Archive for the ‘society’ category

The age of reason

March 14, 2019

Here are some extracts from a newspaper article this week:

Iain Conn, 56, chief executive of the British Gas owner Centrica, predicted at an event in Houston, Texas, that Britain would secure a delay past March 29…

Greg Clark, 52, business secretary, addressed business leaders on a call yesterday after the government revealed that 87 per cent of imports would not face duties under a no-deal Brexit…

Leo Quinn, 61, chief executive of Balfour Beatty, said the construction sector stood to benefit once uncertainty was eradicated…

Carolyn Fairbairn, 58, director- general of the CBI, called on ministers to seek a delay to Brexit that is “as short as realistically possible”…

Don’t worry about which newspaper this is, it could have been any of them. But why exactly are we being told the ages of the dramatis personae referenced here? Is it to show that key business figures all come from the same general age group? Or is it because that is what newspapers and other media outlets do, for no good reason at all?

I would suggest that it is time for this subliminal ageism to come to an end. The age of a particular person in no way either validates or invalidates what she out he may are saying, and indeed is irrelevant in almost every case to a story. If we have to qualify the person in some way, why not choose something different and much more interesting? Why not, then, refer to Joseph Freeman (favourite vegetable: asparagus), CEO of Traytime plc? Or Frances Mapton (motor cyclist), Finance Director of Traytime plc? That would be less ageist and more entertaining.

Centrifugal discourse?

February 5, 2019

Generally I like to be informed about the opinions held by people and groups with whom I disagree. I may hold the views I hold, but I am interested to hear from those who think differently, and occasionally I change my mind.

So, I do not support or like Brexit. I think it is a stupid idea. I think it exposes the United Kingdom to huge economic risks, and perhaps more significantly, it will lower its standing in the world. But as in all things, I could be wrong, and so I like to listen to what Brexiteers are saying, and in that spirit I follow the Twitter accounts of various people and groups who think it’s all a great wheeze and who anticipate the sunlit uplands of the post-March departure of the UK from the European Union. One of these accounts is that of the lobby group ‘Leave Means Leave’. If you are not familiar with them you can find their Twitter feed here and their website here.

At first I just read lots tweets and opinion pieces and, while disagreeing, thought no more about them. They didn’t come across as persuasive to me because, in truth, they weren’t trying to persuade me. Leave Means Leave is not really dedicated to changing anyone’s mind, its key strategy is to make those already committed to Brexit really angry that it’s not happening quickly enough and that it may involve compromises. And if you’re tempted to follow them also, let me warn you that their Twitter strategy is one of non-stop buckshot sprayed across your screen. I might describe their relationship with the world of facts as, shall we say, edgy. In their world, Europe (not just the EU) is about to be shown as a busted flush, everywhere else is great, and the WTO (under whose ‘rules’ the UK should in their view trade) just brilliant.

Why am I going on about the good folks at Leave Means Leave? Well, I think they are fruitcakes, but that’s not the point. It is perfectly possible to advance persuasive arguments for Brexit (even if I mightn’t agree with them). But actually what’s going on here, and to be fair in a lot of other camps and arguments as well (sometimes including those pushing for remaining in the EU), is a drive not to persuade but to radicalise. In a lot of this discourse, the ‘middle ground’ is now the most despised terrain (here and elsewhere in the world), and those arguing for a balanced view are often the most vilified people. Looking at social media, I am often astonished at the bile thrown at those who raise polite questions or indicate mild scepticism about some idea or other cherished by committed ideologues of left or right.

And it’s not just social media. Watching the BBC TV’s Question Time exposes you to audience interventions delivered in expressions and tones of the raged fanatic. Debate is now about shouting and drowning out the other side, not persuading them. We are all the losers for that, and those who govern us will be pushed, more and more, to take unreasonable and dangerous decisions.

So, as some have suggested, is the centre ground dead? Are our politics destined to shift from an angry view on one radical side to an angry view on the other? The last time that happened some 90 years ago it didn’t end well. So, I would plead, let us pause and think. On all sides.

Going in deep

January 28, 2019

Depending on your personal wealth and investment habits, you may not have heard of the American magazine Investor’s Business Daily. I cannot comment intelligently on the reliability of its investment advice, but I might suggest that, based on the soundness of its political commentary, you might want to step carefully if inclined to follow its other recommendations. In 2009 the magazine suggested that if Stephen Hawking, suffering as he was from motor neurone disease, lived in the United Kingdom and were relying on the NHS, he ‘wouldn’t have a chance’ of getting treatment. Of course Hawking did live in the UK and was treated by the NHS.

This egregious nonsense may give you a hint as to where the magazine’s political sympathies lie. So it may not surprise you that, on an almost daily basis, Business Investor’s Daily right now is pushing the suggestion that Donald Trump’s presidency is being thwarted by ‘Deep State sabotage’. This sabotage is allegedly being carried out by various arms of government, including the FBI and the Justice Department, and indeed the CIA. In fact, the ‘Deep State’ has become a key feature of American rightwing conspiracy theorists. Whole books are now being published with breathless ‘revelations’ about a liberal elite running (or ruining) everyone’s lives – see for example the recent oeuvre The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy the Trump Agenda, by Jason Chaffetz.

But before you start some eye-rolling about what Americans are willing to believe, bear in mind that the Deep State has also shoved its way into British political discourse. Just a week or two ago Boris Johnson warned that a ‘deep state conspiracy’ was aiming to frustrate Brexit. This might not be so surprising, given Mr Johnson’s recently expressed admiration for Mr Trump. But he is not a lone voice in Britain either: last September Andrew Murray, an adviser to the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that the deep state was undermining efforts to secure a Labour government.

I am not really intending to suggest that there are no establishment forces within this or any society that might have their own inclinations as to what political direction is appropriate and be willing to act on those inclinations, though for all that I tend to believe that democratic processes keep these forces reasonably in check. My point here is that the ‘deep state’ concept is being used not to thwart a secret establishment, but to secure one. There is no better argument in favour of authoritarian action than the (usually uncorroborated) allegation that there are secret societies undermining government. Conspiracy theories are the enemies of democracy, not its defenders. Their fruits have not been freedom, indeed they prompted genocide in the 20th century.

It really is time to stop peddling this nonsense.

The rise of the ‘smart university’?

January 15, 2019

A few years ago for this blog, I interviewed the then Irish Minister for Education and Science, Ruairi Quinn. He was one of those relatively rare examples of an education minister with a real understanding of and sympathy for higher education, and indeed a set of civilised and cultured values.

However, at the time he was trying to think through what needed to change in the university system, and he offered the following thought. If one were to take an early 20th century surgeon, he suggested, and transfer him to a 21st century operating theatre, all he would be able to do that would be of any use would be to mop the patient’s brow and sweep the floor. Take a professor from that era and put him in a 21st century lecture theatre, and he would mostly feel at home and get on with the lecture. So, what had happened, or not happened, that made universities so immune to the passage of time?

One could of course argue, and indeed argue emphatically, with his premise. Most 21st century university lecture venues contain all sorts of new technology, not least the screen with its egregious Powerpoint slides. Our 20th century academic would have been astonished at, and probably not that pleased with, all the paperwork and audit trials and so forth. He (and it would be ‘he’) would have noticed a much better (though not perfect) gender balance. But then again, if in his home era he had just purchased and read F.M. Cornford’s 1908 book, Microcosmographia Academica, he might well have found that much of its satire on academic life was totally apposite a hundred years later. The argument might therefore be that the technology and bureaucracy and demographics had changed, but the basic methodology and the academic outlook had not; or something like that.

It is in this context that I wonder about concepts such as the ‘smart university’, which has been explored in recent literature such as the book Smart Education and e-Learning 2016, by Vladimir Ustov et al (Springer Verlag). The authors explore the concept of the smart university and suggest that it must have a number of key elements to quality as such, these being adaptation, sensing, inferring, self-learning, anticipation, self-organisation and configuration, restructuring and recovery. They see the new university as being technology-driven with far fewer boundaries between branches of scholarship, reflected also in more fluid structures.

As we look into the higher education future, we are bound to experience some tension between a defence of intellectual integrity and intellectual autonomy on the one hand, and a system that is driven by new concepts of knowledge acquisition and processing on the other. What impact will this have, and what are the implications for higher education regulation? What  will it do to the student experience, and even more importantly, to the graduate’s understanding of what she or he has experienced and acquired in their studies? Perhaps of equal importance, can this democratise knowledge (and undermine the value of elite networks), or will it support societal authoritarianism?

The future of universities is, for all sorts of reasons, one of the most important topics for society in the coming era.

Begin again

January 1, 2019

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

             Alfred Tennyson, from In Memoriam

Looking back on any given year on the last day of December is rarely an exercise of dispassionate historical analysis.  Everything is still too new, or too raw. Also, why attempt to undertake any analysis at all of a period of time as arbitrary as 365 days? But we do it still, because we need milestones, and midnight at the end of the calendar year is such.

Who knows how any of us will view 2018 in a decade or two from now, but right at this moment I am glad to see it go, and I’ll hope for something better in the next twelvemonth. And that is also what I wish for all of you, and for this fragile world of ours.

Happy New Year!

The heroic pedant?

December 18, 2018

Here’s a strange story, you might think. Last week on the Isle of Wight a warning sign erected to alert motorists that pedestrians might be crossing the road was removed after complaints were received by the police that it was grammatically incorrect. It is crazy, some have suggested, to prioritise correct grammar over road safety, and indeed to involve the police in this endeavour. In fact you might ponder whether the constabulary are being called upon to feel the collars of greengrocers displaying errant apostrophes when selling tomatoes, or of the writers of reports eschewing the required subjunctive in appropriate contexts.

Well, if I were (not ‘was’) a policeman, I might think that knife crime is a better object of my attentions. But does that mean that we should all just enjoy the carnival of grammar chaos rather than get exercised by the inability of the population to see the difference between its and it’s? Should we worry that nobody now seems to know when to use ‘me’ and when to say ‘I’? We could of course point to the history of the English language, and the fact that rules of grammar were something of a latecomer to the party. And if we really hate the sort of person who keeps correcting others, we might alert them to research that suggests they suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

However, there are arguments in favour of linguistic pedantry. A friend of mine has pointed out that there is a difference between a ‘walking stick’ and a ‘walking-stick’, the former being a stick that walks. We might not expect to encounter an autonomous ambulatory stick, but there are plenty of misunderstandings that could in other contexts be caused by a missing or wrongly-placed hyphen. Language is about communication, and precision of meaning is not unimportant, particularly in certain settings. We should perhaps not be exercised by what we hear on the street or by what we see in a greengrocer’s shop window, but in more formal settings we should continue to encourage the observance of rules that support effective communication and preserve the richness of the English language.

We’re learning to disrespect respect, and it’s not good.

December 11, 2018

Back in the 1980s I remember watching a political debate on television, in which two well-known politicians engaged in robust disagreement. Just a few hours later I was on a plane from the city in which they had been arguing, and found to my surprise that the same two politicians were sitting next to each other engaging in what was clearly very friendly banter. A good thing, or a bad thing? Were they, in a sort-of-private setting, subverting the integrity of their political disagreement by being friendly to each other? Or was this a sign of maturity and civilised human interaction?

Of course we can still sometimes see this sort of private bonhomie between political opponents, but not so often. Recently the UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, suggested that he could never be friends with a member of the Conservative Party. What this kind of approach suggests is that politics is not so much about choices, but about ethics: whatever political frame of reference I hold is the only valid one, and therefore if you don’t agree with me, you are not so much wrong as evil.

Respect, baby, as Aretha Franklin might have said, is at the heart of civilisation. We lose it and we’re all on skids. Of course we should have principles and we should argue our case, but if we come to believe that our opponents are our enemies and are hateful evildoers, then we become incapable of persuading our entire society to believe in a cause, because we hold many of its members in contempt as enemies of the people. It’s what has characterised the Brexit debate, or Mr Trump’s America. Trust me, this isn’t the way to go. Don’t disrespect respect.

PS. If you’re sharpening your quill to tell me it was Otis Redding and not Aretha, save yourself the bother. I prefer her version, which is subtly different. Though I totally love Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, which by a happy coincidence is playing in the background as I write this.

Going electric

November 27, 2018

Nearly three months ago, I made a major change: I bought an electric car. Not a hybrid, but a fully electric vehicle without an internal combustion engine and therefore without any fuel tank. In some ways the change might not seem massive. I still put my foot on the accelerator pedal to get moving, or on the brake to stop. The steering wheel moves the car to the left or to the right. I indicate when I intend to turn. And so forth.

And yet, this is a fundamentally different experience. The car moves more or less noiselessly. It is heavily computerised, and almost every control is operated not by a lever or button, but on the touchscreen. You ignore filling stations, but spend some time planning your journey (if it’s a longer one) so that you know where you will charge the car. It feels like being part of something quite revolutionary, even when so much of it is the same.

And yet, is this the future, or just a staging post to the real thing? Will we soon be in an era in which we won’t drive our own cars at all any more, but call an autonomous self-driving vehicle that takes us where we want to go and then moves off somewhere else? Or indeed will we still take it for granted at all that we can travel at will from A to B?

Transport habits can change at a certain tipping point with extraordinary speed. In this image you can see New York’s 5th Avenue in 1900 and 1913. In these 13 years the traffic changed from almost entirely horse-drawn to entirely motorised. What will happen between 2018 and 2030 is not at all clear, but there is every likelihood of fundamental change; and there should be, not least because we need to stop urban air pollution.

So maybe I am taking part in something important. Or maybe it is just a very minor step towards something that will, in a short space of time, be quite different. We’ll see.

Supporting peripheral regions

October 30, 2018

Earlier this year I visited Orkney, to be briefed on a significant project that Robert Gordon University is undertaking there, in partnership with other institutions. I was struck by the very unusual nature of the topography, its rich history and the creative approach of the people. I will certainly want to visit the islands again.

As some may know, Orkney was not always part of Scotland. Until 1266 it was a Norse settlement; as was the adjacent Northern corner of Caithness. Now, this past weekend, I visited this area for the first time. The landscape immediately reminded me of Orkney, as did the very unusual thin stones (described as ‘flagstones’) that you see everywhere in walls and buildings:

But unlike Orkney, Caithness feels much poorer and, perhaps, a little neglected. Its most significant employer was probably, until a few years ago, the Dounreay nuclear power plant, which ceased operating a while ago and is being decommissioned. The North Coast 500 tourist rose offers significant potential, but more will need to be done to create facilities along the Caithness coast. I really liked Caithness, and was wholly enthused by its coastline, its topography, and its people.

But what exactly do we want our peripheral regions to be? Do we want them to be thriving, regenerating, renewing? Do we want them to have sufficient attractions to keep young people there, or persuade them to return? This is not an issue for Caithness alone, or indeed Scotland, but it is a vital one as we chart the future for diverse and balanced communities. Orkney is going fast in the right direction. I hope Caithness is also given that opportunity.

Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.