Monthly Archives: July 2013

It’s Time We Banned This Violent and Voracious Religion

There is a religion out there. It’s one of the largest in the world, and it has a disgusting and violent history. And, quite frankly, I think Britain has had enough. And it’s about time we finally banned it. This is a religion which believes in taking over the world. It consumes cultures and will not stop until everyone is converted. It is so violent that so-called ‘warriors’ are sent to other nations ot punish people who do not live by their rules. It believes it has the right to police the morality of the globe.

This is a religion with so many fanatics, so many blind faithful that entire regions of the world have become hotbeds of sectarian violence for decades – violent troubles which have blighted neighboring nations, sometimes on only the smallest semantic differences between faiths.

This is a religion which lets the rape of young children go unpunished, a religion which has disgusting attitudes towards women in general, and a religion which tries to curb the rights of everyday people in the name of “modesty”. This is a religion with music that calls its “soldiers” to war, to fight and defend its relentless march into world domination.

The religion I am talking about is, of course, Christianity.

Okay, quick confession. I actually don’t think we need to be banning any religion. But I’m beginning to get really tired of the Muslim-bashing coming from some quarters of western society these days. Yes, Islam has some extrmely violent devotees but the people launching drone strike in Pakistan are Christian. Yes, there have been a couple of stories in the papers recently about “Muslim rape gangs”, but the vast majority of rape  is committed by someone of the same race as the victim. Which means the religion young British white girls should isn’t Islam, but Anglicanism. And I’m not even going to mention the Catholic pedophilia scandal.

Yes, the Middle East is currently experiencing serious sectarian violence but Britain has no right to comment on sectarian violence for as long as there are still riots in Northern Ireland. And while Islam does have tenets about spreading the faith, let’s not forget that evangelising is a fundamentally Christian concept and missions of old have completely destroyed indigenous cultures and religions in South America, the Pacific Isles and huge swathes of Asia.

This isn’t superior “hurrr, I’m an atheist, aren’t I clever” posturing: some of the worst proponents of this sort of Islamophobic rubbish are other atheists (Dawkins, Maher, I’m talking to you). Ultimately, these guys aren’t motivated by anti-religionist sentiment but by purebred racism. They are afraid of this “other” religion and somehow willing to maintain that it is somehow qualitatively more violent or hateful than their Western society. I’m getting really bored of it, quite frankly.

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The Collective Monopoly

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re treated by the corporations that are supposed to serve us. Back in the old days, the principal fear that we had about the power of corporations was that of Monopolies (with a capital M – I know, crazy, right?). The one thing we tried to avoid with all our might was the idea that a single corporation might control an entire market single-handedly and eliminate all possible competition.

This fear was, and is, well-founded. A corporation with a monopoly on a market has carte blanche to behave however it wishes. Imagine if all the bread in the world was under the control of a single manufacturer. They have the ability to charge whatever they want for the bread we buy. What would we do  if we didn’t like the price? We can’t choose to go elsewhere, and we can’t choose to ‘vote with our wallets’. We’re stuck with whatever price we’re told to pay, or cutting out bread from our diet altogether.

The Competition Commission (previously known as the Monopolies and Mergers commission) largely does a good job of preventing monopolies in modern Britain, and there are equivalent governmental departments all over the world. The odd problem gets through the cracks (Murdoch, anyone?), but by and large we manage to avoid monopolies these days.

The thing about a company behaving badly when it has a monopoly is this: in a twisted sense, it’s not really doing anything ‘wrong’ per se, if you assume a corporation’s role is to maximise shareholder returns. What we little people might decry as price-gouging or deliberate neglect of services, a corporation can point to rising turnover and lower costs. Which is why we prevent monopolies by statute – it is in the interests of individual corporations to seek a monopoly (or ‘maximise market share’ as they generally put it), but it is in the interests of the people to prevent it. This is one of those cases where we can’t just trust corporations to magically end up doing the right things for customers.

However, I believe there is a similar, and equally problematic issue in play today. I’ve termed it the Collective Monopoly. As a term, it’s not 100% accurate – it implies a conspiracy, I think, and I want to make it very clear that this is not a conspiract theory I’m putting forward here. But the phenomenon I’ll be discussing shares a lot of features in common with a monopoly and I certainly want to evoke the connotations of anti-consumer practice that the word monopoly has.

What is a collective monopoly? A collective monopoly is an group of competitive businesses in a single industry all behave identically in certain areas – removing consumer choice on those issues. I think this is best illustrated with an example. All four major banks, plus the two or three smaller ones and most building societies, will use your personal data for whatever ends they see fit. It is against the law for a bank to share your data with others without your consent, so all of the banks simply make consent for sharing of personal data a part of the terms and conditions on a current account.

Do you have a current account? Then you have given your bank permission to use your data for research, for market analysis or for any other use the bank can think of. If you don’t want your bank to be doing this, then you can always vote with your feet, withdraw your money and go to a different bank. But that other bank will be doing exactly the same thing. There is some truth to that refrain “they’re all the same.”

Of, banks are genuinely competitive with one another. It’s just that they aren’t competing on that particular behaviour. Consumers simply don’t have any real choice over whether they want their personal data shared or not. And since everybody has to have a bank account, all we can do is suck it up and select our bank based on some other factor.

I’m not suggesting that the banks are conspiring to share our personal data. But for each individual bank, it makes economic sense to do behave in this way. It’s easier to do risk/fraud analysis, it helps them market products to the ‘right’ people (that is, the people most likely to buy products, whether right for them or not). Essentially, it’s incredibly helpful in maximising revenue and minimising loss. But when each bank collectively makes the same decision on this behaviour, we lose our right to data privacy. There’s no point having a statutory right to data privacy if every product that is available requires us to waive it.

So that’s a collective monolpoly – a group of companies collectively displaying a behaviour which you might see when a single company has a monopoly. Particularly where such collective behaviour effectively removes customer choice.

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I’m going to write a series of blog posts on this subject. Any criticism, thoughts or feedback are totes welcome. If you have any consumer stories which you’d like to share with me, please do. Especially if you have a feeling switching company wouldn’t help because they’re “all the same”, I’d love to hear it. I plan to cover some obvious criticisms of this idea which I can think of, plus any criticisms which come from elsewhere.

Please get in touch with any feedback via Twitter (@timballantine) or in the comments.

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Call out for consumer stories

Hello, friendly people! I am planning a small series of blog posts exploring how certain bad corporate practices can become endemic within a given industry. To help me out, I might need some help from the hive mind.

If you experienced poor service in any of the following areas, then please let me know via email, it would be a great help to marshalling some ideas together. Let me know as well if you’re happy to me to follow up with more questions (also via email). I won’t be releasing any personal information on the posts themselves.

The areas I’ll be talking about:

  • Misselling of financial products by banks (although please only send stories for stuff other than PPI)
  • Rising costs of insurance under ‘automatic renewal’
  • Complaints resolution from telecommunications companies

Any stories, no matter how trivial or dull, detailed or short, shall leave me very grateful. You can email meat timballantine [at] googlemail [dot] com with CONSUMER in the subject line.

Cheers in advance, all you lovely, lovely people.

Tim

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The Problem with Videogames, and the Solution

I’m a huge videogames fan. I’ve been playing console games since I was 5, and I played PC games throughout my teens. When I used a PC I played games 3 years behind the curve, because we grew up poor, and I couldn’t afford the high-end PCs which would let me play the latest stuff. I’ve never been one of those high-spending wealthy twentysomethings who have all the latest stuff (y’know, games publishers’ target market)

But let make it clear: I’ve played many video games in my time, and I’ve played huge numbers of console games. I also watch films, read books, play sports, watch television, go to the theatre watch and perform comedy and occasionally twist my ankle in the street for no obvious reason.

I believe that video games are the next paradigm shift in entertainment. I still believe that even after the 49th Call of Duty game is awaiting release in a month or two. Just as the wireless shifted the way we consume performance art away from theatre, and the cinema from the wireless, and the TV from the cinema, I believe that videogames have the potential to completely re-engineer how we consume media.

This is not to say that videogames will kill television or the cinema or radio. After all, the fears that TV would kill off the cinema experience ended up being wrong. Instead, I think we’re looking at a new generation of media-consumption – one in which interactivity is central and where our interface with our media is active rather than passive.

The Problem with Videogames

The problem with videogames is this: we are not creating media. The word media means in the middle of, but what is a videogame in the middle of? A film is the telling of a story from the point of view of a director. The director may not have written the story, but he or she is the one telling it. A book is the same thing, but for an author. The best media that we consume is, at its heart, personal and individual. It’s why the best films can touch us all differently and why nobody likes the TV that feels like it has been designed by committee.

Every AAA or top-tier videogame I’ve played recently suffers from this problem. There may be a story, but who is telling it? What is the message? How should I feel when the credits finally roll? There are indie games that do this very well, and these are exceptions that prove the rule. With fewer people on staff it is easier to produce something with a unity of purpose.

But in the film industry, this sort of success happens at all tiers. Small independent films all the way up to big-budget summer blockbusters get the ingredients right, and across all genres. Granted, there are some flabby messes along the way, but my point is that there’s nothing about the budget of a film or the genre that determines whether a director gets this right. Instead it’s up to the skill of the auteur.

The Solution

When a film gets the cocktail of elements right to produce a classic, it is because every element, every individual part of the film is subsumed in service to the artistic vision. If a fight scene is not a part of the artistic vision of the director, it does not appear. If the fight scene is important, then not only does it appear, but every shot and every piece of choreography is in hock to the message.

Go away, right now, and watch the skyscraper fight scene from Skyfall (as long as you promise to come back). In it, a Bond trying to recover from a career-ending fall, is trying to prove his relevance in a world where technology is making him obselete. Watch the use of light, and shadow, and music to tell us as audience this. The film ends in rural Scotland for a reason – it is the culmination of a story about the interplay between the old and the new.

Skyfall is not perfect by any means. But it is as AAA as films can possibly get, and yet they still make the individual elements of production synchronise with one another. You might think that this is simple for videogames. After all, if you don’t need a story to make your message, you don’t need one (and how many films can say that?) You don’t need actors, you don’t need to think about lighting and you don’t need to think about about sound if you don’t want to.

Games producers need to be only using the elements that they need to to make their impact. If something appears in a game, it needs to be a part of that game’s artistic vision. And the best largeish-budget example of this I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Spec Ops: The Line. For those of you who haven’t played it, I’m not going to spoil it if I can help it. But this is a game you all need to play. It’s a third-person shooter with a vision: To show the reality of war and violence to an audience who are used to the cartoon hoo-rah patriotism of modern AAA gaming.

Spec Ops is an attempt to answer the idiocy of the Call of Duties and Battlefields of this world with a game that circles around the madness and cold, hard reality of extreme violence. It is at once compelling and sickening, and is as brutal an expose of the military complex as any film on the subject. More so, at times, because we the audience are not mere passive observers of violence – we are the perpetrators of horrifying atrocities.

One example of how every element of this videogame services this message lies in its loading screens (yes, its loading screens). The loading screens begin with the standard FPS tips. Use cover to avoid enemy fire!

As the madness sets in, however, they start to reflect the actions the characters are taking under your command:

“The US army does not condone killing unarmed civilians. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”

This game had to have loading screens. They had to be there. And therefore, as with any good art, those loading screens simply had to be a part of the Spec Ops message. This is the kind of thing we need to be seeing from the gaming industry. Games with higher values than mere time sinks or lowest common-denominator entertainment. Games whose primary selling point is how it will affect its audience rather than the new item-collecting mechanic. For games to truly become a creative media games makers need to behave creatively.

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