Reflections on the Brexit Referendum

(As ever here, un-proofed, unedited, and as is….)

The Daily Mash headline said it all. UK now officially assigned ‘clown country’ status.

The Mash has a habit of being spot on when it comes to the British cultural zeitgeist. For those not wholly familiar, it’s the Onion with more self-loathing (and all the better for it). Other than permanent joke status, Brexit has revealed a few interesting truths and brought some others into sharp focus. I didn’t want to write about it immediately. I have also been reluctant to take on the subject after a rather long hiatus from blogging (thanks damn promotion and extra responsibilities and adult shit). It’s a topic that everyone is currently doing to death (like a snuff film starring ‘Horizontal Breton Stripes’) whilst all the while doing greater justice to it than I will.

So yes, anyway, fear of globalization, the rise of nationalism in a world that is becoming post-national, sharp divides between interconnected cities and alienated hinterlands, the unintended consequences of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need for the right to offend and therefore discuss openly – else the publicly enforced taboos of ‘liberal fascism’ drive up pressure that then needs to finds a Haider, Trump or Farrage shaped valve.

So… in no real order and with little to really stitch this together, some thoughts…

We live in an echo chamber
Almost everyone I personally know expressed ‘surprise’. Investment banks were briefing their clients the night before that there was no chance that Britain would leave. Let me spell this out; if you were surprised, then it goes a long way to explaining why it happened. The ever-decreasing levels of social mobility make our peer groups ever less diverse. Universities, where many of those who were ‘surprised’ met their partners are increasingly stratified and less mixed. We spend most of our time with ‘people like us’.

Our information sources, digitally and socially plough and ever-narrower funnel thanks to an ever-fractalised media landscape that allows us to pick from more and more niche voices. I gave up reading the Guardian and follow UKIP-ers on Twitter to try and combat this very danger. Increasing choice means that we increasingly choose ‘people like us’ and voices that we agree with. Which means the grievances of so many, their fears, hopes, aspirations and ambitions are ignored by those who have never met someone like them and who are in positions of political, economic or cultural power.

This is bigger than how many Etonions are in the cabinet; its how many London-raised-lefty liberal are in our professional classes. From Westminster and Whitehall to the figurative ‘Fleet Street’ and ad agencies of Soho. The problem is as much in the middle as it is at the very top.

I’ll repeat the point in clearer terms – if you are angry with those who disagreed with you in this vote- you are an undemocratic, unfeeling, narrow-sighted fool, lacking in empathy and have undoubtedly helped cause this problem.
Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? Terribly

Debate is in the gutter
People, particularly those who align on the ‘lazy left’/’liberal fascist’ end of the spectrum – and I count myself as a rehabilitated past offender – are not willing to engage. Discussion has in the past been about testing and exploring ideas, using the didactic to torture test ideas; there is good Orwell quote in one of his essays about totalitarian ideas never taking root in Britain because of a natural skepticism towards dogmatic beliefs and principles. This is no longer the case. Rather than discuss, people draw lines in the sand. Those who don’t agree with you are idiots. Empathy and exchange has been sucked out of public politics and I have no idea how we get that back. No longer do people disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it, nor the obligation to constructively debate it.

In all honesty, I find that the left is guiltier of this, with smug assumptive assertions that usually start with “Of course we all know…”
I have had more personally rewarding and intellectually illuminating conversations with those who’s view lie far to the right of my own wooly, social-democratic thinking. Drawing battle lines doesn’t help people to progress or to get to solutions.

Truth is now multiple, not singular
Following on from the death constructive debate – the idea that two (or more) sides engaging with a subject matter, will through that dialectic move towards greater knowledge and human wisdom. Instead there has been a collapse in the hierarchy of information. Which has given us Citizen Journalism and SBTV. Which is awesome. But it has also led to the frightening but correct assertion by Micheal Gove that  “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Fragmented media landscape, collapsing barriers to ‘broadcasting’ (including in its widest sense, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other digital soapboxes) and decreasing trust in established sources leads to a vertical suspicion that undermines facts and the idea of a singular truth.

This is post-enlightenment skepticism on steroids, where once the questioning was meant to bring us to a higher truth, but instead now is an ends in itself. Doubt is cast over everything and people believe nothing. Everything is equally  (in)valid, negating debate and leaving us with the mudslinging, as above, and meaning that a new definition of a ‘fact’ is ‘something you say to support what you want to believe or hear’. This was put to great effect by the Brexit campaign itself. But they were right, once people stop believing in ‘expertise’ they rapidly get sick of experts, as we are all one now.
(I blame the internet – after all this is me pretending I am an expert whilst I type)

A victory for voting and a defeat for democracy?
An X in a box, particularly for a referendum is not where democracy starts and ends. But hopefully this can provide new impetus to rehabilitate some of the other key bits. Civil Society is as important as casting a vote, and we need to get broader engagement as well as a high caliber of debate. The potential split of the Labour party could be a huge boost for this, as would a move towards PR. However those I have spoken to who from mainstream Labour and the Corbyn side are behaving like toddlers. The talk is possessive – lots of ‘our party’ ‘the people’. It sounds dangerously like the language of totalitarianism on both sides. Its not going to help get over the long-term decline in respect for politicians. Lets not forget if they were really greedy and self-interested, there are easier, less high profile and high-pressure ways to get ones snout in much bigger troughs. Likewise the press needs to raise its game. For all the issues with phone hacking and ethics, the UK press is one of the most vibrant in the world and is a key element of an active functioning democracy. With gutter debate, multiple truth and journalists in their own echo chamber we need Fleet Street to up its game and provide clear voices to provoke constructive debate and honest reporting that can begin to rehabilitate the quaint old notion of a ‘fact’. Never let a good story get in the way of a truth?

Currently resident in Singapore, I have to constantly defend the idea of democracy because we got the ‘wrong answer’. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that there is a ‘wrong answer’ in a popular vote, but I do believe that the rest of our public sphere needs rehabilitation

Remainers will leave
Whether geo-politically in the case of Scotland, rhetorically and culturally in the case of London, or literally in the case of many of those individuals who voted for their own transnational world view; those who see themselves as a citizen of the world as well as a subject of Britain will be making their own Brexits. The last category, the individuals who cause the spike in emigration searches, is in many respects the most worrying. It is those who are most mobile, most globally marketable and potentially most valuable to a Splendid Isolation global trading Britain who will be first out the door.

Conversely the influx that has made Britain so vibrant and has fuelled growth will stop. Whether the laws change or not, the rhetoric, no matter how many times Sadiq might say otherwise is that we are closed, and that is a dangerous position for a country who’s most important export in the 21st century is ideas

Photojournalism, Ethics and Truth

Is truth a feeling? Can a photograph ever be honest? These were the questions that were never asked, but were ringing in my ears when I left the World Press Photo panel discussion on Ethics and photo-journalism, ironically held in Singapore and ‘sponsored by the Straits Times’, as our moderator managed to tell us repeatedly with a knowing smirk.

I would like to say at this point, that I am an outsider. I do not take pictures, let alone make photos and I have a huge amount of resepct for the profession, which is why I think unpicking what was really going in is fascinating and yield some significant insight into the state of photos and photojournalists.

The discussion itself was fascinating and I am sure there are many good précis’ of the comments from Sim Chi Yin, Sarker Protick and Pete Muller, all three of whom are hugely respected, immensely talented and with unimpeachable integrity. But the most interesting part was the narrative arc that was formed as the panel discussion went on. Taking the starting point as the recent jump in detection of photo manipulation, all three were robust in their defence of the profession against manipulation, both digital as well as the much harder to detect, but far more insidious staging of shots. Yet, as the talk went on, the clarity of ethical lines being drawn became increasingly blurred.

The pieces of their own work that they shared mid way through the talk all contained as much of them as it did their subject. From Ms Sim’s incredibly moving story of Chinese gold miners suffering from silicosis, to Protick’s intimate portraits of his ageing grandparents, or Muller’s work looking at the masculinity and violence. It was their very involvement that made them moving. As the panelists themselves said, the decisions they took before and right up to the moment of shooting, as well as the editorial and selection decisions made afterwards, their role was to make sense of the story or to create one out of the disparate pieces. Now as an outsider, this act of storytelling is in itself a manipulation of sorts. As they went on to talk about how they ‘make’  (not take) picture, it struck me that the ethical lines that they had started off drawing – never stage, only ever correct in post, don’t alter, no cloning etc. – were more like arbitrary guardrails than hard and fast rules. Though the wire photographers of AP and the like have strict guidelines, many publications do not, and with such a proliferation of photo makers and takers, the hard rules in one part of the industry meant nothing to another.

Thinking about it in historical context, the idea that, face with ‘new’ manipulation there is a need to uphold and enshrine the eternal ethical code of the press photo seems almost laughable. This is not to say that there are no ethics, but rather it is an individual act of conscious and what the rules are in any situation change shot by shot. Ever since someone first picked up a camera to tell a real story, we have all been manipulated. The photograph is possibly the single most effective means of deception. Shot choice, framing, captioning, what you choose to omit from a visual story all helps build a deceit that look like a truth. In light of this the quest to uphold ethics seems quixotic. And this is before we even get into the modern technical ability to manipulate which the initial discussion was so preoccupied with, but somehow seems the least interesting part, or the eternal, psychological one – the Hawthorne-effect inducing presence of the camera and its wielder on their subject. All this is even before we begin to ponder why the photographer has picked up their camera in the first place. This is not to say that I resent their view, opinion or prejudices, but rather to acknowledge that you take those with you, whether you want to or not when you head into field. Arguably, it is those views that make for the best photographs. If there wasn’t that thinking, those convictions, agendas, even, then all photos would be equally mediocre.

The photo itself is never just the photo either. By going into the industry, you are entering into a socio-historical discourse; the mythology of Magnum and the iconography of the past. You are not just capturing an event; you are entering a live discussion about what even constitutes an event, what counts as history. Powerful decisions to make. And with that great power comes great responsibility. And it is that responsibility that leads so many to take the profession so seriously, and rightly so. Every time they go out and shoot, these photo journalists are making decisions that should not be taken lightly, and there are no clear cut rules… So why the big push for codification now?

Fundamentally, the push for codified ethics in their industry is not about manipulation and questions of values but about profound questions of professionalism. The problem with digital is not the proliferation of manipulation, but the proliferation of photographers.  Equipment has not only got cheaper, it has also made taking photos easier. The craft skills are being eroded by the efficiency, accuracy and ease of a DSLR compared with taking actual photos  – I occasionally use a new digital professional camera and once in the past took up an old East German Werra 35mm camera for a summer, and other than both capturing images, they have nothing in common; like the difference between a model T Ford and a self-driving car. Couple that with cheap airfares and a huge increase in affluence and travel, every kid with a Canon and an appetite for destruction things their Robert Capa. Just look at the sales figures for Leica-badged digital camera. All this tech is eroding the craft making it easier to take good pictures, and very few of us can actual tell the difference between the good and the great anyway. It is worse for photojournalist that writers even. I can’t put this piece through Aftereffects and stop it from being mediocre. Faced with this a Guild-like codification serves the purpose of protecting their livelihoods from erosion by Amateur-enthusiasts, but more importantly, allowing them to vocalize their integrity. For it is a question of integrity, not ethics. The ethics has always been blurred of going to war, famine, suffering disaster, misery or just common garden sadness, joy or fear. Profiting from evoking human emotion is a difficult line to tread, but one that I am happy that the professionals do, in the name of educating, teaching helping us to understand the world and ourselves through these events. It has always bee about integrity, as there can be no hard rules in these situations. So the subjective values of the photographer are the only thing there to guide. I think we should celebrate that.

The best photographs help us feel something that we struggle to comprehend. They do not paint 1000 words, they evoke an emotion. And delivering emotional truth, telling a story from the complexity of these situations requires enlightened subjectivity. It requires the first manipulation of picking up the camera. All subsequent manipulations after that pale into insignificance. I understand the desire for some kind of code, but I feel it does the talent of these visual storytellers a disservice.

Wikipedia and the Ministry of Truth

There has been much attention in the press over a certain Wiki. The Wikileaks affair has raised questions over what counts as journalistic freedom, and what is simply sensationalism, revelation, or open-source espionage. I feel after such an expectant sentence, I should at least lay out my stall before I go on. I think the suppression of the website is outrageous, and gives America no leg to stand on when it turns round and tells China that it should allow greater journalistic freedom. I am inclined to agree with Clay Shirky’s post and position myself on the side of free speech with some reservation. I also think that just dumping a database of leaked documents online isn’t really journalism.

Traditionally great journalists have decided when to use a leak and when to hold, what is of interest and what will not only make mediocre news, but be detrimental for a more general interest. Now before I head down some mystic, quasi-rousseauian route of the free press as diviner of the general will, I will admit that maybe that leaves too much responsibility with the journalists to shape thought. We should all be allowed to discover and express truth for ourselves. But we never consider that we leave to much responsibility with teachers to shape young minds. Let’s just hope our press isn’t like US schools on some things

Wikileaks isn’t the Wiki that I am concerned with today, though editorial licence, journalistic controls, and potential monopolies on truth are on the agenda.

When Wikipedia came into being in 2001, it was arguably the first major application of crowdsourcing. Though a study by Nature reported that it was no more inaccurate than the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, vandalism of the site raises some interesting questions about the very nature of truth in these early years of a true time of ‘The internet:IRL’- when online and offline are distinctions that become less relevant. A growing number of university essays, professional presentations and knowledge in general circulation and parlance seems to spring forth from this miasma. When people want to find something out, about history, politics, companies, products or things, they google it, or look at wikipedia.

Even tools online that are there to make our world clearer could be manipulated. Looking to see where a street is on Google Maps, the image could be out of date or doctored or even removed. An chunk of Baghdad that was bombed could still look as it did only minutes earlier, with children playing in the street…

Okay, so that is perhaps a little far fetched, but it wouldn’t take much for someone to adjust an entry for your company or brand online, alter reality essentially. After all, celebrities have woken up to their own deaths as twitter trending topics. Especially as we rely more and more on living in the ‘The internet:IRL’ hybrid space that gradually encroaches more and more on our lives.

To understate the importance of the Internet would be churlish. It may the most important thing to happen to the written word since Gutenburg. But just as moveable type helped end an ecclesiastical monopoly on misinformation, the growth of the web starts a fire-sale on opinion. This doesn’t mean that there should be limits on what people can express whenever and however they like. It is one of the most liberating things about the web. But establishing some way to verify reality, remembering that ‘another website’ is not an attributable source may make sure that the digital layers of our lives aid and abet our IRL elements, rather than  allowing a kind of crowd sourced version of Air Strip One’s Ministry of Truth.

A vision that is closer than we may imagine when we consider that 50% of edits are done by around 0.7% of users. Doubleplusungood, very doubleplusungood…

Data and Truth

‘We created more data in 2009 than in the last 5000 years of human history’

These words came from Dave Evans, the Chief Futurist at Cisco, who I somehow feel I have more belief in than the misleadingly named Faith Popcorn and her BrainReserve. There may be many things to take up against Cisco, but I feel that they are generally not in the line of hiring self-aggrandising nutters…

This is a fascinating statistic, not least because most of this data is just that, in its original, Latin sense, ‘what is given’ and whether we want it or not -ranging readings from sensors in defunct, yet still active weather sensors, to the 5000 photos you saved from your night out, two of which you may put on your facebook page ( and incidentally reconfigure and multiply the data again.) All being catalogued indiscriminately.

So what is given, information, facts, content, and of these things, is now given very much freely. This calls for a new art. In a world of permanent partial attention, while I type this with one eye on the qual interviews I did this weekend at the Nurburgring for our automotive client, listening to an album which is new at least to me and flick through my emails on a third screen, the greatest skill we can possess in life is not knowing things, but knowing where to find these things.

Creative Googleing becomes an art, finding out the obscure sideways ways in which we can combine words in the search engine to find the obscure ( and I mean the beyond-wikipedia-niche-obscure) trivia and facts.

Of course this leaves us open pissing in the wind. In a Faustian pact with urabndictionary.com, I am now on their email list in exchange for them listing my entry ( its ‘Brockwile,’ shout out to anyone who bigs up the jungle vibe), but on one of their daily update, something did catch my eye. The reference was to ‘book-google’ something- to look up in a book when you can’t get reception on your smart phone. Mildly amusing, but raises an interesting point. We are generating so much data on the internet. Facts and figures that are manipulable, malleable, and in some case just factually incorrect.

63% of all sparrows are left-taloned, as we see from observing how they collect sticks and build their nests, the highest proportion of any species of animal.

I can attribute this to no-one, but I could have said it came from research carried out by the RSPCB. Would this have got repeated? Probably not. No-one reads my blog, and certainly no-one interested in birds, but in the right context maybe. Wikipedia is highly policed, and even that is open to abuse. I read history at university, and their were things that I read in the course of my studies when double checking my own facts which made me think twice about using it for anything.

We see how internet rumour can end up with real ‘fake’ stories in newspapers. Far more serious is that as we digitise our own past, we open it up to an Orwellian manipulation.

Remember, 63% of Sparrows, you heard it here first.