2021v28, Friday: Not oil.

Getting the analogy wrong can ruin policy, as our approach to data has shown. And turning to real fossil fuels: two big, big events involving an oil company and a coal mine.

Short thought: Taking a short break from thingification, this week marks three years since the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR as most of us know it, came into force.

Many hate it. It’s caused a huge amount of work for organisations of all kinds. It’s clunky, imprecise, open to vast interpretation as to how its extensive obligations should be implemented, and therefore tends towards lengthy tickbox exercises rather than the “privacy by design and default” which is, to me, the heart of the whole exercise.

And, of course, it leads to all those dialogs every time you log into a website. And more recently, also the pointless and aggravating requests that you acknowledge the site’s legitimate interest in using your data any way they want. 

(Pointless because if push came to legal shove, I can’t believe a court would waste more than a few seconds on any such factor. Your legitimate interests aren’t something you can just sign away. Particularly not without genuine consideration. Yet another piece of annoying figleaf. Aggravating for the same reason.)

But I still think the anniversary is worth celebrating. Because GDPR did something really important. It enshrined, far more strongly than its predecessor legislation the core principle that your data is yours. It’s not some public resource that organisations can use however they want; some commons they can enclose at will. 

Analogies are important here – and yes, I realise we’re back on stories again, because when the story’s wrong, our responses to it are wrong too. Here, the problem is the dominant analogy: “data is the new oil” is a phrase often bandied around, but as Matt Locke notes here, this is entirely the wrong categorisation:

The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil – as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago – it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.

To indulge in a bit of shameless exaggeration, treating data as a common untapped resource from which anyone can make a buck is akin – in direction if not in scale – to treating Swift’s Modest Proposal as a sensible contribution to the argument on population control.

Think of data as a part of ourselves, and suddenly the priorities change. Stories like the UK government’s attempt – again! – to give relatively unfettered commercial access to health data become as vile as they seem. (On that, instructions to opt out are here – the deadline’s 23 June.)

It’s not oil. It’s us.


Ultra-short before-thoughts: While we’re on the subject of oil, a couple of interesting items which I haven’t had time properly to process yet:

  • A small investment outfit has managed to force directors onto the board of Exxon who actually care about climate change. My recent reading of The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, has been scaring me witless, and bringing me to the belated realisation of just how much harm climate change naysayers have done to my daughter’s future. About damn time.
  • This one I really want to read and consider: an Australian federal court has denied an application by several children for an injunction to stop a vast open-cast coal mine. But in doing so, it’s found something legally fascinating and with huge potential implications: that there is a duty of care on a government minister to consider what such a project will do to those children’s futures. To anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the common law jurisprudence of negligence, this is immense: new duties of care rarely emerge, with courts (at least in England and Wales) highly reluctant to go beyond existing categories of duty; and only then incrementally and with small steps, based on analogy with existing duties. (For a really good explanation of how this works, see the case of Robinson in the UK Supreme Court.) I really, really need to see how the judge in Australia reached this conclusion (which is at [490-491] of the judgment). I’m on vacation next week, so I might have time to take it in. 

Because I’m on vacation, no promises about posts next week. I’’ll try to take thingification a bit further forward, and there’s so much to do on privacy. We’ll see where we get to.


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2021v10, Monday: Put yourself in the picture.

No-one gets elected unless they can tell a story enough people want to be part of. Will Labour ever learn that lesson again?

Short thought: Those bored to tears with me banging on about stories should look away now. Because in the wake of last week’s local elections in the UK, here we go again.

I don’t know what a Labour-run country would look like. They haven’t told me. Or if they have, I’ve missed it. And I’m really not oblivious enough to news to have overlooked it.

I know what the Tories want me to think a Tory-run country (which is what we currently have) looks like. I don’t believe they’re either willing or (more importantly) capable of producing the levelled-up, non-London-centric future they’re describing. I think an administration based on flagrant lying, gaslighting and corruption will probably get found out one day.*

But I at least see the picture they’re painting. And I can understand, particularly in areas which have been so much at the back of the queue for decades that the front is only visible with a telescope (and having grown up partly in Stoke-on-Trent, this isn’t just theoretical to me), how it seems far better than any alternative.

That’s the thing. Yes, there’s the vaccine bounce. Yes, there’s the relief of re-opening – and incumbents (let’s not forget that many Labour and other incumbent administrations actually did quite well) almost always benefit when there’s an economic or social upswing.

But political parties are social engines. They’re powered by human attention and (to some extent) trust. And trust and attention are – yes, here we go again – narrative-driven.

Put simply: you vote for someone when they tell a story that enough people feel they either want, or need, to be a part of. And to do that, you need to act, not just react; and you need to find ways of telling your own story, on your own turf; not the turf the other parties define.

Labour has forgotten this. It forgot in 2010-2015, when it allowed the “Labour spent all the money, so austerity is inevitable” lie to take root. It forgot between 2015 and 2019, when Corbynmania had a story of sorts – but one which seemed explicitly to discard or disdain large numbers of people whose votes, to be frank, Labour needed if it was to win power.

And national Labour, at least, seems to have forgotten it now. It focuses on the stories it tells itself (bring back Corbynism! No, Blairism for the win!) instead of the stories it needs to tell the rest of us. And that’s disastrous.

I want to know how we free up the country outside London. I want to know how a post-pandemic UK could find ways of making sure a kid growing up in Southend, or Wigan, or Warwick, or their Scots or Welsh equivalents, doesn’t have to move to London to have the life they deserve, keeping their cash local and their community thriving. I want to know how workers can be protected and their employers encouraged and incentivised to avoid zero-sum games. I want to know how we can integrate facing down the climate threat into this new model. I want to know how despite all this London can remain the thriving, bubbling, economic and social wonder that it is – but not at the cost of elsewhere. (Other countries manage to be truly multi-centred nations; why not us?) I want to know how we can see the rest of the world and its peoples as opportunities, not threats, and love difference as the vital ingredient of life that it is, without using it as a weapon. How we can stop using the EU as a bogeyman, stop pretending that other trade arrangements will wholly replace the ones we’ve shut the door on, and start making Britain after Brexit work without constantly lying about it.

(For the climate in particular: I warmly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, a new book telling – as if in retrospect – one story of how the world dealt with impending climate catastrophe. It’s fiction, sure; but it’s an example of how to paint a word picture that one wants to climb into. As Todd Tucker puts it: it should be “required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living”.)

All this can fit into a grand narrative. One which is doable, so long as you’re in power. And almost none of this is going to come from this government, which prefers pork-barrel to policy.

Here’s a picture I want to paint myself into. A story I want to be a character in. A future I’d like to believe in.

But I’m not hearing it. Not from anyone. And that makes me cry.

*Although I always bear in mind the investing dictum that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. The same can apply to the electability of incompetent narcissist populists, I fear.


Someone is right on the internet: I’ve been sleeping appallingly recently. Insomnia’s been a plague for years, but the past few months? Worse than I can remember. It’s left me often incapable of functioning after about 4pm. And then I wake up before 4 the following morning… and the cycle continues.

There are things I can and should do. Meditate more. Eat better. Talk things through. Exercise. Read rather than rely on devices. I’ll be working on them all.

And on the subject of reading, having something thought-provoking about sleep may not help, but it sure feels as though it might. So this, from Wired on how octopuses seem to dream, is perfect.

The answer appears to be: they have REM sleep, but only for a fraction of the period that we do. Could it be because, as they seem to dream, it affects their skin colouration – normally an expression of mood and a defensive tool for camouflage? Is the evolutionary risk of a long REM period just too high?

No idea. But it’s great to think about. And in any case: sleep study and cephalopods, all in one. Two absorbing interests covered at the same time. What’s not to like?


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2021v5, Wednesday: Stories.

On learning advocacy from story-telling, across genres and styles. With a plug for Carly Simon, John le Carré, and a recent opponent of mine.

Short thought: I can bore for Britain on the subject of story-telling. Indeed, I already have, several times.

But this is because it’s important. For us all as human beings, for whom stories help us understand who we are and – as critically – who others are. (And sometimes, more malignantly, paint others in ways which traduce them.)

And particularly for us advocates. As I’ve said before, a big part of advocacy is in crafting the narrative that makes the facts sing, which simply makes more sense than the other side. It’s not the only thing. But it’s a big thing.

Most of us advocates, unsurprisingly, therefore love language. And we owe it to ourselves to learn from its usage, not only in our own world, but in others.

Songs, for instance. Sure, a good lyric is a million miles away from what you can put before the High Court. But the greatest song-writing is often a peerless exercise in narrative concision. A few verses to relate a whole tale.

A fabulous, fabulous example of this is an old favourite of mine: You’re So Vain, by Carly Simon. Putting aside the frankly tedious argument about whether it was Warren Beatty or someone else who inspired it, it’s essentially a story told – stripping out repetitions of the chorus – in fewer than 200 words.

And what words! I could choose any line, but this one stands out for packing the maximum meaning into only five words:

“And your horse naturally won.”

That adverb does so much work. In context, it’s practically a story all of its own.

Seriously. Listen to it. See how the story builds. See how every word works. And learn.

Fiction, of course, is the same. This is one reason I love audiobooks. When read by a good narrator, in circumstances where you can pay just enough attention, the words of great writers sing out to you and leave you breathless.

Again, an old favourite. While running recently, I’ve been re-listening to an unabridged reading of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré’s peerless classic of loss, regret and espionage – although frankly the espionage, as with much of le Carré’s work, was the canvas rather than the paint. The first few chapters kept hitting me with phrase after phrase, each more perfectly formed than the last, each with every word working.

Will I use it directly? Of course not. But will I reflect on the usage, the choices underlying it, and seek to learn? Without a doubt.

The lesson here for me: narrative is everywhere. Much of it is dross. Some of it is breathtaking. The latter is a masterclass for those, like me, who tell stories for a living. And we ignore it at our, and our clients’, peril.

(As a sidenote here: I heard a wonderful piece of narrative advocacy yesterday, from my opponent in an employment tribunal hearing. I’ll say nothing about the content of the hearing, on which judgment has been reserved. But that doesn’t have to stop me from saying that Rad Kohanzad, of 42 Bedford Row, told his client’s story beautifully, simply and effectively, weaving his submissions naturally into the tale as he spun it. Not too effectively, I hope; obviously, I want to win! And, albeit in a different metre, I think my story-telling was pretty sound too. But credit where it’s due.)


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