Friday, 5 March 2010

Ministry of Memes

We need a new post of Minister of Memes to provide good regulation and sound government.

A meme is the heart of word of mouth communications – it is how a message can replicate itself well beyond its original missive.

The information that circulates in our society is not necessarily the definitive text of whoever first commissioned the text. Rather, it is the sticky messages most conducive to people’s ‘truthiness’ – the reality they want to hear and see – which get passed on, and become accepted as Gospel by the community.

So, the proposal for a Ministry of Memes is this: any time government wants to tackle a problem, put forward new measures, or has a view, it needs to take into account and consider the potential dimension of memes – how will the message be relayed, distorted, and live on beyond the original transmission.

The Ministry of Memes could spot potential memes that may inadvertently arise from even the most well intentioned of acts.

News of the Government’s new agency for dealing with child protection issues, the new Independent Safeguarding Authority prompted the idea.

The forthcoming arrival of the Authority was the subject of an investigation by ‘Panorama’ (‘Are You a Danger to Your Kids’, February 8th). It is the latest move against tackling ‘the threat of paedophiles; before you can work with children you need to be checked to ensure you have no paedophile criminal record or allegations on your record.

As a proud parent of two daughters, and a big softie when it comes to any kids, I reckon I would be among the first to stand up against the evil of paedophilia.

Aside of issues about the agency just being the latest example of massive misdirection of community resources, the empowerment of an army of bureaucrats - and as Professor Sue Morris, featured in the programme, rightly points out, the Authority is more about protecting the agencies that work with children rather than actually protecting the kids themselves - a key part of its future failure will be having to deal with a confusing mess of messages created by legislation.

Essentially, it has failed to take into account the dynamic of memes.

(Another point by those who support this new venture is that the Authority was created as a measure resulting from a recommendation made by the Inquiry after the murder of two young girls by a nobody called Ian Huntley. My response to this would be that they need to consider that this was a noble idea in principle, but desperately unworkable in practice.)

Apparently, you don’t need to be checked if you work every other week with children.

You may not need to be checked if you are involved in theatre groups.

If you take other people’s children to school events, you will need to be checked if the arrangement was through the school, but not if it was arranged parent to parent.

In responding to specific criticisms the legislation will now affect 9 million people not 11 million as originally planned. Yet, in allaying the concerns of specific groups or instances, they have added a more extensive list of specific sub clauses, op-outs and extra detail to their story.

By creating a spaghetti-like morass of complex messages, the Authority will bedevil society with a series of simplistic memes – or urban myths. Messages will boiled down to a lowest common denominator for ease of passing on; ‘You can be fined if you have anything to do with children’ or ‘If you want to volunteer it’s a lot of hassle – so, it’s not worth bothering’.

As one friend who worked in child protection told me, paedophiles are extremely resourceful, full of guile and remorseless cunning to gain influence, and groom and gain the trust of children, and sometimes others around them. A series of formal steps devised by this Authority will not stop them.

In a survey of 12,000 cases of alleged paedophilia reported to the charity Childline only 13 were related to people working with the children – that is about 1 in a 1,000 cases. The comment in the ‘Panorama’ programme of ‘a sledgehammer to crack a nut’ seems apt.

Yes, the emotional message of ‘If it saves one child, it will be worthwhile’ is a powerful one. It can be neatly countered however, by a cost-benefit analysis of the resources being used to set up this Authority being directed instead, to tackling and preventing cases of paedophilia by other methods.

More fundamentally, this inappropriate agency could lead to significant damage to society at large. Large numbers of people will be influenced by the negative memes of the bureaucratic problems you have to overcome to work with children.

Ideals of volunteering, giving to the community, helping our young people, being genuinely good to each other, will be sapped by the dissonance and fear created by the bureaucratic work of the agency.

One personal experience here: My wife has worked as a teacher for 14 years. Moving to Wales she is now looking to start supply teaching.

She had to pay £60 for a CRB check to be considered for work by the Vale of Glamorgan Council. At the same time she has had to pay another £60 for a separate CRB check to be cleared for working with Cardiff Council. And she has had to pay another CRB check for registration with the General teaching Council for Wales.

The arrival at our house of the three separate CRB checks – all giving a clean bill of health - highlights the mindless bureaucratic thinking of those behind the scheme. (Can anyone explain why she cannot use just one check - a bit like a personal MOT – to the different organizations?)

Remember, communications is not what about what you say, but is about what will be said by others – the memes seeded by your words and actions and replicating onwards.

Until we get a Ministry of Memes that can advise rule makers on their actions, before Governments make any decisions, they need to take into account of the memes they are creating and their consequent impact, in the widest sense, on the good of our society.

Pass it on.

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