On my walk through the City each night, I sometimes turn on a podcast. The RSA is amazing but recently I’ve also been going to the Gresham College site. Gresham have been organising free public lectures for over 400 years and they are very good. Unlike the RSA they aren’t always free – and there is nobody as luminous and lovable as Matthew Taylor knocking around the place finding new and ingenious angles through which to introduce cultural theory into every session – but they are recorded and moreover you can stream and/or download audio and video. And even speaker’s notes.
Even though I live in London and have the leisure to attend these events, when organisations take the trouble to do this my gratitude, my sense of inclusion and well-being, are volcanic. When I started listening to all these different international experts presenting to lay people so much made sense which hadn’t before – it was like a portal to a different world. This used to be a privilege – now it’s freely available for everybody. These recordings are an incredible social resource.
Anyway, I listened to Rodney Barker (Professor of Government at RSE, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham) present on Other Britains – One Size Doesn’t Fit All. It was a look at the terrain between individualism and one-size-fits-all state provision or state regulation. In these times of deep disillusionment with an unregulated financial market, upon which so much of our prosperity in Britain has depended, it sometimes seems as if a far-reaching pendulum swing might befall us. So I thought the following vignette of Hilaire Belloc’s category-defying politics was very interesting. I wish I could intelligently say why – perhaps it’s that I dislike extremes and dichotomies in British politics.
I’ll grab a wodge out of Barker’s Gresham notes:
“The earliest twentieth century example of this is a book by the journalist Hilaire Belloc written in 1912, The Servile State .
The Servile State refuses to fit into any obvious ideological box, and is particularly interesting for that reason.
Belloc argued that capitalism was unstable, because it could not fulfil the expectations of equality raised by its liberal values. The social realities of the economy, and the legal realities of the political order, were in conflict, the one making for inequality, the other for equality.
Three possible outcomes: Socialism
Socialism: well-meaning but ill considered,. Socialism in fact impossible. Ownership by officials, since the people as whole could not own the economy.
And it was to illustrate this point, if my memory serves me correctly, that he brought up the example of Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books. Originally the head of the railway was The Fat Director. By the time the third book came out in ’48 the railway had been nationalised – but its head remained still grand and top-hatted. The only thing which changed was his name – he became The Fat Controller. So the nationalised system may have been new but the same officials who had run the inadequate old one were still lording it over the workers, with all that this implies. Here’s more from Barker on social democracy and capitalism. His Gresham notes continue:
“But socialists lacked the ruthless courage of their convictions, and would never expropriate
Slavery; cf Spencer, and Hayek
Because socialist would not destroy capitalism, they would end up collaborating with it, regulating and making provision for the work force
Labour under compulsion in return for material benefits in kind.
An alliance of state and capital
Property. Self sufficiency, households, a-industrial, patriarchy
Belloc presented his arguments as a simple impartial description of possibilities, but his own preferences and his own expectations were clear enough
Belloc, too, constructed his arguments in precisely the pick and mix original way that marked off pluralism, and which also meant that even though pluralists might be described with a single title, no two of them were ever likely to agree.
Sometimes seen as a socialist, because he was an anti-capitalist – and he did want to give property to the people.
Sometimes seen as a conservative because he valued property for the specific way of life it could support.
Sometimes seen as a liberal because he valued both property and equality.
But equally disconcerting for all three:
Socialists, because he placed the principal value on individual property, giving it directly to the people
Viz debate with McDonald
Conservatives because, valuing property, he proposed more people should have it, and that there be some kind of public intervention to do this
Liberals, because he questioned the beneficence of an unregulated economy to produce the benefits which liberal choice promised.
Belloc’s case illustrates too how rough and ready any attempt to categorise ideologies is.
Distributism never really went anywhere, and couldn’t anyway be applied to the industrial side of the economy – it would take a idealistic fanatic to imagine that something like the railways could be broken up into lots of and lots of little bits and still work -
But the arguments of Belloc were in part taken up in all kinds of strange and different places, in the economic liberal anti-socialist arguments of F A Hayek at the end of the Second World War, and by guild socialist advocates of workers’ control during the First.
Pluralism, like all ideologies, is neither neat nor self-contained, and this may even be especially true of pluralism.”
Belloc was famous for an economic system called ‘distributism’ in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. I’m curious to read The Servile State. Aha, thank you Microsoft and The Internet Archive. Right, I’m off.
(Wikipedia says that Belloc thought Jews had too much control in the financial system, but that on his own terms he also stood up for Jews. The engrossing Arthur Koestler was a little bit like this – not about money, about mentality. Antisemitism was both more normal and easier to recognise back then and the general opinion of Jews being what it was you could go pretty far without looking like a hater. There was a palingenetic mood at the time – a will to cleanse and remake anew. This was a totalising impulse of which Socialism and Fascism were manifestations – Belloc’s resistance to both is promising. Bonus fact from a different Gresham lecture on mapping emotion - it’s now possible to identify people who say they aren’t racist but actually are:
“new brain scanning technology is allowing us, when we brain scan individuals, to see which parts of the brain light up or are particularly active, so we are able to get more insight into emotion than ever before, and this has some really quite remarkable implications for our society at large. Just to take one example, there is a particular part of the brain called the amygdala. If you are looking at something disgusting or something that you hate or something that really irritates you or makes you very angry, then the amygdala basically lights up in the brain and becomes very active.
Now, they have done some fascinating experiments recently where you take people and you interview them about their views on race, for example. You can use some quite subtle techniques in terms of pencil and paper tests, so that when you ask people about race and their views on the politics of race, most people know the politically correct thing is not to espouse racist views. But with some of the pencil and paper tests, for example using word association and other subconscious techniques, we can often get at the fact that although people verbalise and say they are not racist, a lot of people really secretly are racist and they keep their views to themselves. What is fascinating with the new brain scanning techniques is that if you show these people pictures in the brain scanner of white people or black people or Asian people, no matter what they say about whether they are racist or not racist, with the racists, their amygdala lights up dramatically in the brain scan. This research tells us that we are not far away from a position, and it is quite a unique position in human history, whereby, no matter what you say about how you feel about things, the brain scanners can reveal the truth. I think that is really quite frightening for a lot of us, particularly those of us who are married…!”
Maybe we will have a more enlightened – i.e. less taboo, more practical – attitude to racism (and sexual exclusivity) in the future.
We got a new-old bed off Ebay (also a new mattress off Mattress Next Day which this took 3 weeks to arrive, and a new bed base). I think you’ll agree it’s beautiful.
Suddenly I became house-proud and desirous of polishing so I went looking far and wide for animal-free polish. The last port of call was Waitrose in South Woodford, where I found Method’s Touch Wood which is vegan and environmentally better than most.
Last night I heard Susan Greenfield speak for the umpteenth time (at Jewish Book Week, the place where the punters have the least spatial awareness of any event, anywhere, ever – for example, there I am chatting to my friend in the queue to buy The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Hadassah Ben-Itto, a middle-aged man wanders into the small space between us as if we didn’t exist, comes to a stop for, oh, 5 seconds, turns, addresses his companion, take a few steps back, returns, stops again and finally continues on his way).
Susan Greenfield makes her points better each time – and thank God somebody is looking into the implications of technologies for our identities – but she omitted to talk (here) about Facebook, Twitter, and MMPORPGs as a way of re-injecting the narratives she fears have been lost in the child-like sensationalism of the Web.
I haven’t read much about this but it seems to me that we always wanted to connect with computers rather than merely count, and as soon as we could, we did, via the Web. The connections we make with each other are far, far more than informational. But I think most of her concerns below are a heads-up. Technology will change us – and the changes will be quite big, but whether they are fundamental or not isn’t yet clear. As somebody said, one of the most misleading things about historical dramas is that the Tudors and the Benedictines etc weren’t very much like us at all.
Anyway, below are my notes. I was the audience member with the netbook illuminating my face like a spotlight. The pretty young thing, yes. Why they maintain such profound darkness in the auditorium at Jewish book week I have no idea.
So, the notes – just in case it wasn’t recorded, and because tapping away on this thing helps me think:
Motivation – what kind of people will your children be?
Brain is plastic, mouldable – environmentally sensitive. If environment changes, does the brain?
Do you want your children to be noone, someone, anyone – or a fourth which is individual but also fulfilled.
Unlike any other species we learn and adapt to env – occupy more ecological niches than any other species.
Piano experiment. Control. 2nd group 5-finger exercise – brain changes. 3rd group imagined playing the piano. The changes in the brains of Group 3 were as profound as those in Group 2. Old dichotomy of mental v. physical is misleading. “Something happening in the everyday squalour of the physical brain.” Even a thought is changing something in the brain.
Humans have shifted from instinct to learning. Our personhood is made of connections between brain-cells. Up to 100k connections coming out of any single cell. Greater surface area, more and more connections. The personalisation – sensory to cognitive. Things have significance to each of us. This marks us out as human. Dementia is the failure to see one thing in relation to something else anymore.
Have today’s stimuli become fundamentally different from the book?
Fascinating feat of conjuring up a ‘real world’ from a novel which is somehow realer than the film of the book.
Books are narratives. You come out changed. Embed narrative into conceptual framework – filter, evaluate, compare: understanding one think in terms of something else.
quasi real strong images shifting to the here and now. Shift from content to process
When you play a game to rescue the princess, you don’t care about the princess.
Reaction – yuck and wow.
May never make the same connections or deep relationships as children raised with verbal language.
Lisa – all undergrads watched sesame st, so academics have to incorporate images and increase their pace. Mental landscape also shaped by community, kinship etc – how will the fast-paced change here – the new nature of the family – act on children?
Susan – still same number of hours in the day. Portfolio of activities is fine, but too much exposure to screen technologies is worrying.
Lisa – what about TV?
Susan – TV incidental; family was interacting round it. Worried about people buying games to play on their own. “Everything that is bad is good for you” – Stephen Johnson (?). has an antithetical view. Flynn effect (absolutely engrossing recent presentation by James Flynn on IQ is available as an mp3 on the What Is Intelligence link at the bottom of this page) – shift upwards in IQ. IQ tests are not about meaning, significance or understanding but can you see patterns or connections or relationships between numbers, shapes, letters. But we want people who can empathise or understand.
Lisa – life-enhancing ingenious use of information. SG has a pessimistic view of what you can do with information?
Susan – no but I want it embedded.
disprop growth of pre-frontal cortex (forebrain). Finneas Gage. Higher BMI, younger, schizophrenic, compulsive gamblers all live in the moment, trumps consequences – pre-frontal cortex less functioning. You’re in a moment – characterised by strong sensations without relevance. Condition brain. More solipsistic. Bankers. When you ski or take drugs – “having a sensational time”. Ecstasy (Greek). Not a “cognitive time”. Abandon self-consciousness; passive recipient of your senses. Let yourself go.
What kind of people, citizens, do we want our children to be? Until we know that we can’t form the environment to promote it.
Where is biology taking us?
Evaluating somebody’s age. Working? Reproductive status? Health?
Biotechnology is going to challenge all of these. If you are healthier you look yoounger. Stem cells for male pattern baldness as well as growing organs. Health and appearance blur. Reproductive technologies are increasing – can’t clearly distinguish child, parent, grandparent. Occupation – people can work from home increasingly. (Pension age should go up to keep brain active).
IT challenges fantasy world and reality. Biolotech challenges difference between old and young. Nanotechnology challenges another boundary your body and the outside world – firewall. Transhumanism – enhancing physical and mental powers with technological prosthesis.
We always had compartments and distinctions in our mind – these are now all challenged by technologies on the outside. We might enter a different world without an individual sense of a journey.
Lisa – grandpa hadn’t learnt to process at the speed of cinema. There is not consistency and constancy in the human condition. Historical drama is wrong – people back then weren’t just like us. Contours have gone, changed. But something may come which replaced it.
Q: How important is downtime? Constantly in situation where I can consume something.
A: Stopping and testing – micro downtime. Reading and writing slows down the mind. Fast paced incessant stimulation
Q: What are the organising principles of educating for wisdom?
A: Related something to something else. Encourage contextualisation. Compare: “If that’s true then what follows?”
A: That’s a value judgement. But we don’t make the most of our potential if we remain as children reacting to things all the time.
A: Noosphere (nodes). Placebo. Atmosphere.
Update: see Yish for a round-up of responses.I do understand that many physical scientists think that much social biology is unrigorous. But I think that Susan Greenfield has been traduced – and for the first time I narrow my eyes at Ben Goldacre because his blog post seems personal given what I heard her say above. Who takes the Daily Mail’s word for anything?
As a citizen of this fair land, I’m not at my most self-confident these days. Part of this is to do with my strong sense that globally we are in a tight spot environmentally, financially and – increasingly – materially. I think that hungry times are coming. Part of it is to do with being Jewish in Britain today. Part of it is to do with acts of terror in my vicinity coupled with my government’s over-engagement with people who would subordinate entire social groups, incite against Jews, and preach a dogmatic and regressive form of Islam. Part of it is the rise of the BNP. Part of it is a sense of exile from the socialist left which I see as gripped by a self-destructive bitterness towards Israel.
So I’ll be following the goings-0n at this weekend’s Convention on Modern Liberty with interest – particularly with regard to the liberties and rights withdrawn in the name of counter-terrorism. According to the @OnModernLiberty twitter feed, the Observer has called the team “the new freedom fighters”.
This is inspiring. Yes, as proclaimed on the front page, our fundamental freedoms are under attack from counter-terrorism. But terrorism itself is also an attack. When rights and freedoms butt against each other, how are decisions best made? I can’t see much about that in the programme.
I wonder whether COML presenters acknowledge that modern liberty isn’t the only thing we hold dear which is under threat. I wonder if they’ll actively and sympathetically relate to other threats – terror, hate speech and incitement. I can see some speakers whose radars are attuned to such things. But it is too often the case that the people who staunchly defend liberties – free expression being one, free movement another – then retreat, job done, leaving beleaguered minorities on their own to defend themselves against free speech taken to extremes and with no commitment to relevance or political responsibility.
When the only threat I can see mention of is the threat to freedoms and rights from states, I feel that something might be missing. Not that the organisers are wrong, just that something important has been omitted which imbalances the event. Looking at the recommended reading, we have many affirmations of the importance of democracy and human and civil rights. Perhaps they cover these things, but with the possible exception of Mary Kaldor’s Human Security, there is little sense of empathy with worried commuters or victims of hate speech. The organisers come across as carefree and secure. They want to protect the people who are vulnerable to human rights abuses such as extraordinary rendition, and arbitrary arrest under anti-terror legislation, and of course they are right.
But if a few more bombs were detonated on the tube between now and the weekend, this convention would be dead in the water (even though it would be more relevant). And I would speculate that it couldn’t have happened in the year or so after 7/7. Londoners were prepared to sacrifice many liberties to their government in return for liberty from fear on their commute.
The campaign for eroded liberties is absolutely necessary. It is commendable that this conference is cheap and has a proper web presence. But as well as this campaigners should address themselves not only to governments, and not only to victims of rights abuses, but also to the majority of people in this country who would be, under certain circumstances, prepared to sacrifice their and others’ freedoms to the intelligence agencies in return for what those agencies assessed to be their best chance of protection.
When a Home Office spokesman says:”We recognise clearly our obligations to protect the public from terrorist atrocities while upholding our firm commitment to human rights and civil liberties. Our policies strike that balance”, where is that balance? To be relevant, COML needs to restate the old values in such a way as they make sense today in a climate of existential threat. It is a question of building the knowledge and courage enlightened self-interest requires.
Interestingly, I note that among the furthest sections of the left a lack of self-confidence – a worry that the same laws would be turned on them – leads to a reluctant support for the free movement of diametrically-opposed extremists. When Geert Wilders was banned, we saw a bit of solidarity of people with politically marginal views, as pointed out by Bob in his link to Though Cowards Flinch.
But in the main I think that liberties and the defence of liberties today require courage in the face of a (perceived) threat.
Beyond the counter-terror laws, there is plenty of opportunity to reconnect with the foundations of human rights at COML, which promises to be a very worthwhile event.
Update: This Times piece from Philip Pullman is an example of what I mean.When he thunders:
“It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.
I completely sympathise with his scream of “Wake up!” but it’s not the whole story. Here we are in this war FKATWOT. Pullman’s directive to “the nation” is simply: “Be more scared of your own government than you are of the terrorists”. But if I’m right that fear plays a factor in the general acceptance of this surveillance and policing phenomenon, then this won’t help reassure a soul. It may induce nihilism. Anyway, I don’t want to make too big a deal of this – both the conference and Pullman’s piece are very important and relevant.
This Cabinet Office job ad for a Director of Digital Engagement had us scratching our heads in the office.
“The successful applicant will
- Introduce new techniques and software for digital engagement, such as ‘jams’ into Government”
Our crests fell – nary a one of us had ever heard of ‘jams’. Harakiri beckoned.
Then we discovered that The Register was similarly baffled.
“Er, such as… what? After asking around Shoreditch, this morning, I’m none the wiser. “Jams” doesn’t even seem to be in the Web 2.0 lexicon. But Kick In The Jams, it is, though.”
Is it an initiative test? Is one of those psychological experiments to see who has the confidence and/or integrity to request clarification on ‘jams’?
Yes, Tory papers, it’s overpaid. But only in the usual uninspired way employers communicate with prospective employees that their role is extremely important. Here, we love you, have some extra money. This is a fucking big job, not one to be derided with the sneery epithet ‘twittercrat':
“This is not a role for a generalist. The professional skills required are formidable. Engagement in the digital space is a young ‘profession’ and the job requires someone who would be acknowledged by their peer group to be a leader in this field. The successful candidate will have a CV that creates instant credibility and confidence with Ministers, senior officials and digital communicators in Whitehall.”
Depressingly (and this is really beginning to make me sad) I think the Register is right when they say it’s going to be “jobs for the boys”.