The establishment endures

July 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The establishment in Britain shows no signs of dying out. Here is an FT article, written by an Oxbridge-educated man, about how Oxbridge-educated men find themselves in positions of power without really needing to exert themselves or show signs of brilliance:

My caste produces the opinions that most British people are expected to swallow. However, the one topic we seldom discuss honestly is our own rule. So let me try to describe how it looks from up here.

We didn’t have to work very hard to get here. Luckily, the British establishment doesn’t demand workaholism, except for a few months around exams. The gentleman dilettante is still honoured (see David Cameron).

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed — book review

July 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Jon Ronson has made a career from taking important topics, and finding the ridiculous element within them. It works pretty well for getting us to pay attention to what he has to say — I certainly look forward to reading his books, in a way I wouldn’t for a drier treatment of the same topic.

In the past he’s looked at extremists, psycopaths and conspiracy heorists. Now he’s looking at online shamings — at how twitter users form into global mobs, piling to humiliate anybody who transgresses the social order.

We are living through “a great renaissance of public shaming“, Ronson argues. We have formed ourselves into a new global public, and there is nothing we like more than humiliating people:

After a while it wasn’t just transgressions we were keenly watchful for. It was misspeakings. Fury at the terribleness of other people had started to consume us a lot. And the rage that swirled around seemed increasingly in disproportion to whatever stupid thing some celebrity had said. It felt different to satire or journalism or criticism. It felt like punishment. In fact it felt weird and empty when there wasn’t anyone to be furious about. The days between shamings felt like days picking fingernails, treading water.

Ronson, with his uncanny ability to persuade anybody to talk to him, manages to arrange interviews with many victims of online shaming. There are Lindsey Stone and Justine Sacco, who achieved online ignominy by tweeting off-colour jokes about veterans and AIDS victims. Or Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey, who falsified quotations for print and radio respectively. Or Max Mosley, whose sin was to enjoy S&M while being the son of nazi sympathisers.

Ronson’s light touch doesn’t stop this being an entirely damning attack on a brutal new culture. He puts it in the historical context of justice systems moving away from shaming as being too brutal, even in comparison with torture or capital punishment. “ignominy [being] universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death“, wrote one of the founding fathers, “it would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment

If public punishments used to contain some nod towards justice, the new mob is startling in its obliviousness. When Ronson talks to the perpetrators of public shaming, they seem baffled by the idea that their targets could be seriously hurt by it. They assume that they are ‘punching up’ against victims powerful enough to shrug it off.

The victims, though, seem near-uniformly broken. Months after whatever outbreak of online hatred brought them down, their lives are still shaped by it. Unemployed, plagued by depression and self-loathing, they are ceaselessly reminded of whatever minor infraction they committed. None of Ronsons interviewees have killed themselves, but you feel that’s mostly a matter of luck.

Ronson points out that this shaming is inherently a conservative force. It didn’t seem that way at first, because the early adopters tended to be liberal. As the attacked homophobes and jumped on the cruelty of the Daily Mail, it was possible to believe that the twitter mob would be a force for good.

But now that everybody uses social media, online shaming will simply replicate the views of society. Worse, it will emphasise the conservative tendencies, because the nature of the shaming process is to punish people who are different:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age.

‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’

We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.

Cargoes, revised: the declining trade in cigarette holders

July 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The World Customs Organization has the unenviable job of trying to categorize everything that is traded across borders.

Every few years they update their classification system, adapting to the development of new products and changes in trade patterns.

Poignantly, this means the elimination of archaic goods. The list of categories eliminated between 1992 and 2007 is a record of a lost world:

    • cigar or cigarette holders
    • bow ties
    • headgear of furskin
    • vinyl record players
    • magnetic tapes

Snails narrowly escaped the cut — obviously a good decision, considering that international snail movement is significant enough to feature on this very blog. So did opium, dictionaries & encyclopaedias and silver tableware — items you could imagine sitting in the baggage compartment of the Orient Express, alongside the cigar holders and the fur hats.

Among new commodities: the ape-trade, immortalized a century ago by John Masefield, is belatedly recognized with classifiation 010611: live primates.

RIP John Ball

July 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Things cannot go well in England
Nor ever will
Until every thing shall be held in common

Those are the words of John Ball, who on this day in 1381 was hanged for his leadership of the Peasants Revolt.

The Peasants Revolt, unlike almost everything else in the 14th century, feels comprehensible. There is one side who are obviously in the right, and there is the dreamy interest of wondering what might have happened had they not been so thoroughly obliterated.

Paul Foot captures some of that, in a speech from the 600th anniversary of the revolt. It’s appropriately biased and passionate. If he turns the peasants into proto-socialists that’s because, well, they came out with such tantalising rhetoric that the teleology is all but unavoidable.

And the situation does demand a certain degree of righteous indignation:

The fifth member of the gang, the monopolist who joined them, was a man called Richard Lyons. He had discovered (mathematics was very in vogue at the time) that if he paid for the king’s wars, he could get the monopoly over the buying and selling of wool, and that there would be a big profit in it. I’ll explain it, because these things are complicated, He bought the wool for six pounds by order of the king, and he sold it for fourteen pounds by order of the king, and therefore made a profit. Only a few people in society could understand that sort of subtlety, but Lyons made himself extremely rich by this process.

Huxley on machine art

July 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

There were, it is true, certain Cubists who liked to paint machines or to represent human figures as though they were the parts of machines. But a machine, after all, is itself a work of art, much more subtle, much more interesting from a formal point of view, than any representation of a machine can be. In other words, a machine is its own highest artistic expression, and merely loses by being s[implified and quintessentialized in a symbolic representation.

— Aldous Huxley, from an essay on Piranesi

Inadvertantly, Huxley is making a strong argument for the artistic potential of computer games. He’s right, I think, that a painting of a machine can only be a shadow of the thing itself. But a game can let you be the creator of the machine, or a cog in the mechanism, to feel from every viewpoint the interconnections of the parts and the necessity of everything being as it is.

[To be fair, Huxley is only talking about still images. Film has a natural affinity for machines — just look at Eisenstein’s fetishism of industry, or even that first Lumiere brothers image of the train arriving. And, as Benjamin points out, there is good reason for this:

…our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.

]

Potemkin villages for the unemployed

July 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Potemkin companies staffed by Europe’s unemployed, going through the motions of running a business in the hope they will one day be able to flip from the imaginary to the real economy.

These companies are all part of an elaborate training network that
effectively operates as a parallel economic universe. For years, the aim
was to train students and unemployed workers looking to make a
transition to different industries. Now they are being used to combat
the alarming rise in long-term unemployment, one of the most pressing
problems to emerge from Europe’s long economic crisis.

The justification for this bizarre system is only partly about training. It’s also about deflecting the malaise of a worker forbidden to work:

being in a workplace — even a simulated one — helps alleviate the psychological confusion and pain that can take hold the longer people go without a job.

I do have a lot of sympathy for this. Certainly I become gloomily restless whenever I don’t have enough to do, and I’ve never been unemployed for a serious length of time.

Still, it is treating the symptom rather than the cause. The cause is a society where identity and social value are determined by employment, where the unemployed are treated as failures. If the system didn’t treat unemployment as disgusting, perhaps people wouldn’t need office play-acting to as psychological band-aid.

And you can’t help wondering if, lurking somewhere under this stone, is a fear that, given more time to themselves, some of the unemployed might start to cause a bit more trouble to the system.