Millennium People

22 April 2009

Random, insomniac thoughts follow… sorry. I’m coming from the point of view of someone who has read his novels more than his short stories, incidentally

This part of a chat between JG Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi from 1971 caught my eye the other day:

[Ballard:] Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information, but we are using the clumsiest possible took to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we employ is incredibly primitive. We fumble around in bookshops, we buy magazines or subscribe to them. But I regard myself as starved of information. I am getting a throughput of information in my imaginative life of one-hundredth of what I could use. I think there’s an information starvation at present and technology will create the possibility of knowing everything about everything

Wow! JG Ballard must have loved the Internet! Or did he? He didn’t seem so keen on it. Way back in 1997:

I?m not hooked up to the internet, which is rather bad of me. I write all my books in longhand ? don?t believe all this stuff I say about technology! My girlfriend has a PC and a modem, but we don?t seem able to connect it up. But I love the idea. My dream would be to download the entire Harvard University database, or to consult every psychiatric journal ever published. However, I?m terrified that if I do get the modem working, I?d never do anything else!

Although he certainly appreciated its qualities, he never seemed to delve right into it:

Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the internet would have – entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper on the e-mail screen, there’s a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry (from the osprey-tracking site to tours round old nuclear silos and the extraordinary aerial trip down the California coastline and a thousand others), not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.

Entertained though he was, the Ballard of the 21st century did not share his 1971 version’s thrall for information overload. In fact though he inspired much of 21st century fiction, he was very much a product of the 20th, in thrall to monstrosities of modernity such as cars and concrete, and obsessed by human decay, rather than computers and transcending into cyberspace.

Ballard shunned email and Internet, it was irrelevant to his obsessions. His concern was space, the body, travel, the dark underbelly of a suburban tract housing development.

Pity. I’d have loved to have seen what he made of it all, of not just visiting the online world but living in it. I’m not sure any modern author quite has his eye for the human condition or the true consequences of the world we build and immerse ourselves in, but maybe I’m not reading enough of the right people.

PS In case you didn’t catch it on the linklog, do check out the brilliant, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race


20 April 2009

Earlier today, I posted this to Twitter:

“How the sun storm might look in London” O RLY? #dailyfail

And I’ve just reread and realised that as little as two years ago I would have gone “what the fuck are you talking about?”. This is the sentiment I had hoped to capture had it been a blog post (as if I write such things these days) with the full power of the English language at my grasp:

I have just spotted this story about solar storms – the pic is captioned “How the sun storm might look in London” Really? I don’t think so. The Daily Mail’s shoddy graphics department lives on.

Within the Tweet I had managed to place a shortened and incomprehensible URL, a lolcattish meme and the practice of using hashtags (with added snark) – all it needed was an @ to another user and I would have captured pretty much all the aspects of Twitter’s lingua franca – a creole of sorts where words, phrases and URLs are compressed to fit the devilry of the 140 character form.

From a sociology of technology background, you could argue it either as ingenious user-driven innovation to work round arbitrary limits on space, or a case of technological determinism compelling how we communicate. But I’m not concerned about that. The bigger problem I’m grappling with is: Is this is a good or a bad thing?

20 years on

15 April 2009

20 years ago today, nearly a hundred people went to a football match and did not come back. The Hillsborough disaster is not only a hideous tragedy but a story of negligence, contempt for human life and dishonesty.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium was acting as a neutral venue for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane end, which was terraced and divided into pens. The fact that the word “pens” was used to describe them is an illustration of how poorly regarded football fans were – little more than animals.

Poor ticketing, the practice of searching fans for weapons and the late arrival of coaches meant a dangerously packed crowd was building up outside the ground before kickoff. At the same, those fans inside the Leppings Lane pens had been directed into the central pens by police and stewards, rather than the pens along the entire terrace. Under the command of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, an exit gate was opened to allow more fans in, rather than using the turnstiles as usual. The fans already there were crushed, caught between the perimeter fences designed to cage them in, and their own fellow supporters, unaware of the carnage in front of them.

The match was soon abandoned, but with people dying what followed was a set of inexcusable failures. As Simon Kuper relates, an emergency escape gate in the perimeter fencing was forced shut. A police cordon formed on the halfway line, preventing fans from the other end of the pitch from assisting. Over forty ambulances turned up but only one was let into the ground.

In the immediate aftermath, the police lied saying the gate had been forced open by fans, and senior officers compelled those present at the crush to change their statements. CCTV footage from the stadium control room, which would have helped any investigation into the matter, went missing. The media was equally complicit – infamously, The Sun printed a vile front page of lies alleging that Liverpool fans were drunk and had robbed the dying and dead. The Taylor Report into the disaster dismissed these as exaggerations and fabrications, and found primary culpability at the hands of South Yorkshire Police, while also criticising the stadium’s poor design and insufficient safety measures.

It was the deadliest footballing disaster in British history. Of the top five in terms of deaths, three (Hillsborough, Ibrox in 1971 and Burnden Park) were due to crushes; the other two (Bradford and Ibrox in 1902) due to infrastructure failure (fire and structural collapse respectively). Poor safety has killed many more football fans than hooliganism (Heysel is the single most notable and regrettable exception to this), yet the design of football stadiums and the attitude of the authorities to supporters in 1989 was predominantly that they were a threat, not people who should be protected.

Almost twenty years on, a few hundred miles to the south, a man called Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack on his way home from work, shortly after being assaulted by police whose job was to secure the protest at the G20 summit. The similarities are uncanny; the police had been brutal to protesters all day indiscriminately. People were cordoned into particular areas against their will in a process bizarrely known as “kettling“. Not only was the officer involved brutal in striking an unarmed man posing no threat to him, but utterly callous in not coming to his aid when he could not get up – it was left to protesters to help him.

In the immediate aftermath, the police leaked to sympathetic friends in the media the lie that bottles and bricks had been thrown at officers treating him as he collapsed, and they happily swallowed it. It turns out not only that this was definitely not the case, but the police initially refused to let an ambulance get through. And once the news came out that he wasn’t even a protester, it wasn’t long before his poor health and apparent alcoholism were being misused by the same journalists to mitigate any responsibility for his death borne by the police.

A system built to oppress and not to protect. A callous disregard for life. Lie upon lie about the events with complicit friends in the media. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is the number who died, but whether it is one death or 96, it is indefensible.

The deaths at Hillsborough were ruled accidental by the coroners, and none of the men in charge that day and with most responsibility for the events were ever investigated or prosecuted by the state. A private prosecution was unsuccessful – the jury could not agree on a verdict for Duckenfield. For the relatives of the dead who believed those in charge should face justice, they have never had that closure.

But, scant consolation as it is to the mourners, one thing did come out of this horrible tragedy – a resolve that enough was enough and this should never happen again. Another disaster like Hillsborough will in all certainty never happen again at a football match in this country. Lord Justice Taylor’s report and the revolution that followed it has left us with better-designed stadiums, more intelligent and enlightened policing of football matches, and a culture where fans are regarded as human beings not cattle. Football is now safer than it has ever been. There is plenty wrong with the game – the obscene amounts of money, the diving and gamesmanship, but at the very least, when you go to a match, you know you will be able to walk out of it alive at the end.

Where does that leave those seeking justice for Ian Tomlinson?
I strongly hope that his family have every success in making sure those responsible do not go unpunished. However, given the political system and the police we have in this country, and the precedents set not just by Hillsborough but by Harry Stanley and Jean Charles de Menezes I doubt anyone will be convicted or even charge with culpability in his death. The nerdgasms about citizen journalism that helped reveal the truth only serve to make me feel like I am going to be let down even more once the system closes in and protects it own. But this is all conjecture, and in any case retribution is half the story.

Ian Tomlinson’s death was the latest marked symptom of a political and policing culture gone wrong – a state happy sit back while its police beats and then ignore those whose freedoms it is meant to protect. But seeking justice for him or any other victim of state brutality does not just extend to trial and retribution (important though it is) for the guilty. As Hillsborough proved, it also means safeguarding all the future possible Ian Tomlinsons – which include you and me – by reining in the police’s wanton brutality at demonstrations and better respect for the right to protest and assemble peacefully.

Sadly, no-one in power is yet forthcoming. It took a disaster the size of Hillsborough for the authorities – decades late and 96 deaths too many – to realise the dreadful state of affairs we have gotten into. Ian Tomlinson’s death has not yet had the same effect. We can only hope it doesn’t take another 95 people to die before those in charge realise.

Awful puns in the war against terror, no. 107

9 April 2009

I'm really sorry

Sorry. To create your own anti-terror scare poster, visit James Holden’s excellent generator – (via B&T).

Do cancer scare stories give you the Daily Mail?

7 April 2009

One of the little things I’ve been running since the New Year is The (New) Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, a project devoted to tracking “the Daily Mail’s classification of inanimate objects into two types: those that cause cancer, and those that cure it.” It is a resurrection of The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project, started by an anonymous person (I have no idea who) and sadly defunct.

While this may look spectacularly anoraky, thanks to mah geek skills, it doesn’t take up much of my time; I have a simple Google News feed for anything with the word ‘cancer’ in it from the Daily Mail, and I autopost any relevant ones to Tumblr with a simple bookmarklet. Two minutes of my time, most days.

I’ve been going at this since the start of the new year, and I’ve realised after three months that there’s some interesting data. Most pertinent is the frequency of these stories at particular times. Here beginneth the geekery, after manually counting through the archives:

For the period January 12th (when I started the Tumblelog) to February 14th (34 days, inclusive), there were 26 cancer scare or cure stories on the Daily Mail website (that’s 0.76 a day). In the same time period – i.e. 34 days – afterward, from February 15th (up to & including March 21st) there were 14 (only 0.41 a day). In fact, in the month of March entirely, there were only 9 (0.29 a day).

What happened on February 14th? That day, this news broke:

Jade Goody ‘has months to live’
Jade Goody has been told she has only months to live, her publicist Max Clifford has said. Mr Clifford said doctors at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London broke the news to the former reality television star on Friday

Undoubtedly, Jade Goody’s plight had been charted in the press since her initial diagnosis back in August 2008. But with the news of her imminent death, the volume of Jade-related coverage shot up – from 28 stories mentioning her between January 12th and February 14th, to 66 between February 15th and March 21st.

So, as coverage of Jade’s cancer shot up, coverage of the speculative pseudo-science of “will x cure/cause cancer?” plummeted. Did the cancer researchers, whose findings are swallowed and regurgitated as cast iron fact by Mail hacks, suddenly stop publishing their research, out of respect for Jade? Or was it business as usual – the research still being published, but the hacks, with a much juicier, PR-friendly story on their hands, were too busy to write them up or even care? Not much chance of it being the former, I reckon.

If that is the reason, it absolves the Daily Mail of the accusation (as outlined in last week’s Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe) laid against the press: that the excessive coverage of Jade Goody’s death would only alarm and upset cancer sufferers and their families, something that only serves to hamper them in their battle against the disease.

But the Daily Mail weren’t irresponsible in their sensational Jade Goody coverage. No, they’re irresponsible all the bloody time. The truth of the matter is that the Daily Mail loves to scare the fuck out of you about cancer no matter when. And if there isn’t a celebrity slowly dying in the news for them to gawp at, then they’ll resort to publishing anything they can find with the word ‘cancer’ in it. It doesn’t matter if it cures it or gives you it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dying reality TV star or a paper on the dietary effects of cabbages. As long as the spectre of the disease is there to keep you on your toes (that is, if you haven’t lost them to cancer), then they’ll use it against you.

Keeping calm

2 April 2009

Amidst all this talk of war, international terrorism and financial meltdown, one of the odd curiosities of the world today is the Keep Calm and Carry On meme. As has been covered recently both on the BBC and the Guardian. It’s been rich pickings for academics to fall over analysing quite what it is about it – nostalgia for a more sedate and less emotional time possibly, or as a counterpoint to the usual hysteria we’re continually exposed to.

Not everybody likes it. James Graham dislikes the message it conveys:

?Carrying on? is a much overrated concept. The fact is we can?t carry on as we have done for the past twenty, thirty years. The economic collapse was caused by people spending far too much time ?keeping calm and carrying on? instead of questioning what they were doing. Climate change is a similar tragedy waiting to happen. In whose interest is all this ?calm? supposed to serve?

The meaning depends on your meaning of “calm” – “calm” could mean sedated, blissful, oblivious, or it can also mean unflappable, clear-headed, rational, thoughtful. The designers of the poster probably had in mind the former – with a putative invasion of Britain under way it was designed to reassure the population, but in an age where the government and media both love to terrify the fuck out of us with tales of non-existent threats, keeping calm has come to mean the latter sense. Propaganda from the last genuine threat to this country’s existence has been reclaimed by geeks to rebuff the insanity surrounding a much lesser threat today.

“Carrying on” I have much less time for; James is absolutely correct in pointing out that carrying on – whether it’s racking up debts to fund our fetish for property, burning away every last hydrocarbon in the Earth’s crust , or thinking democracy can be inflicted with the barrel of a gun – is simply not an option unless we want to bring down civilisation with it. But all the changes we are going to have to make have to be orderly and not in panic or anger – so keeping calm is essential.

There may be other reasons why the poster is so popular. Its rediscovery has coincided with a trend in sans serif fonts and in particular Gill Sans and Johnston, both of which strongly resemble the font on the poster. As a result designers love it – its boldness and minimalism reflect a current trend, while its simple design lends itself to be remixed or mashed up with ease. There’s a Flickr pool devoted to variants on the poster, and Ben Terrett has summed it up: “We might as well admit we’re addicted“. Not only is it easy to replicate or parody but the web allows us to pass on homages and pisstakes with ease. It’s ironic that a paper propaganda poster, supposedly the antithesis of Web 2.0 and digital, conversation-led media, ends up being so popular.

We'd Like To Give You A Good Talking ToAs a result, it was only a matter of time before the meme goes full circle and it ends up being used for the current government’s propaganda. And lo and behold, the Home Office are using the design in their current “You have the right NOT to remain silent” campaign. Unfortunately for them, it bombs really horribly. The adverts are too clever for their own good, relying on a play on words: “We’d like to give you a good talking to” in this case means they want to share more information with local communities and get their feedback. I’m sure there was much back-slapping at the ad agency when they came up with it

When you have a design that is all about one simple, bold message, smug irony and nuance go out of the window. At first glance I thought the posters were just a new level of Home Office authoritarianism with a design twist; the real message behind them wasn’t clear until I looked up on the Home Office website; I wonder how the 99% of the population who couldn’t be bothered to read the small print think the campaign is really about. The perils of trying to co-opt anything that has been subverted and taken away from you have been laid bare.

A final point on the art form, and even when your message is simple, it can create more questions instead of clarity. Matt Jones’ retort to Keep Calm And Carry On: “Get Excited and Make Things” has had an enthusiastic reaction from bloggers, suggesting that not everyone is content with keeping calm either. But it leaves me with more questions than clarity. Excited about what exactly? Should we really be making more stuff (physical stuff, that is)? Doesn’t this go against the we’re-consuming-too-many-resources concept of unproduct? Making things is cool, but perhaps we need to be a bit, er, calmer about it.

Pages: « Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ... 159 160 161 Next »