outsourcing our souls

I wonder if the online world doesn’t actually provide us with a sense of structure we can easily doublecheck, and an environment of security most would argue is manifestly not the case.  And in such a context, the offline world becomes a real challenge – a really hard call for sensitive souls to deal properly with.

A case in point.

I spent the last couple of days in London.  I’d never used an Oyster card before.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s a contactless payment system to allow you to travel around the city.

I don’t know, even now, how to properly use it.  I don’t feel confident in its using.  I’d much prefer it to have its own LCD screen, which informed you, as and when you needed, how much dosh was left on it; how much you had spent.

But it doesn’t work like that.

Neither is the Underground – nor the other rail & road services which connect off it – a network I understand with the necessary degrees of confidence.  Perhaps familiarity breeds contentment – who knows?  If I spent some time in London, I’m sure I could see it as a real-world equivalent of a blogging CMS; and be as comfortable with that network as I am with online ones.

So what was the purpose of all this stressful travelling around?  I was attending the last public interview of Alan Rusbridger, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper for the past twenty years or so; an event and a half as it turned out; an event worthy of all the stress I kind of had to endure.

I even got to meet him after the interview; he was pressing the flesh patiently as any politician must.  In a sense, then, being an editor is like being a politician; in the same way, perhaps, as a pope like Pope Francis shows a religious personage can also be political: politically attuned, at the very least.

Before the occasion started, convivial drinks were had by convivial people you’d probably expect to attend such a gathering.  I’m not sure I am exactly that sort of person; but maybe oddballs fit into the Guardian‘s left field too.

The interview lasted around ninety minutes and covered a lot of ground.  It reminded us of historical idiocies: of libel actions built on the sands of massive lies; of the phone-hacking stories; of the Trafigura super-injunctions which in themselves were super-injuncted (if I remember rightly …); of Snowden, the surveilled past he described and the rabbits-in-headlights future we are now living; of that awful billowingly fuel-laced 9/11 frontpage; of this and that and so much more.

What shone through all the way was a steely humanity: a necessary thick skin even notable editors sometimes fail to entirely acquire.  I’m not sure I’ll ever have it; so really not sure I’ll ever be what – otherwise – I might have easily been.

But in the absence of something one would wish to possess, one can only admire more fully those who demonstrate it really can be done.

After the event itself, we went up for the complementary drinks.  In the mix of disinterested and interested souls, there was the whiff of self-representation amongst some of those who attended.  I always feel a little bit uncomfortable on these occasions: it seems bad form to approach someone who’s celebrating their tenure in order to exchange a business card.  But I suppose thick skins do make the world go round.  Or something …

Yes.  Most people seemed older, and didn’t care too much about the impact of their words; but there was one young and gently thoughtful thirteen-year-old who spoke so clearly on the matters he had witnessed, it cheered me up immensely.  As someone who’s part of a generation which has so failed the world, I can only hope more of these youngsters grab what has been our manifest and rank failure, and manage – in some way – to turn it round.

I see my own weaknesses, and wonder if I can ever turn my back story into history.  I’m not sure it’s possible: it’s easy for people to play mind games with me; such an easy sport that like fox hunting, it should surely be outlawed.

Though they do say they want to bring it back, don’t they?

My question, then, I suppose is this: how can we create a world where the mind-gamers don’t trash and poison normal human relations?  How can editors help to edit reality so it reaffirms instead of damages human discourse?  How can the sacred role of journalistic endeavour bring us real truths that’ll pan out like the nuggets we really deserve?

How can we stop the bad editors taking control – of going so far as to outsource our souls?  And how can we ensure that the mischievously good, clearly the Mr Rusbridgers of the world, win on our behalf the battles we need fighting?

Answer me that, and we’ll have solved half of everything that’s currently hurting.

Fail to provide any cogency – and people like myself, at least, who probably see and comprehend far too much of what really happens out there, will simply shrivel away in a morale-sapping decay we could easily call a final resignation.

“hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention …”

There’s a lovely article in the Guardian Media Network section this week.  The quote that caught my attention dates from 1971, and is by a person called Herbert Simon (the bold is mine):

As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”.

That Simon* could observe this in 1971 is astonishing: astonishing because it indicates that the poverty of attention he mentioned over forty years ago existed even as he drew attention to its dangers.

We haven’t heeded his warnings.

It’s an important set of observations, then.  If the norm is becoming, for at least the younger of our citizens, a displaced attention span to, at the minimum, a pair of screens at the same time (TV and mobile phone; maybe desktop and/or tablet too), it tells us our ability to prioritise and filter is declining quite sharply whilst our tendency to unfocus and fail to pursue to a proper end our goals is increasing equally dramatically.

This may mean, of course, nothing at all: as a species, addiction to this and that has been a historical constant, and the periodic highs – ever shorter as content becomes more frequently renewed – may be nothing new here.  But the fact that it might affect the best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls who are our species’ future, is perhaps a little more than just a little worrying.

It could be that a whole generation – even us older lot whose memories begin to fail us – is growing up in the dreadful misconception that to manage multiple screens of multiple streams of multiple screams of information is tantamount to being able to usefully multi-task in an information and knowledge economy.

It’s not true, of course.  The importance of reflection and gentle cogitation has never been greater.  Particularly when it is thought – or its lack of therein – which will save or condemn our place on the planet.

I remember seeing what happened to Blair: a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed machine of transferable thought who arrived on the political scene and turned it upside down with his sharpness and movement of mind.

What’s happened to him?  Over the years, an inevitable decline: a solidification of ideas, once fluid; a freezing of mindsets, once liquid.  I have this theory (probably other people have it, and have said it better, too …): it runs like this.  Any leader, politician or otherwise, is like a mathematician who never invents beyond the age of twenty-five: what they will think, where they will go, why they will be remembered is set by that twenty-fifth year.  Everything else is a consequence of that: just as much for the Blairs of the world we all democratically strive to inhabit as it is for stratospheric businesspeople like Apple’s Steve Jobs clearly was.

So.  Let’s see what’s happening to those who might lead more invisibly.  The best brains, the cleverest youth, the most ingenious and imaginative souls: where do they stand at the age of twenty-five?  What have the vast majority achieved by such a time?  Multi-task on two screens and manage several information streams whilst they’re monetised to hell and back by carelessly distant corporations?

Do we really build the future of our species on liking and tweeting our thoughts amidst an environment of an algorithmic orgasm which never quite manages to come together?

Are these really the giants whose shoulders we must stand on gingerly peer over in order that we might contemplate a better world for everyone?

Perpetually postponed.

Eternally awaited on.

Essentially frustrating our every instinct of natural intention.

Is that really it?


* I believe this is the right Simon; please do correct me I’m wrong!

where, oh where, is a politics of joined-up humanity?

We’ve had the concept of joined-up government before.  As often is (sadly) the case, professional practitioners of politics tend to view the world via the tools they use – in this case, governance – to exert their control over what happens.

It’s a natural human instinct, I suppose.

Another example comes to mind this morning.  Here in the Guardian today, we continue in our finger-in-the-dam way of approaching latterday society’s problems: piecemeal measures of a repressing nature which are more likely to generalise a paucity of ideas than have a useful impact on serious issues (the bold is mine):

The former Tory cabinet minister Caroline Spelman has called for the UK to consider criminalising the purchase of sex and urged more male politicians to enter a public debate about the reform of prostitution laws.

Spelman, who as environment secretary from 2010 to 2012 was one of David Cameron’s few senior female ministers, said she supported the Nordic model, named after the system in Sweden, Iceland and Norway, which makes it a crime to buy, but not sell, sexual services.

So why do I see this as a finger-in-the-dam kind of approach?  Because it would be just as easy to make it possible for unwilling sex-workers to have a choice in the matter of whether they continued to ply their trade or not by focussing on the kind of wider employment policies that allowed for empowered workforces to work with dignity and for a sustainable remuneration, as it would be to continue criminalising the world of sex in the way that Spelman suggests.

Wider employment policies which, quite incidentally, Spelman’s own political grouping are manifestly not in favour of.  Things ranging from the living wage to social security nets to decent publicly-funded healthcare to competent and humane legal-aid systems are all out of the frame as far as this current crop of Tories is concerned.

Wilder solutions can be found in the following link, where I suggested quite a while ago that sex workers in an encroaching virtual age be retrained in the ins and outs of a renewing and attitude-modulating CGI porn, designed to take such workers off dangerous streets at the same time as remaking clients’ expectations of what is acceptable and what is not:

A suggestion then.  Not just a rant.  Maybe it’s time for a new kind of content.  Given that the instinct for sex is about as old as Adam and Eve’s adult teeth, has anyone considered CGI porn as a wider solution to sexual exploitation – and its corresponding abuse of power – which so many people currently find themselves affected by?

How would this work?  Groups of existing sex workers could form officially-sanctioned cooperatives with the right to apply for government-funded training courses.  These courses would serve to train them up in computer-generated film-making.  There would, of course, be strict control over the content – a kind of Hays Code for our time.  Just because the content was computer-generated wouldn’t give the creators the right to reproduce and duplicate in the virtual world the kind of abusive relationships we were aiming to eliminate in real life.

In such a way, the whole balance of power would be altered.  Sex workers could find a gainful living as unexploited, and unexploiting, generators of porn; porn users would be safely educated away from the violent stuff through a plentiful, cheap and consistently benign exposure to non-violent (perhaps even government-subsidised) narrative; and, most importantly, the Internet could then be properly policed as per the canons of the code in question.

Yes.  I know.  The libertarian in me finds my own idea quite resistible.  But on one thing Spelman is right: the issue is too big for us to (pardon the expression) pussy-foot around it for any longer.  And whilst other solutions of an Internet-filter nature are being used, leading to widespread and often indiscriminate blocking of websites and content undeserving by any criteria of such censorship, we really do need to explore other ways of policing the crazier reaches of our societies without undermining everyone else’s fundamental rights of free expression and communication: without undermining, in fact, what makes living in liberal democracy worthwhile.

Not a politics of joined-up government, then: rather, even more profoundly, a politics of joined-up humanity.

Don’t you think?