Archive for February, 2009

Who needs mortgages anyway?


I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

All this brouhaha about getting banks loaning to homebuyers, especially the banks like Northern Rock that have been bailed out by the government… Let’s step back and ask ourselves if owning your own home is really all that it’s cracked up to be. I’m coming to think that it’s not.

I’m not talking about the micro- or macro-economics of this. I’m not an economist and I invite my economist friends to tell me the financial pros and cons of renting all your life. But from a social point of view, from a community point of view, it’s interesting to look at which makes for more resilient, cohesive societies – renting or owning.

Napoleon got it only half-right. A nation of shopkeepers we may be, but we are perhaps first and foremost a nation of homeowners. We’re collectively obsessed with property. But it was not ever thus. Until 1953 only 32% of us owned the houses we lived in. That rose steadily throughout the 2oth Century until it hit a peak of 75% in 1981, the dawn of the Thatcher era. The absolute number has been in gradual decline for the last few years.

I’m too young to remember it of course 🙂 but the Right To Buy was a large plank of the Thatcher project. Asides the financial benefits of owning a long-term investment like a house there were supposed to be all sorts of social benefits, everything from more stable family lives, to greater educational attainment, to more civic pride in our neighbourhoods.

But does owning your own home really make you a better citizen? Perhaps unsurprisingly the American interest group Homeownership Alliance reckons that the evidence is overwhelming. Homeowners in the US, they say, are more likely to vote or be active in civil society and to be more satisfied with their lives overall than non-owners, even after controlling for socioeconomic status.

But hold on. If home ownership is all its cracked up to be, and we’re most of us home owners, then why are we so worried about declining social capital in the UK during precisely this golden era of mortgage lending? And are we really saying that countries with much lower ownership rates such as France (54%), Germany (43%) and Denmark (53%) are blighted with communities in terminal decline by comparison?

When you sit down and think about it, it’s unrealistic that all of us can own our own homes, and it becomes even more unrealistic as this world of ours becomes more crowded and polluted. Nor do simple correllations between home ownership and desirable social traits mean that owning a house makes us all great neighbours – when it comes to policy, you’ve always got to ask “so what?”.  What are the processes behind that data? Maybe family stability, high educational attainment and so on are conducive to home ownership, regardless of background, rather than the other way round?

Housing Associations and housing cooperatives have been proved to be great banks of social capital and economic development in our communities. The Darnhill Estate in Manchester is one example of this. When this estate was transferred to the Guinness Trust in 1999 it had to find a way of engaging  local people in managing and regenerating the area. The residents had “consultation fatigue” – they’d all been interviewed bazillions of times by the council, the trust or a third party.

In the end, local people were recruited to carry out the social audit in a method piloted in Africa in which they were involved in creating the research tools. The legacy of this was considerable; many gained NVQs through this, some stood for elected positions and marginalised people formed connections with others on the estate. Other forms of ownership are not necessarily inferior to owner-occupation. In fact, they can provide platforms for communities to think about themselves and their futures.

I lived in huge Scottish tenements for years and I found it impossible to get away from my neighbours. Our shared close provided us with endless little shared projects (all of them involving junkies in the bike shed and broken front doors). I don’t think that had anything to do with whether we owned our own homes, but came from a variety of factors including the design of the close and a culture of living on top of one another.

Being an engaged, active citizen is about so much more than owning your own bricks and mortar and many of the things its supposed to provide – stability, civic engagement and so-on – are about how we live together. From a social point of view at least, maybe it’s time we moved on from this collective obsession with home ownership.


February 23, 2009 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

Kingston Upon Hull: Digital capital of Britain?

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

No, really. Of all the odd Things We Have Learned This Week, this one takes the biscuit. When it was privatised, BT was charged with maintaining all the telcoms infrastructure in the UK and ensuring that everyone everywhere had access to decent basic internet and phone services. With one exception: Kingston Upon Hull.

The East Yorkshire town is its own miniature telcoms fiefdom, served by its own telcoms group, KCOM. Founded in 1882 after councils were invited to bid for the first telephone exchange contracts, it was entirely owned by Kingston Upon Hull Council until it was floated on the stock exchange in 1999. They still retain a 44.9% share of the company.

But being small didn’t limit this company’s ambitions. They were the first to create an all-digital infrastructure, serving East Yorkshire. They launched a pioneering local interactive television service in 1999 which delivered user’s emails, video-on-demand and local information as well as the usual television services. And so on.

The moral of this tale seems to be that where there is a synergy between local people, local institutions and technology-savvy nerds, great things can happen. KCOM is not just a successful business, it’s given its community all sorts of useful things over the years.

It’s also interesting to note that although the digital revolution opened up a dizzying number of possibilities for KCOM, it was harnessing technology for the public good in innovative ways for over a century before the internet was widely available. One might hazard a guess that it was able to capitalise on the potential of digital technology because it knew its users so well. In other words, they’d spent time getting the people part right so they knew exactly what to do with the wires and flashing lights.

Involving communities and councils in pioneering projects doesn’t have to take the edge off them. Sometimes local knowledge and local people are the edge.

February 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm 2 comments

Ms Rimington’s right: fear itself is a fearful thing

 Stella Rimington is right to conjure up the spectre of an Orwellian police state in the same breath as anti-terrorism legislation. She’s right because she identifies the way that fear is a political currency in our society, and that in recent years we have seen its value inflate several times over.

Does it matter? Yes. Fear and the way it spreads, reproduces and morphs was perhaps the shared mental crisis of the twentieth century.

The study of fear has long preoccupied social psychologists. Some of their research has yielded disturbing results. For example; if something is seen as unbearably fearful, we start to allow it to affect our perceptions of the world and its risks. These “fear appeals” form the backbone of most public health campaigns.

At its most basic this can be seen in social psychological studies of the impact of American oral hygiene classes in schools in the fourties and fifties.  The research found that they were too effective and terrifying; some kids were so freaked out that they just stopped looking after their teeth altogether.

That may seem trivial, but this behaviour has been recorded playing out in other, bigger contexts.

There is a theory that we actually respond to fear in two, parallel ways. We act to control danger (brush your teeth, use a condom, join a picket to protest job losses); these are usually the behaviours fear appeals try to induce.

But we also act to control our fear itself, and that’s where all sorts of bad behaviour can come into play; denial, avoidance, projection of the danger onto innocent people (so never brush your teeth, avoid the smear test, join the National Front and go about telling people to f*** off home and stop stealing your job). Add up the effect of an entire population doing this stuff, and the stage is set for some gross abuses of our fellow humans and ourselves. Sadly, the history of the last century is littered with this sort of behaviour.

Fear appeals have a venerable history as a rhetorical device. These social studies show what Cicero could have told you anyway; to be effective fear appeals need to arouse real panic. That’s why politicians use them; they’re a superb way of  mobilising huge numbers of people. They’re one of the most consistent mass communication techniques we have for changing attitudes and behaviours. But of course, in acting to control the danger, we often act to control our fear in unintended, disastrous ways.

In the case of our response to the threat of terrorism we have accepted infringements of our hard won civil liberties that in Ms Rimington’s own words are disproportionate to the risks involved and might not have been allowed in another climate. It will be truly disturbing if it turns out our decision-makers did not act to expose alleged torture being used in the “War On Terror“, even if it wasn’t carried out by our own intelligence agents.

This is a good time to stand back and ask searching questions of our use of fear as a way of weilding power. Espionage and torture may be the sexy stuff, but things as banal as the dwindling number of children who are allowed to play outside their street are indices of how much fear rules our lives and changes our communities.

“It would be better that the Government recognised there were risks, rather than frightening people in order to pass laws,” says Ms Rimington in her La Vanguardia interview. These are sound and sobering words, and they actually throw down a challenge to all of us. We all need to develop a capacity to understand our responses to fear, and create social structures that mitigate our more neurotic responses to it. Something for my colleagues Matt Grist and Jamie Young, perhaps?

February 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

What’s so bad about Canada?

moose-track-mathJust a little aside. Has anyone seen this campaign about numeracy that the Conservatives have going at the moment?

The accompanying poster says that the UK ought to be top of the global league table in maths. As someone who’s a bit of a cosmopolitan liberal, I’d like to see all children the world over get an equally good mathematical start in life, but I’m happy for the revolution to begin at home. The poster lists the countries who are doing better than us, with some indignation that they’ve overtaken us. The part I don’t get is why Korea and Canada get singled out (they don’t specify which Korea).

Both Canada and Korea, just like Britain, have a history of innovation in engineering and mechanics which has given the world the Canadian Pacific Railway, the first metal-hulled warships and the Back-Of-The-Hand-Phone. How on earth were they supposed to achieve that without a good grasp of their times tables? Weird.

February 16, 2009 at 5:27 pm Leave a comment

Of fascists and the fascinating Mr Wilders

Anyone who thinks that researching community cohesion and working with communities is from the warm, fluffy and intellectually flabby end of the policy spectrum be warned. This post will touch on the tough stuff – freedom of speech, the trouble with human rights and Bounty Killer.

I’m going to start with a controversialism: I wanted to see Mr Geert Wilders’ film about the “fascist” Quran.

This is not to say that I agree with anything in it, or like it, or want to see it on general release at the Brixton Ritzy.

But I’ve always made it my business to know my opponent’s arguments, and as an ex-journalist and in my current profession I feel I have a duty to understand the people that perpetuate our society’s deepest cleavages. I have at times extended that courtesy to members of the organisations Mr Wilders’ polemic attacks. I ought to extend this approach to Mr Wilders too. I like to think that if a moderate majority were to engage with his arguments, we could render them ludicrous by their very extremism.

So I’m sitting here watching it online, at work. It’s not subtle stuff: in fact, it’s rediculous and vacuous. You can watch it too, anyone with a reasonable internet connection can do so. This has been pointed out to the Home Office, who have banned him from entering the country on the grounds that he will incite hatred.

But that of course is not the point of the ban: it’s to send out a message about what is an obscenity in our society. Encouraging discrimination and violence against a person because of their faith, race or sexual orientation is considered obscene and therefore unspeakable. The aforementioned Jamaican rapper Bounty Killer was refused entry to the UK because of his homophobic music, though you can download it all you wish. The Muslim cleric Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is also banned from Britain on the basis that he is a threat to community cohesion.

This is a profound challenge to those who work with deeply divided communities. My friends who work in this field say striking the balance between protecting the security of minority interests (who, let’s be honest, aren’t necessarily saintly themselves) and the wider community’s freedom of speech is doubly challenging. Firstly, that freedom of speech is our most fundamental protection against oppression.

Secondly, such extremism often exploits a real or percieved threat to the security of a community. Those I know who are involved in cross-community conflict resolution have often unearthed visceral anger and a lust for revenge alongside righteous indignation about injustice. But we do need to be able to talk about that sense of insecurity and injustice, and explore it, in order that it be demystified and resolved.

If we just don’t talk about the darker forces in our communal life, we reduce our capacity to negotiate conflict. Rendering something like anti-Semitism or homophobia unspeakable, obscene and refusing any mention of it isn’t quite the same thing as dealing with it. We tried that with sex once and it didn’t work; people kept on doing it. The internet is only a traceable network that demonstrates a pre-digital process: it is virtually impossible to effect a ban on hate-speech. Some would argue this renders the whole right to freedom of speech vs. minority rights argument, indeed the whole Human Rights schema, to be a straw dog.

However, most legal systems recognise Rights to be in a slightly different category to other laws about the curve of bananas or the statutory duties of social workers. They are quasi-sacred guiding principles for self-governance – taboos if we want to get Freudian.

By all means make an example of what an idiot Mr Wilders is, and Mr Al-Qaradawi too while we’re at it. But let’s use this as an opportunity to think about what it means to be guided in our daily lives by respect for others, and how we can create more spaces in our communities for reconciliation and redressing grievances rather than repressing conflict altogether.

February 12, 2009 at 4:53 pm Leave a comment

i have always relied on the kindness of strangers…

There’s nothing like a global recession to bring out the Blanche DuBois in me.

As someone who doesn’t really get money, figuratively or literally, the main excitement of the last eighteen months has been seeing our relationship with finance unravel like a tired old jumper. Unfortunately, it’s been closely followed by our relationships with one another unravelling too. Accusations of greed and selfishness have been lobbed about like grenades.

It leaves us with a conundrum though: capitalism is a system built on self-interest. We live in a society that accepts this as the fundamental driver of all human interactions. So why the hell are we so upset by that self-interest all of a sudden? There’s a renewed interest in the idea of looking out for one another, but we’re not very comfortable with actually doing it all the same.

As if on cue, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor have stepped forward with a celebration of fellow-feeling. On Kindness is a little book, and a simple book. Anyone looking for revolutionary thinking or grand philosophical contortions will be disappointed: if you’ve done a degree in an arts or humanities subject, you’ll have met most of the cast of philosophers, psychoanalysts and divines before.

The book really just trots through the history of the idea of kindness, from the Ancients to modern psychology and psychoanalysis, and gives a psychoanalytical description of where we’re at in the modern world. Needless to say, it’s not an upbeat diagnosis. We are a society terrified of our own dependencies and, by extension, those of others. In adopting a rationalist, human-centred view of the world we have shouldered extreme cynicism about compassion and altruism. As Phillips and Taylor write: ‘Whatever else it is, psychoanalysis is an account of how and why modern people are so frightened of each other’.

The book’s simplicity is its power, though. I was personally horrified to discover how little time I had given to the subject matter of this book.

We covered War, Injustice, Human Nature and Cognition and other forms of blah blah at uni, but never made an enquiry into positive social behaviours. I was required to know what Seneca thought about duty to the state, but no-one has ever urged me to read up on what he liked about friendship.

This, Phillips and Taylor argue, is absolutely symptomatic of what’s going on in our communities and wider society. Kindness has come to be seen as a manipulative technique, or an egotistical self-indulgence. It has been first disastrously confused with self-sacrifice by the early Christians and then “feminised”, domesticated (and fetishised) by the modern world. It is an intellectual and practical weakness that we are terrified of acknowledging in ourselves, and quick to recoil from in others.

They cite all sorts of good examples of this process, but I’ll offer one that’s rather closer to home. Why have we, the RSA, come to describe concern for the welfare of others as being “other-regarding”? On reflection it’s perhaps a chilly, rather inhuman word, probably the only way of describing concern for other people without actually implying there’s any other real people involved. It’s a telling choice, but imagine the hoots of derision if we declared we wanted to nurture Humean “sympathy”…

Clearly if any of this is half-accurate, it goes a long way to explaining why we’ve seen a decline in trust, volunteerism and social capital in many Western societies in recent decades. The worry that these trends cause us shows that we haven’t given up on kindness; we still have an unthinking connection to it.

What can we do to treat this alleged epidemic of indifference and suspicion? Phillips and Taylor aren’t policy wonks, but they suggest a good place to start is by recognising that, in the words of philosopher Alan Ryan, ‘we mutually belong to each other’.

For those who regard that as fluff, chew on this: even Adam Smith, whose “invisible hand” has become a shibboleth for the modern world, was totally preoccupied by our sympathy for one another. Indeed, he regarded himself primarily as a moral philosopher. Self-interest to him was never confused with narrow selfishness. Rather being a healthy human involved seeing oneself reflected in the society one creates. 

My own observation is that if Phillips and Taylor are right, it partly explains why we are so tortured by the failure of the global banking system. We have never been so aware that we haven’t got human nature sussed. We have also never been so aware of our interdependencies, though they’re everywhere to see. Our fate is tied to everyone else’s, but we are terrified to recognise ourselves in one another’s needs.

And so, yes, I acknowledge my inner Blanche: I relied on the kindness of strangers in banks, in boardrooms and in government. And though they will never meet me, they came  in turn to rely on mine.

NB: We’ll be hosting a debate with Barbara Taylor about kindness here at the RSA on Thursday at 1pm. It’s fully booked, but you can catch it afterwards on RSA Vision.

February 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm Leave a comment

Table or wiki?

What matters is what you do with it... (Kyle Walton/flikr)

It all depends what you do with it... (Kyle Walton/flikr)

As a little addendum to the previous post, here’s a nice little critique of the wiki as wunder participation fix from Bruce Hoppe at Connectedness.

And it’s a nice summary of the thing I was trying to say, but only waffled about: When do online networks turn into “true” communities? Things with trust, resilience, problem-solving capacity and other-regarding behaviour?

The amateur social psychologist in me is thinking: it matters how a network makes you feel about yourself and other people. And that’s got to be part of the answer.

Hoppe reckons something similar, though he’s less worried by participation inequality being a consequence of that than me, I think. He takes Clay Shirky up on his “internet is the best thing since the table for collaboration” thesis on that basis, partly because tables predate writing and it’s factually dubious. But also, what *can’t* you do with a table? Tables are just a piece of furniture; what matters is what you do with them, who’s at them, where you put them, who’s sitting next to you…

And I’m intrigued to know – which do you reckon comes first in a healthy community; the wiki or the table? The relationship or the idea?

February 9, 2009 at 4:17 pm Leave a comment

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