At the end of 2014 I had the fun of being a small cog in a rather fantastic machine created by Tom Bowtell and Coney where I got to pretend to be a genie. In Arabian Nights, created in collaboration with the Birmingham Rep and the new Library of Birmingham, Coney created an adventure whereby an ancient genie, trapped in the internet, had to be rescued by schoolchildren through the power of storytelling. As with many other of Coney’s projects, the magic was created in the collision of a virtual digital world, implicitly understood by the children who never experienced life without it, with the real world (manipulated by some fantastic acting, design and theatrical shenanigans). My job was to be the email voice of the genie, responding to the children’s questions and remarks in a suitably genie-like manner.
It led me to muse on genies in general. Our genie was benign, as they tend to appear in modern culture, although many of the genies that actually appear in the Arabian Nights stories are not. The jinn of old are actually morally ambivalent, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes capriciously sitting somewhere in between. Even if the modern genie tends a little more towards the Disneyesque benevolence, the ‘careful what you wish for’ trope survives.
Of course there are thousands of varying depictions of them, but for our purposes, here are three things about genies to note:
So, a genie from the past then - nuclear energy. Robert Oppenheimer certainly recognised a genie that could not be re-bottled:
We are today anxiously aware that the power to change is not always necessarily good.
As new instruments of war, of newly massive terror, add to the ferocity and totality of warfare, we understand that it is a special mark and problem of our age that man’s ever-present preoccupation with improving his lot with alleviating hunger and poverty and exploitation, must be brought into harmony with the over-riding need to limit and largely to eliminate resort to organised violence between nation and nation. The increasingly expert destruction of man’s spirit by the power of police, more wicked if not more awful than the ravages of nature’s own hand, is another such power, good only if never to be used.
Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, 1953
My grandfather worked in a nuclear power station, and his car was emblazoned with a cheery sticker featuring a caveman in a bowler hat, proclaiming ‘Fossil Fuel? No thanks!’. I have no idea if I would have agreed entirely with him, but for all its obvious downsides, there is still real potential to the technology, using for example breeder reactors that use vastly smaller amounts of fuel, and produce vastly smaller amounts of waste, and approach the sustainability of wind and solar power. The biggest barriers as ever are political, cost and will.
There are genies also awaiting us in our future. Much of the conversation around artificial intelligence has shifted towards ethics and safeguards, as people are increasingly stunned by the leaps made in the field. AI is one of the focuses of Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, a department dedicated to investigating technological genies. Certainly the potential gains are magical and often unimaginable. The downsides usually look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I want to focus here though on one contemporary genie - the internet. It has become apocryphal that the internet was designed to be indestructible. While it is debatable that it was born out of a need for a computer network to resist nuclear war, the ARPANET, the main basis for the modern internet, was designed to be able to survive large losses of portions of the network. Rather than have one big hub serving lots of endpoints, the network was designed to be a whole network of hubs serving each other, meaning there were many routes to the source of your information, not one. Add in packet switching, and the speed with which computers figure out the optimal direction for the information, and ‘many routes’ is a bit of an understatement.
The robustness of the internet is a large tenet of its early evangelism. John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation famously stated that ‘the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.’ Added to that was the layer of the World Wide Web, the non-proprietary protocols for which were created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and given to the world to do with as they will. For a lot of people that has been interpreted as ‘build proprietary platforms on top, and make a lot of money’, but the open-source foundation of the web perseveres and is hopefully ‘baked-in’ enough to survive a good while longer (through Apache servers, for example). As Berners-Lee typed out at the 2012 Olympics ceremony - ‘This is for everyone.’ With low barriers to entry, anyone can access the internet, post on it, and reach anybody else in the world.
Unfortunately, anyone can access the internet, post on it, and reach anybody else in the world. It turns out that ‘everyone’ actually does mean everyone.
This ‘everyone’ includes the governments that have quickly spotted the net’s inherent risks, and its great surveillance opportunities, but also the everyday individual idiot, who has been granted the power to shout louder, more offensively and with less comeback than they could ever have imagined.
One can view the corporatisation and nationalisation of the internet (as in, national governments asserting their control) as the end of a cyclical process. Tim Wu in his great book The Master Switch identifies this as a cycle within major utilities over the course of the last couple of centuries, periods of lawlessness and disruptive technology, followed by battles of regulation and monopolisation, ending with corporatisation. In one striking example of the early telephone networks, before the infrastructure was mechanically and logistically fixed, farmers would listen in on one public-minded individual reading everybody the weather forecast - sound familiar?
At the time of publication (2012), Wu seemed undecided on whether this was definitely happening to the internet. Certainly with ongoing battles over net neutrality and the supremacy of ‘walled gardens’ and the open web, is it not yet clear.
Personally, I am still optimistic, but that optimism is born paradoxically out of an expectation of an increasing amount of political chaos. Starting tomorrow.
I am writing this the day voting opens for the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. In the best-case scenarios, this will be a very local political change, with minimal local implications. In the worst-case scenarios, it will cause the kind of economic chaos that brings down giant currency butterflies onto the planet, flapping their wings and knocking down institutions all over the world. The actual result, if Britain does leave, will be somewhere between those extremes.
It has been an incredibly depressing campaign. Whatever the result, the overwhelming majority will be glad to see the back of it. Everything is overshadowed by the horrific murder of Jo Cox. I’m a similar age, with two children of a similar age to hers. Thinking about it too much makes me feel sick.
Whether it was a contributing factor to her death or not, the other sickening factor in this campaign has been the ‘post-truth’ tactics of, perhaps to differing extents, either side.
Facts and figures that have been rubbished as inaccurate or even as downright lies have been repeated for what seems like the sheer hell of it. The facts are not be trusted, and their heinous lapdogs, the fact-checkers are also not to be trusted. It was distilled into the moment Michael Gove asserted that, even though the number of serious economists suggesting that Brexit would be relatively painless could be counted on one hand, Britain had ‘had enough of experts.’ Michael Gove’s odd relationship with expert opinion has been noted before.
It is tempting to make a simple association of this mass distrust of expertise with the rise of the internet - it’s inevitably more interesting than that. Aside from the obvious propaganda of totalitarianism, the origins of doubt as a conscious, deliberate communications strategy can be traced back a long way. The PR industry has long valued emotional connection over rational connection. In 1997, the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller was rumbled for advocating “Symbols - not logic” to the biotech industry, but you can trace this kind of thinking all the way back through to the early originators of public relations like Edward Bernays or Ivy Lee, and arguably all the way back to showman PT Barnum.
Even so, this is still not the same as knowingly perpetuating misinformation, or outright lying. For that you can go back to the tobacco industry for an interesting example, detailed by David Michaels in his book Doubt is Their Product. In it, he uncovers a 1960s memo in which a tobacco company executive notes that:
Unfortunately, we cannot take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say that cigarettes are a contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim.
The solution? Issue as much contradictory and evidentially-challenged research as can be funded:
Doubt is our product, […] since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.
Here, a large commercial organisation realises the monetary value of confusion, and finds itself strangely allied with the growing field of noisy conspiracists (perhaps coalescing around the murder of JFK and the Warren Commission in 1963) in creating an atmosphere of doubt, scepticism and paradox.
And then, long story short, a few years later along comes the internet, the greatest amplifier ever built.
If the internet is a genie, it’s intentions for us are largely ambivalent. There is nothing that can be done on the internet, in terms of communications that could not have been achieved with existing technology, it is just that the internet can do it thousands of times faster, cheaper and more accessibly. If you wanted to throw a brick through your neighbour’s window and run away, you could always do that. It’s just that now you can do that to thousands of neighbours at once without leaving your chair.
In 2012 I remember stumbling across a startling manifesto by Piotr Czerski called ‘We, the Web Kids’. It’s still worth reading in full. I don’t know much about the author, some of it is already outdated (or maybe just on-the-money prescient - read the section on sharing films and memories, then think of Netflix). I am not sure how much it tallies with my experience of the generation it describes, but that said, much of it is still eye-opening when you consider its implications. This part jumped out at me again:
…we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.Czerski, We, the Web Kids
’Trust’ is key. Amplification brings noise, which requires filtering, but filtering creates biases. It might be laziness, it might be simply the only way to process such a quantity of information, but we veer towards those that agree with us, or justify us, or validate us. Again, a sharply double-edged sword. The internet has surely saved many an isolated individual worried about their sexuality who has discovered they are not alone, but it has reinforced plenty of prejudices for those seeking the like-minded.
Paradoxically, the desire for signal over noise has probably reinforced the power of the bigger media outlets (especially those that had the wherewithal and resources to embrace the internet) by making them anchor points for news and information, but as a complement rather than a counterweight to the amplified channels of hearsay, assertion and prejudice on social media.
It definitely feels like a major shift in the last decade. I remember watching a lunchtime ITN interview with Shami Chakrabarti about ten or so years ago where she was fielding questions from the public. What sounded like a middle-aged, middle-class woman rang in, and began her question with the gentle language of some of the quieter, gentler racism out there (‘you people’). Chakrabarti was clearly ready and able to defend herself, but the presenter cut in and shut the caller down. It has always struck me as a moment symbolic of the dominance of the centre-left over politics and culture over the late 1990s and early 2000s. A generation of politicians brought up in the culture wars of the late 1980s was setting the agenda, and the very discussion of racist attitudes was not to be tolerated, not even to be disinfected by sunlight. It was an attempt to bend reality to an ideal. Maybe noble, definitely stupid.
David Cameron then comes along and initially tacks the Conservative party back towards the centre, and the Blaire way of doing populist, feel-good politics. By the end of the 2000s, however with the financial crash and its attendant scandals, the MPs expenses scandal and the increasingly obvious mess of Iraq, one thing was scarily evident. To some extent, the conspiracists were right. There were quite clearly large orchestrated manoeuvres by elites to deceive the public. It’s not paranoia if they are out to get you.
Cameron has a background in public relations. Gove and Boris Johnson have histories as journalists, the main end-users of public relations. A story has been circulating about Johnson in particular having an interesting relationship to truth as it pertains to the European Union. These are three men well versed in moulding a narrative to their own ends, and they certainly took to heart the lessons of ‘establishing a controversy.’
Post-crash, Cameron correctly intuited a growing mood of distrust and unease with the ‘establishment’, whatever you might define that as. The problem is, if you quite clearly are the establishment and you walk it and talk it with every word out of your mouth, it is a very difficult feeling to harness. The modus operandi of Cameron and George Osborne throughout their time in government (given a steroidal dead-cat injection by Lynton Crosby) has been deferral and deflection. In the face of crisis, this has meant such japes as falling back on a good old fashioned housing bubble in the face of austerity failing, and promising a referendum on EU membership at some point, calculating that by the time you have to deliver it, circumstances will have changed, or you will be able to blame not delivering it on somebody else.
‘Blaming it on somebody else’ has been the other big plank of Cameronism, albeit with a certain flair and subtlety that eludes the likes of Nigel Farage. Scroungers and benefit claimants are the obvious targets, but I’m betting there’s a ceiling to the amount of working class support you can extract that way. I also believe that Cameron is a social liberal at least, and was genuine in his support for gay marriage - and it would have been a quick route to brand toxification to play the Section 28 greatest hits. I reckon what Cameron discovered is that much more support came his way (both internally and externally to his party) in punching ‘up’, or at least being perceived to be doing so. Upwards in this case meant attacking the faceless, distant ’establishment’ source of our woes - the European Union, whether they deserve that depiction or not (they might).
Events have outrun him. Winning the slight majority forced him to deliver a referendum, while Europe has become crisis ridden by the refugee influx and the Eurozone crisis. Leading the In campaign has seen him have to pivot ridiculously and constantly, sometimes from one sentence to the next - why even hold the referendum if leaving will be so the disastrous? ‘Because I was pretty sure it would go better than this’ has not been the forthcoming answer. Gove and Johnson were instead able to tap into a deep well of resentment and distrust and struck (snake) oil. Experts? They all got us into this mess didn’t they?
The important thing however to note about the tobacco companies is that ultimately they failed. Bending reality to your ideal carries with it the big problem of reality eventually catching up with you. Conspiracies depend upon competence. The Tory side of the Remain campaign has been keen to avoid outing themselves as the true agent of Britain’s sorrows, while Johnson and Gove have been doing the same, and it has also not been in UKIP’s interest to change the narrative back to the UK government’s responsibility. The cumulative effect of continually pointing to the EU as the powerful body that is actually running the show is that it must make the UK government logically seem increasingly impotent.
Conspiracy is comforting, but vitally dependent on an external source of blame. Being told that life’s difficulties are just largely matters of random chance, or worse, maybe your fault - this is not an easily sold message, but we are being run by salesmen, who will instinctively look for something else.
Reality however also polices by absence. You tell us there are jobs - where are they? You tell us you are ploughing funding into our schools and hospitals - where is it? You tell us you are building houses for the future - where are you building them?
Should Gove and Johnson end up in power, even without being hamstrung with the economic effects of Brexit and the general evidence of their spectacular lack of competence in government, they will face an uphill struggle to reconcile this message, just as Cameron is facing now. It is almost as if Johnson didn’t entirely expect to win the vote, but perhaps calculated that he needed to lead Leave to have a chance of winning over a vengeful Eurosceptic party…
But a certain political genie is out of the bottle now, and not a nice blue Disney one. If you haven’t seen them, I strongly urge you to watch Jon Harris’ brilliant Anywhere But Westminster videos, especially the latest one. With his crazy talk-to-actual-voters methodology, he notes that Cameron, Gove and Johnson simply do not come up in conversation. Should it be a leave vote, and Gove and Johnson and Farage identify themselves as having made it happen, they are in for a colossal shock. The battle is depicted as a Goliath group of ‘experts’, business leaders, political leaders, cultural leaders are saying that remain makes sense versus a small self-identified David of a handful of fringe politicians and opportunists (backed up by a suspiciously un-David-like phalanx of media with very particular commercial interests).
The campaign has felt largely like the Remain camp fulminating frustratedly that ‘virtually everybody’ agrees that Brexit would be disastrous. Fine, say the voters, but what has ‘virtually everybody’ done for us lately? Why warn us so vociferously about what we stand to lose when you clearly have no idea how little we have to lose anyway?
How do we come back from this? A Remain result will not solve it. You need to address the problems in the real world, come up with some solutions, and spend the political capital that you need to make that happen. It inevitably means some kind of managed pain and compromise at the top of society, and it’s not clear that the political/elite classes will ever understand that until it’s too late. We can wait for reality the policeman to step in but when it does, just as with the sibling situation of climate change, that will be an unpleasant moment, and egalitarian in its unpleasantness.
I do have a strange optimism though. Remember the ambivalent genie that can be as much for good as bad?
What seems evident to me is that any politician that tries so tell as big a lie as they can to create some kind of sweeping grand narrative will just not get away with it. Graphs like this one from the FT appeared a lot in the campaign:
Sorry! This graph not available any more, and I must admit I have forgotten what it looked like...
The internet is maybe a symptom of this segmented society, maybe a cause, but it certainly does seem well equipped to contribute to it. In our wonky electoral system, this might land us with government that is unrepresentative. In a simple-majority referendum (a very stupid idea) it creates an atmosphere of division.
You might stroll to your local polling booth in a general election with a pretty good feel for whether you are in the majority or minority, and that will probably correlate with your everyday feeling on the streets of wherever you live. In a referendum, on the other hand, as part of one huge constituency, you might find yourself suspiciously sizing up the political prejudices of anybody and everybody.
But the point is, against this very visible segmentation, achieving the kind of dominance in a society that can make a society do the very bad things we all know that societies are capable of is clearly a very difficult task, if not impossible.
Remember the lie that gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on, as Mark Twain said? Or possibly Winston Churchill? Or it might have been pants rather than boots? Twenty seconds on the internet and I am none the wiser, but the point is the lie does not get as clear a run as it used to. Think of all the videos of police violence in the last few years that have emerged (out of the US in particular), or any of the more banal examples of citizen surveillance. I am betting that live streaming apps such as Periscope must be causing conniptions somewhere - expect a broadcast scandal or some terrible snuff moment any day soon.
Now, a citizen-led surveillance society is maybe not something to get wild about - Dave Eggers hits it hard in The Circle - but remember, it’s a genie. It can be good, it can be bad - but the one thing it can’t be is simply put away.
I am not suggesting that a divided society is a good thing, and it certainly hasn’t felt like it this past month. But exposure of the faultiness is maybe the first step towards positive change, rather than simply pretending it is not happening.
So embrace genies, but be wary of those who think they can harness them for their own ends. Be wary of anybody that tells you something is uniformly good for the world, be sceptical of anybody who asserts that something is categorically bad for the world, and reserve a special well of contempt for anybody who tries to persuade you that anything can be turned or taken ’back’, be it time, a tide or an entire country.
Ah, events. I wrote this in hope of a remain vote, but with genuine indecision about the result. Certain moments in the campaign (usually involving the rare occasions of hearing from actual voters) had chilled my blood, and they have all come back to haunt me. I think my point still stands, unfortunately. The devastated Remainers, on the left particularly need to actually take a long hard look at the situation and look forwards not backwards. Blaming Corbyn is easy, and wrong. Excluding him from the post-mortem is also wrong, but the resentment that has fuelled this rejection by ‘traditional’ Labour voters precedes him by many years. The Tory party’s instant reaction at the start of the evening, pre-Sunderland, pointed to a party intent on papering over reality to carry on manipulating it. Fat chance now. And all those Brexiteers? They get all the fun of learning to be careful what they wish for. And so do we.