Heritage Socialism – a working definition

I'm working on a piece where the key concept is something I've called "heritage socialism", a term I like but which I've struggled to explain. So I'm going to have a go here.

According to the Wikipedians, "cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations." What has always interested me about heritage is how selective it is. Some things are considered worthy of preservation, some are considered in need or erasure. In a city like Birmingham, where I live, this value judgement is felt keenly as each generation overthrows the heritage judgement of the previous, with the 20th century currently being wiped out in favour of Victorianana.

Another interesting, though probably unintentional, effect of heritage is to detach historical artefacts from the present. In my mind this is where heritage differs from history. The purpose of history is to draw lines from the past to the present day, so we can learn something about ourselves. Heritage should do this, but in my experience it tends to "other" the past, to draw a boundary around it and set it in stone. Heritage is mummified history, preserved and unable to talk to the present.

It's notable that we have a "heritage industry" but not, as far as I'm aware, a "history industry". History is a practice and discipline. Heritage is packaged into products, ready to be consumed.

During the 20th century, Britain underwent a number of changes that can be umbrellaed by the broad term "socialism". Universal suffrage, the welfare state, nationalisation of major industries, the NHS, free education, and so on. It reached its peak in the Post War Consensus and has been in decline since the 1980s.

I became an adult in the circa 1990 and with the buffer of Thatcherism this period took on a mythical status. We were told it was a failure, and yet the results were still all around us. Hippies were derided and laughed at, but acid house had brought us the second summer of love. It was a bit confusing.

When I could vote, I couldn't vote for an actual socialist. Tony Blair made sure of that. I didn't even really know what socialism was other than something old and broken. Around 2000, in my late 20s, I was in a pub with an older friend, talking politics. He insisted my ideas and beliefs were totally socialist. I was very reticent, such was the cleansing power of the 80s.

(For what it's worth I currently identify as a radical-agnostic cosmic-scale-nihilist with socialist tendencies, but that's for another day.)

Fast forward to 2012 and Danny Boyle put the NHS centre stage at his Olympic opening ceremony. It's a statement, but I think the political nature of it washed over most of the people watching. The health service is one of those things that is beyond politics. As a country we're proud of it, especially when we look to the USA. You wouldn't have known that the NHS is a political creation were it not for the mutterings of bias from a few Thatcherite MPs. You can debate how it should be run, but no-one would dare say it should be abolished.

Heritage Socialism, then, is the presentation of a historical socialist or socialist-adjacent idea or movement, isolated from its past and future context.

For example, the story of the origin of NHS might say the idea came from the wartime 1942 Beveridge report and it was founded by the Labour government in 1948. Doctors weren't keen because they feared a pay cut, but Nye Bevan won them over. Hooray!

By making a heritage product of NHS history, the political and social context is removed and all we have left are facts. The NHS was founded: people generally thought it was a good thing, but there has been debate about how best to run it. Denuded of anything ideological it can be adopted by the most Thatcherite of free-market politicians as something they support.

The NHS is now unmoored from the ideas that created it. It has become closer to a force of nature, something inevitable, unstoppable and impossible to erase. During lockdown we protected the NHS, we thanked the NHS, but we never worried the NHS would disappear.

Privatisation of the NHS has been happening for the last few decades and will continue, but as long as the NHS logo is on everything no-one will notice, or much care. As a heritage object it is no longer a socialist project. We do not have "socialised medicine" in the UK – we have the NHS.

Turning products of socialism into heritage objects doesn't just allow the forces that opposed their creation to embrace, co-opt and subvert them. It also divorces them from the ideas that formed them, preventing us from building on those successes in the present day. These origin stories become curiosities, events from the past-as-foreign-country.

Heritage Socialism is a theme park where we can gaze in wonder at a time when people came together and build stuff that meant something, but it doesn't give us the tools to build for ourselves, only the mild frustration that we can't.

It's a bit of a problem.

This post will be updated and re-written as I get to grips with and develop this idea. Future versions will also be much shorter, I promise.

If you have thoughts on developing this, do let me know.

Dome Up

Last year I bought a geodesic dome connectors kit, Hubs, and a load of wood. We built a dome in the back garden, purely because I've always wanted to build a geodesic dome and had given up on waiting for a reasonable excuse to come along. Here's a timelapse of the construction.

It stayed up for a week or so and then came down because, frankly, there wasn't room on that lawn for something so impractical. But having seen it in action, and needing to replace a rotting pergola, we plotted how to bring it back as something we could use.

Initially the plan was to build it in the Spring, but that went the way of all Spring plans, and I wasn't expecting to do anything dome-like this year. But then it occurred to me a semi-covered shelter in the garden might be useful for meeting folks during the pandemic's Autumn period, if not deep midwinter, and this dome, being made with cheap and reclaimed wood, would not be the final version, so I could spend the winter tinkering and refining ready for the re-build in the Spring.

So over the last couple of weeks I built the base and prepared the bits and today Fiona and I raised the barn dome!

Fiona sitting in the completed dome.

One amusing quirk of this build is we wanted the dome to be pretty much the width of the garden. But to make a dome you ideally need an area significantly larger that the final footprint so you can lay it out flat and built it up from the middle.

So for this build I went against the recommended instructions and worked from the bottom up using a mix of props, straps and wife to hold the joints in place.

Seasoned dome-builders will be staring wide-eyed through their fingers at this insane method.

A geodesic dome is an incredibly strong and stable structure when, and only when, all the sections are connected to each other and the stress and weight is evenly distributed. Until that point it's a mess of chaos and gravity. Pull one bit and something else shifts. It took a while and mental calmness to work through the inevitable collapses, but finally we got the last piece in and, boom, dynamic maximum tension achieved!

Having spent the whole build inside the dome it was very strange to walk down the garden and get a good look at it for the first time. It did not look like I expected, much more compact and subtle, though painting it dark green probably helped. (I'm very aware that the neighbours might not appreciate a 3 metre high sphere in their periphery!) The shape is quite delightful, geometric and engineered, but sympathetic to the plants and trees. Importantly it doesn't feel huge, but has plenty of room inside.

Sure, it's a big fucking dome, but it's not that offensive, right?

There's something strange about sitting inside a piece of geometry. You understand why both the Egyptians and Mayans obsessed over pyramids on opposite sides of the globe, and why the geodesic dome became the iconic structure of the back-to-the-land movement. It just feels right.

Of course, it's not finished. The structure is up but it needs to be made useful. Watch this space (and come visit once our lockdown is paused!)

Economics and Epidemiology

The pandemic has shown us how a lot of things we took for granted actually work. From the economy to handwashing, stuff we thought we'd got our heads around turns out to be significantly more nuanced once a couple of the pillars that prop up our specific variation on society are taken away.

Take public health messaging. To the degree that I'd even contemplated it prior to March, I'd always assumed that it a was a fairly simple thing. The science declares something to be a health risk and identifies a solution to mitigate this risk. Said solution is communicated to the public and the efficacy of the solution, along with its communication, is judged on results. Rinse and repeat.

But we're in the middle of a constantly evolving public health crisis where the science looks from the outside to be a literal can of worms. While we know a hell of a lot more than we did a few months ago, there isn't a simple solution that can be communicated beyond the broad strokes (keep your distance, wear masks, wash your hands, etc). That's fine for periods of full lockdown, but what about other times? How do you nuance the message when nuance is impossible?

The UK government has handled this crisis appallingly, that is beyond dispute, but we shouldn't forget that managing this situation is a really really hard job that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Take, for instance, the new "rule of six" for England and the local lockdown for my city of Birmingham.

The rule of six is fairly simple. You can meet with no more than 5 other people at one time and should limit the number of groups you partake in as much as possible. This can be indoor and outdoors in private or public places.

Birmingham's local lockdown keeps the rule of six for public places, such as parks or pubs, but removes it for homes and private gardens where you can only have immediate family or those within your bubble. So when Andy pops over tomorrow for a chat he can't come into our garden but we can go and sit in the park.

When people hear these rules they immediately look for cases that make the rules seem absurd or wrongheaded. A common one for the local lockdown is that socialising is OK as long as there's a till. Your friends can come over to your house as long as you pay them to do the washing up. The rules appear to prioritise economic activity over human interaction.

The logic of keeping businesses open is actually pretty sound. Workplaces, shops and venues have to be Covid-secure in order to trade or they are breaking the law. Health and Safety rules apply to workplaces. They do not apply to homes, which also tend to be smaller and, in my experience, less well ventilated. Gardens also tend to be smaller. We have a pretty standard long, thin terrace garden and while we can distance while sitting down, moving around it is very different to moving around a park.

But since national lockdown ended a significant amount of government messaging has been about restarting the economy, culminating in the drive to get people back to their city centre offices, to save those shops and services that trade off the daily commute and lunch hour. "Save Pret" is, of course, not really about the minimum-wage jobs in cookie-cutter sandwich shops. It's about land value and returns on investment.

I don't think this is just about a few rich people becoming slightly less rich. Our economy is pretty much built on the value of land, and that value has arguably been inflated to an uncomfortable level. If the value of a building is based on how much rent it can extract, and if no businesses can justify paying that rent, then the value will drop.

If London property values start to drop, all that foreign money that sees a West End mansion as a nice little earner will up sticks and leave. Prices drop further and a pillar of the British economy starts to vanish. Yes, we need a corrective on house prices, but the population has been told for the last few decades to put their money in bricks and mortar. They might be able to lose a bit but a dramatic fall in land value would wipe out millions of pensions.

When I've visited places I used to live in the 80s and 90s I'm always amazed at how many more cafes and sandwich shops there are. The 40 year history of the prepacked sandwich industry is a fascinating one leading to an £8bn annual turnover in 2017. I'd be fascinated to see what proportion of the price of a sandwich goes towards rent. When a Pret closes because there's no customer traffic the staff can get another low-paid, low-skill job, the food suppliers can find other customers, but the landlord cannot charge the same rent.

I don't think we have particularly good economic literacy in this country. I say this because I'm in my 40s and I've only recently figured a lot of this out. If, as a country, we did understand how it all fits together we might realise why "save Pret" is actually a pretty sound piece of messaging. But we'd also understand that the way we've allowed our economy to be constructed is not necessarily ideal in the long term.

I wouldn't go so far as to say we've been lied to, because conspiracies have a bad rep these days, but we've certainly been told a fraction of the full story. We're told that property values will increase so it's worth investing in them, which means there's an incentive for property values to increase and so on. But we aren't told why and what the implications are for this economic model. Are there other things we could invest in? Why are we investing at all? What is investment for? Isn't there another way we could be organising this stuff? (cf)

But we don't ask these questions because we don't have the intellectual tools. What we can comprehend is what we see, and that's the government saving their friends' investment portfolios.

The danger is that these two messages, getting back to work and local lockdown rules, are conflated because they're both based on disciplines that seem mystical and counter-intuitive to the layman – mid-pandemic epidemiology and neoliberal economics.

If you want to get a few million people to do a thing quickly and effectively you need a clear, simple message with no nuance.

You can see how this was never going to be smooth.

Photographs as data

A rough draft at introducing the base concepts for machine learning and image recognition.

The far side of the moon, photographed by Luna 3 in 1959.

Early unmanned space exploration vehicles took images of the moon with film cameras. These photographs were automatically developed using chemicals, dried, scanned and transmitted back to Earth as radio waves. A photograph was not data, but it could become data by measuring how light reflected off small areas of its surface from the top left to the bottom right. If it does, send a beep, if it doesn't, send silence. On or off, 1 or 0. Then, at another time and place, those beeps, or lack of them, are used to fill in some, not all, of the areas of a grid and the image appears. Not identical, missing some of the analogue nuance, but good enough.

Before too long it was possible to bypass the chemicals and simply measure the light inside the camera using a sensor. A self-contained, theoretically portable digital camera was produced by a Kodak engineer in 1975. It weighed 3.6kg, recorded 10,000 black and white pixels and stored them on magnetic tape, and all consumer and professional digital cameras pretty much follow its process, albeit at somewhat higher resolutions.

At first, digital photographs were functionally the same as analogue ones, they just didn't look as good. They had their uses, like taking photos of distant planets, but photographers and publishers tended to prefer the high quality of film which could be scanned into a computer system at a later date if needed. But then around the mid 2000s, the quality increased to the point that, when combined with convenience, analogue film became a luxury, discarded by both professionals and consumers. In 2011, 36 years after starting this revolution, Kodak went bankrupt.

We now live in a world ruled by digital images. The vast majority of people carry a digital camera with them at all times which is capable of publishing its images to the internet where the vast majority of people are able to see them. These photographs exist only as microscopic magnetic switches on hard drives and storage cards. You cannot look at them in the same way you cannot hear music by looking at the grooves on a vinyl record. In order to see a digital image is has to be processed, translated from encoded data to light up areas of a screen with different colours. Each screen or device translates the data slightly differently depending on its size or operating system. And different apps might use different interpretations depending on their requirements. When I look at a photograph on my computer and then send it to you to look at on your phone, we are looking at different interpretations of the same data. We are not looking at the same data.

On the surface this doesn't really matter. The whole act of looking itself introduces enough psychological and emotional variables that any subtle differences in rendering are pretty much moot. And, of course, the medium is the message, meaning that the fact of your looking at the photo in Facebook on your phone on the bus is way more important to your understanding of it and any actions you might take due to it than the contents of the image itself. Data is just the raw material. And as long as everyone's getting the same data then at least we can try to control the mediums that are translating it, say by regulation of monopolies and encouraging a plurality of platforms.

But once we dig a bit deeper, this fundamental nature of digital images – that they do not exist as images until they are interpreted as such by software – starts to matter quite a bit.

We think of a JPEG file as an image, but it isn't. It's a data format, a way of storing information, which lends itself to be interpreted as an image by software. It can also be turned into sound. When you play JPEG data as sound it mostly sounds like static noise, but it's still sound. Some people like to manipulate images by imported them into audio editing tools and saving them back as images. If you've ever wondered what a photograph would look like when put through an echo filter, wonder no more.

What's kinda fascinating is it looks just like an image that's been put through an echo filter.

Digital data is a sequences of switches, some of them on, some of them off. When we take a photograph we translate the light that comes through the lens into millions of switches, on and off. The same thing when we record sound digitally – millions of switches. Or when we save a word processing file, or a CAD drawing, or a web page. Everything that we call "digital" is a sequence of switches. On and off. 0s and 1s

In order to experience these recordings, these creations, these pieces of media, we have to translate them from their stored state into something we can perceive. Most of the time this is pretty linear. Photo software turns JPEGs into images. Music software turns MP3s into sound. Word processing software DOCs turn into text. Just as record players turn vinyl into music or printing presses turn metal type into newspapers. But it doesn't have to be.

Years ago, when home computers were new and most households had record players, computer data was, very very occasionally, distributed on vinyl records. You would play the record and send the audio not to the speakers but to the computer which would interpret the different tones as 0s and 1s. Of course this isn't news to anyone who had a ZX Spectrum or some other home computer which loaded software from cassette tapes. Games came on exactly the same kind of tapes as albums did. Part of the nostalgia for that era is the sound of the software playing in a tape deck.

A similar aural nostalgia can be had for the "boing boing" sounds produced by a computer modem connecting to the internet over a phone line. For those of us online at home in the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the anthem of the 'net, a digital conversation between two computers rendered as a song for us to sing along to. There was no good reason for it to be audible to humans, but in doing so it neatly illustrated the neutrality of the digital signal. By design this was code to be interpreted by the modem's circuitry. But it was also music. Which can be then turned into a visual graphic. Same data, different results.

The Practice of Words

I've been thinking about how I can run my websites to best serve my writing. They've been a bit all over the place in recent years, and that's OK. I admire people who have managed to run their blog in the same way for the last couple of decades, but that's not me. My needs shift and it's good to shift the medium around with them, where possible.

This summer my needs seem to be twofold.

I want to take my writing more seriously. I feel like my art practice is moving towards words, and I want to explore that more. So I need somewhere to publish my words that raises them up and presents them well. Not just visually but organisationally. I want to built a website of my word-works (if you will) that is worth exploring and absorbing. I'm not sure exactly how it will work, but I've seen enough of what I don't like so it should be fun figuring it out.

In order to take my writing more seriously I need to do more writing. Importantly I need a space to try new things and fail at them in interesting ways. This is not compatible with having a snazzy platform for my writing that looks great, and it's something I've been aware of for a while. I need the freedom to just write, but when I hit gold I don't want the good stuff to be lost in the dross.

So what I need is two venues. One for the practice of writing, one for the diamonds that emerge from that practice.

The problem is they both need to be public. I taught myself to write for an audience with zines and blogs, and I find I cannot write well if it's not being seen. It doesn't even need to be actually read by anyone – just the potential of an audience that is not me is enough. The words need to be taken away from me and placed in public, then I can see them properly.

The answer is one site, two blogs. Or more accurately, two categories. Most of what I post here will be in the Word Practice category. I'm approaching this as one might an art practice, hence they name. I will try to sit down every day, someone more, sometime less, and write to see what happens when I write.

Occasionally I write something that is worth putting on a pedestal, or I will rework practice posts into more coherent forms, and that will be added to the Featured category. For now these will just be featured on the front page of the site for the casual visitor, but they will also serve to give a sense of what my writing looks like and, more importantly, how I want my writing to be seen. I've imported some key pieces from the last few months of my previous blog and will probably add more from the archives over time.

But for now I'm just hoping my intentions and the platform enable my to put this into practice. Let's see!