I am always the last in line of the early adopters, or first in line of the mainstream, as you care to take it (I’m not sure which is worse) so when I have a good idea about something, I can reasonably assume everybody else has had it, long enough ago to have got it to an executable stage. So it proves with this Google initiative to provide “hyperlocal” (I think that just means local yes?) information to assist refugees with smartphones (which they have – apparently people traffickers’ business is suffering because their trade relies on their consumer base being unable to access maps or look up addresses or translate things. I can’t remember where I read this but it’s a cheering thought).
And this is interesting because my fear, when I first thought about this a couple of months ago, was that a sudden proliferation of this kind of initiative might attract the wrong sort of attention. I assumed we’d be talking about any number of start-ups, individuals and community projects and what-have-yous all squeaking at once about the marvellous apps they were building, and collectively this would make enough noise to attract admiring notices in the Guardian. The tabloids, having had long enough to get over pictures of drowned children on beaches, would thereby get wind of the activities of people who would be, in their limited collective conception, a weird mashup of liberal do-gooder and computer geek (both equally suspect types) and mount a campaign to stop them “encouraging” immigration in the process of assisting refugees.
And that might result in anything from harassment of the individuals concerned, stern comments by one or more Tory tossers, to the worst of all, legislation. The Tories do not quite have the reflexive mania to legislate that Labour did, but on this touchstone subject they probably do have that potential. I’m not joking, we may actually get there. The government may not wish to be seen to openly push refugees back into the sea, but it is certainly not impossible, to my mind, that they might criminalise providing assistance to immigrants in general.
But this news throws all that into an interesting light. I had assumed the drive for such projects would come from one-man-hipster-bands who work in Shoreditch for their day job – certainly privileged, intelligent and well-to-do, but whose powers would be puny in the face of the right-wing political establishment on a witch hunt. I never calculated on the likes of Google doing this. Google probably occupies a sort of adjacent space to the right wing tabloids – I’m sure they don’t like Google, I’m sure they’d rather Google didn’t exist because it represents so many things that reactionaries fear. But it also – this is critical – represents a hell of a lot of perhaps more fundamental things that progressives fear, and those are the things that it mainly gets attacked over. The right wing press seems to leave big corporations alone, except for the occasional half-hearted swipe at tax evasion, because by and large their very existence doesn’t offend their world view, and these beasts are too big to attack frivolously.
So we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, my next trick which lots of clever people will have already thought of, and which I’m absolutely not in a position to action anyway, is a project to assess how refugees currently manage to charge their phones on the move and whether there is anything cheap, simple and replicable that could be distributed either physically or virtually to make this easier.