for 20. 4. 2014

bluebell in needlesNot counting what poets have had to say about it, a reflection on spring that could not be more unexpected — or apt:

… Matisse soon began work on designing a sublime Chapel of the Rosary for Vence, and he wanted this building to possess ‘the lightness and joyousness of springtime, which never lets anyone suspect the labours it cost.’ …

from ‘Masterpiece: A Radical’s Emancipation of Color,’ Richard Cork, 11 April 2014

From a dear and essential friend of many years in St. Petersburg came excellent news of his family, last week, with a brief preface … ‘This year again the Easter holiday is celebrated at the same time in the Greek Orthodox Church as in the Catholic Church and the churches of Western Europe etc.’ … and this: Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 02.18.48 … which reminded us of a dispatch from Milan last Easter, where someone else, treasured for an eternity, attended on behalf of a new Russian addition to her family – already close, a few weeks before the wedding – a ‘blessing of the eggs’:

easter egg blessing -- baskets on the curb

 

easter -- russian orthodox church, milan, may 2013

– photographs by MIL22

We hope for a peaceful settlement of differences between Russia and the West over the Ukraine.

Hope against hope.

What John A. A. Logan, master of the literary thriller noir, adds to startling revelations about the gender dance by Alison Wolf, ace public policy scholar

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman - photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman
- photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

It is to a new novel that we at post-Gutenberg find ourselves turning to answer the question of whether the human race can continue by sexual reproduction – now that men and women have begun to live and work in ways growing ever less distinguishable.

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’.

reds dOWNWe 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.

reds BRIGHT

Nigella, no longer a ‘domestic goddess,’ has risen through work and the post-print power of the true image to a more dependable claim on our affection

nigella portrait

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955 - The Evening Standard

Nigella on screens last week; Maharani Gayatri Devi with the Maharaja of Jaipur, 1955
- The Evening Standard

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 both the miserable and triumphant potential in the lives of women in mind today – 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 pockmarked 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.

Will this April Fool’s Year of canonising whistleblowers, any whistleblower, never end?

Whipped, if not quite dead: the putative whistleblower’s surveillance story -- with legs  -- ‘Horse and groom,’ 15th-century, Turkish Miniatures, Mentor-UNESCO, 1965

Whipped, if not quite dead: the surveillance story — with legs
– ‘Horse and groom,’ 15th-c., Turkish Miniatures, Mentor-UNESCO, 1965

Might the back-to-front spy story fingering government spooks rather than the villains subjecting us to the ‘surveillance business model’ be the longest-running April Fool’s wheeze in history?

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.

Will there be a half-pint Pulitzer for The Guardian’s Snowden job, like the Paul Foot ‘special investigation award’? … & A Guardian overseer acknowledges ‘mass surveillance’ of readers

Secret, shadowy, tunnels into our lives, 2 - photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives, 2
- photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Our tap’s been phoned.’ Neil Bennet, 1989, Private Eye: A Cartoon History

‘Our tap’s been phoned.’ Neil Bennet, 1989, Private Eye: A Cartoon History
- ( the subject of a staged National Theatre conversation: video clip)

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 )

postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

A Pulitzer prize for typing up the Snowden leaks? We suggest the Laziest Journalism Ever award

We saw no fine journalistic instincts unfurled; no dogged sniffing, and above all, no sweaty investigative reporting: only papers playing mouthpiece to boost circulation  - photograph: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

We saw no fine journalistic instincts unfurled; no dogged sniffing, and above all, no arduous investigative reporting: only papers trying to boost circulation
- photograph: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Preposterous. That is what Politico evidently thinks of bestowing a Pulitzer journalism prize next month on one of the hyperbolic leak-and-spin collaborations between Edward Snowden and journalists who have made the über-leaker famous enough for search engines to suggest that we really want him when we ask them about Snowdon – the Welsh mountain.

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.’

He said that in an interview with Rolling Stone on 13 March – and we recorded the identical objection in a post on this blog last November, with the help of the Mannekin Pis.

Great spring harbinger; brief spring break

spring bend 2013 - photograph by MIL22

– photograph by MIL22

Darling Pietro,

We are supposed to be on a short working holiday

– but cannot stop thinking of

Y-O-U

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 –

Y-O-U

– perfectly on time.

Soon, you will be whizzing around that curve … as we, too many thousands of miles away, are gazing at …

mustard, finally 2 - photograph by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

– photograph: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

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?

– Among Schoolchildren, William Butler Yeats

Benvenuto, Pietro.

pear blossoms bark green leaves -photograph by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

– photograph: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

The spies among us: when will The Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger, connect Facebook’s spying to the Snowden leaks — on the paper’s front page?

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives

Secret, shadowy tunnels into our lives
- photograph by postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Long live the special relationship! Week after week, in its continuing co-leakage with Edward Snowden of documents about government spying, The Guardian, a British newspaper, is dishing up an unparalleled feast of examples to illustrate the use of ‘disconnect’ as a noun — as in, ‘their problem is a reality disconnect’ — classified by the Oxford English Dictionary as American English.

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:

Snaga

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?

Support your favourite inkjet-stained wretches! Send an indie e-book — or three — for the price of a birthday card

red plate starburst 1

red and white 1

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:

Agency Womanol

Extract One:

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.

Extract Two

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? …


The surveillance business model — and did the New York Times mean to say that Snowden ‘plundered’ or ‘got the best of’ the National Security Agency?

Drawing attention to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo - photograph by MIL22

Pointing to the ‘surveillance business model’ is a little lonely, for writers with any grasp of technology, in the artificially-manufactured Snowden hullabaloo
- photograph by MIL22

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?

When will the #TeamSnowden newspapers admit to using the same spying tools as the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ?

Power – wielded by government spooks or corporate surveillance specialists focused on us -- can be addictive - ‘Willy Bonkers,’ Marzia Faggin, 2011

Power – wielded by technology giants, NSA spooks or media surveillance specialists with sights trained on us — can be addictive
- ‘Willy Bonkers,’ Marzia Faggin, 2013

John Naughton http://memex.naughtons.org/

John Naughton

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:

Apache Hadoop takes top prize at Media Guardian Innovation Awards

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 :

How The Guardian is Quietly and Repeatedly Spying on You

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 ...]

Spooky yarn-spinning: just how did the Guardian and New York Times get the surveillance story back-to-front?

Snowden surveillance saga: leaving the tech giants out will be remembered as clickbait-shaped storytelling with a touch of the surreal  -drawing by Martin Disteli (1802-44)

Snowden surveillance saga: leaving the tech giants out will be remembered as clickbait-shaped storytelling with a touch of the fantastic
- drawing by Martin Disteli (1802-44)

… 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.

John Updike: the literary seer who predicted too much privacy as the price for living on the net

In hindsight, Updike's is one of the strangest sour predictions - photograph by MIL22, 2013

In hindsight, Updike’s is one of the strangest sour predictions
- photograph by MIL22

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

Zounds! At last print, led by The New York Review of Books, picks up the real surveillance story: the NSA and GCHQ spooks are followers, not leaders

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors … cameras in and behind mirrors? - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors, clear and fuzzy views … cameras in and behind mirrors?
- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Not for ages has there been a pudding quite as over-egged as the one presented as the news story of 2013 – the Orwellian mass surveillance exposé which, as it unravels, shows the UK and US governments hardly initiating nonstop monitoring but, rather, striving to keep up with companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google in gathering intimate information about us and watching what we do.

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 …

for 1. 1. 2014: Charles Dickens, implacable foe of the witless ‘information wants to be free’ movement

january 1 2014 SCALED Te Deum, Sant'Ambrogio 1 DSCF3492[2]

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 am, 31.12.2013 - photographs by MIL22

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 pm, 31. 12. 2013
- photographs by MIL22

1.1.2014 - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

1. 1. 2014 begins
- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

[ 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 Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?

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.

‘Mass surveillance’: a top spook is allowed an intelligent and revealing say, at last

With the apparent arrival of see-through spying, can transparent black ops be far behind? - 'Cluff' for Private Eye

With the apparent arrival of see-through spying, can transparent black ops be far behind?
- ‘Cluff’ for Private Eye

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.

7.23pm GMT

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.

7.26pm GMT

[…]

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.

The Supreme who reads Proust to live by, and to understand his fellow human-beings

Marcel was surely here: a Parisian backstreet not far from Sacré Couer - postgutenberg [@] gmail.com

Marcel Proust was surely here: a Parisian backstreet not far from Sacré Couer
- postgutenberg [ at ] gmail.com

‘Artistic people aren’t respected.’ We quoted someone to that effect a year ago – a close relation of someone else of strikingly conventional views, but unusually plain-spoken, who says frankly, ‘I want power,’ and would like to have been a lawyer or politician.

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.

If Silicon Valley knew any history, would it be encouraging the destruction of artistic copyright — as energetically as it fights infringements of technology patents?

‘Venus and Cupid,’ Cranach the Elder, 1509

German artists of the Renaissance, inspired by Italy, took off in other directions: ‘Venus and Cupid,’ Cranach the Elder, 1509

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!

BLUE BACKDROP faggin

Kudos to The Register for dusting off its 2004 prediction that the spooks would soon take to watching us with Google’s panoptic lens

It should be general knowledge that newspapers spy on readers: Guardians that live in King’s Cross glass houses should not throw … - photograph by MIL22

It should be general knowledge that newspapers spy on readers: Guardians that live in glass houses should not throw … (ahem)
- photograph by MIL22

Guardian HQ, King's Cross -- photograph: vice.com

The Guardian, King’s Cross, London
photograph: vice.com

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.

In the shift ‘from God to Google’ our security spooks – and the ‘business models’ of newspapers – can hardly risk becoming technology dinosaurs

Cartoon displayed with the kind permission of Peter Schrank, whose gorgeous, incisively impish web site banishes all woe

— screen shot, with the kind permission of Peter Schrank, whose gorgeous, incisive, impish web site banishes all woes

‘[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.’

256px-Manneken_Pis_(crop)

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.

Mass surveillance: can our secret services spy transparently, and not too much or too little?

Oddly familiar in 2013 … But Kim did not suspect that Mahbub Ali, known as one of the best horse-dealers in the Punjab, … was registered in one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department as C25 IB. … [R]ecently, five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate, had been informed by a kindly Northern Power that there was a leakage of news from their territories into British India. So those Kings' Prime Ministers were seriously annoyed and took steps … They suspected, among many others, the bullying, red-bearded horsedealer whose caravans ploughed through their fastnesses belly-deep in snow. Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901

Oddly familiar in 2013 …
‘But Kim did not suspect that Mahbub Ali, known as one of the best horse-dealers in the Punjab, … was registered in one of the locked books of the Indian Survey Department as C25 IB. … [R]ecently, five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate, had been informed by a kindly Northern Power that there was a leakage of news from their territories into British India. So those Kings’ Prime Ministers were seriously annoyed and took steps … They suspected, among many others, the bullying, red-bearded horsedealer whose caravans ploughed through their fastnesses belly-deep in snow.’
Kim, Rudyard Kipling, 1901

 

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.

Should The Guardian be taking its own advice to a beloved London restaurant — to turn itself into a cooperative to keep from going under?

- photograph by MIL22

– photograph by MIL22

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’

Ian Jack, The Guardian, 24 September 2011

 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?

What is a blog, in 2013? More parlour than platform, perhaps

Bloggers can ‘speak truth to power’ as idiosyncratically as caricaturists  – An 1834 protest against corrupt clerics by the Swiss artist Martin Disteli: Wikimedia Commons

Bloggers are free to ‘speak truth to power’ as idiosyncratically as caricaturists
– an 1834 protest against corrupt clerics by the Swiss artist Martin Disteli: Wikimedia Commons

Blog posts can be as intentionally -- and unintentionally -- revealing about bloggers as parlour furnishing was about a house’s occupants

Blog posts can be as intentionally — and unintentionally — revealing about bloggers as parlour furnishing was about a house’s occupants

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.

- The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study, Thad Logan, Cambridge University Press, 2001

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.

Net democracy: the great science magazines value readers’ comments, but a pop-sci counterpart shuts down discussions and criticism

Reader-commenters are vacuous birds of prey for some members of the media's old guard - drawing by Hugh Lofting 1886-1947

Reader-commenters: vacuous birds of prey, to media’s old guard
- drawing by Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)

‘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.’

bdhoro87

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?

Loschen

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…

qlmmb2086

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 …

One hundred posts, but many more kudos to Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott for a post-print work of genius focused on Italy

giac b+w title

<i>Girlfriend in a Coma</i> encourages viewers to join its creators in knocking down and neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception of it

Girlfriend in a Coma urges viewers to join its creators in neutralising ‘Bad Italy’ – a podgy monster, in Phoebe Boswell’s conception

Phoebe Boswell

Phoebe Boswell
photograph by Sky Arts

[…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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 00.23.13

The Guardian’s ‘moderation,’ again – and reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona? photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona?
photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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):

CA-Oxonian

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.

 

Britain’s government ‘moderates’ The Guardian as a commenter on its surveillance policies, and The New York Times hides ex-General James Cartwright

door

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. guardian notice 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?

Enter: the ‘lifestyle vertical’. Post-Gutenberg gobbledygook – or a ‘new media’ gift to mankind?

petals needles B 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.

petals risers B

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.

petals needles PLANKS

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, …

Sunday 3

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 …

garden hose 1

The Individual:

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 …

[continues]

… 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’.

Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 1

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920 - photograph by David Harris

Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920
- photograph by David Harris

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. ]

Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 2 (images)

Variant of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus with the eyes of Paul Klee’s Baroque Portrait and the mouth of Paul Klee’s Absorption,  Carl Djerassi and Gabriele Seethaler, 2008 - by kind permission of Carl Djerassi

Variant of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus with the eyes of Paul Klee’s Baroque Portrait and the mouth of Paul Klee’s Absorption (see below);  Carl Djerassi and Gabriele Seethaler, 2008
- by kind permission of Carl Djerassi

Absorption, self-portrait by Paul Klee, 1919

Absorption, self-portrait by Paul Klee, 1919

Baroque Port.

Baroque Portrait, Paul Klee, 1920

This is a small selection of the images referred to or created by Carl Djerassi – in collaboration with Gabriele Seethaler – in his Four Jews on Parnassus, introduced in part 1, on another page of this blog. Brief extracts from the dialogue they illustrate: part 3.

Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future, part 3 (extract)

A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast, Angel Brings What is Desired, Paul Klee, 1920

A Spirit Serves a Little Breakfast, Angel Brings What is Desired, Paul Klee, 1920

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’.

Log-rolling turns transparent as e-publishing and online art promotion come of age

'Spanky' and N -- LCM 2

‘Niko and Spanky’ - photographs by Willodel http://www.facebook.com/Willodel

‘Niko and Spanky’
- photographs by Willodel http://www.facebook.com/Willodel

‘Alphonse et Gaston’ – the gold standard for mutual feather-stroking – from the Wikipedia

‘Alphonse et Gaston’ – the gold standard for mutual feather-stroking – from the Wikipedia

‘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

ARTIST BIOGRAPHY

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.

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 2: copying China, here, is hardly the right road to take

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

chinese cups disarranged 22luckyseeds 9287353120_2a9a94b6cc_b

Surely America, supremely the land of individualists, is the most unlikely destroyer of copyright?

In the home of Thoreau, Walden Pond’s immortal hermit; of Gertrude Stein, so original that she revelled in her incomprehensibility – also the country that reveres the hard act to follow of a Janis Joplin flaring up, dying young, and leaving behind an inextinguishable brilliance – you might expect to read that copyright law is …

… concerned with the moral rights of authors, which are based on the author’s creative sense of self. Moral rights are the author’s right to protect his or her personal relationship with their work.

But no, those thoughts of a lawyer, Anna Spies, were published on an Australian website dedicated to discussions of intellectual property law. She was referring not to the American perspective on copyright, or the antipodean one, but to the historical view of ‘civil law countries in continental Europe.’

Today’s America — or certainly the one envisaged most enthusiastically by its youngest adults — apparently looks forward to adopting Chinese practices that do not, by long-established tradition, place any value on the shaping of work by a distinctive sensibility and the quirks in the exercise of a particular individual’s talent and skills.

This is not a little ironic. As post-Gutenberg’s last post showed, rich countries outside Asia have been showing scarcely any interest in digging down into the roots of Chinese culture and philosophy. Yet intelligent thinkers, with Americans in the lead, are making a case for replacing the glorification of creativity and originality that sparked and drove the Renaissance with deeply Chinese arguments in favour of wholesale imitation, extending to wide-ranging intellectual and commercial piracy. Last month, a Reuter’s blogger with a following among power-brokers was citing a respected scholarly journal when he rallied his fellow copyright opponents:

[L]ook at the Chinese YouTube, Youku, which is displacing television in large part because it has no copyright verification. As Chinese media companies evolve to take advantage of Youku, they will be much better placed to compete in the 21st Century than US companies which rely on copyright laws to keep consumers boxed in to increasingly-unnatural modes of consumption. […]

Chinese piracy also brings innovation within the grasp of a huge population of poorer Chinese, with long-term positive effects for all … [… from …] shanzhai — low-cost copies of items which would not be affordable otherwise.

Like so much else in China, the meaning of shanzhai is undergoing a drastic change. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it”…

Might ‘Yay, shanzhai!’ … have replaced ‘The East is red!’ for sinophiles among those U.S. intellectuals bent on aligning themselves with the future? Anyone interested in reading the curious case for that in the blogger’s source, Foreign Affairs, is blocked by a paywall protecting …well, could you ever have guessed, copyright? This is so absurd, and what we have gleaned of Foreign Affairs’ endorsement of shanzhai so underwhelming, that we see no point in handing over $5. 

‘How the World Benefits from Chinese Piracy’ is the Reuters blogger’s title. Fine, bring it on … if – as he and some of his commenters (below his post) agree – the Chinese pirates’ targets are multinational pharmaceutical giants, or other obscenely profitable and dishonest corporations or business sectors. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and both the Reuters blog and what we have gleaned of the Foreign Affairs essay fail to impress, for at least two reasons:

• Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father most admired for his inventiveness, is dragged in to sprinkle holy water on intellectual piracy because he ‘made a substantial sum from republishing the works of British authors without permission or payment.’ Surely that has to be reckoned as an act of aggression, not a feat of commercial genius? Franklin’s dislike of his transatlantic cousins is notorious. (See  ‘The fine and noble china vase, the British Empire …’ – or, for a contemporary perspective, ‘Ben Franklin Really Fucking Hated the British …’ in cracked.com.)

•  Once again, it seems, the greed of monster corporations in the music business has been spotlighted to justify depriving, of even their token crusts, the majority of artists and musicians getting by on their equivalents of Grub Street.

Foreign Affairssummary of the essay says:

Traditional music labels have decried the copying of recorded music, arguing that it discourages the composition and performance of new music. According to the authors, that is simply not the case: it is the traditional business model of the labels that is under threat, not the production of music. And copyright was conceived to protect creative activity, not particular business models.

By now, this line of attack on copyright is not merely unconvincing but verges on lazy and boring. Why not pour the mental energy into finding ways to separate the needs of creative artists from the exploitation of copyright by large corporations selling copies of works of art?

The ‘author’s creative sense of self’ to which Anna Spies refers in the Australian blog post at the start of this entry encapsulates what we sensed about an outstanding friend of this blog, as we watched Crofters, a marvel of documentary film-making about a small crofting community in the Scottish Highlands, shot in 1945.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film +++Crofters+++(1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. The seated woman is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Writing movingly about losing his mother, Agnes, in May, John Logan (or, to avert Google-fusion, John A. A. Logan) said on the Authors Electric  site that she was ‘the best person I ever knew’. She is the smallest girl in the party of schoolchildren following their teacher in our still photograph (above) and, her son has told post-Gutenberg, gave his work her enthusiastic, unqualified, unstinting support.

Listening to the lovely concision in the language of folk in Achriesgill, where she lived at that age, you realize that you have heard their echoes in the dialogue in John’s finest short stories, of which we have featured samples, here. In the film, someone is heard speculating about the destination of Nurse McKay, also the local midwife: ‘I wonder, now, where will it be she’s off to in her wee car this morning?’ A female voiceover, in footage of a woman cleaning a lamp: ‘I wonder, now, when will we get the electricity that there’s been so much talking about?’

The anti-copyright crowd insists that all art is ‘remix’ or ‘mashup’ trickery – a bizarre and anachronistic re-definition based on capacities for simulating artistic creation that were impossible before we were given today’s technological equipment. The words of long-dead artists are misconstrued for credibility (of the inattentive):

Although remix has always been an aspect of human culture the phenomenon takes on more significance in the digital age, because of the ease with which a creator of a new cultural artifact can “steal” to use the term from Stravinsky’s observation that all composers steal and the great composers steal the most. Music, text and images are easily transferred from one digital device to another especially because of the Internet which allows this phenomenon to take place on a global scale.

This remix culture means, apparently, that no artist deserves to expect to make anything like a living from his art (a subject that goes unmentioned in the movement’s manifestoes). But, like John’s, any work of literature or art is both saturated with and dictated by family and place – or their rejection; with psychological inheritances and consequences – indistinguishable, in other words, from personal experience and individuality.

It is from studying the techniques of artistic forebears that most arts workers learn how to shape this raw material, which bears the stamp of its influences. That is not the same as puffed up cut-and-paste exercises or shameless copying. Both the ability and opportunity to make use of gifts of personal history and talent are almost always hard-earned – or, as so many biographies testify, when seemingly effortless, can extract the steep price in misfortune that often follows success.

There are Chinese cultural traditions worthy of surpassing respect and even imitation. Why conflate bringing consumer goods — manufactured commodities — and prescription drugs within the reach of poor Chinese, with rights of artistic ownership, depriving all artists of the means to earn the occasional soupçon of calories – if not, as the internet pioneer Jaron Lanier insists, the chance to grow rich?

Why not distinguish between copyright protection for individual creators and corporations hawking the fruits of creativity? Why not help to make micropayments for artists routine — as unremarkable as online shopping? (See: ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support “lyric perception”?’)

Who’s afraid of getting intimate with Chinese philosophy and world views? Nearly everyone Western, apparently

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation -- cultural and spiritual nourishment - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Traditional wooden Chinese lunch box. A far grander bronze cauldron is anciently symbolic of civilisation — cultural and spiritual nourishment
- photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

The ting (cauldron), cast of bronze, was the vessel that held the cooked viands in the temple of the ancestors and at banquets [… and … ] refers to the cultural superstructure of society.

- oracular philosophy in the I Ching (3000-2000 BCE); trans.: Richard Wilhelm (Chinese to German); Cary Baynes (German to English)

If a rival for economic and military supremacy is always potentially a foe, could a diluted version of the old adage, ‘Know your enemy’ – from Sun Tzu’s 6th century BCE classic, The Art of War — still be sensible advice to follow?

Obviously, yes.

So you — or certainly anyone paying attention to world affairs – might suppose. Bizarrely, though, adults in the West seem to be leaving the job of understanding China to future generations, starting with the one in junior schools today. In an interview seven years ago with America’s National Public Radio, a headmaster of a British public school and biographer of two recent prime ministers said, ‘I think, within 10 years we need to have as many children in Britain learning Mandarin as are currently learning French.’

But what if one of those little brows perspiring over her ideograms was a grandchild of, say, Dennis Overbye, the fizzing, often very funny, New York Times science writer? In a brief aside in his column yesterday, sketching the big questions now perplexing physicists – every bit as much as they have for the entire history of philosophy and science — he asked:

The latest cosmological wrinkle is dark energy, which is speeding up the flight of galaxies from one another. And the great question is whether this dark energy is going to suck the light and energy out of the universe so completely that some day billions of years from now nothing is left: no memory even of Homer, Jesus, Mozart, Elvis or Nelson Mandela, not to mention the rest of us.

Especially as a light-hearted throwaway remark, that was proof of stunningly unconscious and blinkered Eurocentricity, never mind his token tossing-in of Mandela — or any pedant who cares to bark that Christianity’s founder was Middle-Eastern. If Overbye were to insist to a school-going relation of his that a C+ grade in Mandarin was simply not good enough, there could hardly be a more discouraging example of the admonitory, ‘… not as I do, but as I say.’

If members of the intelligentsia were paying proper attention, Chinese Dreams, a revelatory short book or long essay by the Indo-American writer Anand Giridharadas – whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – would have been reviewed within an inch of its life by every high-profile current affairs publication in the English language, for a start.

It should have made no difference that Chinese Dreams – containing critical information distilled from a series of interviews with mostly young Chinese thinkers in the urban elite, ranging from academics to entrepreneurs – was self-published two years ago exclusively as a post-print e-book. As scores of reviews on the Amazon sites testify, though it is acutely disturbing, in parts — because of its implications for philosophical principles the West holds most sacred – it is a completely engaging fast, lively read that slips down as easily as dim-sum prawn dumplings.

Large, mainstream Western publishers have long shrunk from publishing books that delve into the roots of Chinese and Indian cultural traditions and perspectives – claiming that their readers have no interest in these, so perpetuating, if not setting up, a circle of willed ignorance. In no general-interest publication has post-Gutenberg heard from Chinese voices like the ones Giridharadas coaxed into his recording device.

A sample, from post-Gutenberg’s Kindle ‘notes and marks’:

Eric X. Li is a successful and well-connected venture capitalist in Shanghai. He was once a believer in the American Dream, he now wants to help create a Chinese Dream all its own.

[…]

While Westerners focus on how China has failed to measure up to Western principles – for example, its resistance of democracy or the capriciousness of its legal system – Li believes that China is inventing ‘an alternative set of organizing principles for human affairs that are fundamentally different – not in opposition – but fundamentally different from what the world has been looking to the West for in the last three-four hundred years.’

[…]

[T]he ideas of Li’s circle are now referred to as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ in some quarters, to rival the Washington one, and are, at the least, taken seriously in some of the countries that have struggled to implement Western political and economic formulas in contexts very different from the West’s.

[…]

These were the four core principles I was able to glean from Li, Jin, Rao, and others.

1. Individualism isn’t universal.

[…] The West … does not understand societies – for example, Iraq – where tribal or sectarian or neighbourhood loyalties overwhelm simple individualism. […I] n Li’s view, China has, at a minimum, shown the world something new: that a large society can be successful and bring peace and prosperity to its people without an understanding of the individual derived from the European Enlightenment. […]

2. Pragmatism over abstraction.

… [A]s the members of this circle view it, it is China that lives by pragmatism as a way of life and the West that believes, and is defined by a belief, in abstract, universally applicable truths.

In reality, of course, no one has a monopoly on either pragmatism or principle. But it can be observed that the culture of China, like that of India, is generally less comfortable with the kind of sweeping, true-in-all-cases ideology of the kind you find in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. ‘Our framework is more down to earth,’ said Fu, the political scientist. ‘We lack metaphysics. We are not interested in idea-based searches. We practice first.’ [...]

3. Meritocracy over democracy.

[...] The members of Li’s circle are also seeking to revitalize the Confucian idea of meritocracy over democracy as the fount of political legitimacy. ‘Americans believe in election; the Chinese, if I simplify, believe in selection,’ said Zhang Wei-Wei, an international relations scholar who divides his time between Geneva and Beijing and once served as a translator for Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who opened China’s doors to the world in 1978. [...]

4. Representing the future.

… China’s senior leadership, for all its other faults, has struck a healthier balance between the country’s short- and long-term interests than many Western democracies

[…]

China’s relationship with the environment … is on the one hand, ravaging the planet … It should be excused, its leaders say, because they have to secure economic growth for its people. But China has also pivoted more speedily than many democracies toward building a renewable energy industry – something for which the short-term payoff is minimal, as Western politicians know, but the long-term societal benefits potentially massive.

… and to fill in the gaps and glean everything else Giridharadas’s book has to say, we suggest a quick hop over here, after which we hope readers will ask: why haven’t I read about any of this in – The New York Times? The Economist, … ?

[ For the record: no, post-Gutenberg does not know this author, and we have no acquaintances in common, as far as we know … ]

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom
- photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

How does newness enter the world?

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, 2012

Dear Copyright-Haters,

How about picketing Tupperware?  Yes, … we are perfectly serious. Imagine the Facebook updates of yourselves holding giant sock-it-to-‘em placards shouting, ‘STOP COMMODIFICATION NOW!’ … What’s that? … Right. How, you ask, would you store your left-over microwaveable meals in this post-cooking age without plastic boxes so much alike that, even with brand names, they are virtual commodities? You could try porcelain bowls covered with plates or tin foil for an alternative – but no, you say, no one does that any more … muttering to yourselves, inaudibly, ‘Idiot!

We’ve been hearing that you hate commodification. After last week’s post with Jaron Lanier warning about the consequences for other professions of destroying artists’ rights to control the use of their work, a friend emailed us to say that enemies of copyright are not playing Scrooge when you refuse to contribute even micropayments to enjoy art. (Most of you agree merrily with, eg., the blithe prediction by the editor of Wired: ‘ I think most music will soon be free, …’).

The problem, this friend explained, is that you fear the commodification of the arts. We have heard similar thoughts expressed as, more or less, this: ‘Why should a musician get to charge every time he or she sells a replica of a single performance on cheap plastic CDs over and over again – and get obscenely rich from the proceeds, in some cases?’ Well. Just as a thought experiment, how about putting music CDs lower down on your hit list and starting with obvious horrors – those containers made of processed petroleum, clogging landfill in their millions? One day last month, Tupperware’s share price went rocketing into the heavens – hitting ‘a new 52-week high,’ we noticed. Now, that’s encouragement for commodification!

Why pick on artists instead of finding some way to hijack the profits from  (comparatively) mindless replication elsewhere? The new digital technologies were supposed to relieve some of the pain and hardship behind the centuries-old ‘starving artist’ cliché. They introduced the possibility of financial independence for more artists than ever before — linked to their ability to control how they work, and own the results. By, for instance, recording and distributing their own musical performances; or publishing or exhibiting their e-books, paintings, sculpture, and so on.

On the blog of The New York Review of Books, there is a perfect example from medieval Europe of an artist using new technology as an aid and spur to artistic independence, creativity and an evolutionary leap in drawing and painting. About the sublime German, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whom the Wikipedia reasonably pegs as ‘the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance,’ the NYRB blogger Andrew Butterfield writes:

Dürer was perhaps the first artist in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong expectations regarding both what was depicted and how it was represented. But printmaking was a completely new medium, little beholden to tradition. Even when treating Biblical themes, Dürer was comparatively free to pursue a more personal investigation of subject matter.

The painters of Dürer’s time who specialised in portraiture worked like – shall we say, analogue precursors of photo-editing software, who did all the retouching in the act of image-creation rather than after it. The most talented of them could grow rich themselves by following the conventions for flattering their powerful, wealthy subjects in oils – but with their creativity as constrained as the ‘lotus feet’ tortured into existence by foot-binding. Printmaking allowed Dürer  to flout those rules to develop an entirely new, realistic style in portraiture:

Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

The Wikipedia explains the effect of his independence:

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominately in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints were undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.

Copyright laws were one invention that accompanied the replication that the printing press and printmaking introduced. Before reproducibility could be taken for granted, only the wealthy could afford to adorn their walls with the work of painters; after it, peasants could have their own woodcuts of saints and angels.

This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.

ARTICLE19’s excellent prescriptions for bloggers’ rights — putting them on a par with those of professional journalists — were recently the subject of a post in this spot. This same organisation has also made thoughtful recommendations for the evolution of copyright laws in another paper. Perfectly in keeping with what copyright allowed Durer to do, this document says:

Freedom of expression and copyright are complementary inasmuch as the purpose of copyright is the promotion of literary, musical and artistic creativity, the enrichment of cultural heritage and the dissemination of knowledge and information goods to the general public.

Some of us can only pray that protecting copyright as its rules are revised for the digital age will free arts workers from paymasters. From the domain of musical composition, the psychologist Anthony Storr offers in The Dynamics of Creation (1972) an elegant example of what financial dependence costs creativity:

Some very good music has been written for film … but the limitations imposed by having to tie the music strictly to the action means that the composer cannot choose for himself a vital dimension of the composition, its length. Most composers, therefore, rate film music as ‘incidental’ music, and separate it sharply from original compositions which truly reflect their own creative personality.

… In the last few days, we have learnt from Salman Rushdie’s riveting autobiography, Joseph Anton, about ARTICLE19’s crucial support in his years of enforced hiding from assassins trying to carry out his death sentence, the Iranian fatwa. Curiosity about this organisation’s backers led us to discover that these include Britain’s Foreign Office, the Department for International Aid (DFID) / UKAID, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and in Silicon Valley, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was a real comfort – knowing of the existence of an organisation with international financing that advocates both blogging as a form of free speech and copyright protection.

Now about your Tupperware march …

… over to you,

post-Gutenberg

Jaron Lanier, a web pioneer, recants the ‘information-wants-to-be-free’ doctrine: parallel thinking about rescuing ‘the creative class’

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution postgutenberg@gmail.com

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution
postgutenberg@gmail.com

unfinished spools postgutenberg@gmail.com

Why are the dreadlocks of the computer scientist Jaron Lanier a 21st-century counterpart of 1960s bra-burning (or rumours thereof) by women desperately seeking justice for women?

Because a snaky Medusa hairdo can help to draw attention to a cause whose importance too many people fail to understand.

Lanier’s super-hairy look long preceded his campaign of the moment: he wants remedies for the internet’s decimation of the ability of musicians, one tribe to which he belongs, to earn a living. By empathetic extension, he is just as worried about what the net has done to the livelihoods of artists, writers, and the rest of their unworldly kin. Like Carl Djerassi — the chemist and birth-control inventor recently mentioned on post-Gutenberg – his unusual creativity spanning art and technology has taught him how much arts-workers need the help of practical scientists.

Why should other non-artists care? Because, as he warns shrewdly – and, we suspect, accurately – without defensive action, the net could prove just as destructive to other professions, including some too smug to see themselves ever sharing the insecurity of the traditionally bohemian occupations.

Summarising the new Lanier book, Who Owns the Future, on the blog of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Eric Allen Been says in his introduction to an interview with the author:

[I]t places particular emphasis on the ways digital technology has unsettled the so-called “creative class” — journalists, musicians, photographers, and the like. As he sees it, the tribulations of those working in such fields may be a premonition for the middle class as a whole. It’s “urgent,” he writes, “to determine if the felling of creative-class careers was an anomaly or an early warning of what is to happen to immeasurably more middle-class jobs later in this century.”

Particularly welcome is a grand mea culpa from Lanier – in which he offers artists the best possible defence against all those technologists bent on depriving them of the protection of copyright. In January, the Smithsonian magazine recorded his appalled witnessing of some tragic effects of removing that shield in the music world:

[A]ll of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’

And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault.

His confession to his Nieman interviewer was a model of forthrightness:

Eric Allen Been: You were one of the early advocates of the notion that “information wants to be free.” […] Could you talk a little bit about why you changed your mind […]?

Jaron Lanier: Sure. It was based on empirical results. The idea sounded wonderful 30 years ago. It sounded wonderful in the way that perfect libertarianism or perfect socialism can. […] Empirically, […] there is an absurdity to the way it’s going.

Or, as he put it to Salon:

If you go way back I was one of the people who started the whole music-should-be-free thing. You can find the fire-breathing essays where I was trying to articulate the thing that’s now the orthodoxy. Oh, we should free ourselves from the labels and the middleman and this will be better.

I believed it at the time because it sounds better, it really does. I know a lot of these musicians, and I could see that it wasn’t actually working. I think fundamentally you have to be an empiricist. I just saw that in the real lives I know — both older and younger people coming up — I just saw that it was not as good as what it had once been. So that there must be something wrong with our theory, as good as it sounded.

Like the most inventive thinkers, he knows that many of the best ideas in any sphere have a long trail of discarded bad ideas behind them – and he might have been shaped by Samuel Beckett’s famous advice in Worstward Ho: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

So, how does he think can we stop the damage from the information-wants-to-be-free – ‘freemium’ – movement?

Been: […] [A] lot of what you’re proposing strikes me, in some senses, as a freelance economy.

Lanier: That’s right. What I’m proposing is actually a freelance economy, but it’s a freelance economy where freelancing earns you not just income but also wealth. That’s an important distinction to make. What I think should happen is as you start providing information to the network, it then will become a part of other services that grow over time.

So, for instance, let’s suppose you translate between languages, and some of your translations provide example phrase translations that are used in automatic translators. You would keep getting dribbles of royalties from having done that, and you start accumulating a lot of little ways that you’re getting royalties — not in the sense of contractual royalties, just little payments from people that are doing things that benefited from information you provided. […] What should happen is you should start accumulating wealth, some money that shows up because of your past as well as your present moment.

Been: So if I simply shared a link to a New York Times article on Twitter, for instance, would there be a payment exchange? If so, who would it go to?

Lanier: It would be person-to-person payments. Right now, we’re used to a system where you earn money in blocks, like a salary check, and you’re spending on little things like coffee of something. And in this system, you’d be earning lots of little micropayments all the time.

Ah, micropayments. … Lanier is singing in the same key as post-Gutenberg was in March of last year, in our entry titled, ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support lyric perception?

Because Lanier’s cross-cultural sympathy so perfectly confirms our speculation in that mini-post – that artistic copyright could be saved by growing numbers of amateurs beginning to use the freedom of the net to start selling art themselves – we hope to be indulged in this re-blogging:

photograph by MIL22

photograph by MIL22

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

By micropayments I mean fractions of euros or dollars – or their equivalent – paid through a transactional service like Kachingle or Flattr to look at an image or video, read a text, or listen to a musical performance or composition. These are payments so minuscule that they barely register with our pocketbooks, but do earn their creators some measurable income in the aggregate.

Popular writers and artists would still far out-earn rivals who cater to more specialised tastes, but some of those appreciated by smaller audiences might be able to retain more of the earnings that they must give away, at present, to middlemen they cannot really afford to pay at all – intermediaries who rarely have the time or inclination to spend much time promoting their work.

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for micro-transactions. Their complaints about feeling cheated by corporate middlemen in the music business, when obliged to pay for the pleasure of ‘sharing’ a song, are not completely incomprehensible.

But why are they so unenthusiastic about experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers?

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

If more Millennials come to see themselves as artists, writers and musicians in years to come – using the democratic new publishing tools – will they become less unsympathetic?

The message from ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ about blogging’s future status is encouraging. As for its transformation of computer (in)security – bah!

One lovely child of flawed software: poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, postgutenberg@gmail.com

One lovely child of flawed software:
poster in an office of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Bern, postgutenberg@gmail.com

Seven years ago, Elinor Ostrom — a winner of the 2009 Nobel prize for economics — cited an article on computer unreliability in a paper on knowledge-sharing that she wrote with Charlotte Hess. The angry essay they mentioned ran in late 2000 in an e-zine, the online magazine Salon. Their thirty-nine citations included only one other in a general-interest publication, a decades-old New Yorker piece by E. B. White.

More on that in a moment …

Long before print journalists shrank from crediting or citing blogs as sources of good ideas and information, they refused to acknowledge debts to e-zines and other online-only publications. If they gave them any credit at all, it was for being brave enough to dip their toes in the digital future – in which, from print’s Olympian perch, it seemed as if these pioneers were bound to fail. Their cold-shouldering will soon have to end, thanks to the example set by unprejudiced, fair-minded thinkers.

In post-Gutenberg’s experience, intellectual greatness is in direct proportion to the trouble a powerful brain worker takes over acknowledging useful information or inspiration found absolutely anywhere – whether or not the source meets old-fashioned, conventional criteria for respectability. Only shallow snobs care about labels.

With a quotation of just three words about a growing ‘culture of carelessness,’ Ostrom and Hess directed readers of their paper about obstacles to sharing research findings to the Salon article — ‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ (‘HTMOS’) — whose subject has been making front-page headlines, lately.

For instance, yesterday’s ‘Chinese Hackers Resume Attacks on U.S. Targets’ followed by only a few weeks a long profile in the same newspaper about the über-Cassandra on this topic, an octogenarian computer scientist called Peter Neumann who is leading a team of researchers trying to make computers less vulnerable to security breaches. His interviewer noted that

… the increasing complexity of modern hardware and software has made it virtually impossible to identify the flaws and vulnerabilities in computer systems and ensure that they are secure and trustworthy. The consequence has come to pass in the form of an epidemic of computer malware and rising concerns about cyberwarfare as a threat to global security …

We would name the newspaper we have quoted in linking to it, as we usually do, except that we are trying to make a point about the churlishness of print journalists’ tendency to – shall we say, forget to credit e-zines and blogs as sources. In April, the same daily ran an opinion piece by a hacker-turned-security-consultant, Marc Maiffret, who made our eyes pop in one paragraph (our italics):

The unspoken truth is that for the most part, large software companies are not motivated to make software secure. It’s a question of investment priorities: they care more about … developing the latest features and functions that consumers and businesses are looking to buy.

Unspoken, eh?

‘High tech’s missionaries of sloppiness’ certainly spoke, twelve years ago:

A culture of carelessness seems to have taken over in high-tech America. The personal computer is a shining model of unreliability because the high-tech industry today actually exalts sloppiness as a modus operandi.

[…]

American companies accept “good enough” quality for the sake of speed. Being first to market with new products is exalted as the highest goal here, and companies fall back on huge technical support and customer service staffs to cope with their many errors of commission and omission.

“Don’t worry, be crappy,” was how Silicon Valley veteran and pundit Guy Kawasaki expressed the same idea two years ago, in a speech that won him a standing ovation.

Programmers, hackers, and technologists of every stripe were incensed by the Salon essay. After a link to it was posted in the week of its publication on Slashdot.org — then the most popular computerists’ chat-forum – they swarmed aboard, so furious that at least a third of the posts denounced the author of ‘HTMOS’ as ‘he,’ in spite of her unambiguously female name. The explosion was partly owed to the genius of Andrew Leonard, the Salon editor on the job, who barely scratched the piece’s text but wrote its headline and dreamt up a standfirst borrowing none of its actual words, which read,

Computer companies specialize in giving consumers lousy products — it’s the American way of techno-capitalism.

Maiffret and his editors might simply have failed to check the antecedents for his condemnation of Silicon Valley’s lack of interest in safe computing. A lone editor from the print world, Simon Caulkin – renowned in British journalism not just for his talent but peerless integrity (and a former colleaugue of the Salon contributor) – did cite ‘HTMOS’ in one of his Observer columns on management, titled, ‘Software must stop bugging us’.

For the most part, it is in books and university curricula that the essay has been marked for attention. Even if the world is still a long way from curing computers of their flaws, the citations that come up on the first page of Google results for the essay’s title are in, for instance:

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change, Sue Roaf, David Crichton and Fergus Nicol, Routledge, 2012

Why Programs Fail – A Guide to Systematic Debugging, Andreas Zeller, Elsevier, 2009 [also a Google e-book]

Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice, Pearson Education, 2007

Quality software project management, Robert T. Futrell, Donald F. Shafer and Linda Isabell Shafer, Prentice Hall Professional, 2002

‘HTMOS’ also continues to find its way into arguments between technophiles, as in 2007, on the site of the ‘Central West End Linux Users Group’ – where it was used to slap down a debater who declared airily, ‘Every OS [operating system] has its faults. Pick your poison.’

That Ostrom-Hess paper with which this post began was, as it happens, about tribalism getting in the way of sharing information critical to human life – in microbiology research. The authors noted, in their abstract, that ‘there are many, diverse participants in producing and consuming information who often have conflicting interests …’.

Conflicting interests indeed. It is obvious from the rarity with which print journalism acknowledges good work published online in e-zines and blogs that its workers are afraid of their new competitors. And then, of course, programmers are not particularly fond of that article. We at post-Gutenberg are not much interested in conspiracy theories, but could not help smiling when we noticed that someone at both The Observer and Salon appeared to have gone to pains to make it harder to find ‘HTMOS’ and the Caulkin column on flawed software. The London newspaper misclassifies his eloquent jeremiad with the work of a political writer, Madeleine Bunting. And for years, the Salon essay has been indexed not with its collections of pieces on computers, software or Silicon Valley but under ‘AUTO INDUSTRY, ENTERTAINMENT NEWS’.

Of course we imply no conspiracy… the culprit could only be a dear little sloppiness gremlin piling up overtime hours.

Bloggers’ rights, and blogging vs. traditional journalism: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend

'Let a hundred schools of thought contend' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred schools of thought contend’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

'Let a hundred bloggers bloom' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Let a hundred bloggers bloom’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

Blogging as one of our rights to free expression was the subject of an important and excellent ARTICLE 19 paper published earlier this month. ARTICLE 19 ‘is an international human rights organisation, founded in 1986, which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.’

Highlights — to some of which we have added extra emphasis, in italics:

Who is a blogger?

In the most basic sense, a blogger is any person who writes entries for, adds materials to, or maintains a ‘blog’ – a web log published on the Internet. Blogs allow anyone to self-publish online without prior editing or commissioning by an intermediary (e.g. someone like a newspaper editor). They can be immediate and also anonymous if the blogger so desires.

What matters most about the right to blog?

Blogging plays an invaluable role in the free flow of information worldwide. It enables a true exchange of information in ways that traditional media did not in the past. It also allows an immediate sharing of information with its audience and immediate feedback. It represents a valuable form of alternative journalism and is an example of the Internet’s ‘democratisation of publishing.’

In the 21st century, many bloggers will take their place as watchdogs, alongside traditional media. The international community and individual states must develop protection for bloggers, just as they have developed protection for traditional media, despite the many constraints. Throughout history, the traditional media have obtained protection as a group although, at the individual level, many members of the media are not concerned with advancing public interest. Similar protection must be provided to bloggers.

How are bloggers different from journalists?

ARTICLE 19 has long argued that ‘journalism’ and ‘journalists’ should not be defined by reference to some recognised body of training, or by affiliation with a media entity or professional body.5 We have argued that journalism is an activity that can be exercised by anyone, and that it is important that any legal standards and principles applicable to the activity should reflect this.

In particular, the definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

At the same time, any person who seeks to publish information on matters of public interest should benefit from the same protection and privileges given to professional journalists under existing case law, including prohibiting any requirement for journalists to be registered, requiring the authorities to investigate attacks on them, and protecting their sources.

Key recommendations

– Relevant legal standards should reflect the fact that ‘journalism’ consists

of disseminating information and ideas to the public by any means of communication. As such, it is an activity which can be exercised by anyone.

– Any definition of the term ‘journalist’ should be broad, to include any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.

– Bloggers should never be required to obtain a licence to blog.

– Bloggers should never be required to register with the government or other

official bodies.

– Accreditation schemes must meet international freedom of expression standards and should ensure that:

– all applicants, including bloggers, who meet the minimum requirements defined in the law should be automatically issued with a ‘press’ facilitation card;

– press cards should only be required to get access to events or premises where there is a clear need to limit attendance based on limited space or the potential for disruption;

– the conditions for obtaining a press card should be based on the overall public interest and not on considerations such as affiliation with a professional association or degree in journalism.

– Legal commentators, including bloggers, should be allowed to use social media from court rooms if the hearings are open to the public.

– To the extent that they are engaged in journalistic activity, bloggers should be able to rely on the right to protect their sources.

– Any request to disclose sources should be strictly limited to the most serious cases. It should be approved only by an independent judge in a fair and public hearing with a possibility of an appeal.

– State authorities must guarantee the safety of bloggers using a variety of measures, including the prohibition of crimes against freedom of expression in their domestic laws.

– States must take reasonable steps to protect bloggers and other individuals actively engaged in online communities when they know or ought to know of the existence of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified blogger as a result of the criminal acts of a third party;

– State authorities must carry out independent, speedy and effective investigations into threats or violent attacks against bloggers or other individuals engaged in journalistic activity online.

– The laws governing the liability of bloggers, including defamation law, incitement and other speech-related offences, must comply with international freedom of expression standards.

– As a general rule, bloggers should not be held liable for comments made by third parties on their blogs in circumstances where they have not intervened or modified those comments.

– For certain types of content, for example content that is defamatory or infringes copyright, consideration should be given to adopting ‘notice-and-notice’ approaches whereby bloggers would be required to pass the complaint to the original maker of the statement at issue, without removing the material upon notice.

– The term ‘duties and responsibilities’ in Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the European Convention must be interpreted flexibly to take into account the particular situation of the blogger in question.

– Bloggers should not be forced to abide by the ethical codes or codes of conduct developed by traditional media and should not be coerced or given an incentive to join self-regulatory bodies for traditional media.

– Bloggers may decide to follow the ethical standards of traditional media of their own accord. They can also develop their own code of practice either for their own blogs or for associations they voluntarily join. Alternative dispute resolution systems should also be encouraged.

– When bloggers produce a piece for a traditional newspaper, they should be subject to the newspaper’s editorial control, and abide by the ethical standards of journalists.

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

Partisan press = blinkered view + distorted facts photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com

A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.

That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April –  expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the  ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.

This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th estate?

We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:

Leveson hearings: can a “blind and unreasoning” or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:

… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.

But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.

The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.

There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.

These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.

But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.

Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.

Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …

[ … Read the whole column here … ]

Why art needs more scientists like Carl Djerassi — not just as patrons but for visceral understanding

'DO NOT DISTURB:  Cultural transmission in progress'

‘Do Not Disturb:
Cultural transmission in progress’

'Sun in the mist' Claude Monet, 1890

‘Sun in the mist’
Claude Monet, 1890

To know a thing by its parts is science, to feel it as a whole is art.

– Lewis Mumford (1895-1990 — American critic most admired for his commentary on architecture)

We tell ourselves stories in order to live…

– Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

… and one more thought for the mill: ‘We don’t treat artists well in this country.’ That was Margot H. Knight – talking to post-Gutenberg about the gap that arts foundations like hers strain to fill in America. She directs the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, a retreat on a converted cattle ranch on six hundred-odd idyllic acres of rolling uplands looking onto the Pacific Ocean, about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco.

In spite of her remark about the lack of respect for arts workers in the U.S., she had startling news. This was in her impression – from, she said, recent conversations — of an explosion in approaches to organisations like Djerassi for advice on turning farms, ranches, and other property in inspiring settings — some of them urban — into places for artists to make temporary or permanent homes. She considers the trend she perceives as a sign that many of her fellow-Americans are recognising, better late than never, how hard it can be for even outstanding artists to endure the struggle for time and money to make art. She predicts that the word eleemosynary – ‘meaning, the impulse to be generous, is one we’re going to be hearing a lot, soon, because of the huge transfer of wealth between generations that has begun.’

Why does this surprise us – even as an observation by just one alert cultural curator that we do not have time to compare with the impressions of others? No matter how clichéd mentions of starving scribblers or daubers in garrets are, there has always been a shortage of people willing to do more than throw them the odd crust – and nothing, not even the noise about Kickstarter and crowd-funding, has shown us any real evidence of a change. We would love to be mistaken.

We wish someone would study how attitudes to artists have been evolving. In a popular post here last summer, we suggested that audience jealousy of artists, of which we reproduced some hair-raising expressions, could explain why those in favour of destroying copyright protection apparently outnumber all of us anxious to defend artists’ right to eat – and why these opponents pretend as if the fight is all about preventing conglomerates in the music business from reaping obscene profits from selling millions of copies of the same CD.  The success of the anti-copyright campaigns is hard to reconcile with Margot Knight’s trend, unless there is a generation gap – with most anti-s belonging to the age-group after the one that might, or might not, contain growing numbers keen to focus their eleemosynary on artists.

Which of us know consciously how much human beings depend on art to get through life – that it is as indispensable as oxygen and calories?

Not many, in any generation, we suspect. It is still rare even for people with the wherewithal to acknowledge in tangible, practical ways, the extraordinary gift from, say, a musician, in the musical composition that ‘draws the sorrow out of you,’ as one sweet friend of this blog put it, the other day — or from a novelist, in the story or fictional character into which some of us made a habit of disappearing, imaginatively, in childhood, to survive or improve reality; or from a painter, in the alchemy capable of rendering joy on canvas with paint through a depiction of, say, light exalting a haystack, as Claude Monet could.

Carl Djerassi – born in Vienna in 1923, educated in the U. S., and still sprinting between continents at eighty-nine, lecturing and attending conferences – gave humanity chemical contraception in the form of ‘the pill,’ from whose manufacture he made a fortune. He proves how right C. P. Snow was to bewail an educational system in 1950s England that reflected a ‘two cultures’ divide in which workers at the literary coalface were seen as deeply incompatible with those in science – a prejudice that persists, especially in the Anglophone-Anglophile universe, to this day.

In his own life, Djerassi has demonstrated that operating in both spheres can be a perfectly natural switch between mental states (or neurocircuitry), and by no means as improbable as balletomane pigs dancing Swan Lake. He has published five novels, several short stories – and, with sculpture strewn across the grounds of his artists’ retreat, could hardly identify with the technologists complaining in the New York Times earlier this month about finding the arts community unwelcoming and intimidatingly clubby.

His ease in it is partly because he reacted to a family tragedy in the late 1970s by setting off on a quest to understand the lives of artists, and their realm. His daughter Pamela Djerassi, a painter and poet, died by suicide in 1978, and the Artists-in-Residence scheme is a memorial dedicated to her.

Reflecting on artists and scientists, Gustave Flaubert wrote, in an 1852 letter to his lover, Louise Colet, that ‘[t]he time for beauty is over … The more Art develops, the more scientific it will be, just as science will become more artistic. Separated in their early stages, the two will become one again when both reach their culmination.’

Flaubert could be wrong, but something important about the split has altered. In the England of C. P. Snow’s day, scientists were the underdogs. When British cultural influence was at its zenith, Britain was mostly run by clever people educated in the humanities.

Today’s heroes are rich American technologists and scientists, and one counter-complaint in the NYT article we mentioned – ‘Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech?’ – came from an art expert asking, ‘If these are our next Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, … our wealthy American elite, why aren’t they supporting culture?’

A social media entrepreneur confessed that he would never mention collecting art to his fellow-technologists, who are ‘all so business-minded.’

Other techies fumed about being treated as nouveaux-riches trying to buy their way into acquiring reputations for taste and discrimination – and were appalled to encounter galleries selling works of art to people offering smaller sums of money than they had.

We know people like these technologists, even likeable ones, and their behaviour is consistent with the shift in social status that – to our alarm, and on both sides of the Atlantic — has led nearly all the highly-educated children of post-Gutenberg’s friends into careers in some branch of finance. We have begun to think of ‘quants’ as people who see themselves as being at the top of the social pyramid – not using the word exclusively in the sense in which it was coined in 1979, to mean ‘an expert at analysing and managing quantitative data,’ (Merriam-Webster) but also covering those most attracted to work whose value is easily quantifiable in numbers preceded by currency symbols.

That would leave out most artists and writers, as well as … well, mothers, or people including men who now do the essential, life-sustaining ‘home-making’ that only women once did.

If what we think of as art today is to have a future, any quants who care might look to Djerassi as a model for supporting its continuation — as he has had the intelligence and good luck to also prove himself a super-quant. A recent study confirmed the power of ‘monkey-see-monkey-do cultural shifts’ – certainly for Vervet monkeys. A Swiss primatologist commenting on it in the NYT said,

[I]f you define culture as socially transmitted knowledge, skills and information, it turns out that we see some of that in animals …

Personal proof from watching Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: the time of passive, captive, media-gazing has passed

Procession arrives at St. Paul's Catherdral

Procession arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral: the most graceful onlooker

The irresistible pull of old turf

The irresistible pull of old turf

In our age of pixels, one versatile midget-screen is worth more than cable television with two thousand and one channels on a hulking, high-definition display. This dawned on us as we said a silent, heartfelt thank-you to the BBC last week for the banner at the top of every frame of its ‘red button’ broadcast of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: BBC LIVE. NO COMMENTARY.

Post-Gutenberg has not owned a working TV set for decades, by choice. But we were grateful to be lent one last Wednesday, hoping for deep absorption by London’s farewell to the steely, scrappy baroness, and the chance to imagine why people insist that Winston Churchill’s funeral was the most sublime, moving event in British public life in recent history. As she was accorded the military honours he was – in spite of a clinching argument against doing so by the right-wing political journalist Peter Oborne – we knew we would be observing similar, if not identical, rites of homage.

No sooner had we begun to watch the large screen than we felt irritable, as if we had ants crawling up our sleeves, anticipating the artificial voices of commentators bent on pre-digesting everything we saw. Because of these maddening intermediaries, the Beeb’s religion correspondent, Robert Pigott, would ordinarily have been quite right to say as he did – after the service in St. Paul’s – that no one outside the cathedral’s walls could have experienced the extraordinary ‘sense of occasion’ there. Yes, the talking heads have always had an annoying habit of proclaiming, ‘You really have to be here to know what the atmosphere is like’ – never acknowledging that this is at least in part because their chirping gets in the way. This time, Pigott was wrong. Possibly because his employer was savaged for its commentary on the last royal wedding, there were no all-knowing chirps at all.

In the great hush broken only by music and ceremonial words, occasional shouts of protestors, clumping horses, saluting guns, crunching military boots and church bells, any viewer of the BBC feed was free to get lost in personal trains of association — verses of hymns remembered from school assembly halls; watching someone close and dear on a parade ground when tiny; other memories and imagery. Just like anyone in the congregation. Bliss! … When we found the definition on our tablet screen crisper and truer to life than the one on the television display, we switched to viewing only the small screen.

This also had something to do with seeing the procession skirt the edge of our old London neighbourhood, a street ten minutes away on foot from the flat that was home – and in a flash, realising that we could take a screen shot on the tablet computer for a personal reminder of grey spring mornings in Holborn. After that, we captured images from every angle, of every scene in the funeral service that interested us – and except for the frustration of being constrained by the exclusively horizontal orientation of the feed, were delighted by the perspectives Auntie offered us from her staggering twenty-four cameras inside St. Paul’s, alone.

We loved the active watching on the small screen, so much better for noticing. We love having our own visual records to inspect at leisure, blowing up details for closer deconstruction.

Other people probably listened to the drone of interpreters in war paint and plastic styled hair, switching back and forth between their TVs and laptops; followed the textual explanations of what we were looking at, on the BBC site, even as they tweeted reactions to their friends, and updated pages on social networking sites throughout the ceremony. And why shouldn’t they have done what suited them?

We only listened to a single stream of sounds; reflected; and made a scrapbook, from which this idiosyncratic selection of images comes – each screen re-touched to remove the BBC logo. At the funeral of Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, it was chiefly women’s faces that we found most engaging.

H.M. QE II

H.M. QE II

Mrs T's daughter-in-law, flanked her son and grandson

Mrs T’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Young woman, officiating

Young woman, officiating

MT going where we all do -- to 'the cloud,' as the Bishop of London (not pictured) put it

MT going where we all do — to ‘the cloud,’ as the Bishop of London (not pictured) said

Cameras of every kind

Cameras of every kind

Gustave Flaubert’s multitasking score: 0 — and ‘flow,’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s secret of happiness

'Flow, don't freeze' postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Flow, don’t freeze’
postgutenberg@gmail.com

Of all the anxieties related to the effects of digital culture on our brains – the way people reason, comprehend, do cerebral work, create and invent – the only one that we at post-Gutenberg truly share is the worry about attention. Especially, sustained attention. We have long found one facet of this – closer to immersion –  the most dependable font of happiness. It has been studied and named ‘flow’ by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book on the subject was a birthday present to us from a vanished friend (Dessa, where are you?). Over to the Wikipedia:

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove.

Everyone accepts that our attention is being chronically, woefully, and hopelessly fractured by mobile telephones, email, tweeting, blogging, Googling, Binging (as opposed to bingeing) and so on – no matter how successful some of us are at glamorising the e-jitterbugging as ‘multitasking’.

How would a Gustave Flaubert write a novel of the depth and (depressing) intricacy of Madame Bovary? Whatever you think of the book – p-G sympathises with the critics who complain that the story lacks a single likeable or, we would say, engaging character – it probably deserves its renown, and its author his place among les immortels.

We have no answer to that question, but we do believe that no one has described the ‘flow’ state and its joys more gorgeously or entertainingly (definitively ‘over-the-top’) than Bovary’s inventor. The other day, opening our copy of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 – only because we happened, for the first time for a decade and a half, to both look at and see it on its shelf, we entered a flow state ourselves, completely absorbed by the novelist’s words, beautifully translated and edited by Francis Steegmuller. The proof of the addictiveness of ‘flow’ is in these extracts, as is evidence that it is not always a picnic.

Highlights might be all most of us have time for, soon, the literary equivalent of what is well on its way to becoming the most popular convenience food, worldwide — sushi:

[ … to his friend -- the lawyer-turned-dabbler/dilettante -- Alfred LePoittevin; 13 May, 1845, Milan …]

You are wasting away with boredom, you say? Bursting with anger, dying of depression, stifling? Have patience, oh lion of the desert! I myself suffered a long period of suffocation, the walls of my room in the rue de l’Est still echo with the frightful curses, the foot-stampings, the cries of distress I gave vent to while I was alone there. How I roared in that room! And how I yawned! … Think, work, write, roll up your sleeves and cut your marble, like the good workman who refuses to be diverted from his task and keeps at it with sweat and good humour. … The only way not to be unhappy is to shut yourself up in Art and count all the rest as nothing. … I do not regret the absence of riches, or love, or the flesh, and everyone is astonished to see me behaving so sensibly. I have said an irrevocable farewell to the practical life. … From now until a day that is far distant I ask for no more than five or six quiet hours in my room, a good fire in winter, and a pair of candles to light me at night.

[ … to Louise Colet, a writer of recognised ability, also Flaubert’s mistress and – as most, though not all, authorities agree, the model for his tedious adulteress; 24 April 1852, Croisset … ]

… I have been in a great fit of work. The day before yesterday I went to bed at five in the morning and yesterday at three. Since last Monday I have put everything else aside and done nothing all week but sweat over my Bovary, disgruntled at making such slow progress. … You speak of your discouragement, if you could see mine! Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn’t melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates. I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.

Sometimes, when I am empty, when the words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride that makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later, everything has changed; my heart is pounding with joy. Last Wednesday I had to get up and fetch my handkerchief; tears were streaming down my face. I had been moved by my own writing: the emotion I had conceived, the phrase that rendered it, and the satisfaction of having found the phrase – all were causing me the most exquisite pleasure. At least I think that all those elements were present in this emotion, which after all was predominantly a matter of nerves. There exist even higher emotions of this same kind: those which are devoid of the sensory element. These are superior, in moral beauty, to virtue – so independent are they of any personal factor, of any human implication. Occasionally (at great moments of illumination) I have had glimpses, in the glow of an enthusiasm that made me thrill from head to foot, of such a state of mind, superior to life itself, a state in which fame counts for nothing and even happiness is superfluous.

Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?

Might co-ops help to correct Rupert Murdoch’s delusional prediction and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

Might co-ops end the reign of press barons like Rupert Murdoch and become Pope Francis’s silver bullet?

It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.

We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance – and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.

There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’

While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?

Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.

When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules.  No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’

The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.

We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :

Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.

[…]

The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.

The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:

The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.

… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?

Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.

Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.

Of an orange pig, a wolf, and using literary clips to rescue literature from hyperinflated praise

'Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori' photograph by MIL22

‘Ritorna il sole, ritornano i colori’
photograph by MIL22

When the currency of literary praise has been so debased as to be all but worthless, returning to a form of barter is long overdue.

What are we saying?

Before some wily genius invented money – which too often earns its reputation as the root of all evil — people traded in actual things other people wanted, not in symbolic representations of the value of those things. So many of us are fed up of being misled by book jacket hyperbole and dishonest reviews dressing up mediocre or shoddy work as ‘brilliant,’ ‘masterly,’ ‘luminous,’ and ‘stunning’ that it is time to melt down the defunct adjectival coinage, shelve it, and return to the actual substance of literature. We mean that we would love to see a trend for favouring clips of the writer’s own arrangements of words, in drawing attention to works of literature — over the encomiums of word-floggers and other tricksters.

Still making our slow – savouring — way through Storm DamageJohn A. A. Logan’s collection of short stories mentioned on this blog in January – we came across one accorded the rare distinction, in our reading over the years, of being read more than twice by us.

Like our photograph in honour of early spring – a gift of the eyes of generous MIL22 – this story, ‘The Orange Pig,’ is the work of an artist interested in satisfying nothing but exacting, deeply interior aesthetic standards. And if that sounds too serious – well, this is a tale that had us shaking with amusement as often as it left us rapt from the recognition of wisdom dextrously confected as a soufflé.

Without further ado we leave you, dear reader, to consider these extracts chosen to avoid giving away too much – and to let you marvel at a publishing revolution that makes it possible to acquire the thoughts that link them together on your e-reader almost instantaneously. All for no more than what it would take to put a frothing coffee into your hands.

‘I only want to walk to the top of the hill,’ said the orange pig.

‘No-one is stopping you,’ said the wolf. ‘But surely you can see that we can’t let incidents like these go unexamined or unreported. I assume you are from the farm.’

‘Where I am from is my own business.’

‘I understand,’ said the wolf, ‘but …’

The wolf waved a paw in the direction of the dead bird.

‘In circumstances like this,’ said the wolf, ‘we all must account for ourselves, our actions, our motives. It may be in the next world we will all be free to move where we wish like phantoms in the mist, but you are from a farm. You know the meaning of a fence, or a gate, a sty or a barn, a wall or a door. Do not pretend to be naïve. I find you here, and then I find this. What am I to think?’

‘The only time is now,’ said the wolf.

‘It is very late.’

‘Not so very,’ said the wolf.

They walked past the dogs like ghosted whispers and soon they were beyond the limits of the farm, their legs working hard against the steep hill’s power.

‘Under the moon there is no market day,’ said a deep, bass voice from further to the orange pig’s left than his thick neck could twist to let him see. ‘No lorry to take us away, no slaughterhouse, no scheduled death.’

‘For scheduled death is dishonour,’ said the black wolf.

‘Amen,’ said all the wolves in a clear chorus.

Somehow, though, the orange pig’s personality had not attracted fame, only a non-profitable cache of oddity. Good enough to bring a few of the farmer’s friends around the orange pig’s sty to stare at him awhile, but nothing solid to build a business on. The newspapers had come once, and taken photographs, but interest had not been ignited in the public.

‘To hell with farms and farmers,’ said a bitter voice the pig had not heard before.

Amen,’ said the wolves.

‘It is here in the moonlight things are shown truly,’ said a quiet voice from among the sea of silver heads. ‘With the sun in the morning comes all the illusions and divisions. Here in the silver shining, we are our truest selves, is it not so my brothers?’

‘Amen,’ said a strong chorus.

‘No farm could ever be thought of or established in the moonlight. It is an idea of the day, born of heat and dazzle.’

‘I told this pig I would take him another night to wash in the salt of the sea,’ said the long wolf.

‘The waters of the sea are great, its waves caress and cool us,’ said the quiet voice.

‘That pig’s legs are too short to run with you to the sea,’ said a voice.

‘We will all go,’ said the black wolf. ‘We will go to the sea another night and we will go at his pace. There are thoughts that come when we stand in the sea and feel the waves lap at our legs that can come in no other way. It is time we did go to the sea again.’

[ … continues …]

Writers, writing

yellow road postgutenberg@gmail.com

Once, long ago, before we we were old enough to vote, before we could have applied for a driver’s licence, we read Henry Miller for the first time with round, shocked eyes. Then — quite soon — he struck us as a bit of a bore. Now, it seems as if his oeuvre could define repetitiousness.

Still, we have never found a more amusing or accurate listing of the challenges to productivity, or to balancing life and work, than in these instructions Miller apparently wrote to himself — to make faster progress with the manuscript of Black Spring (1936). They have been reproduced in more than spot on the web and appear here to explain why post-Gutenberg will be taking a week’s break — which could become an absence of a fortnight if we find ourselves fighting more than the expected headwinds.

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch's five-man Public Council

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch’s five-man Public Council

Swiss Watching NEW ED

Naked hiking is alarmingly popular, even in winter … Public nudity is not a trauma in Switzerland. Many Swiss bathing areas have FKK (Freikörper-kultur or free body culture; that is, nudist) sections … It’s still not on the German scale, where you never know when the next naked person might appear. Have a picnic in the wrong section of Munich’s English Garden and you’ll never eat another Scotch egg.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and MoneyDiccon Bewes, (2010)

The dispenser of advice on hazardous unclothing, Diccon Bewes, has written the wittiest, most elegantly informative and indispensable manual on today’s Switzerland for English-speaking foreigners. His whirling outline of Swiss history at the start of his book is spliced into an account of a winding walk chosen for historical associations, which gives a reader mnemonic imagery for its highlights. Bewes knows better than to frighten the Swiss, restraining what the glowing review in the Zurich paper Tages-Anzeiger called ‘typically black English humour.’

Yet encoded in his skipping prose is the style of such unforgettable thought-capsules, in 1066 and All That — the unsurpassed (1930) parody of history text-books – as, ‘[King] Alfred noticed that the Danes had very long ships, so he built a great many more much longer ones, thus cleverly founding the British Navy.’ This is specially admirable in a practical guide so astute at gauging what outsiders need to know to survive in a place where English is missing even from multilingual train announcements and museum placards, that every new visitor touching down on a Swiss tarmac could use a Bewes-on-CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) mobile app spun off from Swiss Watching.

Now, that overview of the visible talents of Diccon Bewes has nothing to do with boosting Swiss tourism or expatriation. What we outside CH need from him even sooner than instant cultural decoding is something else – a detailed, step-by-step education from a quasi-insider in how the Swiss make extreme democracy work, or what Beppe Grillo and the Occupy movements must do to realise their dreams. Specifically, it is media of the Gutenberg era baffled by — and resisting the transition to — post-Gutenberg inclusiveness who most need his assistance. As we have said before –

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

So, how exactly do you copy CH? Few English-speakers have either Bewes’s hands-on experience of working with Swiss colleagues inside Switzerland – his home for the last eight years – or gift for cross-cultural explanation, backed by a degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

What would make his counsel particularly valuable to future-focused media people is his experience as the English-language specialist on the five-man Publikumsrat or Public Council of Swissinfo.ch – the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999 that specialises in news about, and of special interest to the Swiss, and crisply-written features that illuminate foreigners. All this, every day, is translated into ten languages.

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.

Post-Gutenberg has been browsing on the Swissinfo site for three years. The experience of reading there has been hugely surprising – nothing like the teasing love-letter to CH that Swiss Watching’s tone suggests, but equipping Swiss-bashers with ammunition. Its coverage of the most embarrassing, even humiliating, topics for the Swiss is frank enough to suggest that, more than a mere pastime, nude hiking in glacial cold could be a metaphor for … well, the naked honesty in the conversational style of the Schweizerdeutsch, the German-speaking Swiss who dominate the population. In our experience, they express themselves freely and with graphic precision on almost any subject, even chatting to strangers (unless these are identified as journalists, a reviled profession in CH), as long as they respect basic standards for civility and friendliness.

Part of the reason why Swissinfo’s coverage of topics is startlingly direct is that there is no room for subtle and idiomatic expression in any text that has to scan as well, in the language of its composition, as in its Portuguese, Chinese and Russian versions. Of course, this is also true of the work of the BBC World Service – but the unflinching Schweizer style does seem to make for extra-bluntness.

Readers of this blog can wander over to Swissinfo.ch and see for themselves. We have been stunned by some reports there on the Nazi Gold scandal – in part of which Swiss banks were accused of conspiring to deny descendants of Holocaust victims access to their families’ Swiss bank accounts, or about academic studies blaming lax gun control policies for Switzerland ranking, with America, at the top of the statistics for gun-related suicides. Far from any cover-up, there is a relentless succession of articles quoting critics of gun ownership. This is especially brave in a country in which every referendum on the subject shows the Swiss refusing to be weaned off weapons ownership. (We cannot conceive of a cowardly Swissinfo blackout of news about press reform, if this had the attention of Swiss government leaders.)

Forthrightness – and audience involvement, through the Publikumusrat — could make Swissinfo a model for news coverage in the UK and US, where, as one poll after another shows, public trust in the media has never been lower.

Until recently, the point of having Swissinfo was to help Swiss nationals living abroad stay sufficiently well-informed to make the best possible decisions when they vote remotely in referendums and elections. This part of its charter is no longer as important as demystifying Switzerland for foreigners, because free online editions of so many Swiss newspapers give Swiss expatriates the facts they need.

But doing a good job of serving Swiss voters abroad meant that the information the site supplied had to be politically neutral, or carefully balanced across the spectrum of political opinions. That this approach has not changed, even after Swissinfo’s staff and budget were each cut back last year by roughly a third, only adds to the attractions of the site – since, as this blog has underlined in the past, the reading public prefers to be served news undistorted by politics.

The British press ignores this preference. Both during and since the Leveson hearings on press ethics, one editor after another insisted – invoking  time-hallowed tradition as frantically as the Catholic Church fighting for respect, in recent weeks —  that political slanting has always been part of its lifeblood.

Though mockers of the Occupy movements keep insisting that extreme democracy could never be either practical or realistic, Switzerland, the über-democracy, is proof to the contrary. With its tiny population of not quite 8 million, CH can boast of being not just one of the world’s richest countries but the one at the very top of economists’ table for individual wealth – per (adult) capita.

Here is some food for meditation from Swiss Watching’s chapter titled ‘Ask the audience’:

Walking through the centre of Bern means running the gauntlet of clipboard-thrusting pen holders wanting your name. These aren’t charity muggers desperate for your cash … And the papers are not futile petitions that will be delivered to the government without any prospect of anyone taking notice. This is not Britain. This is Switzerland, where the people have power, and they use it. Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system. Don’t like a government decision? Then collect names to change it. Want to create a new law? Then collect names to initiate it. Hate minarets? Then collect signatures to ban them [ … ]

For outsiders, it’s hard to imagine how a country can function if every law and government action is subject to a government vote. For the Swiss, it’s hard to understand how any country can be run without just that. […] The Swiss people can initiate legislation or destroy it; they can force the government into new policies or reject decisions it’s already made. No one person or party ever has complete control – the people do. Forget China and North Korea; if any country deserves to be called a People’s Republic, it is Switzerland.

Swisscellany 300 dpi for web

The press is telling hair-raising porkies about ♯Leveson: true or false? A media scholar settles the question

Adaptation of photograph by MIL22 -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

In his popemobile, Pope Benedict XVI, whose church once held the reins of ‘mass media’
– adaptation of a photograph by MIL22

@5th, a stimulating visitor to this site with a particular interest in open-access online education, said in a comment on a recent ♯Leveson post here:

[A]s long as the press establishment is tightly connected to politics and politicians it seems rather pointless to regulate it by political means. … I think you are quite right that it’s up to all of us to hold the press accountable, but it’s hard to see how this change will come about. Traditional newspapers (including their online editions) have a tremendous advantage in that they are already popular, and their popularity leads to a kind of positive feedback process where popularity generates popularity. It’s convenient for people to read what everybody else reads (and links to!). … I think it’s hard for citizen-journalists to really reach out to the public in part because […] they are simply scattered all over the web.

The essence of post-Gutenberg’s reply to 5th is: indeed, the famous names in print are still powerful. They could be for a long time, yet. But in diving into any news that matters to us, we now spend only as much time with them as we do on sites that did not exist ten years ago – and we use these new sources to check the truthfulness of what the papers say, and neutralise their biases. We are sure that we are not alone in this attention shift. Already, the key to finding the most reliable and enlightening information – and the right people to discuss it with – is using search engines well. These tools get cleverer by the week (never mind if Google’s picture-indexer often attaches to results for this site a sultry, dark-eyed blonde we regret we do not know).

On some days we, too, feel pessimistic about things changing too slowly – but change they will. On The Atlantic’s blog the other day, the headline for an entertaining – and accurate — post by Rebecca Rosen about the imminent departure of Pope Benedict XVI was, ‘The Last Time a Pope Resigned, Mass Media Was Called … Mass’.

Her point was that for much of Europe in the Middle Ages, the chief – and virtually, only – authoritative source of news about the wider world was the Catholic Church.

Then that was all turned upside-down. It was, of course, the Gutenberg press making it so easy for dissenters to disseminate texts exposing the Church’s lies and disinformation that broke religion’s monopoly on knowledge and learning.

Okay, we will concede that the Catholic Church still has over a billion adherents. To this day, the resignation of a pope is as liable to create a tweet storm as to sprout headlines wherever people read newspapers. But in its original European homeland, it has lost so much of its sway and credibility that less than half of all the world’s Catholics live there. The next leader of the Vatican could be Latin American or African – and arguably, should.

Memories of this church’s corrupt ancient past passed down from generation to generation, in Europe, have something to do with European disenchantment.

What we have been wondering lately is, … will the deliberate warping of the truth about the misuse of power by today’s print media be just as famous, in retellings of its story a hundred years from now?

With the kind permission of INFORRM, we are re-posting below the first part of a meticulous analysis of the scale of that distortion by Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at London’s Kingston University, and the director of Hacked Off. We urge you to follow the link beneath our extract and read on.

Leveson: The Latest Press Disinformation Campaign

Brian Cathcart

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a ‘recognition body’ which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers.

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was ‘justified and legitimate’, although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

[ … continues here …]

Why have The Economist and The New York Times gone silent on ♯Leveson — since 2012? Why is a media columnist writing about manholes, instead?

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake: www.sheffieldkungfu.com

photograph in honour of the Chinese Year of the Snake: http://www.sheffieldkungfu.com

Abdication of responsibility is a serious charge.

Even as we type, we are close to fainting from disbelief that The Economist and The New York Times deem the deliberations about press reform in a leading democracy – negotiations in which a prime minister is directly engaged – unworthy of either reportage or commentary. Neither of these leaders in print journalism has run a single piece about the Leveson Inquiry since they recorded the publication of its report.  Unless Google is mistaken, the scintillating newspaper in St. James’s last pronounced on the subject on 8 December; the grey lady, proud of treating the world as its oyster on other subjects, on 5 December

For reasons explained here in two earlier posts – passing on advice from the Chinese sage Lao Tse, and pointing to the pointlessness of making new rules for a dying institution – post-Gutenberg sees press regulation as wasted effort. But over 75 per cent of the British public does seem to want the recommendations of the Leveson report put into practice. Surely this, and the haggling over Leveson’s conclusions by the British government, politicians and media, merit analysis and debate?

Skilled and eminent doctors have to treat and be treated by other doctors, when they fall ill. Judges are not above the law; lawyers must be prosecuted and defended by other lawyers.  The equivalent, for the press, of ‘Physician, heal thyself,’ has to be ‘Journalist, your work is not above dissection and condemnation by colleagues, without fear or favour.’

We once admired the NYT’s media columnist David Carr for his apparent fearlessness and perspective (see ‘Why not occupy newsrooms?’ 23 October 2011). For over a year, most of his columns have left us wondering just who tied and gagged him. Yet none of his timid recent work has been as alarming as his bizarre focus yesterday on the lengths to which an energetic Midwestern newspaper columnist went to trace the hands that took a photograph of an exploding manhole cover in Omaha. That’s right — not a column about, say, media coverage of  the responsibility for the explosion; just a mildly entertaining ramble about the origin of the image. There have been reports over the years of infinitely more ingenious sleuthing that has, for instance, united the finder of a camera lost in one country with an owner thousands of miles away in another – by altruistic amateur detective work by strangers that entailed uploading pictures from the device to the net and posting requests for help on social media.

As for Carr’s subject, surely it was the photographer with the fast reflexes of a citizen-journalist who deserved his praise, and not ‘[gums]hoe leather’ that, according to this NYT columnist, ‘never looked or smelled so good.’  The reader is left baffled by his conclusion: ‘And it’s a useful reminder that even though daily newspapers are a threatened species, they continue to have value in the informational narrative.’ Phew.

More to the point, what is Carr doing, writing about manholes but not ♯Leveson – a subject of keen interest to the planet, judging by the attention the Inquiry has been getting on every continent? (as search engine analysis of traffic brought to this blog, for one, confirms). Was his upgrading of an amusing dinner table anecdote to the focus of a whole media column actually an encoded scream for help – a demonstration of the humble scraps that a good reporter like him is obliged to offer his readers because barred by someone (precisely who?) from doing his job?

If the NYT did not anticipate reactions exactly like ours to its media columnist’s disappearance down a manhole – façon de parler – why is the column closed to comments? (or certainly was, when we last checked a few hours ago?)

But as for the infinitely more critical cause for anxiety, what vital information is that newspaper, like The Economist, failing to give audiences?

Go to the website of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) – run by lawyers – and look up:

Hacked Off responds to the draft Royal Charter: “a surrender to press pressure”’, 12 February 2013

… and …

Leveson: It is impossible to overstate the Daily Mail’s fear of proper press regulation’,  17 February 2013

You will be afraid, very afraid, when you read what highly regarded publications do not want you to see — and of what there would be no record of at all, without blogs like INFORRM’s.

… Only psychologists, Chinese mystics and lovers of poetry will want to know that as post-Gutenberg awoke last Sunday, the exquisite final lines of a D. H. Lawrence poem came floating to mind, out of the blue, on an unexpected wave of the sort of happiness with which we witness beauty:

And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

They belong to ‘Snake,’ poetry at its greatest, for more reasons than we have time to suggest. As we puzzled over the mysterious reminder of them, fingers tapping into a search engine box, we found that the poem had been the subject of a lovely meditation by Jacques Derrida.

The ‘I’ in the poem is overwhelmed by admiration for the way the reptile looks and moves, but, obeying ‘the voices of my accursed human education,’ throws a stone at it – and

… suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.

[…]

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

[…]

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life …

… About which Derrida proposes, with Gallic convolution, that

‘It is indeed on the side of chance … and toward the incalculability of another thought of life, of what is living in life, that I would like to venture under the old and yet still completely new and perhaps unthought name democracy.’ [his emphasis]

The Chinese Year of the Snake began either on the 4th or 10th of this month, depending on which authority you consult. Did the dream-like entrance of the ‘Snake’ lines have more to do with the private or public sphere? Was it something like a parental warning not to descend to the pettiness of a particular someone whose physical bulk is in direct, inverse proportion to a tendency to small-mindedness and jealousy? In the wider realm, a snake might easily be symbolic of all the forms of competition from citizen-journalists and bloggers so hated and feared by the old press establishment – unwelcome power-sharing.

Yes, democracy.

And that is as far as we will get with de-mystification – for the present.

Surfer, passing by: will you pause to list the three Beatles songs you like best, today?

‘Happy Birthday, MIL22!’Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

‘Happy Birthday, MIL22’

Elderly intellectual Parisian piano teachers married to each other in the latest Michael Haneke film, Amour, are exercising their right to musical snobbery when they sniff disdainfully at the idea of someone playing a tape-recording of Yesterday’ at the funeral of a member of their elevated social set. It takes less than two seconds to realise that this exchange could easily have been stolen from real life — the Beatles having been, arguably, the 20th century’s most irresistible agents of cultural democracy before the internet took off.

The letters of Samuel Beckett starred in last winter’s reading at post-Gutenberg — and made our blog’s most popular entry. This winter, the essays of a fastidious, spinsterly Cambridge don psychologically married to his mother for much of his life (or so it always seemed to us) have been our special delight. It hardly matters how E. M. Forster came by his understanding when, in 1940, he answered his own question, ‘Does Culture Matter?’:

Culture is a forbidding word. I have to use it, knowing of none better to describe the various beautiful and interesting objects which men have made in the past … Many people despise them.

[…]

I know a few working-class people who enjoy culture, but as a rule I am afraid to bore them with it lest I Iose the pleasure of their acquaintance. So what is to be done?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it that we cannot expect to understand. … The difficulty here is that the higher pleasures … rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. The appreciator of an aesthetic becomes in his minor way an artist; he cannot rest without communicating what has been communicated to him … It is therefore impossible to sit alone with one’s books and prints, or to sit only with friends like oneself, and never to testify outside.

… So, reader surfing by, this month, this year, or as long as this blog is alive … are you moved to testify on behalf of the Beatles oeuvre – put your three most beloved songs from it into a comments box below, with or without an explanation or any expectation of a reaction? … A message in a bottle cast out to sea?