When is a thing no longer a thing?: Public involvement in a complex and ever changing world

When does a boy become a man?

It is a seemingly simple question that contains much deeper complexity.

Different cultures, countries and groups, and different people at different times and within different periods will answer the question differently.

It isn’t necessarily a matter of age.

Age itself is a rather inaccurate way of ascertaining maturity. What do we mean by age? Are we talking biological, intellectual, experiential or cultural?

Perspective also comes into the equation.

I may view a boy a man and a man a boy. The mother or wife of each may think entirely the opposite.

Anyway, it is the course of nature for nature to change.

Things are not as fixed as we often believe them to be.

We don’t question our reality often enough or deeply enough and instead we rely on assumptions and accepted social and cultural understanding to arrive quickly at conclusions.

We rely upon history and legislation. The safe and protective arms of our nation’s laws and the wisdom of our lawmakers.

What purpose is there to involve ourselves in discussion and debate? To open our minds and our lives to endless possibility and renewal? When it has all, already, been decided for us.

By a flick of a wrist and a hammer of a gavel.

Adulthood, at least in the UK 2021, is decreed by a higher power to be 18.

The legal system in the UK is changing rapidly.

Like every other aspect of the public systems, institutions and infrastructure that we developed over centuries of investment and upon millennia of thought and practice. It is becoming systematised.

It is becoming efficient and with this machine like.

Something important is going to be lost when this occurs.

I’ve read that there are to be options to pay fines if you don’t dispute your guilt for certain crimes through an automated, algorithmic and human-less system.

The savings to the public would be large they say.

But the bean counters and decision makers are not accounting for society or humanity’s losses.

The ease of pleading guilty over the difficulty of attending court, risking higher penalties and fines, finding childcare, transport and legal costs or a way to get away from your abusive partner so that he doesn’t find out…

You know what? It’s just easier to pay 100 quid or so and be left alone… until the next time… when that conveniently easy consumer logic of a checkbox connected to a contactless payment now presses more heavily upon your future happiness and freedom.

A deceptively easy choice in the form of a misjustice tick box could have an effect upon the future of entire families and younger generations.

Who would bear the guilt here?

Surely it would belong to all of us.

The things in the world you see are bound to change,

Things are more complicated and complex than they appear.

As a society we do have reasons to attempt to fix things into place, for a time. To define things as x.

In the instance of age. Much legislation, how it works and our understanding of our rights is related to a concept of adulthood.

You can vote at 18.

You can be served in a pub at 18.

The reasons for both are related to whether you are considered in law to be old enough to vote or to drink alcohol. Neither of these maturities are a magical gift at the age of 18. It’s not like you’ve grown a new appendage or internal organ.

Different people are at different maturities no matter their age.

It’s all completely arbitrary.

It’s all made up.

We decide upon 18 to keep things simple in law and legislation and to allow its enforcement and practice.

A pub landlord doesn’t have to sit down with you and have a chat about whether you’ve been making wise life choices up to now before deciding to serve you.

His only concern need be to check your age.

It does make things simple.

In order for society to operate and for business to go about its business we have laws and legislation, which removes from our tiny minds the need to worry about any of this.

Law and legislation are matters of agreement.

The idea is that ministers and lawmakers can discuss, debate and consider all of the complicated, complex and detailed stuff for us and make decisions on our behalf.

They come to an agreement that all things considered.

An adult is an adult at the age of 18.

After that it becomes law by a matter of decree.

Law once made can be rather difficult to budge.

Legislation and laws once made are then tested in court and the results of those cases, which represent the interpretation of the wording and intent of the legislation by the judiciary, becomes more firmly lodged into our reality

Future courts refer back to these original interpretations for their own guidance.

In this way the interpretation is locked into place; at a point in time, in a singular circumstance and by a particular judge. This interpretation is not necessarily the true intent (in the spirit of the law sense) nor does it represent the entire range of possibilities that could have been afforded the wording.

Right is might of a tyrannical form.

For your information the United Nations operates in the same way. They are going about the business of ‘law making’ and this is how it often, but not always, works.

As a country, if you block and veto and lobby and pressure continuously over decades you can convert a legal motion towards an outright worldwide ban on landmines into something vague that suits your arms industry and trade perfectly well.

What could have been landmines never becomes landmines for evermore.

Investor-state Dispute Settlement present a similar attempt at long-term preservation of favourable business and trading conditions. In this case they present a way of preventing ‘sovereign’ governments who are able to rewrite their entire legislations if needed, from modifying or altering certain policies or laws. Democracy isn’t just undermined, it can be prevented from even acting in accordance to the choice of the people, offering non-citizen corporates a winning hand in every single future national election.

International Trade Agreements can also have the effect of removing options from the democratic table.

I feel that the idea once was in the design of our legal systems, that we would become more intelligent and civilised over time, and that a legal system which worked in this way, setting things in stone and then building upon them, would lead to a better world.

What we have found instead is that our legal systems are co-opted and utilised by political and financial interests to further their ends.

Was this by design? Was it naivety, hope or devious calculation?

In a rapidly changing world does it even make sense anymore?

We ladle our laws over ourselves like aspic, preserving an impoverishment of possibility into our future. The conditions within offer little room for life or movement. There is no oxygen there to breathe.

Out stares a fish’s silent eyeball. It’s face locked into a rictus grin.

I think that could be us.

A dish served up for trade delegations.

A laughing stock prepared for elite consumption.

I feel that it’s a shame that others do the conversing and thinking for us.

I think that being actively involved in these questions allows us to contribute to society and develop as citizens in important ways.

I also feel that we can open up the questions to a wide diversity of opinions, life experiences, and cultural backgrounds. All of which add something important to the questions and answers. Their most valuable contribution being the quality of conversation and deeper understanding that they can help to unlock.

I don’t think they’re questions with an end. Which means they are always open to interpretation and for new minds to bring fresh insights and viewpoints.

It means we can always learn something as participants and as a society.

We don’t actually have to be the lawmakers.

We just need to be involved.

An intelligent society. A learning and development society. Is a society which is constantly in conversation and enquiry with itself and about itself.

We have an endless amount to talk about. This is a form of value.

There is no shortage of ways in which it could enrich us all.

Things change over time.

Facebook when it first arrived was a social network in its truest sense.

It connected you to people in what I feel was and remains, a profound and important way. There’s no denying the social utility in being easily connected with your friends and family.

But then the platform was ‘monetised’.

Facebook changed.

It changed from being a social network into an advertising and data extraction platform. It changed in form and in primary purpose and it’s effect on the world and society became different from there onwards.

There comes a point with certain things that nations step forward to reclassify an entity or thing. Certain algorithms and cryptography can be classed as munitions for example.

There are many reasons why we should take a close look at the social platforms, their behaviour and effect. There are multiple social harms being exacerbated while the money rolls in.

At what point do you intervene and how?

At what point do you say “This isn’t the deal or kind of relationship we thought we were going to get. You’ve changed.”.

Maybe its worse.

Maybe it really is just industry practice and the way things are done now.

Maybe everything has changed.

It suggests some kind of rot.

When does product innovation become an unnecessary danger to life?

Did you know that before the dawn of the dissolvable gel washing capsule, human kind had been able to keep its clothes clean for pretty much all of history.

It surely beggar’s belief. I’m shocked by this and I’m sure that you are too.

More recently we invented the modern washing machine along with powder and liquid washing detergent. It was a real convenience and incidentally also changed the face of society for the better.

Then. For no actual or evident reason other than market competition and share grabbing.

The dissolvable gel washing capsule was invented.

It was thought of. It was made into a product.

It was strategized, marketed and advertised.

It arrived in our homes first via magazines and television programmes. Then from the supermarkets to our cupboards. A chain in which we are all innocently culpable.

And it, the dissolvable gel washing capsule, has been causing avoidable harm to children ever since.

I mean there are literally thousands of incidents every year involving children.

Children are being poisoned, burned, blinded and left with life changing injuries.

Children have died.

For what? A product innovation. A share of a market. An unnecessary public convenience.

If this was an act of terrorism what would have happened?

Something would have happened.

But it isn’t terrorism.

It’s a particular form of business and economy that has become accepted, condoned and dominant.

In spite of this ongoing travesty.

The latest innovation for the home?

I mean seriously, get this. You’d think that companies would take this entire story on board and think through the results of their actions and decisions. Wouldn’t you? I mean wouldn’t you as a parent, or a sibling, or a member of the fucking human race.

Nah. Not this lot.

The next product innovation for the home is a dissolvable gel capsule for your toilet.

In a scientific first, no doubt worthy of multiple industry awards… The gel capsules covering utilises an innovative use of a new material that can stick firm to wet surfaces.

Perfect for sticking to the sides of toilets.

And the insides of children.

Unsurprisingly there has been another death.

On a slightly less immediately evil vibe, what about Colgate?

What about that incredible team of product innovators and engineers who first thought to put micro plastics in their toothpaste?

This brainwave not only gave them something new to market but it had the added benefit of padding out the content of the tubes.

They could sell something for more and give people even less.

It’s a corporate dream come true.

But what about the damage?

I mean you can’t really expect or believe that someone in the company, on the teams, or in the board rooms of these companies didn’t at some point ask what would happen to all of the micro plastic?

Someone asked the question and the answer wasn’t difficult.

They knew what would happen and they did it anyway.

They didn’t care and they don’t care now.

Their profit making was and is more important to them than the loved one closest to you right now and the future of the entire planet.

They sat there with big shiny shit eating grins on their faces and voted for profit along with ecological and biological devastation, destruction, poisoning and pollution.

Then they rolled in the profits for years.

The world is now contaminated from pole to pole.

There are no realisable answers on what we can do about it now.

The most realistic answer is that it has become a new form of problem which has never existed before in the history of humankind.

It is a forever problem.

There is a tidal wave of these problems now on the horizon.

It was all caused by a poisonous pursuit of profit at any cost. It was done with absolute arrogance, callousness, foreknowledge and impunity.

There’s no shortage of examples of businesses and their practices which demonstrate utter contempt for life on earth and society.

I’ll leave it to you to do the research.


PFA in mother’s milk. The radium Girls. The Yorkshire asbestos disaster. The opioid crisis. The Opium War. Tobacco. Big oil. Big pharma. Slavery.

It’s an endless list. Really it is. It just goes on and on. The track record of business is deathly dire to say the least.

I recently heard a hidden history of a silica mine in America where the conditions were so poor that miners would only be able to work a few months before illness overcame them. Too sick to work in a couple more months they were dead, their bodies thrown into unmarked graves.

The owners of the mine had full knowledge of the conditions and the fate of the workers they hired.

They didn’t give a toss.

These types of companies. This type of business.

This type of society so enthralled to capitalist job and wealth creators.

Our governments so beholden to the market.

It’s a killer.

People are pretty amazing when they are prepared to listen.

This is their society; they reflect the society and they are all together ‘citizens’ of the society with all of the rights and responsibilities which go along with that title.

This aspect of their being equal peers in society is invoked in a number of areas of law.

We are able to have our cases, civil and criminal, heard in a court of law.

In a lower court such as a local magistrates, the judge is a volunteer role and as such is expected to represent the views and realities of the local people and the local area. How well this actually works in practice I’ll leave up to your imaginations, or you can do the research.

In a crown court we find that we are more realistically able to engage with the representative nature of the society to which we all equally belong to as citizens.

jury of one’s peers: a guaranteed right of criminal defendants, in which “peer” means an “equal.” This has been interpreted by courts to mean that the available jurors include a broad spectrum of the population, particularly of race, national origin and gender.

As a citizen, as a real live actual human being in a society and circumstances which are always going to be far from any perceivable level of understanding by an algorithm or a consumer checkbox plea to be left alone.

As a citizen we have a right to be judged based upon the evidence and any mitigating circumstances.

This is human justice working in a human and humane way.

It needs humans to do this.

Magistrates, jurors and viewing members of the public are often changed by their experiences of the justice and judicial systems.

If it is too; lenient, cruel, expedient, uncaring, or out of touch. We learn something about who we are, about the society we belong and also of the systems we have created. With that knowledge we are able to change it for the better.

As we assign justice to machines, we lose this understanding of who we are and how our society is ‘actually’ operating. It moves the notion of justice away from any form of grounding in social reality and shifts it into a completely separate and ‘entirely legalistic’ range.

It becomes a ‘rule book’ drawn up by our betters and enacted by computation, to whom we will have ceded ultimate control over our destinies.

There is no humanity available to us in this future.

It presents a new ‘dark age’ and is a long cry away from any kind of enlightenment thinking.

This should come as no surprise.

Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts and all that.

It is not all bad news.

There are movements towards increased public involvement in many areas of democratic society, science and business. These are all embedded within legalistic domains and thus have the potential to shape law.

Citizens Assemblies are in practice around the world.

In the UK the Climate Assembly actively demonstrated the publics ability to listen, understand, and make informed choices related to climate policy.

The citizens, from all walks of life, became open to possibilities.

When able to interact with the subject and the information at hand without intermediation from outside interests they became active participants in society and agents of change.

They were shaped and changed by the experience and in a reciprocal manner society becomes shaped and changed by them. This is an equation that is seen again and again with genuine and meaningful public participation.

We should be mindful that what we are really seeing happening underneath the subject matter at hand, is things of public interest being brought into more equitable forms of open relationship, learning and discovery.

Creating spaces for citizens to do this requires deep thought, adept social design and gentle facilitation.

There is much potential awaiting us as a society in this direction of travel.

In science there is Open Science and Citizen Science and Science Shops.

There are moves to open up government funded scientific research to the wider public. Many of the institutions we have created to support society operate in a very closed manner and they previously had no reason or ability to behave or do otherwise.

Times have changed.

Increased connectivity arriving at the same time as a perceptible distance and separation of our institutions from the public is forcing a focus on bridging this gap.

The relationship brings new opportunities and possibilities.

Distance and separation has the effect of allowing practices and beliefs to develop which can sit at ends from the needs of society and the (for public, for common good) foundational purposes of the institutions themselves.

Bringing the public into a closer relationship with its institutions and roles should necessitate a thorough review of the institutional forms.

In the interim there is much to be learned.

In business there are calls for stakeholders from all parts of society, nature and the environment to be represented in the make up of their boards and considered with due weight in their corporate decisions.

I myself have no doubt in my mind that many of the atrocities of the past would not have been committed if more open public involvement was on the table or around the table.

I do not believe that an innovation like the ‘disposable gel washing capsule’ would get the green light from anything resembling a citizen panel and especially not in it’s new, improved and effectively more lethal form.

I think they’d say no.

If they did say yes and then saw a negative impact from their decision then I believe that they would revoke it without delay. They simply wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. There is nothing to gain for them from perpetuating harm.

Business at present denies, disputes and fights to keep the profits coming in.

Politicians are reluctant or unable to act or intervene.

The very effect that citizen involvement would have is actually to change the behaviour of all of the business world.

With citizen oversight and input what would be the point of a corporate pursuing a social or environmentally dangerous course of action if it could be undone? It doesn’t make any financial sense.

A more social direction for the world must surely be the only outcome.

People have a tendency to make fun of the Amish. But the Amish as least have the cultural intelligence and understanding to sit down and discuss how technology and trends can affect the world and may positively or adversely affect their chosen way of life.

This is chosen as in by their own god given free will to decide how they wish to live their lives as opposed to having those decisions imposed upon them by outside forces such as markets, governments and businesses.

What they are choosing to do and how they are choosing to do it through sensitivities, learnings and conversations demonstrates what we as a society can also choose to do.

I’m not advocating for any kind of strict, orthodox or singular type of society where we are all expected to conform or face exile. Quite the opposite in fact! And I’m also not suggesting that the Amish are in any way like this.

My point is a point of freedom. It is only freedom if you have the ability to make choices.

If the market is making those choices for you or presenting you with a limited and predefined set of options then you are arguably not free.

If the market is everywhere, utilises psychological techniques and is predisposed towards exploiting people’s anxieties and vulnerabilities then its behaviour is invasive, manipulative and predatory.

Your freedom is not its concern. It is not you friend or your peer. Any relationship it has with you, no matter how well its framed, packaged and presented, is ultimately one-sided and coercive.

Returning to the point, I’m trying to illustrate that sitting down and discussing society, law and technology makes a lot of sense in a rapidly accelerating world.

This is your society and this is our society. Having a conversation about what kind of places we want to live, what kinds of products and services are useful to us, and what kind of world we all live in informs us all and changes our future.

A society where we are all consumers reduces us and removes our options. It also does the same to the possible routes forward that companies and industries could take.

It all becomes singular and inescapable.

We need additional ways to live and decide which are outside of the dominating market driven logic.

Places of alternative; innovation, living, resilience and resistance.

Spaces which actively work to demonstrate what a free society looks like and where corporate media and messaging are not allowed to pervade.

In summary

As with much of my writing this is not an attempt to investigate or even to be entirely accurate. I’m trying to bring together ideas which are often separate but which may have much in common.

As is often the case the driving thoughts behind all of this is what are the potential liberatory and positive effects of networks on society, a question which is inseparable to what does a Network Society (or whatever you wish to call it) look like and how does it behave.

I’m interested in ideas around; What is an open society? What is a participatory society? What is a free society? What is a learning society? What is a developing society?

How do we understand and experience such a society in a way which allows us to; emotionally connect, effect change, adapt and grow as a society and as citizens?

What does it mean to live in a society like that?

Who are we as people, communities and organisations and how do we interact with and contribute positively towards our shared social reality and natural world?

What does it mean to participate meaningfully and purposefully?

What does it mean to be valued?

We have a tendency to see things in isolation.

In reality the political, social, environmental, cultural and economic spheres are just lenses through which we have decided to view our intermingled, interconnected and interrelated world.

They are one and the same.

Everything that we have created within this world are purely artificial constructs.

We can choose to create other constructs, to make other things, to do things in different ways and for different reasons.

Not understanding society in this way prevents us from moving to different futures. The world is multidimensional and full of infinite and undiscovered potential. When we view it and understand from very flat, singular and narrow angles it is impossible to reach any of this possibility.

Attempts to understand and tackle climate change or any of our big problems may be doomed to failure or fated to reproduce the very same systems, thinking and injustices which created the problems in the first place.

We need multiple understandings and perspectives to unite.

We have to put it all together creatively, experimentally, impermanently and socially.

The middle man gets in the way.

The man keeps you at arms distance and does things for you. The man gets in the way of your thinking and feeling. The man prevents your development and learning.

The man prevents you from falling in love with the world and breaking your heart over and over again and again until the world begins to heal.

Opening up society, its institutions, and the way it works to the public has the potential of creating the social, intellectual, emotive and creative space where this process can begin to take place.

It is all process anyway but currently in a closed form.

As open processes it becomes something real, tangible and shapeable in which we can become a contributory factor.

When we see law, regulation, legislation and justice as elements which need freezing in time for all eternity we imprison future generations and bind their hands.

All things change over time and we need to be adaptable to this.

If we revisit these things from a 21st century perspective. A society which consistently learns and develops then we find that we are locking away a form of learning and developmental potential.

It is the soil from which we grow.

It is not a question of justice, efficiency and cost.

It is a place of deeper social understanding and it is of this which we can create additional and endless value for society.

Our society as we have it today is doomed to ossify and wall itself in.

The liberatory potential of networks and open forms of society, institution and organisation is to break free of this fate and allow a living spirit to flow; with us, through us and for us.

A participatory society would be a living part of us.

We would be a living part of a participatory society.

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.