Digital detox, via Brexit

Putting your hand through the wallI’m taking a break from blogging for my summer holidays – capturing the zeitgeist it seems, what with all the coverage of ‘digital detox’ in the newspapers at the moment based on this Ofcom research (although Aleks Krotoski, for one, points out that relapse is inevitable and that technology is so useful that this shouldn’t be anything to worry about).Yet I couldn’t resist a short post, weeks on from Brexit, thinking about what’s happening now in British politics. 

Watching Zoe Williams and Charlotte Church discuss Brexit and British politics last weekend at the well-heeled Wilderness festival, with varying degrees of success, reminded me of this excellent article that a family member forwarded me by John Lanchester. Written for London Review of Books, it’s a really interesting read, which ties together some of the things I’ve mentioned in my previous articlesabout the net contribution of migrants to the UK, the untruths peddled by the ‘Leave’ campaign, and the economic damage we have committed to ourselves in the process. Lanchester points out how ‘Leave’ as a protest vote by the working class, manipulated by campaigns, media, and post-fact politics, cannot help but backfire disproportionately on their own interests:

“None of this is what working-class voters had in mind when they opted for Leave. If it’s combined with the policy every business interest in the UK wants – the Norwegian option, in which we contribute to the EU and accept free movement of labour, i.e. immigration, as part of the price – it will be a profound betrayal of much of the Leave vote. If we do anything else, we will be inflicting severe economic damage on ourselves, and following a policy which most of the electorate (48 per cent Remain, plus economically liberal Leavers) think is wrong. So the likeliest outcome, I’d have thought, is a betrayal of the white working class. They should be used to it by now.”

Many of you will have read Lanchester’s Capital, which personally left me a bit cold (factually interesting, but lacking the human narratives that keep these topics relevant to the reader), but this article is a great précis of the economic impact of Brexit. As Lanchester points out, as a way of knocking back London’s smug prosperity, Brexit will most likely fail because the City and its bankers are better placed than the rest of the U.K to weather fiscal uncertainty. Thus the very people who many ‘Leave’ voters wanted to knock down a peg or two will come out of Brexit smoothly or almost smoothly, whereas more deprived economic areas will suffer disproportionately.

John Lanchester

And your summer holiday will cost more than ever, with the pound measuring up miserably against the euro… keep an eye on the cervezas.

 

Beyond the headlines: Politics, Technology & Social Media

paul clarke rain over London

Summer! (Photo: Paul Clarke)

Another week has gone by in politics, and as it’s post-Brexit summer 2016 (or as I like to call it: The Summer Britain Cut Off its Nose to Spite its Face, or Why is it Raining So Much?) we managed to squeeze more drama into that week than many countries manage in a year.

In my last post I discussed Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May all throwing their hat into the ring for the Tory leadership race and thus the Prime Minister’s job. In mere days, Michael Gove dropped out, Andrea Leadsom made mean comments about how only a parent could really run the country, denied saying them, and then when faced with her interview recording from The Times, admitted she did say it and dropped out, and Theresa May came home ‘victorious’. I use the inverted commas because of the three of these power-hungry tools I’d probably rather Theresa May took over as the other two candidates were even worse, but whilst experienced and unflappable, she is no people’s hero.

PM May boasts a dire human rights record (I’ll say it again: Buzzfeed writing is on form these days!) and her Prime Ministerial acceptance speech yesterday was mostly rhetoric, as this short video shows. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by that kind of performance – it’s politics, stupid! – but I think May trades on a kind of dependable hard work image that, like Boris Johnson, isn’t the whole picture. You should’ve seen her on Saturday Kitchen extolling the virtues of my dream-chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I never want to open Plenty again. I said as much on Twitter, before realising in horror that the show live-tweets highlights from the audience: reader, mine did not the grade. Make no mistake: her new government has shifted to the right again post-Cameron. Incidentally, Boris Johnson finds himself the new Foreign Secretary, which should really have come as no surprise seeing as our political establishment has gone bat-sh*t crazy.

Keen not to be outdone, Labour managed to engineer its own civil war inside the party. Jeremy Corbyn refused to step down, despite half of his shadow cabinet deserting him – a bit like the kindly but dithering colleague who just won’t go. To the Corbynistas, I know, the media have dealt him a poor hand. But he needs to trade on his decades of experience and use that as his USP. Where is his PR team? Meanwhile Angela Eagle, precisely no-one’s idea of an invigorating contender for the Labour party (I say Labour, but her parliamentary voting record looks more Tory), waded in as competitor for Labour leader. Awkwardness ensued as Andrea Leadsom promptly stole Angela Eagle’s thunder by resigning in the middle of Angela’s leadership bid. You’ll need to watch it through your hands. Does all that make sense? If not, Angela’s logo won’t help either, because it kind of looks like it says Andrea. Or Aaargh?

andrea banner

Meanwhile, my own (diminishing) dream that Chuka Umuna will magicly decide to go back into the Labour leadership contest (hey, it could happen! This excellent interview hints at a return) was put on ice. The reason? My Labour membership application, which I applied for after having seen Corbyn solemnly declare himself “uh, 7 out of 10” in favour of remaining in the EU, has been mysteriously stalled in Labour party HQ for the last fortnight. Twitter users tell me that it’s normal practice for an application to be vetted. I can’t decide whether writing ‘Chuka as leader etc’ in the ‘reason for joining’ box rather invalidated my application – what can I say, I didn’t have time to elaborate – but I would have thought they need all the help they can get. To be fair, the surge of 100,000 new members probably slows down processing time, but it seems odd they wouldn’t anticipate this with Brexit. Then again, post-Brexit everything is bonkers and the world is looking at us puzzled, so all bets are off.

The Shakespearean drama took a further turn when the Labour party conference decided this week that anyone applying for membership in recent weeks would either not be considered, or considered but have to pay an extra £25 to vote, or would be able to vote no problem as part of an aligned union. Confused? Me too. All I have is the below screenshot from another applicant on Twitter to show me that it wasn’t all a dream, plus my vain hope that membership of the Labour party is a way of taking action on this Brexit mess rather than talking about it. Just think: Labour could be a strong, questioning opposition party, asking tough questions about the claims made in favour of Leave, the impact on EU trade, and the need for a general election to get a better gauge on the nation’s politics. Instead the party’s a complete mess. And on consideration, a general election might backfire: I fear Labour would make little gain right now, whereas in our post-factual democracy UKIP’s fantasy would appeal to many. But take heart, Remainers: a 4-million strong online petition for a second referendum has enough names on it to be mandated for debate in the House of Commons on September 5th. Never underestimate what you can do yourself with social media.

Labour cropped

This brings me on to technology. See, this blog hasn’t strayed too far from its focus on technology and the city! (And if it has, you can’t blame me when the news is like House of Cards minus theme tune.) Katharine Viner, new editor of the Guardian, has written a great piece about how social media has swallowed the news. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking piece that deserves a read. As Viner quotes Brexit donor Arron Banks: “Facts don’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.” Viner points out that when we look for news via social media, it’s peer-led, which means that it’s filtered through like-minded people, a bit like the echo chamber I talked about here. The result is that clicks come before facts in online news, lowering the quality of what we access and reducing editorial input by the experts, who we previously paid to organise the information in newspapers.

Many of the reader comments below Viner’s article disagree, arguing that supposedly solid outlets like the NY Times or the Guardian are getting just as bad at clickbait, but I think we’ve got to be really aware of the changing environment of digital media. We have to recognise that if, or when, companies like the Guardian or Independent bite the dust (the Independent has gone online-only already, so who knows how long it’ll last), we’ll have an ever diminishing pool of media outlets. And, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, some of them make better chip papers than newspapers.

fish & chips

Buzzfeed, meet Brexit: a 10-point list

I’m writing this week’s piece because I read, open-mouthed, someone on my Facebook feed write ‘people who voted remain in the EU referendum should get over it and accept democracy’. That echo chamber that I wrote about last week isn’t so totalising after all, it seems. There’s plenty of arguments in the news about why it was in many ways a false democracy actually, because many of the 52% who voted for Brexit were sold mistruths by the Leave campaign, but for that I’ll direct you to the Polly Toynbee article I’m still thinking about, and this excellent list of EU myths debunked by Labour MEP Richard Corbett.

Instead, in the spirit of fairness, I’m going to contextualise Brexit, a fortnight on, as a simple list of 10 outcomes to establish what in my opinion is a worrying scenario with help from the newspapers. Far from needing to ‘get over it’, I think it’s important to learn about and share with our networks the economic and political impacts of Brexit, so we can see how significant the referendum will prove to be. Struggling for optimism, I promise to include both challenges and benefits.

Challenges

1.David Cameron pledged to run a referendum on EU membership so he would be re-elected, and having lost to ‘Leave’ in a slim 48-52% result, promptly resigned with no Brexit plan in place. Boris Johnson, vocal Brexiter (but only since February of this year, as a way of boosting his own profile) then resigned his own Tory leadership bid. Then Nigel Farage, loudest leave campaigner of all, resigned as MP this week. It’s beyond a farce. Here’s Chris Brosnahan’s excellent précis:

Chris Brosnahan Twitter Brexit Sam Miles blog

Oh and also, Tory MP Oliver Letwin who was left in charge of managing Brexit, hasn’t done anything – even the Daily Mail admit it. The only good thing about his incompetence is Marina Hyde’s acid write-up.

2. As Graham Hiscott points out, despite talk of a sterling bounce-back, the FTSE 250 has now lost £31.6 billion since Brexit, just two weeks ago. Having bailed out RBS to make it part state-owned, the government stake in RBS has lost £8.2 billion. That’s literally our collective money, our loss. Further, George Osborne’s miserable austerity project to balance the UK books by 2020 is now scrapped because we will come up short either way. The pound may hit the dreaded £1-$1 exchange if politicians don’t come up with a better plan. The UK has also been downgraded from our AAA credit rating.

3. Incidents of reported hate crime rose 57% nationally post-Brexit, and a new update by the Evening Standard also shows a 50% rise in London. You can read a depressing selection here. In fact, the increased rate of reported hate crime in London didn’t spike and decrease throughout the first week, meaning incidents have not even dropped off significantly as more time has passed since the referendum. Absolute numbers are still in the hundreds per week, but it is a worrying upward trend; and remember, this is only reported hate crimes.

4. The UK has functioned as a mediator country between Europe and the English-speaking world, and benefitted enormously from its hub role. Without the same links and efficiencies to Europe, companies including the growing tech industry may choose to work directly with the European mainland instead, while Tata steel may be nationalised as Brexit hits the UK steel industry. It seems crazy to me that having spent years negotiating this enviable position as intermediary between continents we throw it away so we can somehow regain (an illusory) independence and be some big player on the world stage.

5. In one of those you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments, Michael Gove MP, one of the candidates for Tory leadership and thus Prime Minister, tweeted his manifesto point this week: ‘We need to renegotiate a new relationship with the EU, based on free trade and friendly cooperation’. Err, that would basically be the EU membership you campaigned against then.

Michael Gove EU Twitter quote Sam Miles blog.png

Another of his manifesto points touched on education, which is awkward as his track record is abysmal. No matter, let’s take a look:

Michael Gove on Education twitter Sam Miles Blog.png

Impressive stuff, if we ignore for a minute that this is Britain, where educational inequality is as much a part of the landscape as awkwardness and subtle racism. His aim as party leader candidate (left) is a world away from his article in the Times back in 2003 (right).

Benefits:

6. Last week UKIP Lord (Tory until 2007 for what it’s worth), Lord Pearson, called for EU nationals to be used as hostages in Brussels negotiations, arguing that Britain “hold the stronger hand” because there are more EU nationals living in the UK than British people living abroad. Labour led a House of Commons vote to secure the status of EU nationals living in the U.K, passing it 245-2. That means that the government cannot exile EU citizens who already live and work here. However, Theresa May, current frontrunner in the Tory leadership and ergo Prime Minister post, seems lukewarm about protecting EU nationals living here. Hm, not so positive.

7. The Queen did at least imply support for the EU in her speech this week. As sovereign leader it would have been more helpful if she’d have done it in the run-up to the referendum, as (somewhat improbably) she has enormous sway over many Britons.

8. According to Ipsos MORI & Statista, academics come second only to family in the rankings of who voters trust in issues relating to the EU referendum. Heartening news to people like me. Not sure what happened there though as the many academics who made reasoned arguments in favour of staying in the EU weren’t listened to.

Brexit trust Ipsos Mori Sam Miles Blog

9. I’m struggling for positives at this point, so let’s look to Simon Jenkins, popular Guardian writer and academic. He wrote a seemingly serious piece today saying that Brexit will be a good thing because Britain’s “stale leadership class is on the way out and the property bubble will burst”. Jenkins is probably panicking a bit about the relative hit-count of Guardian rising stars like Owen Jones and Aditya Chakrabortty, which explains the click-bait tone. Jenkins argues that the fact that Brexiters were lied to is no different from any election, but I’d say it was substantially worse – issues were simplified and misconstrued, and a ‘yes/no’ referendum decision is quite different to voting for one of multiple political parties.

Worse, Jenkins suggests that British politics is experiencing a laxative, whereby politicians get flushed out. I doubt it: Nigel Farage has a tendency to pop back up like a floater in the toilet bowl, and I bet you my laptop that Boris Johnson runs for the Tory leadership contest in 2020, having pulled the strings from the sidelines. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: he is not a blonde buffoon. He is a highly intelligent, calculating career politician. I do agree with Jenkins that Brexit has shone a light on inequalities (some real, some perceived) between London and the rest of the U.K. But I don’t think Brexit is the best way to chart these differences, not least because rather than expose people’s real sentiments about immigration and sovereignty, it seems to have legitimised open racism (see point 3).

In lauding the end of London’s property boom, Jenkins overlooks the fact that wealth trickles down (albeit unevenly) and that a recession hits those least able to cope with it disproportionately – we’ve seen that played out in the last decade. Jenkins finishes his article by saying “disruption may be a fad of hipster economics”. U wot m8?

10. Finally, a real positive. Comedians have long been doubted as political pundits – Russell Brand is a bit like marmite when it comes to his political declarations, though I have to say I think he’s done great work on the New Era housing project. This referendum has brought out some great thinking from comedians like Russell Kane (the best bit about a dire Newsnight last week), Frankie Boyle (Tory leadership candidates as X-factor contestants is inspired) and Tracey MacLeod, whose memories of working with a young Michael Gove had me in stitches.

You have to laugh, right?

Queen laughing Sam Miles blog

 

Brexit: politics to make your head spin

British EU desks

It’s true that a week is a long time in politics. I wrote exactly a week ago about the upcoming referendum that would decide whether the U.K remained in the European Union, and I laid out just a taste of some of the mess of both campaigns – from the Remain campaign’s lost momentum and the repellent effect of David Cameron as the unintentional figurehead, to the Leave campaign’s underhand tactics and dog-whistle politics on immigration. It felt like an uncertain time, full of moments that seemed stranger than fiction.

I look back on the piece now and I can hardly believe how much more has changed and how much more is uncertain. As is often the way with these kind of huge events, society seems to only understand the significance of the movement in hindsight. Five days into the British exit from the EU, it’s beginning to look like one of most important political movements in my lifetime. And to the Leavers who say ‘get over it, move on’: this is step-change politics, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

When I wrote about my intention to vote ‘Remain’, I explained that I had come to this decision after reading up on the different campaigns and thinking about how problems within the EU – and yes, there are some problems – would be better tackled from within as a member state. My fear was that most people don’t have the time to think about their reasons for voting and what they want to see out of the referendum. My other fear was that despite how it felt at times this year like we were all sick to death of hearing about the upcoming vote, in another sense it also all felt a bit rushed. It didn’t coincide with a general or local election, and within both main parties some MPs were in favour of Leave and others in favour of Remain, without an actual coherent plan for either eventuality. Let’s be absolutely clear: there really was nothing planned for a Leave result. The outcome, like the preparation, is a complete mess.

In a shock result for both sides, 52% of voters (not the same thing as the population, nor as the electorate) voted to leave the EU and 48% voted to stay. I realised, not for the first time, that I live in an echo chamber where my friends and family are politically like-minded, but also that my Twitter and Facebook tend to foreground contacts who share my political beliefs (this explains the echo chamber effect on social media). Most media outlets had predicted a narrow victory for ‘Remain’ throughout polling day, and Nigel Farage conceded defeat to Remain late on Thursday night, only to backtrack at 4am on Friday morning with a euphoric speech declaring that we would be leaving the EU after all.

This speech, celebrating victory “without a single bullet being fired”, was either coldly calculating or wilfully ignorant of the human cost of dirty political campaigning. I suspect it was the former. You’d think the recent murder of Labour MP Jo Cox outside a library by a man reportedly shouting “Britain first!” would be the nadir of contemporary British politics, but Farage’s comment seemed almost like a dig at exactly that. His assertion that physical violence wasn’t necessary carried a chilling subtext of “this time”. As this video shows – in its uncut form to allay protests from UKIP that people share things out of context (hmm, sounds like pot calling kettle black), just a few weeks earlier Farage implied there would be violence on the street if ‘normal’ people weren’t listened to by politicians. As you can see, he didn’t exactly seem alarmed by the prospect.

Cameron resignation.jpg

David Cameron resigns (Lauren Hurley/PA via AP)

I felt an unnerving jolt of sympathy seeing David Cameron and his sombre-looking wife deliver his resignation on Friday morning, before remembering he (and we) would never be in this mess if he hadn’t selfishly pledged an EU referendum for his own re-election as Prime minister. He should never have gambled such an important issue for his own political gain whilst failing to think about people’s underlying dissatisfaction with the political order and their tendency to conflate immigration with economic partnership. Five days later and Cameron’s back in taunting smug mode, telling Corbyn to give up the fight for Labour leader, seemingly without irony.

Financial Times vote leave EU brexit graph.jpg

How (just) over half of the electorate want a future that looks away from, rather than towards, a European community is bonkers to me, but it’s a complex issue.We know that lots of it makes no sense: places like Cornwall, west Wales and post-industrial cities in the north-East were some of the strongest ‘Out’ vote yet also the areas with the biggest injection of EU funding, as this video shows. We are small, old country long past our global ‘heyday’ (if you can call a long history of rampant colonialism, rape and pillage a heyday) and we should be looking to Europe and the world as allies, not facing back inwards. Both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson talked about the U.K’s very own “Independence Day”, seeming to forget that we never weren’t independent and also ignoring the fact that Scotland, having voted for Remain with a substantial majority, may now kickstart a second independence referendum, whilst Northern Island may reunify with Ireland. Little England seems a smaller place.

Britain as coloniser Brexit.png

For the many who protest voted, or voted based on a particular issue but did not really think other people would do the same, and are surprised by the outcome, it’s like I said before: a vote’s a vote. There are more productive ways to show dissent, namely voting for an opposition party in elections: although I can see how that seems futile, watching Labour’s self-combustion in a crucial week when they could have been holding the Tories to account for the Brexit fiasco. And to be fair, many marginalised voters did demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the political elite by voting for UKIP last year – nearly 4 million of them in fact, obscured in part by the fact that these votes don’t convert proportionally to seats. Another way to engage politically – and I’m talking post as well as pre Brexit here, is joining a political party or your trade union, or writing to your elected representatives, which is easier than ever now with the They Work For You website. But all these methods rely on your knowledge of democratic rights as a British citizen, and this knowledge is not delivered by government or schools, and only rarely by other people.

People were angry, and voted to show that anger. The fault lies not with them (or at least not only them) but with the misinformation and prejudice of rightwing media and the misselling of what voting Leave in the referendum could achieve for those who felt like they had been ignored by British politics for too long, as Polly Toynbee points out so well (if you only read one thing today, make it that). As someone pointed out to the Financial Times, we live in a post-factual democracy. People don’t want to hear the reality, they want people who seem like them to be on their side and say what they want to hear.

What I like about our country is its cosmopolitanism and global worldview. Those people who voted leave in a bid to ‘get our country’ back are looking for something that never quite existed. What is it they want to get back? One answer is our control, rather than demands from unelected representatives. But EU representatives are nothing compared to the U.K’s unelected House of Lords, and besides, most laws are made in this country. Another answer is lower immigration, which doesn’t make sense when they’ve proven to provide net economic gain for the country and be more likely to work than Brits whilst less likely to use the state for benefits, healthcare or pensions, as this UCL study shows. Besides, as MEP Daniel Hannan admitted just hours after the result, exiting the EU wouldn’t really change inward migration anyway. People were lied to.

Re-negotiating our relationship to the EU will be incredibly complex, long-winded and expensive. I don’t think the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ should be used here, because there were things that needed fixing in the EU, but the point remains that we weren’t in a good position politically, socially or economically, to start a process we can’t easily finish. Thinking about all the serious issues facing the U.K before Brexit got in the way, from housing to the environment, from NHS privatisation to air pollution (whilst accepting that some are tied up in the same politics), and realising that these issues will go down the priority list whilst the government deal with a whole new crisis, is enough to make your head spin.

header credit: http://www.linkedin.com

Brexit Stock Market crash Buzzfeed.png

Can’t Live, if living is without EU

Donald-Trump-L-kissing-the-Former-Mayor-of-London-and-Conservative-MP-Boris-Johnson

It feels like a long week, and it’s only Wednesday. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for several months, you’ll have seen the debates endlessly percolating around the upcoming EU referendum. The question that the British public have to answer is whether to remain in the EU, which we first joined in 1975 for common trade and political partnership; or leave, in favour of an as-yet undetailed relationship with the union supposedly similar to the Norwegian model.

At this point there’s little that either side can add to the debate, but that doesn’t stop news outlets churning out new stories, like this Gawker piece on the EU referendum as told by Equus GIFs, because why not; or this Daily Mail article claiming that the Queen has been asking her dinner guests for 3 good reasons to stay in the EU (that link takes you to the Daily Mail. You have been warned). To be fair, you can’t blame the media for wanting to exhaust every angle. It’s easy to forget this in all the noise, but the referendum itself is newsworthy stuff: it’s a vital barometer for the state of British politics, so don’t let photos of Boris Johnson kissing a fish distract you.

With only hours to go until the polls open, both sides of the campaign will be wondering what tomorrow’s exit polls will indicate, and, noting the poor performance of these recently, how far out those figures will be from reality when votes are counted on Friday. One of the biggest questions for each side will be whether they have been persuasive enough to sway the sizeable percentage of ‘undecided’ voters. This number currently stands at 11% (BBC/YouGov) to 14% (The Week) of all those polled, although The Telegraph, amongst others, have started excluding ‘undecideds’ from the polls in favour of a remain/leave split. This rather misses the point that in these final days of campaigning, a huge number of people still haven’t yet decided whether they’ll vote to remain or leave.

Many of these undecided voters are young. As I wrote in this recent post, 18-30 year olds are probably the demographic most open to thinking constructively about both sides of the argument, and also those most likely to see a future in EU membership. I’m going to vote Remain, and I haven’t come to the decision blindly – hell, I’ve done enough research on it to write a paper, but unfortunately not one related in any way to my PhD *laughs, following by crying*. When asked for my opinion I’ve tried to give it without preaching or cajoling. Talking to young people, I’ve encouraged them to read around the topic, getting to the facts beyond the spin of the news, and make up their mind based on what works for them rather than family or friends. The trouble is that people are busy and stressed, and we haven’t all got the luxury or the motivation to inform our own decisions. That is why the campaigns for each side are so important, and why it’s so disappointing that they’ve been muddied and mud-slinging.

The Remain campaign seemed to lack momentum for most of their campaign, not helped by Jeremy Corbyn’s tentativeness when invited into the spotlight to clarify Labour’s position. The Remain message has been saved somewhat by a rather more energetic effort from campaigners on the ground, who have done a great job. These are, after all, volunteers with busy lives themselves. But if we think of the reluctant figurehead of the campaign, what stuck in the throats of young voters in particular is that David Cameron, whose popularity is particularly low in the 18-35 age group, was the main person telling us we needed to vote remain. For many, going against his patronising speeches is sorely tempting, and judging by this referendum he hasn’t inspired much confidence in his leadership.

Despite Cameron’s hindrance, the Remain campaign has in its final days strengthened its message and managed to add more dynamic names to its roster. People may mock the value of David Beckham or Gary Lineker voicing their intentions to vote in, but I think these are important people on the Remain ticket – Stephen Hawking, John Major and Gordon Brown haven’t exactly wowed the crowds. Whether we like it or not, in a world skewed to celebrity as much as politics, such an endorsement may encourage young would-be Brexiters to reconsider.

Guardian Jo Cox

MP Jo Cox murder on Guardian front page

In a scenario that was already pretty grim, politics reached a new nadir with the murder of Labour MP and former Oxfam and Save the Children activist Jo Cox on Thursday. For the sake of brevity I’ll refer you to Alex Massie, who wrote a moving piece about the multiplier effects of politics for the Spectator. The rally organised in Trafalgar Square this afternoon in Jo Cox’s memory is doubly poignant because today would have been her 42nd birthday. Forget hateful Katie Hopkins claiming that the Remain campaign have co-opted Cox’s murder into their own campaign (no link there – Hopkins needs no more airtime) and listen instead to her husband’s mature interview about her concerns in the months before her murder about the growing tendency of British politics towards highlighting divisions rather than common ground.

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Leave vs. Remain flotilla on the River Thames. (Photo: iNews24)

It’s this rhetoric of division the Leave campaign are guilty of. The Thames-based flotilla spraying water at each from boats was so bizarre as to be almost funny (and this Buzzfeed overview does capture some of that incredulity, but it was maneouvred by a campaign that has played on people’s anxieties about migration and ethnicity. By conflating political and economic European membership with race, the Remain campaign has made Brexit an appealing prospect for marginalised voters who don’t feel listened to by government. I don’t see how anyone could really be swayed by a campaign fronted, without irony, by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, but these dire spokesmen (their Alpha Male front doesn’t leave much room for women) haven’t been exposed for their political motivations half as much as they should have been. As I argued in this London Mayor piece, do not be fooled: Boris Johnson is a highly intelligent and ambitious careerist, who was happy to press pause on his mayoral responsibilities in London for nearly a year whilst he worked on his own ambitions in parliament. I’ll save talk on Michael Gove for another piece, but hinting that he might leave government if Britain voted Remain is almost too tantalising a prospect to endure. Alas, the tweet released last night declaring he would actually leave was a hoax. We can but dream.

Nigel Farage Alan Partridge

Nigel Farage in 2016, uncannily like Alan Partridge c.1997

Meanwhile Nigel Farage, quite aside from his faltering track record (this week alone including an old school report expressing concern about his Fascist tendencies, and an anti-immigration billboard echoing notorious Nazi propaganda) is stunningly unconcerned about his own hypocrisy in fronting the Thames flotilla. Newspapers haven’t given this as much coverage as they might have, but the flotilla originated with fishermen who from the coast of Essex and Kent navigated their boats upstream the Thames to make a political point. They, more than most, had a bone to pick with the EU because of what they see as the EU’s punitive fishing quotas, the CFP. But guess what? Nigel Farage’s job in European Parliament was to campaign about these rules, and he didn’t. The Green Party points out he showed up for one meeting in 42. So in a bizarre case of Stockholm syndrome, these fishermen, the most diligent members of the Leave flotilla, were the very same traders Farage promised and failed to represent in rethinking EU fishing quotas (which, by the way, make more sense from a sustainability viewpoint than UKIP would have us believe). Farage got away with bamboozling his own supporters yet again, all whilst uncannily aping Alan Partridge. It bears repeating: some of this stuff is beyond parody.

All that remains is to go to the polls tomorrow, where we can at least expect a healthy turnout, whether for Leave or for Remain. So much has been said on the topic in so many different ways I almost don’t want to add anything more, so will just make this appeal: if you’re in, say you’re in. You could even make this Mariah Carey spoof by Martyn Hett your Facebook cover photo.

EU

Orlando: a case study of sexuality & space

How do we talk about Orlando? One way is to think about how this attack highlights the relationship between sexuality and space.

It makes for sobering reading. In the early hours of Sunday morning, 29 year-old Omar Mateen entered LGBT Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and committed a mass shooting of those inside. Several hours later, 50 people, including Mateen, were lying dead, and 44 more were injured. Think about this: in the journey from nightclub to hospital alone, 9 people died. 33 remain still in hospital, with 6 critically injured. Text messages and mobile phone videos communicating with friends and family testify to the horror of the experience: dozens of people enjoying their Saturday night killed in one of the places that they felt most safe. Think, too, of this: some victims may have been ‘outed’ as LGBT for the first time to their families only by the news of their death. It tells us a lot about society and sexuality.

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Pulse nightclub shooting victims. Bearing witness to them stops it being all about their killer.

The focus of much of the media coverage following the attack has rightly been about gun ownership. As is often the case as outsiders, we in Europe (#VoteRemain) largely agree that the scale of gun-based homicide in the U.S. is extraordinary. It’s probable that in some U.S states it is easier to get a gun than an abortion. Time after time, a devastating mass shooting alerts American citizens to consider the stark reality of the status of firearms legislation across the country. Yet time after time, the issue gets kicked into the long grass by conservative Republicans in Senate. They either believe in the old trope of citizens’ right to bear arms, an idiosyncrasy leftover from the formative years of the Union, or feel manipulated by the substantial fiscal influence of the NRA (National Rifle Association). Put it this way: when House of Cards played out a similar ‘fictional’ storyline with the NRA, the script probably wrote itself.

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Economist analysis of death by firearms, U.S. 2014 – not including 2015 or 2016 shootings.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association released a statement today that reads:

“With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of workshop and on live television, the United States faces a public health crisis of gun violence”.

Imagine it: a public health crisis of gun violence. Welcome to 2016.

Since the attack, different rationales for the shooting have emerged, including supposed links with ISIS, which unsurprisingly have been devoured by the media. It seems more likely that Mateen was pledging allegiance rather than executing a coordinated operation. Meanwhile emerging evidence suggests that Mateen was a visitor to the nightclub himself, and that he used gay dating apps (ah, those again – you could almost write a PhD on it). But I want to bring the focus for a bit back to some reflection on the impact of the Pulse nightclub shooting for sexual minorities, because I think it’s important.

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LGBT vigil, Soho, London. Photo credit: Ray Tang/LNP

Talking to a friend yesterday, I was trying to explain why this attack was so particularly harrowing for the gay community: why many of my LGBT friends, thousands of miles from Orlando, felt vulnerable, despite our Twitter proclamations that #LoveWins and despite our measured vigil in Soho. I explained the history of ‘queer space’ as representing a safe space for sexual minorities over decades or even centuries. I lost them at the word ‘queer’, and I realised, as so often, how the terminology of contemporary theory is so poorly communicated to society sometimes, despite the best actions of activists. I’ve experienced the same impasse when explaining to audiences that my work explores the bridging of queer theory and technology. A very brief definition of queer theory is useful, not to mention rare.

Queer, a word reclaimed in the 1990s from the 19th & 20th century insult (itself rooted in “strangeness” or “peculiarity”) is basically an umbrella term for all the different types of non-heterosexuality. Meanwhile, queer theory argues that as individuals we are conditioned to think in terms of boundaries between man/woman, straight/gay. Some of queer theory’s big questions are: what would the world look like if we troubled established binaries and made room for different representations of gender, sex and sexuality? How might celebrating sexual difference, rather than sameness, help social relations between the massive variety of humans? (clue: lots). Queer theory was first defined by Teresa de Lauretis in 1990 (Differences), who developed the idea as a way of extending feminist scholarship and gay and lesbian studies into new territory. Queer theory contests the traditional idea that heterosexuality is natural or preferable, and argues that this privilege is embedded in the social structures of society. As the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote back in 1973:

“so many of the things that we do in what we sadly think of as our personal lives are simply duplications of the external world of power games, power struggles” (‘Notes on Power Politics’, 43).

In an academic sense, queer theory isn’t just about LGBT issues; it can be used as a different way to read a text or a different way to make art. It can turn ideas on their head, or promote mischief: think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition as “something ‘aslant’ or ‘across’ […] the Latin torquere (to twist)” (Tendencies viii).

Alas, like so much good thinking, many of the ideas of queer theory remain stuck in academia, but in recent years topics such as protest, equal rights, and scrutiny of body image have filtered through to people’s lived experience. Applied practically, queer theory encourages us to question why things are ‘the way they are’.

One way of performing this interrogation is thinking about queer space. Queer space can include nightclubs and bars but also, now and in the past, those places where people have gone to away from society’s scrutiny, like public toilets and sex work environments. It can also include places of protest and activism. After all, people who don’t match up to society’s heterosexual tick-boxes have historically existed at the limits of public space, literally ‘out of place’. In queer space, social rules are paused, so people can be themselves. Certainly, prejudice is sometimes replicated in this supposedly egalitarian space, often based on looks, ethnicity, or gender. But because the established order of things is less policed, those in the space can still feel liberated.

A gay bar, for example, is a fun place to have a drink and listen to great music with friends who share your identity and values, but it is also a place free from social disapproval. Yes, I know, there’s less and less of that disapproval, especially in cities and especially in what geographers call the ‘Global North’ (or ‘the West’, or ‘economically developed countries’), and that’s great. It’s true that as societies have increasingly welcomed non-heterosexual minorities, the need for queer space has in many ways diluted, but for lots of people, they remain a safe place of freedom and possibility. After all, you’re unlikely to get a punch for hitting on someone in a gay bar like you might do in a straight bar. Constantly assimilating yourself to what society expects you to be can get tiring, and that includes all the tiny ways like correcting colleagues about your partner’s gender, or deflecting questions about your sexuality from school students. These venues are interesting, dynamic places where, at their best, people of all ages and backgrounds mix. The perceived safety of these spaces, where you can truly be who you are, is why Orlando’s shooting was so painful for the LGBT community. As Jeramey Kraatz puts it:

“if you can’t wrap your head around the idea of a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public.”

What Guardian writer Owen Jones was trying to articulate in the Sky interview he walked out of (something he addresses in his article, available here) was that the sexualities of Orlando’s victims keep being glossed over, and this is wrong because the attack was specifically a homophobic one. People seem nervous about somehow ‘reducing’ the identities of the victims to their sexuality, but we absolutely should foreground that part of their identity, because that was what got them killed on Sunday. As Jones argues: “this was the worst mass killing of LGBT people in the west since the Holocaust”. Jones points out that people of any orientation can be, and are, upset by the attack, and that straight people are among the victims. And despite what some would have you believe, LGBT bars are not gay ghettoes: the popularity of pride parades all over the world, as well as Glastonbury and Latitude festival’s buzzing LGBT installations, testify to that (as do 99.9% of all drunk hen parties).

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Pulse LGBT nightclub, Orlando

But Mateen’s aim was specifically the LGBT community. His rage was prompted in part by seeing two men kiss in Miami, tangled up in his own confused sexuality. The society he grew up in and his skewed interpretation of religion, along with poor mental health, insufficient intervention from those around him, and his easy access to destructive weapons, meant that he had an easy opportunity to wreak havoc on a community that could have welcomed him. Pulse nightclub was a particularly community-oriented venue, with an emphasis on the L, B and T of LGBT – refreshing, in a nightlife environment that still tends to cater to gay males first. It hosted a whole range of events, for all different attendees; the night of the attack was a Latin party featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Kenya Michaels, since reported safe. It represented community, and our larger societies seem to be losing the thread of community in myriad different ways across numerous different populations.

Lest we forget: it was illegal to have gay sex in Florida until 1971, and a misdemeanour until 2003. It was not legal for gay couples to adopt in Florida until 2015. Gay ‘correction’ therapy for young people is legal and still attempted by many parents. In Orlando, the people who were outed by being shot in an LGBT nightclub can still be legally fired by their employer (Johann Koehle). America is in many ways an easy target, but the same scrutiny could be levelled at the U.K, Europe, or Australia with uncomfortable results –  to say nothing of the retrograde attitude to LGBT minorities flourishing elsewhere, as Amnesty’s policy work shows us.

It all testifies to the discrepancies in modern society that ostensibly accepts difference but still operates against it. Surely #lovewins.

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#LoveWins

Swipe left: Internet & the EU referendum

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European flags (The Spectator)

I took a break from blogging last week because I was visiting Madrid, but the good news is that it has given me a valuable theme to cover this week. Rather than a departure from writing on technology, sex and cities, think of this article as a different take on technology and social media.

Turn on the television, or open any newspaper (I am trying and failing to stop myself from yet again adding “or should that be swiping on your tablet?”) and you’ll see acres of coverage of the upcoming European Referendum. Staying with my friends in Madrid really hammered home to me the enormity of what is approaching this month: a full-scale national referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union.

As you can imagine, those I talked to in Madrid were already sick of the debate. After all, Britain has for a long time been a rather reserved partner in what has otherwise been a dedicated, if not enthusiastic, European vision – Greek meltdown notwithstanding. Thus even the possibility of a permanent split does nothing to enamour our European neighbours to Britain, a country that has for so long been a dissenting voice in the European movement. Underneath their irritation at our British exceptionalism, Madrileños also spoke of the anxiety that Brexit prompted for their own futures. If Britain leaves, how will it affect the dynamic of the Union? Will other countries take a similarly revanchist view of union, and will anyone really be able to view Europe as a cohesive unit? This is to say nothing of Britain’s own future: sterling already weak in anticipation, let alone realization, of Brexit; new visa policies by a clueless government; inevitably a Conservative-led decoupling from the vitally important European declaration of Human rights.

Make no mistake – Britain hasn’t made itself popular by pursuing the referendum. A decisive vote to ‘Remain’ might show European neighbours, as well as our own government, that we are committed to a European future. Anything other than a close call looks optimistic, judging by any one of the most recent polls (and lest we forget, polling companies have been feeling the heat from a disastrous track record in polling efficacy). But a vote to remain in the union is entirely possible, and it relies on young voters.

 

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Jon Snow, querying Electoral Commission crash (Twitter)

At midnight last night, the opportunity to register online in time to vote for the EU referendum passed. This being Britain, it couldn’t happen without some fiasco, in this case the electoral commission website breaking down from a last-minute rush (over half a million people, according to Gizmodo) to register. What surprised me was the response to this on Twitter: lots of normally open-minded, relaxed people saying that those who registered so late deserved everything they got, and should not counted. Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow’s suggestion that the registration period be extended to allow those caught in the glitch to complete their registration was met with howls of protest from many, who had registered well in advance and felt somehow put-upon by those sloppy latecomers who hadn’t organised themselves.

Such an approach seems unfair to me. They may have left it late, but whether 5 minutes before the deadline or 5 months before, a vote’s a vote. They weren’t to know that the website would crash. Indeed, some pointed out that for them the website actually failed throughout the evening, rather than the final few minutes. And ultimately it is human nature to leave things until the last minute. The fact remains that these late voters applied for registration within the allotted period.

If you know me you’ll understand my sympathy for these users because I’m often this last-minute person, in life if not in national politics. I would guess that, like myself, almost all of these late voters were aged 18-35. Younger people are significantly more pro-EU, with 59% of 18-24 year olds and 49% of 25-49 year olds intending to vote ‘Remain’ in today’s YouGov poll. This contrasts with 35% of 50-64 year olds voting to remain, and fewer still amongst those aged over 65, of whom 57% conversely are planning to vote ‘Leave’ (hope you enjoyed the golden period of European travel, older folks).

That is why the internet can be so useful. On Friday, Facebook published a post to all users reminding them to remember to register for the EU referendum before the looming deadline. In a stunning display of social media ‘nudge’ politics, hundreds of thousands of voters registered that same day, including 155,000 Facebook users aged under 45. The infamous Lad Bible, as well as Uber and Deliveroo, are also encouraging their (generally young, professional, urban) audiences to vote. Lad Bible in particular has been flying the flag (no pun intended) for voter registration, possibly part of its massive rebrand away from boobs and beer to become a less-gendered, viral content host (if so, it’s working: read this excellent Guardian piece on the changes). Even Prime Minister David Cameron “joined Tinder last month to encourage young voters ‘swipe right’ when it comes to registering”, points out DigiMag, poker-faced. I hope that didn’t make you vomit up your lunch. In the name of all that is holy, how did it come to this?

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Facebook-prompted internet registration spike, 3rd June. (YouGov 2016)

But this brings me on to an important point: in a surprise to absolutely no-one who’s been watching hopeless British mainstream politics for the past few years, young people are still proportionately less likely to register to vote, and thus less likely to vote, in local and general elections. Why bother, many think, when such change is promised yet so little does? Arguments that participating via a vote does at least mean you get your say don’t really wash – believe me, I try it every time.

Further, what many otherwise on-the-ball critics overlook is that British politics remains confusing and often willingly difficult to understand, especially when it comes to first-past-the-post rules, seat counts, and local vs. national responsibilities. One of the better things about this referendum (and the field isn’t exactly crowded with them) is that the remain/leave decision required from voters is eminently clear. Alas, the information needed for them to furnish a decision either way has been less so. Amongst endless media coverage, the fact that 16% of 18-24 years registered to vote don’t know which way they will vote has largely gone unnoticed. It is here that campaigners (and I include normal people, like yourself) can make the most difference. We need to start conversations with our friends, family, students and colleagues that help furnish them with the information they need to make an informed decision – because an informed decision would likely be to ‘Remain’.

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GradFest: not like a music festival

 

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It’s that time of year again: post Eurovision but pre Glastonbury. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for GradFest.

Alas, GradFest hasn’t got quite the cultural cachet that Eurovision or Glastonbury command, but I don’t see why not. It does in one way feel like a music festival: several days spent running around an unfamiliar place sweating and trying to remember what happens next, whilst people ask you for directions. In precisely no other way does it feel like a music festival, but let that not deter you, because it’s actually good fun in its own right. And you won’t get rained on or queue to pay £6 for a pint either.

GradFest is a series of university-wide events running at Queen Mary, University of London. If you’re not at Queen Mary, or indeed not a PhD student, bear with me, because this post acts as a kind of snapshot of academic life, and I think it’s pretty interesting.

The whole point of the festival is that it is organised by PhD students, for PhD students. This is my favourite part of it: the idea that any PhD researcher at Queen Mary, whether from Mile End, Whitechapel or Charterhouse Square campuses, can volunteer to be part of the steering committee early in the academic year and take the project through to the festival itself the next summer. The group, overseen by good egg Zi Parker, works together to decide what the theme will be and how it will be run (but thankfully not how to fund it because the Doctoral College currently covers it). Then the steering committee invites applications from the PhD cohort – anyone, from dental engineering to French cinema – to propose events that the student would like to put on, either by themselves, with colleagues, or by inviting big names in the field to come and present.

For members of the steering committee and also the students invited to plan an event, talk, or show, it’s a good skills-building exercise. The fact that there is an allocated budget – no mean feat in our age of austerity – means that the proposers can get some really exciting projects off the ground, honing their own presenting or management skills whilst putting free events on for other researchers. If your university doesn’t run this kind of project (and many do – from Goldsmiths to Bristol), it’s an easy sell because it builds skills in the PhD cohort, encourages interdisciplinary collaboration, and you can include public-facing events too which boosts your outreach profile. The word ‘festival’ is slapped on everything these days, but the idea of a learning festival isn’t risky and the atmosphere does feel somehow festive. Also, as any PhD student will agree, it can be hard to socialise with your cohort when your work is so solitary, so for just a few days you’re guaranteed socialisation.

GradFest is only one year old, so it felt good to be part of its inaugural run last June. One of the most valuable experiences I learned was how to review applications for all the different events suggested by students. It felt a lot like how I imagine conferences are run by their organisers (that’s my next goal – organise a conference – but it just seems so much easier to watch House of Cards forever), because you as the steering committee are the ones with the vision of the overall festival, and you want to get projects on board that match up with that. That said, we didn’t outright reject many applications – though the idea of Dragons’ Den style cruelty appeals – but we did give ideas for editing their format or content, and set up events management training from former Arts Council workers, which proved invaluable.

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‘Your Life Through a Lens’ PhD photography competition

I loved every minute of the festival. We had a photography competition called ‘Your Life Through A Lens’, where PhD students submitted a photo that represented their research. The surprise there was the range of submissions, from microscopic cell mutations to a feminist linguistics mis-en-scene. We had an Arduino programming workshop, teaching non-computer scientists how to make software and hardware and sharing all the results. We had a great roundtable talk about the joys and anxieties of being an interdisciplinary researcher – research combining music and technology, or geography with politics – and how you get to span two disciplines but sometimes feel like part of neither.

 

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GradFest 2015

The ‘finale’ event (gulp) was ‘Question Time’ with the Doctoral College and various higher education experts… and me. To stop myself dissolving into a sweating heap I told myself “you are the student in this scenario, which gives you license to basically say whatever you want without repercussion”. Reader, I did.

Simon Gaskell, who is the Vice Chancellor of Queen Mary, talked about the university strategy, and the growth in science and technology research. Averil MacDonald, board member at WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) spoke about the future of PhD research and made several inflammatory remarks about students not knowing how good they’ve got it. Holly Else from the Times Higher Education magazine did a great job of highlighting precarious working conditions for PhDs and Post-docs who teach – part of a larger move towards casualisation, where early-career academic staff are hired on an hourly basis rather than given a proper contract (today’s Guardian article provides a good précis.

As for me, I talked about how the PhD experience is such a mixed bag, from the freedom of research to the job market, from the sense that your PhD can really contribute to new thinking to the pressure of balancing efforts at publication and outreach activities, all whilst trying to write 100,000 words of original, insightful research and not eat total sh*t for 3+ years as a result.

I know these panels should recruit a student as good practice anyway if they want a wide range of views, but nevertheless I felt pleased to be a part of it, and the mixed audience of students, UCU reps, staff and researchers who attended just to hear our debate made it all worthwhile. It gave me a wider knowledge of the higher education environment that serves me well now as we embark on GradFest #2, because it shows me the political forces battling in the higher education market and who has a stake in universities (clue: private bodies, if the government gets their way).

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‘Benefits & challenges of Interdisciplinary Research’ talk

PhD students are so often reluctant to get involved with anything that feels secondary to The Precious PhD. But the experience of mixing with other disciplines, of going to see a talk on something fascinating and completely outside your experience is a valuable thing. Even if you’re not at Queen Mary, GradFest exists in various guises in universities and cities around the country, from LIFT festival to Birmingham’s Arts&Science week: give one a go!

Back to the Future

 

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1984 by George Orwell (1948)

One of the strange things about technology is that it narrates the future, but that future goes forever unrealised. Because, well: it’s the future. One way to check future vision prospectively against actual results in reality is to compare the earlier predicted worldview with our contemporary context.

Some visionaries got it scarily accurate. George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) predicted widespread, invasive government scrutiny, and you only need to open a newspaper (or should that be ‘refresh your browser’?) to see Wikileaks-style leaks rumbling on, here via the Panama Papers, nearly a decade after its first exposé hit in 2006. Similarly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) read to me as political commentary on computer hacking in today’s context, rather than the prescient study of a global network system (hello, internet) that was intended when it was first published over 30 years ago.

But when we watch Back to the Future, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, we think it’s funny because here we are living those imaginatively conceived futures, and things are more similar than different.

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Back to the Future, Dir. Robert Zemeckis (1985)

We do use portable mobile technology, and the internet age has borne out David Harvey’s idea of time-space compression in avenues beyond even his study of flows of capital (1989). But food pills haven’t replaced meals and we are still a long way from flying cars. It sometimes feels like the opposite: seeing the hysteria generated in popular media by Google’s self-driving vehicles, flying cars seems far beyond our graspable realm right now.

That’s why the SAGE & ESRC competition to describe ‘The World in 2065’ last autumn was so interesting to me. How can we conceive of life 50 years away when we find it so hard to conceptualise some of the technology mediating our lives today? With that in mind, here’s my entry, slightly edited for brevity:

‘Walking down a city street, you feel a buzz from the phone in your pocket. Looking at the screen, you read a message from the coffee shop on the next block. ‘We’ve got a new batch of that Javanese coffee you said you liked last week. Come and try it now and we’ll upgrade you to grande for free!’

This is not a vision of the world in 2065, it’s what the world could look like this year. Locative technology – that is, the GPS system in your smartphone that can track your location – is now sophisticated enough that it can link your position in space with corporations who could cleverly use the data to nudge you towards their products, all as you walk the street in real time. The only reason we haven’t seen this targeted mobile marketing on our high streets yet is because it the extent to which our online data is shared between developers, governments and corporations would unnerve us unless introduced in a way that benefits us as consumers.

By 2065 digital technology and location-based services will be central to how we chart space, how we connect with people, and how we use the services, shops and social venues around us. In fifty years, the idea of being locatable in space won’t be novel, and it might not even be concerning: it will simply be a fact of life. We won’t need to ask where our friends or family are, because our devices will pinpoint them on maps projected onto our kitchen counter or our spectacles. We will communicate with wearable technology – not just the digital watches being developed today but also tiny complex microchips, worn as jewellery or even implanted into the skin. These devices will map our movements, our health, and even our appetites to others including, in all likelihood, private corporations. After all, what better way is there to attract customers into your restaurant than by engineering conversation with someone nearby who you know is hungry and has been on their feet for several hours? Combine this knowledge with their credit card transactions – a penchant for Italian food, a recent holiday to Tuscany – and the restaurant can make the customer feel like the only thing they want to eat is a stonebaked pizza. In this way, corporations will know as much about us as we know ourselves – and maybe more.

If this sounds dystopian, we should consider the positives too. In 50 years, mobile technologies will help ambulances reach medical emergencies even more efficiently than they do now. A phone app released this year maps off-duty doctors onto your local city, so that if one is nearby, they can dash to your pinned location even quicker than paramedics. This kind of crowdsourced community may develop in beneficial, altruistic ways that we cannot even imagine. Friends and family will feel closer than ever, despite a growth in migration and global networking. Crime and security will be streamlined, with criminal activity mapped even before it happens by aggregating the locational data of known hotspots.

But crime and punishment raise some of the biggest questions, too. Many baulk at the idea of an electronic tag monitoring offenders today, but fifty years from now the whole population might be tracked in a similar way. The argument ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, it shouldn’t matter’ will sweep before it the valid objections of civil liberties in the same way that app developers currently sell users’ personal data to corporations today. After all, as a dating app user, you share incredibly personal data not just with potential dates, but with third parties to whom your statistics, behaviours and likes are highly valuable. And you sacrifice this data because you get something out of the exchange too: a convenient social networking tool.

Mobile and pervasive digital technology, like the radio, the phone, and the television before it, is the future. It is therefore vital that we consider the questions these technologies raise. What do we lose when we lose our privacy?’

 

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House of Commons, London Parliament

It was fascinating to see different people’s ideas of what the social sciences will look like in 2065. Other entrants sketched out a vision of climate change or the future of British lawmaking. My piece was shortlisted into the top 10, and my supervisor and I were invited to the Houses of Parliament, where we met Dr. Alan Gillespie, the director of the ESRC, and MP Kelvin Hopkins (and where I later got told off by security guards for trying to access the MPs terrace so I could see the river from Parliament).

I didn’t win, but it was a great experience and proof that stepping outside of the ‘bubble’ of your PhD project can be a stimulating, generative exercise. The winning entry is definitely worth a read. It envisages a new political scenario where London is fully privatised… a dystopian future indeed.

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My article in print (SAGE)

Review: What Belongs to You

‘So it is that at the very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking and a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore’ (34)

 

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What Belongs to You (2016)

I first heard about Garth Greenwell and his new novel, What Belongs to You, via a pre-release review in a U.S. newspaper back last winter. The review was almost hyperbolic in its breathless praise for the book, which piqued my interest, only to find it wasn’t yet available in the U.K. But I had one of those experiences where once you’ve heard of someone o
nce, they crop up continually. Garth Greenwell and this beautiful bookcover suddenly seemed to be everywhere. It was covered in the Guardian, London Review of Books, and the New York Times, and discussed by queer theory enthusiasts at Queen Mary (so basically me, to several undergraduates trying to politely ignore me). As I told more and more friends about this new gay novel apparently making waves across the Atlantic, I thought I should probably get my hands on a copy to check it out for myself. As I framed it to Garth’s publicist, it might be interesting to think about the work in academic terms. And reader, it is.

The book opens with a cruising scene in a public toilet in Sofia, Bulgaria. The narrator almost immediately introduces the reader to Mitko: part-hustler, part-crook, all enigma. The (male) narrator’s desire for Mitko is palpable, and their journey, which reads at time like more of a struggle, proceeds through uneasy exchanges of sex for money over several months. This in turn leads to a deeper attachment – seemingly for both characters – trying in their own ways to understand the terms of the relationship. Don’t be fooled by the sex: far from being disinhibited or sexy, the narrative cleverly constricts into a melancholy and at times almost painful reflection on everything from family to memory, and from identity in the present to ideas of home in the past. Still, the sex remains important, because it is how the narrator (who may or may not touch on autobiography; I couldn’t ultimately decide) and Mitko battle for symbolic status against each other.

Yet for a novel set in 2012 (or at least it is if the earthquake Greenwell describes refers to the Pernick earthquake), locative (i.e. mobile) dating and hook-up apps such as Grindr are almost totally absent, despite regular instances of online encounter in the novel. There are, however, frequent references to the economic and social value of mobile phones in a country where most of the population is institutionally poor. Meanwhile, the digital interfaces of desktop-based male networking sites are one of the couple’s main contentions. Mitko frequently prioritises his online life and related attachments above his embodied prescence in the narrator’s real home. Greenwell has a real eye for detail – we readers have no trouble hearing the ‘chime’ noise of a new Skype conversation from across the room, which stops Mitko from attending to the couple’s precious shared time. But Greenwell doesn’t let his protagonist off the hook either. This is someone self-aware enough to admit that the persona he inhabits online is subjective and fluid, mediated by the context in which he wants to appear:

‘It’s one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example.’ (70)

 

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Garth Greenwell (Twitter)

Thus Greenwell defines perfectly the double-bind of technology. These virtual realities allow the user to be whomever they want to be; but in such a freeing space without physical constraint, how can anyone ever be sure that those with whom they communicate with are not themselves also constructing imagined identities? What is at stake when we can be truly ourselves – or, indeed, truly unlike ourselves – online? For a technology ostensibly designed to speed up people-matching, little time seems to be saved. Greenwell is refreshingly alert to some of the issues at stake here; I only wish there was more fiction writing in press right now cohering around these technological debates.

Greenwell also has a flair for describing place, and this works very effectively throughout the narrative as an anchor for the reader. I know nothing whatsoever about Sofia, Plovdiv, or Bulgaria more widely, and yet it felt like familiar territory seen through Greenwell’s eyes. This was particularly the case in what almost read like a standalone scene late in the novel, set on a train (fear not for spoilers: I’ll keep them to myself). The protagonist manages to dovetail an account of a playing child on a train with a sort of ode to Bulgarian scenery, mixed with reflection on the passing of time, and – if that weren’t enough – thoughts on mother-child relationships. It makes for a very tender, bittersweet passage, and now, a week on, I still remember it as my favourite part of the whole book.

Elsewhere, What Belongs to You remind

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Varna, Bulgaria in winter (SwissOnline

ed me of Alan Hollinghurst’s fiction, not least because of its strong geographical context. But whereas Hollinghurst had an easy sell in terms of fleshing out his protagonist’s spatial context via a familiar London – split between the rich, establishment city and the counter-cultural cruising scene (most memorably in The Swimming Pool Library), few readers of What Belongs to You will have even a rudimentary knowledge of the novel’s Bulgarian setting. It is only by looking back at Hollinghurst’s catalogue that I see how easily British readers can frame Hollinghurst’s stories, even those less familiar with London, because the action is so embedded in the landmarks, streets and parks that have long been a part of our cultural capital. Greenwell has none of these cues for anyone unfamiliar with Bulgaria, and his novel is all the more interesting for it. I got a clear sense of this Balkan city. In Greenwell’s prose it reads as a place wounded by its Soviet past, particularly in architectural terms; yet nor is it fully fledged in a Western Capitalist context. Greenwell’s description of the coastal Black Sea resort of Varna in winter is fascinating – this is a country where tourism is new and cruelly seasonal, and it is almost natural that the geographical surroundings reflect the narrator’s mournful progress.

If only someone else hadn’t bagsied The Sense of An Ending already, Greenwell might have put the moniker to good use. This is a novel all about change and changing, beginnings and endings. Despite the big themes, this is a slim book, and the narrative lacks at times full exploration of its different subplots. For example we learn tantalizingly little about the Sofian American school, despite it surely providing rich pickings for character and story. Who are the expats of Bulgaria? Why did they choose Sofia, and for how long have they lived there? Yet this minimalism leaves us wanting more – an approach that many of Greenwell’s contemporaries would do well to observe. Taken as a whole, this is an impressive, poetic new chapter in the queer canon, and it fully deserves the praise it is receiving.