Fighting on the Internet

This week I’m taking down Google and annoying Mac users (not intending to annoy but I reckon it will happen). Here’s Google looking shy.


It’s a longer post as so much fighting over the Internet happened in March.  First up, on March 1st the government published the latest UK digital strategy. It got little coverage because, well, Trump and Brexit. Was it any good? Not really. The shadow minister for digital everything is Louise Haigh, who hasn’t had the job long, but long enough to take an informed view.  She called it recycled and meagre. There are lists of marvellous things that have already happened and the Govt would like to take credit for. There’s hopeful, wishy-washy stuff about things the government would like to happen but isn’t taking responsibility for. So they are giving consumers the right to request fast broadband. That’s not quite the same as saying it will happen, and that there’s an actual plan. Almost one in five (spun in the strategy as just over 80% who DO as that sounds so much better) of SMEs don’t have access to fast broadband.  Meanwhile, BT’s Openreach has just been fined £42 million for  commercial malpractice over fast broadband provision. I heard BT defending their position at a conference fifteen years ago, on the grounds that it was unfair for them to be forced to sort out broadband access throughout the country when their competitors might benefit. They were handed the grid’s local loops and a massive advantage when they were privatised and have been getting away with it for a very long time. This week, they committed to 95% cover but that leaves 5% who can’t all be volunteers on  reality TV shows and happy to live a slow or off-grid life. I know a couple of people who are happily like that some of the time, but then again, it also drives them crazy.

Then the ‘strategy’ has more hopeful stuff about the gender skills gap, and on digital skills training,  already outsourced to a bunch of organisations including banks (those Barclays ads) . Last year £35 million went to various outsourced providers, or in govt spending terms around half a peanut. The strategy pats itself on the back for all the great work done in libraries by staff along with volunteers  to provide Internet access and digital skills training. Meanwhile over in another universe, funding is getting cut and libraries are closing. One in 10 adults, according to the strategy, has never used the Internet. (The Oxford Internet Institute has been bringing out regular reports on the digital access gap for years.) I don’t think the ministers responsible for this strategy have a clue. I ran classes for Internet beginners in Peckham Library for a couple of years starting in 2000 and I’m sure it would cost more than a fiver each person to sort out problems of access, confidence, understanding and skills.


On March 10 the row involving Google was already simmering and at an advertising industry event, Martin Sorrell came out with this attack which got loud cheers from the audience:

The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer tightening the digital pipes with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes, you are responsible for it. You have to step up and take responsibility. You have the resources, your margins are enormous, you have control of the algorithms, you don’t explain to people how those algorithms work. You have to change.

Google – who now own YouTube, were being criticised for letting racists, terrorist organisations, and hate-mongers of all stripes make money out of adverts on YouTube as well as making money themselves from the same ads. They were pretty slow to react. MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee had another go on March 14, when David Winnick pretty much called Peter Barron (Google), Simon Winnick (Facebook) and Nick Pickles (Twitter) pimps. He said that they were engaged in little more than “commercial prostitution” and that he would be ashamed to earn his money in the way they did. Here’s Google’s lovely new London HQ again, in the lovely new Pancras Square with its lovely corporate fountains and  trees. It’s basically a large four-cornered smoker’s corner with a few coffee, sushi and sandwich joints.



It’s taken Google a long time to admit that it’s an advertising company, one of the world’s largest. It might not even really admit that yet with its continuing claims – see the YouTube policy info – that it is up to users to report breaches. Facebook hasn’t admitted it either. Like CocaCola only wants to bring the world together rather than sell sugary drinks, Facebook wants to build global community. Why would another vast advertising company want to do that, exactly?

But there’s no question, the issues of fake news, politicians ticking them off and the not at all fake fact that companies are cancelling adverts are getting them a little rattled.  Zuckerberg gave us a fine example of a geek’s worldview with his new manifesto. It was sweet, almost. It reminded me of a symposium I went to in Seattle, Shaping the network society, in 2002. I realised there’s a worldview (some) geeks apparently develop. At a certain point, having been totally immersed along with people like themselves in Internet technology, they start to notice other kinds of problems – social, economic, political, environmental. They then offer their worldwide technology-based solutions, as they’ve never noticed there are already other people studying and trying to deal with all those world problems. They’re totally unaware of their own ignorance. In all seriousness, they propose that their next task is to build a global community and sort all that hard stuff out. Good luck, Mark. Are you going to drop all the adverts now that you’re saving the world and not an advertising company any more?

Tim Berners-Lee’s take on alarms about fake news, bots, algorithms and data was more grounded although the Guardian gave it the stupid sub-heading ‘I invented the Internet’. He didn’t quite write that. He did write ‘I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today.’ He argues for control of personal data, pushing back against misinformation, transparency and more understanding in relation to political advertising. The Web Foundation started by Berners-Lee reckons there is currently a worldwide 12% gender gap in access to the Internet. I started my PhD research back in 1999 provoked by the statistic that there was, at the time, a 9% gender gap in the UK, for no good reason.

The UK strategy is supposed to address the gender gap. Maybe the brand new All Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, launched last week, will help sort that out too. They’re keen on improving digital everything. Here they are.


Time for some good news. The Indian state of Kerala has decreed that Internet access is a basic human right so all citizens should get free wifi access. And reading Harry Potter may help defeat Trump. You don’t even need a wand. Seriously, a study last year showed that reading Harry Potter lowers Americans’ opinions of Donald Trump.  It sounds unlikely but Diana Mutz is a real expert in political science and reported an evidence base of 1100 odd respondents. I liked this next bit as I’d wondered if she’d thought about the religious Right banning Potter books, but she’s properly bossed those variables already (my bold):

… I include control variables in all models in order to take into account potentially spurious causes of both Trump support and exposure to Harry Potter.  All models included gender (females were expected to rate Trump poorly), education (expected to negatively predict Trump support), age (expected to positively predict Trump support), and evangelical self-identification (expected to discourage both tolerance of Muslims and gays, and consuming stories about wizards).

So finally, Mac users. At those Internet research conferences I went to, it was normal to hear Bill Gates referred to as the Great Satan, quite genuinely and not all that humorously. Gates certainly didn’t have any kind of hero status. Steve Jobs did, and as a result of Apple’s brilliant marketing , Mac users were encouraged to position themselves as smarter, more creative, better. Their advertising made that explicit. Now Apple gets a cut every time anyone buys an app for their iPhone or iPad. The same goes for Android (Google again) apps, but you can get software for pcs without Microsoft getting any cut. I know what Bill and Melinda Gates have done, and are doing, with their billions. Where did Steve Job’s fortune go? Does anybody know? (Raf, if you’re reading this, you may remember the AoIR conference. After the closing speeches and thanks you said they should have thanked Bill Gates aka Satan without whom none of their Powerpoint presentations, or the conference, would have been possible.) How does it work, this division of tech billionaires into good guys and bad guys?


Fighting on the Internet

Bard in the Clink

It could easily have been a more miserable week but I had an escape from the news, spending three days on and off at UCL’s international conference on Shakespeare and the Jews. The scholars presenting were from various academic disciplines as well as different countries: Renaissance history, theatre studies, translation studies, modern literature, 20th century history, but not so much of Shakespeare studies. Here’s a flavour of the keynote lecture by Professor Oz whose main fields are Shakespeare, theatre studies and political theatre. I thought his gist was that Shakespeare was dealing with ideas about nationhood becoming based on something other than religion or tribalism and developing into a political construct that fitted the new age of commerce and trade.  Will Venice, a trading and commercial centre that has recently allowed Jews to settle there, especially those expelled from Spain and Portugal, let them become equals as citizens and professionals? Oz and other presenters suggested Shakespeare might have had London in mind.


The conference presenters’ consensus seemed to be that as an unquestionably antisemitic play it’s no longer possible to put on The Merchant of Venice any more, but they also noted from a more global perspective that while that’s true of other countries it applies less to the UK. Malkin and Voights, who have been asking the views of current theatre practitioners for their project on hyphenated cultures, quoted Nicholas Hytner as saying he couldn’t stomach ‘being in the world of the play’ as everyone seems to be antisemitic, in contrast to the treatment of Othello. In that other play Venice uses ‘Moor’ as a simple descriptor, not a term of abuse. The conference summed up 20th century re-versionings as apologetics, and what came across very strongly was that Shylock’s famous speech, supposedly pivotal, far from redeeming the play actually worsens the antisemitic effect by humanising the character and making him appear more plausible rather than a crude stereotype. That reminded me of an incident years ago when my son’s class – 10 year olds, probably – took part in a staging of the play at the Globe Theatre, along with other Southwark primary schools. He was the only Jewish child in his class. The borough’s drama adviser no doubt thought it was a good choice. I vaguely remember we challenged it but the adviser’s case was that pupils would be ‘workshopping’ scenes and discussing the problematic aspects. It is and was a rubbish argument given that the entire play is irrefutably and structurally racist.

Interestingly the presenters who described much more radical new versions with playwrights ‘writing back’ at the play agreed that they tended not to work either dramatically or in terms of getting the audience response they wanted. That was even true of an Israeli-German production in Buchenwald where the audience were local Germans and the idea was to bring home the links between Nazi ideology and Shylock imagery. The director thought it was a failure. There’s a new book out, Wrestling with Shylock, on Jewish responses to the play. The cover uses Jacob Kramer’s haunting painting. Here’s a tiny glimpse.


I wondered about the attachment to Shakespeare in the English theatre and English literature studies and whether it’s more difficult in the UK to accept that Merchant of Venice is unplayable. Is Shakespeare such a heroic figure that people want to believe in  his virtues too much? (Katherine Duncan-Jones once wrote a very funny piece about the contortions some writers have tied themselves in to try and make Shakespeare out as a robust heterosexual.) I saw the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production which Michael Billington described as morally evasive. It was worse than evasive. The most shocking moment was the curtain call at the end. The audience booed Shylock. Producers and directors need to wake up to their responsibilities. No point in blaming Shakespeare. Here he is in a wonky mural seen yesterday in Clink Street, not far from the contemporary Globe.

Clink Street Bard


Bard in the Clink

Virago stories, and giving up on International Women’s Day

Is it time to give up on International Women’s Day? Yesterday Melania Trump hosted an IWD lunch and Slate carried a story explaining that no, Trump wasn’t actually launching an escort service in China that same day but merely protecting his brand name. Even without that stuff, it’s struck me that IWD has become a marketing opportunity for any kind of culture or publishing event with the politics drained out of it. The Soviet Union’s promotion of it was always tokenistic and maybe there were only short periods in the last 100 years when it was genuinely radical. Still we can always look forwards to KFC advertising a cheap deal family bucket for IWD (‘Give mum the day off’) like they already do for Mother’s Day. And now for a genuine, worthwhile event that was part of the British Library’s programme for the week, as International Women’s Day has turned into at least an eight day festival.

On March 7 a panel of women who worked at Virago Press along with its founder Carmen Callil spoke about the history of Virago from the early 1970s onwards, what it still meant to them and to its readers, and what the Press is doing now. The chair was Claire Whalley whose documentary, Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time was shown last year. They had lots of good stories. A couple of gems: when Lennie Goodings visited booksellers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s they told her ‘we can’t sell any of your books here because there are no feminists in Northern Ireland’. Carmen Callil had to get two men to guarantee her bank loan (the women who first worked at Virago put their own homes on the line to fund the business). When Virago ceased to be able to survive as a small independent there were furious rows about whether to let Bloomsbury or Little, Brown (a much larger American company) taken them over. Margaret Atwood’s comment on that saga was ‘the smaller the cheese, the more ferocious the mice’. They all agreed the rows had been ferocious, but about principles, because they all felt it mattered. Their differences with other second wave feminism publishers such as The Women’s Press were more about how they worked – they were less collective – than about what they published. Lennie said she was once asked accusingly if Virago was ‘the acceptable face of feminism’. Carmen shrugged off the suggestion that she and Marsha Rowe of Spare Rib both being Australian helped them work together originally (right at the beginning it might have become Spare Rib Press) since Marsha was from Sydney and she was from Melbourne – totally different worlds apparently.

Virago had already become part of Little, Brown by the time they published my book, Wasting Girls’ Time, but I had no idea about the rows. I only had dealings with the small Virago team and they were great. I especially loved the cover design they came up with. The artist Laura Knight’s image of a woman in the foreground looking away from a smoking disaster behind her in the kitchen was perfect and is still apt. Only last week I ruined yet another saucepan by forgetting all about it while I was out of the room at my desk. (The book’s now out of print but email me if you need a copy – the prices I’ve seen advertised online are mad.)


Virago stories, and giving up on International Women’s Day

Tweeting to Power

You’ll be awake if you’re reading this but are you also woke?
Today’s experts in my recommended list research how politicians in the USA have made use of Twitter. They are Jason Gainous and Kevin Wagner, who published Tweeting to Power: the social media revolution in American politics.
Because they’ve done a lot of serious research and analysis, inevitably this is about older elections and not the presidential election in 2016. They studied the 2012 one and other previous elections so their data sets are not the most recent but it takes a lot of time to collect and analyse data, and it will be a while before there are proper, evidenced analyses of what happened in 2016. Gainous and Wagner don’t only have the numbers but looked in depth and who was doing what and how.
Their conclusions are important because they are evidence-based and help explain that what’s going on now isn’t a sudden change but a continuation. For instance, they show, depressingly, that Republicans were ahead of the game as far back as 2010. They used Twitter more to campaign, to attack opponents, to go negative, to tweet about personal stuff to put themselves in a positive light, and to tweet about policy-related issues. They did the groundwork for years, basically.
G & W also look at both sides of what they term information flows on Twitter. While politicians and their activist supporters are courting voters, voters are actively allowing themselves to be courted. Tools within Twitter such as hashtags and the ability to reach your followers’ other networks increase the reach and intensify the effect, and some politicians learnt how to use those while their opponents were stuck at the stage of thinking it was a message board. (Plenty of organisations, and I’m thinking of academic ones too, still treat Twitter that way as if what people actually want is to read corporate announcements all day long on social media.) So tags, jokes and provocations we might think are silly, childish or unprofessional could really be a sign of more knowledgeable and sophisticated control of information flows. Unfair!
(In an interview this week Gainous says Trump is a master of language.) On the consumer side G & W look at how the targets – voters – help create the information bubbles they end up with on social media, both because it’s psychologically more comfortable if you don’t have to face disagreement and because they choose to receive unmediated messages direct from politicians (or whoever crafts their tweets). A couple of chilling quotes:
‘It is in the elevation of the political actors to the role of unmediated information provider that the most lasting and substantial effect may be occurring’ and ‘people are consuming one-sided information based on their predispositions and when this information is added to the existing information, the result is crystallisation of the bias. Thus, heightened information consumption via social media should lead to more extreme attitudes.’ Tweeting to Power was published in 2014 and remember, it deals with previous elections.
Also recommended, a brief article by Philip Seargeant and Caroline Tagg discussing Facebook information bubbles and why they might be your own fault.
And now to cheer us up, March is a good month for going out early to hear the birds singing, if the weather isn’t too bad. I went on a guided dawn chorus walk one March on One Tree Hill and was told the smallest birds start singing first as they need more hours to feed themselves. Lazy pigeons join the chorus last. To begin with you can distinguish individual songs but later, when someone asked which birds were tweeting, the guide told us it was General Cheeping. Here are some general tweeters:


Tweeting to Power