A clarification. Our use of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is neither fuzzy nor subversive – as in the accusation levelled at the organisers of a conference on the topic in London last May. For us, it describes cooperatives of various sorts, more or less the range set out in a 2009 report by Co-operative Development Scotland. Scroll down this post to see why one subject of that study, Switzerland, is proof that man as a consensus-building, egalitarian animal can be wildly successful.
Nothing drills the facts about Switzerland’s revolt against the corrupt old Catholic Church into you — your very bones — quite like mulling over them as you climb the 254 sub-arctic, twisting stairs to the bell tower of the Bern Muenster in mid-winter. From the viewing balcony up there, eyes unglued with difficulty from the hypnotic, turquoise River Aare below stray to the stone terrace at the cathedral’s base, where, during the Reformation of the 1500s, rebels had a merry old time smashing priceless religious images and objects.
This battleground in the Swiss capital is an unequalled symbol of the fight against inequality: the hulking Gothic structure on which construction began in 1421 loomed above a mere 5,000 inhabitants of Bern, at the time. All the better to intimidate them — only that assumption proved a mistake. In the words of an English-speaking specialist in the culture and history of Switzerland – an underpopulated species we care about for reasons to be explained in future posts – ‘much of Swiss history derives its interest from a revolt … of peasants against abbeys, … of towns against the ecclesiastical foundations from which they sprang.’
Switzerland’s continuing refinement of practical egalitarianism in the centuries-long wake of the Reformation means that there is a great feeling of been-there-done-that for anyone Swiss coming across a Twitter-trending lexical combination: inclusive capitalism — spotlighted in a speech earlier this year by the International Monetary Fund’s leader, Christine Lagarde. The Alpine republic most famous for political neutrality, charming quaintness and its tourist attractions, arguably deserves to be better known for its vast experience of using cooperatives as tools for wearing down social inequality. You might almost say that the whole of Switzerland – a country that has never had kings or queens, and is run not by any single leader but a Federal Council – works like a giant co-op.
Most elements of inclusive capitalism listed in a PBS – public-service broadcasting – programme in the U.S. a year ago, ‘The Alternative American Dream,’ are old hat for, and well-used by, the Swiss: ‘consumer ownership, credit unions and ownership by franchisees pursuing common purchasing efforts …’. Earlier entries on this blog have pointed to stable, cautious and solidly-grounded Swiss banking cooperatives avoiding the disastrous subprime mortgage crisis, and praised Swiss super-democracy.
Can the Swiss economy be said to have been injured in any way by excessive idealism? Quite the contrary. Cooperatives are democratic, not socialist. Socialism – as the Cambridge historian-of-ideas Gareth Stedman Jones has observed, was in part an attempt to replace the Catholic Church with a state religion. Most Swiss, a supremely praktisch people, have more down-to-earth aspirations. Last September, for the fifth year in a row, Switzerland was the world’s most competitive economy — leading the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness ranking based on its vetting of ‘the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of a country’.
And its record for inventiveness? Last month, for the fourth year in a row, it was also the country at the top of the Global Innovation Index – ranking economies by their capacity to marry ideas to knowledge for creativity with social and economic value.
What connects such success with putting idealism into practice to Bern’s Muenster — and the chief preoccupation of this blog — is the media revolution on which the Reformation rode. Printing centres, most notably in Basel, were established early, in Switzerland, and became critical to marshalling and disseminating the anti-clerical, anti-Vatican arguments and facts.
Forcing change on the Catholic Church in the prelude to the Renaissance would seem dustily irrelevant, to members of the chattering classes in our time. Practically none of us have been constrained by the dictates of religious authorities: most of us grew up as the children of agnostics, atheists or doubting semi-believers. But smashing medieval religious authorities’ outrageously unequal information-power with new technology – in the shape of the Gutenberg printing presses – resonates loudly, in the midst of our digital revolution. Print broke the power of sermons, just as the internet and e-publishing are vaporising the power of print’s gatekeepers today. It was from preaching that most people, who could not read, gleaned authoritative information about the world.
A report on a conference of medieval sermon scholars at Harvard two years ago sets out the remarkable parallels – including doomed attempts to discredit the unmediated broadcast of information, as in old media propaganda, now, about blogs and blogging:
… It was the ecclesiastical system behind sermons “that invented the idea [that] there was a universal body of knowledge” and that led the way to modern universities. Sermons were the dominant literary form in the Middle Ages. They bridged the emerging power of the written word and what was, 900 years ago, the predominance of the spoken.
… Before the printing press, knowledge was disseminated through oral traditions. In the public sphere that meant sermons. These discourses from the pulpit were the Internet and the mainstream press and the propaganda machine of the Middle Ages.
… At the same time, sermons of nearly a millennium ago prompted a very modern question: Who has the right to speak? Vying with priests for the right to preach were lay people, lawyers, kings, and public officials. In a bit of recurrent culture shock, even women demanded the right to preach sermons.
Most of all, the prospect of lay preaching “was an anxiety for the Church,” wrote Carolyn Muessig in a study of medieval preaching and society. (The University of Bristol scholar delivered the first paper at the Harvard conference.) The concern, she wrote, was the Vatican’s desire to protect people from heresy and “to preserve a clerical monopoly on learning.”
The debate over who owned the medieval airwaves went on for hundreds of years. As late as the 14th century, one critic still held that the Vatican had the final say. “No lay person can preach without authorization,” wrote Robert de Basevorn, “and no woman ever.”
… In an internet break from reflections on that old battle, news of a book published by Yale University Press surfed onscreen, this week. More than twelve decades after a brutal misuse of power by her husband, Leo Tolstoy, his wife Sophia Andreevna has got her revenge. It seems that the author of War and Peace wrote a spiteful, vicious tale about his own domestic wars in an 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. Everyone in literary Russia, and lofty beings outside it – including Tsar Alexander III – knew that the old philanderer’s story about a jealous husband who murders his wife was intended as punishment for Sophia’s infatuation with a musician who filled the void left by the romantic hopes and expectations that Tolstoy’s behaviour wrecked.
The aggression in the novelist’s self-pitying tale was not lost on the tsar, who sympathised with Sophia. In one phase of the drama, this writer’s wife demonstrated exceptional nobility of character in pleading with the ruler to order government censors bent on suppressing The Kreutzer Sonata to lay off – even though she was profoundly hurt by it.
She found her own way to fight back – in two novellas telling her side of the story that languished in deepest obscurity in Tolstoy’s archives until they were published in 21st-century Russia. Now, Yale has had them translated into English, in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, a collection that includes, along with extracts from her letters and diaries – more amazingly yet – a story by the Tolstoys’ son Lev that is also a protest against Kreutzer.
We have had to wait much too long for these remarkable discoveries. Sophia Andreevna had to make a special journey to St. Petersburg to plead her husband’s case with the tsar. Now, if she had only had a blog …
[ After this entry was posted, we followed a tweet to Glenn Greenwald’s report on The Intercept about dire consequences of militarising the police – his reaction to the nightmare killing of young and unarmed Mike Brown in Missouri. It is essential reading. But because polling results showing exceptional public esteem for the military have been so drastically under-reported for years, most people would find it hard to understand why the authorities blithely assumed that the citizenry would approve of arming and equipping policemen like soldiers. Media biases badly need counterweights. ]
We have searched and searched again but, so far, failed to find in online newspapers – well-known or obscure – any mention of, or solution to, the puzzle in our last post, the question of why Americans trust their military vastly more than other public institutions. If we were using all the wrong search terms, Google could hardly have served up the missing explanation in a persuasive paper by three collaborating scholars from which we will paste in a segment below.
But first, we must draw attention to a caveat, and then the reason why traditional media’s neglect of this subject is tragic – showing just how much the world needs the new media space that independent blogs have created:
• ‘The military’ is distinct from the political decisions its armed forces are obliged to execute – that is, which wars they fight, and where, and in broad strategic terms, by what means (eg., bombs dropped by drones vs. boots on the ground). Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist of rare gifts who made his name treating veterans of the Vietnam war for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), makes this essential point: ‘The justice of overall war aims and of operational theories – “strategic” bombing of civilians to weaken the industrial capacity to wage war is an example of such a theory – is not within the individual soldier’s scope of moral choice, unless he or she is willing to face imprisonment or death by refusing to fight.’
• Media hostility to, or neglect of, what the military does for civilians, since the Vietnam war — not just in America but in similar disenchantment elsewhere — could account for why it has been far more common for veterans of recent wars than for their historical predecessors to have the mental afflictions now called PTSD. That fits Shay’s suggestion in his brilliant Achilles in Vietnam (1995) – in which he drew riveting parallels between the tragedy of Achilles and his comrades, Homer’s subject in The Iliad, and the disturbances in Americans who fought the Vietnam war twenty-seven centuries later. He says, in extracts slightly rearranged, here, for concision:
What a returning soldier needs most when leaving war is not a mental health professional but a living community to whom his experience matters … [W]e should care about how soldiers are trained, equipped, led and welcomed home when they return from war. … [H]ealing from trauma depends … on being able safely to tell the story to someone who is listening and who can be trusted to retell it truthfully to others in the community. … Economically, unhealed combat trauma costs, and costs, and costs. Recall that more than 40 percent of Vietnam combat veterans … reported engaging in violent acts … Between a tenth and a quarter of all males in prison are veterans … When combat trauma results in domestic violence … there is an intergenerational transmission of violence.
The New York Times, for one, has published excellent and massive reports about sufferers from PTSD and their families. But, as far as we know, it has devoted no equivalent analysis to – or run any report on – the shining public image of the military, as revealed by Gallup’s stunning findings about the confidence gap in which the military reigns virtually unchallenged as a reservoir of trust. For that, anyone curious must hunt down a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Sciences dissection of similar results in an opinion poll a year earlier, unenticingly titled, ‘The Origins & Lessons of Public Confidence in the Military’.
First, it notes a contradiction:
[T]he relationship between the American people and its defense establishment has historically been anchored in two opposing sentiments: on one side, Americans see a large, standing military as a potential threat to liberty; on the other, they revere the U.S. military for its role in establishing the nation in revolution, preserving it against rebellion, and defending it from foreign aggression.
The start of the next extract is a hugely welcome surprise for anyone depressed by the impression — seemingly based on irrefutable facts — that Americans care most about wealth creation, and the feeding of the gigantic getting-and-spending beast we call capitalism:
In addition to valuing competence, society also expects institutions to serve a greater good. This public-mindedness is grounded in three principles: selflessness, accountability, and fairness. These factors are highlighted by the other institutions that enjoy widespread public confidence: small business and the police. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military; 64 percent said the same for small business, and 56 percent for the police. In contrast, Congress (12 percent), the presidency (35 percent), and big business (19 percent) are held in relatively low regard by the American public.
What does the military have in common with the police and small business? In the case of the former, unselfish service is a common trait. The police (ideally) have no other purpose than to protect and serve the nation’s communities. In performing this service, capable men and women make sacrifices. They give up potentially lucrative and rewarding opportunities in other jobs. They put themselves in danger, sometimes sacrificing their lives. Small business is perceived to share two key traits with the military: fairness and accountability. In small business, Americans see the best qualities of the nation’s economic system (opportunity for those who seek it, rewards for those who succeed), absent the abuses and corruption that they impute to big business and banks. Small business owners pursue self-interest, but their success is deserved because it emerges from their own hard work and not from a manipulation of the system’s resources. Small businesses create wealth and opportunity; they are a gateway for immigrants to enter the American middle class, and they evoke the entrepreneurial spirit and mythos of American economic history – think of Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, the fictional heroes of Horatio Alger stories, and so on. Furthermore, small business owners are exposed to risk; if a small business fails, it is left to fail. Thus, fairness works both ways. [the highlights in bold type are post-Gutenberg’s]
The essay is a good read, all the way …While on the subject of strangely unpublicised opinion poll findings, here is a question for dining table entertainment: are Democrats or Republicans likely to be more sympathetic to the NSA’s spying on American citizens?
Gallup’s startling answer, from June of 2013:
There are significant partisan differences in views of the government’s program to obtain call logs and Internet communication. Democrats are more likely to approve, by 49% to 40%. Independents (34% vs. 56%) and Republicans (32% to 63%) are much more likely to disapprove than approve.
The newspapers associated with the left, which broke this story, do not seem to have paid much attention to what turns out to be a strictly partisan split in opinion. Gallup’s explanation makes it unlikely that the poll would have a very different result today:
In 2006, when Gallup asked the similar question about a program that came to light at that point, Republicans were significantly more likely to approve than Democrats. The differences in partisan reaction between 2006 and 2013 reflect the party of the president under whose watch the programs were carried out at those two points in time.
Now, why has the information in this blog post had virtually no attention in traditional media, as far as we can tell?
Might the shockingly low numbers for public trust in the media solve the mystery? As we recorded last week, in Gallup’s poll earlier this summer, the 74 per cent statistic for the military compared with just 22 per cent for newspapers – in an ever-narrowing gap in status with ‘news on the internet,’ deemed trustworthy by 19 per cent of those surveyed. Still, that was several cuts above the 7 per cent for the U.S. Congress – to which we saw theadvocates.org blog referring, pointing to
… a Public Policy Polling poll last year (reported in the Liberator Online) … found Congress less popular than lice, root canals, cockroaches, hemorrhoids, and colonoscopies, among other plagues and pests.
The other day, we came across the results of a Gallup poll in June: by a staggering margin, Americans still trust their military more than any other public institution, including the people’s own elected representatives in Congress – and the presidency, and Supreme Court. Just look at the percentages of interviewees who answered that they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in each of these groups: military (74); Congress (7); the church or organised religion (45); presidency (29); public schools (26); banks (26); medical system (34); criminal justice system (23).
Most government spying is done on behalf of the armed forces, to serve military ends. Indeed, America’s citizens are slowly coming round to a less benign view of the NSA’s arguments about needing to collect vast stores of personal data about them for their own safety. But they also seem, on the whole, to accept the government’s arguments that changes in technology and the differences between fighting terrorists and waging conventional wars have changed what spies must do to spy effectively.
This flatly contradicts the claims of some of the most ardent campaigners on behalf of Edward Snowden – who remains more unfathomable than either wicked or virtuous, for many of us – that he has sparked mass outrage about government surveillance. (Though, by last November, the weaselly word ‘resonate’ was being used, as in, ‘His disclosures about the NSA resonated with Americans from day one.’)
A new specialist in conducting interactive, continuous polls, isidewith.com – commendably non-partisan, if a Forbes report is accurate – suggests that Americans, by a solid 10 per cent margin, oppose granting Snowden immunity from prosecution. But where in The New York Times or The Guardian – two purveyors of news analysis considered disproportionately influential– has this view been reflected, delved into and explained in perceptive commentary by either insiders or outside commentators?
Since there has been no such delving, nor in-depth reporting on the reasons for the public’s continued support of the military, the true mission of the 29 year-old at the heart of l’affaire Snowden continues to be as mysterious as the Turin shroud. Or, so we thought, as we read Michael Wolff, in his GQ profile of the Guardian’s chief, describing the newspaper’s attempt to ride the uproar about the leaker that it largely manufactured to make itself the talk of America and win a vast new transatlantic audience:
Its efforts so far had hardly put it on the map in the US – and suddenly Snowden did. … News outlets want to break big stories but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them – a certain detachment is well advised. It is an artful line. But the Guardian essentially went into the Edward Snowden business – and continues in it. … The effort to pretend that the story is straight up good and evil, … without peculiar nuances and rabbit holes and obvious contradictions, is really quite a trick.
In an effort to pull off that trick, the Snowden brand – with hints of baby Jesus – and the Guardian brand – as something like God the father and protector – become nearly symbiotic. (The Guardian now campaigns fiercely for a Snowden pardon.)
Because the Snowden exposés were so crucial to the paper’s U.S. ambitions — in turn, part of a future plan sequestered behind dust sheets, as we said last week — it stifled virtually all perspectives and discussion critical of him and his band of helpers, including the lawyer-turned-journalist Glenn Greenwald:
The theoretically freewheeling Guardian locked itself down. Staff and contributor Twitter feeds were closely monitored for indications of Snowden or Greenwald deviations, with instant reprimands when any party-line divergence was spotted.
Devotees of the Guardian will find it hard to recognise it in that censorship usually associated with dictatorships, unless they have been loyal readers of this blog – and remember the comments about press reform that its moderators deleted, which post-Gutenberg saved and reproduced here. (Scroll down to the bottom of this earlier entry: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’ 7 November 2011.)
Such drastic warping of the discussion in a democracy of a subject as serious as military tactics and defence must be countered. How? In the spring of last year, we suggested that for systematic and regular audience consultation, media might adopt equivalents of Switzerland’s Publikumsrat – the five-man Public Council of Swissinfo.ch, which is the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999. (See: ‘How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media,’ 3 March 2013.)
The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.
The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors. More than once, in the last ten years, it has led campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.
We see Publikumsrat equivalents in the Anglosphere as unavoidable and essential. If the Guardian had one, the gap between popular opinion and the paper’s religious fervour, covering Snowdenia, could not be the great black hole it is.
The proof of quite how badly we need one is in the Gallup poll statistic for public confidence in the press. It was a humiliating 22 per cent, only three points higher than for ‘news on the internet’ (19).
You have been speaking about mutualisation of the newspaper, and you explained how it makes sense to involve readers, … But traditionally, were we not listening to readers … ? What has changed now?
I think it is going further. It is technology. Because the readers now have the ability to publish and link up. And I think in all this we have to make a judgment about whether essentially our role stays the stays the same. You are right to say that the best newspapers have listened to their readers and drawn upon their expertise. But the realm of newspapers is shrinking and all this energy is being created elsewhere and I think it is a real life or death position for newspapers as to whether they essentially ignore all that or whether you have to redefine the role of the newspapers to encourage it to come inside with what they are doing.
Very well said, but that conversation is now four years old. We cannot unfortunately peep behind the scaffolding and dust sheets to observe the latest stage in planning for The Guardian’s digital future. Does it make sense to hope that Rusbridger will walk his talk — unveil a plan for, at the very least, an experiment in mutualisation that involves giving reader-commenters the financial stakes that are of the essence of the cooperative idea?
We ourselves were pessimistic about this, a few weeks ago – in a post arguing that it is far more likely that younger media innovators will take that particular leap. But Rusbridger’s temperament and managerial style, more than his age, could rule him out as the most important pioneer in the next phase in media’s Darwinian shift.
That is certainly the likely conclusion of anyone reading the most thoughtful, complex and revelatory profile of any newspaper editor still in harness – Michael Wolff’s portrait of Rusbridger, published in the British edition of GQ last month. It is surprisingly even-handed – unstinting with praise for Rusbridger’s strengths – given that the Guardian eliminated Wolff’s perch on its web site earlier this year.
These sections of his essay, if true, are discouraging for anyone hoping to see real action, soon, in mutualisation that actually means something:
While the Guardian has a business staff with a CEO, and is overseen by trustees with ultimate responsibility, it has one real power centre, strategic thinker and moral compass: its editor, Alan Rusbridger. (A kind of preternatural consensus surrounds Rusbridger, but underneath him the Guardian is a fraught political cauldron, with underlings struggling to align with him, stay in his favour and undercut everyone else who is trying: “a nest of vipers”, in the description of an outside consultant brought in to work on one of the paper’s big redesign projects.)
His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don’t. You are in or you are out.
Why bother to wonder about Rusbridger proving himself capable of, say, redesigning his role so that his position as editor-in-chief would have to be ratified by members of a mutualised Guardian voting in a referendum? Because, being optimistic, we hope that we and Wolff are mistaken – and that neither age nor personality will scupper his ambition to make a true mark on history.
… In our next entry, we will consider how much richer the cultural contribution of a mutualised Guardian would be.
Generals only ever exist as temps in Switzerland, in the army in which all Swiss men must do a stint of compulsory training and service. As the Wikipedia explains:
General (Gen) – General (Gen); général (gén); general (gen); generale (gen): The rank is only assigned during time of war, when the Federal Assembly chooses one general to command the entire Swiss military. Otherwise the word “general” is not used.
This convention seemed worth drawing attention to after we read late last month, in The New York Times, about research confirming what everyone knows: that while people think equality ideal, they quake at the prospect of dispensing with a hierarchy. They fear that it amounts to inviting in chaos with open arms. This clichéd view of flat organisations — and of cooperatives — will soon look fuddy-duddyish and irrelevant, as young innovators we have mentioned here fashion tools to make collaboration and collective decision-making swifter and less fraught.
The second half of Matthew Hutson’s article – ‘Espousing Equality, but Embracing a Hierarchy’ — showed that other organisers have the same idea as the Swiss military of using transitional hierarchies as means to particular ends.
Increasingly, companies are valuing diverse input and turning to flatter structures. But even companies that supposedly deplore the value of hierarchy have status and power differentials, formally or informally.
The video game company Valve seems like a symbol for the flat organization. Valve posted its handbook for new employees online in 2012. “We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else,” it says. […] Yet Valve has temporary team leaders who help coordinate projects, and employees rank one another when calculating compensation.
The design firm IDEO also aims for flatness but retains an element of verticality. “The idea of a flat hierarchy is a little bit of a myth that we even tell ourselves within IDEO,” Duane Bray, a partner, told me.
For instance, employees progress through four “levels of impact”: At the “individual” level they focus on their core skill set; at the “team” level they start to have responsibility for others; at the “portfolio” level they look at how collections of projects come together; and at the “enterprise” level they connect globally and take all of IDEO into account in their decisions.
Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, has written about the dysfunctions of hierarchy and encourages his M.B.A. students to pursue flatness — but not to its ultimate end. “It’s often useful to have at least one person who serves a role of leader,” he said, “even if that role is more of a coordinating function.”
Making the pigs temporary hierarchs in Animal Farm – to do particular jobs or serve particular functions with an expiration date, then revert to equality — could have dispensed with this objection of T. S. Eliot’s when he, like other top-tier publishers, rejected George Orwell’s manuscript: And that is all we have to say in this entry – using the slow season to experiment with ‘morselizing’ thoughts, research findings and arguments, a neologism apparently invented by a wonderfully named Canadian professor of media studies, Sidneyeve Matrix.
That seems exactly the right prescription for our new attention spans, shorter than the life of a firefly, and our endlessly interrupted reading — about which Tim Parks was recently complaining in The New York Review of Books.
Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.
The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.
Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.
Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:
“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”
These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.
Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:
Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.
Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.
Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.
Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.
… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.
The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?
A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:
Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.
Who would disagree?
Advertising equals lifeblood in the traditional economic model for newspapers and magazines – the scheme that will soon look pre-historic. In a splendid Business Insider profile, in a section about the early years of the company Page co-founded with Sergey Brin, a far-out idea – known as a moonshot, at the search engine colossus — is described:
… [A]fter Google had become the Internet’s most successful advertising business, Page decided the company should destroy the advertising agency industry. To his thinking, it was obviously a highly inefficient system that could be erased with the help of technology. Not only did the company opt not to take on this battle, but [other top Google executives] did their best to make sure none of Google’s many important ad-agency clients caught wind of Page’s ideas on the topic.
His seems like a straightforward, logical conclusion to anyone who believes – as we do at post-Gutenberg – that
… the perfect search engine would understand whatever your need is. It would understand everything in the world deeply [and] give you back kind of exactly what you need.
That is also a quotation of Page, in the same article.
Private Eye — writing more frankly than any other print publication about the hopelessness of trying to carry the advertising-dependent print model for economic survival into the digital future – has had riveting news in recent ‘Ad Nauseam’ columns, information we have seen nowhere else. … Essential reading, even if the last snippet seems proof of a bizarre phobia at the indispensable satirical magazine – or, possibly, a regrettable instance of inter-species prejudice:
- from Private Eye, No. 1367, 30 May – 12 June, 2014:
The latest digital advertising medium to have its efficacy questioned is video ads.
Recent research suggests that nearly 60 percent of them are never seen by a human being, which does rather post the question as to what media buyers are actually paid for.
- from Private Eye, No. 1369, 27 June -10 July 2014:
Facebook recently admitted what everyone in advertising had already twigged – that no one is reading anything brands put on Facebook any more.
The company posted a long explanation for this, protesting loudly against the idea that it could possibly have anything to do with selling more ads, suggesting instead that it was a problem of there simply being too much ‘branded content’ on the platform. This is all well and good, except a) that problem is entirely of Facebook’s making, given that it has spent seven years telling all brands they have to be on there (without adequately explaining why); and b) all its solutions for brands to get over this issue involve, er, buying more adverts.
- from Private Eye, No. 1367, 30 May – 12 June, 2014:
The latest terrifying vision of the future comes via Personal Neuro, a company which is working with Google Glass to produce wearable technology, which can monitor a wearer’s brainwaves, gauge their mood or state of mind – and feed adverts directly into their eyeballs based on that data!
Welcome to a future in which you will never be able to escape that bloody meerkat, however hard you try
If Personal Neuro is real, not just a vision that came swimming into editorial brains at the Eye after a lavish liquid lunch, why does a Google search turn up no information about this Canadian startup in any other well-known print organ?
Let us hope that the admirably honest George Monbiot, with his huge following, can get this subject the attention it deserves. Regular readers have seen almost everything in his Guardian blog post on Monday here on post-Gutenberg.com — and his concluding sentence, two years ago, in ‘Censorship by the Press‘. We wrote that after some frustrating months of drawing attention to this problem:
The solution proposed by the commenter ‘Natacha’ in her reaction beneath the Monbiot piece defines this blog’s very raison d’être: See:
Just a short post, for today. We have been on the road, watching for signs – and here is one of our rewards:
A group of Dutch media innovators – inevitably, young, as noted here last week – has created an actual, working prototype of what we expect to be a popular style of organisation for publishing in the near future. It has no advertising. It is financed by reasonably-priced subscriptions. Most important of all, it puts commenters on articles – the people it prefers to refer to as ‘contributors’ – at the centre of its enterprise, treating them as honoured extensions of its founding family. Wondermooi. That is exactly what we recommended in 2010 when, in keeping with the fuzzier usage of the time we referred to this same constituency as ‘bloggers’ — or ‘blogger-commenters,’ after a critic rightly demanded a clarification.
We did not foresee a big, ambitious media venture being able to do without advertising so soon. Nor did we anticipate that one would launch itself with crowdfunding, which Kickstarter was just beginning to turn into a household word four years ago. De Correspondent raised a breathtaking $1.7 million between March and September last year. In a post in April on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Loes Witschge reported a remarkable feat in a country with a population of just 16 million:
On March 18, [Rob] Wijnberg, former editor-in-chief of the young-adult-targeted newspaper nrc.next, proposed his idea for a new online journalism platform on Dutch national television. Within 24 hours, his team had raised half its goal, and after eight days, Wijnberg got an earlier than expected go-ahead: 15,000 had subscribed, and many had added donations on top of their subscription fee. In just over a week, in a small country, the Dutch crowdfunding project De Correspondent had raised over €1 million (about $1.3 million).
By this spring, the group had 24,000 subscribers – the proportional equivalent of 450,000 in the US, Wijnberg says — each paying roughly $80 (€60) for the privilege.
Now this, you might agree, is seriously important news. Print media are desperate for a viable new economic model. So, has The New York Times written about De Correspondent? Er, … no, unless we’ve been using the wrong search terms, hunting for evidence. The Guardian, another of the most-visited sites on the net? The Telegraph? The Independent? The Economist? Apparently not – and anyone who has proof to the contrary must please leave a comment with appropriate links beneath this post. … Oh, and there is no point in trying to look up its history on the Wikipedia for anyone irritated by having to make do with a machine translation from Dutch.
We only learnt of De Correspondent’s existence in checking that search engines were keeping up with our last entry on post-Gutenberg, using, for search tags, ‘new media’ and ‘business model’. Its own site is naturally the best guide to its modus operandi, but the applause it richly deserves is to be found exclusively on new media sites of the likes of Journalism.co.uk, Gigaom and MediaGazer. On the Medium blogging platform, Ernst-Jan Pfauth , another founder, explains under the headline ‘Why we see journalists as conversation leaders and readers as expert contributors’:
Every reader is an expert at something
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about news sites shutting down their comments sections, since readers’ contributions are often too obtrusive (read Mathew Ingrams excellent post about this).
Here in Amsterdam, we sincerely regret these developments, since we believe that modern journalists shouldn’t see their readers as a passive group of annoying followers. Instead, they should regard readers as a potential gold mine of expert information. That’s why, at De Correspondent, we encourage our journalists to function as conversation leaders and our members as expert contributors.
At De Correspondent, we owe our very existence to our members, since we launched our Dutch ad-free journalism platform after raising a total of 1.7 million dollars with a world record breaking crowd-funding campaign. We encourage our correspondents — who all have their own niche — to tell the stories that they feel are important, instead of just following the hype cycle of the news.
He also said:
We end every article with a question to our members
In our custom-built editor Respondens, we have a special field called ‘Oproep’ (which translates to ‘Call-up’). Correspondents can use that field to make explicit what they would like to know from their readers. The call shows up underneath the article and steers the contributions in the direction the correspondent finds journalistically most relevant.
We invite members to write guest articles
We continuously invite our members to write guest posts. […]
There is no mention of turning those subscribers into shareholders and running De Correspondent as a cooperative – yet. That might be an idea for another group to try, one we hope will give us the sort of laugh these Dutchmen did in setting out their names — well-established in Netherlands media before they banded together — as follows: Rob Wijnberg (1982), Harald Dunnink (1981), Sebastian Kersten (1976), and Ernst-Jan Pfauth (1986).
Advertising their birth years, you might suppose, amounts to a sign reading, Oldies Keep Out. But, not quite. The first part of ‘the keiretsu-cooperative’ in the paper that started this blog in 2010 referred to the Japanese name for a network of firms collaborating as trading partners, in a proposal for a news site (long-established or new) sharing the initial expense of starting and running a subscriber-owned cooperative with a partner in, say, book publishing. De Correspondent says it is working with:
De Groene Amsterdammer (founded in 1877) … a weekly magazine of ideas and opinion; it is perhaps best comparable to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books[…] De Groene Amsterdammer will share some of its content as well as its editorial and investigative resources with De Correspondent.
… and …
Momkai (founded in 2002) … an independent, digital creative agency in the Netherlands that is renowned for its ability to combine conceptual thinking, design and technology in the creation of online formats and campaigns. Momkai is founding partner and responsible for the brand, the website, the identity and the campaigns. Momkai also created a new publishing framework and editor for De Correspondent called Respondens.
… Well, well, well – we thought, spotting Monday’s column in The New York Times by its media correspondent, David Carr: this De Correspondent has not been born a moment too soon. Snippets that stood out in the column, a review of a new book — a roman à clef about New York newshounds by Michael Hastings, a journalist killed tragically young in the 2003 Iraq war:
… [P]oliticians and journalists are now neck and neck in a race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they read, watch or click on, a historic low.
… Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably that the audience has fled established print outlets …
… The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news conference. The jig is up.
The public is ready to share the stage, onto which De Correspondent has invited it to step up and join fully in the action. Bravo for the courage to try out a new idea — never mind if the degree to which it has succeeded so far is hard to judge for those of us who cannot read in Dutch. And a hat tip to David Carr for facing the facts, refusing to bury his head in the sand, and telling us what he sees — truthfully.
Though Larry Page, the Google co-founder, has a thatch of grey hair, we know he is still only forty-one. His baby face reminds us that he was twenty-five in 1998, when he hatched a search engine with Sergey Brin. We also know that Jimmy Wales was thirty-five when he launched the Wikipedia in 2001, and Jeff Bezos a mere thirty at the founding of Amazon.com in 1994.
So, why are we looking to today’s old media leaders to reshape the way we get news and commentary through them? Google, Wikipedia and Amazon — three inventions that have made done more than any others to re-shape the habits of those of us who used to be called bookworms — should have made it pointless for anyone to expect the big names in print media, whose chiefs are nearly all middle-aged or old, to build the bridge to future economic survival for their enterprises.
Three identifiers of the most promising scheme for publishing – called a ‘business model’ – look more practical and likely than ever:
Some form of collective ownership and management – which, for some new publishing groups, would mean replacing the old idea of ‘reader subscriptions’ with small ownership stakes for audience members who want a say in drafting rules and setting policy.
Consultative decision-making on strategic and policy matters helped by free, ‘sharable’ software tools designed to streamline collaboration — the kind being developed by New Zealand’s Loomio cooperative (the most sophisticated of which might include software tailored to deal with particular kinds of conflict).
Vast aggregations of micropayments making up the financial lifeblood of media collectives – from selling access to certain kinds of information or entertainment (though most of this would be free); or in-payments for the privilege of stakeholding, and outpayments when there are profits to be distributed.
Most of the worker-bees driving the creativity at Loomio and the micropayments innovator Flattr are decades younger than the old media leaders in continental Europe interviewed last week by The Guardian about their struggle to adapt for digitisation. The limit of bold and adventurous thinking by these appears to be a subscription club – similar to the plan described by Mario Calabresi, editor-in-chief of Italy’s La Stampa , in which most of its offerings would continue to be free …
… while holding back some premium content in order to be able to offer more in-depth information to those who want it. Around this premium content we are building a club-like structure, which brings together our keenest readers and offers them exclusive tools with which to understand the world.
Club, yes; but stake, no – and that is surely a mistake. Giving readers the chance to own a financial stake, even a small one, in drawing more traffic to a media site would encourage more of them to linger to chat with other readers – regularly log on to comments sections, treating them like virtual pubs or coffee-shops for relaxing sessions of teasing, information-sharing, debating and flirting anonymously and pseudonymously as well as in the prosaic guise of being, as on Facebook, simply themselves. One commenter on the Guardian survey of European papers had the media enterprise of the future exactly right:
13 June 2014 11:03am
… Newspapers, tv etc have to accept that media is now two-way.
So Guardian etc should become more like a social media site?
To an extent they already involve the readers with the comment threads.
Or, as the 2010 paper that this post-Gutenberg blog extends said, if we may be forgiven for the unpardonable sin of quoting ourselves:
New communication technologies have created a karaoke world. … Practically no one is content any more to be just a spectator, reader, passive listener or viewer. Audience participation as well as the right to talk back – which includes non-expert reviewing of works or performances by trained and seasoned professionals — have become absolutely essential.
That La Stampa understands this is clear. Calabresi said:
We are drawing on user-generated content, seeking to unite and integrate it with our quality journalism. On social networks we are working to increase reader engagement in order to make them key players in the debate on our content.
He sounds remarkably like The Guardian’s own editor, Alan Rusbridger, telling an American interviewer that
We are putting our commentators in the same space as all our readers and letting them fight it out. … [R]eally, in this community of Guardian readers, there are a lot of intelligent, well-versed people actually traveling. So let’s open it up to them.
But those are just words, mere sentiments, at present. Until they are offered a financial stake and the possibility, some day, of sharing in any profits, those readers contributing comments and reporting to ‘opened up’ papers are simply supplying unpaid labour. Not, in our view, an operating scheme with much of a future.
When will some newspaper like La Stampa or The Guardian test the idea of sharing ownership and decision-making on a strictly experimental section of its site – as this blog has suggested before, more than once? They might take a cue from the adventurous ‘skunk works’ at the Harvard Business School testing online education.
One European interviewed by the London newspaper about the digital future, Stefan Niggemeier – an ex-Spiegel staffer who has worked both as an editor and publishing innovator — is part of a group of twenty-five German investigative journalists playing with financial schemes that do not rely on advertising: ‘We want to see if there’s a way of establishing a non-advertising-based model. Whether it will work, I don’t know, but I know it’s right to try it, even if it fails.’
Rusbridger is sixty. Niggemeier and Calabresi are both in their mid-forties. Even they might not be young enough to translate proposals and hypotheses into media’s clicking and whirring fully operational future.
As print publishing firms competing with digital rivals have less than ever to give the majority of writers – who have no record as best-sellers — where should scribblers’ sympathies lie in the fight between the Hachette publishing empire and Amazon?
The essential details of what they are quarrelling about are being hidden from us on grounds of commercial secrecy — as noted in one report after another**. These are negotiations conducted down dark alleys. Without those details, we can only puzzle over the tones of ringing certainty in which newspaper commentators have unanimously been denouncing Amazon – although the bookselling giant was plainly wrong to punish Hachette and its authors in these ways noted by The Los Angeles Times:
Amazon is subjecting many books from Hachette to artificial purchase delays. Books that had been available for next-day delivery now take 2-5 weeks to ship. Some titles don’t surface in search as they should. … As a result, Hachette will sell fewer books.
Strangely absent from coverage of the war is an eye-popping point for writers made by a sharp-eyed reader of The New York Times:
To the Editor:
Neither Amazon nor the publishers are pure of heart. Amazon is facing serious pressure on the profitability front from investors, so it is looking to increase margins and reduce costs.
The publishers see e-books as their largest profit area. A Publisher’s Lunch article last year showed the profit breakdown for HarperCollins:A $27.99 hardcover provides a $5.67 profit to the publisher and a $4.20 royalty to the author; a $14.99 e-book provides a $7.87 profit to the publisher and a $2.62 royalty to the author.
While the publishers are making a claim to a noble struggle against Amazon’s efforts to devalue publishing, they are also seeking to protect their higher profits on e-books, not higher royalties for writers. While Amazon claims to want to offer readers the best pricing, Amazon has no qualms about using its powerful market leverage to get what it seeks while inflicting collateral pain on readers to boost its profits.
The two players that are suffering in this situation are the authors (book sales delayed or prevented, dramatically lower royalties) and the consumers, many of whom have invested heavily in the Kindle-based environment.
Barrington, R.I., May 31, 2014
For authors to extract a bigger share of e-royalties, we are guessing that more scribblers with market power ranging from middling to great will have to start publishing e-books on their own, and do well at it. What advantages of being conventionally published do they give up, when they take the indie road? Fewer and fewer. Many more authors who have tried both the old route to being published and the new say exactly what this Guardian reader did last month, reacting in the comments section of a blog post about self-publishing:
29 May 2014
I’m not a fan of self-publishing, but I don’t think this article addresses some of the salient reasons for its rise. Nothing is mentioned of the radical shift in traditional publishing to put marketing efforts into nothing but established writers with blockbuster track records, or its abandonment of a good editorial process.
Having been one of those writers who did get published by a major publisher, it quickly became obvious that it was a waste of time and financially costly. The royalty rates offered (especially on electronic sales) are, frankly, laughable. There is no effort at marketing. As a new author, you are expected to do all the publicity and marketing for yourself anyway. The least one might expect was a decent line edit, but the book I published through a major house was published with typographical errors aplenty. So, exactly how does it benefit new writers to even consider submitting to a traditional publisher?
Forget the money. What about the cultural landscape? Are publishers are lining up to publish radically new forms of narrative? No. In fact, the chances of you getting a publishing deal for your book depends, most notably, on how much it resembles another book that’s done well.
And if a writer opts for self-publishing and does well with it, there is a far better chance of having a major publisher will pick you up, republish your work, offer far better terms, better editors and some marketing – now that you no longer need it.
… [T]he disdain in this article for the self-published work doesn’t take into account what is driving many authors to circumvent the publishing apparatus altogether.
At least one author, Barry Eisler, is standing up for Amazon, saying: “More people are buying more books than ever and more people are making a living by writing them. Why do millionaire authors want to destroy the one company that’s made this all possible?”
The problem for many in publishing is that the dominance of this one company, with its Kindle store, keeps growing. It is estimated that e-book sales will soar to almost $9bn this year in America, while print book sales fall below $20bn, down from $26bn in 2010.
Yes, it’s clear from those numbers that Amazon has too much power in e-publishing. But to see what can be done about it, let’s have some more information about precisely what terms it was arguing about with Hachette.
** For instance, although The Los Angeles Times’s handy summary of the dispute is highlighted as an instance of ‘an unusually public battle’ — in ‘Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps,’ — its step 6 says:
Amazon has not commented to The Times regarding this dispute other than to point us to a message-board posting in the Kindle discussion forums on its site. There, it explained that Hachette was one of its 70,000 suppliers and that the two had been unable to reach acceptable terms (without disclosing what was being negotiated).
With eyes usually peeled on the media revolution, we read with special fascination about a Darwinian parallel in the insect world in a small item by Sindya Bhanoo in today’s New York Times.
We came across it still reflecting on a post about the sacking last month of the editors of Le Monde and The New York Times by Susan Glasser — editor of the Politico site – in which she revisited her own disastrous experience as an editor and department head at The Washington Post:
In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century …
The doomed survival strategy of the newly silent Hawaiian crickets at the end of this snippet reminds us of print newspapers’ continuing refusal to make radical alterations of their ‘business model’ for the identical task: communication.
In 2003, a number of male field crickets on the Hawaiian island of Kauai were born without the ability to chirp. Two years later, the same thing happened on Oahu.
Researchers thought the events were related — a genetic mutation that spread from one island to the other through commercial transport, or perhaps even a flying cricket that found its own way over.
But now, researchers report that the mutant males on each island stopped singing independently, through two similar but distinct adaptations.
“It’s an example of convergent evolution,” said Nathan Bailey, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an author of the new study, which appears in Current Biology. “And it’s exciting because we are catching this mutation as it’s happening in the wild.”
Male crickets have specialized structures at the end of their wings. When they rub them together, the structures engage with one another and make the chirping sound.
“It’s like rubbing a fingernail along the teeth of a comb,” Dr. Bailey said.
Dr. Bailey said the crickets had adapted to become less vulnerable to a parasitic Hawaiian fly that is attracted to the males’ chirp. The fly larvae burrow into the cricket, causing it to die within a week.
But there is a downside: The males who do not chirp cannot attract females as easily as those who do.
“So instead they adjust their behavior,” Dr. Bailey said. “They hang around the remaining singing males and then intercept the females.”
It was in making a floral record of this month of May that it came to us that the playwright William Congreve (1670-1729) was wrong about there being no one angrier, not even in hell, than a woman scorned – because hell hath actually no fury to compete with a male poet whose advances have been roundly rejected. We mean, specifically, John Donne, and have in mind his spine-chillingly spiteful plan for revenge in ‘The Apparition’.
Because some human beings writing poetry can be seen as aspiring to the perfection of flowers, a train of thought beginning in pink roses and ending in Donne is not illogical. As we clicked away, thinking of that particular poem, we found ourselves wishing that truth in advertising could replace the ancient conventions of seduction and romance. Bouquets. Chocolates. Perfume. Laboriously-crafted illusions. But, now that no-makeup selfies are all the rage with women, what if men were to send baskets of spiky pine cones instead of floral arrangements, accompanied not by fluffy declarations of sentiment or verse but laundry lists of flaws and comprehensive histories of bad behaviour?
Then everyone beginning any sort of liaison, virtuous or otherwise, with anyone else, would only have to exceed abysmal, execrable, expectations.
Reader, if you want to check your understanding of Donne’s 16th-century usage, hop over to the clean and admirably straightforward illumination of ‘The Apparition’ on the blog of Linda Sue Grimes, here.
When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed,
And thee, feign’d vestal, in worse arms shall see;
Then thy sick taper will begin to wink,
And he, whose thou art then, being tir’d before,
Will, if thou stir, or pinch to wake him, think
Thou call’st for more,
And in false sleep will from thee shrink;
And then, poor aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat wilt lie
A verier ghost than I.
What I will say, I will not tell thee now,
Lest that preserve thee; and since my love is spent,
I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent,
Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.
Last year we heard from an eminent scientist about the complaint by a friend of his — a physicist who won the great Swedish prize in the late 1960s — that his lofty New York agent had reported that his latest book proposal had met a wall of rejection by publishers. ‘He was told that if he was – you know, that British physicist in a wheelchair, er …’. ‘Stephen Hawking?’ post-Gutenberg suggested. ‘Yes, him. My friend was told that it would be different if he could attract the kind of public attention Hawking does. There would be no trouble placing his manuscript and getting him a very large advance.’
The eminent scientist telling us the story had been suffering the identical fate at the hands of publishers on two continents.
With this as an excellent specimen of the sort of conversation between writers and their representatives that is dead common today, we considered what an agent – today’s equivalent in publishing of St. Peter at the pearly gates – would say to an unknown scribe trying to place a manuscript about her sojourn on a collective farm in Estonia in the early 1990s. ‘Estonia – you must be joking, who has ever heard of it? And it’s so ridiculously small I am not sure I could even place it on a map! Have you spent five seconds considering what point there could be in asking anyone to read about such an obscure and insignificant country? You say that it’s based on your out-of-date experience of doing fieldwork for your doctorate in anthropology, twenty years ago? And you have already published the thesis you wrote on the subject? Come, come, you are an intelligent woman! There must be some other subject you can think of! You know you have no track record as a writer? Why not invest some energy in building a platform? Then you can try us again, okay? And now, sorry, but I really must take this next call –.’
But, miracle of miracles, we have described an actual book being reviewed respectfully in recent weeks, called Everything is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia. It is indeed based on someone’s memories of fact-gathering for her old Phd. thesis. The only reason why it is not mouldering on an attic shelf under four inches of dust is the author’s identity. She is Sigrid Rausing, an anthropologist and philanthropist – routinely referred to as one of Britain’s richest women in media profiles explaining that she is an heir to a great Swedish industrial fortune — who also became a publisher to watch when she bought Granta, a pillar of the British literary establishment, the name of both a magazine and book publisher, in 2005.
She did not have to publish her book herself. Truly, the strangest fact of all in this story is that she really can write – her atmospheric prose frequently recalling the travel writer Colin Thubron’s otherworldly, melancholy, In Siberia — and, with the luck of having her own power base in the business, evidently had no trouble getting her manuscript read and given a green light.
Post-Gutenberg has for some time been avoiding all the usual superlatives in praising new books – bankrupt currency, for the reasons Jennifer Weiner offered in a summing-up in ‘All Blurbed Out’ in last Sunday’s New York Times that said in part: ‘”Stunning” is mundane, “gorgeous” is commonplace, “brilliance” and “genius” are positively de rigueur.’
We offer the best and only reliable guides to literary achievement — excerpts from the author’s own text. We are pleased to do this because Rausing is not only generous with her family’s money, but the far more precious gifts of her attention and engagement. In a recent profile in The Telegraph, she announced her commitment to personally going through unsolicited submissions – usually called the slush pile – dispatched to Granta. Over to her book, now:
That evening I found Marika and Alar and Heli drinking cocktails: 96 percent ethanol from Marika’s veterinary practice poured into a Russian vodka bottle, mixed with ‘exotic juice’. They used to drink ethanol eggnogs because Marika got paid in eggs from the farmers; thirty to forty eggs to cure a sick cow. When the salmonella started appearing in the eggs they stopped it, and started mixing the alcohol with juice. I drank that strange and ravaging mixture with them, and at midnight we went to a bar by the harbour, open all night now for drinking and dancing. Somebody, I think it was Ets, brought a bottle of champagne, and we drank that, too. Some strangers turned up – a pale man with green eyes and sandy moustache, and a young couple with a Doberman. They were from President Meri’s staff – he had a dacha on the peninsula, from the Soviet era. I had come across it by chance – a seemingly abandoned narrow dirt road broadened, then turned into an asphalt road, ending by a high gate and a fence. People were dancing wild Estonian waltzes and polkas; under the influence of ethanol and Georgian champagne, the strangers seemed like friends. Dusk merged with dawn, and I walked home alone.
Who was I, at this point, for them? A kind of mascot, perhaps. In the plenty of Estonian summer I was offered strawberries, gooseberries, rides in Ladas. Once I was offered fish, two tiny brown fish. I was always offered drinks, too many drinks. A slight anxiety set in about leaving. At the same time the heat, the relentless heatwave made me feel as if nothing would ever change. The glaring light was eating me up, and I longed for grey clouds and cool winds. Something felt stuck in my throat. I slept and slept. My Swedish duvet, so warm in the winter, smelled of sweat now. There was no wind – the village echoed without the perennial wind. The dogs howled. I woke up at night from the howling, or from Karl crying next door. The moths fluttered in the kitchen as I stumbled out for a glass of water. I dreamt, anxiously, about leaving my laptop behind.
Loomio — fashioning software aids to joint decision-making that any group, anywhere, can use for free – was born from the collective activism we know as the Occupy movement. Its founders know that defusing the conflicts inevitable in almost any cooperative is the trickiest part of running one. An excellent encapsulation of its history by Hamish McKenzie in Pando Daily says:
Like their peers at Occupy Wall Street, and at other Occupy camps around the world, the Wellington demonstrators would make group decisions through an inclusive process in which anyone who wanted a say got one. The group would then vote on which proposals to adopt.
…[T]he model … would come to form the basis of Loomio, a Web app that facilitates collaborative decision-making – but the process had a dark side. For a start, the people with the loudest voices and the most confident speakers eventually came to dominate the discussion; even simple decisions could become long, drawn out, highly argumentative ordeals. Meanwhile, as the camp ran its course and people started to leave, the only people left were the hardcore occupiers and the homeless people who had come in search of social support and meals. It got to a point where the group discussion was lopsided in favor of male, white voices, and not particularly inclusive after all. Occupy eventually ended its presence in the square, and people moved on.
However [the software’s designers] didn’t want to give up on the idea of spreading Occupy’s brand of participatory democracy to wider society …
The job of wresting peace and concord from the jaws of animosity and resentment has never been one for the impatient or faint of heart – as long as there have been human beings. If post-Gutenberg is optimistic about organisations run on the net being more successful at managing conflict than the cooperatives of the 1970s it is because …
- the discussions and arguments are transparent – viewable by everyone
- there are records of who said what that make lying, manipulation, scheming and every form of slipperiness and bullying more difficult
The larger the audience for scrapping antagonists, the more people there are to punish bullies (as in imposing penalties on or sanctions against them), and the harder it is to resist peace-brokering efforts without looking deranged, stupid, or evil.
At least this is what we have long suspected at post-Gutenberg. When we set off in search of other people’s ideas about defusing hostility, we came upon the conclusion in a 2000 paper on the subject – ‘Conflict prevention and conflict resolution: limits of multilateralism’ — by Fred Tanner, a top-ranking Red Cross (ICRC) expert in Geneva, that ‘conflict prevention remains an enigma’.
Of course his subject was the prevention of war and butchery between countries and tribes. And of course digital transparency and communication, now part of the fabric of daily life and negotiation, were far less developed fourteen years ago.
That there might be reason to hope for change through digital go-betweens – software tools used by groups to manage conflict – was confirmed in a surprising article by Albert Sun in The New York Times about applying mathematical modelling to a specific problem. We leave you to this excerpt from it, and strongly recommend following the link to the rest of the piece:
Every month, unrelated people move into apartments together to save on rent. Many decide to simply divide the rent evenly, or to base it on bedrooms’ square footage or perhaps even on each resident’s income.
But as it turns out, a field of academics is dedicated to studying the subject of fair division, or how to divide good and bad things fairly among groups of people. To the researchers, none of the typical methods are satisfactory. They have better ways.
The problem is that individuals evaluate a room differently. I care a lot about natural light, but not everyone does. Is it worth not having a closet? Or one might care more about the shape of the room, or its proximity to the bathroom.
A division of rent based on square feet or any fixed list of elements can’t take every individual preference into account. And negotiation without a method may lead to conflict and resentment.
… I came across a paper by Francis Su, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College in California, about a mathematical proposition discovered in 1928 by the German mathematician Emanuel Sperner. It is called Sperner’s lemma.
The connection between Sperner’s lemma and rent division was first published by Dr. Su in a 1999 paper titled “Rental Harmony: Sperner’s Lemma in Fair Division.”
Dr. Su realized that it might be related to another problem he had heard about, in which a group has to divide a theoretical cake when some want frosted flowers or an edge with more frosting.
“The trick is to design a procedure to have everyone act in their own self-interest and have an outcome that’s fair,” he said in an interview.
To promote the use of the new methods being invented, Ariel D. Procaccia, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been working on a website, Spliddit, to help people use these methods to fairly divide things like the order of names of co-authors on a scientific paper or prized possessions in a divorce.
“There are all these examples of really nice ways to solve the problem,” he said, “but nobody’s using them.”
[ continues … ]
Can a group of young New Zealand revolutionaries save the world – by rescuing cooperatives from the taint of failed hippie idealism and accusations of underestimating the selfishness of human beings?
We discovered Loomio, founded in Wellington this year, in thinking about Thomas Piketty’s mountainously substantiated belief, in his world champion bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that unchecked capitalism has signed its own death warrant — by ignoring the tidal wave of anger and outrage about increasingly dire and shocking social inequality.
This blog, post-Gutenberg, is founded on the conviction justified in a paper for the Oxford Internet Institute in 2010 that organisations owned by their contributors are the key to levelling the playing field in the media – that this is essential, if we want the form of government by the people we call ‘democracy’ to work properly. So of course we’re wondering when Piketty will come to the same conclusion – like Pope Francis, as we reported last year in ‘Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?’.
Googling ‘Piketty’ and ‘cooperatives’ did not only produce Shaila Dewan, also making this connection, in ‘Who Needs a Boss?’ in The New York Times. It led to an excellent discussion on the Hacker News site last month.
We were close to ecstatic to learn on that forum about the birth of Loomio – a group of young software designers with exactly the right skills to support the point made on this blog in February of 2012, that the lightning digital communication we have now means that cooperatives no longer have to be bogged down by endless meetings and chronic bickering and power-mongering. We said, then, in ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind’:
Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods […] Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.
For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise. The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. […] To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work …
Someone especially brilliant behind the founding of Loomio grasped the idea all the way down to the mention in that second paragraph of The Guardian’s opinion polls – whose progress happens to be displayed in pie charts. The Wikipedia summary of Loomio’s mission explains: ‘Loomio is a libre software application for group decision-making and collaboration […] As discussions progress the group receives feedback on a proposal through an up-datable pie chart.’
We urge our readers to visit the Loomio.org site for further – erm – enlightenment (could this be a group who grew up reading about Harry Potter’s ‘Lumos!’ spell?). Its home page announces: ‘Loomio unleashes the internet’s potential to bring people towards consensus rather than polarized debate..’
In the meanwhile, here is a practical idealist at a startup in New York explaining how using Loomio’s toolkit fits the charter and modus operandi of his own organisation – the Colab Cooperative — ‘a worker-owned tech cooperative supporting startup social enterprises through agile development of … products that we hope will change the world for the better’. The upper-case letters are our own annotations — reactions and mental notes — reading his contribution to the Hacker News discussion:
PROGRESS! SOMEONE ARGUING FROM HANDS-ON EXPERIMENTATION …We have found the biggest plus of being a cooperative to be the sense of equality amongst our crew stemming from a democratic-based decision making process and a path to membership (as a co-owner) available to all (assuming performance and cultural standards are met).
THE BRIGHTEST SOCIALLY-AWARE TECHIES WILL IN FUTURE CHOOSE COOPS …Moving forward we are of the opinion that the many of the best and brightest in our industry who seek social and environmental change will choose to work in cooperatives rather than traditional corporations even if it means sacrificing some personal financial benefit to do so (although hopefully this will not be needed as more resources go to supporting cooperatives).
IDEALISM IS NOT THE DRUG OF FOOLS BUT THE WAY SOME THINGS IMPROVE IN THE WORLD, BIT BY BIT …The ‘meaning quotient’ of life generally trumps all for those we work with and those who support cooperatives.
RECOGNISES NEED FOR ‘EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE’ AND STRONGLY SHARED BELIEFS … In terms of keynotes, running a cooperative successfully requires: – emotional intelligence – operational processes that support intra-team communication and collaborative work – a willingness to put your trust in your co-workers – a strong sense of cultural identity – a mission that can be shared with members and partners.
LEARNING TO BALANCE LEADERSHIP FOR SPEED, WHEN THIS IS MISSION-CRITICAL, WITH CONSULTATION-AND-COLLABORATION, THE ORGANISATION’S CORE CULTURE … Given this is HN, I will say that there is some tension b/t the ‘lead by your gut’ – fast and furious – approach of most entrepreneurs and the emphasis in cooperatives on getting consensus from the team on big decisions. As a former ‘traditional’ entrepreneur with some VC / startup experience, I feel like we have found a nice balance b/t empowering our management team to lead with their ‘gut’ business instincts while also engaging in proactive communication with the team around key business decisions.
ADMITS MISTAKES …That said I have also at times stepped on some toes and gently bruised some egos with my former ways. So it is a learning process for sure…
EXPERIMENTING WITH COLLABORATIVE DECISION MAKING SOFTWARE … As part of our communications work, we have begun experimenting with using http://loomio.org as part of our discussion and decision-making process.
Best of luck, Loomio and Colab. It will be a dream come true to see you prove sour, embittered old pessimists — like this Thomas Howard Kunstler commenting on Piketty — utterly mistaken:
[T]he second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face. Piketty just feeds that secondary delusion.
The most hopeless navigational advice usually comes from locals – people who have travelled a route too often to know what it looks like – and foreigners can be far more perceptive evaluators of fiction than insiders.
Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk is not any old foreign critic. He won the 2006 Nobel literature prize. Someone at The New York Times was brave enough – in a country not overly interested in the opinions of aliens – to invite him to review the first biography of John Updike, the work of Adam Begley. Twenty years ago, we bet a dinner guest that Updike’s Rabbit trilogy, and those novels alone, would earn him his place in posterity. He argued the merits of the scurrilous Henry Bech, another of the novelist’s creations and closer to his own segment of middle-class existence – also someone with whom we suspect our guest secretly identified. But we nearly always found Bech’s characterisation flat, rather flaccid, and not half as amusing as he found himself.
Pamuk, we were pleased to see, takes much the same view of the Rabbit books as we do, and for virtually the identical reasons. His comparison of the Updike oeuvre with some of its best-known competitors in 20th-century literature is just as rewarding:
[T]his talent and a reverence for the ordinary problems of ordinary people were obvious in the first Updike novel I ever read, “Rabbit, Run” (1960), published in Turkish translation in 1971. This was a completely different, less dramatic but more believable and more intensely felt America than the one inhabited by Steinbeck’s California fruit pickers or Hemingway’s war-loving and assertive heroes, far from Faulkner’s gothic atmospheres crumbling under the weight of the past and of problems of race. The dirty words and sexually explicit passages that were a problem for Knopf (and for the editor of the British edition) were less pronounced in the Turkish translation, but even from that distance, the reader could perceive that the latest news from America was all about the fragility and the fury of the individual, about sexual freedom, guilt and small-town life. If I consider “Rabbit, Run” and the three books that followed it in the Rabbit tetralogy — “Rabbit Redux” (1971), “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) — to be Updike’s biggest and most lasting achievements, this is due in no small part to the news-like quality of these novels. The adventures of Harry Angstrom are a very enjoyable chronicle in decennial installments of the lifestyles, emotions, politics and daily lives of America’s endlessly growing middle classes. Unlike historical novels that look back in time to events they describe, the Rabbit novels were about life as it unfolds; Rabbit’s adventures functioned as a social history of sorts, each installment a summary and a representation of the previous 10 years — as Updike himself wrote in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the series, “a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” The fact that Rabbit is a demonic, ethically troubled but also entirely ordinary character, together with Updike’s signature richness of style and his use of the present tense (one of the peculiarities of the Rabbit series), all serve to steer these novels away from didacticism and banality, dangers that can plague chronicles and social novels. In the same introduction, Updike identifies these literary dangers in the United States: “The slot between the fantastic and the drab seems too narrow. . . . The puritanism and practicality of the early settlers imposed a certain enigmatic dullness, it may be, upon the nation’s affective life and social texture.” Updike thought previous generations of writers had avoided this dullness by chasing rootless and eccentric characters, thus writing masterpieces like “Moby-Dick.” Begley’s biography, though, shows that Updike’s writing and ultimately his entire life were shaped by his attachment to the ordinariness of his suburban middle-class life, and his desire to reach beyond its boundaries. In a way, what Melville did for whales, Updike did for upper-middle-class life in suburban America …
In The XX Factor: How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society, published last year, Alison Wolf tells us that among the trend-setting elite of educated, high income-earning couples in the West, and for both men and women …
The new graduate norm is a full-time job, whether you are single or part of a couple. With no old-style wife to come home to.
Men in this social tier, she says, ‘put in more unpaid household work … the more educated the women.’ Will the shrinking gender gap, we wondered – scrolling through XX with musings about domestic goddesses still trailing from our last post – mean that mutual erotic interest will continue to decline, in these partnerships? A February article in The New York Times by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and couples therapist, quoted — to stunning effect — researchers reporting their discovery that, as one put it, ‘The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ Gottlieb herself was blunter: ‘In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.’
XX, in its details, contains equally startling revelations. It is so unlike the usual book by a scholar of Wolf’s standing – she is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, in addition to other directorships and lofty responsibilities — that to try to cherry-pick its discoveries and stimulating ideas, to recommend it to other readers, is to feel crushed, too soon, by the weight of a whole cherry orchard.
Overall, XX offers not the faintest glimmer of hope for anyone hoping to walk back the gender revolution in futuristic households. It shows brainy young women drawn from all over the East to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with exactly the same aim as their counterparts at Oxford – to climb to the highest attainable rungs on career ladders closed, in the recent past, to women. Female hunger for education is so extreme that …
Almost 60 per cent of medical students in the UK are now female; in US medical schools, women have made up just under half of entering students for the last ten years. And in the developed world it is now the norm for law faculties to have a majority of female students.
And the result? XX’s findings are arrestingly filtered through the review in last month’s New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell – a 74 year-old doctor and Harvard professor whose other formidable accomplishments include serving as the first woman editor of the American medical bible, The New England Journal of Medicine. The most striking passage of her assessment said, in part:
Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. […] In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, …
Women pay a price, where housecleaning standards remain high and exacting. ‘Italian inequality,’ Wolf says, ‘exists almost entirely because of the amount of time Italian women spend on unpaid work. More specifically, they spend world-record amounts of time cleaning the house.’ All across the developed world, at all levels of society, ‘there was a fall in the time women spent on unpaid household work.’
In one of many engaging glimpses she offers into her own life, she admits that on weeknights, she is liable to be found picking up ready-made dinners for her family from a railway station branch of the catering arm of Marks & Spencer in London – ‘a regular in their long lines of suited commuters, male and female, calculating time to checkout against time to the next train.’ With more than two dozen pages of tables and charts in her statistical appendix, and the confidence of a scholar long recognised for her rigour, she is free to have fun – as in disagreeing, tongue in cheek, with a high-ranking female American lawyer about the undesirability of ‘some of the nation’s most … powerful women’ being ‘stranded in cab lines and late for meetings,’ as they teeter in shoes with dizzyingly high heels. With an amused shrug, she classes these women with historical subjects of ‘swagger portraits,’ such as ‘wealthy seventeenth-century burghers of Holland’s golden years [who] wore Calvinist black and showed off their wealth with the size and fine quality of their lace ruffs and shirt cuffs’.
We have those shoes to thank for the mental leap to Agency Woman, John A. A. Logan’s latest thriller noir — on which we had started a few weeks ago, and set aside for want of the right sort of reading time — to consider far more important parallels between XX and what this irresistible story has to say about the sexual revolution. In one of its early pages, the woolgathering of a character sitting on a bench in a train station in the Scottish Highlands is invaded by vivid sensations of being a knight on horseback when his eye is caught by a mesmerising woman shod in red high heels.
The owner of those heels turns out to be a powerful, high-ranking, female spy – seemingly a ‘better man’ in every respect than the book’s chief male character who, in this scene, is a dissolute, aimless, and troubled wanderer. Other readers surely asked themselves, as we did: will this woman, Lucy, plausibly become this man’s, or any man’s, heart’s desire – or be restricted to acting out the role of a sexual fascinator and dominatrix? For much of the book, it seems as if that could indeed be her fate, at her creator’s hands, judged by fragments like these:
I wish there was more gentleness in her, more kindness. She seems so intent on meeting life head on, smashing into it like a hammerhead shark rupturing its way through the water.
… and …
It’s the information, going into her … She believes it now. She’s processing it. Female computer with blood on her hands.
But, no … John Logan is not remotely a simple-minded thriller-writer – say, Dan Brown, whose female heroine in The Da Vinci Code has all the complexity of a soap dish. For reasons impossible to explain without trampling all over this surreal, often very funny story’s masterly unfolding, we realised, at the end of Agency Woman, that men John’s age – fortysomethings – take for granted, as Alison Wolf says in The XX Factor, that ‘Highly educated women are far more likely to have developing careers, jobs they find fulfilling, jobs that are part of their core identity.’
He writes like a choreographer effortlessly adding new steps to the dance of the sexes, in a novel that has echoes of both John Buchan’s grand, whimsical yarn, The Thirty-Nine Steps – because of chase scenes in rural Scotland, and a spirit of high adventure – and of a 1978 film about America’s Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, because of excruciating, long-drawn-out ordeals of suffering and endurance inflicted on a reluctant conscript.
The message from Agency Woman about how instinctively astute men are coping with female incursions into traditionally male territory is neither new nor different from the critical prescription for any life: try never to lose your sense of humour. There is a splendid illustration of the right way forward in one encounter between the sexes in this book:
‘It must have been a glacier,’ is all I can think to say. We’ve passed the row of white houses and we’re back at the top of the hill now, just above where the bus dropped us off. We’re looking out over the sea and the sea is obviously sitting in some great depression, long and deep and scooped out from the land. I know nothing about geology or the history of the formation of the earth, but only two thoughts had entered my head when I looked down at the sea and the steep hillside that rose from the edges of the channelled water. First thought: huge dinosaur footprint, the footprint of some giant dinosaur with long, long bunny feet. Second thought: glacier. So I kept the dinosaur bunny feet private and expressed my certainty that this channel had been cut into earth by a mass of ice. A glacier. I know that she has her strong social side. I know that glaciers are socially acceptable, because current scientific theory approves of them, and they are taught in schools. I want her approval so I say, ‘It must have been a glacier.’ In my heart though, I hope it was a dinosaur bunny that did it, running after some dinosaur girl-bunny through this treeless zone. ‘I don’t think this warm weather is very usual up here,’ she replies. ‘The view too, I think this much sunshine is a real rarity up here.’
… No, not for a moment are we supposing that Agency Woman settles the question about reproduction with which this post began, proving Lori Gottlieb wrong – only, that it is strongly suggestive of how Alison Wolf’s research findings are playing out in some actual lives, and in the male psyche, in particular.
Or, as the rascally John Updike – an unreconstructed male supremacist, if ever there was one — put it in one of his last novels, Toward the End of Time: ‘We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.’ Only a first-rate novelist can show what he means — now.
Before we get to Nigella Lawson hammering the last nails into the coffin of the domestic goddess myth, we must record a milestone reached in the suicide last month of 49 year-old L’ Wrenn Scott, the ethereal clothes designer and domestic partner of Mick Jagger. No doubt she killed herself in a tragic confluence of exterior and interior pressures. Entirely unprecedented in the celebrity universe, as far as we know, was the prominence accorded — in speculation about a female suicide — to the possibility that her failure as an entrepreneur could have been the deciding factor. This is a species of tragedy we associate exclusively with the lives of men.
For reasons of interest to no one else, we have in mind today both the miserable and triumphant potential in the lives of women – because of a particular woman we are sending a birthday greeting she can no longer read. What connects the topic to this blog’s interest in post-print media is
• how Nigella’s vindictive ex-advertising mogul ex-husband, Charles Saatchi, was undone by his over-reliance on what remains of his once-tremendous old media influence and connections
• how Nigella’s mediagenic genius – more than mere physical beauty greater and more mysterious than the sum of its parts – came to her rescue in an age of communication dominated by images. How it became the steel-plated shield that excellence in the domestic arts can no longer supply, for her or any other woman – any more than the womanly heart-over-head softness that traditionally went with that
In making work her principal occupation, L’Wrenn Scott – about five years younger than Nigella – had satisfied the now inescapable requirement that a woman establish her worth, both monetary and otherwise, independently of any man. Never mind if she is a delectable nineteen year-old besieged by suitors from every point on the compass bearing engagement rings .
Last month in Britain, following a Law Commission recommendation that British courts actually honour pre-nuptial agreements instead of, presumably, treating them as philosophical tracts, the Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan lauded the guarantee, in these contracts, that she could take what is hers if her marriage should fail. That is too simple a reason for wanting one. The harsh fact is, the action a woman needs to take to protect herself from the peculiarly female forms of vulnerability in long-haul relationships has to precede any such contract.
The setting of terms for a pre-nup will usually entail a chilling discussion. Yet these unenticing agreements that we see becoming indispensable for ordinary people, not just celebrities, set a value on what the chief monetary contributor to a household – still generally male – will owe the provider of non-monetary sustenance, comforts and gifts, including child-bearing, if an ‘uncoupling,’ whether ‘conscious’ or otherwise, becomes inevitable. Unless she has a large inheritance for a lifelong security net, the contributor in kind rather than cash will, ideally, prove her economic value long before any such negotiation; years before she even thinks of spending a span of years working principally as a nurturer.
As any specialist in family law would tell her, one crucial consideration in a court’s decision on what she should receive, in a financial settlement at the end of a partnership, is the size of the cheques from employers that she gave up when she and her partner agreed that she would switch from working outside to inside their home.
The numbers on those cheques could even prove critical in legal proceedings that have nothing to do with divorce. Say that she is a single woman and artist whose forte is highly-praised but uncommercial watercolours, someone who does not see herself settling into marriage for years. She will want to establish the highest possible pre-marital price-tag for her toil in the ‘day jobs’ she does to support herself. Why? As any personal injury lawyer would tell her, that earning power would be weighed in determining what she was owed if — after she has married and taken herself off the market, for any reason – she became the unlucky victim of a road accident.
Her ‘historical’ earning ability could be the chief index of value for the insurance company of the drunk driver who, say, knocked her off her bicycle and hurt her seriously enough to cripple her ability to work for months or years afterwards. If she dropped out of dentistry school or an internship in financial trading to give birth to twins, her compensation from the insurer for the work she has done since, as a loving housewife and mother, would be only a fraction of what she would be owed as a worker who clocked up a few years of practising the profession in which she won her spurs.
… Which brings us back to Nigella, and the particular advantages flowing from her ease before a camera, which have helped to make her story seem part of the life stories of millions of audience members who actually have nothing in common with her. She, of course, sought no financial compensation or alimony in her divorce last summer. That was in spite of submitting to one wrenching adjustment after another in a marriage ‘always on his terms’, and the lustre she lent the Charles Saatchi persona – an especially valuable contribution to a specialist in advertising and the fabrication of glamour-by-association.
In the high drama of having to defend herself, last December, against Machiavellian allegations of a cocaine habit, during the trial of former housekeepers of hers and Saatchi’s, the media commentariat made no reference to the reports, last autumn, that she had agreed to make no financial claims on him. According to the rumours, then, that was partly in the hope of defusing his threat to expose a particularly damaging secret about her. This bargain did her no good, as many signs pointed to his having had some never quite specified role in inspiring the housekeepers’ claims of being indirectly bribed by Nigella to hide her cocaine store and – as she admitted, with unfortunate consequences that have stretched to being declined permission to enter the U.S. last Sunday — occasional use.
For a less resilient woman, becoming the target of Saatchi’s spite, in the latest chapter of a life pock-marked by exceptional suffering, might have been ruinous. But on screens only last week, there were signs of a Nigella recovering her radiance, and drawing on the tremendous capital in respect and affection she has created for herself by following the path that her first husband, John Diamond, put her on. It was he who spotted the potential for the witty, sexy, glamour-puss television cook before anyone else could envisage her in such a role – going by the accounts of other family members and friends.
Alas, a domestic goddess needs a devoted domestic god for a mate. Nigella had one in Diamond, but after he died much too young, she married Saatchi – who, perhaps out of jealousy of the famously enjoyable, casual and spontaneous John-and-Nigella hospitality – proudly broadcast his preference for breakfast cereal over anything from his third wife’s kitchen, and for feeding people in restaurants over anything cooked by her.
As things turned out, at the zenith of her fame as a de-mystifier of the art of cooking – in roughly the last ten years – with a superb, eclectic palate to guide her, Nigella was obliged by Saatchi to be a virtual, if not quite fake, model of a household divinity. Out of consideration for his (understandable) dislike of being invaded by bustling TV crews, her kitchen in the house they shared was replicated in a television studio. In the footage much-loved by her audience of her raiding her refrigerator for nocturnal snacks, she was only acting — like any other performer on a set. Her cookbooks, according to the housekeepers’ court-room testimony, were written in the dead of night, her concentration assisted by whiffs of cocaine. By day, according to other reports, she was responsible for the kind of physical chaos abhorred by Saatchi but more or less typical for creative types of any stripe, though possibly not for chopping-board deities – none of it visible on-screen.
Yet nearly everyone who has watched her at work in a kitchen willingly suspends disbelief to get lost in the parade of beguiling images she offers us, and her self-deprecating and populist – though never condescending – charm. She is a supremely mediagenic phenomenon – all the more so for her emotional transparency. On the day she was photographed striding into court, head held high, she looked as if she was going to do precisely what she did – be ashamed, proud and defensive, all at once; admit to drug use she had fought hard to conceal, but also deny the most extreme related accusations, and explain the excruciatingly painful circumstances (watching her first husband die slowly) in which she was introduced to cocaine.
She made no attempt to hide her tear-swollen and angry face as she left the court. Transparency is what she almost always seems to be delivering, with looks that make her a late-born member of a tiny club of iconic 20th-century women that includes Jackie Kennedy and India’s Gayatri Devi, whose name Google supplies when a searcher does no more than tap in the first few letters of her title, ‘Maharani’. Millions of us exposed repeatedly to free, digitally replicated images of them puzzle over and marvel at their uncanny magnetism.
And Saatchi? There is nothing of presence or anything personal in his form of media power. He made his name as an advertising genius – a canny, intuitive shaper of public perception who, with his much nicer brother and business partner Maurice, put Margaret Thatcher into No. 10, Downing Street. Print barons vied for their agency’s patronage, for the streams of advertising revenue they could put their way – lifeblood, for their newspapers.
Apparently blind to that difference between the sources of his and Nigella’s sway, he imagined that he could reverse the ineradicable damage done by last summer’s tabloid photographs of himself with his hand on her throat with a blizzard of photo-ops arranged to depict himself as genial and aspirationally elegant. In the decades when print media still dictated what the public saw of anyone famous – or not – he could have insisted on only being photographed from his most flattering angles. His is a closed face with calculation written all over it.
Nigella’s, on the other hand, is inexplicably WYSIWYG, as the computer geeks say – ‘what you see is what you get’. Inexplicable, because the truthfulness characteristic of her somehow gets through the layers of television makeup she must often wear, and the contrived domestic haven in the backdrop of her cooking shows. Something about her, as well as plain old hard work, has helped her to create the defences against exploitation and degradation that every woman ought to have.
Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, 27 march 2014:
Whistleblowers are not always right, let alone easy companions, but then nor were saints. Few can be saved from a degree of martyrdom. But we can at least canonise them as saints rather than persecute them as devils.
Surely that is a wickedly batty, not to mention irresponsible, suggestion — unless or until we are sure that any particular whistleblower is tooting for our collective benefit, not merely as a rebel in search of a cause? Anyone reading the closing paragraph of the Jenkins column would have proof that Spiked Online was hardly going overboard, last summer, when its editor, Brendan O’Neill, suggested …
Let’s call a halt to the worship of whistleblowers
11 June 2013
The cult of the whistleblower is getting out of hand
In 24 hours, Edward Snowden has gone from being a former contract worker at America’s National Security Agency to a godlike figure who has apparently ‘saved us’ from ‘the United Stasi of America’. It’s the religious terminology that is most striking. For leaking info about how the NSA keeps tabs on the communications of both American and foreign citizens, Snowden has been referred to not only as a saviour but also as a ‘martyr’. He’s praised for revealing to us, the sleeping ones, ‘the truth’ about our world. Journalists fawn over the ‘earth-shaking magnitude of the truth’ he has revealed. His own codename in his dealings with hacks was Verax, Latin for ‘one who tells the truth’ and a recurring word in the writings of old-world Catholic scholars on the lives of the saints and seers. If Snowden possesses Christ’s capacity for ‘saving’ people, he lacks His humility.
As befits a modern-day teller of the truth, Snowden has been turned into an overnight icon by the guardians of liberal values. The Guardian itself plastered his picture across its front page yesterday, even taking the very unusual step of moving its own masthead down and replacing it with the words: ‘The whistleblower.’ This wasn’t news reporting; it was a secular beatification, an invitation to readers to look into the eyes of St Snowden, the latest in a line of brave revealers of liberal gospel, who, according to one Guardian columnist, has carried out ‘extraordinary human acts’ and showed ‘an endless willing to self-sacrifice’ – just like You Know Who. The creepy Jesus allusions are even more apparent in the Twittersphere, where Snowden is referred to as saviour, martyr, even ‘libertarian messiah’.
The speedy beatification of Snowden reveals a great deal about the increasingly irrational worshipping of the whistleblower. Primarily, the cult of the whistleblower speaks to the profound passivity and deep moral lassitude of both modern journalism and radical politics …
Just as we are — as in recommending, two entries ago, a Laziest Journalism Ever award for the shrill, over-amplified Snowden coverage — Spiked’s O’Neill has been horrified by what it says about the state of the craft of journalism:
[J]ournalism … seems to have transformed itself into a passive receiver of ‘truth’ rather than active seeker of stories. Journalists are increasingly reliant upon sneaked-out information from the citadels of power. This is bad for so many reasons: because journalists lose their dirt-digging drive and instead become grateful recipients of discs or graphs from disgruntled individuals; because it redefines ‘the truth’ to mean something graciously given to us by those in the know, rather than something we shape through the very act of seeking it, of analysing and understanding what we have found out; and because it inevitably nurtures shoddy, rushed, ill-thought-through journalism. Indeed, some of the claims about the NSA are now being called into question, which suggests that getting mere info from one man is no substitute for spending a long time looking for a story, and then discussing it, checking it, contextualising it, and making it something bigger than simply, ‘Look at what was whispered in my ear….’.
… This is, admittedly, a somewhat lazy entry on the blog. We have too much to say, on a very different subject – and are waiting for all that to settle and simmer down to manageable proportions before we return.
In Britain the question of whether the barrage of banner headlines about the Snowden leaks deserves the highest journalistic honours has already been decided – but only, on the evidence, with deepest ambivalence.
No, we do not know any of the judges behind the 2013 Paul Foot Award ‘for campaigning and investigative journalism,’ established in memory of a legendary Private Eye investigative reporter who died in 2004. When we thought to look up its winner, after last week’s post about the argument over a possible Pulitzer for the Snowden story, we made the brow-raising discovery that although the Paul Foot prize was awarded last month to David Cohen of The Evening Standard for a series about London’s criminals, a ‘special investigation award’ went to The Guardian’s Snowdenia saga.
How in Hades could that have happened? Private Eye has had strikingly little – mostly, nothing — to contribute in any form of commentary (not even as cover cartoons or inside drawings) to the Snowden brouhaha. And yet anyone can see that the saga has an infinitude of giggly possibilities. The prize-givers made the predictable nod, in their citation, to ‘one of the biggest stories of the decade.’ But it seemed bizarre that as a compromise between handing The Guardian’s surveillance-consciousness-raising team the £5,000 main prize and the £1,000 that four shortlisted finalists took home, a £2,000 consolation prize had to be specially invented to placate … someone or other.
We took the logical next step, which was to look into the source of the prize money. Ah. The Paul Foot Award is co-sponsored by the Eye and … none other than The Guardian. … Just fancy that. … For anyone as mesmerised as we have been by the hopelessly confused allegations of ‘Orwellian mass surveillance’ – a misplaced cliché that seems mercifully to have been put to bed, in most coverage – the recording of Ian Hislop, the Eye’s editor, summing up l’affaire Snowden on Have I Got News for You, is a must-see. His body language telegraphed irrepressible glee, last October, as he delivered an explanation that seemed to account for his magazine’s lack of interest in the story:
The new head of MI5 has said that The Guardian has acted really irresponsibly in pointing out that we’re spying on people. It’s pointed out that we’re all being spied on all the time. [ ... ] It’s a matter of consent, really. You can debate this and say, ‘Yes, I’d like to be spied on.’ I know I would. Anyone showing any interest in my life would be terrific. [Howls from live audience.] I’d be very, very, happy with that. But it’s a matter for public debate. And if we want to pass laws saying we can spy on people, we can. […] It’s just what The Guardian did was point out this is happening and nobody knows it.
Nobody would have needed telling if, as this blog has pointed out with tedious frequency, papers like The Guardian and The New York Times had only been listening to their own technology correspondents – instead of treating them as back-room bores. The public would have been educated about the all-pervasive ‘surveillance business model’ keeping track of everything we do on the internet, all the better to manipulate us for profit.
We complained earlier this month about the failure of the journals of record for the Snowden fount of classified information to acknowledge that it was corporate spying – as by internet giants of the likes of Google and Microsoft and most newspapers – that led to copycat government spying in the UK and US. The lead story in the business section of last Thursday’s New York Times by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton on the paper’s technology reporting team was titled, ‘Microsoft Software Leak Inquiry Raises Privacy Issues’. Its opening paragraphs said:
Technology companies have spent months denying they know anything about broad government spying on people who use their Internet services.
But a legal case filed this week against a former Microsoft employee shows the power these companies themselves have to snoop on their customers whenever they want to.
That is still a long way short of shouting about the government’s adoption of people-tracking tools routinely used by businesses, but it reveals Microsoft’s and other technology companies’ protests against NSA monitoring as resoundingly hollow.
Shortly before that, on 17 March, came a virtual admission of reader surveillance by Emily Bell, one of twelve non-executive directors of Scott Trust Limited, which owns The Guardian, and a former director of digital content for that newspaper who is now a senior academic in New York. We suggest reading past her obligatory parenthetical softening of what she had to say last Tuesday:
Using NSA-style techniques (although naturally much more benignly), the Guardian or any other publisher can track every movement you make on an online piece, where you come from, where you go to, whether you are actively reading or whether you have tuned out.
We do not think it mad to insist that it is time for both our corporate and government spies to admit that they are all equally guilty and proceed to the public debate about solutions — just as Ian Hislop said.
LOOKALIKE ( with thanks to Private Eye for vision-sharpening )
We agree especially with the last reason Politico gives for doubting the rightness of elevating the Snowden-and-NSA story above — for instance — the kind of wrenching immersive reporting on the mentally retarded that won the fearless, compassionate Katherine Boo her Pulitzer public service medal in 2000. In ‘Edward Snowden looms over Pulitzer prizes’ its media reporter Dylan Byers argues:
Finally, there is the issue of effort. Though [two reporters who disseminated Snowden’s leaks] have dismissed the suggestion that Snowden’s trove of NSA files simply fell into their laps, the Pulitzer Board could feel conflicted about giving an award to the recipients of stolen documents when other applicants may have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting on, say, a local government issue. In several instances throughout its history, the Board has honored reporting based to a significant degree on the amount of effort and diligence shown by the reporters.
[… quoting a USA Today editor:] “Not to minimize the role of the reporters — it’s not just stenography. You have to sift through the information, present it clearly, explain why it matters, put it in context, etc. The real challenge would be if you had entries where reporters had to go to extraordinary lengths to pry out information of vital interest to the public, as opposed to having it turned over to them. If you had examples of great magnitude, that would make it complicated. That said, this was clearly the story of last year.”
“There’s a real question about whether this is reporting,” [a veteran Washington Post reporter] said. “It might be a public service award, but it’s not a great reporting coup when a source comes to you and hands you this stuff.”
Post-Gutenberg would also like to remind readers about an … ahem … significant detail – that the Guardian’s and New York Times’s endless column-inches on government surveillance have the story back-to-front, by failing to acknowledge that the NSA watchers in the U.S. and their GCHQ equivalents in the U.K. are only doing what privacy-scoffers at the commercial technology giants and most newspapers running on the ‘surveillance business model’ have done for far longer. (See ‘Spooky yarn-spinning: just how did the Guardian and New York Times get the surveillance story back-to-front?‘ … and … ‘When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?)
Bill Gates, we are pleased to note, has made the same point as we have about Snowden’s lack of judgment and selectivity in what he chose to make public, to snatch his place in history:
‘…[I]f he had been careful in terms of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model of “OK, I’m really trying to improve things.” You won’t find much admiration from me.’
We are supposed to be on a short working holiday
– but cannot stop thinking of
After the tulip tree that is really a sort of magnolia
erupted in its pink-and-white-and-magenta concatenation,
but before the wild mustard sang out in waves of rippling yellow
– weeks overdue –
– perfectly on time.
Soon, you will be whizzing around that curve … as we, too many thousands of miles away, are gazing at …You, Pietro, born into a family that knows the secret-of-secrets better than most:
Keep a close eye on beauty, wherever you are, no matter what happens,
and it will see you through.
Though we, sadly, are no poets, we thought of a fine old one with words in the spirit of what we would like to say –
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
When will this newspaper and its otherwise admirable editor, Alan Rusbridger, acknowledge, in the same front page stories — such as last weekend’s about Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA storing intimate images from Yahoo webcams –
… that the governments are only copying or helping themselves to vast stores of private data about us that companies have been amassing – for profit?
… that any organisation collecting vast stores of such information about us – whether commercial or governmental – is at the heart of the problem?
Like some tragic accident victim whose brain hemispheres can no longer communicate, The Guardian cannot bring itself to integrate into its Snowden coverage these statements — published on the newspaper’s own site, on 24 February — by Ian Brown, associate director of Oxford University’s Cyber Security Centre:
Facebook has built its $173bn market valuation around profiling its users and showing them targeted adverts. It has refused to allow users to subscribe with money rather than personal data. […]
The business models of internet giants such as Facebook and Google are crucial to the future of privacy.
What is the proper order of blame for smashing the last vestiges of our privacy? This was beautifully set out in the first paragraph of a column last week by Joe Nocera in The New York Times, an occasional partner of The Guardian’s in publishing jets from the Snowden fount of horror. If pressed for time, dear reader, just read its last sentence:
We are fast approaching a privacy crisis in the United States. Google, Facebook and other big Internet companies collect information about us, which they deploy in the service of advertisers. Big data brokers, like Acxiom, have developed sophisticated tools that allow them to know almost as much about us as we know about ourselves; they then sell that data to all kinds of companies that want to learn everything from our habits to our health, from our sexual orientation to our finances. The digital age has made it easy to collect medical data, which is supposed to be protected under federal law. Huge data breaches at big retailers like Target have made it seem unsafe to use credit cards. And I haven’t even mentioned the Edward Snowden revelations about the massive data collection by the National Security Agency.
Next, we recommend reading an excellent interview in Salon with Julia Angwin, who has just published a book about the privacy crisis that draws on her years of scoop-laden reporting on this subject for The Wall Street Journal:
Both Silicon Valley and the government had a problem and they both came to the similar conclusion that the answer was collecting vast amounts of personal data. From the commercial side it turned out that the way to get advertisers interested in the Internet was to offer them incredible insights on the people that they were advertising against. And on the government side it was: If we collect a lot of information we can find these terrorists.
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is these two things converge. […] Commercial data has become a honeypot that government likes to dip its hand into.
Are attitudes changing about privacy?
I think that the Snowden revelations have made it clear how intertwined government and commercial surveillance are. Before, maybe it wasn’t as obvious to people that the information that Google had accumulated was also being accessed by the government.
… Finally, those of us like one friend of post-Gutenberg’s playing dim in refusing to acknowledge the risk that stores of information, once collected, can change hands – should consider what one commenter noted, with perfect accuracy, beneath the Ian Brown contribution to The Guardian:
24 February 2014 9:37am
It is a known fact that [Facebook and other companies] harvest whatever data they can about the user, and do so for their own corporate gain.
It is also now an established fact that security agencies can get hold of that data, and use it for whatever they believe to be in the interests of national security.
Remember, information can always acquire powerful new manipulators. Only last week, in Britain, the National Health Service was lambasted beneath headlines like this one: ‘Hospital records of all NHS patients sold to insurers’.
… As we have asked before, might The Guardian’s dogged refusal to connect commercial spying to security agency surveillance have anything to do with that newspaper’s invasive monitoring of its own readers – with the same surveillance software tools?
He grew red roses and white lilies on the edges of deep shade in his lush garden — the owner of the page for today in every diary that was ever ours — and the birthday card we could have sent him, if he were still here, might have been a salute to his green thumb.
But birthday cards addressed in familiar scripts on stamped envelopes have been making their way to the same old-media life-after-life as floppy disks. E-cards are a thin substitute. We have seen scarcely any not designed for mass appeal in styles that remind us of our multimedia-artist friend LCM’s opinion of the look of the Facebook site: ‘It’s like walking into Walmart.’ Paper cards, in the decade or two before they began to vanish, came in an infinite variety – from Hallmark-treacly and bland to clever, quirky, idiosyncratic and even cryptic, if you knew where to look. It was easy to find an offering that let you tell recipients what they meant to you either through a perfect reading of their taste, or some blend of graphics and words at a happy junction of their sense of aesthetics and yours.
What is better than an e-card in 2014?
Possibly, an e-book, preferably an indie e-book, an undiscovered gem spotted on the wayside in your net wanderings. If it is a text you love, you have the satisfaction of helping the writer to earn the cash for another manuscript. Unlike print greeting card artists who collect only a shockingly small fraction of what their publishers charge us, a scribbler brave enough to try independent e-publishing at this turbulent and nerve-wracking stage of its evolution can collect as much as 70 per cent of royalties on the U.S. site of the Amazon publishing platform.
Fiction delivered as an e-book now sets you back by no more than the price of a print construction on an ever more scantily-stocked supermarket greeting card shelf. It can cost embarrassingly less. Recently, when we sent two birthday e-books to someone whose cards chosen for us over a span of thirty years have a habit of falling out of books in our personal library, we were afraid that she might think us stingy – but could not decide what other title she might like.
Indie e-books already range from pulp to work that meets the most exacting literary standards. Really? We note the dubious pitch of that question, the arched eyebrow. Admittedly, first-rate literature by e-publishing indies is not easy to find. The well-known print reviews that most time-pressed connoisseurs of good writing still rely on to shrink the universe of reading possibilities to negotiable proportions still shun e-only works, and do not look at the exploding numbers of them without intermediaries in conventional publishing.
Anyone worried – rightly so – about falling into the error of prejudice against the future could, like us, try John A. A. Logan’s new novel, Agency Woman, which we have just started reading. ‘A dark, Scottish tale of conspiracy, espionage, murder and terrorism, with an existential edge,’ is its description on the author’s web site.
The few pages we have had a chance to absorb — in a time of seemingly unending chaos — are intriguing and, in the best way, nonconformist and unslottable. The tone is thriller-noir, but the sleuth-like main character is no whisky-soaked Inspector Rebus or Kurt Wallander getting by on a diet of microwaved cholesterol. He is a sensitive, dreamy, drifter who copes with being imprisoned in a chair for most of a day and night with ropes cutting into his skin by doing yoga breathing exercises. Offered food after hours of starvation, he asks if he can have something vegetarian. When a character we have so far assumed to be a villain quotes Kierkegaard, it does not seem to be intellectually pretentious tarting-up in place of characterisation, but fits the story’s half-real, half-otherworldly, atmosphere.
Taste tests have no equal for introducing writers, in our opinion, so we will end this post with the first paragraph of Agency Woman. It has a certain grand, leisurely, philosophical majesty, as well as poetic beauty – but soon, in a succession of subtle and deft transitions, the story’s pace accelerates and we are somewhere that both is and isn’t gritty modern Scotland, observed with a keen hawk’s eye; something like Antonioni’s London in Blowup — as in our second short extract, consecutive snippets from a tense sequence.
… Before we leave you to sampling: to say that John is proving a new medium and ‘business model’ for literary publishing is not unlike praising Graham Greene or Mikhail Bulgakov for raising the standard of ‘content’ created by combining stationery and typewriters. But with most members of the intellectual establishment still sceptical and, or, sour about e-publishing, that is a point that needs making. John is a pioneer who stands out.
Over to his mysterious Agency Woman — who wears high-heeled red shoes:
The old stories don’t need to be repeated endlessly. The ancient knights can be allowed to fall from their horses, lumpenly, and die. Even the horses, though with more grace, can be allowed to fall over and turn limp on the grass. Thus, in a moment, they are permitted their release from this arena. Their struggles forever on record, for perusal later, at a safe distance.
On the Scottish mainland, this month, for example, there are only twenty-seven of our agents in operation. Unlikely, then, to meet one in Tommy’s Café. And then there’s the head. Ten years ago, even five, there would never have been an agent with a head like that. The agent would always have been one of the other people in the café, one of the men or women I hadn’t even noticed. They would be from the Scottish Agency, and they would have been watching me ever since I came in today and sat down. But I have to remember that times have changed. Now, these days, anyone can be with the Agency. Anyway, here he comes. […] I don’t want him to sit with me. I want to sit alone, in peace.
His voice is shaking. There’s an edge to his voice like a dying rodent screaming. He punches the table-top right beside my mug. I feel the reactions of the thirty other customers who are sitting all round, openly watching the situation unfolding at our table. This man with the swollen head wants to explode. I look at his eyes for a few moments, but there is nothing there. Not even pain. I glance away from him, scan the faces at the other tables as they watch. If I speak too readily, I could easily say the wrong thing, and give him the release into action he is craving. If his story is real, then he wants me to react to his violent presence, give him an excuse to start something in the café. That way he’ll not have to make that court appointment. If the story’s a fabrication, if he’s an agent, then he’ll still use the story as the excuse for exploding.
After a minute of silence I say,
‘I don’t mind talking to you but, I need to know, are you going to make trouble at any moment, maybe hit me? …
A few spectators have begun to see why nonstop commercial spying is easily as threatening as state surveillance and, conceivably, worse. Marzia Faggin — whose talent for witty graphical compression is in her painting, ‘Willy Bonkers,’ gracing our last post — has jokingly raised a Kafka-esque possibility for the ‘surveillance business model’ resembling the grimmest consequences of our monitoring by government spooks. In an email exchange, she said,
I research things for my artwork that I often worry might bring the police to my door. I don’t just feel the unsettling lack of privacy online either! I’ve become mindful about what I buy while grocery shopping, lest I get dropped by insurance for buying too much junk food.
That might seem ludicrous unless you happened to read the suggestion of Bernard Stewart, an editor at the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, a few days ago: ‘Can we – and should we – make laws against cancer?’ He explained:
Some cancers cannot be identified with particular carcinogens, but still involve personal choice, like the multitude of minor everyday decisions we all make around food, exercise and lifestyle that can add up to obesity and poor fitness.
As the hue-and-cry about soaring health and medical costs grows louder, who would absolutely rule out a future collaboration between the health insurance and food-vending businesses?
Though the Stewart piece appeared on The Guardian site, both that newspaper and The New York Times keep harping on about what Edward Snowden did or didn’t do, paying merely token attention to commercial surveillance. The contrast between two headlines in the NYT last Sunday helped to create the most bizarre newspaper story we have read for a very long time. On the front page, directly beneath the masthead, the story was titled ‘Cheap Software Helped Snowden Plunder Secrets’. On page 4, where it continued, the headline read, ‘Snowden Used a Low-Cost Tool to Best the N.S.A.’ .
It was indeed a fascinating account of how Snowden had driven the software equivalent of a gigantic moving van into the centralised data store of the National Security Agency and automated the theft of vital treasures, to save him having to schlep them himself, one at a time. But there is quite a difference between ‘plunder’ – commonly used in combination with ‘pillage’ and ‘rape’, in records of especially brutal wars – and ‘get the best of’, defined by the Free Online Dictionary as ‘overcome, usually through no fault or weakness of the person that is overcome. “Heart disease can get the best of us”.’
There appears to have been an argument between the copy editors (sub-editors in the UK) on the NYT about whether Snowden more closely resembled a lawless marauding barbarian, in the way he went about getting the information he leaked, or was just a bit sly, like plaque building up in arteries. … But no, having mostly written about him as a hero, it was too much to expect the NYT to be objective.
The newspaper’s true sentiments were obvious from asking readers to wait until the twenty-sixth of twenty-nine paragraphs devoted to this story to say:
But that leaves open the question of how Mr. Snowden chose the search terms to obtain his trove of documents, and why, according to James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, they yielded a disproportionately large number of documents detailing American military movements, preparations and abilities around the world.
In his statement, Mr. Snowden denied any deliberate effort to gain access to any military information. “They rely on a baseless premise, which is that I was after military information,” Mr. Snowden said.
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, told lawmakers last week that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures could tip off adversaries to American military tactics and operations, and force the Pentagon to spend vast sums to safeguard against that.
Snowden’s promoters and defenders keep mentioning the billion-dollar budgets of branches of the military financing the monitoring his leaks outline. But since those billions are sanctioned by American tax-payers for their protection, should that accusation about the theft of military secrets — by Clapper, the country’s highest-ranking official in charge of security, no less – have only been tacked on to the end of the piece, like an afterthought?
For good or bad reasons, the spooks have refused to supply details of why the 58,000 documents Snowden stole from them were ‘mission-critical’. But should that mean that the NYT effectively decides that they were not?
We offer, in this entry, links that will let readers draw their own conclusions about our belief that the Guardian and New York Times should soon supply full disclosures of their own use of Hadoop, the ‘spying tool’ that the UK and US secret services have been using in so-called ‘mass surveillance’. They must do no less if they wish to hang on to their reputations as great newspapers.
To put the Snowden leaks in proper context, the reporting and editorialising on them should have been shaped by John Naughton – who is not only the technology columnist for the Guardian’s sister-newspaper, The Observer, but an electrical engineer, vice-president of a Cambridge college, and emeritus professor for ‘the public understanding of technology’ at Britain’s Open University. As long ago as last July, he had a small blue fit about media coverage of the Snowden saga – in a column well worth reading, beyond these extracts:
Repeat after me: Edward Snowden is not the story. The story is what he has revealed about the hidden wiring of our networked world. […] This insight seems to have escaped most of the world’s mainstream media […] The obvious explanations are: incorrigible ignorance; the imperative to personalise stories; or gullibility in swallowing US government spin, which brands Snowden as a spy rather than a whistleblower. […] No US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system.
We discovered his six month-old protest in a happy accident in which it came up with search terms we used in searching for our last post-Gutenberg entry. Reader, our eyes popped. How, we wondered, had The Guardian not merely buried what Naughton had to say – full fathom five — but marched on with personalising and puffing up the story to such a degree that …
• the technology giants got left out entirely as inventors, enablers and co-operators in surveillance
• newspapers using the identical surveillance techniques conveniently hid this fact behind the Snowden uproar they manufactured
How did The Guardian justify to its conscience avoiding any mention in editorials or reports on Snowden/NSA/GCHQ that in 2011, it actually gave Hadoop, the most powerful surveillance tool – the subject of last week’s post here – a coveted techie award? Curious readers should look up this record in that newspaper’s archive of technology coverage:
How was conferring that honour explained by the Guardian reporter, Marie Winckler? She quoted one of the software architects responsible for Hadoop: ‘Apache Hadoop pushes data management forward by empowering enterprises to make sense of their increasingly large and diverse collections of data.’ One of the first commenters on this asked sardonically, ‘So what does it do, translated from corporate-speak?’
Ah! He could have found the answer in a 2009 story in the technology section of The New York Times – also a heavy user of Hadoop, and The Guardian’s publishing partner and co-generator of the Snowden hullabaloo. These sections of the piece explained why newspapers find Hadoop so handy for studying their readers, when we click on their sites:
The core concepts behind the software were nurtured at Google.
[Hadoop] opened the possibility of asking a question about Google’s data — like what did all the people search for before they searched for BMW — and it began ascertaining more and more about the relationships between groups of Web sites, pictures and documents.
Some readers will be scratching their heads, by this point – thinking, but isn’t uncovering patterns and interconnections like these in our web searches and private behaviour on the net the reason why Edward Snowden sentenced UK and US government spooks to the naughty corner? Yes indeed. This 2009 article in the computer magazine Infoworld answers a few more questions:
‘What’s the New York Times doing with Hadoop?’: A Times software engineer talks about how Hadoop is driving business innovation at the newspaper and Web site
Just innovating for commerce, then, nothing so disgusting as spying … Well, not exactly. Here is what the incredulous reader must study next – even if the verbing of the noun ‘surveillance’ brings on an attack of hives :
It was almost shocking when I first installed a browser add-on called Ghostery and began to click on various articles at The Guardian. With each click, I discovered that this news publication, which has been primarily tasked with reporting on Edward Snowden and top secret surveillance operations conducted by the National Security Agency, has been surveilling its own readers.
[T]hese publications, while taking on the pious, sanctimonious role of privacy purists, are using multiple third party resources to collect detailed information about nearly every visitor who reads one of the various posts about how the use of digital technology should be a completely private affair. … [ ... continues ...]
… or why most editors and writers specialising in technology see no actual scoop in the Snowden leaks …
Sometimes the person dancing backwards and in high heels – famously, Ginger Rogers, compared with her dance partner Fred Astaire – is a man. In this instance, he is the writer and new media entrepreneur Michael Wolff. With a set of super-sensitive manoeuvres that Ginger would have envied, he wickedly added his voice last week to the revelation that the ‘surveillance business model’, not exactly news, has been mistaken by some newspapers for a creepy invention of government spooks bent on invading our private acts and communications.
His ostensible topic was a book published earlier this month about a 1971 break-in by activists that revealed the spine-crawling extent of FBI surveillance under that agency’s notorious founder, J. Edgar Hoover, who ran it from 1935 to 1972. The inside story of the break-in had already been told in another book, Wolff said, eleven years ago. He was briefly puzzled by the huge attention paid to its forty-year old subject in recent weeks in headlines of the two old print stars of the Snowden saga. ‘Earlier this month, The New York Times, Guardian and other media outlets “revealed” the identities of several people who burgled the FBI in 1971,’ was how Wolff’s s Guardian sub-editor encapsulated his gently sardonic amazement. Wolff himself described how the answer came to him, as follows:
[W]hy, 11 years later, was I reading about this as though, mirabile dictu, the lost secrets of the past were suddenly being revealed and now making headlines everywhere? … In the age of Snowden, revelations about government spying are not just hot stories, but suddenly part of a vast new narrative canvas and moral tale. … [I]t is apparently possible to ignore what is known – even in the age of Google – and, when convenient, reposition it to be new and useful again. … There is not just a new age of political activism, à la Edward Snowden, but also of story telling activism.
Quite, and successful storytelling activism makes irresistible clickbait that works even better when it becomes outrage that goes viral when the audience confuses the story with other – justified – targets for anger. At post-Gutenberg, we have had irritable email from dear readers, including two Americans, in which a complaint about our refusal to be impressed by the Snowden narrative has billowed into a polite rant about U.S. military actions and policy – the use of drones at all, or against poor countries, nuclear testing, Guantanamo, and so on – as if the correspondent had never met the idea of a non sequitur.
Let us be clear: post-Gutenberg is chilled to the viscera by the thought of all military weapons, used by anyone, for any reason – and has the identical reaction to any mention of torturing prisoners.
The real surveillance story’s only connection with all that is the use by the UK and US governments of the same tools invented and deployed by large US companies. As Andrew Leonard wrote in Salon last summer in ‘Netflix, Facebook — and the NSA: They’re all in it together,’ expanding on a genuine Wall Street Journal revelation about free surveillance software available to anyone to use:
By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of data that increasingly define our online existence, Hadoop effectively enabled the surveillance state.
And not just in the narrowest, Big Brother, government-is-watching-everyone-all-the-time sense of that term. Hadoop is equally critical to private sector corporate surveillance. Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix — just about every big player that gathers the trillions of data “events” generated by our everyday online actions employs Hadoop as a part of their arsenal of Big Data-crunching tools. Hadoop is everywhere — as one programmer told me, “it’s taken over the world.”
… In the past half-decade Hadoop has emerged as one of the triumphs of the non-proprietary, open-source software programming methodology that previously gave us the Apache Web server, the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser. Hadoop belongs to nobody. Anyone can copy it, modify, extend it as they please.
… They’re all in it together. The spooks and the social media titans and the online commerce goliaths are collaborating to improve data-crunching software tools that enable the tracking of our behavior in fantastically intimate ways that simply weren’t possible as recently as four or five years ago. It’s a new military industrial open source Big Data complex. The gift economy has delivered us the surveillance state.
… Hadoop quickly secured the critical mass of cross-industry support necessary for an open-source software program to become an essential part of Internet infrastructure. Even engineers at Google chipped in, although Hadoop, at its core, was basically an attempt to reverse-engineer proprietary Google technology.
People reading those extracts might wonder why Hadoop and not Snowden was the surveillance sensation of 2013. Two answers — aside from the plain truth, verifiable by five seconds spent typing the appropriate search terms into a Google box, that Hadoop has been snapped up enthusiastically by both The New York Times and The Guardian for spying on their readers:
• In the way traditional media work, writers who understand technology do not get much of a hearing from the editors at the top, who specialise in politics. The technology writers usually work for sections that cover business and, or, science. In other words, they are treated as incomprehensible boffins or wonks.
Why, demanded one irate friend, an American poet, didn’t they and post-Gutenberg – who has also served as one of those gnomes — tell everyone else about government surveillance if we knew all about it long before the Snowden hooha? Erm, well, we did … We distinctly remember confessing to him, years ago, our anxiety about email being read by eyes for which it was not intended, including those of spooks. And, quickly noting his sceptical reaction, we realised what he was only thinking but others, equally oblivious but less tactful, had stated bluntly: ‘You’re being paranoid.’
• Being able to pin information about technology to a face, a personality, an identity, and ideally – drama — humanises it. That can suddenly magnetise people who usually ignore it for good reasons: it is complex, and learning about it and the culture and ambitions of Silicon Valley consumes attention they would rather focus elsewhere. But because they do not really understand it – even though some political editors, like Alan Rusbridger at The Guardian, have a hobbyist’s deep fascination with the ‘mechanics’ of their devices and the net – they are easily misled. Think of the millions who really believe that Steve Jobs invented the computer revolution, or that Al Gore had something to do with the birth of the internet.
To reach Joe and Jane Everyone and work them into a tizzy, news of our subjugation to the ‘surveillance business model’ had to be delivered to them as visions of nightmares about a totalitarian state — fronted by the ghostly and bespectacled clever-boy-next-door visage of Edward Snowden, the high drama of his secret-stealing and travails as a fugitive.
Not so much activism as storytelling activism, just as Wolff says.
But the extent of yarn-spinning always gets out, eventually, and diminishes trust in the media. As we keep repeating on this blog – tiresomely – because that trust should not be sacrificed to clickbait, another way of financing and structuring media has to be found – and soon.
Loathing and resentment of the e-future can even throw off a mind as sharp and capacious as the late John Updike’s.
Martin Amis, writing in 1991, described the great novelist – one of the most astute observers of American life — as ‘a master of all trades, able to crank himself up to Ph.D. level on any subject he fancies: architecture, typography, cave painting, computers, evolution (“asteroidal or cometary causation” set against “punctuated equilibrium”) and Gospel scholarship …’.
But Updike never waxed more bilious than on e-publishing and the internet. His judgment about their effects was at least as warped as that of a few other worthies, pontificating on the most recent twist in the privacy debate – a subject to which we hope to return in our next post. In the meanwhile, here is the masterly wordsmith’s prognostication, reproduced for the pleasure of quoting someone who was never so elegantly and profoundly mistaken:
Millions find bliss of sorts in losing themselves in the vastness of the Internet, a phantom electronic creation which sublimates the bulky, dust-gathering contents of librarians and supermarkets into something impalpable and instantaneous. The Web is conjured like the genie of legend with a few strokes of the fingers, opening, with a phrase or two, a labyrinth littered with trash and pitted with chat rooms, wherein communication is antiseptically cleansed of all the germs and awkwardness of even the most mannerly transaction with another flesh-and-blood human being.
A mass retreat into richly populated privacy has occurred before: in the acts of reading and going to the movies. Excitement lay in both for my generation … I have yet to be persuaded that the information revolution, so-called, is anything but an exercise in reading and writing wherein evanescent and odorless PC screens take the place of durable, faintly fragrant paper and ink.
John Updike, ‘The Tried and the Treowe’ (2000) in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, 2007
Why are you learning about this on a blog, not on the front page of any well-known newspaper? Because any dissenting voices in the new ‘participatory media’ – the blogosphere, online-only journals, social networking sites and other evolving sources of facts – are still drowned out by the megaphones of the brand names at the top of the old media pyramid, names we were brought up to revere. Until those amplifiers are shared through a formal restructuring of media ownership and operation – which could be a long wait — correcting misguided and misleading information will tend to be maddeningly slow, no matter how big the story.
Two of the finest of the old guard, The Guardian and The New York Times, have yet to give any sign of noticing the shifting narrative about surveillance. This is unsurprising. They love the attention they have won from pinning Big-Brother-run-amok behaviour exclusively on the UK and US governments, and the hailstorms of congratulations from commenters and colleagues in other parts of the media that they unwittingly led astray. Both newspapers chose – apparently without much critical thinking – to gratify Edward Snowden’s wish to be fêted as a hero for torrential leaking of extremely sensitive information related to national security.
The clearest de-bunking of the myth constructed from the Snowden leaks has come from The New York Review of Books – it so happens, after someone at post-Gutenberg wrote late last November to two editors on that publication, the editor-in-chief, Robert Silvers, and the one in charge of covering technology. The email was not about mass surveillance. But it did include a link to this blog when our home page displayed more than one post deconstructing the souped-up hullabaloo with our usual careful citations, and pointing to corporate technology giants as the round-the-clock watchers we should really be worrying about – even if the NSA appears to have outdone them in spying techniques (see yesterday’s ‘N.S.A. Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers’ in the NY Times).
In the week in which we communicated with that rightly esteemed publication, the NYRB’s contribution to the discussion was ‘The NSA’s Threat to Global Free Speech,’ to be followed shortly by ‘The Snowden Leaks and the Public,’ and ‘The NSA on Trial’. In fact, searching on ‘NSA and NYRB’ brings up a first page of Google links to articles in that publication last year all singing the same tune as The Guardian and The New York Times.
Then came an abrupt switch in direction. … Was it a mere coincidence that last week, about six weeks after the NYRB received a web address for post-Gutenberg — and roughly as long as it takes a publication as methodical as that Review to put together a report — its site featured a piece titled, ‘How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined’, beginning,
The recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.
Compare that with part of our own offering on the subject, in the week we wrote to the NYRB, titled, ‘In the shift “from God to Google” do we want our spooks stuck in the age of typewriters …?’:
The Guardian – railing ad nauseam about spooks — is oddly tongue-tied about corporate surveillance. The explanation for this is surely the potential embarrassment of having to admit the true extent of the newspaper’s own monitoring of its readers’ behaviour.
Onora O’Neill, a down-to-earth philosopher — specialising in justice, public trust and accountability – who is also a member of the House of Lords (Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve) commendably unaffiliated to any political party, is one of the few sounding this particular alarm. ‘Insofar as [government spies at the NSA and GCHQ] collect content, I might be … worried,’ she said recently, ‘but by the same token I would worry equally about Facebook, who collect content, and in particular a lot of personal content.’
The NYRB added, in the same report on data mining:
[W]e may be more concerned with government surveillance than with marketers or data brokers collecting personal information, but this ignores the fact that the government regularly purchases data from these companies. ChoicePoint, now owned by Elsevier, was an enormous data aggregator that combined personal data extracted from public and private databases, including Social Security numbers, credit reports, and criminal records. It maintained 17 billion records on businesses and individuals, which it sold to approximately 100,000 clients, including thirty-five government agencies and seven thousand federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
Again, compare that with a point made here earlier. Last September, this blog warned that the blinkers needed to come off too many commentators on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – to let them appreciate that we should be protesting not just about spooks but anyone amassing personal data about us. In an entry about reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance, we said:
Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners.
By the end of 2013, when the Guardian and New York Times were running editorials campaigning for the virtual canonisation of Snowden, the Guardian’s commendably independent-minded sister publication, The Observer, was changing tack in the same direction as the NYRB. The standfirst for an editorial there read: ‘Digital behemoths have perfected surveillance as a business model.’
Did the ‘digital behemoths’ scream in protest about that attack on nonstop surveillance as their ‘business model’? On 30 December, The Guardian, perhaps in sympathy with their plea – and conceivably worried about losing its own right to spy on readers, justified as market research — actually ran a blog post by an American academic, titled ‘The primary NSA issue isn’t privacy, it’s authority’:
[O]nce we say some amount of data is too much to have, then we will end up debating the line around too much knowledge and that is a line I never want to see drawn. If we start to say that bad things can happen merely if knowledge exists, then too soon we fall into the trap of controlling the extent of knowledge – who may know what and how much they may know and thus who may say what to whom.
Imagine how the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ must have smiled about reading that.
N.B.: As we post, The Guardian site has a lamentation by Senator John McCain about ‘overreach’ by the NSA. In a menu of other offerings in the right-hand column on the same page, there is this bit of clickbait: ‘US will not enter bilateral no-spy agreement with Germany … Despite assurance from Barack Obama, United States has not ruled out bugging political leaders’ calls, claims German paper.’
We somehow doubt that much of what the NSA or GCHQ do will change, after a crowd-calming interlude of more or less cosmetic modifications of their practices. Spies can no more stop spying with every available advance on James Bond’s arsenal of gadgetry than journalists can stop wheedling secrets out of sources with charm, or casinos discourage impulsive and compulsive gambling, or prostitutes start dressing like nuns …
[ re-posting 'for 1. 1. 2014' entry, now that there are finally a few minutes to add the clips originally intended for this space ]
The anger of Charles Dickens about greed and hypocrisy — which extended to copyright scoffers, we recently discovered — was the fire that lit his genius. This fact is strangely forgotten by critics of his ‘mawkish sentimentality,’ possibly because too many of them crumble before the challenge of long sentences fizzing with wit to have read him in the original.
Anyone can understand Dickens’s fury about book pirates driving him to write about how much copyright could mean to an author scraping by on earnings from literary craft and the exercise of imagination — as he had himself, before he was famous. But who could guess that in 1838 and ‘39, when he was publishing The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby as a serial, he specifically addressed copyright opponents intent on smashing the concept of artistic ownership – with exactly the same perverted notion of ‘democracy’ as leaders of today’s ‘information wants to be free’ movement?
For a representative of those opponents, in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens chose a Member of Parliament, a Mr. Gregsbury, ‘a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.’
This oaf’s rhinoceros hide makes it easy for him to blow off the demand by a delegation of his constituents that he resign immediately, even though they have presented him with proof of several acts of blatant corruption. This happens just before Nicholas’s interview with him for the post of secretary – an offer he is obliged to reject, though desperate to find work and emaciated from lack of food. The insultingly tiny salary is for duties the M.P. outlines that include serving as office clerk, speech-writer, researcher, PR-man, outsourced brain, and late-night attendant at parliamentary sessions.
In that job interview, the pontificator turns to the subject of copyright:
‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’
‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.
‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters.
… Dickens, who would make an excellent patron saint for the Occupy movement, also sounds bang-up-to-the-minute topical – in the same novel – in a scene in which an unsuccessful, small-time crook cringingly addresses one routinely getting away with larceny on a grand scale:
I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years.
Why is the smaller snippet worth adding, there? Because, as we were on our way to this post, we caught sight of a blog title on the site of The New York Review of Books:
The answer by the blogger, Jed S. Rakoff, in part:
One possibility […] is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. Every case is different, and I, for one, have no opinion about whether criminal fraud was committed in any given instance.
But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.
… Fairness in the copyright debate. Progress from mere rhetoric to forcing reforms in keeping with the Occupiers’ aims. How wonderful if these should prove to be defining features of 2014. Too much change for a single year? Ah, but this is the centenary of the start of a single war that re-drew the boundaries of the countries of Europe, in the course of which both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished.
Anything is possible. ‘Candles, flowers and hope in a new beginning,’ reflected our MIL22 — whose peerless images from an impulsive New Year’s Eve visit to the medieval Sant’Ambrogio begin 2014 for post-Gutenberg.
As this is not really a personal blog, let us say simply that, for the second December in a row, we find ourselves grieving. Two losses. Two who could not be closer to us: she, just after Christmas, last year; he, last week.
He could be morose and rage like thunder, yes. But laughter was what came to him most naturally. He would have loved this enlargement of a drawing at the bottom of an inside page of a recent Private Eye that there was no time to send him. For weeks, we’d been discussing — in wondering tones — exactly how the spies of Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA were going to do their jobs ‘transparently’ with members of the judiciary and politicians breathing hotly down their backs.
He, with an insider’s knowledge of these things – in another part of the world – would have warmly endorsed points made by a former top spy in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. David Omand is the one truly thoughtful debater who, as far as we have noticed, has been given a chance to make the case for the other side of government data-gathering about ordinary citizens to a politically liberal audience. We have not seen his reflections given any space in the newspapers**, but paid close attention to what he said at a forum organised by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights – ‘GCHQ and the fight against terrorism: did UK surveillance go too far?’ — where the speakers included the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Here was an event that made us think — at long last, balance.
Not as an endorsement, just good food for thought, an extract from live reporting of the event by a Guardian reporter — part of David Omand’s contribution to the conversation at the Houses of Parliament on 17 December:
7.14pm GMT Sir David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, speaks next.
He is speaking on his own behalf, he says.
He says these revelations would not have come as a shock if the Guardian had done more homework – “there are books written about all this stuff”. There is a lot of “synthetic shock horror”, he says.
7.17pm GMT There is increasing demand for more data about criminals from law enforcement, Omand says.
Supplying those demands is driven by the ever-improving electronic communications devices.
The ethical constraints are the third key force here, he says. It is our legitimate concern for privacy that constrains how such data is used.
We should be looking for a point of stable equilibrium between these three forces, he says.
Much of what has been reported about what Snowden stole has been misleading, he says.
A “major category error” runs through the Guardian’s reporting, he says. It is journalistic sleight of hand to confuse access to fibre-optic cables with mass surveillance. “We are not actually subject to mass surveillance in this country”, but we are “blessed” with an intelligence community that has “bulk access” – but that is different, he says.
He has seven points to make.
He believes in human rights and the privacy of family life.
But also of protecting the weak from those who would harm them.
For a long time we have sanctioned intrusion by law, he says. The European convention on human rights states that states have the right to protect their citizens, but there has to be oversight and investigation of abuse, and redress if abuse is found.
The scale of change needed to deal with the internet by law enforcement today needs to be recognised, he says. It is the medium of choice for enemies of society because it offers multiple means of hiding your identity, Omand says. Complete anonymity is not desirable and should not be a policy goal, he says.
The security services should be able to find and access the communications of those who mean to do us harm, he says. You need powerful tools for that, and that’s where bulk access comes in, and if you don’t allow the services those tools, you won’t be able to stop the terrorists.
You should be proud that in this country we have people of the skills and dedication to be able to do this, he says.
Oversight and regulation and judicial determination that the actions are lawful are also necessary.
In this security space it would be absurdly self-defeating to inform suspects they were under surveillance or tell them how they were. So the authorities cannot be transparent – “they can however be much more open about the purposes of this activity and the nature of the work that is being done”, he says.
You don’t need to read the Guardian to find out about this – it was already out there. For some reasons government was reticent about giving a full account, he says.
So the ISC [ the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament ] will have to continue to have private sessions, he says.
If you follow those seven steps you end up with a sensible agenda for change, Omand says.
Speaking personally, he says he didn’t devote most of his working life to fighting the cold war in order to introduce new totalitarianism, all-knowing mass surveillance.
** A quick post-posting check shows that he was permitted to contribute an opinion piece about the Snowden leaks on the Guardian site in September — but with low reader interest guaranteed by its placing in the Comment-is-Free section with commenting turned off. Erm — well, yes.
We thought of her as we read a recent interview with an American Supreme Court judge, Justice Stephen Breyer, translated by The New York Review of Books from a French literary journal, La Revue des Deux Mondes. Justice Breyer was talking with marvellous fluency about his near life-long love of Proust’s In Remembrance of Things Past. The edited transcript of the conversation reads like an early Christmas card – except that the most winning images of doves, poinsettias, Boticelli angels and white-bearded old men clad in scarlet, humping sacks of gifts, cannot compete, as channels to transcendent happiness, with what he says about the supreme importance of literature:
Q: This year marks the centennial of the publication of Swann’s Way. In your opinion, what is the novel’s greatest contribution?
A: What I especially remember is the meditation on the passing of time at the very end of that volume, when the narrator strolls through the Bois de Boulogne just as Odette used to do so many years before. But the forest he walks through is no longer Odette’s forest. Time has passed. Women are no longer dressed the same way, the fashion has changed, automobiles have made their appearance. And as he watches the women promenade down the chestnut-lined allées, the narrator wonders: “Where has Odette’s world gone? Has it vanished forever?” The answer of course will come much later, in Time Regained. This world still exists, but it does so in our memory, in our recollections, and what gives it new life, what rescues it from oblivion, is literary creation. It is the work of art that allows us to rediscover lost time.
Q: During a lecture you delivered at New York Law School, a student asked you what major you would recommend he select in order to become a lawyer. Your answer was quite surprising: you suggested that he choose “whatever major you want, as long as it has nothing to do with the law.” You, in fact, studied philosophy at Stanford and Oxford before studying the law at Harvard. How can the humanities or foreign languages be an asset for a jurist?
A: It’s true, I’ve always thought that it was not particularly useful to study law as an undergrad. We are only allowed to live one life: it’s the human condition, there’s no escaping it. In my view, only by studying the humanities can we hope to escape this fundamental limitation and understand how other people live. Because literature, history, or philosophy all provide extraordinary windows on the world. Foreign languages, too, are fundamental.
The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect. People who are not only different from you, but also very different from each other. So, yes, reading is a very good thing for a judge to do. Reading makes a judge capable of projecting himself into the lives of others, lives that have nothing in common with his own, even lives in completely different eras or cultures. And this empathy, this ability to envision the practical consequences on one’s contemporaries of a law or a legal decision, seems to me to a crucial quality in a judge.
… Literature is crucial to any democracy. Take the field of women’s rights, for instance. You have to read Mme de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Clèves to realize how narrow a range of opportunities were available even to a highborn young woman in the seventeenth century. They had a choice of either marriage or the convent. It only got worse in the nineteenth century, because along with the pressure of the church, there was the male stranglehold on all property rights. It’s evident in Balzac’s novels, for example. In Balzac, there are mainly two types of women: prostitutes and brebis, or ewes, who are all victims. Eugénie Grandet is a victim. Madame de Mortsauf, in Le Lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley), is one too.
… Personally, I get a great deal of pleasure from writing. I take great satisfaction in drawing out the substance of matters that are separate and unrelated and giving them form on paper, through writing: that too is a creative process.
Q: In France, there is a very special prestige that attaches to being a president who is a “man of letters” or a “friend of the arts.” In the United States, the label of “man of letters” seems to be much less valued in the realm of politics. A presidential candidate or a sitting president is unlikely to express his or her literary tastes publicly, much less claim to be “cultivated.” How would you explain this difference between the two cultures?
SB: I think that Tocqueville can help us to understand that difference. He very rightly pointed out that there is a mistrust of elites in the United States. [...] Now, in France, art and power have always been bound up together, whether under the monarchy or in a republic. You will not find the same proximity between the spheres of power and culture in the United States.
… [T]heater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theater was not a necessity. The great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”
Q: You often emphasize the beneficial role of artistic creation for all of us.
A: To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.
There is something wonderfully right about a son of Italy, Federico Faggin, being the designer of the ur-ancestor of the miniature electronic brains at the core of our computers, tablets, and every other intelligent device in our nearly all-digital, all-wired existence.
Italy was the first place in Europe to experience the damburst of transformative creativity we call the Renaissance. The worship of invention and innovation that defines Silicon Valley is easily traced across six centuries to Veneto, the region in which Federico, the architect of the first commercial microprocessor, was born in 1941– with today’s date on his birth certificate. Vicenza, the town on that document, is famous as the home and chief showplace of the work of Andrea Palladio, the most influential architect of the Renaissance and, experts say, Western architectural tradition. We have been amused to discover, in looking up his lifespan, that yesterday was Palladio’s birthday – in 1508.
None of these are connections we have ever heard anyone in Silicon Valley make – even if Federico is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Vicenza. Why, you might ask, do they need making? Why should geniuses frantically multitasking to design our collective future stop to trace the antecedents of their grand enterprise?
Well, we were dismayed by the green light a U.S. federal judge gave Google last month, which lets the search engine leader continue to scan and upload millions of books online. It can do this without paying living authors of any of those print originals a cent for the free access it gives any web surfer to sections of the texts. This, as Google insists and the judge accepted, is an important act of cultural generosity. All very well, we agree, until you consider that it allows Google itself, already one of the world’s richest companies, to grow even richer from selling advertising space in its vast library of scanned texts, Google Books – while making no contribution to easing the notorious financial uncertainty of book-writing, or reversing the comprehensive destruction by the digital revolution of too many struggling writers’ livelihoods.
Google’s defence for this seeming callousness is all tied up with the scholar Lawrence Lessig’s insistence – enshrined in the ‘free culture’ movement – that loosening copyright laws will permit more ‘sharing’ of artistic and original works and a flowering of collective creativity; conversely, that the enforcement of traditional copyright blocks such creativity.
Too many of his ardent disciples are also apt to parrot the notion that all creativity is ultimately derivative and builds on the work of others. Fair enough, until that truism is wielded as a club, justifying the smashing of an artist’s right to earn income from the labour of shaping derivative inspiration. This argument is particularly unwelcome from anyone working in, say, Google – famous for its ferocious secrecy about its equivalent of Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, the algorithms on which its search engine runs. These are thickly enmeshed in protective patents. There is incontrovertible proof of the company’s recognition of intellectual property rights – but only in its own sphere, technology, where it follows the conventions for acknowledging in cash its indebtedness for creative opportunities. Google has for years been paying royalties to Stanford, the university where its founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page developed the algorithm they used to set up shop – a total of $337 million so far.
If Silicon Valley-ites knew their history, would Lessig’s wish to dilute if not dismantle copyright have proved so popular? Technologists know enough about the importance of the Renaissance for Bill Gates to have snapped up Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex for $30 million in 1994. But do they realise that the expression of personal, individual creativity was the key to that revolution? That in the Renaissance, artists were liberated from the constraining group-think and rigid rules of minds enslaved to medieval church doctrine?
Giorgio Vasari, a painter of that era and also the first historian of Italian art is said by the historian John Hale to have looked for maniera – the manner in which an artist expressed himself, a novelty after the Middle Ages’ convention of anonymous stonemasons toiling on great Gothic cathedrals, humbly suppressing their individuality in the service of God.
That individuality was of the essence of the Renaissance was also discernible in the way each country – and individual artists in it – reinterpreted the marvellous innovations in Italy in its own way. As Hale put it, ‘Whatever was made in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries … met two major obstacles: personal genius and shared temperament – the stereotypes of national character …’. This accounts, for instance, for the strikingly different treatment of the female subjects of the German painter Lucas Cranach (1442-1573), whose ‘Venus Restraining Cupid’ Hale calls ‘the first frontally nude goddess in German art.’
Technologists need to help artists to prosper from the expression of their individual visions. In the eight years Google spent fighting the legal battle over its book-scanning, couldn’t it have found a way to use its clout and brilliant inventiveness to establish micropayments as a way to compensate artists, writers and musicians – the way Amazon has taken online retailing from a futurist’s pipe dream to everyday reality?
… We must note in closing that in years of delightful conversations with Federico and his lovely wife Elvia – also born in Vicenza, and whom he considers indispensable to his achievements in Silicon Valley – he has never sought any reflected glory from the Renaissance, nor drawn any attention to Palladio’s stamp on the appearance of his birthplace. His modesty is exemplary. Still, we doubt that he would disagree with this entry in post-Gutenberg, his eldest child being not a technologist but a painter … of whom we will reveal just a little more, anon.
Buon compleanno, Federico!
Why does this blog, post-Gutenberg, care about the mass surveillance kerfuffle? Mainly for the fun of noting the post-print 5th Estate — bloggers, reader-commenters, chatters on geeky online forums and other small voices — exposing the misinformation delivered in confident, booming tones from sections of the old media establishment, the 4th Estate.
A usually intelligent American friend uncharacteristically obtuse about government surveillance – we’ll call him Playah, in this post – believes the misinformation, distortions and mis-cueing. He takes as virtual gospel all the pompous finger-pointing at US and UK spooks for supposedly inventing Orwellian-grade spying on us. He really does believe that the secrets leaked by Edward Snowden matter because they are news – not, as we do, because of their vast destructive scale and specificity, apparently designed to maximise their usefulness to enemies of the Anglosphere and its allies.
In his misplaced trust, Playah has millions of others for company – people, some of them rather important, who ordinarily pay so little attention to conversation in the techie world as to be willingly taken in by Al Gore’s claim to have invented the internet, or the canard that gives Steve Jobs credit for the computer revolution (discussed in an earlier entry here).
We include obscure techie publications like The Register in the 5th Estate. No one – certainly at The Guardian – has given any sign of having seen a piece dated 7 November, titled, ‘How Google paved the way for NSA’s intercepts – just as The Register predicted 9 YEARS AGO’.
We only stumbled on it serendipitously, in checking search engines for our own remarkably similar (non-prescient) post on the subject last week.
Much hilarity has greeted [Google chairman] Eric Schmidt’s deeply sincere “outrage” at his “discovery” that the NSA was spying on Google. For example, Vanity Fair pointed Mr Schmidt to some helpful Google searches.
But the NSA is merely treading in some well-worn footsteps – some of which were made by Google itself. Let us refresh your memory of one of the most prescient and chilling pieces of prediction in the last decade. For all this was forecast here at The Register in early 2004 – nine years ago.
In early 2004, Google launched Gmail. Gmail performed an automated interception of your email, and – having scanned the contents and guessed at its meaning – ran contextual advertising alongside it.
Former security advisor Mark Rasch, an attorney who had worked in the Department of Justice’s cyberfraud department during the Clinton administration, and was writing for Security Focus, raised a very interesting problem. If Google could search through and read your email without explicit legal authorisation, then surely the security agencies could do the same.
Rasch argued that Google had redefined the words “read” (“learn the meaning”) and “search”, which protect citizens, when it unveiled its new contextual ads service. It had removed explicit human agency from the picture. An automated search wasn’t really a search, and its computers weren’t really “reading”.
“This is a dangerous legal precedent which both law enforcement and intelligence agencies will undoubtedly seize upon and extend, to the detriment of our privacy,” forecast Rasch, here, in June 2004.
“Google will likely argue that its computers are not ‘people’ and therefore the company does not ‘learn the meaning’ of the communication. That’s where we need to be careful. We should nip this nonsensical argument in the bud before it’s taken too far, and the federal government follows.”
Remarkably, Rasch even suggested where the security services might most effectively put this into practice.
“Imagine if the government were to put an Echelon-style content filter on routers and ISPs, where it examines billions of communications and ‘flags’ only a small fraction (based upon, say, indicia of terrorist activity). Even if the filters are perfect and point the finger only completely guilty people, this activity still invades the privacy rights of the billions of innocent individuals whose communications pass the filter,” he wrote. “Simply put, if a computer programmed by people learns the contents of a communication, and takes action based on what it learns, it invades privacy.”
Well, fancy that.
… What else isn’t news in the great surveillance exposé of 2013? Well, surely it’s about time The Guardian told us all about its surveillance of its own readers, mentioned here (again), one entry ago? And isn’t the bigger story that everyone is going to be spying on everyone else, very soon? Here is another overlooked techie, Jamais Cascio – trying to draw attention to our perfectly horrible privacy-free future in a lecture on 4 May 2005 titled ‘The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon’:
Soon — probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two — we’ll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.
And we will be doing it to ourselves.
This won’t simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.
I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.
The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century model for a prison in which all inmates could be watched at all times. The term has in more recent years come to have a broader meaning, that of a world in which all of us are under constant surveillance.
[ continues … ]
… Perhaps the blogosphere is beginning to make progress with essential de-bunking. Headlines demanding ‘transparent’ spying by spies, and close monitoring, by us, of decision-making by the loftiest administrators of espionage, have been getting less common, lately. The headline-writers have presumably begun to realise that even less attentive members of the public – such as our friend Playah — have begun to see these for what they are: quite simply, daft.
‘[P]eople who attack the security services for gathering information will be the first to ask “why didn’t they know?” when someone gets through the cracks and blows up a bus. What Greenwald, the Guardian, the NYT and others have been close to saying is that journalists are as, if not more, able to decide on public interest and safety [as] the state and its security. That is a vast claim which cannot be made with confidence.’
- Alastair Campbell, former journalist and director of communications for the British prime minister: from a lecture to be delivered by him at Cambridge University on 20 November 2013
If newspapers like The Guardian were working on the evolutionary successor of the ‘business model’ they run on today – we mean, showing the way to becoming net-based media jointly owned with reader-subscribers – they would have no need to fan public hysteria with one-sided reporting on the Edward Snowden leaks about spooks and surveillance. This entry on post-Gutenberg points to some of the information they might be giving their readers if, unlike The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, they were dedicated to journalism uncorrupted by partisan politics.
But hysteria-fanning and hyping create ‘clickbait’, today. Technically, that means writing sensationalist tabloid-like headlines to lure internet surfers into spending time on newspaper web sites. Sadly, clickbaiting is also shaping the coverage beneath headlines – skewing decisions about the stories chosen and the way they are tackled so extremely that, last week, a reader-commenter referring to The Guardian as ‘the left-wing Daily Mail’ actually seemed on to something.
‘Intelligence agencies exist to steal secrets,’ as The Economist noted in September. ‘Much of the brouhaha around the disclosures by Edward Snowden… misses that fact.’
History will either judge Snowden and his helpers in the media as incontinent, supercharged versions of the Mannekin Pis or as heroes saving the world. The question no one seems to be asking is this: would we want our spooks to be stuck in the age of typewriters and land lines tied to walls – or keep up with every sort of capability that digital tools are putting in our hands? For instance, the various kinds of software that let blessed, indispensable – if not exactly saintly — Google, as well as the social media giants like Facebook and countless other corporations, monitor what we do round the clock, if they so choose.
Other subjects badly in need of attention:
@ Hypocrisy about the right to keep secrets – anti-transparency — in the extraordinarily influential culture of Silicon Valley. Its technology crusaders are rightly credited – or blamed – for popularising the ‘information wants to be free’ movement wrecking every form of artistic copyright and demanding transparency of governments and other authorities.
It would make no sense for the British government to prosecute Alan Rusbridger and his Guardian for publishing the Snowden leaks – as The New York Times is worriedly imagining — because Silicon Valley ‘libertarianism’ is so close to becoming conventional wisdom. Yet how many of us outside the technologists’ mecca know about ‘the Silicon Valley handshake’? This is the routine requirement that their visitors, suppliers, collaborators and other outsiders sign contracts protecting secrets – so-called ‘non-disclosure agreements’. Often, according to Eric Goldman — a professor of cyberspace law — companies demand signatures for ‘one-way NDAs that protect only information they disclose (not information they receive).’
@ Deciding whether we want companies – including newspapers – to spy on us, and how we can make it easy to deny them permission to gather information, at no risk. As recorded last week, The Guardian – railing ad nauseam about spooks — is oddly tongue-tied about corporate surveillance. The explanation for this is surely the potential embarrassment of having to admit the true extent of the newspaper’s own monitoring of its readers’ behaviour. Some readers are collecting clues. As one of them, @ElDanielfire, reported in a comment last week,
When I sign into the Guardian I get the following message:
This application will be able to:
•Read Tweets from your timeline.
•See who you follow.
[…] It’s not much different to the NSA …
Onora O’Neill, a down-to-earth philosopher — specialising in justice, public trust and accountability – who is also a member of the House of Lords (Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve) commendably unaffiliated to any political party, is one of the few sounding this particular alarm. ‘Insofar as [government spies at the NSA and GCHQ] collect content, I might be … worried,’ she said recently, ‘but by the same token I would worry equally about Facebook, who collect content, and in particular a lot of personal content.’
@ The staggering drop in crime in many parts of the world, ‘from Japan to Estonia,’ in which there could be a hopeful parallel for anti-terrorist surveillance. In a riveting collection of articles on the subject in July, The Economist speculated about the reasons why ‘the crime wave that began in the 1950s is in broad retreat’. Among its statistical revelations is the 64 per cent drop in the number of violent crimes in the largest American cities since 1990. The car-theft count in New York fell from 147,000 in 1990 to 10,00 last year. One article suggested that ‘the biggest factor may be simply that security measures have improved,’ and mentioned that
The advent of DNA testing, mobile-phone location and surveillance cameras—which have spread rapidly, especially in Britain—have all increased the risk of getting caught.
Secret services do not and probably could not publish — verifiable — statistics about the effectiveness of their work. But if monitoring stops terrorists and other baddies the way ‘neighbourhood watch’ programmes do suburban crime, and nosy gossips have done for centuries in small towns and villages, you might imagine that both the good and evil in government surveillance could be discussed without distortion by clickbait-driven headlines and text.
Can a newspaper editor in societies in which military service largely belongs to the past grasp the importance of protecting military secrets? We mean, understand this viscerally – at gut-level – like any child who ever had to ask, ‘But what if Daddy doesn’t come home?’. We mean, return from a war; any child ever comforted by assurances that ‘Our spies are better than their spies,’ – the mysterious and murky specialists in warning about the likely direction from which gunfire and bombs could come; the places where land mines might be buried and assassins or submarines lurk.
The question marks have only been multiplying as we have wondered why the media-stoked outrage over the thumping-great scale of government surveillance is not matched by shock and anger about vast apparatuses of commercial surveillance. Life without Google would be as frightful a prospect for post-Gutenberg as for anyone else. Still, we ask with furrowed brow, why are people incandescent with rage about spooks, but paying no attention to — for instance — the news on the Extreme Tech site last month that Microsoft and Google are working on ‘super cookies [that] will track you wherever you go, and whatever you do, whether it’s on your smartphone, PC, game console, or even TV.’ Or, this quotation of an expert in The Wall Street Journal in September:
“It’s a persistent identifier, a super cookie,” says Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Google will gain more information about users wherever they are, across platforms and with one number. This will be the new way they identify you 24/7.”
Why are only some of us apparently willing to give the motives of those entrusted exclusively with our protection the benefit of the doubt, the way everyone else does commercial surveillance that is done exclusively for profit?
John le Carré, one of our heroes, told his North London neighbour Philippe Sands that ‘all of us have an aunt in the secret service.’ Of course he was being witty. But some of us in this conversation who grew up as disgusted by the cover-ups in the Vietnam War as our contemporaries, everywhere, are also members of a minority caught up in childhood in small, regional wars, or who had parents who served in peacekeeping forces in war zones. That makes for a different sort of anti-authoritarian perspective. Press contributions to and coverage of the surveillance debate strike us as surreal.
Because information is the common stock-in-trade for spies and journalists, The Guardian and its partners in publishing the massive, continuing Snowden leaks of military secrets have been engaged in an extraordinary flexing of power. We have been transfixed by the sight of them not merely criticising but punishing their governments in kind for the comprehensive surveillance of civilians that they deem entirely wrong – without judge, jury, or any public consultation about this conclusion. Those rotten spooks overstepped the limits of decency in stealing our private information, did they? Fine, let’s rip the covers off their private information and broadcast it to the world!
Punishment to fit alleged or actual government misdeeds is not typically an option for newspapers. For a parallel, consider that in 2009, when The Daily Telegraph followed up on a freelance journalist’s discoveries about British members of parliament writing off the costs of second homes and cleaning castle moats as ‘expenses’ passed on to taxpayers, that newspaper could hardly chastise parliamentary paymasters and expenses-checkers by flinging millions of pound notes into the Thames, or publicising passwords to bank accounts for the public purse. A San Francisco paper lambasting California’s state government for inhumane overcrowding in prisons cannot lock the governor and his aides into scorching and stinking penitentiary cells for a week to make its point.
The scale of the leaks is staggering. ‘In early 2013,’ the Wikipedia records, ‘Edward Snowden handed over 15,000 – 20,000 top secret documents to various media outlets.’ We have yet to see as much as a hint in The Guardian — the standard-bearer for the fight against government spying on citizens – that the whistle-blower might have been a touch excessive, or, as Charles Dickens put it in a different context, shown a lack of ‘that faculty of extracting the essence from a heap of statements which is among the most striking and necessary of the advocate’s accomplishments.’
Snowden’s objective seems clearly to have been not merely to reveal but wound – and The Guardian and its co-publishers apparently went along with that, as it largely did with Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, because of a cultural shift analysed in the one deeply informative and scrupulously balanced evaluation of the mass surveillance crisis we have read so far. Writing in the journal National Affairs, Gabriel Schoenfeld suggests:
The new willingness, even eagerness, of journalists to publish such sensitive information stems first and foremost from two cultural developments … The first is the increasing prevalence of the libertarian notion — with adherents on both the left and right, and in both journalism and the federal bureaucracy — that “information should be free.” This ideology leaves room for almost no rationale for secrecy in government and is deeply skeptical of and angered by post-9/11 government surveillance practices.
The second development is the changing nature of the news business, with its fierce competition and intense pressure to be first to break a story. In deciding whether to publish leaked secrets in the face of government warnings to desist, news organizations seem to operate according to a logic reminiscent of Cold War nuclear strategy: If we don’t strike, one of our competitors will …
The Guardian, widely known to be fighting for its economic survival, has been frantic to triumph in this evolution of competition. Make no mistake, post-Gutenberg is as disturbed as anyone else by the implications of governments tracking everything we do, say and even think. But both The Guardian’s framing of the problem — through its barrage of reports about and opinion pieces on it – and its chief conclusion about it have serious flaws:
• The newspaper’s coverage is unbalanced in the extreme degree – and proudly. Its editor, Alan Rusbridger proclaims his preference for partisan journalism in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books:
The Guardian itself inhabits an editorial space that is quite distinct from most American newspapers. British papers have grown up with less reverence for the notions of objectivity and detachment that can, rightly or wrongly, preoccupy some of our American colleagues.
How can anyone trust the information in a newspaper draping itself in a banner like that?
• Proud partisanship explains why Guardian readers have not – as far as we know – been given much, if anything, in the way of objective context and historical background for government spying. Without that, how can the paper claim to be fostering the intelligent public debate about mass surveillance supposedly its chief motive for the Snowden leaks?
Espionage policy-makers and administrators have been permitted only a series of robotic and too-predictable sound bytes to explain their reasoning and actions in the technically dazzling transmedia production on this theme offered on the Guardian website. In The Black Swan (2007), a clever polemic widely read among the intelligentsia, Nassim Taleb mentions his surprise at meeting US top brass, ‘military people’ who ‘thought, behaved and acted like philosophers,’ only more so and far more imaginatively than professional philosophers, and ‘without fear of introspection’. Why are people of this calibre not invited to defend government surveillance in Guardian reportage or op-ed contributions?
• Like virtually every other print media publication, The Guardian is hardly realistic in proposing that the solution to excessive surveillance is greater transparency in the running of intelligence-gathering, and stringent oversight. There must be something wrong with us at post-Gutenberg, because we see see-through spying and spy-runners as a prospect as likely as scholarly, library-haunting footballers.
How strange that closer oversight has also been recommended for the media in the wake of the phone hacking scandals and the Leveson Inquiry into press practices and ethics. Better supervision for both spies and journalists would mean, as a first step, requiring them to be guided less by judgment and instinct, as they often are at present, than by a set of precisely defined rules.
Would it be any easier to agree on such rules for spies than for journalists? In his testimony at the Leveson hearings, The Guardian’s freelance contributor Nick Davies – the star reporter who exposed tabloid phone hacking and was also a driving force behind the publication of the Julian Assange leaks – described the difficulty of deciding precisely what reporting is and isn’t in the public interest:
We had a huge problem with the Wikileaks stuff. […] I went off and persuaded Julian Assange to give all this material to The Guardian and The New York Times and Der Spiegel, and it rapidly became apparent that that material contained information which could get people on the ground in Afghanistan seriously hurt. They were implicit[ly] identified as sources of information for the coalition forces.
I raised this with Julian very early on and he said, “If an Afghan civilian gives information to Coalition forces, they deserve to die. They are informers. They are collaborators.” And there were huge tussles between the journalists and him — actually, maybe this isn’t a terrible good example because I would say emphatically it’s absolutely clear that we couldn’t publish that information and didn’t, but he did.
Any government trying to direct newspapers in such decisions – or demand that they debate their ins and outs ‘transparently,’ in public — would be accused of interfering with the traditional freedom of the press, if not behaving like a police state. In the continuing battle in Britain over press regulation, as Chris Huhne noted in The Guardian, this week, …
According to the newspapers, self-regulation failed in securities trading, banking, construction and many other fields. But it works brilliantly in just one area: newspapers. This inconsistency is ludicrously implausible.
In the US, Joshua Foust recently recorded on his blog the appearance of new journalistic techniques in reporting national-security stories. The evidence for this is limited because, as one Washington Post reporter recently explained, there is “a widespread practice in the media industry of declining comment on reportorial methods.”
Yet the media are howling that spies should be required to reveal their methods and tricks. … Should The Guardian and other media campaigners calling for tight constraints on and supervision of government spying on the populace make a less ambitious demand — to perhaps simply hold the spooks to account more rigorously for their mistakes and infractions?
It will be a happy day when some widely-read British or American newspaper stops merely shouting about the horrors of mass surveillance by the government – as opposed to Google and Microsoft – for extended, intelligent explorations of the ‘other side’ of the argument.
Funny to catch The Guardian dishing out, to an old Hungarian restaurant, the same advice that post-Gutenberg has been offering the newspaper for at least two years. Astonishing that The Gay Hussar is the spot just off Soho Square where we, in our dewy twenties – when it still had genuine ‘socialist’ prices we could afford – ate many of our most cheering lunches in the upstairs room run by Albert, always at the table next to the flower box packed with saucy red geraniums.
But what advice could that possibly be? And why should an institution with the power and heft of this London newspaper pay any attention to an obscure little blog like ours? … Even closer to impossible than improbable, we agree. But scroll down anyway:
Extract from editorial in The Guardian, 25 October 2013: ‘The Gay Hussar in Soho could become a socialist model for today’s politicians’:
The Gay Hussar is … one of the most celebrated venues in the history of the post-war left. On these red plush banquettes, immortalised by the great cartoonists of the past 60 years, Bevanite heroes – Aneurin Bevan himself, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle – would scheme and plot, usually unsuccessfully. But they are long dead now, and the place needs a new owner. To the dismay of the loyal staff, it’s to be auctioned at Christie’s sometime in early December. Time surely to reclaim history and bring its traditional values into a modernised setting.
The real change would come from a new model of ownership, the previously untried diners’ co-operative … somewhere between the John Lewis model of profit-sharing for the staff and the Co-op model of dividends for regular customers. A socialist model for today’s politicians.
Extract from post-Gutenberg entry, 5 September 2011 — ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’ — quoting a commenter reacting to a statistic in an opinion piece:
How would you redesign the ownership of newspapers? How about starting here:
Last month, for example, 51 million individual users clicked into the Guardian site — a number that should please online advertisers.
Great! So what if the Guardian were to let us readers/commenters buy shares in the comments sections of its site?
– Reader commenting on,‘At their best, newspapers became beautiful objects, I shall miss them’
Extract from post-Gutenberg entry, 6 December 2011: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …’:
A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, [said] about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track …’. … He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing … The essence of the idea was that every reader’s subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral.
‘I tried an experiment along [those lines.] ‘It was a tremendous success … as far as it went.’
‘Ownership can be transferred at any time. The trick is to have something worth transferring first. … There could be NGO funding possibilities from which a larger community trust with cooperative member ownership could emerge…’.
And that, strangely enough, is very close to the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’. A publishing enterprise with a thriving community of reader-commenters could easily progress to sharing ownership of the commenting sites where readers already supply most of what there is to read or watch.
Come on, Guardian, surely it’s time to take the plunge?
In 2013, a blog post — whether buoyant or morose — can tell you nothing about a blogger’s actual mood or state-of-life, unlike the exhibitionistic diaries that people originally thought web logs would be. The time has come to toss out stale do’s and don’ts about blog-running. A blog does not have to be run like a newspaper, newsletter or magazine for bloggers to supply information in the public interest . It can do its bit towards changing the world without round-the-clock, daily, or even regular posts – as long as it is written with care, and its existence is recognised by search bots.
It might or might not attract commenters, depending on whether a blogger has the time or inclination to chat with visitors and — on serious subjects that matter greatly — visitors’ willingness to risk looking foolish, or face the unintended consequences of comments discovered by their near-and-dear, employers or workmates.
Boosting site traffic is of keenest interest to bloggers blogging strictly in the hope of blog monetisation – which, as things stand, would mean that Florence Nightingale, if she were a contemporary, would have to shrink anything she had to say about medicine to thought-capsules insinuated between large nude ‘selfies’ in which strategically positioned cat pictures hid her peekaboo bits, all of this framed by cosmetics and fashion ads. She would need to devote rather more energy to luring ‘likes’ than to nursing.
It struck us that in 2013, although free – unmediated – expression is the aspect of blogs that gets the most attention, a blog today might be even more like a Victorian parlour than a soapbox or pulpit. But what was our idea of a parlour? A sort of outer sitting- or living-room, we thought – inviting, yes, but rather formal, and offering not so much statements as hints about the inner lives and passions of a household, for which it served as a sort of shield. It was mostly furnished in conformity with the taste of the era, epitomised by an ornamental, straight-backed chair. This is not to say that we think of blogs as typically stuffy or prissy – only that most bloggers are on sites hosted by the likes of WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr, using designs and organisation schemes that these hosts supply, which closely reflect contemporary taste.
But what of the original parlour, we wondered. The Wikipedia entry had this surprise – borrowed from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Parlour derives from the Old French word parloir — or parler (“to speak”), and entered English around the turn of the 13th century. In its original usage it denoted a place set aside for speaking with someone, an “audience chamber”.
We got curious, and dug further into ideas about the purpose parlours had served in the past. Should we forget all about Victorian parlours, now that we knew that they were relatively recent evolutions of a much older idea?
The parlour was of considerable interest to the Victorians … and it appears in Victorian genre painting and fiction as a newly significant space … [T]he parlour, whether in life or in art, is a site at which we can explore potentially explosive disturbances in psychic and social fields and can trace attempts both to articulate and resolve such differences.
Curiouser and curiouser. Very much like blogs, then – if Thad Logan’s suggestion is warranted, as we intend to find out when we read her book.
‘My user names and passwords … ’ the wrinkly figure in the drawing wheezes at the heirs leaning over his bedside, in a recent addition to Private Eye’s ‘Modern Last Words’ series. ‘I want you to continue my work as the most hated troll on the internet.’
Trolls. Harpies. Brainless vultures. Vacuous attack dogs. Surprisingly often, it is not just the media’s old guard but political liberals in occupations unrelated to publishing – status-obsessed and change-resistant types – who froth at any mention of commenters on media web sites. As this blog began with a proposal for newspapers to evolve into sites partially owned by reader-commenters, we at post-Gutenberg have been flabbergasted by reflexive references to public debate in these spots as unintelligent – usually, from people who have never devoted enough time or effort to ‘below the line’ conversations to discover how often these are more informative than the articles or posts that initiate them.
Imagine how amused we were to learn from a New York Times report last week about the reactions from illustrious upmarket competitors of Popular Science to the news that this magazine was shutting down commenting on its web site altogether. This is hardly a move you would expect from a publication whose headlines appear to be written by a teenager desperate to win a popularity contest: ‘Giant Carnivorous Plant Found In Silicon Valley,’ for instance, or ‘Eating Yogurt Does Weird Things To Your Brain’.
Grave as a sermonising clergywoman, Suzanne LaBarre, the magazine’s ‘online content director’ justified the decision to return to print media’s traditional one-way dialogue:
Comments can be bad for science. That’s why, here at PopularScience.com, we’re shutting them off.
It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.
That is not to suggest that we are the only website in the world that attracts vexing commenters. Far from it. Nor is it to suggest that all, or even close to all, of our commenters are shrill, boorish specimens of the lower internet phyla. We have many delightful, thought-provoking commenters.
But even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests …
Really. In a justification that revealed the power of intelligent and articulate readers as her real fear – an argument that would delight dictatorships all over the world, she added:
[C]ommenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded–you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the “off” switch.
Her reasoning did not impress science magazines with a serious interest in science. Snippets from the NY Times story – for which that newspaper must be congratulated:
– Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American: ‘I have to say I don’t think comments are bad for science. To a point I think it’s good when people talk about things and try their ideas out. Social media can go off the rails but I don’t think comments are worse than Twitter.’
– Noah Gray, senior editor at Nature:
“There’s no doubt that uncivil discourse is bad for science,” Dr. Gray said by e-mail.
But, he said, comments can be very valuable, sometimes pointing out errors or alternative interpretations of the facts and theories presented in the article.
“The comments section can often express the openness of scientific debate,” Dr. Gray said, adding, “Removing this channel for feedback rather than exploring an alternative means to improve it simply ignores the problem.”
A reaction from a NY Times reader-commenter seemed especially apt:
Laird Wilcox, Kansas
I suspect that an individual’s capacity for objectivity depends upon their ability to entertain conflicting values, opinions and beliefs without feeling threatened by them. When you find someone who “can’t stand” another’s “ignorance” you may be dealing with an insecure bigort[sic] who fears contradiction or is woefully unsure of themselves.
But some egotistical old media professionals apparently cannot stand readers discussing their work as incisively as in this delicious exchange between Popular Science commenters – about a 2009 piece titled, ‘Could There Be A Planet Hidden On The Opposite Side Of Our Sun?: We ask a scientist who has peered around it.’
04/20/2009 at 11:01 am
Behind the sun? This article is tempting me to use a lot of profanity. We travel to the other side of the sun and back every year, what does behind the sun mean? Behind the sun with respect to earth? So like where the Earth would be half a year from now? Or on a different axis or what? All logic tells me is the sun doesn’t have a front and behind… its pretty spherical and it rotates. Was this a search for a planet that maintains the exact orbit of earth but 180 degrees out of phase? Can someone please clarify how the sun could have “sides” and where “the other side of the sun” is?
04/20/2009 at 12:07 pm
I’m guessing that what they mean is it revolves at the same speed as the earth but stays on the exact opposite side of the sun. Therefore, it is perpetually out of normal sight for earth. But, that’s just how I read and understood it. you’re right they didn’t do a very good job of clarifying…
04/20/2009 at 2:33 pm
One thing people need to realize about PopSci is that these are not scientific articles. It’s similar to, say, a CNN reporter writing an article on a scientific discovery; these are written by journalists, not scientists.
That having been said, this article does seem kind of pointless… Why bother debunking a theory about a hidden planet synchronized with earth’s orbit, when nobody thinks that anyhow? You may as well write an article to show that the earth isn’t flat.
… We can hardly type for laughing …
[…an inadvertently belated appreciation...]
Our 100th post-Gutenberg entry amounts to a standing ovation for two old media journalists — one Italian, the other English — who have unzipped their imaginations to create a model of transmedia fence-jumping, using digital tools to communicate subtler and more penetrating information than can be transmitted through either conventional opinion journalism or documentary film-making.
The key to realising their extraordinary ambitions for their collaborative video production, Girlfriend in a Coma, was the free hand they gave a hair-raisingly original and gifted young British artist and animator, the Kenyan-born Phoebe Boswell. Hers is a talent that had us scribbling the names of the manically brilliant English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, his ghoulish American kindred spirits, Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, the Alice in Wonderland illustrator Tenniel, and Salvador Dali, as we ruminated about influences.
Girlfriend is based loosely on Good Italy, Bad Italy (2012), a contemporary portrait in a book by Bill Emmott, The Economist’s editor from 1993 to 2006. He is listed in the video’s credits as co-writer and co-director with Annalisa Piras, credited as director, and the prime mover behind the project. She is about ten years younger than Bill, who happens to be a former colleague of p-G’s remembered for true and exemplary collegiality. This makes it not in the least surprising that – as well as he plays his part as the video’s unassuming narrator, and as much as the narrative is technically filtered through his memories of Italy, his thoughts, and his feelings about Europe’s high-heeled boot — the production is saturated with a wildness and emotional intensity so unlike him that they could only have been conjured by his collaborators. Bill is clearly a first-rate encourager.
Annalisa (as referring to Bill as Emmott feels awkward, we’ll dispense with surnames) has explained how she sketched Girlfriend’s essential requirements for Phoebe and Jenny Lewis, Phoebe’s partner in animating her drawings and imaginings: ‘the Italian characters — the Good Italy, based on the female image since Roman times, the Bad Italy, a thug wearing a “Pulcinella” mask from the Commedia dell’Arte — and the ideas I wanted to convey, and they ran with it.’
Actually, they flew. Annalisa stayed closely involved: frame by frame, they flew together. (See updated Q & A about ‘the making of …’ here.) The result made p-G, a jaded lifelong observer of Italy, sit up and marvel, as if for the first time, about the paradox of a country easily seen as a screaming basket case — as far as economics and politics go — somehow managing to hold its place, for decades, among the world’s leading economies. If this trans-documentary has a single flaw, it is that it fails to offer an adequate explanation for the Italy that, against long odds, has not merely survived but often prospered mightily in modern times. But this is beside the point for Girlfriend — mistakenly slated by some critics for a lack of balance. It is a call to arms. It is a manifesto for the reform of a deeply marvellous but also staggeringly corrupt, inefficient, uncaring and misogynistic society.
Not that anything as dreary as ‘consciousness-raising’ remotely describes its tone. This is set by Phoebe’s surreal, dreamlike imagery, briskly intercut with footage frequently shot from clever camera angles that recalls the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially Blowup, and micro-clips from interviews – the interviewees as diverse as high-ranking politicians, Mafia prosecutors, all-too-understandably outraged feminists, top industrialists, historians, political theorists, the irresistible novelist-philosopher Umberto Eco, workers and inmates in a home for the disabled – that justify the video’s charming frame.
And what is that?
Italy is presented to us as a girl with whom Bill fell helplessly in love as a tourist in his student days. Not any old girl but an ethereal and languorous jeune fille who happens to be a touch eccentric, neurotic to the core, and assailed by homicidal inner demons – encapsulated in the figure of the mega-ogre with the Pulcinella mask. She has, for him, come to fit the skin-crawling title of a pop song by the Smiths; a girl so severely afflicted as to end up, virtually, on artificial life support.
No wonder Girlfriend was financed as an indie project – by Annalisa’s own company, Springshot Productions. Though her potted biography mentions her education in Rome in history, politics and cinematography, and two decades of shooting documentaries while she also served as the London correspondent of L’Espresso, we cannot imagine any part of the old media establishment backing such a commendably outlandish project.
That does say something disappointing in the extreme about the reluctance of our dominant communicators to get to grips with the future. Fear of the unfamiliar in other quarters – among arts reviewers – could also explain why p-G is writing about Girlfriend nearly a year after its release in Europe.
We learnt of its existence by accident, last month – having been mostly cut off from news about arts-and-letters at the time of its launch last November. Online searches show that though it did indeed cause the intended stir in Italy, at the loftiest levels, and was shown in art cinemas and nominated for awards in European cities, it has so far failed to be noticed for the right reasons. Though it has had some laudatory reviews in the Anglosphere, including a rave here and there, these have mostly been short (a single glowing paragraph in The Financial Times, for instance). Where, we have been wondering, are the lavish allocations of column-inches that this trans-documentary deserves? The colour photo-spreads? The probing investigations on the front pages of arts sections of how Annalisa, Bill and Phoebe came to be the pioneer-collaborators they are? The questions about their insights into the evolution of post-print media?
Funny, to say the least, that no one apparently saw plenty to write home about in watching the calm, gently reasonable ex-editor of a well-known magazine drifting in silhouette through shadowy stone arches, up and down dark stairways that evoke dungeons — sequences near the start of his narration that evoke both the vicious underside of Italy that includes the Mafia, and our narrator’s own unconscious mind.
Are we being invited, in this segment, to believe that Italy is where Bill’s muse or — from one perspective in psychological theory — anima, in the form of this Girlfriend, resides? Later in the video, one of the readings from Dante Alighieri that interrupt the narrative periodically goes, ‘O lady, you in whom my hope gains strength.’ This is stimulating allusiveness. In the hands of Girlfriend’s creative quartet, it hugely enhances all the information it packs in – is sophisticated, successful sugar-coating for the flow of statistics, miniature history lessons and political science lectures that barely register as anything so dull.
Some highlights (not necessarily in the right sequence):
• Blisteringly incisive insight and commentary in clips from interviews with Roberto Saviano, a (now) 34 year-old investigative journalist and novelist obliged to live in hiding, under police protection, from Mafiosi infuriated by his revelations. His handsome shaved head, winglike black eyebrows and dark eyes shot in stygian gloom are in perfect harmony with the sinister animation sequences.
• Bill talks to the intellectual and left-leaning Canadian-Italian industrialist, Sergio Marchionne, who made his name by restoring the fortunes of Fiat; who hopes that we will see the evolution of a healthier form of capitalism, and says that ‘People who engineer the free market have a responsibility to keep it clean.’ His point is underlined by the words of Dante – reaching us by way of the disembodied voice of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch – to which we listen looking at a panorama of industrial sprawl, probably Turin: ‘[Y]our avarice afflicts the world:/ it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.’
• Maurizio Viroli, a slender, elfin professor of political theory at Princeton sits at a dining table talking to us over the remains of what appears to have been a simple, vinous meal all the more delicious for its informality. He points out that the three main leaders of the 19th-century Risorgimento or ‘resurgence’ that created modern Italy – Cavour, Mazzini, and Garibaldi — ‘had a deep religiosity inspired by currents of Protestanism – Jansenism.’ He adds that ‘all three were critical of the Catholic attitude of making deals with those who are powerful,’ and he mainly blames the Catholic Church for the besetting national flaws, ‘sloth and moral weakness’.
• Sad, wraithlike, girlish figures sketched by Phoebe rise from Lake Pellicone, a dramatic expanse of blue set in a rock-walled canyon. Dante’s lines, here: ‘This miserable way / is taken by the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise. / They now commingle with the coward angels, / the company of those who were not rebels / nor faithful to their God, but stood apart. /’ In the rocks above the water, in another superimposed animation, the demonic ogre bashes Bill’s girlfriend.
• Bill cycles around a deserted, sparkling Ferrero chocolate factory, dressed in one of a succession of dapper outfits, many in brilliant colours that recall swinging ‘60s London. The ghastly, thankfully deposed Silvio Berlusconi, three times Italy’s prime minister – who did not keep his promise to appear in the film — was apparently thinking of Bill’s appearance as well as his politics in nicknaming him ‘Lenin,’ yet the cumulative impression he makes is a hybrid of Agatha Christie’s brainy Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, and Amélie’s beloved globe-trotting garden ornament in the film by that name.
Not many experimenters with post-Gutenberg communication will have either the funds or connections to match the excellence of the musical sound track, or engage the likes of Cumberbatch for poetry recitations. What any of us can still learn from Girlfriend is the importance of re-conceiving from scratch our presentation of what we want to say; of not merely pouring well-worn forms and conventions for shaping information into new-media bottles, but grabbing the chance to communicate what was virtually impossible to communicate before about non-fictional places, events and people.
As far as we can tell, Girlfriend is as scrupulously factual as the finest old-fashioned print journalism. But it exploits special capacities of moving pictures to show us how the facts about its subject impress and affect its chief observer and fact-gatherer, Bill, drawing us beneath the surface of hard reality into psyche – with the animation sequences drawn and directed by Phoebe ensuring a clear demarcation of the boundary between the actual and the strictly impressionistic. One parallel for such innovativeness that we mentioned in a recent post is Carl Djerassi’s revisiting, re-sifting, and powerful re-enlivening of the mental preoccupations and lives of pre-war intellectuals in his Four Jews on Parnassus – by recasting them as dialogue; as a spikily argumentative conversation.
This appreciation of Girlfriend will end with a whiff of the uncanny. A day or so after we first watched it, we kept thinking of Blowup, and wondering why. After we had tapped a tentative explanation into a keyboard, we went to the Wikipedia looking for the year of the film’s release – 1966, and there was a New York Times arts correspondent attributing part of critics’ reaction to this ‘stunning picture’ to the way it is ‘beautifully built up with glowing images and color compositions that get us into the feelings of our man,’ its photographer-protagonist. No, there was nothing uncanny about that discovery. The spine-prickling came from being told something we never knew, in the same Wiki entry. Antonioni had used as the backdrop for Blowup’s carnivalesque opening scene (below) the plaza of a London office building — part of a streaky-concrete-and-glass specimen of Brutalist architecture — where we had once toiled long past sunset, years after we had forgotten details of the film. … And that was the office where, bizarrely, we once worked with Bill.
Did Girlfriend’s collaborators have Blowup in mind when they were mulling over the look and feel they wanted for their project? We must remember to ask.
No, we do not dislike The Guardian at post-Gutenberg. It is a newspaper that meets a vital need. With its unstinting support of every vulnerable or marginalised social group – immigrants, same-sex lovers, the transgendered, disabled and poor – it is the only internationally famous old media name backed by a supremely feminine sensibility. It is a sort of zaftig, mammoth-breasted Ur-Mother angel, in spite of being led by a male editor, Alan Rusbridger. We arrived at this thought indirectly, after a male critic of p-G inexplicably characterised as ‘homophilic’** the excellent ProPublica site that has been The Guardian’s co-publisher (with The NY Times) of Glenn Greenwald’s reports on mass surveillance by governments.
Yes, in our post on that subject last week, we were indeed criticising The Guardian – but only for the reason we have in the past, on many occasions. (See ‘Good Guardian, bad Guardian …’) It censors reader comments in the Comment-is-Free section of its web site. Not, as you’d expect a priori, contributions by readers swearing or resorting to scatology, personal attacks or childish insults – most of which are allowed, to support the appearance of encouraging free speech and debate.
All over the net, there are groups of people complaining that The Guardian shuts down too many sharp, well-informed commenters who persistently disagree with certain of its cherished political positions and beliefs, or conventional wisdom that, in its view, should not be challenged. Type such strings as ‘comment moderation censorship Guardian’ into any good search engine from time to time, and you will find intelligent folk who write clearly and grammatically but are opposed to vaccinating children; do not believe that global warming is an actual phenomenon; or support Israel and have some objection to Palestinians.
Whatever the demerits of those stances might be, we believe that to support its boasts about fostering free expression, The Guardian should leave the job of opposing or condemning them to other reader-commenters.Its heavy-handed Mother Knows Best interventions are dismaying enough in these cases, but disgraceful when it deletes comments by — and sometimes bans — writers of posts that expose weaknesses in the research or arguments of its reporters and writers. (See ‘Should ordinary citizens be shut out of the debate about the media’s future?’) As we said last week, the most disturbing instances of such censorship virtually shut down reader commentary on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, practices and behaviour. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘)
Interference with comments on the Leveson Inquiry on other newspaper sites, too, could partially account for the public’s low opinion of the press. The latest post on INFORRM (International Forum for Responsible Media) notes:
The [...] anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, which publishes a Global Corruption Barometer every year [...] asked 114,000 people in 107 countries which of 12 institutions in their countries they considered most corrupt.
Only in Britain, Egypt and Australia did the media top the table of perceived corruption. In Britain 69 per cent of respondents said the media were the most corrupt, up from 39 per cent three years ago.
Anyone scrolling through the archive for this blog can see that p-G is politically neutral. So there is only a vanishingly small risk of being identified with raving on the political right when we say that most of the press coverage of the understandable rage about mass surveillance by governments is so one-sided that a space alien might conclude, first, that ‘special intelligence’ from spying is devoid of all value; secondly, that the west no longer has any enemies that need watching.
We are just as alarmed by the deadly possibilities of government spying – by our own or hostile foreign authorities — being used to control us. Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. Unfortunately, good intelligence is one key to strong defence. The library for books dedicated to this subject would be immense. When we tried looking up the role of spies in Spanish conquests of the Americas, a dim memory, possibly from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, we stumbled on a fascinating account by Zhenja La Rosa of human beings actually kidnapped as military intelligence tools. Extract from ‘Language and Empire’:
The Spanish presence in America got its authority from language acts, such as that of taking possession and naming; it derived part of its military advantage through the control of interpreters, and therefore, of information; … Columbus […] initiated the practice of kidnapping natives to serve as interpreters for the Spanish conquistadors. Interpreters were an indispensable instrument in the military conquest of the Americas. […] As stated in Columbus’s record of the first encounter with the natives in the Caribbean, one of the first things Columbus did was “take” six of them in order to teach them Spanish. [...] Greenblatt comments that: ‘The radically unequal distribution of power that lies at the heart of almost all language learning in the New World is most perfectly realized in the explorers’ preferred method for dealing with the language problem… From the very first day in 1492, the principal means chosen by the Europeans to establish linguistic contact was kidnapping.’
Nasty, indeed. … We recommend reading the only objective consideration of mass surveillance we have so far found in old media — in a Canadian magazine, Maclean’s, posing the essential question: how and where do we draw the line on surveillance?
… Otherwise, in our usual haunts, we have found only reader-commenters supplying the essential balance to press coverage on this subject. A sample:
(from a reader of The Economist):
Aug 15th, 16:09
Obama’s problem is purely political: if he reduces in any way the current measures and if some terrorist incident occurs that claims the lives of US citizens, then as sure as night follows day the Republicans will crucify him for sacrificing American lives on the altar of “liberal” values. Although there may be no plausible connection between an actual terrorist incident and the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA, such a link would undoubtedly be made by political opponents. So to keep himself safe (if not the rest of us) Obama will maintain the Bush-era over-reach and in the spirit of McCarthyism yet more of the Constitution’s supposedly guaranteed freedoms will be lost. But who cares so long as iStuff is available, movies on demand are cheap, and McDonalds continues to churn out its gut-busting fare?
** post-Gutenberg made a curious mistake in transcribing this single word from our lively critic’s email. He actually used the word ‘homophily’ — and, in the comments section below, explains that ‘homophilic’ means something else altogether. Read our brief exchange for proof of how much we enjoyed what we learnt from our inadvertent sloppiness. … The error makes no difference to what we say about The Guardian. Thanks to A. A. for sparking a conscious realisation of where on the gender spectrum we have always placed the newspaper.
After the horror of thought police, the most terrifying aspect of the society George Orwell anticipates so brilliantly in 1984 is that almost nothing about its regulations or the behaviour of the people running it makes any sense.
Why was The Guardian so unembarrassed by the inconsistency of making such a fuss about being forbidden by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to publish any more revelations about the extent of UK and US government spying on the public – when this newspaper also shuts down disclosures about and discussion of matters it considers sensitive?
For instance – what? For instance, reader commentary on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and conduct. As more than one commenter pointed out, on the same web page as the newspaper’s unconvincing attempt to justify its censorship, Lord Justice Leveson himself had been permitting far more revealing accusations and evidence to be aired at his hearings. Complaint by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger:
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”
As a reader identified as ‘Dr. Gabriel Mayer’ on the site of The New York Times pointed out, about the tunnel vision in condemnations of surveillance focused exclusively on the National Security Agency:
What really surprises me is this universal alarm regarding the NSA and a possible sinister utilization of data should something unpredictable and Orwellian take place.
If …… and when …
But right now this comment is being monitored by Google and Apple (I am on one of their products) for sure, and probably a few other bloodthirsty corporate entities.
Where are the op-eds about this reality?
Well, Dr. Mayer, how can the newspapers be expected to attack round-the-clock commercial surveillance when they themselves plant spy cookies on our devices every time we read articles on their sites? Looking for a ray of light in this chilling scene, we were pleased, at first, to read a paragraph in David Carr’s Media Equation column in The New York Times last week. He deftly summarised recent leaks by whistle-blowers and other disseminators of vital information outside mainstream journalism:
Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
But then his characterisation of the leakers being punished conveyed an impression of raffish, marginal and faintly unreliable figures:
Perhaps they got what’s coming to them. They knew, or should have known, the risks of revealing information entrusted to them, and decided to proceed. Like almost all whistle-blowers, they are difficult people with complicated motives.
So, too, are the journalists who aid them. It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.
But why was there no mention at all, in his column, of possibly the most distinguished leaker of all – a retired four-star general who was vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff? He is generally believed to have been the chief source for the story last year about an American cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, a report that appeared in … well, The New York Times. A blogger explained:
In the flood of news surrounding Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance operations of the National Security Agency, another equally consequential development in the crisis of the security state has gone largely unnoticed. This is the news that retired general James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is under investigation by the Justice Department in relation to the leaking of secret information about the 2010 Stuxnet virus attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
To understand the significance of this, it’s important to observe that, as with the revelations of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, this alleged “leak” did not reveal anything that was not known to the enemies of the United States. In all these cases, the leaks only confirmed what any member of the general public who had bothered to follow the story could reasonably infer.
A New York Times article from June 2012, which allegedly relied on leaks from Cartwright, revealed that Stuxnet was part of a U.S. program initiated by the Bush administration and carried on under Obama.
How did Orwell know? How did he see so far ahead, with 20/20 vision?
On one of our too-rare visits to Twitter the other day, we found someone from the think tank behind the famous Davos conference discussing the incomprehensibility of a ‘new media’ job advertisement on the site of a London newspaper. The chief obstacle to demystification was the phrase ‘lifestyle vertical’. No dictionary has been able to enlighten us about its meaning. The Wikipedia is just as unhelpful.
Is a ‘lifestyle vertical’ aspirational? Commercial? Computational? … A vehicle – or vegetable?
Ah! We must be having an attack of summer silliness – as everyone should. We have been turning that ad over in our minds, treating it as a stretched-out Zen koan useful for relief from weightier matters, as we try to follow Voltaire’s advice to tend our turnips – ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’
Here is that job announcement, in part:
Head of Lifestyle
Telegraph Media Group is recruiting for a Head of Lifestyle to sit within our Editorial department.
Telegraph Media Group has set the pace for change within the UK news industry. We have successfully evolved into a multi-platform digital operation that continues to deliver the highest quality journalism, becoming a leading global media player reaching a growing international audience.
This transformation means we remain ahead of our competition at the leading edge of the ever-changing media landscape, and are at the forefront of revolutionising our industry. Unlike many of our competitors we are profitable and confident of building on our successful financial performances.
This position will own, direct and be responsible for all the lifestyle content producing areas. The successful candidate will manage the output of the ‘lifestyle’ vertical channels on Telegraph platforms, meeting the required audience, subscriber and engagement metrics; whilst also ensuring the quality and appeal of these verticals on a daily basis.
Key responsibilities will include:
Overseeing the production of high-quality, engaging, appealing lifestyle verticals within Telegraph.co.uk, with content tailored to suit customer wants and needs, which are ‘best in market’ and outperform rivals.
Meeting key KPI targets for the verticals, including growing subscribers, audience and engagement, meeting budgets and sharing P&L responsibility
Collaborating in setting the vision and business strategy for lifestyle verticals, …
Playing a key role on the senior Editorial executive team, helping to meet Editorial- and Company-wide KPI targets on budgets and profitability
Consistently maintaining and improving the Editorial quality and appeal of the lifestyle areas, using audience/customer data …
Previous responsibility of overseeing the online/digital content of diverse multi-platform departments and possessing relevant journalistic and commercial experience
Knowledge and responsibility of maximising audiences, engagement and revenue in various digital arenas
Strong background in people management and leading and supporting cultural change …
… Nor is the Telegraph the only enemy of comprehension. See: ‘The Huffington Post Seeks Editor for New Lifestyle Vertical’ and ‘Remark Media Announces Entry into Lifestyle Vertical’.
Now, here’s a strange thing: the most thrilling media-bending creation that we at post-Gutenberg have met is not by a gangling, google-eyed nineteen year-old muttering ‘mashup’ and ‘re-mix’ in sleeptalk, but by someone who will be ninety in October, writing imaginatively in voices brought back from the dead.
Carl Djerassi, featured here in April, … who made his name as an inventor of birth control pills and has won high honours as both a scientist and technologist, is somehow cramming at least four lives into a single lifespan. His harbinger of mixed-media publishing’s future evolution is a hybrid of ingeniously animated philosophical debate, art appreciation, experimental graphics and dramatization. It comes pressed between cardboard covers, titled Four Jews on Parnassus, and fitted with a pocket holding a CD compilation of clips from musical tributes by five composers to a single painting by Paul Klee.
We will call the result simply a book for shorthand. The right-sounding term for it has yet to be invented. It is available as an e-book**, but the images in it – roughly half of them feats of larky digital tinkering, and as essential to its purposes as the pictures John Berger chose for Ways of Seeing were to his – are best savoured on paper. Rolls Royce-grade colour printing on luscious glossy pages makes Four Jews on Parnassus virtually pirate-proof; cheap knock-offs are inconceivable.
If, as we believe, the only adequate reply to a great poem is a dance, if not another poem, then Four Jews is a re-creation — in the identical spirit — of just what was so great about German Jewish intellectuals of the early 20th century. Few of us brought up in the Anglophone tradition know much about their gifts to culture – our enlightenment having been obscured by lingering antipathies from the two world wars – even though many of us have heard their circle described as the pinnacle of discerning European aestheticism in modern times.
Had Djerassi tried to evoke this milieu and four of its superstars through making a film, the usual limitations of bio-pics – which lean to simple-mindedness and put too great a strain on our ability to suspend disbelief – would have got in the way. Four Jews reminded post-Gutenberg of the happiness of eavesdropping in cafes in the romantic city on the Seine – listening to strangers who happen to be old friends teasing each other, exposing all their foibles, as they tackle weighty and absorbing questions about art and culture with the confident casualness of master-chefs whipping up meringues.
Djerassi, who was born in Vienna, migrated to America at sixteen. Yet he has retained the European talent for using intelligent discursiveness to engage and charmingly instruct — in spite of his success as a technologist and scientist among colleagues for whom conversation is strictly about finding the shortest distance between two points, ignoring entrancing scenery en route.
The Jews of his title are not easily slotted. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was a Hebrew scholar, but also a historian. Theodor Adorno (1903-69) was a sociologist, philosopher and musicologist. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was an Austrian composer and painter.
Copyright-haters have recently been apt to invoke the name of the fourth, the cultural theorist and critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) – interpreting his famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ to mean that technology has so commodified art that it needs rescuing by nullifying the copyright of the replicators responsible for that commodification (and if this also destroys artists’ rights to own their own work, too bad.) By some impenetrable sequence of mental acrobatics, this reading of Benjamin is seen by the anti-copyright camp as proof that copyright causes commodification. (See ‘Does copyright turn art into commodities?’ part 1).
In Four Jews, Djerassi filters actual and imaginary debates between his philosophical quartet through his own, idiosyncratic mental preoccupations. He places the men on Mt. Parnassus, classical Greece’s equivalent of heaven for cultural supremos. The book is written as a long play whose most dramatic passages occur in revisiting episodes in the lives of the protagonists before their ascent to the clouds – peaking in outrageous sexual peccadilloes and other marital betrayals and travails. The talk is interrupted now and then by explanations of context and rich, complex and playful pictorial illustrations. Dialogue, Djerassi explains in his introduction, has fallen out of use for exposition by scientists – though it was used to great effect in the past by thinkers of the calibre of Galileo and Erasmus. This, he says, is a shame – and he quotes the Earl of Shaftesbury’s belief that dialogue is preferable to the ‘more dispassionate third-person voice’ for encouraging an ‘Intercourse of Caresses between the Author and Reader’.
In the Djerassian scheme, his immortals can order books from Amazon, but do not have email. To help make particular arguments, the author creates an acquaintanceship between Schoenberg and the others that never existed in life.
It is unsurprising that his book had to be published by the Columbia University Press (with the help of the Pushkin Fund) – and has had practically no reviewer attention since its publication in 2008. Commercial publishers are still frightened of proposals for mixed-media books. Reviewers, like bookstores, are used to working in categories and compartments. Four Jews treats frontiers between art forms and disciplines as if they did not exist – just as its characters did, to a remarkable degree, in reality.
The astonishingly prolific Swiss and German painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) – from among whose nine thousand works Djerassi has been a collector for years – ‘profoundly affected the lives of three of my main personages,’ and more musical composers ‘than any other painter in art history’. Klee himself, he says, was ‘a superb classical musician’. In one conversational segment, Adorno tells Schoenberg that Klee inspired ‘330 composers producing over 500 compositions’ and calls these a ‘minimal estimate’ with the actual count being over eight hundred, including an Icelandic pop song by Egill Olafsson (included in the musical offerings on the book’s CD).
Schoenberg, who invented a variant of chess for four players, managed to earn a place in the musical firmament even though, as Djerassi explains, his early career as a composer was as discouraging as his start in his other vocation, painting – in which he never made his mark:
Schoenberg’s first public exhibition in 1910 Vienna was panned by the critics – as much of his music had been – yet the following year he was prepared to paint portraits for a living.
Is there a single contemporary sociologist who can presume to the authority with which Adorno theorised about music? Our guess: no. The Wikipedia says: ‘As a classically trained pianist whose sympathies with the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg resulted in his studying composition with Alban Berg […] Adorno’s commitment to avant-garde music formed the backdrop of his subsequent writings and led to his collaboration with Thomas Mann on … Doctor Faustus.’
Benjamin’s mind and psyche were so profoundly engaged by art that he did more than merely collect Klee’s works before the painter became famous. He used one picture that particularly fascinated him, ‘Angelus Novus,’ to focus his thoughts about history for an essay titled ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. As his – mostly posthumous – renown grew in the second half of the last century, that particular Klee work acquired iconic status.
Nothing is more stimulating to speculative minds than contrarianism. Djerassi teaches his readers a great deal about his quartet’s contributions to culture through inventing an argument between them, using this to explain his personal conviction that Benjamin should have made a different selection from the fifty-odd angel paintings by Klee – a picture far better suited to his essay’s theme and tone than ‘Novus’. (An extract from that argument can be read here.)
Then, in a leap into pure fun – remarkably effective at deepening interest and perception in his readers – Djerassi offers impish graphic demonstrations of other angelic possibilities by mixing and matching Klee pictures in close collaboration with a contemporary Austrian artist, Gabriele Seethaler. With his generous permission, we have reproduced these in a companion entry in this blog. (See part 2.)
‘Th’intertraffique of the minde’ to which the Oxford historian John Hale refers in his Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1994), quoting a medieval scholar, was incalculably stimulated during the grand transformation by travel, translation, and scholarly forums. Crucial to it was the invention of Gutenberg’s press, whose printed books ‘facilitated discussion over distance because page numbers and diagrams could be cited from identical copies’.
Post-print mindes communing across continents have, for some time, been able to look at the same web page simultaneously, and help themselves freely to the treasures of many disciplines and art forms.
Mixed-media creation is infectious. After hours of – sometimes hypnotic — immersion in Four Jews, post-Gutenberg is loath to return to offline works-in-progress. Mere static texts that do not speak, sing or lean exclusively on images to make a point here and there have begun to feel as quaintly dated and limiting as swirling script lettered by quill pen.
** An earlier version of this entry mistakenly said that Four Jews on Parnassus is not available as an e-volume. We cannot remember what gave us that impression when we bought it a few weeks ago, but apologise for our error.
[ For the record, post-Gutenberg has never met Carl Djerassi. All exchanges with this intellectually generous correspondent about ideas of mutual interest have been made across great distances. ]
As noted in part 1, in Four Jews on Parnassus, Carl Djerassi – through his invented conversation between four immortal German-speaking Jewish intellectuals and playful digital graphics (part 2) – justified his feeling that Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ does not deserve its iconic status quite as much as some other picture in the painter’s angel series (about fifty works) might have done.
He offers his own graphic suggestion of an angel more expressive of Walter Benjamin’s idea of an angel of history with ‘wreckage upon wreckage’ piled at its feet, mouth open wide in horror.
His imaginary dialogue is often reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s wiser, as opposed to merely clever, dramas.
Here are short extracts from that conversation – which nimbly avoids lecturing, as it introduces readers to Benjamin’s sad and beautiful metaphor for the story of mankind. German philosophers seem wonderfully preoccupied with winged beings. Think of Hegel’s conception of the owl of Minerva, flying only at dusk – to convey his idea of philosophy as inevitably retrospective – only capable of enlightening us about reality after we experience it: ‘When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. … The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only within the falling of the dusk.’
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG [addressing Walter Benjamin] : … “Angelus Novus” was the title of a literary journal you founded.
BENJAMIN: Indeed. (Draws quotation marks in the air.) “We are touching now on the ephemerality of this magazine, for it is the just price to be paid for promulgating genuine topicality.” That’s what I wrote in the prospectus. […] And why did I choose the title? Because Gerhard [Scholem], the Talmudic scholar –
SCHOLEM: Gershom the Talmudic scholar!
BENJAMIN: Because Gershom … steeped as he is in angelology … pointed out that, according to the Talmud, angels are created all the time … just to utter praise before God … and then to disappear into nothingness. One issue of the magazine after another.
SCHOENBERG: […] You wrote something else about the angel. … You both know what I am talking about (to Benjamin), your “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
BENJAMIN: The ninth thesis. (He quotes.) “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look.”
SCHOENBERG: One moment. Now really look at him. It is true his eyes are wide and his mouth open, but what made you write, “This is how the angel of history must look?”
BENJAMIN: Please let me continue. I then wrote, “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees only single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.”
SCHOENBERG: Okay … understood. But what do these words have to do with Klee’s image? I don’t see the angel’s face turned toward the past! I see no wreckage before his feet! And how are you going to convince me that his hapless Angelus sees a catastrophe? You may see one, but Klee’s Angelus?
BENJAMIN: (becoming irritated) You must simply let me finish quoting my own essay. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm has been blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings. It is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”
SCHOENBERG: And you see all that in this image? I don’t see any storm. I don’t think his wings are caught in it. … I don’t see him driven anywhere. I didn’t see any debris at his feet … and I certainly don’t see any rising toward the sky. I see an angel looking sideways timidly towards God, raising his wings to his praise –
BENJAMIN: That’s all?
SCHOENBERG: That’s all. Now I do not question the text of your “Theses on the Philosophy of History” … not even this rather emotional ninth one. All of us, including Klee, have passed through this type of history, but putting these words into the image of this Angelus? You needed a metaphoric illustration and because this is the only Klee you owned –
BENJAMIN: Not the only one.
SCHOENBERG: I forgot! Your wife had bought you Vorfuehrung des Wunders … […] Here … let me show you another angel … one I might call Angelus Benjaminianus …
BENJAMIN: Good God. I had never seen that one before!
SCHOENBERG: I was sure none of you had. But this one* does do justice to your labored interpretation. Notice how you say, “His eyes are wide … his wings are spread.” But these wings are really spread and come from another Angel by Klee, which he also created in 1920.
* ‘A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast, Angel Brings What is Desired’.
‘She is too reserved for the big internet world,’ read the message pounded into a keyboard a fortnight ago at hypersonic speed typical for B, post-Gutenberg’s inseparable friend at roughly ten years old. ‘She does not promote herself at all, but all the same has a whole lot of faithful admirers and buyers, so she remains old style.’
This description of a shy artist, K, lucky enough to have been born into a family exceptionally well-connected with prosperous buyers of art, gave us pause. Our immeasurably dear B — who only ever posts her own work online in disguise — was signalling a preference for arts workers who adopt the old unwritten creed of aristocratic reserve. Once, this might have been our choice, too – because we share K’s innate, incontestably genetic, cringing-violet introversion and dislike of egotistical puffery. These days, we are less sure of its rightness – for at least three reasons.
• Everything to do with attracting attention to new art and literature, even mere blogs, has become confusing — at least as perplexing as those members of the ancien régime marched to the guillotine in revolutionary France in spite of siding openly against their lofty origins. B, for example, had introduced us to K’s work with a link to one of her pictures – a serene, meditative portrait in the yellow-brown-ochre palette that Paul Gauguin often used in his time in the South Seas – and a request to vote for it on the web site of a gallery using a contest as a promotional device.
By coincidence, this happened in the same week in which we witnessed a fight between two writers who had entered one of the many online literary contests nowadays, also designed for audience-building. One of them was accusing the other of an attempt at vote-rigging – a charge that struck us as dubious. The accused writer had done no more than openly suggest reciprocal voting – that they each vote for each other’s entries.
How, we wondered, is that any different from the latest evolutionary leap of the old ‘gentleman’s game’ of traditional, print publishing – behaviour to which Private Eye routinely draws its readers’ attention, with nearly audible guffaws? In its 26 July-8 August issue, for instance, spotlighting recommended summer reading by literary power brokers in London newspapers:
”Tasha is my sister-in-law,” declared Lee Child, selecting a Tasha Alexander novel in the [Mail on Sunday]. Robert Winder’s book about Wisden, “for which I wrote a foreword”, was David Kynaston’s pick (Times). And “I can’t wait to read my friend Mark Lawson’s astonishingly expansive, hilarious and heartbreakingly dark The Deaths,” gushed Julie Myerson (Observer), enthusing too about a novel from “the latest to be published from my husband’s creative writing MA”.
Such advice was most influential – with the naïve and unsuspicious — when the recommenders hid their ties to authors. Post-Gutenberg is all for letting in the sunlight and dropping the pretence of objectivity. But after that, the point of such recommendations is – precisely what?
• Aristocratic reserve has passed its sell-by date — for aristocrats. Long before the internet sped up the digitisation of human life in every pore, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, avidly promoting tours of Chatsworth, his ancestral pile, were only among the most successful English grandees hawking their ‘brand’.
With unabashed Teutonic frankness, the home page of a successful expatriate painter (and wife of a friend lost to distance and time) announces its owner, in gold-on-black lettering, as ‘Antoinette Baronesse von Grone’. From there, she proceeds immediately, without any timorous beating about the bushes, to
I was born and raised in Northern Germany, in a village that has been the seat of my family for over 500 years.
• Declining to dirty your hands with audience-building for yourself can mean failing to acquire any power to help other people.
Post-Gutenberg has long discouraged friends from initiating even semi-intimate conversations in the comments section of this blog because we can find clubbiness on other blogs off-putting. Even so, we liked last week’s justification of e-barn-building by Cally Phillips, an engagingly exuberant, extempore Scottish blogger (yes, we follow each other’s blogs):
It’s an interesting thing this ‘you read my book I’ll read yours’ It seems that there’s a notion that we should think there’s something a bit suspect in that (like trolls or sock puppet alerts) but hey folks, that’s part of what ‘indie’ writing is about. It’s about finding people you have some kind of a connection with – and guess what – you’ll probably find you might like their writing.
Of course sometimes they write in genres you’re not that familiar with (or claim not to like – for me thrillers and sci fi) But sometimes it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone. And when folks bother themselves with my writing, yes I do feel some compunction to ‘explore’ the worlds they have created and ‘meet’ them through their writing. I’m not ashamed to say that. […] I don’t think that being mediated by gatekeeper, guardian mainstream publishers guarantees me a ‘good read’ and I’m happy to take the responsibility on for myself to find what I want to read. And if, in the process I make virtual (or real) friends of other writers, I’m not going to be embarrassed about that. It’s a good thing.
[Y]ou can read things you’d never have read while you grazed from the mainstream trough. And that’s no bad thing. Unless you want all your reading pre-packaged and homogenised off the supermarket shelves (in which case I’m sure you’re not even reading this!) […] If you like what someone writes TELL THEM. And tell other people.
Anyone who resists the new honesty about connections and self-interest risks being outed anyway, as in a delicious item in the other edition of Private Eye last month – featuring one Sam Baker, a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar, recommending a novel by Jonathan Grimwood:
”From the moment I encountered four year-old Jean-Marie d’Aumout sitting on a dung heap eating beetles, I was obsessed by this sensuous tale of one man’s search for the perfect taste,” she raves. “Part Perfume, part Pure, 100% original.” In a fit of absent-mindedness, Baker omits to add that Grimwood is also 100% her husband.
No publication pretends to despise the internet more than the net-spurning Eye does. Yet – as we have shown in an earlier entry, here – no rag is more gloriously infused with the take-no-prisoners spirit of the blogging world.