AWS presents: Another crass PR stunt exploiting the vulnerable and forgotten to sell cloud services

Peter Gothard
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AWS presents: Another crass PR stunt exploiting the vulnerable and forgotten to sell cloud services

Make the fauxlanthrophy stop

At 8.45am this morning, I was already lording it over the whole of Westminster on the 29th floor of the Millbank Tower. Present were the Culture Minister Karen Bradley, many uniformed,be-medalled MoD types, and Amazon Web Services, who were hosting this lovely breakfast shindig.

AWS was launching its "re:Start" skills initiative - a scheme, it said, to supply IT training to many of the UK's less able IT users to learn, as Bradley added: "basic digital skills to function in society".

UK and Ireland AWS MD Gavin Jackson opened proceedings by inviting us to gaze out of the window at the London vista below, stating that "if the Monopoly board was designed today, its utilities would include cloud computing". He spent the next ten minutes reminding the audience how many UK cloud data centres AWS had opened recently. Each slide came complete with data centre-based "Region Launch" branding, just to hammer home that cloud "message".

MoD CIO Mike Stone followed with a brief mention of the importance of skills, before emphasising - apropos of nothing - that "we need to embrace mobility and the cloud, and the cloud is the force that's going to allow us to do that." Buzzword bingo.

Karen Bradley echoed the already-tired Monopoly sentiment - mentioning cloud again, natch - before bringing up how 12.6 per cent of "adults" (not "young people, as featured in this scheme) don't know how to use computers to the extent they need to in order live a fulfilled life.

What she didn't mention was how her government have closed 343 of the UK's libraries since 2010 - a prime source of IT education for older, disabled or other marginalised folk. I know this first hand because I used to be a librarian, and saw the amazing results. Neither did she mention how continuing, stringent cuts to disability benefits are affecting the opportunities of disabled people to live on a basic level, before they even get near a keyboard.

Then we were treated to a spectacular repackaging of Brexit by the CBI's deputy director-general Josh Hardie - "We decided it wasn't right that London has 60 per cent greater productivity than Northern Ireland".

Did we? I thought we swallowed a bunch of lies on the side of a bus and stopped 'trusting experts'.

That aside, by this stage, I'd been at the session well over an hour, and not once had a single person talked about what re: Start is, what re: Start does, and when re: Start will… start. Re: Start, it seems, just exists, and we should all simply be cool with that. Because it's "helping people".

AWS' partners will do the rest with work placements, and I'm sure we'll see a few videos of that trickle out in the next year or so, doubtless with a glut of cloud services branding.

So what's really going on here?

It's a competitive cloud market these days, and no mistake. Tellingly, Computing's own research suggests that Microsoft Azure is now looking to be favoured more highly than AWS' "Ryanair pricing" for increasingly core functions such as Software as a Service (SaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS).

Meanwhile, for reasons I've stated above, Theresa May's government is still unable to completely distance itself from Ian Duncan Smith's loathsome reputation for his extreme measures against disabled and unemployed citizens. Not to mention the fact that Brexit has heads in a spin.

How better for AWS and the government to offer a free pass to one another than organise a posh breakfast up in the sky in a spirit of mutual congratulation over their friendly, caring, sharing inclusivity and love towards the forgotten and downtrodden who are being left behind by progress and automation?

You can stick as many Prince's Trust beneficiaries on stage as you like (Jake Elgar, a young man who also spoke today, has clearly had his life turned around by both his and the charity's hard work - but that's not down to AWS or the government) but that doesn't equte to AWS offering anything new for the underskilled. That's not making a difference. Simply acknowledging the existence of sidelined members of society is not going to help those the government arguably compromised, and it's crass beyond measure to lace such a conversation with constant subliminal advertising for AWS cloud services.

Charity and philanthropy is becoming an increasingly commercialised element of society and the IT industry, and what I saw today is just another example of the social elite being fed melon and croissants while sighing dreamily at the plight of people nobody could even be bothered creating a comprehensive message around.

Stop it, AWS. And stop it, the rest of you. The world's in enough of a state as it is, so why don't we make 2017 the year when a technology company genuinely helps people, instead of wrapping humanitarian causes in the cloying film of PR and marketing and launching it as yet another half-baked revenue scheme?

I am, of course, ready and willing to eat my words if this scheme takes off, does something, and generates genuine, unarguable success stories. I'm open to hearing about them. But kicking it off with a huge push on data centres and cloud services isn't the way to keep noses in joint.

AWS' official press release on re: Start finishes with this rare gem, by the way, just to underscore the serious skills message of today's announcements:

"Also today, some people may notice something a little different at Westminster Station. TfL and Exterion Media, working with Amazon Web Services (AWS), have organised a one-day station take-over, to celebrate the recent launch of the new AWS UK Datacenter Region. The take-over includes temporarily changing station roundels from ‘Westminster' to ‘Webminster' and displaying advertising posters at the station for a week."

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Webminster. Yeah.

P.S. Incisive Media - a company of only 520 employees globally - raised £280,000 for vulnerable people across several charities last year. I indirectly helped that along myself at some of our events, and was astonished with how much was donated. There's no agenda on our part, and that's why I'm still hugely proud to work here.

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