When we all learn the same thing, we will be worthless.

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There are two queues to enter the grand apartments of the Palace of Versailles on either side of the cordon in the above photograph.  The one on the right is for the audioguides.  The one on the left is for those who don’t want the audioguides.

Yes, you’re correct – there isn’t anyone in the queue for those who don’t want the audioguides.

When we all learn the same official fiction, we become worthless.  Innovation is about thinking differently and breaking rules.

10% of book titles made up 90% of book sales in Tesco.  Hardly anyone listens to anything that they haven’t heard before on Spotify, unless it’s on a random playlist they clicked on accidentally.

Yet simultaneously we conduct witch hunts against those who hold back diversity, and we fret about toilets for trans people.

Why bother learning at all, if we simply outsource it to audioguides, the same books, the same experiences and the same websites? Let’s just upload the same content onto an implant at 16 and be done with it – think of all that money governments could save!  Or why stop there: why bother with rank and file humans at all, once machines will have learnt everything we would consume and “learn” in our lifetimes?

More on that next time…

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The nightmare of a true meritocracy

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I wrote recently about the implications of a networked life where our actions are constantly observed by sensors and cameras in our phones, homes, cars, watches, clothes, fitbits and laptops.  I’ve been expanding this to think about the consequences of the networked and quantified life on jobs and work, and consequently on our consumption and on life itself.  It’s pretty scary, so I’ll go slowly.

For starters, if you have children or are at school, college or university now, think about how homework, exams and coursework are administered and recorded: they’re usually online, or at least increasingly so.  We already have a National Curriculum in the UK, and it’s logical for education policy to suggest a universalised exam system administered online not only for universities, but also for schools and even pre-schools.

The crucial difference between simply a database of exam results and the exams themselves being conducted online is that computers can also record performance as it happens.  In that context, there’s nowhere to hide.  Every keystroke, every delay, every web search to research an answer, every time the calculator is used.

And then it won’t be long before there’s a national database of coursework, compiled through a centralised platform offering software, data storage and submission “for our convenience” with a simple payment system – and a rich mine of data about the performance of our brains where we’re all ranked and filed accordingly.

Proceed now to the next level of the nightmare: these results are used to promote ourselves when applying for jobs on our CVs.  Voluntarily of course at first, on our LinkedIn profiles – before they become de rigeur and then part of a privatised database for employers, much like credit scores operate now.

Proponents will rave about how we will have created the true meritocracy.  No cheating, no help from old boys’ clubs: simply the true, quantified self recorded over one’s school career and beyond.

Research into why people object to planning applications show that communities are far more likely to object if they feel that they have no control over the negative risks of a development.  For example if a nuclear power station goes into meltdown, closing a window isn’t going to do much.  In the same way that people want to reserve a pretence of freedom by being able to drive at 35mph in a 30mph limit, or smoke where they’re not supposed to, then they want to be able to cheat at homework or at least not suffer too much if they feel too lazy occasionally.

Maybe I’m worrying too much.  Maybe we’re already at this point.  Either way, this vision of a true meritocracy doesn’t sound much fun.

 

The Curators.

We’re all curators now.

More than just a word of the moment, it’s the essential activity of our contemporary lives: we constantly scan, parse and select our consumption based on the aesthetic we want to project the identity we want.

Of course, that identity is much less our choice than we’d like it to be: we’re born and raised into a social class, into a race, a culture, a nationality, in a certain location, speaking a certain language and accent and with a certain vocabulary.  Those are far more important drivers at selecting our identity, but at least we retain a semblance of control over the aesthetic we want by curating.

[Incidentally, this why Tony Blair and Giddens were so wrong to suggest there is a “Third Way” based around choice.  We have no choices.  We only select from the menu of our prejudices.]

Marketers devise mood boards and sculpt brands around these indicators of class/identity: nice; luxury; everyday; feminine; virile; value-for-money.  Consumers finesse these further by etching delicate nuance: kitsch; sexy; exotic; rebellious; gay; intellectual.  But essentially they’re all simply sub-sets that broadcast: “I’m not a faceless worker – I have a personality and interests based on my consumption”.

Nothing is worse in contemporary Britain than being a faceless, average worker.

When shenanigans are called incompetence

The argument goes that Labour should be making great progress at a time when the Tories are divided and responsible for almost a decade of austerity-related disasters, such as Grenfell, Carillion and HMP Winson Green.

But instead, right wing forces seek to undermine Jeremy Corbyn by carrying out an orchestrated campaign to discredit him as an anti-Semite.  If he had another weakness, they’d use that instead.

And consequently he’s the one called incompetent.

I understand that an attribute of leadership is to deal with dissent.  Corbyn’s and socialism’s position in the liberal, pro-capitalist Labour Party is very weak.   He doesn’t have that luxury.  He has to work with what he has.

As a result, surviving two years in such as febrile environment speaks volumes about his good leadership qualities.  Unfortunately, the forces of capital and of the wealthy want to see those qualities differently.

 

Classical musicians think classical music isn’t elitist!

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Classical music is often accused of being elitist.

That’s why the few media outlets (and Prince Harry) that are interested in selling classical music tickets and music are really hot on Sheku Kanneh-Mason.  He’s young and black, in an industry dominated by old, white men – perfect for co-opting ethnic and class diversity.

But it’s not surprising that Sheku Kanneh-Mason disagrees with the elitism jibes.  Classical music is elitist.  In that it requires concentration to listen to, which requires time.  Most pieces are long.  True, individual movements might sometimes only last for a few minutes, convenient for Classic FM – but stripped of their context they rarely make sense.  Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to sit down and devote fifteen, twenty or thirty minutes to a symphony or concerto.

Even if we could, could we really listen intently, and bring to it the back story of socio-historical context that is so often referenced?  We struggle with ten minutes of mindfulness most days, let alone on a whim when the urge to try a little Beethoven takes our fancy.

However, the final verdict on whether classical music really is elitist or not comes from the political overtones taken by Classic FM and BBC Radio 3.  Classic FM’s David Mellor was a Tory MP, which is a clue.  But a greater indictment is the frequency at which any of the presenters on Radio 3 take the opportunity to “interpret” the music of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian as profoundly anti communist.  There’s no mention of “maybe” or “it is believed”; just straight-faced opinion presented as fact that their music was an attack on communism.

I’m not doubting that it wasn’t.  What I do suspect is how plummy Radio 3 presenters use the interpretations of musicologists as opportunities to have a dig at forces that would like wealth to be distributed more fairly, for people from diverse backgrounds, such as secondary schools in Nottingham, to become leading performers, and for funding for arts to be spent on art forms that are the most popular rather than the most esoteric.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

“I am the law” – Judge Dredd

i_am_the_law_judge_dredd_by_wjgrapes-d5ex7vfImagine a world where no-one did anything wrong.

Sounds perfect doesn’t it? Where no-one ran red lights, where no-one parked in the disabled bays when they’re not supposed to, where no-one smoked in a no-smoking area, where no-one cycled on the pavement, where no-one failed to clean up after their dog, where no-one drove at 40mph in a 30mph limit.

Where no-one filed a fraudulent expense claim.  Where no-one rounded up their mileage claim to make it a round number.  Where no-one took an envelope from the stationery cupboard at work for their personal use.  Where no-one checked the Argos website in their worktime.

Where no-one put a recyclable item in the general rubbish bin.  Where no-one took illegal drugs.  Where someone could use your online search history from ten years ago to demonstrate that you have sympathy with something which is now outlawed.

Now you’ve thought about it a bit more, it doesn’t sound quite so perfect, actually, does it?

Technology already exists that we allow to spy on us.  We gladly sign up to car insurance which gives us discounts for safe driving, evidenced by access to connected sensors in our cars.   We vainly hope that the data is only used for that purpose – or rather, we never even thought about it.  We willingly wear sensors on our wrists to track our heart beats and never even consider how the data it gathers could be used against us.

Because we gladly swallow the racist lie that only countries with brown people have corrupt governments and corporations.

Because marketing people only ever sell benefits.  We have a phrase for this: “oh it’s in the small print”.

No-one ever reads the small print, where the risks and side effects are listed in the interests of “consumer protection”.

The ability to use our discretion, or “common sense” is fundamental to our perception of freedom.  We want to use our discretion as to whether it’s safe to drive at 31mph in a 30mph limit.  Whether picking up a relative from a train station merits parking in an empty disabled bay.  Whether smoking in an empty beer garden marked “no smoking” is fine.  We have different thresholds for our ability to tolerate this kind of misdemeanour, but ultimately, we hope that we have the freedom as adults to discuss and agree between ourselves without the interference of the state or any other third party.

Too late.  We sold that right a long, long time ago and now the beast of sensors and artificial intelligence will extend its inexorable grip on our freedom without us even being aware of it: because the complexity involved has broken launch velocity.  We simply don’t recognise the difference between super complex and very complex, much like a crow doesn’t recognise the difference between eight eggs and seven – but it can tell the difference between five and four.

In the meantime, our opportunities to let off steam, to let our hair down and vent our petty frustrations are increasingly restricted.  Previous regimes – even oppressive, fundamentalist regimes such as in ancient or medieval Europe – recognised the necessity of “carnival” and of “bread and roses”.  Our ability to exercise discretion is becoming so reduced that we protect and exploit the few opportunities we do have: such as running red lights.  Parking in disabled parking bays.  Smoking where we’re not meant to.  Driving badly.  Swearing in public.  Wearing tattoos.   The increasing coarseness of everyday discourse and behaviour is, I think, a direct reaction to society’s inability to tolerate discretion, independence and difference, which has resulted in an increasingly limited range of options: despite our apparent interest in diversity.

In other words, if you’re not willing to follow the party line of paid education, non-unionised labour without basic privileges such as pensions and workplace security and then using those as limited security against a lot of debt to consume a lot of unnecessary and useless goods and services that make a tiny elite very, very rich – then you are surplus to requirements, and treated accordingly.

The choice to commit misdemeanours or transgress social conventions, is the difference between living in a “free world” based on human arbitration (the police, lawyers, juries, judges, probation), and Megacity One where no-one ever dares do anything wrong for fear of either immediate repercussions through direct fines (or the loss of discounts), or more serious extra-judicial punishment at the end of the Lawgiver.

 

“They ******* promised us rain, the ********”.

One of the corollaries of greater access to information is the proliferation of wiseguys.

We’ve heard of the mistrust of experts – anti-intellectualism gone rampant.  I wonder how much of that is fuelled by the shrinking dividend between the wages a graduate can receive over a working lifetime compared to someone without a university degree.  This mistrust has been blamed for Trump’s election, and played a huge part in the run up to the EU referendum in the UK.

On the one hand the democratisation of information sounds like something from Foucault.

On the other hand, post-modernism of the Foucault variety has been blamed for the aggressive abuse of the comfortable, established order represented by academics, politicians, journalists and other “thought leaders” (cf. On Offence by Richard King).

In the middle of the recent heatwave in the UK, I heard a middle aged man on his phone lamenting in all seriousness “they fucking promised us rain, the bastards”.

What would it take for the information that people have at their fingertips to translate into intelligence?

 

 

 

 

Twot.

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It’s summer 2018 in the UK, one of the longest and hottest ever.  And I’m fed up with people complaining that it’s “too hot”.

Get used to it.  It’s too hot precisely because you drive your car too muchBecause you use too much waterBecause you leave too many lights onBecause you eat too much meatBecause you fly too muchBecause you drink too much proseccoBut mainly (20%) because you put the heating on as soon as you feel slightly chilly, and then leave the windows open.

No doubt the response of these people complaining of the heat is to put the air conditioning on.  Life is too complicated, isn’t it?

The Lives of #MeToo

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The film director Michael Haneke described the #MeToo campaign as a “witch hunt” earlier this year.

A common response to worries about witch hunts and other surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”: which is attributed, amongst others, to Goebbels and repeated by William Hague.

But in the digital age, the politics of sex aren’t as simple as that anymore, are they?

It might be true if the rules don’t change.  But plenty of #MeToo accusations took place a long time ago.  I’m not trying to dismiss them to forgive cases of abuse and sexual assault – the rules around violence and threats of violence remain the same.  But flirting and innuendo, suggesting and perhaps leading to sex, are a wide open goal that can be moved anywhere on the pitch.

Words someone said or typed years and years ago in the course of a casual conversation remain retrievable whilst fads and sensibilities come and go, until the #MeToo Stasi get hold of them and he’s brought in for questioning.  Informants knew exactly what was coming next – ignorance is no excuse for treachery.

 

Pretence and lies – which is worse?

I’ve noticed a strange similarity between socialist realism and the back cover of Blur’s Parklife album.

Look closely at the two images.  Can you see it?

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Did you see it?

Yes! All of the people in the images are pretending to be working class.  The interesting thing is that like the Emperor in his new clothes, everyone else can see the hilarity of the obvious pretence.

I remember watching the Nine o’Clock News piece in 1995 when Blur went head to head with Oasis.  On national news.  It was staggeringly weird – nowadays it’s commonplace for bullshit consumerism to be touted as “news” by media outlets, desperate to placate the braindead, but it certainly registered amongst me and my teenage friends as a sign that something freaky was going on.  I also remember thinking that I liked Blur because they had intelligent tunes and had sympathy with ordinary people by singing about parks and going to work in the morning with a hangover and had an album called Modern Life is Rubbish which I found prophetic.  It is, isn’t it?

Oasis also had nice tunes – but which ripped off the Beatles with nonsense lyrics – so I dismissed them as talentless boneheads riding the gravy train to success until it ran out of steam.  Blur made art, Oasis made money.  Blur were genuine people, Oasis were capitalists’ tools.

And then years later I heard Damon Albarn jamming with musicians in Mali on the radio and admitting he was bollocks.  I admired his honesty but, yes, it was true: he’s not a musician, despite making some decent albums with Blur and Gorillaz.  He’s a pretty boy who was in the right place at the right time but had principlesAlex James now owns a farm, makes cheese and has a show on Classic FM.  The bassist ran to be a Labour MP – see?

Oasis turned out to be popular with the hoi poloi.  It turned out everyone else knew all along that Blur were posh.

In other words, my idea of who “the people” were was all wrong – just like Soviet apparatchiks had no clue that “the people” sniggered at oil paintings of earnest workers in railway carriages and used the novels of love in steel mills as ballast.

Which is why only people like me root for Jeremy Corbyn.  He’s great.  He says all the right things.  He has the right principles.  I would vote for him every day of the week.

It’s just that “the people” can see straight through the socialist realism of wearing caps, of caring about people in Mali, of having principles, of class solidarity: they’re what posh people do.  Renting an allotment is posh.  Wearing hats is posh.  Singing about everyday travails is posh.  Worrying about climate change is posh.  Shepherd’s Pie is posh.  Camping in Cornwall is posh.  Class solidarity is posh.

Those things may have been what “the people” did in the 1960s.  But now the children of ordinary, working people are in debt, go on foreign holidays, drink prosecco, put down decking and watch Netflix and do not care a flying fuck about class solidarity or screwing the rich.  They do not want jobsworths reminding them of their class betrayal.

Theresa May doesn’t have the same problem.  People know she’s lying when she claims to be interested in the people.  They expect that of Tory politicians.  What they don’t appreciate is pretending.  Theresa May doesn’t have to pretend to be anything else other than a politician: but any politician who aspires to any kind of principle will be judged by how closely they adhere to it themselves.  Authenticity is the emperor’s new clothes.