Monday, 6 February 2017

Romania's protests

A remarkable victory appears to have been won by anti-corruption demonstrators in Romania. The largest street protests – involving a reported half a million people, that in a country with a total population of 20 million - since the fall of Ceausescu have forced the government to abandon a policy to decriminalise corruption by public officials if the sums involved are less than US$ 48,500. By way of context, average GDP per capita in Romania is about US$ 9,500 (2015 figure, a record high). This policy, derived from a government decree, rather than from parliament, would have had the effect not just of stopping investigations of corruption below the specified level but also releasing from prison thousands of officials already found guilty of such corruption.

Corruption in Romania, as in many other countries, has a long and complex history, and it long predates both the communist and post-communist eras. However, in recent times there have been significant attempts through the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) to tackle the problem, resulting in hundreds of prosecutions and convictions, including that of former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase. Even so, Transparency International’s corruption index rates Romania 57 out of 176 countries (Denmark and New Zealand are joint first in the list, Somalia is at the bottom), making it one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. Unsurprisingly, then, the EU Commission was also strongly opposed to the proposed decree.

Corruption is not just a crime like any other. As its name suggests, it corrodes, deforms and ultimately destroys the moral and legal fabric of civilized society, whether within politics or business organizations (see Burke & Cooper, 2009). Within organization studies, the foundational work of Max Weber shows how one of the distinctive advantages of the rational-legal bureaucracy is to both render illegitimate and to monitor and control corruption. This, indeed, is one of the ethically distinctive features of such bureaucracies (see du Gay, 2000). The Romanian protestors are absolutely right to see corruption as a foundational, fundamental issue.

At a time when so much is happening in the world that seems to be beyond our control, it is heartening to see that peaceful protest can influence political decisions. People can, still, make a difference. In particular, the success of these protests gives hope to the beleaguered cosmopolitans in what I have described elsewhere as the new politics of cosmopolitans and locals. In the UK, with Brexit, the US, with Trump, and in many other countries such as France, Germany and Hungary populist localism is in the ascendant. But the Romanian protests can be understood as a revolt of the cosmopolitans. According to Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Professor of Democracy Studies at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the former leader of Romania’s anticorruption Coalition for a Clean Parliament: “… the people of deep, poor, dependent Romania nevertheless returned the families of their corrupt patron politicians to parliament, as they hope for more redistributive policies in return. In contrast, the crowds in the big cities are made of English-speaking Romanians working in multinationals and NGOs”.

The conjunction of cosmopolitan Romanians and the EU Commission is a reminder that, whatever populist rhetoric suggests, these are not some out of touch establishment bent on doing down the people. On the contrary, populist localism benefits not the poor and marginalised but corrupt political elites (in the genuine sense of the term). The most important guarantor of universal well-being is the rule of law, which is why the independent judiciary are under such attack in Brexit Britain and in Trump’s America for insisting that governments remain within the law. The successful demand by the Romanian protestors that their officials must be subject to the rule of law is a remarkable and timely inspiration to countries around the world and, especially, to the cosmopolitans currently at the lash end of populist localism.

Burke, R.J. & Cooper, C.L. (eds.) Research Companion to Corruption in Organizations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Du Gay, P. In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weber, Organization and Ethics. London: Sage, 2000.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Reviewing anger

In my book I write briefly (p.xiv) about the depressing nature of academic journal publication in organization studies, and have done so at more length in a post on this blog. In that post, written in 2014, I bemoaned the tendency for the anonymous reviewers of journal submissions to write reams of comments making demands of authors so excessive that whole books could not satisfy them.

Recently, though, I have noticed a different trend. I now find that papers I submit to journals come back with very brief comments. Occasionally, they are brief but positive. More often they are brief and not just negative but hostile, dismissive and, often absurd. For example, I recently had a damning review, endorsed by the editor, whose main complaint was that I had completely ignored a key piece of work in the field when in fact it was not just referenced but extensively quoted. Again in contrast to my experience a few years ago reviews are accompanied by an editorial letter that is curt and content-free apart, of course, from the message that the paper has been rejected. I should say that I am talking here about what are regarded within the UK and Europe (the US ranking of such things being different) “top journals” as defined by the ubiquitous Chartered Association of Business Schools’ (CABS) listing.

Anyone reading this who works in the field may be thinking that I am giving vent to sour grapes at having my papers rejected by journals. And of course I am. But there is more to it than that. I’ve been doing this job for a long time and so like anyone else I am used to papers being rejected. With the top journals’ overall rejection rates being in the order of 90% that is pretty much inevitable. So that is not the issue. What I see shifting is the manner of rejection.

That reviews are getting briefer is perhaps not surprising. I know, from the other side of the fence, how many requests to review I receive, and this activity is time-consuming to do thoroughly. Perhaps spending that time used to be seen as part of the communal reciprocity of being an academic, but with the time pressures now much-increased I can see why brevity might be becoming the norm.

What is more surprising, though, is how angry these reviews are. In recent weeks I’ve had reviews of papers which positively bark about, for example, there being ‘no contribution’. Several times there’s also been a sense of outrage at the impertinence of the paper under review for entering territory apparently regarded as ‘owned’ by the reviewer. It’s as if the reviewers feel insulted – and so insult the author.

Now, again, an obvious reaction would be to say that perhaps the problem is that my papers make no contribution and/or are amateurish forays into others’ fields. No wonder, then, that reviewers are angry. The problem with that diagnosis, though, is that the very same journals send me articles to review on the very same topics, on the basis that I have expertise in them. So whilst it is plausible that my own work has flaws that I am blind to – and I will happily own to that – it seems implausible that my critical faculties are so blinded that I can both be an expert reviewer of others’ work whilst myself producing work of such dire quality that angry dismissal is not only justified but positively demanded. And, if that is so, why do those same journals constantly send me papers to review?

So now let’s suppose another objection to what I am saying. Perhaps it is that I am sent papers to review on the basis of my expertise because in the past I did good work but I’ve now gone downhill and the papers I submit now are as risible as the referees say. But that can’t be true, either, because more often than not those same papers have gone on to be accepted by a different journal, with a different editor and different reviewers. Again, such discrepancies aren’t new – there’s always been a zone of judgment and ambiguity about what is a good paper – but they seem to me to be getting far more extreme, with a paper being as likely to be dismissed as worthless as lauded as excellent.

Based on conversations with other people I am pretty sure that the experiences I am describing are not unique to me. I am not entirely sure what the explanation is but I have a couple of ideas. One is that journal editors are not paying very much attention to their work and (despite the inevitable claim of having read the paper “very carefully”) are not exercising much editorial judgment; and bear in mind that ‘editor’ means, typically, one of a massive array of associate or assistant editors of varying ability and diligence. There are also, probably, cases of personal animosity: although submissions are anonymously reviewed it is often easy for reviewers to guess author identity (and vice versa) and, of course, handling editors know author identity anyway.

The other, more important, thing is that I think that reviewers have got angrier because as authors they have been on the receiving end of angry reviews. Which is chicken and which is egg is impossible to say, but there is surely a psychological logic in the idea that if your paper is trashed on spurious grounds you will look to trash those you review. That’s really the obverse of the point I made earlier about the incongruity of me being regarded as an expert reviewer and yet an incompetent author. It arises from that fact that all of us in the field are simultaneously authors, reviewers and, for that matter, editors.

All of this is annoying – infuriating, in fact – but it is worse than that. For me, the stakes are not very high. Deservingly or not I am reasonably well-established, securely employed, have no post I can be promoted to on research grounds, am not that far off retirement, and one way or another more than meet institutional systems of research evaluation. So a paper getting rejected in a spurious or unpleasant way is upsetting but doesn’t make any real practical difference to me. But many people, including many that I write with, are not in this happy position. For them, a publication in a “top journal” can make or break their careers, or can make huge differences to promotion chances or to salary levels.

Despite the huge power they wield there is no accountability whatsoever of journal editors and anonymous reviewers, and no possibility whatsoever of challenging their judgments. I believe that some authors do seek to challenge decisions, but I have always thought that this is a hiding to nothing and have never done so. Apart from being undignified, it’s not clear what it could achieve: if, for example, reviewers have trashed a paper and the editor has rejected it then unless an appeal yielded a whole new set of reviewers, which is highly unlikely, shifting an editor to allow a revise and resubmit is probably not going to lead to a better outcome. Pragmatically, it’s better to send the paper to another journal and hope for better luck with the editor and reviewers.

Be that as it may, it does not negate the fact that sloppy editing and angry reviewing is damaging to academic careers and – which may matter more to those who are not academics – to what gets published and therefore read. It’s a hidden scandal, and though a minor one in the general scheme of things no less important to its victims.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Willing robots

I posted recently about the growing possibilities for replacing human workers with robots, but alongside that it’s possible to discern a growing ‘robotization’ of human workers. That thought was prompted by a recent article by the excellent journalist John Harris about employee monitoring. Harris discusses the soon to be released film The Circle based upon a 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. I have not read it, but apparently it depicts the dystopian world of a high-tech corporation where:

“… privacy and autonomy count for almost nothing. Under a veneer of feelgoodism, employees are complicit in their own constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.”

Harris goes on to discuss real life counterparts of this, including the ‘Humanyze’ system of ‘people analytics’ which tracks and records employee movements and interactions, biometric data and so on. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear of this, as back in February 2014 I wrote about the Hitachi Business Microscope which has very similar functions.

The theme of workplace surveillance has been very widely explored within organization studies for at least 25 years, especially under the influence of Foucauldian analysis, and I discuss it at some length in my book (pp. 72-77). Yet we should not dismiss it as ‘old hat’, not least because of the ever-advancing technological capacities to extend surveillance.

Alongside the technology, there seems to be a growing acceptance and normalization of its use, so that (as Foucault recognized of surveillance and disciplinary power in general) those subject to it welcome it rather than experience it as intrusive. As the Circle Corporation sloganizes: “Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft”.

The obligatory reference to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four hardly seems necessary, but the ‘feelgoodism’ of contemporary surveillance is rather different to the austere, monochrome ambience of Orwell’s Oceania. It resonates more with Jacques Donzelot’s (1991) thought-provoking essay ‘Pleasure in Work’. Donzelot’s argument is that work was being re-imagined as a “means towards self-realization” (p. 251) as a reaction against the effects of the drive for productivity in the workplace.

Yet the contemporary harnessing of ‘feelgoodism’ is different in that it seeks to re-inscribe productivity into pleasure. That is to say, pleasure is not the antidote to techniques of enhancing productivity but is itself a technique to do so, what organizational theorist André Spicer calls ‘the cult of compulsory happiness’.

Harris concludes by saying that “what all this means is pretty obvious. On the way to being replaced by a robot, you will have to become one”, and I have some agreement with that. However, in co-opting pleasure for and securing subservience to productivity, the kind of robots we are suppose to become are oxymorons like the ‘willing slaves’ described by both Madeleine Bunting (2011) and Andrew Scott (1994). In being willing robots we are simultaneously robots and that one thing that robots cannot be – willing, in all senses of the word: cheerfully prepared and possessed of choice and purpose.

The centrality of productivity to contemporary economic discourse is pointed up by the consultation document on its industrial strategy released by the UK government today. The longstanding weakness of UK productivity by international standards is the central theme of this strategy and throughout the document it is linked to the need to work ‘not harder but smarter’ (p.13) and to new technologies, including robotics (p.63). Like everything else in British politics at the moment it is refracted through Brexit, so that the opening preface from the Prime Minister declares that the vote to leave the EU was also a vote to “change the way our country works forever” (p.3).

It strikes me as unlikely that those who voted for Brexit realised that they had also voted to be replaced by robots or themselves to become willing robots – after all, neither this nor, for that matter, industrial strategy were on the ballot paper - but if this turns out to be the case it underscores that the exercise of human will is less predictable than the operation of robots, so that the choices we make may lead to consequences we never envisaged.

Bunting, M. (2011) Willing Slaves: How the overwork culture is ruining our lives. London: Harper Collins.
Donzelot, J. (1991) ‘Pleasure in Work’ in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in governmentality, pp 251-280. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Scott, A. (1994) Willing Slaves? British workers under human resource management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Jobs for the boys

Today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a widely-reported research document showing the huge growth of part-time working amongst British men in recent years. Specifically, amongst men aged 25-55 in low-wage occupations, those working part-time work has risen over the last 20 years from 5% to 20%. The 20 year timescale indicates that this is a long-term trend, not just an effect of recession.

There are various issues arising from this. Those highlighted by the IFS are that part-time work is much more common now amongst men in low-wage occupations than it is amongst men in higher paid occupations; and that the trend for women is exactly the opposite (the percentage of women working part-time in low-wage occupations has fallen).

These seemingly dry statistics are extremely important. Interestingly, they do not show increasing inequality (which the report shows has actually fallen) but they do imply increasing insecurity and precariousness in employment. In particular, they probably help to explain at least part of the populist convulsions in the UK and elsewhere which are largely driven by angry, white, working-class men whose place in the world has been threatened. Within that, the regional discrepancies in men’s employment and wages are also important, as they then join together with resentment against the ‘metropolitan elite’ to drive populism.

However, the particular aspect I want to focus on is the way that these figures speak of a kind of crisis of masculinity. For generations in Britain (and elsewhere) masculine identity has been bound up with being ‘the breadwinner’. That is both an economic and a cultural – and psychological – notion. Economically, it requires stable, secure and reasonably well remunerated employment. That is the ‘bread’ bit. Culturally, it enables having a successful place in the world. That is the ‘winner’ bit. And taken together, it is a potent identity: bread + winner = breadwinner.

It is important to understand that the loss of this identity is both economic and cultural because it explains why the corresponding improvement in women’s situation does not ‘compensate’ for the deterioration in that of men. It’s not enough to add together the overall household position and conclude that nothing has changed because economically the household is just as well off in absolute terms and (if the IFS Report is right) even in relative terms. That does not assuage the cultural and psychological hurt of lost identity and meaning.

A generation ago, as explored in Paul Willis’s fantastic ethnography Learning to Labour (1977), young boys could disdain education because an unskilled factory job was there for the taking. That world has disappeared, but the sons and grandsons of those in the study have not moved on (see also Dolby et al., 2004). The sub-title of Willis’s book was ‘how working class kids get working class jobs’, but those jobs – in the form they once existed – have massively declined.

The most under-achieving educational group in the UK is now white working-class boys, three-quarters of whom fail to achieve five good GCSEs. This directly impacts upon their employability, as does the more nebulous issue of behavioural skills (time-keeping, self-presentation etc). Thus just as the opportunities for good jobs erodes so does the capacity of white working-class British boys to get whatever good jobs there may be, feeding directly into the populist anger against immigrants seen to be ‘taking’ the jobs. It is a situation that was starkly exposed by the 2010 BBC documentary The Day the Immigrants Left.

The biggest problem in all this is that three separate issues have come together: the changing nature of work in developed countries; immigration; and what it means to be a (working-class) man. Populist politics speaks to the first two, but it has nothing to say about the third. The period that saw the transformation of work and the global economy also saw a transformation, through feminism, in understandings of what it meant to be a woman. I don’t mean by that the tired old trope that feminism has, somehow, undermined or de-masculinized men. That’s nonsense because it is not a zero-sum game in which ‘advances’ for women come at the ‘expense’ of men. I mean that what has still not occurred, and urgently needs to occur, is a transformation in understandings of what it means to be a man.

That is not to say that the only problem here is the cultural understanding of masculinity. Economics and culture are indivisible, which is why the feminist movement has always been about changing both economic and cultural realities. It has to be both. And because it has to be both, the populist approach to the new situation of men is inadequate, because it is solely economic. If (and, in my view, when) it fails to deliver it will leave working-class men even angrier and even more economically marginal. To avoid that, the old equation that real men = real jobs needs tackling on both of its sides.

Yes, we need more real jobs for both men and women. But we also need men to understand that being a ‘breadwinner’ is not the definition of a ‘real’ man and, moreover, that there are many different ways and many different potentials for masculinity that have little or nothing to do with work. Part-time work may well be a problem for many economic reasons, for both men and women; but it doesn’t carry the meaning of not being a ‘full-time’ man. To put it another way, if feminism broke the link between femininity and unpaid homemaking then what we need to do now is to break the link between masculinity and paid work.

Dolby, N., Dimitriadis, G., & Willis, P. (2004). Learning to Labour in New Times. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough, UK: Saxon House.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Justice for some

In this post I want to draw the links between two current UK news stories. The first concerns the report today that forensic science services are operating in a risky way. These services, which are crucial to the criminal justice system, were largely privatised in 2012 in a move that was heavily criticised at the time. Since then, repeated concerns have been raised about it. It is a story with many affinities with the horsemeat scandal of 2013 that I posted about at the time, and with several other examples of privatization.

However, it is not this aspect I am going to discuss, but something more specific: that within today’s report one thing highlighted was that cuts in the legal aid budget meant that defence lawyers were unable to commission adequate forensic science. This is linked to the wider issue because it arises from there being a private market in forensic science, but results from a different political decision, that to restrict legal aid.

This brings me to the second news story from this week. Because legal aid is no longer available in the vast majority of family law cases, there has been a huge rise in people representing themselves (in 80% of cases only one party has legal representation, in 60% of cases neither party has legal representation). This means that abusive ex-partners can get to cross-examine their victims in court (something that cannot happen in criminal cases of abuse) causing massive distress.

The issue of the consequences of cuts to the legal aid budget has been highlighted for some time but inevitably it has taken a while before they begin to bite in a widespread way. Lack of legal aid in immigration courts has led to children having to represent themselves. Even where legal aid is available, the cuts have led to a shortage of legal aid lawyers (whose fees have been cut), impacting on housing disputes and causing homelessness.

These are amongst many of the (presumably) unintended consequences of the reform of legal aid provision and serve as an illustration of that concept, discussed in my book (pp. 26-31). But they are of a particular sort. As with the organization of prisons, discussed in another post, or in the superficially very different but in this respect similar case of the organization of dental services, they impact primarily upon the marginal and/or demonized: the poor (obviously), immigrants and asylum seekers, those accused of crimes, those on the edge of homelessness, the (largely) women who suffer domestic abuse. In fact, it is perhaps because the latter group is not confined to the socially marginal that the government have now launched an emergency review of the problem?

It doesn’t seem an outrageous proposition that justice should be available to all. It’s not even particularly expensive to provide it. Although the cuts to the legal aid budget have been large in percentage terms, the absolute amount (£200-£300M a year) is quite trivial in the context of overall government spending. The effects are huge, not just on the individuals affected but on the wider sense of a civil society to which law and justice are both fundamental and paramount.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

New times?

This blog, at least, is now living in new times since regular readers will have seen that there has been a complete revamp of the site design, to reflect the new edition of my book. As well as the new imagery to match the fourth edition cover there are new sidebars showing followers (and do click on the follow button if you would like to), numbers of readers, a listing of the most read posts, a new search facility, a cloud of post labels and enhanced buttons at the end of each post to share on social media. Plus, there is now a new title: a fairly interesting and completely free blog about organizations.

On a rather grander scale, there seems to be an emerging consensus that we are living in new times, with 2016 having marked the end of the hegemony of global free market ideology – what I call the new capitalism in my book – that has held sway since the 1970s. Beyond, but associated with, that are notions from commentators on the left and on the right of a post-liberal era, a post-truth era, an age of anger  or an age of populism.

This analysis, born largely of the votes for Trump and Brexit, is tempting, and it’s one which to some extent I share. But I think there is a need for caution, too. In my book I discuss (pp. 93-95) reasons for scepticism about claims of the new era of globalization, and there are similar reasons for scepticism about its demise.

In relation to Trump’s victory I’ve pointed to the fact that he received support from many who were by no means the losers from globalization, and also to the continuity of many of his policies with those of the traditional free market right. That has subsequently been underscored by many of his appointments at least four of whom are alumni of investment bank Goldman Sachs, the high priests of the globalist order. Is this really a rupture with the elite establishment or with the neo-liberal hegemony? Similarly, if the Brexit vote was a rejection of globalization then the news hasn’t reached Brexiter ministers like Liam Fox who take it to be an endorsement of “the glorious joys of free trade”.

Perhaps what is in prospect is a sell-out of the voters and, for sure, it is clear that those who voted Trump or Brexit in anticipation of an end to globalization and free market economics are in for a very nasty shock. But I think that what is more to the point is that the votes in question had enormously mixed motivations, and they cannot be read as the neat story that commentators are developing as the new political truth.

In relation to Brexit, I have read or heard in conversation all kinds of reasons for voting to leave the EU. These have included a belief that heavy industry would return (which is closest to the anti-globalization narrative); hostility to immigration (which might in part be seen as part of anti-globalization sentiment, but which certainly pre-dates the neo-liberal period) including non-EU immigration (which would not be affected by the vote); a desire to give the government a good kicking; the idea that it would be interesting to see what happened; the belief that the remain side would win anyway so it was just a protest vote; the hope that it would mean more money for the NHS (presumably based on the Leave campaign’s headline slogan); the sense that ‘things aren’t going to well’ so it’s time for a change; the belief it was a vote against ‘austerity economics’ and so on and so on.

I don’t necessarily mean by this that those who voted leave had any worse reasons for doing so than those who voted remain (for example, I heard one remain voter explaining that he did so in the (erroneous) belief that that English football teams would not be able to play in Europe if we left the EU). The point is rather that the heterogeneous motivations to vote leave do not give licence to a homogenized analysis and explanation of the outcome of the vote.

To put it another way, both the Trump and the Brexit votes were very close; and in the US case, Trump actually lost the popular vote. So the outcomes could easily have been completely different, and if Clinton had narrowly won, and Remain had won 52-48 instead of the other way around, then commentators would be oh-so-wisely saying ‘when it came to it, people voted for the status quo’. Yet the politics and sociology of the vote would have been virtually identical: a few percentage points the other way. In those circumstances, we would be saying ‘nothing has changed’; as it is, we are saying ‘everything has changed’.

Those few percentage points matter hugely, of course, in terms of practicalities. Trump’s election and Brexit will have major consequences in the US, the UK, and around the world. But those consequences flow not from a seismic shift in society but from the way that a whole agglomeration of voting decisions can in certain voting systems have an effect. We mistake effect for cause if we imagine that the outcome of those particular and peculiar voting systems has a single meaning that adds up to the proposition that we are suddenly living in new times.

History does have patterns, which stand out sharp and clear, almost as banalities, in long retrospect; close up and immediate ascriptions of historical change are – almost inevitably – mistaken. Perhaps we should not be too impatient for meaning. The actress Carrie Fisher who died today aged 60 provided the quote that I used to introduce the chapter on contemporary capitalism in the second edition of my book: “instant gratification takes too long”. We may or may not be living in ‘new times’: time will tell.

Happy New Year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Cyber insecurity

In the new edition of my book I mention (p.25) cyber security as an example of how organizational rules are often flouted, leading to risky behaviour such as inadequate passwords or clicking on links that contain malware.

This is a microcosm of a much wider set of issues which have been brought to the fore this week with the news that Yahoo suffered a cyber-attack which may have compromised the personal data of more than a billion user accounts. This is the latest of a string of high profile cases involving companies including Tesco Bank, mobile phone company TalkTalk, and infidelity dating site Ashley Madison.

Such cases are themselves a microcosm of an even wider set of issues around online frauds and scams. Today, UK consumer groups have criticised inadequate protection against bank transfer frauds where people are conned into making payments they are expecting to make to a legitimate recipient but which are diverted to a scammer.

It is for most of us a daily experience to receive emails that purport to come from banks or other organizations (‘phishing’), or from someone in our email contact list supposedly robbed whilst abroad and in need of our funds(the ‘sad news scam’), as well as the older scam of the message about money to be transferred if the victim first transfers a smaller sum (the ‘Nigeria 419 scam’ and variants). In all cases what is being sought is money, data, or the installation of malware which will allow these to be collected, with ‘ransomware’ being an increasingly common, and nasty, version. There are also numerous scams that are initiated by phone. Common examples include the bogus call from ‘Microsoft’ leading to remote control of your computer and/or demands for money to remove viruses.

It’s easy to think that only the extremely gullible are taken in by any of these things, but some of them are very convincing and the forms they take change, so it is easy to be caught out. Moreover, as new technologies emerge, such as contactless card payments, new possibilities for theft are created. The massively increased use mobile devices also creates new scams, and the immediacy of a mobile (compared with, say, an email on your PC) makes an instant, unconsidered response that much more likely. Plus the emergent ‘internet of things’ makes cyber security even more challenging.

Like any other crime, there are a mixture of personal, corporate and regulatory issues that may offer protection from or redress for cyber-crime. I like to think (but don’t we all?) that I am reasonably savvy about cyber security, partly because I worked on a research project about it recently. But what I find irritating is how we are increasingly pushed into exposing ourselves to the risk. Personally, I have never signed up for internet banking and I never use contactless card payment, but that has become more and more difficult to sustain. Telephone, let alone branch, banking is increasingly difficult, and banks seem amazed when people refuse to bank online. In shops, I have had contactless payments taken without consent. And, beyond that, I’ve recently had a couple of experiences where my bank has contacted me on a withheld number asking for security information in order to progress queries. They were, in fact, genuine calls, but I think it would have been easy for a fraudster to mimic them.

More generally, it’s all but impossible to live off-line to any great extent nowadays, or not without a huge amount of inconvenience. But the practices of organizations capitalise on this. Every single commercial and state organizations you deal with demands personal data – often way beyond what is needed for the transaction in question. The privacy policies of these organizations are far too complex to understand, and refusing to sign up to them renders it effectively impossible to access a huge swathe of services. Then again, I have never (knowingly) signed up to Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin, but I nevertheless get endless emails from each of these, and unsubscribing has no effect. Equally, I always tick the ‘no’ options on communications from internet sites I buy from, but often get communications nonetheless and often find that unsubscribing from these makes no difference.

So although we are bombarded with advice about how to protect ourselves from cybercrime and internet marketing, the reality is that there is relatively little that we, as individuals, can do. And the things we might consider, such as single password sites for multiple accounts, can make us more insecure as they concentrate sensitive data in one place.

Insecurity is endemic to the human condition – existentially, psychologically, socially, economically we are insecure. Today, we have to add a new insecurity, virtual or cyber insecurity, in which we may be bullied, blackmailed, lose at best our money and at worst our identity.