Hmm

Over the course of my, still relatively short, life span I have been interested in many things. When I was little I wanted to be a ballet dancer. For a long time after that it was boys and clothes, with a long running interest in the written word bubbling away in the background. GCSE RE introduced me to Buddhism and orientalism, and through that, conversely, to Christianity and the big three Theistic faiths. Then I found semiotics at college, and worked the two interests together looking at symbol and mythology in religion, which spilled over into the role of myth in sociology.
I didn’t really want to go to Uni, but then I got into Cambridge, and while I was there I loved bits of my Theology course, but was never passionate about it. Instead, I got really passionate about rowing, and drinking, and found out so much about my friends, who were so different to those I’d grown up with, and that was great. I did an international development research project in Bangladesh in 2008, which taught me about research, which was fun and heart-breaking at the same time. In my last year I started getting into politics, nominally through a politics and religion course I did; this, not having grown up in a political home, was a learning curve.
Over the last two years, I’ve got into running too, rediscovered a love for ballet, continued to row, started reading properly again, and also discovered that I sort of like watching films more than I like going clubbing. Working in research has taught me so much about different industries; I know that I love doing social projects, comms projects, concept and brand development, typologies and large scale quant segmentation. I don’t like FSCG, technology or media research. I love behavioural economics.
I’m developing my understanding of the history and geography of politics, and through moonlighting with Age Uk and dabbling with writing some position papers for a London mayoral candidate I’m learning about the practical applications of policy and charity.
But what do I want to do? I’m fed up with being ok at a lot of things. Ideally of course I’d like to be good at lots of things, but in lieu of that I feel like I need to focus in and actually “apply myself” (in the words of my GCSE Maths teacher – horrible man). Hopefully writing it down makes it more real and seemingly more achievable, and although the point of this blog isn’t for anyone to read it but to push myself to work at formulating opinions and ideas, this is a good place to start..

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Work Related Blog from a while back #2

Shadows of Liberty is a 2012 documentary tracing the expansion of corporatism in the American media. Some may describe myself and Jess as the most “politically active” in the office (some might say “ridiculously cynical”). In any case, it seemed like an interesting and enlightening documentary and debate to go to on a surprisingly sunny Thursday afternoon.

Shadows of Liberty addresses several broad reaching themes, weaving examples from recent history – FBI whistleblowing, the super mergers of the late 90’s and 2000’s, the dubious morality of Dateline “To Catch a Predator” and the various corporation backed rulings of the FCC – with the overall assertion that the “free” press is anything but. Held at the LSE, the debate was obviously going to attract a certain type of audience, and the overriding atmosphere in the room was definitely that of liberal outrage. This was tempered slightly by the straight talking Charlie Beckett of POLIS, who offered a more mainstream look at the changes in corporate involvement in the media (cue a highly passionate debate about the virtues of American cable chat shows) to counter the poetic ramblings of the aristocratic -looking director Jean-Phillipe Tremblay.

Ridiculously incendiary comments from some student attendees lurking at the back of the room rather deflated the shell-shocked atmosphere after the film had been shown, and all in all I found the “documentary” to be too much hyperbole and too little substance. At several points we rolled our eyes at the leading questioning and the inductive arguments presented throughout the film to back up the points being made, and I’m pretty sure Tremblay wouldn’t be allowed within 10 feet of a Discovery presentation. However, it did address some interesting subject areas, especially interesting in the light of the on-going Levenson enquiry. The impact of corporate culture on the free press will surely have a massive impact on all our lives (if it doesn’t, it should), and questions about the morality of corporation sponsorship and patronage of the free press and the arts must be something that we all think about, as individuals, but also in our line of work. To what extent should our knowledge about corporate activity affect the nature of projects we take on; how far should segment readership demographics be relied on to present attitudinal and lifestyle typologies when we know exactly how much money is spent on pushing a tabloid agenda? Probably not questions that we can address in the day to day of our research work, and not issues that were dealt with satisfactorily in the documentary, but food for thought, none the less.

Work Related Blog from a while back

Bill Bratton hit the headlines last year when he was invited to the UK in the aftermath of the London riots, and was touted as a potential new head of the Metropolitan Police. He lectured at LSE in October last year, providing an interesting look at the importance of context in understanding crime and changing behaviour.

Throughout his time as head of transport and chief commissioner of both the NYPD and LAPD in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bill Bratton was one of the main practical proponents of “Broken Windows Policing”. Referenced in some detail in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’, the general principle of the theory is that a focus on small, environmental changes, in this case cracking down on petty crime and anti-social behaviour, can have a demonstrable effect in changing attitudes and behaviours within these environments.

At this time of Bratton’s leadership, crime was booming in both New York and Boston, with phenomenal levels of gang violence, murder and burglary. Bratton’s approach in both cases was to reprioritise police resources, with a focus on smaller crimes and antisocial behaviour – fare avoidance at the subway, graffiti, the eponymous broken windows – to create a zero-tolerance environment from ground up; once police departments demonstrated their success with ‘petty’ crime, serious crime began to clear up too. It’s a markedly low-key approach to tackling murder and violence, and one that requires phenomenal persistence – in both cases it took weeks and months of cleaning train carriages and chasing fare dodgers through the subways – but the levels of serious crime declined steadily.

The theory is that, in developing the power of the police to deal with more nebulous problems, belief in the police as a force for justice and social change began to slowly re-emerge in communities and criminals alike. There was a practical element to the method – the majority of fare dodgers pulled out of subway ticket halls were wanted for violent crimes, which led to their successful conviction – and it also coincided with an internal shake-up of the police force, which had lost a lot of its credibility and integrity due to internal corruption and ineffectiveness.

Underlying this, though, both in Bratton’s speech and Gladwell’s writing, is the idea that context is very important to human behaviour. Crime prevailed in both New York and Boston because people are unavoidably influenced by their environment and will react accordingly. If the streets are clean, safe and have time and money invested in them, citizens will be proud of their communities, respect social norms and each other, and act within the confines of social contracts. If windows are broken, the walls are tagged and people consistently jump the ticket barriers, people receive the message that behavioural constraints have ceased to function, societal norms have become irrelevant, and laws are unworthy of respect. Within the context of the London riots, the budget cuts in seemingly all areas of local services and the coalition rhetoric of ‘Big Society’, Bratton’s recounting of the application and effects of this method seemed extremely apt.

I know many people in the industry who believe that the Tipping Point as a piece of behavioural literature is a little too broad and generalist to be truly ground-breaking, that it fails to present a cohesive paradigm and instead creates attentional biases towards one element of a phenomenon in understanding an outcome. Indeed, when put into the context of overall socio-economic change in America – an economic boom, new legislation with a push to build more prisons, and the aforementioned reformation of the police force – the overall importance of the Broken Windows method may not be fully ascertainable, especially when it hasn’t been implemented in any other cities to test its transferability.

However, Bratton’s very entertaining and thought provoking talk did raise two research-related lines of thought for me. As researchers who can’t avoid the influence of behaviour economic theory in our work, we know that behaviour is to some degree a function of environment. The government MINDPSACE publications expound the importance of environment and social norms in creating policy and encouraging behaviours; Discovery explored this extensively with the FSA last year whilst segmenting attitudes towards financial behaviour. In more general terms, it reiterates the fact that sometimes the obvious approach is not always the right one, either in writing documents for fieldwork or analysing and delivering back to our clients.

It also underlined, for me at least, the importance of good quality research in policy, and the potential for us to help facilitate real and valuable change as we go forwards as agencies and individuals. One thing that struck me about Bratton’ approach was his emphasis on listening to communities and working with them to deal with their most pressing concerns. To those outside looking in, litter and broken windows may pale in significance next to murder and rape rates, but on the ground they play fundamental role in making people feel safe, valued and part of a functioning society.

What was clear to us with our work with the FSA, and was clear to Bratton too, is that correctly labelling and understanding the relationship between the ‘big’ and ‘little’ issues may only be fully appreciated through mediation between policy maker and communities, who naturally and essentially talk in very different languages. Some organisations, like the CSJ or the JRF, are producing fantastic publications that lead the way within the social sphere, but it’s really an issue that applies across the sectors. For me, the talk and the discussion after it really highlighted one of the most important job that we can do in any context: to work as translator and advocate for both customer and end client, and facilitate the dialogue to develop a brand, communicate ideas, or even drive wide spread behavioural change.

 

The Shock Doctrine – not so shocking?

8/5/2012

Over the last few months I’ve been having a bit of a leftie binge on LoveFilm, much to the chagrin of my flatmate who I’m sure would much prefer to be watching something (anything) else. Last night I watched the Shock Doctrine, by the rather wonderful Naomi Klein.

I really like Klein, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the film, it was a compelling look at several of the socio-economic atrocities that occurred in Argentina and Chile  in the 60s and 70s, coming forwards in time to the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. Essentially, the film was an attempt to present a history of the economic or social disasters of the 20th century, with the overall assertion that war, terror and natural disasters are used on wider society by those in economic or social control much as ECT is used on the individual by the psychiatrist, as a ‘shock’ to wipe the slate clean and start again with radical policies. In doing so, the Friedman inspired policies implemented in Pinochet’s Chile and other places were connected with the corporate ‘sponsorship’ of the rebuilding of Iraq, weaving together speculation on the impact of hard and soft US power throughout the past few decades.

My overall take on the film was twofold. Firstly, I felt that a better title for the film would have been ‘an 80-minute look at some of the bad things that have happened over the past 50 years”. While I appreciate to an extent what Klein is saying, I don’t follow the logic of a sustained effort to impose a psychiatric model on the economic systems of, not only America and the UK, but Latin America, Asia and Russia too, as the film asserted. I haven’t yet been persuaded that there is this level of collusion and the sustained narrative that I have heard Klein and others promote.

No-one can argue that the regimes of Pinochet, the chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia or the Thatcher policies of the 80’s were huge leaps forward in human rights and social democracy. The role of America in funding the coup against Allende has been extensively studied and we know that national interests of those in power do sometimes (often) undermine the national interests of those in other places, with disastrous results. History is littered with the outcomes of greed, corruption, underhand and covert operations – business interests prevail and the inability for the elite to understand the lives of others is always shocking. Milton Friedman was clearly a brilliant man and a great economist, but he appeared to have a shocking naivety about real life, or else a startling lack of compassion. I felt it was going a little far, however, to suggest that the promotion of his economic theories in Chile and Argentina were the only contributor to the atrocities witnessed there. I’m not a big fan of the free markets, but I can imagine that the difference between the free market in a social democracy and the totalitarian juntas seen at these points in time are fairly discernible.

Putting my first point aside, whether we believe with Klein that there is some huge international conspiracy to essentially disenfranchise and defraud the masses, or else look at history as simply one greed-fuelled mistake after another, what I have failed to understand from any of the documentaries I’ve watched or the books I’ve read lately is what the alternative may be. And that’s a little bit scary for someone living in a coalition Britain at the moment. Regulation of the market may be economically unsound depending on which school of thought you ascribe to, is at least a ‘tangible’ thing that can actually be regulated. It may be true that capitalism breeds fundamentally top heavy societies and corporations create intrinsically unfair systems of supply and demand. Capitalism as an economic system, however, and corporations as institutions for doing business, are not right or wrong in themselves.  It is people that are greedy and ignorant, and you can’t regulate for that.

In the shock doctrine, Klein appears to suggest at the end of the documentary that the only way to change the system is to strike, and she has some stats that show that the levels of strike action in the US have declined fantastically in the last 100 years. In other works, she has argued more specifically for the enlightenment of young people to be wise to advertising and corporate spin. Increasingly though I find that the loudest voices in liberal academia are taking a more and more theoretical, observational tone.  You can’t regulate against greed, now can you regulate for compassion. In the same way, we may deride the capitalist rhetoric of the last 100 years, but I just as ineffectual is the ‘anti-everything’ stance of the privileged left.

11/5/2012

N.b In addition, I went to a really interesting debate last night facilitated by Owen Jones, who was discussing the new release of ‘Chavs’. (In a weird coincidence, he has Tweeted today about the Shock Doctrine too). Much like Klein, I love his work and the passion he brings to the table, and the debate was a great meeting of opinions. However, once again I am left with a vague frustration that there was nothing concrete suggested as to the way forwards –like Klein, Jones suggested strikes at a couple of points, and talked (really passionately) about mobilising the working classes/disempowered classes in organised efforts. I agree with his point that action needs to come from grassroots organisation, but still I don’t feel enough energy is being put into the practicalities of these assertions. We need to make a noise, certainly, but the content of what we say is just as important.

New note to self: stop automatically assuming anything that a Tory does is DIM (mean, ignorant and duplicitous)

My lovely flatmate, Jimmy, and I were talking the other day. We met while studying politics and have lived together for about a year now, with frequent visits from other course mates, a subscription to the Economist and regular (and possibly unhealthy) West Wing marathons. He works in private banking and is a staunch Conservative. I work in research and am a former-liberal-now-confused. It’s fair to say we have a few political chats.

I am worried. This particular conversation ended on a particularly voracious note. I fear that I have turned into a caricature of myself, and have actually lost the ability to have a reasoned discussion about politics. I’m not sure exactly what has made me this way, but my knee-jerk reaction to hate on anything Cameron or his coalition does, says or smirks about, regardless if it’s something I’ve been moaning about myself in the pub the night before, has turned a bit dark. And substantially more knee-jerkier.

I’ve always called myself a liberal, before I really even knew what that meant. As I’ve got older, I’ve fulfilled the standard narrative arc, getting a bit more right wing on some things, retaining my leftie views on many others, and generally assuming some kind of nonchalant mid-stance (leaving me currently feeling like, if the election was tomorrow and would swing on MY VOTE ALONE, I wouldn’t really know who to to vote for*).

Clearly, I haven’t always been so angry, muttering curses at PMQs like a crazed voodoo priest. I wrote a policy paper on Sure Start for my Masters, during which time I found out a lot of things: most importantly, that when it comes to Sure Start, I think the Tories pretty much had it right all along. I strongly concur that prevention is better then cure, especially when it comes to kids and youth policy. I also concur that benefits got out of control under Labour and that ridiculous levels of target-driven bureaucracy sucked almost all the life out of the education system (all this, not to mention Iraq).

I like a lot of Conservatives. I like Louise Mensch, face lift or not. I think she is a fantastic role model for young women. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Boris and his blundering adventures (although would love it if Siobhan Benita got in this time around). I like Baroness Warsi (although I felt her comments about Christianity a month or so ago were strategic rather then heartfelt). I have a lot of time for SamCam (the colour blocking! The shoes!) and while Lansley and Osbourne are always going to be baddies to me, I feel that Nick Clegg might be on the rise, and do some good stuff in the next few years.

Yet lately, I can’t watch the news without developing extremely context – specific Tourettes. I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I see the cuts affecting my family, some of my friends, and my community, both in London and back home. Somehow over the last few months, my ability to reason and think my way through an issue has left me. My new paradigm looks something like: Tory = rich = grossly materialistic = policy bleeding the country dry. And this is silly, unproductive, and, I imagine, profoundly annoying to all my friends.

So my newest note to self: stop assuming that every Conservative policy is DIM (duplicitous, ignorant and mean). Running a country is hard. David and all his little busy coalition bees are clever people who have worked, studied, grafted, networked and schmoozed hard to be where they are. They inherited a mess and I’m sure amongst all the politics, the spats, the business deals and all the sheer ridiculous messy humanity that goes on when a group of people get together and try to sort things out, there is lots of well meaning and necessary stuff going on.

So from now on I pledge to try and see both sides, to reason my way through, and to get fully educated about issues and stances before I start shooting my mouth off at the TV. It will make me a better person, a more useful one and maybe a bit less cross. I also hope it will make me a person who, in some way, can do something about all the things I care about, in my career and in my free time. I think this is really important, maybe the most important decision I’ve made this year. It should also make me much less annoying. (Good news, Jimmy.)

*I know that elections don’t work like this.

Kony 2012 – sticky sticky sticky

The unexpected rise of #StopKony coincided neatly with a great Radio 1 documentary I happened to catch post-gym on Monday night. Presented by Greg James and in traditionally R1 colloquial style, it dealt with trends and social memes; although largely focused on Youtube videos and funny Twitter trends, I was impressed with how much theory it managed to pack in and how insightful it was. (I was also surprised at how many agencies there are that deal solely with managing the content and ‘talent’ behind viral videos like Nyan Cat and Fenton-the-dog – although working in the industry I do I really shouldn’t have been).

There was a great explanation of memes about halfway through that described them as parasitic – exactly how I was taught to understand them when I studied psychology of religion. Dawkins and his fellows have gone to great lengths to explain exactly why religion spreads and sticks as it does, and have floated really interesting theories about the specific conditions that a religious idea needs to fulfil in order for it be accepted by the subconscious part of our brains and become ‘sticky’ – it’s actually amazingly formulaic.

Anyway, the #StopKony craze this week has been really interesting. I first heard about it on Monday when my friend-from-home sent me a message asking me to watch the Invisible Children documentary, and inviting me to a protest in Southampton next month. (I’d never heard of Kony before that, and as someone who keeps a fairly keen eye on international affairs I felt a little bit stupid about this). It’s clearly a very compelling documentary, and I don’t think anyone is disputing the factual contents of the IC output in the abstract. Since then, I’ve read up about the past of LRA and it is, inarguably, horrendous: child soldiers are definitely one of the most saddening and emotionally wrenching global issues, as well as one of the most complicated. I can see exactly why the film and its content has stirred up so much anger and revolutionary spirit in so many people, and as an example of some of the atrocities that occur every day in various places around the world it’s a very absorbing one.

What interests me though is why exactly #StopKony has captured the public imagination, as opposed to hundreds of other human rights abuses, brutal military or revolutionary regimes or social-economic injustices worldwide – the fact that it plays upon some of our most common and dearly held moral convictions is obvious, but there are so many other instances’ of this type of thing all over the world. What is it about this that makes it so sticky? The LRA is pushing 25 years now, and has actually declined in its power, numbers and activity in the last 10 of these. Joseph Kony hasn’t actually been in Uganda for something like six years, and it seems that the modern LRA numbers only in the hundreds and is scattered across East Africa; even when Obama sent troops to support the Ugandan counter-LRA forces last year, the rhetoric was very much to ‘hunt’ the scattered members down (incidentally, the information in reports that many of the local LRA hunters were ex-child soldiers originally recruited by Kony is strangely satisfying, at least to me)[i]. Ugandan spokespeople are said to be pretty angry that the IC video has created so much focus on their communities, the majority of whom seem to be focused on building their local infrastructures and getting on with their lives[ii].

Maybe what #StopKony is in actuality is a very, very good marketing campaign. It certainly has succeeded in creating a story for public consumption, despite its possible temporal irrelevance. Somehow it has fulfilled the criteria for meme status, ensuring its spreads like wildfire throughout social media channels – even if we don’t agree with it, we are all talking about it. And isn’t that the point of marketing, to set something on the public agenda, despite the facts?

Making #StopKony both an event, and a celebrity. IC were very clever at building up anticipation to the documentary, the style of which was not unlike the release of a film, or the release of the Brit award nominees. Since its ‘release’, continued assertion and reassertion of its existence throughout its Twitter account has transformed #StopKony from a hashtag to a separate entity: IC posing questions to followers, replying to Tweets and continually name dropping and thanking supporters and donators has separated #StopKony from its origins. #StopKony is not the documentary makers, the IC or even the Kony 2012 campaign itself, but a conviction and a concept personified and made ‘alive’- supporters can interact with this ‘voice’ that Tweets, LOLz and hashtags back.

Setting temporal limits. The scope of the campaign is psychologically inviting. Giving Kony 2012 a ‘release’ date and an ‘expiry’ date creates a clear window of opportunity which makes the whole concept so much easier to comprehend, get on board with and feel like we are contributing to. Open ended campaigns with no clear resolution are too vague and feel insurmountable. This, on the other hand, has a limited time frame so it feels manageable, as if energy invested in it won’t go to waste. Essentially, #StopKony is a great narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, story like in its structure and composition.

Clearly defined roles. The characters in this story are clear, and by extension our role is also clearly defined. #StopKony has a clear protagonist – Joseph Kony is the focus of the campaign, and his status as ‘wanted’ by the ICC and the UN gives him ultimate ‘bad guy’ creds.  The idea that everything will be ok if he is taken out of the equation (never mind the insecurities of the nation as a whole and the unavoidable complicity with the Ugandan government that will need to happen if he is ever to be brought to justice) is pleasingly simple and attractive. And the roles of everyone involved are clearly defined – the LRA are shocking Kony is the ringleader, the UN and ICC, in this instance at least, cast as the morally righteous world powers that have officially decreed him to be so terrible.

Uniting the audience. And we, the Tweeting, ‘sharing’, ‘Liking’ global public, find ourselves comfortably cast as the empowered, united front that have the combined means to bring him to justice. Our role is clear, and the required action is relatively simple yet, potentially, vindicating and powerful. There have been various global ‘events’ planned which I’m sure the majority of those pressing ‘Attend’ on Facebook will actually show up to, but it’s really enough just to Retweet, thumbs up, email and chat about #StopKony. It does two things: shows how moral we are, and unites us with others. The diffusion of the campaign through celebrity Tweeters doesn’t need much analysis; all in all it just goes to strengthen the idea of a moral unity, a worldwide stand against something that no-one can argue is wrong.

The White House has backed #StopKony, complimenting the “hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilised to this unique crisis of conscience.” And I think this is broadly right – it is testimony to the continued existence of human conscience and morality that we care about these things and want to help. It shows a clear yearning for unity and empowerment that can only be made greater by the current uncertainty we face as our world slips further into economic confusion every week. In a world where the powerless feel ever more side lined and weak, this is a massive boost to morale and a chance to feel like the things we do can really matter.

The only thing is, though, that it seems that this morality and outrage may be misplaced. The critique of IC has highlighted flaws in its fund distribution as well as raised questions about its cooperation with the Ugandan government.  Its elevation of status through Tiwtter and Facebook may actually be misinforming the public about the best ways to contend human rights aberrations, and be oversimplifying the issue to a ridiculous degree. Drawing complex global issues in broad brush strokes does not educate or inform; in its worst form it makes a mockery of both those that are victims and those that are trying their best to ‘help’.

The key issue for me is why #StopKony is sticky with social media users (without being too generalistic, the young, connected and vocal) and why issues that are closer to home are not. Think of what could be achieved if young people felt empowered enough to start a similar furore over issues that actually affect them; furthermore, imagine what could happen if my generation and the ones just below understood not only the process and effects of political and social legislation, but also the methods to counteract them, and applied the same kind of moral indignation and technological propulsion to their campaign.

Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism)

So I need some new running shoes. I’ve had flu for a while, pretty much bed ridden last week, and now am feeling the urge to get back on the run, back erging and back on the water (if I don’t, I literally go mental).

This personal issue – being poorly,  highlighting an obsessive compulsion to get back training – has made me think about a few things; mini ideas that would have crossed my mind anyway but have been given loads of space to germinate and grow in my fever-addled brain the last week or so. And I thought this would be a good place to start writing.

So here is my first ever blog post, casually entitled:

1)      Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism).

Now, I LOVE running. And more than that, I love rowing, for which, while you don’t need trainers in a boat, to do well you need to train hard and well on land. Both these things necessitate a good pair of shoes. Running and rowing makes me feel strong and calm and happy and together. And if I’m going to spend money on a pair of shoes that I’m going to wear more per week than any other pair of shoes I own, I want them to be good. I want them to feel good and wear well, and to help train hard – when you have a good pair of shoes on you feel like you could run forever. And I’m a girl, and I’m 25, and I want them to look good. I’m not going to lie about any of these things.

So I’m going to treat myself to a new pair of trainers – I’ve felt ill since the middle of January and am so impatient to get back on top of it and go hard. BUT – and here is the issue – I’ve been reading a LOT of Naomi Klein lately, and supplementing my general awareness of certain brands perpetuating horrendous labour and human rights laws in the developing world with more specific stories of back breaking, monotonous work for next to no pay for individuals, and whole countries caught up in constant ever decreasing spirals of incentivising multinationals to outsource to them by screwing their labour force over (what Klein and others call ‘enclaves’ of tax breaks and desperation in  the face of globalisation). And while I’m not sure how much difference me buying the really fit looking Pegasus’ I saw in JJB the other day (Brixton Footlocker still not open after last summer!) actually makes,  I guess this decision has become less of a briefly considered pragmatic decision thing for me (had Asics last time, do I go hard and get the Nike Airs this time around? And also: which ones are most on offer?) and has actually been a lynch pin in deciding what I think and where I actually stand on so many issues that I’ve always been really interested in, and variously passionate, angry and sad about. I feel like it’s time to make a stand, it’s just I’m not convinced what my stand is.

So on the one hand it’s the trainers, and on the other hand it’s the rediscovery of a wicked collection of essays by Arundhati Roy on the American Empire that I picked up in Dhaka airport when I was interning in Bangladesh. I spent time in 2008 working in rural communities around Dhaka and getting a feel for the issues that abound out there – in particular I remember one really interesting conversation about sweat shops that I want to think about and research a bit more before I commit it to paper. But my time out there and everything I learnt, felt and saw is definitely playing on mind recently, and definitely informing my dilemma at the moment.

Someone said to me a few weeks ago that you can’t live in the western world without exploiting others. They may have just been trying to quickly stop me ranting at them, but maybe this is true; in fact, it’s definitely true. Now, I am a ‘liberal’, I’m way more left wing then right, and I hate the Tories firstly on principle and secondly because Cameron’s face makes me want to throw up. However, I am not too big a fan of the later Blair either, I don’t appreciate the inclusive, Oxbridge dominated nature of Westminster, and I think that Ed Millipede may be lovely and charming but has a way to go to creating a party I could properly get behind. So I’m also not one to start promoting the virtues of socialism or large scale social welfare, nor, now I’ve done some proper reading on economics in the last couple of years, do I “hate” capitalism.  I think that the idea of capitalism is essentially a neutral one, and possibly a natural one that sits neatly alongside our biological evolution and also makes sense from a business perspective. I also believe that multinationals are inherently neutral constructs, that they make sense in view of how we conduct business nowadays and that, managed differently, there is potential for them to act as be forces for constructive and productive action around the world. So far, so good in terms of being able to spend my hard earned, much appreciated wages on a pair of shoes that will make me flyyyy (in both sense of the word) (maybe).

On the other hand, I hate several things that all have an direct or indirect impact on how much I will ultimately love my shoes. Firstly, as mentioned above, I need to get up to date with the status of Nike (and I use ‘Nike’ as shorthand for ‘all major multinational sports shoes manufacturers that I may want to consider buying from because they make good shoes, innit) in terms of its labour regulations in wherever it is it is currently producing shoes. Apparently here is a good place to start: http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/

I also take issue with the general problem of outsourcing, and the shape of ‘work’ in the modern day world. This is a bit of multifaceted one for me. Firstly, I hate the fact that manufacturing is a dead art in the West, the UK and USA especially, and that jobs like my granddads are now obsolete (he was a joiner in the docks in Southampton). I know I am a little biased as I work, to all extents and purposes, in “the city”, and so am stuck in that London-centic bubble, but it annoys me that so much of our ‘industry’ is essentially intangible – we don’t make “things” anymore, we construct ideas, create brand images and market them to varying levels of moral and commercial success. That goes for my job, even with the more ‘noble’ clients that I actually enjoy working for, and is one factor driving me to really think about what I want from my life. It also goes for much of the media: I’ve been told that the UKs highest grossing export in 2011 was the format for reality panel shows like X Factor (I am yet to confirm this but it wouldn’t surprise me). It also goes for Nike in the sense that they don’t ‘make’ shoes anymore, they assemble suitable parts together into a concept and market that. I find this sad, and I think it accounts for much of the dissatisfaction we feel in the West but can’t put a name to. Maybe its horribly clichéd, but I always feel a tiny bit jealous when I go home and go to the pub with mates in Southampton, and they’ve had a long hard day making things, or fixing things, (lots of them are sparkies or engineers or joiners) and have it all done and dusted and can enjoy their pint and relax. Because our office essentially deals with ideas and concepts and theories, I never feel like I ever really finish anything or create anything of real value; and this frustrates and annoys me. I guess nowadays the majority of us don’t go home at the end of the day having created something useful, and that doesn’t sit well with our natural need to work in cycles, and truly complete things for mental closure and satisfaction (I guess what Marx meant when he talked about alienation).

The process of globalisation and outsourcing has, as far as I can tell, directly contributed to this, moving jobs abroad where they can be done cheaper by people (arguably) more desperate for work. Furthermore, multinational outsourcing has not only moved jobs abroad but deprived whole other continents of their own source of livelihood and creation, destroyed their economy and set the population to task doing menial, mind-numbing jobs  for humiliating wages and crap conditions, setting whole countries and continents in a competition to provide the lowest wages and least effective unions. Does anyone really benefit? I don’t know… I guess I do because I can afford to buy nice shoes whenever I want, but this clearly isn’t a nationwide luxury, especially when it comes to shoes which are such a status symbol – I don’t think it was an accident that Footlocker got so royally trashed during the riots. (On another note, I read a really interesting case study about an American youth project that educated disenfranchised youths about where their trainers and trackies really came from, sparking massive political empowerment and getting kids socially fired up and really engaged in politics and trade regulations – inspiring stuff that I think could have a proper place in the UK today and something I want to get my head around properly).

I guess my urge to get back on my training and run around a lot with some good, supportive shoes has made me really think hard – about things I already knew and cared about hadn’t quite connected the dots on. And it is all connected. My trainers (as yet a metaphysical entity) are part of the same spider web of questions and issues linking social justice, domestic policy, international trade and the developing world. The two most infuriating issues for me at the moment are the fables that abound any reasonable discussion about any kind of socio-economic issue – firstly that capitalism equals meritocracy (social mobility in the UK is arguably worse than it was in the 1950’s) and secondly that outsourcing perpetuates a trickledown effect in poorer countries. I don’t see that it does. When people can’t afford to turn down overtime even when they’ve worked 20 hours straight, then where do they get the time or resources to contribute to their economy?

I’m not going to rehash the wonderful Klein or start citing Chomsky; that would clichéd and I couldn’t do either justice. But the older I get the more I understand how it all fits together (more about this below), and the more p*ssed off I get.

I haven’t quite decided about the trainers yet. Somehow (possibly due to the flu-delusion I had all of last week) they have become a really crucial issue in my head. On the one hand, I like having the money to buy what I want, never really having quite enough when I was growing up. I worked hard, went to a good uni and got a good job out of it. I’m living the capitalist dream, essentially, and I like spending my money on things I want, especially when they make me feel so good and make me run so fast.

But equally, I’m angry about a lot of things, and for some reason this purchase has become, at least in my head, the seminal purchase that will define what I do from here, and who I am (granted, that’s possibly a bit over dramatic). I’ve always known I’ll end up working in social policy, and I’m starting to get the urge to move and start looking for jobs there – maybe that has something to do with it too. In any case, I’m 25 and I feel a change in the air. When I look out the office window over St Pauls and the Shard, oddly, I feel inspired and I feel hopeful, I don’t see a stronghold of greed and money like I thought I might. There is space, as Chomsky and others have pointed out, for business to be moral, and for individuals and companies to make a difference, and maybe this is my first (very baby) step in that direction. Or maybe not, who knows. What I do know is that, flu-addled as it may be, the discussion I’m having with myself about these trainers and the issues around them has been the most interesting I’ve had for a long time.