Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mark Pagel, Grace McLeen and Paul Preston.

Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel

For Robin McKie, Pagel provides an assured and illuminating account of the history of human evolution and its inextricable relationship to cooperative culture. Writing in the Observer, he is convinced by Pagel's theory, remarking that "There is nothing pre-ordained in our genes to account for the societies we have created". Rather than the innate selfishness of our genetic make-up dictating how we behave towards one another, Pagel posits that it is in fact our ability to forge and learn from meaningful relationships that leads to human advancement. McKie highlights Pagel's account of honour killings, and their acceptance in some cultures, as an extreme manifestation of the natural leaning to uphold a good reputation: "we hold open doors, stand aside for others, help the elderly, give to charity and even risk our lives to save animals. It is all done to build up our own reputations so that others will seek us out and co-operate with us".

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph takes a more measured approach, pointing out that Pagel's work makes for less of a stark distinction from Dawkins's seminal The Selfish Gene, and more of a complementary thesis that re-examines what appears to be co-operative behaviour. Though Pagel charts examples of the long history of cooperation between humans that has fuelled social and technological progression, this is tempered by an underlying selfishness to make advantageous alliances to safeguard our own genes: "our psychology ... is full of tensions between the need to advance the interests of culture, and the benefits of looking out for number one".

The Land of Decoration by Grace McLeen

"Deep, fantastical and powerful" is how Viv Groskop describes McLeen's debut novel in the Independent on Sunday. She notes how McLeen has brought her own experiences of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family to bear upon the novel, creating a strongly believable voice in the form of Judith, the book's ten-year-old narrator. Though the world into which Judith is drawn is often sinister, full of bullies, strikes and hatred, Groskop is charmed by the humour of the novel and the Land of Decoration in the title, a playtime paradise through which Judith attempts to alter real-life events to her advantage.

Writing in the Observer, Nicola Barr also testifies that the book lives up to the widespread hype, praising the "beautiful" way in which McLeen allows the language of Christian texts to infiltrate Judith's world. Burr observes that the book works on a wider, social level, despite it featuring an inward-looking narrator: "this young writer has done a bold, brave thing, writing what is effectively a religious allegory set in the mid-80's Welsh valleys".

Although Alexander Larman in the Spectator adds his plaudits to the chorus, he's left underwhelmed by the book's concluding stages, which don't seem to match the "strange, rich world" that McLeen so admirably crafts. Nevertheless, he comments on the "compelling, and at times, hideously tense narrative" and adds to the general consensus that this debut novelist "approaches a potentially absurd subject with great moral clarity and purpose".

The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

Giles Tremlett describes this as "an essential read for anyone wishing to understand Spain and its recent history". Preston's work, he writes in the Guardian, sheds some much needed light on the abhorrent acts perpetrated by Franco's dictatorship, and in turn "destroys the myth cherished by some Spaniards that he was a 'soft' dictator". The titular holocaust is bound to grab attention and is clearly intended to shock, but, says Tremlett, Preston adopts the word with good reason. Only until recently have Spaniards have been facing up to the extent of the atrocities committed by the regime, such was the lasting power of Franco's brainwashing campaign: "Preston charts the prejudice that led Spain's reactionary right into this bloodletting. Decades of dictatorship, and the ensuing silence after Franco's 1975 death, have kept this out of Spanish minds. Only over the past decade, as campaigners have dug up mass graves, has a desire for knowledge burst through".

In the Financial Times, although Victor Mallet concedes that "his sympathies indeed lie with the Republicans", he states that Preston nonetheless retains his focus on the "civilians and their suffering, as well as the class enmities and twisted ideologies that lay behind the conflict". Similarly to Tremlett, he warns that the book is not for the faint of heart, as it provides in-depth accounts of the systematic slaughter of 200,000 men and women: "Piling horror upon horror, Preston leaves no room for doubt that the events he describes were exactly that: crimes so appalling that they negate out humanity".

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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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