Blogging & community, 6 months in

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An Avalanche of Good Feeling by Tom Miles. More Motelism work here.

Wow, the response to my recent piece on mental health (and, of course, kissing your friends’ faces more) was really something. Thanks for reading; I’m glad so many of you found it useful.

I’ve found writing these pieces over the past 6 months really useful as a way of thinking not just about my work – studying technology, how it is changing and how dating apps influence ideas of love and sex – but about a lot of other things, too. That post on mental health is a good example of writing about something I hadn’t anticipated, but finding it a really valuable experience, as well as helping in the tiniest way to add my voice to the bigger debate about the issue. After all, tracking Brexit proved to be a great way of channelling my dismayed amazement at the whole fiasco into something productive – insofar as writing publicly can be productive. Online hits from the unlikeliest places, including Nepal, Belarus and Uruguay suggest that it was widely read, at any rate!

I’d urge anyone considering blogging to give it a go: it is a great way not just of sharing your work but also of building an online community (aww, so sweet). Speaking of community, my friend and former colleague Sue at the brilliant Helen Bamber Foundation has posted about government changes to public pensions funding the arms trade, which would affect the teachers, nurses and police officers amongst. Check it out at her blog Where Stuff Comes From.

I’m serious: I hereby donate one hour of my time to help anyone wanting to get started in blogging. Offer expires in 3 months; coffee welcomed in lieu of payment. Alternatively, this WordPress guide to blogging is pretty straightforward. I also thought this interview with the founder of The Financial Diet, a money education website for young adults, was interesting. Maybe the best blog ideas lie in filling an unusual niche, like the anonymous teacher or a weekly exposé of private tutoring (no comment). Next on my own to-do list is to pitch a guest blog to the Guardian Higher Education Network, but the prospect is much less scary with 6 months under my belt.

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Kiss Your Friends’ Faces More

[cw: mental health, suicide]

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This week saw countries all over the world celebrate Tuesday’s World Mental Health Day. There seems to be a ‘day’ for anything & everything at the moment – in October alone we also have world Taco day (4th) and Pet Obesity Awareness day (12th) – but I’d say a mental health day fully deserves its place.

Counter to a historic lag in reporting on mental health issues, compounding the stigma that characterises the issue in society, media coverage of the poor state of Britain’s mental health is growing all the time. As well as more factual coverage of changing statistics in mental health – young females are by NHS measures now most at risk of mental health crises; the Mental Health Foundation logs mental health statistics by age range and area – we are hearing from a range of different voices.

As a measure of the sheer diversity of the crisis, this month we learnt from The Guardian that police services report on being overwhelmed by mental health issues in their communities; from Vice magazine that 34% of gay and lesbian young adults have attemped suicide, as have 48% of young trans people; from the BBC that university welfare groups are campaigning for better campus provision nationwide after University of York (to take just one example) experienced a spike in acute mental health issues amongst students; and from Mind that Clinical Commissioning Groups (how the NHS structures its spending) are reducing their spend on mental health. Even bubbly YouTube superstar Zoella has posted about her ongoing battle with anxiety – nothing to be sniffed at, with nearly 7 million Twitter followers and 10 million viewers per video, mostly teenagers.


The new BBC1 fly-on-the-wall TV series Ambulance foregrounds poor mental health as one of the biggest pressures on emergency services in any given night. This episode in particular lays bare the scale of the problem.

After the death of my friend by suicide last month, I watched the excellent BBC documentary Life after Suicide which I would highly recommend, and I learnt more about suicide via CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). I’m not enamoured by the #banter element of the campaign, but there’s no denying it’s visible and striking and I’ve since noticed their posters on the tube and in the city.

There’s good news, too: this Wellcome Trust Q&A profiles some fascinating work on the genetics of mental health and how we are learning more about mental health all the time. Employers are being encouraged to consider staff wellbeing, and students and university services are working together to bridge the mental health gap at universities. How this can be replicated on national level, without the same safety nets, is the billion-dollar question.

I’m posting ‘The age of loneliness is killing us’, a much-discussed article by George Monbiot (truly the marmite of the writing world). It discusses the growing mental health crisis in the developed world, but particularly the U.K, partly because of the institutions and structures in society that inhibit our drive for community.

“The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.”

‘Neoliberalism’ is fast becoming the word of 2016, not always used in the right contexts (here’s a definition, to help me as much as anyone), but Monbiot gets pretty well at the essence of it here, and specifically what the economic model does to our individual happiness. Take a read.

The answer to better mental health may be in social change, talking more (both on micro- and macro-level), improved NHS funding, mindfulness, self-help, education, exercise, medication, political reform or any combination of the above. But where the personal is political, we can remember to show love whenever we can. This piece by Lora Mathis says it all.

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For more information on mental health, you can visit MindSamaritans and CALM.

Not Safe For Work? Technology & productivity

In recent pieces on the internet in daily life I’ve written about digital detox on holiday, the addictive nature of social media, and the information overload that the internet gives us. To tie up the theme, I’m writing today about a downside of technology at work: distractions. You should stop reading this and get on with that report you need to do by Thursday (joke! Keep reading, this’ll only take 5 minutes).

Always Available?


Self-distractions in any workplace are problematic – nothing like being caught browsing online by a music clip blaring out across your office in an otherwise studious silence – but technology’s unique ability to distract you feels especially cruel when you’re a freelancer or student because you have no boss and no ‘company time’ to be wasting. You are quite literally eating away at your own productivity and thus your earnings or project.

The internet is a relatively recent invention in historical terms, and mobile internet is younger still – remember, just a decade ago smartphone capabilities were unrecognisable from their performance today. I’ve written before about how being so plugged-in encourages almost addictive social media use, but the other awkward consequence of being so readily connected to technology is that we have become always available. This has come to be expected in the modern workplace where we are constantly connected to useful networks, but it also impairs our headspace for larger solo tasks.

Our tendency to start the day by answering emails means that we are attending to “firefighting” tasks that a) drain more time than we should really allocate to them, and b) set up an expectation to others that we are rapid responders. As a result, in the periods when we are not immediately available to others we will come off looking worse.

So how can we best address this conflict of interest? The internet is (somewhat ironically) full of suggestions for boosting productivity at work, amongst them this Lifehacker list and this Oliver Burkeman piece in the Guardian. One tip that comes up again and again is allocating that post-lunch slump to routine tasks, making email one of those tasks.

What I’ve found is that I hate the idea of the messages piling up throughout the morning without my attention, which is stupid because in my current job as a researcher I’m pretty unimportant in the grander scheme of things. Sure enough, addressing them all in one go, or in batches just twice each day at the same time, truly does free me up for working on bigger, conceptual work that deserves my priority. But it’s hard to keep email checking regimented when the sense of satisfaction answering emails gives you loops into a mental tick-list of your capability as a worker. Your brain tricks you into feeling that the relatively tiny task of answering an email is equal to much larger, more difficult jobs that you are understandably more reluctant to get stuck into. With the mental pay-off being equal, you can’t blame your brain for navigating you to the easier win.

How digital side-tasks slow you down

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We’re all aware of the distractions of physical side-tasks, like dealing with random requests in your workplace (is there anything worse than a colleague asking something that Google could explain better than you could?) But digital side-tasks, whether that’s email, messaging friends on Whatsapp, or just a quick check of social media, means that you may only be distracted by going online for 5 minutes as a respite from the concentration required in your real work, but that quick sidetrack has a much larger knock-on effect on your ability to return to the task at hand. It’s called task-switching, demonstrated in studies like this one from University of California and summarised in this ‘7-minute read‘ interview with the researcher and this New York Times article. The suggestion is that the human brain takes a disproportionately long time to re-focus on a task after checking social media, and I can believe it. I may only be checking out what’s going on online, but it’s like my brain has shifted out of clever gear and now needs some time to get back into higher-level thinking.

There’s an app for that


To counter this, I’m trying the SelfControl app, amongst similar apps recommended by postgraduates and freelancers the world over. You type in a list of all the websites and apps you waste time on at work and set a timer for how long you want to keep yourself away from them. You cannot, cannot access anything but your work for that time, so you have no choice but to beaver away (I have to also put my phone in my bag to stop me switching to that. I know, I need a digital detox). The funny thing about it is I had no idea how often I went online to just read news content or to kill time – this morning SelfControl has stopped me checking a recipe I was going to cook, weather in major European cities (no idea why I always do that, but there’s a lot of cities so it wastes a lot of time) newspaper headlines (already read them eating my breakfast, so unlikely much had changed) and buying train tickets (valid surf, but the way I dither over booking trains means I should save the glorious indecision for my lunchbreak).

Whilst I think it’s a bit tragic that we need apps to stop us using our apps, you cannot deny that increased productivity is good for both us and our work. For those of us who have, well, any self-discipline, apps like SelfControl are overdoing it, but being more conscious of our online life and how long we spend on side-tasks seems reasonable. Similar to batching email work into certain times of day, perhaps the solution is to set a daily time limit for reasonable use in which you can indulge, guilt-free – preferably after working hours, which might lessen your desire to surf online anyway: the distraction factor is lower, and with any luck you’re sick of the sight of a screen.

30 minutes per day where you can surf Facebook as much as you like seems more than enough, but try timing your own usage – you might be surprised.


Data-day living


Last week I wrote about the idea of digital detox as an escape from technology for an extended period of time. I’ve had lots of interesting feedback from readers, including links to this recent New York magazine article on our tech addiction, and this one about a summer camp for your midlife crisis(!), the latter sounding like privileged crap but also so intriguing I would quite possibly love it.

But there is another side to technology use, and that is the sheer size of data we are trying to process when we use the internet in everyday life. Think of it as data-day living (I’m so punny).

Data overload

It is clear that we are connected to technology in more ways than ever before: as well as desktop PCs and laptops, we now have excellent online capabilities via mobile phones, iPads, smartwatches, FitBits, public wifi, 4G, live updates, and more. I think few of us would take issue with the fact these connections allow us almost instant access to a huge array of information, from video to audio, science to literature, statistics to measurements. All this data ostensibly gives us ways to save time, speed things up, shop more easily, research information more easily, and access online content from all over the world. But the flip-side of this is that there is far too much data to process meaningfully at any one time. It is a data overload, and it often sucks up more time that it promised to save.

Don’t get me wrong, the internet is an amazing thing. I don’t regret emerging from a Wikipedia-hole an hour after googling ‘world’s tallest skyscrapers’ having learnt all sorts about non-skyscraper related stuff like New York’s population and the mixed fortunes of Dubai’s new carbon-neutral city. In this sense, the internet is not so far removed from a traditional physical encyclopaedia where one entry leads you another, and another, and another. In fact technology means those links are effortless and intuitive, as well as furnished with images, videos, and user-created content. But there is more information to sift than ever before, and this tests our capacity to filter the most important stuff and not get overwhelmed by the amount on offer.

How we consume data

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This change in how we are invited to consume online content has happened in just a few years. The internet has allowed us in an everyday context to have the world at our fingertips, but our cognitive filters haven’t yet found a way of processing that richness. It’s dizzying stuff. Across the space of a mere decade or so, the average adult has had to change their information consumption style from in-depth focus on several sources, often vetted to prioritise the highest quality contributions, to grazing on multiple platforms all vying for your attention.

As for younger online users, the expediency of finding information online is certainly attractive compared to desk-based research. Imagine: you just type in your homework terms and rely on search engine algorithms to bring you the most relevant source first, at which point your own motivational powers dictate how much further you drill down. My experiences of teaching small-group work in secondary schools and after-school tutoring suggests that the answer is: not much. I’ve seen a tendency for students to uncritically ‘herd’ online resources or information into their written work, either failing to reference their sources appropriately, or using unreputable or user-generated sources as fact without critically evaluating those sources for who has written them and how objective they are. That said, schools are still better than many universities at teaching students how best to use the internet, not least because each course taught at university stands alone and relies on the student having taken courses before that adequately taught them the skills now needed.

Everyone’s a writer

Online information represents quantity but not necessarily quality. The contemporary explosion in user-created content – and my god, isn’t there a lot of it – means that quality is harder to control, and it raises the question of who even should be controlling it. Maybe one person’s idea of academic rigour is outdated, not to mention ineffectually slow, compared to another’s. Maybe content shouldn’t be controlled if we believe that the internet is a democratic space to which anyone can contribute.

I’ve written before about the diminishing future for editors in online content – after all, anyone can write a blog. I’m doing it right now, whilst surfing #brangelina memes (here you go). Who can even tell if it’s any good? Well, economically speaking, hit-counts provide a pretty good measure, and it is hit-counts for which we can blame ‘clickbait’ articles, which pull in advertising money based on increased online traffic from readers.

The question of who contributes to the internet is so interesting to think about because each answer has all sorts of repercussions. For example, as journalism skews more to free content, writers are less likely to get paid for submissions, meaning that the only people who contribute to the site will be those willing to contribute for free as young writers with a portfolio to gather, or those in a comfortable enough position not to need an income from their writing, or at least not all their writing.

Journalism has always been pretty cut-throat in that if you won’t write a piece for a limited fee, there’s plenty lining up behind you who happily will. Yet for any platform not using paywalls (The Times) or maintaining healthy income from advertising and sponsored content (Buzzfeed, who are going from strength to strength in their LGBT and #blacklivesmatter coverage), then the future relies – seems dependent, even – on unpaid writing.

Catching up

All this brings us back to evaluating the internet as both an amazing resource and something that has really changed modern life, in good ways and sometimes in difficult ways. Here’s where academia plays a useful part (I know right, never a guarantee is it). In-depth research on technology use is slowly catching up with the technology itself, and as it does so we will be able to learn more about how to make technology work better for us – and the extent to which that is differently figured for different people.

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Digital detox: fact or fiction?

Anyone who’s seen my browser will know it looks like multiple tabs of doom. For proof, here is this morning’s selection (extra points if you spot the Metro article):

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I know, I know, it all looks dire. How can I concentrate on what I’m doing with all those other tabs, and how can I hope to get through any of it? (answer: I can’t, and once a month when my laptop shuts down properly it loses the tabs. Ignorance is bliss, etc).

I’m talking here about digital detox to make better use of leisure time, rather than digital detox from the distracting tasks that slow down productivity, more on which next week. In my last post I wrote about the idea of digital detox – unplugging from the internet, social media, or your mobile phone for an extended break to maximise your chances for relaxation or concentration. Innocent drinks even ran a (free!) festival for it. The issue of digital detox has been around for a while but there must have been a real strength of feeling in the general population because the issue blew up in the media after this relatively solid survey by OfCom of 2,025 adults and 500 teenagers showed that 59% of respondents considered themselves ‘hooked’ on their technology device. 34% had disconnected from the internet for up to a month, meaning that nearly half of those surveyed didn’t change their behaviour despite themselves professing to feeling hooked. I know how they feel.

Through my time off in August I tried really hard to digitally detox myself, but it’s weirdly hard to do. On holiday, many of the places I stayed had rubbish wifi, and I didn’t have 3G data because I was abroad, which gave me a kind of automatic digital detox. But straight away I realised how useful Google maps is – whilst you can still use the map offline, the distance and route function don’t work. You can’t look up a bus timetable in the middle of nowhere, or check the sea tide times online, or what restaurants are good when you’re faced with hundreds in a row. Putting social media aside for the moment, I realised the internet is good at making my decisions for me, or at least advising me. What can I say? I like recommendations from other people, and they’re all there, ordered by usefulness, at the click of a button.

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That’s me in Croatia examining at a suspected spinefish. But we’ll ever know because there was no internet.

As for social media: it’s annoying but also addictive. Take Facebook – there’s something appealing about the intensely colourful experience of people’s updates, photos, music clips, party invitations, and videos of micro pigs running in grass that is like drugs to your brain: stimulation! Excitement! …and also jealousy that your nemesis from your first job has an impossibly glamorous life. Ugh. Everyone is having the best time. You’re sunburnt, bitten to sh*t and you just got royally ripped off by your taxi driver.

Of course, people aren’t actually always having the best time. They don’t publicly update when they have the runs from a bad dinner or they are arguing with their partner (well, some people do, but that’s something else entirely). But that’s not even the point. The point is that at face value, Facebook invites us to follow our friends’ progress and catch up with everyone all at the same time and at a glance. In a way I really like that – my friends have scattered all over the world and I can’t very well Skype them at work, so the next best thing is seeing their progress in having a baby or buying a new house – and that’s a genuine pleasure.

The problem is that Facebook helps you to follow all your friends on your feed, and all the interesting links and articles and websites therein (and not just me writing ragey pieces about Labour’s mess). Since 2014, Facebook’s ordering algorithm means you won’t see the same thing twice in a day without a long time scrolling (totally hypothetical. This has not happened to me.) With almost limitless scoping opportunities, why wouldn’t we waste our time on the platform? Whilst it irritates me when people say ‘I’ve got friends to see in real life, no time for Facebook’ (yes, we get it, but you’re overlooking its pretty impressive worldwide success as a good way to keep in touch), they might have a point.

One answer is to ditch the offending app altogether. My friend has deleted Facebook, moving their social network across to Instagram, where the more pictorial style discourages endless stalking or tedious wordiness. But social media is social media, and Instagram still shows us the curated highlights of our peers’ lives. After all, these glamorous specimens basking in the sun on their holidays do have office jobs for most of the year and are unlikely to snap a selfie with the photocopier at work. Maybe it’s more about being realistic with what these sites mean and what feelings they encourage in us, and using them accordingly.

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In my own research, participants have spoken a lot about their ambivalent thoughts on dating apps. They download an app, spend a lot of time on it surfing the prospects, have mixed success in dating and then, in what they see as a moment of clarity, they delete the app altogether, either because they’ve found a partner or because they’re sick of what they see as a time-wasting cycle. But those who are single tend to re-download the app or similar apps again in the near future. And why not? After all, these apps filter many more matches than we could possibly hope for in person, and they skip the barrier of knowing who is single (or so you’d hope). In the case of LGBT apps in particular, it gets past the awkwardness of hoping that the person you are talking to is also non-heterosexual. Yet the utility of these apps comes with a time commitment that participants found could take over other parts of their non-digital life.

It’s hard to know what the answer is because, even for those of us who think we have the balance right, there are more questions. Is the idea of a ‘detox’ unhelpful, because it suggests going cold-turkey on a behaviour that isn’t, all things considered, really bad? Are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater by denying ourselves those useful functions the internet gives us by trying to give it all up? In fact, we could see these questions as irrelevant if we change the debate: we could recognise that these days we really do need the internet to stay connected with our friends and family. Rather than giving it up, we could re-situate it as an efficient tool for helping us continue to connect with them.

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Digital detox: nice idea or unhelpful rhetoric? (Velib Paris 2016).

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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).


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.

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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.

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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.

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Can’t Live, if living is without EU


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.