Tag Archives: technolotics

Opinion: London’s ‘amoral’ tech elite is driving inequality

Written for Wired Magazine and first published here.

London’s tech elite resides uncomfortably among some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK. Technology is inherently political, whether we are looking at privacy issues, convoluted tax arrangements or immigration exemptions, but many entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic seem to operate in an amoral space, where optimisation, investment and exit strategies trump humility, equality and — according to campaigner and journalist Kirsty Styles — even right and wrong

If you walk down any street in Shoreditch today, you’ll be met with the fashions and accents of people from many corners of the globe, most of whom have found their way here to make their fortune in East London’s very own Tech Klondike.

Tech City, as the area has come to be known, bills itself as the fastest growing tech cluster in Europe, with its heart in the once-derelict East End. More than 1,300 startups are working within the tech triangle, based around the Old Street ‘Silicon’ Roundabout, with the number of digital firms across London estimated to have grown from 50,000 in 2009 to 88,000 in 2012. Tech City’s residents now include some of the world’s most recognisable, and richest, brands — including Google, Microsoft, Barclays and Amazon.

Sure, like many of the 100,000 or so prospectors who trekked across North America to strike gold more than a century ago, not everyone who tries their luck here will come away with anything more than an (albeit trendy) shirt on their back and a few stories. But the temptation of high-tech fame, the hype around the potential rewards and the chance to just give it a go are all-too appealing for the young from recession-hit nations across the world.

Ask most people who’ve lived in East London for more than a hipster’s minute and you’ll get to understand just how much the area has changed in recent years. ‘Murder Mile’ in the Clapton area of Hackney, for example, has all but forgotten its grizzly past — save the live-tweeted disruption of a restaurant’s opening night last month by the presence of a young stabbing victim, which culminated in an anti-gentrification protest by locals.

But if you head just a few streets back in Hackney’s Shoreditch, beyond the edges of the film set of Capitalism: The Movie, you’ll come across some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK, with very high levels of child poverty and youth unemployment. In some wards those classed as NEET — not in education, employment or training — but no-doubt ad-saturated digital natives, is close to 40 per cent.

The tech sector, meanwhile, can be found almost weekly in the city’s Evening Standard newspaper shaking its fist at the dearth of talent. And there certainly seems to be a skills gap, with some 45 per cent of Tech City businesses saying that finding talent is their biggest challenge, according to GfK. Yes. The majority of Tech City businesses say they have vacancies they can’t fill, but unable or unwilling to look close to their new home, they often find the answer lies in relaxing visa rules and paying out eye-watering salaries without any guarantee of new hires sticking around.

In Hackney, just as in San Francisco, rents are soaring and life is getting trickier for ordinary people. One only needs to look over the Atlantic to our Silicon neighbours to understand the consequences of the creation of such divided communities. The influx of tech workers has obviously not gone unnoticed in East London but the majority of tech settlers are simply co-existing with the area’s established communities, living side-by-side with little knowledge of each other’s history or purpose. Who knew that Hackney as we know it was only created in 1965, hence the existence of the now-tech-hijacked Shoreditch Town Hall.


In a recent Radio 4 documentary, Justin Webb visited Silicon Valley to hear calls for large technology firms to be better regulated. Although the tech industry here was founded out of a desire to escape politics and get away from bureaucracy, with a rhetoric of increasing equality, that hasn’t materialised. He asked whether it’s time for society to take more of an informed interest in what tech people are doing and what they’re earning.

“It’s a vicious cycle in which the wealthy get much wealthier and because their political influence is growing they can essentially rig the rules of the game,” explained Robert Reich, formerly Bill Clinton’s labour secretary. “High tech CEOs are no different from other CEOs and not that much different from Wall Street except for the fact that high-technology is very popular… everybody loves these gadgets.” Whether investing in military robots, hoovering up rival services as quickly as they can be built or obliterating entire industries with their disruptive ways, there’s certainly a lot to look at.

Even California’s veteran state governor Jerry Brown, whose budgets have benefited from playing host to the world’s most successful tech cluster, believes tech people need to be reined in. “America and Europe together should be working against growing inequality — doing everything sensible to reverse it — because from 40 years ago when the top one percent in California took 12 percent of wealth, now the top one per cent is getting 21 or 22 percent. There is a pressure toward rewarding those at the top disproportionately and out of any kind of relation to their contribution. We are facing a global challenge here.” Far from operating outside of the elite, it appears tech has become the new establishment.

The most gauche among Silicon Valley’s big hitters are now calling for the state of California to be divided into six smaller ones. The call, led by third-generation VC Tim Draper, comes under the guise of ensuring freedom from far-flung bureaucrats in Sacramento, but the proposed change neatly separates the rich in the Valley from the poor outside, taking high-tech tax dollars with it. Questions too, albeit very tentatively, are starting to be asked about whether London could separate from the rest of the UK. It isn’t too great a leap to think that Tech City — which exists almost in a no man’s land spilling into four different boroughs — might make a play for its own extra-legislative status.


After the almost unbelievable Sopa win for internet activists in 2012, which was sadly followed by the death of one of its leading campaigners Aaron Swartz, it looked like the digital demos was finally awakening. The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

But some senior figures are now accepting the role they’ve played in creating an increasingly cartel-like and unequal system and are starting to discuss alternatives. Former senior intelligence official for the CIA Robert Steele recently launched The Open Source Manifesto for Everything, where he argues that we must reject: “concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favour of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth.

The very ubiquity of new web technologies, argues Channel 4’s culture and digital editor Paul Mason when analysing the OECD’s gloomy predictions for the world economy by 2060, means the status quo cannot continue. “Populations armed with smartphones, and an increased sense of their human rights, will not accept a future of high inequality and low growth,” he says. In a recent open memo to his “fellow zillionaires” entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said inequality must be addressed by those who have most benefited from it. “Or we could sit back, do nothing, enjoy our yachts. And wait for the pitchforks.”

As well as addressing issues of inequality, welcoming people from very different backgrounds into the tech community might actually offer companies the opportunity to explore truly innovative and life-changing ideas. Would FlatClub, a short-term leasing startup created in Tech City where travellers are verified based on having studied at an elite university, have so easily come into existence if more tech workers had skipped higher education? Could similar technology have instead been applied to transform the capital’s housing waiting list, which had some 344,294 people looking for permanent homes last year, had the development team had more experience of real precarity? Would Hackney have played host to some of the worst scenes of rioting back in 2011 if everyone in the borough felt they had an equal stake in its future?

Tech is inherently political, from privacy issues to wearables, to unconvincing tax arrangements and special immigration exemptions, but many entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic seem to operate in an amoral space, where optimisation, investment and exit strategies trump humility, equality and frankly, even, right and wrong.

Steele, Mason and Hanauer all agree that the public will no longer stand for global inequality — something that is now being perpetuated by our new tech elite. So the question needs to be asked of these amoral tech bastards: whose side will you be on when the revolution comes?

Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Talks Ethical Telcos

Jimmy WalesJimmy Wales is a man that hardly needs an introduction.

As co-founder – and self-titled ‘constitutional monarch’ – of Wikipedia, the fifth-largest website on the internet and by far the most visited not-for-profit, Wales is assured his place in history alongside the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg.

But, unlike many of his peers, Wales’ less commercial focus means he’s not a billionaire, although he does count former prime minister Tony Blair among his friends.

In January, Wales became the director of The People’s Operator, an MVNO that donates 10 per cent of each person’s bill directly to a charity of their choice, with a further 25 per cent of the company’s overall profit going to its charitable foundation. The business runs on EE’s network in the UK and although many are concerned about the future of the telco industry, Wales is very excited about his new role.

“People often pitch me things that are somehow worthy or noble in their objectives but don’t have a practical way to achieve them,” he told Mobile Marketing. “Others just pitch on things with safe business goals. I got excited because The People’s Operator seemed to be both – and it has the potential to raise a huge amount of money for good causes.”

Asked about the threat to telcos from the growth of OTT providers, for example, Wales simply said the MVNO model ‘looks good to me’. “It’s a long-standing, stable business model. Obviously it will always have internal quirks, like the fact that you’ve got to work with mobile operators, but it’s a great business. The telcos seem very interested and very excited to work with us – so far, so good.”

Global movement

The for-profit operation based in Tech City is online-only and keeps costs down by spending little on offices and marketing, enabling it to commit to making charitable donations. So where is it planning to find its customers? “We’re going to be a global business so we have to be in as many places as possible,” Wales said.

“Our concentration is online, viral marketing and word of mouth, which won’t really work if we happen not to be in country and someone wants to sign up. We want to give people as many opportunities to participate as possible. First off, the US is obviously a big target and then Europe generally.”

Wales explains that around 2m users donate to Wikipedia every year. But with around 540m visitors every month, that means just 0.03 per cent of those people put their hand in their pocket. So is he really convinced that customers will vote with their cash for a more ethical operator?

Tech for good

“The People’s Operator is part of a much broader trend. Customers are really interested in being involved with companies that care where their money is going. The basic pitch is: go with another operator who will spend a big chunk of money on TV ads and billboards – or go with us. In return, we want you to get the word out and get your friends signed up. Wikipedia had its most successful fundraiser ever this year,” he adds.

Wales’ wife used to work for Tony Blair, with the former PM a guest at his wedding, and the Labour Party is mentioned as a ‘good cause’ currently being supported by TPO’s Foundation. Does this mean TPO is a partisan operation? “There are already hundreds of charitable partners and causes that people can support. We’re not specifically tied to any particular view of the world,” he explained.

So is Wales determind to change the entire mobile industry, one that is fraught with everything from privacy breach allegations to objectionable hardware production practices. “We’re definitely going to do our best but as an MVNO we don’t have direct control over lots of things, like supply chains for phones. I’m very interested in some of the things going on right now – like people trying to put together ethical hardware – but realistically there’s not much we can do about that. It’s definitely something we will try and support.”

Self-organise online

Like his work with Wikipedia, which champions free access to online information, The People’s Operator project looks to be another business where technology and politics can meet. Does Wales see it that way? “This is certainly something we’re seeing – an increasing intersection of tech and politics – in lots of different ways that are both good and bad, and this will continue to be the case.

“One of main things that interests me is the ability of people to get together online and self-organise in ways that weren’t possible 50 to 60 years ago. In society, we’re just at the beginning of understanding what that really means.”

Although Wikipedia isn’t for-profit, the smartphone revolution is having a massive impact here. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the mobile portion of traffic. Wikipedia and mobile is a perfect match: you wonder about something – perhaps you’ve got a bet with a friend – and you look right there on the spot. Mobile is really good for Wikipedia in the long run.”

Written for Mobile Marketing and first published here: http://mobilemarketingmagazine.com/wikipedia-founder-jimmy-wales-talks-ethical-telcos/#BqyEqXDsqFxQrdQB.99

Technolotics Added to the Oxford English Dictionary

Just kidding language zealots, unlike twerking (see: Miley Cyrus), selfie (see: yourself, on Instagram, Snapchat) and omnishambles (see: the Coalition Government), technolotics wasn’t among 2013’s most popular new words and so hasn’t yet made it into the OED.

In fact, I’d like to think I made it up. A new portmanteau, created by the joining of the fields of technology and politics, because the phenomenon is visible just about everywhere:

// When Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden made the decision to leak information around US foreign policy and spying – does the whisteblower go to prison, while war criminals walk free?

// How both Google and Facebook are attempting to switch on the internet for the remaining 5bn – greater access to life-saving support networks, or just another 10bn ad-hungry eyeballs?

// Apple’s suicide-inducing supply chain – does our thirst for gadgets exceed our capacity to see human suffering?

// In local activism and political organising – are we Tweeting the revolution or breeding armchair activists?

// Used by regional governments – improving servicesincreasing transparency or just a better way for them to keep tabs?

//Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election campaign – a victory for the American Dream or an industry-standard advertising campaign?

All different. But all textbook technolotics.

There is big money in politics. And even bigger money in technology. The two together can put a 25-year-old solider behind bars, Twitterise a revolution and even help secure US election victory.

Although many see technology as a great liberator, Channel 4 reporter Sarah Smith said last week after an interview with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, that the internet is now the US’ greatest enemy. Machines were supposed to decrease our workload, but many believe they have enslaved us. Prince Charles warned of this as early as 2000 and who can say today that they don’t their smartphone more than their partner?

Technolotics – the merging of technology and politics – affects everything, from the news that’s available to read, to the things we can buy. Definition: Pretty much everything. So here’s hoping it might make the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014.

Until then, we must march through the Eurogeddon, enjoying our Mummy Porn while we still can.

You might need to Google those, but that only feeds the monster…


Photography by Greg White

Written for Let’s Be Brief and published here: http://www.letsbebrief.co.uk/technolotics/