It is an often lamented truism that the UK no longer has manufacturing industry – people point at the closed steel plants of the north while recollecting a golden age of manufacturing where the UK built the wheels of industry around the world.

The statement that we no longer make things isn’t entirely true of course. Sure, we may not manufacture steel anymore, but instead we manufacture robots and jet engines.

The trend is a simple one – as technology advances and more sophisticated technologies touch more aspects of our lives, what jobs there are require an increasing degree of technical knowledge to perform.

Each worker is able to produce objects of higher economic value (robots vs steel girders), which means more money and more tax revenue, but as the economy becomes increasingly optimised towards high tech, the upshot is that, as a percentage of the economy, the number of low skilled jobs is decreasing.

The future looks pretty dire for the low skilled

Increased automation and technological advancements have always pushed sectors of the work force out of their jobs, from the mill machines of the 18th and 19th centuries to self service checkouts at the local superstores.

In the latter example, a single member of staff can now do the job of a row of checkout clerks, supported by maybe a trained engineer to fix faults in all the stores in a given region. Soon, maybe these too will become redundant (perhaps replaced by RFID scanners to scan your bags and bill your credit card automatically when leaving the store).

Being computer literate is already a requirement for virtually every job in the modern workplace, and in a few years time, not being able to code will be as big an impairment as not being able to read and write.

Bluntly, if you don’t have training in sophisticated and marketable high tech skills, you likely will be out of work soon and will also likely never have a job again.

A smart and socially responsible government would be ploughing every penny they can into education and welfare. Education to bring the technical competence of the population up to a level where they stand a chance of competing for the few ultra high skilled jobs the economy of the future has, and welfare to prevent the increasing number of those who are not skilled or lucky enough to have a job from becoming so desperate that they overthrow the government.

Managed decline

Educating a populous is of course expensive, requires long term thinking and is hard work. A more cynical short term thinking government may opt for a managed decline of a nation’s economy.

They may for example decide to cut back on education for the majority of the population and funnel what little money is left towards educating the elite classes. They may decide to cut back on welfare and make what little is left dependant on forced labour, which those in the desperate position to need welfare are not in a position to refuse.

This approach may even work in the short term if the media is managed correctly and the right spin is put on the situation, that is until the tide of human suffering rises high enough for the murmurs of discontent from the slave castes turn to cries of revolution. For those in power who think only as far as the next election cycle this would all be somebody else’s problem, and one likely to be watched with disinterest from a tropical tax haven.

Known problem

A couple of years ago I attended a conference which discussed various aspects of public sector and government, and education in particular. During this event I got taken aside by someone who apparently did something fairly high up in the department of education, probably because of my previous work on Elgg which has been linked – for better or worse – to the field of E-Learning.

During our rather meandering conversation on education and politics, he admitted that the education time bomb, as he called it, was a widely acknowledged problem, but that they had no solution whatsoever for it.

He went so far as to admit to me that given the lead time involved for any solution to have an effect it was almost certainly too late to do anything about it in any case.

His candour shocked me, and I asked what he suggested as a recommended course of action; “Leave.”, was his reply, “Before it gets really bad.”

Things look pretty bleak for the generations of wasted talent to come.

wikileaks

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few days, you will be aware that the whistle blowing website Wikileaks has recently published a massive collection of US government memos dating back to the 1960s.

Even the issuing of a D-Notice has failed to prevent the reporting of some of the contents of these memos here in the UK (welcome to the reality of the world in the 21st century guys), and I suspect the impact will be felt for years to come.

The leak was met with almost universal applause from the public, and almost universal condemnation from governments around the world. This startling disconnect and the reason’s why it marks a change in expectations that government has yet to fully grasp has probably been best explained in this article. News agencies in the most part (FOX not withstanding) have been treading a fine line; drooling over the scoop but at the same time giving a disparaging sniff of disapproval.

Suffice it to say, governments around the world have got used to the idea that surveillance goes only one way and that the public at large will happily accept that “Government Knows Best”.

Wikileaks is drawing a lot of attention. Once discounted as a bunch of trouble making nerds, it is now increasingly a thorn in the side of major governments – who are being forced to go through the full body scanner and are now having their unmentionables exposed for their citizens to pick over and pass judgement on.

Incoming chairman of the House homeland security committee Peter King recently described Wikileaks as a “Terrorist organisation” only reminiscent of how Joseph McCarthy once described the ACLU.

There is now a real danger that Wikileaks and its founders will get put on the various terrorist blacklists (or worse). This will essentially pull the rug out from under the organisation since it would mean severe penalties for anyone or any organisation who aided Wikileaks in any way – including activities such as processing payments or hosting their website.

The reason why Wikileaks will fail? Simple, its a single point of failure, and an increasingly prominent target.

The real tragedy is that the more successful it becomes and the more embarrassment it causes to those who seek power without accountability, the faster it will hasten its own demise. I predict that in a few months or years Wikileaks will be taken down in a blaze of ill thought out legislation that will cause untold damage to the rest of us.

The hole left behind is a vital one to fill, but it has to be filled by something distributed and open rather than one site run by one (albeit dedicated) set of individuals.

Wikileaks 2.0

In order to survive, the successor of Wikileaks must – I think – meet at least the following requirements (although this if off the top of my head, so its by no means a complete list):

  • Be distributed. The platform will be a collection of interconnected nodes rather than a single site (bonus points if a node is only aware of its “neighbours” rather than the entire network.
  • Be open. The specification of what a node should do and how it communicates should be an open and peer reviewed document. This will mean that multiple interoperable implementations can be built.
  • Be self repairing. New nodes can be added and will announce. While every document in the system need not exist on every node, the system will ensure that there is never less than X copies in the system.

What we’re talking about here really is a somewhat customised form of CDN and the technology already exists to do all of this.

The Wikileaks of the future then would be one of many websites which sit with their toes in the same pool of data.

Discuss.

2011 Census

On the 27th of March next year all UK households will be compelled by law to fill in a Census.

I admit that I get more worked up about this sort of thing more than most people. The arrogant presumption that we are somehow state property, the compulsion to complete it & the sheer impertinence of the questions being asked are all things that stick in my craw.

With all else that’s going on – ID cards, mass surveillance, not to mention badly written laws made to put minority interests ahead of the citizenry – it seems that the census hasn’t yet appeared on the radar of most civil liberty campaigners.

However, as with previous years the number of questions has increased (34 in 1991, 41 in 2001). This year, there will be 56 questions prying into every aspect of your life.

Ostensibly a census is about resource allocation, but if that was the case the only question the government can legitimately ask is “How many people live in your house?“.

Gender is irrelevant as this is more or less going to be an even split. Birth rate isn’t going to suddenly shoot up so there’s also need to ask about the number of children.

I’d argue that even this one question isn’t really required as any areas which have resource problems can be identified more readily (and I’d argue more accurately) by deriving the information from other sources – class sizes, waiting times at hospital etc.

Some of the questions being asked

Further details of the census can be found here.

Many of the questions being asked certainly do not have anything to do with resource allocation.

For the first time you will be compelled to disclose any other passports you may have. Also, if you’ve previously lived out of the country you will also have to say when you came into the country and for how long you intend to stay.

You will also be compelled to give the names and addresses of any guests you have staying over on the evening of the census, as well as their sex and date of birth – which has led some to call this the “Snooper’s census“.

Compulsion

You are required by law to answer these questions, and if you choose not to answer these questions – questions which in my opinion the government has no business asking – you will have committed a criminal offence and receive a stiff penalty.

Worse still, the contract for processing the data has been handed to the arms manufacturer and surveillance company Lockheed Martin, which has already raised some eyebrows.