Archive for the 'technology' Category

Social media = social division?

November 21, 2020

I’ve been on facebook for a decade or so; I use it to keep in touch with distant friends, former colleagues and former students, and to share this blog with some of you… I find it increasingly frustrating to use, and the algorithms that seem to only allow me to see posts from a small proportion of friends are incomprehensible. I’d love an alternative. I have a Twitter account that I don’t use, and an Instagram account that I use occasionally, usually when on holiday. It also drives me nuts when it fills up with adverts and suggestions of whom I might follow… I keep all these accounts as locked down as possible, to block advertising and tracking.

So, I find social media useful. I am also increasingly horrified by its power and its insidious effect on us all, because it’s a commercial product which has the primary purpose of making vast amounts of money for apparently unscrupulous people.

I have the impression that for many – younger – people it’s their gateway to, or source of, news and “commentary” on the news. So everything is smitten into tiny gobbets that will fit on a phone screen, lacking depth, detail and subtlety when it’s not actually incorrect, or deliberately false. This is not good in a society that would like to be thought of as democratic. And then there is the deliberate use of social media to propagandise, to influence and shape opinion, often by very unscrupulous, hidden and anonymous forces: algorithms hunt out the vulnerable and susceptible and set to work. Social media is divisive.

Social media has the power to be very divisive, and to polarise us, into fiercely opposed groups. Again, it’s the brevity and lack of subtlety when it’s so easy to make a throwaway, dismissive, simplistic or aggressive comment on an article or a post, and anonymously too. It can be the equivalent of a brick through a window, something which many people would not do, but a quick snarky comment on social media… no real harm in that, surely?

Social media also seems to separate us from others, in the sense that it isolates us in our own particular bubble of like-minded readers and thinkers, and gives us an inflated sense of our own importance. We are friends with people like us, and tend to make similar comments and have similar reactions to events; opposing viewpoints do not often impinge on our own little echo-chamber.

When I was teaching – former students may recall this – I took great delight in allowing wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of subjects, and often used to play devil’s advocate in order to widen the discussion and introduce different viewpoints. Social media cannot do things like that.

Where is the real danger in all of this? It’s the creation of divisions where there were none before, or the amplification and simplification of divisions and conflicting viewpoints, the fostering of anger rather than discussion, dialogue, argument – all of which are healthy! And look for the motives. I started by pointing at the money, and the moguls of social media are phenomenally rich, far richer than any one individual has the need or the right to be. But look also at the power dynamic: keep people divided into their own particular little interest groups and they won’t see what they have in common, which may well be that the system conspires to keep them separate so that they won’t challenge the existing order and rebel against it, thereby threatening those in power and their money. The Romans knew how to do this two millennia ago “divide et impera” – divide and rule – and it still works today…

What can be done? Clearly so many of us enjoy social media, and would be loth to give it up. We need a different model, perhaps, a non-commercial one. I’d pay a modest monthly sum for a neutral, non-profit oriented facebook or instagram equivalent, one which didn’t allow manipulation or advertising and didn’t try to replace our news media. Or maybe someone out there has a better idea?

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

The Doomsday Book

December 29, 2019

61YJkcWyBfL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Way back when I was still a schoolboy I bought a remaindered book in a sale: The Doomsday Book, by Gordon Rattray Taylor. This must have been in the very early seventies, and I was reminded of this book and the way it shaped my life, when I came across a dusty and ancient copy of the book again a couple of weeks ago.

It was what would now be called popular science, and it was, as I recall, one of the earliest books to try and draw public attention to the problems of pollution, as these were known, seen and understood half a century ago. I remember being utterly shocked and horrified at the grim prognosis then, and vaguely recall a follow-up from the same author, called something like The Population Time-Bomb. For me, these were the first wake-up calls, the first awareness that as a species we were not innocent in our effects on the planet.

A few years later, as a student, I became a vegetarian, for health and ecological reasons, and began to try and be more careful about my impact on the planet. Over the years I have striven not to be wasteful and not to make trivial or unnecessary purchases; as re-use and recycling became more possible, I’ve tried to do these to the best of my ability, too. Lest anyone think that all I’m doing is virtue-signalling, I’ll admit to having owned and used a car for the last thirty years or so, although I’ll balance that by saying that I have never flown anywhere.

I know a good many people who have tried to operate in a similar fashion throughout their lives, too: I’m a member of a small food-buying co-op which comprises about a dozen households. And yet, as I read about the horrors of the climate emergency engulfing the planet, I feel increasingly that we’ve been pissing into the wind, or re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I’m horrified at the world in which my children and grandchildren will have to live and grow old in. Where have we gone wrong? Because surely my generation bears a large share of the responsibility.

Our economic system has proved wonderful at making and selling stuff, and hiding its effect on our planet and on our individual health. And I’m not meaning to start an argument with feminists when I say that the system, over the past couple of generations, has engineered a shift in society and consumption habits which has meant that to support a family and a household and provide it with all the stuff it needs, it now takes both parents working.

Back in the days of the Cold War we used to talk about humans being the only species which had developed the means to destroy life on its home planet – and we meant through the use of nuclear weapons. Now we are managing to do it – a tad more slowly – through the manufacture and consumption of material goods.

I am incredibly pessimistic about our changing anything. First, the economic system will resist any attempt to curb its excesses: we can see that already. Second, we love the conveniences we are offered and don’t see the waste: the huge amount of energy needed to run data-centres so we can have everything in the cloud; the stupid waste of plastics in wrapping food, making one-use cups and bottles; the phenomenal amount of pollution created by cars… and so much more.

There is one factor I have identified and begun to think about over the last few years: the hippy movement of the late sixties and early seventies. It was all about self-liberation, breaking free of constraints, individual self-development – laudable aims in themselves, but so easily manipulated and perverted by the economic system into a chase after material objects and possessions, and the right to individual fulfilment and happiness through stuff. And because it was about individual happiness – allegedly – it gradually erased any reference to, or appreciation of anything shared or collective, including the shared planet. And it seems to me, once those floodgates were opened, the end was on its way. I’m as guilty as the rest of my generation here: the feelings of liberation were wonderful, and the costs only gradually became clear… and what we can now do about it, eludes me.

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

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