I don’t know how many times I have sung Depeche’s Mode “Home”.  Including one night in Milan, many years ago, with a man with a bare, tattooed torso and thousands of Italians who knew every word.

This morning was different.  My son was in the back seat of the car, we were on our way to Valletta for our Saturday morning walk.  Instinctively, my fingers cranked the volume up, as soon as the first notes punched my chest.  And Jacob and I sang it aloud, in communion, all the way from the Porte des bombes to Lascaris Wharf.

Sometimes, just for a few moments, this place still feels like home.

The new old permanent blogosphere

Jacques Rene Zammit’s blog is seven years old.  A milestone that Jacques decided to celebrate by inviting a handful of Maltese bloggers, who had set up a blog at around the same time, to share their own thoughts on the state of the blogosfera.  Many of them do not blog any more, for a variety of reasons – from boredom and a poor return on the time invested in the lonely practice of blogging to the allure of social networks.

I read each of the submissions.  Not just because of my research, but because I know most of the bloggers – some are close friends.  Their tales of memory tinged with the faintest whiff of nostalgia inevitably made me think of this semi-dormant blog of mine:

The blog is your Church. It is at the hub of what you really want to say. Where you reflect, where you develop your essay-type ideas. Where you talk to your (real or imaginary) congregation. The congregation is assembled elsewhere (Facebook, for the time being). It will occasionally visit your Church if, like a lapsed Catholic, it is reminded of your daily service should you choose to broadcast some snippets from the pulpit of your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr…

The blog stopped being a community years ago. The community does not find entertainment in the Church any more. But it knows that now and again, it needs something more than entertainment if it wishes to reflect beyond the immediate reflexive cycles of the social network.

The blog is not dead. It’s just increasingly one-way media broadcast. Still the channel of choice for the political, the mavericks and trouble-makers. Increasingly devoured by the old, battered media. By those looking for chinks in their fortresses and signs of resistance to their hegemony in civil society.

 

The reflections of Jacques’s bloggers in arms are well worth reading:

David Friggieri

Fausto Majjistral

Pierre J Mejlak

Immanuel Mifsud

Toni Sant

ġakbu sfi*o

Mark Vella

Alex Vella Gera

Lost in translation

Some things don’t quite translate from one culture to another.

Some things never seem to change.

Take Breakfast TV on BBC 1 – an excellent example of British ethnography.  Yesterday, somewhere in between shaving and a pre-breakfast coffee in my room at the excellent Ashburton in Scarborough – a discussion at 7.30 in a car park on a new report on how people park their cars in shopping malls. Apparently women drivers park better, and between the lines. Cue woman driver in a pink car parking nicely between the lines.

Now compare this with my country, where I remember one man’s claim to fame was ‘parking’ his Ford Escort with halogen lights on full beam, on the ‘zuntier‘ of the parish church with ‘Highway to Hell’ blasting from his ‘X-treme’ sound system. 

Definition of zuntier: huge space plus steps in front of a church, used by people who like to drift out of mass for a fag; or for the erection of billboards (against divorce, solicitation of donations, advertising the Pork Fair in the Pjazza etc.)

Thank God for kids

There has to be some reason for these wrinkles.  The crows-feet.  The deep furrows etched permanently on what used to be sun-tanned skins.

My mother used to say they were laughter lines.  Grooves of happiness and the good life.  Then again, she used to call the big mole on the tip of her nose a beauty spot.  I think she always found a way of looking at things differently.  Or maybe that’s how you survive when you are one of 10 and have such little time for yourself.

We’re clocking down to Christmas, and Christmas is for kids.

We are everywhere

I have to give a TEDx talk in a week.  The title is locked.  I’ve got an idea of sorts, in my head.  I’ve tinkered with some slides.  I’ve tried to listen to the inner voice, the one that never lies, that is your harshest critic. My son has drawn me a cartoon to try and help me out.

The thing is – TED talks are about imparting wisdom. And it’s mostly the wisdom of experience.   Yet since I got on this learning / research path of mine, I’ve seen many of my core beliefs getting challenged and deconstructed.  Once you touch academia, you have to re-learn humility.  Where, in the consulting world, it is all about getting the big idea quickly and then using your energies to take your client on the same journey with you, in academia it is about constantly looking around and over your shoulders, before you start to try and make any impression.  

TED just seems to raise that bar higher.  It’s about a curious mix of theatre, performance and authenticity.  We all know the great TED talks – Robinson, Oliver, Godin, Shirky – there is a roll call of names and performance, growing by the day.

I have less than 7 days to dig deep into whatever well of experience and failure I have within me – and find what needs to be said.

 

The unbearable lightness of a thesis

I’ve listened to this several times.  The fact that I’m embedding it here means that it’s still not registering.

I’m a writer.  I’ve researched countless business situations, found problems, identified solutions, wrote up reports, made presentations, mobilised people and budgets and sometimes even ran the whole cavalry myself.

And yet, writing up this blessed thesis fills the soul with dread. And I don’t even have to teach. Best advice from this one: a writer is someone who writes the thesis, not someone who reads about it.

How to Finish Your PhD View more webinars from Tim Kastelle

Me and the PhD

Wondering at madness that compels people to do a PhD. Ruins your back, finances & social life. Arguably generates zero return on investment. Makes you talk to yourself in your sleep & listen to obscure music instead of writing the ground-breaking stuff nobody else can write for you. Eternal blinking at a blank monitor. Every day, you realise how little you, and everyone else knows about anything, and that the world still does whatever it has to do regardless. 

Sure, I was made for this.

9 years ago

Jacob_on_his_birthday

My son Jacob was nine today.

Right now, the boy is asleep, tangled with Pickles, the bear with long arms, who also celebrated his eighth birthday today.

We’re hot on milestones in my family.

Today, in between the hugs, presents, cassatellas at Fontanella, and the blowing of candles on a chocolate cake, Jacob and I found ourselves watching the video below.  We both agreed that one day out of 365 where people could stop fighting each other was something worth fighting for.  And for a moment, I actually thought of telling my son of how his own existence is tied to 9/11, that most graphically violent of events for people from the West.  But just as I was trying to work out how to approach the subject of Al Qaeda as a different form of social network and notions of US imperialism, Jacob had slipped quietly to the next room to draw another one of his cartoons of large men in tight suits.

My life changed completely nine years ago, for the better.  Like millions of others, I know that I owe my child everything.

 

Listening to social media

Earlier this year, the Internet scholar Clay Shirky said that governments systematically overestimate access to information and underestimate the power of citizens’ access to each other.  They tend to keep a watchful eye on synchronised groups, but worry less about individuals.  The problem for institutions of power, says Shirky, is that individuals are now increasingly synchronised, because of the social media tools they use in their daily lives.  Shirky ends his piece on a gently ominous tone:  “Just because someone isn’t talking about politics in their spare time doesn’t mean they won’t turn out in Tahrir Square when the serious business starts.”

In the past fortnight of political soul-searching and brinksmanship as the result of the divorce referendum in Malta was absorbed, you can also find some finger-pointing.  For pundits with anti-divorce sympathies, the mainstream independent media has to share as much of the blame for the way things turned out , as those who voted the way they did, despite the combined forces of ‘No’ campaign.     

There is a silent tribe in my country that is neither active in party politics nor historically vociferous in raising its voice on civic and political issues.  Yet increasingly it is this tribe that decides who seizes power when we go to the ballot box.  In a country with a legacy of polarised media systems, the pundits are still ignoring the fact that civil society now has access to a two-way, social media back channel of social networks, blogs and online videos that operates alongside the established, one-way, broadcast channels of TV, print and radio.  This citizen media is not necessarily balanced or professional, and is often raw, subjective and amateur.  What it lacks in journalism training it makes up in speed and immediacy.   It watches other media, institutions and politicians with the same glee that it comments on the Eurovision and a local music video.  And it may well have played a vital factor in swinging the result of the divorce referendum vote to the ‘Yes’ camp, because it is increasingly trusted by civil society as representative and democratic.

News these days spreads virally, like gossip, and often over mobile devices.  A feature on the Times is analysed not just on the paper’s online collateral, but is rapidly diffused on other mainstream and social media – and linked, tweeted, rehashed, commented and blogged.  This remix web is something we have not had much experience with in Malta.  In a society where power-brokers believe it is their right to use a newspaper as a personal billboard, as and when they wish, it has come as a shock to some to discover the voice of this parallel world.

The tipping point that brought the power of the individual to the fore was the arrival of the campaign billboards.  It felt like a revival of old, power tactics.  Online, individuals talked about how Malta was living a lie and how the billboards were treating them like idiots.  The back channel started with some grumbling in blogs and soon became a veritable stream of conversations, one to one, one to many.  For every billboard with Jesus, a woman with a black eye and a cut-out family, much more interesting virtual counterparts were appearing at a faster rate on Divorzistan, Moviment Tindahalx and Gandir Malta, disseminated on new blogs like Mazzun and gleefully ‘liked’, tweeted, shared and discussed online and over dinner.   In the final weeks of the campaign, while some endured the usual TV debates and surveys, another part of Malta rediscovered parody on Facebook and YouTube, and used Photoshop as a tool of democracy.  The signs that social media has become mainstream have been long there, with some 47% of the Maltese nation on Facebook alone and the return of older bloggers to the fray.  And yet, at times it seemed that only members of the ‘Yes’ campaign were making any attempt to engage in ‘public conversations’ on Facebook as the key issues unravelled. 

It’s too early to say quite what has changed, and what new lessons are being learnt.  Media embargoes and blackouts may become a thing of the past – simply because they cannot be enforced online.  The horribly mistimed ‘apology’ went viral and spread like wildfire on Twitter, before the 10pm curfew. If the online discourse is anything to go by, civil society in Malta is increasingly aware of its rights, and its duty to participate in public debate.  This is the online grassroots equivalent of the ‘pjazza’ and the ‘kazin’, except that the kazin is neither blue nor red, and some conversations are loud, and others reflective.   

Social media introduces substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organisations, communities, and individuals.  This presents an enormous challenge for politicians, institutions, the Church, large business interests and people with social capital who tend to rely on pressing the flesh to gain and sustain influence.  A new paradigm of relevancy may be emerging.  Power brokers need to understand that their job is not to provide us with data or even keep us updated — it is to serve our needs and remain relevant to our lives.

Is the change permanent?  Are we ushering a new generation of activism and citizen journalism?  Or will it be absorbed in the mainstream and silenced?  As I write, online polls are still sprouting on Facebook on the next civil issue to be addressed.  The list is growing as much as the chasm that seems to have appeared between citizens on the web and politicians struggling to reclaim their neo-liberal credentials.

Perhaps institutions and their power brokers could do with listening a bit more to what people are saying online and in citizen media, instead of continuing to assume that broadcasting and preaching to the converted is the way to go.  Of course, the long hot summer has just kicked in, the hegemony may rapidly paper over the cracks of the past months, and we may go on, as if nothing has happened.  Somehow, I doubt that.

 

This article also appeared in the Sunday Times of Malta on 12 June 2011.

The cracked mirror

I had promised myself at the outset that I would not get wound up about the divorce referendum in Malta.   In my dual-citizen family, divorce is a big non-issue.  We know a second marriage has longevity and provides a space and a loving home for two independent spirits and a beautiful child.  For us, divorce is a basic civil right that very few people exercise lightly.  Even if only 1% of the population needs a divorce – and by all accounts, that percentage is way off the mark – there needs to be an equitable system in place to allow people and their respective families to get on with their lives after a marriage has broken down.  It was just surreal that Malta was resorting to a referendum to decide if it should continue to form part of a club of two, where the other member was the Philippines (not the Vatican).

I did what many of my generation in Malta do when there is a case of ‘moral panic’ and barricaded myself.  I refused to watch local TV or buy the print media, nodded when someone brought up the subject and stayed busy.  As always, I found my head space online, beyond the confines, insularity and politics of the pjazza and the work place.

 

The divorce referendum campaign was never going to be pretty.  We are made for diatribe not debate:   I shout and you listen – even better if we both shout at the same time because that way, nobody can understand anything any more.  The Church turned back the clock to use the canon of the pulpit to dispense fire and brimstone.  It would have been laughable were it not backed by Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Constitution of Malta.  The Nanny state is alive and well, and not just in its formal vestiges.  There was no shortage of people waiting to tell us how to live our lives, raise our kids and keep us on the straight and narrow.   In Malta, women over size 10 were told to vote ‘No’ to ensure that their husbands (regardless of shape or character) have no divorce escape clause.  Violent men need to be restrained to one marriage, as divorce will enable them to offend in other marriages.  Politicians, supposedly freed of party whips and traditional party polarisation, generally made a fool of themselves.  A few, good journalists in the mainstream media worked overtime to try and wriggle some space for critical analysis, despite the hegemonic political and business ownership of the institutions that employed them. 

 

Something snapped when the billboards went up.  Suddenly, it felt like 1984 all over again.  Not Orwell’s, but the Malta some of my generation ran away from and had thought would never come back.  The billboards were a throwback to the worst propaganda of the late seventies and early eighties – except that now we replaced the charcoal wall violence with messages warning about the choice between darkness and eternal damnation and safeguarding shiny happy families.    When you hear people in suits saying they are proud your country rejects civil rights which are universal, you remember that islands that turn their backs on the rest of the world can quickly become very dangerous places.  We can turn to our relatively recent history to find how easy it is for extreme views to root.

 

My tribe – the tribe of silent people who normally decide elections and influence others – found redemption and a voice in their keyboards and social media.  Blogs mushroomed out of nowhere, making some believe that we had discovered a phenomenon, when some people in Malta have been blogging since 2002.  For every billboard with a crying child and a cutout family, there is now a more famous counterpart on Divorzistan and Moviment Tindahalx.  Welcome to some serious rage.  Welcome to parody.  Welcome to Photoshop for democracy. 

 

Whatever the vote, I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this.  The political parties and the church, as a bare minimum, will need to take stock of their respective campaigns.  Perhaps the Church will look into the mirror and find some way of re-engineering itself.  Perhaps Government will rethink its questionable strategy of putting all its stock in the Church, and finally acknowledge that we should be living in a secular state.  Perhaps the law to ‘regularise separated couples’, which  reminds me of a previous attempt to reintroduce VAT legislation by another name, will be sidelined in favour of workable divorce legislation.  Perhaps the local mainstream media will understand that citizen journalism is more than blogs under a print masthead, and may even help reengineer its offer before it becomes irrelevant.

 

When I first saw Jesus on a billboard I nearly crashed my car.  Now, I merely shake my head and smile.  Sometimes, when he’s so inclined, He nods back sadly. 

 

It’s as if this thing called Malta, bound together by the superglue of the Church, has cracked, and we’re still waiting to see how many shards there are.  When we get to pick them up, we’ll have to see how sharp they are before we try and reach for the glue again.  Who knows, maybe we’ll just stop trying to bundle all the pieces in the same box.  Perhaps we’ll stop applying our own filters to attribute colours, labels and filters.   Perhaps we’ll finally stop living the lie and quietly celebrate diversity, like the rest of the world does.   

 

I live in the hope that when my generation dies, it is replaced by another that will neither compromise nor run away.  But stand its ground and take this tiny, stubborn, bounded country kicking into the 21st century.

 

7 years of blogging

I wrote my first blog post on 25 September 2004.  It was on another platform (Blogger), and like most people in those relatively early years, I wasn’t totally aware of how public a medium this was. 

It was like learning how to cycle without knowing if anyone was watching you fall.  Or cared if you did.

Seven years later, blogging and its disruptive taxonomy is the main focus of my academic research.  Though my own blogging has become sporadic and scattered, here and there.  

And yet, despite the various soothsayers of its demise (primarily mainstream journalists), the blog continues to represent one of the few spaces in the public sphere where you can set out your stall.  Where, as Rosenberg famously opined, you can aspire to ‘say everything‘.  Where for fifteen minutes you place your trust in the power of the text and your finger tips to ruffle the feathers of a system that’s built around a different set of rules and values.  

The technologies of life provide endless refuge for every soul.  From the rage of the old to the perenially whimsical.

 

 

Revolution on our doorstep

Dangerous, bloody times.  The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt already seem tame compared to what the Libyan people are going through, across the water.  My island may be back to being the nurse of the Mediterranean.  But in the meantime, people are being massacred and the world is watching and trying to figure if it can untangle itself from its old hegemonies with the brutal Colonel.  Economics vs human decency vs turf protectionism.  Mixed with a heavy dose of Western naivety that Arab citizens desire a US or Western model.  

 

New York frame of mind

The new year may have started, but the juggling of consulting and academic work seems to require time management skills I have yet to acquire.  Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve entered my 50th year, a little wiser, a little older, and increasingly restless.

Which is probably a good thing.  Means that nothing is taken for granted.

I’ve only been to New York once, but it was a special time in my life.  Six months after 9/11, and my wife was carrying our only child.  Sometimes I can close my eyes and slow-mo my way through the city that never sleeps.

 

<p>NYC – Mindrelic Timelapse from Mindrelic on Vimeo.</p>