Thoughts on The Social Dilemma

So there's this new documentary, The Social Dilemma, which goes into great detail about how terrible the social media industry is for its users and for society in general, ultimately concluding that unless something changes we could see the end of democracy as we know it. Netflix bought the rights and it's getting a lot of exposure.

As you might imagine, I have thoughts.

Some of you will be aware that for a few years in the late 2000's I traded as a Social Media Consultant. I'm not proud, but it meant I was there at the teething of what we might now call the surveillance capitalism industry. I got in to the SMC game around 2006 or so, when blogging suddenly was a thing that people wanted to pay good money to learn how to do, which soon became Twitter and other stuff which coalesced under the "social media" umbrella. The name never sat that well – surely all media is social? – but once it had a label and was no longer an amorphous mass of nerdy shit it was quickly overrun with marketing people and I started to want to get out. (Thankfully I'd made my rep blogging about artists so actually becoming an artist was a short hop. But I digress.)

The marketing people were mostly just an excuse, though. Something was rotten in the world of social media from the get go. But when you're in the middle of the wood it's hard to see all them trees.

I developed a habit, maybe even a reputation, of writing some screed against "social media" every year or so. I think people found them entertaining (there he goes again!) and maybe even thought provoking, but I doubt they changed any minds, because they were pretty incoherent. I didn't have the language, the insight or the metaphors to properly articulate what I was finding disquieting. And ultimately I probably didn't want to prove myself right because it would render void a bunch of ideas that I'd come to identify with.

Nowadays there's a plethora of academics and activists using decades of media theory and social science to point out the blindingly obvious. I wish they'd been around in the mid 2000's.

I'd always talked about the media platform as being the thing, because that's where I operated. I drew a line from printed books to photocopied zines to online forums to blogs to Twitter and Facebook. I wasn't looking at the undercarriage, the printing presses, photocopiers, internet protocols and data-mining algorithms.

It took being an artist to bring that stuff to my attention. While digging deep into the fundamentals of photography, I came across a media theorist called Vilém Flusser who had this theory about that was fascinating. The camera is the true author of a photograph, not the person holding the camera. When you take pictures you're just along for the ride. But this goes further than simply collaborating with Nikon or Canon. Your involvement is dwarfed by the technical, industrial, economic and social systems which caused that camera to come about.

My research as a BOM fellow was centred on this and it features in a talk I gave in 2016.

Like all good theories, it's not about photography. It's about our relationship with technology, specifically media technologies under capitalism. The iPhone is not a screen, Instagram is not a cascade of images, Facebook is not updates from your friends, Twitter is not whatever it is you thought Twitter was (no-one really knows, especially not Twitter). They are systems which sits on top of systems upon systems upon systems going back through history to the first tool. There is no magic but there is massive complexity coupled with exponentially insane levels of processing power.

In looking for metaphors to describe the scale of the systems upon which our devices sit the best I can think of is the cosmicism of HP Lovecraft. In the face of an incomprehensibly infinite universe our greatest fear is our own insignificance. The algorithm doesn't care about you. You don't exist as anything more than a string of numbers. But paradoxically the algorithm is programmed to make you hyper-aware of yourself and how you fit into society. Hello ant, meet your uncaring clockwork universe.

So it was kinda remarkable and very cheering to see this sort of thinking (albeit without the Lovecraft references) underpin Netflix's documentary on how surveillance capitalism is strip-mining our emotions and breaking the world. Because so much of this stuff just looks at the surface without trying to get a handle on the tentacles writing beneath. It's not perfect of course – no film ever is – but it feels like a breakthrough.

Douglas Rushkoff has a nice little video celebrating the film and cautioning his community not to attack the makers for ripping off ideas that he and other fringe thinkers have been writing about for years. This is a victory! We're winning!

Bigger is not just bigger, it's different, and for once I feel a teeny, tiny bit optimistic about the effect of this documentary because I think it has opened the door, just a crack, to some actual change.

One of the few solutions put forward is a tax on data collection. Regulators would set a limit to the amount of data-points a company is able to hold on a person for free. Above that you need to pay a tax, set such that you would need a really good incentive to keep that data. While bad actors and foreign companies could evade this with ease, it would be in the interests of the likes of Google and Facebook to comply and change their business models. There's no reason our internet has to be funded by surveillance advertising. It didn't exist a decade or so ago. Why can't we replace it with something less toxic?

Now, I'm not saying this will work, but it's a good idea that sits between business-as-usual and burn-it-all-down. And once we have one good idea we can have more good ideas and maybe we'll be able to share photos and talk to each other online without destroying civilisation.

I could say much more about this doc but I set myself a two hour limit for writing about it tonight, and that time is up. If you have Netflix, give it a watch. It's worth the data-shadow of you they'll sell on the ad-tech markets. Lol.

Further Reading

Header image: Cover to Astounding Stories (1936) the first publication of HP Lovecraft's The Mountains of Madness.

Revising the 1972 Project

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).

Chernobyl, the tv series, is about the denial of truth by persons whose power and authority depends on the denial of truth. It is about how uncomfortable realities that do not fit the narrative are swept under the carpet and not dealt with until it's too late.

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.

Criticisms of the historical and scientific accuracy of the Chernobyl series, like Gloria Steinem saying Mrs America misrepresents the equal rights movement are fair but ultimately aren't very interesting. Leaving aside the fact that 100% historical accuracy is both impossible and would make for terrible viewing, the value and purpose of history, beyond telling us what happened, is to help us understand and frame ourselves in the present. And so a piece of historical art should ultimately be judged on that basis. What does it tell us about how we became us?

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.

We desperately need social media literacy or the fascists will win

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.

History is constantly being "erased", and that's OK.

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.

Last week a jigsaw saved my life

Six weeks into lockdown, or whatever it was a week ago, and things were still weird. In some ways they were weird because they were still weird. Surely after a while the weird becomes normal? But no, still weird.

I am fully furloughed and locked down. I can't legally work for Loaf while receiving my 80% wage subsidy from the government, and I've put Photo School on hold until the Autumn at the earliest and offered all ticket holders a refund. I basically have nothing to do.

I could, of course, volunteer for stuff. I'm healthy and have a car. Or I could use this enforced isolation to do some of the art things I've been planning once I get some time, because time is all I have right now.

But I don't because I'm exhausted. Tired all the time. I can't think deeply about anything and my concentration is fucked. I feel like I've been through the mill even though I haven't really done anything. It's weird.

My lockdown didn't exactly start smoothly. Getting Loaf's online shop working in a week was the most intense I've worked on anything for a long time. And then Bunminster, our eight year old rabbit, had to be put down, which felt like a final straw. We'd been expecting it for a long time so it wasn't a surprise but on top of everything else it hit me harder than I expected. 8am vet visits also fucked my already fragile sleeping pattern, resolving at fully nocturnal.

And then I had a revelation. Nothing I do at the moment matters. I can't let anyone down because I'm not doing anything. No-one needs me. So I resolved not to beat myself up about my failures. If I sleep in when I was determined not to, that's OK. If I can't get the pressure washer to work, that's OK.

This simple act of forgiveness, of letting myself off the hook, worked wonders, and within days I was on the verge of actually being useful again. My brain was still wading through sludge but I didn't feel like a useless shit. And people who don't feel like useless shits are much nicer to be around than people who do.

And then I started the jigsaw.

At the start of lockdown Fiona had ordered, on a whim, a 1000 piece Cold War Steve jigsaw puzzle featuring nice famous people on the beach (as opposed to his jigsaw of evil people in hell). We spent a few days working on it and it was a lot of fun.

In the obituary for Indian movie legend Irrfan Khan I found reference to his last English language film, Puzzle, co-staring Kelly Macdonald as a housewife whose life radically changes when she discovers she's very good at jigsaws. We watched it as a laugh but it's really good and introduced us to the concept of competitive team jigsawing.

Hearing of this new obsession, a friend lent Fiona another jigsaw, this one of sweets from the 1980s which we completed as a team in 90 minutes, because it was 500 pieces and really easy. I needed more so I started searching for jigsaw shops. I made two discoveries.

1) Jigsaws are suddenly really popular. All the online shops were covered in noticed warning of low stock and long deliveries. They were disconcertingly similar to the warnings on the Suma food wholesale website we use a Loaf. Jigsaws are a thing, so much so The Guardian just published a blooming article about them.

2) Jigsaws are mostly, and there's no other way to say this, an aesthetic car crash. I was expecting twee landscapes and puppies but, my god, there isn't enough irony in the world to get me to do some of these. (Of course, the websites only show puzzles they have in stock, so the decent looking ones were probably sold out, but as a first impression it was not good.)

Eventually I found a jigsaw I could happily spent £15 plus postage on – an Edward Gorey illustration of a cat looking at another cat in an insanely over-furnished bedroom. I've always liked Edward Gorey's work (if you're not familiar, start here) and it certainly looked detailed enough (the Cold War Steve puzzle had far too much blue sky) so I placed an order.

It arrived a week later. In my nocturnal state I cleared the dining table and spent the night doing the edges, as task that took longer than usual because all the pieces in this jigsaw are basically the same. Fiona had a go the next day and pronounced it to be not up her alley in the slightest, so I carried on.

It should be a nightmare jigsaw, the worst kind. You can't easily sort the pieces into more than three or four broad piles (I ended up with mostly white, flowers, leaves and scribbles). You have to take each piece, find its unique squiggle on the cover guide and then place it roughly where it belongs. Soon you find two pieces that fit together and then you're off.

I should have set a timer but I think it took me 30 hours to do this jigsaw, mostly between the hours of midnight and 6am.

I started off listening to podcasts. Then music. And then I found myself working in the 4am silence, acutely aware of the humming of the lightbulb. One night I'd set the dishwasher going and totally tuned in to its cycle, the way it clunks and whirs over 110 minutes. All the while I'm picking up a piece, trying to find it on the cover and, if I do, placing it on the board.

While this was happening I found myself losing interest in the things that had been distracting me. I no longer binged on movies and box sets. I stopped doomscrolling the news sites. I barely opened my laptop. All that mattered was the jigsaw, one piece at a time.

Now it's done I thought I'd feel empty, bereft of my task, but I feel cleansed. I don't even think I need another jigsaw to do. This wasn't an addiction or a habit. It was a winding down, a turning off of unnecessary and unhealthy functions through focussed attention.

I've never found calm through meditation, exercise or any of the recommended methods. Sure, I've probably never tried properly, but then I wasn't trying to do jigsaws properly. I just fell into it. And it worked.

My Autistic Traits, diagnosed a couple of years ago, are a funny thing to properly understand. I don't have medical Autism, which is how the NHS decides whether they are the right agency to help you. And I don't think I have learning difficulties, and even if I did I'd have to be in education to get support. I'm certainly the definition of "high functioning". But my psychology, my personality, has certain traits. Usually they are passive or at best quirky. They mean I'm an artist and explain my interest in philosophy. I think in a certain way that defines me, and that's groovy.

But occasionally they get fed too much of the wrong thing and they loom up and take over my brain. My behaviour changes in subtle ways and often only I can tell something amiss. I expect to be functioning in the usual way but suddenly I can't, and that leads to anxiety and depression. For a long time I thought I was simply suffering from depression, but I've come to realise it's a symptom of this conflab in my brain. This confusion with myself.

These days, thanks to the Autistic Traits diagnosis and the love of a good woman, I've started to be able to spot when the traits kick in. They can be a good thing, helping me to see the wood for the trees or to focus through the noise and see what's going on. (I actually thought Boris Johnson's speech last Sunday made sense on first viewing because I automatically edited out all the nonsense. It was only on watching it again that I realised how confusing it was to everyone else.)

But they can also be a hindrance. I think my state during the first weeks of lockdown is a case in point. I'm usually pretty good at figuring out what's going on in the world. After the Brexit vote most of my friends and colleagues were in shock, but I quickly developed a good-enough understanding of what had happened and why. I remember driving my mother, on a trip from New Zealand, and her German friend into town and explaining what had happened in a detailed way that even surprised myself. I wouldn't necessarily stand by that assessment as much more came to light over time, but it was a good working model.

The Coronavirus has been the opposite. Facts have emerged slowly. The future is not just uncertain, it is practically unknowable. When thinking beyond the next few weeks there is nothing firm to hold on to. I know and accept all this, but my traits find it very hard. I need to build a model, to understand. The immediate political circus is a welcome, if depressing, distraction, but it doesn't salve the ache my brain has for a model. I don't need to know exactly what will happen. I just need a framework to hang things on and file them away. Then I can get on with my life.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I think we're all discovering brain traits we didn't know we had, or didn't realise could be problematic. It's a horrible time to be mentally fragile.

The title of this post started as a joke, a play on words, but there's a chunk of truth in there. I don't quite know what I'd have done without that jigsaw.

Good composition is ideologically fraught

Last weekend I was running a Photo School Composition Workshop for the first time, meaning I'd been immersing myself in "good" photography and thinking about what that means. On the morning of the class the story about Vanessa Nakate being cropped from a group photo of young climate activists at Davos broke and I almost brought it into the class because it's fascinating and important for a number of reasons.

The first fascinating thing that hits you is the excuse given by Associated Press of "good composition". The photo they were supplied was quickly made better by subtracting some elements. This is a total no brainer – photography is a subtractive art form. To create a good photo you reduce the elements and arrange them in a way that helps them act as one, allowing the viewer to "read" the image quickly and clearly.

So this image:

is much easer to read that this image:

Aesthetically, the cropped version is a better image, regardless of who or what is in it. The building, cited by Associated Press as the only reason for cropping, is distracting so removing that allows the mountains and trees to give the depth of the photo more coherence. The cropped version puts Greta Thunberg's signature hard stare on the intersection of the thirds while the other activists frame her without distracting from her.

But the building wasn't the only thing removed from the image to make it better. The editor also cropped Vanessa Nakate, the fifth young activist in the group who just so happened to be Ugandan and the only non-white member. But before we get into that, I think it's worth noting that for the fraction of a second captured in this photo she doesn't look as composed and serious as her compatriots. This is unfair as she looks totally composed and serious in other pics I've found. But in this moment she has this open grinning face and a big-old coat revealing that mess of colours, wavy lines and oversized lanyard. And that's because she's not a groomed celebrity – she's a nerdy kid who cares about the big stuff. They all are. Look at this shot a few seconds later where the mix of seriousness and "WTF is going on with these photographers" is much more evenly spread.

As a seasoned professional educator in this field, my informed diagnosis is that the photographer took a bad photo which could not be fixed in the edit. They did not deliver the image they were presumably tasked with getting. It is very hard to get five people without media training to pose well, especially when they're presumably walking to an event and not expecting to be photographed at that moment, but that's no excuse. It's clear from the other photo that they were a group, and the job is to photograph that group. Do your job. Don't submit bad work.

The editor should also have realised what they had and made a better call on using it. Presumably they were aware, or were able of being aware, that there were five people in the group, not four, and that they were cropping out a member of the group, not just some rando. Or maybe they didn't. Or maybe they didn't care about the group – they only cared about the click-generating Greta. Those nobodies around her were disposable. Greta at Davos is the only story.

Which is all to say it's possible to explain what happened and why it happened without bringing race in at all. But to not bring race in at all is to miss why this decision was a really really really bad one.

In her video about the photo Vanessa talks about being "erased" and, since she was a representative of Africa, of Africa being erased from the conversation about the climate crisis. She takes this personally, for sure, but sees it as a symptom of a much bigger issue of representation of non-white bodies and voices in the media. To slight me is rude and inconsiderate, but I can deal. To slight those who I represent, especially when those people have been slighted repeatedly throughout history, is a problem.

I don't pretend to have wise words to say about the representation of black bodies in Western media, and it's definitely not my place to try and have them, but it really brings home how blunt and cruel the act of photography can be. This form, which can highlight and pull things into sharp focus, gets its power from exclusion, from leaving things and people out of the frame.

Photography is not reality – it allows us to select elements of reality and shape them to form narratives. When we do this deliberately and with care we can produce wonderful images that can change the world. When we do it carelessly and without thought we will often reinforce the biases in society. And when those biases hurt people, lazy photography will hurt people.

Hell, this applies to all art forms, but photography is everywhere and, more problematically, is believed to be a truth teller. But it isn't. It's a selective storyteller, for good or for evil. Wield your composition with care.

Pretty Trauma

With some trepidation I watched the first episode of season two of The Handmaids Tale the other night. The first season had been very good but I'd heard the next was a bit all-out brutal horrorshow and, oddly enough, I didn't find myself needing that of an evening.

That first episode is pretty brutal and presumably sets the tone for some outright misery. Usually I'm OK with that, but I'm wondering to what end this is all for. The first season mirrored the book and therefore had a coherent arc. There was a point. This next wave is, what, world building? Where's it going?

Obviously that will become clear over time, but there was something about the presentation that slightly unnerved me. It was quite beautiful.

There's a whole thing in film theory (I believe – this is definitely not my area) about the perils of presenting horrifying scenes that you want the viewer to engage with but in doing so make the horrifying thing exciting and alluring. Film, like all visual art, gets its power by showing an abstracted, unreal or hyperreal version of the world using tropes and styles that can detach us as much as involve us. Or something. Maybe an example will help.

In this first episode of Handmaids season 2 the women are forced to stand in a courtyard in the rain holding a rock at arms length as an ongoing punishment for the denouement of season 1. It's basically a torture scene, but it's filmed beautifully. The women are perfectly arranged in a circle and frequently filmed from above, their bright red and white costumes contrasting with the dark bricks.

It is a visually beautiful scene, perfectly staged, cleanly shot. Prior to this was a flashback to the pre-fascist days which is all soft lights and handheld cameras. A contrast is being made, but I'm uneasy about how gorgeous the nightmare looks. How it draws me in. Maybe that's the point? I'm not sure.

I filed all that away in my mind, but then we watched I, Tonya last night, a biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding, which was excellent in many many ways. I particularly liked how the tone threw me off guard. The trailer sets up a light-hearted comic romp about white-trash idiots and the film itself pretty much delivers that sort of film, except it doesn't because this is a story about an abused woman, emotionally by her mother and physically by her husband, ultimately punished by society for something she (probably) didn't do. I'm sitting there thinking, am I supposed to be laughing at this? It's been set up as a funny, there are some genuinely funny bits, but this story is not funny at all. It's a genuine tragedy.

I think I, Tonya plays a bait and switch, promising you a Goodfellas or Logan Lucky and then betraying that with something much darker. The Founder did a similar thing with Michael Keaton's character who you initially root for and by the end feel terrible for ever liking. It's a subtle and tricky thing, to subvert the viewer's experience like that, and it's all the more powerful when it works.

Handmaids doesn't feel like it's doing anything subtle here. It seems to be simply saying "This world is awful. Look how awful it is. Look at it." But to make sure we look they make this awful world look beautiful even when it's supposed to be ugly and brutal. Especially when it's ugly and brutal. And I'm not sure that works in the way they intended.

Ars Electronic 2017

Ars Electronica is a large media arts festival and as such it functions like most large industry gatherings, albeit with a less rapaciously commercial imperative. It takes place in the city of Linz, the third largest in Austria, roughly 2/3rds the size of Wolverhampton, give or take.

Ars Electronica (commonly shortened to Ars, which makes smutty British people snigger at your visiting Arse) was founded in 1979 and is based around the Ars Electronica Centre, a science museum for future technology manifesting as a glowing cube of flashing lights on the banks of the Danube. It appears to house very little art, which is a bit confusing when visiting during the festival, but uses what you might call a cultural mindset to frame the exhibits on show. There's also a strong emphasis on pixels and screens. Lots of VR goggles at the moment alongside their much vaunted "8K Deep Space" room where multiple high definition projectors fill the wall and floor like a slightly more immersive IMAX. Like most "big telly" spaces in cultural institutions, the challenge seems to be figuring out what it's for. Maybe it's just a big telly.

This "future technology" thing sometimes makes the place feel old fashioned, a problem futurism has bumped into in recent years. As we fumble our way through the end days of neoliberalism it's harder and harder to imagine a future that isn't part of our tattered reality tunnel, so futures that wish to avoid doomed dystopic nihilism have to remix the past, only smaller and faster and with more pixels. Ars gamely tries to bring earnest social concern to their tech evangelism but to these jaded eyes it feels a bit naive. Still, it's refreshing to see a European take on what has become dominated by The Californian Ideology.

While the centre runs all year, the festival takes place for a week in September, and in recent years has completely separated from the mothership, occupying Postcity which is not a new space for exploring post-city ideologies and is actually an empty disused post office sorting depot. This is oddly refreshing, like discovered something called an Innovation Centre was actually used for innovation, which never happens.

The space is vast, covering three massive floors, some still kitted out with conveyor belts and mail sorting chutes, down to the ominously named Bunker complex which feels like a cold-war installation. It's on a scale with a convention centre, but without any of the facilities. Ars brings it to life once a year, filling it with industrial fittings to create stalls, booths and workshops while decorating the concrete with potted long grasses. The end result evokes a post-industrial takeover by a tribe of techno-futurists, especially when all the Media Artists arrive with their fashion cliches and quirks.

You enter at the top floor via a sweeping service road built for lorries and collect your badge, although this is not technically needed for the top floor which is open to all. This floor is roughly divided into two areas. First is what I call the Tech Demos, works by artists that show their workings more than their meanings and which might lead to greater things in time, and demonstrations of cool technologies with no pretensions of artistry.

The former included most of the Artificial Intelligence which, to my mind, still hasn't produced a great work yet. They're using an artistic approach to poke at this relatively new technology and reveal some of its weirdness, and that's great, but I doubt any of the artists involved are satisfied yet. There's more work to be done. The later reflects the main Ars centre. Lots of mind-control headsets, lots of robot arms, all very wow but of very little substance. But that's fine. We don't always have much wow in our lives. Often wow is enough.

Downstairs is what you might call the real art. Threaded through the maze of tunnels are installations and curated exhibitions, some commissioned by the festival along with a collections from commercial galleries across Europe. Developing the market for digital art, often by definition intangible, is one of the the strands at Ars.

The art on show was on a very high standard. I was particularly impressed the following:

If the upstairs was a fun-house of excitement the downstairs more that made up for that with plenty of space for contemplation.

Of course, one man's impression of a massive event like this is going to be subjective and informed by my state of mind. While I had the eye of a practitioner I also had the attitude of a tourist, so I was interested in how the locals felt about this whale of a festival landing on their town.

Last year I was in Linz for a residency run by qujOchÖ, a collective of local artists that's been working in the city since 2001. When I said I would be returning for Ars, one of the founder members, Thomas Philipp aka Fipps graciously said I could stay with him. This, coupled with my introvert approach to mingling, meant I followed qujOchÖ members around like a lost puppy, giving me something of a grass roots view of the whole affair.

Austrians, it turns out, are famously cynical and grumpy (their term "sudern" is hard to define but is rather like a Gaelic shrug soaked in nihilistic disappointment) so it wasn't too much of a surprise to hear the local artists bitching in the bars late at night about programme changes and managerial incompetence. And I'm sure you'd hear that in any city – big events are hard and toes will be trodden on.

But I was surprised as the lack of impact on the local scene. I would have thought this would be their tentpole event, a chance to show off local work to a visiting global audience (and Ars is truly a global affair). But the impact was negligible. A lot of people got technical work, of course, and one of the shows at the main art museum was by a dystopian docklands by local collective Time's Up (which had an oddly English vibe I felt), but this was an anomaly and where the Linz scenes were represented it was on the unofficial fringe where business was as usual.

Maybe the effect of Ars happened years ago and the city is now sustainable without it, allowing the festival to become a transnational entity, bringing inspiration in rather than exporting it. The local artists are complacent about it because it's normal. Surely every city has a massive, international, popular, thoughtful and, most importantly, competently run arts festival? Sadly, they don't.

If Birmingham had the equivalent of Ars Electronica (ignoring for the moment that this city is currently financially, ideologically and structurally incapable of such a feat) it would change everything for the artists working here. Not just from the sense of having an infrastructure or an income but from shifting our horizons and giving us a global perspective on our work.

Interestingly, a couple of months after Ars, Coventry had it's first Biennial centred on an exhibition of contemporary art in an empty newspaper print-works. Despite the grand name (Biennials make one think of Venice) it was a totally grass-roots, shoestring budget affair, utterly hooked into the local art scenes. It was fired not by routine or remit but by a passion that, fuck it, this needs to happen and we can make it happen. The Coventry Biennial, should it continue and grow, will bring stability and continuity to a community of artists that will raise their game. And should it succeed beyond their wildest dreams, those same artists will kick against it, sneering at its conservatism and conformity, at its inability to react and embrace what's happening in the city it helped to transform.

And that's exactly the way it should be.