A little Word-le research

Judging by my little corner of the internet, Wordle – certainly since its take over by the New York Times – is not being played as much as it was in the early part of 2022 when it began to attract the attention of media columnists (e.g. here and also here too in the same paper on the same day). Some players certainly are carrying on (and with a variety of philosophical and dialectical approaches) but I tend to see a few less posts based on coloured squares and certainly a few less times does Wordle ‘trend’. Perhaps that’s Twitter’s algorithm speaking, or perhaps it’s just that people indeed aren’t communicating about it as much as before (one of the aims of its original inventor) – but, at this point, it looks to me as though getting a six-figure sum for the rights to the game looks a pretty good bit of business for Josh Wardle. A lesson in the importance of selling at a peak.

After a couple of trial goes, my interest as a researcher was piqued and, armed with my spreadsheets, I decided to use the daily game to test a few things, not least around the usage of letters in the English alphabet, chiefly: what were the usage differences between five-letter words and all other words; and what word would maximise the possibilities of solving each game in as few attempts as possible. I used to have a boss who insisted that you knew the way any trade union ballot was going to go after the first 100 returns so, after (actually 101) goes, I reckon I’ve got enough to tell me some answers.

Comparing my list of Wordle letter usages (built since early January) with a standard list available off the net (I used this one) tells me that the usage of five letter words varies little from other words. The five most common letters in Words – E, A, O, R, L/T – compares pretty well with the standard list (E, A, R, I, O) and, indeed, across the whole alphabet, Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient stands at 0.93 – so it correlates very highly. From the Wordle list, H and K are used a lot more than ‘normal’ but they’re anyway not particularly common letters: within the top half of used letters in the alphabet, D is used a lot less in five-letter words, as also are N and I, while L appears a lot more frequently (often as a result of double usages – knoll, skill, swill, spill, allow and shall have all appeared in this first 100 (as has lowly). E tops out at a fraction over 50 appearances – i.e. it appears in every other Wordle – and frequently at the end of one (23 times – nearly one in four); and then there’s quite a gap to A (44) which, in contrast to E, appears at the end of a word only three times. The rest until L/T (35 each) follow with small gaps between each one, with S (33) quite close before a sizable fall to I (25) with H, C and N the only other letters scoring more than 20. P and U complete the top half of Wordle’s most used letters in the alphabet, which then descends to X, Q, Z and J with the last of these being the final letter to break its duck.

With three vowels in the top five letters, it’s pretty hard to make a single five-letter word (that Wordle would accept as legitimate) from the most used letters – though maybe a cosmetics company might at one point usefully have decided to branch out into word games. Trialling a few different words and summing their letter counts across these 100 Wordles produces ‘rater’ and ‘treat’ as the top scorers (206 and 203, respectively) although doubling letters is not the best choice in a word game of this type (actually, 23 words of these 100 have double letters but the difficulty is picking which one to double – L, E, A, B, C, T, O, and even V, have all featured twice in one word. Using five different letters comes up with ‘store’, ‘steal’ and ‘roles’ each of which score 198 but ‘store’ looks the most likely choice on the grounds it also has an E at the end. So, I think on the basis of continued research, I’m going to switch from ‘raise’ (which scores 191 so far) to ‘store’ for future attempts. The advantage is small, but present. There may be another report.

{Edit 30/4/22: ‘stare’ is marginally better than ‘store’, scoring 201 on yesterday’s counts, so ‘stare’ it is from now on.]

The system of picking common letters – depending on the outcome of ‘raise’ I try and use the second attempt to squeeze in T and N and, as required, either O or U – hasn’t yet let me down. I’ve not had an ‘/X’ since ‘proxy’ on 18 January spread across a ‘run’ of 92 games although I had a ten-day break in the middle and my current streak thus stands at 47. My average score – omitting two Xs – is 3.77 (and it has been as low as 3.69) – i.e. somewhat more towards ‘splendid’ although with a dose of ‘impressive’, too. Where it does cause problems is where the word choice features uncommon letters – proxy being a good example: R and O were in place after my second go, but the rest all featured much more common letter combinations than P, X and Y (‘broom’ being my sixth and final go). Once the core of the word is in place, all the less common letters are as possible as each other, even if they look apparently less likely.

And that’s not a bad thing, either in word games or indeed in life in general.

Content is king: Squid Game’s global tentacles

This post is the text of my winter 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which sets the success of Squid Game in the context of Netflix’s strategy and programming, has been updated from the published version, not least in the context of the market capitalisation figures quoted in the final paragraph, while some links have been added.

Squid Game

Few readers (even those of us without televisions) can have missed the impact that Netflix’s Squid Game has had not just on the UK audience but globally.

The nine-part series, featuring severely-indebted and desperate South Korean men and women competing against each other in updated, deadly versions of children’s playground games to win a substantial cash prize – of which there can only be one winner – was released on 17 September and was an immediate success. It attracted a global viewing audience of 142 million people within the first four weeks; and is the first Korean drama to break Netflix’s top 10 weekly most-watched shows across the globe, reaching in the process No. 1 in 90 countries, including the UK.

These figures are all from Netflix itself. There are very good reasons not to take the company’s word alone (indeed, figures for October 2021 from BARB, the body which measures the TV audience – and whose figures now encompass streaming – show that the BBC’s Countryfile had more viewers). Nevertheless, on the company’s own metrics ‘Squid Game’ has been phenomenally successful. Netflix expects to make some $900 million from it – not a bad return on a series that cost only $21.4 million.

What is more interesting than this, however, is, firstly, the theme: essentially, Squid Game is an allegorical critique of winner-take-all capitalism, economic disparity and inequality; and secondly, that the script, originally written (as a film) in 2009, was then regarded as too grotesque and unrealistic to be filmed.

Little more than 10 years later, and set against an exacerbation of Koreans’ personal debts and the reality facing the poor of Covid-19, as well as our own increased hunger for dystopian drama, it is clearly no longer so. The writer, Hwang Dong-yeuk, has created a resonant series which conveys a message about ordinary people’s awareness of the unfairness of a global economic order built on inequality. The success of Squid Game – and the patency of that message – highlights that this was unlikely to have been lost on viewers.

Netflix

Netflix is open to criticism. Its modern history as a programme streamer is sustained by venture capital. While profitable, it has experienced cash flow problems over several years and has not only never declared a dividend but will openly not be doing so in the foreseeable future. In that situation, the ‘dividend’ for its backers, like in much of the modern online world, of course, lies in obtaining and then processing detailed, individual information about viewers, the programmes they watch and their viewing habits. Venture capital, as with Deliveroo and Uber, is prepared to sustain a lack of returns (or even losses) simply to build and entrench market share to the point where, in Netflix’s case, people do not question their monthly subscriptions. Not least when these go up (and by more even than inflation).

In that, of course, lies a quid pro quo: ensuring subscribers see value for their money means making precisely the sorts of programmes they want to watch. And Netflix does make programmes – some 40% of its offer is original, in-house programming. Ultimately it will build the data it is collecting on viewing habits into its programme making at micro level – and its investment at Shepperton should probably be seen in that light – but, for the time being, the metric available is a familiar one: that a particular programme’s success is likely to lead to similar ones being made. That might be a Squid Game sequel (now confirmed, even if only in outline as yet, and with clearly a long road between here and transmission); it might be more Korean drama, building on the global success of the K-wave; it might be more captivating drama whose content focuses on inequality.

Venture capital

The idea of venture capital sustaining programme-making with that sort of message is not exactly a win-win situation; but it is a highly entertaining one.

Squid Game hasn’t been good news for everyone: SK Broadband, a Korean communications company, used the success of the programme for another round in its legal battle with Netflix about who funds the infrastructure over which streamers deliver their programmes. It is a familiar, but probably losing, battle to telecom companies the world over in which the ultimate lesson is that the concept of ‘net neutrality’ might alternatively be written as ‘content is king’.

Netflix’s current market capitalisation – some $166bn at the time of writing, having topped $300bn in November last year prior to January’s earnings announcement highlighting low forecast subscriber additions in these (nearly) post-pandemic times – set against, to pluck one possibly unfair example out of thin air, that of BT (c. $25bn), is also contemporary proof that there is plenty of life in old adages.

What should Auntie do now?

Yesterday’s announcement by DCMS Culture Secretary freezing the BBC licence fee for the next two years (until April 2024) before allowing it to rise in line with inflation until April 2028, was an interesting exercise in news management since much of the coverage concerned how the licence fee will be replaced from 2028. The DCMS statement itself really wasn’t about that – the future beyond 2028 was somewhat shoe-horned into the press release as its very last paragraph, covering around 60 words out of about 900.

Nevertheless, the BBC has some powerful detractors in the media, all with their own vested interests in getting rid of the licence fee; the ongoing ‘culture war’ evidently sees the BBC as one enemy (among many); and Secretary of State Nadine Dorries first announced the news by the somewhat unusual method of tweeting out a link to a Daily Mail article (and clearly setting out her own agenda for the press release in the process), only tweeting the link to the official DCMS press release sometime later. A department whose current political head believes that this licence fee settlement should be the last might seem – in the context of a forthcoming separate consultation on ‘whether the licence fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC’ – might seem to have rather pre-judged the outcome of that consultation.

And, of course – of course – this government of populists (that is, this Prime Minister) needs a few distracting headlines of its own right now.

The single argument raised in support of the freeze – that people facing ‘a sharp increase in their living costs’ could not be asked to pay more for the BBC at this point – is a powerful, but multi-sided, one. We should question the role being played by the government’s own policies in the steepness of that increase and what it ought to be doing to redress those in practice.

Furthermore, this is a government whose policies usually pay attention to the living standards of working people only when it suits it: it is failing to address the dramatic rise in energy costs being experienced by people whose energy suppliers (or re-sellers) are bankrupting themselves; it refused to extend the £20 uplift to universal credit given during the early stages of Covid-19; and it only acted on free school meals during school holidays when it was publicly shamed into doing so by Marcus Rashford (whose subsequent gong courtesy of Her Madge is telling on so many levels). The failure of wages even to keep pace with inflation – yesterday’s other half of today’s living costs news – gives a further lie to the arguments of Brexiteer cheerleaders (Nadine Dorries among them) about the ‘reserve army of labour’ coming from the EU (to which there were anyway other solutions than Brexit): almost as if the weakness of our labour market institutions (i.e. our trade unions) hadn’t been the intended result of much of public labour market policy for the last forty years. And, indeed, where is the Employment Bill?

Naturally, a ‘sharp rise’ in inflation means that the freezing of the BBC licence fee will have an even more deleterious impact on its services – that’s programmes, of course – since it will need to be either ‘absorbed’ (by way of ‘efficiencies’ – also known as ‘cuts’) or else in reduced levels of programming (which are also quite clearly cuts).

While recognising that £159/year (or £13.25/month) is a lot of money – quarterly and monthly payment options are available, at little or no extra cost – and that more needs to be done in respect of those on low incomes and the elderly, I think the licence fee provides good value and should be retained. This is clearly not a popular view – note that the BBC’s own reporting of yesterday’s story contains, quite uniquely, a section on ‘Can I legally avoid paying the licence fee?’ – but I’m far from alone here: in-depth 2016 opinion poll research by GfK (for the government) on the alternative options then under consideration emerged with the view that the licence fee was actually the most favoured of these (section 7; p. 40ff).

Comparatively speaking, the licence fee is also in fairly rude health. A subscription to the news and opinion columns of a leading newspaper, often linked to in these parts, is £119/year (or £11.99/month); a Netflix subscription costs, at basic, single, level £5.99/month – or £13.99 for a family of four watching screens at the same time; Sky plus Netflix is £26/month (18-month contract); and Sky plus Netflix plus broadband stacks out at £46/month (18-month contract). With Netflix – a platform which, essentially, is collecting your information about your viewing habits with a view to monetising you further – there is of course no public service broadcasting element; Sky – no longer a vehicle of the Murdoch family following its sale to US giant Comcast in 2018 – also has no public service broadcasting obligations and its basic programming (not including sports…) thus costs at least as much again as the BBC licence fee. In terms of earnings, the £3.05/week which the licence fee costs (per household) compares pretty favourably with the £550/week which is the November 2021 average weekly pay figure.

Quite a lot of people yesterday were spending time justifying – one way or another – their BBC viewing and listening habits, but I think this is a dead end. I suspect that few of us escape the BBC entirely (and why on earth would you want to?) and, while there are rightly some things that need to be learned around pay equality, around some of its editorial decisions, around its interpretation of its requirement for impartiality (flat earth being but the latest ridiculousness), as well as around its role as a part of the establishment, the BBC does do a lot of things very well. It’s very easy to focus on an area of public spending on which individuals don’t see a lot of personal return (health, roads, benefits) and demand a cut – but we can’t escape taxation and we don’t live in a pick’n’mix society (and nor should we). There is, however, such a thing as public goods – things for which we all pay regardless of individual consumption but which lowers the cost to all of us. To me, the BBC is a public good (a look at other subscriptions – as above – points heavily in this direction, too) – and the ‘soft power’ return to ‘global Britain’ of a corporation which has worldwide brand recognition and which enjoys global trust is incalculable. We squander that at our peril.

Nevertheless, the perils of squandering things do not tend to occupy for very long the thought processes of vandals determined to stamp their boots over society. Dorries’s very public scribbling on the wall doesn’t signal the end of the licence fee as much as advertise for trainee grave diggers and fire lighters – though we should note that 2028 is at least one government away, and that even 2024 may well not end up within the purview of this one (please). Dorries herself is unlikely to see 2024 in post – there have been no fewer than six secretaries of state within DCMS in the 4.5 years since it was established and she is thus already almost half-way through the average tenure.

If I was Tim Davie, I would thus be putting a deal of effort into building relationships within the opposition, within the trade unions and within the creative sector generally ahead of the DCMS consultation with a view to building as much support as possible around the future for public service broadcasting in order to raise public perceptions of how much the BBC does in this area. While the question of the consultation is for another day (it will come: this government is, in respect of its pet projects, one that is in a hurry, as much as it is slothful elsewhere), I note that the BBC is not the only public service broadcaster and that others are funded for this role from central taxation. Where we end up in terms of BBC funding, presuming a continuation of current policy, may well therefore be some sort of hybrid model of central taxation plus subscription (I’m not arguing for this – just what I think is most likely). In this respect, maximising the channels which are geared to delivering public service broadcasting (and which are funded out of taxation) may well be the best means of minimising the impact of those boots.

[EDITED 19 January 2021 to record that Sky is now owned by Comcast.]

The power of words

Like a lot of people in my corner of the internet, I’ve recently become attracted to the daily Wordle puzzle published online. I first came across it via Twitter, when some of those I follow started around the turn of the year to publish some strange coloured runes accompanied by a wee bit of unfathomable text – and then someone posted a link to a short news item (now lost to me, I’m afraid) giving me a clue as to what it’s all about.

For the uninitiated, this version of Wordle (I first encountered the word years ago as a form of software for drawing word clouds to help make visual sense of large blocks of text, now with an address slightly shifted to edwordle.net) is a simple word game in which you have six goes to guess a five-letter (proper) word. The response to each guess you make is a green tile for a letter which is in the right place in the target word; an amber one for a letter which is in the target word but not in the same place as in your entry; and a grey tile for each letter in your entry which is not in the target word. It’s a bit like the ‘Mastermind’ board game in the 1970s, only with words as the target rather than coloured pegs; and you get fewer goes (but, as a result, with more specific information in response). I didn’t really get Mastermind (others did…) and probably the key for me is the use of words here rather than coloured pegs.

Each day’s Wordle is posted on a simple website – www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle – and its ‘inventor’ is ‘Josh Wardle’ who describes himself as an ‘artist, product manager and engineer’ and whose confessed purpose is to use the game to focus on human interaction. The result is that your Wordle results are easily shareable: the link to do so translates the outcome of your game into the runes I described above (and of which you may be able to see some examples down there on the left margin of this page) from which it’s a simple matter to paste into your social(s) of choice. Twitter, in my case. There is an unspoken code of conduct between players in which there are no spoilers; and the tiles within the ‘share’ button hide all the letters of your guesses so, on viewing others’ achievements, you know neither the solution nor the letters which are no longer in play.

It is, ultimately, just a bit of fun although these days there’s not that much on the internet that’s ‘just for fun’.

Yesterday’s Wordle indeed caused a bit of a kerfuffle, as you might well be able to judge from my outcome screenshot below (and which will lead to some merriment among my language editing clients who are, at first glance, bemused by my question as to whether they want what Microsoft, rather loosely, calls ‘US English’ or ‘UK English’). Some were angry at the apparent misdirection which had led to their stats of solved puzzles being undermined, or at solutions being found in more goes than hitherto, as well as to the numbers of words now in play which do not exactly ‘favour’ UK players; others were more resigned about the clues this gives to the state of the world (and, you might think, ‘global Britain’s’ place within it).

Given that you start with a blank sheet of paper, the game is surprisingly easy to get right and I wouldn’t be surprised if my ‘completed’ stats (75%; based on two out of eight games not being completed (I’m not exactly an early adopter…): one the first as I put in any old nonsense to check how it worked; the other another early attempt where I had a 50:50 at go six and plumped for the wrong one) were not among the lowest of regular users. I did, however, spend a lot more time on this one than on the others. After go two, I knew the word had an ‘a’ in place two and ended with an ‘r’; word endings of ‘-ur’ are not that common; while not that many end in ‘-or’ either (depending, of course, on your dictionary) although there aren’t many other choices than these. I got lucky with go three (I was thinking of valorise – and don’t get me started there, either!) which told me it ended in ‘-avor’ but I still wasn’t thinking of the US approach to spelling, running through my options twice before plumping, with a fair degree of trepidation, for ‘favor’ (as there was nothing else it could have been).

The feeling of being let-down was present, although brief: ‘Josh’ is American so this sort of problem and these sorts of feelings simply wouldn’t occur. And, of course, all these games have to start with some sort of a dictionary – and therein lies a world of debate between users of English. I’m not complaining – keeping all this in the air for other people does help to keep me in work 🙂

In my case, I was more upset about the apparent misdirection: the .co.uk suffix in the website’s domain name had, for me, led to a non-thinking, automatic presumption of the use of ‘UK English’ on the site (although I also know that country code top level domains haven’t been restricted to the countries concerned for over twenty years now – and which process has made a bit of money for Tuvalu (.tv) and Montenegro (.me). Being ‘UK English’ myself, that sort of presumption comes anyway as naturally as ‘US English’ would to an American. Other languages wouldn’t have this sort of problem – and I can easily see versions of Wordle working very well at powerlanguage.de, powerlanguage.ro and powerlanguage.ba, for instance. (Well, maybe not .de on the grounds that there may well not be enough five-letter words around in German.)

But we are precious about our stats and our record and achievements; and about a presumption of simple honesty of those who deal with us, even if we are partnering with an algorithm of some kind. We don’t like being played for fools; and being led to agonise over a combination of letters that is really quite simple does make us feel foolish. There are also cultural values at stake here, too, in terms of the word choices: interestingly, today’s word (achieved by this writer in four goes) is, I suspect, likely to be achieved more quickly and more readily by users of ‘UK English’.

I always start with ‘raise’, by the way: it’s the word that makes the best use of the most-used letters in the English alphabet. Though whether those are the same most-used letters in five-letter words is a different question – and, perhaps, a job of work already being engaged in by ‘Josh’. (NB I can’t see any data privacy protocols around the site or which become apparent on first use and, like anything else, Wordle – for all its desire to get ‘humans’ talking around shared issues – is surely likely to be a data collection operation somewhere along the line.) Others might find more fun in starting with a word inspired by current affairs – party, for instance – and making connections that way. Going from ‘party’ to ‘slump’ (the Wordle from a few days ago) would have been amusing, even if we know that the day’s word of choice is not made by a human but by an algorithm with no interest in the current affairs of ‘UK England’.

[Edit 27 January 2022: Wordle has been rumbled – though indeed that won’t stop me playing and, occasionally, sharing. It seems as though some of my suspicions in this piece were a little wide of the mark, though the thought that inspired them – that we need to be more careful online – still remains valid. And, yes, some things on the internet are indeed just for fun. And that’s a happy thought.]

[Edit 2: 1 February 2022: Well, indeed I spoke too soon since Wardle yesterday sold Wordle to the New York Times for what the company said was ‘in the low seven figures’. Not a bad return for an apparently simple piece of coding drawn up originally to give a bit of fun to his wife – and good luck to him. He promises that it will remain ‘free’ and that he is working with the NYT to ensure people’s stats are transferred (though it seems the NYT is only promising ‘initially free‘). But then, nothing is ‘free’ (or, indeed, in Wardle’s own words, can ‘just be fun‘) on the internet – the NYT exists behind a paywall and, while Wordle, once transferred, may well continue to be ‘free’ (at least for a while), it will be in return for at least your registration on its website and the cookies it will place on your computer as a result to track where you go. Plus, quite probably, a few ads. That may well be a ‘no thanks’ from me.]

Mobile licence fees: market value still not realised?

To close the year – as indeed I did on the last day of 2020 – this post constitutes the text of my autumn 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text, which focuses on a consultation on mobile licence fees launched in the summer by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulatory authority, has been updated to account for the outcome of the consultation, while some links have been added.

Ofcom is consulting on new licence fees for 3G mobile spectrum. Here, we revisit a horror story and update it for our age.

In the middle of July, Ofcom issued a consultation proposing new annual licence fees for mobile spectrum in the 2100 MHz range, commonly used by operators to supply 3G mobile services.

Readers may well recall – with a shudder – Ofcom’s original auction process, back in the spring of 2000, for 20-year licences to use this spectrum. At the outset, the auction was thought likely to raise around £5bn (a sum in excess of operators’ bidding models but which could still have been absorbed), inflated by a competitive bidding process designed by economists and based on games theory alongside huge interest in the potential of 3G spectrum to revolutionise our usage of mobile phones (then used for little more than voice calls and minimal data). However, it ended up raising some £22.48 billion after an exhausting process lasting nearly seven weeks. At the time, such a sum represented around 2.5 per cent of UK GDP – and could have built 400 hospitals.

Faced with the prospects of paying a similar amount per head in Germany in another 3G auction there, as well as elsewhere in Europe, the sheer unsustainability for the operators involved of financing such sums led – among other things – to a bursting of the telecoms asset bubble, economic recession and a delay in capital expenditure which put back the introduction of 3G services. Lessons were learned – but the process was a scarring one, even for those of us charged only with monitoring progress and analysing the potential impact. For members of the union working in the industry, the damage caused was both deep and long-lasting.

Just to put some perspective on such sums, inflation (as measured by the Retail Price Index) has risen by 78 per cent since then. £22.48 billion would now be worth some £40 billion – and, in 2021, you could probably get a working Covid-19 Track and Trace system for that.

Crisis

Ofcom’s regime was modified in 2011 in the wake of the banking-led financial and currency crisis and it is now, in 2021, proposing comparatively modest fees, ranging between £290,000 and £567,000 per MHz, depending on the type of spectrum involved, which will lead to annual licence fees of between £12.79m (for O2) and £25.58m (for EE).

These sums compare interestingly with the auction-led outcome which led to a total annual cost in excess of £1bn. Perception of the market value against which Ofcom is obliged to set the fees is associated with many things, not the least of which is that 3G has now been surpassed, with 6G likely to come on stream in the 2030s, and with EE announcing that it will switch off its 3G network in 2023 to support its 4G and 5G networks. Even so, the figures are starkly divergent.

O2 has some 24 million direct mobile customers while EE has around 32 million so the fees are unlikely to make much of a dent in consumers’ contract prices – they amount to around 53p/year for O2 customers and around 80p/year for EE ones. Neither will they make much of a contribution to public finances (Ofcom is self-financing on the basis of the fees it generates and the fines and penalties it levies, and it is a net contributor to the Treasury (p. 55)).

For workers in these and the other mobile operators, however, the impact is likely to be a little more significant. Ofcom is rather dismissive of the argument based on narrow economic considerations (consultation document, p. 33), but each pound of fees that mobile operators are forced to pay is likely to lead either to a reduction in capital expenditure or an increase in the never-ending search for efficiencies (or, indeed, both). Ofcom takes no view about the impact on workers, but anyone arguing that each £1 million of fees is insignificant has never sat in on pay, or other, negotiations with a corporate employer.

Workers and the operators for which they work might well be justified in arguing that 3G licence fees have already been paid in full.

Ofcom was – at the time the column was written – due to finalise the proposals later in 2021 with the fees to apply as from 4 January 2022.

On 13 December it announced a fractional reduction in the licence fees to £561,000 for paired spectrum and that it would consult further on unpaired spectrum – a very minor win for the operators with annual fees for EE and O2 now set at £22.44 million and £11.22 million, respectively (although, depending on the outcome of the further consultation, this may rise further). Ofcom continues to maintain that its licence fee proposal has no impact on investment (response, pp. 45-47) on the grounds that setting fees below market value’ would effectively amount to it giving operators an ‘unconditional subsidy’ (p. 47) – an argument which, in the historic context, demands a certain amount of chutzpah to deliver.

‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

Rights at work in the platform economy

Readers will know that I have been writing a regular column for Stage, Screen & Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the digital, media and entertainment arm of Prospect, for a couple of years – all the columns are linked via the specific page on this site which you can find over there on the left. I am paid for this work and the money to do that comes from the monthly subs provided by BECTU members, so I prefer to keep the columns privileged for members of the union for a while, posting them publicly up here only once the new issue of the magazine lands on members’ doormats.

That’s therefore a quarter behind and, editorial and production deadlines being quite understandably what they are, it’s usually a fair bit longer than that. That occasionally means that the column, when put up here, has been a bit caught up by events. This, dear reader, is the case with this particular one, which looks at whether platform workers are employees or contractors. This was originally written in early November last year (the US elections referenced at the outset were taking place at the time) but has now been caught up by events, firstly in the US by a lawsuit filed to overturn the Prop 22 ballot result mentioned in the article’s Intro; and secondly in the UK by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of February in the case of Uber, the driver hire business. You can read plenty more about the Supreme Court decision elsewhere, and not least in my post on the issue below; but I thought I’d post the original column in the usual way; and, for those who saw the original, this time slightly extended and with a few additional links.

What hasn’t changed is the reference to unions keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to evolve. That remains as true this side of the Supreme Court decision as it did back then. Further, reading the text back again now, I’m also struck by the relevance of the article’s closing paragraph which hints at the importance of seeing, and using, law-provided rights as a starting point on which to build and not seeing them as in some way tradeable. Sweetheart deals – no thanks!

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Whether platform workers – those who sign up to deliver services digitally, or work for delivery companies – are employees or contractors is a distinction likely to become increasingly important, not least in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As voters cast their ballots in the US elections, in several states they were also put a series of other propositions applying to laws within their state. The US political system incorporates elements of direct democracy in which, in some states, legal initiatives can be put straight to voters.

California is one such state, with Proposition No. 22 asking whether voters wanted to support a minimal package of employment rights for those working for platform companies. The story here is complicated, but Proposition 22 essentially prevents such workers, who are not regarded as employees, from accessing a much larger range of employment rights they would otherwise have.

Regretfully, Proposition 22 – supported in a hugely expensive campaign by the big companies, like Uber – was passed by California voters.

Persuasion

Here in the UK, back in the summer before politicians started to talk once more about lockdowns, there was a concerted attempt to persuade people working from home to go back to the office. This had a number of facets. Perhaps the most interesting was the view that working from home drew attention to the notion that working in this way could subject the worker to competition from anywhere across the globe.

A large number of digital platforms offer the opportunity to work digitally – online platforms are not only for delivery, whether that be a person or a meal, but also facilitate a variety of services. Work on these platforms tends to be broken down into micro elements with workers asked to tender for each element. We are witnessing a new approach to Taylorism – the management system designed to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a production process, breaking work down into simple microtasks – this time not on the production floor for the office. This is sometimes called ‘crowdwork’ or, more frequently, and in an unthinking corruption of the complex jobs done by BECTU members in the entertainment industry, the ‘gig economy’.

Most Prospect and BECTU members who are able to work from home are not in a situation in which their job can be – or will be – broken down into micro elements. That’s trade unionism in action, in no small part.

However, not least under Covid-19, with the gaps in government support programmes being particularly visible in our sector, the temptation clearly rises to look to such platforms as a means of ensuring continuing income during shutdowns where workers have been entirely inadequately supported.

What employment rights might you find when you get there? Well, the line in the sand for platforms seems to be that their workers are not employees, but contractors, where a lower set of rights prevails.

A question was recently put in parliament by Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, whether the government would assess ‘the potential merits of providing greater protections for online platform workers using crowd work platforms.’

The answer came in a two-part way.

New protections

Firstly, a forthcoming (and long-awaited) Employment Bill (intended to set new employment rights in the post-Brexit era) would include a consideration of the options for ‘new protections’ for those in the ‘gig economy’; and, secondly, that the current strategy of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement had already recommended the government examine the threat to compliance posed by online and app-based businesses.

The Director of Labour Market Enforcement is substantially concerned with the informal economy. This actually says quite a bit about what the government thinks of people working for online platforms.

It is, however, actually quite encouraging that employment rights in the platform economy will soon be on the consultative agenda. However, we will need to watch that the big operators in the sector don’t try any California-style ‘sweetheart deals’ over here.

Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

This is the text of my autumn 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.

Myth versus logic in the time of Covid-19

This is the text of my summer 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

With Covid-19 now back on the rise, including out here on the islands, and shutdowns once again becoming a reality for many of us, it’s timely to re-visit the themes of the column, originally written at the back end of May. The column looked at the conspiracy theories over 5G masts, while pointing out that fear over technological developments is not a new phenomenon.

Few have any living memory of times as extraordinary as the ones we are living in under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

I don’t know whether the post-World War I flu epidemic of 1918 brought about any particular conspiracy theories, although I suspect that the more unusual the surrounding events, the stranger the theories that gain circulation.

In the early weeks of the pandemic and lockdown, one such theory directly connected 5G mobile technology to the spread of COVID-19.

This led to attacks on mobile mast installations – idiotically, but poignantly, ones that had no 5G capability – and also to the harassment of telecoms workers who were going about their jobs.

It was therefore good to see Scotland’s First Minister take the time to praise telecoms workers as key workers.

The contribution that Prospect members are making right across the UK to ensure that people can stay connected and working has been a major factor in slowing the spread of the virus and, in the process, helping our wellbeing to hold up.

Uneasy relationship

Interestingly the telephone has always been a bit of a bellwether for our relationship with technology.

The British Medical Journal reported – in 1889 – on concerns that spending long periods on the telephone could cause ‘nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness and neuralgic pains’.  

Radio broadcasting, which was developed in the early 1900s and shares a common technological root with modern cell phones, was thought to cause sickness. Coming up to date, apart from our cellphones, there is similar noise about our home Wi-Fi and smart meters.

Many do not understand the technology we rely on, and which has become central to how we organise and live in our world. This has led us to develop an uneasy and unsettled relationship with something whose ubiquitous invisibility makes it an easy target when things go wrong. There is a lot more work to do to settle that relationship and ensure emerging technologies work for people. One such organisation doing good work in this field is the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Furthermore, with mobile technology continually evolving – 3G in the 2000s, 4G in the 2010s, 5G now and 6G already being spoken about – there is always room to find new grounds for conspiracy or a fresh angle.

The less easy the relationship, the more easy it is to distrust something – not least at a time of a generalised lack of trust.

Prospect members know there is indeed no magic about mobile technology. It is more a case of ‘observation and logic’, as Ramesh cutely puts it in the end-of-year school show at the close of series two of BBC drama The A Word (which I have been catching up with during the lockdown). Both are qualities in short supply during the pandemic.

The increasingly tortuous way we use language doesn’t help. It is evident that viruses cannot spread over radio waves; they spread by human contact.

Both government guidance and a statement from the four mobile operators have declared: ‘There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus’. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough to persuade either the conspiracy theorists or those vulnerable to their theories.

Meanwhile, especially for those working from home more than usual, it is good to remind ourselves to unplug outside working hours. Giving ourselves downtime is valuable for our own mental health and helps our colleagues do the same.

Stay safe – and do encourage anyone you know who is not a union member to join one.