Sealed with a kiss

Our theatre blogger reflects on last week's big production at Westminster Abbey.

"Help me," read a friend's email at 9am on Friday, "I think I'm a monarchist after all!" My suggestion was to take a deep breath; it would pass. As a desultory anti-royalist I sat down to "enjoy" the wedding with a protective armoury of irony and scare quotes. Oh, it was to be so very post-modern. As a theatre-watcher I was almost honour-bound to study the performance qua theatrical event (multi-media, site-specific, promenade, street theatre). After all, though you may well wish otherwise, you don't get audiences of two billion for your average production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But it wasn't long before I was also fearing for my own default republican principles. What a show! What - what? - was that catch in the throat as I watched the two princes, in their "let's pretend" costumes, emerge from Clarence House? Nausea, I diagnosed, hopefully. But no, there was something powerfully affective about this gig, even before the leading lady came on. The last time I'd looked - really looked - at these two men was nearly 14 years ago, as they'd trailed their mother's coffin: two Lost Boys. There was a connective tug of sorts. A tenuous one, perhaps, but we connect where we can.

Like many good plays, this plot is darkly absorbing. It's a fairy tale, all right, in the Grimm and violent Mitteleuropean tradition, where Little Red Riding Hood is eaten, Sleeping Beauty is raped, and the Queen in Snow White is forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes. German fairy tales (and the Saxe-Coburg yarn is no exception) don't end with happily ever after, but with something altogether more pragmatic, along the lines of "and they are still living here today, unless they have died". In this case, the fairy princess was long dead, though the memory of her puffed-up nuptials would lend a minor chord to the celebrations.

On, then - with sympathies fatally stirred - to the theatre itself. Westminster Abbey, the seat of Royal power since 1066 and all that, designed with shock and awe in mind and now charmingly "greened" for the event. Okay, the extras were an insalubrious bunch, and a tad over-decorated, but the leading lady adjudged her costume just right (in danger only of being stealthily upstaged by the supporting actress), and was perfectly composed under those beetling brows. The HD close-ups revealed just enough of her dry-mouthed nerves.

I faded in and out of the service, well used to cherry picking in churches; volume up for the music (we do trumpets very well) volume down, or even off, for the prayerful bits. And then triumphal rides through London, and she still waves like a normal person, really waving, not a codified, etiolated stump of a wave.

And what, if anything, did it all mean? Well, it means what you want it to. A celebrity hairdresser is quoted as saying it signifies the end of straightening irons, and the era of the heated roller. We will appropriate it to our own ends, as we always do. But for those who long ago lost faith in religion, we perhaps retain a hard-wired partiality to ritual, driven by the needy reptilian brain. Which probably explains the enduring appeal of theatre: we have a chemical craving to watch the shamans do their stuff.

It's also about shared experience, and perhaps it doesn't really matter what the event is. The more arbitrary, anachronistic and anomalous the better. For one day, most eyes were trained on the same thing, rather like in the prosaic near past, when, in another degenerate rite, we all watched the same telly of an evening. Rationally we may agree with Diderot that we will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but the responses of "the masses" surely have less to do with the power of the monarchy than the power of this collective experience, and the associated payoffs from the limbic system.

Collective memory will bind the event up together with the holiday, the unseasonably fine weather, an extended festive, estival Easter. And through all the storm of symbols and semiotics, at its heart were two human beings, not ciphers, who seem to know and love each other, and with whom for all the world I would not swap places.

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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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