubt that Russian actions have not been welcomed with open arms by the White House. Indeed, there have been calls for economic sanctions and John Kerry is currently in Ukraine voicing US disapproval. Nevertheless, a question that really strikes me is whether Putin would have dared to do this ten years ago or would fears of an American reaction persuaded him against it?

It is my view that the period of American domination of global politics is in decline. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has stood alone as the world’s superpower and dominated global affairs. I am not saying that this is no longer the case; evidently the United States remains to be the most powerful nation in the world. What I am saying is that American diplomacy is significantly more cautious than it has been for some time, as if the State Department feels somewhat more like the Foreign Office; diplomacy with hands tied. I first got an impression of this with regard to the Syrian crisis last summer. The United States and the “West” very much advocated United Nations intervention in Syria but the Russians and the Chinese blocked such a move and were successful in doing so. One only has to look back to the Iraq War in 2003, where the United Nations was undoubtedly against intervention but the Bush administration declared war anyway. Perhaps we can put this down to simple politics, this difference may be down to Obama’s more anti-war tendencies as opposed to Bush’s overtly aggressive foreign policy but I think the difference is more significant than that. My point is this; the United States no longer feels like a nation that can simply do what it wants, its dominance is waning. Putin intervened in the Crimea, I think, with very little fear of a potential American backlash. Whether this was foolish remains to be seen but if that is the case then surely we are entering a new period of international diplomacy and the “international community” may not be quite so “American” in the future.