18
May 16

On the Microsoft Pro-EU position – how not to write a letter

I wrote in a previous post that I have a gut feeling about the EU referendum. In fact I have a gut feeling about most things, which is all the more reason I like to subject myself to criticism. Come and knock spots off me, show me how I’m wrong. In fact I’ll go out to seek the counter argument. I’m opinionated, but I’m not entrenched. It’s entirely likely I may rebut everything I find – or everything you say – but at least give me the opportunity to do so and to have the debate. The debate is just as important as the outcome.

Which is why the media coverage of the referendum has been so frustrating to date. It hasn’t been a debate about the issues, rather one about the rhetoric of the debate. The debate is about the debate.

Anyway I’m not complaining about media representation here, I’m angry about something completely different.

You may have heard in the news that Microsoft wrote an email to their employees and business network urging them to vote to stay in the EU.

Well, it wasn’t really an “urge”, because it had nothing compelling in it whatsoever.

I suppose if you’re a huge organisation, for PR purposes you can’t possibly go too far down the road of siding with one political movement over another. Unless it’s taking a stand against outright evil, it’s best to be safe.

Here are my notes on the Microsoft Email. Michel Van der Bel, you have let me down, you have let your team down, but most of all you have let yourself down:

MPN

In the interests of balance, here’s a letter from a small online bookshop based in Lincoln that I received with a shipment last week. Forget the different political positions that Microsoft and Anybook.biz have for a second; this letter is refreshingly different from Microsoft’s letter in the following ways

a) It’s very specific about the industry they are in, rather than the business itself

b) It is laden with statements of fact. While these need fact-checking, at least there is something to pin an argument on

c) it is direct, and it says how it will affect consumers as well as the business

1


18
May 16

On Empathy, and the Referendum to Leave the EU

asset

Many months ago and early on in the unfolding story of the British referendum to leave the EU, it was common to hear the electorate – at least presented by the media – decrying “we feel that neither side has really come up with a good enough list of reasons to” [delete as appropriate]: leave / stay in the EU.

As the months have worn on, this narrative of voters’ views presented by the media hasn’t changed, and we are still hearing that people aren’t being armed with the information they need.

Yesterday’s episode of The Today Programme was a case in point; a voter discussion group put together by global market research firm Kantar said “I just need a list of Pros and Cons for me to make up my mind”. The same message came through loud and clear from others in this research group, yet only one of the members of the group had actually picked up the leaflet that was delivered through their door and read it.

Yes this was a government leaflet which presented information from one side. But isn’t one-sided evidence a fantastic entry point for the inquisitive mind to learn about both sides’ arguments? There’s nothing like an outrageous statement from one camp to make you try and disprove it. All the better if that opening gambit is harder to disprove, as it can lead you down all kinds of other avenues of enquiry.

When my friends and family tell me they are not sure which way to vote, I ask further questions to determine whether they are like me, somewhere “In The Middle” as opposed to very much not like me “On The Fence”. Because lazy I am not, and un-engaged I refuse to be.

(Note, I’m “somewhere in the middle”, not bang in the middle, and I definitely have a gut feeling from which I will not depart.)

Being “In the Middle” doesn’t mean I am not decisive on an issue. It certainly doesn’t mean I blow whichever way the wind is blowing. It just means that I know there are Pros and Cons and although the decision is important, I consider it “swings and roundabouts”. I may be better-off in one way, and worse-off in another.

The best analogy I have for the decision – and the tone of the debate – is if my firm were deciding to switch suppliers for a major contract. Despite going to tender, and assimilating hundreds of pages of technical information about service provision, there are still unknowns. (Known ones, and unknown ones…) Colleagues will be battling out the detail, suppliers will be making false claims, it’s our job as the ones making the decision to decide on the criteria for a decision. Once that’s done, you weed out the rubbish claims and work through the good ones. There’s no right or wrong – just different.

I have sympathy with voters who feel frustrated by politicians. Perhaps deep down inside they too know there’s no right or wrong, and when politicians present their side as a matter of morality or patriotism, it turns us off. It’s not wrong to move your services from EON to Scottish Power, and we immediately switch off when someone tells us it’s something we should be scared about. Likewise we switch off to those trying to bait us by telling us the outcome is certain when we know there can be no certainty.

When I hear that people are “On The Fence”, this is what makes me shout at the radio. Of course we don’t know what the UK will look like outside of the EU, we can never have a full picture of 21st Century UK outside of the EU.

Some say “look at Norway”. No, this is Britain, it’s entirely different. Some say “the UK will be returned to pre-Cold War days”. No, this is the 21st Century, and we haven’t just fought a world war. Also Britain didn’t “join the EU”, it was an alliance member of the Council of Europe after the war and was a formative influence, since which time much has changed. Britain joined the EEC much later in the 70s.

History was my weakest subject at school, but I remember being taught the definition of Empathy. This is a pretty good version: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.

So when I learn that the reason my friends are “On The Fence” is that they haven’t been presented with a clear set of Pros and Cons, I want to shout “get a grip and stop blaming your lack of understanding on a lack of evidence”. It’s EMPATHY that is required to work out whether you want to stay in a situation in which you have no experience of not being. The story of Europe unfolded over the course of decades and you won’t find hard evidence of what it will be like if we left. Arguably we need to apply just as much empathy in working out what would happen as a result of staying in the EU, as we can’t possibly know what’s going to hit us in the coming years. Either way, decisions are best made with empathy, not facts.

My suspicion is that some voters hide behind their lack of engagement in the political process by demanding facts from politicians, when they should really be taking-on the decision for themselves.

For this is the beauty of democracy: the freedom to make your own mind up. In a representative democracy, it isn’t the responsibility of our leaders to educate us in the facts.

So I have a low tolerance for voters who, when it comes to voting day, recoil and stay with what they know because they never got off the fence. That’s just damned lazy.

I’ll give you a few days during which time you can say you’re “on the fence”. After that, I’ll say outrageously illiberal things like “you shouldn’t be allowed to vote”.


25
Feb 10

Browser Ballot

Browser ballot. Ballot?

What, like an election? You mean, it’s more than a mere choice, it’s a personal statement of belief, a vote?

It appears that way. Each browser has its manifesto. A page held on a politically neutral website that outlines what the browser stands for.

What the hell?

Today I was doing some Windows updates on a client’s computer, and after I rebooted I saw something that led me to believe their machine had a trojan or spyware. For there was no branding, no explanation, just a box that popped up in an unfamiliar window saying that I had an important choice to make.

This has to be dodgy, right? A virus. Someone trying to steal my data.

The only important choice I have to make right now is what to have for dinner.

No, it’s the European Union ruling against Microsoft, telling them that they have to provide users with a choice of browser. A browser ballot. Yay! I get to vote!

It’s like returning home after your cleaner has been only to find someone took your wooden floor away, and left you a note saying you have an important choice to make. You need to choose what type of floor you would like to use from now on. Wait, you surely bought that floor along with the rest of the house? Like five years ago!

NO! Because a floor is distinctly different to a house. Lots of different people make floors! You should be given a choice! Otherwise it’s unfair on everyone who makes floors!

What the hell? Where is my floor? It’s my house, get out!

This only applies to Microsoft, mind. Your floor would only be temporarily removed if you bought a Microsoft house as your home, not an Apple one, or a Ubuntu one. Oh, and it only applies to Microsoft Homes purchased in the last 10 years. Oh, and it doesn’t apply to Microsoft Mansions (i.e. servers) or mobile homes of any sort (iPod, Windows Mobile). Only middle class homes. It’s because Microsoft are the Barratt Homes of computers. Their bigness makes them inherently bad.

Ok so the difficulty with this metaphor is that everyone in the world knows the difference between a floor and a house, but not everyone in the world knows the difference between a browser and an operating system. You, dear reader, are excused if you do not know the difference, deep down. It’s okay. You are quite normal.

Wait. Even worse to think. More people will vote in this arbitrary browser ballot in the UK than will vote in the general election. Many, many more people. That is so wrong it hurts.

Back on topic, let’s get this straight.

Anyone who actually knows what a browser is has already made their choice.

The remainder (75% of actual people – that is – living human beings with souls who just want to go on the internet without any hassles) do not care.

They will have a decision process forced upon them, be told the decision is important, (what, like abortion? Like looking for a new job?) and then be confounded with a load of options they don’t understand. If they click the window away, it will install a shortcut to the desktop, and come up again on next reboot.

I work in the field of IT Consultancy, and I can testify that to the majority of users, this decision is not as important as who to vote for on X Factor.

The consequence: IT Support will be picking up the pieces, after the sorry mess caused by a load of unsuspecting users who accidentally installed the wrong browser because they had no idea where to click, thus losing all of their settings, saved passwords, and not to mention being bloody confounded because the browser they chose didn’t have the latest version of Adobe Flash, etc.

Make it go away.

My mother doesn’t even know the difference between the address bar and a mouse. Give her a change of browser and she will have to go to night classes again just to learn how to do a Google search. Seriously.

Hell, even the BBC, in tech articles, regularly get operating system and browser confused. That’s how tech savvy we are: rightly or wrongly, our own media can’t even get it right. (Cringe.)

In the name of liberation, choice, freedom? It smacks of jealousy, of fanatical technocracy. It’s almost a religious war. Sure as anything isn’t politics. Or regulation for that matter.

The global tech industry requires solid, effective, and rational sector regulation. The EU has proven its worthlessness once again by entirely missing the point and unleashing its mindless red tape on an easy target. Path of least resistance. What a weak bunch.

It’s micro legislation, and it undermines the fact that the industry is suffering a dearth of real regulation, such as in cyber security, or in the environmental challenges.

Nit-picking at the big guy on a tiny point of interest does nobody any favours.

It’s straight bananas, except far worse.

It sure as anything wasn’t for anti-monopoly reasons because for one, browsers are not a major source of income for anyone (except those who only make browsers… cough cough) and secondly because this will do nothing to put a leash onto the fact Microsoft have cornered the corporate IT market – where the money is.

This is the techno-democracy-brigade equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

I’m starting to feel sorry for large conglomerates (for the random outburst of legislation that clearly applies to nobody else) and feeling anger towards libertarian organisations who supposedly want the world to be a better place.

I’m starting to mutter under my breath words like political correctness gone MAD, and I sound like one of those awful Daily Mail readers.

What’s going on with the world?