Categories: General Posted by Charlotte Kasner on 2/10/2011 9:30 AM | Comments (0)

...continuing the theme of the work/life balance (, it has almost become axiomatic for many workers that zero hours contracts are, if not executed in name, are expected in spirit to some extent. Work/home boundaries blur in a physical sense and time follows suit. Gordon Gekko philosophy lives: lunch is for wimps. Workers feel insecure as jobs become scarce and redundancies escalate; union protection is minimal. On a day when we have been told by the Bank of England that disposable income is at its lowest since the 1920s, many people need to work longer hours to makes ends meet and accept poor terms in an extremely competitive job market.

The amount of work that is not remunerated no doubt makes a significant contribution to the economy of the country and to private profits, if not to the pocket of those executing it. Many people are not averse to volunteering, but they are likely to want to choose a favoured charity or their local community on which to bestow additional time and effort rather than the office where they spent most of their week anyway. The on-demand availability of a workforce can lead to a reactive culture where less and less is planned and organised and uncertainty reigns. Volunteering has also been used as a way of de-skilling some professions. Cheapness becomes more important than quality or consistency and generations of knowledge are eroded.

The free-for-all of such working practices stands in contrast with one of the first organised attempts to harness volunteer labour when subbotniks and voskresniks were instituted by the Bolshevik government in 1919 following the third Russian Revolution (the name deriving from the Russian words for Saturday and Sunday). They involved citizens undertaking community duties such as litter clearing and took place against Russia's desperate struggle for survival in a civil war, following the ravages of the First World War. In later years, they became compulsory but were initially undertaken with genuine enthusiasm by a people trying to build a very new type of society.

Here, governments cannot quite decide whether voluntary work is a punishment, social obligation or a way to keep pesky pensioners off the streets during the day. It was announced in April 2009 ( that Gordon Brown wanted to see every teenager in the country complete up to fifty hours of volunteer work by the age of 19. Something to do while they struggle to compete in a shrinking job market I suppose. Four pilot projects were established that were posed to become compulsory before Labour lost the election. David Cameron launched his "big society" drive in Liverpool ( to make people feel so "free" and "powerful" that they no longer need public services or at least run their own voluntary schemes for "luxuries" such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing.

Perhaps we should make the workplace somewhere that is well-structured and organised enough to enable people to reclaim the concept of voluntary as something that is willingly given.

Categories: General Posted by Charlotte Kasner on 1/17/2011 12:24 PM | Comments (0)

Demos: yes an abbreviation for demonstration versions of software but, when combined with "kratia", ancient Greek meaning democracy. Even today, it is a word that can mean all things to all men and ancient Greece was no exception. A literal translation would be "people power" but who defines "people"? Like the supposed democracy following the French revolution and American Revolution, "people" were readily understood to mean basically white, freeborn males and franchise might still be restricted by a financial qualification.

Show of hand voting might work for an ancient Greek elite standing on a hillside and even for several hundred trade unionists at a factory gate (those were the days!) but is not very practical for a country-wide franchise, or even a city-wide franchise...until now, that is. Technology has enabled us to exercise an electronic version of a show of hands via online voting that could make "democracy" in its purest sense a reality. Online petitions have been available for some time now and the UK government, ever mindful of activating support, has promised that e-petitions of more than 100,000 signatories channelled through its website with receive automatic attention in parliament.

Whilst this sounds fine in principal, it raises many questions. What if the response in parliament is a cursory debate in the small hours of the morning? According to the government's own statistics, the resident population of the UK was estimated to be 61,792,000 in mid-2009. 100,000 people can hardly be called representative. They will be pretty annoyed if they feel that the government has only paid lip service to taking their views into account, making it likely that this sort of attempt at active democracy will backfire on the government and generate more resentment and passivity. Should responses be restricted to UK voters only and how will this be administered? When an MP agreed to sponsor a parliamentary bill chosen by Radio 4's Today programme listeners, he was unhappy with the most popular subject (the "right" of homeowners to defend their property with a defined use of force) which he felt had been hijacked by the American pro-gun lobby. He suggested that this dis-empowered him as an MP.  There is also a potential problem of the collection of personal data by the government; fine if one considers the government to be largely benevolent but nevertheless making statistics on individuals’ opinions readily available in much the same way that CCTV has been used to monitor individuals participating in street demonstrations.

How should such petitions be handled? Are they worth signing? Can technology really be harnessed to democratic good or is a pacifier for the masses that leaves individuals vulnerable to political interference?

Tags: | Categories: General Posted by Charlotte Kasner on 1/10/2011 10:00 AM | Comments (0)

Technology, low or high, always has various applications and cannot in itself be imbued with value judgements. A rope can be used to hang a man or save him from drowning. Similarly, social networking can be a way of keeping active, healthy friendships current or it can be isolating, reducing "friendships" to online contact only and banishing them to the realms of fantasy.

I have a neighbour who is incapable now of picking up an A to Z to look up a street. What would have taken a couple of minutes takes an age as he boots up, selects an application, guesses at the postcode, tries to get the map to fit a format that his printer can handle etc etc. He even sat on a train, missing glorious scenery outside the window whilst following the journey on his sat nav and interjecting gems such as "we are crossing a river" [yep, I can see that out of the window; I even know what river it is because I just read the sign] and "the train is travelling at 30mph" [didn't need to know that and neither did he]. Don't get me started on his use of chat rooms; suffice to say that he thinks he is boosting his chances of dating by using the pseudonym "Adonis" which he assured me is the title of a Shakespeare play. Couldn't even be bothered to look it up on Wiki it seems.

Whilst we all model and mould the "truth" to suit circumstances, withholding details when brevity is required or to spare feelings, purely online relationships can be conducted with no regard to actualities whatsoever. This eventually must effect users; most of us have been guilty of believing our own publicity at some point in our lives or embroidering the truth to make a good story, which in time, becomes our "memory". Software applications have become very sophisticated and hunching over that screen can be very addictive indeed. It is not just adolescents that can come to replace real interaction with electronic communication.

There are agencies in Japan, that most technologically advanced nation, that supply "friends", "family" and "colleagues" on demand. This includes professional wedding guests to impress the in-laws, indeed hand-picked individuals to impress whomsoever desired it would seem. Who knows, maybe the "in-laws" are actors, supplied by your partner. Who do we trust when so much of a relationship is built on air? Demand for instant friends, family and colleagues is burgeoning, not least as the impossibility of living up to fantasies implodes. The consequences are a modern form of hermitism - there is even a term for it "hikikomori". Sufferers just shut themselves away, minimising contact and becoming violent when challenged.

Where before we might have contacted friends when momentous events happened, heaven forefend even once a year in a round robin, the pressure to be constantly in touch and to update contacts with the minutiae of one's life leads to dangerous introspection. If my life is not so exciting that it is worth tweeting about several times a day, I must be doing something wrong - or I must make it up. It is difficult to resist without sounding like an anchorite or at least a smug git: "I'm too busy DOING things to tell anyone about it"; just as excluding. There must be a middle way, surely? Do tell.

Categories: General Posted by Charlotte Kasner on 12/17/2010 4:17 PM | Comments (0)


Anyone struggling to get to work on unreliable, expensive, overcrowded public transport or battling through traffic in inclement weather must wonder if working from home would be a better option. Spiralling fares and petrol costs make the thought of eliminating the daily commute even more attractive as wage freezes bite ever deeper into real earnings.

So is it worth working from home? The pattern of work that many office workers take for granted of commuting from home to office is a comparatively recent phenomenon that served the needs of industrialisation from the early nineteenth century onwards. White collar workers were also more likely to live further away from work than, for instance, mine workers in pit villages or agricultural workers in tied housing. The burgeoning transport system that developed around towns and cities developed to meet this need is, certainly in London, almost collapsing under the strain of a much bigger population than it was created to serve as well as years of under-investment.

The demand for home working heralds a return to the artisanal system whereby skilled workers ran family businesses from, often specially adapted, houses. The long, light-yielding windows in weaving towns and extra wide entries to houses in London's Soapsud Island, Acton are a permanent reminder of the not-so-distant past when commuting was not the norm. Initially, workers even controlled the means of production, if not the markets and "Saint Monday" became an extra day off after Saturday's revels and Sunday's piety. It may mean working long into the night to finish work during the rest of the week but at least the choice belonged to the family.

Now, communication technology can mean that working from home is blurring the boundaries between home and office with the worker having little or no control over workloads and timing. Workers have gone from eating breakfast and lunch at their desk (and sometimes not even lunch) whilst working to almost being on call, regardless of whether the job really demands it. Far from being a skiver's charter, working from home can benefit employers who can keep wages down when workers no longer need to pay fares and who save on overheads by hot-desking or teleconferencing.

The initial attractions of that extra hour or so in bed may, however, be offset by the lack of demarcation between work and home. The ability to be in touch 24/7 makes it much harder to switch off mentally: physically leaving work behind can aid in achieving real rest, which benefits employers as much as employees. It is much more efficient to have a healthy, happy workforce who can be counted on to want to stay with your company in the long term, especially when you have invested time and effort in training and establishing relationships.

Obviously flexibility is much easier for large companies than small businesses. It is also easier to take a career break if you have been on a comfortable wage and/or can lean on partners to help financially.

So where does the optimum lie? Is technology a curse or a blessing? Anyone who has struggled with the delays engendered by some teleconferences can attest that it cannot entirely replace the face to face meeting, with all the advantages of being able to observe body language and just get to know colleagues. e-mail can be fraught with mis-interpretation however many emoticons are appended to the text.

Perhaps, as in so many instances, the ideal lies with a balance of both and we must remember to make technology our slave and not our master.