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.

Insomnia Journal 07 May 20

It's not strictly insomnia as once I get to sleep sometime around dawn I'll likely be out for at least 8 hours, if not more, but insomnia is usually associated with being awake in the wee hours, and that's what I've been over the last month or so. Sometimes I keep myself busy, sometimes I watch all those films I've had queued up, but often I find myself drifting and so I've decided to start writing about whatever's on my mind, for myself, not expecting anyone else to care, though hopefully someone might find some of it useful. Blogging-as-it-was and-should-always-be, in other words.

I've managed to avoid the sound-and-fury outrage circus of late, mostly because there have been far more important and interesting things to pay attention to, so I was a bit confused when I saw Prof Neil Ferguson had resigned from Sage. Ferguson was the scientist most publicly associated with the UK being in lockdown and Sage is the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. If you wanted to briefly explain why the UK is currently in a holding pattern you could point at him. He is, after all, an epidemiologist of quite high standing and while the actions based on his advice are for the government to decide, his advice is, we can assume, based on some rock-solid research.

Ferguson resigned because his girlfriend travelled from the other side of London to visit him twice during the lockdown. She considered their two households to be one. He considered himself immune having had the virus. But the lockdown said this wasn't the done thing. They broke the rules that he had advised. So he resigned.

I mean, I guess that's OK? We used to have a grand tradition of condemning hypocrites in this country who preach that we should all behave in a certain way then practice the opposite in private. I shed no tear for the populist moraliser caught with his pants down.

But I also had a sense that we'd moved past that. Boris Johnson is a philandering serial liar who exhibits no shame, and he became prime minister with that firmly on the record. If you're a Johnson supporter, being found saying one thing and doing another might generate an eyebrow raise or maybe a quiet word, but it can't be taken too seriously, right?

And yet… the scoop on Ferguson was lead by the Telegraph, Johnson's loudest cheerleader, with the Mail close behind. And what do these two august periodicals have in common? They both think the lockdown might be a bit much.

In short, this was a tabloid hit-job by vested interests in changing government policy. Britain needs to be reopened, no matter the cost. Ignore the fact that most Britons are content with the lockdown continuing until the country is functionally able to deal with it. The ideologues with the money are upset, so something needs to be done. Dig up some dirt on that scientist guy. He's a human so he's bound to have made a mistake, and he's far too busy to be watching his back.

So they found the dirt and they published the dirt and now one of the country's intellectual resources, one of the elements that might help us get out of this reasonably intact, is throw out while the others are feeling the chill.

If I was being hyperbolic, and if you can't be hyperbolic at 2am when can you, I might ask how many people will die because of that tabloid hit-job. The point of Sage is to put all the relevant big brains that the educational establishments of this country have produced in a room so we can figure out how we can stop people dying. That room is now on brain down. Nice one, fuckers.

And it's not like he did anything that wrong. I mean, who hasn't broken the lockdown once or twice over the last couple of months? Who amongst us can honestly say they haven't done something that could contravene the restrictions? And that's fine. Doing lockdown correctly 99% of the time is as good as doing it 100%. Less that 90%, then we have a problem, but nearly all the time is fine. The point of a lockdown is not to eliminate the threat. The threat is the same as it was back in February – massive and scary. Lockdown is a tool for slowing it down so we can get ready. It's a fire-break, a pause button. At some point we'll have to unpause, because whatever you think of lockdown it's not much of a life, but unless the testing and PPE and therapeutics and ventilators and everything else we didn't think we'd need until early this year is in place it's going to be a fucking massacre.

But even in a lockdown people are going to catch the virus because there are still opportunities. We need to shop, we need to exercise, we need to talk to someone else at the top of our voices across the park. The point is way way fewer people will catch it.

That's another tedious tabloid trope – binary thinking. The erasure of grey. Either you're a saint, or you're a villain, and I guess there haven't been enough villains for their liking of late. (At least not outside their ideological playground.)

One of the ideologies hiding behind all this is the notion of British Exceptionalism, and it's a particularly nasty and troublesome notion. We've basically lived through 3 years of bullshit fuelled by this notion – the idea that Britain will be fine outside of the EU, not because of any planning or economic modelling or commercial/industrial reality but because we're British. And the British are better at this sort of thing. We are exceptional.

It's certainly true that the British character is different to, say, the French, or the Guyanese, or the good people of Nepal. The communities that spread across our islands have evolved certain ways of thinking which inform certain ways of doing which have outcomes which you might find subtly but significantly different in other countries. But this doesn't mean the British people are somehow immune to sodding huge realities just because enough of them like beer and sarcasm.

There's this nice post by David Eggerton, a historian specialising in science and technology and twentieth-century Britain, titled The Government's Response To Covid-19 And Brexit Are Intimately Connected, because of course they are. The current government was selected specifically to deliver Brexit this year and that mindset is now trying to wrap itself around the coronavirus. But what's interesting is how the notion of British Exceptionalism just fucks everything up.

Remember way back in the mists of March when Great British Businesses were going to rapidly rejig their factories to make ventilators for the NHS?

The current crisis has been an opportunity to illustrate the argument that the UK was a powerful innovation nation that could do very well without the EU. The government launched a programme, the details of which are still murky, to create new emergency ventilators.  First off the stocks in the PR blitz was the Brexiter Sir James Dyson, who was teaming up with another Brexiter capitalist Lord Bamford of JCB to make many thousands.  This, it turned out was just one of many projects to design new ventilators, and to modify others for mass production. There were lots of allusions to the second world war as if Spitfires had been conjured out of thin air in the heat generated by patriotic enthusiasm. It is telling too that the government decided not to take part in the EU ventilator procurement programme. This had to be a British programme for PR purposes.

Of course, it didn't work at all. It turns out you can't just innovate your way out of a crisis. You need boring stuff like planning, resources, expertise and experience. The sort of things that helped win World War II.

That wartime analogy was deeply misleading – the UK was a world leader in aircraft before the Battle of Britain. It had been making Spitfires since the late 1930s, and had huge long-planned specialist factories making them.  What is clear is that we are not in 1940.  The UK is not a world leader in ventilator manufacture, far from it. […] Indeed there may be a wartime analogy which could become pertinent. Churchill did attempt to conjure up new weapons in a hurry in the face of expert advice.  They included anti-aircraft rockets, spigot mortars, and indeed a trench-cutting machine.  They were universally late, did not work well or at all, and represented a huge waste of resources.

I've always thought the whole "We will prevail, because we are British, and British is best" was a joke, poking at the bombastic nonsense of an Empire in terminal decline. From Carry on films to Monty Python to Brass Eye. But as we tailspin through the end-game of post-modernism, the absurd jokes have become policy. Because there's nothing else left.

No country is responding well to Covid-19 because it's literally a slow-motion massacre, but it's arguable that Germany is doing better than most, possibly because Germany is boring and prepares for stuff and is run by a scientist. Britain has embraced the false god of efficiency and used it to justify inflicting austerity the flay the thin flesh from its bones. And we're run by a serial liar who, allowing for the liar bit, seems to actually believe this British Exceptionalism nonsense.

Some of my lefty friends sneer at Kier Starmer because they can't help themselves but my god isn't it nice to have someone speaking in public who's not a fucking moron? PMQs today was like a breath of fresh air. What we need right now, more than anything, are people who are able to think clearly and ask the right questions. People who can tell the difference between useful information and hyperbolic bullshit. Nobody like this has made it to the upper levels of British politics for as long as I can remember, and certainly not this early in their career. You see it someone like Ken Clarke over the last few years but he was as much a chancing bullshitter in the 80s as the cabinet are today. Maybe John Major, if you squint and ignore Back to Basics? Possibly Gordon Brown if he'd caught a break. Note how Major and Brown were hated by the far-right press and their enablers.

That'll do. Boil lanced. See you again tomorrow, maybe.

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.

Understanding Gilliam, and other men of a certain age

Oh, Terry Gilliam.

You were part of the counter-cultural movement that helped destroy the fusty hegemony of British society by laughing at it. You helped make the modern world a bit less shit. And now the modern world is not happy with you because you seem to have become the sort of reactionary, establishment prick you used to kick against.

For those who like Gilliam but also think he's so very wrong, it can be a bit confusing. But it's all quite simple really.

Terry Gilliam and his gang are, at heart, anti-establishment types. They came up in an era when "the establishment", in the UK at least, was fuelled by the legacy of Empire and British exceptionalism whilst being undermined by the death of said Empire and the creeping realisation that the British weren't that exceptional. That's Monty Python in a nutshell – kicking the post-war establishment as it fell.

This was, of course, a good thing. But for them it became the norm. Anything establishment is to be attacked, and anything that resembles groupthink or dogma is dangerous. (His generation's parents fought the Nazis too, don't forget.)

Fast forward to the 21st century and while economically it seems like the right wing won, a curious paradox is that Thatcher and Reaganomics heralded a significant liberalising of the culture. Attitudes on sex and race have progressed remarkably over my lifetime to the point where, in the culture industries where Gilliam works, the status quo looks radically different to the 60s.

In Gilliam's defence he has always had to fight for his work. Partly because he's an insufferable prick, I'm sure, but also because his work never fits. He exists in that troublesome position of having just enough popularity that his films are worth funding, but not quite enough popular appeal for them to be funded effectively. He has a platform, but he's still fighting for scraps, and consistently biting the hands that do feed him.

But that's not an excuse. I think he's wrong to be attacking "the #metoo movement" but I do kinda understand where he's coming from. Rightly or wrongly he sees himself, and his peers, as outsiders fighting against the establishment. When the establishment declares progressive ideas around equality to be the ethical standard but still won't support his work, he's going to see those ideas as the problem.

It's sad because people from Gilliam's generation, especially those who haven't gone to the dark side, do have a lot to offer today's progressives. The veterans of the post-war counterculture may be scarred and twitchy but they fought the power and they know where it lies. It'd be lovely to think the generations could come together and learn from each other. Sadly, I can't see that happening while everything is mediated by the commercial internet.

In 2013 I went to see the flawed but underrated The Zero Theorem with Jez and Tom. I had the distinct feeling we were seeing the modern world through Gilliam's eyes. In some ways it was a parody of what an old man thinks of young people (the party scene lit exclusively by iPad screens was genius) but beyond the bluster and rage were messages and arguments I think today's progressive counterculture warriors would find useful. Sadly I doubt any of them will give him the time of day…

The danger of meaning

I would comfortably say that I'm often searching for meaning in things. This feels like a good thing to do, to not accept face values but to prod and question and figure out what's actually going on. And upon finding meaning I'm happy and satisfied. My work is done. I can move on.

So I was intrigued, on starting to watch Examined Life – a series of interviews with contemporary philosophers, to come across Avital Ronell's rejection of meaning.

(Sidebar: I know Ronell is apparently what we might call a "controversial" figure and a pretty horrible person, by some accounts, but I'm just interested in this idea of Heidegger's she articulates here.)

It's worth watching, but in essence, meaning makes things satisfying, so we are prone to accept meanings without questioning them because they feel good. But many things don't lend themselves to simple meaning, and that's when we have to work harder, to pay attention to our actions and question the easy but empty meanings that are attached to such things.

I found myself thinking of traffic lights and the language of road signage. It is easy for motorists to read the signage and apply that meaning to the road environment to the exclusion of any messier information that might be around. A green light means go, so we go. We are slaves to meaning.

An intriguing, but rarely implemented, method of traffic calming is to remove as much signage as possible, along with curbs, road markings, crossings, etc. This shared space idea makes driving full of uncertainty because you don't know what anything means. There's no handy light telling you to go and a sign saying at what speed. You have to move your car through this space and anything can happen.

pic via

Ronell seems to be saying we should approach the world like a shared space road, removing all the signage erected by those who control and influence society's rules and moving carefully because anything can happen.

Of course this could lead to paralysis, but I think it's more about being aware that the meaning we assign to something or someone is, by necessity, a massively simplification. They are evil, they can be trusted, they deserve their fate. These simplifications let us get past the issue nice and quickly, but that does not make using them the right thing to do. Nuance is important.

Plenty to ponder.

Examined Life is on Prime at the moment.

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.