The Null Device


In the 1990s, Tony Blair took the helm of the Labour Party and modernised it, ditching its unfashionable brown-suited socialist tendencies and transforming it into a neo-Thatcherite centre-right party with really good PR (or "spin", as they called it). In fact, the spin was so good that it allowed it not only to "outflank" the Tories, pushing them into corners, but to manoeuvre into bizarre and impossible positions, such as supporting George W. Bush's faith-based invasion of Iraq.

Blair's luck ran out, and he left the floundering ship of New Labour. Now, however, he has turned his attention to modernising another organisation he has joined; namely the Catholic Church:

The former prime minister, who converted to Catholicism shortly after leaving office two years ago, said he disagreed with the Pope's stance on gay rights and controversially suggested that the Church should reform itself along similar lines to how he re-organised the Labour Party.
"Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances," he said. u can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say 'Look let's not break out because if we break out we might lose what we've got, and at least we've got what we've got so let's keep it'. Or B: You say 'let's accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out'."
Of course, there is a lot of merit in the content of what Blair is saying in this specific instance; on gay rights, in my (liberal, atheist, cosmopolitanist) opinion, the Catholic church is out of touch, and Blair is right. A lot of people, of course, would disagree; whether they are a minority as Blair says is another matter.

However, the other part of Blair's statement, about the Catholic church needing to reorganise along New Labour lines, is more thought-provoking. What would a Blairite New Catholic Church look like? Well, firstly they would ditch the unfashionable old-guard dogmas (such as condemnation of homosexuality and contraception, to name two); those who believed in these strictures would be allowed to remain in the margins of the church, much as the left of the Labour Party was, growing steadily into fusty irrelevance, though still occasionally putting on a good, if cranky, show to keep the old believers from completely jumping ship. Freed from these dogmas, the church would be free to move towards the centre and, in classic Blairite fashion, "outflank" rival religions, appropriating their ideas and pushing them further towards the fringes. We could expect Blairite New Catholicism to appropriate everything from new-age crystal healing to promises of an afterlife filled with willing virgins and repackage what works, only with much better presentation.

As with New Labour, presentation would be the linchpin of New Catholicism. The church would be rebranded extensively, with the centuries-old trappings given new designs, crisply contemporary yet with a comforting gravitas. The vestments worn by priests and altar boys would be restyled by Paul Smith or someone, and cathedrals given an overhaul by Damien Hirst, with stained glass by Banksy. And Jamie Oliver would do the communion wafers. The sacred music would have to change, with big-name stars being brought in to give it a facelift. Finally, the Catholic Church would have caught up to that other great innovation of contemporary religious practice, the celebrity centre.

The selling of indulgences would also see a return, with donors not only being able to procure absolution of sins, but in some cases, sainthoods as well. And given the tendency of some clergy to get into scandals, the Blairite faculty of spin could prove very useful.

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We haven't had a Wayne Kerr post for a while, so one is overdue. Anyway, I am Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate... it's websites attempting to coerce you into registering.

A while ago, there was an online newspaper named the International Herald Tribune. Owned by the New York Times but published in Paris, it was quite a good paper, with fairly incisive articles not too far from Economist territory. Then someone at head office decided to kill the brand and roll it into the New York Times brand, and became And, with that, inherited the New York Times' draconian insistence on users requiring to register and log in to view their their precious content.

The New York Times, you see, is not satisfied with the standard online news business model (make their content freely viewable and linkable and sell ads to those surfing in on web links from wherever in the world they may be); that may be good enough for rabble like their London namesake, but the NYTimes' content is worth more than that. At the start, they even tried charging for online access to it. Of course, as Clay Shirky points out, this is not a viable business model for online news (current events cannot be copyrighted or monopolised, and someone can always do it cheaper), so the NYTimes soon dropped the demands for subscription. However, they have doggedly kept the other part of the equation: the insistence on users subscribing, remembering yet another username and password, and giving a valid, verified email address, as well as some juicy demographic information. Of course, there are ways around this; the most popular site on BugMeNot, a website for sharing free usernames/passwords to such sites, is the New York Times. However, such accounts usually have a very short lifespan; either they perish when the email verification period lapses or, failing that, the Times' web admins hunt them down and kill them, like an ongoing game of Whack-a-Mole.

The New York Times, however, is not the most irritating example of coercive registration; that accolade would probably go to a site named, ironically, Get Satisfaction. This is an external tech support site, used by a number of web 2.0-ish sites, including SoundCloud and As a web site, it is the very model of a modern website; rounded corners, quirky retro fonts (oh so San-Francisco-via-Stockholm), pastel-hued gradients, animated fades, you name it, it ticks the box; it would be perfect, but for one fatal flaw in the human interface design.

What somebody neglected to notice is the typical use case of such a site. One doesn't go to Get Satisfaction to socialise with friends, share photos or music, find a date or a flat, or do anything one does on a typical social web site; one goes there when one has gone to such a site and found that it doesn't work properly, and wants to notify somebody to fix this. Now when that happens, the last thing one wants it to have to think up another username and password, and be cheerfully invited to fill in one's profile and choose a user icon representing one's personality. As far as support forums go, less should be more, and Get Satisfaction, for all of its pretentions to being some kind of online clubhouse, falls short.

Not everything that isn't charged for is without cost; there is a cost, in time and finite mental resources, to keeping track of usernames and passwords. (Of course, you could use the same password across all sites, but that replaces a psychological/time cost with the security risk of all one's passwords being compromised.) And sites which put registration speed bumps in their users' way could find users going elsewhere where offers a smoother ride.

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