All entries for Monday 04 September 2006

September 04, 2006

Google's listening…

According to The Register Google is working on software which will use your computer microphone to listen what’s going on in your house. Not surprisingly, it hopes to use this information to serve you “content relevant advertising” which, in other words, means that you’ll be watching a football match on TV and Google will think “Hmm…sports fan, here’s an advert for Nike”. Similarly if you’re watching a news story about fishing, Google will listen and throw some angling adverts on your PC screen.

It’s an intriguing development. Obviously, they can’t do this without telling you, although they’re not likely to explictly go out of their way to offer you this amazing new ability to view more advertising. Instead I reckon they’ll package the software with the Google Sidebar, Google Talk or with GMail, meaning you’ll just have to tick a box saying you agree to their ‘terms and conditions’.

As the Register piece mentions, there’s a danger of being in a permanent state of deja vu, but the future uses of the software could be quite wide reaching. Imagine TV advertising tailored to the conversation you’ve just been having. Or radio ads which know which songs you like.

It’s the future, as Peter Kay would say, and it’s becoming more and more like Minority Report every day.

Why's Blair passing up the solar–powered bandwagon?

Tony Blair’s rarely afraid of jumping on other people’s bandwagons. Whether it’s school dinners or aid for Africa, Blair follows as often as he leads. This often extends – especially before the 2005 election – to stealing ideas from the Conservatives. So why hasn’t Blair jumped on David Cameron’s most successful bandwagon, the environment?

The Director of Friends of the Earth says the Conservatives’ stance on the environment is as important as Labour’s Clause IV moment. But the key difference is that the Conservatives couldn’t do anything about Clause IV, whereas Labour could easily steal a lead on the environment if it wanted to. True, it would make Blair look weak, but it would also be the pragmatic thing to do. Blair boasts of his environmental record, but the reality is that he could do much, much more. The words “environmental tax” or “green tax” have never been spoken by Gordon Brown (which doesn’t suggest much for his presumed Premiership), and there is little support for individuals or businesses who want to go green, just legislation.

At DEFRA you have a very competent minister in David Miliband, but he too has offered little on the environment. So why?

My theory is that DEFRA is simply too big. Many have called for it to be broken up in the past, but with the environment such a key issue I think it’s high time that we had a Cabinet-level Environment Minister and a separate Department for the Environment.

DEFRA seems bogged down in agricultural issues, and bunching the environment with ‘rural affairs’ seems to be a strange association to make. Surely environmental problems usually originate in cities?

Breaking up DEFRA would focus minds and allow new policy initiative to be made. Otherwise it’s inevitable that David Cameron will be able to steal a lead on the environment when it’s an area of policy that ought to be Labour’s strong suit.

New pressure group lobbying for direct democracy

Saira Khan (the annoying one from the first series of The Apprentice) is now styling herself as a “commentator on current affairs” and trying to bring about a change in British democracy. Under the banner Our Say , the group is trying to persuade the government to allow more direct democracy in the form of referendums to be held every year. Apparently:

It offers a creative and constructive way of giving people a renewed stake in the democratic process at a time when confidence in politics in Britain is at an all-time low.

To me it sounds like a potentially disastrous idea. The group uses the example of referendums in the United States and Switzerland. What it doesn’t mention is that these referenda often relate to regional issues rather than national ones.

We all know what would happen if we held referenda on issues such as the death penalty, membership of the EU and immigration – it’d be like every reality TV show where the wrong person wins. Politicians might be a corrupt bunch of reprobates, but they’re there for a good reason: the often make difficult decisions, guided by a knowledgeable civil service. If the public were asked to make the decisions, they’d almost certainly go for the easy option.

But the easy option is invariably the worst one. I mean, the easiest option would be to have private healthcare, but it’s not necessarily the best option, is it?

I think direct democracy does have potential when it comes to local and regional politics: a county council might ask its voters whether they would like their waste to be disposed of in landfill or incinerator, for instance. But on a national level, they would surely be used to decide the most emotive, divisive issues.

Saira Khan and friends are well-meaning. There does need to be a stronger connection between the public and politics. But direct democracy isn’t it. The Tories are being urged to support the campaign but I hope Cameron, Blair and Campbell all see this for what it is: blatant, unwise and dangerous populism.

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