Facebook and Free Speech: Reinforcing the Echo Chamber

In this Motherboard article, Vice yesterday highlighted some of the internal changes to Facebook’s policy on acceptable speech after the events of Charlottesville last year.

Facebook Free Speech Policy
Image via Motherboard. Included under the fair use doctrine.

Specifically, it was noted that Facebook distinguish between statements supporting a white nationalist ideology, and white supremacy, with the latter in particular considered to be associated with racism – something prohibited on the platform. In response, there have been arguments that this distinction is meaningless, and that Facebook is effectively allowing Nazis to operate on their network as a result.

Facebook infamously ‘curates’ what its users see through the use of algorithms, and they have faced ongoing criticisms that ‘echo chambers’ are created as a direct result. This was particularly true in light of both Donald Trump’s Presidential election victory, and the outcome of the EU membership referendum in the UK. On a personal note, it was something that first became obvious after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

With this in mind, the question becomes what people actually want or expect Facebook to be. On one hand, the possibility of anybody sharing far right or extremist ideologies is seen as abhorrent and unacceptable, but on the other, the cultivation of echo chambers that distort political and social reality is decried as irresponsible.

Unfortunately, you can’t break through an online bubble by only allowing that which you find inoffensive to be shared.

The obvious response here is that there is a difference between healthy debate and sharing views which are hateful. However, this is something of a liberal utopian ideal which doesn’t actually play out in practice. Argument is messy. Debate isn’t always healthy. People don’t always play fairly. All of this is self-evident and will remain true whenever those with opposing positions come into conflict. Arguably, those beliefs that are considered most heinous are precisely those which need to be heard, challenged, and resisted, and in the same vein, the areas online which foster these biases without question need to be opened up to opposition.

If all we want is Facebook to be a safe space to share pictures of our dogs and holiday photos, then that is one thing. However, that is never going to be the reality, irrespective of what some may claim. Whenever people have space to express themselves, they will share their views on how the world should be. If we want to avoid all of the problems that doing so within the so-called echo chambers brings, then we need to stop reinforcing them by banning the very opposing views that would break them apart in the first place.

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Home Office Data Subject Access Request: Part One

Data Subject Access Requests (under Article 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998) are powerful tools that allowed people to request a copy of any information held on them by organisations (with some exceptions). In order to provide a response, a fee of up to £10 could be charged.

With the new GDPR era, these fees are no longer going to apply, and the access requests will now be covered by Section 94 of the Data Protection Act 2018 (which is set for Royal Assent today). As a result, I suspect we will be seeing far more of these requests… and given how underprepared most organisations have proven to be with the DPA 98’s mechanisms, it will be interesting to see how they cope.

I decided to investigate the process myself with none other than the UKVI. Formerly known as the UKBA. The visas and immigration people. I’m pretty sure they must have some interesting information on me, especially given that my spouse is a foreign national.

Handily, they have a page where you can submit your request for information on gov.uk. The process is, as you would expect, fairly convoluted. There are three categories of information you can request: Basic, Specific, or Detailed. For the ‘Detailed’ request, they are still asking for the £10 fee. However, in order to verify your identity, they require a host of information, including:

  • Your passport number.
  • A copy of your passport.
  • Written confirmation that your passport is a ‘true likeness’ of you.

Interestingly, they ask for a lot more information, including your parents’ date of birth, etc. This is noted as being ‘optional’, but still presents itself in such a way that it seems like it might be required. Let’s repeat after me: Data Subject Access Requests should not be an excuse to mine more data. I chose not to provide any more details than was necessary.

Back to what was required: Data controllers have an obligation to take ‘reasonable measures’ to verify the identity of a person making a request, and so some of this is fair enough. However, the passport number alone should be sufficient, since the UKVI hold all of the information anyway. A copy of the passport seems unnecessary, and the written confirmation of the likeness just seems bonkers – especially since the list of people who can give this certification is prohibitively small:

 

  • a legal representative, registered with the Office for the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC)
  • a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive
  • a commissioner for oaths
  • a registered charity

Now, I am not one to suggest that the UKVI may well be trying to make it as difficult as possible for somebody to make a subject access request, but it certainly seems like this is not in the spirit of the GDPR, or the DPA 2018. The list above is even more restrictive than the categories of people who can countersign photos to get a passport in the first place. To illustrate the point, here are the professions of folks who can counter-sign your initial passport application:

Examples of recognised professions include:

  • accountant
  • airline pilot
  • articled clerk of a limited company
  • assurance agent of recognised company
  • bank/building society official
  • barrister
  • chairman/director of limited company
  • chiropodist
  • commissioner for oaths
  • councillor, eg local or county
  • civil servant (permanent)
  • dentist
  • director/manager/personnel officer of a VAT-registered company
  • engineer – with professional qualifications
  • financial services intermediary, eg a stockbroker or insurance broker
  • fire service official
  • funeral director
  • insurance agent (full time) of a recognised company
  • journalist
  • Justice of the Peace
  • legal secretary – fellow or associate member of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs
  • licensee of public house
  • local government officer
  • manager/personnel officer of a limited company
  • member, associate or fellow of a professional body
  • Member of Parliament
  • Merchant Navy officer
  • minister of a recognised religion – including Christian Science
  • nurse – RGN or RMN
  • officer of the armed services
  • optician
  • paralegal – certified paralegal, qualified paralegal or associate member of the Institute of Paralegals
  • person with honours, eg an OBE or MBE
  • pharmacist
  • photographer – professional
  • police officer
  • Post Office official
  • president/secretary of a recognised organisation
  • Salvation Army officer
  • social worker
  • solicitor
  • surveyor
  • teacher, lecturer
  • trade union officer
  • travel agent – qualified
  • valuer or auctioneer – fellows and associate members of the incorporated society
  • Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officers

This means that the requirements for verifying ‘likeness’ are higher to get information held on you by the UKVI, than they are to get a passport in the first place.

For my subject access request, I have been told I have 15 days to submit the relevant documentation, including the above:

UKVI Requirements

Despite making the application online, I also apparently can’t submit the evidence online – so I’m not sure what the point of offering such a service is in the first place.

In my opinion, the requirements are not ‘reasonable’, and providing my passport number alone should be enough. As a result, I will not be submitting statements from a solicitor or charity at this point to support my request. I am going to operate on the assumption that the online system is not properly equipped to deal with subject access requests properly, and that the evidential standard is being confused with actual visa applications. I have contacted the UKVI directly with these concerns. Here’s what I said:

Reference: [redacted]

Hi,

I have just submitted a Data Subject Access Request under s.10 of the DPA 98 and s.94 of the DPA 2018 (which just received Royal Assent). This should further be considered in light of Article 15 of the GDPR.

As part of the evidential requirements listed on your site, I must provide:

1. A copy of my passport.
2. A ‘written confirmation of true likeness’ from a third party.
3. A letter of permission.

Firstly, I want to point out that there is no way to provide these documents online, despite the initial application being made online. I therefore request that you agree to receive items 1 and 3 electronically, rather than by post.

Secondly, I object to the requirement to provide a written confirmation of true likeness. As you will be aware, data controllers are required to undertake ‘reasonable measures’ to verify the identity of the person making the Data Subject Access Request. I submit that by providing a copy of my passport, and the passport number, that this more than satisfies the legal requirement.

Further, I submit that since the list of those who are considered appropriate to provide this written confirmation is less extensive than those who can act as a counter-signatory for a passport application in the first place, that this requirement is demonstrably disproportionate, and as such not required to respond to my request.

To summarise, please advise that:

1. You will accept items 1 and 2 from the above electronically.
2. That the written confirmation of true likeness is not required to give effect to the request under the relevant law.

Yours sincerely,

We will see what happens. Should my subject access request be denied, then it would appear that the UKVI really are requiring a disproportionately high standard to verify people for their Data Subject Access Requests, and I’ll need to revisit it at that point. Stay tuned.

Issues with Article 17 (‘Right to be Forgotten’) of the GDPR

With the GDPR’s deadline now almost upon us, one of the most talked about provisions has been the ‘Right to Erasure’ contained within Article 17.

Significantly expanding the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ doctrine established in the Google Spain case, Article 17 allows data subjects (i.e. you and I) to submit takedown requests to any organisation that collects and controls information on them.

There are a number of grounds under which people may seek to have data deleted, which cover a broad variety of circumstances. These include situations where the data is no longer necessary for the reasons it was collected; where it was unlawfully processed; where the subject withdraws their consent; as well as some others. The right is not unlimited, with exceptions where the collection and processing of the data is necessary in the exercise of the right to freedom of expression; where there is a specific legal obligation to retain the information; for reasons of public interest; etc.

Issues with Article 17

Despite some initial reservations, the GDPR (and Article 17 in particular) has generally been lauded as a victory for European citizens, who will gain far more control over what information companies hold on them than they ever previously have had. This is especially true given the arguably extra-territorial applicability, where any organisation that handles European data will be expected to comply.

However, there are a few specific issues arising from the construction of Article 17 that bear some further scrutiny. Rather than analyse the philosophical criticisms of the Right to Erasure, below I briefly look at some of the practical considerations that will need to be taken by data controllers when they receive such a Request for Erasure:

  1. Verification.
  2. Abuse, and a lack of formal requirements for removal requests.
  3. Article 85: Freedom of expression.

Verification of the Data Subject

Before giving effect to an Article 17 request, the controller must use all ‘reasonable measures’ to identify the identity of the requesting party. It is perhaps obvious that an organisation should not be deleting the accounts or other data of somebody without checking first to make sure that the person making that request is authorised to do so. However, this leaves open a number of questions about what this kind of verification will look like. In other words, what steps will be considered ‘reasonable’ under the terms of the law? Will courts begin to see arguments over online platforms account recovery procedures as a result of a denial of access to the fundamental right of privacy via the GDPR? What metrics will a data subject be able/expected to provide in order to discover their associated data? i.e. while it might be easy to request information relating to your e-mail address, what about other identifiers such as IP addresses, or names? These are questions that do not have clear answers, and will inevitably lead to an uneven application of the law, dependent on the situation.

Abuse, and a Lack of Formal Procedural Requirements for Erasure Requests

It should be self-evident at this stage that any statutory removal mechanisms will be open to abuse by parties determined to have content removed from the Internet, and in that regard, Article 17 is no different. However, there is a common misconception that the Right to Erasure gives people the right to stop any mention of them online – especially speech that is critical of them, or that they disagree with. This is not the case, and Article 17 is not crafted as a dispute resolution mechanism for defamation claims (that would be the E-Commerce Directive). These facts don’t stop people from citing the GDPR incorrectly though, and it can quickly become difficult to deal with content removal demands as a result.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there are no formal procedural requirements for an Article 17 request to be valid, unlike the notice and takedown procedure of the DMCA, or even the ECD. Requests do not have to mention the GDPR, or even Right to be Erasure specifically, and perhaps even more surprisingly, the requests don’t have to be made in writing, as verbal expressions are acceptable.

While the reasons for the lack of specific notice requirements is clearly in order to give the maximum amount of protection to data subjects (the lack of requirement for writing was apparently in order to allow people to easily ask for the removal of their data from call centres over the phone), it seems to ignore the accompanying problems with such an approach. The lack of clarity for the general public around what exactly the Right to Erasure includes, along with the lack of procedural checks and balances means that it will be increasingly difficult for organisations to identify and give effect to legitimate notices. This is especially true for online platforms that already receive a high number of reports. While many of these are often nonsense or spam, they will require far greater scrutiny in order to ensure that they aren’t actually badly worded Article 17 requests that might lead to liability.

If we look at the statistics on other notice and takedown processes such as that in the DMCA (the WordPress.com transparency report, for example), we can see that the levels of incomplete or abusive notices received are high. The implementation of even basic formal requirements would provide some minimum level of quality control over the requests, and allow organisations identifiers to efficiently categorise and give effect to legitimate Article 17 requests, rather than the prospect of having to consider any kind of report received through the lens of the GDPR.

Article 85: Freedom of expression

As mentioned earlier, a controller is not obliged to remove data where its continued retention is ‘necessary for reasons of freedom of expression and information’. The obvious question then becomes under what grounds this should be interpreted, and we find some guidance in Article 85 of the GDPR. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t say all that much:

‘Member States shall by law reconcile the right to the protection of personal data pursuant to this Regulation with the right to freedom of expression and information, including processing for journalistic purposes and the purposes of academic, artistic or literary expression.’

This appears to leave the task of determining how the balance will be made to individual Member States. Whilst this isn’t unusual in European legislation, it means that the standard will vary depending on where the organisation is based, and or where the data subject resides. At the time of writing, it isn’t clear how different Member States will address this reconciliation. Despite freedom of expression’s status as a fundamental right in European law, it is afforded scant consideration, and thus weak protection under the GDPR, preferring to defer to national law, which simply isn’t good enough. Far stronger statements and guarantees should have been provided.

Over Compliance

Unfortunately, the amount of extra work required to analyse and deal with these requests as a result of the law’s construction – along with the high financial penalties detailed in Article 83 – mean that it is likely that many organisations will simply resort to removing data, even where there is no lawful basis for the request, or requirement for them to do so.

We may fairly confidently speculate that the response from many data controllers will be to take a conservative approach to the GDPR’s requirements, and thus be less likely to push back on any potentially dubious requests as a result. Insistent complainants may find that they are able to have speech silenced without any legitimate legal basis simply out of fear or misunderstanding on the part of third party organisations.

With a well publicised and generally misunderstood right to removal, lack of procedural requirements, and a reliance on intermediaries to protect our rights to freedom of expression, we may find ourselves with more control over our own data, but with far less control over how we impart and receive information online.

Header image by ‘portal gda‘ on Flickr. Used under CC BY NC-SA 2.0 license.

Nazi Pugs Fuck Off

One of the latest cases to spark intense debate around freedom of expression happens to fall in my own back yard. The facts of the ‘nazi pug’ case concerned one Mark Meechan, aka ‘Count Dankula’, who filmed himself training his girlfriend’s dog to react to various phrases such as ‘gas the Jews’, and then posted it on YouTube. In his own words:

“My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is, and so I thought I would turn him into the least cute thing that I could think of, which is a Nazi”

Meechan was subsequently charged and convicted in a Scottish Sheriff Court under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to (publicly) communicate a ‘message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.

Count Dankula

Offensive speech should not be a criminal offence

The accused argued that the video was intended as a joke to noise up his girlfriend, as evidenced by the disclaimer at the outset. This position was rejected by the court, who stated that humour was ‘no magic wand’ to escape prosecution, and that any determination of context was for them to decide.

In passing the sentence, the Sheriff brought up the fact that the accused’s girlfriend didn’t even subscribe to his YouTube channel, and so claimed that as a result the notion that the escapade was in fact intended as a private joke didn’t hold any water. This is important as it demonstrates a deep cultural ignorance of how people communicate in an age dominated by online platforms, but also for what may well be a more interesting point: That the actions could only be classed as an offence under the Communications Act by dint of the fact that the video was posted on a ‘public communications network’. In other words, if the same ‘joke’ had been demonstrated at a house party, down the pub, or even on stage in front of hundreds of people, then it could not have brought about the same kind of prosecution.

This brings about two questions:

  1. Should there be any distinction between posting a video online (or via telephone), and making statements in person? If so, why?
  2. Should anybody ever face jail time for making ‘offensive’ statements?

These are questions that can only realistically be properly addressed by Parliament – not the Sheriff court, though one would have hoped that they would have taken a more liberal approach to statutory interpretation, or that the Procurator Fiscal would have had more foresight to not pursue a conviction.

I’m certainly not alone in my view that the video was tasteless. However, a bad sense of humour should not be enough to justify the possibility of a criminal offence. Further, even if the video was in fact an expression of a genuine conviction (which has not been at issue in this case), then it still should not warrant the possibility of jail time – especially not when the distinction lies on the fact that the statements were made on a ‘public communications network’ rather than in person. Remember, this was not a question of ‘incitement’, but simply offence.

Nazis are not your friends

It appears that in many ways, the court were bound by the statutory terms, and that the 2003 law itself is inadequate, to say the least. However, there is another element to this tale that is worth discussing. Namely, that individuals such as the former leader of the so called English Defence League have come out to associate themselves with the issue, and that not enough has been done to reject those attempts.

The support of the far right is not particularly surprising, as they are increasingly taking up the bastion of free expression to justify their odious positions. I is also understandable that when faced with what you perceive as an unwarranted criminal prosecution that you would welcome any support that you can get, or that the media would try to draw connections where there are none. However, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. If arseholes such as Tommy Robinson whose views you claim to be diametrically opposed to try to co-opt your situation for their own political ends, you have a duty to clearly, loudly, and publicly tell them to fuck off. When the far right started to infiltrate punk culture based on the premise of certain shared values, the Dead Kennedys responded in no uncertain terms.

I don’t and won’t claim to know the politics of the accused in this case, but the situation should be a warning for all who consider ourselves to sit on the liberal end of the spectrum: Be wary of those who seek to use a shared belief in freedom of expression as a trojan horse. Yes, fight for the right of those you disagree with to speak, but don’t let the crows trick their way into your nest as a result.

Meechan has indicated plans to appeal the conviction in order to make a point about freedom of speech, although it is unclear at this point under what grounds he will do so. Either way, whilst this is something I would generally support, it is becoming increasingly tough to do so with the knowledge that each development gives people such as the EDL a platform without any real challenge.


For a more in depth analysis of the law involved in this case, have a look at this post from thebarristerblogger.com.

P.S. I don’t blame the pug.

Productivity Apps: Keyboard Maestro

keyboard_maestro_logoI’ve had this article on the back burner for almost three years now, but for the next thrilling instalment of my productivity app blogs, I’ll be turning to look at Keyboard Maestro.

Don’t let the somewhat dated website put you off, the app itself is unbelievably powerful. I have to admit to being wary when I first tried it out. The learning curve is steep, and the documentation pretty unclear – especially when compared to the other productivity apps that are available. However, after months years of sustained use, my feelings towards Keyboard Maestro have completely changed. It’s tough to get into, but so worth it. I honestly don’t know what I would do without it at this point.

So if Keyboard Maestro is so great, why did it take me so long to publish this? Well, there’s a few reasons. Firstly, there aren’t so many general use cases for Keyboard Maestro – at least not for me. Instead, it’s an app that’s best for repetitive tasks that are very specific to each user’s needs, which makes it difficult to give good examples. Secondly, it’s an app that you tend to set up and forget… before rediscovering it later on when your needs have changed, and you realise: “Oh! Keyboard Maestro could make this way easier!”. I’ve gone through that cycle a number of times, and after rediscovering just how awesome it is, I decided to finally complete this post.

What does it do?

Okay okay so Keyboard Maestro is great, but what does it actually do?. This is a good question, as it isn’t immediately obvious. Essentially, Keyboard Maestro allows you to take any task that you have to repeat, and automates it. If you’re familiar with Alfred, think of Alfred workflows, but on steroids. The key difference is that instead of having to write Applescript for every action you want to complete (which is still an option, by the way), there are a whole bunch of options baked in. Whether that’s telling the mouse to move and click on a certain point, displaying a popup message, getting an image size, filling in a field on a website, or whatever. You get a lot of control from the get go.

Keyboard Maestro Actions
Some of the ‘actions’ available.

 

The sheer power of Keyboard Maestro is also its undoing in a way. It’s easy to look at the list of actions and wonder when you will ever use any of them. The UI is not the most intuitive, and you’d be forgiven for giving up at the beginning purely on that basis alone.

If you want to carry out simple, general tasks, then there may well be a nicer app that lets you do those things. However, that isn’t the point of Keyboard Maestro. Keyboard Maestro is there to help you automate pretty much any task that you can think of.

In addition to the automation, there is a whole host of other cool features that you can do a deep dive into – such as an extensive multi clipboard manager, application switcher, and others – but for me the real glory lies in the macros.

What can it do for me?

 

One of the biggest hurdles to starting off with Keyboard Maestro is working out exactly what you’ll use it for. It takes a conscious effort to work out what tasks you could automate – which isn’t necessarily something you thought was possible beforehand. Once you do sit down and give it some attention though, you’ll soon come up with plenty. Do you have to fill out specific fields on a website more than once? Use a macro. Do you need to convert HTML to markdown? Use a macro. Need to extract URLs from a big block of text? Macro. The possibilities are endless.

As part of my job, I regularly have to review and respond to reports about different websites using a helpdesk system. Each one (generally) requires me to:

  1. Find the website URL in the e-mail and open it.
  2. Decide what to do.
  3. Note down the action taken in certain circumstances.
  4. Reply by copying a specific part of the original message, and quoting it back in a certain format before providing an appropriate response.
  5. Select a certain option to mark the issue as ‘Resolved’ or ‘On Hold’.

All of these steps are fairly straightforward, but a lot of time is taken up by clicking through the same tasks for each – even when I use a textexpander or snippet manager like Alfred. Sometimes the URLs are jumbled up and I need to fix them before opening or responding, or they are buried in huge blocks of text… etc. However, with Keyboard Maestro, I can reduce this all to a couple of key presses, with a couple of macros doing all of the following:

  1. Extracting all of the URLs from the messages, and opening them in new windows.
  2. Pasting the URLs in the correct quoted format at the top of the reply, along with the appropriate response.
  3. Adding whatever notes needed to track the action taken in a specific field.
  4. Marking the issue Resolved or On Hold as appropriate.

The only thing Keyboard Maestro doesn’t do is decide what action to take – which is just as well really, for a variety of reasons!

Like many of the examples, that one is very specific, but it demonstrates a bit of how granular and useful Keyboard Maestro macros can be – and will hopefully get you thinking about your own use cases. Here are some other more general tasks I regularly deploy macros for:

  • Inserting a URL wrapped in a href tags.
  • Pasting text with different styles of quotes depending on the situation.
  • Parsing blocks of text to extract URLs and/or e-mail addresses.
  • Getting ID numbers from long URLs.
  • Pasting items in a bulleted or numbered list automatically.
  • Filling out forms online.
  • Copying the current URL from my browser window (and doing stuff with it).

The most powerful and useful ones are those that have very specific, work related use cases. With a bit of imagination, you’ll come up with your own, so I’d encourage you to give it a bash.

Triggers

To wrap this up, I wanted to highlight one more feature of Keyboard Maestro that makes it stand out from other productivity apps. For those veterans amongst us who regularly make use of workflow improvements, it’s easy to run out of hotkey assignments, and Keyboard Maestro has a bunch of different ways to solve that problem. First off is the use of ‘palettes’, which lets you assign the same hotkey to different macros – and then select them from a menu – or to activate different hotkey sets depending on what you’re working on that day.

If you already use Alfred, Keyboard Maestro is a brilliant complement, rather than a replacement in this way too. There is a specific Alfred workflow that lets you search and trigger Keyboard Maestro macros from the Alfred search bar, which is incredibly useful for those that you may use occasionally, but don’t want to dedicate a precious hotkey to: Alfred Maestro.

Finally, triggers aren’t just confined to mere hotkeys. Oh no. Pretty much any event you can think of can kick off a macro. If you want certain changes to happen when you connect to a particular WiFi, you can make that happen. Execute commands remotely by running Keyboard Maestro on a server? Why not. Run certain checks when a USB device is plugged in? Easy. You can even have Keyboard Maestro react to MIDI notes and values, which opens up a whole world of interesting hardware controllers aside from the keyboard… something I’ll be exploring in the next post.

In the meantime, go forth, and automate!

 

Laughing in the face of Terror

With the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London over the past week or so, it’s fair to say that the UK’s resilience has been tested. With the General Election taking place tomorrow, and Theresa May promising to ‘rip up the Human Rights act’ to introduce sweeping restrictions on the Internet, and strengthen anti-terrorist legislation, it remains to be seem how things will pan out.

You can never completely overshadow the horrific consequences of fatal attacks where innocent people lose their lives, but through the dark fog of the events themselves, stories have emerged that show true humanity, rather than the bleak nihilism of the terrorists. Stories of people rushing to the defence and aid of others; fearlessly tackling armed attackers, and embracing strangers.

A couple of examples of this that have really stood out for me in particular demonstrate the best, and most ‘British’ response imaginable. In the first, a man seen ambling casually away from a pub where the attackers had struck was hailed as a spirit of defiance for taking his pint with him:

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 14.52.45.png

Beer is so expensive in London mind you, that leaving a full pint behind would be the real madness.

And then, there was this guy… who when confronted with three knife wielding attackers screaming ‘This is for Allah!’, replied by rushing to fight them bare handed, shouting: ‘Fuck you, I’m Millwall!’, allowing others the chance to escape the scene. For those not familiar with Millwall football club, this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal.

Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 14.54.51.png

Speaking later after surviving multiple stab wounds all over his body, he said:

I thought, ‘I need to take the p*** out of these b******s’.

For me, this sums things up pretty beautifully. The point of these attacks is to make people afraid; to make nowhere feel safe… to withdraw in terror to an authoritarian regime that results in us turning on our neighbours and friends… but it’s tough to be afraid when you are laughing your ass off.

Those of us in Glasgow remember our own brush with ISIS well…

johnsmeaton.jpg

These attacks are always heartbreaking, and we’ll mourn the people we lose, but we also need to turn things on their head, find the humour in any situation, and laugh. Laugh right in the face of those who think they can make us scared to go outside, or scared of our Muslim friends, because their attempts to destroy who we are are laughable – and if there’s one thing the British are good at, it’s taking the piss out of those who take themselves too seriously.

On ‘Creativity’

When I was (a lot) younger I would spend a lot of time doing things that weren’t homework. I used to edit and publish a DIY school newspaper; make my own ‘radio show’ mixtapes; write short stories; and a myriad of other things. That’s something I’ve carried on as I’ve gotten older, through avenues like my small-time cassette tape record label, and music project unexpected bowtie.

Perhaps as a result of that kind of thing, I got lumped in with the arty creative crowd, and I hated it. Whenever there was some sort of brainstorming session or group discussion at school or work, such as trying to decide on a name or a strap line for some project, I was always told: ‘Come on, you’re a creative person. You’ll be able to think of something great.’, and of course… I never could. How was I meant to translate the weird stuff I did in my spare time into a stunning one liner for an ad campaign? It was an impossible task.

There’s this common idea that there are two different kinds of people: those who are ‘creative’, and able to just pluck amazing ideas for anything out of thin air… and others simply aren’t… as if creativity in of itself is a particular skill. That was the perspective that was hammered into me for so long, and since I didn’t have that sort of seeming creative genius that allowed me to come up with flashes of brilliance on the spot, I really came to resent the idea and label of ‘creativity’ in general.

As time has gone on though, I’ve come to think of things differently. I know so many amazingly creative people that do so many different things, but who are hopeless when placed out of their own wheelhouse and ways of working… and when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to expect anything else.

As far as I am concerned, creativity isn’t (necessarily) about the ability to conjure up something specific for any given situation on demand. Instead, it is the urge to make stuff, whether that’s something like music or poetry; something tangible like jewelery or paintings; or something like cutting hair… writing code… or performing live in a band. Creativity isn’t a skill that can be turned to any task at hand, but something rooted in people that derives energy and satisfaction from the act of creating something… whether it’s any good or not. Somebody can be a creative person whilst pumping out absolute dross, because it’s the process – not the product – that matters.

I think we do our students and colleagues a disservice when we call them ‘creative’ and expect them to produce brilliance in response. Rather than having the intended complimentary effect, it just ends up as a rope around their neck, and produces expectations that are too much to live up to. I’d happily never hear the phrase ‘you’re a creative person’ ever again.