Confronting the Megaverse

When I started teaching cultural and media studies over 20 years ago, all paths of enquiry seemed to lead to Jürgen Habermas.    His concept of the public sphere was repeatedly cited in relation to the development of the worldwide web.  Just as, in Habermas’ account, the London coffee houses of the early 18th century provided a meeting place where are people of rank but below nobility could meet to discuss public affairs, the web was going to provide a public sphere for everybody who had am internet connection.  There was concern then, as now, for the millions who lacked such a connection; but the apparent democracy of the web, where every individual could use their mouse and keyboard to have their say, was widely predicted to promise a new age in human communication and understanding.

Today we are offered the Metaverse.   I suspect that most people are unsure what this means but it is clearly “meta” – beyond the everyday material world.  It is a market of the digital realm, resembling children’s Roblox, where anything can be created and traded as an NFT (non fungible token).   A metaverse mega yacht that has recently sold for $650,000 is the most expensive NFT yet sold in The Sandbox virtual world.  This is not a universe of public debate, but a digital market for rich players where even the currency exists only online, in “blockchain” technology.  What has happened to that idealistic vision of worldwide communication over the worldwide web?

I first realised that there was something wrong with this application of Habermas’ vision when I was coaching a dissertation student who was related to the royal family.   She was determined to deal with the intrusion of the press and media into the monarchy, and proposed to construct a set of rules of engagement. Discussing with her that such rules would work, if at all, only with certain sections of the “quality” press, I realised that Habermas’  concept was of a bourgeois public sphere that no longer existed in its imagined form.  The public and the press of the late 1990s were very different from Joseph Addison and The Spectator.   

This was before social media.  Today, most people in developed countries have immediate access via their phones to an effectively unregulated sphere of information and entertainment where almost anything can be published and consumed, and where “bourgeois” rules of conduct and responsibility do not operate.   Everybody with an Internet connection can participate, but the Web does not present a public sphere for reasoned debate. 

From 1949 until 1987, the US Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to identify and cover issues of public importance and to give airtime to opposing views. Reagan’s revocation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1989 allowed news stations to construct news and comment in line with the assumed preferences of their audiences (and financial backers).  It is often argued that this led to the current polarisation of US news media.  However, the Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast licences; it would not have impeded the development of cable channels such as CNN and Fox News, nor social media. 

In his novel 1984, George Orwell projected a media universe where reality and truth have lost meaning.  He imagined ubiquitous television screens that cocooned the citizens of the megastates Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in a fake reality.  The difference between Orwell’s forecast and our present reality is not that one illusory worldview is transmitted but that various proponents of the culture wars, each with their own political and financial allegiances, mount a co-dependent spectacle of opposition.  Division, as one US commentator remarked, is a good business plan.   Our metaverse of countless cable channels and social media is a product of the money and power that maintain the people of Planet Earth in confusion and ignorance. 

This metaverse of disinformation is not merely technologically but historically and culturally determined.  Despite the rhetoric of “one nation under God”, the US has for nearly two centuries projected two cultural universes.  After the Civil War, a large minority did not accept that all men and women were truly created equal. Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by black people were enforced until the mid 1960s.   And racial hate was not resolved by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Affronted by the ascendancy of a Black man to the office of President, white supremacist voters elected Donald Trump as Obama’s successor.  Today, in a remarkable realisation of Orwell’s forecast, a majority of Republican voters live in a metaverse as insubstantial as the Sandbox but maintained by Fox News, Newsmax and the echo chamber of social media. They do not believe that Trump lost the 2020 election.  And legislators in numerous states are realising the intention of the illusion by changing voting laws to further disenfranchise Black and other “minority” voters.  

Pandemics and climate change make disregard and perversion of the truth increasingly dangerous.  The human world of Planet Earth will come to an end if Habermas’ vision of an informed public sphere cannot be realised.   Investors in the Metaverse may, as The Baffler suggests, buy up fake land and fake homes that exist only within energy-guzzling servers stored in a desert air-conditioned warehouse.   The people of the threatened human world need to learn and discuss truthful information about the real state of things.  

Joana Vasconcelos

I spent a fine day this week with a friend at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The current exhibition by Joana Vasconcelos memorably juxtaposes traditionally female crafts such as needlework and crochet with everyday objects often associated with domesticity and housework and sometimes with masculinity. The effect is always to unsettle concepts of gender.

Vasconcelos’ Purple Rain (seen on the right of this image) references Marcel Duchamp’s famed Urinal, covering this masculine object with crochet and wittily nodding to Prince.

The oversized silver stilettos formed from hundreds of stainless-steel saucepans reference Marilyn Monroe and femininity as constructed by Hollywood.

Call Center uses 168 rotary-dial telephones to represent an enlarged Beretta pistol, perhaps commenting ironically on the sociological view that that women appropriated a practical, supposedly masculine technology for distinctively feminine ends.

Most striking of all the installations is the 12-metre-long Valkyrie Marina Rinaldi. Suspended from the ceiling, this female figure from Norse mythology appears to advance, her tentacle limbs stretched across the gallery and enhanced by multicoloured woollen crochet, fabric and flamboyant embellishments.

Guest post: The Withering of Faith

Iglesia de la Vera Cruz in Segovia

Alun Williams

For me, faith has existed in the realms of hope, aesthetics and the historical legacy of Christian spirituality rather than in certainty or conviction. So perhaps it was never real faith at all. I can be moved, almost to tears, by the Maundy Thursday liturgy, without ever really knowing why. I am sad that my faith has withered and wish it would return. The church has always been part of my life and I still love the trappings: Romanesque architecture, Anglo-Catholic traditional liturgy, the English choral tradition, evensong, the Book of Common Prayer, incense, vestments, worship, the priest celebrating ad orientem. All that. To experience High Mass is to be surrounded by a warm and intoxicating numinosity, ineffable and almost wildly beautiful. I am part of it and it became part of me. And how I yearn for it, but it is now elusive.

For it is overshadowed, overwhelmed you might say, by the dark heart of evangelical Christianity that seeks to dominate the faith: arrogant, shameful, uncritical of itself, intolerant, racist, homophobic and misogynistic. Those who voted for Trump or who supported Brexit, those who use phrases like ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ All these are to be found in Christianity’s bigoted core. Worst of all (perhaps) is the assumption that evangelicals should impose their faith on others, even on those who practise sacramentalism or liberal theology. Humility is crushed by zealotry and by bogus dehumanising assertions of superiority. 

My great friend and spiritual champion lost his faith and longed to have it restored. There were circumstances surrounding this, including the tragedy of being robbed of a fine son in a climbing accident, but the retreat from faith was insidious, or at least subliminal. My friend was a research engineer, and during his working life was tasked to make aeroplanes safer. He knew that he could not make them safe, just safer. Nothing could be safe, nothing could be certain. So, in the realm of faith, we might believe, as we both did in those days, but we could not know. For the evangelicals (the ‘rough boys’, as he called them), this would not do.  And so his faith, and perhaps mine too, began slowly to perish. He died in 2019 and I wept at his loss and mine. His wife holds his legacy, the fragments, of his search for understanding.  The ebb of faith is not about the injustice of tsunami or the anger of personal loss, it is about believing what you are told and, although evangelicals pretend to listen (the pretence at exploration of the Alpha course), they do not. In any other discourse we might be willing (in principle at least) to move a little, understand a little more, assert a little less. W.B. Yeats urged us to ‘tread softly’. Sound advice for anyone prone to overweening certainty.   

Trump Republicans are recreating George Orwell’s 1984

140 House Republicans have demonstrated their continued support for the former president and his lie that the 2020 election was rigged. Some have gone further along the path of perfidy and have stated that the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 didn’t happen, that the rioters were merely tourists walking through the hallways. In the words of commentators working for CNN (but not Fox News or NewsMax), they are rewriting history. “The Rewriting of History” is a phrase from George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s prophetic novel, written in 1948, the Party (IngSoc) rule Oceania, a landmass including what are now the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter satirically renamed Airstrip 1). They constantly alter news broadcasts, media reports and historical records to support the current version of truth. They survey the people through ubiquitous television screens. Most citizens submit to the domination of their leader, Big Brother, and the authoritarian militia that stamp out any rebellious elements. O’Brien, the senior functionary who captures and tortures Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, tells him that the reality of 1984 is a boot stamping on a human face, forever. This is the reality imagined by the mob who stormed the Capitol.

The terror of 1984 is not just the torture: the cage of starved rats that will devour Winston if he does not comply. Eventually, Winston gives in and agrees that he loves Big Brother. He is defeated. But the greater terror is of a world where people voluntarily give up their freedom because of fear. You can see the fear in the faces of the Republican representatives as they deny the truth.

Trump is Big Brother. He has an uncanny attraction to millions who cannot bear their individual lives and would rather join with him in an inchoate, ignorant, violent mass of “us” against “them”, “them” being liberals, Blacks, Democrats and others who, they believe, would take way their primal American freedoms. He is kept in place, six months after he lost the office of president, by an oligarchical media who, for financial and ideological reasons, perpetuate the big lie – that Trump really won the 2020 election.

In Orwell’s novel, the combination of state and ideological power maintains the status quo. In the USA today, Trump Republicans are a minority, but they are convinced they are right. Their identity and security lie in their certainty that they are the winners and that with Trump they will finally gain liberty. The opposite, of course, is the case.

Sustainability and Environmental Update

The Old Commercial Inn in Bishopsteignton, South Devon, is taking action to protect and sustain the environment.

At the Old Commercial Inn we constantly review our systems to make sure we are making the best use of our resources and the least impact on the environment at the same time. Some examples are:

  • When we deliver off-licence and hot food takeaway orders we often take these on foot for near neighbours so give us a wave when you see us laden down with goodies! When we need to drive we use our hybrid Toyota Auris which is also used for trips to suppliers.
  • While we trade in the garden during restricted Covid opening we use CE marked, compostable PLA, clear plastic pint cups which are made from rapidly renewable starch resources such as tapioca and corn.
  • We use Boxroll, UK manufactured lavatory paper made from 100% recycled pure wood pulp (sourced from environmentally and accredited forests) in all our lavatories and are happy to add a…

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A Covid test

I’ve recently had a Covid test, although I don’t feel unwell. I participate in the Zoe programme and report every day on my health. On Friday, I indicated that I felt below par, although had none of the classic Covid symptoms of shortness of breath, high-temperature or a persistent cough. As the day went on, I felt better, and was therefore surprised on Saturday morning to receive an invitation for a Covid test. But I was pleased. The invitation offered some kind of certainty in the current pervasive atmosphere of inexplicit dread.

I could choose whether to receive a test in the post, to administer myself; to go to a walk-in centre (although there were currently none available locally); or to go to a drive-through centre. I chose the latter, a large park-and-ride facility near Exeter. I was offered a choice of half-hourly slots throughout the day, none of which was apparently taken. So I chose 2 o’clock.

A large section of the park-and-ride facility had been cordoned off. I turned into the entrance, where a sign instructed me to keep windows closed. A masked figure in a high visibility jacket gestured the way and I drove 100 yards towards a portakabin. Outside the door stood another masked figure. As I approached he held up an A3 paper sign: ‘Are you here for a test?’ I gave him a thumbs up and he pointed me to the right. After driving 50 yards or so I was apprehended by a young man who, after telling me to keep my window closed, checked the QR code I had been given online and directed me towards a wide lane of traffic cones, again with signs warning me to keep windows closed. At the end of this lane, perhaps a further 200 yards, I approached several people outside another portakabin, some wearing high visibility jackets and others PPE. Like the young man who dealt with the QR code, the woman who signalled me to stop outside the portakabin was extraordinarily deliberate in her beckoning gestures, clearly trained to ensure that I stopped the car in exactly the correct place.

A masked and PPE-clad man in a long blue transparent cloak emerged from the portakabin and signalled me to lower my window. He told me his name was Ahmed, checked my QR code again, and gave me a tissue to blow my nose. He then explained he was going to swab the inside of my throat and then my nostril. This was the only moment of human contact throughout the entire event, and felt surprisingly intimate. He thanked me for opening my mouth wide while he swabbed and held the thin taper up my nostril for so long – while he counted to ten – that I had to sneeze as soon as he withdrew. I guess being a Covid tester is not a job for the faint hearted.

I thanked him and left, and was directed to the exit by two more high-vis jacketed people. 40 hours later, early on Monday morning, I received a text to say the result was negative.

The experience was both dystopian and strangely reassuring. The large, bare car park, with only a few temporary buildings, lines of traffic cones, and numerous warning signs, through which I was directed from station to station by masked operatives, had a feeling of the end of the world. Yet the very provision of the well-staffed service, the extreme care in hygiene, and the personal contact with the tester were reassurance of what can be done by a public health service where health and care are the overriding values.

The Age of Anxiety

The phrase “Age of Anxiety” has been around for a while.  The title of Auden’s 1947 poem is much better known than the poem itself, and even Jamie Cullum’s song was written before the advent of the pandemic.  But we are now in a new age of widespread distress.

Many writers have tried to describe the feeling of general anxiety about one’s being-in-the-world.  Emile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe the loss of common norms and values that accompany social dislocation.  John Bowlby argued that disturbed children lack a sense of a secure base. A sense of ontological insecurity must underlie the anxiety of those who devote themselves to “strong” leaders who they believe will help and protect them.  George Orwell’s Big Brother was a satirical yet foreboding invention.   Hannah Arendt wrote about Nazi totalitarianism: “In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.” But this is not true only of the “masses”. The spectacle of Rudy Giuliani sweating with anxiety in his devotion to Trump is a sad contrast to the man who gained appreciation for his leadership of New York after 9/11.

Meanwhile, the actual pandemic, and attempts to manage it, have severely disrupted and curtailed social life.   Defending ourselves against an invisible viral enemy that can strike at any time, we isolate from each other.  Everyday companionship can be gained, if at all, only through a phone or computer screen.  Household income falls, or even ceases.  The lives of millions of people without secure accommodation, heating or food become even more precarious. 

The pandemic, like the fear of totalitarianism, is destructive of all living together. Fortunately, the discovery of a vaccine, and the election of Biden, signal a respite in anxiety.  But recent events in the US and UK have shown that authoritarianism was not buried in the history of the 1930s but is immanent in an apparent democracy.  This plague, wrote Albert Camus, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

A walk to Hackney Central

MareStreet_M&S

Lacking clothes in London
I walked to Hackney Central.
At Chatham Place a white street cleaner
propped his brush on his green barrow to point the way.
Under the bridge by Argun Printers
the air was particle grey, but
Mare Street was clear of traffic.

The black assistant in Marks & Spencer
cheerfully filled my bag and
the brown post office worker
smiled my envelope and stamped my mail.
A sausage roll billboard had been red.

 

In Hackney Churchyard gardens
the resting street cleaner hailed me.
Thanks, I found the way, I called.
The sign on Morningside School said
Today is a great day to learn something.

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Dominic Cummings’ skunkworks

Dom-Cummings_outside-No-10Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

The Government is advertising for the head of a new “analytical unit” in Downing Street to be called 10ds.  “ds” stands for Data Science, but could, of course, mean Downing Street itself.  The role and person specification read as if written by Dominic Cummings:

   10ds is a pseudo start-up within Number 10 designed to drive forward the quantitative revolution. The current plan is to establish a data engineering team, data science team, a skunkworks and an analytical deep dive unit.  

A skunkworks, according to Everett Rogers, is an “enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures”.   The term originated during World War II when a small group of closely guarded Lockheed R&D workers working in Burbank, California had to endure the smell from a nearby plastics factory.  

The term typically refers to technology projects developed in semi-secrecy, and so it is surprising to be told that this unit will be at the heart of No 10.  It will bring together

a team which will focus on supporting number 10 to provide the best analysis and evidence; a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall; a data engineering team to provide high-quality timely data, creating more effective decision-making.  

Elsewhere in the document, the  term “skunkworks” appears to embrace the whole operation.  The vision of 10ds is “a skunkworks type organisation that builds innovative software to allow the PM to make data driven decisions and thereby transform government”.

It appears that the Head of the Unit will have privileged access to the Prime Minister “to advise on the PM’s priority decisions where analysis is critical, such as how to optimally achieve net-zero”.  He or she will also be expected to be creative, “to look through a different lens”.  A key part of this role is “working with multiple teams in coming up with modern innovative ways of solving the problem”.

Besides creativity, there must be scientific method.   “This role focuses on reaching the right answer based on the best available data. As such, this role prioritises data interpretation not data fitting.”   This sounds right, but data are never neutral.  The data available depend on who has provided them and for what purposes.  How will this new unit improve on existing procedures of data collection and analysis?

The document preserves an air of semi-secrecy by its vagueness.    What, for example, is the referent of “its” in “a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall” (the long quotation above)?   More importantly, what will be the relationship between the skunkworks and the existing Civil Service, which deals with public administration, and with the Office for National Statistics?  

Dominic Cummings clearly wants to reinforce his power base at the heart of government.  But it looks as if this new unit could be another distraction from the true business of government.

Flooding the zone with shit

steve_bannon_cpac_2017_photo_mike_theiler_afp_getty_images_644345088_profile

Possibly more significant than the Brazilian president’s diagnosis of Covid-19 was a guest at an Independence Day lunch in Brasilia three days before.   According to the Guardian (7 July), three days before the diagnosis Bolsonaro had lunch at the home of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil.   Also present at that Independence Day celebration were several top cabinet members and the president’s son, Eduardo, a politician who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America.

Nobody has been more influential than Steve Bannon in fomenting the ideas and policies of the global fascist Alt-Right.  Boris Johnson borrowed ideas and phrases – such as the ‘EU deep state’ – used by Bannon when head of Breitbart News.  The supposed US ‘deep state’ is now the object of a populist US insurgency apparently supported by the president.  Bannon was Trump’s campaign manager for the 2016 election and vice president of Cambridge Analytica, which developed and tested the ‘build the wall’ theme on the US population.   A similar meme in the UK, ‘take back control’, was developed by Dominic Cummings, who spent 90% of Vote Leave’s advertising on the Vancouver-based company AIQ that became the holding company for Cambridge Analytica.  These memes have no purpose beyond building a sense of nationalist exclusivity and nativist aversion to foreigners – and loyalty to the strong man who will keep the foreigners out.

Observers of the current chaos in the US, UK, Brazil and elsewhere often ask why the populist leaders, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, behave so ineptly.  Why do so many people follow leaders with no discernible plan or competence?  The reason, as the journalist Jay Rosen has explained, is that the plan is to have no plan.   Rather, the leaders promote massive confusion about who is responsible for Covid-19 and the economic and social situation, fixing blame on ‘leftists’, the press, China, or some other foreign element; imposing tariffs that will disadvantage their own populations; withdrawing from the World Health Organisation … and so on.   The aim, in the words of Steve Bannon, is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, overwhelming the media and the population with disinformation, distraction, and denial.  Out of this chaos will step the saviour strong man, as Trump stepped out of the clouds of tear gas released on his own people to hold up a bible in front of the White House church.  

As Hari Kunzru has written, the deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest would confirm the transition to autocracy.  So far, the US generals have refused Trump’s command to send troops into American cities.  Ironically, the secret agent in the fight against the Alt-Right may turn out to be COVID-19.  Neither Johnson and Bolsonaro, for all their posturing, has escaped infection. The coronavirus has presented a visible natural threat that puts all others into perspective – although a significant proportion of the US population continues to believe that it is a left-wing hoax.  Nonetheless, it appears that Trump’s appeal is diminishing.  Yet, when the intending autocrats leave the stage, the conditions that brought them power will remain.