Tuesday, 23 July 2013

issue #36 . 1


by POINT Ed.

Well, another phase in the war on poverty (or better, the war on the poor) unfolds around (or is that ‘between’?) us after the government announces the implementation of a new phase of ‘welfare’ reforms. Warfare . . . welfare . . . its all the some to same, but we don’t all seem to get the same figures in our sums.

The rhetoric of the administrative technocracy which passes for politics has been heavy on sums and figures for a while now. Announcements are made, broadcast across the expanding (or is it contracting?) mediascape and marked up with the seemingly essential batch of ‘lastest statistics’. ‘Marking up’ is a now widely understood idiom coming from the world of coders and programmers (the engineers of communication), and refers in its most accessible form <html> to a string of symbols which function as a kind of grammar of VISIBILITY. <h1>INDICATES TO A WEB BROWSER THAT THE TEXT ENCLOSED BY THOSE FIGURES SHOULD BE DISPLAYED AS A HEADING</h1>, <b> that text should be displayed in bold </b> etc etc. This same function seems granted to statistics in press releases. For something to become visible and therefore valorised it seems to need to be bracketed by statistical aggregates. <CPI down to 0.6%> its all rosy for consumers! </CPI>, <Beneficiaries down by 10,000> our brutal policies are vindicated! </Down with Beneficiaries>. Although a simplistic analogy, there is merrit to it: it certainly does seem to be necessary to justify a statement imbued heavily with value judgements with the seeming objectivity of statistical coding. Just as a web browser will not display a sentence without it being ‘marked up’, so too media visibility seems to require statistical ‘back up’.

Another interesting parallel is that both html and statistical media ‘coding’ require an authority to decide exactly what the syntax and elements of the conventionally determined grammar or <doctype> will be. It is here, in what Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway have called THE PROTOCOL, that the real political struggles take place. Sometimes we have competing protocols to deal with. We are usually quoted Statistics New Zealand figures when it comes to bookending value laden judgements about beneficiaries, crime statistics, and business activity. But this particular authority has its limitations (as do all statistical aggregators) and the details embedded in its protocols can hide as much as they reveal. A good example are the unemployment figures so (neo-)liberally quoted. Apparently unemployment is at 6.2% according to Statistics NZ, but Roy Morgan (a private Australian polling company) runs its own New Zealand unemployment survey, and its figures come in at about 10%. How do these disparities come about? Statistics New Zealand base its figures on the numbers who are registered as unemployed (with WINZ), Roy Morgan bases its on a survey asking people whether they had jobs or not.

It is this protocological difference which is interesting given the current announcements/warfare on welfare policy and the ‘great news’ that beneficiary numbers are down. Because of the 3.8% difference between the two statistical accounts of unemployment above, it seems that there must be a very large number of people neither in work nor registered as beneficiaries and the current drive pushing people off the benefit is slipping them into this hidden realm of super-poverty and not into work. Reviewing the Roy Morgan and Statistics NZ differences since Paula Bennett declared war on the poor in July of last year, this seems evident.

Mass media reporters seem merely to repeat the statistical mark up these days . . . we need to politicise these tired protocols, look a bit closer, dig a bit . . .

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