The stories we share

My friend Chris Phin has blogged about what he calls a really simple idea:

Everyone around you, indeed, everyone all over the world, has a story that brought them to today, to this minute, this second, that is as rich and internally consistent as yours.

That reminds me of my beloved This Is Water, in which David Foster Wallace notes that as you don’t know what people’s stories are, you might as well assume the best of people: you’ll never know one way or the other, so you might as well go for human warmth and empathy. You’ll have a much better life if you do.

(If you missed it, I wrote about this last Christmas in a post covering all kinds of things including how I stopped being a snob about Christmas lights on strangers’ houses.)

We humans are a storytelling species. This, in Time magazine, caught my eye:

Now, a new study in Nature Communications, helps explain why: storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.

It’s a really interesting study: researchers studied “forager cultures” and found that their tales “carried lessons about social cooperation, empathy and justice, and many taught sexual equality too.” It’s a small study, but I love the fact that it found “storytellers were chosen over people who had equally good reputations for hunting, fishing and foraging — which at least suggests that human beings may sometimes prize hearing an especially good story over eating an especially good meal.” I bet the storytellers were offered exposure rather than any payment, though.

Not everybody wants to share their stories, or read others’. I think in particular there’s a generational issue, where some people who grew up before the internet don’t understand why on Earth anybody would send their darkest thoughts into the public sphere. But for those of us who grew up with social media, or were introduced to it fairly early on, it’s perfectly natural.

As the late Douglas Adams so excellently put it:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

My very first article, some 20 years ago now, was about the then-new phenomenon of “journalling”: people posting about their lives online. It seemed strange then; today, it’s normal. And I think that can be powerful.

As Chris says:

I’m currently – today – feeling hopeful. Because around me, in the friends I have in cyber- and meatspace, and the media I chose to be exposed to, I see people much more willing to be emotionally vulnerable and honest. To allow people, in other words, to read that story inside each of us, and not to be afraid to show the world that we’re not the 2D cardboard cut-out people we usually feel we have to present as.

There are many problems with social media, but it has many positives too. Reading other people’s stories has helped me make sense of my own, has provided support when I really needed it, has helped me see beyond my bubble.

Chris again:

I’m seeing people using social media to articulate and own their issues, their problems and their insecurities – their stories. They’re prepared to show the workings-out of how you become a good and kind and whole person, rather than persisting in the fiction that they’re already complete, autonomous adults. And that’s marvellous, I think; I have become closer to friends who have embraced their chaos and their fuckups, and I believe people have been drawn closer to me when I’ve purposefully dismantled the façade I so carefully built from my teens on.

Storytelling is valuable to the storytellers as well as to the readers or listeners. I’ve been quite open on this blog, possibly more than some people would like, but I find the process of writing my thoughts down and putting them out there is useful. And I’ve had many real-world conversations with people about things I first talked about here. Sometimes all you need is a little “liked” icon to tell you that somebody found what you wrote useful, or interesting, or valuable, or funny.

Like Chris, I built a facade in my teens. And like Chris, I find I’m much happier having dismantled it. Being open online is part of that. It means I’m showing my authentic self: an imperfect human who’s trying to be better.

The roots of rage

A fascinating (and long) piece in The Atlantic by Charles Duhigg on rage: where it comes from and what it’s doing to America. Much of it applies on this side of the ocean too.

When we scrutinize the sources of our anger, we should see clearly that our rage is often being stoked not for our benefit but for someone else’s. If we can stop and see the anger merchants’ self-serving motives, we can perhaps start to loosen their grip on us.

Local journalism isn’t working

 

We’ve known for some time that local journalism is in crisis, partly because people don’t want to pay for news and largely because media owners are trying to extract as much money as possible from their titles, accelerating their inevitable closure by sacrificing quality.

This is a problem because local journalism is about the only thing that can hold local councils to account. The nationals simply aren’t interested, even when they do local sites: for example Trinity Mirror’s Glasgow Live is very good at telling you if there’s a crash on the M8, but much of what it produces is rewritten press releases from property developers and restaurants.

In an attempt to address that, the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporters funds local journalism specifically to cover local politics. In Glasgow and its surrounding areas, the money goes to the publishers of the Herald and the Evening Times.

Let’s see how that’s going, shall we? In a piece promoted with the exciting news that Glasgow will get a new tree-lined avenue, The Evening Times reports on a new, sizeable development that’s just been given planning permission.

Get Living have approval for the development on derelict land to the east of High Street close to the train station, in a historic part of Glasgow.

It will create a new city centre residential community with a new public square.

Work will also involve a new tree lined avenue through the development connecting the Merchant City out towards the east end.

Exciting! And yet, as the excellent A Thousand Flowers blog points out, not so excellent. The development deals a fatal blow to the Crossrail project, which hoped to solve significant problems with Glasgow’s public transport.

…any future proposals to develop Crossrail have today been dealt a fatal blow after Glasgow City Council approved a major mixed-use development on the “High street curve” site that would be vital for creating the link. The £200m high rise plans – from Get Living Group (Glasgow) Limited – are for 727 build-to-rent homes, 99 student studios and more than 3,000 square metres of retail, leisure and business space on a former goods yard site.

The blog also points out the shady financial status of the developer, whose Glaswegian-sounding company is registered in one tax haven and has a parent company registered in another tax haven.

Still, a development of this size will include affordable housing, won’t it?

Won’t it?

Unsurprisingly, the Section 75 planning agreement between Get Living Group and the council makes no reference to affordable housing provision nor rent levels in the flats being developed. Get Living Group currently operate two similar build-to-rent schemes in London where flats are on offer for between £1,650 and £3,856 per calendar month, which provides an indication of the market segment that they will be aiming for.

This story represents a failure on multiple levels, and it’s exactly the sort of thing we need local journalism to report on. But what we’re getting isn’t journalism. It’s churnalism.

Update, 12 Dec: The ET has returned to the story, quoting one MP’s criticisms. Credit where credit’s due – but the time to question planning is before the applications are approved, not afterwards.

“The body blow of wishing”

 

I really like Kirsty Strickland, one of Scots media’s more interesting columnists: she’s funny on Twitter, incisive on politics and occasionally devastating on Medium.

Here, she writes about how grief is part of Christmas for so many people.

Because for all the joy that Christmas can bring, its braying decadence and opulence can also provoke harsher, sharper feelings — separately and intertwined with one another — like the scalding heat of freezing fingers.

One of those is certainly grief. It’s a place where your happy memories and treasured times with a departed loved one collide with the body blow of wishing beyond anything else that they were still here.

I love the imagery in her post, grief as a wound that “will fade over time to a silvery scar.” She’s writing about death and loss here, but of course death isn’t the only kind of loss. Some of us will be experiencing Christmas alone after years of family life, or with parents who no longer remember who we are, or with diagnoses predicting horrors in the days and months to come.

Our streets will be still on Christmas Day and all the ordinariness of life will grind to a halt. This gives us time to think and to remember; to rejoice and, yes even to grieve.

As Strickland notes, if you’re struggling and need somebody to talk to then the Samaritans are available 24/7 by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org.

Finding the good things you weren’t looking for

 

I’ve been writing a lot about “discovery” recently, the way in which apps attempt to find things you might like based on what you’ve liked before. But the best discovery is when you find things that aren’t just based on your purchase history or listening history.

For example, over the last couple of days I’ve discovered all kinds of fun things: the beautiful glass jewellery of Rachel Elliott, the gorgeous voice of Courtney Lynn, the hip-hop artist Becca Starr and the stunning folk/rock of Annie Booth.

I came across all of these things by accident. Elliot was selling her stuff in a one-off market in the downstairs of a pub; Lynn just happened to be playing in a bar chosen at random for a quick Sunday drink; Starr was performing in a venue where some of my friends hang out and Booth was played on a radio show I don’t usually listen to.

It’s a great demonstration of why it’s important to explore, whether that’s physically – going to places you don’t usually go – or in a less physical sense, by being open to new things or experiences.

There’s a word for encountering great things without going looking for them: serendipity, which means happy accidents: when things occur entirely by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Some of my very favourite things in the whole world came to me through serendipity. I don’t believe in destiny, the idea that everything we do is somehow pre-ordained. But I do believe in serendipity, that some of the word’s greatest joys come when you aren’t looking for them.

I love the origins of words, and this one’s particularly great. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in his Three Princes of Serendip, a fairy tale where the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

I wasn’t planning to look into the origin of it; I just wanted to see if there was a better definition. So the delight I have in that little nugget of information is serendipitous too.

There’s something rotten in Auchtermuchty

This, from the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, is really alarming: the UK government is running a “psyops” propaganda programme from a mill just outside Auchtermuchty. The stated aim is to fight terrorism and Russian political interference, but it appears to be fighting the UK government’s local political enemies too.

On the surface, the cryptically named Institute for Statecraft is a small charity operating from an old Victorian mill in Fife.

But explosive leaked documents passed to the Sunday Mail reveal the organisation’s Integrity Initiative is funded with £2million of Foreign Office cash and run by military intelligence specialists.

The “think tank” is supposed to counter Russian online propaganda by forming “clusters” of friendly journalists and “key influencers” throughout Europe who use social media to hit back against disinformation.

But our investigation has found worrying evidence the shadowy programme’s official Twitter account has been used to attack Corbyn, the Labour Party and their officials.

…David Miller, a professor of political sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, added: “It’s extraordinary that the Foreign Office would be funding a Scottish charity to counter Russian propaganda which ends up attacking Her Majesty’s opposition and soft-pedalling far-right politicians in the Ukraine.

Update: on social media, allegations are flying that the newspaper has been hoodwinked by shady propagandists. More will no doubt follow…

“The men seem strangely cured, not like medicine but like meat”

I’m a big fan of Laurie Penny, and this piece about a cruise with cryptocurrency speculators is incredible. It’s not a tech story but a human interest one, and it reminds me very much of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (posted here under a different title, “Shipping Out: On The (Nearly Lethal) Comforts Of A Luxury Cruise [pdf document]).

The whole thing is incredibly quotable but I particularly liked this bit:

John McAfee has never been convicted of rape and murder, but—crucially—not in the same way that you or I have never been convicted of rape or murder.

It’s a long read but it’s well worth settling down on the sofa with.

The great internet sex war

In the aftermath of the social network Tumblr banning all explicit content, some writers have considered the wider implications. The reasons for the bans are pretty clear – for example, Tumblr has a problem with illegal content and it’s easier and cheaper to ban all potentially problematic content than to moderate it – but the results can be far-reaching.

Steven Thrasher in The Atlantic explains What Tumblr’s Porn Ban Really Means.

But the Tumblr adult-content purge reveals the enormous cultural authority, financial extraction, and what the philosopher Michel Foucault called “biopower” that tech companies wield over our life. As intimate interactions are ever more mediated by tech giants, that power will only increase, and more and more of our humanity is bound to be mediated through content moderation. That moderation is subjective, culturally specific, and utterly political. And Silicon Valley doesn’t have a sterling track record of getting it right.

The problem with such subjectivity is summed up pretty well by one trans person’s question: they’re undergoing transition from male to female. At what point do their nipples become “female-presenting”, which is explicitly prohibited in the new Tumblr rules? It’s the same issue that means Facebook takes down breastfeeding images: boobs are just for porn, right?

There’s a problem with some explicit content. But not all of it. For some people it’s an opportunity to explore sexuality and identity in a safe environment. Take trans people, for example. Explicit Tumblr blogs are among the very few places where you can see positive portrayal of trans men and trans women as sexually desirable. They’re also among the few places where you can see what your body might look like after hormones, or after surgery. Content bans affect that content too.

Thrasher again:

Using social media intimately in our life hasn’t been all bad. Indeed, as a recent scientific article by Oliver Haimson on some 240 Tumblr gender “transition blogs” showed, social media can play “an important role in adding complexity to people’s experiences managing changing identities during life transitions.”

I can attest to that: before I came out I spent a lot of time reading LGBTI Tumblr blogs that posted what the new rules might well prohibit.

Over at Engadget, Violet Blue describes “the internet war on sex“.

While we were all distracted by the moist dumpster fire of Tumblr announcing its porn ban, Facebook updated its startling, wide-ranging anti-sex policy that is surely making evangelicals and incels cream their jeans (let’s just hope they don’t post about that). Facebook’s astonishing ban on language pertaining to sexuality, among many other things sex-related, is so sweeping and egregiously censorious that it’s impossible to list all its insanity concisely.

It’s called the “Sexual Solicitation” policy. Along with “sexual slang,” the world’s standard-bearing social media company is policing and banning “sex chat or conversations,” “mentioning sexual roles, sexual preference, commonly sexualized areas of the body” and more.

This, remember, is the social network that can’t tell the difference between hardcore pornography and women sharing photos of themselves breastfeeding.

Once again, the rules are designed to address a problem with some content. However:

…the arc of internet sex censorship is long, and it bends as far away from justice (and reason) as possible. Corporations controlling the internet had been steadily (and sneakily, hypocritically) moving this direction all along, at great expense to women, LGBT people, artists, educators, writers, and marginalized communities — and to the delight of bigots and conservatives everywhere.

The Facebook and Tumblr news came after Starbucks announced it will start filtering its WiFi with one of those secret porn blacklists that always screw productivity for anyone researching grown-up topics, and invariably filter out crucial health and culture websites.

The list goes on. Instagram goose-steps for Facebook’s censors; Amazon buries sex books; Patreon, Cloudflare, PayPal, and Square are among many which are tacitly unsafe for anyone whose business comes near sexuality. Google’s sex censorship timeline is bad, YouTube is worse. Twitter teeterson the edge of sex censorship amidst its many uncertainties of trust for its users.

The problem here is that even if you agree with the rationale behind the steps the tech giants take, there is always collateral damage – and that damage tends to affect minorities and creative people and educators.

Here’s an example from a few weeks back in Sweden: a government-run website made a sex education video. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat blocked it.

“Our side concocted the ‘bathroom safety’ argument”

There’s an interesting opinion piece by an unnamed member of MassResistance, part of the anti-LGBT movement that suffered a landslide defeat in its attempts to repeal trans rights in Massachusetts. It includes a telling admission of something that’s widely known but rarely written down.

The rallying cry of the pro-family groups trying to repeal the law was the well-known “bathroom safety” argument – that in addition to transgenders, this law allows male sexual predators to lurk in women’s restrooms to prey on girls and women. This was technically true, but was largely contrived.

“Largely contrived” is an understatement. The only dangerous people in bathrooms in the US appear to be right-wing politicians and anti-trans activists.

MassResistance tried to get the campaign to adopt other discredited anti-trans arguments, but ‘Massachusetts “conservative” news outlets were skittish about deviating from the relatively comfortable “bathroom safety” argument.’

The group would have preferred to use three different arguments, which are somewhat familiar.

(1) the LGBT movement’s “civil rights” argument has no basis whatsoever; (2) that “transgenderism” is actually a mental disorder and a destructive ideology, and (3) this law forces people to accept an absurd lie – men can never become women.

All three are wrong. Trans people deserve the same civil rights as anybody else, and that includes the right to use public facilities and to live free from discrimination. Thanks to a little thing we like to call “evidence”, the medical and psychiatric establishment says that being trans isn’t a mental illness; it’s just part of the variety of human brains and bodies. And people born in male bodies clearly can and do become women if there’s a mismatch between their outward characteristics and their identity.

It’s an interesting look at what lives under a rock. The unnamed poster feels that the campaign against equal marriage wasn’t nearly nasty enough:

…they refused to argue that homosexuality was immoral, had terrible health risks, was fraught with addiction and mental health problems, etc.

Instead, they concocted less offensive arguments such as, “Every child needs a father and a mother” and “the word ‘marriage’ is special” – and used them almost exclusively.

And the poster fears history repeating.

Our side concocted the “bathroom safety” male predator argument as a way to avoid an uncomfortable battle over LGBT ideology, and still fire up people’s emotions. It worked in Houston a few years ago.

But the LGBT lobby has now figured out how to beat it.

Love wins.

Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

I’ve had the misfortune to share airtime with writers from Spiked magazine on a few occasions now. I’m not a fan: the magazine is reliably on the wrong side of any issue you care to think of, rushing to the defence of the world’s worst people. I fear that giving them airtime helps legitimise often appalling views, and I now refuse to go on a programme if they’re part of the so-called debate.

It’s the kind of publication that regularly churns out nonsense of the “surely the real racists here are the people calling racists racists?” variety.

Spiked writers variously argue that climate change is scaremongering, that feminism has gone too far, that women being abused on the internet need to grow a thicker skin, that trans people are dangerous to society and that Tommy Robinson is a true hero. It appears to have a very similar agenda to thinktanks such as the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, organisations with opaque funding  pushing what can best be described as a hard-right agenda.

They remind me of the Sirius Corporation imagined by the late Douglas Adams: “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

If like me you’ve ever wondered how a publication that began as Living Marxism became a mouthpiece and apologist for the hard right, a friend of climate change deniers and an enemy of equality, the answer appears to be simple.

Money.

Lots and lots of money.

I’ve always thought Spiked was a shill for somebody, but I didn’t know who that somebody was. Enter George Monbiot, who Spiked really, really hates. Writing in The Guardian, he notes that Spiked has received at least $300,000 from the Koch brothers. As he explains, the Koch brothers are:

…co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

If you were making a story about corporate villainy, it’d be hard to invent a better pair of bad guys. And these particular guys are using their money to try and change the world through a three-stage model of social change.

Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Thinktanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”… They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements.

Spiked’s editorial stance fits very well inside that: it fights for the implementation of policy change, change that just happens to be entirely in line with the objectives of its funders. Again and again it supports policies that would benefit rich industrialists and rails against policies that might inhibit their ability to make enormous sums of money.

Monbiot:

Above all, its positions are justified with the claim to support free speech. But the freedom all seems to tend in one direction: freedom to lambast vulnerable people.

And its political stance is consistent with that: if it’s good for vulnerable people, then Spiked is against it.

$300K is the figure Spiked has admitted to, but dark money gets its name because it’s hard to trace: it’s highly likely that there are other sums from other organisations that just happen to share the same agenda.

This isn’t just about a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. It’s about the growing use of dark money to pervert media and politics. Dark money appears to be helping fund Spiked, and it appears to be funding the parade of think tanks that get so much airtime. It funds far-right rabble-rousers and social media astroturfing. Enormous sums of money are being spent to advance the interest of a tiny group of exceptionally wealthy people.

As Monbiot puts it:

Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

As Finley Peter Dunne famously said, journalism’s job is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Dark money turns that on its head.

That’s not to say journalism shouldn’t have a viewpoint. I like John Harris’s argument:

Even partisan commentary can be rooted in the principles of good journalism, so long as it does not ignore uncomfortable facts, blindly offer support to parties or leaders, or distort actuality to score political points.

But that’s exactly what dark money wants to pollute. As soon as you accept dark money, all of your output becomes suspect.

This is important, and incredibly dangerous. We call the media “the fourth estate” after Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1787 that “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

In a civilised society the media is there to hold power accountable, not to act as its apologist or its cheerleader.