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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 18 June 2015

The Democratization of Power: You Can't Have #OpenGov Without #ResponsibleSociety

"We're in the age of the democratization of power.  Small actors can do big things.  The state no longer holds monopoly on the use of force," he said.

Whether Anonymous, whatever Anonymous is, committed the recent cyber attack that shut down several government websites yesterday remains to be seen.  That's part of the problem with collective anonymity; when no one knows who you are, anyone can pretend to be you.

We value anonymity for valid reasons; there can be very personal consequences for political actions, even when - especially when - the cause is just.  Equally, there is power in collective identity, a symbolic face that can be worn by legions.  This is true whether it's a Guy Fawkes mask, a uniform or a partisan t-shirt.

Yet with the power of anonymity comes great consequence, with mistrust and paranoia chief among them.  Human beings are hard-wired to identify threats before they do harm - it's a big neurological piece of why bigotry and especially violent bigotry exist.

Of course, you don't need to be anonymous or tribal to have powerful impact.  Ted Kaczynsk, among others, demonstrated that before the Internet and Social Media became a thing.

With the advent of the digital realm, it's continuously easier for a growing percentage of the populace to engaged directly with politicians, public information and even the policy-making process itself. Regular citizens can have Twitter conversations with Ministers of the Crown, post and vote directly on policy initiatives and even play a role in writing government directives.

This is happening at the same time as government power is increasingly consolidated in one person (the Prime Minister) and their unelected advisors (the real-world version of the Small Council).  Yes, we are seeing the collection of information reduced, those who speak truth to power silenced and decisions being made on poorly-conceived ideological grounds.  Opposition Parties vying for power are practising internally the exact same methodology.  These are very troubling truths.

Thing is, these truths are dependent on just one thing - public passivity.  

We have a representative democracy in Canada where Parliamentarians are meant to represent their constituents in holding government to account.  In reality, Parliament is now an arena for would-be governments to duke it out, with our representatives by default representing their Party more than their constituents.  It's not that our democratic representation has been taken away from us so much as we have failed to adapt engagement to the times.

Two teenagers can command media attention and even get face-time with a Premier.  It's a real thing. Facebook campaigns have stopped policy in its tracks.  We, as citizens, have more power to shape the policy agenda than ever before - we simply aren't exercising that power broadly, nor responsibly.

Politicians are only creatures of their Parties when their constituents allow them to be.  This happens because as citizens, we have fallen into price-matching political platforms and politicians instead of being active participants in shaping the direction of government.

Political parties have the power to fund or not fund local campaigns, promote or not promote their Members and, should they form government, deliver or not deliver on local projects.  That's a heck of a lot of influence over our representatives.

At the end of the day, though, it's our votes that Members of Parliament require most.  Between a promotion to Cabinet and simply holding their seat, which option do you think a politician would prioritize?

Citizens have the potential of enormous power to influence government - it's even more the case as Open Government becomes a thing.  If we choose not to exercise that power, we end up with the status quo.  If we choose to exercise that power irresponsibly, however - as I would argue this cyber attack was - government has plenty of cause to step back from openness and indeed start moving the other way.

There's an irony here which Anonymous should really pay attention to, given where they've borrowed their brand from.  But I guess some people like picking fights, regardless of collateral damage.

Open Government is not an inevitability - in fact, it's an impossibility without responsible society.

Responsible Government:
            - the powers of the governor general are limited - a fundamental concept which exists 
              nowhere in any legal document
            - based on the notion that the executive is accountable to the House of Commons
            - those who exercise executive power must obtain the support of the House for the use of 
              that power 

None of this happens, because with majority governments, Parliament is beholden to Government in the person of the Prime Minister and his backroom.  In short, the PM is the new King and his advisers are the new Privy Council; Parliament is more the King's court than the people's representatives.

The move to Open Government increases public access in much the way Magna Carta increased access for Parliament to government.  Combined with the increased consolidation of power in the office of the Prime Minister means the role of Parliament is changing.

Similarly, the role of citizen is changing, too.  We want more from government - we're not going to get it unless we're willing to step up as well.

Representative Democracy is failing; it's a model that simply can't be sustained with the demographic and access changes that have emerged.  The old model could never be equipped to tackle Wicked Problems anyway.

What's emerging now is Participatory Democracy - a model in which Parliamentarians will act more like facilitators between the people and the public service, with Cabinet acting as coordinators and project managers.

But it won't happen unless we all learn to exercise our powers responsibly.

That's the choice before us.  We can ignore the burning platform until we are all consumed.  We can light sparks ourselves.  Or we can learn to collaborate.

Its time we stop believing that he who has the gold or the crown makes the rules and start believing that with great power comes greater responsibility.

I have no qualms about being on record as having said so.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

#GameOfStorytelling: The Benjen Flaw (Season 5 finale spoilers)

"PS - Trust no one."

Is John Snow dead?  That's pretty certain.  

The intention specifically being placed on Kit Harington is probably something of a red herring, though, as having an actor not return (as a regular cast member) isn't the same thing as being dead.  It's only mostly dead.

Even then, though, we have plenty of cause to think the show runners and even the actor might be lying to us, as well-intentioned as that might be.

Case in point - Benjen Stark.

If you've seen the show (and if you haven't - you were warned), you know what happens to poor Jon Snow; he's tricked into thinking his Uncle Benjen had been seen by one of the Wildlings and, full of hope, rushed into his very own Ides of Winter.

Of course, Benjen wasn't in the show; the mention was a ruse to trick the Lord Commander.  Yet, for some reason, Joseph Mawle - the actor who portrayed Benjen in Season 1 - was listed as appearing in the episode.

Was there a scene filmed that landed on the editing room floor?  It hardly seems likely - he's not in the story.  His name is, as a trick, which is exactly what I think the actor listing was.  

For fans of the show and the book, there was cause to believe the end of Season 5 might bring with it the death of Snow, which had already happened in the books.  That means plenty of audience members could have predicted the same fate would meet Snow during the finale.  

That hardly suits the purposes of the story tellers; they want us to feel the emotional impact of each moment, to be constantly surprised.  They have even gone out of their way to trick us into investing more into characters like Robb Stark (and his family) than the books do before killing them in brutal fashion.

No, D&D wanted everyone to feel a sense of shock when Jon meets his end.  By timing the mention of Benjen right at the end of the episode (when there was no time left for multiple plot points) and even listing and leaking Mawle's appearance, they got us yet again - even when some of us knew Snow's fall had to be coming (winter having arrived, after all).

And now we're being told Snow is gone, baby, gone.  Especially as portrayed by Kit - don't expect to see him in Westeros again!

Once beheaded, twice shy as they say in Westeros, though.  We know not to take what we're told to expect at face value, do we?  It's the Stark truth, as it were.

Monday 15 June 2015

Deus ex Nix: Snow Falls in Winter

Time will tell what the real story is, but for the moment, I'm firmly in the "Jon Snow ain't dead dead" camp.

Yes, Kit Harrington has come out to say "my character is dead, I'm moving on to other things" and yes the producers have said "dead is dead."  Should Snow return, looking very much like Kit Harrington, it would hardly be the first time entertainment-makers have lied to us so as to preserve or enhance the impact of a story.

People have really invested in Game of Thrones - I mean, really invested, really cared about their favourite characters - in a way that simply doesn't happen if peril isn't part of the picture.  

Remember that time Superman died?  Remember that time he came back to life?  Remember that time Wolverine died?  He's kinda back already, too. These are characters we love, but we never really worried about them dying - therefore, there's no real sense of loss or potential loss, no peril.  We're comfortable that they will always come back.  

We can like these characters without really needing to invest in them, because they're not going anywhere.

Most TV - most fiction - is like this.  You never really worry about James Bond dying, because - well, James Bond doesn't die.  You never worry about the hero in a Disney movie dying, because that's not the vibe they're going for.  Parents don't want their kids actually being afraid that their heroes might die - if the world was truly that cruel, what would be the point of investing in anything else, in trusting anyone?

Game of Thrones isn't a kid's show.  It runs against the grain of most adult-focused fiction, too; there's no clear-cut good guys to root for and no one - no matter how insignificant, powerful or fan-fav they are - is safe.

Hate the way GoT pulls at your emotions and wilfully devastates you again and again - those are the qualities that keep us coming back for more.

In this way, GoT is much more like real life; there are no cut-and-dry heroes, and as often as not, those who we choose to idolize have nasty dark sides that aren't all that well hid.  In Westeros, those who seem to be truly good aren't long for the world.

Yet we love our heroes, don't we?  We will pro-actively ignore the things we dislike about an individual and focus narrowly on what we perceive as their positives, because we want there to be heroes.   Until they get caught, that is, because then it's undeniably clear that they broke the pact we imposed on them to be perfect.

In real life, we'd almost prefer our heroes to stubbornly die, never wavering from their values (and sometimes because of them, like Ned Stark for instance).  The irony is that, when we recognize that they will never waver - that we can, truly have faith in them - it's too late.  They're gone.

Which probably has something to do with the popularity of resurrection myths throughout human history.  Like a child who throws away a beloved toy in a moment of anger but then desperately wants it back, we want to know our heroes, our social anchors, will always be there.

It's the absence of this safety blanket and the real peril that faces everyone on GoT that makes it so compelling.  We can't always count on our heroes being there, or to not become villains.  We can't assume that justice awaits those who deserve it, nor that good, ultimately, will prevail.

Game of Thrones has bled snow over the conventions we expect of fiction, but has remained faithful to its own internal rules.  It's a harsh world where justice is absent, hope is false and if you think there's a happy ending, it's pretty clear you haven't been paying attention.

The night is dark, and full of terror.  Sometimes, you don't want to know the end, because how could the end be happy?

D&D are, first and foremost, storytellers.  They want to retain their audience, clearly, which isn't necessarily the same thing as pleasing them; they also recognize the need to hold true to their internal logic, for the moment they don't, expectations change and the magic is gone.

What is it Weiss said?

"In a show, everybody sees it for what it is.  It's that rule: 'If I don't see the body then they're not really dead.'"  If they're not really dead, then the peril was never real, and our need to invest - to really have faith in those heroes - was never real, either.

If, however, Jon Snow is really dead, then what hope is there for Westeros?

All good stories must have an ending, however, and as much as we like to fear the apocalypse, stories that end with Ragnarok aren't particularly satisfying.  After we've invested so much of ourselves in a story, in characters, we long for a payoff.  And in the finest tradition of storytelling, the less likely a payoff seems, the more satisfying it is when our devotion is rewarded.

D&D are, unquestionably, great story tellers. 
They haven't given us what we wanted, but by doing so, they have teased us into caring more, investing more and spending more time with the characters and woes of Westeros.  

I love looking at the Twitter feed around #GameOfThrones, especially on show-night.  Despite the supposedly polarized, self-centred nature of our society, people from all over the world come together for a community of experience, sharing their shock, hope, fears and satisfactions in unison. The sellers try to cash in; the Twitter thread is filled with tie-ins, hooks and related content.  

Were it not for the community of GoT, though, there would be no one to sell to.

Of course, the makers of Game of Thrones aren't trying to win in a four-year election cycle, or are they focused strictly on low-hanging fruit and quick wins.  Unlike The Death of Superman, they aren't cheating us with mortal peril, quickly resolved - they're in it for the long haul and clearly have a lot of faith in the story they're trying to tell - and the lessons they're sharing with us.  It's not about them - they, too, are servants to something greater.

Which is why it's so damned important, I think, that they not give us a wink about the fate of Lord Snow just as winter is beginning to fall.  If we don't really and truly believe he's gone, we can convince ourselves that there's a Deus ex Machina in the wings, that the peril isn't real.  There's always been a safety net - someone else has always kept a candle alight in the dark for us.

Only when all hope of deliverance is removed, when we are fully and truly left in darkness is our faith truly tested.

Do we believe it's all been for naught - a parade of selfish deeds and inhuman horrors ultimately consumed by winter, signifying nothing?  Or, even when all light is gone, do we believe the story has been building towards something - that even darkness will pass, that Spring will always follow winter?  

That, when we need them most, our heroes will rise again?

I have no doubt that Jon Snow is dead, like OMG dead - he's dead.  

Which doesn't mean we've seen the last of him.  Some heroes, after all, are more than flesh and blood.

And the difference between a story and a legend is that, with the former, death is often just the beginning.

Sunday 14 June 2015



If you watch Game of Thrones and have somehow avoided hearing about some of Season/Series 5's most heart-breaking moment, don't break that trend now.  Walk away.

For everyone else, here we go.

There are apparently 400 or so Canadians known to have travelled to the Middle East, fought for ISIS, and since returned to Canadian soil.  Whether this number is accurate or not (and doesn't include Canadians who've travelled to the Middle East to fight against ISIS in today's equivalent of foreign volunteering vacations), one can safely assume there are countless unknown others that have fought for ISIS and come home without being tracked.

In the most alarmist version of this account, there's a massive, long-game conspiracy at play with Muslims gaining skills, waiting for the signal (the lighting of the greatest fire the North has ever seen, perhaps?) and all times, ready to strike.  Proponents who support this vision will slap your wrist if you suggest that, say, the niqab ban is an unnecessary partisan ploy that's more about vote getting and therefore, a confrontation that could and should have been avoided.  

"You might say they're few in number now," such a proponent will say, "but just wait.  You know what happens when you sit back and allow evil intentions to fester."  

This is a typical Other narrative with a particular modern twist.  To paint all Muslims - or all Christians, for that matter, with one brush is simplistic, asinine.  There's no small bit of irony to the fact that it's often those who promote liberty, freedom and individuality the most who vocally portray those who differ from them as threats.  

When it's someone else's kids, it's indoctrination - when it's yours, however, it's responsibly preparing youth to engage in the real world.

Beyond the simple fact that it's beyond ignorant to view those you fear as a hive-minded zombie hoard in their stewing hostility, there's the fact that broad-scale conspiracies don't work.  

People are people, all individuals with different perceptions of the world and themselves.  I laugh when I hear big political conspiracy theories - especially considering how many big-name political people I know who will talk shop in public spaces over drinks because they never consider for a moment that anyone would tune in.

As for an ISIS conspiracy with global reach, come on - they can't even keep their people from posting selfies to the Internet.  Human nature will keep worldwide conspiracies from ever happening - but that doesn't dismiss the fact that horrible things happen on a massive scale, right in the open.

We're starting to loop back to Stannis.

ISIL can kill without hesitation or remorse for the same reason horrors have ever been done to Others - dehumanization (or, often more accurate, non-humanizing).  We can step on an ant without a second's thought.  With creatures like centipedes or spiders, we often feel compelled to go out of our way to kill, they feel so uncomfortable to us.  While we may respect and admire the hunting abilities of a predator or the strength or speed of an animal like a moose or deer, hunters can still kill them without shedding a tear because they aren't human.

Real people don't look like that, or speak like that, or act like that.  They aren't like us - if anything, they are taking away from us.  Like vermin, they will infest our world until it's ours no more - are we going to stand for that?

When you feel about a fellow human the way you do about a creature like a moose, or a lion, or a centipede, killing them may not be hard and might even be more desirable than letting them live. There's no secret to this; the notion of "humanity" - people being people, doing unto others, etc. - is an entirely social phenomenon.  It may trigger biological responses and solidify more empathetic responses, but animals of any species removed from acculturation are more likely to be anti-social and less considerate of their peers than those who are acculturated.  

Empathy is, by and large, more prevalent in humans and allows us to think about the concerns of others we relate to as being like ourselves, or withhold frustrations to move beyond communication, mobility, etc. barriers.  This, in turn, allows us to ask "how might we" and start building bridges of opportunity.  If they are like me, then they can be reasoned with and probably have something of value to offer.  

Might makes right?  God favours the strong, trial-by-combat style?  Tough leaders are the best leaders?  That's our evolutionary past tugging at our cognitive present in ways far more pervasive than we might like to think.

That's killing strangers.  No biggie.  But what about killing loved ones?  

We're back to Stannis.

In Game of Thrones, magic is a real thing - Stannis knows this for a fact, because a smoke-monster killed his brother and because he's seen visions in the fire.  He knows that there's an evil force creeping over Westeros - winter is coming - and he genuinely believes that only he, the proper heir to the thrones through the blood line of his family (though his brother took the throne by force - he seems to forget that part) can stop it.  

All of Westeros is counting on him, really.  With responsibility like that, surely there are sacrifices to be made.  Stannis believed that killing his daughter would bring him power to get over the little hump in front of him (the Boltons) so that he could get back to the bigger fight that he is meant to fight.

Now walk back from this a bit.  

In our own world, devoid of magic but still full of politics, we have seen more than our share of sacrifices made over smaller battles so as to keep one's eye on the prize.  Think Trudeau sacrificing his Senate caucus, or Harper sacrificing Nigel Wright, or Mike Duffy, or any number of other Ministers.  

These kinds of sacrifices, we're used to and comfortable with.  Destroying careers or abandoning people who've done questionable things to your benefit, that's not the same thing as murdering your own kid, is it?

Well, the stakes aren't quite as high.  As the rhetoric ratchets up, though, centralized partisans sound more and more like they're the only ones who can save us from winter, or the zombie hoard.  It's a hefty responsibility resting on fewer and fewer shoulders.

I've said this before - if you plucked our politicians out of our social setting, removed them from the legal structures that kinda guide behaviour and set them down in Westeros, I'm sure many would fit right in.

Perspective, ideology and fanaticism aren't seperate buckets - like all things, they lie on a spectrum. 

We all lie on that spectrum.

What would Stannis do? isn't quite as upbeat a morality reminder as WWJD, but it's probably more in line with what really gets asked - how far are you willing to go to win?  If you're not willing to go all the way, why should anyone follow you?

I don't fear that one religion or one cultural group, gender preference group, whatever is secretly plotting to take over the world and remove those who aren't like them.  

I do often wonder about humanity at large, though.