It’s probably a surprise to many of you that I’m still publishing stories here, let alone posting editorials. But the fact is, despite the catastrophic decline in traffic this year, (on top of the catastrophic declines in traffic of the past three years, or so), resulting from Google’s attempts to destroy large parts of the web by starving small sites of traffic, I still get these ideas for stories and I still have the urge to write and share them and The Sleaze is the only platform I have for doing this. So we carry on, regardless of whether anyone is still able to find us through search engines, (to be fair, Bing likes us, unfortunately though, nobody uses them, web users still being in thrall to Google, which is rapidly becoming an anti-search engine, its algorithm apparently designed to prevent anyone from finding anything other than the big brand name sites they already know about). But on with the show, (don’t worry folks, the preceding wasn’t just some random self-pitying rant – trust me, you will see its relevance later on), what’s been going on since we last convened here in the editorial suite? Well, pretty obviously it was the passing of Maggie Thatcher and the whole circus surrounding her funeral.
I have no intention of revisiting the whole debate as to whether anti-Thatcher protests were disrespectful, or whether she was saviour or sinner, (I opt for the latter), but suffice to say that many claims were made as to her legacy. A recurring theme in the lists of great things Thatcher had supposedly done for Britain was the concept of ‘competition’. The consensus seemed to be that by introducing more ‘competition’, especially in the public sector, she had made the country more ‘competitive’. I’ll concede that she popularised the concept of ‘competition’. In fact, I’d say that she was obsessed with it, pushing it to the extent that modern society is permeated with the notion that ‘competition’ is good. Every activity must have a competitive element. Because, you see, by having people and organisations competing in the same niche, wildly undercutting each other, services to the ‘consumer’ are improved, as service providers will have to meet their needs ‘better’ than their competitors in order to secure their custom. Now, I could rehearse the usual critique of classical economic theory here, which says that such competition could only be truly beneficial to consumers if they were to have complete and perfect knowledge of all services being offered by all providers in a niche. But I won’t, as other people have made that argument far more eloquently than I ever could.
Instead, I’ll just point out that much of this ‘competitiveness’ actually comes down to providers cutting corners in order to cut costs. Which, in turn, reduces the user experience. The reality is that some of us are prepared to pay more for better service. Unfortunately, the Thatcherite conception of ‘competition’ is concerned solely with the crude monetary measure of competitiveness. Never mind the quality, just feel how cheap (and shoddy) it is. But, as I said, the whole notion of ‘competition’, measured in the crudest terms, has become ingrained in our everyday life: now schools, hospitals, clinics, doctors and the like are all supposed to compete with each other for our ‘custom’, with ‘league tables’ to guide our choices. Except, of course, that these league tables can tell us only ‘how many’ or ‘how quickly’, rather than tell us anything meaningful about the quality of the services provided. But ‘quality’ is difficult to measure, ‘quantity’ is easy. It’s the same in our own working lives, with an emphasis on ‘performance related’ pay, (again, the measures of ‘performance’ are crudely mechanistic), for those of us lucky enough to be on permanent contracts. Increasingly though, people find themselves on short-term contracts, forced to compete with hordes of other temps for just a few hours work a week.
Even leisure activities must now be competitive. Take the web, for instance. Nowadays, whatever you do online, you find yourself pitched into competition with every other web user – how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends you have is now used as a measure of success. It even extends to innocuous things as YouTube. Google insists upon putting the number of views each video you post there against each film. Why? I really don’t care how many people have seen my films. I only put them on YouTube as it is a convenient way of hosting them and pasting them onto my blog. Yet all the time Google is telling me how I could publicise my videos so as to get more hits and earn money by carrying their ads on them. Not that their interest is altruistic. No, the way they see it, if they can stick ads on your videos then it makes sense that they want them to get more hits so as to generate larger ad revenues. Believe me, any money you might make from running those ads on your creative projects is chicken feed compared to what Google are making. Especially as they don’t pay UK tax in full. (This isn’t the justification for the opening rant, by the way. That comes next).
That’s one of my big problems with this Thatcher-inspired obsession with ‘competition’ – in reality it comes down to huge corporate behemoths like Google pitching us against each other for the benefit of their profit margins. Ironically though, big firms like Google, despite advocating competition in this way, don’t actually like competition when it is applied to them. Oh sure, when they start out, they love their niche to be competitive and open, with a reasonable number of players, as it makes it easier for them to get established if they have the better service and/or product. Indeed, whilst it is still competitive is when they’ll still actually provide a good user experience. However, once they’ve managed to dominate their niche, then they suddenly decide they don’t want any competition. Moreover, they believe they can serve up a shoddy services to users because, hell, where else are they going to go? They’ve already wiped out most of the competition. They begin to believe that they own their niche and can do what they like. Which is where we are with Google and web search these days. (See, I said you’d eventually see the relevance of that opening rant). All of which brings us to our concluding paradox: having spent the better part of this editorial arguing against obsessive competition, in the case of web search, I’m saying that there isn’t enough competition! But that’s the paradox of the whole Thatcher competition ‘revolution’, (there are a lot of paradoxes in this editorial): whilst promoting competition at the lowest and least appropriate levels of society, it has ignored the fact that, increasingly, our economies are dominated by a small number of huge corporations who dominate their markets, actively preventing any real competition in their sectors and exercising effective monopolies. The question is – why aren’t our supposedly Thatcher-inspired political leaders doing anything about it? On that note – until next time, keep it sleazy!