The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. Summary of Chapter 4: The Deepening Page

How the book played a fundamental role in shaping Western civilization.

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Chapter Four: The Deepening Page

For my summary of chapter three, please click here

Shallows Carr Book SummaryIn this chapter Nicholas Carr covers the evolution of writing technologies and their impacts on the human brain and the development of knowledge.

When people first began to write, they simply scratched their marks on anything that was convenient, such as smooth faced rocks, or strips of bark.

The Sumerians were the first to use a specialised medium for writing: specially prepared blocks of clay, and then the Egyptians began manufacturing papyrus scrolls around 2500 BC.

The problem with scrolls is that they were expensive, but the development of the wax tablet meant writing technologies spread to more people: these were much cheaper than scrolls as they could be wiped clean and thus reused. In order to store lengthier texts people would lash together several wax tablets.

The wax tablet also served as the model for the first book. This was created by an anonymous Roman artisan who first lashed together several sheets of parchment between a pair of rigid rectangles of leather to create it.

However, it wasn’t until the introduction of the printing press in the mid 15th century that the book found its perfect medium. The printing press led to a ‘virtuous cycle’ in which the increased availability of books further stimulated demand for books.

The 16th century saw the printing press go global and the first great flowering of printed literature: from Shakespeare to Milton and from Bacon to Descartes. Of course, there was also more ‘tawdry’ literature available, but this just help spread literacy to the masses.

Carr argues that the arrival of movable-type printing was a central event in the history of Western culture and the development of the Western mind.

For the medieval type of brain according got J.Z. Young, making true statements depended on fitting sensory experience with the symbols of religion. The letterpress changed that: As books became common, men could look more directly at each other’s observations, with a great increase in the accuracy and content of the information.

The social and cultural consequences were as widespread as they were profound….. reading and writing became two main attributes of citizenship in a new ‘republic of letters’.

Carr now argues that there is something of an intimate relationship between a writer and a book, and a reader and a book: the book encourages a focussed and sustained intellectual effort in a way that simply was not possible before the invention of the book.

To read a book, at least one of the great literary works, one must follow an argument, a sustained narrative… this encourages intellectual development.

Simply put, our great literary tradition of the last 400 years simply would not have existed without the technology of the book and the influence this had on the ‘neural pathways’ of so many of our great writers.

However, with the infiltration of media and especially 2.0 technologies into the mainstream, the pathways of our brain are once again changing.

For my summary of chapter five please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The Shallows (2010) Nicholas Carr. Summary of Chapter Three: Tools of the Mind

Nicholas Carr argues that intellectual technologies have been crucial for the development of modern science and civilization.

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter two, please click here!)

Conceptualizing the evolution of technology

Our intellectual maturation can be traced by looking at the way we draw pictures. Infants scrawl down only a very rough visual representation of what they see, as we get older, we develop the ability to represent pictures more accurately, with scientific precision.

This ‘artistic maturation’ process seems to mirror Jean Piaget’s evolutionary model of cognitive development within children:

  1. In very young children’s pictures there is no recognition of perspective or depth.
  2. As children mature, they develop a greater sense of intellectual realism – pictures display a greater degree of proportionality.
  3. Finally, children develop a sense of intellectual realism – they employ abstract scientific measurements to make their pictures even more accurate.

The above process of individual development also seems to mirror the evolution of map making in society:

  1. The very first maps were simply scrawls in the dirt.
  2. Over many centuries these maps became more accurate and increasingly sophisticated scientific measurements were employed to portray regions with more precision.
  3. Finally, maps were developed to display abstract ideas in an efficient form, as with the London Tube Map for example.
london tupe map.jpg
The London tube map – changing the way we perceive space?

These historical advances in cartography didn’t simply mirror the development of the human mind. They helped change the human mind. The more frequently and intensively people used maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the maps’ terms.

The upside of this is that people are generally now more able to comprehend (unconsciously?) the unseen forces that shape their existence, because so many modern maps represent areas which we do not see in our day to day lives.

What the map did for space, the clock did for time….

For most of human history, time was experienced as cyclical phenomenon, dictated by agrarian rhythms, and it ‘flowed’ rather than being divided into abstract chunks.

All that started to change in the later half of the Middle Ages when monks started to demand more rigorous time keeping methods following an edict from Saint Benedict which stipulated that prayer should take place at specified times of the day. This spurred on the development of clocks which measured time.

As commerce, industrialisation and urbanisation took place, clock-time became increasingly important to co-ordinate the activities of business. And the units of time by which we measured things became smaller too…hours became minutes became seconds.

As clocks became smaller and watches became more popular, clock time infiltrated into our daily lives.

The clock profoundly changed the way we thought – it made us perceive reality as broken up into discrete measurable chunks, all divisible into further sub-units.

As Lewis Mumford said in ‘Technics and Civilization’, the clock ‘helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. The ‘abstract framework of divided time’ became ‘the point of reference for both action and thought’.

Categories of human technology

Carr suggests that there are four categories of human technology, divided according to how they support our amplify our native capacities.

Technologies which enhance physical strength include the plough, the ruck sack, the fighter jet.

Technologies which enhance the sensitivity of our senses – the microscope and the amplifier for example.

Technologies which reshape nature to better serve our needs and desires – such as genetically modified crops or contraceptive technologies such as the pill (heralding in the age of ‘plastic sexuality’, to coin one of Anthony Gidden’s phrases.)

Finally, there are intellectual technologies, which extend our mental powers to find and classify information, to take measurements and make calculations and even to formulate and articulate ideas. Carr provides many examples of intellectual technologies including: the clock, the map, the typewriter, the abacus, the sextant, newspapers, schools, library, the computer and the internet.

intellectual technologies examples.png

All technologies are an expression of human will, and all change us to an extent, but is intellectual technologies which affect us the most deeply. It is these that transform the very way we perceive our place in the world, and the ways in which we express ourselves.

Technological determinism versus Instrumentalism

There is an ongoing debate over the extent to which technology shapes the individual. Technological determinists argue that by and large technology shapes the individuals. This view is like that of structuralist sociologists who argue that society shapes the individual. Exponents of this view include Veblen, Marx himself, and McLuhan.

Instrumentalists take the contrary view and argue that individuals play more of an active role in using technologies, and effectively have control over technology rather than being controlled by it.

So who is right? It depends on your analytical focus…

If you look at any particular technology at a particular time, then the instrumentalist view seems to be right. For example, the Amish have successfully resisted the use of many technologies into their culture.

However, if you take a broader, more general and historical perspective, then it is hard to argue that we choose not to use widely adopted technologies such as the clock, the map, the school or the internet.

As Landgon Winner puts it:

‘Though we’re rarely conscious of the fact, many of the routines of our lives follow paths laid down by technologies that came into use long before we were born’.

The social consequences of technology

The debate between technological determinists and instrumentalists is unlikely to be solved any time soon. This is probably because the stance one takes depends on the broad or narrow perspective which one has already subscribed to.

However, most of us can agree on the fact that that technological advances are often turning points in human history. It is hard to imagine modern civilization without technology.

Carr states that it is harder to measure the historical impact of technological developments on the neurocircuitry of the human brain. This is because, up until very recently, we simply haven’t had any way of measuring micro-level changes to the human brain.

However, the recent findings which support neuroplasticity (outlined above) suggest that the brain is extremely malleable. It is therefore reasonable to posit that with every mass adoption of a new intellectual technology such as the clock, map, or internet, there is a parallel mass re-wiring of our neural circuitry.

Each new technological development has influenced how we find, store and interpret information, how we direct our attention and how we remember and forget. New technologies have also influenced how we interact with others. In short, new technologies favour certain mental traits, leaving others to fade away.

Carr further suggests that we hand down our habitual neural patterns to our children, which are further reinforced by schooling and the media. Genetic traits matter little in establishing the general neurological zeitgeist, it would seem.

Nicholas Carr devotes the rest of the chapter to an account of how intellectual technologies may have shaped people’s mental capacities in a very broad sense.

He theorises that the development of the alphabet and of a written, rather than an oral culture represented fundamental evolutionary shifts in human social development. A literate culture (rather than an oral one) was necessary as a basis for modern science.

He generally seems to believe that writing enhances human consciousness

summary of chapter four please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

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The Vital Paths, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr: Summary of Chapter 2

This is my summary of chapter two of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr. (For my summary of chapter 1, please click here!)

Friedrich Nietzsche suffered from severe health problems through most of his life, so severe that he had to resign his university post as a professor of philology at the University of Basel when he was just 34 years old in 1879.

By 1881, he found that his vision was failing and that if tried to focus on reading or writing, he would soon be defeated by crushing headaches and even vomiting.

In desperation, he ordered a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, basically a typewriter, but funky in the extreme, and in fact the fastest one made to date: with practice one could type up to 800 characters a minute.

The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball

This typewriter saved Nietzsche, at least for a time, as once he’d learned to use it, he was able to transfer words from his mind to the page with his eyes shut, thus avoiding the crippling headaches that came with regular writing.

But the device had a subtler effect on his work: one of his closest friends, Heinrich Koselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. There was a new forcefulness to it, as though the iron in the machine was being transferred onto the page.

Nietzsche agreed, stating in a letter to his friend that ‘out writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts’.

Recent studies have found that neurons are both like and unlike other cells in our bodies. Neurons have central cores, or somas, which carry out the functions of common to all cells, but they also have two kinds of tentacle like appendages – axons and dendrites – that transmit and receive electric pulses.

When a neuron is active, a pulse flows from the soma to the tip of the axon, where it triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which flow across synapses and attach themselves to a dendrite of a neighbouring neuron, triggering (or suppressing) a new electric pulse in that cell.

There are 100 billion neurons in the human brain, which take many different shapes and range in length from a few tenths of a millimeter to a few feet. A single neuron has one axon, and many dendrites and dendrites and axons can each have multiple branches and synaptic terminals.

The average neuron makes about 1000 synaptic connections.

In other words, our brain is incredibly complex, consisting of millions of billions of connections.

Thoughts, memories, emotions, and basically our entire sense of who we are all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons mediated by synapses.

The historically mistaken idea of the ‘mechanical brain’

Throughout the 20th century, most biologists and neurologists continued to believe, as many still do, that the structure of adult brain never changed: the brain was viewed as something which was malleable in childhood but became fixed in adulthood. The only structural change the brain would go through was that of decay.

There were a few heretics such as British biologist J.Z. Young and psychologist William James, but the mainstream scientific view was of the fixed structure adult brain.

Descartes was one of the first people to popularise this idea. For Descartes, in his Meditations of 1641 he claimed the brain consisted of two separate spheres: the material and the ethereal. Descartes saw the physical brain as purely mechanical instrument like a clock or a pump, while the conscious mind was more ethereal…

As reason became more part of the enlightenment, the idea of the ethereal disappeared and the idea of the brain as something which was hardwired took root.

This conception fitted in well with the industrial age obsession with mechanical contraptions. The brain was conceived of a machine that worked in a set way.

From the hardwired brain to neuroplasticity 

In 1968, Michael Merzenich mapped out the neural circuitry of monkey brains, using micro-electrodes.

He cut open a monkey’s skull, inserted a micro-electrode into a particular part of the brain he new to be associated with hands. He then prodded various parts of the monkey’s hand until the electrode lit up. He repeated this process thousands of times, inserting the electrode into slightly different parts of the brain, with five monkeys. Eventually he had the most detailed neural map (to date) of which specific parts of the brain registered sensation from which part of the hand.

In the second phase of the experiment, Merzenich moves on to severing some of the peripheral nerves in the monkeys’ hands, which grow back haphazardly.

He then proceeded with the prodding and electrodes in the brain to see how the brain reacts. At first the brain is confused: when the tip of the left finger is prodded (for example), the brain thinks the sensation is actually coming from somewhere else, maybe the middle finger.

However, after a few months the brain has remapped itself, and the new map corresponds to the new nerve structure which has grown back in the hands: prod a little finger, and the part of the brain associated with the little finger lit up again.

What Merzenich had discovered was evidence of neuroplasticity in mature primates.

He published his findings in April 1972 in the Journal ‘Brain Research’, but his findings were ignored, it seems, because they lay outside the dominant paradigm of the time which held that the adult brain was immutable and resistant to change.

He persisted in his research, and uncovered further evidence of neuroplasticity, but his findings were ignored for at least a decade more. In 1983 he wrote in another journal…

‘…. these results were completely contrary to a view of sensory systems as consisting of a series of hardwired machines.’

Eventually, however, Merzenich’s research gained credibility with the establishment, and a re-reading of the research-record finds a tradition of ‘deviants’, going back to Freud, that have either theorised or found evidence of the active-learning, ‘neuroplastic’ brain.

More recent evidence for neuroplasticity

From the 1980s research on neuroplasticity evolved with ever more microscopic brain probing equipment, and extensive research has now been carried out on both animals and humans. The evidence today suggests a very high degree of brain plasticity in several neuro circuits – not just those associated with physical sensation, but also seeing hearing, feeling and memory.

Our brains, it appears, are massively plastic. They may get less plastic as we age, but the ability of our brains to reform themselves and create new new neural pathways in response to new experiences carries on into our old age. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created.

Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated… as the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful. What we learn is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our head, forming true vital paths. This has become known as Hebbs rule – cells that fire together wire together.

One experiment which demonstrate how synaptic connections can change in relation to experience is Eric Kandel’s Sea Slug (Aplysia) experiment. This found that if you touch a sea slugs gill, it will normally immediately and reflexively recoil. However, if you repeatedly touch the gill without oing it harm, ,the recoil reaction stops.

Neuroplasticity: common ground for nature and nurture views of human development

The plasticity of our synapses brings into harmony two philosophies of the individual that have for centuries been in conflict: the nurture versus nature view of the mind.

This conflict of views stretches all the way back to very beginning of Enlightenment thought. John Locke’s Tabula Rasa empiricist view of the individual as a blank state is one of the earliest expressions of the nurture view of human development, while Kant’s rationalist view of the individual as consisting of a mental template at birth which determines what we can know is one of the earliest theories of human development which favours the role of nature over nurture.

The opposing philosophies of the empiricist and the rationalist find common ground in the synapse – our genes specify many of the connections between neurons, but our experiences regulate the strength or the long-term effectiveness of these connections.

The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be…… the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. There are various examples and experiments which demonstrate this:

  • If a person is struck blind, the visual cortex will be redeployed and used for audio processing to mitigate the loss of site.
  • Those struck deaf will develop stronger peripheral vision.
  • Edward Taub’s success with ‘intensive therapies’ for stroke victims whose brains have been damaged so that they have lost control over one side of their body. His therapies basically involve stroke victims repeating repetitive tasks with their ‘stricken’ limbs until, eventually their brains are reprogrammed, and movement restored.

NB Brain plasticity is not just limited to extreme cases. It seems that the map of the brain is changed in subtle ways even when we simply learn a new skill. The brain is so plastic, in fact, that it can reprogram itself on the fly, change the way it functions.

Two experiments which suggest that lived experience changes the shape of the brain….

  • The posterior hippocampus region (the bit that deals with spatial awareness) of the brain of London cab drivers is larger than a normal brain. The longer serving cab drivers had the largest posterior hippos.
  • An experiment with non-piano players got two groups of people to learn a short simple piece. One group practiced the piece 2 hours a day for 5 days, the second group just imagined practising the piece. Both improved, and both demonstrated the same brain changes.

According to Alvaro Pascual-Leone, ‘Plasticity is the normal ongoing state of the nervous system throughout the lifespan’. It may just be that the genius of our brains lies not in it’s complex structure, but in the lack of a structure.

In other words, we become neurologically what we think!

The downsides of neuroplasticity

Unfortunately, plastic does not mean elastic.

The paradox of plasticity is that for all our mental flexibility, it can also lock us into rigid behaviours. Once we have activated new circuitry in our brain, we long to keep it activated. In addition to being the mechanism for development and learning, plasticity can be a cause of pathology’.

Neuroplasticity has been linked to afflictions such as depression, OCD and tinnitus, and it works in much the same way as addictive drugs… the more we focus on these negative traits, the more we get locked into them.

A final problem is that there appears to be a rule of ‘survival of the busiest’. There is an opportunity cost associated with reinforcing any set of neural pathways. If we reinforce one set, others become less prominent. In other words, we cannot be skilled at everything!

In conclusion (to chapter 2)

It is comforting to think of our brain as existing in ‘splendid isolation’ but the research evidence suggests that this is not the case – our brains are a product of our experience. They change as we experience new things.

For my summary of chapter three, please click here. To purchase the whole book, please click the link below…

Image Sources 

The Enlightenment mind as machine image

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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:  How the internet is changing the way think. A summary of chapter 1

This is my summary of chapter one of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, by Nicholas Carr.

Carr has an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, is remapping the neural circuitry in his brain. He feels as if he’s not thinking the way he used to think.

He says that he used to find it easy to immerse himself in a book, but that’s rarely the case anymore… his concentration drifts after a page or two and he starts looking for something else to do. Deep reading used to be easy, now it’s a struggle.

He believes this is because he spends a lot of time online, surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the net.

He notes that ‘the Net has become my all-purpose medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind’ (hardly surprising giving the sheer amount of ‘functions’ that are now facilitated online!)

He notes that there are positives to the internet – having so much information to hand is very convenient and means we can think and work more efficiently. He also recognises that skim-reading short snippets of lots of articles probably makes us more creative, as this encourages us to make a greater diversity of linkages between different information sets.

However, the positives come at a price. McLuhan noted that media shape process of thought as well as supplying us with material to think about, and Carr thinks that the net is chipping away at his ability to concentrate and contemplate… Once he was like a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now he zips along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.

He is not the only one who believes that the internet is changing the way he thinks: friends have made similar observations as have various bloggers. For example, Bruce Friedman who blogs about the use of computers points out that he skim-reads even short blog posts and his thinking has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality.

Phillip Davis (among many others) points to the advantages of ‘skimming’ lots of articles – believing it makes us more efficient and creative than the older linear ways of reading and thinking. Others believe the net has made books superfluous.

A research study by nGenera which interviewed six thousand members of what it called ‘Generation net’ found that young people don’t even read a page from left to right or top to bottom, they skip around, scanning it for areas of interest. It truly appears that the net is changing the way we absorb information.

Even though there are different degrees of net usage, what is clear is that for society as a whole, the net has become the communication and information medium of choice… we have embraced its uniquely rapid-fire mode of collecting and dispensing information. This transformation is profound, and so are its likely impacts.

We seem to have arrived at an important juncture in our cultural history – we are trading away our old linear thought process, calm focused and undistracted. These are being replaced by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better.

Ever since Guttenberg’s printing press, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science and society. It’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind!

Carr was born in 1959 and noes that for Baby Boomers and Generation Xrs, life began in the analogue age and gradually transitioned to the digital age from the 1980s onward.

He was an English major at Dartmouth college and outlines how in the late 1970s he spent most of his time working towards his degree in the library, rather than in the cutting edge (at the time) computer center.

He says that he didn’t feel the anxiety of information overload symptomatic of today’s online age despite the tens of thousands of books in the library. ‘Take your time, the books used to say to him, we’re not going anywhere’.

He now takes us through his own personal history of his ever-increasing engagement with computers… From his first purchase of a mac Plus in 1986; getting caught up in the ‘upgrade cycle’ in the mid-1990s; getting online for the first time by installing Netscape in 1995; and then broadband, Napster, Google, YouTube, and the rest…

When the net went Web 2.0 in 2005, he became a social networker, and a content generator, benefiting from the new ease of access to information and reduced barriers to publication afforded by new modes of connectivity.

However, by 2007 he realised that his brain was ‘hungry’… it was demanding to be fed in the way the next fed it…. in 2-minute chunks.

The internet was changing him into a high-speed data processing machine… being connected had made him want to be connected constantly… he wanted to check emails even when he was offline.

Ultimately Carr notes that… ‘The computer…. Was more than just a simple tool that did what you told it to do. It was a machine that, in subtle but unmistakable ways, exerted influence over you…. The more I used it, the more it altered the way I worked.’

For my summary of chapter two please click here. To purchase the book (it’s a cracking read!) please click below!

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The social causes of the California wild fires

The California Wild Fires are typically reported as being caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors. Mainstream news reports tend to focus on how a conflation of a lack of rain, humid conditions, and fierce winds results in these dramatic, and unpredictable fires.

California wild fires certainly appear to be newsworthy, in that they tick many of the news values used by news agencies to determine what should be aired. California fires are dramatic, visual, involve an elite nation, and are often personable: if they’re not threatening a town, we can always focus on the brave bush firemen.

Challenging the envirocentric narrative 

However, I think we need to challenge the mainstream narrative that California wild fires are purely natural events.

If we dig a little deeper, we find that this ‘environment centric’ view is misleading as human social factors are just as much a cause.

Gegory L Simon argues that wildfires in California are just as much a result of reckless human development decisions as they are due to environmental conditions.

Authorities all around California have agreed permission for development to take place on areas they new were high fire risk. He further argues that authorities turn a blind eye to the fire risks because of the huge profits to be made from building houses in California.

Evidence for this lies in the simple fact of the increasing costs of dealing with fires in California…

One would have thought it sensible to stop developing in areas where there appears to be an increasing fire risk. Or if not, at the very least, we could be more honest about the fact that there is a human cause’ to these fires, rather than it just being purely down to environmental factors!

Then again, I guess deluding ourselves with the later explanation is more comforting.

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Sources

If you want to explore this issue further, I suggest reading the following two critical articles

The Conversation – Don’t Blame California Wild Fires on a Perfect Storm of Weather Events

The Atlantic – Power Lines are Burning the West

Federal Fire Fighting Costs 

Image Source 

 

Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom – ‘Distraction Politics’ of the very highest order?

The British Press have been all over Donald Trump’s four day visit to the United Kingdom… but predictably the focus has been mostly on the trivial details of the itinerary, the ‘intense’ security surrounding the event and Trump’s ‘outrageous’ off-the-cuff comments about Brexit, rather than on the substance of Trump’s pro hard-Brexit arguments or on the logic behind why thousands of people are protesting about his being here.

The BBC News coverage, for example, made a great deal out of the stringent security methods surrounding Trump’s first visit, and there was lots of coverage of Trump ‘in transit’ to various elegant places, such as Blenheim Palace, where we were reminded that while this wasn’t a state visit Trump still gets the Grenadier Guards playing the national anthem, a full-on Banquet, and he gets to meet the Queen.

Trump UK state visit.png

There was, of course, coverage of the protestors outside Blenheim palace, where a couple of them told us that they didn’t like the politics he represented, or his misogynistic and racist attitudes, but this was largely stripped of any deeper logic or substance.

There was also lots of commentary on the (non)-content of the interview Trump gave to The Sun Newspaper on Thursday 12 July during which he criticised Theresa May for not listening to his advice on Brexit and pursuing a ‘soft-brexit’, suggesting that this would now mean that a ‘trade-deal’ with the USA would be very unlikely, and even lamenting the fact that Boris Johnson had stepped down from Politics, stating that he would make a great ‘Prime Minister’.

According to Chomsky, the function of such ‘outrageous comments’ is to keep ‘all eyes on Trump’ and to distract us from the wider neoliberal republican (and Tory) agenda which seeks to dismantle government protections for the average working person, and make it easier for elites to destroy people and planet for short term profit.

Chomsky outlines his views in this video, and I suggest everyone watches it:

Chomsky makes some pretty ‘hardline claims’ in this video, mainly that in reality Trump is part of a broader republican administration who knows exactly what they are doing: they have an extremely neo-liberal agenda to dismantle every part of government which protects the poor and the planet. In America the Republic Government is currently doing this, by taking away workers rights, pollution laws, consumer protections and by basically destroying the planet for short term profit.

The function of Trump needs to be understood in this context: all the time we focus on him and his personalised politics, we are not focussing on the real issues: the fact that the Republican Party are the most dangerous organised institution in human history, worse than the Nazis: because the Nazis never actually intended to destroy all life on earth for their short term gain, only some lives! (NB these are Chomsky’s words – in the video- not mine!)

Back to the media coverage of Trump – the subtle art of distraction away from the harsh realities of neoliberal politics?

Here I just want to focus on how the BBC coverage distracts us, both in the US and the UK…don’t forget that any 10 minute news item could focus on any aspect of the issue….

Firstly, at least 20% of the coverage is on triviality – itineraries, security, personalities, which has nothing to do with politics. Time wasted here.

Secondly, Trump’s comments in The Sun give us a distorted idea of how politics work – he personalises politics – giving us the impression that Theresa May is ‘free’ to heed his advice or not, that’s not how politics works, individuals are generally much more constrained.

Thirdly, Trump greatly simplifies the issues…. As he’s got the power to decide whether or not the USA does a trade deal with the UK… it’s the republican party more generally that decides that, remember he’s embedded in a power elite, he’s not a ‘lone operator’…. However, in the media, he appears like a lone operator, that’s why the elite love him so much, it’s just total obfuscation.

Fourthly…. Trump today (Friday, one day after) actually called his interview with The Sun ‘Fake News’ and denied criticizing Theresa May, even though the whole thing is recorded: another great distraction tactic, keeping the media focused on him, again away from the issues.

Fifthly… some protesters are protesting because they are against precisely the reality that Chomsky points out…. They are against people destroying the planet for the short term gain of an extremely wealthy ultra-minority. Yet does the media tell us this: no – most people are there protesting because they don’t like Donald Trump the man, the misogynist, again personalising and individualising the issues which are fundamentally social.

I’ll leave it there for today, just a few comments to illustrate what  Chomskian analysis of the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s visit to the UK might look like!

Picture Sources

All pictures screen captured from BBC News at 10.00, Thursday 12th July.

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A few sociological observations on England’s progress through the World Cup…

Sociological analysis of the World Cup as a media-construction and a bizarrely inclusive kind of nationalism…

I don’t care too much for football, and I’m most certainly not an English nationalist, and yet I’ve got thoroughly caught up in, and even enjoyed watching England’s progress through this 2018 World Cup (England-Colombia accepted, at least until the very final kick of the ball).

In this post I just present a few sociological musings on the World Cup 2018…..

Come on England

The World Cup is most definitely a media spectacle…

It strikes me that what I’m enjoying is not just the football, it’s the whole month-long media-spectacle surrounding the event: without the media-hype I just don’t think it would be the ‘World-Cup’…. I mean let’s face it, there’s at least 30 minutes ‘studio discussion’ before the group-stage games, and now England are the semi-finals, this pre-amble has increased to 90 minutes, not to mention all the coverage during the day, on T.V. and radio, not to mention social media.

And of course, this year, the ‘youngster’s in the squad have upped the media-integration even more, with (well-managed) use of social media and goal-celebration dances taken from Fortnite….

There’s even instructions out on how to do it… as in this Guardian article

Celebrities co-opting the World-Cup?

Then of course there’s the inevitable celebrities and their ‘support messages’…as in this BBC 1 minute long trailer… I do wonder how many of these celebs even like football?

Celebrities world cup

In fairness, I do know that Russel Brand is a genuine ‘fan’ so fair play, he’s ‘earned’ his place in video, but the rest of the them… this might just be a vessel for self-promotion?

The role of the BBC in constructing ‘World Cup Fever’ ?

Is it just me, or is ITV coverage just a bit ‘wrong’? I don’t actually even regard ITV as a legitimate part of the process of World Cup construction… it’s more of a passenger IMO, it’s just not the same as the BBC.

I mean Gary Lineker is about as ‘England in the World Cup’ as you can get (at least in the last three decades), and there’s no adverts, so you just get to soak up more the atmosphere, and it’s not just Garry: Breakfast Time does a pretty good job hyping up the event too.

BBC world cup
Would it even be a World Cup without Gary ‘crisp-muncher’ Lineker’?

And yet it’s not quite hyperreality!

For all the media-construction, and even talk of ‘hyping it up’, I can’t quite bring myself to call this a truly hyperreal event (as some postmodernists might argue) … because the games take place, well, in place, and there’s clear rules and a time-limit, and I can pop out there for myself if I want to!.

England in the World Cup: A ‘friendlier’ sort of nationalism?

Of course the number of England flags draped out of people’s windows increases during the World Cup, as do the number of on-display beer-belly and football-tattoo combos, but this isn’t a small-minded, intolerant, closed kind of nationalism, it’s a ‘liminal’ type of sports-specific nationalism that’s maybe a little less angry and a little more vulnerable than your Brexit nationalism?

England flags world cup

I definitely think there’s something nationalist about the event: I mean being taken back through our nation’s footballing history is a mainstay of the narrative in the media-coverage, it’s even takes ‘solid form’ in our ex-England players fronting BBC’s coverage, and then of course… ‘football’s coming home’. OK, going down the home homeland route of analysis maybe a bit strong, but then again?!

Certainly the way the World-Cup is constructed in the media, it’s a very inclusive, multicultural, open to all ages, and family-friendly event. A ‘soft-brexit’ kind of nationalism if you like, having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of places and pubs in the UK where those England flags and those tattoos are most definitely not expressing an open and tolerant idea of England!

Anywhere, I’ll leave it there for today, just a few sociological ramblings….

Come on England!

Does Peppa Pig Encourage Unnecessary G.P Visits?

To what extent is Peppa Pig responsible for increasing strain on the NHS?

Peppa Pig is one of the most recognizable celebrities in the U.K., recognizable by 93% of 18-24 year olds (compared to only 78% who recognize Jeremy Corbyn); s/he (?) is one of our most popular exports: now viewed in 180 countries in 40 languages; and s/he’s also the only pig in the world worth over £1 billion.

Media-effects-Peppa-Pig

But is this cutesy character unintentionally increasing strain on another national treasure : our beloved NHS. G.P. Dr Catherine Bell argues that it does – she even wrote an article for the British Medical Journal about it!

NB – In case you’ve never seen it: An episode of Peppa Pig…

G.P. Dr Catherine Bell regularly watches Peppa Pig with her toddler, and, based on (a largely involuntary, as she puts it), analysis of several programmes, has concluded that the relationship ‘Dr Brown Bear’ has with the ;Peppa Pig family’ misrepresents the way in which G.P.s deal with minor ailments in reality.

Dr Bell says of the above episode (NB her full article is well worth a read, it’s funny in a serious sort of way.)

‘In ‘George Gets a Cold’ Dr Brown Bear conducts a telephone triage outside normal working hours and again opts to make a clinically inappropriate urgent home visit. Had he explored Daddy Pig’s ideas, concerns, and expectations, he would have discovered that Daddy Pig already had a good understanding of the likely diagnosis and self limiting nature of the illness. ‘.

In the article (linked above) Dr Bell hypothesizes that the overall effects of the unrealistic representation of how G.P.s actually act actually encourages parents of toddlers to make unnecessary trips to their G.P.s: by encouraging them to seek medical advice for minor ailments which would clear up by themselves, for example. She basis her hypothesis on the fact that just the sheer exposure of parents to Peppa Pig must have some kind of effect.

Shame we can’t test it out in practice!

 

 

The State COULD be watching you: and other lessons from #Hunted

In case you’ve been living in the dark-ages and missed it (like me) Hunted is a T.V. show in which ordinary individuals take on the role of fugitives on the run from ‘Hunters’ who take on the role of agents of the state (think of MI6 meets special ops).

Hunted C4

The latest C4 series kick-started with 9 individuals (although 6 of them paired-up, so really just 6 targets) bailing from a van in Manchester city center, and then spreading out to the four corners of the UK. If they can evade the Hunters for 25 days, the survivors each get a share of £100K.

The ‘Hunters’ consist of some serious (and not particularly pleasant, although that may be dramatic license) intelligence professionals based in  London HQ, who steer a number of ground-teams, some of whom are the ‘Hunters’ who are empowered to ‘arrest’ the fugitives, and some of whom are just covert surveillance operatives who aren’t allowed to reveal their identity.

I must say, I caught the second half of episode 5/6 entirely accidentally during a Thursday evening channel hopping session last week, and enjoyed it so much I binged-watch the entire series over the next couple of days.

At time of writing (5 episodes in to a series of 6), 4 out of the 6 targets have been captured by the Hunters using a variety of surveillance and closure tactics, and 3 remain: because one original pairing has split up.

Despite enjoying the show, I couldn’t help but do a little sociological analysis:

Sociological Observations of Hunted

We may as well start with the obvious – YES the state has deeply-penetrating powers of surveillance.

Without giving too much away, the ‘Hunters’ use the following techniques to track down the fugitives:

  1. CCTV – obviously
  2. Bank card transactions which PING an alert at hunter HQ as soon as they’re used (should’ve used steem)
  3. Phone taps – some of the fugitives use ‘burner phones’ to avoid detection, the problem being that as soon as they ring someone in their network, the Hunters have that burner phone on record and can tap it.
  4. Bugging computers – the Hunters are allowed access to the fugitives’ network to interview them and use USBs to hack into their computers so they can take control of them (whether this happens in real-life, I don’t know)
  5. Car tracking devices.
  6. Analysis of the fugitives’ social media profiles.
  7. Network analysis – this actually proves to be the most important aspect of tracking people down, simply analyzing the network of family and friends and focusing surveillance on these is what typically leads the ground teams to the fugitives.

Secondly – the show demonstrates the extent to which we live in a ‘Network Society’

The Hunters have access to the fugitives’ phone and social media records, which clearly show the fugitives’ recent life-histories mapped out, and, crucially for most of the captures, the ‘densest’ lines of communication within those networks.

With some of the individual fugitives, we really get to see the ‘strength of weak ties’ – especially the guy who is ‘Deputy Mayor of Sheffield’, whose network is huge. However, there is one person who stands out, and this is what gets him caught in the end.

With the three pairs, what is further apparent is that all of them have quite different personal networks, despite being very close to each-other, which really goes to show to complexity of networks in contemporary Britain.

Hunted2.png
The Network Analysis which ultimately led to the capture of the Deputy Mayor of Sheffield. 

Thirdly – the show demonstrates dramatically the continued importance of local and family connections

Interestingly, MOST of the fugitives return to their home turf, and most to the support of their local friends and families – so it is clearly not correct to say that our networks are free-floating and virtual – our meaningful relationships are still very grounded.

Finally – it gives us a nice insight into Multi-cultural Britain!

I don’t know if it was a deliberate ploy of this year’s recruiters to demonstrate British multiculturalism, but it’s very interesting to note that 2/6 targets were African Immigrants, all from different countries: it’s actually quite rare to get such an in-depth insight into the back-stories of black-Britons, quite a nice escape from the usual, generalized tokenistic representations we get in ‘black history month’ for example.

Very Finally – what I probably find most interesting about the show (although this might just be me) is that it does put you on the side of the fugitives… you do want them to win, and this is a potentially disruptive show… it wakes you up to the awesome surveillance powers of the State: the extent to which they can penetrate into our daily lives, especially if we leave an electronic trace… although it might also be performing a subtle ‘social control function’ by sending out the message that….

The State COULD be watching you.

Final thoughts:

I think the addition #Hunted really needs is a ‘how to avoid state-surveillance’ guide… and what would my strategy be? Actually I’m not going to say, I fancy a pop at this for season 4!

 

Homophobic Friends?

It’s almost 15 years (!) since the hit T.V. show ‘Friends’ went off the air. The show has been voted the best sitcom of all time, but since it started streaming on Netflix this month, many millennials have been shocked by its themes, perceiving the show as somewhat homophobic and transphobic.

Friends gender

Most of the criticism focuses on the way the show deals with sexuality and gender: younger viewers are offended by the recurring jokes about Ross’ Lesbian ex-wife, for instance, and Chandler’s cross-dressing father.

They have also criticized the show for ‘fat-shaming’ Monica, following the flashbacks to herself as an undesirable fat teenager, and the lack of diversity in the show: it is, to say the least, very white!

It’s amazing how our sensitivity to such issues has changed in the space of just one generation. 

NB – here’s an article defending Friends, suggesting that it isn’t actually homophobic etc.

Sources:

The Week, 20th January 2018