Books in brief: Ben Chu, Daljit Nagra and Philip Ball

Three new books you might have missed.

Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China Is Wrong
Ben Chu

Ben Chu, the economics editor of the Independent, thinks we’ve been getting it wrong about China for years. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “The spectacle of suffering does not . . . rouse any sympathetic pain in the average Chinaman.” For others, notably Voltaire, the Chinese empire was “the best the world has ever seen”. From the orientalist fantasies of the 18th century to the “tiger moms” of today, China has always been a mirror for European fantasies and fears. Chu’s smart, iconoclastic portrait dismantles seven misconceptions – or “whispers” – to let in light on a heterogeneous nation about which it is impossible to generalise.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £16.99

Ramayana: a Retelling
Daljit Nagra

The Ramayana is the story of Rama and his quest to recover his wife, Sita, from Raavana, the lord of the underworld. It is an important story in numerous religions and cultures across Asia. “The Ramayana I present now is not the one I was told as a child,” writes the poet Daljit Nagra. “Instead it is the product of a globalised, westernised writer who lives among many faiths and cultures who seeks to represent voices from as many villages as possible.” Recounted with energy, wit and bold imagination, this version is a joy.
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £18.99

Serving the Reich: the Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler
Philip Ball

In his preface, Philip Ball writes with clear misgivings about the view of science as “disembodied, pure knowledge”. After the Second World War, most scientists who had worked under German rule maintained that they had been apolitical. Peter Debye fled to the US to warn the world about Germany’s nuclear potential, while Werner Heisenberg and others argued that they delayed the bomb. Was it so simple? Ball’s book shows what can happen to morality when cleverness and discovery are valued above all else.
Bodley Head, 303pp, £20

Painter Matthias Bier works on the historic Rokoko hall of the Anna Amalia library in Weimar, eastern Germany. Photograph: Jens Ulrich-Koch/Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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