End of an era

What the Harry Potter generation read next.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that your life is being novelised as a coming-of-age story for young adults. Let us also suppose that the author plans to centre the novel on the climactic moment where you finally realise your childhood is over and a world of responsibility beckons. How did your childhood end? Can you picture the scene? Was it one specific moment? Two? You saw both of mine live on television.

It is likely that ours will be remembered as the generation that smashed the windows of Foot Locker. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also as the generation that formed orderly queues outside Waterstones and waited, dripping with excitement and rainwater, for the last Harry Potter book? When you saw us on the news, you were watching our childhoods end. We were in denial, though; cries of "we still have three films left!" were stifled only this summer, when you saw us in Trafalgar Square, waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

So our childhoods really were over, and when things in the real world got too scary, there was nothing left of Harry Potter's world to hide in. We are a generation that needs fantasy. Unfortunately, it is likely you will remember us fulfilling this need with fantastically violent video games. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also pulling fantasy novels off shelves and reading them on bookshop floors.

With Potter finished, the great hunt for more fantasy began. We re-read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. We tried Twilight along with everyone else, but slightly snobbishly turned our noses up at it, tweeting and blogging Stephen King's quote: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." We tried Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but having grown up with Hermione, Luna and Mrs Weasley as strong female role models, we struggled with female fantasy characters who existed only as a fantasy for teenage boys. Exasperated, we wondered if we were just too old.

But as the withdrawal grew worse, we finally found our fix. All three installations of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy had been published by 2010 and we hadn't read any of them, it seemed no one had read any of them. Someone prominent amongst the Potterheads tweeted or blogged or vlogged about it and suddenly it went viral. We were all talking about it, breathless and excited in the way we used to be. It was hypnotically fast-paced, set in a world so close yet so far from home, the heroine was full of flaws and so was the love story. There were characters of every age to adore and abhor. And were those some morals hiding between the lines? We had grown so used to feeling guilty about "fast-paced books" and "easy reads" - ' but, just as Potter had been, this was different and we handed it to our little brothers in the hope they would learn something from it.

Perhaps you will remember us as the generation that refused to pay for our music, but please remember that we also continued to spend our pocket money on books. They cost about £3 each on the Kindle - I downloaded and read three books in four days, then called a friend of mine and instructed him to do the same. "OK," he said, "I'm busy. I'll take a look later." My voice rose a little. "You don't understand. This is a book recommendation." The Potter generation is a tough crowd to please; I thought he might take me a little more seriously. "Yeah OK, I'll look it up later." I gripped the phone a little tighter. "I am recommending this book to you because I haven't been this excited about new fiction since Harry Potter." He was silent for a moment as he processed this. "OK. I'm buying it right now."

You see, teenagers don't use Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and "word of mouth" just to pass messages of fear and violence, but also to pass the message that magic, hope and excitement can still be found between the covers of a hardback novel.

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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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