Richard Seymour's The Twittering Machine has moved to the top of my to-read list thanks to this highly entertaining review, best summarised with this quote: "Rather than wondering ponderously if this is 'cancel culture' or whatever, we might ask ourselves: Why the fuck were all these people tweeting? What were they thinking? What were they hoping to accomplish? What was the cost-benefit analysis that led them to think continued participation in social media was a good idea?" (Bookforum)
I struggled with writing essays in school, barely scraping English GCSEs. Since school I've taught myself to write for zines and blogs using typewriters and computers. School being in the 80s, I was never diagnosed but usually say I'm probably a bit dyslexic, part of my bundle of Autistic traits. So I found this article about whether dyslexia even exists as a diagnosis really interesting, the implication being the teaching methods don't fit the student, rather than the student being "broken" in some way. Worth a read if this affects you. (Guardian)
It seems everyone in the waste industry knows most plastic can't be recycled, yet for some reason we assume it can be. Turns out the oil industry has been lobbying for and promoting pointless plastic recycling schemes to distract from the urgent need to reduce our plastic usage. A long and damning expose. (NPR)
This is a sports article on a sports website about the ownership of a sports team. But the first paragraph is universal. One day our descendants will look back with bemusement at how we allowed a tiny minority of unqualified fools to become stupidly rich. (Defector)
Came to my attention because Radiohead sampled a chord progression (45 seconds in) for the track Idioteque, this is a really nice piece of very early computer-generated music composed on an IBM mainframe around the time of my first birthday.
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!
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.
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.
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!)
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.
Highlighting the awkward fact that you might not be able to read some of the things I link to because of paywalls. I love the Guardian's approach where my subscription means everyone can read it. I was really sad when the Atlantic went paywall. (Current Affairs)
I find the concept of "meritocracy" fascinating because it seems like a perfectly good thing, to be raised up by merit and hard work, while it disguises all manner of structural inequalities while placing the blame on individuals for not succeeding. This is a nice take-down which focusses on the emphasis given to individualism over collectivism by the left over the last few decades as part of the problem. (Guardian)
A rough draft at introducing the base concepts for machine learning and image recognition.
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.
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!
After making my video last Autumn, The 1972 Project has stalled somewhat, thanks to something that happened around March. It's also mutated because it comes from my brain, and my brain responds to circumstances, and circumstances have changed. The project was an attempt to make sense of the world as it is today by looking at the world 50 years ago, culminating on my 50th birthday in 2022, and the world today is very much not the world of last Autumn.
But the core idea hasn't left me and I think it still has value. The state of today was born in the early 1970s, just as I was. Of course the seeds of the early 1970s can be found in earlier decades and so on, but for the sake of clarity I'm using my life as a frame of reference and it's proven to be surprisingly fruitful one.
One side-effect of my furlough and lockdown has been the consumption of significantly more big-budget media products, specifically prepared for the television and cinematic industries. Attuned as I am to the concept of the 50 year cycle, I have noticed that I am not the only person exploring it, either explicitly or tangentially.
Mrs America is a high-caliber, talent-heavy television show ostensibly about key US feminists of the 1970s and their campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment against a backlash from conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. But what it's really about is the decline of a post-war consensus where liberals and conservatives sought compromise, and the emergence of the bifuricated political landscape, sparked by the embrace of Christian fundamentalism by the Republican establishment, that has lead, ultimately, to President Trump.
Regardless of its successes or failures, it's a really interesting way to frame a historical drama, to be explicit about how it's really about the now. All historical fiction (and sci-fi for that matter) is about the moment in which it was created, even if it doesn't make it explicit.
A good recent example is the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which, you might be shocked to hear, is not really about the nuclear reactor disaster. Nor is it really about how the Soviet regime was crippled by dogma and corruption. It's not even about the danger of nuclear energy (which is actually very safe, presumably because everyone thinks it's too dangerous, and could solve the climate crisis, except everyone thinks it's too dangerous).
A year after broadcast the parallels with today are shockingly clear. You can broadly correlate those countries that have dealt best with the pandemic with those that have a healthy relationship to the truth. Those that had pretty much institutionalised reality denial in the years prior are suffering the most. When the pandemic began, Trump had full control of the Republican party while the UK had just elected a Brexit government lead by a man who seems to honestly believe the myth of British exceptionalism, and we won't even start on Brazil. Swap out the reactor for the virus and that period from December to March is disturbingly similar to the last week of April 1986.
It's worth noting that this was not just the individuals in power who refused to take this seriously. As the death-toll grew in China I was on a pub quiz team with the name "Coronavirus with a twist of lime disease" who were beaten by "Wuhan Clan". In January I attended a workshop on risk assessments where the tutor, who had looked at the numbers from China, accurately predicted how the pandemic would play out, and we all laughed him off. Our leaders might have exploited this culture, but the culture was already there. Trump and Johnson are populist, opportunistic politicians after all.
The most shocking thing about Mrs American was, on a fundamental level, how familiarly it is drawn, how easily you identify with the heroes and villains. I suspect this was deliberate, because it made drawing the thematic parallels between now and then so much stronger. Mad Men, where Mrs America creator Dahvi Waller served as a producer, went to great lengths to show the period, and those living it, as alien to the present. The past was very much shown to be another country, meaning we would laugh in horror at the blatant discrimination and bigotry on display, satisfied that our 21st century society was cured of such ills. We would certainly not behave as Don or Pete might. Mrs America corrects that misnomer by having the lead characters behave and emote like 21st century women. Yes, the past was terrible, but the present is not that different, all told. Don Draper and Phylis Schlafly still walk amongst us.
The interesting thing about these types of shows is that they attempt to illuminate the present moment with a fairly narrow beam. Individually these beams threaten to miss the bigger picture – Trump cannot be explained purely by one bitter woman's war against the feminist establishment. It is, as they say, way more complicated than that. But deep-diving into a niche does give us the tools to explore further. These stories are a curious mix of history and allegory, employing anachronism and modern narrative tropes to place us psychologically in that situation. You, the viewer, are invited to identify with Rose Byrne's glorious, ersatz caricature of Gloria Steinem, to feel what it might have been like to fight her fight, so you can return to the present, as yourself, and apply what you've experienced to the now. It won't give you all the answers but it might arm you with useful questions.
My take on the whole "explaining the present with the 70s", as outlined in my video, has three touchstones. The NASA space program, the back-to-the-land counterculture movement, and the state of the modern corporate Internet. You can connect these three things through Stewart Brand, but as always the charismatic individual is less interesting than the ideas their work channels and the narrow beam it throws on history. Stewart Brand defined our present moment to the same degree Phyllis Schlafly, which is to say enough to be of note, but only partially.
(As an aside, I'm not the only one to make this connection. I was both delighted and daunted to see Joanne McNeil, a writer I admire, articulating what I thought were my ideas here and here. And of course there's Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the perfect roadmap for this journey.)
The point is there are many ways to skin this cat. All eras are a bit puzzling when you're in them, but ours seems particularly opaque and swampy. When pondering the 1972 project in the innocent spring of 2019 I was very aware that I did not want to "do an Adam Curtis", notice a bunch of things and present my tenuous, half-baked conclusions in a compelling and definitive voice (cf). But I also kinda admire Curtis and like the way his films spark thoughts, even while they seem to deny the complexity and simply blame individuals. The Power of Nightmares was a transformative work for me and I owe it a lot, even though I came to reject his simplistic methodology.
Which nicely brings me to the reimagining of the 1972 project. I realised I'm less interested in exploring the last 50 years as I am in exploring how the last 50 years are being explored. And when I explained this to Fiona she was "well of course you are" which nicely settled it.
I think I'm mostly going to use the essay as my medium for this. I like it and it's not like the arts venues are particularly viable at the moment. Words on screen and potentially on paper – that'll do for now. I think the first piece is going to be a review of Spaceship Earth, the recent documentary about Biosphere 2 which touches on so many relevant things it's almost too much. Hell, the story pretty much bookended by the Whole Earth Catalogue and a young Steve Bannon and references the 1972 film Silent Running. Let me at it.
Get off the Internet I'll meet you in the street Get off the Internet Destroy the right wing Le Tigra, 2001
Fiona was telling me about an acquaintance who has build up a reasonable five-figure social media following which augments their business in an "influencer" kinda way who had run into some nonsense after posting something related to Black Lives Matter. Amongst other things a pile-on had occurred when someone questioned something in a way that triggered… ah, you know the drill. A scene that has been positive, constructive and supportive suddenly switches into an accusative, defensive shitstorm. It doesn't matter what the subject matter was or who was involved. It just happens again and again on social media platforms.
Back in the day we used to talk about "context collapse" where something posted to Twitter can be taken wildly out of context so your attempt at sarcastic humour makes you look like a racist or a terrorist. See also John Mulaney on jokes read out in court.
But there's also something else going on. The social media platform to which you are posting is not a neutral thing. It takes whatever you were attempting to communicate and it weaponises the shit out of it. When you type your words their meaning is perfectly clear. But when you hit post they combine with the social media machine and that meaning mutates into a monster beyond your control.
So when your carefully thought out post about civil rights hits the eyeballs of another human being, especially someone you don't have a personal connection with, it means something completely different. It's not that the context has collapsed – the context has been thoroughly augmented by a fucktonne of other stuff that you have no idea about.
And then that person, who you barely know, leaves a reply on your post. And you're confused because their reply seems to willingly miss the point of what you wrote. Not only that but they seem to be taking what you wrote personally, despite it being sent to tens of thousands of followers, and so now you're taking their reply personally, so you reply.
This reply of yours highlights the exchange to your followers, but they're also seeing it weaponised through the augmented context machine so they see something completely different again and before you know it everyone's angry with everyone else about something you'd all probably agree on if you'd just stop trying to have nuanced conversations about important issues on an image-sharing social network.
It happens all the time and it's depressing, not just because of the waste of time and effort but because it's distracting good people from fighting the real battles. The far-right is laughing at us. Trump and Farage are the canaries in the coal mine. For the last few years we have been on the cusp of a fascist resurgence as good people are radicalised by those who understand how this weaponisation works really well for them. Brexit was the prelude and if we're not very careful Covid could well tip us over the edge.
Let's take the trans-rights vs feminism debate. As a straight white man I've watched this over the years with my head in my hands. I'm sure there are important issues to shake out in the overlap of women's rights and transexual's rights and I would never want to dismiss or diminish them. But for fuck's sake there are more fundamental battles going on.
This was illustrated quite strikingly by the latest shit-storm to engulf JK Rowling. Battle lines were drawn, all the progressives chose a side, and then The Sun gave Rowling's abusing ex-partner the front page to tell his side. For a wonderful moment everyone was united against Murdoch's foul rag, although Murdoch had effectively taken control of the narrative and put an abusive man in the middle of it.
Divided we are nothing. Together we are stronger. We know this. We know how to do this. So what's going wrong?
The tools we use to share our ideas and opinions are broken. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are weaponised for attention and clicks. They need you to be at the extreme ends of your emotions, be that delighted or outraged. React, react, react. Don't think, don't pause, don't contemplate.
A photo on Instagram is radically different to a photo in on a blog post or in an email. Sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse, but it's always different. The problem is we don't see this because we were never taught media literacy.
Have you ever had that thing where you write something in a word processor and you're happy with it, but when you publish it somewhere, on a website or in a booklet, it seems… different? I always go back and tweak my blog posts once they've been published because I need to read them in that context in order to properly judge them. Being "out there" changes something in intangible but fundamental ways. The words go from being mine to being… ours?
I did a bit of Media Studies at 6th form and it was quite the eye-opener. It turned out that when something is broadcast or printed in the media its meaning is changed. And the people who control that media also control what the meaning becomes. The medium, as the man said, is the message.
In the 90s that was interesting and all but in the 2020s, when our conversations and debates take place through media that is owned by insanely large companies, it's absolutely essential that we all know this. And not in an "oh, I know that" kind of way. Know it in a useful, practical, thorough way.
We need to be taught how to read the social media critically so we can use it effectively. Right now we're blundering through it like monkeys in an orchestra pit.
Digital literacy, especially for adults, needs to get away from the short-term practical stuff and start teaching the theory in a way that makes sense to normal people. Otherwise we will continue to fight amongst ourselves like rats in a cage while the far-right mop up.
Park your differences, get the fuck off the corporate internet, I'll meet you in the streets.
That Boris Johnson is a fool hiding under the cloak of intellectualism is not in dispute, but sometimes he utters a nonsense that is actually worth interrogating. Take his defence of statuary and condemnation of the very concept of maybe removing some of them.
We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.
Let me tell you a story.
My grandfather, who died long before I was born, was the sort of person I'd imagine Johnson would admire. He was awarded a medal for bravery in the First World War. In the Second he slept in the factories of Birmingham as an ARP Warden, on the front line of the Birmingham Blitz. Between the wars he established Ashton & Moore a metal finishing company with a wealthy business partner which still trades in Birmingham today.
Like I say, I never knew him. The Ashtons lost their share of the company when I was a young boy and the Moores were bought out in 2004 so I have as much connection with the business as I do with the totally unconnected Ashton Engineering in Digbeth. It's technically part of my history but it doesn't affect me in any way. I wasn't brought up in Birmingham – that I live here as an adult is purely coincidence and nothing to do with family.
Ashton & Moore was based for a long, long time on Legge Lane in the Jewellery Quarter. After the buyout in 2004 the company moved to Hockley and the building lay empty, waiting its turn on the regeneration roundabout. This finally started a couple of years ago, and here's where it gets interesting.
The building where my paternal family made its living through most of the 20th century has been turned into residential flats. Like many such developments they have taken the historic use of the building as their cue in naming it. The new development is called, drumroll please, The Million Pen Building.
Because it turns out the building that Messers Ashton and Moore purchased "was originally built in 1893 as a steel pen manufactory for George W. Hughes, the creator of The Million Pen." It's a nice story and certainly more appealing that referencing a business which dunked metal in baths of toxic chemicals, but it does seem to, I dunno, erase something.
To be clear, I find this amusing and a nice illustration of how the heritage industry, in an effort to preserve history, can quite successfully erase it. Victorian buildings seem to have an authenticity and glamour that 20th century ones lack, presumably due to it being far from living memory. And the irony of the social evils of Victorian society being cleaned up by 20th century progressives to the point where their descendants can enjoy Victorian romanticism at remove while erasing the history of said progressives, is nice and chewy.
Johnson is one of those people who thinks the Victorian era and the British Empire weren't all that bad. And I'm prepared to blame his sheltered upbringing and intellectual laziness over any inherent evil on his part. He just doesn't understand how history works.
It is a matter of record that Winston Churchill, in his youth and middle age, was a fucking dick. It's very fair for people who were colonised and people who were fighting for workers rights at home to see him as a villain. It is also a matter of record that Winston Churchill played an important and essential role in defeating fascism in Europe. He also, to his credit, did not dismantle the nascent socialist welfare state when he came back to power in the 1950s and was an enthusiastic supporter of European Union. Whether this was due to populist opportunism or educated enlightenment is not for me to judge but, like many significant figures in history, he was complicated.
I personally think that, if we are to have statues of dead leaders, it is reasonable and good to have a statue of old-Churchill outside Parliament. I think it is also good that we, as a society, develop a more nuanced understanding of where this man who helped save democracy from tyranny came from and why many people would consider young-Churchill a very bad man. To paraphrase the poet Chuck D's appraisal of Elvis Presley:
Churchill was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me you see. Straight up racist that sucker was. Simple and plain. Motherfuck him and David Livingstone"
To mark something or someone with a simple statement or monument is to literally edit and censor the past. History is complicated. Statues are not. When you name a street or building after someone you are pretty much saying the conversation is over. It's a statement so loud and clear that it drowns out any dissent.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As a society we need to be held together by loud and clear statements. Without them we dissolve into partisan, atomised units unable to function as a whole. You know, like you see on Twitter.
The trick is to balance the power of these statements with the reality of the society they're supposed to be unifying. Because if they're not doing that job then it's probably time to retire them. Just as the Victorians retired what came before them to better reflect the reality of an imperial power, there's a good case for retiring aspects of the Victorian era to better reflect out post-imperial, progressive reality.
I'm a bit torn on Gillian Wearing's A Real Birmingham Family, a sculpture which uses the language of classical statuary to explore civic identity and challenge preconceived ideas of family. I applaud it's aims but, as I often do, I think a better solution would be to have no statues at all. Wearing has replaced one dogmatic idea with another, because statues can only be dogmatic. I think this does some damage to a position that needs to be flexible and fluid. Statues are a tool of dogma. Better to fight dogma with a different tool, maybe?
But I am probably wrong and I can see what her sculpture is trying to do. It is a statement which reflects Birmingham's reality. It reflects us more than the other statues in that area might. It is, above all, a good thing. If we are to have statues then they should be in this spirit. The only real problem with A Real Birmingham Family is that it stands alone.
The problem isn't that history is edited and censored. In many ways the very purpose of history is to edit and censor, to manage the raw materials for the manufacture of myths that hold nations together. The problem is that a disturbing number of people don't seem to realise that our history has been edited and censored and don't realise that they can be part of that process. Indeed how important it is for them to be part of that process.
It is good and healthy that we find ourselves having national and local debates about the statues in our cities. Some of them have probably outlived their purpose and need to go to the museums where we look after all the other artefacts that have lost their purpose. Others have not. We have to decide this for ourselves, as a society. And if that decision process is not permitted, or worse, not open to all, don't be surprised when one of them ends up in the river.