Intimacy issues

It's hard to be a good citizen when the line between public and private space is blurred

"Anil is currently writing an article for the New Statesman." So reads my Twitter status at this moment. With a click of a mouse, I add this to my activity feed, and all the contacts in my friends network receive my updated status. Some will see it in their web browsers; others may get the message on their mobile phone or PDA.

Twitter is one of several online social networks promoting this form of "lifestream" - a continually updated list of activities, moods, actions and events, broadcast to groups of friends and acquaintances. Everything from relationship break-ups to party invitations, web bookmarks to music listening habits are strung out on a timeline viewable by anyone in your network. It's part of a trend in technology that's ushering in a new form of intimacy that I think is best described as "ambient intimacy". The term refers to an unprecedented level of connectedness among people, as well as a blurring of private and public space.

Technology has a history of moving the goalposts when it comes to private space. In the early Eighties, the Walkman and the mobile phone fundamentally altered our relationship to our immediate environment: first, by driving home the breakdown of the family unit and our disengagement from urban sprawl; and second, by wiping out the notion of geographical isolation. Today, if our email usage patterns are any indicator, we're happy to spend more time than ever emoting to screens as opposed to faces.

It's often blamed as a catalyst for social alienation, but new technology actually renders us instantly reachable. Digital information surrounds us at work, at school, in the home and in public spaces, giving us the impression that we're suspended in the stuff (we quite literally are, if you take radio, mobile phone and wifi traffic into consideration). Public and private realms intertwine as networks of people gorge on the information they themselves create during the average day: photos of the food you ate, the clothes you bought, links to the video you watched, lists of the books you're reading, the mood you're in, and so on.

It's important for our digital identities that we disentangle all this information to form a coherent notion of private space. Everywhere we look online we see public and private blurred, from Facebook newsfeeds to forums and chat rooms. The end result is a generation confused about the roles of the public and private realms; a generation that risks sinking into self-absorption and narcissism. These tools have the potential greatly to enhance (and even reinvent) our social lives, but without a healthy notion of what is private and what is public, our capacity to identify ourselves as active participants in a tangible society will suffer.

Anil Bawa Cavia designs social software for

Becky Hogge is away

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.