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Monday, 18 January 2016

The Modern Political Paradigm

One of the consequences of the demise of the traditional 20th Century political paradigm is that people don't really care about socio-economic inequality any more. This is not the same as poverty. When we talk about poverty what we are talking about is people who are handed a bad hand and then kept down. Socio-economic inequality, on the other hand, is broader than this. It is about what happens when you consider the people above the poverty line but who still have bad hands... and the people below the poverty line.

I know what you're thinking. It probably has something to do with the GFC. Modern popular socio-economic discourse is best characterised as "Bankers are evil" and that's largely where it ends. People look at the huge salaries and the even more worrisome bonus packages and push them into that category of thought called "Well, this ain't right". Oh, okay, maybe they'll say something about "trickle down economics". Generally they won't point out that any basic (i.e. entry level) economic education will tell you that economics just doesn't work like this (clue: economists will, morality aside, always argue against slavery... not sure the same can be said of the general population as generally this is viewed as a moral issue for good reason). Still, they try.

The old paradigm was fairly keen on understanding ideas like privilege... of the advantages that come with wealth, in particular how these might extend beyond simply having more money... but the modern left (over a period of some decades) has decided that social inequality is better served by ignoring the wallet. Sure, this is pretty hard to not do in the US where money is basically the be all, end all but in sane democracies that excuse doesn't look so good. This process has also, ultimately, hurt the political left. After all, there are so many different groups and all of them are people... which means that if getting food on the table becomes their dominant concern, they are interested in the parties which will help them out. The thing is, if you are ignoring wallets, you are not that party. Consequentially, the parties with the political capital are either populist, right oriented or right oriented populist parties (think: National under Key)... and they get to run with narratives of "not-divided" in addition to traditional platforms. So, what voice exists to speak up about socio-economic disadvantage? Fighting poverty is all very well and good, but that's like funding panda conservation and just looking the other way when they come for the kakapo. It's the Facebook/Twitter version of fighting the good fight.

The impact of this new paradigm is interesting. After all, you might very well think that it doesn't matter that much. After all, as long as people aren't under the poverty line it's all good. Trouble is the efforts of parties like National are always charitable because charity is nice, nice plays well and if it plays well, they'll vote for it. The thing is charity is good at the point. More to the point (a new metaphor now) is that poverty becomes isolated from the wider phenomenon (although, of course, they are distinct and that needs recalling) and is discussed in the context of political philosophies whose interest can only ever be charitable. So, if the centre-right can't care in the right way and the centre-left doesn't bother any more, what happens? (Obviously the extremes are more extreme responses of the same type.) Well, if you want to know that, all you have to do is consider Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

The basic idea of BYOD is that individual pupils will all have and bring a device with them to school. Usually these are laptops (including Chromebooks) but they can also be tablets. Some schools specify specific devices too (e.g. iPads). The thing is, these are expensive (especially if it is an Apple product that is specified).

As readers of this blog know, I am a university student. I also don't often bring my own laptop with me to uni. In fact, unless I need to get some work done on the train or don't think I can risk the chance of not finding a free computer in any of the many locations, I don't bring one. In part, this is because my laptop is quite big and unwieldy by the standards of modern laptops. That status was one reason why, after having been very frugal with my student allowance money over the year, I decided to buy a much smaller laptop. The main purpose of it was simply to watch television on (it spend a lot of time with an hdmi stuck in it) but by getting a smaller one I increased its mobility substantially, and decreased the price. In fact, I bought the cheapest laptop I could find, making use of a price deal too, and it still cost me $299.00. If that doesn't sound like much to you, that's just another reason why we should regret what the new political paradigm has done to our understandings of privilege. Hopefully, this will help you see sense.

What is more is that this is a very cloud based machine. Sure, the processor is fairly decent (2.16GHz) and the RAM too (2GB) by the standards of increasingly antique games, at least. However, there is a tiny little memory of 32GB. So, in other words, I have a laptop which is good enough for a lot of browser/cloud based stuff but it doesn't really have any grunt to it. Sometimes you need grunt. Basically, then, we can probably say that this laptop is good enough for its purposes. However, one must question how long it will last. I would not think any laptop would have an effective lifetime of less than four years, but what about one that is being carted around day in, day out by school children (often quite young ones)? Could it be that BYOD is a perfect case study of the Boot Theory? Especially given that many households will need assistance to suddenly deal with $299+ in costs... a burden even when spread across the year in fair price instalment plans. I think so.

Now, schools also like to do deals. Sometimes this is with a local stationery shop, which means if you buy there the school gets a cut. Sometimes this results in monopolistic activities... uniforms being an infamous example. We can't necessarily be sure that the schools aren't going to apply pressure to buy from certain retailers (either through guilt or specifications), or take deals from certain retailers that lead to worse outcomes (e.g. iPads... an expensive and unworldly* tablet, which is for the most part a toy when compared to a laptop, even one like what I just bought). You see, schools need money to do things...and they, probably universally, feel like they could do with more. This creates an incentive to behave in a particular way. And while what they do is for the educations they provide, people aren't rational. Hell, this blog's posts are probably about as rational as actual people can get... and my point is that these blogposts aren't rational. People want technology because it is new: and fixate on it because it's new, so it must be better. People also get target blind. You are so intent on taking down that one last plane, you get killed by groundfire. And there are a lot more irrationalities than these.

What I am trying to say here is that BYOD is sweeping through New Zealand is meeting well, next to no opposition. This is because of the modern political paradigm. There are very clear inequity issues surrounding BYOD... but they are just not part of the mainstream discourse. They are subsumed into the age old "back to school" costs issue, which is convenient for National because it means they can trot out the world's least competent unfirable minister, primed with a glib remark or three:
"No child in New Zealand should miss out on an education because of cost.
 "The Government invests a huge amount in early childhood, primary and secondary education ... I know that the start of the school year is a challenge for some families, but schools know their communities well and work hard to avoid imposing costs on them that they cannot afford.
 "In addition, a range of support is available from the Ministry of Social Development for beneficiaries who are finding the start of the school year a particular challenge. My advice to any parent who is worried about the cost of uniforms, stationery or other school equipment such as electronic devices is to talk to their schools, who often have arrangements in place to assist families who are struggling financially."
This is an example of what we might call damned truth. So what that it is all true? That doesn't actually give it meaning.

However, in another post, I will point out in another post (coming soon) that the solution to the BYOD issue specifically (God only knows how we can resoled the disaster of the paradigm itself) is, in fact, getting rid of BYOD as an idea, rather than the government actually stepping in and doing its job.


*Apple's MO is equivalent to a monastery. They seek to provide everything you could need, provided you do it in their way, to their specifications and ultimately at the cost of excluding you from everything else you could need. You buy an iPhone because you have an iPod, and to make the iPhone worth it you get a MacBook and so on and so forth. Wake up Apple product dweebs.

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