The Circle by Dave Eggars

The Circle by Dave Eggars

Like many people recently I had been concerned about my growing dependency on social media. It reminded me of may days when I was hooked on cigarettes and a heavy regular smoker. The first thing I did every morning, before anything else, was to smoke my first cigarette and cough. Now the first thing I do, before coffee or anything else, is to check my phone for email or messages.  In the past I used to notice myself checking my pockets to make sure I hadn’t misplaced my packet of cigarettes, now I do the same patting my pockets dance to make sure I haven’t accidentally strayed away from my mobile phone. Before I used to worry about running out of cigarettes and always made sure that I had enough until the next time I’d be at the shops. Now I have the anxiety of battery life and the need to make sure that the phone has enough battery power to take it to the next charger.

When I was a smoker I used to joke that the only place I didn’t smoke (though not for want of trying) was in the bath – with wet hands the cigarettes get soggy and fall apart ! Now with a waterproof phone (IP68) I don’t have this excuse and had noticed occasional times reading an article while having a soak. I realised I needed to break this habit and took what I thought were the appropriate steps. I stopped using Facebook and other social media systems; stopped carrying my phone with me when I went out to work; and read my articles and book on paper rather than as digital editions (Note that paperbacks and reading in the bath  don’t always mix happily as my very thick and curly edition of ‘Brave New World’ will testify).

However, I have been less successful than I thought I would be and the path has been harder than anticipated. Though I didn’t miss Facebook at all I discovered that some of my voluntary work depended on it : the village hall needed it Facebook page to publicise its activities and coordinate bookings,  likewise the Community First Responders used social media for the educational activities and rotas. I also discovered that the main function of my mobile phone was not as a phone (There is rarely any reception outside where I stay) but as a camera. When out and discovering an animal unwell a photograph can sometimes help a neighbour or vet give good advice. So my phone started to creep back into my working trousers. The last hurdle was cost, the various messaging systems are much cheaper than the telephone for keeping in touch with my dispersed family and, as a voracious reader, eBooks are considerably cheaper than their 3D counterparts. Although I have managed to cut down my usage and  recover many hours worth of wasted time I  have realised just how embedded is the new technology in our modern lives. Therefore when I came across this novel about the influence on social media and information technology on our lives my interest was piqued. I bought the kindle version and started to read it as an eBook conscious of the possible irony.

I suppose this book is best described as piece of The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)dystopian science fiction. Often science fiction concerns future worlds and it through such novels we can consider what the future may hold for us. This novel does, indeed, consider a dangerous and unpleasant future but it is not about a time many years from now, rather it is seen as the result of choices we need to be making right now.

The story reads as a thriller following the history of Mae who secures a post in the world’s leading technology company. There are nods to all the major players in the current digital environment but the company, The Circle, is clearly based on Google even down to the level of the logo.. As Mae progresses in the company she becomes increasingly aware of the new developments in data acquisition and usage. The immediate benefits of these programmes and systems lures Mae and the public into using them and she, and they, ignore the increasing concerns about the influences these have on personal privacy and the body politic. These dangers are laid out very clearly in the book, perhaps a bit heavy handedly, and the book is a pacey race to see if the baddies can be headed off at the pass. I won’t spoil it and reveal which ending the novel takes.

This is an easy read, the characters verge a little on the stereotypical but they are real enough to keep your interest and attention. The dangers of the loss of privacy, and the growing control of opinion, which can result from a monopoly  provider of digital services are described in such a manner as to be readily believable, many are recognisable as already having occurred. Like all dystopian novels the dangers are presented but there are no clues as to how to prevent them. However, as a holiday read, something to take to the poolside, this is warmly recommended, especially as the paperback version.

 

 

Boycott the racists.

Boycott the racists.

In civilised society we like to think that racism is a vestige of our barbaric past, a hateful  thing which has no place in modern society. No-one would admit to holding racist views and we can presume that all reasonably minded people would consider racism a stain on their character. We know that it was responsible for the worst aspects of mankind’s behaviour and feel ashamed and sorry about it. While we know it should be a thing of the past we are still aware that it is encountered today and it continues to blight the lives of many. Few things are as unambiguously wrong, and potentially evil, as the belief that your race is superior to other races. It can be the first slipepry step on a slope that descends to barbarism. It is for this reason that we need to be vigilant and decry racism whenever it raises its head.Untitled picture

I was therefore distressed when I saw reports that there were calls to boycott H&M on account of a racist advert which I have included here. Normally I would not repeat a racist image or text but it is important in this case. I looked at the advert for quite a while trying to see the offense which was intended but failed. All I initially see was a handsome young man modelling a hoodie. I wondered if it was the association with the “hoodie” that was the problem but after reading the text and other articles I discovered that it was the slogan which was causing concern – “The coolest monkey in the jungle“.

The hoodie was part of a range that had the theme of animals and the jungle, some of the other hoodies had featured lions and giraffes and some had been modelled by young white kids. I discovered that the outrage was at the use of the word “monkey” in an advert using a young man of colour. Now lets be clear, the phrase “monkey” and “cheeky monkey” are commonly used to describe kids, especially boys, of any colour or race. It is an affectionate term and, at worst, the mildest of terms of opprobrium. I found it hard to see that this was an insult.

On reading further, it was clear that some people thought that this use of “monkey” and “jungle” was a slur on people of colour but one has to consider who has made this into a slur. It is inconceivable that H&M intended to insult its customers and estrange a large part of the buying public, especially as this advert was aimed at its South African market where they would be the majority of its customers. It would be for this reason that it had a young guy of colour as the model as previously they had been criticised for their lack of diversity in their models. Their intention would have been to be more diverse and more inclusive not to insult or mock.

This is reminiscent of when Benedict Cumberbatch said “I think as far as colored actors go it gets really difficult in the UK.” His intention had been to draw attention to the racism that exists in the media industry (Having just worked on the film “Ten Years a Slave”), but he was drawn over the coals and called a racist for the use of the term “colored”. No-one genuinely thought that he had racist intentions but some people thought that they could call out the race card and increase their own social standing.

This is what happened here. A number of celebrities saw the opportunity to use racism to further their own careers. Choreographer Somizi Mhlongo, the singer Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, Rapper Diddy,  and others saw the opportunity for cheap self-promotion through calls to boycott H&M. In their minds there was a connection between jungles, monkeys and young men of colour even if no-one else had thought this. They started the calls for attention, not so much to fix and evil, but to praise their vigilance and to raise their own profiles. Their campaign was vociferous and in a very unpleasant twist lead to the mother of the young boy in the advert being at the receiving end of racist abuse.

If there was racist thinking here, it was in the minds of those that started the campaign against this advert. It was they that thought such unworthy thoughts and it was they that tried to use the issue of race to their advantage : no-one else. As the boys mother said :-

“[I] am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled. Stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here. Get over it.”

 

She is also right on the big risk here. We all remember the little boy who cried wolf so often than when the wolf really did arrive nobody believed him. When people call “racist“, knowing that this was not intended nor the case, they make it more difficult to be aware and ready when the real call to action arises. Repeated false alarms lead people to ignore the warning signs. Watching what is happening in the world, in America and the Middle East especially, we know that racism is sometimes just bubbling under the surface of our lives. We need to remain vigilant and campaigns like this are a dangerous distraction we need to be able to hear the signal over the static.

I’d be tempted to boycott The Weeknd and Diddy to teach them a lesson but given I never buy any of their products anyway I guess it would have a negligible effect.

 

 

 

 

Boys will probably be boys.

Boys will probably be boys.

I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.

Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised  for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.

Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents  have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.

The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-

The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.

 and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged.  Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.